Greetings! Welcome to the final chapter of this story. It's been quite a ride, and I thank you for taking it with me and allowing me to (hopefully) entertain you for a bit.
As always, thank you to those that take the time to leave me a review. I'm a bit behind in replying to them, but I'll do so shortly.
To my reviewer Curious: thank you for making my year! It was awesome to see your reactions to the chapters as you went through the story from the beginning to where we are now. It's been many years since I posted the first half of the story and reading your reviews brought a huge smile to my face. Thank you again.
Chapter 37: Clean Slate
Ukitake left to take Hitsugaya to Unohana, while Matsumoto and Isane went up to every one of her soldiers and examined them. They were all unharmed. Their clothing was ripped from where they'd been viciously attacked, but all of their wounds had been miraculously healed. Her hand went to her own stomach and she remembered her own wound and how she was sure she was going to die as she'd been put up on display for the rest of her squad. She hated herself for being weak, for being taken down so easily and used to lure the rest of the squads to be slaughtered by Aizen. She still couldn't believe that they weren't all dead.
She turned towards where Aizen's body had disintegrated, leaving behind only the charred remains of the Hougyoku that Hitsugaya had destroyed. Yamamoto-soutaichou and Kyouraku-taichou were still there, studying the remains and making sure that the thing was actually gone. To say that they had been surprised at the developments was an understatement. Matsumoto had never seen Yamamoto-soutaichou as animated and shaken as he was now, to the point that she'd had to leave the scene to avoid being buffeted by his slightly raised reiatsu. Kyouraku-taichou seemed to have realized what was happening and he'd put up a barrier to separate them from the rest of the soldiers. Matsumoto was grateful, not wanting her already traumatized troops to be further affected.
"I could have sworn I was dead," one man said to Matsumoto as they walked up to him. "What happened, Matsumoto-fukutaichou?"
"I don't know what happened, either; I was also injured and pretty out of it," Matsumoto replied.
She thought she knew what happened, but she wasn't 100% sure and wanted to let her superiors have a chance to examine the evidence and come up with the same conclusion before she said anything. She needed to say something, though.
"Attention!" she shouted, accenting the yell with a bit of reiatsu to catch everyone's attention. "Gather around, please."
Isane stood beside her as the squad members gathered in front of her. They'd started filtering in from wherever they had fallen shortly after she'd left Ukitake, all of them looking as dazed as she felt.
"Is Aizen dead?" someone in the crowd asked.
"Did Hitsugaya-taichou kill him? I saw him here," someone else said.
Matsumoto held her hands up to quiet the rest of the questions. "I know you're all confused about what happened here," she said. "I am too, but…" the clearing of a throat beside her made her stop. She turned to see who had interrupted her and was surprised to see Yamamoto-soutaichou standing beside her. She hadn't even felt him arrive.
"If I may, Matsumoto-fukutaichou?"
"Of course," she said and gave him the floor. Her division members looked at her, and each other, in confusion. Most of them hadn't even realized that Yamamoto was in the vicinity. The fact that he was has just escalated the situation further.
"As Matsumoto-fukutaichou said, you all must be very confused about what happened. From what Kyouraku-taichou, Ukitake-taichou and I have been able to piece together, Aizen Sousuke drew you out here in order to get Hitsugaya Toushirou away from Seireitei. Since I was the one who ordered Matsumoto-fukutaichou to send her squads to investigate the Hollow sighting, the fault for your being here falls on me."
There were murmurs in the crowd as the men and women looked at their leader in confusion.
"Hitsugaya did, indeed, come to this district and engage the traitor. Aizen Sousuke is dead."
Shocked gasps from the group mirrored Matsumoto's own internal one. She'd known, of course, but having Yamamoto declare it made it real.
"Someone asked if Hitsugaya had killed Aizen. Yes, he did." More shocked gasps. "In doing so, Hitsugaya also destroyed the Hougyoku. It was the Hougyoku's healing energy that restored all of you, and Hitsugaya himself, to health."
The murmurs from the crowd intensified and Yamamoto had to get everyone's attention once again.
"This is good news, and you all should be commended for a job well done. Let's head back to Seireitei to regroup."
With that, Yamamoto and Kyouraku disappeared into shunpo. Matsumoto took a deep breath and let herself relax a little bit. Aizen was dead, but Ichimaru and Tousen were still out there. Who knew what they would do now that their leader was gone?
"What did Yamamoto-soutaichou mean when he said that the Hougyoku had healed Hitsugaya-san?" Isane asked once they'd started the trek back to Seireitei.
"I saw Hitsugaya-taichou only for a moment, and he was unconscious, but the scars on his face were gone," Matsumoto replied. "His face looked as it did before this whole mess started."
"If the Hougyoku can heal all of your injuries, who knows what it could have healed in Hitsugaya-san," Isane stated.
"I know," Matsumoto replied. "I want to hope, I really do."
The walked the rest of the way in relative silence, each man and woman locked in their own thoughts on how they'd escaped a certain death, thanks to a very determined young man.
The first thing Hitsugaya became aware of was cold: a chill in his bones, seemingly from the inside that enveloped every part of him. The second thing he noticed was that he was pain-free. Nothing hurt for the first time in many years. Thinking it odd, Hitsugaya struggled to open his eyes. He was exhausted, as if he'd run a marathon, but otherwise felt light, as if tons of weight had been lifted from his shoulders. It was a strange dichotomy of feeling that he was rather enjoying. Thinking that he was perhaps in the middle of a wonderful dream, he forced his eyes open. It wasn't good to dwell on good things for too long, not when reality was going to crush that good feeling right out of his soul.
When his eyes stayed open and his vision focused, he found himself in his bedroom at the Kuchiki compound. Someone had brought him back to the guest house, laid him on his bed, and covered him with a thick blanket. A thin sheen of ice glittered on all available surfaces, and he reigned in his power, which he'd apparently not been controlling very well. Confused as to how he'd ended up back home, he threw the covers aside and got to his feet. He still did not ache, which was simply stupefying to him. The pain had become such a constant companion that he wasn't sure what to do now that it wasn't there. His bladder informed him that he needed to take care of business, so he made his way into the bathroom.
When he'd finished, he was washing his hands when he glanced at his reflection in the mirror, and then stopped short when he really looked at himself. He raised trembling, wet hands to his face, his mouth open in disbelief at what he was seeing. The scars, all of them, were gone. His face looked smooth, and he ran his wet hands over his cheeks and chin to make sure that he wasn't imagining things. His face felt as smooth as it looked. He looked at other parts of his body, his wrists and his knees, and could understand now why he wasn't in pain. His joints were perfectly fine, not disfigured as they had been previously. What the hell had happened?
He left the bathroom and went out into the living area, which had been scrubbed clean from animal blood and guts, intent on going to see Unohana, when he noticed that Ukitake and Unohana were already there, waiting for him.
"I heard you get up," Ukitake said. "I didn't want to scare you."
"What happened out there," Hitsugaya asked.
"We were hoping you could tell us," Unohana said.
Hitsugaya thought back to what has transpired and found that his memories were a bit sketchy. He remembered a lot of blood, and badly injured people and…
"Matsumoto!" he said as he suddenly recalled the state he'd left her in. "Where is she? Did she make it to the 4th division?"
He couldn't understand why Ukitake and Unohana just sat there, seeming unconcerned about Matsumoto's deadly injuries.
"Why are you just sitting there, Unohana, shouldn't you be helping with the injured?"
Hitsugaya was so panicked that he was halfway to the front door when he heard Unohana calling to him.
"They're fine, Hitsugaya-kun," Unohana said. "You healed them all."
He returned to where they were, eyebrows raised in confusion. "I couldn't heal them," he said. "I don't know enough healing kidou to do that, much less have enough reiatsu to heal all of them."
Unohana indicated that he should sit, but Hitsugaya shook his head. Why weren't they as concerned and panicked as he was? Did they not care about his division members as much as he did? How could they not?
"Have you seen yourself in a mirror?" Ukitake asked. The man seemed almost amused, which just angered Hitsugaya more.
"Yes," Hitsugaya replied with a wave of his hand. "What of it?"
"Do you not wonder how it is that you're healed?" Ukitake added.
Hitsugaya frowned. Healed? Yes, the scars were gone and his joints were not disfigured anymore. Did that mean he was healed? He closed his eyes and thought back to what happened after Matsumoto. Aizen… the fight… the decapitation… and then, the –
"The Hougyoku did this?" Hitsugaya asked in a whisper. "It healed all of us?"
All he could remember was agony after destroying the thing. How could he have known that it would heal?
"It must have acted on your wishes, Toushirou-kun," Ukitake asked. "When you pierced it with your zanpakutou, you dominated it, and it gave you what you wanted most: the lives of your comrades back and what Aizen had taken from you."
Hitsugaya finally did sit, exhausted once again after that brief adrenaline surge. "So everyone is out of danger?"
"Yes," Unohana said. "Not a scratch on any of them, including Matsumoto."
"Yamamoto-soutaichou went out to the 45th district to confirm Aizen's death and he explained what had happened to the division members there. They're a bit traumatized by the event, of course, but happy to be alive."
Hitsugaya was still in disbelief. Was it really over?
"We're going to let you have some time to digest all of this," Ukitake said.
"I ran some diagnostic tests on you and you are back to full health, Hitsugaya-san," Unohana said. "All traces of the damage Aizen's attack did to you are gone."
With that, they let themselves out the door. Hitsugaya stayed where he was and took it all in. He moved his limbs experimentally, glad to see that they were back to normal and pain-free. He turned his senses inward and heard Hyourinmaru's roar of satisfaction in his mind. The sound was clear, unfiltered by any of the damage to the connection between the two of them. He felt normal again and Hitsugaya couldn't help but grin. It was finally over.
He needed to see the squad and Matsumoto for himself, so not ten minutes after Ukitake and Unohana had left, Hitsugaya changed into clean clothes and left the house, Hyourinmaru on his back. He ran through the Kuchiki gardens, relishing in the feel of his normal body once again. He went into shunpo easily and ran along the rooftops of the Kuchiki complex, probably scaring a security person or two. He didn't care. He was grinning madly as he left the compound with Hyourinmaru chuckling in his mind. Hitsugaya imagined the dragon doing happy circles in the sky of their inner world and his grin widened.
He didn't bother with the guards at the entrance of the 10th division, choosing instead to use the roof as he had once relished doing. He drooped down beside the office and peered in the window, disappointed not to see Matsumoto there. Where would she be if not in the office? Slacking off, probably.
Hitsugaya made his way through the hallways of the division, noticing the strange stares he was getting from the other division members. Men and women who were alive and healthy, and the thought made him smile just a little bit. Maybe that's why they were staring at him. He didn't usually smile.
He was passing by the common area when a black blur collided with him. Arms wrapped around him tightly and he grunted in protest. He would have shoved the person away and yelled at them to unhand him, but he recognized Matsumoto's unique, ashy scent. He wrapped his arms around her, too, and hugged tightly.
"You're alive," Hitsugaya said when Matsumoto finally let him go. "Unohana said that you were all alive but I had to see for myself."
"Of course we're alive, silly, thanks to you!" Matsumoto beamed at him. Behind her, a crowd started to gather. "Look at you! How are you feeling?"
"Good," he said, struggling to put how he was feeling into words. "Normal for the first time in a long time."
Two shinigami walked towards him and bowed when they'd reached him. He recognized them as the two he'd stopped to check on in the 45th district.
"Thank you, Hitsugaya-taichou," they said in unison.
Hitsugaya bowed in return. "Thank you for your service," he said, a bit uncomfortable with the praise.
People behind Matsumoto began to clap, and before long the whole damn division seemed to have gathered and they were all clapping and cheering for him.
"Yamamoto-soutaichou told them what you did," Matsumoto said low enough for only him to hear. "You killed the traitor and saved all of their lives. They're grateful, so don't get grouchy at all the attention."
"I'm sorry that Aizen used all of you to get to me," Hitsugaya said when the clapping had died down, speaking loudly enough for all of them to hear. "And I can't say that I killed him for the good of Seireitei," he added. "Frankly, I wanted the bastard dead as much as anyone, and we had a score to settle. It feels good that he's gone."
Everyone cheered, echoing the sentiment. "His minions are still out there, so we'll still need to be careful, but for now, let's celebrate the fact that we're all still standing."
"Here, here!" someone said from the crowd.
Before he knew it, Hitsugaya was being pushed towards the common area, where food and drink had already been gathered.
"We were going to throw you a surprise party, but you showed up kind of early," Matsumoto said as she guided him towards a table. "It's not every day that one of your own brings down the bad guy."
Hitsugaya wanted to argue, wanted to say that he got them all into the mess in the first place, but the happiness on her face and the shine in her eyes kept him quiet. As he looked around, he saw shinigami enjoying themselves, relishing a victory that was a long time in coming. For them, he would endure the craziness and rowdiness that would come of this party. For himself too, just a little bit.
You also deserve to celebrate, Hyourinmaru said. You did this, Toushirou. You deserve to be happy.
It was with that thought that he took the sake dish that Matsumoto handed him. He drank it in one gulp and held the dish out for a refill. He didn't drink often, but that didn't mean that he couldn't hold his liquor. He hated the feeling of being tipsy, but right now he was throwing caution to the wind. After years of constant vigilance and discipline, one day of foolishness amongst friends wasn't going to kill him.
The celebration went on way into the night. By the time he got back to the guest house, it was well past dark. Hitsugaya was very drunk and, for once, didn't care one bit. Hyourinmaru had spent the night enjoying the various forms of hero worship he'd been subjected to from the younger members of the division. It had been embarrassing, and he was sure that the dragon would not forget or let him live it down. Ito had even come by and apologized to him for being such a jerk. Hitsugaya had barely believed it and had chalked it up to the alcohol and the high of the moment. He'd excused himself once he realized that he was going to crash soon and didn't want to do it in the common area of the division.
He was almost to the front door when a presence made itself known. The familiar reiatsu chilled Hitsugaya, and the resulting adrenaline cleared the drunkenness form his mind.
"What are you doing here, Ichimaru?" Hitsugaya asked the figure.
The white-haired main stepped out of the shadows but stayed beyond Hitsugaya's reach.
"I wanted to thank you for ridding the world of that snake, Aizen," Ichimaru said.
Hitsugaya raised a brow. "Really? And here I thought you were loyal to the man."
Ichimaru shrugged. "He served my purposes for a while, but now that he's dead, I'm not going to mourn him."
"What does that mean, then? Your little arrancar army is still around, isn't it? Won't they care?"
"Some will, I'm sure," Ichimaru said. "The most loyal of them, including Tousen, are dead."
"You killed them?" Hitsugaya asked.
"Why not?" Ichimaru asked. "Aizen's plans were so tedious and terribly boring. Now that he's gone, there is no need to continue down that path."
Hitsugaya stared at the man in disbelief. He'd expected retaliation, but Ichimaru was saying that there would not be any, that Aizen's plan for domination was as dead as he was.
"What are you going to do, then?" Hitsugaya asked.
Ichimaru shrugged again. "Who knows, maybe I'll wonder Rukongai like you did; find myself again." The man's features softened a bit and he opened his eyes. "Can you do me a favor?"
Hitsugaya nodded, unsure of what the man would ask. Ichimaru had just given him a gift, he really wasn't in a position to say no.
"Tell Rangiku that I'm sorry. I know that I hurt her when I left and I hate myself for that. She deserves so much better… she always deserved so much better than me." Ichimaru paused for a second before continuing. "You've always been good to her, Hitsugaya. Thank you for that."
With that, the man disappeared into the night as quickly as he'd come. Hitsugaya stood there, dumbfounded, for a few more moments before making it inside the house. He looked around, half expecting another dead animal in the living room, but found nothing but peace and quiet. He dropped onto the couch, too exhausted to make it to the bedroom. He'd deal with Ichimaru's message tomorrow. All he wanted to do right now was sleep.
Several weeks later
Hitsugaya's conversation with Matsumoto about Ichimaru had not been easy, as he knew it wouldn't be. He'd asked her to go to lunch with him, which had tipped her off that something was going on. He wasn't one to pull her away from work, but he hadn't wanted to have this conversation with her in the 10th division offices, either. He'd thought about not telling her at all, but had decided against it the moment the thought entered his mind. Matsumoto deserved the truth. Enough people in her life had already lied to her; he wasn't going to be one of them.
He'd invited her over to his temporary home and they'd had the conversation there. At first, it seemed like she'd taken it well. She even tried to pretend that the message hadn't opened up a precariously closed wound, but Hitsugaya had known her for too long to buy the big smile and happy-go-lucky attitude. Instead, he'd offered her his arms and she'd cried into his shoulder. They'd sat together in the couch for hours, until she'd drifted off to sleep. He'd left her then, to deliver the other part of Ichimaru's message.
That conversation had also gone well, albeit not as Hitsugaya had anticipated.
Yamamoto saw him right away once he arrived in the 1st division compound, which was a surprise to the young man. He was ushered into the head captain's spacious office and waited a few minutes until Yamamoto walked in. Once they were seated at the man's desk, Hitsugaya told him what Ichimaru had said the night before.
"Do you believe him?" Yamamoto asked.
"I don't see why I shouldn't," Hitsugaya said. "The man had no reason to come talk to me".
Hitsugaya found it strange that he'd taken Ichimaru at his word. He'd suspected the man for so long that it had become a habit to dissect everything the man did and said, even when he'd still been a 'loyal' captain. Last night, though, had been different. For the first time, Hitsugaya thought that he'd seen a piece of the real Ichimaru, the Ichimaru that Matsumoto had fallen for and still pined over. The Ichimaru that wasn't always the self-centered bastard Hitsugaya had come to know. Had that attitude, meant to get people to dislike and distrust him, have been a ploy on Ichimaru's part, all part of the bigger ruse that Aizen had prepared for all of them? Hitsugaya mentally shook his head. It wouldn't do him any good to go down that rabbit hole right about now.
"Can it be a trap?" Yamamoto asked.
"Absolutely," Hitsugaya stated without pause. "It can very well be a way for Ichimaru to lead us to drop our guard and be less vigilant that we otherwise…" Hitsugaya trailed off when a knock on the door drew Yamamoto's attention.
"Enter," Yamamoto said.
Sasakibe entered the room, bowed, and made his way to his captain's desk. He handed a small piece of paper over to Yamamoto, who read it and then dismissed his vice-captain. Yamamoto kept silent until the door to his office had closed.
"Tousen's body was just found outside of the west gate," Yamamoto said. "He'd been wrapped in some kind of particle-blocking cloth, which kept his body from disintegrating until he was unwrapped. Witnesses at the scene were able to identify him before his body disintegrated."
It took Hitsugaya a few moments to collect himself from his surprise at the news. "Ichimaru did say that Tousen was dead," Hitsugaya finally said. "This could be his way of proving to us that he was telling the truth."
"Perhaps," Yamamoto said, but he didn't seem convinced. Hitsugaya didn't blame him. After all, the older man had no doubt seen much worse in his long tenure as head captain.
Hitsugaya took that as his dismissal and stood to leave. He was halfway to the door when Yamamoto's voice stopped him.
"What you did with Aizen is to be commended," Yamamoto said. "If you were to consider becoming a captain again, you would have my support."
Hitsugaya bowed at the compliment, rare as it was, and left the office. He hadn't thought that far ahead, not yet. He was still trying to get his life back into some sort of normalcy.
Hitsugaya shook himself out of the memory, Yamamoto's last words to him still resting heavy on his mind. He put the thought aside for a bit as he'd just arrived at his destination: his new home.
Several weeks after the incident with Aizen, Hitsugaya had stumbled onto one of the residential areas of Seireitei during one of his evening walks. Most shinigami lived in their division barracks, but not everyone in Seireitei was a shinigami. Shinigami of noble descent tended to have their own compounds, as the Kuchiki family did, but those that were not nobles tended to congregate in neighborhoods around the commercial areas of Seireitei.
The neighborhood that Hitsugaya found himself in now wasn't as lavish as the Kuchiki compound by any means, but Hitsugaya had fallen in love with it anyway. When he'd first come upon it he realized that he couldn't keep living in Kuchiki's guest house forever, and he couldn't go back to the captain's quarters, or any other accommodation, in the 10th division, so he'd found himself a nice little house of his own.
Yamamoto had given him a "bonus" after Aizen's defeat, which had afforded him enough funds to buy the little place. It was a small, one-story house with a big living area, a decent sized kitchen, a couple of bedrooms, and enough of a back yard to allow him to train and keep a little garden. The house was in a nice, secluded area, surrounded by trees and bordered by a little stream that fit his needs quite well. It would give him privacy, while also allowing him to avoid curious onlookers.
As Hitsugaya let himself inside, he was glad to see that all of his things had been delivered and were sitting in boxes waiting to be unpacked. He hadn't had a home in years, and the packed boxes signified a new beginning. When he started unpacking and putting things in their place, he'd be settling down, once again a member of a society that he was loyal to and that seemed to be loyal to him in return.
Yamamoto's terms had not changed after Aizen had been defeated. Hitsugaya was still free to do whatever he wanted as long as he stayed in Seireitei. Not that Hitsugaya wanted to leave, anyway. His life was here with his friends and the people that he loved. He was still working in the 10th division, and he felt comfortable there surrounded by people that he had known before and people that he was getting to know now.
The thought of becoming captain again did cross his mind every once in a while, but Hitsugaya wasn't ready to make a decision one way or the other. The circumstances surrounding the first time he'd been offered the position were vastly different than they were now, and Hitsugaya hesitated to jump into it too quickly, not when Yamamoto himself had given him the chance to re-evaluate. Did he really want to be a shinigami captain? Was that where his future lay? He didn't know, not yet, and he was going to give himself all of the time that he needed to make the decision for himself this time.
A knock on the door brought him back to the present. "Hitsugaya-taichou, we're here!"
Matsumoto, of course, Hitsugaya thought, almost dreading opening the door.
She's threatened to throw a "house warming party" for him, whatever that was, and he hoped that they weren't about to do that now. Anytime Matsumoto threw a party, it ended in mayhem and disorganization, which Hitsugaya wasn't quite ready for yet. Not until he'd at least unpacked his belongings.
"Open up, we know you're in there, Shirou-chan!"
Hinamori's singsong voice filtered in through Matsumoto's shouts and Hitsugaya finally let them both in.
"Have you started drinking already, Matsumoto?" Hitsugaya asked when he saw the flush on her cheeks.
"It's not a work day, silly," she said and pushed a sealed bottle of sake into his arms. "Congratulations!"
Both women gave him hearty hugs as they took off their sandals and made their way inside.
"So nice, Shirou-chan," Hinamori said as she looked around. "We should have granny over once you've settled in."
They started opening boxes and taking out his things, Hitsugaya having to yell at Matsumoto every so often to be careful with something fragile. His tone was stern, but inside he was beaming. The warmth and love that these two brought into his life was priceless, and he was never going to think about leaving it.
Not after having found his home once again.
Well, there you have it. It was a long labor of love, but I'm glad it's done.
This is likely the last fanfiction I'll ever write, so thank you for your encouragement, feedback, and kind thoughts. They were always appreciated!