He almost never speaks with Unohana. What wounds and bruises he received were often of so minor a nature as to be safely ignored or treated with Hinamori's rudimentary healing skills. But Hinamori isn't there anymore, is sick herself, and so when Unohana comes to him with news of her, he knows things have gotten worse.

"She sees things?"

"More like people than things, though the way she describes them . . ."

It was sporadic at first, but the occurrences are more frequent now. Unohana is reluctant to reveal the course of treatment, but lets out that the more powerful medicines are seemingly ineffectual against this disturbing onslaught.

"Can't you give her something stronger?"

"Anything more would break her. It's because the options are so limited that I thought you could provide assistance."

She thinks Hinamori knows full well what is at the root of the problem, and that he can coax it out of her. He grows a little heated, tells Unohana he will not lie to Hinamori, and that a solution can be reached without all this guile.

She gives him a smile born of sleepless nights, and says simply, "The lover's touches are sweet, but only the healer's are cleansing."

Hitsugaya has always hated proverbs.

The robe clings to her skin like leaves to dying trees. It's white of course, the herald of disease and death, and it makes him want to drape her in color, clothes of warm and russet tones, far away from this bleached out cloth. Her face is flushed and her breathing heavy, but she has enough energy to smile, the slight baring of her thighs filling him with fever and self-loathing.

She's trying to get up, but he moves to stop her, suppressing the urge to cup her face. He has so rarely been able to touch her (she being used to larger, more penetrating hands) that this small opportunity makes him disgustingly happy. He will pay for it later, but now he is intent on making her comfortable, and watching as the words spill out of her.

"Shirou-chan . . ."

"Stupid Momo. Don't you know you can't get up?"

She playfully says that she only wanted to pat his head. When he retorts that's he too tall for that now, she laughs and says anybody can see the truth. Their conversation is normal, and limited entirely to each other. Events past and present are shied away from, and it is only after an hour has passed that they come to it.

"Have you ever seen a desert, Shirou-chan?"

"Ukitake has told me about them."

"It's a very cold place."

"Deserts are hot, Momo."

"Not all of them." She shifts uncomfortably beneath the sheets, and he knows it's time to press the matter.

"I heard you haven't been feeling too well lately."

"It's because they let too many people visit me."

"What kind of people do they let in?

"The worst." Her eyes, placid for the most part, have acquired a strange intensity that makes him rigid and suddenly wary.

"Who is it that visits you, Momo?"

She smiles as if he had given her a gift. "It's really hard to describe them, because I'm still not sure whether they're people or not, even though they look and talk like they are. They're so strange, and they always ignore me even when I speak to them."

"You don't have to list them all, one or two is enough."

She stares deeply into nothing, and then begins.

"There's this old man who looks like a king, and I think he must have been a warrior, because there's this been big scar etched onto his eye, and he's always itching for battle. He rules over this ugly court, where this giant and this tiger are always laughing, and it's always because of all these heads stuck up on pikes outside the courtyard, and it goes on for miles."

"There's this man with glasses, he lives in some kind of chamber underground, but I've never seen all of it. He has this army of monsters help him catch all these people, and they're always screaming and he's always smiling, but I don't know why, except that he's always covered with blood, and he wishes his brother were there."

"There's this thing with an eyepatch, he acts like a man. He's always on foot, always looking for something, and he likes hurting this other man with an eyepatch, who doesn't mind at all, and what he likes most is eating people, all kinds of strong things, because he wants to reach the top of the palace."

Her breathing is heavy, and her eyes have become even wilder. Hitsugaya wants to stop this, but one doesn't stop a bloodletting, especially when the blood is tainted.

"But you know, Shirou-chan, out of all them, there's only been one who's ever answered back. He's really pretty, and really sad, and he thinks I'm his comrade. He has these lovely dark wings, and he's shown me all the rooms of the palace, and what the desert looks like at eventide."


"He's really important, because he always has all these jobs to do, that's why he visits so rarely. But now he's been coming more often, and I'm glad, because I don't like the others, but I'm always so tired after he leaves, and I can't explain it."

"What does he tell you?"

Here she balks, and he understands what Unohana means by "the root of the problem", though he's at loss as to why Hinamori is loath to reveal it.

"You can't tell me?"

"It's not that I don't want to, but you won't like it, I know you won't."

"I promise to stay calm. You know it's what I'm best at."

Her hands twitch nervously. "He says I won't have to stay here much longer. I've proven myself, and I can see him again. They're very close, he says, out of all them only he was entrusted with this job, because we're his most loyal servants."

He would like to smash Aizen's face to pulp.

"When I'm there, he says, I can live with him close to the throne room, because that's where he expects us to live, close to him and at a moment's notice. We'll always be near him, and he'll eat with us and talk to us and give us jobs because he loves us, and I'll get my very own number, and the sun will never bother us again."

He rises to his feet, unsteady as they are, and heads to the door.

"I thought you said you wouldn't get angry." The joy in her voice hasn't left yet.

"I'm not, Momo, I'm really not, I just need to check up on something. I'll be back in a little while."

As he shuts the door, he thinks he hears her whisper, "I wish you'd come with me."

After learning from Kurotsuchi that all information on Hueco Mundo is classified, and that he must obtain permission from Yamamoto to view it, he is angrily on his way to the General's quarters when Unohana stops him for the second time that day.

"Why are you here?" He doesn't like that a captain as capable as her should look so unnerved.

"I needed some information from Kurotsuchi. Why, what's wrong?"

"I told the attendants to stop surveillance in deference to your wish for privacy. I was under the impression you were still with her. How long has it been since you left?"

"An hour."

Unohana looks away and it forces his hand.


"She's gone."

"She can't be gone."

"I'm telling you, she's gone, and you were the last to see her."

He's too angry for tears.

"She could have just went for air."

"Her bed is torn to shreds, and there are numbers burnt into the walls. Do you still think this is some stroll?"

"What numbers?"

"The numbers 1-10, all imprinted from the ceiling to the floor, all smelling of ash."

He leans against a neighboring wall, and bites his lip until it bleeds. There are no warm colors for Hinamori now, nothing he can provide, nothing she would want. He will snatch her back and wrap her in them, make her forget all about deserts and white and palaces. If one cannot do that much for one's wife, then one cannot do anything at all.

Overhead, the beat of wings darkens the noon sky.