Gracious, you're still here. You certainly have hung in there to the (hopefully, not so) bitter end.

Congratulations to you!

You know the drill: Bleach belongs to Tite Kubo.


Chapter 37

Take Care of This Heart of Mine**


Suddenly…

In every language there is a way of expressing: "what just happened?" Sometimes the experience is too mind-numbing to convey in speech except for an outburst of some expletive here or there. This has never been something experienced by one certain shinigami in the Seireitei.

Except for now.

Hitsugaya taicho, possessor of the mightiest ice zanpakutou in the whole of Soul Society never pictured or even conceived the thought that he would ever suffer from the problem of being unable to articulate anything he needed to say. The… hell…. was all that came to him while standing next to Momo on the bottom of the stairs of the First Division's office building and blinking in the bright early afternoon sunlight.

It took a few moments to adjust to the light and as if coming out of a daze, the silver-haired youth rubbed his eyes before looking over at Momo to check on how she was doing. From the dazed expression on her face, it didn't appear that she was faring any better.

As if feeling his pointed gaze examining her, Momo turned to face him full on and he was concerned yet feeling oddly consoling to see the vacant expression in her eyes. It was the kind of expression he expected to be showing on his face, except he hoped his didn't look like it was drained of all color like hers did. More worrisome were the moving lips but with no sound coming out.

Thoroughly concerned about her mental state of health, he stared to ask "Are…" but it only came out as an indecipherable croak. Slightly self-conscious, Toshiro coughed into a fist, cleared his voice and started again, "Momo, are you okay?"

There was a long pause and about the time he decided she must not have heard him or was too traumatized by the events of earlier, she finally answered in a husky whisper, "What… just… happened?"

"I, I'm not…sure," he replied slowly, lifting his face upward as fluffy clouds drifted lazily by as if they had not a care in the world. Stupid clouds.

Hitsugaya may have looked like he was cloud-gazing, but his mind, never one to be inactive for long, began replaying over the events of earlier. This time he looked at it from a removed perspective and without being in the grip of conflicting emotions of when things were happening faster than he could process.

Just when had everything gone so… awry?

He and Momo had shown up and stormed (rather, he had done the storming while Momo meekly followed in his wake; not that she had a choice since her hand was being held in a certain person's vise grip) up the stairs, burst through the great doors and shot for the door of the office belonging to Sasakibe.

Behind the vice-captain's desk was the door to the Captain General of the Gotei Thirteen and that was his goal. They were going to meet with the First's Soutaicho, come hell or high water. He didn't care, he could make either happen.

Making a beeline for Sasakibe, who had risen to his feet upon seeing the two burst through his door, Hitsugaya, still pulling Hinamori behind, him barely slowed as he snarled at the fukutaicho, "I'm here to see the First so don't try and stop me."

Before he had even finished speaking the door slid open. At any other time, he would have been surprised but the young captain was so intent on his mission that he plowed straight through without giving it a second thought. That was the first cue he missed.

After entering, he came to a defiant halt in the middle of the large room that belonged to the First Captain. The old man looked up at him from under heavy eyebrows that seemed to weigh down his face.

Hitsugaya opened his mouth to demand answers when he met the ancient eyes of the man hundreds of years old which had seen uncounted battles and had never backed down. Only momentarily was Toshiro distracted but as he opened his mouth again, before he could get a word out, he was interrupted.

"Ah, the esteemed captain of the Tenth Division", then the elder shinigami's eyes shifted to Momo, "and is this the Fifth's fukutaicho behind you?" Without lifting the weight of that noble and knowing gaze off of his guests, the Soutaicho called for tea to be brought in.

Ignoring the pleasantries, Toshiro drew himself up and stated, "We are here to…"

"Yes, well, I've been expecting you for some time now." Eyes nearly shrouded by the bushy eyebrows flicked over to the window and then back again. "Actually, you are a little later than I expected."

"Of course, because we were on our.., we were… uh… You were expecting us?"

The rest of the discussion had gone downhill from there, after missing the second cue. If only he hadn't swooped in with the single-minded intention of getting an audience! Not to mention the fact he had been venting fuming anger in all directions to the point that his usual perceptive and analytical observation of a situation had been defective from the start.

Yes, that was how it started, immediately upon entering the room and losing control. No, he gave his head a shake, if he was being honest, he had never been in control from the start and part of that was he wasn't sure where the "start" all began in the first place!

"Damn. He got me."

Then, with a shake to snap him out of a mood much akin to vertigo, he said, "Momo, let's go find a place to sit and talk about what happened."

"Yeah…. Cause, I think, uhm, I've heard… yeah,…talking is good," she mumbled in response.

"As compared to just standing here staring off into space for no good reason?"

"Yes,…" Her mouth stopped working and she began ambling off. He stared after her as she took several steps and then veered off the path in a daze, heading for a tree. He would never know if she would have noticed the tree or because he made it to her side in a couple of bounds, nabbed her arm and gently steered her back onto the path.

Thankfully, he knew a good spot that was out of the way and better yet, it would also give them the privacy they needed.

It didn't take long until they were seated on a bench under a huge spreading oak tree. For several long moments they sat there, not saying a word. The drying leaves overhead rustled in the slight breeze that also ruffled the ends of Hitsugaya's silver tufts, gently stirring them one way and then another.

Finally, Hitsugaya had to ask the question that had nearly blown his brain circuits loose from the moment he had realized the situation. It was the question that was keeping him from thinking beyond anything else. Aizen could appear in front of him, and he would still have to turn and ask Momo this question. There was no way he would be able to keep it in, yet he was also afraid to ask. It was a highly unusual and strange circumstance he found himself in.

Trying to work around his suddenly dry mouth, Toshiro wet his lips and then asked in a rush, "Areyougoingtomoveinwithme?"

Afraid to look her in the face, (Coward! he told himself, but even the name-calling had no effect, he just couldn't do it), his eyes darted off to the side before snapping back, afraid of what he was going to find there.

"Oh… Momo breathed out, eyes widening, startled and still overwhelmed. "Oh my. That's a good question, yes, it is certainly something to ponder."

What kind of answer is that!? Toshiro wanted to snap out, but he couldn't. Nervous fear had a hold of his tongue. Then his heart began thudding erratically in his chest and a prickling sensation started to pool in small of his back and under his armpits. Could this get any worse?

"Well, Shiro-chan, I uh, I hadn't considered that just yet."

Why not?! How can she not have considered it?! He thought of it immediately even before the official pronouncement was being performed! First he cleared his voice and tried desperately to speak in a nonchalant tone, "Well, I guess nothing needs to be decided right away… I mean, we can wait a few days I suppose, or weeks, or whatever."

Hitsugaya's eyes cut sideways, observing her out of the corner of his eyes, while his pulse rate skyrocketed as he waited for her answer. Disagree with that, disagree, disagree!

Swiveling, Momo turned to him and reaching up she placed warm hands on his cheeks and gently turned his face so they were gazing into each other's eyes. Momo held his gaze with her deep brown eyes.

"You and I, Shiro-chan are… wait, no, now it's much deeper and closer than that. We are paired now, we are not just an "us", we are one. I will move my things into your place…" then she faltered, unsure of herself.

Then shyness washed over her, and her cheeks starting to burn and Momo knew it was time to practice her intent of not lying to her one love, "Uhm, am I being pushy Shiro-chan? Wha, what do you think we should do?"

His face changed in an instant and he spun off the bench and fell to his knees in front of her, looking up at her widening eyes as they flicked over his face trying to figure out what was going on.

"Know this, I have pledged my life to you Momo for years now. I have only ever been consumed with one thing and that was protecting you! It's only been recently that you began to notice this heart of mine.** There's not one iota of it that hasn't been dedicated to you! Then, now, always and forever!"

He carefully freed a hand and lifted it to her face, cupping a cheek even as she leaned into his touch until they were resting their foreheads together. Even in the soft whisper, the depth of emotion, power, and promise rolled out: "I would freeze solid all the way through to the core of my being if you were not the living flame at the center of my soul."

Momo stared, and if possible, her eyes grew even wider. Where had these words come from? Where had he gotten them? This didn't sound like Shiro-chan at all, at least not the one she had known all these years.

Then she raised her head and pressed her lips against his forehead and held them there.

Toshiro felt a pleasant tingle radiating out from the place where the warmth of her lips pressed against his skin. He closed his eyes and sighed. All the tension, all the tightness of uncertainty, all the constricted muscles that he hadn't even noticed knotting up for who knows how long now, loosened and the stiff anxiety and strain slowly melted away.

Hinamori's touch was therapeutic to his mind, soul, and body.

Then it dawned on him that the lingering touch of her lips on his forehead didn't quite have the feel of sensuality that he was expecting. Hitsugaya stayed still, all his analytical skills kicking in trying to figure out what was going on. Without betraying his inner puzzlement, he waited until she was done and lifted her head away before lifting his to look her in the face with searching eyes.

His face must have been one big question mark for the corner of her lips turned up in a tiny grin and she answered the unspoken question, "I was checking to see if you had a fever."

"Of course." He asked while straightening and she, taking her cue from him also returned to a vertical position. "Because why?"

Momo tipped her head while studying Hitsugaya's face even as he lowered his eyes to wait for her answer. It was a lifelong habit to show he wasn't interested in what she had to say, but would listen to her out of the goodness of his heart. It was a gesture that no one else would probably even notice, yet it tugged at her heartstrings. Shiro-chan, no matter what, you are still authentically yourself even when you try to disguise your inner confusion and that is just another reason why I love you.

Wondering how long he would have to wait before he would receive an answer from her, Hitsugaya finally couldn't take it any longer and looked up to find himself on the receiving end of a warm smile and soft eyes.

"Shiro-chan was not talking like himself," she stated matter-of-factly.

"Well then, neither is Momo-chan."

"Huh?" Momo's eyebrows rose in surprise. "You've never called me that before."

His cheeks felt strangely warm and he could only shake his head ruefully and mutter, "Always kinda wanted to."

His eyes shifted over to her. "We are alone so for once I want to be honest with… no it's more than that. We are married now and we need to know not just each other's hearts but our thoughts as well. I don't want to make stupid mistakes that could easily be avoided… I… I…" Suddenly and unexpectedly, he was at a loss for words.

"We are alone," he heard her softly agree, "It feels so unreal and the whole thing is still just sinking in."

At that, Momo leaned back against the wood framework backing of the bench, amusement dancing in her eyes. "Oh," she breathed out softly. "Oh," she repeated and this time her lips tilted up in a knowing smile as her face lifted to the clear blue sky above. In a low, hushed whisper she repeated, "Yes, we are married now."

"Legally, formally, and apparently, with the Gotei Thirteen Seal of Matrimonial Approval as well."

He got up and moved to sit next to her, as close as possible so he could loop an arm around her shoulders and her response was to lean back into him. His nose nuzzled into the sweet smelling skin behind her ear and in a lowered voice meant only for her ears, said, "Momo, this is not how I envisioned this whole engagement thing would go and I'm fairly certain this was not your ideal dream for a wedding either. This all happened because I went charging in…."

"What did you envision?" Momo was genuinely curious, tilting her head but all she could see of him was his silky, silver hair. "But really, you know, and even I know that Soutaicho already had this all planned out for, well, I don't know how long now."

Toshiro grunted. Someday he would revisit that thought and the Captain-General's interference but for now, he had other things on his mind.

"Well… as for what I thought you would like, what comes to mind is a long courtship that ends in a big wedding and huge reception. He nuzzled her behind her ear again, resting his nose and taking in the sweet scent of her hair before leaning back and continuing, "Not that I wanted or needed any of that, but you are the one with a gaggle of friends I knew you would want to invite. Besides, the Official Momo Hinamori Fan Club would be angry at me for not sharing her on our special day."

Momo craned her neck trying to get a glimpse of his face. Had she heard right; did the infamously and normally rigid Hitsugaya taicho just make a joke? Unfortunately, his hair was in the way and no matter how hard she tried to peer around it to glimpse his expression, it only ended up tickling her face.

Finally she gave up and leaned her cheek against his feather soft hair, enjoying the sensation against her cheek. She let out a light sigh, this was very satisfying to be sitting here in his embrace and not think about… Oh empty zanpakutou, she was married, she, Momo Hinamori, fukutaicho of the Fifth was a married woman! How had this happened?! Her heart began to pound and it was getting harder to breathe like all the air had been sucked from, well, the air. Calm down, stop freaking out, easy does it, just calm down, or Shiro-chan to think you are against this… but really!?

"Momo, it will be okay. We'll go as slow as you want. I won't put any demands on you and I definitely won't let anyone else do it either. Only Momo-chan will decide what we will do each step of the way."

He must have felt her stiffen and Momo mentally berated herself for lack of control over her body. Of course he would be able to tell what she was feeling, but just hearing him say that soothed her and she could feel the tension in her chest loosening. He certainly had an ability to relieve her worries and anxieties.

They sat there for a moment and gradually Momo became aware of another tickling sensation,, but this time it was his breath on her neck as it stirred the loose wisps of hair there.

"Don't worry Momo, I.. I love you and I'll hold you as long as it takes."

Slowly she felt herself relaxing. This was a safe place, being with him, being beside him and she never wanted it to end. Then her voice whispered so softly it barely stirred the hair on his head, "No, we will decide this, every step of the way ourselves. The journey is now ours Shiro-chan, you and me together."

The moment stretched out as they just sat there holding each other, for the comfort, for the sheer enjoyment of being in each other's company and the realizing that a different kind of closeness beyond dating, beyond, just being a couple was enveloping them. It was a strange, yet comforting sensation.

Then into that quiet moment, Momo whispered rustled his hair, causing a shiver to run down his spine, "Mine's…too soft."

Soft? That had him sitting up straight so he could look her in the face. Toshiro's aqua eyes darkened as he caught her gaze. What was soft? What was she implying? Was this one of those innuendos with a double meaning?

Momo's cheeks and eyes lit up in a grin in anticipation of what she was going to say, "Weddings are for friends, but our time tonight with be ours and ours alone." She leaned close to his face, lips only inches from his, "And this will be our first night together, just you and me."

When a noise she couldn't quite identify hissed out from him, she moved back in order to get a better view of his face, which was beet red. Oh, this could be fun!

"But we still need to figure out which place and which bed we will spend it in, right?"

"Momo!" Hitsugaya's silver spikes whipped about as he spun in his head in all directions to make sure they were totally and utterly alone. He knew he was blushing but more importantly, the blood was rushing elsewhere and his skin was suddenly ultra-sensitive. It would be quite a while before he could safely stand up in polite company. He prayed that no one would come by while he was in this state and was deeply thankful that the two of them weren't in polite company.

An impish gleam danced in her eyes as she held a petite hand over her grinning lips and then said in a whisper so soft it could have been a sigh, "We are alone, remember?"

Momo felt his arms tighten around her in reaction, almost clutching her against him as if he were holding on for dear life. A sound, close to a groan came out and he dropped his head back down on her shoulder as if to catch his breath.

"You are diabolical."

That was a far more satisfying reaction than she could have hoped for.

After a few minutes of them sitting in silence again, after he finally felt more in control, Toshiro lifted his head and did his own quick scan before agreeing, "You are right, no one is around."

Smiling now from ear to ear, she waited until he had stopped peering about for any sign of life and his attention was once more directed at her. When his adorable and handsome features were again facing her she said, "You know, it's not like I haven't thought about this because I have."

"This?" He asked, looking around, taking in the blue sky above, the sharp green of the leave over them, the rolling landscape off into the distance, and then turned inquiring blue-green eyes to hers.

"No," she responded immediately with a negating flap of her hand, "not as in where we are here right now," she started and then stopped. A pink tinge was coloring her cheeks. She looked down at her fingers, okay it was her turn to blush, lids lowered to cover her discomfort as she went on, "I mean, not now I was thinking about it, but over time I have. I mean, I have thought about us, you and me, in… a… bed, together, us, in… you know…"here she squirmed a bit, "in what will be… our bed."

"How long?"

"Well, since we started dating."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"What good would it accomplish?"

"I… I.. just think that's something I should have been told."

"What would you have done with the information?" A teasing smile touched her lips and the velvet brown of eyes darkened in merriment.

"Doesn't matter now, does it?" he fairly grumbled as she made an amused sound. He sighed and closed his eyes thinking. He felt like a leaf being carried about on the wind. When had he ever been in control? Never? Yeah, that sounded right.

Seeing him close his eyes, Momo was overcome with sudden doubt and wondered if she had hurt his feelings, the manly ones which were, as all women knew, could be oddly sensitive about certain subjects. Maybe he needed some time to… what? What would he need time to do?

Shyness and hesitation fell away as Momo peeked to the side and immediately even with that glimpse became absorbed in wondering what her new husband was thinking about. While noting that his lips were slightly parted, she watched as a blush spread stained his cheek.

Finally, curiosity won out and Momo leaned forward to get a better view of his face. There, frozen still as a statue was Toshiro staring off as if mesmerized, into a distant horizon that was inaccessible to her. As if feeling the weight of her gaze upon him, he returned to the present from wherever his thoughts had taken him and asked, "What did you mean earlier when you said, 'too soft'?"

"Uh, yeah that." Relieved at having something mundane and simple to answer, the Fifth's fukutaicho sat and explained, "Well, my bed is really soft and if you are used to a harder mattress then it may cause you some back pain," she started and tilted her head to give him an apologetic smile. "So I was thinking…"

Hitsugaya then turned his face to meet hers and instantly the intense aqua gaze caught her and anything she was going to say deserted her while any and all thought came to a screeching halt. There, laid bare and naked in those large sparkling orbs was a hungry want, desire, and a love so lavish and deep it took her breath away. In that instant, Momo felt a similar flush rising to her own face and a reciprocating want and desire rising to match his own. Oh, so that's what he's thinking about. One didn't have to be a mind-reader to figure one that out.

Just as both lifted their hands, slowly reaching out for one another, in that very instant a myriad of reiatsu signatures of varying degrees made themselves known, along with the appearance of their owners flashing onto the scene.

In a twinkling, a huge crowd of shinigami and one human surrounded Hitsugaya and Hinamori. Both stared, aghast, Momo's hands flew to her cheeks to cover the crimson blush, which she believed was a dead giveaway to what she had just being visualizing.

Hitsugaya dropped his head into his hands muttered, "There are days when I just hate these people."

Then lifting his head, he reached for Momo's hand and found she had, in turn, been reaching for his as well. Both rose to their feet to face a crowd of joyfully grinning friends, subordinates, superior officers, and casual acquaintances, and motley crew of varied shinigami, and again, one human. Some were carrying an armful of flowers, wrapped boxes with large bows, and some cards, and all but a few were laughing, nudging each other, smiling jubilantly.

"What.. the.. hell," breathed out Hitsugaya as he scanned the crowd around them. Out of habit and not realizing it, he let go of Momo's hand and tucked his hands into his sleeves. Momo, already knowing he would do that, had loosened her own grip in anticipation but couldn't hold back the knowing smile. Did she know him or what?

Immediately Toshiro had taken on the demeanor of Hitsugaya taicho, the capable and efficient Tenth's captain and leader as he contemplated the loud throng of jostling fellow Gotei Thirteen members and the one orange-headed human.

Just when the scowling captain was about to demand some answers someone yelled out, "CONGRATULATIONS!" and then confetti filled the air, coming down like a soft rain on the couple, getting caught simultaneously in silver locks and chestnut brown hair. One after another took up the cry until the echo passed through the whole group. Finally, it was noticed that the couple being congratulated were merely staring around them and not acting as enthusiastic as their well-wishers.

"Hey! I thought cake was gonna be here! Where's the damn cake?" demanded Zaraki, looking about him with suspicion and growing ire.

Startled eyes turned to the speaker of the deep voice, wondering. He saw the quizzical looks and asked with a crooked smirk and voice full of warning, "So I like cake, someone wanna make somethin' of it?"

Most eyes quickly slid away, those that met his merely shook their head. Surprising everyone, Kurosaki stepped from around the larger man and said, "I like cake too, who doesn't? So, where is it?"

"It should be here," Ukitake spoke up, also looking around as if puzzled. "I left that for Sentaro… did it not arrive?"

"Cake!" said Momo perking up, impressed. "I love cake! Oh, and especially the kind with the icing roses on top!"

"Cake," grunted Hitsugaya, his half-lidded eyes showing just how unimpressed he was with the whole idea, or maybe with the fact he was surrounded by everyone in his freaking world when all he wanted was to be alone with Momo so they could continue their conversation.

"Yes! And who brought the ice cream?!" Matsumoto yelled out.

There was dead silence.

"Okay, who's the Aizen-wannabe party-killer who has cake without ice cream?!" she demanded.

"Not judgmental at all, are we?" Renji remarked as he rolled his eyes.

Matsumoto ignored him and replied respectfully to Ukitake, "There's things that are just not done and when it comes to cake and ice cream, Ukitake taicho, some things that you don't violate.".

"Who cares about that! A cake in hand is ten-times better than a lecture without ice cream, hop to it woman," Ikkaku pointed out.

"As if I would just drop everything..."

Shuhei, in a dexterous move he made look natural and casual, moved to Rangiku's side, insinuating himself between her and Ikkaku while giving the bald man a warning glance. Not that he himself would do anything but more to remind of Matsumoto's famous temper.

Just then, Nanao Ise showed up and having heard the last the last couple of comments and taking in the mood of the group announced, "Cake and ice cream are being served in the mess hall of the Eighth Division."

She reached up and adjusted one corner of her glasses and then added, "When you arrive and enter, there is a gift table at the front, so if you have anything for the happy couple, please place it there. Also, there is a guest register to sign and make sure you sign it!" The look that swept across everyone had a definite impact even though her face remained expressionless. Everyone made a mental note to make sure and sign the book.

Satisfied she had gotten her point across, Nanao continued, "Then later, there will be a dance and after that the fireworks start when it gets dark enough."

"Betcha the fireworks start way earlier than that!" quipped Ikkaku smirking. He threw a nod and wink at Renji standing next to him who smirked back in agreement. A sudden sharp jab to the tall man's side by a frowning Isane had the redhead dropping the smirk instantly in order to give her an apologetic puppy-dog look.

It had no effect. Isane merely rolled her eyes but was surprised to catch Yumichika also rolling his. Seeing her surprised look, he stated, "I'll never know how he got a girlfriend, especially one as classy and beautiful as you." With that he gave her a stately nod of the head before turning his attention back to the focus of the crowd's attention.

When no one in the surrounding crowd spoke or moved, frowning Nanao said succinctly and slowly, "Cake. At the Eighth. Go now." Upon seeing people were looking at each other indecisively, she warned, with a twitch of a frown deepening on her brow, "Or there won't be any left."

Her words had an immediate galvanizing effect. The pastry fanatics, with cake fantasies dancing in their heads, promptly dashed off determined to be first in line. The non-cake addicts ambled along behind them murmuring and laughing as they went.

Watching the bulk of the crowd leaving satisfied the administrative and orderly side of Nanao Ise and then she too left the scene.

Soon the only ones left were the happy couple, Ukitake, Kyoraku, Ikkaku, Yumichika, Ichigo, Rukia, Renji, Isane, Kiyone, Izuru, Rangiku, and Shuhei.

Hinamori had started off too, thinking cake and ice cream were just the ticket she needed after the monumental shock she had gone through earlier, but a hand wrapped around her bicep and held her back. When she was turning to inquire why, he leaned in and whispered in her ear, "Not you, not just yet."

"But Shiro-chan," she said plaintively, "cake! Cake with ice cream!"

"Don't worry, someone will save you a piece. You are, after all, the bride."

Matsumoto stepped forward and with a serious expression informed the couple, "Momo, as my dear and beloved friend, on this, your wedding day, I say that my gift to you will be that I, Rangiku Matsumoto of Tenth Company, will make sure to save you and taicho-chan (Hitsugaya scowled) the largest and best part of the cake!"

"With the icing roses?"

"With icing roses, tulips, daisies, glittering hearts, stars, diamonds, clovers, whatever your little heart desires, I'll get it for you."

"Er, icing roses will be fine."

Then the amply-endowed female puffed out her chest drawing all eyes to it whether they wanted to or not, it was like a train wreck, they were unable to tear their eyes away. "I have not, however, forgiven you for mangling my hair. We may even have to settle this later zanpakutou to zanpakutou, in a duel."

"Oh dear."

"You will not," Hitsugaya said to his second and then turned to glare at his new bride, "and neither will you."

Matsumoto tossed her head and an errant lock of flaming hair, noticeably shorter than the others, fell across her face. "My injuries say otherwise."

"Oh dear," murmured Momo again.

As Hitsugaya was drawing himself up for a sharp reprimand a voice that wasn't expected, spoke up, "Say, maybe Rangiku-chan will be satisfied if Momo-chan were to buy her the very best brand of sake` from her favorite bar?"

All eyes turned to see Kyoraku who offered up a shrug.

There was silence again, but coughing was heard that drew the others' eyes off of Kyoraku to his friend. Ukitake hunched but it was hard to tell if he was covering up a laugh or it was his lung problems flaring up. He turned his back to the group and continued to "cough" into his fist.

For his part, Kyoraku was working hard to keep his twitching lips under control. Finally he gave up and just pulled his straw hat low so his face couldn't be seen.

Hinamori waited a beat and then bowed to Matsumoto and said upon straightening, "Yes! Rangiku, I'm so sorry for the desecration of your beautiful hair, I will never do it again! And to express my deep apologies I will buy you a bottle of…"

"Two!"

"…two bottles of your favorite sake`."

"Done! You're forgiven."

It was then that Shuhei reached out and took Rangiku's hand and to the astonishment of everyone there, she let him. Adding to the astonishment, he leaned in and said something that only Rangiku could hear, whereupon she laughed and they moved off in the direction of the Eighth Division.

"Never let it be said that things are boring here in the Seireitei," remarked Isane as she stared wonderingly after the couple.

"Damn straight. That's some pure romantic shit going on around here all over the place" noted Madarame rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

"You know, I think this could have all been planned better. It lacked that certain exquisitely lovely touch," Yumichika pointed out to no one in specific.

There was a sound, much like a hissing of steam coming from a boiling tea kettle just before it starts whistling shrilly. "I will give you until the count of now, to leave," said Hitsugaya through his teeth.

Ikkaku and Yumichika didn't need to be told twice, taking the advice and disappearing from sight.

"Shiro-chan, no need to get upset."

"Why is everyone still here?" he scowled at the remaining group. That pesky little tic next to his eye was threatening to spasm. He placed a couple of fingertips on it to keep it under control.

Ukitake smiled and said, "Our congratulations to the two of you," while Kyoraku chuckled and winked, then the two of them turned and strolled off at a leisurely pace.

Ichigo, Rukia, Renji, and Isane were left.

Hitsugaya stared at them and they stared back.

"Do you want to walk to the party with us?" asked Momo.

"No, they don't," responded Hitsugaya crisply. He gave the males his best glare which they easily read loud and clear.

"Uh," started Renji as he rubbed the back of his neck, "I kinda thought we would be getting hitched before you two, but hey" he held up a free hand (the other firmly clasped with Isane's) and them a thumb's up sign. "Good going!"

There he goes again, thought Toshiro, and then oh what the hell and held a thumb's up in return and gave the redheaded man what couldn't precisely be classified as a smile, but in a certain light, if one were being generous, it could appear that the ends of his mouth did tilt up ever so slightly.

Isane gave them a shy grin and mouthed at Momo, "later" and then the tall couple started off in ground-eating strides that would soon have them outstripping the previous leave-takers.

"Yeah, well," Ichigo looked around, scratched his cheek with a finger while eyes lifted in thought.

"What? Well what?" demanded Rukia, hands on hips, her brows dipping down."

Ichigo shrugged and almost sheepishly admitted, "It's just that I have always thought of Toshiro…"

"That's Hitsugaya tai…" Hitsugaya indignantly started but quickly lost steam and resigned himself, finally, to the fact that this human was never going to get it right, "oh just forget it."

"…as being younger than me…"

"Hey! Older than you by far! Decades even."

"…because you know there are laws…"

"OLDER THAN YOU. BY. DECADES!"

"…kinda thought after Renji that it would be me," here he threw a look at an astonished Rukia, "I mean, NOT right now… just later."

"Still standing here older than you!"

"So it took me by surprise is all,…

"And growing older by the second!"

"…but geez, I'm not great at words…"

"What gave it away?"

"Shiro-chan!"

"…So, yeah, you know, you two, about time because it was really dragging on forever… ya know?!"

Rukia had one eyebrow cocked up as she looked at him out of the corner of her eyes…"He's got a point. It was truly epic."

With that, the tiny shinigami held her hand out and with a rueful chuckle Ichigo engulfed it in his larger, calloused one.

"See ya there," added Ichigo.

Then they both turned and followed after the rest only to slow his step to look back over his shoulder to say, "Congrats to you, Mr. and Mrs. Hinamori!"

Rukia punched him in the shoulder and then waved over her shoulder before turning back to Ichigo obviously giving him an earful but he only laughed.

Momo tilted her head as she watched them walk away before turning to gaze at her groom. "I am surprised you didn't yell at him for that last remark."

"I…"

Momo noticed that Toshiro appeared to be gasping for air. "I'll…"

"I'm glad you were able to keep your temper…"

"…Kill him."

Momo sighed and then it registered on her and she uttered softly in a voice filled with wonder, "Oh yes, it's going to be Mr. and Mrs. Hitsugaya!" Then, as if trying out the sound of it in her mouth, Momo repeated the name several times softly to herself, "Momo Hitsugaya."

Toshiro hunched his shoulders not sure what he should say or if he should say anything. All he knew for sure, now that the crowd was gone, was this ball of barely restrained, happy euphoria inside of him just waiting to erupt and explode outwards, but he didn't want to frighten Momo.

"Uhm," he looked down at his toe, tracing meaningless designs in the dirt while he thought furiously as to what to say, "do, er, do you want to keep your name or take mine like they do in the living world?"

She sounded it out quietly again as if trying to get used to the feel of it on her lips, "Momo Hitsugaya."

He didn't see the mischievous glance dart his way in the long pause. Just about the time he felt impelled to break the silence, he saw her look up at the sky while pronouncing slowly and succinctly, "Toshiro Hinamori." She cocked her head, "Has a nice sound to it."

His head jerked up, "Hey!"

At that, Momo turned and came to him, putting her arms around his waist and laughing softly, "You may keep your name, I don't mind, for it says everything about you."

He huffed as he leaned in to rest his forehead on hers. "And you yours. The names are ours, but we are each other's."

"Forever."

"For always."

Then, he did the most unexpected thing. He grabbed her hands, twirled his love and wife in a circle and laughed. Not just a chuckle, but a throw the head up to the sky and laugh from the very depths of his being, a good old fashioned belly laugh of pure joy that he had never known his whole life before this.

After the laughing and twirling, he spun them into a tight circle and then caught Momo to himself, holding her tight. Looking into her eyes he said, "Momo it is a true miracle that we both ended up in this corner of the universe together. I won't squander it, but I will spend the rest of my life being grateful that you saw my heart and took notice of me."

"Love is eternal, Shiro-chan… forever and ever and always…"

"And always and always," he intoned back, their words mingling as they came close, until their mouths latched together as if their lives depending upon breathing the air from each other's lungs.

When they finally broke from their intense long-drawn-out kiss, both took a moment to breathe, eyes fixed on the other until….

"Shiro-chan?"

"Hmm?"

"Cake."

He closed his eyes and shook his head with a gentle smile and then said, "Cake it is then."

The two walked off, hands clasped and heads bent toward the other, with tender smiles, exchanging intimate whispers meant for no ears except their own.

Owari – The End


** Quote right under the chapter title is taken from Bleach musical Live Bankai Show Code 003. I have seen 2 different translations of that line so put them both in. You can decide which you like better. This is the other one:

"Please notice this heart of mine"

It's from the song Bengara Koushi or Goushi (again, depending on who is doing the spelling)

"I become clumsy when caught by your glance."

Author's Notes:

This is it.

1) Momo's hair color and eye color. I went more by the anime, which I am sure you guessed by now. Also, I wanted something more "warm" to portray how her personality comes across to me in the anime and manga.

2) Some of you may have noticed through this fic that there were a few odds and ends here and there that I didn't follow up on. This would have been much longer as the plot at one time was much more complicated than what showed up here. Even as it is, this is pretty long.

Final Note:

All the characters leave the stage after taking their final bows. The curtain closes and the footlights fade. The stage is now silent.

Bleach has left the building

The author of this little play lingers at the door, casting one last glance over the stage and the empty seats before snapping off the lights and exiting. The last sound is that of a door shutting behind her on a darkened theater.

Dwellin is done now, hope you enjoyed the show. Thanks for hanging in there.