Disclaimer: If I ask real nice, maybe Tite Kubo would give me Bleach… Until then, though, not mine.

Listening to: The Bravery – 'The Ocean'.

So, I was reading Volume 20 of the manga and got to the bit where Gin says goodbye to Rangiku before leaving to follow Aizen - and this song came on. Seriously, I would recommend listening to it yourself because, not only is it awesome, but it's pretty much perfect for the whole Gin/Ran dynamic.

Of course, for those of you too lazy to look it up, let's just say that it's about looking back at your choices and the people you lost when you left them behind.

Oceans Apart

Contrary to popular belief, Gin Ichimaru did not spend all his spare time plotting. Not that he had any objection to such activities on principle – on the contrary, it was just that his intelligence meant he was typically several steps ahead of most of his peers anyway, so he hardly needed to indulge in much additional scheming. It may have been an occasional hobby, but in reality the man himself found that he usually got to where he was going by simply drifting. It was this same disinterested sort of wanderlust that had led him into the Gotei 13, to the Fifth Division and Sosuke Aizen. It had led him to follow that same man out again and be branded traitor alongside him, ensuring that he would never again be welcomed into the Seireitei's hallowed halls (not a great loss, perhaps, but one all the same). It was also that same need to seek out the new that had led him, decades ago, to a small hut on the outskirts of the Rukongai and the little girl who lived there – a little girl who had grown up to become a formidable warrior and a beautiful woman, who had followed him into the Protection Squads and carved a niche for herself there.

It was this same woman he was now desperately trying to avoid killing.

Battle was ugly – he'd seen plenty of that in the last three years, never mind during the previous Kami-knows how many. You were blind, fighting desperately for survival and striking out at friend or foe. That part didn't bother Gin. If you were in his way it wouldn't matter who you were, you'd get skewered by Shinsou just the same. It was as simple as that. He had respect for one man only and Sousuke Aizen was smart enough to be able to avoid his blade, so that wasn't going to be an issue. Anyone else, as far as he was concerned, could just be collateral damage.

Anyone, that is, except Rangiku Matsumoto.

For the first time in his life, even including his violent childhood in poverty, Gin had nightmares. Nightmares that ended in Ran dead by his hand, her beautiful blue-grey eyes lifeless and cold, the life leaving her body as her sunset coloured curls trailed in the mud and blood and grime of battle, and –

Well, he had nightmares. Impressive ones, too, to the point where he rarely slept anymore. Not that it mattered – after all, he was dead and no longer needed to be bound to some of the habits of the living. Still, a lack of sleep wasn't exactly doing wonders for his work in battle. More than once he'd found himself in difficulty with opponents he knew he should have defeated easily. He'd won through in the end, of course (they didn't call just anyone a prodigy), but he could feel himself slipping and it was not a situation in which he was comfortable, even without the current precarious circumstances of being at war with the inhabitants of the Seireitei.

One of whom, of course, was Ran.

He'd seen her on the battlefield many times, wielding Haineko with precision and grace, and every time he had turned and gone the other way as fast as shunpo would carry him. Gin knew his leader well and was perfectly aware that, sooner or later, Aizen would request that someone took care of the lieutenant of the Tenth Division. He also knew that when that day came, it would be less of a request, more of a command, and almost certainly aimed at him. Aizen knew how to test loyalties.

Gin knew that he was delaying the inevitable. Ran would probably die in this war, whether by his hand or another (and at least he'd be merciful), but he couldn't stop himself from feeling sick at the thought, or from praying to some unknown force and begging them to prevent it. Sousuke Aizen may have been the one man who had Gin's loyalty and respect, but there was one person in three worlds that he loved and he was damned if he was the one who killed her, he knew it. While Gin might already be damned for so many other reasons that this one hardly counted, he knew that killing Ran would be the one sin for which he couldn't atone, the one that he would not be able to live with.

So Gin dodged. For once in his life, he even planned. He took everything he knew about the Gotei 13, everything he knew about the Tenth Squad, Captain Toushiro Hitsugaya and, most importantly, about Lieutenant Rangiku Matsumoto, and put it all together to form his battle plan. Or, rather, his battle-avoidance plan. His extensive knowledge gave him what he needed – a fairly accurate idea of where the Tenth would be stationed at any given point in time during the battles that had raged over the last three years. After all, if he knew where Ran was, he could get himself as far away as possible. Aizen could hardly blame Gin for letting her live if he was at the other end of the battlefield, could he?

Well, Gin had to concede, he probably could. Sousuke Aizen was the one being in three worlds conniving enough to see through Gin, even at his most deceptive, and it would only be a matter of time before he saw through this ruse. Still, Gin was glad to buy any time he could, if it meant he could avoid being Ran's killer. It would be horrific enough just being forced to murder the woman he loved, but for Gin there was even more at stake.

For decades, despite all the times that he had pushed her out of his life to protect her, all the times he had walked away and left her behind, all the things he'd done – hell, even through the betrayal – he'd kept his place in her heart. He'd seen it in her eyes when they came face to face, something which now only occurred when he was safely occupied with an opponent (and could hardly be expected to turn his back on the fight just to pursue her). Rangiku had never gained the ability to keep her emotions from her expressions entirely, and Gin knew her all too well. Even if her face had managed to stay fixed and inexpressive, she couldn't mask the stark fear in her eyes as she watched him fight. But it wasn't Gin's opponents and her allies that she watched with such trepidation...

It was Gin himself that her gaze always followed; just as it had been back when they had met as children and Gin was guiltless of the many crimes that now stood against his name. It was that knowledge, too, that kept him from regretting the path he now walked. As long as he knew that he was the centre of her universe, as she was his, even if he couldn't be near her he could live with himself. He couldn't lose that, not after everything he'd been through, and he was all too aware that the most likely way that would happen was if he was ordered to personally 'dispose' of Lieutenant Rangiku Matsumoto by his lord, master and (should the war end in their favour) god. So Gin tiptoed around his leader trying to display absolute loyalty so that he wouldn't be called upon to demonstrate it in a more creative fashion, throwing himself into battles with his old comrades and generally trying to look as busy as possible.

It was a risky game Gin played, this he most certainly knew, but as he looked over the blood-stained sands of Hueco Mundo and the fighters spread across the battlefield, he couldn't help but feel that the last three years had gone rather well. Their war was slow going, both sides were too evenly matched for a clear victory, but they still had the strange little human girl locked up and plenty of arrancar to spare. It had only been three years and they were relatively immortal. Gin wasn't worried. Much. Well, the Kurosaki brat was a thorn in his side and he was just as antagonistic toward Rangiku's captain – Toushiro Hitsugaya. The midget had finally grown up into his powers, and was a formidable force on the field. It galled Gin to have a contender for the Gotei 13's prodigy title but he couldn't help being glad that Rangiku was fighting side by side with one of the more powerful figures in this war. Hell, he might even feel up to giving the ex-midget a break (and possibly stop calling him the ex-midget) if he was able to keep Ran alive through this.

Beside him, Sousuke Aizen stirred, as the Fourth Espada, Ulquiorra Schiffer, finished debriefing them. Gin's eyes narrowed, though his smile stayed fixed in place as he stayed in his customary spot beside Aizen's throne. There had been something off with Ulquiorra for while now, as far as he was concerned, but extensive questioning and reviews of what the arrancar had captured with his eye had yielded no further information. There may have been no evidence but that did nothing to make Gin any more reassured. Of all the Espada they had left, Ulquiorra was the only one Gin had trouble getting a read on, the only one he couldn't quite put in a nice neat box. All the others were simple, their desires and motivations entirely out in the open. But Gin had seen Ulquiorra's mask of blind servitude slip once or twice and it was more than enough to make him wary. If Ulquiorra were to turn on them, if Aizen's favourite were to go renegade or worse, to join the other shinigami, where would that leave them? Still, Gin had to reason, Aizen was no fool. If he trusted Ulquiorra he knew damn well what he was doing.

At least, Gin had to hope so. After all, as he was the only one around to keep Sousuke Aizen on his toes, the man was bound to slip a little, wasn't he?

"Gin, you have not been attending."

Starting at the accusation (all too true, as well), Gin opened his eyes slightly to acknowledge his leader, knowing that under the benign smile lurked the mind of a controlled and capable killer. An apology was desperately in order. "My bad. Sorry Cap'n Aizen. Mr. Cuatro have anythin' interestin' to impart?"

Chuckling, Aizen shook his head. "You can take the shinigami out of the Rukongai, but you can't take the Rukongai out of the shinigami, right Gin?"

"I guess ya could say that", Gin replied cautiously, wondering if the remark were a reference to anything else. Trivial remarks were not in his old captain's typical style and he couldn't help but wonder if this was an oblique reference to Ran and their old shack in one of the Rukongai's lower districts. Of course, he also couldn't help but wonder if dwelling on all of this was really helping his mood or making him feel any less paranoid.

Waving a hand, Sousuke Aizen sighed. "Ulquiorra was merely informing me that the Captain-Commander has finally entered the field. Now, to decide whether this is a desperate final effort to achieve victory by an enemy on their last legs, or a deliberate attempt to draw me out. Either way, I think I will meet them head on. It will do them good to see that their General is not as all-powerful as they wish to believe. Do you feel like taking a walk, Gin?"

It may have been phrased like a question but Gin knew better. "Sure thing, boss, but ain't I gonna get bored just sittin' there watchin' you kick ass? A man likes t' be active, ya know, even if he is technically dead."

"But of course. Our old captain of captains is being backed up by the 'rather interesting specimen', as Mayuri puts it, that is Ichigo Kurosaki. I assumed you would appreciate the opportunity to have at him. I know you have a soft spot for the one that got away."

Once again came the unsettling potential reference to Ran. Gin was starting to wonder if it was his mistrustful imagination at work, or if there was a very real cause to be concerned. It was certainly something to be pondered at leisure. Unfortunately, given that leisure was too rare a commodity at the moment, this was just going to have to be something he dealt with later. In the meantime, caution was best and obeying Sousuke Aizen's every word without fail was even better. His hand on Shinsou's hilt, Gin nodded.

"Well then, count me in. I'm 'bout ready t' rumble."

Nodding to Ulquiorra, who slipped away soundlessly, Aizen rose from his throne, descended to the floor and strode toward the door, Gin padding along silently in his wake. Gin's calm demeanour hid the fact that his mind was racing, as he tried to ready himself for the imminent battle, pushing all thoughts of Ran to the back of his mind…

She was a pretty little thing, all strawberry blonde curls and wide ice-blue eyes that were currently downcast as she pondered the question.

"I…I dunno when my birthday is. Things like that had no meanin' for me 'fore I met you."

The pale-haired boy staring at her cocked his head, considering this. His features were sharp, angular, almost fox-like, but his expression as he looked at her was soft.

"Well then, the day we met is ya birthday", he pronounced certainly. "Whaddaya say, Ran-chan?"

She looked up at him, a smile growing on her face. "That mean ya gonna get me a present?"

"Che, don't push ya luck baka", he grinned back, leaning forward to ruffle her hair.

Years passed. The girl became a woman, the woman became a warrior, and all too soon Gin stood on Soukyoku Hill, her sword at his throat…

"It's too bad, Ran-chan. I wouldn't have minded bein' yer prisoner a little longer."

In the ensuing chaos he'd broken free, protected by his menos allies' negacion. Turning to face her, he drank in the sight of her for what was very likely one of the last times. The pain in her wide blue eyes was clear but still she hefted her sword, waiting for an opening. He smiled, an expression tinged with regret and bitterness for what stood between them.

"Goodbye, Rangiku."

"I'm sorry."

And, for what must have been verging on the hundredth time, he walked out of her life.

The sound of distant explosions shook Gin out of his reverie as a further thought occurred to him. It was Ran's birthday soon. Days were hard to keep track of in any of the realms of the dead, but Gin had a feeling it should be coming up shortly. Did Aizen know that? Gin wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer to that question. Flicking his gaze to the man in front of him, Gin followed his leader through the halls of Las Noches.

There were far too many coincidences here for Gin's peace of mind. He had a really bad feeling about this.

xXx

Outside the walls of Aizen's fortress of the damned, war raged on, much as it had the last three years ever since Gin had made that fateful step and taken part in that unprecedented betrayal. Bloodied shinigami and arrancar fought ruthlessly, zanpakuto, kido and cero flying through the air, as their comrades lay dying around them and medical squads attempted to save what lives they could. It was all too familiar to Gin, as he stared out across the gore-spattered sands of the dimension he'd made his home. The path to god-hood, he'd discovered, was not altogether pleasant, though he'd had sneaking suspicions before he'd embarked upon it that that was the case. He couldn't help but wonder if Tousen now questioned the side he'd chosen. Hell, Gin did some days, when he woke up dreaming of Ran and the look on her face when he'd made that irrevocable step across the divide between worlds, and he sure as hell didn't have Tousen's morality playing havoc with his judgement.

Now that he thought about it, he wasn't entirely sure that anything possibly classifiable as morality had ever made its home in him. Life in the Rukongai was hard – only those who took what they needed survived – and the Gotei 13 under Aizen's command…

It was a wonder he hadn't ended up a complete psychopath, though there were some schools of thought back in the Soul Society that insisted he was nothing short of a deranged sadist. He knew this only through word of mouth (no one was going to say it to the psychopath's face after all) and he could admit, he had considered whether there was any accuracy to the statement. However, as far as he was concerned, the fact that he was capable of caring about Rangiku so deeply was a fairly clear indictor that he wasn't completely psychotic. Anyone in their right mind loved Ran, with her fire, her sheer exuberance, her beauty and her strength. Perhaps he mightn't have passed a Fourth Division check-up (they were rather stringent), but he was in his right mind enough for Aizen, and that was what mattered. He might've occasionally (well, maybe regularly) regretted leaving Ran behind, but not the choice he had made in following he man he had served under. Gin knew he was where he was supposed to be.

He just couldn't help but wish that she could be there, too.

Following his leader through the bodies, throwing the occasional kido blast to keep unwanted parties from interrupting their progress, Gin headed toward the most obvious point – a rise in the dunes not even a mile away where the heat rose off the sand in massive shimmering waves. There was something to be said for elemental weapons and how easy it was to find their bearers – the Captain-Commander and his flame zanpakuto couldn't have been more obvious if they'd been inside Las Noches itself. He noted the flash of black and orange that lurked far closer to he and his old captain, and grinned. It was about time that ryoka boy got dealt with and Gin was more than happy to be the one doing it. If he'd known the trouble the brat would cause, he would've eviscerated him the second they met at Jidanbo's gate.

Fate, it seemed (with a little help from Sousuke Aizen), was giving him another chance.

"So", Gin drawled, "you gotta plan?"

Making a slightly disparaging noise in the back of his throat, Aizen turned to face his one-time lieutenant. "Gin, I could've sworn that one of the first things I taught you when you entered my squad was - "

"Never be without a plan. Never go in blind", Gin interrupted, his annunciation perfect as he recalled the lesson. He nodded, his ever-present smile widening. "I know, Cap'n. Jus' makin' sure. Wouldn' wanna give our ol' pals an opening now, would we? Might have 'em actually thinkin' they can defeat us, and wouldn' that be sad? Crushin' peoples hopes like tha' always makes me sorry for the poor suckers."

Aizen chuckled to himself, shaking his head. "Ah Gin, it's moments like this that I remember why I keep you around."

Gin's grin stayed fixed on his face, but he couldn't stop himself from wondering whether the implication that Aizen sometimes questioned why he kept Gin alive was intentional and meant to put him on his guard, or was a careless thought and, in that case, probably also meant to put him on his guard. Raising an eyebrow, Gin waited for his leader to continue and tossed up whether to call him on that comment or not. Deciding that he chose life, Gin picked the latter. Eventually, Aizen continued.

"It's simple enough, I assure you. I will wait for you to engage the ryoka boy in battle first. He may not be anywhere near my equal, but he has a tendency to suddenly display unusual talent and I have no wish to fight a battle on two fronts. You are more than capable of dealing with him, so I leave it to you. Once you have sufficiently captured his attention, I plan to make the most of Kyoka Suigetsu and its abilities in order to distract any other interfering parties. It is then that I will make my move." Staring out over the sands, Aizen's lips quirked into a satisfied smile. "I have waited quite some time for this moment."

Considering the plan, Gin raised one question. "You plannin' on keepin' up the illusions for the General too? Just thinkin' it might get tricky maintainin' 'em all at once."

"On the contrary, I want to defeat the old man with him perfectly aware of everything that occurs. It has occurred to me that this seemingly honourable gesture could make our cause seem more attractive to some of our less… resolute enemies. The General has made many decisions in the last century that have caused dissension within the ranks. Unfortunately, people tend to associate my weapon's abilities with deception, and I want no taint of that in this fight. My plan is to defeat the old man in basic combat, a standard captaincy battle. I want them questioning the legitimacy of my claims to the throne, rather than just automatically dismissing me as a traitor. As such, I will follow the forms. I plan on giving those in power plenty to think about."

Gin could see several flaws in this plan. "Ya couldn' jus' hypnotise all the witnesses to see tha'? This is awful risky, far as I can see."

Aizen's smile deepened, growing sinister. "Ah, but never underestimate the power of a grand gesture. People respond to such things, they cannot help it. Besides, as you pointed out, it would be too difficult to maintain that many illusions and there are others I must put into place that are far more crucial to my plans."

Gin shrugged. "Far be it from me t' argue. Ya always seem t' know what yer doin', anyhow." His gaze centred on the figure of the substitute shinigami as he roamed across the dunes, relief settling into him. This could be the turning point, the stroke that brought the war to an end. He wouldn't need to fear for Rangiku anymore, wouldn't need to read the reports of deaths in battle obsessively each day, tense and waiting for the blow to fall. She'd be a prisoner, of course, as she was a ranking officer of the Gotei 13, but he was sure he could convince Aizen to release her into his custody. Hell, if he pulled off this fight and rid Aizen of the nuisance that was Ichigo Kurosaki he was pretty sure he'd be entitled to some kind of reward. She'd rage against him and grieve for the fallen, he knew, but eventually they could work it out. They always had before. And then he would have her with him once again…

Coming back to Earth or, rather, Hueco Mundo, Gin nodded to Aizen, unsheathed Shinsou, and disappeared in a flurry of rapid flash steps, whipping up the sand behind him as he hurtled toward his prey, his spiritual pressure concealed. There was definitely something to be said for attacking with the element of surprise, and the Kurosaki brat couldn't sense reiatsu to save his life, which could only make it easier.

Or so Gin thought, as he raced in, his zanpakuto primed to strike -

Only to be met with another blade, solidly countering his own. Gin's eyes widened as he stared at Kurosaki, rage and grief on the boy's face, and he disengaged his weapon, stepping back and feeling more than a little confused. Since when could Kurosaki sense anything short of Kenpachi Zaraki in a rage? And why the hell did the kid look so damn hurt? Gin might have let him go once, but that hardly made them best friends, and certainly didn't warrant the expression on the kid's face that suggested Gin had just broken his heart. Shrugging off his confusion, Gin flashed forward again, noting that the kid could meet and parry his blade, but didn't seem as fast or as powerful as he had been in their previous encounters. Deciding that this would just make it easier for him to defeat his opponent, Gin threw himself into battle. Shinsou sang out as Gin released it, feeling a smug sense of satisfaction as Kurosaki stumbled as the blade pierced his shoulder, seemingly unwilling to release his own weapon.

Whipping around, Gin sliced cleanly through the air where Kurosaki's head had been, feeling a twinge of annoyance, as the kid dodged the blow, that was tempered with satisfaction when he saw a cut bloom bloody on Ichigo's cheek. Raising his sword to end it, Gin stopped as Kurosaki looked up to meet his eyes. The pain in the boy's expression was palpable, and Gin couldn't help but pause as he was asked, "Why, Gin? Why would you do this?"

Gin flinched, his eyes wide for once. That voice wasn't Ichigo Kurosaki. That musical, husky voice belonged to someone else altogether.

Gin reeled back, nearly dropping Shinsou. It couldn't be – surely not even Aizen could be that cruel…

The illusion rippled and came apart, leaving Gin staring down at Rangiku Matsumoto, her shoulder bloody and the tears streaming down her face mingling with the blood trickling from the cut he'd inflicted on her face.

He had done that. He had almost –

He was going to be sick.

Fighting back a wave of nausea, Gin inhaled sharply, trying to get his throat working again so he could explain, console, or just do anything that could take the fear out of her eyes.

"Ran…", he croaked, "I didn' - "

The tears still spilled as she looked up at him, shaking her head as she crawled backwards, her hand still clutching her sword. The movement jolted her other shoulder, and the blood pooled on the sand started to spread quickly. It shocked a sob out of her, as she continued to put distance between them. Gin stepped forward on uncertain legs, trying to reach her.

"No, Ran, ya don' get it. I saw - "

The only warning Gin got was the world going cold and Rangiku's soft, almost reverential, 'Toushiro'. Throwing himself backwards and out of range, Gin whirled around, turning away from the woman he loved and facing down her captain as shards of ice whipped past his face, narrowly avoiding some serious damage. Toushiro Hitsugaya stalked across the sand, the white of his hair blended against the wings of ice his already-released zanpakuto gave him, his green eyes fierce as he roared, "Get the hell away from her, Ichimaru!"

Definitely not a midget anymore, the enraged captain stared Gin down, the wings and his tall frame hiding Rangiku from view, which was a blessing, of sorts. Gin didn't think he could handle looking into her eyes right now and seeing what she thought of him. He settled for cursing Aizen and his illusion-sword, as he dodged the icicles flying his way, and, most of all, cursed himself for not seeing this coming. He'd been so damn careful, how could he have let –

Throwing himself out of the way of a rather vicious kido blast, Gin growled, his smile wavering as he turned to face his opponent. Toushiro Hitsugaya was not Ran - Gin had no qualms about killing him. On the contrary, he wouldn't mind removing her precious 'Toushiro' from the picture. Somewhere amongst the horror and remorse Gin felt were prickles of jealousy that drove him to surge forward and attack the younger prodigy, giving battle in earnest and resolutely ignoring the injured woman staunching the blood flow from her shoulder, her eyes on their every move.

Whipping around, Gin brought Shinsou up to meet Hyourinmaru, narrowly avoiding getting his own nose sliced off as he faced down his opponent. The younger captain's vividly coloured eyes seemed to burn, a contrast to the ice forming around the three of them, the two combatants and their silent watcher. He could still sense Ran there, the traces of her reiatsu shot through with fear that Gin hoped was for him, not of him. He could feel the edginess to her that came from Haineko when Ran was about to do battle, and he realised that he was no longer sure whose side she was on in this fight. Ran might have idolised him all her life, but she had idolised her captain since she had begun to serve under him and he hadn't just attacked her. That had been the one thing that stayed sacred between them – that knowledge that Gin would never hurt her, no matter what side he was on. Even when she'd captured him, he'd simply gone still, refusing to fight her. He hadn't exactly come quietly after that, but he'd not violated the one rule they still had to keep them together.

Not like he had now.

Gritting his teeth, Gin shot off a hurried kido spell which, to his chargrin, was easily dodged but for the tiniest singe mark on Toushiro Hitsugaya's captain's haori. The ice had almost closed all around them now, blocking out Gin's view of the bright fake sky he'd helped bring to Hueco Mundo, but not before he saw great rents torn through it, exposing the black night above. Seeing the opportunity, he shot another, stronger, blasting spell to the roof directly above the captain, grinning to himself as the ice crumbled and Toushiro was forced to flash step and dodge his own icicles. Drawing back and considering his options, Gin flicked a quick glance at Rangiku and froze.

It was no longer him she was watching.

The devastating mix of hope and fear on her face was no longer for him, he realised, but for them man opposite him, shaking the ice from his hair and readying himself to strike. Mechanically, Gin fought back, his body automatically assuming the necessary forms and leaving his mind free to be elsewhere. He'd finally done it. He'd finally managed to tear them apart, to hurt Ran to the point where she wouldn't come back. He'd finally driven himself out of her heart. And in his place –

With a feral roar, Gin struck out with Shinsou, finally making contact with his opponent. Toushiro swore, swiftly icing the wound on his leg to impede the blood flow, only to be forced to bring Hyourinmaru up to defend himself again and again from Gin's sudden onslaught. All of Gin's usual calm, mocking attitude had disappeared, leaving the young captain facing an enraged warrior, a lightening-fast sword in one hand and a fistful of kido spells in the other.

Lashing out, Gin scored a line across the young captain's chest, trying to block out Ran's cry of fear as Toushiro stumbled back, flinging kido at Gin in order to cover his brief escape. Flitting back, he steadied himself as he forced all thought of her from his head, focussing instead on his opponent, on the chill of the ice around them, and on the surge of his leader's spiritual pressure. Aizen, it seemed, was now occupied, and the impressive spiritual pressures around him made it easy to ignore the comparatively minor flare that was Ran.

Wordlessly, Gin stretched out his hand, giving his opponent only the time allowed to let his eyes widen as lightning crackled from Gin's palm. Part of the fox-faced man's smile returned, now mirthless and forced. Aizen may have been a traitorous bastard but he knew how to teach kido, Gin thought bitterly as he flashed forward to attack with Shinsou once more. His fellow prodigy was showing an alarming tendency to dodge his spells, though his overcoat was looking rather singed, and Gin was determined to solve that problem as soon as possible. His actions swift and merciless, Gin surged forward, his zanpakuto singing in his hands and Toushiro desperately countered the blows raining down on him. Seeing a potential opening, his grin turned bloodthirsty as he kicked up sand into the younger man's face. The captain might have been disciplined enough to keep hold of his sword, but nothing to stop his body's reaction, his hands coming up to his eyes and leaving himself wide open for attack. Gin gathered himself, ready to lunge forward and end this.

Only to be stopped by two things.

The first was Ran's heart-rending scream, which all of Gin's attempts to pretend she was elsewhere could not block out, as he halted in his tracks. The second was the disappearance of Sousuke Aizen's reiatsu from the battlefield.

Gin's breath caught, his senses focussed on finding a trace of his leader's spiritual pressure. Surely, it couldn't be. He may have been a prodigy, but Aizen went above and beyond any expectations the Soul Society had ever concocted, and then some. The thought of anyone ever taking him down was ridiculous to Gin. And yet, the ice that had surrounded him was melting, a side effect of the heat from the head captain's released zanpakuto, and nothing was holding it back. Gin's head whipped around to meet Rangiku's eyes as she stood there, and he knew. They had failed. He was now on the losing side and Ran… His breath caught as she broke from his gaze, looking down at her blood on the sand as her hand came up to stem the blood seeping from her shoulder. He'd lost her, well and truly now, and he knew there was nothing he could ever do to win her back.

The pain from that realisation almost blinded him, so much so that he barely even felt it when Hyourinmaru slid easily through his body.

Blinking, Gin stared down at the sword planted in his chest, and then back up at the resolute face of Toushiro Hitsugaya. Pushing back the urge to collapse, Gin stayed on his feet as the young captain withdrew his blade, preferring instead to sway on the spot before fixing his opponent with a wry stare.

"Say, Shiro-chan, I never figured ya for someone t' strike when the other guy wasn't payin' attention."

The bright green eyes were hard as they observed him, and Toushiro replied harshly, "You're no fool, Ichimaru. It's this, life imprisonment in the Maggot's Nest, or death on Soukyoku Hill. This is the most merciful option."

Struggling to remain upright, Gin chuckled. "Ain't tha' awful nice of ya."

"I'm not trying to be nice to you", the white-haired captain snarled. "This is the most merciful option for her, too." Almost involuntarily, both their gazes turned to the woman standing metres away from them, her face set and resolute, a contrast to the tears that wouldn't stop falling from her eyes. Toushiro continued, softer now, "She's faced so much these last few years. I won't force her to sit through a trial and public execution or - "

"I know. Ya tryin' to protect her", Gin choked out, before a lopsided smile crossed his face. "I keep forgettin' ya love her too." Allowing himself a brief moment of triumph at the expression on Toushiro Hitsugaya's face, Gin fought to stay conscious, knowing there was more he needed to say.

"Tell her - ", Gin gasped out, his voice hoarse as his hand shot forward to grab Toushiro's charred and torn haori, steadying himself, "Tell her I didn' know. Thought she was Kurosaki. Aizen an' his fucken sword." Falling to his knees, Gin fought to get the last few words out. "Tell… love her… I'd never've hurt…"

The typical iciness in Toushiro Hitsugaya's tone when he addressed Gin had vanished, leaving in its place something that almost sounded like sympathy. "I will. Not for your sake, though."

"Fair 'nough." Looking up at his killer, the older man smiled. "An' be good to her. Better… better 'n I was. She… deserves - "

"I know." The two men locked gazes for a fleeting moment, before Gin nodded stiffly, relinquishing his grip on his opponent and sliding back to lie on the sand and stare at the sky. The bright blue barrier was fast disintegrating, leaving Gin with glimpses of pale stars as he felt the fading spiritual pressures of his comrades. Everything they'd worked for, everything they'd hoped had failed. Well, that wasn't entirely true for Gin. It was over, it seemed, and Rangiku was still there, still alive. And she would live, he knew that now, and continue to fight, drink, avoid her paperwork, and brighten the world around her. He couldn't help but think that, now that everything had fallen apart and he lay dying, that in itself made it all worth it.

Drawing a ragged breath, Gin felt his eyes close and the memories surge to the surface. He could see himself - a pale, skinny boy with silver hair, as he threw apples down to a little girl who eagerly gathered them all up, pushing her red curls out of the way and behind her ears so that she could start to eat. He watched that same girl, several years later, climbing that same tree to find him and together they watched the fireworks in the nearby district. He could feel her beside him, shivering uncontrollably in the tiny thin-walled shack with the snow falling thick and fast outside, and he could remember the smile that had crossed his face when she had curled up even closer to him. He could see her as a teenager now, all long limbs and burgeoning curves, dressed in a pale blue yukata and leaping about, trying to catch the falling cherry blossoms. Her icy blue eyes were alight and some of the flowers had become caught in her wild curls. The next memory came after he had disappeared on her for years, rather than his usual months or weeks. She was a grown woman now, dressed in an academy uniform to his lieutenant's badge, a bittersweet smile on her face as he stared at her in shock, and her musical voice calling out,"Didn't think I'd find you, didja Gin?"

He could see it all playing through his head, more real than his current surroundings. He didn't question it – she had always been more real to him than anything else in his life. He watched her, her face grimly determined as she lofted Haineko and wheeled around to face yet another hollow. He sensed but didn't seethe hurt inevitability on her face as he walked away once again, resolutely keeping his back to her. He could almost smell her scent again, remembering the way her lips felt against his and how she tasted of persimmons.

Moving his lips to form the syllables of her name, Gin stared up at the sky, his vision fading but a faint smile etched on his face, so different from the mocking one he had worn near-constantly in life.

And, just as it ended, Gin couldn't help but wonder if it had ever occurred to Rangiku that every time he'd walked away, no matter how dangerous it had been, there had always been a part of him that had hoped that she would follow him into the dark.

xXx

So, this has been languishing half-finished (also half-Finnish, but that's another story…) in my to do list for some time now as I have tried to do the idea justice. I'm still not sure if I'm happy with it but, given how long I've been agonising, I suspect this is as good as it will get. As always, any feedback is welcome, be it praise (which makes me squeal like a fan girl), constructive criticism (which is always helpful and appreciated), or even unconstructive criticism (which helps fuel the mockery juices), so review away!

Uh, please?

Anyway, cheers y'all!

vicioux.