Disclaimer: The Bleachy goodness is brought to you courtesy of Kubo Tite.


Kellen, I have to admit that I'm going to miss writing this for you. I hope you have a marvelous trip, hon. You deserve it!


Endurance
Part V – Epilogue

A lot can change in a week. At least, that's what Hitsugaya had come to believe. The day after he'd gagged down Urahara's nasty cocktail, Unohana had announced that she was returning to Soul Society, as she was no longer needed. Hitsugaya realized then that she'd been watching over him for just over two weeks, and felt a little guilty at keeping her away from Seireitei for so long. But when he apologized to her about it, she held up a hand and cut him off.

"We can't afford to lose any more captains," she had said. "Aizen is preparing for war, and if we don't have all the manpower we can muster at full strength by the time he attacks, Soul Society won't make it."

Of course. Hitsugaya already knew that; he had a haunting suspicion that Aizen had more than enough vastrode-level Hollows at his disposal. If that was the case, then Unohana was right – they'd need everyone they could get at full strength, and even that might not be enough. He bid the healer farewell with an understanding nod, and she smiled sadly back at him. She too knew, and was worried. She wouldn't have spent so much time with him during the healing stages otherwise. He knew now too that he really couldn't take his own life too lightly at this point.

Later in the week, Hitsugaya sat back down with the paperwork, ignoring Matsumoto's insistence that he should be resting instead. There were too many questions he had that he wanted to have answered. Where had the Hollow that attacked them come from? Why did he have such a hard time defeating it in his mind as a captain? And most importantly… was Aizen behind any of it?

At first, the answers came very slowly. His constant headaches – though significantly smaller and less frequent than before – were still dragging down his progress. By the time Urahara had told him it was time to take the final dosage of the disgusting drink, he was more than ready for it. He wanted to be whole again, and he'd be damned if he didn't miss the dragon.

The last dose was the hardest to keep down. Urahara must've added something in it to make it even viler; either that, or he just didn't remember how repulsive the drink was in the first place. Again, he managed to keep it down, but barely. Once he finished the drink, however, Urahara cast him a worried look and told him to immediately get sleep. He was confused until he suddenly started to feel light-headed and rather nauseous.

He slept all that night, plus half the next day as well, battling a light fever. Urahara seemed to have expected it and was already prepared to deal with the outcome of the drink, as he had a full supply of cold compresses and other medicines that Hitsugaya was almost afraid to take from him. But it wasn't long before the fever and icky feeling wore off, and he felt infinitely better than he had… in nearly a month.

Has it really been that long?

A quick calculation told him it had, and the thought frustrated him. So much time wasted, and so much energy lost. He was still brooding when Urahara approached him and brought him back to the workbench in the front of the shop where Tessai waited to finally repair Hyourinmaru's cracked blade. At that point, he was more than ready to be back on his feet.

"Are you ready?" Urahara asked, settling the captain down in a chair next to the workbench. "Because this is going to feel really… weird." Hitsugaya shot the man a serious look, and Urahara nodded. "Alright, then. I know you don't trust any drinks coming from me anymore, but please do drink this one – I promise it tastes considerably better than the last one."

Raising an eyebrow skeptically, Hitsugaya eyed the glass of orange liquid before hesitantly taking it from Urahara. Sniffing its contents, he decided that it couldn't be that bad, and took a sip, ready to recoil. It was sweet, much to his surprise. Almost too sweet, but a far cry more tolerable than the "evil juice" had been. Finishing off the glass easily, he gave Urahara a questioning look.

"Sit still; you're going to feel a little weak after we're done here, but it's because your reiatsu is needed to make sure Hyourinmaru doesn't reject the repairs," Urahara explained.

"Just get it over with," Hitsugaya said with a resigned sigh.

It did feel weird, having his reiatsu drained as though from an open tap. But when he felt a presence growing back in his mind, he felt a glimmer of hope, and some victory. He waited a little longer before he tried contacting the dragon, and after an hour of waiting, he started to doze off. Tessai stepped back from the workbench and nodded a short while later. Urahara took the blade, looked it over, and slid it back into its sheath before shaking the captain awake.

"Hm, wha—?" Hitsugaya said, disoriented.

"It's finished," Urahara said as he proffered the sword. "Here, take it and go rest. You're going to want to sleep for the next day or so, but you shouldn't have any problems after that."

Groggy, Hitsugaya took the sword and stumbled back to the room he'd taken over, and flopped down onto his futon. Sleep overtook him swiftly.


'It's been a while, Toushirou,' the familiar voice greeted, as he opened his eyes back to the icy cave. The walls were no longer crumbling, and the dragon was preening next to him with a content look on its regal face.

'Hyourinmaru… Why…?'

'In order to protect the most precious memories, I had to shield them from us. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to come back.'

'But… why didn't you tell me?'

'I wanted to see if you could figure it out on your own,' the dragon replied. 'I wanted proof to see that this experience took you one step further.'

Hitsugaya was silent for a moment, allowing the information to properly settle. Nodding slowly, he said, 'You wanted to make sure it was ingrained in my instinct to find you.'

The dragon didn't reply, but seemed pleased with the answer. 'I had to make sure.'

'Isn't it hard to keep secrets from yourself?' Hitsugaya asked with a wry grin.

'You seem to do it quite well, Toushirou,' the dragon retorted. 'But there are some things that are better left behind locked doors.'

Hitsugaya shuddered, repressing the image of the Hollow digging through his memories. He nodded in agreement. 'So… will I end up here now every time I fall asleep?' he asked suddenly.

Hyourinmaru paused for a moment, and then replied, 'Only when it is necessary.'

'Huh.' The captain sighed. 'It is necessary now, then?'

'You needed reassurance, and I needed proof. You've grown, Toushirou.'

Hitsugaya reddened slightly – was it egotistical to have a part of his own mind compliment him? – before he shook his head. 'I still have a long ways to go, Hyourinmaru. Will you continue to support me, weak as I am?'

'Aa,' the dragon confirmed. 'Only if you will remember to call upon me.'

'Fair enough,' Hitsugaya said with a smirk. When silence settled over the cave for a few moments, he suddenly broke it with a long sigh. 'Hyourinmaru?'

'Yes?'

Hesitating, Hitsugaya looked across the cave first, and then back to the dragon. 'Th-Thank you.'

Hyourinmaru's eyes crinkled as if smiling, and then Hitsugaya found himself slowly drifting back to reality.


"Back on the job for a few days, and you're already nearly overworking yourself," Matsumoto commented with a yawn as she entered Hitsugaya's room, which now doubled as a temporary office. He had recently returned from Urahara's lodging, glad to be out from under close scrutiny. Though he was still a bit sore once in a while, he was pretty sure his wounds had completely healed to the point that he would be able to fight if necessary.

"Making up for the time you lost," Hitsugaya replied without looking up, but offered Matsumoto a grateful nod as she plopped down a mug of hot green tea next to him with a huff. "Thank you." And then he turned back to the stacks of papers laid out before him.

Peering over his shoulder curiously, Matsumoto squinted as she tried to make out what her captain was so enthusiastic about reading. Hitsugaya felt something fleshy brush against the back of his head, and he felt heat rush to his face as he gritted his teeth.

"Matsumoto…"

"Whatcha working on?" she asked innocently, leaning closer.

With a growl, Hitsugaya moved his head away from her. "Do you mind? I think you'd be more conscious about that the way you pound on Kon or Keigo every time they comment on your bust size."

Matsumoto smacked him lightly on the back of his head. "Shame on you! Aren't you a little young to be worrying about women's anatomy?"

"Damn it, Matsumoto – I'm actually trying to work on something important here," Hitsugaya snapped back. "If you have nothing better to do, then you can start working on that stack of reports over there –" he gestured to a neat, foot-tall stack of papers on the edge of the desk, "– or you could leave me alone and let at least one of us get something useful done."

Lower lip protruding in a mock-pout, Matsumoto muttered, "Aw, you're no fun at all, Captain." But she backed off anyway, and with a small sigh of relief from Hitsugaya, her large breasts went with her.

Ah, the return to normalcy. How he missed it.

Much to Hitsugaya's surprise, Matsumoto did snag the stack off the end of the desk, and took it over to the couch halfway across the room. Flopping down with an exaggerated sigh, she began flipping through the reports. Allowing himself a small smirk, he turned back to the reports spread out before him.

Though it was still a little disconcerting to read through reports on himself, they were all helping him try to fit the puzzle pieces of a very complex mystery together. Where had these strange, parasitic Hollows come from? How had they been able to talk? Why were they so weak physically, yet had nearly been able to take a captain down? He might not be the strongest captain left, but he was surely not that weak.

All Hitsugaya knew at this point was that the Hollows leeched off reiatsu, meaning that they were meant to target only shinigami. They also weren't like average Hollows; while they were physically almost as weak as the average Hollow, they still had the ability to speak coherently, and seemed to have some kind of goal. The only way that there could be Hollows like that would have to have something to do with the only people he knew would be up to tinkering with dangerous things like that – Urahara Kisuke (who, decidedly, wasn't at fault for this instance), the twelfth division's Captain Kurotsuchi (though he had no recent research reports for anything Hollow-related), and ex-fifth captain Aizen Sousuke.

Aizen had a lot of motivation to create something that would target shinigami, but if he had more powerful beings – like the Arrancar – then why bother? However, he was the only person Hitsugaya could think of who would come up with Hollows like that, and would be able to pull it off. Perhaps these Hollows had merely been prototypes for some modification he was planning to make on the Arrancar. That thought was frightening, but not necessary. Why would Arrancar need to have parasitic qualities, as strong as they were?

The only other answer he could think of was much more chilling. Aizen was playing with them, somehow. If that was the case, then Hitsugaya knew that he was in huge trouble. He had nearly been defeated by one of these "lower-level Hollows," modifications regardless. Although he knew he was much stronger as a result of the experience, it still bothered him that he felt so weak. Perhaps it had been because his guard was down after he'd barely beaten the Arrancar so long before.

At any rate, Hitsugaya decided that now that he had a better link with Hyourinmaru, he would train to develop that new connection to his benefit. Despite Hinamori's desire for him to try to save Aizen, he still had one goal in mind: Aizen must die. Too many good shinigami had been lost as a result of the man's treachery, and Soul Society had been thrown into great disarray. The man left a great deal of destruction, pain, and bitterness in his wake, and wounds that would never be healed.

Hitsugaya would train both his body and mind in preparation for the next time he saw Aizen. His stamina – though proved to be quite strong – still had some ways to go. Though he had won this battle, the war was only beginning.


.end?.


It is finished, yay! Finished it in less than one month, so I'm satisfied at least with that. I'd planned on making many changes to the chapter due to the fact that I didn't really like it all that much, but I decided that for now it'll do. I'll likely go back and edit this story in its entirety one of these days, but I'm a bit too lazy to do that just yet. XD

Anyway! Sorry for rambling. Thank you all so much for reading, and for commenting. I was absolutely shocked at the reception this got, since I'd begun writing it on the fly and for fun (and I barely checked over it before I posted, so my apologies for rampant mistakes!). Thank you to everyone who commented! I can't tell you how much I appreciate it!

(Edit 3/5/08: Am removing the sequel teaser, as the sequel has been up for well over a year now, haha.)