OK, quick clarification: I don't hate Hinamori; I think that this should be a pretty sympathetic portrayal, actually. I actually kind of admire the ability for single-minded obsessive love, possibly because I do not posses it. I find the relationship between her and Hitsugaya really interesting, though not as straightforward as your typical romance.

I just wanted to warn everybody that, if you're looking for sweet happy Momo-Toushiro moments, you ain't gonna find 'em here. There will be moments, and hopefully they'll be, I dunno, moving. But fluffy? No. nope. Sorry. Not gonna happen.

Thank you for the great reviews! I'll find some time to respond to them all, I swear. Just, well, not immediately. In the meantime, here's the latest. Please feel free to criticize, or even to suggest! Like I said, this is seriously still in progress - there are major plot points that still escape me.

Do not own.


Chapter Two

The Tempter

"Aahg!" The archer could not hold back the cry as a cero pierced his upper arm, forcing him to drop his bow. Part of his analytical mind noted with relief that it was a clean wound, cutting through muscle but missing bone or major blood vessel. The rest of his mind screamed in pain.

However, it was not the first time Ishida Uryuu had felt the burn of a cero. "And by God," he swore grimly, scrambling for cover, "it won't be the last." He was disarmed, but not for long - the bow was made of spirit particles, after all. It had disintegrated before it had hit the ground. All he had to do was pull in enough reiatsu to form another. All he had to do was survive so long.

The menos behind him reared and bellowed, its red eyes glowing weirdly. The cry was taken up all across the suburban Kyoto neighborhood, as the monsters closed in on their prey. Three menos, Ishida tallied, beginning to pant as he ran. At least twelve ordinary hollows. Around twenty blind civilians milled about, oblivious to the turmoil. Almost twice that many ghosts clung to the area, hiding or fighting or running as their chains of fate allowed. With no one to protect them, Ishida knew, they would all be hollows by the end of the day.

This is what happens, you fools, he thought with a mental snarl. This is what happens when the high and mighty death gods ignore their duties for ten sodding years. Too busy with your pointless war to worry about soul burials. Because of your carelessness, the world will be overrun by hollows - not by the hoards of Hueco Mundo, but by ordinary helpless human souls who have nowhere else to turn.

The mental rant was a litany by now, and it helped to calm him. It gave him purpose. It was the Quincy, these days, who still stood between the hunters and the hunted. The Ishidas and their followers tried to put a dent in the tidal wave growth of the hollow population, while gathering ordinary souls to the safe zones. There, the few shinigami who could be spared from battle would ferry them to the other side.

Ironic, really. Now the Quincy preserved the natural spiritual balance, as best they could, while a shinigami war threatened to tear existence apart.

With an oath, Ishida leapt to one side, barely avoiding a spray of something unpleasant. Acid, judging by the way it smoked. A squat, wide-mouthed monstrosity grinned over the wall at him, as a menos lumbered over the row of houses. Ishida hurled an emerald vial at the closer figure and ran for his life. He heard the flapping of broad white wings as still more hollows descended on the street, keening with hunger. The Quincy could feel them all converging. It would not be long before he was trapped.

That's when he saw her, huddled in the corner of the bus stop kiosk. Her eyes locked on his, momentarily, then refocused on the demon shapes behind him. She looked scared, naturally enough, but also ... hostile. Angry. Accusatory.

The Quincy skidded to a halt and doubled back, causing the slow-moving menos to nearly topple over in surprise. An unexpected bonus. Neverthelesss, he was now running directly towards the main body of the enemy, and his heart sunk. Still. No point in leading them straight to the woman. He read it in her face and in her budding spirit power. The Karakura Syndrome, they called it these days. He made a mental note to try to try to recruit her, if he lived.

That hope vanished as abruptly as it had appeared. The other two menos had caught up with the first - they stood towering in the street behind him, swaying slightly in the wind and screaming. Before him, hollows seems to melt out of the houses and gardens and gutters. Far stronger than they used to be, in more innocent times. Far more than twelve. Ishida pulled out his spirit bow - it was not fully ready, but it would have to do - and took careful aim.

BAM! The young man staggered back, shielding his eyes with his arms. A massive explosion had rocked the street, tearing up the sidewalk and knocking over telephone poles. A massive, pepto-bismol pink explosion. The hollows caught directly in the blast wailed in anguish as they seemed to disintegrate from the inside out, collapsing into sparkling heaps of glowing ash. Others seemed to catch on a strange flameless fire, which they rolled and flailed in a vain effort to extinguish.

Ishida was too experienced a fighter to goggle at the unexpected reprieve; he turned instantly to face the menos and sent a blinding volley of arrows towards their eyes. But these clattered harmlessly to the ground, deflected off the massive glacier that suddenly ripped across the neighborhood, encasing and crushing the giants in a mountain of ice.

"Show yourself, damn you!" the Quincy bawled, relieved and angry at the same time. "Miserable skulking shiniga..."

A presence materialized just behind him. "That's not nice," a girl's voice said, in a scolding tone. "You notice us saving your scrawny butt, Four-eyes?!"

It took him a long moment to place her. It had been a long time, and Kusajishi Yachiru had changed dramatically. She looked almost fifteen years old, these days. Her figure was still slender, almost boyish, and she wore her pink hair tied up in two pig tails. The greatest change, besides her height, lay in her great eyes - they seemed somehow deeper than they had been. One could believe those eyes capable of expressing emotions other than love or murder.

Yachiru's smile, on the other hand, was as irrepressible as ever. "Snowball's mad I'm stopping to chat," she said matter-of-factly. "He doesn't remember you so much."

Sensing another spirit force, Ishida glanced up and nearly gasped aloud. He knew Hitsugaya, of course - had even halfway expected him, after the glacier. Everyone knew his story, if you traveled in the right circles. But Ishida was caught completely off guard by the look of pure cold green-eyed malevolent warning that glared down at him. It also shocked him that anyone, even Kusajishi, could nickname that something like "Snowball."

There was nothing cutesy about that.

Handsome, yes. A human would mistake him for twenty, twenty-one years old, tall and lean but no longer skinny. His hair was still spiky, but shorter than it had been, almost military. Still, with his heavy-lidded pale eyes, to say nothing of his scars, Hitsugaya looked more like a wild animal than ever Zaraki had - like some graceful, proud, and deadly predator.

"That was reckless of you," the newcomer growled.

At that, all of the Quincy's pent-up anger and fear burst out. "Reckless of ME?" he yelled, his balled fists beginning to glow a little. "RECKLESS of me? You ... you ... do you have any sense of secrecy at all? Do you have any SENSE?! Remember Karakura? Remember Tokyo? Remember your own #$& protocols!? The humans MUST NOT KNOW about us, damn you! HOW..." he gestured at the shattered street, "how are we supposed to explain this?"

Yachiru hummed quietly, and put a finger to her lips. She didn't look all that concerned, though. "Gas explosion," she offered.

Ishida turned to glare at the giant, craggy wall of ice growing out of the asphalt, then at the man responsible. Hitsugaya just shrugged.

"Global warming," he said shortly.

The Quincy reminded himself, given the stories he had heard, how pointless it was to try to reason with these two. "I suppose," he grunted sourly, "you're looking for Urahara?"

"Yup!" Without warning, Yachiru scooped Ishida into an awkward hug - awkward on his part, anyway, as he struggled in vain to avoid it. "That's from Rukia!" she chirruped, "She told me to thank you if I saw you, cuz you came and visited her that once when you really don't much like Soul Society or Ichi or nothing and that was really sweet of you."

He stuttered for a while, trying to extricate himself. "Yes, well... how is, uh, how is she?"

"She's fine! Actually, she just got..."

"Wait," the young man above them said suddenly, shifting his stance a little. His eyes warned the girl not to say any more, then turned back to the Quincy. "You..." He gazed a long time on Ishida, his white brows knit in concentration. "Didn't you wear a cape?"

Ishida felt himself becoming, if possible, even redder. That would have to be the one thing the kid remembered. "I was a teenager," he growled.

Suddenly Yachiru's face turned stern. "I'm a teenager and that's no excu.."

"You're not, actually," the human snapped at her, "and I wish you'd stop pretending to be." Recalling that he had spent the last decade avoiding personal relationships with shinigami - indeed, avoiding personal relationships full stop - he decided that it was long past time to return to business. He glanced over at the bus stop; the woman was gone. No surprise there.

He sighed heavily. "Can you at least take care of the radiation?" he muttered. "If you clean up your little corner store Chernobyl, I'll show you where that snake Urahara's hiding these days."

She blinked at him, then chuckled. "Don't be silly!" she beamed. "My shikai only leaves a residue of santonium, which, I grant you, has a half-life of 3.2 million years, but given the phase-shift between realities the fallout only emits omicrom particles. That won't bother the normals. Punch the guts out of hollows, though. Oh, and," she paused a split second, "and spirit-types and reiastu-users like, um, like you. You might want to put up a sign."

ooooooooooooooo

Hinamori sat pensively, looking out over the long field. Poppies used to grow here, she was sure of it. The thought no longer depressed her, though. Since her resolution the other night, she felt strangely light, almost happy.

There is no tonic like purpose.

It is worth remarking how often important events catch us by surprise. We do not really believe that our lives have meaning, so we are unprepared, even unable, to respond to moments of obvious significance. Hinamori, however, had found her mission. She knew her destiny, be it tragic or evil, and she embraced it. That is why she barely startled at the serpent that rose phantom-like out of the grass in front of her.

The snake was white, and, she guessed, as long as she was tall. Its body lacked the silken sheen of most of its kind, that soft reptile shine that is often mistaken for slime. This one looked dry and inflexible, as if made out of bone, and its eyes were empty sockets.

She felt the slightest thrill of fear as it swayed before her. Without knowing why, she brought her knees together, and clenched one fist in her lap. Her other hand moved silently behind her, to the long dagger she kept tucked in her obi. Though everyone else should forget it, she had been a shinigami and a warrior long before she had been a wife and mother.

The snake laughed. There was no other word for it. A high, wheezing sound, very like a sneer. "And a good morning to you, Momo-chan!" it hissed, or said - she couldn't tell whether its voice was real or in her head. It had a strange accent, almost familiar, but strangely distorted. "That's no way to greet an old friend!"

"I do not know you," she answered calmly, drawing the blade into the open.

"You do," the creature replied. "Even in this form. I'll tell you a little secret: your Master can't make us really invisible to you. Well, he can, but it's too much work on his part. He has other things to deal with, things that he thinks are more important. So he just assigns us a different form. I've slithered through your world for ten years now," again the hissing chuckle, "you just never look down."

She did not understand this, and did not respond. The serpent continued, beginning to move in a slow circle around the rock on which she sat. "You look," it hissed quietly, "like a woman preparing for a journey. Like someone about to leave this place."

She hesitated, then nodded.

"Do you plan to tell your husband?"

An even longer pause. Hinamori slowly shook her head.

The snake had wound its way slowly closer and now its tongue darted almost close enough to touch her ear. "Good," it whispered. "Then I can help you."

TBC

Hmm... so, once again, I find myself with too much setup to get out of the way. Sorry it's a little slow. Please let me know what you think! Everyone does understand where Hinamori is, right? I don't want to make things too obvious, but it shouldn't be too confusing either. If anyone has any theories about what's going on, I would be fascinated to hear them.