Disclaimer: Bleach is not mine, and I'm not stupid enough to try to do this for profit.

Rangiku found it strange that for the longest time, no one at the Academy believed that she and Gin were an item. The typical argument against was that the two of them had so little in common.

This, Rangiku would freely admit, was absolutely true. She was perfectly aware that Gin was smarter than she was (even though he couldn't spell worth a damn). On the other hand, she was stronger than he was (but he could beat her nearly every time in a sword fight).

Gin actually enjoyed studying and had a reputation as a teacher's pet. He'd already come to the attention of Aizen Sousuke when the Fifth Division captain had come to evaluate the third-year students. Gin had impressed him with his ability to deflect and counter kidou attacks.

Rangiku preferred partying and had a reputation for knowing where the alcohol was cheap and plentiful. She'd already come to the attention of Kyouraku Shunsui when the Eighth Division captain had decided to go slumming in the bars near the Academy. Rangiku had impressed him with her ability to drink him under the table.

This was where things got a bit awkward, as whoever was arguing the point would be reduced to saying "Well, you're..." while making wavy gestures meant to indicate long, flowing blonde hair, or stammering out something like "and you're, well, you know..." while miming holding a pair of cantaloupes at chest height.

"And your point is?" Rangiku would say in a tone of voice that those in the know recognized as a sign that someone was about to receive a free trip to the Wonderful World of Concussions.

Oh, nothing, nothing, nothing, they'd protest while backing out of range of her fists. "It's just that you could have anyone you wanted, and he's, well..."


"Don't you think he's kind of...funny looking?"

"Do you think I'm funny lookin'?" Gin asked her a few days after yet another 'what do you see in him?' confrontation had ended with one of Rangiku's would-be suitors headed to the infirmary.

They were in Gin's room, sprawled out on his futon. His roommates, who were from the best families and districts of Rukongai, had all gone back to their homes for winter recess. (She knew about their backgrounds, because said roommates had told her all about them in a sad attempt to add some variety to the 'what the hell do you see in him?' theme.)

"Well, do you?" he said when no answer was forthcoming.

Rangiku opened her eyes a crack. Another area where the two of them defied convention was that she was the one who usually fell dead asleep after sex, while Gin was the one who always wanted to talk afterwards.

"Why?" she asked. She knew from experience that if she kept her answers to one syllable, he might give up.

No such luck. "Ah, it's just somethin' I heard people sayin', an' I wanted to know what you thought."

He scooted closer and nudged her with his shoulder. She took her cue and shifted from her stomach onto her side to face him. "I guess you aren't going to just let me sleep, are you?"

A warm, calloused hand ran along the outside of her thigh, over her hip, and back down again. "Aw, don't be like that. When's the last time we had any time alone?"

"Storage closet. Three days ago," she murmured. "Hey!"

This last bit was in response to a not-so-light slap on the rump. Gin's ability to distinguish the line between playful and painful could be a bit iffy at times. At least she knew how to jerk him back onto the right side of that line when he needed it.

"Sorry 'bout that. Anyways, that ain't what I meant, girl."

She snickered. He could try as he liked to sound stern; it never worked. "Yeah, this is good. Time alone is good. I'm glad you stuck around instead of heading off wherever."

"What, and miss this?" His fingertips skimmed along the place he'd slapped as if in apology, and then drifted to the small of her back. He pressed the palm of his hand flat against her back, and her eyes drifted closed again as the warm, steady pressure of it sent a gentle thrill of pleasure up her spine.

"Been too damn long since we could actually sleep together, if'n you ask me," he said.

"Says the one who's not letting me sleep." She slid her arm under his to pull him closer to her, and she tilted her head forward so their foreheads were touching. "And no I don't."

She could feel him blink in confusion. "No you don't, what?"

"Think you're funny looking." Lazily, she traced the dip and rise of his spine with her fingers. It was a familiar path, so familiar that she would have known it was him by touch alone. She opened her eyes a bit, just enough to study a face that she already knew better than her own. "You look exactly like you. That's all."

He moved his head, brushing his lips against hers, barely light enough for her to feel. At the same time, the hand on her back began to move against her skin in ever-increasing circles. "That a good thing?"

"Yeah. It's good."

She sank back down into sleep, comforted as she always was by the touch on her back and smug in the knowledge that she'd be woken about twenty minutes later in a most agreeable fashion.

If she tried to think about it objectively, Rangiku could see how other people might think Gin's appearance was odd or off-putting.

Yes, on a purely intellectual level she could see that he was sharp-featured, that his eyes were kind of squinty, and that his build was a bit more gaunt and wiry than most people seemed to find attractive.

But when she looked at him, all she saw was, well, Gin. She saw the boy that could make her laugh even when she was having a miserable day. She saw the person with whom she could sit for hours with neither one feeling a need to break the comfortable silence. Every morning, when she groggily made her way into the mess hall, she knew that her favorite kind of tea would be waiting for her, sweetened just the way she liked it. He knew the difference between her bad moods, and could tell without fail if she wanted distraction or if she needed to be left alone. When he was studying for an exam, she would make sure that he remembered to eat, sneaking food to his room if necessary. They both knew the same constellations, the ones that weren't in any of the books and had names Gin and Rangiku had assigned them all on their own.

It was all too easy for Rangiku to imagine a future where they would graduate together and eventually grow old together. And who could blame her? His face and his body were as familiar to her as her own.

In fact, he was so familiar that he sometimes felt like an extension of herself. For example, Gin never had to worry about her decking him if he came up from behind and touched her without warning. She always knew it was him. She didn't know if it was because she recognized the sound of his footsteps or his breathing as he approached, or if it was his scent, or even just the way his hand felt when it rested on her back, on her rump, or on her shoulder.

In return, she knew that Gin looked at her as the keeper of certain important parts of himself. He knew full well that his habit of joking around with people could cross the line from funny into hurtful. What he didn't know was how to tell when he was crossing the line.

"It's like you're tone deaf, or something," Rangiku told him once, when he wondered why on earth Ise Nanao had stormed out of the mess hall after he'd made some comment about her reading habits. "Or maybe it's more like a blind spot."

He rubbed the back of his head, as if remembering the sharp cuff Rangiku had delivered to the base of his skull in an attempt to correct his behavior. She lived in the fond hope that eventually this course of aversion therapy would teach him to recognize on his own where certain boundaries lay.

"Good think you put up with me, ain't it, then?" he said, laughing and relaxed in the knowledge that she'd forgive him his lapses. "Hate to think what kind o' trouble I'd be gettin' into if'n you weren't here."

"Ah, you'll get if figured out eventually." And he would--she was sure of it. After all, she knew him as well as she knew herself. "Meanwhile, I'll be your conscience for as long as you need me to."


She draped an arm across his back as they walked off to class. "Really. Of course, you know this means that you're going to share your tactics and strategy notes with me whenever I ask, right?"

He hip-checked her, and she stumbled to the side, laughing. "Some conscience you are, girl."

When they entered the Academy together, Rangiku thought it meant that the days of Gin ditching her for no good reason were over. In fact, that was the only reason she'd agreed to follow Gin to the Academy in the first place. He was serious about becoming a shinigami, and if he wanted to pass his courses, then he couldn't just wander away from school any time he chose.

It wasn't that she wanted to restrict his freedom; she believed he should be free to do as he chose--mostly. No, the problem was that when he came back, it took him a while to re-learn the difference between cleverness and cruelty, or when his touches shifted from playfully rough to painfully rough. It wasn't much of a problem; the usual smack to the head or a cold glare was usually enough to turn him around.

Halfway through their fourth year, however, Gin had discovered a new way to skip out on her.

"What do you mean you're graduating next year?" She was glad they were off by themselves in the woods outside the school grounds. Otherwise, her shriek would have drawn way too much attention and started another round of those damnable 'oh, thank goodness she's finally breaking up with him' rumors.

Gin shrugged. "Guess I did pretty well in my classes. 'Sides, Aizen-taichou spoke up for me, said they should kick me up a year or two."

A year or two? That meant that she might have lost Gin at the end of this year, not the next. Rangiku's eyes narrowed. "Aizen-taichou, huh? The way you talk about the guy, it sounds like you've already been assigned to his division."

And yeah, she was jealous. She'd admit it. Every time Aizen visited the Academy, it was like she ceased to exist for Gin. It was childish of her to feel that way. The world was more than just the two of them, after all.

But she couldn't shut up that small voice that said that it was her job to be the most important person in Gin's life. No one else could know him the way she did.

He rubbed his head, and his smug grin turned a bit sheepish. "Funny you should mention that, on account of I've been offered an officer's seat when I graduated. Prob'ly seventh seat, at least."

Rangiku sat in quiet shock for a moment, knowing she should congratulate Gin on his great good fortune. Hell, from the look on his face, he seemed to be expecting her to start jumping for joy at any moment.

All she could think of though, was that he was leaving her again.


She shook her head, forcing herself back to the here and now. "Sorry. Just thinking of how I might like to...hmmm...reward you?" She looked up at him through half-lowered lids, and shifted her shoulders in a way that drew his eyes right to her chest. Oh, yes. She knew all the ways to get his attention when she wanted it. The corners of her mouth quirked up as his breathing got a little faster and his adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed.

"What kind of reward are we talkin' about, here?" His voice cracked a little in the middle of that sentence. Good.

She grinned wickedly. "Supply closet?"

His own smile widened, and his expression darkened with lust. "I like how you think, girl."

As she led him off, she was pleased to note that he was having a little trouble walking, and was satisfied in the knowledge that there were some areas in which the almighty Aizen-taichou couldn't possibly compete for Gin's attention.

To her surprise, she actually had more alone time with Gin the first few months after he graduated than she did when the two of them were in the same class. As a seated officer in the Fifth, Gin could request a room--a private room--in the visitors' barracks. He usually managed to make it out there three or four times a month, and it wasn't much work to sneak her out of student quarters and into his room.

It wasn't just sex. For them, the sex was simply an extension, a reflection of everything else they already had. Sometimes, they spent more time just talking than anything else, or maybe playing a game of Go (or, to be accurate, the version with their own convoluted, home-made rules). Once, when Rangiku had exams, she lugged her books over to Gin's room, and they sat in comfortable silence while Rangiku studied and Gin watched her study.

Other people might think of the time they spent together as boring, but she would always remember it as an exciting time. Life in the Gotei 13 was starting to shape and change Gin in subtle ways that she hadn't quite figured out yet, and there was something thrilling about the way he'd seem almost like a stranger at the beginning of his visits, but by morning, he'd once again be as familiar as he ever had been.

The sex was glorious, of course, and left her shaking with pleasure and laughter. From the way her fellow students talked about sex, you'd think it was some deadly serious business. You'd never know that a tickle fight could be better than more sophisticated foreplay, or that lazily talking about everyday things in the afterglow could be more intimate than talking about deep, meaningful and romantic things. If you listened to many of her classmates, you'd think that great sex was all about technique and not about how you could be completely naked in front of another person, body and soul alike, and not feel vulnerable.

Of course, they also thought that Gin was funny looking, so what did they know?

A few months before graduation, their classes were interrupted by a series of visits from the various divisions of the Gotei 13, as the captains and their officers met with the top students to see who would be best suited to which division.

As far as Rangiku was concerned, there was only one division she wanted: the Fifth. True, Kyouraku Shunsui had told her that the tenth seat in his division was hers if she wanted it, but he of all people understood why she would want to go to the Fifth.

"I'll put in a good word to Aizen for you, but if you change your mind, you're always welcome in the Eighth, Rangiku-chan."

It was nice to know the offer was there, even if she had no intention of taking it. "But Kyouraku-taichou," she said innocently, fluttering her eyelashes so outrageously that no one would ever mistake it for real flirting, "wouldn't it damage your manly reputation if word got around that one of your female junior officers could out-drink you?"

He roared with laughter at that, and clapped her on the shoulder, saying that if anything ever happened between her and Gin, he would be happy to lend an avuncular shoulder to cry on. He was one of the few people who never questioned what she saw in Gin, and that alone was almost enough to make her accept his offer. Almost.

Two months before her own graduation, it was the Fifth's turn to visit. She was delighted to see Gin again--for some reason, his visits had tapered off over the past few months. He'd risen up the ranks of the Fifth with amazing speed, and was now Aizen's fourth in command. Too busy, too busy, he said, hardly apologizing at all when she complained about not seeing as much of him as she would have liked.

While she wouldn't get any time alone with him on this visit, it was still good to be near him and let him become familiar again.

She was more relieved than she would ever let on when Gin stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her as she and Nanao talked to Aizen about why they would be well-suited for his division. Nanao would have no trouble getting into the Fifth, Rangiku knew. She was a genius in kidou, and as that was the Fifth's specialty, there was no doubt she'd be offered a seat in the single digits if she wanted one.

As for Rangiku, her abilities in Kidou were only okay at best, but Gin had sent her a letter the week before that went over everything she should be sure to tell Aizen when they met.

It seemed to work. Aizen nodded in pleased astonishment at nearly everything she said, and Rangiku felt as if she were walking on air. Not only was she confident that she would be accepted into the fifth, but there was something about Aizen that made you want him to like you.

She thought she could forgive Gin his hero worship. Maybe.

Even better, Gin was looking at her with undisguised pride, and his usual vulpine grin had gone soft and endearingly lopsided with affection. She even had the satisfaction of seeing Nanao's eyebrows raise slightly and hearing the faint ah! of realization as she finally got some clue as to what the couple saw in each other.

Unfortunately, Gin noticed Nanao's reaction too, and of course he had to say something. Rangiku couldn't remember quite what it was he said, but Nanao went dangerously still and her eyes narrowed in cold, hurt rage.

That was all it took to trigger an instantaneous reaction. Her hand shot up, and then there was the familiar refrain of wham! "Ow!" that always followed one of Gin's bouts of stupidity.

She also heard a distinctly unfamiliar shout of surprise and her stomach nearly dropped to the floor as she remembered exactly who else was there. Aizen was looking back and forth between them in bewilderment, and it wasn't clear if he was more surprised by Rangiku's behavior or Gin's cheerful protests of "it's okay, it's okay, I deserved it."

Nanao had her head bowed and the side of her fist pressed to her lips, and she might have been shaking in silent laughter instead of anger. Rangiku didn't know, and she didn't care. All she wanted right then was to melt away into a steaming red puddle of embarrassment.

No one knew what to say, and in the end Aizen stammered out a polite farewell and left, Gin trailing behind him. As he left, Gin turned and shrugged an apology to Rangiku, and waved cheekily to Nanao in a way that might have warranted a slap to the head if the very thought of doing such didn't make Rangiku want to curl up into a ball and die of shame.

The next morning, Ise Nanao shocked everyone by announcing that she'd accepted an offer to go into the Eighth Division. As their fourteenth seat officer.

When asked why she would take an offer that was borderline insulting to someone of her abilities, she would only say in a cool voice that discouraged all questions that she had her reasons.

Later, she confided to Rangiku that Kyouraku had told her she would be given the higher-level seat promised to Rangiku, should Rangiku decide not to join the Eighth.

"Even so, I hope you do take Kyouraku-taichou's offer," she told Rangiku when the two of them were alone in their room. "I know that you and Ichimaru-kun are close, and I won't deny that the two of you have a lot of history together that cannot be overlooked, but have you ever looked closely at him? Really looked, I mean?"

She may not have said that Gin was funny looking, but in a way, what she said was worse.

Just two days later, Rangiku was called out of class without explanation and led to a conference room over in the main administration building.

When she got there, Aizen was kneeling on one side of a low table. With a gesture, he invited her to take the cushion on the side opposite him.

Rangiku felt her face grow hot with remembered shame, which was a good thing. Otherwise, her heart would have beat itself right out of her chest with anticipation. This was it. This was where the rest of her life would begin.

Aizen poured her a cup of tea. "Matsumoto-kun, I apologize for disrupting your classes like this, but I thought it was important that I tell you this in person..."

Her fists clenched and unclenched in time with her pulse. She could hardly stand it.

"I have decided to deny your request to join the Fifth Division."

Cold. That was all she felt. Stark cold, and a strange sense of being several feet away from her own body as Aizen kindly and gently broke her dreams into thousands of pieces.

"I wanted to let you know that I gave this long and careful thought, and it was a difficult decision, because I know how badly you wanted to be in the Fifth. In the end, though, I think that you would be much better suited to the way things are run in the Eighth. I told Kyouraku-taichou exactly that that when he recommended you for the Fifth, and..."

Aizen's voice was drowned out by the sheer volume of the disappointment roaring in her brain. She had never even considered that she wouldn't be accepted into the Fifth. She stared down at her own knees because if she looked at Aizen, she was afraid she would start crying.

If only he wasn't trying to make this easier for her, trying to let her down easily. She couldn't explain why it made everything worse, but it did.

"And I'll be honest with you, Matsumoto-kun. I think it's a good idea for you and Ichimaru-kun to be in different divisions. He looks to you for guidance in areas where he should be making his own choices."

She knew instantly what he was talking about. To her horror, she felt a tear run searing hot down one cheek.

"I know I shouldn't have hit him like that, not in front of his commanding officer," she whispered. She'd never sounded or felt more meek in her entire life. "I'm sorry."

Aizen laughed softly, and Rangiku bit her lips together so she wouldn't howl in pain. Why did he have to be so nice? "To be honest, I thought he did deserve it. But in the end, Matsumoto-kun, what good will that do him in the long run? You can't always be with him to pull him back into line."

He had a point. She twisted her hands into the fabric of hakama. It kept her from wanting to throw things. "I can't help worrying about him. I... you don't know how important he is to me."

"I'll take good care of him," he assured her. He stood up and walked over to her, then rested one hand gently on top of her head. It somehow managed to make her feel better and worse at the same time. "I have a lot of experience working with people and helping them to overcome any flaws that might be holding them back."

Even back then, Rangiku wondered if he meant to imply that she was one of those flaws.

"Ichimaru-kun has a lot of potential, and I think it's time you allowed him the chance to fully unlock it."

She could do nothing but kneel there in stunned silence as Aizen took his leave, and she took in the growing realization that this was the first time that anyone had ever implied that she was not good enough for Gin.

Graduation came and went, and Rangiku soon settled into a pleasant enough life in the Eighth Division. She and Nanao leapfrogged past each other several times on their way up the ranks, and it was only a matter of a few years before they started receiving offers to transfer to higher seats in other divisions.

No such offer ever came from the Fifth.

Her assignations with Gin continued, but they were rushed and rarely satisfying, and when they had sex it felt less like making love, and more like staking a claim. There was little time for the long, rambling conversations they used to have. There was no leeway for them to simply spend the night together, tangled together messily the way they used to sleep when they were children. She couldn't remember the last time they'd played a game together, trashing the official rules in favor of the ones they made up on their own as they went along.

This was just like one of his prolonged absences, she reminded herself. At least with this one, she had a glimmer of when it might end.

It was no secret that Gin--now a vice-captain--was the top candidate to take over when the current captain of the Third retired in a few years. Surely once they were no longer shadowed by Aizen's disapproval, the two of them would be able to pick up where they left off and begin the slow and delicious process of re-learning each other, of becoming familiar once again.

The only down side to Gin's rapid rise through the ranks was that while people now only rarely asked her what she saw in him, their assumptions about what she did see in him hurt far more than she would have imagined possible.

One day, Rangiku was talking with Renji just outside the officers' mess when Gin came up behind her and rested a hand between her shoulder blades. Her yelp of surprise was so loud that Renji jumped back and clocked his head on the door jamb.

"Oi! You might want to watch it, Ichimaru. She's socked people in the jaw for a lot less than that," Renji snapped.

"My, my... So disrespectful..." Gin said almost wonderingly. Renji glowered, unsure if he was being mocked or reprimanded, but he didn't back down.

"It's just a friendly warning, pal," Renji growled, eyeing Gin over the rims of his sunglasses.

Ever since his involuntary transfer to the Eleventh, Renji had given up even pretending to have any respect the Fifth's vice-captain. There was no point to it. Rangiku knew damned well that if a complaint of insubordination made its way back to Zaraki-taichou, it would either be roundly ignored or be treated as an excuse to buy Renji a drink by way of reward.

"Oh, Rangiku would never hit me," Gin said in a light, teasing drawl that made her wonder if speaking in that way was worthy of a head-thwap or not, regardless of what Aizen-taichou might have to say about it. The way he was openly leering as she readjusted her top didn't help matters, either. "Me and her go way, way back, don't we?"

Gin then gave her a light slap on the rump. It was something he'd done in public before, especially when they were in a frisky mood and wanted the fun of shocking other people.

Sure enough, Renji did a double take that would have sent Rangiku into roaring laughter if she hadn't been so annoyed at Gin. Lately, it seemed that she was spending more and more of what little time they had together being mad at him. She wasn't sure if she was just feeling out of sorts or something, but his jokes just didn't seem that funny any more.

And for some reason, she couldn't escape the feeling that the slap on the rump was meant to embarrass her as much as Renji.

"Aw, don't be such a prude, Abarai-kun. I'm just messin' with you."

With that, he gave Rangiku another pat--on the small of her back, this time--and excused himself, saying that he was running late for a meeting with Aizen-taichou.

"Weirdo," Renji muttered, rubbing what must have been shaping up to be a sizeable lump on the back of his head. "Always going off about 'Aizen-taichou' this and 'Aizen-taichou' that. What a suck-up. I'm surprised you didn't deck him when he crept up on you like that."

"So am I," Rangiku said in a whisper, stunned nearly to silence by the realization of just how true her words were. When she had whirled around to see who had dared touch her, her fist was already drawn back.

"I'm kind of sorry you didn't slug him." Renji spat, then glared off down the road as if daring Gin to come back and challenge him. "Creepy bastard."

They had spent far too much time apart if she couldn't recognize him by his touch. She would have to do something about that, and soon.

"What the hell do you see in that guy, anyway?"

"Shut up, Renji."

There was, of course, a party celebrating Gin's promotion to captain. It was an official party, the sort with tiny, decorative food and not nearly enough to drink.

It seemed to go on forever. Gin, as guest of honor, couldn't exactly slip out early. Besides, everywhere Gin went in the room, Aizen was only a few steps away.

At midnight, she couldn't stand it any more. She wove her way through the crowd, and while Aizen was deep in conversation with Tousen Kaname, she crept up behind Gin and drew in close so he could feel her breath against his ear as she whispered, "You. Me. Out of here. Now."

He turned, startled, and for a few heart-stopping seconds, she wondered if he even recognized her. But then he grinned as her suggestion registered, and Matsumoto was pleased to note that his round of obligatory goodbyes took less than three minutes. She was even more pleased to see the flustered, puzzled look on Aizen's face as Gin told his former commander that he was taking his leave.

Someone's reign over Gin's attention was coming to an end.

She didn't remember much of the walk back to Gin's quarters. All she could remember was thinking was that this was it. This was where the rest of her life would begin.

When they got back to his room, his new quarters over in the Third Division, Gin didn't say a word. He just grabbed her by the shoulders and pushed her back against the wall, kissing her so hard that she nearly cut her lip on one of her teeth. He was grinding against her and yeah, okay, that was hot, that was good. It had been way, way too long and she understood desperate. They could do this slow the next time, she thought, gasping as Gin moved on to her neck, nipping sharply at the tendon running down her throat.

That was nice, really nice, but the wall kept her from tilting her head back and giving him better access to her throat. She stepped forward, or tried to. As soon as she pushed against him, he pushed back--hard--and she hissed as her shoulderblade ground up against the wall.


That was enough. Her arms were pinned between their bodies, but she wriggled free and placed her palms against his shoulders. Before she could push him away, he grabbed her wrists and slammed her hands back against the wall, pinning her and making her yelp in pain.

And that? Was more than enough. She had always been better than him at hand-to-hand combat, and it took her less than a second to twist free and reverse their hold, her fingers digging between the bones of his forearms. Oh, she could beat him, and he knew it. She squeezed a little, just to emphasize that point.

He was grinning at her. Grinning and breathing fast, almost laughing, clearly excited by everything that was happening.

Rangiku's voice was as firm and even as she could make it, and she spoke slowly and clearly. "Gin. You were hurting me. This is not funny. Do you understand me?" She gave his arms a shake. "Do you?"

The words sank in, his eyes for once open wide as if surprised--and not entirely pleased--to see her there. Then he blinked a few times, and he relaxed so suddenly, it was almost funny.

"Sorry 'bout that," he said so easily that it was as if he hadn't even involved in what happened just a few minutes before. "How about givin' this another try, huh?"

She thought about saying 'no, let's not,' but he was already easing her top off her shoulders and shrugging off his new white haori, and she reminded herself that she wanted this, that she had been looking forward to it. Tomorrow, she told herself, they could go back to rebuilding the easy closeness they had before.

He lowered her to the futon, and his motions were gentle without any tenderness. His mouth was hot and soft against her throat, her collarbone, her breasts, all the places he knew would make her sigh with pleasure. His sword-calloused hands touched her in all the ways she liked, and soon he was moving within her, pacing himself in just the right way to drive her to a shuddering climax, but it was as if he wasn't really there with her in any way that mattered.

When they were done, he rubbed her back the way he always used to after they made love, but there was something brusque about the motion that made her back muscles want to tense up rather than loosen. She found it impossible to relax, and eventually, Gin gave up, and was the one to roll over and fall fast asleep without a word.

Rangiku lay in bed next to him for a while, staring at the back of his neck, waiting for her heart to stop hammering in her chest, and wondering what she would see if he were facing the other way.

She wasn't sure she wanted to know.

Once she was sure he was sleeping deeply enough that he wouldn't wake if she moved, she got up, put her clothes on as quickly as she could (she'd always wondered why people associated nakedness with vulnerability, and now she knew) and went back to her division. When she got home she scrubbed herself clean, not even bothering to take time to soak in the bath, and went to sleep in her own bed.

Rangiku didn't see him again until quite a few weeks later. She'd been keeping busy without thinking too much about why. When she got the invitation to the New Year's celebration at the First Division headquarters she wondered why the beautifully lettered card gave her such a feeling of dread. She loved parties, and the officers' New Year's party was one of the best, despite being an official function. There was no tiny, pretty food and meager drink at this gathering. No, it would be a proper feast, with no danger of anyone going hungry or thirsty.

So why did she feel like skipping out?

It wasn't until halfway through the party, when her heart seized up at the sight of the gray-haired figure on the other side of the room, that she figured it out.

Gin had the Fourth Division's vice-captain buttonholed. Rangiku had no idea what Gin said to Isane, but it had an immediate effect. The tall woman drew her head down towards her shoulders, putting Rangiku in mind of a turtle retreating into its shell.

Nanao tsked and primmed her lips together in disapproval. "I always thought it was rather childish of you, but I honestly wish you could walk over there and smack him on the head the way you used to back at school."

Rangiku shrugged, and did her best to pretend that she didn't give a damn. "What good would it do? I can't be around him all the time."

But she used to be, back when they were young. Things were different then. They were different.

Isane passed by them on her way out, barely pausing long enough to say goodbye and give the excuse of some pressing paperwork, paperwork that Rangiku would have bet good money didn't really exist.

"I never got what you saw in the guy," Iba said, shaking his head in disgust. He'd seen the whole incident. "He's so... funny looking."

Rangiku turned her head as much as she dared, not wanting Gin to see her looking at him. Maybe it was the angle, or maybe it was the amount she'd had to drink, but something about that familiar face looked distorted. The smile seemed fake and mask-like, and yes, the features were unpleasantly sharp, and she couldn't help wondering what those narrowed eyes were hiding. If it weren't for the silver hair and the white cloak, she wondered if she would have recognized him.

"Yeah," Rangiku admitted at last. "He is."