Thank you to all those readers out there! As promised, this chapter's out within the week (more or less). Uni starts next week, so updates will be slower. Whether it'll be till my next break that I update...well, I'll try to avoid that!
Chapter 8 – Unpleasant Tumbles
"What a day."
Momo closed her room door and locked it for good measure, even though she was the only person in the whole apartment. Renji and Izuru left for dinner at a local pub – she'd declined their invitation – and Toshiro slipped off to heaven knows where soon as the final bell had rung. She let her bag fall to the ground beside her table before falling back into her bed, hands crossed over her forehead and legs dangling over the side. There was a loud poof – she was no longer alone.
"Thanks for your help today."
The first day of the school year was always the worst for Momo. Somehow she always managed to embarrass herself in some way. Last year the school administrator made an error on her timetable and she found herself in the wrong classroom. She had to excuse herself amid peals of laughter, her face a bright scarlet. This year though, this year was different. She couldn't help but smile at how her day went. She had a bumpy start, but it was no where near the debacle it would have been if not for her guardians.
"Look at you, always depending on us to bail you out," Kenpachi taunted.
"Always?" Momo repeated, indignant. "This is the first time in months that I've asked for your help. And anyway, isn't it your job to help the family you're assigned to?"
Kenpachi shrugged. "I'm just saying."
"Why didn't you use me, Pechii-sama?" Yachiru clambered across Momo's face and settled on her crown. "Yachiru's a great help!"
"I don't have P.E. until tomorrow, and even then it's a theory lesson. Practicals are on Fridays," Momo replied. "Oh, and there's some leftover trail mix for you guys in my bag somewhere."
"We know. We ate it during that boring science class," Kukaku said.
"Except someone took the last walnut for himself," Soi Fon growled, glaring pointedly at Yumichika.
"Hm? Who else needed it more than me? Clearly the beneficial properties of that precious nut would completely go to waste on someone whose complexion is beyond salvageable." Yumichika wagged his finger at no one in particular. "No, no, no, it must serve its purpose in enhancing the beauty of those born beautiful. Of course, at time I do not feel like eating but-"
Momo ignored the commotion above her. Rather, she was too preoccupied to care. Her heart was racing again as she though back to science class and in particular, the new student teacher. It was just like the first time she had met, or more accurately, bumped into Aizen-sensei in the hall when she first arrived at Saiitou. She thought of his warm eyes and his kindness in helping her. Her heart was beating a similar rhythm that day as well. She placed a hand over her chest, wondering why her pulse quickened every time she saw or thought of him. This feeling was alien.
Momo moved her arms to cover her eyes, feeling too tired to attempt to figure out the strange happenings of her own body. Fortunately, she did not have any homework, and the bed was so comfortable. Unfortunately, her phone blared to life a moment later. The sudden sound of her ringtone jolted her from the mattress. She fumbled with the zip on her bag.
"H-Hello?" she said into the receiver, a little breathless from her frenzy.
"Hello. Is this Hinamori Momo?" The voice on the other end was deep and smooth, but it also carried a subtle astute tone that convinced Momo that the person – whoever he was – had a knowing smile on his face.
"Y-yes, this is her," she gulped. She didn't recognise the voice and was expecting the worse. What if this was the headmaster calling her to say that he knew of her trickery? Was he going to expose her, or was this blackmail?
"Excellent! My name is Urahara Kisuke, the owner of Pankissu Steakhouse. Just calling to see if you are available for an interview this afternoon? I know it's on short notice, but your resume looks very promising, and we're in urgent need of staff."
"O-oh, yes, yes I'm available," Momo replied, relief flooding her. In fact, she was feeling too relieved to question whether she'd actually written anything of interest on her resume.
"Wonderful! Drop by around four-thirty; I have a feeling you're just what we've been looking for. Have a nice day!" Urahara finished with a flourish before breaking the connection.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Momo snapped her phone shut and glanced up at the clock. The slender minute hand just slid to twelve; she had a scant thirty minutes to revert back to Momo Hinamori and get herself to a place she'd only visited once before. As she juggled between deciphering a map held in one hand and reaching into her wardrobe with her other, she berated herself for not organising a later time.
Oh well, nothing I can do about it now.
She thanked her lucky stars that she brought along some articles of clothing that were more feminine. Nothing too over the top, but at least she had a nice blouse and black pants to attend the interview in. She shoved them pell-mell into her bag, realised a split second later how wrinkled her blouse would be, then shoved in a light cardigan so she would have something to cover them.
"Coming?" she asked her guardians, waving her phone in the air as she struggled to put on her shoes.
With her phone a great deal heavier, Momo dashed out the door.
Momo glanced at her watch and smoothed down her blouse for the umpteenth time. The steakhouse was only a few blocks away from Saiitou, making her wonder how she ever became lost. She stood outside, nerves running high, her stomach full of butterflies. It was four-thirty.
"Okay, calm down, Momo. You can do this," she told herself before sucking in a breath and pushing through the saloon doors.
For a late Monday afternoon, the steakhouse was bringing in some good business. The air was alive with chatter, mostly from groups of teenagers having had survived the first day of school, but there were also a few older couples and businessmen scattered in between.
"Can I help you there, hon?"
Momo looked over to see Yoruichi standing only a few feet away, a wide grin on her face. Her bright yellow eyes twinkled as they caught the sunlight. Suddenly, Momo couldn't help but be reminded of a cat. She shook her head.
"I'm just here for an interview with Urahara-san."
"Oh!" Yoruichi's eyes lit up with recognition. "So you're Hinamori Momo. Wow, isn't this strange! Feels like we've met before."
"R-Really?" Momo replied hesitantly. She wasn't sure how to respond to that.
"In any case, wait here for a 'sec, alright? I have to go find the boss."
She sauntered off, leaving Momo to press her back against the wooden walls in an attempt to stay out of the way as much as possible. The place was pleasantly warm – heated, no doubt, by a combination of the sunlight and the warmness of freshly cooked pancakes. The atmosphere was so pleasant that she was unaware of a large smile appearing on her face. She pushed a little off the wall, trying to see to the back of the steakhouse.
"Move it! I've got an order to deliver!"
Momo hastily flattened herself against the wall once more before searching for the speaker. A young boy who looked about four or five years her junior rushed by her with a plate balanced on each hand. He had bright red hair and apparently, a fiery temper to match. A girl with pitch black hair pulled up into pigtails trailed after him, carrying a pitcher. She paused and bowed apologetically to Momo.
"Sorry about that, onee-chan."
She rushed off before Momo could reply, but her absence was quickly replaced by another person. This time it was the frame of a large, broad shouldered man with his hair pulled back into several tight braids. Unintentionally, Momo shuffled a step away, intimidated by his bulging muscles. He peered at her through rectangular glasses.
"You must be the new kid the boss hired." Before Momo could deny that claim, he shoved a laden platter into her hands. She almost fell from the unexpected weight. "Right, can you take that to table twelve? After that, head over to table eight. I think they're just about ready to order."
"W-wait!" she managed to choke out, but by then he was long gone, busy attending to other customers. She looked down at the tray in despair. She didn't know how she would navigate her way through the maze of tables and chairs, much less find where she was suppose to deliver this order.
"Hey," she whispered out the corner of her mouth towards her phone mascots dangling out of her pocket. They did not respond. "Hey!" she repeated with more force.
"What's the matter?" Iba replied.
"Any of you know where table twelve is?" After those words left her mouth, she violently shook her head – she would have slapped herself if her hands weren't occupied. Of course they wouldn't know where table twelve was! "Scratch that, I need help!"
"What kind of help do you need?" asked Komamura.
"I don't know!" Momo wailed. "Finding the right table, not dropping anything, getting over there without making a complete fool of myself…doing all that before the food gets cold! And people are starting to stare!"
"What's wrong with people staring at you?" Yumichika piped up. "Truthfully, I find that to be a ridiculous fear. For one who has confidence, charisma and appeal abound, a little bit of staring is nothing. In fact, they thrive upon it, for they know that others stare with a glimmer of envy in their eyes."
"Why don't I swap places with you and then you could take this thing to where it needs to go!"
"Are you asking me for my help?"
Her pocket bulged as Yumichika reverted to his true form. He poked his head out, looking more eager than she'd ever seen him. "Thought you'd never ask!"
Her body was suddenly awash in that familiar tingling sensation whenever she called upon one of her guardians. It started in her heart, and then spread out in every direction. Wherever the sensation went, a warmth followed just behind until her whole body was heated. She blinked, then suddenly she wondered why she was ever so nervous about walking across a room!
"This is nothing," she declared.
Straightening her back, she strode through the dining room with long, assured steps, glancing around at the numbers perched on each table. Table twelve was a two-seater near the far left window. Momo glanced at the items on her tray.
"Chocolate pancakes with maple syrup and vanilla ice-cream?" she inquired, switching her gaze from the two people occupying the table.
"Mine," said a boy, flicking his hand in the air.
"Here you go," Momo replied, setting down the plate in front of him. She turned to the girl sitting opposite him and smiled. "So these crepes must be yours. Enjoy!"
She tucked the tray under her arm, made her way to table eight and took their order. By the time she spiked the order on the counter and leaned back against the wall as she had previously done, Yumichika's influence over her had vanished, having completed its task. The little rat of the zodiac poked his head out of her pocket once more.
"That was fun," he mused, looking very pleased with himself.
"Thank you, Yumichika."
"Well, well, well, you must be Hinamori-san."
Momo whipped around, dropping a hand to hide her pocket as Yumichika changed back into his earthly form. A tall, skinny man was walking towards her. His mop of blond, slightly unkempt hair was hidden by a green and white striped hat. He was casually dressed in more traditional Japanese clothing, with a deep green haori over the top. He pushed his hat up with a thumb and flashed a grin.
"Yes, I'm Hinamori Momo. You must be…Urahara-san?" she ventured.
"Correct you are. Urahara Kisuke, owner of this fine establishment, at your service. Now, why don't you follow me so we can work out your roster for next week."
"M-My roster? But you haven't interviewed me yet." She was baffled beyond reason.
Urahara raised an eyebrow. "An interview? My, my, that does sound very tedious. Seeing if someone is right for the job is much more efficient. Did you want me to get a second opinion? Hey, Tessai, come over here for a second!"
The man who shoved the tray into Momo's arms from before walked over. He was still wiping a glass cup clean. "What is it, boss?"
"What did you think of our new waitress here? Did she pass the test?" Urahara asked, waving his fan in Momo's direction.
"Yes. Could do with a little polishing, but her performance was quite remarkable considering it was her first time. Customers looked pleased."
Urahara turned back to Momo. "And there you have it. So, are you free on weekends?"
Renji leaned against the kitchen counter, fingers tapping impatiently against the sleek surface. He shifted his backpack to a more comfortable position on his shoulder before calling out. "Hey, Hinamori! You almost done?"
"I'm coming!" Momo shouted back from her room.
She grabbed the last textbook from her table and shoved it into her bag. It was Thursday night and they were getting ready to leave for their first astronomy lesson in the observatory. Even though the door was shut and her room was the furthest from the entrance door, she could still hear Ichigo's voice from down the hall. He stayed in room three-oh-eight with Ishida Uryu, Sado Yasutora (or "Chad" as Ichigo liked to call him) and Yamada Hanataro. She couldn't decipher what it was that Ichigo was shouting, but Renji's voice soon joined in, leaving Momo to conclude that it was nothing of consequence.
"Alright, have I forgotten anything?" she asked, looking around the room.
"You're all good, kiddo," Kukaku replied.
Satisfied, Momo dashed from her room, eager to tell Renji she was ready so that he would hopefully shut up. "Hey, I'm r-ooff!"
She tumbled to the floor, having collided with someone trying to exit the hall at the exact same time. The coolness of their skin sent a small shiver up Momo's spine. She looked up and saw Toshiro straightening his shoulder bag. He looked down at her and seemed to be suppressing a mental sigh. Wordlessly, he offered his hand.
"Um, thank you," Momo sputtered as he helped her to her feet. He walked away the moment she was steady.
"About time!" Renji stressed. "What were you doing in there, Hinamori? Prettying up yourself?"
"More like making sure I have all my books so I won't look like an idiot, unlike a certain someone," she retorted in a low mutter.
Renji only grinned and shoved her out the door, where the four of them met up with the occupants of room three-oh-eight.
The observatory was situated on a small hill near the back of the school. Like every other building, no expenses were spared during its construction. The entire class waited in the foyer, which was mostly glass as to allow the occupants a fuller appreciation of the black expanse that stretched over them. Momo craned her neck to stare up through the transparent ceiling – it was reasonably cloudy tonight. The only trace of the moon was a faint shimmer behind a massive cloud.
The sound of a door unlocking and creaking open drew the attention of the entire class. Amagai-sensei stood at the entrance of the main viewing room; Aizen-sensei was just behind him. Everyone seemed eager to enter the room, casting appreciative looks at the giant telescope they could see protruding from the ceiling.
"Everybody inside please," Amagai-sensei called out. "But please be careful once you're inside. I haven't opened the skylight yet, so it will be quite dark inside."
There was a jam at the staircase leading up to the room; it was only just wide enough to accommodate two people walking side by side, so there was soon a pool of students waiting at the bottom. Slowly, they filed into the room. Momo was right near the end of the line. As she was waiting for the others to move forward, the room lightened up. Her shadow suddenly stretched further across the floor and she looked up, wondering where the source of the light was.
The large cloud that had previously been blocking the moon had parted, and now the silvery orb was clearly visible in a sea of dusky grey. Wispy remnants of the parted clouds swirled around it in a slow, mesmerising dance. The full moon shone brightly.
Just as quickly as the moon broke through the cloudy barrier, so did a familiar, instinctive feeling hit Momo in the chest. There was no mistaking it. She had felt this urgent pull before. A pull that was practically begging her to follow it, becoming harder and harder to resist with each passing second. The dragon was near.
Without thinking, Momo pushed her way through the crowd, ignoring the angry exclamations from the jostled students. She took advantage of the tiniest free space and weaved her way up the stairs. The more steps she climbed, the stronger the pull became. Hearing, seeing, smelling – her other senses were lost to her. She was only aware of this feeling.
There! It was only a few feet in front of her! She cleared the last couple of steps in one long stride, her arm reaching out to grab blindly at the thing she knew would contain her last guardian. Her fingers closed around a fistful of fabric, but her foot caught on the last step and she tumbled forward into the darkness of the main room. She let out a startled cry and landed on something soft. She heard a soft grunt of pain.
For a few moments, she laid still, disorientated by what had passed in the last few seconds. The feeling had left, leaving her light-headed. She leaned up, shook her head and pressed a cool palm against her brow.
"What…what just happened?" she mumbled.
"Hey," a curt voice interrupted, "mind getting off me, Hinamori?"
Momo froze, her insides shivering as if the voice had been an arctic wind. She recognised that voice and struggled to swallow down the panic that began to bubble in the pit of her stomach. As if it wasn't bad enough that she'd mindlessly shoved her way up, but the lucky person she happened to land on-
"Will you get off me already?" Toshiro snapped.