Sorry for the long wait, everyone. Well, here we are! This is the end. Thanks for sticking by, and this is directed to any future readers of this story as well. I hope it left you with something worth remembering. I sure feel as if the story wrote itself, and not the other way around!

Here are my final thanks to my lovely reviewers: Onba, Boobie-chan, Mayuzu, Wuchen 5, Miggyrow, Nutty Fruitcake, Carol00, Random Fanfic Fan, and splitheart1120. Thanks to Santa1, Ditto's Ditti, Jessie Luna, rexiebones, kogasgal27, Madgod, Deer-Shifter, and Tani Yoru for your support, too!

You're all wonderful. :D

Lastly, please take the time to notice the dates!


Recap:

And then there was a sickening sound of flesh being penetrated, the crunch of bones.

"Gin!" she cried out. "Gin, no!" and could only watch helplessly as three swords pierced into his body from the front and two sides. Blood poured out in rivers and he was barely even conscious anymore, but she saw his red-stained lips move in a silent whisper:

"Kill, Kamishini no Yari."

Three bodies fell to the ground around him, ending the war, and he slumped down, fallen on his knees, the zanpakutou protruding from his body. Behind him, Aiko stood frozen in shock, the horror that was creeping into Matsumoto's chest reflected on her face. Her white hair was dyed red, her zanpakutou lying useless on the ground.

"Gin!" Matsumoto flew to his side, an arm around his shoulders to keep him from falling backwards. "No…no," she choked on her tears. "Not again. Not again." His eyes slid open, the blue-greens already dimming, and he didn't even have the strength to lift his hand anymore. She had to lean her ear close to his mouth to hear what he was saying.

"Rangiku...I'll...be…goin' on...ahead…" and then his eyes closed for the last time.

The tears sliding down her face were thick and so, so wet. They blurred her vision as she wrenched each of the three swords out of his body, as smoothly as she could. And then she held him in her arms and sobbed for a long, long time, until the medics arrived and she could cry no more, until his body grew cold.

How it could have all fallen apart so easily, she didn't know.


Story of a Lifetime - Part IV


September 29th – Year 247 (50 years later...)

Amidst the sounds of sweeping, scrubbing, paper stacking, and soft chatter, one girl's voice broke out in a curious question: "Matsumoto-taichou, would you like to go drinking with us?" All movement paused in the room as several expectant heads turned to the fiery-haired woman.

"Oh, I'm sorry, but I have to decline," Matsumoto smiled wryly and shook her head, "I quit drinking fifty years ago."

The squad members all dropped what they were doing, crowding around their taichou. "But you don't actually have to drink!" they pressed. "We can go out somewhere, maybe grab a bite!"

"It's your birthday today, isn't it?" another boy added.

She smiled. "Yeah. Yeah, it is."

"So come on! It'll be the Eighth Squad's treat for our wonderful taichou!" Matsumoto laughed, genuinely grateful for the concern of her squad.

"No, I'm sorry, guys. I have something else to do today. But thanks for the thought anyway." She stacked the last of her paperwork together neatly, lined them up at the corner of her desk, and stood up. "Well, I'll be leaving early today. You guys can leave as soon as you're done with what you're doing. See you all tomorrow."

There were multiple disappointed groans at their taichou's rejection, but they reluctantly responded, "Good night, Matsumoto-taichou."

She let her eyes close and stretched as she stepped outside into the cool night air, breathing in the scent of fallen leaves, letting out a hearty sigh. A rustle to her right caught her attention, and she turned with a bright smile. "Ah, you're here already, Aiko? Let's go get some food!"

"Yeah," the young woman said with a soft smile. They fell into step together with a well-practiced rhythm. "How was your day, Rangiku-san?"

"Pretty good. My squad offered to take me out for dinner, but I prefer eating with you on a day like this," she said with a grin.

"I see," said Aiko.

"What's wrong?" Matsumoto asked. "You seem down."

"No, it's nothing. Nothing's bothering me."

"Come on, tell me. Oh, I know! Is it a boy problem?" Matsumoto teased, elbowing her in the ribs. Aiko flushed, the color bright in the glow of the lanterns lining the street.

"I wouldn't get hung up on something like that!"

"Aha, so you are hung up on something!" Aiko clamped her mouth shut. "Tell me or I won't stop pestering you for the rest of the day."

"Seriously, Rangiku-san, it's nothing. I'm just a little tired, that's all. So, what have you been doing all day? Paperwork? Hitsugaya-taichou wouldn't believe the amount of paperwork you do nowadays."

"Well, I'm a taichou now. I have to handle my responsibilities, you know? By the way, have you seen the Third Squad's persimmon trees? They've grown so much this year, even though I haven't done anything out of the usual, just picking the fruits when they grow ripe."

Aiko's breath caught at that, but she kept her voice steady: "Yes, I noticed that, too. It's kind of weird, actually."

"…"

"Rangiku-san?"

"So you're still feeling guilty, are you?" The younger girl stopped and Matsumoto did the same. "Aiko, it's been fifty years," she said, putting a hand on the slightly shorter girl's head. "Stop blaming yourself for what happened. He chose to die that way; it wasn't your fault. We've had this conversation countless times." Aiko's bottom lip trembled as her face finally fell.

"I-I keep trying to convince myself, but I can't help it, Rangiku-san. He died right in front of my eyes, for me, because I was distracted by something going on in the distance that shouldn't even have mattered. I can't help feeling guilty." Aiko shook her head, the long, white strands swinging. "Especially on the day you two met. How could I let him die on the day you met?" she whispered, her voice cracking. "It's too hard. This is too cruel." A pause, wetness gathering in her eyes. "I miss him, Rangiku-san."

Matsumoto smiled sadly at the girl and drew her close, rubbing her back when the quiet sobs began. "I know, Aiko. I miss him, too."


The bark was rough against her palm, but she knew it wouldn't give her any splinters. And so she slid her hand down the trunk, wondering, wondering...

And indeed: "That tree's not me, Ran-chan," came an amused voice. She turned to face him, his captain robes rustling as he stopped a yard away from her.

A corner of her mouth quirked up. "Are you regretting leaving it behind now?"

"Nah," he said easily. "It belongs here. It's always been here."

"I like it here," she agreed. Orange, red, brown, golden leaves blew past, blocking him from her view for a moment. But he was still there when they were gone. "Are you taking me anywhere today?" she asked.

"Yeah. This'll be th'last time, though."

"I know. Fifty years is a long time."

He smiled in response, gentle and true. Then, she was abruptly thrown into a world where the ground was suddenly twice as close, where the rocks cut into her feet and her lungs were bursting for air.

"Gin!" she skid to a stop, whirling around when the man caught up to Gin, trying to grab at him by the collar.

"Run!" he yelled, twisting and dodging and ducking with quick feet away from a man three times his size.

"You little brat," the man growled. "Thief, give me back my bread!"

"Sorry mister, but we need to survive, too!" Matsumoto shouted from her spot a safe distance away, itching to fly to him.

"Ya stupid girl, run already!" Gin shouted over his shoulder. She bit her lip, hopping from one foot to the other, her fingers digging into the basket of bread.

"I-I can't just leave you!"

"Matsumoto Rangiku, I swear, if ya don' leave right this seco—" But he couldn't finish when the man slammed his foot into Gin's stomach, forcing all the air out of the little boy, and he fell.

"Gin!" she dropped the basket and scrambled towards him. He lay there groaning, clutching his middle. Throwing herself on top of him, she grit her teeth and bore it out when the man began kicking her in the back.

"Stupid girl, get off! I need this freakin' kid to tell me where he hid all my bread!"

"No!" The man snarled, grabbing her wrist and pulling her up by force. Dangling by his grip, she met his gaze straight-on as it swept over her. It felt as if her arm was going to rip out of its socket, but she glared and refused to cry out.

Her eyes narrowed when his grip tightened and a sick leer drew across his face. "Well well well, aren't you a pretty little thing...I could probably sell you fo—" His grip suddenly went slack when she sank her teeth into his arm and Gin simultaneously drove his knee into his crotch. She fell to the ground with a hard crack, but before the pain set in, she was thrown on Gin's back as he bolted away into the forest, the man's pained howls echoing behind them.

They ran for a good half hour before he finally slowed down, panting and sweat trickling down his forehead. "That's why...I never...take ya with me," he got out between gasps. She reached around his neck to fan his face.

"Is this better?" the girl asked in concern.

"No," he replied flatly.

"Sorry," she let her arms fall. "Um, you can put me down now..." He crouched down, letting her carefully slide off. With his back turned, she let herself wince when her right foot touched the ground. Lightly brushing the large purple bruise that was beginning to make her ankle swell, she bit the inside of her cheek when she realized that there was no way he wouldn't notice. "G-Gin...?"

"What?" He'd more or less caught his breath and was unhurriedly making his way around the forest clearing, gathering sticks for a small fire to illuminate the rapidly setting night.

"We wouldn't happen to have any more of those bandages, would we?" Slowly, he turned around, pinning her with his gaze.

"What did you—" When his eyes found her swollen ankle, they widened and he abandoned his sticks on the spot, rushing over to her. She held out her leg for him to examine, trying not to flinch at his prodding. "Ya idiot," he muttered, frowning deeply. "Alrighty, this is gonna hurt." His quick upward glance prepared her for the worst. "The bone has to be realigned. Tomorrow, we'll take ya to a village doctor, but I have t'reset it 'fore then. Ready?" She nodded, brow furrowed. Concentrating on a firefly that was floating near his head, she clenched her jaw. "I'm gonna count to three, got it?" She nodded again. "One...two—" and pain clawed all the way up to her thigh, her jaw locked together to keep in the scream, tears beading at her eyes.

Deep breaths. Deep breaths. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. She exhaled slowly, and swallowed down the tears. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. "I thought you said three," the girl ground out.

"Yeah. If I do it when yer not expectin' it, it'll hurt less." He studied her grimace. "Yer okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."

Grinning up at her, he declared proudly, "My Ran-chan's so brave. Okay now, up we go," and swept her up in his arms again before setting her down on a log. "Stay here like a good girl and I'll start a fire."

"Okay." He disappeared into the trees, the sun slowly descending behind grassy hills. She sat there patiently until the glow had bid its final farewell and the stars woke to replace it. Crickets began making their music, a wayward firefly blinking here and there, but still Gin did not return.

Matsumoto rose on her good leg, hopping towards the spot where she'd last seen him before the trees merged. "Gin?" There was no reply, so she hopped deeper into the forest.

A thunderous boom made her jump, and then the crickets were silent. "Gin?" she whispered.

Suddenly, a grotesque monster taller than the trees burst through the woods, its white face twisted in hunger, saliva dripping from its sharp teeth. "Food," it hissed, starting for her. Every step made the ground tremble.

Matsumoto stood stiff with fear. When it was only five trees away, the snap of a dry twig under her quivering foot finally gave her the strength to spin around, hopping away on one foot as quickly as she could. When it became obvious that that wasn't going to be good enough, she used her other leg as well, limping away. Adrenaline coursed through her veins. Her pain was numbed.

She could not die here. Not like this. She refused to die like this, for something as worthless as a mindless monster.

Gritting her teeth, the little girl almost tripped, listening to it get closer and closer to her, its hungry pants ringing in her ears. But the evil sound was quickly drowned out by the accelerating beat of her own heart, cold sweat pouring down her face.

It was getting closer. Hurry. Hurry, hurry, hurry!

But it was not to be. Her ankle gave out on her, and Matsumoto fell on her front with a sharp cry, rocks digging into her palms. The booming came closer, vibrations rocking her body.

She clenched her eyes shut.

But then the vibrations stopped and when no teeth sank into her, Matsumoto peeked an eye open and glanced over her shoulder.

"Die, hollow!" Her eyes widened when a blur of black and silver swept through the monster. A scream of agony, and then it disintegrated as if it had never been there, leaving behind a trail of flattened trees. Lying there, frozen in shock, the man clad in black robes looked like an angel to her. When he faced her, she was met with the most sincere pair of brown eyes she had ever seen. "Are you okay?" He held out a hand and she took it, balancing on her uninjured leg.

"Thank you," she whispered, heart still racing.

He smiled. "No problem. We have your friend, too. He's a little hurt, but it's nothing serious. We had no idea what he was doing, luring the hollow, until we realized that you were there."

"Where is he?" she exclaimed, suddenly in a hurry to see Gin's face. Following the man's lead, she jump-stepped further into the trees and three minutes later came upon a clearing similar to the one she'd been in. He was sitting against a large boulder, a man with curly brown hair wrapping bandages around his torso.

"Rangiku!" he called when he saw her, and immediately leaped up.

"Hey hey hey, calm yourself, little boy," the man with curly hair said. "Ukitake, this boy here won't listen to me and keeps struggling. Do something!"Ukitake sighed.

"Just do the bandages, Kyouraku. You should be able to do that much."

"Gin, are you okay?" Matsumoto limped over to him. He finally stopped trying to pull away from the frustrated shinigami.

"I'm fine, fine. Yer okay?"

She nodded. "I'm good, too. So stay still and let the nice man do your bandages already!" He sighed through his nose and sat back down obediently. Kyouraku gratefully tied the final knots.

"There you go. We're all done now."

Matsumoto bowed to the two men. "Thank you very much for saving our lives." Ukitake smiled.

"No problem. But you two have quite a bit of spiritual power. Wouldn't you like to become shinigami?" The children glanced at each other, then shook their heads.

"Sorry, not interested," Gin said.

"I like my life the way it is right now," Matsumoto added. Ukitake's brow furrowed.

"But it's dangerous out here. It's safe in Seireitei."

Matsumoto laughed. "Yeah, until we have to fight. It's all the same." Gin stayed silent, but she knew that he was thinking something along the lines of refusing to become a shinigami dog. "Well, we'll be on our way now. Thank you again." And the pair walked away from the concerned shinigami, unknowing that their paths would cross soon again.

Matsumoto blinked. The surrounding trees, the branch-littered ground, the pain in her ankle—it all faded away, like a stopped movie that lost its sound and then its colors. In its place was the touch of a soft duvet pooled around her lap and the cool air of the room, blowing out her candle. Curious, she got up and approached her open window. "Gin?" A cold breeze forced her to pull her sleeping clothes tighter around her neck, her long hair fluttering.

"Yo, Ran-chan," he said. His back was to her as he leaned against the railing of the red arch bridge overlooking his Third Squad gardens.

"What are you doing over there?" she asked, appreciating that she didn't have to yell over the distance in the silent night.

"Gettin' ready."

"For what?"

"Eh, ya'll find out soon 'nough," he said cryptically, still not facing her.

She thought for a moment. "Oh, I almost forgot. You said that this would be the last night, didn't you?"

"Yup."

"And...what are you going to do after this?" Her voice was small.

He looked at her, a cocky smirk on his face. "Who knows? I'll just go with the flow." She studied the shadows cast on his face by the moon before nodding with a smile.

"Okay." When his smirk faded a little, she laughed. "Oh, don't worry. I'll be fine. You just have fun wherever you're going."

"...I will."

"Good. And I'll live my life. When I'm finally bored of my world, well, we'll just have to see what happens then. Right?"

"Right." His smirk returned with full force. "Yer strong, Rangiku."

"That's right. You're going to miss me like nobody's business," she teased with a wide grin. They watched each other for a close moment, and then she held up a hand, reaching out the window. "How about a last handshake?"

He smiled, bittersweet, stepping off the bridge and crossing the well-kept grass towards her. He reached up, palm facing the sky, almost like an offering. But as he approached, the night behind him was beginning to be swept up, sucked away by the wind. She stretched further, her fingers reaching, reaching—

Matsumoto's eyes cracked open. The covers were tucked right up to her chin, but her hands were cold.

Hadn't they always been cold?


September 29th – Year 248

"Rangiku-taichooooouu~! Happy Birthday!" A million bouquets were thrust into the unsuspecting woman's face.

"Oh, wow. Thanks so much, you guys." She laughed and took them all, gathering them against her chest. "I can't believe how quickly this year passed."

"Yeah, we can't believe it either, what with such a hot babe as tai—" The scruffy-looking man was knocked upside the head by his squad mate.

"Geez, all you stupid men ever think about is stuff like that! It's Rangiku-taichou's birthday; can't you be a little more respectful?"

"I didn't mean it in a disrespectful way! I was just being truthful!"

"Yeah, well you know what? We don't care about your opinion!"

"What did you say, you stinkin' woman?"

"What, you got a problem?" The entire squad broke out into a yelling match, noses pressed to noses. Matsumoto chuckled and Nanao shook her head.

"This team is as idiotic as ever," she muttered.

"Aw, don't be such a stick in the mud, Nanao-fukutaichou," Matsumoto poked her. "Aren't they just so adorable?"

Nanao snorted. "Depends on what your definition of adorable is. But anyway, putting them aside for the moment, are you going to accept their dinner invitation this year? Because you know they're definitely going to ask."

"Hmm..." she tilted her head, going over the possibilities. "Well, okay, why not? I'll bring Aiko along this year, too."

Sudden silence set in the squad meeting room, and then spontaneous noise broke out once again, even louder than before. Nanao twitched, resisting the urge to clap her hands over her ears.

"You're accepting our dinner invitation, Matsumoto-taichou?" several giddy youngsters squawked.

"Yeah. It sounds fun. And I think I might even order a few jugs of sake!" A collective cheer burst across the crowd.

"Is it true that you were a legendary drinker back in the day, Matsumoto-taichou?"

"Hey, that's rude, what do you mean back in the day!" She smirked. "I could still beat you all in a drinking contest today!"

"YOU'RE ON!"


"Hey, hey, Rangiku-san, are you all right?" Nanao patted a hand down Matsumoto's back.

"I'm fiiiiiiiine!" she laughed, smacking the table, loud even over the noise of the restaurant.

"Is she really okay?" Hinamori asked, biting her lip. "Hasn't it been something like fifty years that she hasn't touched alcohol?"

"Yeah," Nanao sighed. "I'm not exactly applauding the comeback, but it is kind of relieving."

"Huh? How?"

"It means that she's recovering, doesn't it?" Nanao stated with one of her rare smiles. "It's about time. Fifty-one years have passed."

"I don't know about that," Hinamori said doubtfully. "What if this means that she's just drowning herself in sake again? The first time she started getting hooked on it was to forget about you-know-who, because he kept disappearing, right?

Nanao blinked. "Hmm...well, I hadn't thought of it that way," she admitted. "But if it makes her feel better, I think drinking sake is fine. Her alcohol tolerance is as good as ever." They paused. "I suppose we should just wait it out."

"Yeah, I guess you're right," Hinamori sighed. "They do say that time heals all." So the two women made do with watching time go by.


December 15th – Year 253

"Matsumoto."

Matsumoto looked up from her desk. "Taichou! What are you doing here?"

"Hinamori wants to go out for lunch together. Are you free?"

"Ehhh? Wouldn't I totally be a third wheel?"

His face reddened. "No! It's just lunch! Are you coming or not?"

"Aww," she pouted. "You don't have to get all worked up. Okay, since you insist, I'll go!"

"Fine," he muttered. "Meet us at Naonozushi at twelve sharp. I won't tolerate tardiness."

"Yes, taichou!" she saluted and he walked out, still mumbling under his breath.


"Ooooohh~ This sushi is soooooooo good!"

"I know, right!" Hinamori exclaimed. "The egg roll is my favorite."

Matsumoto pursed her lips. "If I had to choose, I'd say that ikura is my favorite."

"Oh, yes, I love ikura as well. Shiro-chan hates it, though."

"Don't call me Shiro-chan," Hitsugaya grumbled. "And pass me those rolls, you stupid girl."

"I'm not a stupid girl!"

"Yes, you are." When Hinamori pouted and refused to pass him the rolls, he growled, leaned over the table, and snatched the plate. "Don't be such a brute, Shiro-chan!"

"Shut up!"

"Um...guys...?" The bickering couple ignored her and she laughed awkwardly. "Alrighty then, I'm just going to go...powder my nose or something. I'll be right back." Matsumoto climbed up from her tatami cushion and blended into the bustling crowd in the background. Hinamori cut off mid-protest and sat back down, all cheeriness evaporated.

"So? What do you think?"

"I think you're worrying too much," Hitsugaya replied. His chopsticks reached for a cucumber roll, but she slapped his hand. "Ow!"

"I'm trying to be serious here! I'm worried about Rangiku-san!"

"And I'm being serious, too," he sighed, giving up and setting down the chopsticks. "I think you're reading too much into her actions. So what if she started drinking sake again? It's just a return of the habit."

"Bu-But it's been over fifty whole years! More like fifty-five or fifty-six!"

"Hinamori." Hitsugaya rubbed his temples, partly in exasperation, but also because of his own anxiety for Matsumoto. "First of all, isn't your reaction too late? It's been, what, five years since she started drinking again? And she's fine so far—"

"I only waited this long to see what would happen!" she jumped up again. "But nothing has changed!"

"Listen," he bid her. She frowned, but settled down. "I know fifty years seem like a long time. It's the majority of a lifetime for a human, but you're forgetting that we are not human. Our time moves differently from theirs. To us, fifty years can come and go in the blink of an eye, or it can drag on, hour after hour. It depends on the person; it depends on the circumstances. To Matsumoto, fifty years probably passed before she could even notice what was going on. She spent centuries with him; five decades is a relatively short mourning time."

"No, I mean, I know that, I do," Hinamori said, staring frustrated down at her laced fingers. "I just can't help but worry. She never confides in us, Shiro-chan. She never says anything at all, just like that time when Ichimaru-taichou left with Aizen. It's like she's missing something and it makes me so angry because I feel so useless!"

Hitsugaya sighed again, crossing his arms over his chest. "I get that, Hinamori. You'd think her former taichou would be able to help her, but I can't do anything either. She's strong, that Matsumoto. This is just what happens when you lose someone important. The hole won't disappear, but it will scar over. She'll be fine." Hinamori opened her mouth to say something, but Matsumoto reappeared right at that moment, plopping down in her seat.

"Hey, guys! Did you get over your couple's spat?"

"I-It wasn't—" Hinamori sputtered.

"I'm going back to my office now," Hitsugaya interrupted. "I've got lots of work to do."

"Ehhh? Taichou, can't you stay a little longer? Your lieutenant can handle it until you're back!"

Hitsugaya glared down his nose at her. Matsumoto shivered as the air got colder. "I've gotten used to not depending on my lieutenant," he declared darkly, then exited unceremoniously.

"Geez, Hinamori," Matsumoto turned to the smaller woman. "What's wrong with your hubby?"

"H-He's not my—!"

"Excuse me~! Can I have a bottle of sake here please?"

"Right away, ma'am!"


Five hours later, the floor around them was littered with sake bottles and overturned cups. Hinamori had been fidgeting and shifting in her seat the entire time, trying to think of the best way to approach what had become the forbidden subject.

But enough was enough. She was tired of being a friend only in name.

"Um...Rangiku-san?" She received a noncommittal grunt in reply. Her hands twisted nervously in her lap. "Are...are you okay?"

"Ah, don't worry~I can take much more than this," the inebriated woman chuckled, sprawled over the table.

"No, um, I meant—I meant..." Hinamori sighed, dejected. "It's nothing. Never mind. I'll talk to you when you're more coherent." Matsumoto didn't reply for a while, her face buried in her arms, and Hinamori thought for a second that she'd fallen asleep.

But then her muffled voice suddenly muttered, "What a frightening person he was."

Hinamori bit her lip. The barrier she couldn't bring herself to breach ended up being broken from the other side. It could only mean one of two things: Matsumoto had either healed, or she was in great need of being healed. Hinamori watched her friend worriedly, then rested a comforting hand on the woman's head.

"I didn't know anything until that day Aizen left for Hueco Mundo, you know? That was the first time I felt true fear towards him." Matsumoto let go of her last sake bottle, choosing instead to close her eyes and let the energy ebb from her hidden expression.

"Why?" Hinamori asked quietly. "Because he betrayed you?"

She laughed drily. "No. Because I finally realized that he'd been doing it all along. I found him once on a snowy day a long time ago, him having disappeared for days without a word. There was blood on his face and he had a shinigami robe on him. It wasn't until that instant, when he left with Aizen, that I realized what that meant."

Hinamori swallowed. "And you were scared?"

"Of course," the muffled voice came bitterly. "I'm not stupid or crazy—any real person would be terrified."

"Then why did you stick with him when he came back?"

She shrugged. "That was the first and last time I felt fear towards him."

"Wait...but...you just...just accepted it and moved on?" Hinamori asked incredulously. "That he could kill like that?"

Again, Matsumoto laughed, and again, it was empty. "I thought about it a lot. I kept remembering the blood on his cheeks, and later, the fierce look on his face as he fought, the undaunted, inhuman way he wielded his sword. But then it would all fade away, and I'd just remember him with that stupid grin as he offered me his stupid persimmons. Or the way he barely managed to limp away from a barehanded fight with a hollow that was going after me. Or just the way he looked as he slept. And suddenly, I wasn't afraid anymore. It's..." she groped for the right words, hoping her friend would understand. "It's him. I mean, it's not just anyone; it's the one person you've always trusted and been beside and did everything with. It's not something you can control, you know?"

And although it was a bit of struggle, although it was kind of unbelievable, Hinamori being Hinamori, with that personality and the experience of betrayal, understood. "I think...I think I might get it," she conceded—the closest she would ever again come to admitting how hurt she'd been by Aizen's betrayal. Matsumoto lifted her head, her face red from the alcohol, and smiled. Hinamori withdrew her hand with an answering grin, deciding then that it had been the latter—Matsumoto was in terrible need of being healed. She berated herself for not realizing sooner. She should have known that the burden of losing a loved one could not be carried by a single person. She should have known.

Matsumoto's smile turned bittersweet. "But then he died, so soon. I hadn't even begun to understand enough of who he was." She looked down, tracing circles on the wood. "Even at death, he refused to say anything I could grab ahold of. What a despicable guy."

"You loved him for it," Hinamori said quietly. Matsumoto slowly looked up, an oddly grateful expression on her face. "You know, Rangiku-san, I was just talking to Shiro-chan about how you never talk to us about anything."

Matsumoto didn't reply.

"But I think I've figured out why you wouldn't now. Shiro-chan said it was because you're strong, but I think you're just afraid we wouldn't understand. Maybe you're unwilling to hand us the burden of knowing we don't understand, too."

Matsumoto sighed. "That's a pretty grown-up way of thinking, Hinamori." A dry smile. "You've grown too, haven't you? I can honestly say that I didn't read so deeply into it, though."

"You should come talk to me," Hinamori declared. "If no one else, I should be able to understand. So come talk to me anytime, Rangiku-san."

Matsumoto laughed for the third time that night, but this one filled with genuine warmth and mirth. "Sure. I think I will."


January 2nd – Year 256

Hinamori looked up from the sheaves of paper spread all around her when a knock came at the door. "Come in!" The shouji screen slid open and there stood Matsumoto, still dressed in her New Years kimono, a large bundle in her hands. "Rangiku-san! Get in here, hurry! Aren't you cold? It's freezing outside." Matsumoto slid out of her sandals and padded quietly into the room, plopping down beside her friend. "What's that?"

"It's your New Years present!" Matsumoto exclaimed excitedly, setting the bundle down and untying the knot. Hinamori gasped when the cloth was pulled back to reveal over a dozen colorful bottles of all different shapes and sizes. "See, see?"

"What are those?" Hinamori looked awestruck.

"Make-up and perfume and lotions and creams and stuff! I got it from the Real World when I went on my vacation."

"Wow..." Hinamori fingered the bottles, picking them up one by one and admiring the pretty designs. "But...I don't really know how to use..."

"Of course, that's what I'm here for," Matsumoto grinned. "We're going to have so much fun."

"Aww, thanks, Rangiku-san. I'll give you your present later. It's over at Shiro-chan's place, so I don't have it right now."

"Okay." Matsumoto's attention was drawn to the messy sheets of paper strewn across Hinamori's lap. "What were you doing?"

"Huh?" Hinamori looked down at the papers. "Oh, nothing," she said with a blush. Matsumoto raised a brow.

"Riiiight...come on, it must be something good if you're blushing like that. What is it?" She twisted her neck to catch a glimpse, but Hinamori quickly gathered the pile and shoved it behind her back.

"Really, it's nothing for you to worry about, Rangiku-san!"

"Hmm..." her eyes narrowed. "That just makes me more curious, you know?"

"Please, just let it go for now," Hinamori pleaded. "So...um...was there something else you came for? Besides the present? I'm sure there is."

"Uh. Not really," Matsumoto seemed to instantly forget about the pile behind Hinamori and began fidgeting.

Hinamori blinked. "...Wow, there must really be something you're here for if you're fidgeting like that. Matsumoto Rangiku doesn't fidget." Matsumoto just smiled awkwardly. "Go on, I'm listening," Hinamori urged.

"Umm...well, it's nothing really important, actually."

"That's okay. Tell me anyway. You came all this way, after all."

Matsumoto bit her lip, squirming a bit. Hinamori folded her hands together, waiting patiently with an encouraging smile. "Well..."

"Yes?"

"You know how a couple years ago, you said I could come talk to you? About anything, anytime?"

The dark-haired woman sat up straighter, a spark in her eyes. "Yes, I did. I'd still say the same thing now, and forever into the future."

"I see." Matsumoto scratched her head. "Sorry, I'm not really used to this. While I'm sober, I mean."

"Oh, no," Hinamori waved her arms around frantically. "Don't be sorry. There's a first for everything. I'm just glad you came."

Matsumoto smiled gratefully. "You're a great friend. To be honest, it's really nothing urgent at all, so if you're doing anything else..." her eyes again slid towards the papers hidden behind Hinamori's back.

"This..." the woman sighed and reluctantly reached behind her, pulling out the package and handing it to Matsumoto. "Truthfully, it's not actually anything really worth hiding. I just felt kind of...um...awkward, that's all." The latter's eyes widened.

"Oh my God."

"Yeah," Hinamori grinned sheepishly. "I was kind of embarrassed, so I didn't really want to show anyone."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"I was going to, I swear! It's just that I got kind of caught up reading it...it's quite interesting..."

"Oh, please," Matsumoto scoffed. "If you want advice on how to plan a wedding, you should ask a real, live woman that got married!"

"...You're right. Why didn't I think of that?" Matsumoto dropped the package, squealed, and threw her arms around her startled friend.

"I can't believe he proposed! You have to tell me all the details. I'm never going to let him live it down," the fiery-haired woman smirked. "Plus, now we have a chance to use all that make-up. This is going to be great."

"Okay," Hinamori grinned shyly. "But, um, you still haven't told me what you came here for, Rangiku-san."

"Ah," Matsumoto sat back on her heels. "Well, you know how the last time we talked about Gin, we talked about was his betrayal and stuff?"

"Uh-huh?"

"I just—ugh, I don't know, I'm being so stupid. I was feeling kind of sentimental with this snowfall and everything." Matsumoto looked away, her brows scrunched up. "I think...I think I just wanted to share with someone some of the good things that happened with him. It wasn't only the betrayal. That was just a stage in our long lives together. I couldn't think of anyone that would want to listen to this crap, though. Shizuka only knows the boring, factual stuff that I told her, Nanao-chan seems like the type to criticize everything, and Aiko's kind of...youn—"

"Please," Hinamori cut in, scooting closer with a wide smile. "Do tell. Your story is an amazing one. Hearing it directly from Rangiku-san would be wonderful."

Matsumoto looked astonished for a moment. "Um...uh...really? You really want to hear it?"

"Please tell." Hinamori's eyes were wide and eager. "It's been a while since I've heard a good, genuine romance."

Matsumoto beamed, the happiest she'd been in a long while. "I don't really know where to start."

"Anywhere is fine. What made you feel sentimental in this weather?"

"Oh. Right." They leaned in close together, both enchanted with what this conversation could become, and Matsumoto began her tale: "So, once, I was lying in the snow, making a snow angel..."


January 3rd – Year 256

The following day, Matsumoto woke up from a memory of the past.

"Hey."

Matsumoto looked up from her knees. "Kira." He sat down beside her, allowing himself to relax a little from his normally stiff posture.

"How are you?"

She fisted a handful of grass, ripping out the green blades and flinging them behind her, then repeated it all over again. "I'm holding up well enough."

"That's good."

"What about you?"

He smiled wryly. "About as well as you, I guess. Well no, maybe a tiny bit better."

"Huh."

He eyed the careless way she continued to maim the guiltless grass. "Why are you doing that?"

"Oh, sorry." He thought she'd suddenly come to her senses, but then she asked, "would you prefer that I throw it out that way?" She gestured to the edge of the hill they were sitting on, out into the wild unknown far below.

"...I...don't really care."

"Okay then." She resumed her ripping. By then, the spot around her right hand was becoming a bald spot of dirt.

"Did the grass do anything wrong?" he ventured.

"No," she responded absentmindedly. "It's just that the grass doesn't mind, so I figured I shouldn't mind either."

"Um...well, if it really makes you feel better, I suppose pulling out the roots too would be more efficient?"

"No, no," she sighed. "That, the grass would mind."

"...Right. Of course. So, how's work coming along? Is Hitsugaya-taichou as strict as ever?"

"Meh. I don't know, I haven't really noticed anything in particular."

"How's the Tenth Squad?"

"Recovering very quickly. A little too quickly," she added darkly.

"Too quickly?"

"As if it had never happened," she said, and threw her last handful of grass towards the setting sun.

...

"Hey there, Rangiku-san!"

"Oh, hello, Shuuhei."

"Ah, doing paperwork, I see!" He hovered over her shoulder as she swept her brush across the paper. "Would you like some help?"

"No."

He faltered at the flat response, but bounced back quickly. "Are you sure? I have nothing better to do, and I was a little worried about my friend anyway."

"You should go help that friend," she said.

"I meant you, Rangiku-san."

"Oh. Well, I'm fine. But thanks anyway, Shuuhei."

He scratched his head awkwardly, the forced mirth wiped from his face. "Listen, Rangiku-san...I actually came today because Kira said that you weren't being yourself, so I was worried. And now that I've seen for myself what he meant, I really think you need to relieve some stress. Of course, I understand that it's difficult to suddenly just forget the war and go back to old times, but...but it's been a while now. How about some sake? Would you like to go out for dinner, all of us partying away like the good old times? Or how 'bout we spar a little?"

She didn't even pretend to think about it. Her brush strokes were even and neat. "Sorry, Shuuhei, but I have something else to do today. Some other time, okay? Now, I really have to finish this by eight, and I kind of have to concentrate for that."

His face fell. He watched her for another short moment before sighing and nodding. "All right. If you ever need us for anything at all, please don't hesitate."

"Thanks, Shuuhei," she said, but her voice was flat.

Matsumoto realized for the first time in half a century as she sat there in bed, the five o'clock birds chirping outside the window, that she had the will to truly apologize again. So she got up with a smile and did exactly that.


And before anyone realized, another fifty years passed by.


September 10th – Year 300

Whispers haunted the hallways. It had been that way for the past month or so—clusters of people gathered here and there, creating their own sparks—but a week ago, the fires of rumour flared, and they had yet to die down.

"Did you hear?"

"Yeah, I did. Frightening, isn't it?"

"Totally. I dropped everything I was holding when I saw."

"What do you think will happen from now on?"

"I don't know. I kind of don't want to know."

"Isn't this the first time something like this has ever happened?"

"I heard that they had a meeting about it, just with Yamamoto-soutaichou and Unohana-taichou. She's the oldest taichou now, since Ukitake- and Kyouraku-taichou retired."

From a corner in the hallway, Matsumoto peered at all the shinigami going about their business in the hallway. "Nanao-chan," she whispered, "what do you think they're talking about?"

Nanao rolled her eyes. "Rangiku-san, this is your squad. If you're so curious, why don't you just ask someone? And please stop hiding there. It's unsightly for a taichou to be such a gossiper."

"Oh, don't be so stuck-up, Nanao-chan. You never change."

"I could say the same to you, Rangiku-san. An odd taste is left in my mouth every time I'm forced to utter 'Matsumoto-taichou' in public."

"That's so mean!" she whined.

"Anyway, it's time for lunch with Hitsugaya-taichou and Hinamori-san. If we don't go now, we're going to be late."

"Yeah, yeah," she muttered. "I'll be there in a minute, after I find out what all this hustle-bustle is about."

"Rangiku-san, Hitsugaya-taichou is going to be angry if you're late again."

"...Argh. Fine," she sighed.

The Eighth Squad taichou and fukutaichou arrived at the sushi restaurant that had steadily become the shinigamis' favorite place to dine with five minutes to spare. "See?" Matsumoto gloated. "I told you we would've been fine. But nooo, if we're not early, that's not good enough for Nanao-chan."

"I merely intend to correct your tendency for tardiness," Nanao sniffed.

"I'm not always late!"

"I didn't say that. I said that you tend to be."

"That's the same thing!"

"Rangiku-san! Nanao-san! We're over heeeeere!" Two frantically waving arms among the few dozen tables caught Matsumoto's eye.

"Hey, Hinamori! Ah, Taichou's here, too!" Hitsugaya nodded in greeting to Nanao, then growled when Matsumoto flounced up to him and ruffled his hair affectionately from across the table.

"I haven't seen you in a while, Taichou!"

"Yeah, and it was so peaceful without you around, too," he snapped, smacking her hand away.

"Taichou's as cold as ever!" Matsumoto declared cheerfully, plopping down on her chair. "All right, let's order some food. I'm starving. Waitress! Hi. Can I get an oyako-don?"

"I want miso ramen!"

"Gyouza."

"I would like an order of your Naonozushi Udon, please."

"Will that be all?"

"Yeah."

"One order of oyako-don, one order of miso ramen, one order of gyouza, and one order of Naonozushi Udon, yes? Your food will be with you shortly." She collected the menus and clacked off in her tall wooden shoes.

"So. How're the lovebirds?" Matsumoto rested her head on her hand, a glint in her eyes.

"Happily married!" Hinamori chirped. Hitsugaya slapped her upside the head.

"You always say that. The whole world knows we're married, you moron."

"So? I like it that way!" Hinamori wailed. "You didn't have to hit me, Shiro-chan, you bully!"

"..." Hitsugaya had long since given up lecturing his wife on the etiquette of how to address others.

"Looks fun," Matsumoto said with a grin. "You guys are so lucky."

"Lucky?" the white-haired taichou scoffed. "Right. I've been married to this idiot for fifty years now. I deserve some kind of an award." Nanao barely refrained from a not-this-again eye roll, while Matsumoto snickered, greedily drinking up the free entertainment.

"Hey! You're the one that proposed!"

"Tch." He looked away. "Don't know what I was thinking."

"Shiro-chan..." Alarmed eyes shot towards his wife at her depressed tone. "Why do you have to be so mean all the time? And on our wedding anniversary, too..." Speechless, Hitsugaya didn't move for a second. When his arms finally twitched, as if to move towards her, Matsumoto suddenly stood up, making the three other shinigami jump. Hitsugaya's hands jerked back.

"I'm going to the washroom! Nanao-chan, want to come with?" Nanao opened her mouth to decline, but the words died when Matsumoto's evil glare descended upon her with an uncanny pressure.

"U-Uh, sure..." The jolly taichou linked her arm through her friend's, dragging her to the washroom. "Rangiku-san? Why are we—"

"Oh, don't be so dense, Nanao-chan. Come on, let's wash our hands or something." They stood wordlessly, confused on Nanao's part, casual on Matsumoto's, listening to the motion-sensor faucets rain water on their hands. Slowly, they reached for the soap and scrubbed, rinsed, then allowed the automated dryers to blow the water off of their skin.

"Rangiku-san...?"

"Ugh." Matsumoto crossed her arms across her chest and leaned against the shiny, tiled wall. "I don't want to go back."

"But we've been in here for a long time."

"...Probably not long enough."

"What do you mean?"

Matsumoto sighed. "Never mind."

"Well, I'm going to go back now." Nanao turned to leave, but Matsumoto grabbed her arm.

"Wait, I don't know if you should just barge back in like that...you might be interrupting them."

"What?" The light bulb finally lit above the glasses-wearing woman's head. "Oh, so that's what you were so concerned about. Don't be silly, I'm sure they've worked something out by now. Besides, what in the world would we be 'interrupting'? We're in a restaurant, for goodness' sake. They're not that much of a public couple."

"Oh." Matsumoto blinked. "Haha, I guess you're right."

"Let's go back, then."

"Wait." Nanao turned back to her again, this time annoyed.

"What's wrong now?"

"I..." But Matsumoto bit back her selfish wish to avoid the lovesick couple. "No, it's nothing. I just suddenly remembered that there was something I needed to do."

Nanao's brow scrunched up. "What?"

"Yeah. Sorry, you go back first."

"Wait, what are you doing, Rangiku-san? You can't just leave! What about your food?"

"You can have it," Matsumoto threw a smile over her shoulder as she pushed the door open and disappeared.


"What the hell happened to you?" She tilted her face up in awe at the trees, taking in the magnificent height and revelling in the shade they could now create. "It's only been a month since the last time I was here and you've grown...how much? Are trees even supposed to be growing anymore at your age?"

Obviously, there was no answer, and she should have known that, but she felt stupidly disappointed anyway. "Well, that's a dumb question," she muttered. "Trees don't stop growing. Probably. Even after they've passed their three hundredth-something birthday. Or was it the four hundredth?" Still, there was no reply, and so she sighed and made herself comfortable at the base of her favorite trunk. This tree was the one she liked best because it was strangely surrounded by a handful of other ones—it made her feel safe. Closing her eyes, she basked in the sunlight peeking through foliage that would soon change color, and imagined the scent of fresh persimmons. "Happy birthday."

She didn't know how long she sat there, but it seemed as if only a short second had passed before her name carried itself over the garden, and she jolted awake.

"Rangiku-san! Hurry, there's an emergency meeting!"

"What?" All the sluggish tendrils of sleep were ripped away. "An emergency meeting?" Matsumoto got up to face her fukutaichou, brushing off her pants.

"Yes, we must head over to Yamamoto-soutaichou this instant," Nanao reported, a hell butterfly flitting by her shoulder.

"All right. Let's go."

The two flew for the meeting hall, a blur to the other taichou and fukutaichou that they passed. A million possibilities flew through Matsumoto's mind along the way. Ryoka? But no, there had been no alarm. Traitors? Dread slithered from her chest to the pit of her stomach. No, not another war. That was too big scale to leave to a single emergency meeting. What was it? What could it be?

They fell to a stop in front of the entrance and knocked on the mighty door. It opened with a creak and they stepped into the dim room, Nanao a pace behind her taichou, and the door slammed shut. The only light came from several large lanterns and many candles scattered across the room.

If Yamamoto-soutaichou would resort to lighting so many candles just for the sake of keeping the door privately closed, then this was a big matter, Matsumoto knew. Her jaw clenched. "An emergency meeting, Yamamoto-soutaichou? Are we in a state of emergency?"

Yamamoto tapped his staff on the hard wooden floor, his stance grim. "An emergency meeting, yes, but not a state of emergency," he said, and Matsumoto allowed herself to relax just the slightest. "I have asked you here today to discuss a phenomenon that has never before occurred in Soul Society. This is indeed unheard of and unbelievable, but I ask that you remain calm throughout this conference."

"Excuse the interruption," Matsumoto said, "but what about the other taichou and fukutaichou?"

"You and Ise-fukutaichou are the only shinigami I have called here today," Yamamoto replied calmly. "The rest of the Gotei 13 shall be informed at a later date." Matsumoto and Nanao glanced at each other in alarm.

"A few months ago," the old man started, "a recruit was entered into the Shinigami Academy. His progress clearly surpassed every other student's. If he continues to proceed at this rate, this shinigami will place a new record for quickest graduation from the academy, overshadowing Kurosaki-taichou's current record." The two women could only stare in astonishment.

"However, that is not the phenomenon at hand. The issue is difficult to explain with mere words, and so I have asked the shinigami in question here today. Guards, receive him."

A hidden side door that Nanao and Matsumoto had failed to notice earlier slid open with the raspy sound of wood, and an eerie presence seemed to fill the room from the entrance in. Matsumoto held up a hand to block out the weak sunlight, squinting at the shadowed figure that seemed so far away.

Her eyes widened. Her knees almost gave out on her.

"The reincarnation of Ichimaru Gin," Yamamoto affirmed, and her mouth opened in shock. "A phenomenon, because it is virtually impossible that reincarnation can occur in a mere century. Additionally, he has retained his old name, but only a part of his memories are intact, as we have concluded over the last few months of observation."

Matsumoto didn't hear. She couldn't hear anything over the roaring in her ears and the heavy thumping in her chest. His far-off figure approached slowly, his gaze locked on hers. He looked the same as he always had.

Impossible.

It could not be.

Gin, peacefully asleep as she watched him through the bars.

Gin in his hanami yukata, sakura blossoms in the air and the intoxicating scent of light sake.

Gin, grinning evilly, a small Aiko perched on his shoulders wearing an identical expression.

Gin, his eyes closed, clutched to her chest, crimson spilling from his body and chilling hers.

She was there. She'd held him until he'd turned cold. He had, indeed, turned cold.

And yet here he was once more, standing before her as if he hadn't ignored her pleas and cries of anguish one hundred years ago.

Twenty paces away from her, he stopped. They studied each other for a long, long, silent moment. And even the very air around them seemed to halt in their day-to-day duties, suspended in place, dust particles naked in the meagre glimmer of sunlight casting him in shadow (like that time on the bridge)...before his lips moved: "Rangiku."

Her heart leapt, her hands trembled, and his eyes widened in realization. "I…know ya. Yer Rangiku," he said, sounding a little surprised at himself. Then he took a step that almost looked accidental towards her, as if being drawn.

She swallowed hard, her throat too dry. "G-G-Gin?" she croaked.

Blue-greens glazed over in recognition and the hand he'd been lifting towards her froze. Alarmed, her foot shifted in his direction, but then he blinked once, twice, three times—and the glaze faded and then he looked at her that way again, before he smiled—the exact same smile he'd given her when she'd said 'yes'. "I saw 'em," he whispered, and she didn't know why, but her nose was stinging. "Ya took good care of my persimmon trees, eh?"

She stepped towards him, tears streaming down her face, a walk that turned into a jog, then an all-out sprint. The arms that she threw herself into caught her with the precision of centuries of experience, with the warmth of fulfillment.


Restart:

Year 0.