Disclaimer: Bleach and all affiliated characters and settings are the creative property of the amazing Kubo Tite and all the companies he's managed to rope in with the idea. I'm only borrowing his world for a bit.

Warnings: violence and whumping, language, and spoilers if you're only watching the anime (this takes place during the current manga arc). This was borderline T, so I bumped it to M to be on the safe side.

Long list of terminology (for which I blame KT and lame English translations):

bakudou – kidou with binding and summoning properties
gigai – these are the fake mortal bodies that Urahara makes so that shinigami can run around the Living World with all appearances of being normal humans.
hadou – kidou with more destructive properties
Hyourinmaru – literally, "ice ring;" this is Hitsugaya's zanpakutou's name.
karesansui – Japanese/Zen rock garden
kidou – attacks by shinigami that require a concentration of reiatsu
raikouhou – hadou 63's official title, and the best translation I found is "Lightning Tiger Canon"
reiatsu – spirit power, used by shinigami
sennen hyourou – 1000 years' ice prison (one of Hitsugaya's bankai attacks)
Sougyo no Kotowari – literally, "Parable of the Twin Fish;" this is Ukitake's zanpakutou's name.
soukatsui – hadou 33's official title, and the best translation I found is "Way of Destruction"
zanpakutou – I believe the English version is calling this a "Soul Slayer," or something like that; as I've been exposed to the Japanese versions of the series, I'll be using this term.

Feel free to ask if there are any other terms you don't know!

Blame for this story goes out to Kellen because her awesome one-shot "Whisper" and the Hitsu-whump LiveJournal community (which Kel and I started together, so haha on me) inspired me to do some more Hitsu-whumping, and also a little to a Love Drop doujinshi entitled "Love Fight!" (Don't ask. XD)

I'd like to thank the following people for giving me enough encouragement to post it at all: Kellen, Davan, and Warg. So much love.


Part I

Luppi was a damned fool.

Yammi knew that much; Luppi had gotten himself killed because he'd provoked the wrong person. While Yammi wasn't smart, even he was wise enough to know that Grimmjow was someone that should not be messed with. Grimmjow answered only to Aizen, and even then he still gave trouble to Aizen's highest advisors. Luppi had been brashly snooty towards the one-armed Grimmjow after he'd taken his place in the Espada, and that alone was asking for trouble.

But damned if Yammi didn't feel like Hueco Mundo was so much less interesting without Luppi around. Even if Luppi was a foul-mouthed, pompously arrogant ass, he was a strong comrade who didn't belittle Yammi's intelligence nearly as badly as most of the other Arrancar he'd had the extreme displeasure of working with.

When Grimmjow had thrust his newly-regenerated hand through Luppi's chest and then blasted him to pieces with a cero, only one part of the smaller Arrancar had remained – part of the bone cowl that had rested on Luppi's head. Yammi hoped it would be enough.

After all, if that new girl Aizen had brought back from the Living World was capable of restoring Grimmjow's arm without it even being there, perhaps she would be able to bring Luppi back. She would be alone for now, too; everyone else was too busy fluttering about the new set of unwelcome guests who had come to take her back.

They wouldn't get far – Yammi knew that even if he wasn't there to see it for himself. He didn't care too much; they didn't need his help keeping the pests at bay. All he wanted was to find that healer-chick before she got caught up in the action.

The girl was sitting in her quarters, staring out the window with a sad expression. Not that Yammi had expected much more than that, since the girl clearly missed her home and friends, but at the same time, she'd chosen to come here, hadn't she? It was her own fault, so she didn't have much of an excuse to mope about it.

She looked surprised when he approached her, holding out Luppi's bone cowl. Even if she didn't agree to his request at first, she was a mere human – and all humans were easily persuaded.

"I want you to do something for me," he said without a further word of greeting.

It was the break of dawn. Ukitake knew this, because he was suddenly awake – he generally awoke at sunrise, whether he wished to or no. Though he often would go back to sleep after a small meal and a little meditation, he'd found long ago that he genuinely loved this part of the day the most. The air outside his chamber was crisp, fresh dew giving the earth a damp scent that only accentuated the pleasing aroma of the garden's lilies, and the smell was strongest in the morning. It was quiet, save for the distant sound of the very few shinigami that preferred to practice kata or train during the earlier hours of the day. His illness didn't seem to bother him as much at this time, either. Early morning was the best time to meditate.

He knew without looking that there would be a tray outside his door with a mug of green tea, a small satchel of crushed medicinal herbs, and a full breakfast. It was there every morning, most likely a service that had originally been organized by Shiba Kaien, and had been continued by Kiyone, one of the two current third seats. Her sister was the fourth division's lieutenant; it made sense that she would have the connections necessary to get his medicine.

This morning's air was exceptionally crisp, Ukitake realized as he slid the paper door open to the courtyard. There was a small karesansui within eyesight of his door that he often liked to use as a focal point for meditation. But before he could do that, he pulled in his breakfast tray and made sure to eat it before it went cold. This morning's menu was grilled fish, omelet, and pickles – he was pleased, but would have liked to see sour plums as well – along with the usual rice and white miso. It wouldn't take long for him to eat it all. Besides, he would probably eat again in a few hours.

After taking his breakfast – and medicine – he placed the tray back outside his door and kept the mug of tea to himself. Settling onto the porch, he stared out over the karesansui, studying the pebble formations and allowing it to clear his mind.

Today, however, his mind refused to be cleared. Something was bothering him, and while meditation tended to be an incredibly valuable means of bringing such issues forward, this time was different. He wasn't upset by any means, but for some reason, he felt as though he should be. Frowning, he tried to think of anything that might upset him, but none of the things he could think of were a problem at the moment. For all he knew, he was just feeling unnaturally crabby on a very beautiful morning. Perhaps he had eaten something that hadn't settled well with him the previous evening.

No, the candy was probably not a good idea. Then again, he'd managed to coax the young Hitsugaya into taking some of it off his hands. Hitsugaya's lieutenant, Matsumoto, had been with him at the time; they had been reassigned back to Soul Society once the ryoka Kurosaki and his friends had gone to rescue one of their own. Matsumoto seemed to get a kick out of the fact that her young superior had actually accepted the candy. Hitsugaya had looked embarrassed, come to think of it. Ah, well. He was young and resilient, and would recover just fine from the rather small humiliation. That was, if his lieutenant would let him forget about it.

The thought made him smile, but he still couldn't shake the feeling that something wasn't right. With a sigh, he decided that perhaps a walk would do him more good than meditation at this point. Pulling on his dark uniform and white captain's haori, Ukitake took a deep breath as he stepped into the hallway.

As the sun was not yet up, the hallways of the complex were still rather dark and silent; there were quiet hours by which Seireitei citizens had to abide by. The forest by the creek would be a nice place to walk this time of day, Ukitake decided, so once he was outside the complex, he meandered in that general direction. As he had only one item on his list for the day – outside of the usual paperwork and a little research – he was glad to know he could take his time, as long as he was back in time to catch the captain's meeting just before noon.

The woods were relatively quiet, and it was cool in the shade of the trees. Here, the air smelled of damp earth and underbrush, a smell that was both oddly calming and yet invigorating. Ukitake was able to let his mind wander freely as he walked along the dirt path; he hoped that he would at least be able to calm some of the unease that was boiling over in his mind. And after some time, it began to work; focusing instead on the greenery around him, he was slowly able to clear his mind and felt the tension bleed from his shoulders.

He continued walking for some time, just enjoying what he saw along the path and the fact that he actually felt rather energetic. There weren't many days that he was up to doing something like this, and while he knew he'd feel it later, for now it was a nice change.

He wasn't, however, expecting to walk all the way to the path's end at the other side of the forest. It was getting late, too – the sun was already nearly halfway up the sky. After a muttered self-rebuke with a smile and a shake of his head, Ukitake turned and quickly headed back to the complex, hoping that his presence wouldn't be missed if he was a little late.

Approaching the gate of the complex, Ukitake was utterly surprised when he saw a small hell butterfly trying to make its way to the center of the complex. Usually, the sight wouldn't surprise him, but the butterfly look like it had barely survived an attempt at having its wings removed and was having trouble staying airborne. Hurrying his steps, Ukitake gently picked the butterfly up and looked around, trying to figure out which direction it had come from, but when he learned of the message it was carrying, he froze.

Urgent – Arrancar, Living World. Tenth's Hitsugaya-taichou requesting immediate assistance.

The butterfly had ceased moving, and disappeared from Ukitake's hands before he could demand a repeat just to make sure he'd picked up the message correctly. Hitsugaya-taichou had gone back to the Living World? Since when? A dozen other questions flooded his mind, and worry began to gnaw at his stomach. He knew he should get back-up first, but the message certainly seemed urgent. Sougyo no Kotowari vibrated at his side, preparing for trouble.

The meeting would have to wait.

What was supposed to be a quick errand back in the Living World had quickly dissolved into a nightmare. It was already mid-morning, and Hitsugaya knew he was going to be more than late to the meeting at this point, if he was going to make it at all. He knew he should have been paying more attention to his surroundings; just because Kurosaki and his crazy crew had gone traipsing off to Hueco Mundo didn't mean that all the Arrancar were going to stay put there.

Breathing heavily, Hitsugaya leaned against the wall of the alleyway he'd managed to duck into with a shunpojust after the initial attack, pressing fingers experimentally into his jaw. He hissed; it wasn't broken, but it was definitely going to bruise when all was said and done. The long cut along his forearm was barely bleeding and stung a little; it wasn't life-threatening. His main concern at this point was a dramatic slice that had caught him from shoulder to hip, following the line of his sheathed zanpakutou across his back – this, he'd received just as he'd felt the sudden explosion of reiatsu behind him and had barely dodged; it hurt like hell and he could tell it was still oozing blood. He couldn't believe that he'd been caught off his guard on his way back from Urahara's, where he'd dropped off his gigai. Never mind the fact that he hadn't slept at all the night before; he'd had a monstrous amount of paperwork to do as the mission in the Living World had wrapped up. Sleep deprivation was not a valid excuse for carelessness.

Gods, he was so not in the mood for this.

"Where the hell did you run off to, you little coward?" an angry voice howled from around the corner of the alley.

That voice was familiar, but he couldn't quite place it. Hitsugaya winced, placing his hands over the portion of the bleeding wound that curved slightly around to his side. He was about to be discovered anyway, might as well heal himself a little in the meantime and let Soul Society know that there was trouble brewing here. With a quick kidou, he summoned a hell butterfly and gave it quick instructions, and then let it loose to free his hands for the healing kidou. He hissed as he felt the torn ends of his own flesh mend together from the inside. He didn't get far when he heard a snicker from down the alleyway, jerking his head up and hands flying to Hyourinmaru's hilt. His eyes widened as they settled on the Arrancar.

"It's bad luck you didn't finish the job here, little taichou... Etch my face into your memories so that next time, if I kill you too fast, at least you'll know from before who did you in."

"It'syou," he breathed, lip curling in a snarl. "Luppi."

"I see you took my word for it, little taichou," Luppi replied with a smirk. "You're lucky you dodged that last one – it would've killed you for certain."

And it probably would have. Hitsugaya knew that his shikai alone wouldn't be enough to handle this Arrancar; he would have to rely on his bankai, and this time he couldn't count on finding enough time to prepare a sennen hyourou as he had last time. He saw the hell butterfly out of the corner of his eye, hoping it would get out of the area before Luppi saw it.

"Descend upon the frozen sky, Hyourinmaru!" he called, pulling his zanpakutou from its sheath as ice erupted around them both. "Bankai! Daiguren Hyourinmaru!"

The ice stung the wound in his back sharply as the wings formed behind him, but he didn't have time to dwell it as more of Luppi's limbs shot at him. Leaping high into the air, he watched as the limbs smashed into the ground where he'd just stood moments before. The light from the hell butterfly's small portal faded, and for a brief moment Hitsugaya worried that it hadn't gotten away in time.

"Quick, are you?" Luppi sneered. "You know, if you'd just hold still this wouldn't take all that long, and I promise to make it as painless as possible."

Hitsugaya summoned the moisture in the air about him and froze them into thin, sharp projectiles. "What does Aizen want? He's already got Inoue."

Luppi burst out in a fit of laughter, at which Hitsugaya raised an eyebrow.

"Aizen-sama?" Luppi said, panting as the last of the laughter faded. "He has nothing to do with this, small one. This is simply me returning a favor to you from our last fight."

This was ridiculous, and Luppi was insane with revenge, Hitsugaya realized. Luppi had been one of the ones who had instigated the last battle between the Arrancar and his detail, when Inoue had been captured. There would be no negotiating out of this one. Hitsugaya closed his eyes and felt for the nearest wind current, and latching onto it with his reiatsu, he took its reigns and used it to rain the frozen spikes down at the effeminate Arrancar below, striking the ground with enough force to kick up a great deal of debris. When the dust and debris cleared, Luppi stood to the side of the small crater that Hitsugaya's ice spikes had created with a smirk.

"And where were you aiming again?" he said, just before he sent more of his limbs in Hitsugaya's direction.

With a curse, Hitsugaya's wings enveloped him in a protective barrier of ice, and he felt his feet skid on the air currents as he was pushed further away with the force of the blow. When he stopped moving, he looked up with his sword up for defense only to realize that Luppi wasn't in front of him. A cocky grunt was all the warning he had before a sharp blow struck him from behind, and when he looked down he saw the bloodied tip of one of Luppi's spikes protruding from his side. Luppi's face was just over his shoulder, smirking, breath hot along his neck. With a grimace, Hitsugaya quickly formed an ice spike in his hand, and then thrust it backwards and was rewarded with a surprised yelp of pain as it struck flesh.

"Well, that was unexpected," Luppi muttered in his ear, but the amusement wasn't out of his voice yet. "Looks like you've still got some fight left in you. Strangle him, Trepadora."

Hitsugaya wasn't sure what had happened next, but he did know that his world exploded in bright white, and when it faded he found himself face-down on the grass of a nearby park, surrounded by the shattered ice of his own bankai. He couldn't breathe. When he tried to push himself to his knees, he felt a sharp bite of pain across his shoulders and cried out breathlessly, slumping back down. Shit, he thought as the world blurred painfully before his eyes.

"Since you seem to like it nice and slow, I might have to oblige," Luppi said in a sing-song voice as he approached. "You're going to have to stay put, though."

Hitsugaya saw the blade of Luppi's sword – had he released his shikai? – flash in the sunlight just before the Arrancar stabbed it down into his hand, pinning it to the ground. Unable to draw the air to scream, he hissed instead as pain shot up his arm. The dragon rumbled from within in warning, and it occurred to Hitsugaya that he might actually die here if he didn't do something. Half a thought crossed his mind to just jerk his hand free, but that would do nothing to help him in the end and would damage his hand further. Instead, he tried moving his other hand forward, but stopped as the pain sparked white across his vision and then settled into a dull throb in his shoulder. Broken collarbone, most likely.

Damn. He had to act quickly. Summoning reiatsu for a kidou, he glared icily at Luppi and ignored the pain in his shoulder as he swung his free hand up and shot a bright burst of blue-white light from his palm at the Arrancar – hadou thirty-three, soukatsui. The kidou struck Luppi directly in the chest, catching him by surprise and knocking him into a tree with a strangled yelp. Panting, Hitsugaya gritted his teeth as he reached for the blade of Luppi's sword and tried tugging it out of his hand. He never quite got there as something white streaked into his vision and struck his chest with painful force, the strain on his pinned hand shooting further sparks of agony up his arm. Blinded and winded, he couldn't even look down to see what had hit him.

"Damned nuisance," Luppi snarled, coughing and getting to his feet shakily. A ring of cloth had burned away from his uniform and encircled a patch of damaged skin on the Arrancar's chest, not far above the trademark hole in his abdomen. "Fine, then. I'll make this take as long as possible."

Hitsugaya gasped for breath, the world blurring horribly and his chest burning. What the hell had he been hit with? Everything seemed far away, and Luppi sounded as if he was speaking through several layers of clothing, his ears rang so badly. He tasted something warm, coppery – blood, probably his own. Bright lights danced before his eyes, and when they faded, he thought he saw someone standing in front of him, clad in one of many familiar black-and-white haori. He distantly heard someone shout his name, but he couldn't bring his eyes to focus any longer and the world blurred into a dull gray and then nothing.

Ukitake could have cursed himself a thousand times over at this point for not coming back sooner. Hitsugaya had gone back to the Living World without backup; true, none of them had really expected there to be an Arrancar problem once Kurosaki's band had gone to Hueco Mundo, but going anywhere alone these days seemed to be an invitation for trouble. Not that he could speak much for himself – he had taken a solo walk that morning, after all – but this was a different issue than a simple walk. He didn't know what purpose Hitsugaya possibly could have had in coming back here, but he could tell by the young-looking Arrancar's furious expression that this was a serious situation.

But as serious as it was, Ukitake knew there was some hope. Hitsugaya had looked it at first with all the blood pooled around his unconscious form, but Ukitake still sensed his presence – the boy lived yet. He stood between Hitsugaya and the Arrancar, blade drawn, ready to fight if this couldn't be solved with a few simple words. Though he would much rather kill the Arrancar outright, he'd taken more than a part of the ongoing investigation into Aizen's latest dealings, and he knew full well that Arrancar were dangerous.

He would need more power than this. Placing both hands on the hilt of Sougyo no Kotowari, he said, "Be as the waves become my shield, be as lightning becomes my blade."

"And who the hell are you?" the Arrancar snarled.

Ukitake turned a hard glare on to the Arrancar as his sword split into two, a string with dangling wooden talismans connecting the hilts of the blades, and the blades themselves forming long, two-bladed forks.

"Thirteenth Division's taichou, Ukitake Jyuushirou. Although, I might ask the same of you," Ukitake replied coldly.

The Arrancar's lip curled to a sneer. "You're interrupting a duel of a personal nature."

"This doesn't look like a duel to me."

A bark of laughter, and then, "You damned shinigami are so nosy and arrogant. I told the small one some time ago that this would come, so it isn't as if he wasn't expecting this to happen to him. Besides, he started it; I'm not being unfair."

Ukitake raised an eyebrow. "In my own dealings with Arrancar, I have hardly found them to be fair. I have my doubts that you're any different."

"Hah, so high and mighty, lord shinigami," the Arrancar said, approaching slowly with a half-smirk turning up the edges of his lips. "Very well, then – I had no trouble handling the little captain there; I doubt I'll face any further trouble with you."

Ukitake didn't give the Arrancar a chance to attack before he launched himself forward with a shunpo, landing lightly behind his opponent with a grave expression. The Arrancar's eyes were wide with surprise, and then he grunted as thin cut appeared on his shoulder. Turning, Ukitake saw – with no small measure of surprise – that the Arrancar was smiling.

"Not bad," the Arrancar replied. "You just might provide as much entertainment for me as shorty over here was supposed to. And I'll even honor you with a name – I am the six—err, former sixth Espada, Luppi."

Espada. Ukitake remembered that term from incoming reports he'd managed to handle, and he knew that these were what Aizen was calling his highest-ranked Arrancar. The fact that this Luppi was no longer an Espada made no difference. Hitsugaya had not done well to get himself entangled with this enemy, if this fight had indeed been started over a personal issue rather than a planned attack from Aizen.

"While you are indeed a talented swordsman, Ukitake-san – that was your name, yes? – I'm afraid you've left a rather wide opening," Luppi said airily, looking pointedly at the fallen younger captain.

Ukitake flinched, and then quickly charged the Arrancar again before it could do anything to Hitsugaya. However, Luppi was ready for him, as if he'd expected the attack and had no intention of going after Hitsugaya at the moment. Ukitake's eyes widened as he saw what kind of power the Arrancar's sword held, even if Luppi wasn't actually in possession of it. Eight long, thick tentacle-limbs formed at Luppi's back, the holes in his uniform clearly intended to accommodate such a technique.

This was not going to go well unless he worked fast, Ukitake decided.

Fighting with Luppi was somewhat like sparring with Kuchiki Byakuya; against multiple blades, one had to be able to quickly deflect and parry blows, and look for that one opening. Luppi's tentacles – while quick and maneuverable – were not nearly as mobile or fast-moving as the petals of Kuchiki's senbonzakura. Ukitake was more than capable of handling this kind of an enemy, but only until his lungs gave out from his illness. A long time ago, this would have been an easy fight. Now, he had to worry about efficiency.

Fortunately for Ukitake, Luppi was rather incensed at the fact that he hadn't had a chance to finish toying with Hitsugaya, and thus his movements were predictable and brash. Ukitake simply dodged and parried around the attacks, avoiding the traps that Luppi was trying to pull him into. Instead, Ukitake slowly weaved Luppi's movements into an easy pattern, one that would limit the Arrancar's range of motion due to the nature of his weapon. Unlike Byakuya, Luppi's weapons were attached to his body.

The Arrancar realized far too late what Ukitake was planning, and in a scrambling effort to untangle his own limbs from each other, he only made the snag worse. Ukitake saw the opening, and with a shunpo, he eliminated Luppi's range by getting in his face with both blades of Sougyo no Kotowari brandished for a strike. Luppi's eyes widened only slightly when they met with Ukitake's, but then he smirked.

"Is that all you have, taichou?" Luppi sneered.

Ukitake was mid-swing when something struck his chest heavily, knocking him back into the grass. Gasping for air, Ukitake saw Luppi – leg raised in a finishing pose – through wavering vision. The kick had been hard enough to bruise, and Ukitake desperately tried to calm his breathing before his lungs gave him hell for it. He wasn't fast enough; lungs seizing, he couldn't hold back the sudden coughs that shook his entire frame, his chest squeezing and burning as he fought for air.

"Oh? And what have we here? Is the shinigami ill?" There was a taunting, diminutive undercurrent in Luppi's tone that made the hairs at the back of Ukitake's neck stand on end. He saw Luppi's dark shoes in the ground before him through the white fringe of his own bangs, and couldn't help but growl when he felt a hand thread through the hair at the top of his head. He cried out when Luppi harshly tugged upwards, forcing him to look up at his enemy. "You know, it isn't wise to pick fights when you're incapable of finishing them."

Through the gasping coughs, Ukitake narrowed his gaze – he might be weakened by his illness, but he would not tolerate some punk belittling what he'd worked so hard to accomplish in spite of it. Raising his hands shakily, and ignoring Luppi's amused smirk as he did so, he quickly summoned a large amount of reiatsu. Just as Luppi opened his mouth to add injury to insult, Ukitake blasted the ball of reiatsu into Luppi's chest before the Arrancar could retaliate. Hadou sixty-three, raikouhou. He cried out as the entangled hand jerked his hair sharply just before Luppi flew backwards in a bright flash of light, smacking with a painful thwack into a tree and demolishing it in the process.

Ukitake slumped forward, supporting his weight on the palms of his hands – the only thing keeping him upright – as he stared down into the grass and wheezed, trying to get his breath back. Feeling a cough coming, he pulled his hand up and hacked wetly into his palm several times, eyes widening in a panic as he saw specks of blood fly into his palm. But he couldn't stop coughing, not even when Luppi began cursing heavily at him from a distance, and not even when he heard Hitsugaya moan from several meters away. The world before him swirled into a sea of green, and black spots clawed at the edges of his vision. Distantly, he wondered if he'd really just bruised his ribs, and then realized that he had to have overtaxed his reiatsu. At least now he knew why he had felt so unsettled that morning.

The only thing Ukitake could do at this point was cling to a fleeting hope that someone from Soul Society would notice that they were gone and come looking for him. Reality slipped through his grasp.

Hitsugaya woke suddenly to a subtle rumbling in the back of his mind, the strong scent of grass and damp earth, a great deal of pain, and the sound of harsh coughing. Slowly opening his eyes, the world blurred horribly before his face, and all he could see was a great deal of green and red. A vaguely familiar voice's cursing floated towards him from a short distance away, and suddenly reality came into sharp focus as the dragon's voice called out in warning.

He'd been in the middle of a battle, and he'd been wounded. Badly, if he had lost consciousness. But why wasn't he dead? Where was Luppi? Trepadora had been removed from his hand already, though the wound still stung as he tried to flex his fingers. Then he realized that the cursing he still heard was indeed coming from Luppi. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he slowly pushed himself up far enough to get a look at his surroundings. He was still in the park, and Luppi's voice was coming from a dusty cloud a few meters away. Had he done that? No, he didn't remember any sort of attack that would do that to Luppi, not unless Hyourinmaru had done something in his stead. Doubtful.

Someone had to have come from Soul Society, meaning the hell butterfly had made it there. Relief flooded his chest, making his supporting arm tremble with the sudden release of adrenaline. But then he remembered hearing coughing – slowly turning his head (not too quickly, his aching collarbone reminded him), his eyes widened and his breath caught as he saw who had come to his aid.


The older captain lay stomach-down in the grass, shaking with a horrible coughing fit. Hitsugaya knew that Ukitake often suffered from such attacks related to his illness, and knew that every time they occurred Unohana-taichou had to be called in. From the look of it, Ukitake had come alone, and by the wet sound of the coughs, Hitsugaya knew the older captain was in trouble.

What the hell–?

"Goddamned shinigami and their fucking kidou!"

Hitsugaya's attention snapped back to the cloud of dust, which slowly cleared to show Luppi's many-limbed outline struggling to stand in the midst of a pile of debris. Leaves and chunks of bark clung to the Arrancar's clothing and hair, and if Hitsugaya hadn't known better, he would have found the sight to be rather amusing. As the dust cleared further, Hitsugaya noticed that Luppi's chest was covered in blood from a nasty-looking wound, and that the Arrancar was having trouble staying steady on his feet.

"I'm going to fucking kill the both of you!"

Shit. Hitsugaya knew he was far from capable of handling this problem now, and tried desperately to summon enough reiatsu for a communications kidou that he knew he'd never be able to pull off. He thought he just might barely be able to manage a binding bakudou, and thus focused the gathered reiatsu for such a purpose instead.

Bakudou seventy-five, gochuu tekan!

Light shot from his hands and struck Luppi, who yelped as he realized he'd been hit again. With a frustrated yell, Luppi began cursing all the more. Hitsugaya was glad that words had no more power in Luppi's case other than an attempt to intimidate; otherwise he knew that he and Ukitake would be condemned to several of the eighteen levels of hell had Luppi had his say.

Aside from binding the Arrancar, Hitsugaya really didn't have a plan of action once the bakudou wore off. He knew he couldn't fight properly in this condition; even the thought of summoning Hyourinmaru once more caused the dragon to issue a terse warning in the back of his mind against such an attempt. Truthfully, he wasn't even sure he had enough stamina left to summon a portal back to Soul Society, much less a hell butterfly to relay a message back home. Ukitake was also down and in trouble, and was less likely than he was to be able to walk.

Gods, this was such a mess.

Rising slowly, he winced as his injuries made it damn well known that they were not happy about the movement. He didn't have a choice. Experimentally placing weight on his feet, his knees shook horribly but held him up. Taking deliberately slow and careful steps, he staggered his way over to Ukitake's side, hoping that the bakudou would hold long enough for him to be able to put some distance between him and his enemies. There were only two places he could think to run to, and neither of them were terribly close by – Kurosaki's clinic was likely out of the question, considering that it was halfway across town. Urahara's shop was closer, but it could have been just as far as Kurosaki's clinic for all the good the distance did him in his current state.

Just as Hitsugaya reached out to Ukitake to check on him, a sudden burst of light behind him startled him, and he turned too quickly with a hand on Hyourinmaru's hilt and nearly fell. Breathing heavily, his eyes widened as he saw the pillar of light that lead straight from Luppi's position on the ground to Hueco Mundo's gaping maw in the middle of the sky. Negation. Were more of them coming?

Apparently so; a much larger Arrancar poked his head from the seam with a glare. Hitsugaya recognized the Arrancar with horror and dread as the Arrancar that had faced Urahara during the previous scuffle with their kind.

"Luppi, you damned fool, what the bloody hell are you doing?" the Arrancar shouted down with a scowl, completely ignoring Hitsugaya's presence.

Luppi's face scowled back up, but his body didn't move – the bakudou was still in effect, much to Hitsugaya's relief. "Fuck you, Yammi! Can't you damn well see that I'm in the middle of something here?"

"You're not accomplishing much by laying around like the lazy bastard you are!" Luppi growled, but Yammi continued before a retort could be issued. "Aizen-sama wants a word with you, dumbass. I told you that you shouldn't have gone storming off – you would've been in a hell of a lot less trouble if you hadn't!"

Luppi swore impressively at that, then glared over at Hitsugaya. "This isn't over, shorty," he hissed. Turning his attention back up to Yammi, he shouted, "Give me a second!"

"Need a little help?" Yammi was smirking.

"Fuck you!"

But despite his proud protests, Luppi's tangled limbs were lifted into the air and disappeared into the seam along with Yammi. Hitsugaya waited until the seam had closed entirely before he pulled his hand away from Hyourinmaru and sighed shakily. He couldn't help but feel insanely lucky to have his own enemies come to his aid, but at the same time, the thought stung. He hadn't been strong enough, and if these were simply Aizen's subordinates, Aizen was a great dealer stronger than they'd ever imagined him to be. Soul Society was in for a great deal of trouble.

And Soul Society would be short two captains if he didn't do something soon, he realized as agony shot through his chest in a painful reminder of his current predicament. With the adrenaline slowly leaking out of his system, he felt a great deal weaker than he'd thought he would feel, but he knew that if he kept thinking that way, he'd never make it. Stooping carefully, he grabbed one of Ukitake's hands with his injured one – he couldn't move his left arm at all now without his shoulder screaming in protest – and painfully dragged it across his shoulders. The pressure on his fractured collarbone and ribs was excruciating, but once the stars cleared from his vision, he hoped he could manage.

Ukitake was thankfully unconscious and was no longer coughing, but Hitsugaya didn't miss the small trickle of blood coming from the older man's mouth. That couldn't be a good sign for someone with a lung illness. Taking a few slow, staggering steps, Hitsugaya braced himself both mentally and physically for a long walk ahead.

The park entrance had never looked so far away.

.to be continued.