AN: Spoilers up to Bleach manga chapter 213. Some speculation, and I'm a bit behind on the manga, so forgive things that are contradicted by the last twenty or so chapters.



She doesn't call him by his name, though now would be one of the most appropriate times for such a thing to occur. To call him by anything but his rank… to refer to him as Hitsugaya or, heavens forbid, Toushiro… to do such would be to give him the name of a child, and it's no child's place to bleed upon the battlefield.

She's seen him bleed before, of course, more than once, and he's had the return pleasure of seeing her torn open and crippled, unable to defend herself, unable to do more than blink hazily and try to see if the hands are friends' and not foes' (though for them to bring alertness and not another death, they are almost always friends). He's had the pleasure more times than her, even, as is right, as is befitting of a captain. He's strong, one of the strongest the Gotei Thirteen have seen in years, his zanpaktou born a legend (or close enough in form to one as made no difference). His position means that his opponents are far too often strong as well, though, and despite all his protests, he still bears the form of a child, still has all the limitations thereof.

A child who's been split nose to navel, gutted like a fish by the backlash of his own power. Even with shunpo, she wasn't able to make it to his side fast enough to catch him, to keep that child's body that burned from the heart of a man from striking against the cold cement with an audible thump. She would take the time to curse herself for that failure if it weren't more important to rouse Inoue from her shock and into action. A twinge of guilt thought about flickering across her mind, but shied away at the burning determination and fierce anger it found there. Yes, the girl was having a difficult time with life in general at the moment, and yes, she looked frightened, almost terrified as she approached the fallen shinigami lying in a spreading pool of his own blood, but Inoue was a warrior. She had fought alongside a Quincy and a pseudo-shinigami against the entire collected forces of Soul Society. If the girl could do nothing else, she would survive.

Matsumoto wasn't so certain of her captain's ability to do just that at the moment. The young officer (not boy, not child) was deathly still, the wounds he had sustained seeping dark-red blood onto his uniform, where it barely showed… onto the ground, where the passage of their feet left momentary voids. It had been a while since she'd seen him this torn up, this beaten even in victory (because she hadn't seen him after Aizen, because Unohana was there and able to fix things). She knew when he awoke he'd be bitter, angry, frustrated, and it would translate into silence, into an even harsher dedication to work and training than usual.

Though he could convince others that he was older than he appeared, cloak his (relative) youth in deep layers of serious calm and responsibility, he couldn't convince his own body of that. He couldn't keep his own power from adding more injuries to those his enemies willingly gave him. He couldn't stop his bankai from manifesting a warning in the background, always there to taunt him as he fought, to tell him that the time when he would be physically able to do what he must without destroying himself was fast nearing an end.

Those petals, those beautiful, dagger-sharp petals of ice… those petals that defined him as a boy were the reason he would never let himself take the time to be one.

It hadn't always been like that, she knows. Once he was cheerful, happy, though still with that sharp wit and intelligence, and she remembers that vaguely, a belligerent shadow trailing behind Hinamori on occasion. Sometimes she wishes he would act like that with her, would stop playing the battle-hardened and responsible leader (though he's more than earned that title) and act more like the child his age should place him at. She torments him mercilessly, plays with him on-duty as she does with others when she's off-duty, but he very rarely slips out of his captain persona.

It's for the best, she supposes. It would be much harder to help lay a boy-child that she knows is a child out for emergency treatment than it is to lay out a warrior in a child's body. It would be much harder to take the momentary whimpers of pain and clenching of his hands in her uniform if there was a possibility they were a child's clutches and not a fellow soldier's.

Yes, it's better this way, but it won't stop her from trying again when he's better, from harassing him and looking for that break in control, that petulant, childish anger or exuberant mirth that would be so striking against his usual adult attitude.

Inoue is quite the talented healer, and the Tenth Captain's eyes are open again before five minutes have passed, his breathing steady and easy, the blood staining his body just that, a stain rather than a cause for deep alarm. Before eight minutes are up he's arguing with her that he's fine, that he doesn't need the bandages she wraps tightly around him anyway. The wounds may be only shallow memories of what they once were, but they're still there, and she'd honestly rather face an Arrancar again than explain to Fourth Captain why she let him run around with no preventative measures taken against further tearing and blood-loss.

Rukia is brought in then, and it's hard to see the small shinigami lying so still so shortly after her recovery from Aizen's treachery. Again the mortal girl's healing magic does its work, though it's starting to take a toll on her. Before she's done with the second shinigami Inoue is drenched in sweat, the arm supporting her on the pavement shaking. She still looks up and smiles, the expression sweet and sad and lost (almost afraid, and skipping over Ichigo faster than necessary), offering to heal anyone else that needs it.

Matsumoto declines, claiming (without stretching the truth too much) to be fine. Renji shrugs off his injuries, saying he's had much worse, and since she saw him after Ichigo was through the first time (and heard that Byakuya turned his blade on his own vice-captain), she knows that's true. Ichigo just shakes his head and looks away.

"Renji?" The name is also a question, a query. She can usually read the other vice-captain fairly easily, but whether due to the long day or the poor lighting or something else, his expression is closed.

"I won." There's pride in his voice, in his stance, though it's an injured pride, a nervous pride.

"Congratulations." She's sincere, quieter than usual, because for Renji to be so open is rare. He'd been scared, she knows, scared that he was losing his strength, that for every step forward he'd been taking he'd took two steps back. What had happened with Rukia and Aizen and Ichigo had hit him hard, shook his faith in himself and what he stood for more than he wanted people to know.

So of course, all the vice-captains knew.

"He didn't." The red-head's voice is softer, and she can't read the emotion behind it. Perhaps pity, perhaps compassion, though the two are so interrelated and tangled together it's hard to tell. Perhaps fear, for them, for Soul Society.

She doesn't know how to respond to that, so she doesn't, and the other vice-captain moves away, steps closer to Rukia as she stretches gingerly. The two immediately engage in a verbal sparring match, Renji teasing her for getting tagged, her yelling at him for bleeding on her, and it's harsh and cruel and perfect for making the two of them feel better. Only those who truly know you best can dance on your wounds and insecurities and heal them that way.

She's standing by her captain again before she really contemplates movement, and he turns to stare at her, blue-green eyes sullen.

"I'm all right."

"I know you are." She sidles even closer to him, smiling wider, and he rolls his eyes before turning away.

She does know he's all right, and she knows he'll in all probability be all right for quite a while, despite hollows or Arrancar or himself, because no matter what else he might be, he's a Captain of the Gotei Thirteen, one of the strongest and best they've had in ages.

But sometimes, when he's hurt or when she's not looking at him directly, she thinks she can also see a boy under the warrior, and until she knows that that one's going to be all right, she'll stay right where she is.