Winter, Chapter 2:

If not for the pressure in his ears, settling on his shoulders and winding around his chest, Hitsugaya would have been pleasantly surprised to find Matsumoto Rangiku sitting at her desk, filling out paperwork despite the sake bottle that sat beside her, lonely and almost finished. Since that was not the case, a thick silence filled the room and occupied the space between them, broken only by the scratching of paper against paper, paper against pen, and the creaking of an old chair against an even older wooden floor. Matsumoto looked up when he entered, her face slightly flushed. She opened her mouth, and after a tense second closed it again and returned to her business.

Hitsugaya wanted to collapse face first on the couch and scream, muffled by the worn pillows. For a split second, his mind's eye filled with a therapeutic, if uncharacteristic, temper tantrum, snarling and flailing like a wild thing. Instead, closed his eyes, steeled his resolve, walked past the couch and sat carefully behind his desk.

Matsumoto, he noticed, had stopped working. She held the pen in midair, hovering over a paper on her desk, but her eyes were on him, brows slightly furrowed. Her hair had fallen into her face, but she did not attempt to flick it away. She had to have noticed his deep breathing exercises, then, he realized, and how he sat down as if his desk and chair were made of thin glass. 'Perfect,' he sneered internally. However, despite his effort, Hitsugaya knew there wasn't really a point in masking his frustration. Eventually, he had to tell her what had happed at the meeting, and he sincerely doubted he could keep all traces of bitterness out of his voice when he did.

Hitsugaya drew another deep breath and placed his palms gently on the surface of his desk. His granny had been a deeply practicing Buddhist in life, and had carried many of those philosophies and routines over into her death. As such, she had been sure to teach the stern boy the basic tenets of meditation, lessons that had served him well throughout his short life. Patience had never been one of his strong points, but discipline had, so on most days he found himself employing some of these strategies at least once.

The old wooden desk had a thick, clear glossy finish that felt cool against the pads off his fingers and his palms. The cedar was honey colored with straight, even grain that broke off into swirls when interrupted by knots. His papers were crisp and white, in neat, even stacks. His favorite pen was in its spot beside extra blue ink and a sharp graphite pencil. Hitsugaya had never been good at clearing his mind as his grandmother had tried to teach him; instead, he focused on perfect, mundane details and allowed them to take precedence over whatever was bothering him. This had limited effectiveness now, when the task of repeating everything to Matsumoto hovered just before him, baring its teeth in a wide, sinister grin.

"Stop that." Matsumoto. Hitsugaya started out of his thoughts and glanced quickly and severely over at her. She was unapologetic, and raised an elegant brow as she tucked her blonde hair behind one ear. "You're making it cold. I'm getting goose bumps."

"Oh." He had not noticed the change in temperature until she pointed it out, and even then, when he did not focus directly on it, it slipped beyond his perception. "Sorry." He concentrated on his reiatsu and drew it back into himself, but the damage had already been done, so he stood up, grabbed the fleece blanket from the back of the couch, and delivered it to his vice captain at her desk.

She accepted it with a smile, and wrapped it around her shoulders. "Chivalry isn't dead!" she quipped, and nodded thankfully before sobering. "I take it the meeting didn't go well, then." She did not finish with, "… if you're losing control of your reiatsu," but he heard it anyway and pressed his lips together.

'That's an elementary mistake,' said the voice. 'You should fix that.'

He bit back the urge to argue with himself. "I apologize," he said stiffly to Matsumoto instead. "It won't happen again." He took a deep breath and felt one fist clench at his side. "And no." His words twisted involuntarily into a sneer. "It didn't. I'm sure you can guess why."

Matsumoto looked away. "Oh." She put her pen down and began studying her cuticles. "Well… did they say anything?" She didn't have any hangnails, so instead she rubbed at the ink staining her pinky and the side of her hand. "It could have just been…"

Hitsugaya's fingernails bit into his palms. He glanced at the ceiling and cut her off. "Basically, this winter, the hollows will begin congregating in and around Oslo, Norway. The fifth is staying in Istanbul until they're gone, and they're sending Ukitake to Oslo. We will assist the eleventh division, who will remain in Seireitei and provide backup for squads stationed in the human world."

Matsumoto's head snapped to attention. "We're providing backup to the backup? Are you kidding?"

"And, being the eleventh, I doubt they'll need it."

"Still, you'd think they'd send you to a place like Oslo in January." She wrinkled her nose even as she said it. Hitsugaya glared at her.


There was a pause. "…Maybe they just wanted the eleventh division's paperwork done for once," Matusmoto joked, in an attempt to fill the silence that once again stretched between them. Her tone, though, was suspiciously lacking in levity, so Hitsugaya ignored it.

For a moment, a cold breeze filled the room, ruffling stacks of paper and rattling the blinds before he gained control of it. 'You again, little dragon. If you keep this up, you may as well just throw the temper tantrum and be done with it. Secrets are useless if the weather changes with your mood.'

'Shut up.'

"At any rate," he said at length to his lieutenant, "as you appear to have things well in hand, I will be training in the practice field."

For once, she didn't protest, and if she had meant to, it died on her lips. "Yes, Captain," she said instead. "Take your time. I'll even put the sake away." Matsumoto shook the nearly empty bottle with a benevolent smirk, and then put it in the cabinet below her desk, closing and locking the door firmly. "Now, shoo. You're disrupting my concentration."

Hitsugaya stared at her and felt a slight tugging at the corner of his lips. He reached behind him and grasped Hyourinmaru, relishing the comfort with which it fit his hand, and then rushed out of the room before releasing a breath and indulging in a quick, relieved smile. Already, he could feel some of his tension ebbing away.

At least something had gone right today.