OK, Chapter 2. This .. is turning out longer than I expected. This whole scene was supposed to be one of three in this chapter. It's a little ponderous; I apologize. I've probably put too much backstory into this, and not enough bloodshed. It's just that I've been reading a lot of history lately, about WWI and Vietnam, and, well, some related themes have jumped into the story. What's more, now that they're in, I can't seem to get them out. I think they're interesting, and the war situation is going to be important to the plot. But if you're bored, don't worry. Mayhem coming up.

Warnings: terrible language, spoilers, gratuitous snuggling, detailed but necessary backstory.

Not mine.

Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you for the reviews. They are AWESOME! I've wanted to write, like, two page replies, but I understand that that would be rude.

Chapter 2

Breeze

Zaraki swore. Then he swore again, threw his zanpakutou to the ground, and jumped on it. "ARRGH! Talk to me, you dumb #($&$#&$#$&#$(#(#&#$&#!"

Sitting on a tall rock nearby, just by the waterfall, Hitsugaya buried his face in one hand. But his bright green eyes continued to watch Zaraki through his fingers, mesmerized. There was something hypnotic about the man's frenzied, childish anger.

"Uh … I might be wrong," Renji called out, from the other side of the river, "but that may not be the best way to go about this."

Zaraki made a string of personal observations about Renji's mother, which Renji ignored. He had been an orphan as long as he could remember, after all. For the last two hours he had helped Zaraki train by the riverbank and in the surrounding woods. Hitsugaya, he knew, had been there since the early morning. The two of them had attacked in turn, defended, retreated, attacked, trying to coax out Zaraki's reluctant zanpakutou.

"Ooof!" Zaraki staggered backwards, tripped, and fell into the shallow stream. Hitsugaya, he realized a second later, had body-checked him in the stomach. "Dammit! I'll kill you, you brain-damaged midget! " When the hell did the brat get so fast, the big man wondered, irritated. He lifted himself, dripping, from the water, flexing his fingers dangerously.

Hitsugaya dug one toe beneath Zaraki's nameless zanpakutou. Then, with a single fluid motion, he kicked the blade into the air and caught it in his right hand. With a disorienting rush, Zaraki felt the murmur rise in his mind again. The same voice had whispered to him for weeks now, never fully forming words. An awareness that was not quite a presence, a hum on the edge of song. Zaraki was a straightforward man, and he did not like it.

"Give that back," he growled.

The white-haired teenager stared down the length of the ragged sword, his eyes mirrored in its gleam. The Eleventh Squad Captain felt a small chill.

"Give. That. Back."

Hitsugaya seemed to come out of a trance, and looked momentarily confused. Instinctively, he turned his head to search for Matsumoto. She was resting at the top of a tall bank, under an oak tree. She had taken the first shift before Renji, and now she sat with Yachiru on a blanket in the shade. "Captain!" the blonde called down, "I don't think you're concentrating!" Neither Zaraki nor Hitsugaya could guess which of them she meant.

"Give that back to Ken-chan, you booger!" Yachiru was on her feet, her pink brows knit together. She had been here since daybreak as well. But when she had discovered that Hitsugaya's participation could not be dispensed with ("This &#$ zanpakutou has some kind of &#$ thing," Zaraki had explained) she had taken to sulking on the sidelines.

Instead of complying, Hitsugaya drove the zanpakutou's blade into the muddy soil of the bank. He stood there for a moment, one hand on the pommel, tapping the hilt with one finger. He looked like he was trying to remember something. Zaraki folded his arms and waited, a sour expression on his face.

Hitsugaya was useful, he thought. Useful but annoying. The kid was growing stronger all the time – drank a lake of water a day, seemed like. And though he lapsed in and out of lucidity, he was clearly regaining some sense of himself. He very seldom spoke. Matsumoto and Unohana seemed best able to interpret his moods, and he clung to them, unembarrassed. All the same, Zaraki guessed that while the brat was happiest with the women, his mind was sharpest in battle. Maybe that was why he tagged around the Eleventh Division - Zaraki Kenpachi's pale, silent shadow.

"What!?" the giant barked, losing patience. "What are you trying to say? Use your goddamned words!"

"Don't bully him," Abarai snapped. Renji crouched on the other side of the water below the falls. The Captain of the Fifth Squad wasn't in regimentals today, or on any day that he could help it. Instead he wore a simple training gi, white trimmed with brown. It made him look younger, somehow, almost like an academy student. "He'll talk when he's ready."

"Reflect," Hitsugaya said suddenly, still tapping. Both men turned to him.

"Reflect on what?" Zaraki grunted. "Meditate, you mean? You know how many hours I've freakin' meditated? You know how much &#$-all it's got me?"

The teenager shook his head, his eyebrows furrowed. "Reflect," he repeated. He looked at Renji, then at Rangiku. He touched his own chest. Then he looked back at Zaraki, an expectant look on his face.

The big captain stared, utterly bewildered. That's it, he thought, clenching his jaw. I kill the cryptic little bastard.

"Captain! Lunch!" Matsumoto called, and this time there was no question who she meant. Hitsugaya flash-stepped up the bank faster than any of them could follow with their eyes. To reach the food in his former lieutenant's lap, he had to sit right next to her. Which was, of course, what she had intended.

Renji grinned and sheathed Zabimaru. "Coming, Zaraki-taichou?"

"Nah," Kenpachi answered, still glowering. "I'll try this meditation gag. #$& waste of time."

He lowered his massive frame to ground and sat, cross-legged, in front of his zanpakutou. He closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.

Yachiru, who had materialized at his side the moment Hitsugaya had left it, also sat, folding her legs into a perfect lotus position and placing her tiny hands on her knees. She squeezed her eyes closed as hard as she could (though every now and then she lifted one eyelid to peek at Zaraki.) All the same, Renji couldn't help thinking that the little girl looked more at peace than her mentor.

"Ah well," he mused, "might as well grab some lunch." He looked up the bank to the oak tree, where Matsumoto had caught her captain in a fierce hug. Might as well save the poor kid from suffocation, he thought with a smile.

oooooooooooooooooooo

That was not how Rangiku interpreted Renji's actions when he plopped down on the ground behind her, and gave her a sharp poke in the ribs.

"Aw," she said teasingly, "you have cuddle-envy!"

Renji stretched his lanky legs and leaned into the oak tree. "I'm just making sure he doesn't pull any moves on my woman," he answered with a mock frown.

Hitsugaya turned to watch Renji over Matsumoto's shoulder for a long moment. His eyes were wary, as if he were trying to decide if the redhead was a threat. "Abarai," he murmured at last, then turned his attention back to the food. He looked so serious, thin knees drawn up to his chest, sandwich clutched in both hands. Renji resisted an urge to pat the kid on the head.

'His woman' felt no such restraint. As her captain leaned back on her left shoulder, she raised that hand to brush into the boy's thick white hair. Hitsugaya blinked at her, surprised, but made no move to stop her. Matsumoto continued to stroke his hair, smoothing the spikes, brushing loose strands back from his face. She had always longed to do this, when her captain was small, and had never dared to.

Lulled, Hitsugaya rubbed his eyes – he'd been fighting all morning. He sank deeper into her embrace, letting his cheek rest against her chest. Matsumoto felt a bubble of joy rise in her heart. She beamed back at Renji (who rolled his eyes at her) and planted the lightest kiss on the top of her captain's head.

"He's letting you touch him, now?" a sudden voice made them all jump, and Matsumoto had to grip Hitsugaya's shoulders to stop him from bolting. Ichigo, who had come from behind them, raised his hands in apology, and spoke in a lower tone. "That's a good sign."

"Kurosaki!" Zaraki roared from his seat by the stream. "Shut the #$ up! I'm meditating here!"

"Yeah!" Yachiru's voice piped along. "Shut the #$ up!"

Ichigo chuckled and scratched the back of his neck. "I thought my old man was a bad influence," he murmured. Matsumoto greeted him with a nonchalant motion, and gestured to the free corner of the picnic blanket.

"He's letting Rangiku touch him," Renji said, reaching for an apple, "and as you can see, she's taking shameless advantage. I wouldn't try it, if I were you." He looked the newcomer over. Ichigo was wearing his captain's robes, and they didn't look fresh. His face looked as worn as his clothing. Just got back from the Earth front, Renji thought, and hasn't even changed yet. He almost didn't want to ask. "How're things at home?"

Ichigo shrugged and looked away. "Same as always. Oh, except that the U.N. cut back on air drops again. People are starting to get hungry."

"Why would they do that?" Matsumoto hissed, trying to keep the outrage out of her reiatsu. Hitsugaya felt it anyway and tensed.

To her surprise, it was Renji who answered. He'd done a long stretch on planetside, and he had picked up on the political situation better than most Shinigami. "It's been five years, honey," he said wearily. "And it's expensive to feed a city. They don't know what's going on; they don't know who to blame; people are starting to move on. No one'll notice if they drop a ton or two less, 'cept the poor bastards who go short."

"Dad's been trying to get agriculture going for a while now," Ichigo said, helping himself to a bento box that Matsumoto pointed towards. "But it's not easy. The Field cuts off a lot of sunlight."

"Urahara can't modify the Field?"

"Maybe," Ichigo swallowed a mouthful of rice. "He won't risk it yet, though. If the Field weakens…" He didn't have to finish the sentence. They all knew that the Field stopped all otherworld portals inside and above the city. Unable to materialize into Karakura, the arrancars had laid siege around it. For the past five years, Soul Society had maintained an armed perimeter around the city limits, beating back the invaders. The defenders were dedicated, brave, savagely weaponed… and exhausted. If even a few arrancars could break through the Field directly into the city…

On the other hand, Ichigo thought grimly, at least a general slaughter would get the UN's attention. Then he sighed. That wasn't fair. Regular humanity was at its wits' end, after all. They couldn't see either army. All they knew was that no one could get in or out of Karakura. Everyone who tried would die on the outskirts of the city, struck down by an invisible force. The best scientific experts were baffled, wildly speculating at some massive, undetectable, bloodthirsty electromagnetic field. Some people pointed at North Korea, some people at America. No one knew what to do.

The townspeople were just as clueless, but they couldn't tune out the situation. Those who had survived the initial onslaught were left trapped, bereaved, bored, and now hungry. Interestingly, more and more people were developing spirit powers. Recently some of them had tried to attack the Shinigami, who looked a lot more like jailors than protectors. Karakura was turning into a very strange place.

"How are the Vaizards?" Renji asked, his mouth full of apple.

"Arrogant pricks."

"The same, then. And the Quincys?"

Ichigo made a helpless gesture, but couldn't say anything.

Matsumoto looked sad. "The same, then."

"Speaking of food, how did you get this spread?" Ichigo asked, abruptly changing the subject. "I thought we were rationed." Seireitei was under virtual siege as well. Arrancar raids on the Rukongai diverted military resources from the Earth front, and often disrupted supply lines to the Court of Pure Souls.

"Oh, I've... um.." the blond woman flushed a little, "I've been saving a little ("Hoarding!" Renji broke in behind her), you know, for a special occasion. And Unohana helped out quite a bit." She ruffled Hitsugaya's hair again. "She says that she's making allowances for medical needs."

"Here's to Shorty, then," Ichigo said, raising his bento in the air. "May your friends continue to benefit from your misfortune."

Unexpectedly, Hitsugaya laughed. Not loud or long – it was more like a monosyllabic chuckle – but it was a laugh. Discomfited by everyone's surprise, the boy shrunk a little behind Matsumoto again. But he didn't break eye contact with Ichigo. After a brief moment of concentration, he spoke again. "Welcome back." His voice was husky, but more confident than it had been.

Ichigo smiled. "Thanks, Toushirou," he said.

oooooooooooooooooooo

They ate for a while in companionable silence. Hitsugaya, having eaten all that he wanted, stood up and stretched. He went ten yards upstream and dove fully dressed into the deep pool at the base of the waterfall. Yachiru, her eyes hurting from all the meditating, also climbed to her feet. Ken-chan wasn't watching, she thought happily. Time for a little payback. Squealing, she jumped in after her rival, pelting him with handfuls of water. There might have been a little reiatsu mixed in the splashes.

For a second the older shinigami stiffened and prepared to move, worried that Hitsugaya would seriously defend himself. But after his initial shock, his green eyes narrowed and a half smile played across his face. This is my element, little girl, he seemed to say. The next moment they could hardly see the pool for the torrential water fight that ensued.

Matsumoto pulled her knees up and hugged them. "Captain used to come here," she said dreamily, "when he got really stressed. I thought I was sooo sneaky when I trailed him. But then one day he just turned around and said," her voice took on a lower pitch, "dammit, Matsumoto, come out or go home."

Renji stared down at Zaraki, still meditating by the water's edge and still radiating frustration. "I like it here. It's…" he paused, unsure how to express his mood. Not sure he could express it, without destroying it. "It's peaceful. Even with the war still on, and everyone so tired, I feel … light. Happy."

Ichigo nodded. "It's a good place." It had been hard going home, hard seeing Karin fighting in the trenches, hard watching Yuzu tend the injured. Reporting to Seireitei hadn't been much easier – some of the souls in Rukongai 54 had started rioting shortly before he arrived, and the squads were in shambles. But here by the water it all seemed to disappear, born away on the sweet-smelling wind.

"Inoue gave me a word for it once," he said, his throat tightening a little, "during an English class. Her favorite word, she said-the name of some mythical bird. It's supposed to nest on the ocean for seven days before the winter solstice. Charms the waves, calms the sea."

"Halcyon," Matsumoto murmured, her face against her knees.

"How did you know that?" Ichigo turned to her, surprised. The woman did not answer, and he continued. "While the halcyon nests, there's peace. Protecting its babies, you know? Thing is, when the chicks finally hatch, they bring on the winter storms."

No one said anything. All that could be heard was faint birdsong, the rustle of leaves, and the movement of water. They remembered another quiet season long ago, and the tempest that had followed.

"I can't help feeling," Ichigo said, his gaze turning up to the drifting clouds, "that this is another one of those times."

In the mottled shade of the oak tree, Matsumoto shivered. Renji, sitting behind her, slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her a little closer. Feeling his breath warm in her hair, Matsumoto relaxed. She watched silently as the waterfall beat down around Hitsugaya and Yachiru, watched the turbulent stream as it flowed relentlessly away. So these were stolen moments, she thought. So what? She took what she could get, these days.

oooooooooooooooooooo

Yamamoto lifted one papery hand. "Go," he ordered quietly.

"But Sou-taichou," his lieutenant whispered, not sure where to look, "some of the captains are on leave until tomorrow; they could be anywhere…."

"Then find them!" A sudden blast of heat convinced his subordinate to leave. Quickly.

The old man turned to the Hueco Mundo emissary who knelt, straight-backed, before him. "They will all gather this evening in the great hall," he said impassively. From ancient practice, he allowed no emotion to show. "Are you happy?"

Kuchiki Rukia smiled - a hard, joyless thing. "Very," she said.

TBC

This is a shameless self-review, but I like the expression "cuddle envy."