Hitsugaya had sat down next to her half an hour ago, and from the way his breathing had evened out, he'd finally (finally) fallen asleep. He'd been pushing himself too hard again; all she could could do was gently remind him to take it more slowly - of course, he wouldn't hear a bar of it. Not with Kyouraku and Ukitake still out of commission, and certainly not when Hinamori was still missing.
Carefully, she closed her book and slid an arm around his shoulders, a sigh her only resistance. In the flickering lantern light, he looked so young, so innocent; but he'd fought as hard as they all had. The book disappeared into her ragged sleeve and she curled her other arm under his legs, and it took barely any effort to lift him; he'd been underweight before the catastrophy, but now she could feel the outline of every single rib and vertebrae.
The rubble piles weren't the easiest to navigate even in daylight, and the few lanterns hanging from poles cast only faint pools of light; on a moonless night like tonight, most people had retired early.
Then again, Hollows hunted on moonless nights. And without the protection of Seireitei's once mighty walls, walking around might draw their attention.
A faint clink echoed through the gloom and Nanao froze, back foot partway through stepping, unbalanced.
Surely she would have sensed it-
Oomaeda's gaunt face appeared from around the corner, and she exhaled slowly, moving forward again. The sound had come from the rings strung around his neck; he'd lost so much weight that they simply wouldn't stay on his fingers any more. He looked down Hitsugaya cradled in her arms and smiled mournfully (he'd lost all his family in the devastation, she vaguely recalled), lantern moving gently in the breeze.
He took the lead, lighting the few feet around them and moving slowly enough for her to keep up. Hitsugaya wasn't terribly heavy by any means, but she too was tired to the bone. Neither Shinigami spoke, half out of not wanting to attract any hostile attention, and the other half of not wanting to draw Hollows to their location.
The shack wasn't much, but it was enough to keep out most of autumn's growing chill, and the rain didn't get in. A mattress rested in one corner, piled high with quilts and duvets, and it was there that she lay Hitsugaya down, as Oomaeda kept watch from the doorway. Tenderly, she slipped off his threadbare sandals and tabi, tucking him in where it was warm - and for the moment at least, safe. The light faded away, and she looked up; Oomaeda was already almost out of sight, heading back to his post to keep watch through the long and lonely night.
She could join him, she supposed. He wouldn't turn down the company. But a sleepy noise drew her attention back to the boy lying curled beside her, and she knew then that she simply couldn't abandon him. The dirt floor was hard, but it wasn't wet - besides, she'd slept in worse places before. She was asleep almost before her eyes finished closing.
Tomorrow would be another long day.