A/N: Author Alerts have been all messed up lately, so anyone interested in following "Facets" as well as this story might want to check my author page for updates, since the last chapter of Facets dealt with Hitsugaya's exam.

Also, my knowledge of Japanese clothing and weapon terms comes only from martial arts experience, which may or may not, on this Occidental shore, be entirely accurate. Anyone who can correct me, please do.


Part Six: Cracks In The Ice

The Captain's jinbaori was a bit heavier than he'd expected, but Hitsugaya liked the feel of it just the same.

He'd had a moment's internal panic, when he walked into the 4th Division's equipping rooms to be met by three surprisingly intimidating tailors and what looked like several miles of white fabric, that they might insist on hemming up some pattern for a larger man, and that he would look like a total idiot with the emblem of his new rank trailing in the dust behind him. But fortunately they had been both extremely efficient and extremely polite. No one cracked a single joke about his height, and the whole affair was done in a matter of hours. They'd asked him if he wanted a full haori, but the thought of heavy sleeves over his kimono to hamper the movement of his arms was not appealing.

"Here it is, Hitsugaya-taichou," the lead seamstress had said somberly, settling the jinbaori on his shoulders. "We will make more, and have them sent to your division compound by tomorrow." Then she smiled unexpectedly, her cheeks dimpling. "I hope you like the green lining – I thought it would bring out your eyes."

At any other time he might have found the comment annoying, but running the smooth, soft edge of the front hem between his fingers, he couldn't find it in him to be annoyed by anything.

It occurred to him, as he was slipping Hyourinmaru's sash over his shoulder, that the sword would be blocking part of the kanji on his back, but that couldn't be helped. Never having to be separated from Hyourinmaru again made it a small price to pay.

Ten. Captain of the 10th Division.

Hitsugaya Toushiro, Captain of the 10th Division of the Gotei 13.

The words would flash through his mind at unexpected moments, and too often he caught himself almost smiling at nothing at all.

Fortunately, he'd had proper control over his expression when, two days after his exam, the evening of the day Yamamoto had formally invested him with his rank, he stepped out of the stone carver's shop where his official Captain's seal was being made and came face to face with a breathless Hinamori.

She stood there, bent over with her hands on her knees as though she had just run all the way across the Seireitei, and stared agape at him.

Hitsugaya held his breath, unsure what she would say, and not knowing what he really wanted to hear.

"Oh…" She put a hand to her mouth at last, and stretched out her other one as though to touch him, then dropped it. "Oh, Hitsugaya-kun… you… you look so… you did it! You really did it! Aizen-taichou told me, but I… is it all right to hug you now?"

There was a glint her eye as she said it that told him she was joking – but she waited for his permission all the same.

Unfortunately, he wasn't about to give it on a public street.

"Of course I did it," he said, stepping out of the doorway and off to the side of the shop. "I wasn't about to put myself forward for the exam if I wasn't sure I could pass it."

She opened her mouth, closed it, stared at him for a moment – her eyes traveling down to the distinctive markings on white – then met his gaze and smiled again. "You really shouldn't be frowning, you know. You should be proud! So proud. You're the youngest Captain in Soul Society's history! I only wish you'd told me sooner that this was your dream. We could have shared so many hopes!"

"It wasn't my dream," he muttered, looking away so that he wouldn't have to see the mixture of pride and sadness in her eyes. Guilt clawed its way into his stomach. "It was just something I had to do."

"I don't think I really understand, Hitsugaya-kun," she said quietly. This time her hand reached out and touched his shoulder, smoothing the white fabric there. "Maybe… maybe there are things you don't want to share with bed-wetter Momo anymore. And that's okay. You're a Captain now, and Captains have to keep their secrets. But I hope you'll forgive me if go around telling everyone how proud I am of you, and that you won't be too important to see me anymore."

The guilt crawled right up out of his stomach and into his throat, and for a moment he actually hung his head, his hands in fists, wondering….

But no, too late for that now.

Things had changed, and he had to build something different if he wanted to have anything at all.

"Of course I'm not too important to see you," he said, once he was sure he had enough control over his voice to achieve the proper casual tone. "You're a Vice Captain, Hinamori. Any Captain's office should be open to you. Mine included."

"Ah, well, that's good to know." She smiled again, never downcast for long, even now, and cocked her hands suddenly on her hips. "You're in for quite a lot of work, I'll have you know. You should see the amount of paperwork that Aizen-taichou has to do, and 10th Division has been without a Captain for so long that I bet there's old work up to the ceiling waiting for you."

"I'm sure Nakada took care of it," he said, trying to quell a sudden surge of doubt. Drowning in paperwork was the last thing he wanted to do in his first days as Captain of his own division.

"And I think you should know that Rangiku-san is especially terrible about punctuality, and I can't imagine that she'll be any better with paperwork, so you'll have to look out for that."

"Is it really okay for you to talk about another Vice Captain like that?" he growled, absolutely not wanting to be reminded of Matsumoto Rangiku and the meeting in store for him tomorrow when he finally took over his division.

She grinned. "Oh, Rangiku-san is a wonderful friend, even if she is a bit wild sometimes. But I just thought you should have fair warning. I know how you get about your work, Hitsugaya-kun."

"I've had all the warning I think I need, thanks."

"But don't you be mean to her!" she admonished. "You don't have to be so cold all the time!"

"Hinamori, are you done lecturing me?"

"Never," she said calmly, then suddenly threw herself at him and wrapped her slender arms tightly about his shoulders. Before he could react, either to hug her back or pull away, she let him go, wiping at her eyes. "I'm just… so proud. You're going to be a wonderful Captain, I know it."

Then, as though afraid she couldn't contain herself around him anymore, she gave him one last watery, brilliant smile, and ran off as quickly as she must have come.

It was a long walk back to 7th Division, but he barely noticed it.

Once there, as he made his way through the familiar hallways for what was probably the last time, people stopped in the middle of their activities to stare, turning to watch him as he went by. He recognized every face, and knew the names to fit most of them. Half of them were Shinigami he'd trained or supervised himself, and many of those who had served in his elite squads nodded respectfully at him as he passed. He still wasn't sure whether to feel proud or uncomfortable about it, but figured he'd better get used to it quick. Outside of 7th Division, the looks were likely to be a lot more dubious.

When he came to his quarters, he wasn't entirely surprised to find Imada leaning against the wall in the corridor, clearly waiting for him.

"Imada," he said, coming to a stop. White fabric settled against his legs with an unfamiliar whisper. "What are you doing here? Not another party…"

"No, Hitsugaya-taichou, certainly not," Imada said earnestly. "The other one went over so well that I assumed one was enough."

Hearing Imada speaking sarcastically was unusual enough, but the title – from a man he knew well, not an unknown subordinate – was even stranger.

Of course, everyone would be a subordinate now. Everyone except for twelve others in white.

Odd, how there were so many things he hadn't fully stopped to consider before.

"I'm just here to pick up the last of my things," Hitsugaya said, breaking the suddenly awkward silence.

"I know. I wanted to tell you that you can leave everything here when you've finished packing it, Hitsugaya-taichou. I'll see that it gets sent on to 10th Division."

"You don't – " he began, but stopped himself. He'd been about to say that Imada could drop the honorific, but decided quickly that he'd better get used to it.

Better by far than not hearing it, when he'd worked so hard to earn it.

Imada, the expression on his scarred face as open and straight-forward as ever, merely shrugged. "It's no hassle. I'm sure you've got better things to do than carrying your packages around. I also wanted to say… congratulations." He stepped away from the wall, right into the center of the corridor, and bowed. "It was quite an experience serving with you, Hitsugaya-taichou."

"And with you," Hitsugaya replied, trying to sound less uncomfortable than he felt. "You were… a very good example, Imada-fukutaichou. Thank you."

The sense of a strong reiatsu drawing near effectively forestalled any further awkward conversation, and Hitsugaya struggled not to let his relief show. When Komamura entered the hallway behind Imada, his helmeted head nearly brushed the wooden ceiling. Imada stepped quickly the side to make way for his Captain, though between the two pairs of wide shoulders there was barely enough room.

"Hitsugaya-taichou, I was hoping for a last chance to see you."

"Komamura-taichou. I hope my final reports made it to you in time. I apologize for the delay."

"Understandable. May we speak in private?"


Imada nodded to them both and left without another word, but paused before turning the corner to give Hitsugaya one last wave over his shoulder, a last smile from Vice Captain to fourth seat. And then he was gone.

Hitsugaya stepped into his old room, made suddenly aware how small it really was by seeing Komamura in it for the first time.

"Did the investiture go smoothly?" Komamura asked.

"Yes. I guess I was expecting there to be more…"

"Ceremony?" Komamura said, with a hint of amusement in his voice that Hitsugaya had never heard before.

"People," Hitsugaya concluded. There had been only Yamamoto and two representatives of the Central 46 – one from the council and one from the judiciary – in the empty 1st Division hall.

"I suggested to Genryuusai-dono that you would prefer less spectacle."

"You did? Thank you," he said, with real gratitude.

"And now, before you leave, I would like to offer you a parting favor. It will be difficult taking over a division in which none of your subordinates are familiar to you. I cannot spare anyone above seventh seat, but if there is anyone for whom you would like to request a transfer, I would be happy to help you in this."

He was surprised by the generous offer, and thought it a bit unorthodox. But then again, what did he really know? Perhaps Captains made private arrangements like this all the time. There were probably a great many things he was going to discover over the next few years.

And it was an offer he was not about to pass up, because Komamura was absolutely right. It was going to be a real pain trying to break in an entire division of strangers, and even just one familiar face would be welcome.

"Yes," he said. "If it can be done, I would like to have Kentaro Yumiko transferred. I don't know what seat I can offer her yet, but I'll be sure she's given nothing lower than the ninth seat she already holds."

"Then it will be done. A good choice. I believe you knew her from the academy?"

"Yes. We shared our final student testing. And she…well," he stopped himself awkwardly. "She has always been easy for me to work with."

Meaning, of course, that she'd always treated him like any other peer, and respected him as a superior without question. Besides, she was also particularly good with kidou, and he wouldn't mind having someone whose expertise he trusted around to take a hand in kidou training for his division.

Komamura merely nodded.

"Komamura…" Hitsugaya said, dropping the honorific for the first time, because he could, and because he wanted his genuine feeling to be clear, "I want to thank you. Without your understanding, I wouldn't have been able to come this far."

"I know very well how difficult it can sometimes be, to overcome the prejudices of others in pursuit of your goals. You have no one to thank but yourself. I will see you again soon. The next Captains' meeting is in two months' time. But if you find that you need someone to speak with, I am always available."

"Thank you."

With a final exchange of respectful nods, Komamura ducked through the doorway and closed the screen behind him.

For a long while, Hitsugaya merely stood in the center of the room, letting the silence wash over him. His eyes moved over the familiar surroundings, and he realized that there wasn't much of anything left to pack. He'd never been one to gather personal clutter anyway, and once he packed away his brushes and ink, and put the sword stand and replacement cords for the saya safely away in a box, there wouldn't be anything left.

But after finishing he stayed in the room anyway, sitting in his favorite place by the opened screens that looked out over the garden, and waited for full night to fall. He wanted to leave with the least amount of fuss, and nighttime was better.

It would also be better for what he planned to do next.

He waited until the moon rose over the rooftops, then stood.

"Hyourinmaru," he murmured. "Are you ready?"

The dragon made no reply in words, but the sword at his back radiated an eager cold, and that was all the affirmation he needed.

He closed all the screens, checked the boxes one more time to be sure they were secure before Imada had them moved, and stepped silently out into the hallway. He kept to the shadows where he could, and moved with all the stealth his training had given him. No one noticed him until he reached the compound gates, where a new recruit was apparently suffering the usual hazing and was stuck doing unnecessary guard duty, leaning on his lantern pole.

"Oh! Uh… Hitsugaya… taichou…"

Hitsugaya just waved at him to relax and moved on, out into the shadowed streets.

He had a sudden urge to go see Jidanbou; he hadn't had a chance to visit the giant in months, and now… well, now he had some worthy news. But that would have to wait for later. It was far more important that he see his current plans through.

He turned northward, avoiding the pools of light cast by still open shops or food stalls, and kept up a good pace. The 8th Division compound soon came into view, and he took a few short cuts to avoid being seen from its front gate. He did the same on passing the 9th Division gates, and after several more shortcuts finally arrived at his destination.

He paused in a shadowed doorway and observed the 10th Division gate for some time. There were no sentries posted, but the gate itself was shut.

Hitsugaya folded his arms and settled in to wait. If there was anything he'd perfected over the last several years, it was the art of waiting.

Not until the moon was high overhead and he was sure the midnight hour must have passed did he slip out from his nook. He gathered himself and leapt lightly up onto the nearest rooftop then launched into a sprint, ending with a series of long shunpo that took him over the 10th Division wall.

It hadn't been officially announced what division he would command until the investiture just this morning, though there had been little doubt. But as such, the formal welcome and the necessary meetings had been arranged for tomorrow. Just a few hours from now, but Hitsugaya was not willing to wait that long. Tomorrow was going to be difficult enough, and the last thing he wanted was to need someone else to escort him around his own division compound. The most important buildings should be easy enough to recognize with just a little bit of private exploration. He had no intention of needing a guide to his own office.

But as he began his exploring, attentive for any sound, he found himself dangerously distracted, his thoughts drifting to the very thing he'd been trying to avoid thinking about all day.

Matsumoto Rangiku.

He hadn't exactly asked Yamamoto to give him a different Vice Captain. Not in so many words. He'd just grit his teeth and asked, as politely as he could manage, whether the Commander General thought they would be well-suited to each other. The old man's eyes hadn't even opened beyond their usual squint, and he had simply said, "She is well-known and respected in her division. You must resolve any issues between yourselves."

And that was that.

But as Hitsugaya slipped around a corner and put his hand against the wall of what was obviously the main training hall, Nakada Kisho's words came back to him. "I should have thought that you of all people would understand the danger of judging someone based on their appearance."

Maybe so. But he was finding it difficult not to judge, when the woman had to be completely conscious of the state of her appearance.

It couldn't possibly bode well.

Sighing, he moved on in his exploring.

The compound was arranged similarly to that of the 7th, which was reassuring. There weren't quite as many small, hidden gardens, but more than a few open spaces that would serve the purpose well with just a little bit of planting and tending. He thought he might instruct someone to do so. Maybe even a watermelon patch. He could do that, now that he was a Captain.

He found the secondary training hall, the main dining hall, and the hellmoth lodges before finally deciding to sneak into the buildings themselves. It took a bit more finesse, since even at this late hour there were usually some people awake and wandering about, but he managed to sneak past two men engaged in a dicing match and one couple engaged in something a bit more personal without being noticed.

Somehow, he'd expected everything to be chaotic and jumbled inside; doors open, papers scattered, dust in every corner. But everything was neat and tidy, the wooden floors practically gleaming in the light of night lanterns, and there was no sound of drunken revelry to be heard.

Maybe they'd organized things in preparation for his arrival.

Maybe Matsumoto Rangiku ran things a bit more efficiently than he'd been expecting.

It was a hopeful sign, at least.

He got lost a few times, and had to find his way out of labyrinthine corridors with care, stumbling into more than one supply closet. But eventually he worked his way into the central buildings, and was even fortunate enough to come across the division archives, which were well organized but more than a little dusty. Well, he would see to that. And tempting as it was to start to digging through the scrolls right away, he forced himself to move on. It was creeping ever closer toward morning, and he needed to find his office.

It was with relief that he finally discovered the small hall, isolated by a narrow ring of greenery, with the kanji ten engraved on the panel over every doorway. If that wasn't the Captain's office, then he was going to have to do something about the decorators. Circling the building until he found the most inconspicuous of the doors, he slid the panels aside and stepped in.

Here there were no lamps lit, and he had to wait a bit for his eyes to grow accustomed to the shadows, but after a time the moonlight seeping through paper was enough to make out the furniture shapes, of which there weren't many. A few chairs, a small desk, and a larger desk in front of a window between two tall bookshelves. Moving slowly, savoring the moment, he walked over to the larger desk and pressed his palm against the smooth, cold wood. He smiled.

"What do you think, Hyourinmaru?"

A sudden gust of icy air whistled through the room, and the vaguest outline of the dragon's serpent shape – unusually small, but graceful as ever – appeared coiled around the foot of the desk, its transparent red eyes gleaming in the moonlight.

I think that you are pleased.

"Well… yeah."

Then I am pleased as well.

Hitsugaya settled himself in the chair, his good mood slightly soured by the discovery that he would have to get a chair with longer legs in order to be able to write comfortably at the desk. The desk itself at least was perfect. Plenty of room. He turned, one arm over the chair back, to peer through the shadows at the shelves behind him. Plenty of room there too. Just as he'd hoped. And in the day, with all the windows open, there would be plenty of light.

"Yeah. I'm pleased."

You have flown well. No one can question you now.

"We're not done yet. But yeah. We made it. We're here." A moment passed, then he sighed and scooted the chair forward in order to fold his arms on the desk and rest his head there, letting all the tension drain from his shoulders. The weight of the sword at his back shifted, and a point of the tsuba poked him in the back of the head, but he didn't mind. He turned his face, cheek against his crossed hands, to meet the dragon's still hazy eyes. "Youngest Captain in Soul Society," he murmured. "I guess that's… something."

Something indeed.

"Thanks, Hyourinmaru."

You need not thank me, no more than you need thank yourself. We are one. We fly together, or not at all. You have claimed the sky, and so given it to me as well. Without you, I am nothing.

"Yeah, I know," he said, frowning slightly. It had all been said before. He wasn't really expecting more. Not from the dragon. But still…

The dragon shape took on a bit more solidity, and the head moved closer, its bearded chin almost resting on the desk top. White vapor gusted from the nostrils, and Hitsugaya closed his eyes, the better to enjoy the cool, crisp breath that washed over his skin.

But you are welcome, nevertheless.

Without opening his eyes, he smiled.


A soft sound, the whisper of snow slithering over ice, and he knew the dragon's manifestation had faded. But the cold remained, comforting as always, and he knew just as instinctively that Hyourinmaru's spirit remained roused, with him.

And it was still smiling, certain of the dragon's presence, that he made the mistake he would regret for months to follow.

He fell asleep.

He would never be sure, afterward, whether it was the sudden intrusion of bright sunlight as windows were thrown open or the very loud voice which woke him. Probably a terrible combination of both.

"Good morning, Hitsugaya-taichou!"

Hitsugaya woke with a jerk, mortification already tightening his throat so that he could do no more than croak as he pushed himself up from his slump on the desk, so quickly that he nearly fell backwards out of his chair.

He blinked furiously, squinting in the bright light, and as his sight cleared the shadowy shape approaching him resolved itself inescapably into Matsumoto Rangiku, his Vice Captain, a positively indecent grin on her face and her breasts nearly falling out of her kimono.

"Did you have a good sleep, Hitsugaya-taichou?" she asked cheerfully, her voice still inordinately loud.

Hitsugaya had to resist the urge to leap up from his chair and…and… he didn't know what. Do something drastic that he would probably regret.

Thank all the gods that he hadn't been drooling.

"Imagine my surprise when I came in to tidy up and found you here, taichou!" Matsumoto went on, not waiting for a reply from him. She came to stand before the desk and folded her arms under her breasts in a way that just made them bulge more, if that were possible. Hitsugaya tore his eyes away, growing seriously terrified that her clothing would not contain her.

He cleared his throat, stopped himself from running a hand through his hair, and absolutely refused to betray his embarrassment by standing up. He would sit here calmly, damn it, like any superior before a subordinate.

"Matsumoto-fukutaichou, I presume?"

"Of course! Who else would be in the Captain's office this early in the morning? I do hope you don't mind. I just wanted to make sure that everything was nice and organized for my new Captain's arrival."

Her tone was far too cheerful. He met her eyes, trying to determine if she was being sarcastic, but they were like mirrors; the morning sunlight lightened what was probably a clear gray into almost perfect whiteness, surrounded by a darker ring of color. There was no crack in her bright smile, and she only smiled wider under the weight of his inspection. She swept long hair back with a graceful hand, and cocked her head.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Hitsugaya-taichou. I'm sure we have a great deal to look forward to together."

"Well," he said at last, finally recovering enough composure to keep his tone cool, "we have a lot of work to do, at least."

"There's no need to worry, taichou. I'm a bit nervous too! This is my first day as a Vice Captain!"

He frowned. Then, deciding enough time had passed to make his point, stood up from his chair – only to wish that he hadn't. Standing, he could see just how tall she was.

"You passed your Vice Captain's examination decades ago," he said sharply.

"Well, yes, but you know, I haven't had a real Captain to serve here in the 10th, so I don't think it really counts," she said, sounding ridiculously happy about the whole affair.

It had to be sarcasm.

Hitsugaya shrugged, settling Hyourinmaru more comfortably across his back, and paced over to the open window.

"What time is it?" he asked, dreading to discover how much he might have overslept.

"Oh, it's the crack of dawn!" Matsumoto chirped.

Relieved, he breathed in deeply of the crisp morning air, and, his back safely turned to her, scrubbed at his face with his hands in an effort to wipe the sleep from his eyes. Well, if she was punctual enough to wake him up this early, then maybe Hinamori had been wrong.

"Do you normally like to sleep in longer, taichou?"

"No!" he practically shouted, then scowled, collected himself, and turned slowly from the window to face her again. "No," he said more calmly. "It was just… a long night."

"I imagine it was. It must have taken you some time to find the office in the dark. I wish you'd let me know that you were going to arrive early, Hitsugaya-taichou – I had a big welcome all prepared for you!"

Hitsugaya couldn't make himself feel guilty about it, even though he knew he probably should.

"It's better this way," he said, taking advantage of the light now to walk over and inspect the shelves. "Are these the division registers?"

"Yep! I organized them myself."


"Well, I helped."

He sighed.

"Would you like some breakfast? I think we have just enough time before the division inspection begins."

"Inspection?" he echoed, turning swiftly to face her again.

"Oh yes, I thought you might want to inspect the men right away, so I arranged the whole thing. They're probably gathering out there right now."

It was a good idea, if a bit unexpected so early. He'd thought he'd have some time to meet with the division's seated officers first, but maybe this was best.

It also meant he'd get out of this awkward private conversation all the faster.

"I don't need breakfast, but I'd like to see my living quarters."

"Oh, but you simply can't start the day without breakfast! I'll take you to your rooms and then come right back with something to eat."

"That's not neces -"

"Right this way, taichou!"

She practically skipped to the door, and he didn't have any choice but to follow. She hummed as she walked, and he followed along, hoping that they wouldn't come across anyone else on the way. Fortunately, she only led him a few steps down a short corridor, around a corner, and through a set of doors at the heart of the same building.

"All of the Captain's rooms are in this building," she said, sliding the doors open to reveal a small antechamber, and another set of doors with screens elegantly patterned with drooping black lilies – the 10th Division's symbol. She rolled these screens back as well, then waltzed on in. "Here you are! Your new home! Sorry if it's a little dusty – Nakada refused to live in here, so no one's used it for years and years. I was going to have it cleaned, but – "

"I'm here early, I know," he cut her off, trying not to let her cheery tone annoy him any more than it already was. He wished he could tell how much of it was faked.

It was a large set of rooms, and the noren separating the main room from the sleeping quarters was patterned with the same design as the screens. It was indeed a bit dusty, but no sign of any previous residents remained; the furniture was sparse, and no ornaments were to be found. The only signs of recent intrusion were the packages he had already had sent over from his early morning packing yesterday, and a silk sheet spread on a table over which the promised extra clothing had arrived from 4th Division.

"Where is – " he began, but turned to find that Matsumoto had already disappeared, probably to fetch the promised breakfast. Well, it might not be a bad idea after all. He was impatient to get started with business, but it wouldn't do to have his stomach growling during the division inspection.

She was back so quickly that he was sure she must have used shunpo to get to the kitchens and back. And the tray she set on the table for him was perfectly arranged. He frowned at it, beginning to suspect that she'd had time to plan for this in advance despite her protests. Had she done this before waking him? He couldn't help feeling paranoid about the whole affair. No one could be that cheerful so early in the morning. But when he turned his frown on her, she just smiled.

"Eat up! I'll be back as soon as the division is ready for your inspection."

And with that she was gone again, the ends of the blue scarf draped over her shoulders trailing in her wake. She left behind a lingering scent of perfume that made him want to sneeze.

He tried to tell himself that there could have been a worse way start to the day, though he was at a loss to imagine how. He had a very bad feeling that being caught sleeping his first day as Captain was something that could easily be held against him in future.

He ate quickly, tried to get his hair to stick down, gave it up for hopeless as usual, then paced restlessly until his Vice Captain's return. He hated having to wait, but he didn't know where to go, and was not about to start the day stumbling around like a lost child. That had been the whole point of his midnight mission in the first place.

By the time Matsumoto returned he'd worked himself into a foul, anxious mood.

"Is everything ready?" he asked quickly.

"Ready and waiting," she said, still smiling.

If she didn't stop smiling, he couldn't be held responsible for his actions.

"Let's go, then."

"Right away, taichou!"

Perhaps she picked up on his mood, because she said nothing more as she guided him through the compound, and he was glad for the opportunity to compose himself in silence. But as they exited a covered walkway to see a solid wall of black in the courtyard where the division was assembled, he had to restrain himself from asking whether she really meant to conduct this inspection with her kimono in that state. It was a hard thing to do, but he managed it. He was not going to be seen arguing with his Vice Captain first thing in the morning on his first day as Captain.

As they drew nearer, and the faces of the Shinigami in the first rows of the two facing sections grew more clear, Hitsugaya felt his heartbeat lurch faster.

His division.


Here it was, the reality at last.

Matsumoto stopped at the head of the open row which had been left between the two assembled groups, and Hitsugaya, deep in his own anxieties, nearly walked on without her. He stopped himself just a pace in front of her, which was fine. It might help to mitigate the height difference a little bit too.

When Matsumoto spoke next, the cheerful, lilting tone had vanished. He was surprised to hear how low her voice became, and there was a huskiness to it that sounded almost menacing as she barked out, "Look sharp, people!"

The sound of rustling fabric as over two hundred Shinigami went rigid was loud in Hitsugaya's ears, loud even over the internal throb of his heartbeat.

"Hitsugaya-taichou," Matsumoto said loudly, again in that lower, compelling voice, "10th Division awaits your inspection."

He nodded, not trusting himself to speak, and began a slow walk down the corridor of people. No one met his eyes. Everyone was taller than him, of course, but he tried not to think about it. His jinbaori felt heavy in its rustling against his legs, and the weight of it on his shoulders seemed greater than before.

Matsumoto followed behind him, silent, and when he reached the end of the corridor of people and turned, she was waiting with her hands clasped behind her back. The pose unfortunately thrust her breasts even more clearly into view, but for the first time all morning her expression was completely somber, a slight frown between her eyebrows. Her eyes had darkened to a smooth, sleet gray.

Hitsugaya swallowed, carefully so as not to be noticed, and hoped fervently that his voice would remain steady as he opened his mouth to speak.

"I know that it will take some time to learn the division's traditions," he said, making no effort to raise his voice. The morning air was still, and sound would carry well. Better to risk the people in the back not hearing than to make a bad impression shouting. "And I know it will take some time for everyone to learn my methods. I hope we can all be patient and look forward to a smooth transition."

The silence was perfect. Matsumoto didn't even blink, her eyes steadily on him.

He couldn't for the life of him think of anything else to say, so he didn't bother struggling with it. Straight to business, then.

"I'll want to observe training exercises this afternoon, three hours after midday. All squad leaders report to my office in two hours."

He gave Matsumoto a nod, hoping that she would interpret it correctly, and nearly sighed with relief when she turned immediately and dismissed the division with a few loud words and a wave of her hand.

The men and women scattered, discipline totally forgotten, murmuring in packs as they went. Nearly everyone looked back at him over their shoulders, and Hitsugaya tried to remain stoic, arms folded until the courtyard had emptied of all but himself and Matsumoto.

When she turned again to face him her smile was back in place, all signs of the somber – and much preferred – Vice Captain gone as swiftly as they had come.

"Well done, taichou!"

"Forget the pleasantries," he muttered. "I want to get straight to work."

Her eyes grew round. "So early?"

"What?" he snapped. "What do you mean, so early? You're the one who… never mind," he amended, getting a hold of himself. "I appreciate the inspection, anyway. Can I expect everyone to be this organized all the time?"

Something shifted in her smile, and for the first time he noticed the mole near her bottom lip. A shift happened in her eyes as well, and as with the change in her voice, there was something suddenly sharp behind eyes and smile both. Something decidedly cunning.

The dragon coiled to life in his chest, responding to the battle challenge.

"Well I guess that all depends," Matsumoto Rangiku said, holding his gaze, "on whether you make us want to be."

He met her gaze for several moments – saying nothing, staring her down, and wishing he didn't have to stare up in order to do it. Then he turned on his heel without another word and headed back toward his new office, already sure of his path.

His Vice Captain followed, her steps light behind him.

There was no overly-loud voice to wake him on his second day as Captain, but he woke with a start all the same, half-convinced that he'd been having nightmares about that voice anyway.

After that one moment of challenge in the training yard, Matsumoto had spent the rest of the day guiding him around the compound and introducing his officers in so persistently chipper a manner that he had gone to bed that night with a headache from clenching his teeth. No surprise that memory of that voice would have crept into his dreams.

It was a bit disorienting to wake in a new room, but after sliding off his futon he rested his hand on Hyourinmaru for a moment – the sword stand was the only personal article he'd bothered to set up before falling asleep – and just that touch was enough to reorient him to the world.

Opening the nearest window revealed that it couldn't be much more than an hour past dawn, but he couldn't have gone back to sleep even if he'd wanted to. Besides, if yesterday was anything to go by, he ought to get used to early starts.

He took care of his morning business quickly and went straight to his office, half-expecting to find Matsumoto already there, and couldn't help sighing a bit with relief when he found it empty. Several piles of paperwork already littered his desk; reports and requests piled up for his review, which Matsumoto claimed Nakada had left for him. "I thought you might want to dive right in!" she'd said.

Well, it wasn't too bad an idea, in the end. He could learn a lot from reviewing the budget manifests, even if he couldn't think of many more boring ways to pass the time.

He was already deep into it when a soft rapping came at the door. He set the papers down and drew a deep, steadying breath before giving permission to enter, but it was only a young Shinigami, her eyes downcast and on the breakfast tray in her hands. Not Matsumoto.

"Excuse me, Hitsugaya-taichou. I've brought your breakfast."

"Thank you. You can set it down there. I'll get to it in a bit."

"Yes, sir."

"Do you bring breakfast every morning?"

"The newer recruits take turns at it, sir."

"No, I mean… never mind. From now on, you don't need to bring breakfast. I can fetch it myself. You can worry about your other duties instead."

"Yes… yes, sir."

She bowed and left, frowning a bit as she went, as though confused. Hitsugaya shrugged it off with a mental note to himself to follow up with the kitchen staff, then dove back into the squad activity reports, and by the time he remembered to stop and eat the tea and food had both gone cold.

And Matsumoto still hadn't arrived.

He ate the meal cold, worked all the way through the most recent budget manifest, and by the shifting shadows over his desk as the sun shone through the window behind him, he realized it was nearing noon.

The doors opened without warning and Matsumoto swept in, smiling brightly.

"Good morning, taichou!"

Hitsugaya set his brush down and carefully straightened the stack of papers in front of him before answering. "It's not morning any longer."

"Woops! You know how time flies. I got so caught up checking in on the hellmoth cages that I must have lost track of time."

"What's the Vice Captain doing overseeing hellmoth care?" he asked, feeling the muscle in his temple begin to twitch.

"Moral support, taichou. It's such a boring job, you know. Every once in a while the guys need some… inspiration!"

There was something in the way she said it, something in the way she looked at him as she said it, that made him very sure he didn't want to know anything more about her idea of inspiration.

"Do you think you're quite done inspiring people for the day?" he bit out.

"Yes, I think I've done about as much as I can in that department for one day," she agreed, sighing as though it were heavy work.

"Wonderful. So if you could sit down and take a look at these squad listings, I'd like your assessment of the unit leaders."

"Of course, taichou. Whatever you say."

She took the papers from him and, much to his annoyance, leaned one hip against the side of his desk, making herself comfortable there to leaf through them. She hummed as she read, and Hitsugaya waited, with as much patience as he could muster, for her to finish.

And waited.

And waited.

The dragon had taught him to be patient, but that lesson seemed suddenly very far away, and easily forgotten.

"Well?" he said at last, rubbing at his temple.

"Hmm? Oh! Yes, the unit leaders. Well, what did you want to know?"

"I want to know what you think of them!"

"Which one of them?"

"All of them!"

"So should I start with the youngest, or the prettiest?"

"Matsumoto-fukutaichou – "

"Oh, taichou, you should just call me Matsumoto. I'm your Vice Captain, after all. No need to be so formal."

She smiled as she said it and met his eyes, but again they were like clear, wide mirrors, and he had no idea what was really behind them.

"Start with Okubo, then," he said with a frustrated sigh.

"Well, Okubo." She set the papers back on his desk, straightened, folded her arms, and her entire demeanor shifted. He became suddenly aware of her reiatsu, and even muted, under control as it was, there was a sharp strength to it that surprised him.

"Okubo is good in the field, a natural leader, but he has no gift for training others," she said, her voice steady and low, and a slight frown between her brows. "It's best for his unit to share training with Yamaguchi's. Yamaguchi is a natural teacher, but not the best in the field, so his unit is pretty low on the combat rotation. They balance each other out."

Hitsugaya hoped very much that his expression wasn't betraying his surprise, but it wouldn't have mattered, because Matsumoto wasn't look at him now. Waiting for no further prompting, she went through the entire squad leader listing, rattling off information so quickly that it was all he could do to keep up, trying to lock it away in his mind for later reference. Toward the end, he had overcome his surprise enough to begin taking hasty notes, and it wasn't until several long moments had passed with only the sound of his brush moving over paper that he realized she'd stopped speaking.

He dipped his brush again, and said, without looking up, "Thank you." It came out a bit terse, but he couldn't help it, since what he really wanted to do was demand why she couldn't have got straight to the information in the first place instead of giving him the coy runaround. What was she trying to prove with it, anyway? Was it merely a test of his patience?

"Taichou, have you eaten lunch yet?"

"I don't need it," he muttered, still writing.

"Nonsense! Growing boys need their meals!"

He froze.

After a moment, he set down his brush, and looked up to find her watching him with a tiny smile on her lips, her eyebrows half-raised. A perfect picture of innocence, ruined only by the state of her clothing.

"Fukutaichou," he said coldly. "Jokes about my age, or height, or inexperience, will absolutely not be tolerated."

She met his narrowed eyes without flinching, and though her smile vanished she did not lower her gaze, and her hand remained confidently on her cocked hip.

"Understood," she said calmly. "You're our Captain. You are correct. No one has the right to disparage your age or height. Not even me."

"Don't take me for stupid, either," he said, and even with Hyourinmaru several steps behind him, resting against the wall, the temperature in the room began to drop. "I notice you left inexperience out of that speech."

"Yes. I did."

The moments seemed to stretch into years as they stared at each other, and it was Hitsugaya who finally broke the lock, retrieving his brush with a grunt.

"I'll take your point as long as you remember mine," he said sharply, already writing again. "So go and get us both something to eat, because we have a lot of work to do here."

She didn't argue or make any further pithy comments, only uttered a soft sound of acknowledgement and left – which was good, because he was at the very edge of his temper and if she'd pushed any harder he thought he might have snapped. As it was, her absence gave him time to calm down, so that when she returned he was able to pretend like nothing had happened. He handed her a stack of papers in exchange for his lunch.

"When we're done here I want to schedule another round of training exercises, each unit individually, so I can do some detailed observation."

"Yes, taichou," she said, and the cheeriness was back in her tone.

He drank some of the tea but otherwise left the food untouched, too intent on getting the paperwork out of the way as quickly as possible so that he could move on to more hands-on work, which he was sure would prove more critical at this early stage.

But he was used to working alone in a room – he'd taken care over the years to plan his time in 7th Division's offices to ensure his solitude – and the sound of someone else working nearby kept intruding on his concentration.

Matsumoto hummed while she worked. He shot her the occasional surreptitious glance, wondering if she realized she was doing it.

She couldn't seem to find a comfortable position, either. One moment she was sitting straight in her chair, the next she'd be slumped over the desk, head resting on one propped up hand, breasts practically obscuring her papers.

And she stretched altogether too often. No one could possibly need to stretch that much.

Fortunately, he'd safely diverted his attention back to his work when she spoke again.

"I think I'll go arrange the exercises," she said.

"Are those reports done?" he asked, not looking up.

"Oh, I can do those later, no problem. They'll be done before you know it. But we should give the squad leaders enough advance warning to really prepare, shouldn't we? I'll schedule everything for tomorrow, but they should know about it today."

"Mastumo – "

But she was already through the door, and all he caught as he looked up was the trailing end of her scarf and a waving hand.

She might have been right about the advance warning, but what kind of exit was that?

And now that it was safe to take a good look in the direction of her desk, the stack of papers there didn't seem to be any smaller.

He set his brush aside and rubbed at his forehead, willing himself to relax.

She'd said she would be back to finish them. Fine. He'd take her at her word.

And maybe she had the right idea. Maybe he should get out of this office earlier rather than later.

With that thought, he finished the report he was reviewing, sorted it into the finished pile, and turned his attention to food. He wasn't sure what Matsumoto had requested, but the spread was far too lavish. Something simpler would be better. Simple, but in quantity. And if the season was right, he could request watermelon.

That thought cheered him considerably. He could request watermelon. Even if he had to pay for it out of his own budget, he could easily afford it now.

It was with a lighter step that he settled Hyourinmaru across his back and left in search of the kitchens. When he arrived, he wasn't surprised to find the huge cooking hall fully staffed, even in the middle of the afternoon; there were a lot of Shinigami in a Gotei 13 division, and they all wanted to be kept well fed. The division kitchens typically only offered the most basic of fare, and people had to go to the shops and stands for their favorite delicacies, but even just producing staple meals kept the kitchen staff busy. When they weren't trying to work around those Shinigami who liked to think themselves adept at cooking their own meals, at least.

It took a few moments for anyone to notice him in all the bustle, but when he was spotted all activity came to a halt as the head cook called everyone to attention. Knives and ladles were held frozen at aproned sides while everyone bowed or eyed him curiously, and Hitsugaya felt suddenly awkward, as he never felt when standing at the head of a group of armed men.

Eventually he managed to convince the head cook that they could all get back to work, and was relieved when his request to make watermelon a regular part of his menu when it could be found was met with only a professional acknowledgment.

To his surprise, however, his request to stop the meal deliveries to his office was met with barely stifled indignation.

"No, Hitsugaya-taichou, it wouldn't be right for you to come and fetch your own meals."

"That's stupid," he said, his tenuous grasp on tact failing him. "Why waste someone else's time- "

"It wouldn't be proper," the head cook insisted, his nostrils flaring. "Not at all. If you don't want the recruits carrying the meals, then my staff can do it. But they'll be delivered one way or another."

"Are you trying to tell me I'm not allowed to visit my own division's kitchen?" he asked, exasperated.

"Of course not. You are here now, Hitsugaya-taichou."

"But you're going to insist that someone deliver me my breakfast."


"What about Matsumoto and the other officers? Do they have their breakfasts delivered?"

"Only on request."

"Then why – " he persisted, stubbornly unable to lose even so trivial a battle.

"You're the Captain," the cook said, with such finality that clearly he thought this rebuttal indisputable.

They were being watched by now, of course, and it was the awareness of curious stares on him that finally convinced Hitsugaya it wasn't worth pursuing. At least not at that moment. Jyunrinan, being the first of the Western districts, might have been a bit more affluent than others, but it was still Rukongai. He'd never been waited on in his life, and had no intention of starting now just because he'd become a Captain.

But as he left the kitchens, heading out toward the training halls, he wondered how many other unexpected traditions he was going to end up butting heads with, and rather dreaded finding out.

It was late into the evening by the time he returned to his office, and he told himself that he had not spent the last few hours of the day searching nooks and crannies of the compound for his Vice Captain. No, he had been familiarizing himself with the layout, that was all. He also tried to tell himself that he fully expected to return and find all of the paperwork finished, but he was having as little success with that thought as with the first.

He realized he was being a little unreasonable; he was willing to admit that. It was only his second day as Captain, and things like this took time.

It just would have been so much easier to be patient with someone like Watari as his Vice Captain.

When he arrived at his office he was surprised to slide open the door and find the room cast in total darkness. There were windows all along the wall, and the moonlight coming through them should have been plenty to see by. He hadn't noticed any shutters, but clearly someone had blinded the windows.

He stepped cautiously in, sliding his foot forward along the ground so as not to lose steady battle footing; he'd trained too hard and too long to overcome certain instincts, and the office, though his, was still a new and unfamiliar place.

"Hadou thirty-three," he murmured, focusing his reiatsu over his upturned palm, "Soukatsui."

The blue fireball, carefully controlled, shed icy light into every corner of the room. He barely made out several large shapes before a series of small explosions went off all around him, blinding him with sparkling, colored lights.

He'd turned his hand, ready to the throw the fireball, and had Hyourinmaru halfway unsheathed before the sound finally hit him.



"Well done!"

Blinking furiously to clear his dazed vision, his fingers curling tightly into the sizzling edges of his kidou spell, Hitsugaya swore to himself that he was going to kill somebody.

But first he'd have to find out who was responsible for this.

Matsumoto was standing in the middle of the room grinning like a cat, while Hinamori stood beside her, the ribboned remains of a small firework clutched between her hands. She was smiling brightly at him.

But of course, it couldn't merely end there.

Of course not.

The long-haired Captain of the 13th Division was standing to one side, waving, while another man, draped in flowered pink silk and holding aloft a sake jug in salute, could only be Kyouraku Shunsui. The only person in the room not smiling was Ise Nanao, standing beside her Captain, though even she was holding the remains of a firework like Hinamori's.

Hitsugaya's gaze swiveled back to Hinamori and Matsumoto. The blame had to lie there. One of them was going to have to pay for this.

"What the hell is this?" he snapped, barely restraining himself from shouting.

"It's a party, of course!" Hinamori cried, bounding forward. "Oh, put your sword away, Hitsugaya-kun! You deserve this."

"I deserve to be left alone to my work," he retorted, though he did let Hyourinmaru slide back into the saya.

"I do hope you'll forgive the intrusion," Ukitake said, stepping forward. "But it's been so long since we had a new Captain join the ranks. It's a good cause for celebration."

"Ukitake-taichou," Hitsugaya began.

"Please." He put his hands up, still smiling. "Just Ukitake."

"Ukitake-taichou," he repeated firmly, out of pure stubbornness, since he would have much preferred dropping the honorific himself, "I appreciate the sentiment, but – "

Kyouraku descended on him in a swirl of pink silk and flowery fragrance, laying one hand warmly on his shoulder. "Toushiro-kun, it's wonderful to meet you at last! I've heard so much about you."

Then again, properly respectful address wasn't really that much of a hassle.

Hitsugaya couldn't help it; he knew he was scowling, and abruptly decided not to bother trying to control it.

"Kyouraku-taichou, I presume?"

"Oh, please, call me Shunsui," he said, flapping his hand languidly.

"Please, call me Hitsugaya-taichou," he replied through gritted teeth.

To his intense frustration, Kyouraku merely chuckled. Hitsugaya wondered how much sake was actually left in that jar.

"Congratulations, Hitsugaya-taichou," Ise Nanao said quietly, pushing her glasses more firmly up her nose. "I apologize for the disturbance."

"You don't have to apologize, Ise," Hinamori said stoutly, setting aside the firework streamers on Matsumoto's desk – which was still piled high with papers. "He's just being stubborn. He'll relax once he eats something."

He was about to growl something in reply, but shut his mouth sharply and turned away, stalking to his desk.

Unfortunately, Ukitake was in the way.

"Unohana would have been here, but there was an 11th Division emergency, so she's been unfortunately detained," Ukitake said, still smiling. Then, with a swift motion, he pulled something out from behind his back. "Here you go. It's not much, but I thought a little something to decorate a new office…"

"It's a potted plant," Hitsugaya said flatly, staring at it.

"So it is." Ukitake beamed.

"I guess… thank you." Hitsugaya took the plant; it didn't seem like he had a choice.

"Oh, and just a little something for when you get peckish," Ukitake added, producing a small, lumpy bag from thin air.

"What is it," Hitsugaya asked dryly, "plant fertilizer?"

Kyouraku Shunsui chuckled into his sake, and Hinamori sighed. Ukitake just smiled. "No, no. But go ahead and save it for later."

Hitsugaya took the bag and finally worked his way around Ukitake to his desk, setting plant and bag both on a corner of it, and himself in the chair. But before he could pull out papers to use as an excuse for why he really desperately needed to get back to work right this minute, Hinamori was suddenly at his side and taking the brush right out of his hand.

"Hitsugaya-kun, please," she said. "Don't be grouchy. It's a special night. Celebrate it with us."

He stared up at her, trying to maintain his frown, trying to keep his heart closed, determined to set his foot down right now and make it very clear that he intended to be treated with respect, with dignity, that he intended to be a Captain, damn it!

But even if Kyouraku hadn't been there, producing sake bowls out of his sleeves like magic, or Ukitake, mumbling something about looking for the rest of the fireworks, "They're Shiba, you know," he was saying, "very special, shouldn't waste them," both men putting the lie to Hitsugaya's stubborn belief that this was not the sort of thing a Captain should be doing… even without that, he wouldn't have been able to stand firm in his protests. Not with Hinamori looking down at him like that, her wide eyes shining with the certainty that he couldn't say no, not to her, not when she asked so earnestly.

And of course he couldn't.

He wondered if he ever would.

"Hinamori," he sighed. "You know I hate this sort of thing."

But she knew him too well not to recognize his complaint for surrender. She smiled brightly, and for a moment he feared she was about to try to ruffle his hair. But instead she clapped her hands together once and then reached deep into her sleeve to produce a tiny envelope, which she set down on the desk in front of him.

"What's this, then?" he asked resignedly, picking it up. Something inside shifted, like tiny rattles.

"Watermelon seeds! I thought maybe if you planted them right now they might be ready in time for autumn."

He couldn't think of anything to say. But he closed his fingers around the little envelope and pulled it in close, as though he might be able to catch a scent of melon from the seeds within.

Finally, he grunted. "It's too bad that isn't fertilizer, then," he said, nodding to Ukitake's lumpy bag.

"Just make sure you invite me over when they're ripe," Hinamori said, needing no more thanks, and then turned away to ask Ise something about cake.

Hitsugaya opened a drawer and carefully put the watermelon seeds away.

He sensed Matsumoto's approach even before he looked up to see her standing across the desk from him.

"It was all Hinamori-chan's idea," she said airily, a suspicious bright pink already high on her cheeks. "I hope you're not really mad, taichou!"

"I don't know why I'm so certain," he said, meeting her eyes, "but I find it hard to believe that you didn't have a hand in this."

"So suspicious, taichou?" she said, putting the back of her hand to her forehead. "I'm hurt!"

"I doubt that," he muttered.

"But I think Ukitake is right – you need to relax!"

"Ukitake thinks I need to relax, does he?"

"So does Unohana," she said, a strange glint in her eye.

"I'm so glad you're talking about me with everyone behind my back! When the hell did you people have the time – "

The door slid open with a bang, and two figures nearly tripped inside, balancing a huge cake precariously between them.

"Watch what you're doing, flea-brain!"

"You watch it, monkey-girl! I was holding it perfectly steady – "

"The cake!" Hinamori nearly shrieked, rushing forward with Ise at her side. Just in time, the two Vice Captains caught and straightened the platter right before it would have tipped its contents onto the floor.

The loud newcomers – Kotsubaki Sentaro and Kotetsu Kiyone, he would soon learn – argued their way over to Ukitake's side, both of their faces speckled with icing.

Matsumoto rushed to join Hinamori and Ise, the former two fluttering worriedly about the cake in a salvage operation, while Ise offered calm suggestions and magically produced a cutting knife with the same graceful aplomb with which her Captain had produced sake bowls.

For the moment, nobody seemed to be paying any attention to him, no matter the supposed purpose of the party, so Hitsugaya took the opportunity to drop his head and set his forehead down briefly against the cool desktop, praying for patience. When he lifted it again, ready as he was ever going to be, he stood up from the chair and went over to inspect the cake. No use wasting good cake.

But he took Hyourinmaru with him.

He woke with a blazing headache, though he couldn't be entirely certain what had caused it. The dangerous indoor fireworks, maybe. Kotsubaki and Kotetsu's constant bickering. Altogether too much cake. He also suspected someone – probably Kyouraku, that drunken maniac, how could he possibly have been a Captain for two millennia? – had tried to spike his drink.

Determined not to let a party, of all things, lay him low on just his third day as Captain, he crawled up to meet the morning, took care of the business of making himself presentable, and hauled himself to his office.

The potted plant still sat on his desk, and next to it the breakfast tray which someone had already brought in for him. He sighed, but took the tea cup gratefully in his hands to let the warmth seep into his fingers.

The office was a general disaster area. Who would have thought that one party, with only eight people, could have caused this much damage? But then, he'd made his retreat before Kyouraku and Matsumoto had finished their drinking game, so who knew what had happened after his departure.

Well, when Matsumoto got here, she could take care of the mess she'd made. Right along with the stack of papers that were still on her desk, having somehow survived the night unscathed.

"Next time they can have their damn party in the hellmoth cages," he muttered, but quickly changed his mind. The poor hellmoths didn't deserve it.

Then he noticed something strange on his desk, the one area of the room which had, through his vigorous intervention, made it through the night untouched.

It was a small object, square, wrapped in brown paper.

Frowning, he pulled it to him and tugged open the binding string. Inside there was a strip of paper on top of a wooden box. He lifted the paper to find a short note written there, in large, bold writing.

I went ahead and picked this up for you so you wouldn't have to. I thought you might want to use the time in other ways.

He didn't recognize the writing, but it had to be from someone who had been here last night. Not Hinamori; her writing, he would have recognized.

He slid back the lid to the small box to find his Captain's seal within, resting on a bed of blue silk. He lifted the stone chop and peered at the engraving. His name, the division kanji, the division flower. And there, tiny but unmistakable, curling around the bottom edge, was a dragon.

Hitsugaya frowned. He hadn't said anything about adding a dragon. Where had the artisan gotten that idea? What had he heard?

And then he noticed that there was something written on the inside of the wrapping paper. He pulled it toward him, smoothing it out over his desk, and after a moment realized he was looking at a rough map of the inner buildings of the division compound. And traced in red ink between the black lines representing buildings and corridors, someone had delineated a strange, circuitous route from the Captain's rooms to the kitchen pantries.

At the bottom of the rough map was written: Follow this path and no one will see you. Can't work on an empty stomach!

The writing matched that on the note, and he knew now whose it had to be.

Maybe Matsumoto had heard about his visit to the kitchens. Maybe Hinamori had gone on one of her embarrassing rambles last night, when he hadn't been paying enough attention, about how little Shiro-chan always had such a big appetite and needed to be kept well supplied with big meals. He didn't want to imagine it. It made his face burn just thinking about it.

He didn't know what had made Matsumoto think he would find a shortcut to the kitchen pantries useful, but there was no doubt that he would. Leaving the too-frequent urge for midnight snacking aside, this way he would be able to get the rest of his meals without having to ask for someone to bring them to him. He could deal with breakfast deliveries, in that case.

Carefully folding the rough map, he slipped the brown paper into his kimono, intending to memorize it when he got back to the safety of his rooms. For now, breakfast was already here, and he had work to do before the day's training inspections began.

Hours passed before Matsumoto showed up, looking far too chipper to have been drinking all night long, and far too unapologetic to have arrived so late.

But Hitsugaya let her tardiness pass without a word.

He told himself it was in thanks for the map, and that he wouldn't be so kind if it happened again tomorrow. But had he known he was heaving only the first of many defeated sighs, with countless late-morning starts like this to look forward to, he might have been considerably less generous.

It would take him some time to fully accept that Matsumoto Rangiku had routed him right from the start.