AN: It has been a long time. I have no one to blame but myself, but in my defense, it's not exactly easy writing well...squishy stuff. I'm sorry to say that I've really got to run off, which means no individual responses, except to one Bog Monster who's forced me to write A LOT back. Bog Monster, please go here to read if you wish: niftykins. livejournal .com/ 925. html
Cheru made it to the office without breaking a sweat while Hinamori collapsed into a chair. The girl wiped her brow and took in a couple of deep breaths. That was the most footwork she had done in years.
Cheru took a seat at her desk, marking off papers as if nothing had happened, or with the semblance of that. Hinamori sat up and twisted her mouth to the side of her face. She wasn't sure if she understood what was going on. She was afraid to even guess really. Could it be that this entire time her Captain had...feelings for Captain Ukitake? Hinamori almost snorted in delight. It was all too perfect and strange! She couldn't even imagine them going for a leisurely walk around Sereitei, let alone holding hands. Oh, these thoughts were just too bizarre for her. She coughed politely and covered her mouth.
"Are you ill, Hinamori," asked Cheru, her voice flat, shearing through Hinamori's thoughts like a knife.
"Oh no. I'm sorry, Captain," said Hinamori, trying to subdue herself.
But it made sense didn't it? The thought was a persistent barb in her side. Their...relationship, would account for all the strange behavior that had been going on. She had just been too out of it to really take notice. And to think, that Captain Ukitake returned any sentiment at all. While the idea was completely foreign to Hinamori, it seemed almost... She hesitated to even think the word.
She followed the flight of yet another high-priority envelope as it sailed into the trashbin.
"Did you say something, Hinamori?"
Hinamori's face flushed a bright red.
"I was just talking to myself"
Hinamori felt a fluttering sensation in her stomach. She just wanted to die inside. It was too ridiculous to be true.
The next morning, Cheru set off towards the Twelfth Division's headquarters in order to speak with Captain Mayuri. She found his building to be in stark contrast with hers. There were no people scurrying around going about their work. It was eerily silent and dark.
She cautiously opened the door with one hand and entered. The door ended up opening not to a room, but an elevator that slowly descended underground. Cheru felt testy in the grey steel box. Her entire body was tense as the elevator finally stopped, and the door opened once again.
"Captain Tsuikyuu," said Nemu quietly, welcoming her in.
"I've come to see Mayuri"
Cheru's eyes darted from place to place as she followed Nemu through the labyrinth of passageways. She found Mayuri's lab underground to be a completely different world than the one she had just come from. The bluish glow of countless computer screens illuminated things creepily, creating nightmarish images of the shinigami around her. Cheru wondered if any of these...mice that Mayuri had recruited had ever seen the light of day. The way they hunched over they keyboards and screens made it seem like they were conceived and birthed in the dark. Cheru passed a shinigami who took a brief moment to look at her. His eyes reminded her of those of a monster. She looked away quickly, choosing to walk a bit faster.
"Captain," said Nemu as they entered a larger room.
Cheru stepped out from behind Nemu.
Mayuri turned around from a computer console. The awful glittering look in his eyes appeared to be delight at her arrival.
Hinamori found herself lacking things to do. She had dutifully finished all of the remaining paperwork and deliveries that her Captain had left behind, and now stood outside her Division Headquarters, wondering what to do next. She saw people pass by, busy with their own business. Captain Ukitake was among the crowd. He walked at a leisurely pace with Captain Kyouraku. He seemed surprisingly unhappy. His hand went up with hardly any energy as he described something to his friend. The bags under his eyes looked darker than usual. Hinamori lips turned downwards in a slight frown. Her Captain's problems however, were her own. She had made that very clear from her behavior.
Hinamori rubbed her fingernails, trying to get her mind off of her Captain. She proceeded to bite her lip as she suddenly remembered her inappropriate behavior toward Hitsugaya earlier.
"Now would be a good time to apologize..." she murmured to herself.
Hinamori looked back at the office, then headed for the Tenth Division's Headquarters. She found her childhood friend with little effort. He was outside his office, looking towards the training square ahead of him with a crease in his brow. She couldn't help but smile. Hitsugaya was always so serious. She tried to suppress the spring in her step as she walked over to him. She put her hands behind her back.
"Hitsugaya!" she called out.
He turned around, his face still stern as he did so. Hinamori stopped short of hugging him and leaned forward, smiling. His features softened as she smiled.
"How are you, Hinamori?" he asked.
"I'm very well, thank you," she said cheerily.
He arched an eyebrow.
"Really? Have you been very busy? The work's not too hard, is it?" he asked, probing.
"No...it's fine. Captain Tsuikyuu's not as harsh as she looks"
"Hinamori, are you feeling well?" asked Hitsugaya suddenly, reaching for her hand.
Hinamori looked down in embarrassment. She wasn't sure how to react to this sort of show of emotion. She took a deep breath and looked up at Hitsugaya again, trying to smile bravely.
"I'm not under his spell anymore, Hitsuaya. I-I loved him, but it was all an act. I understand that now. Besides, how long was I going to just slack off?" She gave a nervous little laugh. "A Vice-Captain is always needed, right?"
Hinamori tensed as Hitsugaya placed a hand on her shoulder.
"Hitsugaya..." she said, her voice shaking just a bit.
There was an awkward silence as he looked deep into her eyes. He was beginning to scare her.
"I...am so proud of you," he said at last, giving a squeeze with his hand.
The tight coil of snakes in the pit of Hinamori's stomach finally loosened as Hitsugaya uttered these words.
"I-It really wasn't just me, Hitsugaya..." said Hinamori, trailing off as he let her go.
His blue-green eyes seemed less icy than usual. Hinamori was afraid he might cry. All of this was most unbecoming of her childhood friend. She reached out to him tentatively.
"Hi-," she started.
"I was just thinking about how much you've grown," he said curtly.
Hinamori's hand dropped to her side as he regained his composure. Hitsugaya cleared his throat and looked upwards into the sky for a moment. For the first time since the Aizen's betrayal, he felt tension leave his body. It seemed that he had been keeping himself more wound up than he had thought. Hinamori occupied such a large part of his heart...how could he not have noticed the stress growing day after day? He noticed Hinamori becoming increasingly worried about his strange behavior. He smiled, trying to dispel her fears.
"It's good," he finally said, "It's good and I don't want you to lose it. You've lost enough time as it is"
"Thanks...Hitsugaya," she said bashfully.
He nodded his head just slightly. There was another matter to take care of, however. It occured to him now that he had been too brash before. He gave a great aggravated sigh on the inside. Apologies never came easily.
"I have some things to do, Hinamori. I'll see you later," he said.
Hinamori waved bye as Hitsugaya walked away purposefully.
"Ukitake, I hope you aren't seeing me for medical reasons"
Ukitake stepped under the gazebo Unohana Retsu was standing in. She turned her serene face towards him, inviting whatever questions he had to be asked. He felt childish even thinking to ask her for help. Somehow, going to Shunsui was okay. Maybe it was because he was another man, or because he just inherently understood everything about him. Whatever the case was, it didn't make him feel like an ignorant five-year old boy...as it did now.
"No, that's not the case," he said.
"Is there anything else I can do for you then? You don't seem yourself"
Ukitake sighed, looking out towards the garden surrounding the gazebo. She was being far too cordial with him.
"I'm sorry, but I must be on my way. We can talk further if you don't mind walking," she said suddenly, moving to exit the space.
Ukitake followed, his mind spinning a bit with what he wanted to say, what he wanted to confess.
"There is a woman I have...fallen in love with..." he began.
Mayuri's ash-white fingers flew over the keyboard as he entered new information into the database. Cheru stood behind him, reading over his shoulder. She tried not to stand too close to him in fear of touching even his coat. His gave off a distinctive aura that she didn't care to near.
"So they're trying to find out what surprises I have planned for them," said Mayuri, sounding irritated and gleeful at the same time.
"There was hardly any strategy to their attack. Provocation of the defenses seemed most probable," said Cheru, trying to sound as clinical as possible.
"Hmph. I'll show the blundering idiot what it means to be the Captain of the Twelfth Division. I submitted a request to use modified souls against the Arrancar to the Commander-General. It defeats me why he hasn't approved it yet," said Mayuri, muttering to himself half the time.
"I'm sure he'll see reason," said Cheru, feeling uncommonly talkative. Perhaps it was the void the darkness underground made.
Mayuri brought up schematics onscreen. He pointed to the image of a blank-faced Arrancar-like entity.
"That is my Mod-Soul Arrancar Shock Unit," he said proudly, "A being synthesized from the modified souls and the remains of certain Arrancar I have...acquired. It's made to break Arrancar ranks, with brutal force of course," he looked over his shoulder towards Cheru with an awful grin.
"Of course," she echoed.
There was an awkward silence as he returned to typing. Cheru caught Captain profiles flashing in quick succession in the bottom right corner of the screen. Her name appeared for a moment and disappeared. She felt a chill. She didn't like the thought of being kept on file here.
"Captain Tsuikyuu, you wouldn't mind being part of a little experiment I have, would you?" he asked suddenly.
"If my report is done, I really must be going," she said, feeling the need to leave quickly.
"Pity," he said, and turned back to the screen, paying no more notice to her.
Cheru hurried out of the Twelfth Division's headquarters, saying a brief goodbye to Nemu along the way. As she exited the builing, she recoiled, shielding her eyes with an arm. The sun seemed unnaturally bright, and it took some time for her to adjust. She continued to squint as she made her way towards her Division Headquarters to get a little rest. She made out the figure of a familiar Captain making his way towards her. As if to mock her, several other Captains were strolling in that same area, including a certain one she had been avoiding for quite some time.
She picked up the pace, hoping that the future encounter was a mistake.
She had made it halfway across the square before Captain Hitsugaya skillfully intercepted her. She had absolutely no desire to jump through more political and emotional hoops for the short-statured shinigami, and tried to breeze past him as if she hadn't noticed him and had much more important matters to see to.
His voice made her freeze on the spot.
"Yes, Captain Hitsugaya," she said, turning around.
His brisk jog came to a halt as well. She could hardly see his chest rise and fall with the effort to keep up with her, but oddly enough, it was easy to notice him taking a deep breath. Cheru's first thought was that he was getting ready to shout at her again. She took a step back.
"Please," he started, in an unusually ceremonial fasion, "I've come to apologize"
Unohana's lively step had slowed into a leisurely stroll as Ukitake continued to talk. Awkward at first, he became increasingly expressive and desperate to convey to her exactly how he felt about Cheru. Unohana had taken the role of the listener as he poured out all his thoughts to her. By the time they had reached the courtyard square, he was spent; both phsyically and mentally. He had never realized how much he kept pent up inside him. It felt good to let it go. He felt like the floodgates had been opened, and everything had been washed away.
He looked out past several passing shinigami and he felt something clench his heart. It was as if all the waters that had been released were rushing back and buffetting him with all their might. His step faltered. She was there.
It was like nothing fazed her. Everything about her was the same, completely and utterly constant. She was an alabaster statue that had withstood the tests of time, through storm and sea. He caught a glimpse of her face, dismissive it seemed, distant...as always.
However, something was wrong with this picture. Where she should have been alone, she wasn't: Hitsugaya was with her, speaking about what, he did not know. Ukitake felt something new and ugly crawl into him, making him slowly ball his hands into fists and his body shake. Was this jealousy? He scoffed at the mere idea, then covered his face with his hands.
"What do I do?" he asked, his voice hoarse.
Unohana had been standing there for some time, but she did not rush her words.
"Ukitake, you need no reassurance that you're a good man"
"Then why won't she accept me?" his normally strong and confident voice sounded too meek to be his. He did not face Unohana and instead, looked longingly into the distance.
"The question you are confronted with is not one of your chivalry. If anything Ukitake, you are too much of a gentleman. I must admit that women are strange creatures, but it is so clear to everyone that she accepted you long ago. You just couldn't believe it, and haven't been able to see it since. For all your inner strength and fortitude Ukitake, you are such a scared man. Captain Tsuikyuu, for I have not earned her friendship so that I can call her as you do, shields herself for reasons I'm sure you very well know. You have gone so far with her, but cannot bring yourself to make the final thrust. You should ask yourself, why are you so afraid?"
He turned his head to her slowly, unwillingly, as if the wind was moving him there.
"Unerring kindness can only reach so far," she said, her eyes meeting his.
Cheru did not know how to respond, and so stood there, waiting for Hitsugaya to continue. He looked up at her, determined to go through with it.
"I have been too overprotective of Hinamori, and too critical of you. Believe me when I say that I wasn't thinking straight when I had taken out my anger on you. It was uncalled for and childish of me. I also...wanted to thank you for what doing I couldn't do. I was unable to fulfill my role as her guardian, instead, trying to shield her from everything possible, whether it be harmful or beneficial. Though it may not have been your intention, you helped her become an independent person again. You--"
He paused, his lips thinning into a straight line.
"You essentially brought her back to life. And for that, I am forever indebteded to you"
A million things were going through Cheru's mind. The most prominent was a sense of paralyzing shock and a solemn disbelief of the events going on now. Who was she to be congratulated, apologized to, or thanked? Although on the outside, it was probable that her countenance had not changed in the slightest, she felt quite faint. With some effort, Cheru worked to gather the words which to address Hitsugaya with.
Ukitake's eyes were closed.
He felt like a hypocrite. All this time he had been preaching to others to be strong when he couldn't do the same when it really mattered.
For once, Ukitake, swallow your ridiculous self-sacrificing pride and walk up to her! he shouted at himself.
And his body began to move.
His first jerky and hesitant steps turned into more purposeful strides. The scenery around him became blurred and hazy. The only thing clear in his field of vision was her. And soon he was close, he could smell the faint scent of plum blossoms. She turned. He reached out to hold her arm in a none too gentle grip. His mouth spoke of its own accord.
"Tsuikyuu Cheru, I love you"
Cheru's ears were ringing, and yet, she could still hear his words loud and clear. She clenched her teeth and closed her eyes. It wasn't true! No one could love her because--
"I love no one" the words left her lips, cold as ice.
'You love no one...and it never occurred to you that I might mind'
'And who are you to judge?' a younger her said impulsively, 'You're just--'
Ane stared back at her. It was difficult to tell whether if she was on the verge of a breakdown, or not, '...I'm you'
Cheru felt overcome by a flood of memories and emotions she had buried. She struggled to keep her face passive. It was impossible. He looked down at her with such passion and tenderness that she felt herself crumbling. She grabbed the arm that was holding her and pulled herself towards him, placing her head in the hollow of his neck.
For the first time in her life, she felt utterly safe.
A moment passed where they stood there, without words or movement. The rising and falling rhythyms of each others chests comforted them, told them that they were still alive. And as if to say 'no more hiding', Ukitake lifted Cheru from him, forcing her to look at him in the eye.
He had never seen a more beautiful disaster.
The facade she had built was smashed. Pieces of it littered the ground and glittered in the sun. Tears streaked her face like the trackmarks of hundreds of fairies. The brushed aside the remnants, reaching over to remove several more fragments. He cupped her face with his hands.
"I lied," she whispered so quietly that he could barely hear.
Ukitake nodded and gave a little smile.
"You had me fooled"
Hitsugaya had excused himself some time back. He had done what he set out to do. And besides, he was no good at private moments.