Disclaimer: Bleach and all affiliated characters and settings belong to Kubo Tite and all companies holding the license to its distribution. I'm just borrowing them for a bit.

I almost titled this story "Hitsugaya's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," but that too is copyright infringement no matter how apt the description.

Warnings: more violence/whumpage/blood, language, and some fluff (from me? Yes, that's a warning.)

Part II

To say that Kyouraku Shunsui found captain's meetings to be dull and depressing these days was an understatement. Everyone already knew that the Arrancar were a serious threat and that Aizen was still a growing problem, and that there were strong recommendations to keep tabs on their divisions' members in order to avoid casualties. Any new information had typically already made its rounds among the captains' offices before it ever got to a meeting. Hell, Shunsui even knew about the orange-haired ryoka boy's brash raid on Hueco Mundo already.

He had a feeling this meeting would be no different. Nanao-chan was being mean that day and wouldn't let him sit this one out, despite his very valid protests of a bad hangover. She told him it was a lesson learned – no partying the night before a morning meeting. Well, she was no fun at all, he decided morosely as he massaged his aching forehead with his fingertips. But when Nanao-chan ordered, he couldn't help but obey.

With a sigh, he took his typical route to the meeting past Jyuushirou's quarters a few minutes early to see if good ol' Shirou-chan was well enough to attend the meeting that day. His friend typically brightened the dark gloom of an impending meeting with a smile and a joking word of encouragement, which Shunsui almost didn't want to hear anyway right now. What he really wanted was to see if Jyuushirou would kindly slip him a painkiller for his headache, since Nanao-chan had stubbornly refused to let him take anything for the hangover to "teach him a lesson" (lovely woman she was, but oh so stubborn).

With a fist, he rapped his knuckles quietly against the frame of the shoji leading to Jyuushirou's quarters. He didn't want to wake Shirou-chan if he was asleep (and he also couldn't tolerate the noise himself). When nobody answered, he tried again, a little louder. He heard nothing. Shrugging, he gripped the edge of the shoji and slid it open a crack, just enough to look inside. Much to his surprise, the futon had already been made and was in the corner, and nobody was there. Hadn't been for hours, from the look of it.

Huh. Perhaps he was sick enough to go to Unohana's quarters; if that was the case, Shunsui was a little worried. He hated it when Jyuushirou was sick, because he knew how much the other captain hated such an outward sign of weakness. Shunsui knew better – Jyuushirou was far from weak, illness aside – but sometimes he wondered if Jyuushirou saw that. He would stop by the fourth division on the way; hopefully Unohana hadn't left yet.

Shunsui was more than surprised, then, to find that his white-haired friend hadn't been seen at all that day.

"Ukitake-taichou took his medicine this morning, according to Kiyone. She said he might have gone out for a walk earlier, but she hasn't seen him since," Unohana said.

Shunsui frowned. "Huh, is that so?"

"It's still a little early, Kyouraku-taichou. He might already be at the meeting room," Unohana tried to say soothingly, but Shunsui couldn't help but notice the subtle worry in her expression. "And if we don't hurry, we might end up being late ourselves."

"Aa, shall we?"

The pair walked quickly through the hallways to the assembly room, and made it just before Yamamoto-soutaichou took his place at the head of the row of captains and fill-in lieutenants waiting there. Aside from the obviously missing ex-captains – Aizen, Tousen, Ichimaru – Shunsui's concern grew as he saw that Jyuushirou was missing from the meeting, as was young Hitsugaya. And when everyone else seemed just as confused as he was at the absences, Shunsui knew something was wrong.

He didn't care that Yamamoto-soutaichou had started the meeting; he didn't even hear the older man's voice – nor the surprised exclamations from the other attendants – as he simply turned and left the room. Heading straight over to the tenth division, Shunsui tracked down Matsumoto, who was napping on the couch in Hitsugaya's office.

"Matsumoto-fukutaichou," Shunsui said, feeling a small sting of guilt as she started and nearly fell off the couch in surprise.

"Kyouraku-taichou!" she exclaimed, straightening the front of her gi with a sheepish smile. "Oh goodness, you've caught me red-handed. Please don't tell Hitsugaya-taichou about this!"

He tried to smile for her, really he did, but he couldn't bring himself to do so. Matsumoto's smile faded when she saw the serious expression. "That shouldn't be an issue, since Hitsugaya-taichou seems to be missing at the moment."

Matsumoto raised an eyebrow. "Well, he said he had an errand to run in the Living World, but that he'd be back just in time for the captain's meeting. He wasn't planning on coming here until after that finished..." She trailed off, eyes widening in sudden realization. "He didn't show up at the meeting?"

Shunsui shook his head solemnly, and now Matsumoto looked truly worried. "I was hoping you could help me locate him; it appears that both he and Ukitake-taichou have been missing since early this morning."

"I'm afraid that all I can tell you is that I last saw Hitsugaya-taichou going through a portal back to the Living World just after dawn," Matsumoto said uncomfortably. "I wasn't expecting to see him until this afternoon, but it sounds like there might be a problem."

Shunsui grunted in agreement, and saw that Matsumoto was itching to go look for her captain. She had to be just as worried as he was that something had gone wrong that morning with none of them the wiser; it would only be fair to include the poor lieutenant in the search he was currently planning in his mind. He hadn't traveled to the mortal realm in quite some time, and Matsumoto would be more likely to know where to look anyway.

"Send a hell butterfly to the captain's meeting with my apologies, and then come meet me in the back gardens," Shunsui ordered. Matsumoto's eyes narrowed seriously, and she nodded sharply.

She met him in the gardens not five minutes later with Kiyone and Ikkaku in tow, all three wearing grave expressions. Shunsui nodded his greeting to the two newcomers – the extra eyes would be more than welcome in this search – and then turned and concentrated his reiatsu into the portal's kidou. The antiquated door appeared before them with a small gust of wind, opening to reveal a brightly-lit passageway. The four shinigami stepped through, hoping fervently that this was simply a misunderstanding that they were walking into.

Hitsugaya didn't know how long it had been, or even how far he'd walked – all he knew was that he had to keep placing one step in front of the other, to keep moving forward. Breath came in harsh, painful bursts, and his vision wavered dangerously with every step he took. But he couldn't stop now; with each step, he was one step closer to Urahara's, and to help. If he stopped moving now...

No. He was going to get there – both of them – alive. It didn't matter that Ukitake's skin had taken on a sheen from sweat, or that his body was radiating heat at a dangerous temperature. It didn't matter that Hitsugaya could barely breathe himself, and that his body was shaking horribly under the strain of carrying someone that was likely almost twice his weight.

And it didn't matter that the gods were clearly against him, sending a flash-typhoon after him on his way to Urahara's. At least it meant that the roads were practically deserted on this half of town What the hell had happened to the nice weather from earlier that morning? His vision cleared a little. Ah, something constructive to think about – cursing the weather all the way from here to Urahara's.

Wherever here was.

With a sinking feeling, Hitsugaya suddenly realized that he was absolutely lost. Moving forward perhaps hadn't been the best of ideas; he knew that there had to have been a few turns involved for the route to Urahara's. Goddamn it all. Painfully turning around, Hitsugaya's sandal slipped on a patch of wet asphalt and sent him crashing to one knee. His vision whited out with a burst of pain, and when it returned, he was surprised that he hadn't dropped Ukitake in the process. He'd dropped the poor man the last time he'd fallen.

Grunting in frustration, he slowly pushed himself to his feet, trying not to think about how badly his knees were shaking. Ukitake's dead weight wasn't helping that matter any, but there was no way in hell he was going to leave an ill Ukitake alone in this weather. It would kill the man. His shoulder was throbbing horribly now, and he knew that the strain couldn't be good for his broken collarbone. He still tasted blood in the back of his throat, and despite the fact that it was pouring rain around him, Hitsugaya's mouth was so dry that it felt as though it was stuffed with cotton.

Unless he found his way soon, he wasn't going to make it back to Urahara's on his own power.

Hitsugaya couldn't help but feel a rush of relief when he saw a bus stop not terribly far ahead. The bench was underneath an overhang, and as long as nobody else showed up there for a ride and sat on them, they should be okay long enough for Hitsugaya to try to summon the reiatsu to send another hell butterfly back to Soul Society with a plea for help. Settling Ukitake into one of the seats, he plopped harshly into an adjacent spot with a hiss of pain. For a few moments, all he could hear were the sounds of the rain pounding against the ground and his own harsh breathing. He wasn't sure he could do this; Hyourinmaru bristled in the back of his mind at the thought.

There's no harm in trying.

Taking as deep of a breath as his injured ribs would allow, he closed his eyes and held his hands out in front of him, focusing his reiatsu into them as he called for a hell butterfly. It took at least twice as long as it should have, but he was rewarded for his efforts with the light touch of a hell butterfly's delicate feet brushing his outstretched hands. Opening his eyes wearily, he allowed himself the smallest of wry grins as he relayed the message – and a location, now that he saw the bus stop's sign, and goddamn he was completely off the mark – and sent the butterfly away. As the light from its own small portal vanished, he leaned back into the seat with a wince to wait, trying hard not to let his drooping eyes shut.

It wasn't more than a few moments later when he felt a strong presence behind him. Before he could even think about how damned fast the response was, Hyourinmaru growled in urgent warning just fast enough for Hitsugaya to grab Ukitake and propel the both of them away from the bench with a weak shunpo that only took them as far as across the street as the bench exploded behind him.

You have got to be kidding me. Hitsugaya groaned when he saw the grinning porcelain mask of a Hollow over the cloud of debris from the bus stop. By all appearances, it wasn't a high-level Hollow by any means, but goddamn the timing couldn't have been any worse. Of all the times to run into a Hollow–

It was the hell butterfly summon, wasn't it? It had to have attracted it, Hitsugaya realized suddenly. What a foolish move that had been. He settled Ukitake down on the sidewalk and pulled Hyourinmaru from his sheath at his back with several colorful words under his breath. Thankful for the adrenaline rush that was keeping him on his feet, he knew it wouldn't last long; he had to finish this fight quickly.

Help me, dragon.

Hyourinmaru rumbled softly in agreement from the back of his mind, but even then Hitsugaya knew that his zanpakutou could only help him as far as he could draw from its power with his own. And he didn't have much left to offer.

"Descend upon the frozen sky, Hyourinmaru!" he commanded, unsettled at how badly his own voice quivered. Releasing his shikai was excruciating as it drew on his heavily-taxed reserves, the ice causing him to shiver despite his typical tolerance for lower temperatures. He gripped the metal crescent in his left hand, hoping he wouldn't have to use both hands to hang onto the sword's hilt.

The Hollow screeched angrily as it saw its prey gearing up for a fight, and Hitsugaya jumped away from Ukitake so that the Hollow would follow him away from the sick and unconscious captain. It was the only way he could think to keep Ukitake out of the line of fire for the fight he knew was coming his way.

Fortunately for him, the Hollow was fairly slow and cumbersome, and while that normally would give Hitsugaya an entirely unfair advantage, Hitsugaya was just glad that he could keep one half-step ahead of it. When the Hollow swung at him, he jumped over the Hollow's arm and flung the crescent at the end of the chain with a shout – from pain, frustration, determination, all three. The crescent struck the Hollow's shoulder, a foot off from where Hitsugaya was aiming, but it worked well enough as the beast's arm froze in place anyway. Landing in a crouch, Hitsugaya used a shunpo to get in close enough to the Hollow's mask to make a difference and swung the blade as hard as he could manage, hoping it was enough to split the mask.

He never got there – a sudden, sharp burst of pain struck his side, just under his arm, in a spray of red. With horror he realized that the Hollow's other hand had formed a blade, and he'd left himself wide open to the attack. Coughing harshly, he felt blood well up from his throat as he glared at the rapidly blurring Hollow.

"H-Hitsugaya!" he heard a weak cry from behind.

Ukitake, he remembered, but he couldn't do anything to help now. Gods, I'm so sorry.

The Hollow's mask exploded in a bright flash of white light, followed by a piercing screech that left Hitsugaya's ears ringing, and when Hitsugaya's vision cleared, he found himself on his back on the ground with Ukitake's concerned, haggard-looking face over his. The Hollow was gone. Ukitake's eyes widened when their eyes met, and he tried to tell Ukitake to take it easy but he couldn't find the breath to form the words. Ukitake's bloodied lips were moving, but no sound was coming out of them over the ringing and rushing of blood in his ears, and Hitsugaya realized that he was no longer hurting quite so much. Hyourinmaru was growling at him with a great deal of urgency, but he didn't have the strength to reassure the dragon before everything faded.

The long search was a blurry memory for Matsumoto. She remembered that they had looked damn near everywhere their Living World mission had taken them, and still were unable to find a sign of either missing captain until they'd gone to the park Hitsugaya often visited when he'd needed to get away from the city buzz (and the two insane females he'd been coerced into staying with). There were several flattened trees and torn-up patches of grass and dirt there, but most troubling to Matsumoto was the discovery of patches of blood in the grass.

Kyouraku-taichou had told her not to worry, that bloody grass was a much more encouraging find than dead bodies. It meant that they were more than likely able to walk under their own power after the fight, he'd explained. But that answer didn't satisfy Matsumoto; they just as easily could have been abducted or killed in such a strong attack that it completely vaporized their bodies. Worry clawed viciously at Matsumoto's stomach, almost to the point of making her ill. After that, they'd followed a trail of blood – See what I meant? They were able to move afterwards after all, Kyouraku had said – that started leading in the direction of Urahara's shop, but had missed the proper turn. How did they know they were following the right set of tracks anyway? What if this had been a completely unrelated scuffle?

No, something told her that they were indeed on the right track. That much was confirmed as soon as Kiyone received a communication from her sister Isane, with the help of a bakudou. A hell butterfly had arrived in Soul Society with an urgent message for help and a bus stop name, but nothing more.

Matsumoto knew the bus stop, and before Kiyone finished relaying the news, she'd already broken into a run. It was definitely a call from Hitsugaya, and that fact alone caused her a great deal of concern. Hitsugaya only called for help if he was in serious trouble, or in a situation he knew he couldn't handle alone.

Her heart nearly stopped when she spotted them ahead – both of them. Ukitake was sitting on the ground coughing heavily into his hand, and next to him on the ground – far too still – was Hitsugaya. The others in her search party caught up to her where she stopped, and with only a small hesitation, Kyouraku had rushed forward, calling Ukitake's name in alarm. Kiyone was already preparing to use her communication kidou to get an immediate update back to Soul Society. Matsumoto came out of her shock when Ikkaku suddenly – uncharacteristically – put a hand on her back reassuringly.

"Shorty's counting on you, Rangiku," he said with a frown.

Matsumoto nodded and ran forward. Oh gods, there was a lot of blood. Hitsugaya's face was far too still, and for the briefest moment she thought he was dead. Ukitake's captain's haori was bundled and pressed against Hitsugaya's side, the white quickly turning red. Peeling it back cautiously, Matsumoto whimpered softly in sympathy when she saw the wound.

"H-Help... Hitsugaya first," Ukitake was telling Kyouraku between wheezes.

"Don't talk," Kyouraku snapped as he pulled a satchel of Ukitake's medicine from a pouch inside the sleeve of his gi. "Matsumoto-fukutaichou is taking a look."

"We need Unohana-taichou," Matsumoto said sternly.

Kyouraku nodded as he helped Ukitake swallow the medicine. "Ikkaku, can you–?"

"On it," Ikkaku said from behind Matsumoto. She heard the rustle of cloth as he turned and began chanting the words to the complicated portal-summoning kidou, relieved to know that his skills had improved far enough for him to be capable of such a feat.

Matsumoto carefully moved her hands under Hitsugaya's neck and knees, pulling him into a rescue-carry and hoping she wasn't jarring his wounds too badly. Kyouraku helped Ukitake to his feet and acted as a human crutch, and once the portal was open, Ikkaku stood aside to allow them to pass into Soul Society first. Matsumoto didn't stop running until she made it to the fourth division's quarters.

Only after being reassured for the umpteenth time that day that Hitsugaya wasn't at death's door, Ukitake breathed a careful sigh and settled back down to rest as he'd been ordered to. He had wanted to go see the younger captain, but had been told that Hitsugaya was resting and already had a near-permanent visitor with him. Matsumoto's loyalty to her captain was touching. Even so, he was restless; his own injuries only amounted to cracked ribs – which did aggravate his lungs and drained him of his energy, but it wasn't as serious as it had felt at the time – and a few strained muscles. He knew that he hadn't been worse off only because Hitsugaya had managed to defend him – twice. And here he had thought he was the one doing the saving. Hah.

It had occurred to him then that Hitsugaya had a great deal more potential than he'd originally realized. Oh, he knew long ago that the boy was a genius and was incredibly talented – hell, he was the youngest captain the Gotei Thirteen had ever seen – but at the same time, he hadn't really thought about the fact that Hitsugaya was strong and mature, even more so than many of his colleagues. And that gave Ukitake a new level of respect for the young man. Yamamoto-soutaichou had done a good job in spotting him.

Ukitake owed the young man his life now, and that made him anxious to see Hitsugaya in order to offer his thanks in person.

A soft knock on the door frame caught his attention, and looking up, he saw Shunsui's smiling face through the crack in the shoji. He hadn't even heard the door slide open, he'd been so lost in his own thoughts.

"Aren't you supposed to be resting, Shirou-chan?" Shunsui asked in a playful tone.

Ukitake grunted, wincing slightly as the small action hurt his ribs. "I am resting. And I told you not to call me that – Hinamori-chan would be upset to find that you've stolen her pet name for Hitsugaya-kun," he replied.

Shunsui chuckled. "I suppose she'll have to deal with it, then." He took a step into the room, sliding the door closed behind him before he came and knelt down next to Ukitake's futon. "How are you feeling?"

"Restless," Ukitake said truthfully.

"It has been three days; anyone would be squirming after being told to sit still for that long," Shunsui said. "But you're going to have to put up with it; Unohana said that you needed to take it easy for the next couple of weeks so your ribs can heal properly."

Ukitake sighed again. "That's not what I'm worried about, Shunsui."

"Hitsugaya is still unconscious, but Unohana thinks he should be waking up any day now."

So he did know why Ukitake was worried. "I'm still worried about him."

Shunsui nodded sympathetically. "I know, my friend. But if the great Unohana-taichou says that he'll be fine, then he will be just fine. Doctors are pessimistic people, don't you know?"

"I heard that," Unohana's voice said softly from behind the shoji, causing Shunsui to jump.

"U-Unohana-taichou!" Shunsui's hand found its way to the back of his head, scratching an itch Ukitake knew wasn't there. "You surprised me!"

Unohana entered the room with a soft smile on her lips and a tea service tray in her hands. "I thought I'd find you here, Kyouraku-taichou. It's a good thing; I wanted to let you both know that Hitsugaya woke up half an hour ago."

Ukitake hadn't realized he was holding his breath until he released it heavily in relief. "Thank the gods," he murmured.

"I know you're anxious to see him, Ukitake, but I'd like to see him to rest a little longer before I let guests flood his room. Hinamori is also anxious to see him."

Ukitake nodded in understanding; he could wait, now that he knew Hitsugaya's condition was definitely improving. "Thank you, Unohana-taichou," he said with a solemn nod.

She set the tray down next to the futon with a nod, moving the folds of Ukitake's sleeping yukata aside to get a better look at the injury. With the bandages removed, Ukitake saw Shunsui flinch at the sight of the harsh-looking bruises around his side, but neither said a word as Unohana placed her hands over the bruises and concentrated a soothing kidou into the injury.

"The bones are on the mend," Unohana reported after she'd replaced the bindings, "and you should be feeling functional in another couple of days. But even so, I'd still like you to finish out that bed rest I prescribed earlier. Your lungs could use the rest."

Ukitake nodded as he pulled the yukata back over his shoulders, thanking her again. Shunsui scrambled to get out of Unohana's way after she stood, and she left the room with a "take care" over her shoulder. Shunsui sighed this time.

"Tea?" Ukitake offered, reaching for the tray.

"Oh, allow me," Shunsui replied, taking the teapot from the tray before Ukitake could reach it. "You're the injured one."

Ukitake smiled with a hint of embarrassment, but he let Shunsui serve him anyway. He was glad to have a little company, and Shunsui was good at lifting his grayer moods. They chatted amiably for several minutes, when suddenly Shunsui sat up straight with a horrified expression. Ukitake raised an eyebrow, but then immediately understood when he too felt the fiery blaze of an approaching reiatsu.

"Kyouraku-taichou!" a sharp feminine voice called from down the hall.

"Nanao-chan," Shunsui whispered, eyes wide in terror. Ukitake couldn't stifle the amused chuckle that escaped his careful guard. "She's after me to do the paperwork again! Quick, Shirou-chan, come up with an excuse for me!"

"I'm afraid I can't help you there," Ukitake replied with a vaguely apologetic laugh. "Sounds like you might be on your own for this one."

Shunsui downed his tea in one gulp – grimacing as he likely realized that it was still hot – and quickly scrambled to his feet and out the door with a short wave of farewell over his shoulder.

"Nanao-chaaan!" he said in his best piteous voice as he padded down the hall after his lieutenant. "Do you have no mercy for a man who was worried sick about his dear, dear friend and had to visit him?"

Ukitake grabbed his aching ribs as he laughed, unable to stop himself. Leave it to Shunsui to give him something to smile about, really. But to tell the truth, he was mostly relieved to hear that Hitsugaya would make a full recovery, and had every intention of visiting the young man as soon as he was given permission to do so. Of course, he'd have to stop by the candy store first...

It had only been one day since he'd awoken in a fourth division futon, and already Hitsugaya was ready to break out of there. It didn't matter that he hurt like hell, or that he knew that he realistically couldn't even stand steady without assistance. All that mattered was the fact that he was most assuredly going to kill the next person who walked in with a stuffed animal or bag of candy, even if he had to do it with lasers coming out of his eyes, just like that thing he'd seen on Inoue's television.

Gods, how he wished he could do that. Really. Because of the nature of his injuries, he was stuck flat on his back and tucked under covers with instructions to lay still. Mind powers or anything of that nature would have been a great deal of help in his current predicament. And it didn't help that Matsumoto laughed uproariously every time someone new left the room after leaving a present for the recovering "little taichou." She was laughing now. It made him want to smack her, which he'd threatened to do on more than one occasion already; she clearly didn't believe him. Not that he could carry out such a threat anyway. Wasn't she supposed to be sleeping?

"Matsumoto, if you don't shut the hell up–"

"I'm sorry, Taichou!" she wailed between guffaws. "It's just so funny to see you try to try to act so polite even though I know you're pissed as hell!"

Hitsugaya groaned and shut his eyes, wishing he could do the same with his burning ears. Damn it, if they thought this was a healthy way to recover, then they all were so damned wrong. They all thought they were being so damned helpful and thoughtful – if they only had any idea...

"Aren't you supposed to be resting?" Hitsugaya finally asked through gritted teeth. "You look like shit."

Matsumoto wiped at her eyes, trying not to laugh even more. "My, my, aren't we crabby?" she said too sweetly.

"Don't patronize me!"

She giggled again without another word, and Hitsugaya wondered what the hell she found so damn funny. Before he could open his mouth to snap at her again, there was a knock at the door.

"What?" Hitsugaya roared.


Oh shit. He felt the blood drain from his face – he'd just yelled at Hinamori. Shooting a seething glare at Matsumoto – who looked like she was about to explode, her face was so red – he cleared his throat and unsuccessfully tried to wipe the scowl off his face.

"Come in, Hinamori," he said, tone flat. At least he hadn't yelled again. Damn it, he was too tired for this.

She slid the door open and peeked hesitantly into the room before she stepped inside and closed the shoji behind her. Approaching Hitsugaya's bedside with a concerned look on her face, Hitsugaya sighed.

"I'm not going to break, Hinamori," he said.

With a nod from Matsumoto, Hinamori knelt beside Hitsugaya's futon across from Matsumoto and looked as though she wanted to take his hand, but stopped when she saw that it was swathed in bandages. Instead, she concentrated her gaze on her hands, which were folded in her lap. She looked like she was about to cry, and that made Hitsugaya shift uncomfortably. He hated it when she cried.

"I'm so sorry, Hitsugaya-kun," she finally managed to say, voice quivering with unshed tears.

Hitsugaya raised an eyebrow and looked to Matsumoto for help. Matsumoto – suddenly somber, Hitsugaya noticed with an inward growl – took a deep breath and gave him an encouraging smile and a pat on his covered leg before she stood and left the room.

"There's no need for you to be sorry, Hinamori," Hitsugaya said in a low voice. "I'm fine. And besides, you can't think that this was your fault."

"But I was the one who asked you to save Aizen-taichou," Hinamori cried, and this time tears did fall from her eyes. "Unohana-taichou said it was one of his that did this to you – and if I hadn't asked you to save him, you wouldn't... you wouldn't have..."

"Hinamori," Hitsugaya interrupted her, reaching out for her hand with his bandaged one. She flinched, but didn't pull away. "This had nothing to do with your request, or you. If it was anyone's fault, it was my own for being so careless."

Hinamori sniffled, wiping furiously at her face with her free hand. "It's not your fault that you almost died!" she sobbed.

With a sigh, Hitsugaya squeezed her hand. "Hinamori, look. I'm okay, Ukitake-taichou is okay, and in a couple weeks hardly anyone will remember that this happened. Just... just don't blame yourself for this, all right? It isn't your fault that Aizen defected and created these things. He'd been planning this long before he met you. Don't be so hard on yourself."

Hinamori didn't look consoled by Hitsugaya's reassurances, but she tried to smile for him anyway. He appreciated the effort; it was a start. She squeezed his hand back a little too hard, and he couldn't help but wince. Hinamori's eyes widened with horror.

"Oh! I'm so sorry, Hitsugaya-kun!" she exclaimed, trying to snatch her hand away.

"N-No, it's okay," Hitsugaya said with a grunt, holding her hand tightly. "It doesn't hurt that much. Really."

Just stay here with me for a moment, he found himself wanting to say, but unable to. Hinamori seemed to understand anyway; she nodded, and sat quietly by his side.

"So, what else has been going on since I've been out?" he asked, hoping to take her mind off the current situation.

"Oh!" Hinamori's eyes widened as she brushed the last of her tears away, and then she launched into a full report of all the goings-on and gossip around Soul Society that she'd managed to glean of late.

Good, he thought, it was working. He tried to pay attention to her excited babbling, but he was feeling drained and couldn't help it as his eyes drifted shut after a few moments. Unohana-taichou was right in saying that he'd be tired easily for a while. When Hinamori brushed his bangs from his face with a gentle hand, he had half a mind to murmur an apology, but she shushed him.

"Rest, Hitsugaya-kun," she said, sounding a little less upset. As he heard her leave the room, he couldn't help the small smile that found its way to his lips before he fell asleep.

Matsumoto found herself walking down the fourth division's corridor for the third time in the last hour, and realized that she was indeed feeling a little too restless. Unohana had gone in to do a check-up on Hitsugaya, and Ukitake had been brought in as well. That was over an hour ago, and Matsumoto began to worry that her fears that Hitsugaya's injuries had actually worsened were true and that he was in the middle of intensive care.

But she knew that couldn't be the case, or there would be a lot more noise in the corridor, she realized. Shaking her head at her own silly conjectures, she sighed and forced herself to go back to Hitsugaya's office to actually work on some paperwork. He could consider it a 'get well' present, since he clearly didn't like anything else that had been brought. But again, it wasn't Hitsugaya's fault that most of the presents so far had consisted of stuffed toys and sweet things, as if people were daring to anger the smaller captain. It really had been amusing, though Matsumoto knew that most of her laughter at the time had been from giddy relief rather than pure amusement. Thinking back on it, she felt a little guilty that she'd given Hitsugaya such a hard time.

Just as she'd found her way to the end of the corridor, she heard a door slide open behind her, and Unohana's voice called her name.

"Matsumoto-fukutaichou, you can come in now if you'd like," Unohana said.

Matsumoto flinched like a robber caught with loot, then turned with a sheepish grin plastered on her face. They must have sensed her restless pacing outside the hallway the entire time she'd been there. Ukitake offered her a small nod of greeting as he left the room and slipped past the fourth division's captain with a quiet word of thanks.

"Thank you," Matsumoto said with an apologetic bow as Unohana held the door open for her.

Hitsugaya was sitting up now, leaning back against a stack of pillows against the wall with an unreadable expression on his face. Unohana closed the door behind her, leaving the two tenth division leaders to themselves, and Matsumoto sauntered her way over to Hitsugaya's side.

"How are you feeling, Taichou?" she asked cheerfully.

"Better," Hitsugaya said, his tone almost disbelieving. Matsumoto's smile faltered.

"Are... are you okay?"

He looked up at her with a flat expression, except for his eyes. She couldn't help the small gasp that escaped her lips – she hadn't seen that look in a very long time, and it made her realize how much she'd missed it during the scramble over the coming war that Aizen had promised. There was a fire there in Hitsugaya's pale green eyes, something one wouldn't expect to find in someone whose element was ice and wind. He looked... encouraged, in such a way she hadn't seen before.

He let a short breath out through his nose. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm great," he said, a small smile tugging at the edges of his mouth.

It was an expression she never forgot every time she saw it – the one that first made her realize just how much strength there was in that small body of his. For all her teasing about the nature of the gifts making statements about his youthful appearance, she really couldn't deny the fact that Hitsugaya-taichou – when you really looked closely – had old eyes.

Ukitake must have finally realized what she'd know for a very long time: Hitsugaya wasn't a child – he was every bit grown up as any of the other captains were. He had worked so hard to get to where he was, and he had gone through so much to reach this point. Matsumoto wondered if any of the other Gotei Thirteen leaders understood who exactly they had for an ally in Hitsugaya Toushirou. And now, Hitsugaya was finally seeing himself in a different light; this was especially encouraging in light of the fact that Matsumoto knew Hitsugaya had been beating himself up over what he saw as his own shortcomings in the nearly fatal blow Aizen had dealt him, the initial Arrancar attack that had left him badly wounded, and Inoue's capture.

Matsumoto genuinely smiled back; she didn't want him to think she was patronizing him this time, especially since she meant it.

"I'm glad," she said.

Hitsugaya-taichou would recover just fine.


Well, that's the end of this particular story, at any rate. I do have plans for a string of stories off this particular idea (Luppi still wants his revenge, after all!), such as an actual conclusion to the fight between Luppi and Hitsugaya... but not just yet. If at all. (I am a horribly lazy person. Trufax.)

Thank you to everyone who took the time to read this and leave a comment, either here or at LJ! Any further comments are always greatly appreciated. :3