One year later...

Striding through the corridors of Third squad, Hitsugaya Toushirou fought the uncharacteristic urge to whistle a jaunty tune as he made his way towards the main offices. Not that it was so terribly unusual for him to be in a pleasant mood these days (or at least somewhat removed from grumpy), but the outward expression of it was just not like him. Still, for once he was feeling downright mischievous, and even his normal patience was curtailed by his eagerness to share his mood.

So, as he rounded the corner leading him to the administrative office, it should not have surprised him that something would spring up to try to rob him of his lightheartedness, that 'something' arriving in the form of a blad-robe-clad projectile that hurtled through the air in front of him as if catapulted from the office. As Hitsugaya jerked to a halt to avoid collision, the black blur finished its trajectory by bouncing off the opposite wall and landing in a crumpled heap on the floor.

"And don't come back until drill scores are the top in the Gotei 13!! And do NOT tell me it's impossible to outdo Eleventh - those bloodthirsty maniacs have held the post for far too long, it's time someone gave them a run for their money!" The command, laced with fury and determination, cut through the air like a zanpaktou, a subliminal growl underscoring its intensity.

The crumpled heap lept into a proper seiza, forelocks brushing the floor. "Yes, SIR!" The crouching figure barked confidently back, but as he reassembled himself into the Third squad lieutenant and beat a hasty retreat, Hitsugaya could see the terror and doubt whitening the man's eyes. "Right away, SIR!"

Shaking his head with a grimace, and checking to ensure no more Seats might be flying through the air, Hitsugaya carefully peeked his head around the doorframe to take in the room. "Keep that up, and you won't have anyone left to order around."

Matsumoto-taicho issued a massive snort. "There's always more of them, and each one lazier than the last. Is it too much to ask that they manage drills without falling over from exhaustion or slicing each other by accident?? On purpose I wouldn't mind, but they're so damn clumsy!" Amber waves tossed in annoyance as Hitsugaya entered the room and drew closer to the desk over which Rankigu was hunched.

"You do realize what you sound like, right?" Toushirou muttered dryly, noting with no small satisfaction the stacks of paperwork covering the mahogany surface of her desk.

"Oh, shut up," Rangiku growled, trying to cover the hint of a curl at the corner of her plump lips. "I've been up since dawn and I haven't made a damn dent in the paperwork. How the hell is anybody supposed to do this??"

"It usually helps to have a good lieutenant..." Ducking the predicatble swing at his head, Hitsugaya neatly flitted closer and planted a quick kiss on Rangiku's temple. Blue eyes turned to regard him with mock suprise.

"Hitsugaya-taicho - this is the administrative office! Such behavior is completely inappropriate, and I must heartily object..." An objection that died as Toushirou captured her lips in an enthusiastically-returned kiss.

Breaking away just shy of asphixiation, Hitsugaya ruffled her hair and gazed down affectionately. "How are you holding up?"

"I'm not," Matsumoto grumped, slumping back in chair in a dramatic display of despair and cleavage. "Gods, this place is such a mess. If I had known how much work I'd have to do to get this squad into decent shape, I would have taken the white haori a decade ago. Their drill scores are abominable, at least a dozen seats deserve raises that are years overdue, the housing is fucked and you don't even want to know what the hell butterfly cotes look like." She snorted again; she seemed to be developing quite a repetoire. "There may be debates on their substantiability, but leave their cages uncleaned for a decade and I'll show you some awfully substantial poop." Hitsugaya, overwhelmed whith memories of his very own Rangiku skipping that particular chore at any given excuse, fought with all the presence of a saint to keep his face from twitching into a triumphant grin. Especially when Rangiku's face dipped into an all-too-serious frown. "That's not the worst though. Morale sucks. I mean, it's really abyssmal." She sighed. "Gin really did a number on these guys. I don't know what he was tring to mold them into, but it's as if they're lost without him. The squad has no identity of its own."

Histugaya rubbed her shoulder soothingly, her instant groan compelling him to move behind her chair and massage out some of the knots he found. "So, give them an identity."

"How?" It was nearly a wail, Rangiku's stunning blue eyes gazing plaintively into his green ones.

"You've done it before," Toushirou replied quietly with a tiny shrug. "You claimed yourself back, once. And it's thanks to you that Leiko is even alive."

Rangiku flushed with pleasure. "Well, it wasn't all me. Everyone helped pull that off, and it was Leiko's decision, really." She shifted, making a valient attempt to be concilliatory even as she beamed with maternal pride. "And it's not like it was easy for her, changing sides like that. At least she and Shuuhei are starting to make some real strides in Rukongai. That's helping, I think..." Now worry took it's turn on Rangiku's face, a mother hen fretting over her chick.

"Hisagi's helping, you mean," Hitsugaya muttered gruffly, with benign approval. What had once been blossoming regard had turned into a full-fledged atomic eruption, despite Shuuhei's efforts at being circumspect, and it didn't take long in their presence for anyone to pick up on the dynamic that had sprung up between the captain and former rebel. It had sparked an almost-jealousy with Rangiku at first, but once enough familiarity had been bred for some all-out mother-daughter girl sessions, things had settled out nicely. As long as Toushirou didn't dwell on the one or two girl-talks he'd been unfortunate enough to stumble across and the stunning realization that women really did tell each other everything...

Rangiku grinned impishly at him. "Well, she does take after her mother you know, and if there's one thing I can pass down it's how to bag a good Captain..."

That statement demanding another round of inappropraite office behavior, which oddly enough Rangiku broke off first.

"Toushirou, I have too much work to do-" she protested half-heartedly.

"When has that ever stopped you?" He quirked in reply. "Take a break, assuming you remember how. You of all people can't afford to be caught working too much. You have a reputation to uphold."

Rangiku stared at him wide-eyed, noting the playful grin toying across his face. "Toshi, what has gotten into you?"

"Nothing," he quipped. "Just a little suprise, if you're up for it."

As if she could refuse him anything when he was in this anomalistic mien. "A surpise? What kind of surprise?" Her tone was decidedly liscentious, but her eyes darkened in confusion when he took her hand to started to lead her out of the room with a roll of those stunning aqua eyes.

"Not everything has to be about sex, you know," he snorted, tugging her out of the office and down the hall. "Besides, I have to show you." Without another word, he led them outside and started flitting them across rooftops.

"Show me?," Rangiku quipped back, frowning. "Were are we going?"

"Someplace special," Toushirou replied, dropping them out of shunpo in front of the senkai gates.

Rangiku blinked and stared at it as if she'd never seen a portal before. "We're going to the real world? Why!?"

"You'll see," was the enigmatic reply. "Don't worry, it's not an assignment."

"A personal trip?" This was getting more and more interesting. "But I'm not dressed..."

"Taken care of." Hitsugaya flashed her one of his rare, mischievous smiles.

"What do you mean, 'taken care of'? How would you-?" Rangiku stopped in her tracks, flabergasted. "You went shopping??"

Toushirou didn't reply, nodding instead at Ukitake who, as usual, was holding the gate open. "Everything set?"

"Hai, Toushirou-kun," the elder captain replied jovially, missing Hitsugaya's faint grimace at the nickname. "Have fun - and good luck!"

"'Good luck'?" Rangiku repeated, abruptly frowning. "Toshi, what are you up to?"

"I told you," With another smile and an insistant tug, Toushirou pulled them into the gate. "It's a surprise."

One final snort. "It'll be a cold day in hell when you pull a surprise over on me..."

"Toshi - you finally took me out drinking!!"

Hitsugaya grimaced. "It's not 'drinking'. It's 'tasting'..."

Or at least it was supposed to be. This particular region of the real world was known for its exceptional vineyards and stellar wineries and, looking for an activity that both he and Rankigu could enjoy, wine-tasting seemed like the perfect thing. The locations were gorgeously laid out with many fine examples of architecture and ambience, the wine makers jovial and exceedlingly well-mannered and educated, and the vintages were some of the best that could be had. It was a far cry from the type of sake dive Rangiku was prone to haunt, but with the opportunity for circumspect imbibement of top-quality wines to keep her interest while Hitsugaya reveled in the calm and composed company, it was a clear marriage of interests. Surely, among people and beverages of such renowned, even Rangiku should have been able to absorb and reflect some of the decorum and pleasantry around them.

That had been the plan, anyway. This was their third winery, and dammit if she wasn't working on rounding a solid buzz into downright drunk. To Toushirou's annoyance, a gorgeous woman with an out-of-this-world rack had no trouble at all getting heavy pours on every wine sample and as many refills as she winningly requested. Her glass was never empty and dammitall if she was even tasting the stuff as it went down.

"Gods, it's been forever since I've gone out - this was an awesome idea!!" Rangiku squinched her nose at him and smiled in a way that Toushrou hated to admit melted something in his stomach. "I can't believe you got permission for this!!"

Hitsugaya shrugged, trying to look unconcerned. "I owed you a date. Although, it was considerably harder to get a day off for two captains..."

"I know! I haven't had time off to go drinking in Sereitei all year, much less this!" And expansive arm sweep took in the beautifully appointed tasting room and the human tourists around them. "You must have had a damn good story to get Old Farty Pants to allow it." Despite her appearant intoxication, blue eyes sparkled a little to keenly at him.

"I managed." Hitsugaya shifted, the hairs on the back of his neck raising; he had the sneaking suspicion that she was fishing for information while his conscious brain hoped she was just too drunk to know what she was saying. Glancing at her and trying to be nonchelant, his lips curled downward in suspicion.

Said drunkard giggled and flicked his nose. "You're cute when you frown."

"So you've told me." About a million times. Noting that his partner was starting to sway, ever so slightly, Hitsugaya sighed. "Come on - there's one more to go before dinner."

Thanking the winemakers a little too effusively, Rangiku finished her last swallow and tottered toward the entrance. "Oh no, I couldn't possibly-" Catching her elbow as she tripped just a little at the door, Hitsugaya threw her a look of near-disgust as she giggled. "Well, okay - ONE more. If you insist."

The limo ride to the final destination was a little interesting; trying to get enough water and soda crackers into Rangiku to sober her up a bit was made more difficult by the narrow, winding road their extended vehicle was attempting to navigate. One particularly sharp turn had the Third captain thrown into an inelegant splay across Hitsugaya's lap; giggling, she looked up at him.

"Are you taking me to the ends of the earth?" Again, blue eyes seemed a little too clear for it to be a casual inquiry. Heading off her subtle snooping, Hitsugaya stuffed another cracker in her mouth.

"I told you." He couldn't help smiling a little as she spluttered around the crumbs; dammit if she wasn't awfully cute. "We're going someplace special."

Indeed it was; Hitsugaya felt no small amount of satisfaction as the limo rounded the final corner and, pitching up an elegantly landscaped driveway, pulled into their final destination. Situation amidst picture-perfect hills and rolling valleys, a beautifully weathered barn sat at the end of a wide expanse of impossibly green grass. The sun was just touching the tops of the hills, and all around them ordered rows of fruit-laden grapevines marched off into the descending dusk. Rangiku gasped, her inebriation vanishing as she was captivated by the pastoral scene before her. She barely even waited for the limo to come to a halt before she was tumbling out of the vehicle.

"Toshi - it's beautiful!" She whirled around, trying to take it all in at once.

"I knew you would like it." Exiting with considerably more grace, Toushirou drew up behind her carrying her wrap; cream colored and luxuriant, it set off her auburn hair and complimented the deep saphire-toned cocktail dress he'd bought for her, with only a little help from Orihime and a lot of ribbing from Ichigo. Adjusting his own baby-blue button down shirt and wondering again why he'd was adamantly warned not to tuck it into his off-white khakis (it just didn't feel right, hanging out like that, dammit!), he gently placed her wrap around her shoulders.

Shivering slightly in the cooling evening air, Rangiku looked at him with glowing eyes that twisted into a slight frown. "It's awfully late, are you sure they're still open?"

"I'm sure." Smiling warmly, he drew her close. Turning her towards the nearest hill, sprinkled with the gnarled vines of the oldest grapes on the property, he started walking them towards it.

"Oooh, how cute!! There's a door in the hill!" Rangiku all but bounced on her toes and clapped her hands, grinning at him.

It was all he could do not to grin back. "They store all their barrelled wines in caves, and their tasting room is in there, too. It's pretty unigue, and I thought you'd want to see it." Pulling open the heavy oak door, he drew back as Rangiku took one step inside before drawing a gasp.

The 'cave' was hardly a cave in the rustic sense. Engineered and modelled after the wine caves of Europe, it was open and spacious, with even walls and a high ceiling decorated with wrought iron light fixtures designed to look like crawling grapewines. Along each side of the passageway, barrels full of aging wine were racked, disappearing into the distance. In between the racks and lining the walkway, hundreds of candles lit the space in a warm glow and banished all shadows and gloominess. Somewhere, music was playing, a sensual and intricate jazz piece that set the mood at elegently romantic. No one else was in sight; at that late hour, they appeared to be the only occupants of the cave.

Enchanted, Rangiku walked into the cave as if she were sleep-walking. "Toshi..." she breathed, staring about her with wide eyes and a faint smile of pure shock. "This is gorgeous."

"I thought you'd like it," Toushirou murmurmed, coming up behind her and wrapping his arms around her waist. Nuzzling into her hair, he breathed her in. "I wanted to bring you somewhere really special..."

Rangiku found herself at a total loss for words, but as usual she didn't let that stop her. Twisting around in his arms, she forstalled what sounded like the beginnings of a verbose, pre-planned speech by capturing Toushirou's mouth with hers. The passionate kiss was richly returned for long moments before he stiffened, pulling back a hair and trying again to say something.

"Rangiku, I wanted to-"

"I think I'm done tasting wines," Rangiku murmured, having none of it, chasing him until her lips were pressed to his again. "I'd rather taste you," she breathed into his mouth, her hands pulling at him insistently. Another odd hesitation on his part, and then with a growl he gave in, clutching her back with urgency and drawing her in between two stacks of barrels. Pulling her around and pressing her insistently against the wall, their kiss deepened as their hands started pulling at the cumbersome human clothing.

"Oh, it's just too beautiful!!"

The cry echoed around the cave, freezing Toushirou and Rangiku mid-strip as an angry whisper chased it.

"Shut UP, baka! You're too damn loud, you're going to ruin everything."

"You're even louder." The voice was unmistakeable; Rangiku could practically hear the tossing of perfectly bobbed hair. "And if anything is going to ruin this lovely moment, it's your ugly face."

"Shut it, you bastard-" A noisy thump resounded.

Seeting themselves to hasty rights, Rangiku and Toushirou emerged into the supposedly-empty cave. Growling, Toushirou whirled around, searching behind the stacks of barrels. Shock and annoyance vibrated along his frame as he rounded on the first hint of movement he saw. "Yumichika - what the hell are you doing here!?"

Ayasegawa emerged from behind a barrel, preening. "Hitsugaya-toushirou, you cannot expect me to help set all this up and not be here for-"

"Shut up, idiot!" Candlelight shone dully off a shaven pate hiding behind a neighboring barrel. "You have the sense of a donkey-"

"Ikkaku!?" Hitsugaya looked like he was ready to spit molars. "How many people followed you here, Yumichika!?"

Another dainty preen accompanied by a faintly guilty blush. "Only the very specialist of people, Hitsugaya-toushirou...surely you wanted this moment to be-"

"Private," Toushriou snarled.

Yumichika looked aghast. "But - how could it be beautiful without your dearest friends?!"

As Hitsugaya tried to figure out which of Yumichika's body parts he would remove first, he heard an odd sound behind him and whirled around. Rangiku was nearly purple with the effort of not laughing. He nearly turned purple himself. "It's not funny-!!"

"No, it's hysterical!" Rangiku objected, her laugh burlbling free as she took his hand soothingly. "Obviously, you planned to surprise me, and now you've been surprised in return. I think it's adorable - and it's what you get for trying to pull one over on me! Never try to surprise Matsumoto Rangiku!" She thumped herself heartily in the chest with a thumb, but before Hitsugaya could refute, another head poked out from behind a barrell.

"Is it time to jump out yet?" Ukitake looked torn between revealing himself and missing his cue. From behind him, a suspiciously pink shadow rumbled in admonishment.

"Jyuush, of course it isn't - he hasn't even asked her yet." The warm, rich voice of Shunsui floated along laced with humor. "He'd better get on with it, though - if Yachiru has to wait much longer this could get ugly-"

"Ask me what?" Rangiku turned inquisitive eyes toward Toushirou, who was sighing in defeat and pinching the bridge of his nose. Resigned, and trying not to wonder how many others were hiding behind the barrels, he met her gaze and drew her closer.

"I wanted to do this...differently. Just the two of us." Another glare that failed to wilt Yumichika, who was nearly vibrating with anticipation and grinning like a fool. "But I guess...I'll just..." Taking a deep breath, he looked deeply and resolutely in her eyes.

"Matsumoto, you know I'm not good at this sort of thing. Words don't come easily to me, nor does using them to express emotion. But surely you know by now that I love you." Halting, he shook his head. "It's more than that, actually, and for once I cannot afford to assume you know my heart." Stunned into silence, all Rangiku could do was stare, mouth slightly open, as Histugaya seemed to draw from deep within himself. "You are my very life. I do not know what I would do without you. Every moment I get to spend with you is...precious to me. You have earned my trust and my devotion a hundred times over. You have loved me more than I thought possible, drawn out parts of my I didn't think existed." His voice grew rough as he gripped her hands tighter. "You've melted my frozen heart from the very beginning, and it is completely yours. I offer it to you, and-" his breath hitched as her eyes started to widen in dawning realization. "It would be the greatest honor if you would give me yours in turn. For eternity."

You could have heard a pin drop. By the time Rangiku found her voice, she barely recognized it.

"Are you...asking me to marry you?"

It was more of a hitch than a nod, as he drew her close, foreheads touching and eyes centimeters apart. "Matsumoto Rangiku, wielder of Heineko, captain of the Third squad, partner and lover..." A faint grin started to curl his lips. "Wilder than the ocean, beautiful as daybreak, fierce and strong and free..." It was all they could do to stand upright, they were both trembling so hard. "Will you consent to be my wife?"

And then he stood there, pinning her with aquamarine eyes deeper than the heart of the ocean, waiting with an air of expectation and a sort of quiet uncertainty that betrayed his nerves. He reminded Rangiku of the boy she had first met all those years ago, the breathatkingly powerful man-child that had just been named captain, assuming a duty well within the scope of his intelligence but far beyond his young experience. Certain he was doing the right thing, but uncertain if he could do it alone. The very qualities and earnestness that had first drawn loyalty out of her confused, damaged heart, that had inspired her to be the best lieutenant and partner she could be and, years later, had drawn her out of the pit of despair and rewarded her with a love she had never dreamed of having.

A love she would never in a million years refuse.

Rangiku never knew if she actaully verbalized the "yes", but she would never forget the feeling of a ring slipping onto her shaking finger. Within seconds the cave eruped with a tidal wave of congratulations as dozens upon dozens of figures detached themselves from the shadows, and the full force of the Gotei 13 and every human friend besides descended on the newly-engaged couple in a tidal-wave of effusive goodwill.

The evening got delightfully out of hand from there. Yumichika, who had been employed to help make the supposedly-private proposal as beautiful and romantic as possible (even Toushirou had to acceed to his expertise in both areas, much to his eventual chagrin), went all-out in throwing the biggest engagement bash imaginable. Despite a few notable absences (Yachiru was being babysat by a beleagured Ikkaku, for once unaccompanied by Kenpachi who'd declared he had much better things to do that go to a pansy-ass party; Yamamoto-sutaicho, who had never attened such a soire in the living memory of even Ukitake or Shunsui; and Mayuri, for which everyone was blisfully thankful and who had, in all earnestness, not even been invited), the cave was near to bursting with delighted friends. A drawn-back curtain revealved an entire section of the cave that had been adorned with a well-appointed banquet table, more candles and flowers by the boatload. The invited smells of dinner wafted among the celebrants, who were rather swift in parting the guests of honor.

Rangiku was almost instantly swept away by an avalanche of squealing womenfolk, and even before Toushirou could protest a strong hand gripped his shoulder and whirled him around even as it kept his weak knees from collapsing entirely. Pink floral fabric and a wine glass filled his vision.

"Here - drink this." The deep red vintage was pressed to Hitsugaya's lips despite his protest. "Go on - you need it. You look like you're about to pass out cold." Shunsui somehow managed to be affable and insistant at the same time, a good-natured laugh crinkling the corners of his eyes.

Since there was a measure of truth to the estimation, Toushirou's protests that he did not drink died as he indulged in a healthy swallow. It was a delicious vintage, and the warmth spread almost instantly through his stomach. Some measure of strength returned to him as he threw Shunsui a grateful glance.

"See? Drinking isn't always bad." A wink and he was gone, pushed back by a stern-looking Ukitake.

"You do look paler than usual," offered Ukitake, the proverbial pot, pushing Toushirou into a chair. "Here, you should sit down." No sooner had he made a lap than a little pink bundle of effervescence was firmly planted in it.

"Yay - Whitey-chan!" Yachiru shrieked, hugging Toushirou with a strength all out of proportion with her size. With all seriousness, she gazed up at him with deep brown eyes. "Ken-chan says if you screw this up, he'll kick your ass!"

"Language!" Ikkaku roared, trudging up behind his charge and tossing a roguish grin at Hitsugaya. "Yeah, congrats and all that shit...Ukitake - knock it off, she's hyper enough already!" The last was directed to the aforementioned's discreet attempt to sneak Yachiru a chocolate bar while no one was watching. Blushing, Ukitake froze, but not before Yachiru had noticed the shiny wrapping. With a squeal and a snatch, the pixie was off and running with bulging cheeks while Ikkaku took off after her, cursing like a sailor.

Renji filed in with a roguish grin of his own, offering his own murmured well-wishes until Byakuya drifted up behind him and he disappeared with a slight flush coloring his tatooed cheeks. The Kuchiki's comments were nothing if not noble and well-bred, while Soi Fong's words were clipped and almost accusatory, for no reason Toshirou could discern. Ichigo was dragged over by a hyperventilating Rukia and only managed to roll his eyes at Toushriou before he was yanked along to join the group of women fawning over Rangiku and the enormous ring. A very chipper Orihime forced both Ishida and Chad to say a few words, and even Urahara made a brief appearance, winking crudely and somehow managing to get in a congratulations without anyone noticing he was there. A few others drifted by until Yumichika showed up with a conternating cluck and ushered everyone off to dinner. For a moment, Toshirou lingered, a slight disappointment stealing through him as he failed to find two very important faces in the crowd. But it wasn't long before Yumichika found him and seated him next to a beaming and radiant Rangiku at the front of the table, and after that he was incapable of thinking about anything else at all.

It was hours before they could escape from the elaborate dinner and celebration, but some time between the cake and the endless congratulatory speeches (which seemed to have been written all by Yumichika, as everyone read them off of cards and Ayasegawa freaked if they missed so much as a printed word), Toshirou and Rangiku managed to sneak off together. As the dining and revelry continued unabated in the cave below their feet, they escaped up the hill, darting between rows of gleaming grapevine. At the top of the hill, they found a picturesque, sprawling oak and were just looking for a cozy spot to settle down then Rangiku whirled around at a whisp of spirit power approaching behind them.

"You came!" Rangiku shrieked, launching herself at the two slender figures emerging from the darkness. "Don't tell me you missed it??"

Calmly fielding her mother's effusive hug, Leiko chuckled. "No, we didn't; we were hiding behind the merlot. We just thought we'd catch you guys alone...later." For a moment, she looked awkward; it was still hard for her to be comfortable around so many shinigami at once, although she tried to avoid reminding her mother of her difficulties fitting in. Throwing her arms around Rangiku, Leiko crushed her in a hug that proved, in itself alone, that she was a Matsumoto. "Wouldn't have missed it for the world!"

"Couldn't have missed it if we wanted to; Yumichika practically papered Sereitei when you weren't looking," Hisagi muttered drolly, strolling in behind her. He tossed Hitsguaya a wry grin. "Congratulations."

As Hitsugaya nodded in manly acceptance, Leiko pulled back and glowered at him. "Yeah, took you long enough." Then she slipped into a mischievous grin. "Not having any doubts, are you?"

"About the marriage, no." Hitsugaya allowed. "But if the engagement was anything to go by, I might be a little terrified of the wedding."

Rangiku scoffed. "Yumichika planned that - whatever posessed you to go to him of all people??" Diving back into Hitsugaya's arms, she snuggled in. "No one is planning the wedding but me."

Toushirou frowned down at her. "And me," he added. He couldn't see the look on her face, but the pause she let hang was definitely a hair too long.

"Of course," she said too brightly. "But you don't want to be bothered about every little detail, do you? And it just so happens that I am great with details! Leave it all to me..." With a coquettish look, she drifted back in the direction of Leiko, where the two commenced an instant and hearty nattering.

Hitsugaya watched them with a frown. "Why do I feel like I've already lost any say in this?"

"Hey, you dug your own grave," Hisagi retorted, watching Leiko with a faint grin.

A white eyebrow quirked heavenward. "And you haven't?" The men shared a moment of comraderie before Hitsugaya's tone turned more serious. "How is she doing, really?"

Hisgai was silent for a moment, appreciating the shift in mood. "It's harder for her than she lets on, but she's determined. The initial reception in Rukongai to the change in plans was a blow, but it's getting better now. They're starting to see that improving their own lot in afterlife is a better medium for change than attacking Sereitei, but since upheaval was the carrot that got them to follow her in the first place..." Hisagi shrugged, a mountain of implication in the gesture. "The SMC has been instrumental, laying counter rumors to undo Leiko's original damage, but change comes slowly." Watching the women chattering on happily, Shuuhei's mood twisted into wry levity. "And it's not like patience is one of her strong suits..."

Hitsugaya snorted impressively, his own lips twisting. "Tell me about it. You'd better watch out, or you're going to get buried under subtle hints." Few things stir up a woman's urge to nest than someone getting married, or so he'd been told by, like - everyone.

Never were truer words said. "Oh gods, the ring is gorgeous!" Leiko exclaimed, a little too loudly. "How much does a diamond that big cost??" She managed, without looking away from Rangiku's hand, to give the impression that she was staring holes into Hisagi's head.

The dark captain beside him gulped, so Hitsugaya leapt to the rescue with a neat diversion.

"It's not a diamond," Hitsugaya interjected softly. "I hope you don't mind - I wasn't trying to be cheap or anything, I just thought you might like this better. It's ice." At Rangiku's shocked expression, he hunched his shoulders. "It's better than perfectly clear, and I had Urahara help me design the faceting. It will never shatter or crack, or melt. I swear." Mother and daughter continued to gape at him; Hitsugaya shuffled his feet anxiously. "You still have that ice rose, so I thought...I could get you something else, if you don't like it-"

The rest was lost as Rangiku launched herself into his arms and captured him in a spine-tingling kiss.

"Oh, Toshi. It's perfect."

It wasn't long after that when the night was rendered with the boistrous sounds of the dissipating part below. Egged on by the dispersing shinigami, Leiko and Shuuhei melted away into the shadows, leaving the newly-engaged couple to finally enjoy a moment's peace.

Finally alone, they snuggled into a spot at the bottom of the sprawling oak and watched shinigami slipping away to Sereitei through the senkai gate that had been erected in a field below. In the distance, the rising moon glittered off the surface of a large and silent lake, the night-cry of loons wafting musically on the night breeze. Above them, stars twinkled in the velvet sky. The soothing sounds of night were a relief after the unexpected revelry, and for a long time they sat curled up together, letting the magic of the evening and their new status sink in.

Finally, just as the faintest hints of dawn approached, Toushirou murmured into Rangiku's hair. "What are you thinking about?"

It was several minutes before she answered, her voice more sober than he was expecting. "About a lot of things. Everything, kind of. Us, mostly. And all the things that have lead us to this point." Rangiku leaned into his embrace as he tightened his arms around her. "It's been quite a journey with you, Hitsugaya Toushirou."

"All that's over now," he whispered, kissing her lobe.

In response, Rangiku turned and slowly pushed him to the ground, whispering back.

"No, it's not over. It's just beginning."