Disclaimer: Bleach belongs to the talented and brilliant Kubo Tite and I am conspicuously not that clever. Therefore, not mine, regrettably.

Author's Notes: This is an AU, but with undertones from the original series. However, save for a few events and such, it will hardly be similar to the canon storyline. Nevertheless, I hope you will all still enjoy this alternate take on their relationship.

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"Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive."
-Sir Walter Scott

--

"Hina…mori…?"

The bewildered whisper of her name slipped numbly from his lips, escaping in an uncalculated breath.

Suddenly fully aware of the sharp, cold metal pressed firmly to his neck, he realized the keen blade was dangerously positioned at his jugular vein, a mere whim away from slitting away his life. The unexpected action coupled with the ensuing shock had momentarily paralyzed any further speech. He had not anticipated this disruption to his plans, and as a result, had only been capable of uttering her name in uncertainty. Caught quite uncharacteristically off guard, all he could do was gaze along the piercing length of the weapon to meet the chocolate brown eyes of his assailant. Save for the strange glassy film that had abruptly glazed over her eyes, he was conscious of the firm glint in her hardened glare.

"You used me," she stated bluntly, an uncharacteristic and deadly calm radiating from her small frame.

A cold wave washed down his entire form, swiftly followed by a pervasive numb aftermath. Although it went unnoticed to the outside observer's eye, her accusation had left him almost disoriented. Mind reeling from the unforeseen interference, he couldn't understand why it felt as if something in his stomach was knotting itself into a small, hard ball. He could have mistaken it for fear, but he knew it was a different sort of unease.

He clenched his teeth together as his jaw muscles tightened. This was not the time to lose his control or be overwhelmed. He had to continue to portray an external calm.

"What are you talking about?" he questioned cautiously, eyes narrowing. "Is this how you approach your superiors?"

"You used me," she repeated in a matter-of-fact tone, ignoring his question. His gaze slipped for a moment to her hold on the grip of her weapon. Her knuckles were white from the pressure she was exerting. Yet, her resolve did not waver, and between the dozen of strategies he was turning over in his mind, he couldn't help but feel slightly amused by her composure.

That amusement quickly ended when he felt a sharp, deliberate prick on the delicate skin of his throat. "I know about your plans," she announced calmly.

The acute sting and her accusation quickly brought back a rupture of lucid rationality. Allowing the wave of sensibility to wash away his uncharacteristic musings, he swiftly turned his mental attentions back to judge his current predicament. While it did not particularly settle well in his stomach to think of hurting a girl, duty did come first. If she happened to know as much as she was implying, then that very same duty required him to...

"Hinamori…" he proceeded warily, his eyes hardening and concentration sharpening.

She didn't make a move to acknowledge him by speaking, settling on a lingering and steady gaze. He sighed quietly, annoyed.

He hadn't meant for this to happen, but he supposed the pretense was up. It was a situation dangling precariously at the cliff's edge, wholly engulfed by the instability and yet hanging on solely by uncertainty - save for that small, inevitable breeze that would blow it over the precipice.

"How much do you know?" he murmured in a voice that was akin to silk gliding softly over the edge of a blade.

There was a short silence before he felt her hand tighten on the hilt of her sword, returning his gauge with a clear-cut answer, with the inescapable breath of a breeze.

"Everything."

Intense turquoise met steadily with dark, smoldering amber. A heavy, calculating silence stretched between the two, as they both analyzed the other suspiciously, waiting for a breach of the deceptive calm. Time could have been irrelevant for that moment, as the two wordlessly measured each other, unspoken inquiries falling dead and misunderstood around their feet. He found it ironic that this situation was reminiscent of their first meeting. Except this time around, the roles were reversed, with she trapping him while he was rooted to his spot. Amongst the dozen other thoughts subsequently racing through his mind, he thought it strange that this was the memory that he initially and so readily grasped.

Perhaps he was getting soft. This was not the time to become weak of will. Because he secretly knew that in actuality, the tense stillness could have only lasted for a few more seconds.

And because he also secretly knew he'd been damning himself the moment he allowed her to affect him in any way.

He sighed almost imperceptibly, feeling as if his impending actions were somehow more difficult than they should be. Perhaps if she wasn't pointing her weapon at him, a lot of things could be avoided. Or perhaps if it had been someone else who was in her stead, then it would be easier to...but this was not the time to think of things like that.

He forcefully dispelled further recollections from his ruminations, and slowly dropped his gaze to the ground next to her sandaled feet, eyes steeling for the imminent act.

You don't know anything…

--

Tangled

Chapter One
Winter and Peach

--

Turning Back the Pendulum
(An unspecified number of years ago…)

Hinamori couldn't tell which was more foreboding: the dark, ominous clouds swirling bleakly against the skies, or her friend's face at the sight of dried persimmons.

"Persimmons…" he had muttered disapprovingly, his own dismal overcast hovering above his head. His eyes, usually downcast, were now eclipsed with something akin to vehemence. "More persimmons...everywhere..."

Hinamori's attention turned to follow in her friend's direction, lowering to gaze at the dried persimmons a small stand was selling by the roadside. If persimmon had eyes, they would be staring back at her with innocence. She hesitated for a moment, before urging quietly, "Um…Kira-kun, you don't have to wait for me. I'll go buy the manju by myself." Her eyes momentarily shifted to stare at the storefront of the Himura bakery, a favorite of hers for their delectable pastries, and of course, because the owner was a close friend.

"It's okay…I'll wait. It's dangerous going back by yourself in the dark." However, if he had meant to reassure her, his flickering glances to the persimmons only convinced her of one undeniable fact: Kira-kun had a strange aversion to the fruit.

Unusual.

She vaguely recalled to mind a haiku her surprisingly poetic friend had written for the Gotei 13's newspaper, Seireitei Tsuushin. She couldn't remember the actual verses, but it basically went along the lines of, "The persimmon tree bears fruit. Aaah, the persimmon tree bears fruit once more this year." It had even won an award.

Moreover, it probably didn't help that his former taichou had planted persimmon trees everywhere in the 3rd Division's compounds. Perhaps one day, she would ask Kira his rationale for hating persimmons. Until then, she didn't need him moping around glaring at persimmons while she visited an old friend.

"I'll be fine, Kira-kun. Please just return and make the report for the both of us? I don't want it to be late," she urged him gently. Her gaze also lingered on the heavy bags under his eyes, a sign of the hard work he had undoubtedly been doing lately...or perhaps there were always dark circles under his eyes. Either way, she did not want to keep him from his rest when she had a few more personal things to tie up. She gave him a smile full of reassurance. "I'll catch up, I won't be long. Promise!"

His mind seemed to momentarily stray off of the basket of dried persimmons. "But with all these strange occurrences lately, especially in these districts…" he trailed off, hesitance thick in his voice.

"We've already secured the premises in these districts for tonight, and there was nothing out of the ordinary." His concern could sometimes be endearing, but goodness! "I can take care of myself." As a fukutaichou, she hardly thought that warranted the necessity of another shinigami escorting her back to Seireitei.

Hinamori thought she saw a strange look enter his eyes, but it was gone the next second. "It's going to rain," he muttered, amazingly persistent, although she could detect the faintest trace of faltering in his speech. "And the civilians haven't exactly been feeling comfortable as of late when there are shinigami in their districts..." Hinamori wasn't sure why he seemed to always give her extra attention. It wasn't like she was a little kid anymore.

"If they're uncomfortable, then one shinigami is better than a pair. I'll be fine," she repeated, taking a back step towards the store's entrance and lacing her fingers together behind her body. "Anyway, it's Suzume, and you know I know her. I haven't visited her in a while, so don't worry about me, please?" She gave him another reassuring smile, peering at him with effortless sincerity.

There was a meditative pause before a dejected sigh escaped from between his lips - a sign of his reluctant acquiescence. "Then I'll go make the report," he surrendered in an even voice, his eyes resuming their usual half-hooded gaze. He seemed to regard the persimmons with one final withering glare before entering shunpo and disappearing from her view.

Certain that he was gone, Hinamori couldn't suppress a small giggle at her friend's expense. For all his seriousness, loyalty, and sense of duty, Kira did have a side to him that was slightly amusing. Honestly, out of all things to dislike, he had to hate persimmons. With the looks he gave the inanimate fruits, anyone would have imagined they were the most vile of all things dark and dangerous.

Nevertheless, this was not the time to be spending contemplations on her eternally cynical friend. "Manju," she mumbled under her breath, reminding herself of her purpose. Bringing her attention back to the shop, she strolled in, gazing around. It was empty, save for the assortment of pastries displayed around on stands, although most of it seemed to have sold out. Accustomed to seeing the owner greet her with overwhelming enthusiasm, Hinamori wasn't sure what to do. "Suzume?" she settled on calling out loud in an unsure tone.

She heard a shuffling in the backroom along with the sound of a door sliding shut firmly. It was followed by more sounds of fumbling around before the drape leading to the back of the shop was pulled aside and a tall, slim young woman emerged. She had long light brown hair tied up into a loose bun, and eyes the color of ebony, speckled with crimson. Although a slight look of confusion had lingered on the other woman's face when she first emerged, this gave way to the spread of a wide, bright smile when the owner spied her customer.

"Momo-chan!" she announced in surprise, the joy conspicuously written into the curve of her full lips. "I haven't seen you around in such a long time!"

Hinamori marveled at the beauty in front of her, almost painfully registering her own average features against the attractive individual. Although there was a trace of bags under Suzume's eyes, wisps of hair escaping her bun, and her baker's apron was speckled with all matters of cooking, Suzume still managed to hold an elegance and aura around her. She watched her childhood companion stroll up to her, and although they had both aged since she entered the shinigami academy, Hinamori noticed that Suzume still had a few inches over the younger girl. Having been a shinigami for so long, Hinamori was aware that Suzume's external appearance had only aged a few years, and yet that meant a lot more actual time had passed. The slower aging of the souls in Soul Society meant that when external appearances aged, it was disproportionate to one's actual age. Seeing that Suzume looked to be about eighteen years of age now, Hinamori wondered where all the time had went.

She felt a stab of guilt for not having visited in such a long time, and was even faintly nostalgic...until Suzume began pinching her cheeks like Hinamori was a little kid.

"Aww, your chubby cheeks are still here," Suzume remarked wickedly, as a sly grin replaced the previously innocent smile.

Hinamori had almost forgotten the quick transitions this woman underwent - 'almost' being the keyword. "Suzume, please," she whined, lightly shooing the harassing hands away from her face. She did not have chubby cheeks!

"Even after all these years, you still haven't grown much, huh?"

"What! I've grown a few inches! Perhaps not as tall as you, but still!"

"Momo-chan, I was talking about the way a woman grows..."

"Suzume!"

Hinamori's small protest fell upon deaf ears as Suzume's tinkling laughter sounded out. "You may look older, Momo - hey, don't look at me like that! I'll be nice and say you could pass as sixteen, maybe seventeen if I squint real hard - but your mind is still as innocent as a child's." As if to illustrate her point, Suzume patted Hinamori on the head, at which a look of despair escaped the latter. Taking pity on the younger girl, Suzume said, "Okay, okay, I'll stop. What brings you here, anyway?"

The pout on Hinamori's lips slowly lifted when she realized the usual torment was over. "Kira-kun and I were patrolling a few districts tonight, so I stopped by to buy some manju before I return."

"And not to visit me? I see what thi-"

"Suzume, you know that's not what I meant." Hinamori gave the older woman a smile, honestly glad to see her friend, even with all the teasing. "How are you? I'm sorry to visit at such a late hour, but is everything going well?"

The tawny-haired woman nodded. "Many of the other shops are closing earlier nowadays. I was about to close up, so I was just throwing some things away in the alley." Hinamori noticed that the earlier funny look returned to Suzume's features, her eyebrows lowered slightly as if contemplating something. Then she blinked, and Suzume's eyes shifted to gaze at Hinamori as she brought up a thoughtful finger to chin. "But really now, to have shinigami come out into Rukongai, I suppose things have been happening as of late…" she mumbled.

"You have no idea. Have you heard or seen anything odd?" Hinamori asked, watching as her friend decided to start taking her leftover pastries from the stands. The same funny look returned.

"Well, I've only heard about the horrible murders from others - thank god I didn't get to see it personally! - but about things I did see, well..."

Hinamori's ears perked at her friend's uncertainty. "You saw something?"

Suzume was taking out a couple of leftover manju and wrapping them for her friend as she turned her gaze back to Hinamori. She started hesitantly, "I don't know if I'm being paranoid, but right before you came to visit, I thought I saw something in the alleyway." She stopped to finish wrapping up the sweets and to blow a stray strand of hair from her face before continuing, "It was getting dark however, so I can't really be sure, but I think that what I saw was a suspicious character sneaking around..."

"A suspicious character?" Hinamori echoed.

"Uh huh, just a while ago. I was just out back, and then someone wearing a cape just flashed—that shunpo you shinigami do?—across the rooftop of the alleyway! Almost gave me a heart attack! I didn't have time to scream or react before the shadow was gone…poof."

Now this caught Hinamori's undivided attention. Only Kira and she had been put in charge of this district tonight. With the recent surge of unexplainable phenomena and the seemingly haphazard deaths around here, Gotei 13 had felt it a matter of prudence to deploy two fukutaichou to secure the perimeters of the districts with the most reported disturbances. When Kira volunteered firstly, she subsequently duly offered her own help as well in order to get a chance to catch up with her old friend. Therefore, there should have only been two shinigami in West Rukongai's 1st District all night…

"How long have I been here?" Hinamori inquired, her mind off of manju for the meantime.

"Hm, I don't know. Perhaps ten or fifteen minutes?"

"Oh, good! Then his trail should still be fresh. Can I see the alleyway?" There was a chance that there was a lingering residue of reiatsu.

Suzume seemed mildly amused, having possibly guessed Hinamori's objective. "Well, you should hurry. Otherwise, I imagine the water will wash away any traces," she said lightly, motioning for the younger girl to shadow her. They walked past the back kitchen that was the site of Suzume's creations, Hinamori giving a quick sweeping glance of the area, and seeing a door that probably led to Suzume's private room, and a backdoor that they were approaching.

"Water?" Hinamori was confused.

The young baker shook her head slightly, as if deploring the scope of awareness observable in her friend. "Little things always seem to escape your notice, Momo-chan. Well, it just started…" As Suzume pushed aside the door leading to the alleyway, Hinamori suddenly understood. A swift gust of cold air wafted into the tiny shop, smacking the young shinigami in the face and blowing her bangs backwards. Hinamori could not suppress a small shiver from escaping her suddenly chilled limbs, and she absently brought up an inattentive hand to her opposite arm, rubbing down the goosebumps that electrified her skin.

"…to rain a moment ago," Suzume finished, wrinkling her dainty nose as she frowned and gazed out into the dark, grim lane.

Hinamori watched the fresh droplets of bleak rain slowly gaining speed and size. She had known it would rain, but had naively held onto the hope that it wouldn't fall until she was safely sheltered within her compounds. But the weather seemed to enjoy surprising her, the rain initiating the moment she let her guard down. At this rate, she'd be soaked by the time she returned, shinigami or not.

She took a step towards the open doorway, not sure why she wanted to verify visually what she knew privately. Even if there had been a reiatsu trail, the rain would have undoubtedly washed it away already. Sticking only her head outside, she turned her head to gaze up and down the empty, narrow alley. In the current illumination, it was dim and almost sinister, as if transported straight out of those thriller novels she sometimes read in the library.

I hope there's no dead bodies behind those boxes… Hinamori thought sardonically, eyeing with suspicion a pile of empty boxes other shops had left lying around outside. However, save for the boxes, nothing else seemed to be out of the ordinary...for an alley, anyway.

"Well, don't worry, Suzume. Everything seems—" Something in Hinamori's peripherals caught her attention. She lifted her head sharply to gaze up at the gap separating the two walls flanking the alleyway, feeling the hard beads of water land sharply on her face. Ignoring the onyx, dense clouds churning like a condensed haze escaping from a vat of one of Kurotsuchi-taichou's experiments, Hinamori focused on an obscure form in the distance.

If she allowed her mind to wander along that deceitful path her settings were prepping her for, she could almost see an outline of something dashing over the rooftops…

She narrowed her eyes, her heart suddenly beating faster.

It was something racing along the rooftops! Or more specifically, someone.

"I'll come visit again another day, Suzume! Sorry!" Hinamori shot the farewell out hastily, casting the bewildered young baker a rueful smile before entering shunpo and rushing out into the unwelcome curtain of precipitation.

Suzume's dark eyes widened. "But what about your manju?!" she cried out, but Hinamori was already disappearing into the darkness. She sighed audibly, placing her hands on her hips in irritation. "I better not be old and wrinkly the next time you come around!"

Hinamori almost giggled at Suzume's friendly threat, but then dropped her calm as she began to furtively trail the dark shadow far ahead of her. She noticed that the rain was only beginning its downpour, thoughtlessly increasing to a frantic pace.

Although she didn't mind most weather conditions, there was no particular soft spot for rain, especially cold rain. Unlike snow which was the other component of a typical winter, rain did not generally spend time mystifying her with its beauty. Instead, it was oftentimes harsh and relentless, cutting straight to the point, and drenching her right to the marrow of her frozen limbs. This particular rain was also making its presence conspicuously known by promptly dissolving into her clothing and dampening her hair, as if she was a sponge. Perfect…

Keeping her eyes fixed on her target, she quickly assured that her reiatsu was masked, so that whoever he or she was would be unable to feel her presence. Firm eyes traced the hazy outline of an unfamiliar form through the sheets of rain dividing them. The individual was undeniably short of stature, yet somehow bulky. From a rear view, the person was almost as tall as they were wide.

It wasn't the stranger's figure that bothered her, however. After all, she was a trained shinigami, and did not feel fear in the face of peril. She had faced many hollows and enemies with troubling reiatsu, so danger did not leave her trembling underneath a rock. What did unsettle her was something rather simple: she was actively feeling for it, but there wasn't even a trace of the stranger's reiatsu.

And that means he's either one of two extremes: one, his capacity wavers at close to zip…or two, he's insanely adroit at masking his aura. Hinamori's intuition told her fate's bets were on the latter, considering this individual was unquestionably a shinigami, and quite skilled in movement. She bit her lips nervously. Now I wish I hadn't forced Kira-kun to go on ahead…I might need the support.

Hinamori's eyes suddenly hardened, taken aback by her own thoughts. What am I talking about?! I can handle this by myself! Her right hand drifted to land on the hilt of her zanpakutou, and she felt a small relief that shinigami traveling outside of Seireitei were given permission to bring their weapons as of late.

Ignoring the drape of water threatening to enclose her and hinder her vision, Hinamori's eyes concentrated on following the shady character in undetectable stealth. Lucky for her, he seemed to be oblivious to her presence. However, she noticed that they were headed in the direction she had hoped he wasn't proceeding towards: Seireitei.

"Ah…what should I do now…" Hinamori mumbled inaudibly, biting her lower lip again. To make matters worse, she wasn't even confident the shinigami was an enemy. Only wariness and the simple fact that she and Kira were supposed to be the only two shinigami patrolling the districts of West Rukongai made her feel justified in her actions. On a normal day, she would have already revealed herself to the stranger. However, the recent tense and distrustful aura prevalent in every division had placed everyone on the brink of overt mistrust, affecting her usual behavior as well.

But when your friends and fellow team members were being killed off one by one, she supposed it was only logical to be cautious.

Well, I'll follow him for a while longer and see where he goes, she decided, giving herself a confirming nod. If he tried anything suspicious, then she'll make her move. Before that, it would be foolish to ambush him without a clue of his potential.

Her gaze momentarily distracted by the distant sight of the tall white tower that marked the center of Seireitei - now almost ghostly when shrouded by darkness - Hinamori realized it only took the suspicious person that single second to disappear from her view.

"Oh no…" she muttered, pulling to a stop and landing silently on the tiles of a rooftop. Her ears strained to hear for any indication of the individual's direction, but only the swallowing wail of rain and wind answered.

Pushing away sopping wet strands of hair away from her eyes, Hinamori noiselessly crept over the edge of the roof and alighted upon the watery sanded ground. Another alley, she thought absentmindedly, eyes scanning for the exit to the main street.

Spying it, she darted over, trying to avoid crunching the dirt underneath her sandals. One hand curled over the edge of the wall, she cautiously peeked over the corner, then quickly retracted her head. The individual was there, running under the shelter of the shops' horizontal, wooden columns, a solitary figure in the deserted streets. Taking another wary peep, she just caught the hem of his cape billowing as he turned smoothly to disappear down another alleyway.

"Where is he going…" she whispered, before reacting immediately, rushing towards the next alleyway. In a few seconds, she herself ghosted his steps and turned sharply around the corner, intent on not allowing the suspicious figure to escape...

Hinamori's breath hitched. For a moment, she thought the darkness and rain had obscured the shady individual from immediate view, but a hasty blink quickly confirmed the opposite. The individual had literally disappeared, and all that lay ahead of her was a long, narrow alleyway veiled by droplets of rain that appeared black in the shadows.

"Where…?" she mumbled in disbelief, not believing that someone could have so easily escaped.

The answer came from an unexpected direction, a cool whisper from behind her ear that sent an involuntarily violent shudder down her body. "Right here," the individual breathed huskily, his lips mere inches from her tingling flesh.

She didn't have time to register further thoughts as her view of the long alley was viciously ripped from her, the world suddenly in a whirl. Hinamori instantly expected to be flung powerfully into a wall, or even worse, hideously eviscerated. Instead, she felt her back strike something hard, the impact firm enough to make her aware of the contact, yet surprisingly not severe enough to make her cry out in pain.

"You know," she heard him begin silkily, a hint of sarcastic mockery in her assailant's tone. "It's not particularly smart to follow a stranger into a dark, empty alley." The deep masculine voice quickly brought her mind back down to earth, and Hinamori swiftly assessed her predicament.

He had her pressed up against a wall of the alley, his hands iron-like manacles pinning her wrists down by her side. The stranger had his hood lowered so that she couldn't see his eyes, but Hinamori could tell that he was about the same height as her, perhaps even a little shorter. Raindrops struck his black hood, and her eyes followed the path of a particular droplet mark its slow trail downwards to melt into strands of silver hair peeking out from underneath the cape.

What are you doing! Why aren't you reacting?! an inner voice yelled sharply. Hinamori instantly snapped to attention.

"Let me go!" she hissed in defiance, her thoughts propelling her into action. Attempting to free one of her hands to reach for her blade strapped down to her waist, she realized the stranger's grip was like steel. She couldn't budge, and a tiny panic seized her. She was completely vulnerable…stupid, stupid her for letting her guard down so easily!

"Why were you following me," the individual stated flatly.

Oh, a black hooded figure sneaking around isn't anything suspicious, of course, Hinamori thought wryly, her eyebrows drawing together in irritation. "Who are you?" she challenged, willing her voice to sound stern, and completely ignoring his previous statement. She wasn't about to go down so easily.

His grip on her wrists seemed to only tighten at her resistance. "I said," he began menacingly, his hood still lowered. "Why are you following me." This time, it was not a question, but a demand.

Perhaps she didn't really have a decent reason for pursuing this person, which was why she wasn't answering, but Hinamori was certain she wasn't about to succumb to his interrogation now.

"If you're not going to answer, then I wi—"

His imminent threat was cut off by a piercing accusation, sourness tingeing the end of her words, "You're an enemy of Seireitei, aren't you?!"

This question seemed to cause a sudden reaction, and he snapped his head up, his hood slipping soundlessly off from the abrupt action. Cliché as it was, Hinamori was sure she had forgotten how to breathe for a moment and that her heart stopped a beat when their eyes locked.

And it wasn't because he was gazing at her fondly.

If she had to put it into words, it was like staring into glacial shards, the stranger's eyes brilliant twin emeralds speckled with flakes of turquoise. They were also as hard as gemstones, the coldness radiating from them sending another chill through her body that had nothing to do with the rain. It was as if he was piercing her with those tempestuous, frosty depths.

"Fool," he growled in that deep, husky voice—a mature voice that seemed impossible from the boy in front of her—because there was no denying it, he was a boy. His eyes shot to the armband wrapped around the material of her clothes. "5th Division," he muttered in a low voice, more to himself than to her. "Hinamori-fukutaichou, I presume?" he then drawled dryly, as he turned his attention back to her face, his eyelids half-hooded as he gazed steadily at her.

That was when previously overlooked details caught up with her attention. She noticed the familiar shinigami uniform underneath his black cape. Their encounter had also shifted his cloak to the side, and she spied what looked like a zanpakutou strapped to his back. That would explain the bizarre box-like shape of the stranger from when she had been pursuing him.

The fervor in her seemed to be draining out of her like the rainwater emptying into the sewers, realizing slowly that this was about to turn out to be all one big mistake. "Yes…" she managed to force out from between her lips.

At her self-acknowledgment, he released his hold on her. He also moved his body away, and Hinamori barely managed to comprehend how close they had been when she felt the rush of cold air mark their separation. No longer restrained up against the wall, Hinamori's hand instinctively went towards the hilt of her zanpakutou, in case he tried anything funny.

"Don't be stupid," he snapped impatiently, a deep frown forming between his eyebrows. His hands not preoccupied with shackling her, he folded them in one smooth, fluid motion across his chest.

A cautious expression was mirrored on her own facial features. Standing a few feet away from her and without his hood on, Hinamori finally got a good look at the suspicious individual. She was a little surprised to see that her initial insight could be expanded even further. Judging by height and looks, he was unmistakably a boy. However, what she had not anticipated was his head of white…or was it silver? In the darkness, she could not be sure. The strands were hanging limply, weighed down by the rain that had soaked into it.

Not wanting to seem like she was gawking at him, she willfully forced her attention to drift back to his eyes. She found this surprisingly easy, the enigmatic and intense gaze almost commanding her attention. Hinamori vaguely noticed that the previous sharpness in them was forfeit to another kind of rough edge: a composed, calculative glint. The sharp, glacial qualities had subsided, and had been replaced by a cool, detached mix of teal and jade.

She berated herself mentally. As if this was the time to be appreciating the varying shades of his eyes. Just because he had released her and knew her name meant nothing. This individual was not any run-of-the-mill shinigami, evident because she was still unable to detect any reiatsu from his form.

"Who are you?" she repeated her earlier question warily.

The boy appeared peevish for a moment, his glare darkening, if that was even possible. He seemed to hesitate for a moment, as if determining whether she really didn't know who he was. Or perhaps that look conveyed that he thought she was not worth his time - she could not tell.

After the small delay, he replied in a plain tone, "10th Division taichou, Hitsugaya Toushirou."

It only took Hinamori a few seconds to piece the name and title together with what had just occurred. She could feel her eyes widening in shock as her hand dropped softly from her hilt. The sound of the falling rain seemed to intensify as a growing heat flushed across her cold cheeks, disparate thoughts racing through her mind.

Taichou…?

That would explain…

Who knew he was so short?

I almost attacked a taichou!

Dropping her head and upper body automatically into an apologetic bow, Hinamori struggled to find something appropriate to say. She could feel the heat rising faster, and was glad he couldn't see her face in her position. "Sorry!" she finally managed to force out. It was actually akin to a squeak, but also seemed to be the catalyst that allowed her to continue talking. "I hadn't meant to follow you if I had known who you were! Are you okay? Well, I mean I didn't even touch you, but! I just thought…just thought that you were some creeping, evil enemy and then I jus-"

"It's fine," she heard him interrupt her in a quiet grumble. Intrigued by his tone, she lifted her head slowly from her bowed position, peering up at him through her eyelashes and wet bangs. His gaze was averted to the side, which allowed a rather nice appreciation of the chiseled feature of his jaw line. But it didn't seem right to Hinamori somehow - a young boy with the look and aura of a much more mature man.

"No blood was spilled," he muttered almost inaudibly, his words startling Hinamori. It took her a heartbeat to decipher the insinuation behind the statement; he had been prepared to hurt her at a minimum, and perhaps kill her if it came down to it…

She had no doubt he could have accomplished it easily. The icy, dark glint in his eyes that she had previously gotten an up-close and personal glimpse of flashed uncomfortably in front of her vision.

This also seemed to mark the start of a tense silence, as he gazed off fixedly to the side, while she allowed her gaze to drop to the ground as she stopped bowing. The pounding of the relentless rain seemed to magnify at the expense of the sudden deflation of hostility between the two. To Hinamori, if anything, the driving rain appeared to only envelop the two of them in that awkward situation. So what exactly should she say now that she was exposed by the taichou that she had been…following him? Stalking him? Oh dear, it sure must have looked like stalking.

This tiny fact brought back the igniting of furious heat across her cheeks. She struggled terribly for something—anything—to say to the taichou in front of her. But what was an appropriate answer to "No blood was spilled?"

Sorry? No, she had already said that.

I'm glad? Those words were uncomfortably lodged in her throat.

How do you spill blood at that height? Oh god, did she just think that about a taichou?

Her eyes darted quickly to the figure in front of her, and saw that he looked impatient as well. The frown on his face seemed more intensified somehow, as if something was bothering him. Surely by now he must be irritated by her presence.

Against her better judgment, even though she knew it was entirely inappropriate in the current situation, she felt her eyes treacherously twitch. Her attention slyly (or so she hoped) shifted skywards to take another fleeting glimpse at his hair. It was so interesting! It was like a wet mess of silvery...temptation? But 'temptation' implies something like seduction...eww...

It was about that time that several things happened.

Hinamori suddenly felt a violent shiver jolt through her body, an abrupt iciness chilling her straight to her bones. It was even visible to the boy in front of her, who had simultaneously taken a step away, an indication that he was to take his leave. He didn't take another step however, and he discreetly eyed her carefully, knowingly, from the corner of his eyes.

She swiftly grinded her teeth together tightly, her jaw tautening from the action. The boy in front of her had abruptly made it apparent that she had a lot of training left to do in order to be of use to her division. The gap she wanted to slowly close between her strength and that of a taichou had been sharply made conspicuous, and it left her feeling weak in comparison to the boy in front of her. The weakness of her power made obvious, she did not want him to also see the vulnerability of her body. Trying fiercely to avoid another tremble, she bowed her head respectfully, a signal for the taichou to leave. However, she cursed the tell-tale betrayals of the small quivers at her shoulders.

Great, she thought bleakly, and as if to humor her, a sneeze followed. Now I'm going to get sick.

An image of her taichou flashed in front of her eyes. …And I won't be able to help Nakamura-taichou. Her eyes saddened at the thought.

That was about the time she felt a weight land unexpectedly on her shoulders, the rashness and disinclination of the owner seeming to linger on the action. Her eyes wide, Hinamori raised her head hesitantly and gazed questioningly at the boy in front of her. He looked even more irritated, and she watched as he raised a graceful hand to run his fingers smoothly through those wet locks of silvery whiteness that had so thoroughly captured her attention beforehand. Tearing her ogling from his hair, she saw him scowling at her from the corner of those cerulean-green eyes of his.

Unthinkingly, she raised her own hands to her chest, feeling the inner material of the cloak provide dry warmth to her frozen fingertips. More accurately however, it was not exactly warmth she felt, for she was surprised that there was actually little residue of body warmth emanating from the protective attire. It was more of a simple dry coolness that settled over her, as if it was simply an added layer of defense against the remorseless rain. Nevertheless, she was grateful for additional security, her fingers closing unintentionally into the material of the cloak.

A grumble sounded from the boy. "We'll call it even then."

He cocked his head slightly towards her, as if out of mild curiosity, and she watched him lift his hand towards her face. She couldn't help a flinch from escaping her body, but his reach extended beyond her face to take a hold of something behind her. She felt the forceful tug of a hood blanket her head safely from the black raindrops, and a breathless gasp she hadn't known she'd been holding in escaped invisibly from between her lips.

"Just be careful of sick fukutaichou following you into dark alleys in order to ambush you," he muttered darkly, and she swore she saw him roll his eyes almost imperceptibly.

Then before she could even blink, he was gone. She was left staring into the darkness, as if still seeing the faint outline of the individual who had just been standing there a second ago. Why did all the taichou do that?

Then she realized with a start that he was fast.

He had only been luring her from the beginning by not disappearing from her view the moment she decided to trail him. When she had been thinking she was the wily predator, she had actually been the overconfident prey.

And if that wasn't enough to blow her pride into itty bitty pieces, the taichou had to lend her his cloak because her body had to be traitorous at such an inappropriate time. Even if the action was out of chivalry, his subsequent tactless comment about her weak attempt to pursue him had been the steel boot to mash her broken pride into the dirt. "Boys," she mumbled dejectedly, wondering why so many of them enjoyed rubbing things in.

A defeated sigh escaped out in one breath, and Hinamori took the few steps necessary to lead her back onto the main road. She saw the western entrance into Seireitei in the distance, and decided the first thing she'd do when she returned was to take a nice, hot bath.

At this thought, she entered shunpo once more and flashed into the darkness, making her way towards the looming gates. She noted faintly that her shivers had subsided, the cloak providing more warmth now than it initially had. Strange that the cloak had been so cool when he first gave it to her, but she supposed she was simply trying to find correlation where there was none: An externally aloof individual didn't make an article of clothing cold as well. Nevertheless, the memory of her failed attempt to pursue the stranger - now exposed as a taichou - brought back a faint tinge of pink upon her cheeks.

"I suppose the devil was in the details for that one," she muttered jokingly to herself, and a small smile graced her lips.

--

Author's Notes: To reiterate, this is my little experiment with twisting the canon plot by having Hinamori and Hitsugaya not be childhood friends, and not living with and knowing each other before becoming a shinigami. As a result, this divergence will start to propagate further changes in the storyline. Some things will be similar - as you will soon enough find out - while most other things will be completely different. Their interaction with each other may be slightly OOC because of this, but I promise I will attempt to do the best I can.

Also, I just wanted to say Kira actually did write a persimmon haiku, which I loosely translated. (For those who read Japanese, the actual goes: 「柿がなる、あああ今年も柿がなる」) The authentic Japanese one has the right number of syllables…so I'm not stupid.

Anyway, I would love some feedback on your thoughts or concerns. As an author, and subject to uncertainty due to this being my first Bleach fanfiction, it would definitely help me gauge my audience's reactions. Reviews are always inspiring (hint?) and appreciated!