It was funny how breathing was so easy, but when you truly needed it the most, it wasn’t there.
In and out.
Such a simple motion. So natural you didn’t have to think about it. So when had it become so hard to breathe?
It was like watching herself through a blurred lens, as if she was detached from her body. There she knelt on the ruined building, hands on either side of the ruined body, screaming for him not to leave her.
She was barely aware of the cataclysmic explosions coming from the mountains. The shockwaves were scarcely felt under her trembling hands.
His face was covered in her tears, and she longed to brush them away, but she found that she could not move anymore.
The gentle rise and fall of his chest was so weak, shuddering at the normally instinctive motion. Her own breaths matched his.
His hand, normally cold, now icy, was on her cheek, brushing away the tears. She could hear him telling her not to cry, that he hated to see her crying, that she had to be strong. Even now, he was still protecting her, still caring. It was unbearable.
Looking into his eyes, once a clear sky blue that had become misty and clouded, she knew that he had done it for her. Why or how she could not comprehend, nor would she ever. But she understood that he had lived his entire life for her, discarding his own happiness for her own. Becoming a person he was not, a monster, a martyr, all for her. And now at this moment, she could still not protect him, not care for him in the way he had for her. When had she become so pathetically weak?
His hand slipped from her cheek and she reached out to grasp it, to hold it, to stop it from falling. But it slithered through her fingers like melting ice, and no matter how much she tried, it fell.
His eyes closed.
What was breathing again?
She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t remember. How did one breathe again? In and out? But that wasn’t working. Her lungs had stopped. They were becoming tighter and tighter, constricting around her heart.
A warm hand on her shoulder. Mechanically, she turned her head to see Orihime standing behind her.
In and out.
She grabbed the hand and pulled it down to his body.
“Heal him! Please! You have to heal him! Please Orihime!” she was babbling incoherently, begging her friend to save him.
Orihime looked away, “I-I can’t, it won’t work.”
“Please!” she screamed, grabbing the girl’s shoulders and shaking them, unaware of the blood staining her pale skin.
Orihime nodded slowly, calling out her fairies and guiding the golden light over his mangled form.
She stared at the wound across his chest where the blade had cut so deep the crushed white bone of his lungs and spine could be seen. She waited for it to heal, to repair and become his smooth skin again.
“Why isn’t it working?” she heard her voice ask; it sounded small and far away.
Orihime closed her eyes as if to move away from the sight before her, “I’m so sorry, Rangiku. I can only heal someone if their nerves and heart are still functioning.”
“What are you talking about? Your powers deny the laws of mankind, you can heal him, I know you can!”
She shook her head slowly, “I can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry but I…I can’t.”
“Yes you can!” she had her hands locked around the wrists of the younger girl and was grasping them tightly, unaware of her haunted expression. “If anyone can heal him it’s you! You have to, Orihime, you can’t give up now!”
The grey eyes faltered, looking at the ground, unable to stare at the Shinigami.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
“Stop saying that!” she was screaming now, tears falling down her face, dripping into her mouth, blurring her vision. All coherency was lost.
“Matsumoto it’s your captain. You have to stop this now. He’s gone. There’s nothing you can do.”
“You’re hurting her. Stop. Please.”
Two warm, strong hands wrapped around her wrists and pulled her away. She found herself staring into the turquoise eyes she knew so well.
“Matsumoto. He’s dead.”
There was no out. There was no in. There was no air.
Everyone moved on.
Orihime smiled, pretending she didn’t cry into her pillow every night.
Toshiro trained until he could no longer move, pretending it didn’t hurt every time he looked at Momo.
Momo laughed, telling him not to worry, pretending she didn’t see Aizen’s face in her dreams.
Rukia and Renji continued to get stronger, pretending they didn’t care when someone mentioned Ichigo’s name.
Shuuhei and Izuru worked until the sun began to rise the next day, pretending that it wasn’t difficult, that they could do it just as well as their captains had.
As for her?
She smiled when she saw her friends, trained when she remembered how weak she was, laughed when she felt it was appropriate, and threw herself into her work so that she didn’t have to think.
She pretended that breathing was natural; that she didn’t end up curled on her bedroom floor, gasping for air. That she didn’t see him everywhere she looked. That his voice didn’t pierce her mind whenever she let her guard down.
And she was good at it. People believed her. They thought she was better, that she had also moved on.
The first few weeks had been torturous.
On the night she was detained from Squad 4, she had woken in her bed to find herself screaming, her pillow soaking wet. Toshiro and other squad members had come running. Only he knew what was wrong. He had sent everyone out and sat with her for the rest of the night. She had pretended to fall asleep, counting her breaths so that they would seem natural.
This had continued for almost a month.
One day she noticed the dark shadows under his eyes, the hollow shape of his cheeks, the slow way he moved.
From then on, when she awoke, she would scream into her pillow, doing her best to muffle the sound.
It was if she moved through syrup; her movements, her responses, her words, all seemed thick and slow, unreal and dreamlike.
And still she could not remember how to breathe.
After almost a year, breathing became easier.
Or at least she thought it had. She didn’t have to tell herself to breathe anymore. It was almost instinctive. Almost.
In and out.
Oh yes. That was how it worked. Just a simple in and out, and repeat.
She had stopped drinking.
Not because she didn’t like the way it made her brain fuzzy and cleared her memories of him, but because, when she woke up the next morning, they slammed her like a hammer, digging into her head and chest with the strength of a thousand fists. They pummelled her mercilessly, causing breathing, moving, even screaming, to become virtually impossible.
No, it was better to block it herself, with her own willpower. Shoving it to the back of her brain and concentrating on her duties.
She had even taken to bringing paper work to her room at night, so that when she went to sleep, it would be when she couldn’t think and when breathing was autonomous.
In and out.
She could no longer eat persimmons.
The thought of them made her sick.
One time, when she tried to bite into the juicy fruit that had once made them so happy, her stomach had convulsed, and had spent the rest of the day in the bathroom, vomiting endlessly until she was taken to Squad 4.
In and out.
Orihime came to visit often. Usually with food as a peace-offering. The girls would laugh, making strange combinations and trying to force unsuspecting squad members to eat them. Toshiro would give her the day off when she came, saying she needed to get out and have fun.
Sometimes they would go shopping.
She supposed it was fun to shop, to try new things and laugh with a friend. She never dared mention that being in Karakura Town was like a knife stabbing into her heart and twisting mercilessly. Breathing was worse here, but she pretended as if it was no problem at all. She could breathe just like anyone else.
In and out.
They were good at pretending. Ignoring the truth about the other. She pretended that she didn’t blame Orihime for his death. Admittedly it wasn’t truly her fault. But she still felt the need to blame someone, and when it wasn’t herself or Aizen, it was the healer girl. Orihime pretended that she didn’t crave her company, because she too had lost a part of her soul in the war.
She supposed that her entire life had become one big act, a meaningless façade. Sometimes she wondered why she bothered.
Nanao was there when she cried. Not all the time of course, she cried too much for that to be the case. But there were times when she could be there.
She never said anything, just held her tightly until the tears were dried up. Then she would sit her down with a hot cup of tea and would read her one of her books.
If it wasn’t for Nanao, she was sure she would have given up long ago.
They got into an argument once.
It wasn’t intentional, it just happened. One moment they were talking about the war, the next Nanao was telling her that he was dead and that there was nothing she could do about it. That she missed her friend and wanted her back.
She knew Nanao meant well and that she shouldn’t have gotten angry. But she did.
She screamed at her that she had no idea what it was like, that it was easy for her and that she had never lost anyone important.
Nanao had stared at her behind her wire-rimmed glasses, brown eyes unreadable.
“I’ve lost you,” she had said, before walking away with her book tucked under arm.
That night she cried without anyone to help her, wishing so hard that her entire body ached for him to be there, to hold her and let her cry all over his black robes, running his gentle hands through her hair and humming softly in her ear. She could almost feel him.
Another time, she yelled at Momo.
She hadn’t meant to, and she had regretted it instantly. But it had happened.
It was at the initiation of Shinji Hirako as the new captain of Squad 5. She had found Momo crying in her room and had hugged her tightly, telling her how it was going to be alright and that her new captain would never betray her.
Momo had continued to cry about how it was never going to be the same, that he would never be able to replace him, and that she wished her beloved captain would return, back to his old self again.
She had never yelled so violently at anyone before. She couldn’t even remember what she had said, but she knew from the traumatised expression on the young face, that it had been bad.
Nanao had escorted her back to her room and Toshiro had stayed with Captain Hirako to comfort her.
She knew it was irrational and was only making matters worse, but she didn’t care. If anyone in the entire Seireitei wanted things to return to the way they had been, it was her.
Breathing was definitely becoming easier.
In and out.
It was a fluid motion, barely any thought behind it.
Smiling was easier also. It came readily whenever she saw a friend.
Laughter was still difficult, but she was able to bring up a shadow of her once boisterous laugh that had made Toshiro roll his eyes and Yumichika cover his ears.
Now when she laughed, everyone smiled and their shoulders would relax slightly, safe within the reassurance that she was returning to normal.
She didn’t see him everywhere anymore, just in places that would trigger a random memory. It was worse in winter, but she had learned not to look at snow when she could help it.
In and out.
One night, she walked into her room, exhausted from another day of working and acting, and there he was.
Standing in the middle of the room, wearing his black shihakusho and white haori, grinning at her with the same smirk. As if he had always been there, just waiting for her to return.
“Hey, where have’ya been?” he asked, his lilting Kyoto dialect causing her heart to spasm uncontrollably. “I’ve been waitin’ for ya. Honestly, ya’re always late.”
He smirked, opening his clear blue eyes slowly.
She had frozen in time, her hand outstretched, skin shivering with cold sweat.
“Gin,” her voice barely a whisper as she stumbled forward drunkenly.
“What’s wrong, ya look like ya’ve seen a ghost,” he teased, walking towards her. His grin subsided and he opened his eyes fully, extending his arms out to wrap them around her. “Don’t worry, I promise, I’ll never leave ya again.”
She knew. She knew. She knew. And yet, she hoped, wished, dreamed.
He would never make a promise like that.
And still she reached forward, grasping through the air, running towards him. She could feel his arms encasing her, embracing her so strongly as if he would never let her go. She felt so safe, so unbelievably happy.
Then she was tumbling through cold, hard air.
He was gone.
And she was left on the floor, screaming uncontrollably, unable to see Toshiro, or Nanao, or Kyoraku or Unohana.
When did it become so hard to breathe?