It had been three years since the war against the Quincies. Meaning it had also been roughly five years since he had become her captain.
She wanted to say that those plenty of years should've been enough for her to understand her captain, to understand Hirako Shinji.
Yet who was she kidding?
He had been standing beside her for the past few minutes, humming a tune which most likely was playing on the demo headset in the music store they were in.
Momo sighed heavily, resigning herself to check out the designs of CD covers right in front of her.
Ever since joining Soul Society, rarely had she been to the human world. It's not that she wasn't interested in exploring the other side, but she was fully devoted in her role as a shinigami that the thought of going to it for a leisurely trip was simply something that didn't cross her mind. Her days off, prior to meeting her current captain, were mostly spent on either attending ikebana lessons from Captain Unohana, hanging out with her friends at the Seireitei marketplace, reading at the library, or visiting grandmother in Rukongai.
"You call that spending your days off?!" she remembered her captain's disbelieving voice when he saw her headed back towards the library, "I mean, fine, if that's your sort of thing, but haven't you spent the past few weeks in the reconstruction efforts of that place? Seriously!"
Those were the words that echoed in her head the moment she realized he had already been dragging her off to the Senkaimon.
She also knew, of course, that circumstances were vastly different before. The leader of the Gotei 13 was different; she doubted former Captain-commander Yamamoto would be as lenient as current Captain-commander Kyoraku. At the same time, her own captain was different. Captain Aizen . . . No, Aizen Sosuke was the embodiment of a perfect captain, or at least, it was the image he wanted to portray that he wouldn't even think of ruining that image by deliberately showing his subordinate his bouts of self-indulgence.
Captain Hirako wasn't like that.
To be more accurate, Captain Hirako just "doesn't give a crap." Or so he'd like to tell her.
She remembered the first time she met him. Sometime in the aftermath of the battle against Aizen, he was assigned as the new 5th Division Captain. She wasn't present during its deliberation—assuming there even was one but she never really asked—but by the time she was strong enough to walk after her organ reconstruction, she encountered him at their division.
Ryoka was her initial thought, if only because the clothes he wore were so much out-of-place amidst the black-clad residents of Seireitei. He was looking over the desk in front of him, seemingly pondering about his surroundings. Upon catching sight of the captain's haori in his hand, she already knew who he was, or at least, the role assigned to him.
"I am Vice Captain Hinamori Momo of the 5th Division," she declared, voice far too croaky for her liking. She bowed down instantly, the moment he faced her, hoping he didn't notice how weak she sounded. In her years as a vice captain, she took great pride in her work ethics, so she wanted to make a good impression on her first day.
He didn't respond immediately, much to her dismay, instead gazing at her in a way that seemed scrutinizing it made her uncomfortable.
"You look like crap."
She knew she should have expected that, but it was far too direct for her liking that she felt she should've been offended. But the thoughts were forgotten the moment he proceeded to rant on who in the right mind would let her go out in her current state and then connecting the dots himself when he realized she came from the 12th Division and spat some unkind phrases towards Captain Kurotsuchi.
From that moment she knew her life in the 5th Division would be different. Different in a good or in a bad way, she wasn't sure, but she supposed anything would be better compared to what she had been through. That time, she tried to be positive despite her apprehensions.
Things will be different, she remembered telling herself.
Her musings were cut short when a device was placed over her head, covering her ears. Familiar instrumentals played at their barracks entered her ears. He then slightly pulled the pad cushioning on her left ear.
"You won't get to appreciate music by starin' at covers, dummy."
She wanted to tell him that she actually enjoyed looking at the colorful designs of the CD covers, and it gave her inspirations on drawing some book covers for Shinō Academy.
But then again, he'd probably berate her again for thinking of work when it's supposedly a day for her to relax.
She sighed, just dismissing him entirely and adjusting her headset. He didn't seem to take offense and retreated back to his own world. For some reason, she couldn't help but smile.
Things were definitely different.
A few weeks before their little trip to Karakura Town, they attended Kuchiki Rukia and Abarai Renji's wedding.
Shinji thought it was a fitting celebration, apart from the fact that it marked the union of two souls bound by love. It had been three years since the great war, and despite a few battles happening in between, it was, well, peaceful—fairly speaking for a job which included matters related to defending and battling. Reconstruction efforts were still being done, yes, and things were definitely less crazy than the first three years. The fact they could allot time for matters such as marriage was enough proof there really was no imminent threat.
A few exchanging of sake cups and vows later, the ceremony had been over. A banquet immediately followed at Abarai's favorite bar, available for all the guests to eat and drink their hearts out.
Some of the guests had already left after the ceremony, such as Mayuri (did he even finish the ceremony?), Sui Feng (ever rigid and responsible of course) and Byakuya (the bar was probably too 'boorish' for his tastes. . . though he was willing to bet he was probably spying the event from their mansion not too far away). Shunsui left too, which Shinji understood, because after all, duty called as the head of the Gotei 13.
As a captain himself, Shinji figured he should do the same, even if Shunsui did tell them they were free to decide whether they wanted to stay or not, as long as they remembered they still had duties the following day. If he had followed his first instincts, he would've already been back to his division, all cozy and warm in his bed. It wasn't because he was a huge prude—give him alcohol and he'd drink that crap bottoms-up—however, sometimes, he just felt tired. Out-of-place. Despite Seireitei being his original home, it just . . . didn't seem like it, ever since he came back.
Perhaps, it was due to the obvious differences in his own reiryoku compared to the other shinigami? Perhaps, it was due to the several sets of unfamiliar faces around him? Perhaps, spending a hundred years in the human world changed the way he thought? Or perhaps, their banishment from what they considered home, knowing they did nothing wrong and were just victims of circumstances, just left a huge mark in their hearts that it was simply hard to erase it, despite how sincere the apologies he got from the late Captain-commander Yamamato.
In the end, Kensei and Rose managed to convince him to stay. There was also Lisa who jokingly (or maybe not) suggested they should take photographs of the event-goers and possibly sell them for profit. With drinks in hand he watched as the guests around them cheered in merriment. He remembered the trust Yamamoto and Shunsui have given him, even the other captains, even their subordinates. Before he realized it, the corners of his mouth were rising, subtly even.
Perhaps, despite those feelings, he could make it his home again. Perhaps, he could reverse his own feelings. It was his specialty, right?
Perhaps, he just needed time too.
Several drinks later he felt he had enough; beside him, his fellow Visoreds seemed to think the same. As he rose from his seat, his eye caught his vice captain, seemingly barely able to stand up. She was slumped on a chair beside a few others, all who didn't seem to look any better than her.
It was funny how he seemed to be the responsible adult now, whereas in regular days it was usually the other way around, with how workaholic she was.
At the back of his head, he was thankful to finally see this side of her, her more carefree side. It was roughly, what, five years since he had assumed the captain position again? Meaning five years since she had become his vice captain.
He knew about her connections with Aizen. He had been made aware how devoted she was to him, perhaps close to how someone revered a god. Perhaps, the degree to which she was loyal to Aizen was the degree to how apprehensive Shinji was towards him. Meaning they were pretty much at the opposite ends of each spectrums.
He did not know how to deal with her.
At least, that's what he thought at first, the moment he officially met her at the barracks. Initially, he considered approaching Yamamoto to ask whether it was possible to transfer her to another division; after all, other divisions were lacking a vice captain. It was preferable if he could have a fresh start as a captain, where nobody directly associated (devoted) with Aizen was present.
But then again, he remembered, he witnessed how Aizen toyed with her in the war. How he orchestrated switching the bodies so Hitsugaya Toushiro was stabbing her instead of him.
He concluded, therefore, that his wishes would be far too selfish. What good would it give her if she knew that the new 5th Division Captain, who also happened to be previous 5th Division Captain before Aizen, didn't want anything to do with her? Plus, it would be far too selfish if he pulled her away from the 5th Division, which, based from the reports he gathered, was already her home from the beginning.
Or maybe he should be the one switching divisions?
No, no. That was out of the question.
Much like her, the 5th Division was his home too.
It made his blood boil how much Aizen made a mess of their home.
Perhaps, if Aizen was never in the equation, if the bastard never existed, he would still be the 5th Division Captain. Perhaps, Hinamori Momo, with her apparent excellence even in her academy days, would have risen up with her efforts and become his vice captain later on, assuming he, Hirako Shinji, would still be up and about in Soul Society 100 years later.
And yet that was simply a dream, like an illusion. The reality was that Aizen existed. And Aizen, to put it simply, fucked up their lives.
And they had to deal with that.
But it shouldn't be a problem. After all, he was good at reversing things, right?
And the first thing to do to reverse anything was to face it. To deal with it.
He was met with a concerned gaze from his vice captain, who seemed to be trying her best to stand on her feet without wobbling.
"Are you okay?"
He realized his reiatsu had been spiking up. He immediately regulated it.
"Momo," he said instead, ignoring her question, "I'm heading back. You wanna come?"
Her eyes gazed back to her group, basically a drunken mess. Interesting, he thought, maintaining his poker face. So would she choose her captain or her group of friends?
"Don't forget," he continued, testing her, "you still have to report to work tomorrow."
Immediately Momo's back straightened up, as she tried to be composed despite her intoxication.
"O-of course, captain, let's—"
"I'm kiddin'," he quickly interjected, nudging her back to where she had been. "Stay how much you want."
"It's fine, captain," she affirmed, "I think it is a good idea to head back already, since . . . well, the party is pretty much over."
He eyed her group even closely. True enough, most of them had been reduced to a big drunken snooze pile. Smirking, he made a mental note on who were the possible lightweights and who could handle their drinks. That would be an interesting feature article for Seireitei Communication.
He looked back at Momo, and noticed that she still seemed hesitant to leave.
"Don't you think we should help them go back to their own barracks—"
Ah, so that's why she didn't want to leave yet. Ever so responsible.
"Forget it, Momo. They're grown adults."
When she tried to argue again, he raised his hand to her face.
"Do recall we're at a Kuchiki banquet. I trust Byakuya wouldn't let anything bad happen to them." He grinned. "Leave all the dirty work to him. Isn't it more fun to imagine how he'd deal with them?"
She seemed to ponder about it for a bit before giving in, excusing herself to bid farewell to the newlyweds first. He opted to wave a hand from afar when the Abarai's looked at his direction.
Momo trailed back to him but in her haste, almost tripping at her own feet if he hadn't caught her fall.
"So much for being excited over wearing such beautiful kimono, eh?" he teased, pulling her up to her feet as they began walking. He recalled how excited she was at the thought of having to wear a brand new kimono for such an occasion. Her face was already flustered, and he couldn't tell if it was due to the situation or the alcohol or both.
"It may be a bit impractical for movement, but it still feels nice to wear something so beautiful on such an occasion."
He chuckled at her defense, and for the next few moments, they quietly walked through the empty streets of Seireitei. He realized that the option of using shunpo back to their quarters was available, yet they both preferred to simply walk back. Whether or not she shared the notion that the night breeze felt nice against the warmth in their faces, he wasn't sure, but it was likely the case. At the moment, Shinji was also torn whether to attempt to make small talk to know her more, or enjoy the silence that they shared. It had only been a brief dilemma however since she spoke up instead.
"Kuchiki-san was so beautiful."
He found himself making a muffled sound in agreement. "In the ceremony up to the banquet, you could really see how smitten Renji is."
A series of sniffles reached his ears, startling him. He quickly turned to her. She was crying?
"I'm sorry, captain. It's the first time I've witnessed a wedding ceremony, and what more, a ceremony of one of my closest friends! It just makes me a bit emotional."
In the years of being her captain, he had known how shallow her tears were.
She was really such a naive girl.
He shook his head, ruffling her already disheveled hair. He tried to think of any of the Visoreds getting married.
"To be fair, I'd probably shed a tear or two if I'd known one of my friends would get married too."
He'd definitely cry. Cry of laughter or something at the thought of any of those rascals settling down with someone, yeah.
She didn't seem to sense any malice from his response and nodded, wiping her tears. He noticed how she seemed to want to say something, opening her mouth but then closing it again. He sighed.
"Just spill it."
It momentarily seemed to startle her before she nodded again. "How about you, though, captain? Have you ever thought of getting married someday?"
It was a question he felt he should've seen coming, yet it didn't really make him any more prepared. Shinji wouldn't say he was a dishonest man, but sometimes, he preferred building walls. Walls that oftentimes hid his actual thoughts. Out of habit, perhaps? He wasn't sure.
"Well, I used to think many things that I wanted to do with my first love."
She frowned, apparent that she wasn't convinced at all, knowing his "first loves" were a sham. He tried another approach.
"Well, what about you, Momo? Ever thought of getting married someday?"
Her cheeks turned even redder. "M-me? No, not at all!" She quickly turned her head towards him. "But wait, don't try to change the topic—"
He snickered, getting the reaction he wanted. "Really? Not even anyone? Like there isn't anyone who you even thought was the perfect prince charming—"
The way her shoulders flinched and her eyes widened was enough to snap even Shinji back.
He already knew who she was thinking of, judging by the way the colors drained from her face.
He asked the wrong question. Stupid, stupid!
Immediately, he held her shoulders, snapping her out of her trance.
"But seriously, Momo?" he spoke, trying to hide his panic, "Not even your precious 'Shiro-chan?'"
Thankfully his diversion had been effective, since it brought back the flustered Momo he had been speaking to.
"What?! Captain, where did you even—no! Shiro-chan is only a friend!"
As she tried to argue how the little ice runt was merely someone like her brother, he went on teasing her, hoping it would keep her mind away from the source of her nightmares, and by the time they arrived at the division's gate, he could only think how he had dodged a bullet right then.
He hoped he did, judging by the good way they separated ways on the corridors towards their own quarters.
The moment he heard her door shutting, he sighed.
He was never really good at this sort of thing, pleasing people, connecting with them.
Shinji didn't consider himself a hero. That sort of work probably fits more for people like Ichigo.
Yet he wanted to save Hinamori Momo.
Was "save" even the right word? He also wasn't certain. Yet he was certain he wanted to save her in ways that he could. He would try to make things different, in the way where he couldn't as the captain of their very home a century ago.
Hirako Shinji was a mystery.
That was her conclusion.
She found it hard to read him. Funny, how that somehow applied to him in a literal sense, since she found it hard to read his own writing. In more than one occasion, she recalled reprimanding him for writing his reports in reverse. She had to admit, it was remarkable how he could, but it doesn't mean he should, especially in official documents.
Sometimes, she figured he worked just like his Shikai. Just when she thought she had him figured out, he would reverse everything and she'd be back in her confused state. She had never really experienced his Shikai herself but since zanpakutōs were reflections of one's character, she thought that made a lot of sense on understanding who he was.
One occasion, she grew too curious that she wanted opinions from other sources. She learned that Captain Yadomaru Lisa, one of the newly reinstated captains in the Gotei 13 and a close confidant of her captain, was someone who frequently visited the library; therefore, among the other Visoreds, she was someone she could strike a conversation with without making it seem too weird. However, the moment their topic shifted to her captain, the next thing she knew, the bespectacled captain managed to summon her other Visored friends and there was an impromptu conference in between the bookshelves they've been at.
"How is Shinji really like, huh?" Captain Ootoribashi asked.
Then, she felt Captain Muguruma's strong gaze around her, seemingly inspecting her face. It made her slightly uncomfortable. "Be careful around him."
"Well, her stature is rather close to Hiyori's, isn't it?" The blond captain laughed, not really directing his question to her, "Not to mention, she has that innocent nature that'll definitely draw him in."
The other captain seemed to grunt in approval, though it didn't make her any more enlightened about her situation.
"If he tries to do anything funny, just hit him right on the head. Or on the face, whichever works." Captain Lisa mentioned, to which both simply nodded in agreement.
Whatever they really meant that time, Momo herself couldn't say for certain, since their conversation ended with all of them having such straight faces. On some occasions she knew her captain was fond of voicing out his appreciations for women with curvy figures like Rangiku, so surely she, Momo, wasn't at all his type . . . ? It was the sort of information that she didn't know whether she should be glad to know or not, but she decided not to pursue the issue any further. . .
Her eyebrows furrowed. Or perhaps they meant him going overboard when training? She did recall that during his first few months as her captain, he began training her, telling her that while she was well-versed in kido, she also needed to train her swordsmanship skills. He wasn't at all what you'd call merciful, because at the end of her training she'd be all beaten with dirt while he didn't even appear to break a sweat.
That wasn't something someone who likes her that way would do, right?
Her eyes met with her captain's impatient ones, too dangerously close to her face. By reflex she squeaked, shoulders jolting up as she took a step back to keep distance.
Hirako raised an eyebrow, tapping his fingers on his crossed arms that made the paper bag with the newly bought record CDs slightly rattle. "There you are. And here I was afraid your Gigai didn't seem fit for you or somethin'. I was about to haul you back to Kisuke's place!"
"Sorry, captain," she apologized lamely, already feeling the heat enveloping her face, "I guess I'm not used to exploring this side of the world so I don't really know where to go."
His shoulders slumped in an exaggerated manner before he straightened up again with a more annoyed look. "Which is why we're here, aren't we? And exactly why I'm asking you what sorta place you wanted to go to since I'LL. BRING. YOU. THERE."
"Well, wherever you wish to go, I'd be okay with it."
Hirako scratched his head in a manner which seemed to say that she did not get the point. Perhaps she really didn't?
He was just so confusing. Case point: their current situation.
"Momo, do you even remember why we're here?"
"Well, because you wanted it and we got the Captain-commander's approval—"
"WRONG. Because this is how you should be spending your day off. So will you quit the crap about following me for one second?"
"But you're the one who dragged me here in the first place!"
"That's not what I—"
"Besides, I don't see why I shouldn't. I am your vice captain, it's only natural that I—"
"Then for this day, at least when we're here, don't treat me like your captain. Don't act like my vice captain. That's an order!"
"That doesn't even make sense!"
The people walking within their vicinity had stopped, and judging by the stares of the passersby she realized they had made quite a commotion. Hirako didn't seem to care at all, but she did. She hastily grabbed his arm as she pulled them away from the scene.
That time was only one of the several times where she had to put up with her bewildering captain.
Hinamori Momo was no mystery.
Was what he'd like to think, considering how she was pretty much an open book in Seireitei, at least, for the members of Gotei 13 who managed to survive the war. Members of her own division who were lucky enough to live longer were aware of her unwavering loyalty towards their previous captain, along with the repercussions of that blind allegiance. It garnered different reactions—sadness and pity for her, anger towards the perpetrator—yet none of them really blamed her. If anything, her resilience and willpower to stand again despite what happened earned her admiration from various seated officers, from her own division and others alike. In fact, she apparently was known as the "Tiger of Paperwork" due to her rigorous ability to accomplish reports way before their due time, a title she managed to maintain even during the few months she had to assume both the responsibilities of a captain and vice captain.
And yet, he felt there was . . . something else.
"Are you suspecting your little angel?"
"Relax, Shinji, I'm pretty sure the odds of your current vice captain being another lying traitor is pretty low."
He rolled his eyes at his dumb friends, taking another swig of his drink.
"Well, if she just so happened to be one, then maybe it's a good idea to assign Shinji as the captain of Muken so he'd attract all the bad spirits there, don't you think, Kensei?"
The two howled in laughter. His urge to smack their heads silent escalated.
"Now, now, guys, enough," Lisa said in her usual cold tone, "I'd hate to be a witness to some murder today and have bloodstains on my clothes."
"Oh, oh~! That would be a super pain to wash off~! Seriously~!" Mashiro interjected.
Rose wiped a tear from his eye. "But seriously speaking, Shinji. Maybe you're just overthinking things? I don't really see why you should be suspicious of Hinamori."
"I told you already, I ain't suspicious of her!"
Suspicious wasn't the right word for it; it was the perfect word to describe his feelings towards Aizen who was too much of a goody-two-shoes that he thought he was too unreal. On the other hand, he felt there was more to his current vice captain than her "goody-two-shoes" and "all work and no play" image too, but not necessarily in a bad way like his former.
"Actually, I think I get Shinji." Lisa added, earning her curious glances from the other idiots, "Have you guys ever heard of the 'Hinamori Incident?'"
To provide a brief summary, the incident happened at the library where he and Lisa were speaking about business manners when Hinamori calmly reminded them not to use the division's budget for personal matters and not to involve themselves in unlawful dealings, respectively.
With a chilling smile that strangely reminded him of the ones that Unohana Retsu gave when one would try to resume training without her medical clearance.
He remembered how rapid his heart beat against his rib cage during that moment, like giving him a harsh reminder that despite everything, hey, you're still alive! On one hand, he probably couldn't sleep well the next few days after that. On the other hand, the moment he recovered days after, he realized something had intrigued him about her.
It's like she had a hidden fire. A scary, hidden fire, nothing like Old Man Yamamato's probably, but it was there. Which he supposed made sense, considering Tobiume, her zanpakutō, had the fire element. It was a potential he knew Aizen purposely concealed, purposely didn't tap, so she would mould right into his hands like clay.
So as both the previous and current captain of the 5th Division, he felt he had a responsibility to bring that into light. But how . . . ?
Soon enough he separated ways with his friends and retired back to the barracks. Feeling lightheaded he opted to rest under one of the trees first, allowing the night breeze to cool his head after drinking much more than he intended. . .
Despite closing his eyes, he hadn't actually fallen asleep yet, so he sensed the distinct spiritual pattern of the person approaching him.
"Why are you still up, Momo?"
"I could ask you the same thing, captain."
He opened his eyes and saw his vice captain in her sleeping robes, her hand holding a basket with contents he couldn't really see well with the shadows.
"Just had a night out with some idiots."
"Our monthly report with the captain-commander is tomorrow morning," she reminded him.
"I know." When she didn't really say anything back, he gave off a challenging grin. "So whatcha gonna do, huh? Scold me into submission?"
He had expected her to be flustered like their usual banter, yet none of it ever came. Eyeing her closely, he noticed there were bags under her eyes.
"Well, no, not really. Especially when I'm not really in the most perfect condition myself either. . ."
She looked tired. Her hand shifted so he could see there was actually a teapot in her basket.
"Oh! This?" She must have noticed he was looking. "I couldn't actually sleep so I intended to make tea, but when I sensed you were coming I checked first. I figured you may have wanted some."
She couldn't sleep, huh? Unsurprising, he figured, because in some days he too had difficulty succumbing to slumber. He guessed there were really some nightmares that wouldn't just go away. He'd actually be more surprised if she didn't have any as well. He did not say any of his thoughts out loud, instead gesturing for her to sit beside him. She obliged.
"Actually, just some warm water sounds nice."
From his periphery he saw her nodding. He also took notice of the way her skin shivered against the night's wind.
"Couldn't you have brought something to keep you warm in this breeze, ya idiot girl?" He noticed the familiar, embarrassed cheeks that marked her face the moment he said it, and just before she could react further, he settled his haori over her shoulders.
"Now, now," he interrupted, taking the warm cup of water from her hands, "We can't have you looking any more miserable tomorrow, can we? I'd hate for Nanao-chan to scold me if you get sick for dragging you out here in the middle of the night."
He heard her sigh in defeat, adjusting his haori around her. They shared a comfortable silence afterwards, or at least, it must've seemed that way to her.
He was actually far from comfortable. He felt her gaze on him for some time but he pretended not to take notice, intentionally avoiding her eyes.
He refused to entertain the thoughts how cute she looked almost drowning in his haori. It's almost as if she were a little angel that—
Angel. . . !?
Screw you, Rose.
He needed to sober up.
Two years went on pretty quickly that she didn't really notice until she saw her own reflection in the mirror. She held the ends of her hair by her fingertips.
"Your hair has grown longer!" Rangiku exclaimed, bringing her thoughts to actual words.
It was true; it had grown a few centimeters below her shoulders. She shyly tucked the stray hairs on her face behind her ear.
"It's kinda long enough to be tied again. I'm thinking whether I should cut it or just let it grow long."
"Well, that's up for you to decide!" Rangiku winked. "Perhaps you should try to undergo the same thinking you had the last time you had a major hairdo change. I still remember how speechless Captain Hitsugaya was when he first saw you!'"
She found herself blushing for several reasons. One reason being how embarrassed she was at the memory of having all the unwanted attention gathered from having a new look, and the other, the actual truth behind the hair style change. If she were to tell the truth, she wasn't technically the one responsible for it. That had been all Captain Hirako's fault.
She remembered how he pretty much dragged her to the most popular hairdresser in Seireitei a few weeks after they worked together. Initially, she actually thought it had been cut far too short for her liking but as days passed, she realized it looked nice. It felt nice, as if a huge weight had been lifted off her shoulders. . . Rationally speaking she figured it made sense because a large portion of her hair had been chopped off, but she felt a sense of relief. . . Perhaps, haircuts really were a marker of change, like an indicator for her to move on and be better.
The bell ringing signified that the working hours were over. It was a Saturday, so working hours were only up to 12 noon. Rangiku bid her goodbye as they separated on a crossroad by the streets.
"I better be going now! It's the end of the month right? Wouldn't want to have your captain waiting on you!"
The heat returned to her cheeks. Why were her days off with the captain seemingly like common knowledge now?
"I'm sooo jealous, though. I wish my own captain brought me to trips to the other side of the world!"
"Well, well, well! Today seems like your lucky day then, Rangiku-chan!"
Momo's head swooped upwards to see her captain sitting by the ledge of the wall surrounding the offices.
"Captain?!" How long has he been there?
He simply grinned as he jumped down, landing just beside her. From the corners Shiro-chan emerged, walking with arms crossed over his chest.
"Oh! Captain Hitsugaya!" Rangiku placed a hand over her mouth in shock. "Don't tell me you were snooping around too!"
Shiro-chan looked annoyed. "I wasn't! Don't compare me to the likes of him!"
Momo placed a hand under her chin. "Well, how much did you hear?"
"Something about haircuts and him being too speechless when he saw you again—" Hirako evaded the hilt of Shiro-chan's sword just in time. "—Whoops!"
Before she could ponder much about her childhood friend's reaction, Rangiku excitedly sauntered back to them, her chest bouncing in a way that certainly caught the attention of her captain. She tried to ignore the tiny bitter feelings of not being gifted in that certain area.
"But did I understand it correctly, Captain Hirako?! We are going to the human world with you today?"
"We only have some business with Urahara Kisuke," Shiro-chan clarified, "You're free to tag along if you wish."
Rangiku circled her arm around hers. "Oh you bet we would, right fellow vice captain?"
"Oh, of course." She looked at the taller woman and smiled in defeat.
And so they did, entering their own Gigais as they reached Karakura Town. Their captains stayed at Urahara Shop and left her and Rangiku to their own devices. The moment they were out of earshot from the shop, Rangiku began to speak up, telling her they could go to the mall nearby and shop for some clothes. She made no objections since she didn't really have any other place to go to.
"Sorry if we had to interrupt your time with your captain! For now you have to make do with me."
Her eyes grew wide at Rangiku's insinuations. "Y-you aren't interrupting anything! There is nothing going on between us."
Rangiku raised an eyebrow. "Really now? And here I thought you and Captain Hirako had something like Nanao-san's and the Captain-commander's relationship. Something like a boss-secretary romance thing, if you catch my drift."
"I assure you, Rangiku-san, there is nothing—"
"Not only me, but I bet Captain Hitsugaya felt it too!" Rangiku went on, ignoring her. Her face grew warm by the second. "You know how overprotective Captain Hitsugaya is for you. I'm sure it's partly the reason why he agreed to this whole thing!"
"Haven't you also heard that the two of you are basically the subjects of gossips around the academy? There was even one story about Captain Hirako waiting for you after you've given a lecture to the first years—"
"—And another where he spends an awful lot of time in the library when he doesn't even like reading much—"
She took a deep breath.
"And there was even this story from one of your officers—I wouldn't say who, of course—how the two of you spent a lovely time under a tree in the middle of the night—"
Her outburst effectively stopped the other in her ramblings.
"It's nothing like that. . . Captain Hirako, he is just a rather nosy individual, that's all."
Rangiku looked at her curiously for a few moments, before smiling in a way reminiscent of a fox. "If you say so, then. Well, I guess we better go to a refreshment stand first. Looks like the summer weather has caught on you."
She held her face and realized she was sweating bullets. Her cheeks were also conspicuously warm. The summer heat at the human side of the world was likely stronger than her home, yes.
By the time they got back, she had multiple paper bags at hand, containers for all the clothes that Rangiku managed to convince her to buy. The moment they entered the shop, she witnessed firsthand how her captain got smacked on the face by a sandal.
"You only ever visit when you need something, you baldy!" A girl in a sweatsuit exclaimed, waving her footwear in front of Hirako. Her captain held his sore face in horror.
"I have responsibilities too, you know! Besides, if all I'm ever getting is this sort of violence why should I even visit you?!"
Shiro-chan wasn't looking any amused. "So loud. . ."
"Are you saying something there, you shortie?!"
"I'm taller than you!"
She knew of the identity of the girl. Sarugaki Hiyori, a Visored and another friend of her captain. It wasn't the first time she witnessed how they interacted; she had observed how animated their phone conversations usually were and it was somehow foreseeable how they would interact in actual flesh. If sandals were transferable via phone lines they'd probably have loads of footwear in the division.
"Rangiku-san, Momo-san, you're back!" Urahara waved from the sidelines. She found herself waving back, but was instantly met with Hiyori jumping right in front of her.
"Hmph, so you're the vice captain that baldy keeps on blabbering about, eh?"
It's nice to finally meet you too, Momo wanted to say, but Hiyori continued to stand in a rather intimidating way despite the other being several inches shorter than her. She gulped.
"Don't let yourself be bullied by that stupid baldy, got that?!"
"Wooow~ Look who's talking and being a bully here!" Her captain remarked, before he was smacked back with a sharp "SHUT UP!" as Hiyori then jumped to her side and regarded Rangiku too, telling her to put her 'shortie' captain into place when needed.
In the midst of the erupting, intense exchanges of words, she turned to her captain only to see he was already looking at her. He gestured to the several bags with her and gave her a thumbs up.
Good to see you finally spending your day off productively, she imagined him saying. She simply smiled in reply.
Later on, they also passed by Kurosaki Ichigo's place. Apparently, Kurosaki and Inoue had gotten married just like Abarai and Kuchiki, and were expecting a child. Time had really passed and people that she knew were already having their own families. During their visit, some acquaintances happened to pass by too, and she eventually learned that they weren't strangers not just for Shiro-chan and Rangiku, but also for Hirako.
"So Hirako was actually a captain in this Soul Society world too, huh?" the person named Mizuiro exclaimed, who was one of the calm ones among the visitors. Based from their conversations they have all encountered each other at the Karakura High School. She quietly listened on, content in simply watching them, and occasionally speaking with the one named Keigo, who directed his attention to her when he wasn't getting any lucky with Rangiku.
"Now that I think about it, was there any particular reason why we've only just met the lovely Hinamori-san, though?"
Her shoulders perked up at the attention given to her. It was a question Keigo directed to the group, and suddenly, the atmosphere turned discomforting, as none of them really spoke up.
She knew why, of course. There was a reason why she wasn't included in Shiro-chan's team to fight off the Arrancar at the human world, despite fitting the part as an undercover human student. . .
"Circumstances are different now," Hirako answered for them, "And it's the sort of circumstance that allowed her to be with us right now."
He felt his hand over her shoulder, catching her off guard and inadvertently releasing the grip that she had on her hands. She didn't realize that she had been clutching them tight.
"Isn't that right, Momo?"
At the mention of her name, she completely snapped from her reverie.
"Oh, yes, that's true."
The little encounter at the Kurosaki abode ended pretty well enough, though she did have to clarify to Keigo that she merely has a professional relationship with her captain and nothing more than that. From the corner of her eyes she knew Rangiku had been watching their exchange, along with Shiro-chan.
What was it with people misunderstanding them, she wondered, as strolled through the streets with Hirako after they thanked the Kurosaki's for their hospitality. Shiro-chan and Rangiku had been forced to stay for a bit after encountering former captain Shiba Isshin, who just so happened to be Ichigo's father. It had turned into an impromptu reunion between the 10th Division that she thought it was best to leave them.
"Man, days are passing by so quick, eh," Hirako said, interrupting her musings, "I can't believe sweet Orihime-chan is already pregnant and will be having a baby soon. . ."
Before she could say anything, he turned to her with a look of suspicion.
"And I know what you're thinking! You're thinking to ask whether or not I have thought of having children in the future, huh?!"
She looked at him dumbfounded.
"Actually, I was going to ask if Orihime-san was one of your first loves too, but I think I already know the answer to that."
He raised an index finger up, looking like he was about to say something.
"Which would then lead me to that question, actually. So what are your thoughts of having children in the future?"
He closed his eyes, seemingly pondering on it.
"If there's anything that I learned from that Abarai brat, it's that I don't want any children or their sticky fingers near my hair. What a pain!"
She laughed. Little Ichika-chan could really be rowdy.
"How's your day, though? Hope you weren't thinkin' of work or any other crap."
She was a bit startled by the shifting of the topic, yet she went along with it.
"It's okay, a bit overwhelming, I guess, meeting lots of new people." She particularly remembered Keigo's comment. "It seems like I really missed a lot that time, huh, all cooped up in Seireitei. . ."
He eyed her carefully. "No one really blames you for that, y'know."
"I know, but . . ."
She saw her reflection again on the glass walls of a store they've passed by. It just so happened to be a hair salon. She only realized she stopped when Hirako reached for the ends of her hair. She grew conscious of her fast-beating heart.
"Hmm, it's getting long, eh? So, wanna come in?"
He looked at her with the same, observing eyes, as if testing her. Likewise, she also found herself staring back, like she was also testing him too—would he try to convince her to cut it short again like last time?
All the people that cared for her, believed in her flashed in her head.
Without thinking much, she replied, "I think . . . I'll keep it long again, this time."
She felt his eyes on her for a few long seconds before he shrugged, walking ahead of her again. "Alright, if that's what you want."
His reaction, she realized, wasn't what she was anticipating. "W-wait, so you aren't gonna force me to go inside—"
"Why would I?" he immediately retorted back, "I was serious when I said that when we're here, I don't treat you like my vice captain."
She blinked for several times before catching up to him. "Wait, so does that mean I can call you 'Shinji' when we're here?"
"Of course not. It's still Captain Hirako for you."
"But you keep on calling me 'Momo—'"
"Of course I can, I'm your captain."
"See, you're not making sense again!"
It was another of the several times where she had to deal with her captain's eccentricity, yet somehow, slowly, she felt she was beginning to understand him.
After another two years, reconstruction efforts still continued. Perhaps, give it another two or three years, it would all be complete and Soul Society would be looking brand new and back to its former glory.
It wasn't just the infrastructures that were changing. A soul with much sensitivity on spiritual pressures would know that even the officers were growing stronger, steadily. Perhaps, if the old man Yamamato were still here, he would've been proud.
Another part that needed immediate attention after the war was the shinigami academy itself. Gotei 13 nearly lost half of its members in the war, so there was a severe lack of manpower for each division. Because of this, major changes in the curriculum had to be done, which included the apprenticeship program that involved students in the 5th and 6th years to shadow under ranked officers.
It was a decision he understood, and he honestly didn't mind the extra sets of eyes full of admiration every time he passed by the corridors of the barracks. To put it simply, captains and vice captains were pretty much huge celebrities in the eyes of the students, which, when put into perspective, actually made a lot of sense especially if they first hand experienced the war.
Naturally, it made more sense if captains were more popular than vice captains, if only because of the sheer difference in power and experience. It wasn't always the case, however. Perhaps, to have a glaring example, while Hitsugaya was a child prodigy who had remarkable combat skills and an honorable character, definitely deserving of admiration, others would probably admire Matsumoto more for several other well-rounded reasons. On the other hand, Kensei and Hisagi would probably have a split of votes, depending on the female students' tastes (both shitty, if he were to say), and like, say, Byakuya and Renji (likewise shitty). That's what Genji, both his former third seat and headmaster of the academy, told him anyway.
This little issue should not have bothered him much. Like he understood those sort of students completely (he'd take Matsumoto over Hitsugaya any day) . . .
. . . if only, it didn't become too personal.
He didn't really bother to know his name, not yet, anyway, but he opted to call him "Lover Boy," because, apparently, Lover Boy was the biggest fan of Momo. But of him, not so much.
It's not like he hasn't had any share of critics before, so it shouldn't be a major issue. Though, he supposed when there weren't any big problems (e.g. Aizen), smaller problems (e.g. Lover Boy) tended to look big.
"I hate how he usually lets Vice Captain Hinamori do all the work!"
"Why does he always give her meaningless orders?"
"How could he even call her by her first name? It's like he doesn't respect her rank!"
"His shitty music disrupts the tranquility of the division!"
Those were only a few of the criticisms that Lover Boy apparently voiced out with no fear.
"What would you like to do, Captain Hirako?" Genji asked him during his quarterly visits to the academy, "I mean, we could have the student transferred to a different division, if you'd like."
"Does Momo know about this little chump?"
"I'm pretty sure she does; she's pretty hands-on towards the students."
"All the more we shouldn't resort to transferring, then," Shinji said, "No worries, nothin' I couldn't handle."
Even if he probably had more important things to do, he set off to look for Lover Boy. After all, when unattended, smaller problems could possibly erupt to bigger problems so this one he should take care of. It should be an easy job too, since all the students usually gathered at the training grounds in the morning.
And surprise, surprise, Momo was there too.
Immediately everyone bowed down, greeting him "good morning." He raised a hand to wave at them casually, eyeing each of the students. He realized he actually didn't know how Lover Boy looked like.
"Captain? What brings you here?" Momo looked at him curiously. It was a valid question, since he rarely showed up in their daily morning routines.
He didn't say anything, instead looking at each of the 5th and 6th years one-by-one. Most of them had nervous dispositions, jittery spiritual pressures. . . save for one, who almost looked defiant. But . . . ?
The student was a girl.
Or at least, she appeared be, since she was wearing the standard girl's uniform.
Hmm, then again, he just assumed that the Momo fan was a guy. Genji didn't really say anything about their gender. . .
Lover Girl, then. Well, that didn't really matter, he supposed.
"Okay, I'll get straight to the point. Which one of you has some beef with me?"
His revelation earned him surprised gasps from the students, seated officers and Momo alike. He didn't break eye contact with Lover Girl, who only seemed to grow even more resentful.
The girl stepped forward, hands visibly shaking. Shinji was impressed; girl had some balls as he initially suspected.
"C'mon now, let's talk," he said, gesturing for her to come forward. To his surprise, the girl obliged.
The atmosphere was getting tense.
"Captain." Momo stepped in between them, voice firm, yet there was a worried expression on her face.
"It's fine, Momo," he slowly articulated, and he observed how the girl's fists tightened. "I just wanna talk with her, give her a tour around the division."
Momo looked uncertain, but allowed him to do as he pleased.
He learned her name was Ren; apparently she lived at Rukongai.
"I heard you specifically applied to the 5th Division, of all the divisions. Why the 5th?"
She was silent, yet she continued trailing after him as they passed through the empty corridors.
He watched her from his periphery. "It's because of Vice Captain Hinamori, isn't it?"
With the way her shoulders shook and her face turned to crimson, he knew he hit the target.
"When I was still a 1st year student, during the time when the 5th Division captain spot was still vacant, I learned that she manage to juggle all the responsibilities of both the captain and vice captain. All while she was still advised to rest in bed." She stopped walking. "I think that was a very admirable feat, and from then on, I was definitely decided that I wanted to work with someone like that."
He turned to her. "I won't disagree with you. Momo's really incredible, that way."
"Which is exactly why I am disgusted by the way you treat her!"
His eyebrows furrowed. She seemed to have Sui Feng levels of loyalty. He wondered how Kisuke managed to handle someone like her when they shared the same division with her precious Yoruichi-sama.
"How exactly do you think I treat her, pray tell?"
"You do not seem to show any appreciation towards the hard work she does, you do not seem to care at all what she likes and forces her to do trivial things! And it's especially disappointing, because one would think you'd try to be more sensitive, especially for someone who used to be the captain of the traitor Aizen—"
Ouch. She just had to hit a sore spot . . . so much that he knew his inner hollow tingled. She seemed to have realized that she also said too much, judging by the way she covered her mouth. He breathed hard.
"Do you know what the insignia of the 5th Division is?" He didn't really wait for her reply. "It's the lily of the valley. Which signifies many things: Sacrifice. Danger. Pure Love. Humility. Sweetness."
He sat on the wooden flooring, resting his hand on his chin, and he felt her eyes watching him while she stood frozen.
"Given the colorful history of the 5th Division, all those seem fitting, right? Especially for Vice Captain Hinamori. Perhaps, she'd make a fitting captain, someday."
He finally turned to her. She was fighting back her tears.
"Look, I ain't gonna tell you to like me; your choice, of course. I ain't gonna tell you that I'm a perfect captain either. But if you're here because of Momo, if she has inspired you to be better, continue doing that. And if, when you graduate, you still decide to apply as a member of the 5th Division, could I at least have your word?'
Once he was sure he had her full attention, he continued.
"That you never betray the Gotei 13, the 5th Division and what it stands for."
A tear escaped her eye, but she paid no heed to it. She nodded fiercely.
"Of course. That's what Vice Captain would wish, too."
"Okay, good. if you could at least promise that, then I'm good too." He waved a hand dismissively, walking ahead. "Go wash your face first before going back to your classmates."
"F-forgive me for my outburst, I was—"
"It's fine, it's fine," he said, pushing down the bouts of resentment that dared to betray what he was saying. This was actually better, people voicing out their hatred instead of concealing them. "I don't care if you don't like me or anything, just doncha dare going on a killing spree and betrayin', got it?! Thanks for those, anyway. Some feedback could be pretty good, y'know? Gives me something to ponder on."
"No, it's not! I was out of the line . . . I-I was wrong about you."
He watched her carefully. The changes in her spiritual power had stopped, at least indicating her sincerity.
"Ehh, how could I be so sure you're tellin' the truth~? Who knows if you're just sayin' that just because you remembered I sign all the approvals of those entering the division~?"
She literally puffed in frustration. Good.
"W-wha, I'm telling you the truth!"
"There's one thing I couldn't just forgive though. How could you think my jazz music is shitty? Make sure you graduate so I can haul your sorry ass to the human world to let you hear actual music, got it?!"
He didn't give her a chance to respond as he started walking away. He glanced at the end of the corridor and caught Momo eavesdropping. She gave an ashamed smile.
"By the way." He looked back at Ren, speaking in a lower voice. "If you wanna impress Vice Captain Hinamori anyway, make sure you got somethin' that would make her impressed. So you better work hard."
Before he turned his back, he was pretty sure Ren had been staring at him with sparkling eyes, something similar to admiration. He wasn't sure though. Maybe he was giving too much credit to himself? Anyway, all the negative energy were gone so at least he was confident he reversed all that. He left the scene, turning around the corner where Momo had been.
"You were right there at the beginning," he accused, crossing his arms, "Don't even try to deny it. I felt your failed attempts to conceal your reiatsu!"
"Sorry, I couldn't help it." She scratched her cheek sheepishly. "You really handled that pretty well."
"What's that supposed to mean, huh? Didja really think I was gonna pick a fight with some kid? Intimidate her with my reiatsu or somethin'?!"
"Of course not. You may have questionable ways of dealing with things sometimes, but I was confident you wouldn't really go that low."
There was a very sincere look in her eyes that made him have weird feelings in his stomach.
"Sheesh, Momo." He looked to his side, refusing to meet her gaze as his fingers adjusted the tie around his neck. "Quit saying it like you're giving me a love confession or something."
"But . . . were all the things you said to Ren. . . Were they all true?"
"Of course they were," he responded without thinking much. When she didn't respond he finally looked at her. She was blushing and twirling her hair nervously.
What the living heck?
He . . . didn't actually remember all he had said earlier. Yet he was pretty sure it was one of the rare times he had been unfiltered, so yes they were true.
"Which one were you specifically talking about, anyway?"
Momo turned her back, walking the direction opposite from him. "Nevermind that, captain!"
Huh, what a weird way things have ended.
That time, he didn't sense that starting that point, something else had been changing too.
Another three years had passed. It had been roughly ten years since the war with the Quincies ended.
They'd just attended Rukia's inauguration as the newest 13th Division Captain. Now all they needed were vice captains for her, Captain Lisa and Captain Iba, and the Gotei 13 would be complete with leaders once more.
"Kuchiki Rukia's now a captain, huh?"
She nodded. Interesting, really, how Rukia, someone who entered the academy later than her, had become a captain. . .
"Hey, hey." Hirako nudged her with his elbow. "I know that look in your face. You're thinking how she became a captain way before you guys, huh?"
She felt embarrassed for being too easy to read. "It just made me remember the time when I first saw her at the academy. Funny how me, Izuru-kun and Abarai-kun are supposedly in the accelerated classes and none of us are captains yet. Although, it's not really the first time that someone younger became a captain ahead of me. There's Shiro-chan too you know."
"Oh, right. Makes you wonder if there's some special perks to being an ice-type." He chuckled. "But apart from the fact that Rukia obtained her Bankai, y'know it wouldn't have been given to her yet if only Jushiro-san didn't pass on."
She contemplated on it. That was true.
"Therefore, you should really work hard to achieve your Bankai now too. So when I die, I know I could peacefully leave the division in your very capable hands."
There was a serious expression on his face that she didn't know if she would've preferred it over his usual, jestful one. She gave him an unamused frown.
"Captain. . ."
"What? I'm just sayin'. We could never really know what would happen next."
A dull pang made its way to her gut at the mere thought of it happening. Yet it was a reality that they both as soldiers faced, so she found no reason to voice out her own feelings.
They traveled in silence until they reached a clearing by the mountains. The sun was scorching, the cracked soil brittle and dry.
"Shunsui-san told me this used to be one of old man Yamamoto's training grounds. A perfect place for concentrating heat for fire element zanpakutōs."
Immediately her hand clutched the hilt of her sword and blocked Hirako's attack. Her pulse racing, she stood in a defensive stance as she fixed her footing.
"Good reflexes," he commented with a grin.
"I've been training zanjutsu with you for more than a decade already." She showed a confident smile as she charged at him straight on. "I'd like to think that I managed to learn a thing or two from our training!"
She whipped her sword on where he could've been but it only met an empty space.
He reappeared right behind her, something she anticipated so she swung her sword around almost immediately. Hirako evaded just in time and flash-stepped a few meters from her.
"How many branches does Tobiume have now when in Shikai?"
"Five," she answered without breaking her stance. From her experience, conversations were also his way to distract her in battle. Rule no. 26, she remembered, don't let the opponent's words distract you from what's in front of you.
"Really? So that's a lot more, since last time." He casually brought his sword over his shoulder. "Could you show me, then?"
Her eyes widened at his suggestion. She had always resorted to strengthening her Shikai through sword meditation. Meanwhile, her training with Hirako never went anything beyond zanjutsu in their unreleased forms. . .
"Always give a little room for yourself over others," Captain Unohana's advice rang in her head.
She hesitated. "But what about you?"
He raised an eyebrow. "What about me?"
Hisagi's words echoed in her head. "Sometimes, it never hurts to take a half-step back."
"Are you gonna release Sakanade at some point too?"
"Huuuuh~?" He gave her the most incredulous expression. "Are you crazy? Of course not!"
The moment he adjusted his hold on his sword, Momo braced herself as he briskly reappeared just beside her. She swung her sword to defend herself just in time.
"See, you could pretty much predict my movements already. Come on, Momo," Hirako said lowly, pressing on his sword against hers even more, "Release it!"
"It's because you're too easy to read," Shiro-chan's voice told her in a scolding tone, "That's why some people try to take advantage of you."
"What are you so afraid of, anyway? Afraid that you'll hurt me? Afraid that your kido tricks would incapacitate me or somethin'? Or. . ."
From that moment she knew he had been holding back from the beginning, because he managed to break her hold by simply increasing his spiritual pressure. She fell unceremoniously on the ground with the impact.
He pointed his zanpakutō towards her.
". . . Are you actually afraid of showing me your true colors?"
Things will be different, she remembered telling herself.
Bewilderment would be a huge understatement for what she felt about what he was implying. Blood rushed into her head.
"What in heavens are you saying, captain?!"
He shrugged. "Oh, I dunno. Maybe I'm just apprehensive towards vice captains in general, 'cause, you know, my previous vice captain was a large traitorous snake!"
Her head was spinning. This was the first time that Hirako openly conversed with her about Aizen. Before, that topic seemed like a taboo for both of them, something they'd rather avoid talking about.
"From the start, I knew he was shady as hell but then we all know what happened despite my knowledge of that."
Why did he have to be so confusing again of all times?
She clutched the hilt of her sword and readjusted her hand's grip. "I-I'm afraid I don't really follow what you're trying to say!"
He made a gesture of hitting his knuckles to his own head. "Do I seriously need to knock your head to refresh your memory or somethin'?! Didn't I tell you that you're the one I foresee as a potential captain if I'm no longer here?"
At that moment, she felt something, akin to an invisible wall, started to crumble between them. Hirako stood unyielding before her.
"What I'm saying is that I trust you, okay? And if it just so happens that I'm wrong about my assumptions about you, if you're actually just too good at this pretending game, then I dare you to show your true colors now and kill me!"
A zanpakutō was a reflection of a shinigami's soul, she had read for several times in one of her books, and usually, they were strengthened through Jinzen or sword meditation. Training with someone else was not unheard of, of course, and was an alternative way to strengthen the bonds with their sword, but for a soul to willingly show that part of themselves to another, for them to openly share what they were capable of along with their limitations, it required a huge portion of. . .
Her katana straightened upon the command, becoming double-edged, and produced four more branches from the middle. Hirako's eyes widened in awe, but no words came out from his mouth.
She had never voiced out her uneasiness about training with Hirako before. She just dismissed all the discomfort with the fact that she never got to experience firsthand how trainings undergo with a superior because Aizen never bothered to train her at all. That had been foolishness in her part, how she blindly accepted limiting her own potential by being manipulated into his venomous sweet words. . .
But now that she had known better, she realized she was ready to build up her defenses to protect herself.
Enter Captain Hirako, who seemed to be challenging the defenses that she had built up for herself. Who had been giving her conflicting feelings the moment she had met him.
And just that moment, she realized, she was looking at things in an extremely one-sided way.
The moment they started training, it wasn't just her who was showing all her weaknesses. In his way, Hirako had been doing the same by showing what he was capable of. She began to know him to the point of knowing how to counter his attacks. . .
Captain Hirako, who never really bothered to know his previous vice captain due to his suspicions, who already had high walls around him to begin with, was willing to break those walls just to reach her.
She pursed her lips together as she held her transformed sword with both her hands. "Well, I . . . I trust you too, you know!"
He brought down his sword. There was unreadable look in his eyes that made her pulse race even more.
"Just so you know, that same traitor you're pertaining to had also been my captain who just happened to betray me too, so it's not just you who's apprehensive about this whole thing! If you're a lying snake too after all, then . . . then I dare you to just stab me through the heart!"
She swung her sword and let a fireball materialize from it, sending it flying towards Hirako. Her heart almost skipped a beat when she saw that he didn't make any attempts to evade it.
At the last second, he whipped his sword and dispersed the fireball through his spiritual pressure.
"There we go." The cheeky grin that he was well-known for made its way to his mouth. "But I could tell you didn't go all out."
"I was simply warming up." She managed to stir up a smile. "Are you ready, captain?"
He didn't break eye contact. "Thought you'd never ask."
Their battle went on, mostly involving her hurling fireballs and casting kido spells which he mostly evaded or countered with ease, along with him swinging his sword and her managing to block them most just in time. She didn't know how long they've been exchanging hits, but by the end of it, neither of them were unscathed. She probably looked worse, yet it was the first time where he actually looked like he had been in a fight.
Never had she battled and lasted for that long. She felt as though her heart was about to burst. . .
But at the same time she was happy, as if she never had felt so alive before.
She had already been lying on the ground panting heavily. Beside her, Hirako crouched, resting his sword just beside him.
"Okay, that's it for today." He stretched his arms and collapsed on the ground. She wanted to point out that it would make his hair dirty that way, though he looked as though he didn't really care. "In the near future, I think I may have to use my Shikai so I don't get roasted by you."
She chuckled. "I'll look forward to that day, then."
"You serious? You're really eager to experience that?"
She didn't hesitate. "Yes."
He chuckled this time. "Maybe you really are a crazy girl, ain't you."
Perhaps she was.
She looked at the sky. It had already been painted orange. Had they been really at it for that long?
"Y'know my biggest realization about this whole thing? How Aizen gave us these major trust issues. Unbelievable!"
She pouted. "I'm a bit offended at the thought of you accusing me of being a traitor, though." When she knew he was looking at her, she continued, "I mean, which one of us attacks without warning?!"
He gave off a mischievous grin, seemingly not apologetic at all. "Fair enough! But that's just how confident I was that you can defend back."
She found herself smiling, knowing it did have some truth in it. Her accusations had all been in jest anyway, since she knew he could've exerted more power if he wanted to.
They lied down in silence, watching how the clouds gradually moved in the sky.
"Captain. May I tell you something?"
She realized there were many things she wanted to tell him. She wanted to tell him she's happy to know they shared a mutual trust. She wanted to tell him how happy she had been to know him, to have served as his vice captain.
She remembered his conversation with Ren, the sincere, Hirako-way he affirmed of her abilities without hesitation. And she wanted to hate herself for doubting him for a second.
She turned to him to see how the orange hues further amplified his bright hair, how the color of his eyes glowed in golden yellow.
"Well, what is it?"
His voice was curious, devoid of any impatience. She grew conscious of the way her heart pounded against her chest.
"What the hell, Momo. Here you go again with those lovestruck eyes." She realized she had been staring, and his tone shifted to his usual playful tone. "Don't tell me you're falling in love with me?"
Perhaps she was.
Here she was again. A stupid vice captain with a stupid crush on her superior. Yet for that time, she pushed out all those feelings and didn't bring any of her thoughts to light. She knew that for him, she was simply his vice captain and nothing more.
So she decided to say something else on her mind.
"Can I also just say how upset I am towards you?" Judging by the way his eyebrows raised, he did not expect the question. "Please refrain from making jokes and references about your death."
He smirked. "Why? Are you gonna be sad when I'm gone?"
She would be crushed.
For a brief moment, his features softened, and she wondered if she was really that easy to read that he already knew what she had been thinking. He sighed.
"Well, fine! As long as you don't really want me dead just so you won't be pressured to achieve your Bankai. Because if so, how very selfish of you!"
She shook her head. "You exaggerate, captain."
"And you'd have no choice but to deal with an exaggerating captain."
She nodded. "A talkative and nosy captain too."
She didn't really mind.
He noticed some changes at some point in their little trips to Karakura. He prided in himself to be an observant man, so of course he'd notice when something was amiss with his vice captain.
She started being rather adventurous in terms on her wardrobe.
She had always been the simple, conservative type, opting to buy those cutesy type of clothes which most often than not covered her skin.
Those did not include:
A frilly mini skirt paired with some knee high socks.
An off-shoulder blouse paired with denim shorts.
A sleeveless dress with thin straps and sneakers.
And that one time, a hat! She wasn't even a hat person, yet she was wearing one even though it wasn't sunny!
On one side, he thought it was cute how she tried to explore, and yet it was all too weird! Weird! All those wardrobe did not scream Hinamori Momo! And he could definitely tell that she wasn't all comfortable wearing them!
Of course, he didn't always accompany her whenever she went to the human world. The first several times, yes, because Momo was largely clueless, needed a guide, and needed to be dragged outside of her workplace to appreciate the world. But when he knew she started appreciating there were really certain places she could already visit by herself—like that art supplies store in Karakura outskirts—of course he'd let her. Sometimes she'd even have a day out with other vice captains when he had other responsibilities to attend to.
He concluded that in between their own trips to Karakura, something definitely had happened. There was definitely something going on with his vice captain.
Yet he didn't really say anything until their fifth trip to Karakura that year, when he finally called her out. It was late November, the weather was cool. Various autumn leaves were falling from the trees.
He had reached a conclusion.
"Is there someone in the human world that you're trying to impress?"
Because those changes he didn't notice when they were in Seireitei; it was business as usual for them at Soul Society. So it was definitely someone in the human world.
She looked at him in surprise, the bottom of her lips dropping.
"W-what do you mean, Captain Hirako?"
Denial. It was just the response he was expecting. He looked at her closely. By the second, her cheeks turned to a brighter shade of pink. Also an expected response.
"Don't think I haven't noticed this." He pointed at her short dress. "This." Dangling earrings. "And this." Her ivy cap.
She looked at her side, clearly avoiding his eyes. "Aren't I allowed to wear different things once in a while?"
He watched how she subtly tried to pull down the skirt that was obviously too short for her comfort. He was getting nowhere.
The wind blew slightly and a few red leaves fell on Momo's head.
"Fine, fine. Whoever it is, here's a word of advice. You don't have to resort to pleasing that someone to the point of going out of your way to wear something that you don't even find comfortable. Just be the way that you really are."
He stepped closer to her, brushing the dastardly leaves away from her hair.
"Your hair, though, it looks nice. Maybe try to let it down once in a while."
She didn't really say anything else, so he never knew the identity of whoever the heck it was.
He wasn't bothered. No, not at all. Never mind that stupid, gooey feeling in his stomach when his blathering were only met with a quiet, soft look in her eyes that did not break contact with his.
He wasn't really bothered.
"Was it that dumb store keeper at the music store? I mean, that's the only usual place we go to. Or what if it's that idiot Keigo? Sheesh, she does seem to have that taste for big nerds with questionable fashion sense!"
Rose raised his hand as he chuckled, calling for the bartender. "Another here, please."
"What the heck, stop ordering more when I'm the only one drinking, ya ingrates!"
Rose laughed even more. "But it's so entertaining seeing you this way!"
"And you're the one who keeps on drinking anyway, moron." Kensei shrugged as he chugged his beer. "Why are you even so bothered? Let her do as she pleases."
"Because I'm her captain, duh!"
"And yet you don't see me giving a fuck about whatever Shuhei wanted to do."
"Or Mashiro too," Rose pointed out. "I could say the same for Kira-kun, and he's pretty much half-dead, technically speaking."
"Besides, so you're telling us that assuming Aizen wasn't a traitor you'd be busy prying in his businesses?"
"Let's not be too harsh on him, Kensei. He's still recovering from the fact that Hinamori found her 'first love~'"
Shinji stood up, pushing himself off his seat. "Ya guys ain't helping. I'm leavin'."
He flash-stepped away before he could hear what they wanted to tell him.
"For someone who deals with illusions and all that crap, he is so incredibly dense, ain't he?"
In no time he arrived at the 5th Division. It was quiet, and the overall atmosphere was calm, meaning most members were already asleep . . . save for one room apparently, which was the single room lit amidst the darkness.
She was still awake?
He was tempted to check out what was keeping her up late at night, but decided against it in the end. Alcohol made his brain wonkier than usual, and he knew how treacherous it could be. She was likely just reading or probably forgot to put out her light. He could tell, because there was no disturbance in her spiritual energy. They probably spent that much time training with each other that he could sense even the slightest changes.
He realized he made one distinct error as he made his way back to his room. He forgot to conceal his own spiritual energy, and it was already too late for him to change that. He blamed it on the drinks. Stupid Rose and Stupid Kensei.
He turned to see her by the corridors, hair fashioned in her usual low bun. He was happy to note that this time, she was prepared to head outside since she wore a coat over her sleeping robes. At least she knew how to take better care of herself.
He realized he actually didn't know what he wanted to hear from Kensei and Rose. He didn't know if there was something else that he wanted to hear that he didn't already know.
It was obvious that on his part, he had been hit hard by her. Like those hard books she once aimed straight at his face when he had snooped another time at the library. Like her own fist when he accidentally entered her room when she was still changing. Like one of those enormous fireballs she hurled at him by the mountains which, he was ready to face straight on.
He figured it could be the right time to tell her that. Like a huge, stupid drunken confession. At least if she rejected, he could pretend that he no longer remembered anything the next day. What a perfect scenario. A perfect scenario for his wonky brain, at least.
He wasn't given time to ponder on it for longer, because Momo went ahead and placed his arm over her shoulder, guiding him along the corridor. Huh, has she grown a few centimeters since he became captain?
"Let's bring you to your room, captain."
He let her, and didn't argue that he was fine by himself, thank you very much.
You could still tell her, the wonky part of his brain said. He concluded it was the voice of his nosy, totally illogical hollow side. And she's bringing you to your room for a reason. The less wonky part, however, argued that she deserved so much more than that.
And he agreed with it.
Because he was certain there was no other reason for it. She was just concerned, as his vice captain. She was just doing her responsibilities. He was simply her captain and nothing more.
The following days went on like their usual ones, and on their next trip to Karakura a few months later, she was back to her usual wardrobe. Her hair was also down. She appeared more comfortable, happier.
Never mind his own feelings then, because he figured if he could see her that way, he was already content.
She was alone by the mountains, legs crossed as she meditated. In the period she was communicating with Tobiume, her outer body was already drenched with sweat.
In her inner world, she had been engaged in battle with her sword's spirit for a significant amount of time already.
Impressive, you're really coping well. Tobiume pointed at the sword in her hand. Once that branch has fully emerged, it'll be a total of seven branches already. By that time, I think I shall tell you my real name.
The heat radiated around her body, the power sizzling against her skin. Something in her chest had been hurting, yet she paid no heed to it. She was already so close; she shouldn't stop now.
She adjusted her grip on her sword's hilt and brandished another attack towards Tobiume, ignoring the warning signs her body was giving her.
Soon enough, she stood amidst the the roots and branches all conjured by Tobiume. The spirit of her sword knelt before her, then leaning backwards on the enormous tree behind her as she panted.
Very impressive, Hinamori Momo. You've really come a long way. . .
The aching in her chest was alarming, yet she tried to tolerate it even more. Even as her vision started to blur, she smiled, which Tobiume mirrored.
My real name is—
The last thing she remembered before everything went black was the brief, panicked look in Tobiume's eyes as she tried to reach for her.
When she opened her eyes again, she saw familiar white ceilings in her line of vision. Was she in the 4th Division?
"You're awake." She encountered the kind face of Captain Isane who had just walked in the room.
She had been battling a high fever. Apparently, the heat of using her abilities had been too much for her body that it affected even her physical functions. She figured that made sense; being subjected to extreme temperatures had its repercussions. How careless she had been. . .
When she made an attempt to sit up, she felt a prickling pain in her body. Isane urged her to lie down again.
"You shouldn't push yourself too much. You've been out for three days."
Three . . . days?
"Your fever didn't go down immediately," she continued, and she noticed the way Isane bit her lip, as if hesitant to say her next words, "There's . . . there's also something else."
"It's your heart."
She turned to the source of the voice. It was Captain Kurotsuchi. She realized she wasn't actually in the 4th Division; she was at the 12th, judging by the machineries around them.
He explained that the extreme temperatures almost made all of her organs shut down, yet it should be the least of her worries because they were relatively healthy and had been managed thanks to the collective efforts of different captains. It's her heart that needs to be monitored.
"Do remember that your heart had already been subjected to two separate operations before. Consider yourself lucky that it wasn't ruptured to the point of being burnt beyond repair."
It was a lot to take in. She thanked them as they left. Even when she tried to sleep again, no matter how tired she felt, the beeping sounds of the monitor haunted her, reminding her of the times when she had been confined in the very same place.
She was discharged two days after, a day she heavily looked forward to. Aside from the fact that she couldn't sleep peacefully, she wasn't allowed to see any visitors. She felt she might've grown insane if she stayed for another day in the intensive care facility; she was at least thankful that some 4th Division members were comparably livelier than the ones from the 12th. Before letting her go, Vice Captain Akon debriefed her on the monitoring device that she always had to keep with her.
"Momo!" It was Shiro-chan, who was waiting just outside the facilities together with Rangiku. The taller woman proceeded to embrace her, which she returned without second thoughts.
She learned that Shiro-chan, along with Captain Rukia, were among the captains involved in cooling down her body organs. She was very thankful for what they did, though an unpleasant feeling appeared in her gut when she knew how much she inconvenienced others again for her carelessness.
The two of them accompanied her despite her protests, and as soon as she reached the gate of the 5th Division, she was welcomed by a mass of concerned members and students all awaiting for her return. A bit overwhelmed by the attention, she nonetheless responded with apologies for worrying them, and that yes, she was fine and only needed more days to rest to fully recover.
"All right, you heard her," Hirako's familiar voice bellowed, and she learned he had been standing by the stairway going up their headquarters. "Now that you know she's okay, time to get back to work. Give the lady some space and let her go back to her room and rest."
Immediately the crowd around her stepped back to give her space, all walking back to where they had been. She awkwardly bowed at the ones along her way, her knees feeling significantly weak as time passed, until she reached the area where her captain had been standing on.
"Captain, I'm sorry—"
"I'm glad you're okay."
He wasn't looking at her, yet she felt the weight of his words. The tears she has been holding back threatened to release themselves if Hirako hadn't wrapped his arms around her shoulders.
No, not here, she told herself. Not when they could still see her.
Hirako seemed to have caught on her thoughts as she felt herself being flash-stepped to the front of her room. The moment they were inside, she felt her knees finally giving in and she broke down in tears. Hirako held her tight as he likewise dropped on his knees, feeling her whole weight.
She was weak.
She thought she had finally broken away from Aizen's spell.
Her hand made its way to the middle of her chest, feeling the erratic beating of her heart.
She remembered his cold gaze as he stabbed her through the heart.
She remembered how he made Shiro-chan stab her in the heart again.
And now, when she thought she could finally be happy again, when she thought she could finally reach her own potential, he made her remember again by making herself destroy her own heart because of the damages done by him.
. . . In the end, even when he had been in the deepest depths, Aizen still reached her.
She was weak.
She felt she would've been engulfed in coldness, despair, if it not had been for Hirako's strong spiritual presence, as if it desperately tried to fend them off. He patiently caressed her hair, rubbed her shoulder reassuringly.
"It will be okay," he whispered in her ears.
She hoped it would be, wondering at the back of her head when the nightmares would end.
She was weak.
It took about a month until Momo went back to her usual zest.
Those few weeks were a lot worse compared to when he first met her.
He concentrated his energy on his sword and cleanly slashed a thick, almost mountain-like boulder into half.
"Hey hey, you've been at it for four hours already! Will ya quit it with the boulder assault?!"
He ignored her. Slashed another boulder.
"Why the hell are you training here, anyway? Don't you have your own personal training grounds at the 5th?"
"Shut up, Hiyori. I'm just following orders."
Those weeks had been that bad, that apparently, reports how "scary" Captain Hirako was being had reached the captain-commander.
His current predicament had been Shunsui's decision.
He heard Hiyori sigh.
"No one really blames you for what happened, y'know. I'm even sure she, of all people, wouldn't."
He didn't have it in him to respond back. He slashed another boulder just as Hiyori held her device, making more boulders and mountains appear in his way. He knew she was rolling her eyes as she did.
Despite it happening more than a hundred years ago, he could still remember everything that happened. Because he let it happen.
"You didn't choose me, Captain Hirako. Rather, it was I who chose you."
It's because he had been too weak.
He donned his Visored mask and obliterated everything in his way.
He was weak.
She was in a cold, dark space. Everything was black and white. She called for anyone, yet nothing even came out from her mouth, no matter how hard she screamed.
It had been the same nightmare each time she tried to sleep.
Despite all of it, something warm in her chest was trying to suppress whatever was making her afraid. It had helped her in the duration of her stay in the temporal space, at least until the moment she woke up, but . . .
Whenever the faceless figure appeared, the blaze turned smaller. All the defenses faltered, as if everything crumbled the moment it appeared.
"Hello, vice captain." It was there again. She felt her body shudder.
The figure transformed so that its built was eerily similar to someone all too familiar to her.
It had the same cold eyes as him.
"I've built you so that you cannot live without me."
Her knees started to buckle. She wanted to run, she wanted to scream. All those had been effective to end the nightmare, right?
But it actually didn't. Each time she tried to run or scream, she'd definitely wake up, drenched in sweat and tears. Yet the moment she fell asleep again, the nightmare restarted.
She's tired. She had enough.
The blaze in her heart flickered in stronger intervals. She realized that every time she was there, even if it turned smaller, it actually never left. It had been there from the very beginning.
And she realized she could control it. She had the capabilities to make it bigger, stronger.
She allowed it to grow larger, to the point where it was even more enormous than her own body. She felt the increasing temperature against her skin yet she knew it didn't burn her body. For the first time she was there, she felt her senses intensify, as more colors started adding in her field of vision. The odd, comforting smoke which smelled like plums reached her nose.
She faced the figure, as roots and branches appeared on the ground.
Without hesitation, she hurled the fireball at the figure.
She woke up.
Immediately, she turned to her side, where her zanpakutō laid. She needed not to hold it to feel the warmth radiating from its entirety.
Thank you, Tobiume. Goddess of the Soaring, Blooming Blaze.
It had also been you, she heard it reply back. Learn to give yourself credit.
Soon enough, she immediately headed to the 12th Division for her weekly check-ups. She was glad that it had been Akon who was accommodating her every time. If she had a choice, she rather not face the eccentric Captain Kurotsuchi by herself.
"So far, your heart's status has been good. No other disturbances noted whatsoever . . ." He seemed to look over at the data again, his eyebrows turning up a notch. "Scratch that. In fact, it seemed to be becoming better, for some odd reason."
She bowed in gratitude. "Would it be safe for me to start training again?"
He scratched the back of his neck. "Well, the device I gave you should notify you when you're at your limit. As long as you're not as careless as before, it should be safe."
"Thank you, Vice Captain Akon."
Because of her nightmares, she had been having episodes of darkness during her periods of recovery. Yet after what happened that morning, she was confident that it would no longer happen. She would never let it happen again. Not when it's within her jurisdiction.
The moment she reached her barracks again, she realized something else had been bothering her. . .
Captain Hirako had been acting differently ever since the incident.
Perhaps, she was too immersed in her own troubles that she wasn't able to do anything, but now that she was better, she felt she was more in the position to do something. She needed to do something.
It's not as though he was being any less kind. In fact, he was actually acting more responsible, finishing most if not all the paperwork needed to be done. She had browsed through them all, and there weren't even the usual reversals in his writings. She had also been hearing things from the officers how "harsh" he had been lately.
It worried her.
She also realized another reason why she couldn't reach him. Lately, she just couldn't find the timing to confront him about it because he was often sent to the human world during working hours, ordered by the captain-commander himself. By the time he came back, he'd usually appear exhausted and retreat to his own room and she didn't really want to be a bother.
But the worry increased as days passed, and she no longer cared what he'd think about her.
She knocked on his door.
He already felt her presence even before she knocked. He first thought of ignoring it. He was simply tired, and he could just feign his sleep so he could avoid confrontations, but. . .
The first thing to do to reverse anything was to face it, to deal with it, he reminded himself.
Sighing, he told her to come in.
She entered his room hesitantly. Her hair was down, a bit ruffled. Seemed like she was trying to sleep but failing miserably.
He realized it's been long since he really had a good look on her. The last time had been . . . when she was already unconscious, highly feverish and fighting for her life at the 4th Division.
His inner hollow began to prickle again.
There was an unusual stern look in her eyes that he probably would have teased in other circumstances. Instead, he only watched as she approached him, emerging from the shadows of his room into the veranda he had been sitting on.
"Momo. It's late."
Whatever confidence she had initially seemed to revert back to her usual meekness. "I . . . I know."
"It's because it's the only time I can talk to you again."
He was rendered speechless for a moment. He recovered the moment she positioned herself right next to him.
"Well, what did you so urgently have to talk about with me that it can't wait until working hours?"
She was frowning. "What's up with you, captain?"
"Whatever do you mean?"
"Don't think I haven't noticed how different you are acting lately."
He shrugged, keeping a completely calm composure. He had it rehearsed many times. "It's just the stress of work. Shunsui-san has appointed me more responsibilities in the human world, you see. Dealing with hollows, newbie shinigami and paperwork ain't the most fun tasks, y'know?"
She seemed unconvinced, as if telling him she didn't really believe him. He noticed how she nervously fiddled with her hands.
"That's not it . . . It's—it's because of this, isn't it?!"
He was beyond startled when she began holding the ends of her robe and pulling it open. Just when he was about to look away and ask what the hell she was up to, he noticed just what exactly she wanted him to see.
It was a fresh scar.
Her scar right in the middle of her chest.
Tears formed by the corners of her eyes, shining underneath the moonlight. "You've been acting really strange since the day I lost consciousness. If . . . if any of your worries were also because of that, please let me tell you that I don't blame you for any of it. You may have been telling me to further the training of my sword, but it's all my responsibility."
He sighed in defeat. There was no way for him to win this time, ain't it?
He did the unthinkable and started to loosen his robes, pulling the sleeves down his torso. For a moment he sensed Momo's panic as he did, but she calmed when she saw what he wanted to show her.
A large, ugly scar diagonally across his left shoulder going to his chest.
"Y'know, he caused this, too."
She looked at the scar sadly, and the next thing he knew, her hand was reaching to touch it. He didn't know if she had been acting on impulse, but he found he didn't mind. It was something strangely comforting how her finger traced the scar.
"My zanpakutō is also an illusion type sword, like Aizen's. Holds a lot potential, I must say, but it's far too unstable sometimes. Holds the risk of affecting even allies."
He shut his eyes, feeling floods of regret washing over him.
"It's just. . . I'm not powerful enough. Despite knowing that there was something about him, I couldn't do anything. I was even the one who drew him into the 5th Division. It's my fault. Perhaps, if I had further my training of my sword—"
"That doesn't matter, captain," she said, completely cutting him off, "If there's anything that I learned from all of this, it's the type of person you really are. You weren't powerful enough, but that's okay. In the end, what matters are your principles and what you think is right. You. . . you had the choice to further train your sword's capabilities, but you also knew there are certain consequences to having great powers so you took the longer route and trained gradually. And that's okay."
She gently placed a hand over his.
"Power is not everything. . ." A single tear finally escaped her eye. "Nobody blames you, captain. You don't have to carry everything in your shoulders anymore."
It was funny; he thought he was the one doing the saving. He didn't realize he was being saved by the very girl shedding tears in front of him. What a 'hero' he was. He shook his head, using his free hand to wipe the tears from her face.
"Your words are duly noted." He grinned before it gradually transformed into a more sincere smile. "Thank you, Momo."
She simply responded with a nod. He looked at her hand over his, and took the opportunity to intertwine his fingers with hers. She was initially startled at the action, but soon enough took the cue to rest her head on his shoulder.
"By the way, was it really necessary for you to show off your scar?"
She seemed to have froze in her spot. He snickered teasingly.
"Don't tell me it's your excuse to show off how splendidly you've grown in—OW! I'm kidding, I'm kidding!"
The following days, everything was back to normal, and the gossips about him being a "scary" captain soon died out, and he was no longer assigned to duties in the human world. For the very first time, he was confident to say that the 5th Division was his home again.
Months later, it was spring again. Leaves and flowers from cherry blossoms and plum trees beautifully scattered in the air.
"Hey, I've been thinking," he said as they settled on a bench.
"Remember when Rukia and Renji got married and you asked me about my thoughts about marrying someone?"
She placed a hand contemplatively under her chin. "You said you've "thought of doing many things with your first love" or something."
His eyes widened in mock surprise. "Wow, you have good memory. Or were you already just in love with me during those times?"
He always made references about love with her, yet nothing really went beyond their little hand-holding that one night.
She crossed her arms, ignoring the flushing of her cheeks. "Going back to the topic, what is the point that you're making?"
He continued, resting his hands casually behind the bench. "To be honest, that time, I've actually thought of it, getting married and all. Spending loads of time for a century in the human world let me have those fantasies of settling down with a family."
She watched him carefully, listening on.
"It's just that . . . I didn't think there would be someone who'd be that person for me. At least, that's what I thought initially anyway."
He played with the strands of her hair, brushing off small leaves that had fallen from one of the trees that had been planted at their division.
"Because my first love? I'm looking at her right now."
She believed him as she smiled, feeling warmth. She was home.