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After the Snake Sheds its Skin

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It is not terrifying to know sorrow.

Terrifying is to know you can't go back to happiness you once had.

--Matsumoto Rangiku’s volume poem

 ---

He comes to her in dreams, smiling but silent. An unreachable figure standing amidst the snow.

It ends the same way every time.

 ---

That day, Soul Society is torn apart; in the span of seconds, everyone sees, with their own eyes, the snakes that had been slithering underneath their skins all these years. The treachery leaves a bitter aftertaste in all of them—even Kurotsuchi, who stalks through his quarters, barking angry orders at anyone unlucky enough to cross paths with him, before holing up in his private laboratories for days on end.

They take advantage of the brief reprieve to heal. Poor, distraught Hinamori is comatose, driven mad by denial and despair. Kira watches them with too-wide eyes, greeting everything with a brittle smile and a polite tilt of his head. Captain Komamura withdraws into himself, pacing the long stretches of barren land outside the gates of Seireitei, never saying a word. And she—Rangiku sits by the window of her room, staring up at the bleak endless sky, and wonders how she had not seen it coming.

It feels so obvious now—after the masks were thrown off and their true intents floated gleefully to the surface—so painfully clear that she should have expected it all along. Decades of unasked questions and now, when she finally receives an answer, it is already too late to stop him.

"Damn you," she mutters angrily. But who did she mean? Him, or her own miserable self for being so affected?

Frustrated, she tosses the inquiry into the air. "Whose fault is this? Who should I be angry with?"

The clouds crawl lazily by, without so much as a glance her way.

She shakes her head and curses again.

Later, when the once-comfortable solitude her dormitory offers becomes unbearable, Rangiku storms into her division office and walks right into the angry glare of her captain.

She pauses in mid-step and hesitantly smiles a greeting. "Good morning."

If possible, Hitsugaya's frown only deepens. "Have you looked outside? It's almost evening."

"And what a great evening it is to be stuck indoors doing paperwork," she replies without missing a beat, striding towards her desk. In one corner, a stack of papers await her, having acquired a thin coating of dust after being untouched for months. In another, there is a brand new pile standing at attention, the ink on the papers only just beginning to dry. Rangiku blinks at them, once, and promptly gets up to make tea.

From his side of the office, Hitsugaya snorts and returns to his documents.

That makes her smile a little, the corners of her lips curving up in a spontaneous show of goodwill. It also makes her want to burst into tears and cry until the end of the week.

Suddenly angry, Rangiku downs her freshly-brewed tea in one swallow. The liquid burns a blazing trail down her throat.

She refills her cup.

---

Inevitably, the dreaded orders come. The captains and their lieutenants gather in the meeting hall, each wandering in with their own personal cloud of despondence hanging over their heads, their features twisted in grim expressions. Rangiku is too restless to make small talk, so she claims an unoccupied corner of the room and settles for observing the sepulchral crowd.

Everyone's here, she realises. Even Madarame and Ayasegawa. The full force of Gotei 13's remaining strongest has assembled to discuss war tactics, on how best to emerge victorious with the least number of casualties. All of them are preparing to raise their swords against the people they once called comrades, and duel, perhaps to the death. It's really happening.

The full truth of their situation sends shivers down her spine, making goose bumps crawl all over her skin. Something heavy sinks to the bottom of her stomach and expands there, weighing her down with its imaginary mass.

Rangiku listens to the briefing in numb silence, barely registering the battle plan. Afterwards, she turns down all invitations for drinks and heads straight home.

Closing the door behind her, she yanks off her waraji, flings them away from her with a fury she doesn't recognise, and stumbles blindly for the bathroom. She decides to leave the lights off and only remembers the heater after stepping under the shower—and by then, she can't care enough to go back for it.

The water is cold, almost to the point of freezing. She exhales loudly and leans forward, letting her forehead rest gently against the wall.

Tomorrow, he will be there.

Rangiku closes her eyes and tries not to think.

That night, she dreams of Gin. He appears before her like always, silent, wearing that impenetrable smile Seireitei know him for. It hurts to see him like that; Rangiku can't recall how that change happened, can't remember that instant in time his honest grin first melted into something so much more sinister.

Why, she wants to ask. What made you change so much?

But the words refuse to leave her lips, clinging to her tongue like a persistent, confused tumour that is neither benign nor malignant. It clogs up her throat, and obstructs any other questions that might have found its way out.

Gin, too, says nothing, and merely turns away.

In the morning, she makes a silent resolution not to cry, no matter what happens.

It was his decision to leave, after all, and if Rangiku's learned anything from all these years of knowing him, it's this: once made up, there is nothing she can do to change his mind. That's how it's been, and that's how it'll always be. Gin may affect her in a thousand ways—through his occasional glances and the rare brush of fingertips on her shoulder, always catching her unaware; his kindness from their childhood years, back in the secluded forest; the way he could make her heart stop with one gesture, one look, one word. All that influence is painfully one-sided and she mustn’t forget it.

And yet, there is a small part of her—somewhere deep in the back of her mind—that refuses to abandon hope. If I try, it murmurs, then maybe...

Just this once, she might make a difference.

"Please," she whispers softly, one final prayer before leaving for Karakura, “Please.”

 ---

When she finds him lying there in a pool of blood, his right arm gone, red staining the corners of his mouth as he breathes, each one more shallow than the last—

But there's nothing she can do. She sobs uncontrollably. She presses him close and buries her face in the crook of his neck, begging for him to live.

Gin dies anyway.

---

For a long time after, the pain is still fresh, unfurling into full bloom every time she thinks about him. Her tear ducts seem to explode over the most trivial things, more than half of them completely unrelated to him. It gets bad enough that Rangiku begins to wonder if she's finally losing her mind.

“Give it time,” someone offers sympathetically, along with a hot bowl of soup. “All wounds heal.”

That person, Rangiku decides later, waving the sake bottle around wildly in an attempt to catch the bartender's attention, is an idiot.

But the alcohol...

That helps a little.

---

"Wait! Don't go!" she screams, hurling those words as far as she can into the howling wind.

He shakes his head, once, and walks away. He doesn't look back.

When she wakes, her pillow is soaked with tears.

---

She comes to terms with it eventually, and sooner than she expects.

Gin is gone. Nothing will ever bring him back.

Little by little, the pain fades.

Everything is slowly returning to normal. The empty spots at the head of Divisions 3, 5 and 9 need to be filled, but that matter is already being discussed among the higher-ups. The damages sustained in both Soul Society and Karakura have been patched up, and the civilians dealt with. Everywhere she looks, Rangiku can see recovery taking place as people pull themselves together and put the incident behind them.

Isn't it time for her to move on as well?

---

When she finally wanders into the office, her captain gives her a long, disapproving look, severe enough to make her wince and consider apologising.

In the end, she settles for, "Good afternoon."

"You're late," he starts and Rangiku mentally prepares herself for the lecture she's sure to come. But Hitsugaya stops there, surprisingly, and chooses instead to nod in the direction of her desk, where the aroma of tea wafts into the air.

She accepts it gratefully, and savours every drop. When she's done, she sets the cup gingerly on the nearby tray and sits down. Then, she picks up the closest document and gets to work.

---

Months pass. Then, years. Rangiku still dreams every night, but she doesn't cry anymore; in the mornings, her eyes are swollen but dry. The first time it happened, she wondered bitterly if she had already used up her lifetime's supply.

Now, it's just another part of her daily routine.

---

At some point, Kurosaki Ichigo recovers his zanpakutou and reclaims the title of Substitute Shinigami. When she hears the news, envy blooms in her chest, spreading like wildfire into every fibre of her being.

"Lucky bastard," she mumbles, glaring furiously at her empty cup. There is a persistent buzz flooding her mind, loud and distracting; she can't think past that one line of thought.

The bartender eyes her wordlessly and refills her drink.

By the time she staggers into her room, she's come to a decision. Heading straight for the dresser, she yanks the second drawer open and rummages around until she finds what she's looking for. Then, kneeling by the bed, she levels the blades with the base of her nape and, in one smooth gesture, cuts off her hair.

Feeling oddly satisfied, Rangiku places the scissors on the small table by the window. Then, she climbs into bed and tries to sleep.

In the morning, the haircut seems less sensible an idea compared to last night. Blinking at her reflection in the mirror, she picks miserably at the ends of her new hairstyle. “Well,” she finally concludes, sighing heavily, “I suppose it doesn't look that bad.”

And the truth is, it really doesn't.

---

It gets easier every day.

---

One night, she opens the door to find Gin standing in the center of her room.

At the sight of him, she goes completely still.

There is a long interval of silence during which neither of them moves. Rangiku's not even sure if she's breathing—it's that quiet. The moonlight filters in through the window, casting distorted shadows about their feet.

Finally, when she can stand it no longer, she takes a deep breath and asks, "What are you doing here?"

He smiles. "Can't I visit an old friend?"

"No," she says stubbornly, shaking her head. "You can't. You're... You're dead."

"Am I?" he asks, sounding amused, as if being deceased meant no more to him than a rather funny joke, told over tea.

"Yes."

"Well," he says, waving a hand dismissively. "Never mind that. How have you been?"

At that, the world begins to blur. Silhouettes melt into each other, swirling in nauseating shades of black and grey. Heat flares up in her chest in one swift instant, burning her from inside her skin. She fills dizzy; there is a thick stone wedged in the back of her throat, making it difficult to breathe. She chokes, gulping for air.

"Don't cry, Rangiku," she hears him say. "I'm not going anywhere."

And that's how she recognises him for what he truly is—a mere figment of her broken hope, wrapping itself in the clever guise of her dreams. Gin would never say that to her, no matter how much she wishes for it. The view of his retreating figure is absolute and no other form can take its place.

Yet, as she struggles to see through her tears, Gin reaches out to her, extending deathly pale hands in a silent request.

And suddenly Rangiku is stumbling forward, grabbing desperately for his embrace. She trips, faltering momentarily and bangs her knee against what is probably the corner of a table, but she doesn't stop. Gritting her teeth against the pain, she throws herself into the distance between them. For one brief, impossible moment, she can feel the fabric of his robes brush past her fingers, can feel his cold, cold skin—

 —and then she wakes with a gasp, struggling to breathe.

The room is quiet, and there isn't a sound save for her laboured breathing. A thousand words spill into her mouth, screaming at her in soundless accusation.

Rangiku touches a hand to her face; it comes away wet.

And the dream ends once more.