It was sunset before I awoke in my pillow fort, hunkering down within the shadows until I saw the sky get darker. I stretched a bit before I crawled out from the pillows and blankets, straightening out my kimono and haori and making my way to the door. I opened it to see Toshiro waiting for me impatiently as he paced about outside. I chuckled quietly and walked to him, making him glance up at me and give me a stern look.
"Night has just fallen and you now just get up?" he whined, glaring in annoyance.
"I've been nocturnal for a while now, so this is normally when I decide to wake up," I informed him.
"What's the point of being nocturnal? You're the Captain of Squad 5. You're going to need to give orders during the day while everyone works."
"It's a long story," I said, slipping into silence.
When he knew that he wouldn't get anything more out of me, he led me around the Seireitei to get me reacquainted with its layout. He said only a couple things had changed since I had left, but the rest stayed the same. Everyone who saw us walking openly gaped at us, but mostly at Toshiro. He definitely acted differently from when I saw him back when I had just arrived back at the Seireitei. I heard whispers from other Soul Reapers that they had never seen Captain Hitsugaya look so carefree before. Imagine that, I thought to myself, I managed to make Shiro open up, even if it's only to me. He then took me to see the Squad 10 Headquarters where he lived. He mentioned that he was going to have to take me for a late dinner with Rangiku in her quarters. Rangiku looked thrilled to death to see us once she found us at her doorstep, looking to have had a few drinks of sake beforehand.
"It's so good to see you yet again, Imayru!" she giggled cheerfully, giving me a hug before I could stop her. "It's good to see you as well, Captain!" Even faster than she hugged me, she had a hold of Toshiro, who immediately squirmed and pushed her away from him.
"You know better than to touch me," he grumbled. "Do it again and I'll find extra paperwork for you to do."
"And you know I won't do a single one on purpose," she laughed and beckoned us to come inside. She also offered us some sake, but both Toshiro and I refused it.
Since the nightly dinners served in the kitchens were over with by a few hours, Rangiku had only managed to snag a few sandwiches and snack food. I felt like I hadn't eaten real food in a very long time and practically scarfed down everything that was set before me. The looks the other two gave me were barely contained laughter and vague curiosity. Toshiro and Rangiku talked amongst each other for a while until I had finished my sandwiches.
"So, Imayru, when do you plan on making the marriage to my Captain official?" Rangiku teased, giving me a look of joy at my shock.
"I don't know what you're talking about!" I sputtered out, nearly choking on a bite from a biscuit.
"Oh, please, I was one of the witnesses when you two had your own little ceremony after you got the tattoos."
"We're not going to get married right now!" Toshiro groaned, covering his eyes in exasperation.
"We probably won't even get married at all!" I piped up quickly, earning a blank look from Toshiro that meant he wasn't all that happy with what I had just said.
"I can see that this topic makes the both of you rather uncomfortable, so I suppose I will leave it alone… for now," she told us both, giving us a conspiratorial grin before taking another gulp of sake. "You two really need to loosen up."
"Maybe you just need to button up," Toshiro grumbled and I had to stifle my laughter.
We stayed up for the rest of the night and talked about what had happened in the last year. They filled me in on everything, mostly what happened recently with the Ryoka finding their way into the Seireitei. They even said that the Ryoka turned out to be the heroes in all this once Aizen showed his true colors. Rangiku told me that Yoruichi was among the Ryoka and helped them get inside. I vaguely remembered her, only hearing stories about her stealth abilities and speed from Captain Ukitake when he was feeling in the mood for storytelling. When I asked where Toshiro was in all this, both of their expressions looked crestfallen as they remembered that day.
"I was severely injured by Aizen trying to avenge Momo," he growled. "He said that he had created Momo to be so dependent on him that killing her would be a blessing for her after all of this."
I stayed silent for a long time while both of them glanced at each other. I saw Rangiku reach out for me, but by that time I had already started to stand up. I walked over to a window that was right next to a bookshelf and stared up at the moon, feeling so angry that I could explode. "Where is Aizen now?" I asked through gritted teeth, seeing out of the corner of my eye that there was a mirror on the other side of the window and I had never seen myself look so pale before.
"He's in—" Rangiku started to say, but Toshiro cut her off. "For now, I think it's best that you don't know where he went."
"So he's in Hueco Mundo," I said quietly, grabbing the windowsill and gripping it tightly. "You wouldn't try and keep his location a secret from me unless that was where he decided to go."
"And you also know I wouldn't do that unless there was a good reason," he said, standing up and walking over to me. "Your Zanpakuto won't be able to protect you this time if you go there."
"I'm a lot stronger now since that day, especially after training with Kenpachi. I can hold my own while Tatsuya's spirit is gone."
"Kenpachi was defeated by the strongest Ryoka because Kenpachi just used his own strength while the Ryoka teamed up with the spirit of his Zapakuto," Toshiro pointed out to me. "I wouldn't put much stock in this halfcocked idea you've got."
I sighed, but knew that Toshiro had a point. I couldn't just run off on my own to finish off a person that ran away to my personal brand of Hell. I let go of the windowsill slowly and noticed that my silver claws dug niches into the wood. I cringed slightly before turning back to Toshiro and Rangiku. It was starting to lighten up in the room and I knew that dawn was slowly approaching. I felt a slight edge of panic and excused myself from the room, promising that I would meet up with them again soon.
I ran off toward Squad 4, remembering that I was going to meet Captain Unohana this morning but wanting to get there before the sun rose. I pulled my hood up and over my eyes to keep my face in the shadows, looking through the blue eyes to see where I was running. I thankfully remembered my way back to Squad 4 and made it there just before the light hit me. I found Captain Unohana's room and knocked on the door to announce my presence. She opened the door for me and gave me a smile to welcome me inside. I saw the light sneaking down as the sun went up, so I hurried through the door and started to shake nervously.
"Are you alright, Captain Hinamori?" she asked me, looking very concerned.
"The sunlight and I don't agree anymore," I told her as she led me over to a table in the middle of the room.
"Seems like you need more of the prescription then," Unohana said to herself. As she sat down across from me at the table, she asked, "How much of it do you have left?"
"I've had to ration it out. The sun hurts me like what a human would call a vampire. I've had to turn nocturnal just to avoid it and the nightmares."
"You're still having the nightmares?"
"Only if I sleep at night."
"I can get you more of the prescription, Imayru, but we will have to be careful about increasing the dosage," Unohana told me cautiously. "I'm deeply afraid that increasing it might kill you."
"The poison running through my veins is slowly killing me already," I responded bitterly. "The potion making me overdose would be a mercy killing."
"You can't actually mean that!" Unohana protested, standing up quickly and giving me a stern look. "I will not allow this self-pitying in my quarters! You were always strong, now find that inner strength and don't stop believing that we can find a cure!"
"You haven't been able to find one yet!" I yelled, feeling frustrated and wanting to take it out on someone else. "I can't live like this and be around other people or they'll find out I'm weak! That's why I requested that Yamamoto give me an assignment in the Human World!"
"Say another negative word and I will make my Bankai eat you," Unohana said quietly, giving me a look that meant she was serious. When I just looked down at the floor, she walked over to me and patted my shoulder in a motherly way. "I know that it's been hard on you. It's been hard on all of us, even more so on the people who are closest to you. It got worse when you thought you needed to leave us to keep your secret safe. But some of us haven't given up hope that we can cure this and have kept working since you left."
I nodded. "Thank you for not giving up."
"You're welcome, my dear. Now, can you make it back to your headquarters in the sun?"
I told her that I could, but even so she went over to a shelf to get a small vial of liquid. It was a golden liquid that was translucent with little sparks that leapt from the surface. I took it and immediately gulped it down. It felt like liquid fire travelling down my throat and into my stomach, where it seemed to spread through my veins. I gasped as it took a turn for the painful side as it always did. Unohana gazed at me worriedly, but still opened the door for me to leave. I kept my hood down as far as I could and walked slowly back to my Squad. My eyes burned from the sunlight even though I looked though the blue eyes of my hood. The pain of the liquid going through my system combined with the sunlight sapping my strength had me wobbling every few steps. I was almost back when I wobbled too far and fell. Thankfully, Captain Ukitake happened to be there to catch me. He looked so surprised to see me like this and I felt the liquid forcing me unconscious.
"Please," I managed to say to him and saw through the black spots in my vision that he looked confused as well. "Don't tell Toshiro…" I went limp in his arms as my vision went completely dark and I passed out entirely.
I woke up in my cocoon of blankets, feeling groggy and still in pain as I opened my eyes. I couldn't move yet but I saw Ukitake sitting near the opening of the pillow fort. I felt as if I had a livewire running through my veins and whimpered quietly. Ukitake looked back at me and saw that I was awake before turning back to stare at whatever it was he was looking at before.
"You've been unconscious for about two hours," Ukitake told me calmly. "Hitsugaya hasn't stopped by yet and I'm sure if he had known what happened to you he'd be here by now. You're very lucky that I am one of the few people that know about your condition."
"Thank you, Ukitake," I told him hoarsely.
"Why haven't you told Hitsugaya about your condition?" he asked flatly, feeling the need to get right down to business.
"Is not wanting to tell someone you deeply care for that you're dying a slow painful death really so wrong?"
"Is it necessary for you to answer a question with a question?" he asked sarcastically.
I smiled a bit and knew that this was one situation I wouldn't win. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Imayru, he needs to know soon," Ukitake said, glancing over at me and giving me a sad look. "He needs you to tell him and he can't just find out on his own. If you think he felt betrayed when you left, this will be much worse. No, he won't like hearing that you're dying but it's much better that the knowledge came from you."
I stayed silent and just nodded, knowing that he was right. It would be wrong to keep something like this from him for so long. He would probably grow to hate me. Ukitake stood up and bowed quickly, taking his leave and most likely heading back to his headquarters. I was still paralyzed from the pain and laid there within the shadows that were my haven until I felt up to moving again. It was hours later before I could move even a little when I heard a knock at my door and knew that it was time for me to get up. I told them to come in and saw that it was Toshiro. He looked around and took notice of me in my pillow fort, laughing quietly and his eyes shone.
"The Lost Girl looks to be more comfortable in her cave again," he said, coming over to sit before hole that led inside. "May I come in?" I motioned for him to enter and he chuckled, crawling inside and sitting opposite of me. I sat up, grimacing as the pain flared in my stomach where the liquid still sloshed. I saw his gaze sharpen as he looked at my face and waited for me to tell him why I seemed to be in pain.
"There's something I have to tell you later, but right now isn't a good time," I said slowly, not sure how to word what I had to say.
"As long as you promise to actually tell me, I'll overlook the timeframe," he stated simply. We stayed quiet for a while, just enjoying each other's company until I started to yawn heavily. The liquid always made me drowsy after taking it, so I always made sure to take it just before it was time to sleep. Toshiro noticed that I looked exhausted and moved over to sit beside me. "Here, lie your head on my lap and go to sleep. I'll stay here and keep you company."
"Are you sure?" I asked him, not quite believing what I was hearing.
"Of course I'm sure," he said rather huffily, just like I was used to. "Back when you didn't even know me well, you let me sleep on your lap all night even though you didn't sleep a wink. Not only that but you let me stay there until Granny caught me."
No amount of protesting could stop him from insisting that I sleep on his lap. I decided then that I might as well comply because I was exhausted. I moved next to him just far enough so that I could lean to my right to put my head on his leg. I curled my legs up to my chest as far as they could go and closed my eyes. As I was slowly drifting asleep, I could have sworn that I felt a hand petting my hair comfortingly.
It was sunset by the time I woke up again, feeling well rested and in no pain at all. I stretched out and noticed that my pillow was really warm compared to how cold the room seemed to be. It took me a minute or so to remember that I was sleeping on Toshiro. I sat up faster than a striking cobra and turned to face Toshiro, blushing fiercely the entire time only to see that he was asleep as well. He did always say that the only way to grow taller was to get a good amount of rest. I smiled and figured that this might be one of the few times that he actually relaxed instead of being so serious all the time. He looked so young and vulnerable while asleep. I gently laid my head on his shoulder and rubbed his back slowly so that he wouldn't wake up. I closed my eyes and just relaxed, not thinking about any of the negative things that were going on in my life for once.
Dusk had fallen by the time I noticed a change in Toshiro's breathing. I sat up to look at him just to see that he was quite awake and grinning like a fool. I knew it was because he thought it was hilarious that he could get away with the same trick twice. We both stared at each other, his grin slipping from his face as he looked me in the eyes. I didn't notice it at first but our heads were getting slowly getting closer together and I felt the room temperature even out. I closed my eyes at the same time as Toshiro, our lips just about to touch when I heard my door slam open. We jumped apart quickly, making the pillow cave collapse on top of us. We floundered our way out of the pile of blankets and pillows to see Rangiku, who was doubled over from laughing so hard.
"Judging from the blushes and glares you both are throwing my way, I'd have to say that I just interrupted something that was about to go on between the two of you," she told us in between gulps of air. Then, with a gasp of fake shock, she exclaimed, "Now I know what was going on! You two were about to kiss! And to think that I messed up your opportunity, Captain!"
"Rangiku, unless you want to do all of yours and my paperwork tomorrow, I suggest you leave right now," he growled, trying to sound serious to her even though he was blushing profusely.
She turned around and ran, on her way out she yelled, "You and I both know I still won't do it!"
"I just love how energetic she is," I said sarcastically, making him smile a little.
"If you love it that much, I'll trade you Lieutenants."
We crawled completely out of what was left of my cocoon and fixed our disheveled clothing so that we could walk outside to see what reason Rangiku had for interrupting us. She immediately told me that she just happened to run into Head Captain Yamamoto, who asked her to run an errand for him. "He said something about a large, strong Hollow about to enter Karakura Town that might be too much for the substitute Soul Reaper to handle and since you know the territory so well, he asked that you would take care of it."
"I'd be happy to," I said. "I'd rather not have unnecessary deaths when I could just go take care of it myself."
A doorway to the Land of the Living appeared before us and I smiled, getting mentally prepared for a good fight ahead. I said my goodbyes to the both of them and was about to walk through the doors when I was grabbed by the shoulder. I was quickly turned around to see Toshiro with a determined look before he put both hands on either side of my cheeks, tilted my head back a little, and kissed me. I melted against him, surprised and thrilled all at the same time. He kissed me once more before pulling away and giving me a cocky grin.
"Take care of yourself over there," he told me simply as he took a few steps backwards to stand beside Rangiku.
Right before I turned around to the doorway, I saw Rangiku singing a children's song about Toshiro and I sitting in a tree and kissing, Toshiro blushing again and crossing his arms as he looked away. I ran through the doorway before I could start blushing as well. I used Shunpo to get through the tunnel before it closed on me. It was nighttime in Karakura Town just like it was in the Soul Society. I ended up in a park that was higher up compared to the city itself and searched for the presence of the Hollow I was supposed to eliminate. I didn't sense it yet and especially didn't see it flying about the city, so I turned around and headed into the woodsy part of the park.
Maybe it was because I was still reeling from the kiss with Toshiro or maybe I was just concentrating extremely hard on trying to sense the Hollow that I didn't even see it coming, but I entered in a trap the moment I found myself in a large clearing in the woods. I was standing in the middle of the clearing one second, slammed into the ground hard enough that I lost my breath the next. I gasped in an attempt to force much needed air back into my lungs and felt a large hand keeping me pinned to the grass. I felt some of my ribs had cracked and I had a gash above my left eyebrow where a sharp rock cut me. It was when I got my breath back that I felt poison seeping in from my clothing. I wanted to whimper in pain but I wasn't about to give this particular Hollow the satisfaction of hearing my cries. I turned my head in an attempt to see who had a hold of me and instantly had a cold shiver run down my spine. No, it can't be, I thought to myself.
Two days later…
"Captain Hitsugaya!" I heard a voice yell from outside my office. I looked up from the paperwork I was just finishing up to see my Lieutenant Rangiku run inside and seemed very worried.
"Rangiku, something must be wrong if you've somehow managed to remember your manners," I said, giving her a stern look. "If not, then you can assist me in the paperwork I have left."
"Captain, have you forgotten the mission that Imayru went on?" she asked incredulously, openly gaping at him.
"She hasn't been gone that long," I said, grabbing the last pile of paperwork and dividing half of it for Rangiku to fill out when she "got to it." I pushed over her half of the pile and told her, "She is used to being out in the Human World for long periods of time."
She stared even more at him before finally shaking her head. "Ok, Toshiro, I didn't want to do this out of respect for Imayru but you leave me no choice. There's something you need to know about her."
"What is it?" I asked now that she had my full attention. I was beginning to get an uneasy feeling deep in my gut.
Rangiku took a deep breath, preparing her speech in her head and surely knowing I wasn't going to like what she had to say. "First of all, let it be completely known that I don't just eavesdrop on people on purpose and that this was a complete accident. I didn't mean—"
"Rangiku! Get to the point!" I groaned.
"Fine, Mr. Impatience! I don't know if she told you yet or was going to tell you at all, but I had gone to drop something off to Captain Unohana when I heard both her and Imayru talking in her office. I heard them argue about a certain condition she had that didn't have a cure and that's when I heard that she was… well, Toshiro… Imayru is dying."
Her last words barely even registered in my mind as I sat there in complete shock. Imayru couldn't possibly be dying, I thought to myself. She was so lively and energetic that it just seemed to be an impossibility. I looked back up at Rangiku, still drowning in my thoughts when she started to say something else.
"She was poisoned by a Hollow in Hueco Mundo and ever since that day, she can't be out in the sunlight for long or it begins to hurt her badly."
"Before she left, she said that she had something she had to tell me later," I said hoarsely. "What I don't understand is why you're telling me this now."
"Toshiro, she's been gone for two days without checking in at least once with someone from the Soul Society!" she yelled, finally snapping me out of my stupor. "She needs to take a potion every so often to be able to even be in the sunlight! I honestly think that something might have happened to her because this should never have even lasted an entire day for her! She would have been finished with the mission within two hours!"
"I have the solution for your problem!" I heard someone exclaim from outside my office doors. They opened quickly to reveal Rukia Kuchiki and her brother, Captain Byakuya Kuchiki, who looked as disinterested as always. Rukia gave me a comforting smile in an attempt to keep me calm, but I still felt worry gnawing at the back of my mind as she said to me, "Don't you worry about a thing, Captain Hitsugaya. The Head Captain is sending my brother and me to Karakura Town to look for her with Ichigo and Renji. You know that if we team up with those two, nothing can stop us."
"I'm going with you," I told them, standing quickly and walking over to the stand to grab my Zanpakuto Hyorinmaru. The temperature in the room plummeted and I noticed frost growing on my desk.
"Head Captain Yamamoto knew you would say that and told me to inform you that you are commanded to stay in the Seireitei," Byakuya said in an extremely straightforward way. His no nonsense attitude was beginning to force me to see sense, even if I wanted nothing more than to run off to find Imayru.
I looked at them both, giving them a determined stare as the temperature dropped again. "Swear to me that you'll bring her back alive no matter what."
"We swear," Rukia said and Byakuya mumbled the same thing.
They left my office as fast as they arrived and I sank to my knees, feeling the fear for Imayru's safety pierce my heart like a dagger. Rangiku hit the floor in front of me and immediately looked worried for me, grabbing my hands and clasping them tightly. "What am I going to do?" I whispered, feeling like I didn't have a clue was killing me.
"We just wait and immerse ourselves in our duties so that we don't drive ourselves crazy," she told me, smiling a bit to distract me from my pain. I tried to force a smile to mirror hers, but it just came out as a grimace so I stopped. Rangiku made me stand up and led me back to my desk, finding me more paperwork to do to keep my mind off of Imayru until they found her and brought her back to me.
I didn't remember passing out but I did remember waking up in a haze of agony. I opened my eyes and tried to see where I was now, but my vision was blurry. The only thing I could think of that was causing this was that I had been poisoned even more. I shook my head and closed my eyes for a minute before trying again, getting the results I wanted and looking at my surroundings to see that we must be further into the forest part of the park. I tried to move around but discovered that I was stuck up against a tree trunk. I looked down and saw strange goo keeping me in place but at least this kind didn't burn me.
I glanced upwards to see that dawn was minutes away and I felt panic make my heart race faster than a hummingbird's wings. I couldn't be caught in the sun or I would burn so bad. I tried to get my silver claws free so that I could cut my way out but there was no moving to do so. I could only watch in horror as, for the third day in a row, the sun appeared over the tree branches onto me. I tried to hold back my screams for as long as I possibly could, but after about ten minutes my skin burst into flames and I shrieked in agony. I could hear the familiar laughter before I finally passed out, only to wake during midday and repeat the whole process over again. Three mornings of torture and I already wanted to die. The Hollow knew my weakness and exploited it better than anyone ever could. I felt a claw pierce my shoulder and venom spread through my body. I shrieked louder than before, hating myself for being so weak.
When night blessedly came, I knew a different torture would start anew and I glared once the Hollow showed himself. It was a large Hollow that was stronger than a Menos Grande, one that had an affinity with poisons and venoms of all kinds. Its mask was like a lion and it had a tail with a stinger that was like a thin needle. Its body was green and purple and it had red eyes that were quite intelligent. This Hollow was the reason I lost the spirit of my Tatsuya and the reason I was dying. I swore up a storm when it came closer, calling it every bad name under the sun and making it look taken aback with my vulgar language.
"As soon as I'm free, I will kill you, you stupid son of a—" I screamed before it cut me off.
"Such language!" it exclaimed gleefully, grinning at me as if it had already won.
"Listen to me, you idiot," I growled, glaring even more and hitting it with my spiritual pressure. I watched it pause as it assessed my strength. "I don't care why you think this is so amusing to you, but I swear on my life that I will kill you, whether or not I do so today or some other day down the road.
"Too bad I don't believe you," it said, its grin widening and it looked even more menacing.