Matsumoto sat perfectly still, her entire frame was rigid with fear, with guilt and a torrent of other emotions. She watched, not with the trained eyes of a shinigami, but with eyes filled with tears as she watched her taichou dangle between life and death. Orihime had promised to do what she could, but even that might not be enough, not this time. His haori, usually clean and neat, was torn and dyed a sickening red. His eyes, usually focused and alert, were dull and glazed. Hyourinmaru, usually strapped to his back or held in his hand, was now desperately clutched in hers. She was holding the sword so tightly, her knuckles were as white as her dear taichou's hair.
He'll be fine, you worry too much.
At that moment Matsumoto wasn't in the mood or the right state of mind to put up with one of Haineko's motivational pep talks.
How do you know?
I'm a sword, put it together, fool!
She didn't bother to retort as she usually would, she didn't have the energy to argue.
Hyourinmaru says his will is strong, he's not ready to die yet.
Most of those who are killed in war are not ready to die, but they die anyway.
He'd probably be insulted that you think of him as such a weakling.
CAN YOU SEE HIM RIGHT NOW!!
I see what you see, idiot!
It shouldn't be possible to bleed this much!
Matsumoto allowed one hand to leave Hyourinmaru and gently brush his hair back from his face, Orihime hadn't said anything since she'd started, she hadn't even questioned as to why the barely alive boy's head was resting on Matsumoto's lap.
You're a shinigami, blood shouldn't affect you in the slightest, have some pride!
It's not just any blood!! It's Hitsugaya-taichou's blood!!
She could feel the tears running down her face, his wounds had stopped bleeding and they were slowly closing up, but there didn't seem to be any improvement other than that. His skin was colder than usual, he was still unresponsive and he didn't move. She continued to tell herself that he wasn't dead, he was just unconscious; to the point of seeming dead.
"Rangiku-san" Orihime said.
She lifted her head and her gaze to look at Orihime.
"That's the best I can do, I'm sorry" The girl said sadly.
Matsumoto looked back to her taichou's face, his life was still in danger, but she couldn't blame Orihime. Hitsugaya was not the only casualty in this battle, Orihime was being stretched to her limits trying to help and save as many people as possible, but she was a human and she had her limits.
"That's alright, I can handle it from here" She said.
Orihime just nodded and walked away. Matsumoto took a deep breath, she knew what she had to do. First she removed his haori, then the tattered remains of his robe to expose his torso. She did her best not to cringe at the damage that had been done, such a small body and yet, so many injuries. She took out the bandages she carried in her sleeves and as gently as she could, wrapped them around his stomach, then his chest and shoulders. Matsumoto tugged softly on the bandages to tighten them enough so they wouldn't come undone, suddenly a dark red stain was slowly spreading out from his shoulder. Matsumoto felt like she was going to be sick.
"I can do this" She said to herself.
She hung his haori off his shoulders, lifted his body on to her back and pulled his arms over her shoulders. Matsumoto stood for a moment to make sure that this arrangement wasn't causing him any pain, but he was still the same, unresponsive. She used her shunpo, but went slower than usual, she didn't want the movements to reopen anymore of her taichou's barely closed wounds, she didn't think his body could take the strain of anymore blood loss. Suddenly she felt the slightest twitch of movement from the immobile body on her back, followed by the slightest hitch in his breathing.
"T-taichou?" She asked softly.
For a minute or two there was nothing.
Matsumoto bit her lip, he sounded so vulnerable, his voice was dry and cracked. A few tears slipped down her face.
"Are you in pain?" She asked, noting the strained sound of her own words.
As if brought on by the question itself, a small hiss of pain escaped him. She had to suppress the urge to cry, Matsumoto dared to turn her head and glance a look at his face. There was sweat running down his face and his eyes were clenched shut, every breath seemed to take an impossible amount of effort. She hated seeing her proud, strong taichou in such a state. If it was up to her, she would take all of his pain herself, she would do anything for her beloved taichou. It killed her that there was nothing, at that moment when he needed it most, that she could do for him other than try and get him to Unohana as fast as possible.
"Matsumoto, are you injured?" He asked.
She couldn't believe it, she didn't want him to worry about her, she wanted him to worry about himself, about staying alive.
"No, I'm fine" Her voice was barely a whisper, but she knew he had heard.
She caught the quiet breath of relief, tinged with the agony that wracked every nerve in his body.
Thanks to you, Taichou…
You're so sentimental.
Please, Haineko, no more.
Haineko kindly chose to shrink away to the back of her mind, leaving her with her thoughts.
"Thank you" She said.
She heard him chuckle lightly, then she felt him tense and choke in pain, her heart constricted painfully and her stomach shrank.
"Save your strength, please" Her voice was pleading.
Suddenly he started moving around, almost unbalancing her slow shunpo. She stopped and gently put him down, he sat taking deep breaths for a minute or so.
"I'm alright, I can walk on my own" He said as he tried to get to his feet.
"No, your wounds will open, you'll bleed to death!" Matsumoto jumped forward and gently pressed her hand against his chest in an attempt to prevent him rising.
He just swatted her hand away and managed to push himself into kneeling position. That small exertion made him seem so much frailer, sweat dripped off his skin and the rasp in his throat seemed to grow harsher and more pronounced.
"Taichou, stop!" She tried to make him stop, but she was too afraid of hurting him more to put any force behind it.
Then she saw it, not unlike when she had tightened the bandages, a dark red stain spreading out from just above his right hip. Matsumoto couldn't stand it anymore, she dropped to her knees, put her arms around his small frame and held him.
"Release me Matsumoto, that's an order!" He tried to muster up as much authority as possible.
"I just can't do that!" Her voice cracked and the tears flowed.
His struggling ceased, on her knees, Matsumoto was only a head taller than him on his knees.
"You don't always have to stand alone, let me carry some of your burden, there's room on my shoulders!"
Hitsugaya couldn't speak, he was in awe.
"I'm your fukutaichou, you're supposed to be able to rely on me. If you can't walk; I'll be your legs. If you can't talk; I'll be your voice. And if you can't accept that; I'll just be your friend!" She said, her voice steady and sincere.
He lowered his head, his forehead coming to rest in the crook of her neck.
"Please don't cry because of me, Matsumoto" His voice was soft and clear.
Matsumoto smiled and stepped back, she laughed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
"I won't cry anymore, if you stop being stupid and stop trying to kill yourself" She half laughed, half cried.
He smiled back, just before his eyes closed and he fell forward. Matsumoto stepped up and caught him gently in her arms. She looked at his features and brushed away an unruly lock of hair, he had a serene expression on his face. She lifted him on to her back and set off again to get him to Unohana. He would not appreciate the inevitable "healing holiday" that Unohana would make him take, but she would make sure he enjoyed it.
Life was too short, too fleeting, too fragile to waste. There was plenty of room on her shoulders for a few weeks of paperwork if it meant her taichou was getting the rest and relaxation he needed and deserved. And if she was lucky, she would have enough time at the end of every day to visit him and, without a doubt, scold him for trying to sneak away and back to the office.
"You're welcome, Toshirou"