Go about your way
To where, one never can know


Echoes down the path

Epic Fourteen: A Break In The Schedule


Nanao stretched as she woke, enjoying the pops and cracks as she reached upwards. Smothering a yawn with her hand, she rose from her bed and started water for tea. She hadn't felt as well rested as this in many years.

While the water was boiling, she took those few minutes to straighten up her sleeping place. She was about to pull out a fresh uniform and start getting read to go into the office when she realized she didn't have to. Sharing a smile with herself, she grabbed a book of her shelf and went to go enjoy her peace and quiet while she could, letting the morning tick away at leisure.

A little over an hour had passed before she stopped reading. She had refilled her tea twice and gotten through a good quarter of her book before she decided to stop. It was a nice feeling to have an entire day to herself with no prior plan. She felt unrestricted, like just for today she didn't have to be bound by duty and rules. The only one she had to follow was herself. She found she liked it.

As she went to get ready for the day, she decided that today she was going to go wherever life wanted to lead her.

Nanao was debating whether or not to bring a book with her on her way out when a solid knock sounded against the frame of her door. With a quick reach of her senses, she discovered who decided to visit. There was no mistaking the warm hum or her captain's reiatsu.

She worried for a moment as she stood still in the middle of her living room. She had come to pay attention to different shifts and twitches in their energy when able, and from what she had to compare, he didn't seem uneasy or agitated in any way. In fact, he seemed almost pleased. Still, she hoped there wasn't any bad news waiting for her. She had enough of that to take care of this week.

Her worries abated after that second though, when her captain called out in a musical voice.

"Sweet Nanao-chan! Lovely Nanao-chan!"

She rolled her eyes at his ballad tone and shook her head as she neared her door, trying to wipe the small smile that appeared on her face. She wondered why she ever thought he would be here for a serious reason. Still, it wouldn't do her good to let him know she was amused by his antics.

The fact that he was here at all intrigued her slightly. It was not normal of him to come here in order to see her. She supposed that could be because she rarely had time off. When she did, she wasn't usually here anyway. She wondered what his reason could be. Surely they didn't need her at the office? She doubted he had even been there today.

She opened the door to a large grin, his straw hat and pink haori in their usual place. The sun was shining and it wasn't that cold, and even Nanao had to admit that he was quite a sight when he glowed. Of course, the negative part of her mind told her that this just put him that much farther out of reach.

He didn't notice her dreary internal thoughts thankfully, because the first thing he did when he caught sight of her was lean in with arms wide.

Nanao didn't hesitate to bring the book she was holding into contact with his face, stopping him in his tracks. He flailed for a minute and paused, achieving her goal, but the grin on his face never faded even as he lowered his arms. She sent a half-hearted glare his way as she set the book down on a stand near the door.

"Ah-ah, Nanao-chan. Don't you remember what I said about glaring?"

She clearly heard the amusement in his voice, and she discreetly rolled her eyes again as she remembered his undressing jab. She fiercely willed the red to stay off of her face as she swatted him lightly on the arm with her fan before tucking it into her sleeve again, causing him to take a step back. She swept by him as she shut the door behind her, and she was a few feet away before she stopped and looked over her shoulder. He was looking at her from her doorway.

It looked like she wasn't taking a book with her today after all.

"I remember very clearly, sir."

She added a little lightness to the command of her voice, letting him know that she wasn't as agitated as she seemed. Then again, that had never bothered him before. She didn't say any more than that, and she figured she would let him make what he would of it. She was feeling good today, and the momentary look of surprise on his face as she said it was worth the consequence of what he could assume she meant.

She smiled slightly as she turned so he wouldn't see it, and she walked a few more steps. She heard nothing behind her, and when she glanced over her shoulder again to find him standing in the same spot.

"Surely you didn't come all this way to stand on my doorstep." She paused for a minute before continuing, deciding that life really was taking her somewhere bizarre today. "Are you coming?"

She motioned her head down the path, and the smile returned to his face and shone in his eyes as she waited for him to reach her. It was strange, she thought. She was feeling so different today, and it was showing. Still, she didn't want to always be about rules and guidelines and who was superior in rank, even if that was how she normally operated.

She had spent many years with this man, and even if it was duty-bound and professional, she wanted to be able to be relaxed with him too. There was a place for both. She wanted it to be easy sometimes. As straight-laced as she was, she wanted to be able to loosen the strings a little. At least long enough for her to breathe. In a way she was tired, but it had nothing to do with how much she slept at night. He had wore on her for too many years to count, and she was tired of being too sharp and bristly.

She knew he meant well, and that was why she decided that today would be different. He didn't have a malicious bone in his body, and she had to believe that he did things like this for as much of her benefit as his own. As long as they stayed as simple gestures, she could deal with that. Briefly, she wondered if he could handle the change in her.

He caught up with her, and when he lifted her arm to rest on his as they walked, she didn't stop him. Instead, she enjoyed the sun on her face and the breeze in the air and the rhythmic pats of their feet against the path. There wasn't going to be many more opportunities for relaxing, and she knew she should soak up all the memories she could.

She would need them in the times to come. She knew that this upcoming war could take one or both of them, and the thought of it scared her. She was so used to the way things were that she didn't know if she would be able to handle herself if something happened to him. At least not for a long while. It was sobering thoughts like that that made her sometimes regret always being so distant.

She supposed she could try to make up for that now.

He seemed genuinely pleased at her actions now. Whether or not he was suspicious of the reason why, she couldn't tell, and she doubted she would ever know unless he told her. Even for her, he was still hard to read.

Her captain began to recite poetry comparing her to the various nature icons they came across, and she couldn't even bring herself to be irritated with him. Some of them were quite ridiculous, and she found herself laughing a little, allowing a small smile to show. It was obvious that he was doing it on purpose, perhaps in a way to get her to relax.

He didn't know that she was already relaxed just being out here with him. Nanao preferred that it stayed that way.

She was aware of a few stares on them, but she ignored them. If they wanted to look, let them. Time was running out to make memories, and if they didn't take the time to make their own then that was their loss. She wasn't going to let them interrupt hers. Not today.

.-.-.-.

Momo sighed to herself as she stared at her pale ceiling, imagining figures flying across the surface out of boredom. She had laid in bed for over an hour, and even though it was still partially dark outside, she couldn't fall back asleep or find the will to fully get up.

The office didn't need her today. Thanks to her wonderful friends, the inspections went fine. Now they wouldn't have an obvious reason to demote her without raising a question. Things were still tense in her situation, but at least her job was safe for now. All she could do was continue working hard and maybe they would leave her alone. As it was, she still had a day off today.

While others may enjoy the time off, she worried when she didn't have something to do. Work took her mind off of everything, and it's not like there wasn't plenty of it to do. The division had been a mess when she was finally stable enough to return to her duties, and she was glad for the distraction.

When she was unoccupied, she thought too much. She didn't want to think. Every thought added a weight to her shoulders. Sometimes she couldn't hold them all up, and their collective burden sent her to the floor. There had been too much of that already.

At times she didn't really know what was worse: sleeping or waking. Nightmares plagued her dreams and pointed out her flaws whenever she closed her eyes, but she picked herself apart and weighed herself down when they were open. Even now, her mind was drifting from the peaceful void of nothing into darker waters. The thought made her pause.

This wasn't helping her at all. She sat up and rubbed at her eyes, wiping the sleep away.

If she ever wanted to get out from under the storm cloud that followed her, she couldn't keep holding herself back. Hadn't she just mentioned something like that?

Her eyes opened and drifted toward the origami flower sitting across the room. She may have friends that would support her, but ultimately it was she that had to get herself out of the hold she was in. Even if nobody else tried to hold her back, she would never get out if she didn't let herself.

Making up her mind, she threw back her covers and got dressed. She may not be proud of the person she had been, but she could still work to make a new self to be proud of.

It was still early, but she could faintly see the glow where the sun would eventually touch the horizon. Others might not be up and about yet, but that had never deterred her before. In fact, that was probably for the best. She was uneasy and had too many things pent up right now, so she would do what she had spent a lot of her time doing since she was functional. She would train.

She straightened her clothes and walked towards the exit before her eyes rested on the flower once again. After a second of deliberation she scooped it up and put it in her pocket, thinking that maybe it could be her good luck charm. Sometimes she needed one.

She grabbed Tobiume by her spot near the door on her way out, looking forward to making up more lost time with her zanpakuto. It was a connection she couldn't afford to lose.

As she headed toward one of the farther practice areas, she fetl her mind switch over to a more practical state. Her personal issues faded away as she started to think about what she needed to improve and what she could work on today.

Honestly, she thought today would be a good day to curl up in the sun with a book, but she didn't think she would be able to focus on one long enough to relax her. She recalled days spent in the Fourth before she was better when Nanao had brought books to her. Momo still thought that gestures like that are what saved her from the crushing darkness. It reminded her that she wasn't alone no matter what, and she wasn't likely to forget it any time soon.

The time she was taking now was important to her. It was hers, and she didn't have to raise any veils for any image people expected of her. She could bare her faults and face them like a warrior, like something to be conquered. When she could face herself and not be ashamed of what she saw would be when she was truly strong. If she made herself strong enough, she believed she could get through this war and be alright.

She reached the grounds and entered a world of stillness. She breathed a small sigh of relief that the area was empty. Her breath appeared as a tiny cloud of moisture floating in the air, and she shivered slightly as a gust flared up. Without the sun, the early morning was chilly.

Momo ignored it. This was exactly what she needed. She could already feel her mind clearing up.

She liked these grounds the best. They were far enough away to give her enough privacy and allow her to go all out with her kido without worrying about property damage or anyone else getting caught up in it. She didn't want others to get hurt if something went wrong. Even if she was proficient in the demon arts, there were still times when she didn't get it quite right or when Tobiume amplified her power more than she thought. Sometimes she struggled against herself.

One could only do so much alone verses testing her might against another, but she wanted to reach her own expectations before she asked anyone to train with her. She wasn't even sure if anyone outside of Nanao or Rangiku would anyway.

A lone birdcall was the only other sound as she drew her sword, the animal being one of the few flying creatures left to depart for the cold months. The ringing made a lone call of its own as she focused on her zanpakuto. The bird may be a little late in leaving, as it was getting so cold, but Momo knew it would be alright. It wasn't too late for it to pick back up on it's journey. She believed it.

Momo drew in her energy has she concentrated on her blade, feeling the familiar power begin to stir. One of the first things she recognized when she came to a functional state was that she needed to reconnect with Tobiume. As they were a part of each other, she knew their bond was important, but with the war looming on the horizon, it was even more so.

She had also felt the need to apologize to the other entity before trusting herself to wield her again. When the wounds had closed, she realized that the last time she had called the sword spirit out had been wrong, attacking her childhood friend while broiling in a storm of hurt and confusion. Sometimes she wondered what that said about her soul. One was just an extension of the other after all. She tried not to dwell on it too much, so she sought to fix the mistake with her sword. She had spent a lot of time catching up, but she thought that now things were better.

Her blade hummed as she held it, and she looked up to meet the soft gaze of her other. Tobiume remained unchanged from the last time Momo saw her, from the clips in her hair to the pink ribbon around her and the bells resting at her feet. The image smiled at her, and Momo felt an unexplainable joy as she returned it. If nothing else was right, at least this could be, this connection they had.

Tobiume faded from sight, and then there was a reassuring weight along her sword, like someone had placed their hands over her own. It brought with it a sense of peace. It wasn't quite like fighting back to back with someone you trusted, but if this is what she could get, she would gladly take it.

Momo nodded to herself and let her reiatsu rise. Her nerves tingled with energy as she stopped holding her presence in check. It flowed around her for an instant before igniting something in her soul. Her grip tightened on her blade, and her palm began that familiar itch when she gathered her power to it. Her senses sharpened as the earth became alive with the reishi around her, and next she knew she was whirling and dancing across the field with slashes and sparks.

.-.-.-.

There were times when Rangiku really hated going out. Granted she didn't like staying inside all the time, something she thought may have been influenced by the wandering cat traits of her zanpakuto, but at least staying in meant she didn't have to see some of the looks people gave her.

If they weren't ones of pity, they seemed to be composed of confusion or disgust. She didn't know which of the three bothered her more, but she was sure she didn't like any of them.

By now the rumors had circulated the entire Gotei, and those that hadn't known about her and Gin before his departure knew now. Part of her didn't really care. They had had somewhat of a relationship. She wasn't exactly sure what it was, but there had been something there. He had always acted distant to a degree, and it was always hard to peg anything with the man if he didn't tell you outright.

Still, she wasn't going to regret it, nor was she going to bother defending herself. Frankly, it was none of their business what happened between them anyway, even if she could define it. Still, it didn't make dealing with people any easier.

Today was one of those days that she couldn't stand to be indoors. She took in her fill of the sun, and she was just content to wander around without any destination in mind. During times like these she was allowed to think. Usually it was a blessing. Today her thoughts were stuck on the past.

A part of her knew that she shouldn't dwell on what might have been. There was nothing she could do to change that now. He was gone, and she doubted he was coming back this time. Even if he did, she was sure that he would be executed on sight, or at least after a very brief trial.

Still, she missed him, and that also wasn't going to change. She could keep up a mask for a while, but eventually it had to come down, and she didn't like herself much when it did. Even if things had been hard before, at least he was there. She would almost give anything to be back in the Rukongai again. Things were hard but simple, and there was a comforting feeling with it. Surviving may have been their biggest challenge, but the memories she had with him were some of the best she ever had.

Without her knowing, her feet had taken her to the edge of the Seireitei, and the massive gates loomed before her. On a whim, she decided to continue out into the very place that she had once fled from. If she was taking a trip down memory lane, she might as well make the most of it.

Rangiku noted that nothing much had changed since she left, and that was a little sad. There were still houses in shambles and souls searching for food on the streets. Most of them paid her no mind, and others send reproachful glares her way. She didn't blame them. She had once looked on in envy too.

Soon the streets faded away, and she came to an open area. The trees were starting to thin, and she could feel the cool draft in the breeze. Still, the sun was shining and the grass was green and she took a moment to tilt her head up to the sky. Her face was warmed and the air was refreshing, and she made sure to take a deep breath. It reminded her of better days.

Smiling to herself, she decided to take a seat in the grass off the side of the road, laying back to watch the clouds. There may not be too many more nice days ahead. She thought she would enjoy it while she could.

The silver wisps made a path across her vision, and automatically her mind crafted a smile to go with them as they floated by. If she could pretend that he was still leaning over her holding out that persimmon for just a moment, then she would. Memories were all she had now, and she was keeping them.

Her hands found the grass beneath her, and it was cool to the touch. She could imagine that it was his fingers laced between hers instead of the blades, and if she closed her eyes she could hear his voice in the breeze.

She almost physically ached. She still had her friends and her duties and her hobbies, but Gin had filled a space within her that was now empty, and sometimes she didn't know how to deal with it. She wanted to cry, but she had run out of tears. Tears weren't going to help her anyway.

Instead, she laughed. She couldn't do anything else, and if anyone came along to hear the crazed sounds, she didn't really care.

.-.-.-.

Momo was breathing hard and alive with the energy flowing through her when she paused for a moment, feeling a tugging sensation from her other. A voice floated across her mind, and she realized that Tobiume was trying to tell her something.

"He comes."

She stopped fully then at the whisper, looking around for who Tobiume was referring to. Her vision trailed to the tree line surrounding the field, and she spotted a shock of white. He didn't need to get close for her to know whose hair it was, but once he saw that she noticed him, he approached. Now that she paid attention, it was impossible to mistake the crisp reiatsu that he carried.

When Toshiro stopped in front of her, she was still trying to clear her head from the haze she was in. She was so focused on what she was doing that she didn't notice when he came to the field. She wondered how long he had been watching.

He didn't say anything as he waited for her. It took her a moment of blinking and refocusing for things to return to normal. She usually got that whenever she was really engaged in what she was doing. When she finally touched the ground again, he still said nothing, and Momo felt the air thicken with an invisible tense sprouting from the silence. She still remembered the conversation they had, as well as what resulted when she thought too long on it. She also remembered her conversation with Rangiku and what she told herself.

She noticed that he was dressed like one of them today, his captain's cloak missing, though Hyourinmaru was slung across his back in its usual place. She rarely saw him without either, so she really took the time to look. It reminded her that even captains needed time just like they did.

He wasn't frowning, which she took as a good thing, but he wasn't smiling either. If anything, he looked to be hesitating. For a moment, she saw the young boy she knew in the Rukongai searching for words. She realized then how much she had missed him. He didn't even have to do anything at all other than just be there. It was almost enough to bring her to tears without really understanding why.

Before she could completely make a fool of herself, she turned away, pretending that she was still getting out of her training mode by rubbing at her eyes. She hoped he didn't notice. She didn't really want to explain herself. She didn't know if she could in terms that he would understand. She didn't understand it all too well herself.

She may not need his approval for her to carry on with her life, but she wanted it. She recognized that she wanted it more than she wanted anything, as unpractical as that was. She could mess up everything else so long as he was behind her, and she thought that she would be okay. It was stupid after all the effort she had put into securing her position and becoming a reliable soul reaper again, but she couldn't help it.

She knew all the words Rangiku said were true. He mattered more to her than anyone else. She really did love him.

It amazed her that Rangiku knew so many things, but then it occurred to her why that was. If Rangiku had ever felt similar for Gin Ichimaru, Momo didn't know how the woman could handle it. Rangiku didn't even know where he was or what he was doing. It already hurt so much for Momo, when he was standing right in front of her.

Momo was brought back to the present as he shifted slightly, the fabric of his robes making a whisper of sound. She bit her lip. She was hesitant to speak. She didn't want to say something that further damaged what little of a friendship they had, and she wasn't going to talk about something like the weather. Thankfully, he beat her to saying something.

"Your kido is much stronger now. Your sword work too."

It was quiet, like he wasn't sure what to say. Momo breathed a mental sigh of relief. This was a safe topic. Even if it seemed like he was struggling to find words, she was still glad he was trying. She could try too.

She knew that all it would take was him asking to excuse his earlier behavior and she would. It had still hurt, even if it had been deserved, but she could forgive and forget. If only she could ask for forgiveness and receive the same result. It was just so hard. She didn't know if she could, even as much as she wanted to. She couldn't form the words.

"Thank you." She didn't know exactly what she meant by it, whether it was for showing up or not digging into their problem. She spoke just as softly as he had, like they were walking on eggshells when it came to talking to each other. "It took a lot longer than I fight thought it would because I stopped-"

She cut herself off before going into an uncomfortable topic. Luckily, he seemed to know what she meant and just nodded.

"Sometimes it's hard to figure out what I should work on next when nobody tells you. It's definitely different than in the academy. I'm hoping I can face her soon, but I can't actually go all out. They haven't sent me out on hollow duty for a long time."

She knew she was babbling, as she was wont to do when she was nervous or tense. She wanted to stop, but she was afraid they would lapse into a silence that would never be broken. Her hands started to clench around her sword in a nervous gesture.

"Would you like a partner?"

Her mind was still a little distracted, so it took her a few extra seconds to realize what he was asking. As soon as he started reaching for his sword, it dawned on her.

"Oh, you don't have to!" She was quick to respond once she understood what he was saying, thinking that what she said had sounded like whining. She didn't want him to go out of his way for her just because he thought he should. "Really, I'll-"

"I want to."

With those simple words she stopped. She looked at him, but he just shrugged and undid the clasp around his shoulder, letting his sheath and sword fall free. He placed the sword holder and ribbon on the ground with care a few feet away before returning to her.

"I'm not offering because I think I have to. Do you want my help or not?"

He looked a little agitated, like in the past when he thought she was being foolish. The thought made her smile, and she didn't fail to notice how his eyes were drawn to it. She hadn't smiled for real in a long time, and it was probably painfully obvious how different the two were.

She knew that he meant what he said. The way he shifted from one foot to the other while he waited for her response told her that he was a little uncomfortable saying it, but the words were genuine. That was all she wanted from him. She wanted him to do things because he wanted to. It caused her smile to brighten further.

"Okay."

He nodded again and took a stance in a place a little farther than he was. He lowered Hyourinmaru into a ready position as she did the same. She could feel his reiatsu prickle as he readied for release. She did the same in response, and it didn't take much effort to draw from her blade again. Really focusing, she attempted something she had been working on. She tried to call out her sword without using her name.

She knew it took a lot of willpower to do it, but she thought that if her bond with her sword was strong enough, she should be able to pull it off. She had only seen it done a handful of times. Most often, it was just easier to call out their name to receive their strength. This was just something she wanted to try. Now that she had the chance, a part of her wanted to prove to him how strong she had gotten.

For a moment she blocked out everything but her sword, feeling the strings of energy flowing through it. She felt them flex and tighten, and her reiatsu increased in a sharp spike as she tried to release without words. Her zanpakuto hummed and she could feel that she was so close. Her grip tightened as she pushed the rest of her will into it.

Nothing happened.

Tobiume still remained unreleased, though she could still feel all the energy flowing through her. She let out a heavy sigh, slightly disappointed. She didn't really expect it to work, especially because she had an audience, but nobody ever likes fail. Still, she would just have to keep working at it. Today was just not the day.

She took her eyes off her zanpakuto to look over at Toshiro. There was no reaction from him other than the curious look she got. An unasked question was in his eyes, but she just shook her head and got ready again. She supposed it was best to take it easy anyway, as she hadn't trained with anyone else in a very long time.

A thought struck her then, and she played around with the idea. Maybe it was a mental thing. She had reflected after the fact that it had seemed so wrong when she had drawn her weapon against him when nobody knew what was going on. She had told herself that she never wanted to do it again. Maybe she had subconsciously taken that to heart completely, and that was why she was struggling now.

It was something to think about, for now, she was just going to enjoy this time while she had it. It seemed like a step in the right direction, and she would treasure it just in case something else went wrong. She nodded, and Toshiro returned it, and they spoke at the same time, illuminating the field in a swash of light for just an instant. Then they were dancing around the field together, sparks and clashes and flashes of light between them.

Momo noticed how that sense of peace she had before returned to her. Though her sword spirit was absent in the way they had fought before, she still felt that reassurance. She didn't have to ask herself why.

.-.-.-.

Toshiro had to drastically change the path of his zanpakuto as Momo came to an abrupt stop so he didn't run her through. He wasn't expecting it, and he was about to berate her for being careless when what they were doing was dangerous, but she wasn't looking at him. She was focused on a point in the distance, towards the Rukongai.

"Momo-"

He was about to question her when he felt the sudden pressure. There was no mistaking the presence of a hollow, even if they shouldn't be in the Rukon. He went still, and with a quick look and a nod, they both took off towards the source. It seemed somewhat strange that one appeared at this time of the day, when the sun was shining and everyone was out and about. They tended to have a track record of showing up at night when there were less threats. Toshiro didn't worry about it though. There had been more and more hollows showing up in the districts lately, and nobody had been able to figure out why.

He wasn't that surprised that Momo had picked up on the signal before he did. He just wished she would've given him some sort of warning before she stopped. Still, it could've been worse.

She was a slightly different person when training, he found. It seemed like she was in sort of a trance. She was very in-tune with her blade, and he knew she was more sensitive to other spiritual pressures when she was focused on the battle. The amplification ability of her zanpakuto made it easier for her to detect things. She was different now than when she trained by herself though.

The gate into Rukongai flashed by them as they passed, and they headed deeper into the area where they had both come from. He hoped that the hollow hadn't had much of a chance to do any damage. He didn't know who else was out on duty today, if anyone. Those at the gate were normally chained to it, in a sense, and he wasn't sure if help had been requested from the Seireitei immediately.

They flashed to a stop in district thirty six in time to see a hollow fling it's slithering tail into a building it, reducing it to a pile of rubble. People ran about yelling, trying to find somewhere safe to hide. Without hesitating he joined the fray, feeling Momo following behind him. One hollow would be nothing for the two of them, even if they had exhausted some of their energy in a spar.

Toshiro had almost reached the hollow with the long tail when he felt two more spring up somewhere behind him. He felt, rather than saw, Momo shift her energy and direction to their backs. He tried to turn and look, but he only caught the flash of her palm lighting up before the first hollow's tail flicked towards him. He was forced to block it, and then the hollow had reached him, leaving no time to worry about what Momo was doing.

He told himself that he shouldn't underestimate her. She was a lieutenant in her own right, after all. Still, it was hard to quell the protective instinct that flared up on him whenever she was in trouble. He hated to feel like he couldn't help her, but he knew that he had to trust her to take care of herself. He knew she could.

He wasn't lying when he told her she had improved. From the few minutes he spent watching her to fighting with her himself, he could feel the difference. Part of it might be due to an awakened confidence in herself, but it was effective. Even now he could feel one of the hollows behind him fading away.

He saw what she was trying to do when they started their spar. The concentration and effort painted across her face had told him she was trying to draw out her zanpakuto without words. He was a little impressed that she was attempting, even if she wasn't successful this time. He had a feeling that she would get it soon. The ease at which she fought with him hinted that she practiced often. Two hollows would be nothing for her, even at the same time.

He dealt with his charge and turned around in time to see another two hollows on the other edge of the people's makeshift city. Just then, Rangiku appeared beside him, and they watched for a second as a flash of lightning rained down on the two newcomers. Two blurs darted toward them, and Toshiro caught a flash of pink. It seemed the Eighth was here as well.

A second later he turned to see Momo finishing the second of her hollows off. They shared a look, and without words the three of them headed towards the opposite edge of the town.

The hollows were vanquished in the few seconds it took them to get to their destination, and the two leads of the Eighth looked no worse for the wear. They exchanged greetings and speculated on the appearance of this group of hollows.

"Well, I don't think that group stood a chance against the five of us. I didn't even get to help. My lovely Nanao-chan is too skilled." Captain Kyouraku accented his statements with a familiar smile.

He noticed that the lieutenant just rolled her eyes at her captain's comment, but she didn't retaliate by hitting him like she normally did. She straightened her glasses and spoke.

"Why do you suppose they were here?" She directed the question more to him, so he thought for a moment before answering. He didn't miss the way her eyes flicked between him and Momo, who was at his side.

"They may have been attracted to our spiritual pressure, though I don't know why they would be all the way out here in the Rukongai."

"Actually," Rangiku spoke, and they turned towards her. "I was here in the Rukongai for the last couple of hours."

"We were too." Nanao spoke next and then looked at he and Momo in question.

She shook her head. "We weren't."

"So we can assume they appeared because of us." Rangiku gestured to her and the Eighth pair.

He nodded at his lieutenant. "Unless its complicated." None of them wanted to think of the implications of that statement.

They were all quiet after that, and Toshiro was a little amazed that out of everyone that could have responded, it was the highest ranking soul reapers from their divisions that got here. Nobody else had shown up so far, and now that the threat was gone, he wasn't sure if they would. Surely the Second would be out to investigate sometime soon, but he was slightly concerned with the lack of response. Just because these poor people had no abilities of their own didn't mean that they should be ignored.

"Well," Rangiku spoke again, a slight cheer to her voice. He watched as she looked between them, to he and Momo then Captain Kyouraku and his lieutenant as she took a couple of backward steps. "I'll let you guys get back to what you were doing while I go make that report." With a smile and a wave she was gone before any of them could protest.

Momo looked like she wanted to say something, but she didn't get the chance. He noted that she was awfully quick to leave. He wondered why, and thought to question her later. She had been a little suspicious a few other times as well.

He just hoped she didn't feel left out. Sometimes he could see the sadness on her face, and he knew in those times she was thinking of the past.

The two Eighth officers departed next. He gave them a nod which they returned, but Momo smiled and waved as they went. He saw Nanao smile too, and he took a second to look between the two. He didn't know they had gotten as close as it seemed. He supposed there were a lot of things about her that he didn't know anymore.

"What?"

He shook himself as her voice brought him out of his thoughts. He must have had a certain look on his face as he watched her. He just shook his head.

Neither of them spoke after that, and instead of the oppressive silence they had this morning, this one wasn't so bad. She was still smiling slightly, and he relaxed a little. He hoped that whatever had happened was bringing them one step closer to what they had.

He had missed her, and he had missed not having to be careful around her. According to everything that had been said so far, she didn't want him to be careful or act like nothing was wrong. She was different now, but not so different that he didn't know who she was. Part of him was relieved that she wanted to move on.

"So where to now?"

He put the question out in the air lightly. Truthfully he didn't just want to part ways here, and he hoped that she felt the same. It had been too long since they spent time together.

She shrugged, though he swore he could see her smile brighten slightly. He took that as a good sign.

"What about lunch? I can think of someone who would be glad to see us."

At the mention of their old caretaker, her eyes lit up too, and he figured he had made a good call. She nodded excitedly before pivoting on her foot to dance ahead. A scrap of white caught his eye as she did, and he called out to her as he stooped to pick it up.

An amused look crossed his face as he held the origami flower in his hand. She looked a little embarrassed as she came back, and she muttered out an answer without him having to ask the question.

"I was sort of using it as a good luck charm." She was fidgeting a little as she looked at it, and he smiled a little. It reminded him of past times spent here in the Rukongai. He couldn't say that some of them weren't pleasant.

"Was it working?"

She looked a little surprised that he asked. She didn't answer, probably not knowing how to answer something like that. He wondered if she knew how she had gotten it. Sometimes it was fun knowing things that others didn't, even if it was slightly juvenile. He couldn't deny the little bit of satisfaction he felt.

"Maybe you had it in the wrong spot."

In something that was maybe a little uncharacteristic of him, he reached over to place the flower behind the same ear he saw it on yesterday from the corner of the hall. Her bun was in place today, but the paper stayed. Nodding, he took a mental picture at the shock on her face and the tiny bit of red across her nose as he started heading down the path.

He smirked to himself as he turned away so she wouldn't see the amusement there, and it only took a few seconds more for the sound of rushing footsteps to echo off the streets as she caught up to him.

.-.-.-.

The day was turning into an interesting one, Shunsui thought, even before the hollows had appeared in the Rukon.

Nanao was certainly very surprising today, at least. He wasn't sure what she liked to do on her off days, but he assumed that it had something to do with tea and a good book. He didn't really expect her to open the door when he showed up, but he was glad she did all the same.

Her behavior was a little puzzling however. It had been varying for the last few days. Originally he chalked it up to the inspections and how they were probably driving her insane, but today had proven that theory wrong, unless she had been that severely wound up.

Currently, they were sitting in a little tea shop in whatever district they had ended up in. She was stirring a cup of tea, and he was sitting with a dish of sake. He had convinced her to take lunch with him, though it didn't take much goading on his part, which he found strange. In fact, she had been rather pliant with him all day. He sort of hoped this new way of her dealing with him would stick around for a while.

Nanao had been the one to ask him along today, despite his intention of getting her to do the same. Her words this morning shocked him but caused him to break out in a smile anyway. He was pretty sure she hadn't meant what she implied, but the fact that she was joking around with him spoke volumes. He really hoped she was coming around. Lord knew he had wished for it for long enough.

He wanted to show her his appreciation for all the work she put into making the division run smoothly over the last few weeks, as well as just appreciate her. He had expected maybe a resigned acceptance of his offer and a straight-laced hour or two of interaction. Instead, he got something totally different.

They had spent a lot of time walking around Seireitei with no destination in mind. It may have been mostly one-sided conversation on his part, but he was able to draw her into the exchange a handful of times. Even more importantly, he had gotten her to laugh. It was still as beautiful of a sound as when he first heard it. Now he wanted to hear it more.

He had also discovered something else. The more they wandered and the closer to the Rukongai they got, the more she spoke. When he realized this, he didn't hesitate to suggest they stroll that way. They had been near the thirty sixth district when they felt the hollow, and they arrived in time to see Toshiro and Momo engage in battle.

While taking care of two hollows was not a chore for his Nanao, he still used it as an excuse for her to rest and take lunch with him. Then again, even if he hadn't, he wasn't sure that today she would have refused.

"So how did you end up with Miyabi?"

He was genuinely curious, and he never got the chance to ask about the woman further. They had returned to the office and then called to the meeting after they returned. She had seemed rather comfortable at the lady's house, and naturally he was curious about anything related to Nanao.

She was quiet for a minute, stilled with her cup up to her lips. Nanao took a slow sip before sighing, staring at something far away in her mind. She set her cup down and placed her hands on the table, still seeing something in the distance.

"There were many years between arriving here in the soul society and coming with Lieutenant Yadomaru to the Eighth." She nodded to herself, like she was resolving to do something, and then she looked up at him. Shunsui just watched her. "All stories like mine begin the same, and a good deal of them end the same too. I was an orphaned child living on the streets, fighting to survive like everyone else."

She paused before continuing, and Shunsui thought it was more like watching her have a conversation with herself. Her eyes never stayed on one thing too long. "I knew I wasn't like the others right away. I felt it, the hunger. I knew that was a sign of spiritual energy. It was easy to hear things on the streets and make the connection.

"I also saw what those with spiritual pressure drew to them. While it wasn't often, hollows did show up here and there. Many always died before anyone arrived to take care of the demons. I thought that if that was going to happen to me, I wanted to keep everyone else away from it. I never stayed with the group I was assigned to upon first waking."

She sighed and pushed her glasses up, but she did not stop. "Then I met Rosemay, and I remembered how nice it was to have company. She had the gift too, and even though finding more food was tough, it was comforting having someone there going through the same things I was. Shortly after, we met Miyabi. The woman had no children in this life or her last, and she hadn't hesitated to offer us a home. We were grateful."

He watched as her face changed into something tinged with hurt underneath. In response he merely covered her hands with his own. He didn't say anything. He feared that she would stop if he did.

"Things were fine for a long time, but somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it wouldn't stay that way." She sighed again. "The three of us were at the market when the hollow showed up. People were screaming and running around. I knew it was there because of me. It looked at me first, sensing the reiatsu I could feel curling around me. I had a lot more of it at that age than I probably should have.

"I was farther ahead on the street at the time, but that didn't stop Miyabi from trying to protect me as it lunged. I can still hear its howls and her scream. The hollow flicked her away like nothing." He tightened his grip on her hands, giving her his silent support. She didn't remove them. "She walks with a slight limp some days. It wasn't so bad the day we were there, but I could never tell when she was holding up appearances. It will probably bother her until she dies again."

Shunsui could tell that she blamed herself for what happened to her keeper. Still, they all had their demons, and even though he wanted to tell her it wasn't her fault, she was going to think whatever she wanted no matter what anyone told her. It was something she would have to come to terms with herself.

"I remember wanting to protect myself, and then the urge to reach out for something. Someone whispered my name, and even though the streets were loud, I heard it like it was right by my ear. I didn't understand at the time, but it was the voice of my zanpakuto, even though I was so young. A wall of light came between the hollow and I, and there was a bright light and fire. Then, it cried out and started to fade. I didn't know what happened, but it had saved my life. Lieutenant Yadomaru showed up then. You know the story from there."

While it was true that he remembered Lisa bringing Nanao home with her one day, he had never really gotten a concrete answer for where she came from, other than the Rukon. He remembered Lisa telling him that it didn't matter and to leave it alone. Now he knew why Lisa brought Nanao there at such a young age.

While it wasn't unheard of, it was rare for children to hear their zanpakuto at such a young age, even for the truly gifted. That Nanao had heard the voice and was able to draw out enough power to protect herself and slay the allow was amazing. He supposed stranger things had happened.

"I don't know what happened to Rosemay, and now I wish I did. She didn't want to leave so quickly, but I did. I knew that more hollows would come if I stayed. I guess I became so absorbed with life here that I had forgotten how I started."

She looked up at him again when she had finished, and he could see something akin to relief in her eyes. He didn't know if she had ever shared her story with anyone, even if it was brief, and he could hardly contain the joy he felt that she had told him. He let the majority of it rest in his eyes, while a small part of it appeared as a smile on his face. Nanao smiled a little too.

"Miyabi really is a sweet lady. I think you'd like her. She probably wants to meet you, when you can at least introduce yourself."

He could almost imagine what state he must have been in when she dragged him to her former keeper's home. He supposed it may have been an entertaining thing to witness, had he not caused her trouble.

He also wasn't dumb enough to miss the significance of her last statement. Miyabi was like a parent to her, and you didn't just introduce parents to anyone. At least, that was how he saw it in his mind, even if that's not what she meant. It still warmed him.

"I'd like that, Nanao-chan."

.-.-.-.

"Nanao-chan, Nanao-chan, how your eyes sparkle like a thousand glittering diamonds and-"

Nanao cut her captain off with a light hit on his arm, not being able to contain all of her laughter. He just grinned and tried to spout off another line of false poetry, this one more ridiculous than the last. It had been a game she realized. At first she had merely rolled her eyes discreetly as he went on, but then the next verse he had added was even more bizarre. This continued until she had broke down and laughed, and she realized that that must have been his plot all along.

Still, she couldn't be angry. Not today. She was so relaxed, and she marveled at how easy this was. Would this be how they were like always if she committed? She didn't really want to delve into that topic tonight, but it scared her how much closer she was to giving in if she could always have this with him.

True to her word, she decided to think about it some other time and focused on what was happening now. They had spend the majority of the day just roaming and talking about nothing in particular, watching as the sunlight faded away into night. Nanao liked it. When she finally let herself, she found that he was very easy to talk to. Their conversation at the tea shop was proof of that. She had not expected to be telling her early life story to anyone today, much less to someone whose opinion mattered to her.

It had turned out alright though, and she was glad. He hadn't said a word while she spoke but was there for her silently instead. It was reassuring to have that support, and after so long of knowing each other, she had decided that he deserved know, especially because he asked. While she may sometimes dodge the question, she could never outright lie to him.

They came to the split in the path before her home, and Nanao unwound her arm from his. That had been something else she was lenient on today.

He had tried to argue with her about taking her home, but the path to Captain Ukitake's dwelling was in the other direction. He had confessed that he agreed to stop at his longtime friend's place that evening, and she had won the argument by saying he was probably already late and shouldn't keep him up waiting. He had relented, though he had pouted for a bit.

When she looked at him, he had another smile in place. It was more subdued than his grin, and she knew it was the mark of being pleased. It was a look of time well spent, and she was glad for it.

"Thank you for such a wonderful day."

She was sincere, and she hoped that he knew it. She had not had such a fulfilling day in a long time.

He picked up her hands and held them to his chest as he spoke. "But it was you, my dear, that made it so lovely."

She shook her head slightly, knowing that he was ever quick to turn her statements around. He seemed genuine, and she wasn't sure what to think about that. Those were things she couldn't think about right now.

On a whim, she stepped up on the tips of her toes to kiss his cheek, and she took satisfaction in it when he let go of one of her hands to put one of his to the spot. She didn't say anything as she took a step back, pulling her hand away slowly. She had to give it more effort than she thought, like he didn't want to let go.

She thanked him again and turned to go, feeling his eyes on her until she made it around the corner.

Nanao wanted to laugh at herself. She felt like a blushing academy girl again after a first date. At the thought she stopped in her tracks. Was that what it had been? Now that she really thought about it, there were a bunch of similarities. Shaking her head, she told herself she was going to think on it some other time. For now, she would bask in the light euphoria she was feeling. She didn't know when she would feel that way again, so she should take advantage of it.

She walked to her door with a smile on her face, but the smile dropped steadily into a frown as she spotted something on the doorstep. With a slightly puzzled look, she crouched down to get a better look at it.

Some string inside of her twanged as she found another bundle of flowers. These ones, however, were not pleasant. While pretty to look at, she was all too well accustomed to the meaning of them. She had received some in her academy days, and those were never good days.

If this was someone's idea of a joke, it was going to stop. She was a little tired of it already, and it had hardly even begun. With a few murmured words, the bundle curled up and blackened as it burned away, and Nanao swept the remaining ashes off the step before heading inside and closing the door. For now, she would continue the rest of her night with a satisfied feeling. She would deal with what this meant later.

While carnations could mean many things, yellow ones signified rejection.

-To be continued.

.-.-.-.


Wow. It deleted all my dashes and such, making everything super hard to read when there's a transition. I am going to fix these, if they don't come back on their own. That's a bit annoying. Next chapter is in progress.