The battle of Fake Karakura town has ended. A few changes to the story. Let's say that Ichigo already woke up, and was still in that mode where he may see the shinigami still. Oh, and can we please say that Gin survived? I HATE the thought of him gone. Indulge me, please, just for a moment.


"It's no good, captain, there's no change," Yamada Hanataro looked down sadly as he stood before his captain. Unohana Retsu frowned, and sighed, resigned. "I was afraid of that."

She swept past the seventh seat, and into the room before her. The room contained only one bed, and in it rested one small occupant. She stood, and watched with pain-filled eyes as the figure laid still, blank, unblinking turquoise eyes staring up at her, not seeing her. His face was frozen in an expression of permanent pain and horror. The only movement allotted to him was the occasional rise and fall of his chest, and the infrequently slow reflexive blinks to moisten his eyes, and the rare twitching of his left arm or leg, which had been mercifully put together again by Inoue Orihime.

"Poor child," she murmured, and even the thought of the captain's glare should he have been awake, and should the circumstances have been different could not soften the sorrow in her eyes.


Unohana turned to the door. Matsumoto Rangiku leaned against the door, her expression hesitant. She was still bound by bandages, and walked with obvious effort and pain, but she had refused to stay in bed. "Matsumoto-fukutaichou," Unohana greeted.

"How is he?" she asked tentatively.

Unohana sighed. "I'm not sure. He appears physically whole," she noted the lieutenant wincing, remembering a time when he wasn't, "but his spirit appears broken. He does not appear to want to go any longer. He is in shock right now, and trapped in his own emotions."

"I see," Matsumoto said, lowering her head. "I understand how he feels."

Unohana sighed. She hated seeing all these shinigami around her, all broken and permanently scared by the wounds Aizen left. "How is Ichimaru Gin?"

Matsumoto raised her eyes, and her eyes appeared dead as well. "He's still in critical condition, according to Isane. Who knows if he'll live? But what's the point? He'll probably be executed for his crimes anyways."

Unohana closed her eyes. So many wounds…and so many cannot be healed by kidou or even Minazuki. Standing, she gave Matsumoto a look. "Will you be returning to your room now, Matsumoto-fukutaichou?"

Matsumoto tried to make a weak smile, which turned out more like a grimace. "Nah, I think I'll take a leaf out of taichou's book and avoid my room a little longer." She attempted to laugh, but the sound was unbearably hollow.

Unohana nodded, and left the room. Matsumoto sat gingerly upon the bed, gazing at her captain. A sigh passed through lips. Just how many people was she going to lose?

Glancing down, she winced as she found the captain's blank eyes staring up at her. She gently brushed away a lock of his silver-white hair, and moved to close his eyes, hoping he might sleep.

He jerked as she touched his eyelids, and his arm came up reflexively. Matsumoto swerved back to avoid the blow, wincing as her wounds throbbed, and stared down at the young boy, who was blinking up at her, his eyes slowly clearing.

But not for long. As soon as he recognized her, his eyes appeared dead again. "Matsumoto…I'm glad that you're safe…"

Matsumoto bit her lip. "Taichou, how are you?"

She winced as he stared blankly up at her, berating herself for the stupid question. There was no need to ask how he was. Obviously he was not fine, or anything close to fine.

"Fine," he said in a dead-panned voice. "Are you all right, Matsumoto?"

"I'm…okay," she spoke. Both knew it was a lie, but neither made to correct it.

It had been a week since the shinigami had returned to Seireitei. Some had made recoveries by now, but some still remained bedridden.

"Good morning, Hitsugaya-kun!" Ukitake Jushirou peeked in, attempting his best cheerful voice, and failing miserably as the gloomy atmosphere his him in full. The boy looked up, and nodded to him. 'Ukitake-taichou."

Ukitake allowed himself to enter the room. The curtains were drawn, and the room was chillingly cold. He hid his shudder, and attempted another smile. "How are you feeling today?"

"Fine," Toushirou replied, wondering how many times he was going to have to repeat the lie. He wasn't fine. He was completely shattered, broken beyond repair. There was nothing left for him anymore. No one left for him.

"Unohana-taichou says you haven't been eating well," Ukitake commented casually. "C'mon, Hitsugaya-kun, growing boys need a lot of nourishing!"

If he'd hoped that the usual jibe was spoken it'd spark some life into the boy, he was mistaken. There was no change. The man let out a breath in frustration. "Please. People are beginning to worry."

Ukitake was startled to see the boy's breath hitch. "They are?"

"Of course," Ukitake continued, inspired by this new show of life from the boy. "There are a lot of us worried. Your division for one."

He closed his eyes. "Why? I failed…utterly failed…why would they worry about someone as worthless as me?"

"Now, now," another voice interrupted. Both Shiro-chans turned to see Kyouraku Shunsui leaning against the doorframe. "If you say that, that means the rest of us are all utter failures! Quite cruel of you, you know!"

The boy shook his head. "No, it's not the same. I had already fought Aizen once. I should have seen through his illusions! Instead…" he fisted his hands together. Instead I killed the one person I'd sworn to protect.

"Momo-chan is not dead," Kyouraku spoke up, sensing the younger captain's thoughts. "She's merely regenerating at the twelfth."

The boy grimaced, guilt for landing his childhood friend in that division piling on top of all the rest. "But all the same. I don't think she'll ever forgive me. I spent months telling her that Aizen was a traitor, and in the end, I betrayed her too, and put a sword through her as well."

The two elder captains exchanged looks. There was no getting through to him. No use telling him that he was not the only one at fault, that they were all at fault. But he didn't seem to think that. He rested the blame upon himself.

Ukitake stood, and gently placed something upon the boy's bedside table. "Eat, Hitsugaya-kun. You'll need your strength. And don't forget, there are others waiting for you, ready to help you should you need it."

They left, and Toushirou stared after them. Others waiting for him? Why now? Why, after all the children ignoring him in Rukongai, all the students shunning him in the academy, after all the shinigami avoiding him in the Gotei 13, why would there be people for him now?

Still, the thought lingered in his head, and he absently reached over toward Ukitake's package, and unwrapped it. The smell of amanatto wafted up to him, along with several carefully wrapped slices of watermelon. Suddenly, days of denial of food caught up to him, and he ravenously tore into the food.

Matsumoto leant against the wall, a crease of worry between her eyebrows. The room was silent save for the whirring of machines, and the gentle beeping of a heart monitor. She was exhausted, drained, and really wished for something, anything, to pull her from the gloom.

"Why da long face, Ran-chan?"

A gasp, a painful thump, and a curse. Weak chuckles filled the room as Matsumoto struggled to free herself from the floor, with her chair being her jailer. She finally knelt up, wide-eyed, and stared disbelievingly at the face before her. The man's eyes were open, open for the first time in what seemed to be an eternity. "Gin…" she breathed.

"'Sup, Rangiku? Boy am I glad to be alive, though I feel like leftovers from Kurotsuchi's experiments."

The rest of his words were cut off as a joyous Matsumoto flung herself at him, wrapping her arms around him and sobbing openly. "I…I was so afraid that…you would be gone forever…"

"Aww, such little faith," Ichimaru Gin grinned, though it was softer than any that had graced his features for a long while. "I always come back, don' I?"

"Shut up! I'm just relieved! You're okay!" both failed to mention that the length of time that he might be okay likely wasn't long. "I thought I was going to lose everyone!"

"Everyone? How bout your chibi-taichou?"

Matsumoto stiffened slightly. "I don't know, Gin…I don't know…I feel like he's already gone."

"So, this is were ya were!"

Toushirou stiffened immediately at the familiar voice. His muscles felt extremely out of use, and weak, but he bestowed his best glare upon the man at his door. "Ichimaru…what the hell are you doing here?"

"Visitin'?" Ichimaru said innocently, the effect of which was ruined by his grin.

"You're lucky my zanpakutou's not within reach now or I'll make you wish you'd never been born!" It felt strange to feel rage and fire burn through him. He hadn't felt anything but numbness punctured by occasional agony and guilt for so long. His reiatsu flared, and the temperature in the room dropped. The remains of his noon meal frosted over, and the glass of water in his hand froze of and shattered.

"Oooh, scary!" Ichimaru was unfazed. "But not as scary as watchin' ya stare blankly like you're an incarnation of Ulquiorra of somethin'!"

Toushirou couldn't care less who Ulquiorra was at this moment. "You've been watching me? What have you been doing, watching, spying, waiting to strike?" he spat venomously, his hands readying itself for a deadly kidou spell. Ichimaru crossed in room and quickly clamped his hand over the boy's, using his own reiatsu to stifle the forming blue flames. "C'mon, chibi-prodigy? Listen to me, will ya? You're acting like those fools in the Central 46 did years ago, when they killed that friend of yours."

Toushirou instantly recoiled as though he'd been slapped. "How did you-"

"My, my, what did ya expect? Aizen did his research well, found all he could on all of ya before attackin', ya know? It's always good to know the enemies' weaknesses."

The boy glared at him. "I should've known. Sneaky bastard…" the rest of his words were lost as he muttered darkly. He jerked his hand away from Ichimaru, though not before Ichimaru could feel how weak it was. "Well? Spit it out? Why are you here?"

"Here in Soul Society, or here in your room?"

"Both," the boy hissed back through gritted teeth.

The man's grin widened. "Well, let's see. I'm here in Soul Society cause I tried to save Rangiku's life, and she begged for me to be healed. Whether I'll stay alive for any longer after Yamamoto recovers and the Central 46 is re-established is another question, but who cares? I'm just enjoyin' life as it is!"

Despite his rage and obvious murderous intent toward the man, he felt a slightest bit of pity for him. Perhaps it was because he'd saved Matsumoto's life. He had no doubt Ichimaru was not lying, for despite betraying everyone, the boy knew from the look upon his face when he looked at her that Ichimaru Gin would always care and protect Matsumoto above all else. And he could not possibly be here if no one had begged for his life, and the only one who would was Matsumoto.

"Why?" he asked, wanting to hear more. Despite his earlier disregard for what had happened after he'd been struck down, he felt slightly curious now.

"Why do ya think? Ya said so yourself that ya would always would protect Hinamori-kun, no matter what," Toushirou winced at her name, but continued to listen. "Why can't I feel the same way about Ran-chan?"

"I know you feel the same way," Toushirou spat. "Just tell me why you betrayed her? Do you know how upset she was, how much she tried to hide her pain, and how much it didn't work?"

Ichimaru's smile fell slightly. "No…no, I don't. But I had to. No, really,' he continued, seeing the small boy's disbelief. His voice was quiet as he spoke. "Did ya know, Aizen and his men attacked her when we were still in Rukongai? That's right, I couldn't save her," his tone was bitter. "I couldn't do a damn thing but watch as she suffered, because I was too weak. The only thing I thought to do was to get stronger, get closer to that man, and wait for a chance to kill him."

There was silence. Toushirou didn't know whether or not to believe the man, but somehow, he found that he did. "I tried," Ichimaru continued. "I fought him, I tried to kill him. I had my arm ripped off, and my body slashed open, a sword through my chest, and only Rangiku's kindness saved me."

His eyes opened, and he glared hard at the young boy. Toushirou was surprised at seeing the man's eyes again, but since Shinso wasn't coming for his head this time, he took a better look as he glared back. The man's eyes were raging, mirroring Toushirou's rage and agony. 'Believe me. I understand how ya feel. I know what it is like to completely fail the one you care about. I know the guilt that ya feel when you aren't strong enough to uphold your oath to protect them. I may not know how it feels to stab Ran-chan, but I as good as backstabbed her when I left Soul Society."

There was silence. Toushirou looked down at his hands, not saying a word. Ichimaru stood abruptly. "Well, I guess that's it. I've said all I've wanted to say. See ya around…maybe…"

As he was about to leave, however, he heard a small mutter. "You never answered the second question. Why were you here in my room?"

A grin slowly formed on Ichimaru's face. "Well now, perhaps I wanted to share some of my wisdom with ya. Perhaps I wanted to bring a look other than blank deadness to ya so that Ran-chan never mirrors that look again when she looks at me. It was mostly cause Ran-chan was upset with ya like this, but there are other people out there who are also hurting by watching ya like this. Remember them. You've hurt one person already. Don't hurt anymore while ya still have the chance to make it all right. Ya might have failed this time, but ya could do more to make sure it doesn' happen again, couldn' ya? It's not over yet."

Though the words were blunt, Ichimaru didn't regret speaking them. The former captain left the room. He met an awkward Matsumoto just outside it, looking at her feet. "Gin…" she began, but he silenced her with a grin. "Let's go beg Unohana to relinquish some dried persimmons, shall we?"

They both snuck a look back into the room. The boy had pulled his knees to his chest, and buried his head in his arms. They decided that he needed some space.

"You know, Ichigo, I really don't think this is wise," Rukia hissed quietly as Ichigo strode before her. Ichigo flashed a grin at her. "Relax, Rukia. I've dealt with his anger a lot. I know what I'm doing."

"I don't know," Rukia said, continuing down the hall. "With your reiatsu the way it is…is it wise to piss off a captain?"

Ichigo shrugged, pushing away thoughts of his dimming reiatsu. "Well, he needs someone to piss him off. From what I've heard from Hanataro, he's like a corpse," Ichigo commented. "And since I'm one of the people best at pissing him off, maybe I'll spark some life back into that cold-"

"Do you really want to finish that sentence, Kurosaki?" a cold voice issued. Both shinigami snapped their heads up in shock to see none other than Hitsugaya Toushirou, adjusting his haori and scowling at them.

"Hitsugaya-taichou!" Rukia immediately bowed, but Ichigo just mock saluted him. "Yo, Toushirou!"

"It's Hitsugaya-taichou to you!"

His retort didn't contain the fire it had once upon a time, but it contained enough venom to make Rukia wince, and Ichigo to grin. He could see just beneath the captain's icy mask that he was still greatly wound and traumatized, and by no means was he feeling any less guilty and pained, but he seemed to be on the road to recovering. "Yeah, yeah, you've said before."

"And you should listen. You seem quite lively, considering…circumstances. I'm surprised you're up and about Kurosaki."

"I'm surprised that you are," Ichigo retorted. He looked at him carefully, and then said. "But you know, I'm only up and about cause there's people who're getting pissed off with me lying around. There are people getting pissed at you as well."

"So I've heard," the boy responded coldly. Ichigo's eyes widened. "You have?"

"Oh yes. Some annoying people wouldn't stop pestering me about it a couple days ago."

Ichigo's grin widened. He walked on, nodding, "that's good. Jeez, you always keep everything bottled up inside. There's people there willing to help you, you know."

He said his last words as a whisper, so soft that Rukia didn't seem to hear. The captain's face didn't change, but Ichigo knew that he heard. "So I've been told as well. I thank you for your concern, Kurosaki."

He walked off, and Ichigo grinned at his retreating back. "Man, I'm going to miss annoying that little kid." He smirked as the captain twitched.

"Ichigo?" Rukia asked, glancing up at him. He seemed slightly mournful, but he grinned at her. "I'm all right. It's good to be among friends for these last few days.

The tenth division was bustling about half-heartedly, annoyed that they still had to work so soon after the war. Many considered complaining to their leaders, but they didn't want to disturb their lieutenant, who was under a lot of stress, and their captain who was still at the fouth…

"What are you all slouching around for?" a sharp voice cut through the monotone. "Get to work!"

…or not…

The shinigami looked up in shock to see their captain standing their, arms crossed, his scowl in place. They were so shocked to see him, for rumor had it that he wasn't going to make it, that they all promptly froze as if the captain had released his zanpakutou upon them.

The boy's eyebrow rose. "Well?"

"Nothing, sir! Just good to see you back!"

The boy gave a nod, and walked in among the shinigami, who were tackling their chores with increased vigor, knowing that their captain was finally back.

Matsumoto looked up as the voices of the shinigami became more excited, and conscientious. Confused, she looked out the door, hoping for some explanation.

"Slacking off as usual, Matsumoto?"

She yelped, and turned in shock. Her captain raised an eyebrow at her. "Taichou! How the hell did you get there?"

"I walked," the boy said nonchalantly. Matsumoto grinned, remembering how he could always surprise people with his accurate hold upon his reiatsu. She flew forward and engulfed the tiny captain in her famous hug. The boy yelped, but she didn't care. "Taichou! I'm so glad to see you back at last!"

The captain sighed, and twisted from her grasp. "Get to work!" he snapped. Matsumoto grinned. "Yes sir!"

Toushirou nodded, and went to his desk. Matsumoto watched him for a moment. He still seemed slightly off, and weighted down by guilt. There was a sort of listlessness to his movements, and he seemed icier and colder than usual, but he was looking much better than he had for days. She grinned. Perhaps he was on his way to healing at last.

Toushirou glanced up once, his eyes surveying the familiar office. There were still things to take care of, still problems to solve, but for the moment, he felt rested, content to be back in his familiar surroundings. It was good to know that no matter what, there were still people that stood by him. He glanced at Matsumoto, working idly on her word, listened to the shinigami's vigorous energy to get things done. "It's good to be back."

He closed his eyes for a moment, and clenched his fists. Despite his animosity toward Ichimaru Gin, he couldn't help but appreciate his words. Determination ran through him, and instead of allowing his grief to devour him as he had for the last few days, he felt himself fight back, his resolve strengthening. I will get stronger. I won't fail again.

"I heard Chibi-taichou's gone back to his division," Ichimaru commented as Matsumoto placed a plate of dried persimmons by his bed. They were still in the fourth, as the former captain's fate had not yet been decided, and Unohana decided that it was unsanitary to keep him in the prison hold.

"Yes," Matsumoto said, grinning. "By the way, he gave these to me. He said to 'give them to Ichimaru or something', cause he hates them."

Ichimaru's grin widened. "Really now?" Perhaps it was a gesture of grudging gratitude. Guess Chibi-taichou doesn't hate me quite so much anymore…or is that too hopeful?

He looked out his window. Unbeknownst to him, the tenth division captain was also doing the same. The sun was shining brightly, casting a warm, happy glow upon the city, giving a sense of peace and contentment to all the shinigami.

As bad as things were, perhaps there was hope that they might be getting better at last.

Right…I had no clue how to end this. I dunno how this one turned out, as I wrote in with a raging fever, and I'm not completely well yet still, but I really wanted to finish this series before the new year, or it'll lose it's meaning, so…please be gentle! Originally, I wasn't going to have Gin in here, but I was so distraught over his fate in the manga that I couldn't resist.