Yay reviews! Thank you muchly. For those of you I traumatized last time, many sorries. I hope this makes up for it.

Do not own.

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Chapter 5

The Pack

"Rangiku, no!"

Zaraki threw up his hands in disgust. WHY must people interfere with other people's fights? He had been this close to seeing Matsumoto's ban kai, and it was, by all accounts, a pip. Then this sissy boy Abarai has to jump in. The red-haired captain held the woman from behind in an arm lock, whispering in her ear to calm her down.

Matsumoto did not look like she wanted to calm down. She had already demolished the buildings on either side. Then, suddenly something seemed to snap inside her. She relaxed into Renji's arms with a little sob, and his grip changed into a fierce hug.

"Zaraki," Renji snarled, his usual official courtesy thrown aside. "I take it the patient escaped from his room?"

The big man stared for a moment. He couldn't remember Abarai ever using that tone of voice with him. If he was lucky, he might be able to fight the both of them…

He shook himself. No time. "You could say that. Shouldn't be too far from here, though. His pressure's weak, but it's there. Think you can find him?"

Renji closed his eyes and gave himself over to a full minute of intense concentration. Finally, he nodded. "Don't look," he said quietly. "The fir tree behind me, to the west. Pretty high up."

Zaraki swore quietly. He couldn't fight up there; the branches wouldn't hold his weight. Which was why the brat had chosen it, of course. Not that it would do him any good. If he wanted to, Zaraki could push the tree over with one finger.

Sudden comprehension washed over the eleventh squad captain. Hitsugaya might have gone feral, but he wasn't dumb. Zaraki thought back on everything he'd seen and heard the last few days. All of the boy's attacks were designed the same way: they were fast, hard to block, but left him wide open to a counterstrike. In fact, he seemed to offer his opponent a simple choice: take this hit hard, or hit me hard.

According to Ukitake, the arrancar were forbidden to kill him. They would have feared Aizen more than a beat-down teenage shinigami. That fear would cause them to hesitate just a fraction of a second before defending themselves. Just enough.

Are we any different? Zaraki thought. He wasn't about to knock down that tree. Unohana would kill him.

"We need to get him off the streets," he said flatly, looking at the ruined block around them. "But he's not going back inside, I guarantee it. Know anyplace big, but contained?"

Abarai hestitated, then nodded. "There's a cavern under the Soukyouku," he said, "Kurosaki and I trained for bankai there. Speaking of, he's on his way. Ichigo, I mean. I can feel it. So are a lot of people." He glanced nervously down the street. "Let's hurry. Think we can chase him in that direction?"

"Mmm, yeah, that'll do." Zaraki scratched his head and hefted his blade to his broad shoulders. "If you catch him, knock him out and drag him the rest of the way. DO NOT go easy on him, hear? He'll kill you for sure."

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The three shinigami stood at the entrance of the cave, breathing hard. That .. had been difficult. They all had some gashes and bruises that had not been there an hour ago. But Hitsugaya was now safely inside, and according to Abarai there was only one entrance.

How is there so much light, then? Matsumoto wondered, rubbing her sore arm. Urahara's work, no doubt. She looked up and around at the mouth of the cave. It wasn't too large; they could probably seal it with a kidou. For a moment she looked out over the Seireitei, at the stark white buildings gleaming in the sun. Then she turned back to stare into the depths of the cavern. He was hiding somewhere in there. It hurt her, in indefinable ways, that her captain was hiding from her.

Zaraki straightened and stretched. "Well, now," he yawned. "I could do with some grub."

"Zaraki-taichou." The trio whirled around, honestly alarmed by the gentle voice. Captain Unohana stood behind them, hovering on the open air, the most terrifying look on her face. "Please explain."

Zaraki mumbled, scuffing his feet against the stone. "Zaraki-taichou," Unohana repeated, her voice rising slightly. "I asked you a question. What are you doing?"

The giant captain rallied. Damned if he'd be bullied by a woman. "Therapy," he snapped.

She drew herself up, but he cut her off before she could speak. "He wasn't gonna heal in your little pen, Unohana. I figure he's had enough of those."

"Are you comparing my hospital to Aizen's torture chambers?" she hissed. Behind him, Renji and Rangiku took a step backwards.

"I am, actually," he said carelessly. Then he held up his massive hands in a conciliatory manner. "Settle down, Captain," he said. "I may not be all that smart, but I've got… insight …into violence. I can get to him. Back in the day, it was the same for me - kill or be killed."

Unohana stopped short, surprised. Zaraki never talked about his life in district 80.

"Course, for the kid," he continued, jerking a thumb behind him, "it was kill or be hurt. That makes a big difference." He rubbed his chin; his big face looked grim and sad. "Come to think on it, that's a lot worse."

The healer had calmed down enough to speak, by this point. "My treatments may not be to your taste, Captain," she said icily. "But I would like to try NOT beating sanity into him. If you please."

"I don't please," Zaraki growled.

"How is this … this ... travesty different from what Aizen did to him?"

"He hasn't killed me; I haven't hurt him. It's a start."

For just a moment, Renji feared that the stone walls would cave in on them. Two of the most powerful beings in Soul Society glared at each other, fury in their hearts.

As could be expected, Zaraki looked away first. "Let me try, Retsu," he muttered. She started and blushed at his use of her name. "Please. Maybe you can tame a wild animal with kindness. A caged animal…" he looked over his shoulder into the empty cavern. "A caged animal, first you have to set it free."

As if in answer, a stone whizzed through the air, catching Zaraki on the temple. He stumbled and almost fell. When he looked down, he saw Hitsugaya standing out in the open. The pale eyes stared up at him unblinking, then the boy jerked his head in an unmistakable gesture. The little bastard was calling him out.

"See?" Zaraki grinned over his shoulder at Unohana. "Kid's feeling better already."

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"Rangiku …"

Matsumoto felt Renji touch her hand, questioningly. She gave him a little smile. I'm okay, she seemed to say. It'll all catch up to me tomorrow. Around two in the morning, I'd guess. But for now, I can hold myself together.

"Listen," Renji continued, as Zaraki bounced down the rock cliff towards Hitsugaya. "I have an idea. We saw something strange at the hospital earlier … If I can find Ichigo, I can take care of the arrangements, but I'll need you to run down to the city for the rest."

"What about …" Matsumoto whispered, glancing at the healer beside them.

Renji's eyes followed hers. Unohana did not look happy. "We'll fill her in when we get back," he murmured. "She doesn't look like she wants to be disturbed right now."

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Unohana watched from the high rock, nervously fingering her braid. She was not at all sure that this was the right course of action. In fact, she was almost certain that this was very, very wrong.

On the other hand, she had to admit, her treatments had accomplished nothing this last week. As Hitsugaya's strength had returned, he had only become more aggressive. You couldn't talk to him, you couldn't enter his room, without being attacked.

It was not, of course, the first time she had seen such a case. She was a military medic, after all. She knew that stronger measures were called for. As a doctor, she should prescribe restraints, shock treatment, and personality-altering drugs. As a researcher, she had compiled the statistics; she knew how unlikely it was that the child would completely recover. Her cures would, at best, leave him sedate and compliant, a shadow of his former self.

But this was Hitsugaya. Her chest hurt when she thought of it. Unohana had always nursed a soft spot for the little captain. His grave arrogance, his awkward sweetness. For all his posturing, he had been so innocent. So young. She had cried for hours when he had died.

Words could not describe her emotions when Renji had dragged him into her office, bound, struggling and screaming. She had wanted to kill everyone in all of the worlds.

She had not shown this to anyone, of course. It would not do. But she could not, she would not, treat him as just another casualty of war.

So, against all of her better judgment, she waited. She watched.

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"Oh no, you don't." Zaraki caught Hitsugaya by the back of his collar, and pulled him effortlessly down. "Stop tryin' to run; you'll wear me out."

The teenager landed in a sitting position, and immediately scrambled backwards. His hands groped over the ground for something to throw. The shinigami above him sighed. Those rocks hurt, when they landed.

"Tell me your name," Zaraki insisted, for the thousandth time. It felt like they had been doing this for hours, circling this little clearing in the boulders. He neatly dodged a fist-sized stone flying at his face, only to receive a second in the solar plexus. He let out a roar, and lunged forward without thinking. With a yelp, the boy tried to make another break for it. Once again Zaraki caught him, and pushed him back to the center of the ring.

"Tell me your name!" he shouted.

This couldn't go on much longer. The kid was clearly exhausted. And despite his bravado before Unohana, Zaraki had to admit that he didn't really have much of a plan. What was he going to do when the brat collapsed? Even if he did manage to say his name, what next? Tuck him in? Read him bedtime stories?

Hitsugaya was bent over, his hands on his thighs, his breath coming in shuddering gasps. His knees shook visibly underneath him. The only thing keeping him going, Zaraki realized, was pure, habitual, muscle-engrained fear. He had to keep moving.

Brat wasn't sweating, though. The thought struck Zaraki unexpectedly, out of the blue. Weird.

"That's enough, Kenpachi." Abarai was standing over them, casting a long shadow into their little arena. "You're not going to help him that way."

"You got a better idea, monkey boy?" Zaraki was sweating, by now, and he was starting to get ticked off.

Renji scowled. "I do, actually."

At his signal, four more shinigami instantly formed a circle around Hitsugaya: Abarai, Matsumoto, Kurosaki, Unohana. Zaraki wanted to tell them all to bugger off; this was his kill. Then he caught himself, calmed himself, and grudgingly let it go.

Surrounded, the young man stood shakily and turned, examining the net, trying to find a way out. It was hopeless, of course. Five to one, and no room to maneuver. For just a second, the liquid green eyes took on an expression of pure despair.

Renji's heart tightened, and he bit his lip. This had better work.

They caught him easily enough, binding him with a kidou. (You should really learn these one day, Abarai told Zaraki, irritably.) Then Ichigo and Renji took one arm each and started dragging him along. But he had gone limp again, dead weight, which made for slow going. Zaraki swore, picked Hitsugaya up, and flung him over one shoulder. He could feel the racing heart pound against his back.

"Where to?" he growled.

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"There are some hot springs on the other side of this cavern," Ichigo said, pointing. "They're volcanic, I think. I asked one of my subordinates – an ice wielder – to freeze them solid, but they should be liquid again by now."

The springs were not completely melted; great chunks of ice still floated on the surface. Nevertheless, as soon as Abarai removed his kidou, Zaraki dumped his burden unceremoniously into the water.

At first nothing happened. The cold mist parted and swirled while Histugaya sank, unresisting, to the bottom.

"What is this, Abarai?" Zaraki rumbled, annoyed. "Sure, he needed a bath, but…"

Then they felt it.

Every shinigami has such a unique aura, Matsumoto thought. When she had fought Zaraki, the monster's spirit power had pounded down on her, threatening to crush her. Unohana's reiatsu tended to envelope her, so warm and comfortable she didn't even notice that it was there. She could feel Yamamoto's power like a tingling in all of her limbs. Her own was like an earthquake, Renji's like a primal scream.

Hitsugaya-taichou's reiatsu, so loved, so long missed, swept through her. She felt his essence rise like storm winds from the north, wild and strong. She thought she would be lifted up and carried away. Mingled in the whirlwind she could sense the pure child-like joy that was such an integral part of her captain's character, and that he had so seldom shown to anyone.

She remembered, though. When he had first looked out on the Tenth Division – his division. When she had bought him ice cream, and had walked away before he could refuse it. When his men had performed well in the inter-squad competitions. When they had watched fireworks on his birthday. Whenever he had seen Hinamori smile.

Matsumoto didn't even notice that she was crying.

Unohana smiled, her heart awash with relief. Really, what was wrong with her? She had been so furious about her patient's condition, she had forgotten her basic medicine. Well, she had treated him for dehydration, of course. Five drips would have been more than enough for any other shinigami.

But this was an ice spirit, a strong one. And they must have kept him very dry, for a very long time. That explained his odd behavior with the glass of water, she thought, anger bubbling inside her again. They wouldn't bring him food or water. He must have trained himself to drink only a few drops at a time. Whatever he could find, he had to make it last.

Hitsugaya's white head burst through the surface. He took a deep gasp of air, and instantly submerged again. Newly formed green ice cracked around the edges of the pool.

"Come on," Matsumoto said, wiping her face. "This might take a while. I've packed a lunch."

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An hour later, they all sat around the picnic blanket, gazing into the crater of the pool. Hitsugaya, sitting at the bottom, had drained it entirely. His parched body had absorbed every drop of moisture in the cave, as far as they could tell. Even his robes, after soaking for so long, were bone dry. Only the white mist remained, thick and chilly but oddly comforting.

The five shinigami did not rush him. They did not even react when he peeked, warily, over the edge of the crater. (though Matsumoto had to suppress a giggle. His hair was spiky again.)

After a few minutes of his silent stare, however, Kenpachi got to his feet. The boy's head immediately vanished back into the hole.

"Oy, gaki," Zaraki drawled. He picked up a bento box and placed it on the ground, not too close to the others, but far enough from the pool to force the brat out. "You gotta be hungry by now." He settled back down by Unohana, who patted his knee.

Eventually, Hitsugaya pulled himself up, crept nervously forward, and knelt by the food. For a long time he continued to watch the others. But the shinigami did not attack, and their auras remained calm and soothing. He allowed himself to look down at the bento box. Matsumoto held her breath; she had packed all of his favorites.

He ate slowly, unsmiling, as if dazed. But they could feel a thin vein of happiness blossom in his reiatsu, like frost on a windowpane, delicate and beautiful. Matsumoto thought, dreamily, I should enjoy this while I can. Before he learns to bottle himself away again.

When he had finished, Unohana finally spoke. "How are you feeling?"

He blinked at her, apparently uncomprehending, and raised himself to the balls of his feet. He balanced there, indecisive, his fingertips just touching the ground. For a second it looked like he would try to run again.

Zaraki snorted, less gently. "Skittish little colt, aint'cha?"

The bright green eyes snapped back in his direction, and Zaraki fought to keep his reiatsu steady. Idiot! He berated himself. Don't go scaring him!

But Hitsugaya's startled, wide-eyed face faded into something different, something more confident. It was the face of someone who had fought all day, toe to toe, with Zaraki Kenpachi.

He also looked like he was trying to remember something. "Toushirou," he said at last, huskily. It sounded as if he had not used his voice in a very, very long time.

Zaraki could hear his zanpakutou humming joyfully in the back of his mind. He leaned back with a satisfied smirk. "You're welcome," he said.

END

I think that we like to watch heroes suffer because they find a way to survive it. The pain is necessary so that the comfort can come. So, um, I threw poor Hitsu into a prison for five years, where the jailors brought him no food or water, where he had to fight to the death or be beaten, just so I could throw him a pond afterwards. And give him a bento box. I am twisted and strange.

But yeah, I stumbled on that Hitsu-whump page and thought, heck, the thing that would hurt him most would be the Hueco Mundo desert .. hot, no water. Hence the title, Dry heat, which in retrospect I regret. Sounds like a porn movie.

Anyway, fin. The conflict was supposed to be 3fold – why had he grown, why he had no spirit force, and whether Zaraki could save him. If I've done this right, they should all be resolved.

I guess it could be interesting to think about a sequel to all this … he's still going to be pretty messed up for a while. He'd be simultaneously more dangerous and more innocent than he was before, and it would be fun to explore what aspects of his old personality survive. Hyourinmaru's missing, Hinamori's still out there, and we don't know about the others (Inoue, Chad, Rukia, etc.). Zaraki's just now made contact with his sword. And like Drake-Azathoth says, (thank you for the great review!) Yachiru's reaction sure would be interesting.