A/N: I know, it's been a while! However, to spare the petty details, I'm back on track! I've got news though... I'm taking a temporary break on this fic to clear some things up, BUT I've got in store some more HitsuYori goodness if you guys are liking this pairing as much as I do. "Trains." That's what I'm calling my in-progress fic at the moment. Keep an eye out for "Trains."

Chapter Twenty-Three – Define Childhood

I wake up to the smell of hot soup and… Is that watermelon? A tatami mat lies beneath my back and there's a roof above my head. Grunting, I lift my head up. My eyes rove around the single-room home. It's not large—furniture is sparse and only a few windows exhibit the dreary weather outside—but it has a nice, homely feel to it. There are clean, stark white bandages over my abdomen. It's as if someone just changed them five minutes ago.

"Why, it seems like you're finally awake!" I whip my head towards a soft voice that's coming from behind me. With tiny footsteps, little old lady teeters to my side with a bowl of steaming soup in her hands. "Are you hungry? I made watercress soup."

"Who the hell are you?" I try to hoist myself up to a sitting position, but my wound pins me back down to my elbows. Gritting my teeth, I mentally curse my Inner Hollow. If only I could've used my mask; then I wouldn't be in this stupid position in the first place! Soi Fon's attack wouldn't have even scratched me.

"Don't force yourself too much." The lady helps me lie back down. "We don't want to risk reopening your wound, do we?" Her voice has a warm, tender tone to it. It reminds of my first captain, Hikifune. Without protest, I open my mouth as she feeds me spoonfuls of the hot soup.

"As to answer your first question," the lady says, spoon hovering halfway to my mouth. It waits for me to swallow. "I am Toshiro-kun's grandmother."

I frown. There's as much resemblance between the midget and his grandma as there is between a porcupine and a freaking eel. Warmth radiates off this lady like a fireplace; frost emanates off her grandson like a refrigerator. "Really," I blurt out without thinking.

The lady sets the bowl and spoon beside her lap and chuckles softly. "We got that a lot back when Toshiro-kun lived here as a child. But believe me, it's true." She smiles without revealing any teeth. "If I'm not mistaken, you're Hiyori-chan?"

"Uh, yeah," I manage, pushing back a strand of straggly blonde hair. Seems like I lost most of my barrettes and both hair ties for my pigtails back in the fight. "By the way, where's the midge—I mean, Hitsugaya."

Hitsugaya's grandma turns her head towards the screen door. "He took the biggest kitchen knife I had and went out on the porch to slice up some watermelon. I guess he hasn't lost his love for it even after all these years!" She sighs and stands up on her creaky knees. "I'm afraid I'll have to go out to do some grocery shopping. Toshiro-kun will get you whatever you need."

I close my eyes. Footsteps click away. The door slides open. Rain hammers against the ground. A knife slices through fruit. Voices converse. The door slides closed.

How the hell did I get myself here? I lie on the tatami mat, staring bleakly at the ceiling. Of course, it all started with that bitch of an Inner Hollow terrorizing my night's sleep. Then I harassed Hinamori over Aizen, and she fell into some kind of medical condition resembling a heart attack. Hours later, she miraculously came out of the ER good as new. My Hollow barged into my dreams again in order to formally state that she was ditching me with my Zanpakuto. Hinamori left. I became tied up with the midget. Kisuke's place. Soi Fon's attack. And now—I'm here.

It's been one hell of week: a massive understatement for sure.

"Sarugaki." I open my eyes. The midget stands over me, hefting a heaping plate of watermelon cubes in his hands. "Are you feeling better?"

"What are you talking about?" I snort, raising my head to throw him a scowl. "I can't even walk around this place, much less pick myself up."

Hitsugaya narrows his eyes. "I guess that's a 'no' then." Before I can respond, he runs a hand through his damp hair and offers me the plate of fruit. "There's watermelon if you want any."

"Get outta my face, ya midget. I feel like a heap o' dogshit."

"Fine. It's here if you have a change of heart." Hitsugaya sets the plate down on the small dining table with a soft clank. "I'll be outside on the porch." I listen to his bare feet padding against the wood floors. Suddenly, a thought hits me.

"Uh, Hitsugaya?"

The midget turns around. I notice the light stains on the sleeves of his shihakusho—bloodstains from my wound yesterday. "What?"

I divert my attention from the faint reminder of my failure. "How long am I gonna be here before I'm… in the clear?"

"It depends," Hitsugaya replies. He crosses the room and sits beside me. "I performed basic healing Kido on your injury last evening, and my Baa-chan cleaned and wrapped it. Suffice to say, Soi Fon's signature attack didn't kill you."

"Of course not," I say matter-of-factly. Soi Fon's Shunko was a speck of dust in comparison to Yoruichi's. The Shihouin's attack completely crumbled Mashiro's mask back when we sparred with her.

"At best, it's going to be a couple of days before you can get back on your feet. We've got limited resources here." Hitsugaya sighs.

"A couple of days!" All the muscles in body act accordingly, and I jolt up into a sitting position. Instantly, rippling pain flares across my abdomen, spreading into my upper torso. I suck in a breath. Before I know it, I'm flat on my back once again, sucking air into my lungs like a fish out of water.

"Maybe even longer if you keep exerting yourself like that!" The midget berates.

"That's not the point!" I shoot back. "Lemme ask ya this, Hitsugaya! Are ya just gonna stay here an' wait for me to rest up? Do you realize how much ground she can cover in a couple o' days? Ya better run off and find her or else she's gonna get too far awa—"

"I can't do that," he interrupts. His reiatsu flickers faintly. "We're stuck in this situation together, considering how Soul Society takes us both as felons now. I've got no choice but to stay here. As long as you are here, my Baa-chan's at a 100% risk of getting in trouble."

I falter. "Yeah." His words sound like an accusation, but I don't react to them. They're very much true.

The look in Hitsugaya's eyes is forlorn. He stares at the bandages on my abdomen, listlessly drumming his fingers against the floor. It always seems like I'm hit near my tummy; the Winter War and now this. "You're bleeding again," he comments. I glance down. Sure enough, a pink blob dribbles outward across the wrappings, slowly becoming a bright, angry red.

"Shit," I mutter.

The midget is already on it. He retrieves a roll of clean bandages from a cupboard and proceeds to unwrapping the bloody scraps on my stomach. As he works, I watch that pesky little bang bouncing about his forehead like a flier. Words can't describe how much I want to take my Zanpakuto and shear that chunk of hair clean off.

For two days, Sarugaki remained anchored to the tatami mat, doing nothing but sipping soup and listening to Grams relate childhood stories. Hitsugaya chose to stay anchored to the front porch partly to give them more space and partly to spare himself from remembering the embarrassing stories. Sarugaki laughed at his juvenile mishaps, having too much of a fun time making snide taunts and remarks.

It has been forty-eight hours since they have arrived at the first district of West Rukongai. Forty-eight hours for Hinamori get run farther away. Forty-eight hours for Soi Fon to narrow down their location.

Hitsugaya kicks a small rock down the hill of Grams' front yard. He watches it crush the dew-kissed grass as it bounces down the slope, rolling to a stop at a neighbor's vegetable garden. A speckled rabbit bolts from the tomato plants, bounding across the yard and into a mess of shrubs.

"Hey, midget!" Hitsugaya turns at the voice. Sarugaki stands before the porch. White bandages peek from the neckline of her shihakusho, but her loose hair easily sweeps across the evidence. Clinging to a tall stick for support, she hobbles towards him. A wry grin spreads itself across her freckled face. "I'm up an' ready, so let's get goin' now!"

Hitsugaya raises an eyebrow. "Really," he remarks.

"Hell yes! I've never felt so alive in my entire life!"

"You're not serious, are you?"

Sarugaki scowls. She jabs her stick towards his knees. "You stupid? I'm just takin' a walk, idiot!"

"I see." He follows her, observing rugged movements down the dusty path in slight amusement.

"Why're ya followin' me?" she demands, pivoting around. "I'll be fine by myself!"

"I have to," Hitsugaya replies. "If I don't, what happens if you trip down a hill? No one's going to be there to drag you back up."

"I ain't askin' for your help, baldy!"

He accompanies her nonetheless, much to her self-evident annoyance. With many complaints along the way, they meander into a peaceful field sprouting with young and vibrant daffodils.

"This where you broke your knee?" Sarugaki grunts. A light breeze trickles across the field; the yellow and white flowers sigh in response.

"Oh… yeah," Hitsugaya mumbles. "That incident. Grams told you that as well?"

"Jumpin' off a boulder?"

"Yeah. So she did tell you that." He heaves a sigh and looks out over the azure horizon. The torrential rain swarming the sky for the last few days seems to have left on a positive note. Without a cloud in the sky above, the sun casts its cheerful glow over the swaying field. "Hinamori and I always came here as kids."

"As kids?" Sarugaki repeats. Stray blonde strands whip across her face, and she brushes them aside with a hand. "That's what you guys did as kids?"

"What are you talking about?" Hitsugaya frowns. "Isn't that what everyone does as kids? We're practically supposed to play hide-and-seek and dare each other to do stupid things when we're young—especially in a natural playground like this." His eyes skimmed over the vibrant field. At last, he spots the boulder standing stalwartly amidst the flowers. "There it is."

Hitsugaya leads the Vizard through the daffodils. Tall grass itches at his ankles and shins, begging him to stay and play, but he doesn't stop walking until they reach the boulder. "This is where it happened." He thumps the rough gray rock with his fist.

"Where Hinamori dared ya to swan dive off this sucker, and you ended up shattering your knee?" Sarugaki asks with a bemused smirk. "It's only about three feet off the ground! How the hell did this thing mess you up?"

"My Baa-chan's explanation was that I wasn't as tall as the others as a child," he admits, lowering his eyes.

"And ya still aren't."

"Speak for yourself," Hitsugaya growls. "As far as I'm concerned, neither of us are what society deems as 'normal height.'"

"I'm still growin'," the blonde retorts. "I still got a chance."

"Same here."

They stand in the field, silent for a moment. The wind blusters against their faces, teasing their hair into eccentric dances. Out of the corner of his eye, Hitsugaya watches Sarugaki bite down on her bottom lip. Her face is scrunched up as if she is deep in thought. "Midget."

"What is it?" he answers sardonically, staring at a familiar crack in the boulder. It was made during a game of soccer against the neighborhood bullies who used to live down by the river.

"What…" Her voice trails off, and she rethinks her words. "What else didja do as a kid besides playin' all day?"

The question takes him aback. "What do you mean?"

The blonde gulps. "Did you ever have to… be punished?"

"Of course." Her eyes widen, and Hitsugaya laughs quietly. "After hours of playing soccer or running around outside, Grams always called me inside to do chores. I was a bit of a stubborn child, so getting me to wash the dishes and sweep the floor was a real hassle for her. Whenever I did a crappy job of doing the chores, Grams would make me eat extra vegetables at every single meal for a week. I couldn't stand it—"

"No, that ain't what I meant," Sarugaki cuts in. She regards him with a look of great intensity; her gaze almost pierces through him like a blade. "Did you have to be whipped? Or spanked?"

"Wait, what?" Words jumble together on Hitsugaya's tongue like an unsolved jigsaw puzzle. He swallows the confusion down and looks deep into the Vizard's eyes. "We don't do that here. It's against our… principles."

"Is it?" Sarugaki responds quietly.

"Sarugaki," Hitsugaya begins, deliberating on whether to venture forward or not. He takes a deep breath. "What was your childhood like?"

Immediately, the blonde's eyes flash in burning anger, and she rounds on him. "How the hell am I s'posed to know?!" She explodes. "I ran away from it!" Her teeth clench together tightly in a jagged line. "I never had all the crap you had as a kid! No pretty flower fields to romp around in, no swan divin' off a rock, no hide-and-seek!" She throws an arm towards the sky and earth. "All this never happened for me!" she hisses. Tears fall freely from the corners of her eyes onto the ground.

"Sarugaki," Hitsugaya breathes, unsure of what to do. "It's all—"

"It's not all right!" she snarls. "The stupid-ass camp completely fucked up my childhood! Hell, I don't even know what the word 'childhood' means anymore 'cause o' that—" Without a moment's notice, Sarugaki casts her stick across the field and cocks back her arm, aiming a punch directed towards Hitsugaya's face. "—stupid hell camp!"

Hitsugaya catches her hit in the palm of his hand. This isn't a petty thwack to the head with her infamous flip-flop; it's a turbulent swing fueled by frustration and anger. "Sarugaki," he murmurs. "That's enough. We're past childhood now."

"We… are?" The Vizard's voice cracks. Her fist shakes uncontrollably against his hand.

"Yes," Hitsugaya says gravelly. "We're way past it."

Sarugaki relaxes and crumbles to the ground, taking ragged lung-fuls of air. It just occurs to Hitsugaya that the dark storm clouds have covered the sky once again, coming out of nowhere. There was not a hint of a cloud moments before—in fact, the sky was a wide stretch of soft blue. He redirects his attention towards Sarugaki, and upon an instant, his senses tingle. Her reiatsu. It crackles off of her in dark, stormy waves.

"I think," Hitsugaya says, helping the blonde up to her feet. "You were serious about being ready to go earlier today. Being able to throw a punch like that is all I need to be convinced." Lightning rips across the sky. "We'll explain to Grams, and we'll get out of here as quickly as we can."