Disclaimer: Bleach is Kubo Tite-y goodness. I do not own any characters or settings associated with Bleach. Although I'd love to own Hitsu-chan…
… but I think after all I'd put him through, he'd try to kill me. -sob-
Warnings: language, violence, Hitsu-whumping (of the mental and physical kind, in later chapters), SPOILERS up to current manga chapters
I still blame Kellen for this. XD It's mostly her fault I have so many Hitsugaya plot bunnies!
"You have a very interesting past, young Shinigami. I didn't know that Captains could retain the memory of their lives as human beings…
"I wonder what Captain Yamamoto would have to say if he knew that you still had these here."
'Isn't it hard to keep secrets from yourself?'
'You seem to do it quite well, Toushirou. But there are some things that are better left behind locked doors.'
If Matsumoto were to choose a word to describe the taichou's current mood, she would have to say crabby. Or generally sulky. No, in reality, he was incredibly peevish, which put him in a very ill-tempered mood. Yes, it would be more like that, she decided. It sounded more like him. As much as she wanted to tease him over it just out of spite – hey, she had feelings, too – she could tell by the dark circles slowly forming under his eyes that she shouldn't take him personally. Something was bothering him and causing him to lose sleep, but he clearly didn't want to talk to her about it at the moment. Oh, no, of course not.
"You didn't have to insult me," she muttered as she slammed the kettle on the stovetop a little harder than she'd intended. "You could have asked me nicely if you wanted tea, and I would have happily done it for you. 'Matsumoto, darling, would you mind getting me some tea?'" She clasped her hands together in front of her mockingly, batting her eyes as she mimicked the young taichou's voice. "See? That's not so mean. 'Matsumoto, shut the hell up, do some paperwork yourself, or get me some tea. Just do something so that you're not so uselessly lazy.' That was uncalled for. If you want to take out your frustration, do it on somebody else."
"Um… Matsumoto-san?" a meek voice said behind her quietly, causing her to jump.
She turned quickly and plastered a smile on her face to hide the frown she'd been carrying. "Orihime-chan! Ah, I'm sorry – I didn't hear you come in!"
"Is everything alright?" the girl asked, approaching the fukutaichou warily, like one would with a cornered animal.
Matsumoto grunted, smile fading, jig up. "Peachy," she snapped back. "Just peachy."
Orihime was quiet, and for a moment, Matsumoto felt a tad guilty. She sighed, some of the anger bleeding off. It wasn't Orihime's fault that the captain was being crabby. But before she could say an apology, Orihime spoke first.
"You know, I don't think Hitsugaya-taichou means to take it out on you."
Matsumoto whirled on the younger girl. How long had she been listening? "What?"
"Hitsugaya-taichou… he… he looks a little tired, and I was thinking… Tatsuki – my friend from school – she gets really grouchy when she doesn't get sleep. Maybe he's the same way," Orihime added uncertainly, tapping her two forefingers together nervously in front of her.
For a moment, Matsumoto gaped at the girl until she caught herself. Straightening herself, the fukutaichou nodded slowly. Of course; she knew the taichou hadn't been sleeping well of late, and that he was still dealing with the fallout from… from the nasty parasite-Hollow that had attacked his mind two months ago. It seemed so far away, considering all that had happened since then. Like another skirmish with the Arrancar, in which they had managed – barely – to come out victorious. And like Aizen's attempt to kidnap Orihime during the battle, and then Hitsugaya's subsequent orders to keep her under close watch. Yamamoto-taichou's orders, in case Aizen came after Orihime again later; at least she would have some immediate protection in the form of Hitsugaya and his small subordinate team currently stationed in the mortal realm.
Yeah, maybe he was just tired.
"Would you please quit calling me that? You make me feel like an old woman. I told you it's Rangiku-chan," Matsumoto chided gently. Orihime started to sputter and apologize, but Matsumoto cut her off by putting an arm around her shoulders. "Don't worry about me; I'll get over it. But… thank you," she added quietly, with a serious – but sincere – smile.
Orihime hesitated at first, but then relaxed and grinned back. But the smile faded into horror as the girl pulled away and rushed over to the stove. Matsumoto stared at her stupidly until she too realized that the kettle she'd placed on the stove for tea was coming close to boiling dry, and then she too dashed to help Orihime.
"Shit," she muttered, snagging the hot pads from above the stove. "I'm sorry, Orihime-chan… I'll get you a new kettle if I burned this one."
"I think we got it just in time," Orihime said, relieved.
Matsumoto peered into the metal mouth of the kettle, then noticed a hint of a sparkle as the small hole of light reflected off the water. Sighing, she placed tea leaves in Hitsugaya's favorite mug. Orihime smiled kindly and turned to leave the kitchen.
"Orihime-chan?" Matsumoto called after her. She turned. "I do mean it, and I don't think you hear it enough. Thank you."
She blushed lightly and bowed her head slightly. "I'm not really doing anything special."
Matsumoto snorted, knowing otherwise, but Orihime left before she could reply. Turning back to the water and the tea leaves, she decided to let the water cool for a bit before she brewed tea. Otherwise, the tea would be bitter… though it would be kind of fitting, considering the taichou's current mood.
The thought kept her smirking as she later carried a small tray with the steaming mug of Japanese tea and a small biscuit into where Hitsugaya currently kept his "office." However, when she entered the room, she was greatly surprised to see the taichou's head resting on the desk, upper body sprawled out across the paperwork as he slept. He really was just tired, she repeated decidedly, glad to have it confirmed. She gently set down the tray and – after trying to shake Hitsugaya awake with little success – she carefully picked him up much like a small child and took him to the couch and laid him there. Surprised that he didn't even stir during the move, she frowned, taking a closer look. He really must not have had much sleep lately, she realized. His eyelids looked bruised, mottled with blues and purples, and his skin looked a little pale. With another sigh, she decided it'd be best to let him sleep, and deftly flicked the blue sheet she'd been using as a coverlet over his small frame, then turned with a scowl to the mound of unfinished paperwork on the desk.
'Isn't it hard to keep secrets from yourself?'
There was a tunnel, there in the back of the cave, dimly lit with a faintly glowing blue-green light. It had many wooden doors, some old and worn, some new and glistening with fresh finish, signs on each and every one of them. Some of them had locks, others were cracked slightly open, some were simply closed. This closed one read "Captain's Ceremony," and the locked one next to it "After-Party." Both were only a small fraction of the way down the never-ending tunnel, but just beyond the closed door that read "Rebirth," there was a thick panel of clouded ice that blocked off the back end of the passage. It was just transparent enough to prove that the tunnel went further, though anything that touched the ice wall froze. Except him, of course – he was the one who put it there in the first place, in order to safeguard something both so precious and terrifying that he didn't dare allow it to be erased.
This did not explain the crack in the wall that he saw, now, as he stood before it. With a frown, he reached out hesitantly with two fingers, traced the fissure slowly. It wasn't that new, but somehow he didn't quite remember seeing it before. As he turned to find the dragon, he heard the sharp crack, and even as he hoarsely called out to Hyourinmaru with eyes wide in shock, he barely had time to cover his face with his arms as the ice shattered, sounding like a thousand tiny charms blowing gently in the breeze, the roaring, chilling blast of wind hitting him in the face and blowing open all the doors behind the destroyed wall. His eyes widened as ghosts followed, coming towards him with arms outstretched, calling him that name he hadn't wanted to hear ever again…bringing back a pain that he had been long forgotten.
With a startled yelp, Hitsugaya sat up quickly, open hand grasping for air. The blue bedclothes were tangled about his legs, and he panted heavily, shuddering when he felt a trickle of cold sweat down his back. Just a dream… just another dream, he told himself, taking several deep breaths to control his breathing and trying to slow his pounding heart. Suddenly coming to himself, he realized he was still in the room he'd converted into a small office, and noticed that he was on the couch. With a frown, he realized he didn't remember going to the couch, but as he glanced over at the desk and saw Matsumoto sprawled across the paperwork, he had to allow himself a small smile as he realized what happened. Even after he'd snapped at her; he hadn't meant to, really.
However, the smile faded as he tried to move to stand up. Ghost pain flared in his chest, and he winced, grasping the shirt at his chest with one hand and hesitating for a moment. He pulled the hand away and looked down, seeing nothing but his own skin on the palm of his hand. No blood, no cuts lining his arms. Not like the last time, though it had caused him to fear his dreams a little more. Grunting, he took a deep breath and forced himself to get off the couch, as much as his tired body groaned at him. He'd had some trouble sleeping lately – these stupid nightm—dreams were ruining any sort of deep rest he could hope to achieve. He wondered why they hadn't bugged him before, especially after the incident that most likely sparked them. The damn parasitic Hollow.
This whole situation was getting out of control. He would be no help to guard against any more of Aizen's attempts to get Orihime if he was in this state. Perhaps it would do him some good to go meditate; spend time with Hyourinmaru, and make sure that his dreams were simply just that – bad dreams and nothing more. Snagging the sheet off the couch, he flipped it across Matsumoto's shoulders as he walked by. She stirred slightly, mumbling something he couldn't catch, causing him to grin just a little as he walked out to the porch and sat. He had considered the roof as a decent place to get some quiet, but for as tired as he was, the porch would do.
Closing his eyes, he made sure he was leaning against the wall before he took a deep breath and let the city noises fade to the background while he drifted.
Cold walls and a soft, deep breathing noise greeted Hitsugaya inside the familiar cave. For a moment, he sat quietly and just listened, watching the dragon rest and enjoying the quiet that meditation here brought him. This place was far more enjoyable when he came here simply to think things through, rather than having to fight to maintain control over his own mind. Hyourinmaru had since become much easier to hear and connect with since then, on the other hand. The dragon – even in its resting state – was watching him as well, and both seemed to draw from the simplicity of spending a moment in peace.
"You're troubled," Hyourinmaru commented in his deep-throated voice after a moment, breaking the silence. "I was expecting you sooner."
Hitsugaya looked down at his hands, which sat folded in his lap. "I know. It's… sometimes, it's just harder to come here after… that."
The dragon murmured in agreement, and then said, "But we both know that that isn't the issue now."
Shaking his head, Hitsugaya stood slowly. "I came here to check on something. Just to make sure."
"I know." The dragon bowed slightly, and watched as Hitsugaya began walking towards the back of the cave. "Would you like me to accompany you?"
Hitsugaya paused, but without turning, he replied, "It's alright for now."
"Call on me if you need me."
With a curt nod, Hitsugaya walked into the mouth of an exit at the end of the cave, leading down a dark tunnel. He felt a little bare without having the dragon behind him for support, but he knew he needed to do this on his own. Just this time. And he didn't want to have Hyourinmaru see how worried he'd been about it, because that would mean that he didn't trust the dragon to protect what was back there.
The dim blue-green light from the tunnel's walls cast a horrifyingly familiar feeling, causing Hitsugaya to shudder slightly as he passed the marked doors. Sometimes, that dream was too real for him to ignore the resemblance between it and reality. The wrong doors were closed in the dream, and there more doors in reality. After a long walk, he finally found his way to the ice panel at the end of the first section of tunnel. He couldn't help it; he held his breath before he could muster the courage to look at the ice. He wasn't sure if… if he would see what he was hoping to see, and that the dream had been true. But when he finally looked at the ice, nothing was out of order. Frowning, he leaned in closer, examining the panel from top to bottom, before he let himself release the breath he'd been holding onto.
Nothing. See? It was just a dream, you idiot, he scolded himself. Stop doubting yourself so much.
Feeling much more relieved, he turned away from the ice, and began to walk away. However, when he heard a quiet but distinct crackling noise, he whirled. Pop. Crackle. A line streaked across the ice, appearing from nowhere.
He could feel the dragon's presence approaching, but not before he heard another distinct crack, and panic swelled in his chest as small bits of memory seeped through the fissures.
A small fishing village. A large temple, and many people swarming about its gates. Delicate silk cloth with intricate patterns. Something sharp. Yamamoto-taichou's voice above him, saying something about being reborn in Seireitei with white hair symbolizing…
And he did. Before he realized that he could actually see Hyourinmaru approaching, the dragon wrapped itself around him, and suddenly the memories faded as his mind was forced from the cave with painful abruptness.
Taichou -- the Japanese equivalent of a Captain (I used Captain in "Endurance" but decided to change it for this story)
Seireitei -- I don't know what the new English version calls it, but it's basically the center part of Soul Society where the Shinigami (Death Gods or Reapers or whatever) dwell.
Quick note. This is a direct sequel of "Endurance," my only other Bleach multi-chapter fiction at the moment. This particular story will be a great deal longer and more complex than "Endurance" was. While I'd like to think that you don't need to have read the prequel to understand this story, the more I plan this one out, the more necessary the events in "Endurance" have become to make this story work. I don't doubt Kubo Tite-sensei's abilities, but in order to make several my ideas mesh together logically, I took some artistic liberties with where this story fits in.