- Rough Draft
- Work in Progress
- No Beta
- Violence - Canon-Level
- Action Adventure
In the end, Hitsugaya Toushirou had spent over three full weeks under Unohana-taichou’s care. Like she had suspected, the young boy had missed his graduation ceremony, which had not been delayed by orders of Central 46. Instead, Shiba-taichou had come to Fourth Squad and talked briefly with the boy about his position in Tenth Squad.
At the end of those three weeks, Hitsugaya found himself released directly into Matsumoto’s care. She walked him over to her house and showed him into one of her spare rooms on the first floor.
The room was full of Hitsugaya’s few material possessions, which surprised him. He knew, intellectually, that his things had been removed from the Academy dorms but seeing his books and the hand-knitted blanket Granny had sent with him to the Academy on the bed caused him to choke up a bit.
Matsumoto shoved him lightly in the back, pushing him fully into the room. He turned to look at her and found her smiling softly.
“We thought that moving you into your own house already would be a bit more than you could handle,” she said. “Unohana-taichou agreed. One of the duties of a fukutaichou is to care for any injured or sick squad members so we just moved you in with me. Besides,” she continued, looking away in embarrassment, “The house for the Twelfth Seat isn’t exactly livable at the moment. Our former Twelfth Seat was poisoned in a battle with a Hollow but failed to tell anyone. They hid their growing illness and the death wasn’t pretty at all.” Hitsugaya grimaced in understanding.
“When will I start taking up my duties?” he asked, moving to sit on a chair and placing Hyourinmaru against the wall near his bed. Most of Matsumoto’s furniture followed the western style, which Hitsugaya would have to get used to.
Matsumoto moved to sit on the edge of the bed. “We’ll ease you into it. We’ve already functioned without a Twelfth Seat for a while.”
“Ah.” Hitsugaya looked away, staring out the window of the room. He heard Matsumoto stand again but didn’t turn to look at her. She stopped behind him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, bending to do so. He gave a small, hurt grunt, still not being used to a lot of physical contact.
“I know Unohana-taichou explained what she thinks happened. You’re not alone, Toushirou-kun. You’ll never be alone again.” He jerked at his name and tensed. She didn’t let go.
“I…” was all he managed to get out. She waited patiently, never letting go. “How…. How can you say that?”
“You’re my little brother,” was her simple reply. When he shook his head she smiled slightly. “Oh not by birth. But there are two basic soul bonds that we recognize: romantic and familial. You and I share a very close familial bond. Can’t you feel it?” she asked.
He closed his eyes. He was about to shake his head when he sensed something. It was a warmth and restrained joy surrounding him, like being wrapped in a very large warm afghan and having a hot cup of tea all to himself.
“Is that you?” he asked. She hummed in response.
“Family is safety, warmth, comfort, a bulwark against the darkness. We’re shinigami, we court death every day. Familial bonds help shield us from the death we deal and see dealt to our friends.”
“I’ll let you settle in. Unohana-taichou was quite clear about your limits.” Suiting actions to words, Matsumoto let go of her new baby officer and walked towards the door.
“Matsumoto…” he called as she was just about to slide the screen shut behind herself. SHe looked back over her shoulder. “Thanks.”
She smiled sweetly. “Not a problem Toushirou-chan.”
“Don’t call me -chan!” he yelled as she closed the door. Grumbling half-heartedly, he moved to the bed, wrapping Granny’s blanket around himself. He still felt numb on the inside but being around Matsumoto helped a lot. If only he could stop waking up screaming from nightmares of that day. Unohana had offered him something to help him sleep through the night but the one time he agreed to try it, it had only made things worse. Being unable to wake from the dream had been its own form of torture.
As he drifted into a light sleep, he unconsciously rubbed at the crook of his right elbow.
Hitsugaya sighed lightly. He was waiting in front of a relatively nice restaurant within Soul Society’s walls. Matsumoto was meeting him there with a ‘small’ group. Having gotten to know Matsumoto much better over the past few weeks, he knew that could mean anything from two to thirty people. He wasn’t even sure he was ready for other people yet, but Matsumoto had insisted.
Looking off into the distance, he reflected that it still hurt. There was an emptiness inside him, an emptiness that ached whenever he thought about it. HIs mind shied away from the pain of thinking of why the emptiness existed.
He rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands, using the physical pain to distract him from the internal pain. As a result, he missed the way people looked at the young boy in the shihakusho as they passed. Not that he would have been surprised. He was already getting used to the odd stares at his age and appearance. Even in Soul Society he stood out as different. And the different still made people nervous.
The sound of a familiar chattering voice caused him to look up. Matsumoto was walking with Shiba-taichou, a fukutaichou who was obviously Shiba-taichou’s relative, and a tall thin man with silver hair and a fukutaichou armband who Matsumoto was staring at adoringly.
As they approached, Hitsugaya straightened slightly. Shiba-taichou was the first to notice his youngest officer and waved slightly, murmuring to his relative, who looked up and smiled as well.
“Ah, Hitsugaya-kun!” Shiba-taichou exclaimed, moving ahead of the group and waving at the boy. “Hope you haven’t been waiting long.”
“No sir,” Hitsugaya replied simply. Shiba-taichou reached out and ruffled Hitsugaya’s hair, ignoring the way Hitsugaya instinctively shied away from the touch. Hitsugaya looked up in some surprise as the action stopped. Typically, Shiba-taichou spent a lot longer ruffling his hair. But apparently, his relative, noticing Hitsugaya’s reaction, had leaned heavily on the taichou’s shoulder.
“Well, are you going to actually introduce me, Isshin?” the other Shiba asked, laughing lightly.
“Oh, right. Hitsugaya-kun, this is my cousin Shiba Kaien. Kaien, this is my little prodigy Hitsugaya Toushirou.” Shiba-taichou answered somewhat sheepishly, one hand moving to shove Kaien off his shoulders. His cousin smirked, only leaning in harder, his other hand coming up to give the young shinigami a two-fingered salute.
“Yo. Nice to meet you. My sympathies on working with Isshin here.”
“Are you bothering him again, taichou?” Matsumoto asked, having finally caught up with the Shibas.
“Don’t be silly, Matsumoto, I never bother him.”
“Sure you don’t,” Kaien replied.
“Gin, this is our new twelfth seat, Hitsugaya Toushirou,” Matsumoto explained to her companion. Turning to Hitsugaya, she reached out and nearly touched him before continuing. “This is Ichimaru Gin, Fifth Squad’s fukutaichou and my soul mate.” Hitsugaya forced himself not to shy away from the almost touch and looked up at the man who apparently held all of Matsumoto’s heart.
What he saw surprised him. Having come to know Matsumoto, seeing a man who seemed such a complete opposite to her was shocking. Unlike the openly affectionate Matsumoto, Ichimaru-fukutaichou was completely closed off. His face was smiling in a way that creeped Hitsugaya out and nearly sent him for Hyourinmaru. There was a slyness to Ichimaru’s movements that reminded him of a snake even though most would say his face was foxish.
Gulping a bit, Hitsugaya bowed slightly in greeting to both Kaien and Ichimaru.
“A pleasure to meet you both.”
“Oya oya. So you’re the new prodigy?” Ichimaru questioned. Hitsugaya looked back up in time to see Matsumoto smack her soul mate in the stomach with the back of your hand.
“Now now, Rangiku-chan. I didn’t mean anythin’ mean by that.”
“Sure you didn’t, Gin.”
“Really! I’m glad someone else has that honor. Hear he made quite the splash by not attendin’ his graduation.”
“GIN!” Matsumoto exclaimed. Hitsugaya flinched. Before they could create a scene, Shiba-taichou carefully shuffled them inside the restaurant where they were quickly shown to their seats.
After the initial problems, everyone settled in to enjoy a good meal. Hitsugaya had ended up in the seat farthest from the door and against the wall. He suspected it had been planned given the attempts at subtle shoving his taichou and Matsumoto had done with their companions. Once their food was ordered and their server left them alone, everyone else relaxed slightly.
“I must admit, I’ve heard a lot of good things about you, kid,” Kaien began casually. Hitsugaya jerked a bit, staring at the man in surprise. “Oh don’t look so shocked. You may have only been with Tenth for a month but Isshin must’ve mentioned you at least a couple dozen times when he visited. He doesn’t do that for just anyone, you know.”
“Same with Rangiku-chan here,” Gin stated. Matsumoto turned and glared at him.
“How would you know?” she cried. “You never spend time with me anymore. Always busy with Aizen-taichou!”
“I’m not that bad. ‘Sides, we’ve had a bad couple of months with the death of about a dozen unseated officers. Been tryin’ ta plug the holes.” He brushed a hand down her cheek gently, eyes opening slightly to look directly at her. She gave in and leaned into his hand. Hitsugaya promptly began to look away, blushing lightly at the extremely public display of affection.
“I know. I’m sorry. I just….”
“Ya can’t tell me ya ain’t been busy yourself, Rangiku-chan. What with everythin’ I know your squad’s been thru these past couple months….”
Conversation continued apace, settling into a more companionable conversation that even Hitsugaya could participate in. He felt a little strange being amongst everyone else. He was barely a seated officer sitting with one taichou and three fukutaichou. Why would they want to spend time with him?
Of course, Hitsugaya was in too much emotional pain to realize that the group listened intently to what he had to say. He was truly an interesting boy as far as Kaien and Gin were concerned. Gin even opened his eyes and stared at the boy for a bit, attempting to understand the prodigy who would replace him amongst the rumor mill. Hitsugaya never noticed.
Because Hitsugaya was looking out across the restaurant, he was the first to notice the return of their server. His stiffened posture quickly alerted the others, however. Gin quickly closed his eyes and leaned back, affecting a posture of nonchalance.
It wasn’t long before their server left again after handing out their food. Hitsugaya picked at his food. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying the food and the company but he couldn’t make himself join in.
Ever since… Ever since that day, he couldn’t seem to deal with life. Matsumoto tried. In fact, she tried more than Hitsugaya thought she really should. Everything was so foggy.
Even Hyourinmaru was a distant voice at best. That was probably the strangest thing. So much of his life recently had been caught up in the dreams of that mysterious voice in his dreams. He actually missed those dreams now.
He saw Matsumoto looking over at him from across the table, a worried crease on her forehead. Trying to distract her and not look at him like that, he forced himself to take a few bites of food while she watched.
It was a bit like swallowing mush. Nothing had any taste.
Shiba-taichou and Kaien left, waving briefly as they headed towards their Clan house for the evening. After waiting an appropriate amount of time, Hitsugaya turned to head off on his own. He heard Matsumoto and Ichimaru fall in behind him, but refused to look back. Folding his hands into his sleeves, he chafed his arms, seeking to subtly bring back a bit of warmth. Cold normally didn’t bother him, hadn’t for as long as he’d dreamed of Hyourinmaru calling out to him. But it was different now.
Shaking his head at the way his thoughts were straying, Hitsugaya took a deep breath. Looking over his shoulder at his companions, he noticed that they walked very close to each other. Their sleeves constantly tangled with each other due to how close they were. In fact, he caught a glimpse of their hands when the cloth shifted just right and saw Matsumoto’s fingers were tangled tightly with Ichimaru’s.
Facing forward again, he continued to Matsumoto’s house. He hadn’t gotten up the energy to move out yet, even though his new house was waiting for him. Reaching the front door, he opened it and began to slip inside. Matsumoto and Ichimaru followed quickly.
“I’m really worried,” Rangiku murmured against Gin’s neck. They were curled up together in her bed, limbs tangled lazily.
Gin hummed. “Is he always like that?” She nodded. Gin brushed a kiss against her hairline.
“It’s like he doesn’t really see us,” she complained. “And I don’t know how to fix it!”
“Rangiku-chan, ya said he suffered the death of someone he had a twin soul bond with, right?”
“That’s what Unohana-taichou thinks.”
“Have ya spoken ta her about the repercussions?”
“Rangiku-chan, it was his first death. Not ta mention the breakin’ of a familial bond. Ya know those’re tricky when broken.”
“I know. I just…”
“Give him time.”
“I’m sure it does. He’s family ta ya too. But let’s focus on us a bit, yeah?”
“Mm. I still don’t get why you have to spend so much time with Aizen-taichou. Even Kaien-kun manages to get more time off than you and he’s practically the taichou of his squad with Ukitake-taichou’s illness.”
“Ya know I can’t tell ya. I promised ya I’d never lie ta ya. Don’t make me start now, Rangiku-chan.” She looked up to see him looking down at her, eyes expressing how deadly serious he was. She grimaced a bit but gave in. They had so little time together that she put aside her personal issues for the moment. Reaching up to run a hand through his hair and grasp the nape of his neck, she dragged him down into a kiss.
Unohana was staring at him. Granted, she was smiling politely and this was her office, not an exam room, but she was still staring. Hitsugaya shifted uncomfortably under her eyes.
“Would you care for some tea, Hitsugaya-kun?” she finally asked. He nodded swiftly, grateful for the reprieve. She glided over to the kitchenette attached to her office and occupied herself making tea. He knew she was still paying attention to him but he felt much better out from under her piercing eyes.
“Why am I here?” he finally asked. Unohana’s smile warmed considerably as she returned with a tray and sat back down.
She waited until after she had poured tea for them both to respond. “This is something that the Academy medics should have discussed with you during your post-manifestation physical, actually. I have not mentioned it before now because I was concerned about your physical health. Did you learn anything about soul bonds in your classes?”
He shook his head, irritated. “My instructors skipped that class, said something about me learning later, when I was older.” He hated when people treated him like he didn’t know anything just because he looked nine or ten years old. “Matsumoto’s explained some of it to me, about family bonds anyway.”
Unohana nodded in acknowledgment. “There are two types of soul bonds recognized by the Central 46. As Matsumoto-fukutaichou likely explained to you, family bonds do not leave physical evidence. They provide a support network for shinigami that increases the chances of survival for those sharing the bonds.
“Often, the only way such bonds can be verified is during an injury or illness of one of the members. It is how Matsumoto-fukutaichou found you that day and I have made a note in your files of that relationship between you two. Likely, you have shared the bond since you first met. You simply would not have known the signs before now.” She paused here, causing Hitsugaya to nod reflexively. At her stern glance at the tea cup, he quickly takes a sip. It was a bit like having a sterner version of Baachan around.
The thought made him blink. Both because it was the first time he’d really thought of Baachan in weeks and because there was a sense of concern coming from Unohana that he could sense.
“I see you have noticed that the two of us also seem to share a familial bond, though a more distant one than the one you share with Matsumoto-fukutaichou. I felt it that first day, when you came under my care.” Unohana was very careful to always avoid the cause of Hitsugaya’s entry into the shinigami.
“Typically, someone in your position – specifically as a lower seated officer – it is not unusual for them to have a handful of registered familial bonds. That you only have two is unusual, but not as unusual as it could otherwise be.”
“I… I’m not….” He was growing more frustrated every time he tried to speak. He could tell Unohana was waiting for him to continue patiently, giving him time to form his thoughts. Growling slightly, he grasped his teacup tightly between his two hands. Eventually he gave up with a sigh, unable to put into words what he was feeling.
“What about romantic bonds? I’m nine years old. I don’t think I’m going to be falling in love any time soon.” Unohana’s smile turned wry as she acknowledged that fact.
“There are stages to a romantic bond. You’ve already shown the first stage.” His eyes flew up to meet her understanding gaze. She gestured at his right arm. “Before I released you into Mastumoto-fukutaichou’s care, I saw the first signs of your mark emerging on your right arm, just under the crook of your elbow.”
Hitsugaya blinked in surprise, pulling up his sleeve. He knew what he would find. A dark red whimsical flame had gradually been growing more clear over the past month and a half. Looking at it with the knowledge that it had to do with a romantic bond, he was even more confused. Before he could say anything, Unohana gently tugged his arm straight, having stood and come around the desk without him noticing. She brushed a gentle finger along the edges of the mark, which caused Hitsugaya to shiver.
“It is considered rude for anyone but your soul mate to touch the mark except during a medical examination of the mark or required medical care when the area is injured,” she stated calmly, inspecting the details of the mark. “I will make a report for your file, which I am required to submit to Central 46 for their records.” He gulped at the reference to the ones who had caused him so much pain.
“All shinigami obtain their soul mark upon learning the name of their zanpakutou, which is the defining characteristic of entrance into the Gotei 13. It does not matter how old they are at the time. Young Kusajishi-fukutaichou of Eleventh Squad is physically only three years old but already has the name of her zanpakutou and her soul mark.”
Hitsugaya blinked. There was a shinigami younger than him?
“Once you meet your soulmate, this mark will change, Hitsugaya-kun. It is a physical acknowledgement of an active bond. When you notice it, I do need you to stop by and register the change. Again, this is required by law. If this mark fades at all, you must come in right away. That would be a sign of your soulmate falling into a coma or dying. Both outcomes have horrible consequences and the earlier I know about them, the more I might be able to help you.”
“Consequences? Like dying too?” He thought he’d heard some of Kusaka’s classmates at the Academy talking about how horrible it was when news of a shinigami’s death had occurred. That was before they noticed him approaching them. Everyone had always fallen so oddly silent around him. Gods, but he hated being different.
“Exactly like. The likelihood of that happening are very slim, especially given your age. Being nine buffers you from many of the horrible effects romantic bonds can cause.”
“Horrible?” he was confused. From everything he’d been told and overheard, the soul bonds were considered to be the best thing to ever exist for most shinigami.
“Neglect is the second most dangerous thing for soulmates. It is one reason why those laws will never be overturned.”
“Oh.” His voice was very small. Unohana smiled and patted his head gently.
“As I said, you are buffered by your age. You were right that you likely will not experience any need to consummate a bond until you physically grow up. But you need to be aware that it might be an issue in the future.”
“Is it an issue for you?” he asked, unsure if this broke some sort of taboo? Unohana merely shook her head, smile becoming a bit sad.
“I have had my mark longer than most shinigami have been alive. However, my soulmate has not yet achieved theirs. So I am buffered against neglect because they cannot reciprocate.”
“Now, I am not certain if you are ready for this, Hitsugaya-kun, but I want to bring it up with you now. From what I saw while you were under my care and what I have observed since then, you are still suffering from the effects of your time in the chambers of the Central 46. Am I correct?”
Hitsugaya looked away.
The silence between them lingered for a while. Unohana made no moves to push any further but also refused to back down on the matter. Eventually, Hitsugaya was able to answer her.
“It’s like everything’s muffled. Like I’m moving through water. Food has no taste. Nothing interests me. I can’t even hear Hyourinmaru anymore. I can’t sleep. I don’t want to really be awake. I…” his hands grappled briefly at the table before settling back around his teacup for lack of anything better to do.
“Hmm. I see. What you describe is something we call battle fatigue. I believe people in the living world call it ‘shell-shock’. Time and talking about it are the best cures at this point in time. After the last medicine and given your physical age, I am more than a little reluctant to prescribe medication at this time.”
He shook his head violently, remembering being unable to wake up from the night terrors and memories. “No medicine.” Unohana bowed her head in agreement.
“I do have one suggestion that will address your problems with your zanpakutou. Meditation. Lay your blade across your lap as you meditate and try to reach the place you reached during manifestation. You may not get results immediately, but it should help.”
Hitsugaya looked up in surprise when someone knocked on his office door. It was a very small room, but allowed him some privacy to deal with the endless paperwork Squads of the Gotei 13 produced.
“Toushirou-chan! We have a mission!” Matsumoto carolled from the door, waving orders in the air.
“Don’t call me -chan!” he grumbled, knowing it wouldn’t have any effect at all. He was honestly a bit surprised. He had barely participated in Squad training exercises under Matsumoto and Shiba-taichou’s careful eyes. No one had outright snubbed him, but many unseated officers were obviously uncomfortable with having an officer less than half their ages.
Matsumoto smiled happily at her little brother. He was starting to reach back to her once in awhile. It wasn’t always successful and there were days where he came into the office looking like hell warmed over from the bad nights. But any improvement was better than what he had been.
“We’re headed to the Living World!” His head flew up, ink well nearly flying in the air as his arm jerked in surprised.
“What?!” Now this was almost enough to entirely break through Hitsugaya’s shell.
“Tenth Squad has an assignment in the Living World. I managed to convince them that you were ready for it.”
“How?” He honestly hadn’t been expecting to actually leave Seireitei any time in the next century, despite being a seated officer.
“I argued that despite your age, there was every reason to start getting you experience in the Living World since you are our Twelfth Seat. When that wasn’t enough, I pointed out that keeping you here was detrimental to creating your authority. The mission is easy enough that I could do it on my own. So you’re along on observation only, mmkay?” Matsumoto was nearly bouncing.
“Where are we going?”
“Bardu, Norway. There are several Hollows there and we need to deal with the matter swiftly as at least one is getting close to Gillian level.” Hitsugaya gave her a blank look. “The shinigami on duty there was badly injured about two weeks ago and they couldn’t replace him right away. It gave the Hollows time to grow stronger. So now they need us to handle the matter.”
“Ah. When do we leave?”
“Tomorrow morning, 0730. Take the rest of the day to get ready.” Hitsugaya nodded.
The mission had … not gone to hell. Not quite, anyway. But Hitsugaya found himself facing one of the Hollows himself, Hyourinmaru in his hands. Despite Matsumoto’s best attempts, he had been separated from her earlier in the fight. She was personally facing the near-Gillian level Hollow.
It was different, facing an actual Hollow. There was a sense of sickness to the air around the Hollow. This one looked a bit like a giraffe, long neck and a tongue used as a weapon.
Hitsugaya’s feints had only shown that the tongue was capable of punching through solid steel with ease. He tried to figure out what to do next.
He dodged as the tongue nearly pierced his chest. Turning back around to watch his opponent, he suddenly noticed that the Hollow was flinching away from the frozen area he had created. Thinking for a minute, he decided to test his theory. Landing on a lamppost, he allowed Hyourinmaru to freeze the pole. Waiting for the Hollow to attack didn’t take long, it was surprisingly mindless compared to the ones he’d seen in training.
Once again, the Hollow flinched from the icy metal when Hitsugaya dodged, landing in midair.
Taking a deep breath, Hitsugaya shunpo’d far enough away to have some breathing room but close enough that the Hollow remained focused on him. Closing his eyes for a moment, he mentally reached out to Hyourinmaru. For the first time in months, since learning his blade’s name, Hitsugaya felt a response.
He felt Hyourinmaru uncurl in interest and tense in anticipation when Hyourinmaru sensed what Hitsugaya had planned. Drawing on the power now freely offered, Hitsugaya could feel the air around him growing colder. The sky darkened overhead. Thunder rumbled. Lightning flashed. Snow began to fall gently around him, everywhere the clouds covered. Hitsugaya could feel the hilt growing colder as Hyourinmaru began to freeze. Once the blade was shining a brilliant ice blue, he attacked.
A single overhand strike cut straight through the Hollow’s mask, purifying it. As the Hollow’s remains began to fade, Hitsugaya released the power of Hyourinmaru. Moonlight began to peek through the clouds, causing the fading motes to shimmer in the night air.
Having finally finished her own battle, Matsumoto touched down near where Hitsugaya now stood. He could sense that she was impressed by his actions but upset that he’d had to interfere.
“Mou…. How am I going to write this one up?” she asked, pouting.
His only response was a dry laugh.
“Sit. Sit.” Baachan fussed at Toushirou. She bustled around the hearth, setting a teapot to heat before going off to find something to eat.
Toushirou attempted to help but Baachan smacked his arm sharply with a smile.
“I can certainly do things in my own house, Toushirou-chan. You sit down and enjoy your time off.” He finally gave in, grumpily sitting in front of the hearth and crossing his arms. The small smile on his face was nearly invisible.
It was good to spend time with Baachan. Nearly six months had passed since Kusaka’s death. Things were still difficult but at least now Toushirou felt like he was actually present in his own life. It meant that he felt he could finally visit Baachan without risking hurting her feelings.
Eventually, Baasan settled down next to Toushirou, served them both tea and smiled gently.
“It’s been a while, dear,” she said softly. Toushirou grimaced.
“Sorry, Baachan. It’s been a bad few months.”
“Even though you became a shinigami?” He nodded.
“I… lost someone, Baachan. Just before I became a shinigami.” Baachan made sympathetic noises, reaching over to pat Toushirou’s knee.
“There there, Toushirou-chan,” she said. For the first time since the day of Kusaka’s death, Toushirou broke down crying. Baachan pulled him in close, patting his shoulders as he cried into her kimono.
“Now isn’t that better, dear? Sometimes all you need is a good cry to get the poison out,” Baachan commented practically as the last of his tears fell. He nodded slightly. It had helped a bit.
“Sorry Baachan,” he said. She waved off his apology and handed him a kerchief to wipe his face with.
“Death is painful. No way around it. Live as long as I have and you work through a lot of it, even here in Rukongai. No district is completely free of death. It will be a long time before it stops hurting. You don’t ever forget, but with help, it stops hurting quite as much. You do have help, don’t you?” He nodded.
“Do you remember that shinigami who visited us, convincing me to enter the Academy?” Baachan nodded, remembering the vibrant and hot-tempered young woman. “I’m in her squad and she keeps an eye on me.”
A comfortable silence settled between them as Baachan refreshed their tea and they enjoyed the ohashi she had pulled out for them.
“Have you seen Momo-chan recently?” Baachan finally asked.
“No. Hasn’t she been visiting?” Toushirou asked, frowning.
Baachan shook her head. “Not since you entered the Academy, dear.” His eyebrows furrowed in concern.
“That’s odd. She’s a Sixth Seat these days, isn’t she?” Baachan blinked.
“What does that have to do with anything dear?” Rather than bring up a problem, Toushirou just shook his head. He kept his thoughts to himself that Momo probably should have moved Baachan inside the walls of Soul Society a while ago.
“So tell me about your squad,” Baachan finally commented. Toushirou smiled slightly and proceeded to do just that. There was so much to tell her.
“Oh, I’m sorry! … Shirou-chan!” Hinamori Momo exclaimed, upon turning to see her childhood friend rubbing his shoulder where she had smacked into him. He stared up at her, surprised.
“Momo…” She looked a bit worn down, slight bags under her eyes. She also had not appeared to age in the years since Toushirou had last seen her. Still only about fourteen years old, hair up in that covered bun she’d favored since meeting Aizen-taichou. He wondered what she saw when she looked at him.
“It’s Hitsugaya,” he finally murmured, one hand coming out to grasp her elbow and lead Momo out of the middle of the street. He didn’t think they needed to clog up traffic as they talked. He felt her tense when he touched her and as soon as they were standing next to a storefront, she yanked her arm free, smoothing the sleeve unconsciously. He saw her consider it momentarily.
“Well, you are a shinigami now… and I did promise… But you can’t call me Momo then! We’re not little kids anymore!” The irony of her statement seemed to be lost on her. Toushirou just shook his head and sighed.
“Fine. How are you? Baachan says you haven’t visited in quite a while.”
“Oh, I just don’t have the time! We’re so busy in Fifth Squad these days!” she explained breezily.
Toushirou only raised an eyebrow. “So I’ve heard.”
“How did you hear?” she asked, slightly angry.
“I’m Tenth Squad’s Twelfth Seat. I had to stay with Matsumoto-fukutaichou right after joining and Ichimaru-taichou visited a couple times.” He made sure his tone was non-confrontational. Something was going on here. This wasn’t like the Momo he remembered.
She relaxed instantly. “Oh, Ichimaru-fukutaichou! But why would he tell Matsumoto-fukutaichou about it?” Toushirou’s eyes widened briefly before he got himself under control.
“They’re soulmates…” he finally said. Momo smiled sheepishly.
“I’d forgotten. Oh, so you must now know all about such things these days! Isn’t it wonderful? Mine is Aizen-taichou!” she bubbled.
Something in Toushirou began to ache at those words. An ache that was quickly growing extremely painful. He didn’t hear the next few things she said.
“Hitsugaya-chan? Hitsugaya-chan!” she was shaking him. He looked up, eyes glazed from pain.
“Are you okay? Do you need to get to Fourth? What’s wrong?” she started freaking out over his condition, hands fluttering between them as she didn’t quite touch him.
“I… I’ll be fine. And don’t call me -chan!”
“Hmph. You’re younger than me, it’s only proper.” Suddenly, she looked up at the sky. “Oh! I’m late! Aizen-taichou is going to be so mad!”
Hinamori Momo rushed off, no longer paying any attention to her oldest friend.
Once she had disappeared from sight, Toushirou grabbed at his chest, collapsing against the wall.
:What the fuck was going on?: he thought.
Eventually, he forced himself to stand up and walk despite the pain. People were starting to notice him and looks of worry were crossing their faces. Not wanting their sympathies, he forced himself to keep moving. He kept his hands clenched at his sides as he forced himself to walk sedately back to Tenth, no longer capable of finishing the shopping he’d gone out to do in the first place.
Matsumoto happened to be walking back to her office from Tenth’s training grounds as Toushirou finally made it inside the gates. As he stumbled towards his office, she gasped and rushed towards him.
“Toushirou-chan?! What’s wrong?” she asked, hands coming out to catch him just as his legs finally gave out.
“…Hurts,” he managed to get out, relaxing against her. She looked him over, noticed the glazed eyes and clenched fists, and made a very obvious choice. Turning slightly, she looked around until her eyes fell on one of Tenth’s unseated officers.
“Hidetomi-kun!” she called, startling the man. When he turned to his fukutaichou and saw that she was kneeling on the ground supporting their young twelfth seat, he hurried over in concern.
“Run to Fourth and tell them I need one of their emergency squads to come pick up Hitsugaya-san! Hurry!” Nodding in understanding, Kitazuki Hidetomi immediately ran off to fulfill her orders.
The last thing Toushirou heard was Matsumoto’s frantic calling of his name. He welcomed the falling blackness to escape the pain.
The next thing he knew, there was a beeping noise beside his ear and the feeling of lying down in a bed. He slowly opened his eyes to find himself looking at the ceiling of Fourth once again. Shifting, he tried to sit up but found himself held down by a hand on his arm. Looking to his right, he saw Unohana-taichou sitting there, concern writ large on her face.
“What… happened?” he managed to get out, throat dry. Before she replied, Unohana-taichou held out an ice chip. She refused to answer until Toushirou had sucked down several.
“Matsumoto-fukutaichou brought you in yesterday. You had fallen unconscious in pain. Do you remember what happened?” she asked, helping him sit up slowly.
“I ran into Hinamori while I was out shopping. We talked for a bit. Then…”
“What, specifically, did you talk about?” Unohana-taichou asked, smile slipping just a bit.
“We grew up together before she entered the Academy and when I visited Baachan recently, she commented that Hinamori hadn’t visited in a long time. Hinamori just said she was busy and went off on a tangent about Aizen-taichou. It was odd. Why?” he asks, looking over at the healer.
Unohana reached over and pulled up his right sleeve a bit more, revealing his soul mark. Toushirou’s eyes widened. The mark had changed.
In the very heart of the whimsical red flame was a spot of ice blue.
He looked back up at Unohana-taichou. She returned his gaze with a deadly serious expression.
“Given the fact that I personally observed that blue appearing in the heart of your soul mark, I am going to assume she said something about Aizen-taichou being her soulmate.” Her lips thinned when Toushirou flinched, hand coming up to cover the mark. His breathing grew ragged for a moment before he used breathing exercises to bring it back under control.
Placing a finger under his chin, Unohana-taichou raised his head so that their eyes met. “I do not know what you talked about. I do not particularly care. If what I suspect is true, we have a major problem.”
“What you suspect?” Toushirou asked, confused. Seeing the warning in her eyes, he bit his lip and forced himself to not ask anything further.
“I will submit the paperwork for the change in your soul mark with a personal addendum regarding the timing being uncertain given where you were before your collapse. Did you feel overly warm at any point prior to your collapse? Perhaps a cold sweat? Faintness of limbs?” When Toushirou nodded yes, the beginnings of a wry smile appeared.
“I believe that whatever else is going on, you are having an adverse reaction to the weather. It has been remarkably hot these past few days and you bear an ice-oriented zanpakutou. You collapsed as a result of this adverse reaction. I will keep you here for the next 48 hours and monitor your temperature and fluid intake,” her words implied that she was merely reciting a diagnosis but Toushirou sensed the warning she was projecting empathically along their familial bond. Nodding his head in acceptance of what she had not said, he settled back against the cushions.
“Thank you for your time, Unohana-taichou, and your personal attention in this matter. I know you are quite busy and that this takes you away from your duties,” he stated instead of what he wanted to say.
Unohana smiled grimly, stood up, bent over, and brushed a soft kiss against his temple, murmuring in his ear a quiet prayer for safety.
“You are my own spirit kin,” she replied as she straightened, “And I will have no other care for you in my stead. Rest, Toushirou-kun, and regain your strength. I worry that you end up here so often.”
Before he could reply, she glided out of the room and closed the door.
“WAKE UP SHIRO-SAN!” came a bouncy voice. Jerking up when a heavy weight barreled into his midsection, Toushirou barely stopped himself from cursing when he saw a small child with bright pink hair and wearing a shihakusho was clinging to him like a limpet.
One hand coming up to cradle the child, Toushirou shifted carefully into a sitting position. The child looked up, dark magenta eyes watching him shrewdly. Despite her physical age, it was obvious she knew just how far she could push.
“Who’re you?” he finally asked, breathing out just a bit sharply as she shifted on the bed, one hand jabbing his kidneys “on accident”.
“Kusajishi Yachiru, Eleventh Squad Fukutaichou! Who’re you Shiro-san?” she asked in return.
“Hitsugaya Toushirou, Tenth Squad Twelfth Seat. Why are you in my room?”
“Ken-chan’s with Unohana-taichou talking about baka Maki-Maki and I got bored and went hunting down the funny feeling and ended up here. Did you know that you feel blue and cold but the good kind of cold like an ice cream cone you get all to yourself? And your pain isn’t getting better and you’re supposed to get better here, Unohana-taichou can fix anything and…”
He moved his hand up to rest on top of her head, causing her to quiet instantly. Unsurprisingly at this point, he felt a blooming empathic connection with this strange toddler.
“Some things even Unohana-taichou can’t fix, though she’s trying really hard. Why is this Maki-Maki a baka?”
“He didn’t duck when Ken-chan hit him. So slow. Why can’t you get better?”
“It’s summer and my zanpakutou is ice oriented.”
“Well that’s stupid. Why is your zanpakutou defective?”
“I think I’m the defective one, Kusajishi-fukutaichou.”
“Call me Yachiru!”
“YACHIRU!” she yelled, turning on the puppy eyes.
He sighed, shoulders slumping. “Fine, Yachiru-san. Won’t your Ken-chan worry when he can’t find you?”
She shook her head, leaning against Toushirou trustingly. He welcomed the unfamiliar touch, surprising himself.
“He’ll find me when he’s ready. Or Unohana-taichou will show him.” Her certainty shimmered in his mind like sunlight through clouds.
It wasn’t long before Toushirou felt a powerful reiatsu approaching. It was something that Toushirou just knew swamped many shinigami. When Unohana-taichou opened the door, Toushirou could honestly say he wasn’t surprised. The man that followed her in fit that powerful reiatsu quite well.
“Yachiru-chan, did you wake Toushirou-chan up?” Unohana-taichou asked gently. The tone was not quite remonstrating with Yachiru.
“But he was sleeping and I was bored and he feels like ice cream!”
One of Unohana-taichou’s hands came up to her mouth, the sleeve of her captain’s haori not quite concealing an amused smile.
“Like ice cream, hmm? How about we get you some tea and treats instead?” Skillfully distracting the tiny fukutaichou, Unohana held out her other hand towards the bed. Yachiru smiled, bounced off the bed, ran to Unohana-taichou, took her hand, and dragged her out of the room.
“Yay! Tea! By Shiro-nii!”
The man behind Unohana-taichou moved to the side, letting them pass. Before he turned to follow he stared straight at Toushirou.
“So you’re the one she was feeling. Don’t die, kid. Or all of Eleventh Squad will hunt you down.” With that nonsensical statement, the man turned, revealing the captain’s haori he wore, which belonged to Eleventh Squad.
As the door closed behind Eleventh Squad’s taichou, Toushirou smirked. This explained SO MUCH about Unohana-taichou, it really did.
The way Hinamori had refused to consider any possibility but Aizen-taichou had hurt, certainly. But there wasn’t much anyone could do about it. Unohana had been thin-lipped and unsmiling during Toushirou’s entire stay in Fourth Squad.
Matsumoto, upon finding out Toushirou was awake, had quickly demanded an explanation from Unohana-taichou. Unohana-taichou had taken Matsumoto into her office and activated the strongest privacy wards she had.
Once Matsumoto had gotten both the assumed problem and what was being put on Toushirou’s medical records, she blew her lid. She liked Hinamori, but this was ridiculous. Hinamori had been with Fifth Squad for at least five years! If Aizen-taichou really was her match, something would have happened by now. The only reason Matsumoto hadn’t stormed off to yell at Hinamori was Unohana-taichou’s cautions against it.
Asked why she had prevented Matsumoto from yelling, Unohana-taichou mentioned that something about Aizen-taichou sat wrong with her. That everything that happened to him was very convenient. That something about the day she was shown his zanpakutou’s bankai had always sat wrong with her.
But no one believed anything bad could ever be caused by Aizen-taichou. Given her suspicions, Unohana had kept the situation to herself and counselled Matsumoto to do the same.
Matsumoto reluctantly agreed. Toushirou had to come first.
“Why are we having an interdivision event with all the seated officers of the other squads?” he finally asked, puzzled. The formal invitation sat heavy in his hands.
“We do something like this every few years. It gives all the seated officers a chance to meet one another and interact without death and destruction occurring around them. You’ve seen me coordinating with other squads, this makes that easier on a lot of levels.”
“Oh don’t fret so. It’s not like you’re going to find ANOTHER familial bond at this thing,” she teased lightly.
“You’ve just cursed me. You know that right?” Toushirou grumphed. Matsumoto only giggled in response. He was surprised by how easily he had accepted the bonds that had already developed. Perhaps it was seeing the immediate effects on his health as each familial bond matured.
“There you are!” Shiba-taichou called from the doorway. When the pair looked up, they saw him leaning in the doorway, smirking at them.
“Taichou!” Matsumoto scolded playfully. “Don’t do that!”
“Awww, it’s not like I did anything wrong! Besides, you two looked like you were having fun. Were you talking about me?” he rebutted.
“Never, Taichou,” Matsumoto replied, hand to her chest in faked affront. “Why would we ever talk about you?”
Shiba-taichou frowned playfully. “But I’m an amazing person!” Matsumoto just laughed in response.
“What does bring you to our door?” she finally asked.
“Just wanted to make sure everything was set up for that joint exercise I asked you to plan with Thirteenth.”
“The one you should have been setting up?” Matsumoto asked archly. Toushirou just watched the byplay, bemused.
“But I’m so busy.”
“Suuuuure you are. You just hate paperwork.”
“Well so do you!”
“You’re the taichou! You are supposed to do your own work, not pass it on to me!”
“You do the same!” Shiba-taichou complained.
Toushirou’s bemusement gradually shifted into exasperation. Two fully mature, high-ranked shinigami insisted on acting younger than himself. Wasn’t paperwork an intrinsic part of being a seated shinigami?
“Ah, hello there! You must be Hitsugaya Toushirou!” came a subdued cheerful voice. Toushirou looked away from the window he was staring out of to see who was talking to him. The interdivision event was in full-swing and Toushirou had retreated to the farthest corner he could to get away from everyone. Despite everything, even seated officers were wary around him and Toushirou was tired of pretending.
The man who had called out to him turned out to be Ukitake-taichou of Thirteenth, Kaien-san’s oft ill superior. He looked relatively healthy, other than the general tiredness on his face. Toushirou had been surprised to learn that Ukitake-taichou also had white hair.
Now, Ukitake-taichou smiled pleasantly down at Toushirou, hands folded into the sleeves of his captain’s haori. Toushirou nodded back respectfully.
“Ukitake-taichou,” he replied.
“I’ve heard quite a few things about you, Hitsugaya-kun. Kaien-kun speaks highly of you, for one.”
“Shiba-fukutaichou has only met me the once,” Toushirou argued. Ukitake smiled in response.
“Ah, but he’s quite a good judge of character. You don’t seem to be enjoying yourself much this evening.” Toushirou smiled wryly.
“Large groups of people who fear me because I’m one of the youngest seated officers and apparently didn’t work for my position. OR ignore me because I’m young and obviously got my position through some strange form of nepotism I’ve never heard of. Sure. I’m LOVING this event.”
Toushirou’s dry sarcasm drew a wry chuckle from Ukitake-taichou. Who then reached out and ruffled Toushirou’s spiky white hair.
The instant Ukitake-taichou’s hand actually brushed Toushirou’s skin, they both felt a strong familial bond snap into place. It caused both of them to sway a bit with the force of it. Several minutes passed, both unmoving as they adjusted to the force of what was now running between them.
Across the room, Matsumoto looked up, feeling the shift in Toushirou’s aura. In another part of the room, the taichou of Eighth Squad’s head snapped over, surprise written on his face. Eighth’s Fukutaichou stopped talking, stunned at her taichou’s reaction. Yachiru popped up on her taichou’s shoulder, cheering, scaring three or four of their own squad. Eleventh’s captain just smirked. Unohana paused briefly, one hand coming up to her chest, smile becoming sweeter for an instant.
Hinamori, trailing after Aizen-taichou, looked up as something inside her twinged. Seeing that Hitsugaya-chan had apparently found a familial bond pleased her. At least, before her attention shifted back to Aizen-taichou. Gin, who was also moving around the room at Aizen-taichou’s side observed the nearly invisible way that Aizen-taichou’s eyes narrowed in contemplation.
“Is that your friend, Hinamori-san?” Aizen-taichou asked pleasantly. Gin forced himself to not twitch.
“Yes, Aizen-taichou! He seems to be doing better.”
“Better? Was something wrong?”
“The last time I saw him, he seemed to be in pain… But I’m glad to see he’s forming familial bonds!”
“Is that’s what happened?” Aizen’s voice was curious. Hinamori nodded happily. Gin watched Aizen-taichou observe the child for several minutes, heart nearly in his throat. If this went wrong….
But no, Aizen-taichou’s smile took on a hint of condescension. Obviously, he saw nothing in Hitsugaya Toushirou that concerned him. Gin carefully did not react. He could only offer up a silent prayer that Toushirou would not garner Aizen-taichou’s interest as a tool or opponent.
Ukitake-taichou now refused to let Toushirou leave his side. He was keeping Toushirou close by virtue of an arm wrapped around his shoulder as he dragged him across the room.
“Kyouraku! Come meet my new family!” Ukitake-taichou demanded as they got closer to Eighth’s taichou. The man, clothing rumpled in a way that spoke of sleep and covering his captain’s haori with a pink kimono, had been watching them approach. Now, he smiled widely and approached the pair, his fukutaichou trailing behind him like a lost duckling – large book STILL tucked under her arm.
“Oh? Yet another sibling? I thought raising the last of your hellion siblings was enough for one lifetime?” the man joked. Ukitake-taichou huffed in return.
“It’s not a sibling bond, as you well know! Hitsugaya Toushirou, this is my soulmate Kyouraku Shunsui, Eighth Squad’s taichou and his fukutaichou Ise Nanao. Nanao-san, Shunsui, my son Toushirou! He even shares the white of my name!” Toushirou was sweat-dropping in embarrassment. The only thing saving him was that they were in a less populated area of the room and Ukitake-taichou was speaking quietly if emphatically.
Ise-fukutaichou bowed shallowly. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Hitsugaya-kun.” Toushirou returned the bow.
“Welcome to the family, then. Call me Shunsui,” Kyouraku-taichou demanded. Toushirou shook his head and looked up at Kyouraku-taichou through his bangs. As Kyouraku-taichou was about to respond, Ukitake-taichou shot him a look over Toushirou’s head, a look Toushirou nearly missed.
“Let’s not push him too far, Kyouraku. You know what it’s like being different,” Ukitake-taichou commented plainly. Kyouraku-taichou made a disgruntled noise of agreement.
Looking down at his new son, Ukitake-taichou hummed quietly. “I know you don’t feel comfortable with first names, Hitsugaya-kun. And given what you said before our bond existed, I know why. But I’m Ukitake Juushirou, Thirteenth Squad’s taichou. I’d like you to call me Juushirou in private.” Toushirou shrugged uncomfortably. Ukitake-taichou just smiled gently down at him.
“Try your best. And if you have to use honorifics, stick to -san. I’ve never been formal and with the bond between us, anything more would cause problems outside of full formal situations.” Toushirou quirked an eyebrow up at Ukitake-…san.
“Even Soutaichou-sama will expect more familiarity between us unless it’s a formal meeting,” Kyoushirou explained, including himself as well. “Using fully formal honorifics all the time will make him start to look at you oddly, assuming something is wrong.”
“Ah.” That made sense to Toushirou. Anything outside of what was expected always made you stand out in Seireitei, but even more so in Soul Society.
Had he mentioned lately that being different was one of the worst things he’d ever experienced?
By the end of the night, Toushirou had managed to escape … Juushirou-san’s grip and taken to hiding behind Matsumoto. Who had the nerve to laugh at him. She playfully kept moving around but like a young child afraid of strangers, Toushirou moved with her. Even after Juushirou-san graciously gave up, he all but clung to the sleeves of her shihakusho.
This song-and-dance did distract him from Hinamori. He barely glanced at her all evening. Watching her trail several steps behind Aizen-taichou and take even the barest scraps of attention like they were manna from heaven had been sickening. Aizen-taichou had been far too careless of Hinamori to be bound to her on a soul level. But Hitsugaya kept such thoughts firmly inside his own head and never even let his face betray his thoughts. In that respect, finding a parental bond in Juushirou-san was the best thing that could have happened. He was still unsettled at the strength of the bond and Juushirou-san’s reaction to it.
It just caused him more embarrassment that Kyouraku-taichou had a knowing smirk hiding at the corners of his mouth and in his eyes.
- - - -