Disclaimer: Bleach is owned by Tite Kobe

Author Note/Spoiler Alert: This story is written with the assumption that the reader has read or viewed the most recent chapter or episode of Bleach.

This story begins disjointed and slightly confusing, much like the characters are when we first meet them. Trust me, it will all come together and make sense the more you read. Just like the characters will come together and make sense...

Please enjoy.

Rabid Anime Gurl

3

West Rukongai, 41 years ago

They were staring at him again.

Hitsugaya Toushiro kept turquoise eyes trained ahead of him and ignored the looks and whispers he'd grown accustomed to over the years. His pace was steady, his expression bored, as he walked down the streets of West Rukongai. The people of Junrinan may not like his untamed white hair and cold aura, but they kept their distance. Those who didn't were no more than bullies whom he usually handled one way or another. Another skill he had no choice to develop.

He supposed they started treating him differently around the same time he felt different. Ever since the dreams started, he'd felt something open up deep within his soul. He felt it trying to claw its way to the surface, felt tendrils of cold seeping into the fabric of his body and freezing him from the inside out. The dreams came at random. Most of the time he couldn't see past the icy mist that swirled around him. But there were other times when he swore he saw an icy figure slithering across the ground.

It was frightening not knowing what was going on inside him, and knowing that what ever it was affected how people treated him. Somehow, he felt it was better that way. If he couldn't control what was happening to him, it was probably for the best if people kept their distance.

"Hirooooo-kun!"

If only she kept her distance.

Aomori Kazumi raced toward him, brown eyes round with fear and sparkling with unshed tears. Her long, red hair trailed behind her as three older boys gave chase. She wore a bright yellow yukata that stood in stark contrast against skin the color of the mahogany wood used to build the stores that lined the street. She was a few inches shorter than him, with a quiet demeanor that often made her a target for bullies. And ever since Hinamori had introduced them, she developed an annoying attachment to him and had taken to calling him Hiro.

"Hiro-kun!"

Hitsugaya's expression immediately turned sour as Kazumi launched herself at him. He sidestepped easily, but she anticipated the movement and snaked out an arm to grab him. She slipped behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist, cheek pressed to his back as she sniffled. He couldn't help grinding his teeth together. They'd done this dance far too many times to count.

Realizing who he was, the boys immediately ceased their advance. He recognized these bullies. He'd had several scrapes with them when he was Kazumi's size. There had been wins and losses on both sides. He stared at them with cold, narrowed eyes, prepared to make a stand, win or lose. They stared back, eyes spitting fire and darting between him and Kazumi. Indecision held them captive, despite having the advantage. For the first time, Hitsugaya recognized an emotion he was starting to see form in the eyes of those who stared and whispered at him.

Fear.

Surprise lightened his features. The abrupt change had the boys backing off warily, mumbling and shooting cruel looks at the girl behind him.

"Get off," he demanded as he shook himself free.

Kazumi swiped at tears with her sleeve. "Arigatou, Hiro-kun."

"Can't you stay out of trouble?" He resumed walking, annoyed that he didn't have the same affect on her as he did those boys.

She followed after him. "I only wanted to pick some flowers for Hinamori-chan."

"Yeah, so, where are they?"

She looked down and kept walking silently.

Hitsugaya immediately felt guilt lodge in his throat. She didn't deserve his treatment anymore than she did the bullying. He just wished she hadn't chosen him as her hero. He didn't need that kind of responsibility with what he was going through. But no matter how much he tried to discourage her, Kazumi kept coming back. Except for the bullies that seemed to gravitate toward her, he didn't actually mind her company. She was soft spoken and gentle. And although she often failed miserably, she did try not to be a nuisance.

He suddenly found himself filled with a cold anger that had his fists clenching together. No. She didn't deserve to be mistreated. And with Hinamori spending less and less time in Rukongai, Kazumi was losing the person who protected her.

Hitsugaya looked down at the small girl beside him, and vowed to be the hero she believed he was.

3

Shinigami Academy, 26 years ago

She often thought of herself as a flower that had the great misfortune of being planted in the shadow of two large trees. Their leaves blocked precious sunlight and their roots greedily sucked up water. Once those trees were removed, the flower slowly blossomed. But not into the full beauty of what it could have been had it received proper nourishment as a seedling. It's growth instead had been stunted, unable to reach it's full potential in such harsh conditions. And yet, the flower was resilient and learned to thrive in the shadows, and became unlike any flower ever seen.

Kazumi had begun to hear the whispers of her power just a few short years after Hitsugaya's departure for the Shinigami Academy. Darkness and fire seemed to explode from within her at the first hint of freedom from suppression. Reiatsu and kido experts had determined that her constant exposure to not one, but two incredibly powerful sources of reiatsu had essentially stifled her own reiatsu. It had festered in the fiery darkness of her soul and transformed into something they'd never seen before. While her Zanpakutou had been classified as a fire type, her kido was tainted with darkness. Both thrived best on negative or volatile emotions.

It was a stark contrast to her personality.

Kazumi breezed past students, smiled and waved at others, as she made her way toward the dormitories. Most knew her as friendly and kind, and perhaps a tad bit too reserved. During competitions, however, she came to life, exhibiting passion and excitement. She'd chopped her red hair the day she'd been admitted to the Academy four years ago. She kept it short and shaggy, wanting to show as little of it as possible since it clashed with her uniform. She wore red hakama and white kosode, the uniform for female students. Long legs made her nearly as tall as many of the male students.

She excelled in kido and hand-to-hand combat. Because her reiatsu had been stunted for so long, her studies were tailored to healing. Those few teachers who were not wary of her powers, encouraged her development and aided her in strengthening her skills. No one understood the full extent of the darkness that was intimately entwined with her kido, but she was able develop a unique technique that impressed everyone. In spite of, or perhaps because of the darkness, she was quickly becoming the best healer at the academy.

Kazumi entered her shared room and found it empty. The room was just big enough for two people. Desks sat in the back corners of the room. There was a small closet for each student at the opposite end of the room. The windows at the far end let in light and a view of the sprawling rooftops of Soul Society. She dropped her books on her desk and snatched up a letter addressed to her. She frowned at the unfamiliar name of the sender, disappointment filling her.

She hadn't received a letter from Hinamori in months. The Gotei 13 were in disarray, still trying to regain some semblance of control after Sousuke Aizen's betrayal. While the academy's administration carried on as usual, a cloud of unease hung heavily above Soul Society. There were whispers of an eminent attack and war, but there were no answers of comfort in this troubling time.

Kazumi sank into her chair, and scowled at the envelope. She cherished Hinamori's letters, as they were her only link to a friend she rarely saw. She had risen to the ranks of fukutaichou of the 5th division, and that left her with barely enough time to write. But Hinamori had made good on her promise to care for and protect her, using her earnings to provide for housing in the nicer areas of Rukongai and even tuition and money for books. Hitsugaya had made a similar promise, but while Hinamori insisted that Hitsugaya also contributed money, Kazumi didn't know what to think.

She hadn't seen or heard from Hitsugaya since his admittance to the academy, but she knew everything about him. He was the child genius who had breezed through the academy in just a year, and then quickly became taichou of the 10th division. She knew he didn't have time for the insignificant friend of a friend who he'd been trapped into rescuing time and time again. He'd tolerated her because she had been an outcast like him.

Even as she thought it, she desperately wished that none of it were true.

There were times when she could have wept from missing them. She had only to close her eyes to see them sitting in Hinamori's yard while Hitsugaya devoured watermelons, laughing as the two teased each other. And yet, without their presence, she'd been able to bloom. Their absence hurt, even as she blossomed and became stronger. And by becoming stronger, she brought them closer to reunion. She was determined to join the ranks of the Gotei 13 and be with them once more.

Sighing dejectedly, she ripped open the envelop and found a letter that would reunite them sooner than she planned.

3

Seireitei, present day

Kazumi carefully refilled teacups, listening attentively to Hinamori's plans. This was to be their final meeting before the big day. Hinamori had decided to use the 10th Division squad's garden for the ceremony, and it's dining hall for the banquet. The menu and flower arrangements had been finalized. The number of guests accounted for. Kazumi picked up her notepad and reminded herself to check on the cake. She flipped through her notes, looking for anything that still need to be addressed.

"Who's going to walk to you down the isle?"

"I've decided who's going to walk to me down the isle."

They said this simultaneously, and it made both women giggle. Hinamori's groom rolled his blue eyes, a slight smile on his pale face. After working with both women for several years, Ryota was well accustomed to their antics. They frequently finished each other sentences or said the same thing at once. They'd been all but inseparable since Kazumi's return to the Gotei 13 one year ago.

Kazumi set down her tea and leaned forward, brown eyes bright with excitement. "Well, go on! Who is it?"

"Shiro-kun!"

"Shiro-kun…" She blinked in surprised. "But wouldn't that be…awkward?"

Hinamori shook her head, black bangs swaying with movement. "Of course not. Unless you believe those silly rumors and lies! And that's precisely why we're doing it."

"Oh. I see. " Kazumi felt shame churning in her stomach. She lifted her teacup and sipped quickly, hoping to soothe it. "Well, that's a wonderful idea."

Hinamori eyed her suspiciously. "That's not the reaction I was looking for."

"Good indication of how everyone else will react," Ryota said dryly.

"It's just that…" Kazumi began hesitantly, unsure how to explain herself.

Hinamori groaned. "Not you too! You're the last person I would think could believe those rumors. You're my best friend, Kazumi. And you spent a lot of time with Hitsugaya-kun back then, so how could you believe those rumors? I would have told you if something else was between us."

"I didn't believe them at first!" Unable to sit, Kazumi stood and began cleaning up their mess. "After a while, I didn't know what to think. You were out of it. Hitsugaya was…" She paused, trying to find the best way to describe it without dredging up memories she didn't want. "Extremely attentive. Overprotective. Combine that with the rumors and I thought maybe, if anything, the relationship was one sided."

She sat again, hands together in her laps. Twirling her thumbs around each other, she looked up at Hinamori and Ryota. They were such a lovely couple. Ryota with his broad shoulders and wavy black hair that nearly touched his shoulders. Even sitting, he was a head taller than Hinamori. They didn't deserve this betrayal. She should never have believed those rumors about Hitsugaya and Hinamori having an intimate relationship. She should have trusted that her friend would never keep secrets from her.

"I'm so sorry. I guess I always believed the rumors, even when you two began dating." She looked down again, guilt building inside her. The walls she'd built up to block out the past were crumbling. She couldn't seem to stop it.

Hinamori rose and took a seat next to her. She wrapped her arms around Kazumi's shoulders. "Don't be sorry. If it hadn't been for Ryota, I don't think I would have ever been able to understand how my friendship with Hitsugaya-kun appeared to outsiders. And I guess, in a way, you were an outsider, even with all of our letters to each other."

Her confession only caused the walls to crumble faster. Desperately needing a private moment to rebuild, she smiled weakly at her friend. "This will definitely give them something to think about."

"That's the point. Hitsugaya-kun is the closest thing I've got to a brother so he's the only real choice I have to walk me down the isle. He agrees that this should help settle all those rumors that are still going around, despite my engagement to Ryota."

"It's the perfect plan." Rising again, Kazumi gathered the tea tray, and forced herself to keep her voice steady. "I should get going. I'll take this to the kitchen."

"Can't you stay for a bit? Hitsugaya-kun is joining us. He should have been here already."

She felt the panic bubble in her throat and headed to the door. "I want to prepare for my meeting with Unohana Taichou tomorrow. I'll see you later."

Kazumi was out before she could protest. Long legs carried her down the hall, red hair swaying in her wake. The tray was shaking by the time she reached the kitchen. She quickly set the tray on the counter before moving on. Outside, she sucked in several breaths as rain pelted the 5th Division barracks. Wrapping her arms around herself, she closed her eyes against the memories.

But that didn't stop her mind from racing.

3

Soul Society, 26 years ago

Kazumi sat next to Hinamori's bed, softly stroking the pale, cold hand draped across her friend's body. She watched her face for some sign of movement – a twitch, a fluttering of the eyes – anything to indicate that Hinamori acknowledged her presence. But, as it had been for a month now, Hinamori lay unresponsive. She was told that while her physical wounds had healed, Hinamori's mental state was far from stable.

Instead, her mind was a tumulus mix of grief, anger, depression, guilt, and pain. The combination of such potent emotions had caused the darkness in Kazumi's kido to spring to life the first time she had gone to see Hinamori. She had let out a gasp of surprise as the darkness spread like fire through her body. Color seeped from her vision until everything before her turned black. Then she'd heard a gentle voice that tamed the fires. Trembling from the effort, she slowly came back to herself. Appalled and frightened, she quickly realized that she'd nearly been consumed by her own power.

And yet, Unohana Taichou still believed that Kazumi could help Hinamori.

She let out a shaky sigh and rested her forehead against the edge of the bed. Unohana Taichou had revealed that she had been following Kazumi's progress at the academy when it was first discovered she had proficiency in healing. She believed that her unique abilities could be tamed and coaxed in a way that would benefit the 4th Division. And so, in a few short days after receiving Unohana Taichou's letter, Kazumi had graduated from the academy and been admitted into the 4th Division.

In the last month, Unohana Taichou herself had coached and trained her, helping her modify and fine-tune her personal healing technique. She was still a work in progress, but under Unohana Taichou's steady guidance, she'd developed and learned more about her powers than she had at the academy.

She still couldn't reach Hinamori.

Kazumi sat up, suddenly determined. She would help Hinamori at all cost. She owed her friend everything that she had and everything that she was. Standing, she marched to the door and shut it firmly. Returning to Hinamori's bedside, she brought her right hand up and pressed her index and middle fingers to her forehead. She brought her breathing to a slow and even pace as she focused on bringing power to her fingertips. Exhaling out a small breath, she pulled her fingers away. A thin ribbon of green lightning trailed from forehead to fingers. This was her healing technique.

She pressed her fingers to Hinamori's forehead and closed her eyes. Her reiatsu immediately hit a wall constructed by Hinamori's volatile emotions. The darkness within her reached greedily for them, hungry for their flavor. She realized with shocking clarity that she could take those emotions, swallow them up in that dark well of her soul. But she needed Hinamori to give them to her. She clung as tightly to the pain and grief as it clung to her. If she could break past that wall to find the Hinamori she knew, maybe could convince her to let it go.

Kazumi summoned more power and pushed her reiatsu out and into Hinamori's mind. Tendrils of green stroked and caressed the wall, looking for weakness. She was panting when she finally felt a tiny crack, no thicker than a grain of sand. Concentrating, she was bombarded by different emotions and feelings all at once – calm at the sound of Hitsugaya's voice, happiness when she'd gently stroked her hand not moments before. Positive, beautiful emotion and feelings. This was the Hinamori she knew.

Whimpering with joy, she leaned closer to Hinamori. "Please, please. Let me help you. Let me protect you. I can take all your grief and pain and sadness away."

She gasped when she spotted movement behind Hinamori's closed eyelids. A rush of power raced up Kazumi's fingertips, crackling across the green lightning of her power until it reached her forehead. Her head exploded with a force so powerful that she was sent flying across the room. She slammed into the wall and crumpled to the floor, her skin burning with the intensity of Hinamori's reiatsu.

Through the haze of pain, she was dimly aware of rough hands grasping her shoulders and forcibly propping her up against the wall. Dazed, she looked up to find a pair of smooth lips mouthing something beyond her hearing. She forced her eyes to move up and found furious turquoise eyes glaring down at her. Her eyes widened and flashed surprise and joy before again filling with pain. His grip on her sides was devastating as he shook her fiercely. She slowly became aware of what he was saying.

"…what the hell you were doing or I will snap every bone in your body!"

Hitsugaya?

Realizing her lips hadn't moved, she swallowed and tried again. "I—"

"Hitsugaya Taichou, if you could please release her we can get to the bottom of this quickly."

Angry eyes focused on Unohana before he glared back at her and released her. She watched him walk to where Hinamori lay peacefully on the bed, showing no signs of having flung her across the room.

Unohana executed a quick healing spell and Kazumi felt the pain that had covered every inch of her body instantly disappear. She rose slowly to her feet, feeling weak and dizzy, and took a few calming breaths. When she was confident she wouldn't fall flat on her face, she bowed to her Taichou.

"Sumimasen, Unohana Taichou. I…I pushed too hard, too quickly," she confessed.

"Just what were you—"

Unohana lifted her hand in silence, earning another glare from Hitsugaya. "Please allow her to finish. Go on, Aomori-san."

"I think, no, I know it wants to absorb her emotions." She didn't elaborate, knowing full well Unohana would understand. "I was searching for a weak point in the wall she's built up. It was there, small, but there, and…"

Kazumi looked cautiously at Hitsugaya. He was blocking Hinamori as if she'd tried to attack her, his eyes promising violence if she made the wrong move.

"Aomori-san?"

"I could feel her, the bright and happy Hinamori that I've always known. She likes listening to you," she said to Hitsugaya, who was now staring at her in confusion. "She likes when her friends visit. But she's ashamed by her behavior. She's hiding behind all the guilt and anger and grief and pain she feels because of Aizen."

Hitsugaya's expression immediately hardened.

"What caused her reiatsu to lash out at you?" Unohana asked gently.

"I asked her to let me take them. All those volatile emotions. If she gave them to me, she'd wake up. But she's holding on to them too tightly. She responded so quickly, I couldn't have stopped it if I tried."

"She responded." Unohana said thoughtfully. "Very good, Aomori-san."

"But—"

"Very good?" Hitsugaya all but flew across the room, fierce eyes snapping at Unohana. "What if she hurt Hinamori? Killed her? She needs to be punished, not praised!"

"We are healers, Hitsugaya Taichou, we do not hurt or kill. Furthermore, I brought Aomori-san here because I believed Hinamori would respond to her. For so long we've feared that Hinamori would remain in the state she's in now – catatonic, unresponsive – but Aomori-san has brought us hope. Hinamori will recover, but we will not," she met Kazumi's eyes intently, "push more than we should. In the future, I urge you to show more patience, Aomori-san."

"Wakarimashita, Unohana Taichou."

"Now, we've delayed Hitsugaya Taichou's visit long enough," Unohana announced, moving to the door as she spoke. "I expect a written report on this incident by nightfall."

"Hai, Unohana Taichou."

Kazumi paused at the door and waited for Unohana to disappear down the hall. She turned back and found herself nearly face to face with Hitsugaya. He was still a few inches taller than she, and his eyes still bright turquoise. His hair no longer sat messily a top his head. The white spikes were more controlled, trained to stay out of his face. He was colder, infinitely colder, than she remembered.

"If you hurt her," he said, voice low and dripping with disdain. "I will kill you."

Then he was standing beside Hinamori's bed.

She couldn't stop her eyes from filling with tears, couldn't stop them from overflowing and trailing down her face. Understanding hit her so hard she could barely breathe. She clenched the fabric above her heart and turned slowly, utterly devastated. She could handle his anger, could even accept his hate, but to know that he didn't remember her shattered her heart.

"Sumimasen…." And then, in a painful whisper, "Hiro-kun."

3

Seireitei, present day

She'd been wrong, so very wrong, about Histugaya and Hinamori's relationship. Their intimate relationship was a rumor. False. Fiction. Lies. She believed them. She believed them and turned him away. She turned him away. Brown eyes floated in the direction of the 10th Division barracks. What have I done?

She was still staring into the distance when Hitsugaya stepped onto the engawa. It took him only seconds to recognize a face he hadn't seen in over twenty years. A familiar pang of anger sprang to life before it was quickly put down. He'd promised himself that he'd never again feel anything for Aomori Kazumi. Yet, she looked so forlorn standing there, rain pouring around them. He couldn't stop himself from drinking up every new detail.

She wore a long, white ribbon that was tied around her hair as a hairband. The two ends of the ribbon cascaded down her back along with wavy, red hair that stopped at her slim waist. She wore the standard shinigami uniform, zanpakuto dangling at her side. Her arms, held tight around her middle, pulled her uniform taut so that he became uncomfortably aware of her chest.

Eyes snapping back to her face, Hitsugaya stomped forward, making himself known. He couldn't stop the anger from tainting his voice. "You can stand there all day, but I don't think it will stop the rain."

Sad, brown eyes zeroed in on him.

Kazumi sucked in a breath as the wall came crashing down. Memories flooded through her so quickly that it brought tears to her eyes. She wanted to laugh, remembering how terribly wrong their first reunion had gone. This second one wasn't fairing much better. She fought back tears as the reached down for her umbrella.

"Yes, well…goodbye." She managed weakly as she opened her umbrella and dashed out into the rain.

Hitsugaya fought every urge to go after her, reminding himself that she was no longer his concern. Leaving his tabi, he stepped inside, and moved down the hall. He knew it was only a matter of time before they crossed paths again, and it angered him that he hadn't been as prepared as he thought he would be. He thought of her. He really didn't have a choice in that. But he wasn't supposed to react to her in anyway.

He supposed it was because he couldn't piece together what he knew of her with what he'd just seen.

Since the incident immediately following his return from the battle against Aizen, Kazumi became the center of attention at the Gotei 13. Nakano Ryota, renowned for his knowledge of kido, had professed for years that there was another sub type of kido that should be classified with forbidden kido and sacrifice hado. He called it simply, dark kido. He theorized that without proper instruction, many shinigami lost the ability to control their dark kido. After a time, it ate away their morals and led them to commit crimes or use forbidden kido. He was convinced that Aizen was a perfect example.

At Unohana's recommendation, Kazumi became his proof and study subject. For eight years, Ryota taught Kazumi how to control and manipulate her dark kido. Hinamori had joined them initially. Ryota believed she had a small amount of dark kido that was responsible for the violent bursts of anger she'd experienced in the past. More and more shinigami were recommended to Ryota until it was decided that more needed to be done. Together, Ryota and Kazumi worked to create a curriculum to teach shinigami to control and safely manipulate dark kido. Five years later, the curriculum was approved and phased into the academy, with Kazumi and Ryota teaching the subject.

Unohana had only recently stopped providing updates at the captains meetings. So while Kazumi had been blissfully unaware of him for the past twenty-six years, Hitsugaya hadn't been allowed to put her completely out of his mind. He grew to feel nothing – not even the hate he knew was buried deep inside him – whenever he heard her name. It angered him that he'd felt something when seeing her again. He took a small breath outside of Hinamori's office door as he tried to reign in the anger.

But he kept picturing her sad face, kept seeing flashes of the past