Special thanks to Prodigy Keyblade Wielder for being my Beta-reader!
Disclaimer: Please refer to the previous chapter, which will refer you to the chapter before that, which will eventually refer you to Chapter I
Spoiler Warning: This is an AU-ish, Hitsugaya-centric work based off the 'what if Hinamori Momo died rather than recovered after being attacked by Aizen Sousuke during the Soul Society arc'. Spoilers for everything up until the latest manga chapter, since I will try my best to incorporate all canon ideas that do not directly contradict the first premise into the story. I derived storyline canon from the manga –I also incorporated additional information from the anime as long as it did not contradict the manga or the AU premise accordingly.
Author's Note: This is the rewritten version of Chapter III, and the entire storyline has undergone a massive change in plot and structure. Hence, if you read the previous chapter III before 27 June 2007, then I would highly suggest you read the current Chapter III, and all chapters before it.
Pairing(s): Hitsugaya Centric; HitsuHina, perhaps one-sided HitsuMatsu
Chapter III: Reawakened Nightmares
'He's sealed and incapacitated – sealed is good; incapacitated is better. But I still think that butchered and dead are best.'
-Zaraki Kenpachi, 11th Division Captain
He would never admit it aloud, but he felt tired. Just a little – nothing a warm cup of tea and a good night's sleep wouldn't solve.
But looking at the ominous piles of unfinished paperwork piling over his desk, and the crammed planner full of chaotic deadlines and meetings, Hitsugaya doubted he would be getting any sleep anytime soon, no matter how badly he needed it. So coffee instead of tea would be a better idea, even if coffee did nothing to lessen the headache pounding through his temples.
He really hated it when his people died in the field. He didn't know which was worse – losing valuable subordinates, or having to inform the families or friends in person what had happened. Of course, he could always just issue notices regarding the setting of the funerals, but the thought of it grated against his conscience. So he had spent the afternoon, a solid three hours, simply going across Seireitei and informing the deceased's closest family and friends about what had happened in a cold, distant tone, letting them grieve or rant at him however they wished, while Matsumoto was overseeing the division for him.
In hindsight, maybe sending Matsumoto to spread the news while he managed the Division would have been a better choice. He was sure that she was better at consoling others, since the icy quality of his demeanor failed to be anything close to comforting. But then again, what kind of Captain would force any of their subordinates through that kind of emotional stress? Matsumoto had dealt with the few loyal shinigami still on duty in his stead – and she had done it admirably - but that alone was also more than enough to leave a bitter taste behind.
So just this once, he let her go without a word when she skipped out on the paperwork, and probably left to go drinking with her usual drinking partners (Shuuhei, Abarai, Kira, and perhaps some others) without telling him. And for once, Hitsugaya didn't mind the drone-like, mind-numbing quality of doing paperwork; the quantity of it annoyed him, but the quality of it never bothered him at times like this. It was an odd sort of satisfaction to finish forms quickly, efficiently, and without error. The stack of finished forms grew steadily taller, and the pile of unfinished ones continued to diminish.
Hitsugaya forcibly restrained himself from cursing and felt the painful throb in his temples increase in urgency. He blotted out the splatter of ink viciously and, with a few crude strokes, fixed the careless mistake; his patience was wearing thin, and if he was distracted enough to write such a simple kanji incorrectly, then he was very distracted indeed.
Hitsugaya dipped the brush again – carefully this time – and plied it once more to the thin piece of paper. Stroke after stroke flowed cleanly and smoothly from his brush under his conscious concentration, and the neat lines of written script began filling the paper. Back in rhythm, stroke after mindless stroke.
But barely a few pages later, a shrill whistle jostled him from his absorption. Hitsugaya set down the brush with a sigh and glanced out the window. He had spent many days and nights in Rukongai lying on his back and watching the clouds shift – they had given him a familiarity with the skies that never failed. A brief glance outside would tell him almost exactly what time of day it was, as well as the possible weather conditions for the coming days.
And this time, as Hitsugaya watched the dim red hues of an early, winter sun fall, the Tenth Division Captain knew at once that the clouds promised either cold rain or sleet, and the time was barely past five. Which meant two things: squad dismissal for the day, and more importantly, the emergency Captains' meeting Yamamoto had organized for 'undisclosed reasons'.
He paused only long enough to put away his brushes properly and draw the curtains before leaving the administrative office. The few shinigami gracing the hallways bowed to their superior officer respectfully, but failed to meet his eyes – the memories of this morning were still too fresh for anyone to meet anyone else's eyes. But Hitsugaya only dismissed them with a curt nod before continuing on his way. Perhaps it was a blessing that most of the division was off-duty today – he could stave off telling the news to them until tomorrow, which gave him more time to construct a coherent announcement.
Past the hallway, down the left corridor, and then two more doors to the right. Hitsugaya slid open the sliding door and stepped into the office of the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth seat officers, albeit, two of them were absent on this particular day. His third seat, Akira Sanji, looked up at the interruption, and immediately snapped to attention when he realized who stood at the door.
"Hitsugaya-taichou." Akira immediately stood from his seat and bowed stiffly, as respectful and proper as ever.
"Akira. Assemble the remaining squads and dismiss them for the day – I have a meeting to attend. And if Matsumoto returns, please direct her to the administrative office in my absence. Seated officer meeting tomorrow morning at seven."
Akira bowed again dutifully, and Hitsugaya nodded before leaving the room without ceremony, sliding the door shut behind him. He could trust Akira to act perfectly according to regulation – the man was strict to a fault, perhaps a tad lacking in originality. He was predictable though, and honest; for Hitsugaya, that made the man easier to read, and thus, easier to deal with. In sharp contrast to his frivolous vice-captain, whose current whereabouts were still dubious, Hitsugaya reminded himself.
But that wasn't important now. If he was going to make it to the Captain's meeting on time, he would have to hurry.
Usually, it took him five minutes, tops, to shunpo from Tenth Division to First Division. But today was an exception – considering how much flash-stepping he had just done – a trip to the edge of Rukongai and back – and Hitsugaya decided it would be best to avoid high-speed movement in general, unless absolutely necessary. So for the first time in ages, the Tenth Division Captain was walking on foot through the winding, deserted streets running past the Gotei 13 headquarters, rather than leaping from rooftop to rooftop high above the street.
He regretted the decision very quickly. The memories of this morning were still sharp, and they only invited even older, less pleasant recollections out from the depths of his mind. The biting wind was only sharpening his clarity of mind, and the early winter sunset painted every surface blood red and drew long, grotesque shadows along the ground. It was unnaturally silent outside, without the usual hustle bustle of Seireitei's residents, since most had been forced indoors to seek shelter from the bitter cold. The streets were almost deserted, and with nothing to distract him, Hitsugaya found himself reminiscing.
At times like this, a flawless memory was not something he was thankful for, because everywhere he walked, his sharp eyes were able to pick out details in the hazy light, and then his mind would be able to identify it immediately. A bench here, a corner there. And haunting, ethereal echoes of shouts, voices, faces, and laughter of people who had once visited those places, but were now long dead, forgotten by the world, save for scattered memorials and gravestones dedicated to them. Yet even a memorial couldn't remember their faces, nor could a gravestone remember its owner's voice.
But a Captain could.
Hitsugaya Toushirou did not forget.
But that did not mean that he enjoyed remembering in any way. Especially not when his eyes fell on the gnarled, lonely peach tree standing silently outside the Fifth Division compound, its branches stripped bare by winter's frost. And the bench beneath it was rusting with age.
He should have just used flash-step. Because he had worked too hard to move on, to leave the past behind; and the moment his gaze fixed onto that tree, a physical reminder of his past failures, the memories slammed into him at full speed. None of them things he wanted to remember.
Sharp, vivid recollections of a time when the ice had melted and the fire sparked. Of girlish laughter, childish innocence, and confident naivety. Indistinct calls of 'Shirou-chan' and the sweetness of sticky watermelon juice everywhere, of shared nights spent on chilly rooftops watching fireworks and stars. But then…then, shattered innocence, choked sobs, and the shattering fragments of bloodstained ice. An unending storm of dying hopes, when the fire had ebbed away. Ice.
"Damn it." Hitsugaya curled his hands into fists again, and felt Hyourinmaru's familiar chill spread through his veins again. He had gotten over this. It had been over a century, more than long enough for the wounds to heal.
There really was no reason why she still lingered in his mind, and that not a single day could pass without remembering her in some way. It was stupid and illogical, not something that anyone, much less a Captain, should be holding on to.
The faster he got to First Division, the sooner he could get this over with, the sooner this wretched day could end.
Hitsugaya gritted his teeth and disappeared in a decisive burst of shunpo, leaving the peach tree behind in a whirl of speed. But he could not leave the memories behind, and the images still flickered restlessly in his mind, aggravating his building headache.
He should have known nothing good would happen today.
The meeting started perfectly normal, no different from any other Captain's meeting, emergency or not. Kurotsuchi and Zaraki had begun exchanging death glares and caustic comments the moment both were present, Kuchiki Byakuya had remained distant and aloof from everyone else, and Kurosaki Ichigo was as unimpressed as ever, not even bothering to hide his evident boredom and annoyance. Perhaps the only thing out of the ordinary was Ukitake's attendance – he did not stand in his customary position, but next to Unohana, since the man could barely talk through his fits of coughing.
But Captain's intuition was still Captain's intuition, and not a single individual in the room was unaware of the heaviness in the atmosphere, a foreboding premonition that usually wasn't there.
Hitsugaya's throbbing headache had only worsened.
Only after two and a half arduous hours, after all the tedious reports were finally over, did Yamamoto slowly rise from his chair and announce that the meeting was not yet over. And in the same breath, the old man confirmed what their intuition had been telling them all along.
"A more pressing matter remains. From this point, no word of this is to leave this room."
Now this was new. Hitsugaya arched an eyebrow. Yamamoto rarely ordered them to secrecy; he usually left them the freedom to judge which pieces of information they would pass on to their Vice-Captains, and which were to remain confidential. Anything that he actively prompted them to swear secrecy towards was very confidential indeed.
Something was amiss. More than amiss. Something was very, very wrong. But Yamamoto seemed oblivious to the stiffening discomfort permeating the room, and his voice ploughed on.
"All of you before me now should remember that the Great War began exactly one hundred years prior to today. It spanned four years, ending with the sealing of traitor Aizen Sousuke, through a forbidden seal known only to those in this room, and the select few others that had a hand in it, yes?"
Strained murmurs of affirmation and several nods greeted his question. That trip down the memory lane was not one that anyone particularly wanted to take. But Yamamoto still showed no sign of acknowledgment to their uneasiness. He only paused, letting his silence accumulate weight, and then let his words fall like thunder.
"The seal is weakening."
Hitsugaya's heart missed a beat, and he barely fended off the torrent of unpleasant memories by forcing himself to ignore it, even if the ice masking his expression did not crack. But the room suddenly crackled with the overbearing combination of Captain-leveled spiritual pressure – his own probably included - and a chaotic mess of accusations, protests, disbelief, and anger broke out, voices rising to hissing accusations shouts of outrage.
Yamamoto silenced their outburst by pounding his wooden cane onto the floorboards, sending a low boom reverberating through their ears and limbs. The noise immediately ceased, leaving a whispering silence in its wake, still carrying the echoes of their protests. Yamamoto scrutinized every Captain present, meeting their eyes, challenging them with the banked fires that simmered in his.
But then the eyes closed suddenly, and the fires faded, smoldering to ashes. The fiery strength in Yamamoto's voice suddenly failed, and he continued with a tone of weariness that Hitsugaya had never heard from the old man before. "The seal," he continued, "draws upon the power of each individual who helped cast it. No matter how strong the individual, the seal will continue depleting the same amount of power, as long as that individual is still alive. But therein lays our problem.
"Aizen Sousuke was sealed to avoid confronting him, because his special zanpakuto ability was too dangerous to challenge. The seal that Urahara Kisuke invented for our use was the only one of its caliber, with the strength enough to hold Sousuke without fear of his escape. The only one that Sousuke was not aware of, could not have researched, could not have predicted. That is why we used it. As a last resort."
"The spell, however, did not defeat Aizen Sousuke. There is a difference between defeating him, and sealing him. Right now, if we were to release the spell, he would be unscathed and unchanged. But while we hold the spell in place, it wears away at our power, constantly draining spiritual pressure to hold Aizen back.
"A total of fifteen people cast the spell. Thus, each person would bear the weight of one-fifteenth of the spell's weight. It is not, perhaps, as bad as if fewer people cast it, but the seal will do the same thing, only slower. It is killing us. Draining us. Sapping away at our strength, until we can no longer uphold it.
"Perhaps you do not feel it now. After all, though one-fifteenth would easily kill a normal Death God, a Captain's spirit should be able to withstand it. But even we have our limits. Our strength is not infinite. We are not invincible. Eventually, we will tire, and one by one, we will fall. Then those that remain must carry greater and greater burdens, one-fourteenth, thirteenth, twelfth…that will only tire us faster. Eventually…all will fall. The seal cannot last forever. And if it breaks, then Aizen Sousuke will go free, and there will be none left to stand against him."
The silence that followed was deafening. For a long time, everyone struggled to put their thoughts into words, struggled to face the impossible dilemma that seemed to come before them.
Finally, it was Abarai Renji who spoke. "Can't we, have others help? Like, when we get tired, have someone new take our place? You know, something like fresher blood?"
Yamamoto shook his head slowly. "The seal cannot draw power from anyone save its original casters."
Kurosaki's voice rang out, one of the only ones in the room that carried no strain of doubt. His tone was set, once more alight with the determination that served him so well. "How long do we have? It's already been a century, and I don't feel any different yet."
A soft, strained voice answered, through a suppressed cough. All heads turned to look at Ukitake Jyushirou.
"Perhaps, Kurosaki-kun, you have not felt it. You are young, and stronger than most could ever dream of being. But I have. The sickness strikes more often now, and each time, it takes me longer to recover. My strength is beginning to wane." He voice was low, almost a whisper, though the knowing smile did not leave his face. And at his words, even Shunsui did not know what to say. Ukitake continued, his smile still held in place by an iron will. "And like Yamamoto-sensei said, if one falls, then the burden on the rest will increase. I'm afraid…that might happen sooner than we thought."
Kyouraku's expression disappeared under the shadow of his straw hat. Unohana's eyes softened, and Hitsugaya found that, for all his genius, he could not think of what to say. Ukitake stood there smiling, speaking casually of dying, and Yamamoto watched them, his old, wizened eyes suddenly full of weariness.
Aizen was breaking free. They were tiring. He had lost a squad this morning to an unknown threat. No one had any answers to any of their problems or questions. She was constantly invading his thoughts. And the feeling of dread in the back of his mind had just multiplied by tenfold.
Hitsugaya's thoughts ran in endless circles with dizzying speed, and the tensai gritted his teeth in frustration. All problems had a solution. Every lock had a key. All he needed to do was find it. All he needed –
Hyourinmaru's blade suddenly quivered with power against his back, and the familiar rush of cold flooded his veins. With the chill came that sense of calm, control, and clarity. His problems shattered like a thin sheet of ice, revealing the answer in his mind. So obvious that he couldn't believe he missed it in his distraction.
One step at a time. No more running in fear of an unnamed threat, no more dawdling as the situation spun out of control. No more locked away memories and muffled grief. No more hesitation.
He had made this decision years ago. A century ago.
He had vowed to fight, to resist, to struggle until his dying breath. He would not sit back and watch as Aizen destroyed everything he felt dear. Nor would he wait until some complex and ineffective seal drained him to the point of death. That would be stupid, and illogical. There was only one option left, and it was one that had taken him a hundred years to see. It was the option they had feared the last time around, and had avoided then, which caused all of their problems now.
The option to stand and fight. To face Aizen and win. There was no other option.
But would everyone else agree? Would they be able to see as clearly?
"Then we'll just have to defeat him."
Hitsugaya looked up, and saw it was Kurosaki Ichigo speaking, the glint of battle alight once more in his eyes. The 5th and 10th Division Captains locked gazes, and in the brief eye contact, both realized the other had reached the same conclusion. "I say we let the bastard out, then beat his sorry ass into the ground," Ichigo affirmed.
"Are you insane?" Kurotsuchi hissed. "You do not understand the complexity of that seal. It's not as simple as just 'letting him out'. There are other ways, I could research –"
"We don't have time for your so-called research!" Abarai Renji shouted.
"Now, now, let's not rush headlong into unnecessary risks. Think it over-"
"Afraid? Ha! Bring on the carnage; it's been too long since an enemy put up a decent fight!"
"Zaraki! Control yourself! Not everyone is as invulnerable as you are. The citizens would have to be evacuated–"
"Who's asking you, old-"
"This is foolishness–!"
"Perhaps, if we–"
The hubbub broke out immediately as various viewpoints hurtled through the air via the voices of the more emotionally volatile people present. Hitsugaya barely refrained from rubbing his throbbing temples in frustration – all Captains' meetings came to this: childish bantering. Even on an urgent matter like this, they would waste time trying to come to a conclusion. Gods, it was no wonder Aizen had had such ease executing his plan last time.
"Silence!" Again, Yamamoto's wooden staff rammed against the wooden floorboards, jarring the room into silence. "Your concerns and suggestions are well-founded and hold merit. I will present this issue to the Center 46, and they will decide. Captains, look to your respective Divisions. Until next week, you are dismissed."
The old man turned, motioned to his Vice Captain, and exited, signaling the end of the meeting.
Hitsugaya eased his hands out of the frustrated fists they had formed. This wasn't what they needed right now – the Center 46 was still new and inexperienced with this type of issue; they would take weeks, maybe even months to reach any sort of conclusion. They didn't have weeks or months to waste dawdling.
He concentrated on Hyourinmaru's chill for a minute, then decided that, protocol or no, it was time to take action on his own. One step at a time. First things first.
There was still unfinished business in District 76.
But even before that, there were inner demons that he had to face first. No more running.
To defeat Aizen once and for all, he needed all the concentration he could muster. Which meant he couldn't afford to be distracted by thoughts of Hinamori every other waking minute. Which meant he had to resolve his own feelings first.
And it was time to pay Hinamori a visit, no matter how much he dreaded the meeting.
The mountain was unchanged since he had seen it over a century ago. In the shadow of the towering peaks of the Hakke Ridge, even the dragon felt humbled. The wintry Captain found himself feeling closer to his younger self – the one that had come here a hundred years ago, cradling the body of the girl he loved and blasting a cavern into the side of the great mountain with sheer rage. Here, hidden from the eyes of any watching souls or shinigami, well away from any village or town, the blue-green-eyed shinigami let all the trappings of society fall away, and let the dragon come to the fore.
The painful memories were bubbling to the surface again, seething through the cracks in the ice like acid. But he had to do this. He had to face this and pull himself together. This was the only way to mend the fault in the ice.
His fingers were raw from climbing the sheer rock face, but they clung fast to the mountainside as the whipping winds tried to tear him off. Most people would be considered suicidal to try scaling this particular mountain clad in nothing but a simple, black yukata (he had changed out of his Captain's uniform before leaving Seireitei), with no equipment but a sword slung over their back. But most people were not Hitsugaya Toushirou. The young man set his teeth against the cold and climbed on, pulling strength from the almost inexhaustible reiatsu reserves in his mind.
At last, his hand reached a flat ledge, and Hitsugaya swung up onto the ledge with trained reflexes.
The boulder he had sealed the entrance with was weatherworn and frozen in place, untouched by any hands since he had set it there. Hyourinmaru's freezing presence did not let him hesitate, though the doubts were already forming in his mind. He walked up to the sizable rock, placed his fingertips against it, and willed the reiatsu to flow from his hand into the solid stone. A heartbeat later, the boulder exploded into gravel with a thunderous explosion; a testament to the sheer power that had been bent against it. Stone fell to ice.
The exposed tunnel was short – he had blasted straight to the heart of the mountain – but it was as cold, if not colder than the winds outside. The floors and walls were slick with ice, and Hitsugaya's breath manifested in ragged wisps of frost.
At the tunnel's end, a crude room carved into the solid rock of the mountain, illuminated by the eerie, ice blue glow of the reiatsu that kept the room frozen, even in the hottest summers. And at the center of the room, a towering monument of ice that filled the bulk of the room; trapped within it – her.
The ice wall in his mind shattered, and the acidic memories washed over him, drowning out all other conscious thought. Hitsugaya couldn't remember why he had come here, or what he was supposed to do – the mixed emotions threatening to burst out of his chest clouded his vision and tilted the world askew. Solutions that seemed so simple and clear in Hyourinmaru's cold light suddenly became complex and elusive.
And still, all he could concentrate on was her.
"Hinamori, I'm back." Hitsugaya whispered softly as he pressed his battle-roughened hands against the ice gently, unaware of the cold that was turning them blue. He words came out as a wispy apparition of chilled fog.
She did not move. She couldn't move – not when she was frozen in a block of ice. His ice.
Hitsugaya closed his eyes. A hundred years. She had been trapped here from a hundred years, not a hair different from how she had been that very day. A century trapped in this cold, lifeless room, alone and all but abandoned. But he could not have let her go, could not have let even her corpse – the last shred of proof that she had once lived, laughed, and loved – he could not have let it decay, when he could protect her from the destroying talons of time.
The boy had only been able to give it all he had, and it hadn't even been enough to save her. As he had been selfish then, so he still was now. He couldn't let her go, even as he tried to erase the memories of her from his mind.
Hitsugaya Toushirou did not forget. His heart wouldn't let him.
The young Captain lifted his gaze to look at her again.
Through the frosted surface of the ice, she looked pale, unearthly…almost angelic as her hair and simple white hospital gown fluttered in frozen suspension. Her eyes were closed, however, hiding the warm brown eyes that he longed so much to see again. So close, Hitsugaya thought as he pressed his palm against the ice and brushed the layer of frost away to give him a clearer view of her face. So close, but worlds apart.
He wanted to hear her say 'Shirou-chan' just once more, no matter how much he used to hate the nickname.
But he would never hear it again. 'Shirou-chan' had died with her – he was now Hitsugaya Toushirou, a Captain of the Gotei 13, the reincarnation of a heavenly guardian, and a cold, cold prodigy of ice. She was gone. They were separated by time, separated by life and death. Separated by…fate?
Without warning, his self-control snapped.
"Damn you." A fist pounded furiously against the ice, the force of its impact reverberating in every bone of his body and sending splinters of ice flying downward to crash musically on the ground below. The drops blood welled from his abused hand immediately, freezing as they fell, and crystallizing into ruby red gems before they shattered into a thousand million particles against the frozen floor.
Who was he cursing? Her? No, not her. He had tried to hate her, tried to scorn her, tried to feel anger or disdain or disregard…but his heart wouldn't let him. Even when she was long dead, his heart clung to his memories of her with sacred devotion, rendering him unable to think any ill of her. Then, who was his fury directed towards? Fate? There was no such thing as Fate.
For being weak, for being foolish, for being incapable. Himself, for everything he could have done, but never did. Himself, for being so dependant on her.
The dragon in him rebelled against the idea that he needed her warmth to keep the ice at bay, to keep hold of who he was, to keep the ground in sight. Without her, the dragon would soar too high and go too far, and forget to return home. Without her, he would freeze. Something about her shook him to the core, ingrained into the very fabric of who he was. She was his last lifeline to days when life had been simpler and sunnier, before anger, hate, betrayal, and society swallowed up their lives. In a way, she defined him. She was the key to the side of him that was softer, kinder, and warmer. Something more than just the dragon and the ice.
The side of him that was still vulnerable, still alive, and still human.
"Baka…Bed wetter Momo." His voice broke. Hitsugaya couldn't bring himself to stare at her cold, pale face through the layers of ice.
Hyourinmaru's ruby red eyes suddenly obscured his view, and the phantom image of the dragon materialized in the frozen mists, wrapping its ponderous, serpentine coils around the room. It gazed down levelly at him, no emotion displayed in its crimson eyes.
Toushirou. The growl wasn't harsh, but it was cold. Hitsugaya immediately knew what the dragon meant to say – what the dragon felt.
"Sorry, Hyourinmaru. My emotions are affecting you too." He gathered up his resolve and slid the mask of ice back over his heart. "I remember our promise."
No force on earth could keep a dragon from the sky.
Hinamori didn't respond. He softened his eyes. Not 'sayonara.' Not 'Hinamori'. He thought. "Jya ne, Momo." See you later, since goodbyes were forever. And he fully intended to come back.
He turned and left, not once looking back, not even to reseal the entrance of the cave. The pressure building in his chest was gone, and Hitsugaya fixed his gaze forward, intent on reaching District 76 before midnight. He did not notice that the brisk cold had abated, as if the heart of the cavern had softened and relaxed its harsh grip.
His headache was gone.
The gentle snows rapidly grew into a furious blizzard as he neared the deeper districts of Rukongai. Hitsugaya saw no one, shinigami, soul, or otherwise. The infinite fields of shadowed white blurred by in shunpo, swirling and melting into the obscurity of night. The snowstorm blotted out the skies; his intuition and innate sense of direction were his only guides.
They guided him true. Just as he was beginning to tire from the forced flash steps, Hitsugaya caught the telltale glow of a village and pulled out of shunpo in a spray of snow.
Strange. Hitsugaya's eyes narrowed as he pulled up a mental map from his impeccable memory. He had known there would be a town here, but he hadn't expected it to be this large, or this quiet. The back of his neck tingled noticeably, and his instincts were screaming at the wrongness of the town's aura. Something was off here – unnatural, far too quiet – and it didn't look like it was entirely because of the cold.
He fingered Hyourinmaru's hilt contemplatively. Flawless emerald eyes picked out tiny details as the Tenth Division Captain strode silently through the town's deserted streets – bolted doors, blocked windows, and an unnerving lack of hearth-fires. The town wasn't deserted, since he could sense the presence of the souls hiding in each one of the dark abodes, but its residents seemed subdued, like cornered animals or fearful mice. As he neared the center of the town, however, more signs of life appeared. As he passed by the bars and brothels dotting the town, Hitsugaya reminded himself that, in remote areas like the District 76, the moral uprightness of the citizens was much less innocent than those back in Jyunrinan.
Hitsugaya strained his senses, and barely – just barely – could he detect a trace of reiatsu. It fluctuated rapidly, giving off signals of distress and anger. A little too weak to be shinigami, but Hitsugaya could have sworn that he knew that reiatsu signature. Logically impossible – the last time he had been this far out in Rukongai had been before he became Captain – he didn't know anyone around here.
But the feeling was insistent, and Hitsugaya found himself weaving through the alleyways and occasionally flitting from rooftop to rooftop, trying to track down the reiatsu signature. A thought jolted into his mind.
Maybe a member of the squad sent out this morning had been severely wounded, but had survived and sought refuge here. Not likely – he had done a tally of the bodies, and all of the members were supposedly accounted for – but it was possible that he had made a mistake. Barely, but still possible.
He quickened his pace.
The spiritual pressure was stronger now, and definitely familiar. He knew this signature, but from when? Who? Hitsugaya racked his brain for answers; he should be able to recognize every one of his subordinates by their reiatsu, even if he never matched their faces with their names. No one came to mind.
Just around the corner; one more alleyway. He could see the glow of a fire flickering off the ramshackle walls and could hear the scuffling sounds of fighting.
Hitsugaya rounded the edge and caught sight of a ragtag gang armed with swords grouped around a victim that was partially obscured from his view in the dim lighting. The fiery glow came from a torch someone was holding. The assailants were kicking and stomping, but had fortunately kept their zanpakuto sheathed.
Double take. Zanpakuto. Hitsugaya ducked behind a pile of crates to get a closer look, and, when he had confirmed his suspicions, he felt the anger rise in his chest again. He corrected his original assumption – the swords used to be zanpakuto, but were now nothing more than common asauchi. He could still pick up the lingering scent of the zanpakuto spirits, but they had left the swords after their owners' deaths.
The thugs had either killed shinigami, or had stolen the swords from corpses or graveyards.
Hitsugaya tightened his jaw in suppressed rage as he forced himself to keep his reiatsu under tight wraps. If he even let his spiritual pressure as much as flicker, every reiatsu-less soul in the vicinity might be affected, and that was something he wasn't about to risk without a good reason. Which meant he couldn't use Hyourinmaru. Or shunpo. Or kidou.
Hitsugaya ran a quick mental calculation. Hakuda had always been his least adept shinigami principle. He was outnumbered about eight-to-one by armed thugs in a tight, secluded alleyway, thousands of flash steps away from Seireitei. The gang was harassing another victim, who could potentially be a wounded member of the decimated squad this morning. He would have to cover for that. And he was still slightly tired from long-distance flash-stepping.
Shouldn't be a problem.
In the blink of an eye, Hitsugaya kicked the feet from under one of the thugs and knocked him out with a swift blow to the neck. Two more thugs went down completely winded by a punch and a kick respectively before the rest figured out what was going on. One of the thugs he took down must have been the one holding the torch, because Hitsugaya heard a hiss of the flame being doused in snow, and the alleyway plunged into darkness. In the ensuing chaos, Hitsugaya ducked and wove through the blind tangle of arms and legs and swords, placing precise blows with the fluidity achieved through intense training and combat experience. A minute later, all eight ex-assailants were down, either winded or knocked out or both.
But Hitsugaya didn't linger. He had taken care not to strike vital points or cause permanent damage; only to delay. The Tenth Division Captain had no intention of causing bodily harm to random souls in Rukongai without clearance or threat to personal safety. Something about harming people that were essentially harmless to him, no matter how much they disgusted him, felt too much like bullying.
Hitsugaya turned to the victim who was being attacked. In the darkness, he couldn't make out any details – only that the person was female, and obviously from Rukongai. She was still slightly dazed, unsure of what had just happened. Not one of his subordinates, but even so, Hitsugaya wasn't about to leave a helpless girl in a deserted alleyway with a bunch of unconscious thugs.
"We need to get out of here." Hitsugaya gruffly vocalized as he approached the girl. "Can you walk?"
No answer. She had apparently lost consciousness. Hitsugaya quickly checked her vital signs and took a quick overview of her condition – not good. Nothing fatal, apparently, but by the looks of it, she at had broken at least two ribs and her ankle, as well as received a minor concussion from being kicked in the head. She needed medical attention, and she needed it quickly before the cold set into any of her injuries before they healed properly. Hitsugaya mentally cursed his luck – he really didn't need another complication right now – but still (gently) scooped the girl off the ground and carried her as cautiously as he could, bridal style. 'Where in this godforsaken town can I find a medic?'
He leapt up onto a rooftop to move around more easily, but even though he cushioned his landing the best he could, he still couldn't help but jar the girl slightly. She moaned softly in her unconsciousness. Hitsugaya almost cringed when he heard the sound, and his heart shuddered inexplicably.
Why the hell did he feel so protective all of a sudden?
He shifted to shield her from the wind and snow with his body as he gingerly leapt from rooftop to rooftop, winding towards the center of the small town. There were more and more lit houses as he neared the town center, even if they were still very few and far apart. Deciding it would be easier to search from the ground, the Tenth Division Captain landed as softly as he could while carrying another person, his feet crunching into the freshly fallen snow.
The wind chose that particular moment to gust by, ripping off the ramshackle shutters of the house (with lit windows) on Hitsugaya's right. The sickly yellow light spilled out of the broken window and onto the two souls standing outside the house. Hitsugaya looked away and closed his eyes for a moment, unused to the sudden change of brightness, but inadvertently caught a glance of the girl's face.
Dark brown hair. Heart-shaped face. Long lashes and small, pink lips. Every detail emblazoned into his memory.
It wasn't possible. She was dead, had been dead for a hundred years. She was still frozen in a solid block of ice in Hakke Ridge. There was no way she could be here, right now, right here. No fucking way.
But the light must have woken her up, because when she groaned, her eyes fluttered open, and Hitsugaya found himself staring into the warm, hazel-brown eyes that had haunted his thoughts and dreams for the past century. There was no mistaking those eyes.
But it was impossible. Absolutely impossible. Why today, of all days, the anniversary of the war? What were the chances?
No such thing as Fate. No such thing as Destiny.
Unless something astronomically impossible convinced him otherwise.
Rewritten August 7, 2007
I apologize for the long wait, and will post Chapter IV as soon as possible. This chapter deals mainly with transition yet again, and I feel that it doesn't flow very well. However, I needed to get several large plot elements out into the open, as well as introduce the Reincarnated Hinamori vs. Dead Hinamori idea. Questions? Ask me in a review or a PM if there is something you don't understand. Once again, I'm asking for public opinion whether this should be a happy or a tragic ending. Based on majority vote (and, of course, my preference, which I shall not disclose), I will adjust certain plot elements accordingly.
Thank you for reading, and please review!