Notes: Spoilers through ch. 214 or so of the manga. Many thanks to Celeste for beta reading and pointing out a couple of areas of this fic that needed some serious improvement.

o 0 o 0 o

The recovery from his battle with the Arrancar was shaping up to be a long and painful one, but this fact had nothing to do with the scope or severity of his wounds.

You like her. You know you do, so why not admit it? Toushirou, buddy, just listen to me. You nearly died out there tonight! You were just lying there, bleeding to death in her arms--

"I wasn't lying in her arms. She wouldn't waste time doing anything that stupid--she did what any competent officer would have done and got me medical help right away."

A blast of frigid air that felt remarkably like an exasperated sigh sent a pile of Urahara's papers fluttering about the room.

You have no poetry in your soul. None whatsoever. Anyhow, as I was saying, you were just lying there, bleeding to death in her arms. Just imagine the pain she must have felt as she looked square into the eye of a long, empty life without you at her side. I'll bet you anything that she cried when she heard you were going to be okay. She's vulnerable right now. Receptive.

"Where the hell do you get this stuff?" The idea of a vulnerable, weepy Matsumoto was so patently ridiculous as to be insane.

Of course, he was pretty sure there was nothing sane about this entire conversation in the first place.

Look. The two of you just had a near-death experience, okay? A whatd'youcallit... a bonding moment. What better time to tell her you love her with all your heart? What do you have to lose?

Hitsugaya grimaced and wondered what was more annoying, the itching under his bandages, or the cool, nagging voice that tickled the back of his mind the way a cold draft might tickle the back of his neck.

"My dignity, for one thing," he muttered through clenched teeth. He looked around, hoping that no one was listening in on what must seem to be a one-sided conversation. Maybe he should ask Urahara for a pain killer--one of the really, really strong ones that would knock him out for an hour or five.

Dignity? Why should you care about dignity? You're young. You're in love. You're--

"In excruciating pain, and in no mood to talk about whether or not I'm going to confess my undying love to my fukutaichou, which I'm definitely not going to do anytime soon, or anytime ever for that matter, so for pity's sake would you please just drop the subject--"

Aw, c'mon. The two of you are perfect for each other. Trust me. I know how this stuff works.

If Urahara wouldn't give him a pain killer, maybe he could just bash his head against the floor until he was unconscious. "Would you please just shut up and let me sleep?"

For a moment, there was blessed silence. Then, just as he was dropping off to sleep:

Ran and Shirou, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I...

Hitsugaya's scream of frustration reverberated through the Urahara Shoten.

o 0 o 0 o

Hyourinmaru was the strongest of the ice and water zanpakutou. It was also one of the oldest zanpakutou in existence, and it was largely held that the fearsome ice dragon's wealth of experience was as great an asset to its wielder as its sheer power.

In fact, Hyourinmaru's reputation was so great that when it chose him to be its wielder, Hitsugaya noticed that his instructors immediately stopped talking about what would happen if he made captain and started talking about when.

When he first entered the strange dimension where his zanpakutou's spirit resided, the dragon's sheer power had nearly blown him away--literally. He still had nightmares about clinging desperately to the side of a thousand foot glacier, fingers numb and bleeding, eyes freezing half-shut as they watered from the relentless wind, and his face feeling as if it would crack and shatter from the cold. No matter how much time had passed, he could vividly remember being overwhelmed by the idea that he was expected to master something so wild, so majestic, so ancient, so huge.

Once Hyourinmaru had deigned to give Hitsugaya its name, the young shinigami threw himself into getting to know his sword, and it didn't take him long to realize that Hyourinmaru was a powerful ally on the battlefield--cold in both nature and mind, as decisive as it was powerful, and utterly, utterly ruthless.

Off the battlefield, however...

One of the sword's former bearers had left a cryptic note in his memoirs. It hadn't made much sense when he'd first read it, but it didn't take Hitsugaya very long to figure out what was probably meant by the term "hyperactive yenta."

o 0 o 0 o

Not long after Hitsugaya's promotion to captain, his zanpakutou had somehow gotten it into what passed for its head that he had some sort of thing for Matsumoto.

Yes, he would gladly admit that she was attractive. Gorgeous, even. And yes, he would also admit that he'd stared a bit when they'd first met, but at least he had the excuse that his eye level was right at her chest level.

And okay, fine, he'd had a few interesting dreams about his vice captain, but that was only to be expected from a young man his age. It was nothing but biology with some basic psychology and a few changes of sheets thrown in.

(Hyourinmaru, of course, had taken to pointing out that the dreams had been increasing in frequency and intensity, but Hitsugaya knew better than to get entangled in that particular argument.)

The truth of the matter was that Matsumoto was an excellent adjutant, the best he could have asked for. Yes, her lackadaisical ways took some getting used to, but they became easier and easier for him to accept as time went on and he saw that her partying and lazing about had no effect on the quality of her work or her abilities in the field.

Hyourinmaru, of course, took this acceptance as prima facie evidence that Hitsugaya had some sort of crush on his lieutenant, and absolutely refused to let go of the idea, no matter how many times Hitsugaya insisted that it simply was not so.

"Don't be silly," he told the sword when it brought up the subject for what felt like the thousandth time. Under even normal circumstances, the subject was getting rather tiresome. But now, given everything that had just happened with Aizen's death and the whole mess with Momo and Kira, the dragon's nagging had gone from simply irritating to downright inappropriate. "What I feel for Matsumoto is nothing more than admiration and respect."

He pointedly ignored the fake cough that sounded suspiciously like 'bullshit.'

"Hounding me to death isn't going to change my mind on the matter. Besides, how many times do I need to tell you that when--if--I get together with anyone, it will almost definitely be Momo."

Momo? Eh, she's a good kid, but a bit naive, if you ask me...

"Which I didn't. Now if you'll excuse me, I have paperwork to finish." He tuned back to his accounting, wondering why on earth he'd agreed to take on the Fifth's paperwork.

It's because you're such a nice guy, Hyourinmaru offered. Hitsugaya wondered if other zanpakutou were as quick to pick up on their wielder's stray thoughts, and if so, if they felt the overwhelming need to comment on every. damned. one.

My goodness, the dragon huffed. Someone's at home to Mr. Crabby today.

"Wouldn't you be?" Even though Hitsugaya knew that Hyourinmaru's actual spirit was in some dimension adjacent to this one, he couldn't help glaring at the innocent-looking katana sitting tidily in its rack. "A captain's been murdered, two fukutaichou--one of whom is my oldest friend--have been locked up for misconduct, there's a pending execution that half of Seireitei apparently thinks is an utter travesty of justice, and on top of all that, there are those ryoka out there to contend with."

I wouldn't be too hasty about judging them, Hyourinmaru said, and Hitsugaya sat bolt upright. Normally he only heard that particular tone of voice when the two of them were in the middle of serious work. The ryoka, I mean. Hoozukimaru thought he recognized the zanpakutou borne by the orange-haired one. It may have been centuries since Zangetsu has been abroad in this world, but I doubt he'd have changed so much as to have willingly chosen a bearer who was anything less than honorable.

Hitsugaya was transfixed. For one thing, Hyourinmaru had confirmed his opinion that there was more to these ryoka and the timing of their appearance than was immediately obvious. For another, it was so strange to hear Hyourinmaru talk like the gruff, wise counselor that Hitsugaya had once assumed it must be.

What really grabbed his attention, however, was something that Hyourinmaru had let slip by accident. "I had no idea that you talked to the other zanpakutou."

Of course I do. You talk to your fellow shinigami, don't you?

Hitsugaya smiled and turned back to his paperwork. Maybe he'd been wrong about Hyourinmaru. Maybe the chatty, goofy personality did in fact serve as a front for thousands of years of accumulated wisdom and experience.

Of course, the dragon's next words shattered that delusion into thousands of slivers of ice.

Speaking of other zanpakutou, I had a little chat with Haineko the other day...

His pen slipped, leaving a big gash of ink across a Fifth Division expense report. "You did what?"

Oh, it wasn't any big deal. I just thought it would make things easier for you if I asked Haineko--charming young lady, by the way, she's got these adorably wee tufted ears and the cutest little bob-tail--to put in a word on your behalf.

Hitsugaya forced himself to put the pen down very slowly and excruciatingly gently. Otherwise the temptation to fling it across the room would have gotten the better of him.

"You told Matsumoto's sword that I like her." The cold in his voice would have given even Hyourinmaru a nasty case of frostbite. With his luck, Haineko was just as gossipy as Hyourinmaru, and would tell Matsumoto all about this.

If that was the case, then he might as well fling himself off the Tower of Penitence and be done with it.

Oh, no worries! She won't say a thing.

"You really think so?" If Hitsugaya's relief was tinged with a tiny bit of disappointment, he did his level best to ignore it.

Yeah! In fact, when I brought the matter up, she told me to fuck off and die, the dragon said cheerfully.

He was going to get a migraine. He just knew it.

So, no harm done, right? Remember, this is just the opening salvo in the grand battle of loooove.

Hitsugaya rubbed his eyes, but it did nothing to make the throbbing headache go away. "Let me guess. You drove all your former wielders to suicide, didn't you?"

There was a lengthy silence. It went on long enough that Hitsugaya began to worry that he'd seriously offended the dragon. As much as Hyourinmaru might annoy the living daylights out of him, he was truly fond of the dragon, and therefore was more than a little relieved when he heard the cold, crackling sound that was the draconic equivalent of a throat clearing.

Well...just the one...

o 0 o 0 o

Later, Hitsugaya would look back at that particular conversation as one of the last peaceful moments he had before the world was turned upside-down.

When he woke up in a private room in the Fourth Division's main ward, his mind was so fuzzy that he couldn't tell if his recollections of being attacked by Hinamori, of the carnage at Center 46, of Aizen taunting him about Hinamori's death, of feeling Hyourinmaru's power shatter around him were fragments of a nightmare or memories of things that had truly happened.

In the midst of the confusion, there were only two things that jumped out at him as absolutely, incontrovertibly real: one was Hyourinmaru's fretful hovering, and the other was the not-so-quiet presence of Matsumoto, who was sprawled out in an adorably undignified manner in the bedside chair, with her head hanging over the back of the chair, one arm resting in her lap and the other hanging limply by her side. He would never, ever tell her this, but she was also snoring loud enough to wake the dead, or maybe just a badly injured shinigami.

Soon after waking, he drifted back into sleep with no one other than Hyourinmaru noticing that he'd regained consciousness. He didn't know why, but despite everything, he felt safe in a way he hadn't since before death had first sent him to Soul Society.

The next morning, when he woke again, Matsumoto was there, awake and alert, and telling him that Momo was still alive, but lost in a coma. Hitsugaya reached out a hand, ignoring the pain that flared through his chest muscles at the motion, and Matsumoto reached out in return and gave his hand a gentle squeeze.

Part of him expected Hyourinmaru to gloat over what it probably saw as a grand victory in the battle of love, but the dragon simply remained a comforting, chilly presence in the back of his mind as he lay there, Matsumoto's hand in his, until he fell asleep again.

o 0 o 0 o

Two days later, Unohana told him that he should be well enough to get up for a short walk if he wanted. Even if she hadn't followed that announcement by telling him that Momo's room was only a few dozen yards down the hall, he would have known at once exactly where he wanted to go.

Over the next few days, even after he'd been cleared to return to his own division, Hitsugaya kept returning to Momo's room.

He loved Momo. There was no doubt of that in his mind. He'd proven that he was willing to die--or to kill--if it meant her safety and happiness. He was fairly sure that in some way, she also loved him in return.

It was just that--and oh god, admitting this to himself hurt far more than he would ever have imagined--he didn't see himself as ever being in love with her.

He may at one point have been in love with the idea of being in love with her. He'd built these extravagant visions of how they would one day wake up and realize that they were no longer the bratty little kids who'd teased and played with each other. From there--and he was kind of fuzzy on how all this would play out--they would wind up together in wedded bliss. Not that he had any idea of what wedded bliss was be like, but it seemed like the most logical and tidy ending.

At least, that's what he had thought. Any hints or indications that Momo's dreams might have been different had been ruthlessly ignored.

Just like he'd ignored so many other things that should have been obvious.

It seemed wrong that he should realize this now, of all times. But in a way, perhaps it was good that he did, because now he knew he could be there for her in the way she would need most; as her best and oldest friend.

He just wished he knew why it was so hard to let go of the idea that he might have been something more, even though he knew that idea wasn't something he even wanted to believe any more.

He reached over and stroked her hair, hoping against hope she knew he was there, that the contact might do something to help draw her out.

They would have a lot to talk about when all this was over, what with her willingness to believe he was a murderer, and his not knowing how to deal with her in her grief and madness. Still, he had no doubt they would find a way to put all that behind them.

He hoped he would be there for her when she woke up. It went without saying that he was doing his best to ignore that Unohana had more frequently been saying "if" instead of "when" in their discussions of Hinamori's prognosis. It was harder to ignore the fact that hovering by her bedside was not something he could allow himself to do, not if he wanted to be able to live with himself.

"I don't want to leave her!" he railed when Hyourinmaru asked him why he was so torn about remaining at her bedside. "I want to be here when she wakes up, but I just can't stay here doing nothing while Aizen is still out there! What good am I to her if I can't stop him?" He stopped to catch his breath, startled by his own vehemence.

He felt Hyourinmaru gather itself as it would before an attack. The next time the two of them faced Aizen, things would be different, he just knew it. When Hinamori woke up, he wanted to be able to tell her that the man who had manipulated her so cruelly would never be able to hurt her--or anyone else--ever again.

Just remember, Hyourinmaru said with unfamiliar gentleness, you'll have to let her grieve for him, too.

"What! I don't have to do any such thing!" he protested. A passing attendant poked her head in the room and asked if Hitsugaya-taichou would mind being just a little more quiet, and was everything all right?

Face burning with embarrassment, Hitsugaya fumed in silence as Hyourinmaru continued talking.

Toushirou, buddy, I've told you over and over that I know about these things. There was a weary note in the dragon's voice that Hitsugaya had never heard before. Listen to this old dragon. I've seen it all, and then some, multiplied by five. It didn't matter that the Aizen you all thought you knew was nothing more than an illusion. That little girl loved that illusion with all her heart. Anyone could see that.

"I didn't." He hadn't even been able to see what was in his own heart.

He heard a sharp bark of laughter. Yeah, but you're an emotional moron.

Hitsugaya couldn't help smiling a little at that. "You're just trying to make me feel better, aren't you?"

He looked back down at Hinamori, trying to tell himself that her face only seemed to be so frail and thin because it was overwhelmed by the bulk of the respirator mask.

"I just hope she can find the desire to live somewhere in all this mess." He swallowed hard against a lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. "Anyhow, what do you know about Tobiume?"

The dragon seemed puzzled. Tobiume? One of the flower-spirit zanpakutou, if that means anything to you. Good kid, kinda young, but I always thought he was a good match for your little friend there. Why?

He shrugged, and reached out again to stroke Hinamori's hair. It needed to be washed; he'd have to say something to one of the attendants. "No reason. I'm just hoping that her zanpakutou can be as persistent and as annoying and as doggedly protective as mine is."

I'll speak to Tobiume, if you like, Hyourinmaru quietly offered. See if maybe I can help out.

"Yeah," he said hoarsely, blinking back tears. "You do that."

o 0 o 0 o

For the weeks immediately following Aizen's betrayal, Hyourinmaru had dropped the Matsumoto question, seemingly for good. Even the random and unexpected commentary on his thoughts seemed to have tapered off.

Hitsugaya was grateful for the space at first, but he soon found that he missed the dragon's constant company more than he ever would have expected.

At least Matsumoto was there to listen to him as he tried to sort out what he was thinking about Momo. Well, at least she was there most of the time, he thought sadly as he found yet another note saying that she'd gone out drinking with Kyouraku, Kira, Hisagi, and any number of people who weren't him.

Nothing for it then but to throw himself into what little paperwork there was. He shouldn't have been so selfish and stupid as to count on Matsumoto's company for the evening. She had her own life, after all, and her own friends. She had better things to do with her free time than spend it with her commanding officer.

And if he was feeling a little bit jealous, he was going to ignore it for the irrational and infantile reaction it was.

Anyhow, why was he thinking about her all the time, anyway? It wasn't like Hyourinmaru was constantly needling him about his supposed affection for her of late.

He was tempted to summon the dragon, just for the company. Ever since it had let it slip to Hitsugaya that it often spoke to the other zanpakutou, Hyourinmaru had proven willing to offer slanderous--and downright hilarious--commentary on the natures of his colleagues' swords (Hitsugaya had spent the past three days avoiding Hisagi Shuuhei, because he didn't think he could look the other man in the eye without cracking up).

Then again, he didn't want to run the risk that Hyourinmaru might decide that now would be a good time to return to the matter of his feelings for Matsumoto. Hitsugaya was already thinking about her all too much without any prompting, thank you kindly. And so, he bent to the paperwork with a vengeance, allowing the columns of numbers and lines of bureaucratic minutia numb him into a comfortable stupor.

Eventually, he fell asleep at his desk.

When he woke up sometime in the early hours of the morning, he was surprised to find that he was comfortably ensconced on the office couch with a blanket draped over him. Someone had carried him to the couch and had covered him with a blanket, and he was reasonably sure that Hyourinmaru hadn't physically manifested itself in order to play nursemaid, because there were no tell-tale puddles of icy water on the floor.

After toying with the idea of getting up and heading to his own quarters, Hitsugaya went back to sleep, once again feeling that delicious sense of safety even though Matsumoto was long gone and Hyourinmaru had gone off to wherever it was he went when he wasn't Hitsugaya-pestering.

o 0 o 0 o

Looking back at it, Hitsugaya wasn't entirely sure why he insisted on going on the mission to the living world. Leaving his division without its leadership really wasn't the smartest thing he could have done, but for some reason, he wasn't comfortable with the idea of Matsumoto going off with Abarai and Madarame without some sort of supervision. The three of them knew how to get into some interesting trouble, and would certainly do so if saner heads weren't around to keep things in check.

At least, that's the reason he gave himself. Hyourinmaru had said nothing, but Hitsugaya had gotten the clear impression that the dragon was rolling its eyes.

The night before they departed, they got to try on their high school uniforms for the first time. No matter what his motives might have been for signing up, the wardrobe adjustments only went to prove that he'd made the right decision.

Barely twenty minutes after they'd been given their uniforms, the men's changing room was in utter chaos. Abarai was yelling at one of the Second Division espionage experts that he wasn't covering up his tats with no fucking makeup, no way, no how, even if he was in a fucking gigai. Ayasegawa was complaining bitterly to all and sundry about how his modifications to the uniform made it much more stylish, so why on earth were his suggestions being dismissed out of hand? As for Madarame, he had put on the pants and shirt, decided that they fit well enough, then slipped out the window and headed off to give the uniform a proper "breaking in" by wearing it to go out drinking with Hisagi and Iba. Hitsugaya didn't bother trying to pull them into line; he'd have plenty of other chances throughout the indefinite future.

He was a little surprised that Hyourinmaru wasn't saying much; the dragon was invariably intrigued by novel situations, especially ones that were rife with potential embarrassment for its wielder. In fact, the dragon seemed to be daydreaming, humming to itself blissfully as if not at all interested in the antics of Abarai and Company.

That should have alerted him to the fact that something was up, but he was too distracted by trying to figure out the whole necktie thing to pay it more than cursory notice.

And so, he was completely unprepared when he first got a good look at Matsumoto in the school uniform she'd be wearing in the living world. The wide-open shirt was no surprise. The skirt, or rather, the near lack of one, on the other hand...

"Well, taichou, what do you think?" She gave a little pirouette that sent he skirt twirling out around her. Out, and up.

He couldn't stop himself from staring.

Matsumoto had legs.

Well, yes, of course he knew she had legs, because she had to walk around on something, after all, but he'd never actually seen them before, and now here they were in all their glory, no longer hidden by the flowing black cloth of her uniform but out for everyone to see how long and shapely and firmly muscled they were, and oh it would be so easy for his eyes to keep on following the lines of those legs right up and under that too-short skirt, and damn those legs of hers were long...

He'd become reasonably immune to the allure of her breasts, partially due to exposure (and oh hell, exposure was exactly the wrong word to be using in these circumstances) and partially because he'd deliberately steeled himself against their charms.

Legs, on the other hand... He'd been completely unprepared, and so those magnificent, shapely limbs had sashayed right through defenses that had already been weakened to the breaking point by a certain dragon's nagging.

The only thing that kept him from making an utter fool of himself right there on the spot was the fact that Hyourinmaru would not stop sniggering in sheer malicious delight.

He was not at all surprised when the very next morning, Hyourinmaru's nagging resumed with a vengeance.

Part of what made it so annoying is that Hitsugaya now knew that it was only a matter of time before he gave in and said something to Matsumoto that he could never un-say.

When the inevitable finally happened, he would just have to figure out how he was going to live with the overwhelming humiliation of her rejecting him.

o 0 o 0 o

And so, that's how he found himself screaming in frustration in a back room of the Urahara Shoten.

A few minutes passed, and someone knocked on the door.

"Taichou? Are you all right in there?"

Of course.

Toushirou, buddy, need I point out that this is your golden opportunity?

He should tell her that everything was okay, and that she should just go back to her own room.


Okay. That was weird. He wasn't sure if it was Hyourinmaru who'd said that, or if it was, well, himself.

Hyourinmaru, of course, was not exactly forthcoming with any information on the subject.

"Everything's fine, Matsumoto," he said. He clenched his fists, took a deep breath, and jumped right in.

"Please, come in." He got to his feet. He was damned if he was going to talk to her about this when he was in bed.

She opened the door slowly and peered in. "Are you sure everything's okay?"

He nodded, and he could feel himself blushing beet red as she walked the rest of the way into the room.

"It's just that...well, there's been something on my mind for a while, something related to you, and, well, to me, and..."

Just say it already, you emotionally constipated twit!

"The thing is, I think I may be a little bit in love with you."

There. He'd said it. He'd told her what he felt, and against all expectation, the world had not ended. Yet.

You think you may be a little bit in love? What the hell kind of confession is that? Next thing you know, you'll be asking her to sign a disclaimer!

Despite Hyourinmaru's disgust, he must have done something right, because Matsumoto blinked in surprise, then smiled in a way that seemed to light up the entire room. And to think he had thought her legs were magnificent.

"Really?" Somehow, that didn't sound like a rejection. In fact, she sounded downright happy about what he'd just told her.

A smug, draconic I told you so echoed in his consciousness, but he found he didn't mind. Much.

Things could have come to a perfect resolution right then and there, but he felt he should throw in the disclaimer Hyourinmaru had mentioned, and maybe save them both from a horrible mistake. "It won't work, you know."

She raised an eyebrow. Somewhere in an adjacent dimension, Hyourinmaru was howling in frustration. "You sound awfully sure about that. Why?"

"There are any number of reasons." Any one of which should have been cause enough for him to scrap this venture before it even began. Or would have, if he was thinking clearly.

"'Any number of reasons,' huh?" He wasn't sure if Matsumoto was amused or dubious. It didn't make sense, but he kind of liked that he couldn't always tell if she wasn't being serious. She crossed her arms in front of her chest defiantly, and her next two words snapped out at him like a whip. "Name them."

It sounded like a dare.

He firmed his resolve. He may as well end things now, before it would hurt too much. "You're my subordinate. It's improper. In fact, it might even be against regulations."

She smirked. "Yeah, right. Like I'd honestly care about that."

Okay, so he hadn't really expected that one to work. "I'm still not entirely over my childhood friend. It's going to take me some time to work through that."

Matsumoto gave him a knowing smile. The smile had an edge of sadness that made something in his heart ache for her. "Oh, I might know a thing or two about that. I totally agree that rushing into a relationship right now would be a bad idea for both of us. That being said, I don't mind waiting if you don't. Besides, Hinamori's going to need your help for a good long while, isn't she? And you're going to give her that help because she's your friend, right?"

He didn't miss the implication that if he wasn't there for Hinamori, Matsumoto would be the one to kick his ass from one side of Seireitei to the other. Repeatedly.

His spirits were lifting, but there were still a few more things he really needed to address, even though they were starting to seem less and less important.

"I've been told that I'm an emotional moron."

She pursed her lips and tilted her head to one side, nodding a bit as she considered things. "Well, I wouldn't call that an insurmountable obstacle. I don't think you're a hopeless emotional moron."

That's right. Where there's love, there's hope. Besides, you've got me in your corner! I'll get you whipped into shape in no time!

Hitsugaya barely managed to restrain himself from blurting "shut up!" and causing the sort of misunderstanding that was only comical when it was happening to someone else.

"And... well, I don't think your zanpakutou likes mine very much."


Okay, that was a pretty lame excuse, but he was glad he'd mentioned it, because the way her eyebrows drew together when she was confused was absolutely adorable. Maybe it was silly of him to feel like that, but damn it was nice not to have to push thoughts like that aside as soon as he thought them.

"Look, just forget the whole zanpakutou thing. I have no idea where that came from. Anyhow..."

He took a deep breath. There was one more objection to raise, and this one was the one that bothered him the most, because he could easily imagine Rangiku balking at it as well.

"I'm much too young for you," he said. That wasn't all, but the next part was really hard to admit. "And besides, I... I'm still a child. Sort of."

"Yeah, that's true," she admitted with heart-wrenching cheer. He braced himself for the inevitable let-down. "But that'll only be the case for what, ten, twenty years tops?" She reached for his hand, but instead of just settling for clasping it gently, she grabbed tight and yanked him towards her so hard that he nearly toppled into her cleavage.

"Let's just say that I think you're the sort of guy who's worth waiting for," she said, winking at him. "And like I said before, I don't mind waiting."

She leaned down a bit and gave him a little kiss, not quite chaste, but just lingering enough that his lips tingled for a good long while after the kiss was over. Then she turned and walked off slowly, giving him a nice, long look at those legs as she did. And if there was a little extra sway in her hips as she left his room, he wasn't about to complain.

He just hoped he wouldn't have to wait too much longer. That could get a wee bit...uncomfortable.

You know, if you need me to, I can always cool off the bath water real fast.

"Shut up." He'd meant to be brusque, but it was hard to be brusque when you felt like laughing.

He headed downstairs to go see if they had received any more news about the Arrancar, trying and failing to ignore the smug singing echoing in the recesses of his mind.

Ran and Shirou, sitting in a tree...

Oddly enough, the singing wasn't as annoying as he remembered.