Chapter Ten: Came Out Swinging
"Wanna play?" Karin asked, grinning at him.
"Huh?" He stared at her, stupidly.
"Play? Ball? Soccer?" She narrowed her eyes at him, bouncing the ball on her knee. "Geez, Toushirou, I thought I was the one who hit my head. C'mon, let's go!" She jumped to her feet and grabbed his hand, tugging on it.
Again, he just stared at it. He couldn't remember the last time she'd touched him on purpose.
He opened his mouth, then closed it again, looked from her to Matsumoto to his desk and then back to his wife again. He had work to do, he had a subordinate who would run off on him the moment he looked away, and, most of all, he had a rep to protect. Juubantai Taichou Hitsugaya Toushirou did not play games. At least not in Soul Society.
But she was smiling at him, and her eyes were sparkling. He hadn't seen this much life in her since he'd met her six years ago.
"Oh, go on, Taichou!" Matsumoto chimed in. "I'll take care of things here."
He turned to glare at her, sure she just wanted to mess with him, but her smile held more urging than mischief. Don't screw this up, she seemed to beg.
"Okay." On the way out the door he prayed to every higher being he'd ever heard of. Please don't let anyone see.
"You're going down, Toushirou!"
"Hmmm." He ignored her in favor of throwing the ball up in the air, and when it landed, they both lunged for it. Karin was just a tad closer, so she reached it first, dribbling it past Toushirou toward the makeshift goal of fallen branches and assorted training materials.
He spun around and blocked her, forcing her backward. She faked left, went right, and promptly tripped over the hem of her yukata.
Instead of stealing the ball, Toushirou flashed over and caught her before she hit the ground.
"Damn it!" she griped, letting him settle her back on her feet. She frowned down at her feet. "This is never going to work."
"Giving up already?" he taunted, about to suggest that they go find an extra pair of hakama for her.
"Are you kidding?" She leaned down, and a loud ripping sound echoed in Toushirou's ears.
"What are you—?"
She stood back up, the ragged edge of her yukata hitting right at her knees. She stepped out of the bottom of the garment and threw it toward the edge of the field.
The length of fabric billowed in the breeze.
"Let's try that again!"
He stared a moment, then nodded. What had gotten into her?
This time he got the ball and drove it steadily down the field. He was drawing back his foot to shoot for the goal when Karin swooped in between his legs and stole the ball, running it in the other direction. He pivoted, trying to jump over her head—and got caught up in his haori. Karin was long gone, only turning around with a whoop once she'd shot the ball into the goal.
By that time, he'd already stood back up and brushed himself off. There was no way in hell he was taking off his haori. He was a taichou.
"What's with you, Toushirou?" his wife demanded when she'd made four goals on him, right in a row. "Out of shape?"
"Hardly," he bit out, glowering. It was the stupid jacket that got twisted up in his feet every time they left the ground! He considered tying it up or tucking it into his hakama, but that would just look silly. "Let's go again."
Karin had the ball, was driving it toward her goal, but he was hovering in front, ready to take it any moment. She turned to the side, drawing back her leg, watching for him to swoop under her like she had to him, but he fell back instead, covering the goal.
She grinned at him, evidently confident she could shoot past him, and kicked with all her might, aiming right above his head.
Toushirou sighed in resignation. In the three seconds he had before the ball reached him, he tossed his haori into the wind, turned around, and flipped into the air, catching the ball with his toe and propelling it back toward her.
Karin gaped at his signature move, flashing back to the day she'd first met him. The most amazing part wasn't the flip, but that he could get the timing exactly right, even thought he had turned away and wasn't watching the ball come toward him. She caught the ball under her foot, stopping its momentum. "Okay, you have got to teach me that."
He sized her up, hands on his hips, looking so strange all in black, like one of his subordinates. "Maybe, but only if you have something acceptable to trade."
Something to trade, huh? She thought about her favorite move. "All right. Let's see how well you can dance, then."
As he watched, she shuffled forward, crossing and crisscrossing her feet, the ball moving seamlessly with her, looking, she knew, like it was tied to her foot with a string. When she was parallel with the goal, she pivoted away from it. With that single turn of her hips, the back of her heel caught the ball and sent it barreling straight into the goal.
He watched her, silently, for a moment. "That's acceptable."
She spent a while showing him the move. He wasn't a pro at the "dance" part, but he had the backheel shot down pat.
He was teaching her how to time the backflip kick when they gained an audience. Well, more of an audience than Matsumoto, who'd been watching the whole time. A cadre of Tenth Squad soldiers who had been walking down the hill stopped to watch their taichou show off—something she bet didn't happen very often.
"Go taichou!" one called as he flipped through the air, and she saw a light flush grace his cheeks.
He was shy? It was too sweet. She called the soldiers down to the field with a wave of her hand, but they only came on Toushirou's reluctant nod. Karin started organizing them into teams. It was time they saw what their taichou could really do.
Rangiku masked her reiatsu as she hid in the bushes beside the training ground. She'd been dying to see how cute her taichou was playing games with the adorable human girl, especially since she'd missed it the first time, but that wasn't her only reason for being there. She hadn't strayed far from Hitsugaya's side in the last week. That bastard Kuchiki had really gotten to her.
She shuddered as she felt his phantom hands on her again, shoving her against the wall, taking over her body like that. So much dominance, so much force, he'd been a wild thing, untamable. Nothing like the rigid, formal taichou he normally was—butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. Was his control really so fierce as to contain all that passion? That his rigidity could be a mask had never occurred to her, and normally she'd be intrigued. No one thrived on a mystery quite like she, and if someone got riled up in the process, all the better. But this time, she was well and truly intimidated. Stuffed shirt had all the power and clout behind him of both a taichou and the head of a noble clan, and she was smart enough to realize when her strength was outclassed. He could rip her to shreds without batting an eye, strong-arm her into anything, and no one who mattered would bat an eyelash afterward, save maybe Hitsugaya-taichou. Kuchiki would escape punishment for anything less than treason.
No, she was going to have to let this one go, play it safe awhile and stay out of his way at all costs.
It would've been a good plan if his reiatsu hadn't been heading right for her.
Byakuya strode toward the Tenth Squad training grounds, where the glimmer of Matsumoto Rangiku's reiatsu stood out like a beacon. He didn't hurry, but there was purpose in his step. It was time they got a few things straight.
No one could infuriate him like she did. Nothing anyone did ever touched him really, not anymore, so why was she the exception? The spark, the passion, the complete disregard for rank and formality and duty—it should have been distasteful, a complete lack of honor, and yet somehow it wasn't that either. She had her own sense of honor, her own sense of duty, in which status and authority were meaningless. She was everything he'd been raised to abhor, everything he'd taught himself not to be. So why was that envy instead of disgust swirling in his gut each time she opened her mouth?
He'd never had the freedom she tossed around so carelessly, and he never would, so he couldn't afford to want it. She'd been dangling it before him for months now, trolling around to smirk and toss insults his way, and though he mostly ignored her, he could admit to taking a certain amount of pleasure in finishing what she started—banning her from first his estate, then his division, tossing her out of his gardens. But last week she'd gone too far, blaming him for Karin's state like she knew him, like he'd wanted this to happen. He had no love for his aunt's methods, nor their result, but the soutaichou's orders were not to be trifled with. She'd lashed out in her grief, and in doing so, she'd put a solid crack in the wall he'd been building for over a century. He'd snapped, letting her know just who she was messing with. He'd put that wall up for good reason; underneath, he was reckless, impulsive, a virtual slave to his passionate nature.
He'd kissed her, without her consent, declared intentions of courting her that he couldn't back up. It didn't matter; she'd obviously misunderstood, anyway. He'd meant to put her off, but he hadn't meant to scare her. He shouldn't care that he'd scared her, but he did, because as much as he knew he could never have her freedom, seeing it cabined made a part of him die.
She looked over her shoulder now, thought twice before doing what she thought was right, and he couldn't let that be his fault. He'd sat by while Hisana, who'd had one-tenth of the spirit, faded away into placidity, and he'd watched the same tragedy begin to happen with Karin. Never again.
And so he mustered up all of his courage, and he did something he'd sworn never to do.
She shrank back when he approached her.
"What do you want?" Her words were fierce, but the tremble in her voice gave her away.
He bent lightly at the waist. Not too far; never too far. "Matsumoto-fukutaichou, I regret the unease brought on by my prior conduct. Although you may not be my companion of choice, I mean you no ill will and, indeed, as a superior officer, it is my duty to assure your well-being."
He knew better than to expect her to accept his apology graciously, but he thought she'd do more than blink.
Oh, if only he weren't above rolling his eyes. "I said, I am sorry I scared you, and you have nothing to fear from me."
"What makes you think you scared me?" she blustered, her blonde hair flowing over her face. In a nervous motion, she brushed it away.
"You've been looking over your shoulder all week, you just shrank away when I approached you, and—need I go on?"
The fight drained out of her then, and she turned back to the game taking place on the field. He gave her the out, feeling magnanimous.
"Interesting," he declared instead, watching the young taichou and his wife.
"What now?" She sighed. "I thought you'd left."
"I've never seen Hitsugaya-taichou waste time during the workday before, especially in front of his men. It is unlike him."
"Why don't you set a good example and go back to work then?" she snapped. "Can't you do anything besides judge people and try to suck all of the fun out of life?"
"I believe I just showed I could apologize when warranted."
Matsumoto fell silent again, wincing when her taichou leapt for the ball, almost crashed into his wife, and then twisted in midair to slam his back into the ground with her cradled safely in his arms. He was going to lose if he wasn't willing to let her get hurt, but he didn't seem to care.
Byakuya had considered slipping away (fascinating as this was), when she spoke again. It was so quiet, for a moment he wasn't sure if he'd imagined it.
"Why did you do it?" she whispered, still staring at the field.
It was safer not looking at her. Easier to pretend that the words leaving his mouth would never reach her ears, that he could absolve himself of guilt without paying the price. "I lost control. Your accusation about the Kurosaki girl . . . bothered me. Whether you believe it or not is meaningless, but I would have liked very much to spare her from her training. Though it seems she is recovering quiet well," he admitted, biting back a smile as we watched her kick the ball through her husband's legs, eyes shining and full of life.
"So that's what you're like when you lose control, huh? No wonder you try to avoid it. The sexual harassment charges can't be good for the Kurosaki honor. But I'm sure money makes everything go away." Her voice was hard. Joking, but not entirely.
Ouch. At least she wasn't afraid any more. When was the last time he'd been challenged like this? It was invigorating; addictive. "You have a fondness for speaking of things you know nothing about, Matsumoto-fukutaichou. But to answer your question, to the extent there was one: no, I am not ordinarily given to vulgarity."
"So I'm not the ordinary case, then?"
"I'm not sure there's anything ordinary about you, Matsumoto Rangiku." With that, he shunpoed away.
The way she broke through his shell was dangerous, but he couldn't force himself to do what he must to drive her off. Let the games begin.
When the game had finally ended, and all the soldiers had returned to their barracks, Karin flopped down on her back in the grass, blinking up at the stars. It was so dark out there. She'd never had such a view in Karakura.
"Toushirou?" she whispered, nudging him in the side.
"Don't!" he snapped, sitting up and turning his back on her. "I already told you, don't thank—"
She whipped the ball at him. "I can thank you if I want to, so just shut up and accept it!"
His reflexes were quick enough to catch it, but just. He sighed. "I'm sorry, Karin, it's just, are you back now? Is this you, the real you?"
He made it sound so simple. "I don't think I can answer that," she admitted, closing her eyes, picturing Kuchiki Manor. "The experiences we have shape us, and it's not so easy to unravel the threads of fate. I still remember everything I went through during bridal training—"
He snorted at the name and she smiled.
"—and I can't imagine I'll ever forget. I'll never be the same person I was before I had that experience. But I forgot who I was, what I stood for, for a while. I did it on purpose, I had to do it, had to bend so I wouldn't break. I remember now. That's still who I want to be, maybe a little older, wiser, stronger and less naive, but at my core, who I was is who I am." She pulled out a handful of grass, shredding it with her fingers, at a loss for how to make him understand. "So all I can say is, I'm trying."
A cool hand touched hers, fingers tossing the grass away and weaving into hers. "If you need any help," he whispered, "I'm here for you, Karin. You don't need to change for me. I married you to keep you safe, not because I wanted some archaic version of a housewife."
"I know," she said, squeezing his hand. "You're my rescuer, time after time."
"Hmmm." His eyes darkened for a moment, but then he smirked. "If I'd known all I had to do was hit you in the head, I would've done it a long time ago."
Funny thing, she was fairly sure the ball had never touched her head. She let him pull her to her feet and walk her home.
He didn't let go of her hand.
Ichigo kept his eyes on the foot of his bed. She was there, he knew she was. He couldn't see her really, it was more of a ripple in space than anything, a watery, wavy blob of otherness with no size or shape to provide an outline. Clearly, someone was there. And if it was someone, it was Rukia. Because, while this wasn't the first time he'd seen a blob somewhere, he'd been seeing them here and there for the past week, a moment ago he'd felt a pop, like a cap had shot off from the build-up of pressure, and for the first time in six years he'd felt trickle of reiatsu, overwhelming in its now foreignness. He'd never been very good at tracing reiatsu, but he'd know this one anywhere.
He smiled. "I know you're there, midget. And I know if you're there, you've got to be screaming your head off right now, so I'm just going to get this out of the way from the beginning: I can't hear you. I can't even really see you."
God, what should he say? He'd imagined this moment so many times in the first few years, except in those daydreams, he'd been able to see her face, hear her voice, of course. There were so many things he'd wanted to tell her back then.
So many still, but there wasn't much overlap.
"So, now that you know I can't hear you, you might as well shut up so you can hear me." It was so odd, talking to nothing. He started to wonder if he were just making this all up, dreaming with his eyes wide open, but why now, when so much time had gone by and he'd, in so many ways, moved on? Was it because Karin was gone?
"I guess I—" He broke off, paralyzed by doubt. He couldn't know what the right thing was to say without seeing her face. So he just said what he wanted, and damn the consequences. "God, I've missed you Rukia. I hope you haven't missed me. I hope you've moved on, and you're helping Karin adjust in Soul Society, and this is the first time you've visited me in all these years. You deserve more than that, waiting around for something that might never happen."
He ran a hand through his hair, trembling fingers nearly pulling it out. "I wish I could see your face. You're so beautiful, Rukia. Beautiful and strong, and I wish I could hear you tell me all about what's going on in your life right now. I suppose it's too much to ask that you could get a gigai; Toushirou came to see me in one a couple times, but he's a taichou, and those were extenuating circumstances, right? Soul Society likes to forbid things, that much I remember."
He ran out of steam, finding it hard to hold up a one-sided conversation. "Sure you can't get that gigai?" he asked, scratching the back of his neck. When the blob didn't leave, he knew it was futile. "I guess I can tell you what's going on with me. I'm in university now, studying to be a police officer. I guess you probably thought I'd become a doctor, right, like goat-face and the Ishidas? Nah, Yuzu's gonna be the doctor, she's more suited to it than me. I'm better at destroying than fixing, anyway. And hey, it can't be too surprising, right? I like protecting people."
A stroke of brilliance hit him, and he hurled his pillow toward the foot of the bed. Instead of falling off on the floor, it stopped, knocking into the Rukia Blob and dropping to the bed. He smirked, just imagining the tongue-lashing she was giving him. "You're solid, then. Rukia, come here." He motioned to the spot right next to him as he swung around to sit on the edge of the bed.
He watched the Blob shift, but had to look away because it was too disorienting. It—she—stopped next to him, and he reached his arms out around the shape, feeling them hit mass, and whatever he was touching, he hugged it close, his heart clenching to know it was Rukia in his arms.
"I don't know what caused this, if it's a fluke, or my imagination, or the start of my shinigami powers coming back, but if this is my only chance to do this, I'm not going to waste it."
Clear as day, he felt two arms snake out of the mass and wrap around him.
The moment she touched him, the world went black.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying on a glass-grid floor, a ceiling of glass grids above him. He glanced to the side and saw blue, intermixed with blobs of white that seemed to be flowing . . . up?
He stood up, brushed himself off, gaped at the inner world he hadn't seen in over half a decade. "Zangetsu?" he called out, too afraid to hope.
There, to his left, was a flash of black and white. But as soon as he turned his head, it was gone. He looked around, realized that instead of skyscrapers as far as the eye could see, they were few and far between, the rest of the space open, empty, dead.
"What happened here? Zangetsu, Hollow, anybody here?" He had to be there for a reason, right? Why were they hiding from him?
"Ichigo." The voice was light, young, like the last time he had heard it.
Ichigo spun around and saw Zangetsu as he'd last seen him, a teen with white hair and a black horn. As he watched, his zanpaktou split into two, the old man Zangetsu and an inverted copy of Ichigo himself.
"Zangetsu!" Ichigo burst out, rushing forward. "How—?" Yet again, he didn't know what to say. So much had changed over the years. He'd been not a shinigami substitute six times longer than he ever was one. "Are you all right?"
"Yes. I am glad to be back," Zangetsu told him.
"Not quite as worried about me, I see. Don't I at least get a hello?"
Ichigo turned to the white figure with the distorted voice. His hollow had grown, too, changed in the same ways Ichigo had over the years. He'd made peace with this part of himself when he'd gained the final getsuga tenshou. There was no ill will on his side, not any more. "Hello. Long time no see. You're complaining, so you must be all right."
"Can't keep a good hollow down," his copy quipped with a sickening grin.
Ichigo looked from one to the other, then back around his diminished inner world. "Why is this happening now? And why has this place shrunk so much?"
It was the hollow that answered him. "It's not that it's shrunk, but because it has grown that you're now able to come here. For six years this place has been empty."
"Oh. But how—"
"I'll answer your questions, Ichigo, but first you must prove that you're worthy of the answers," Zangetsu interrupted, materializing the shikai form of himself out of thin air. "You already know my name, so that can't test your readiness; we'll have to use a method you're more familiar with, then."
Ichigo looked down at himself. He was wearing a white yukata instead of a shinigami uniform, and he knew without trying that he couldn't materialize Zangetsu in any form.
The real Zangetsu rushed at him, sword in hand. Ichigo ran. "Wait, I don't have a weapon! How am I supposed to fight without—"
"—without me? I don't know, I have never had to. That is the test."
Ichigo looked behind him, where his hollow had plopped down on the side of the building and was lounging on his back, watching the show. "Hey, don't look at me! My turn comes later, if you can survive through this, and I can promise you shouldn't look forward to it."
"None of which matters if I die here, right now!" Ichigo snapped, still running.
Rukia was back in the real world, and he was missing the time with her, stuck here in his inner world. But if he was there, then his reiryoku really was coming back. And maybe next time Rukia came around, he'd be able to hear her voice.
That in mind, he pivoted and started running the other way, back toward his zanpaktou. He didn't know how he could beat him, probably couldn't, but he'd always faced impossible odds. It was nothing new. He'd just forgotten how for a minute, that was all.
Toushirou sent a butterfly to Matsumoto, telling her to have two of the men bring in a bed for Karin. They couldn't sleep in the same bed anymore, not now that she was back. It just wasn't appropriate. He was going to miss holding her in his arms, but he didn't need to as long as he knew she was herself again.
Matsumoto came with the men, which really wasn't necessary.
"It's through there, boys!" she told them, pointing to the spare room and doing nothing to help them navigate the frame and mattress around the various obstacles in the living room. Typical Matsumoto. Toushirou almost laughed.
"You didn't have to come with them, you know. Especially if you weren't going to help," he teased her. With a straight face and a rough tone, of course. He wasn't getting that soft.
"I know, but I wanted to ask you something while you were in a good mood. Taichou?"
"Hmmm?" he murmured, examining her more closely. Matsumoto sounded much more subdued than normal. Looked it, too.
"I know you're busy—"
Not too busy for her, at least when she was like this. "What is it?"
"I . . . need your help."
He was alert now, one hand reaching for the comfort of Hyourinmaru's hilt, even in his own living room. "What's going on, Matsumoto?"
"I want to get stronger. Taichou . . . will you help me train for bankai?" she asked, biting her lip. She looked like she was just waiting for him to say no and tell her to get the hell out of his house.
"Of course." It was his duty, after all, but he would've done it even if it weren't, if only because this was the first time he could remember her asking for his help. But Matsumoto had never seemed interested in bankai before, not even when they'd been in the middle of a war. "Why now?" Did this have something to do with his getting married to Karin? Did she intend to leave him?
Emotion flickered behind her eyes. Fear? No, not exactly. Just extreme wariness.
"I just need to be stronger, that's all. I need to be able to protect myself."
Against what? He'd better keep a closer eye on her. They'd always been virtually inseparable, but he'd noticed over the last few days that she'd been sticking even closer than usual. "Are you in trouble, Matsumoto? You know you can—"
"Toushirou?" Karin called, coming out of the bathroom in a yukata, fresh from her shower. "What's going on?"
"Aww, Karin-chan, you're so cute!" His fukutaichou burst out, rushing over to smother her in a hug and effectively ending their conversation.
"Matsumoto, we'll finish this later," he muttered, going to help the men with the bed. He didn't like the feeling that he didn't know what was going on right under his very nose.
Karin turned over on her side, shifting positions for the sixth time in the last twenty minutes. Here she was on a nice, brand new bed, so why couldn't she get comfortable and fall asleep?
She knew she'd interrupted something between Toushirou and Rangiku earlier. What was going on with them? And could she actually be jealous? She shouldn't be, she'd never wanted to get married in the first place. Besides that, she didn't have a right to be jealous, it wasn't like they were really married. Toushirou had made clear the reasons he'd gone through with it. He was more like her guardian, which was kind of hilarious when she thought about how he was the one who looked like a kid.
She fell asleep imagining him scolding her for breaking curfew.
When she opened her eyes again, she was standing at the edge of a crystal clear lake, a city of skyscrapers at her back.
As she watched, a light danced upon the surface of the water, rising up to form an entity so blindingly bright, Karin was forced to shield her eyes. When the light dimmed, she could see a figure that seemed to be composed entirely of the light, floating on the water. It looked like a child, no older than twelve, with golden hair and hazel eyes that burned like fire. It was a boy. No, a girl. She couldn't tell.
It was the figure from her dream that morning.
"How—" How did it know her name? This was her dream, of course the mysterious figure knew her name! "Who are you?"
The child opened its mouth, but no words came out. "I see you still can't hear me. It's too soon, but that's okay. It's enough that you freed me from my prison."
"Prison?" Was this kid the match that had come out of the box?
The child cocked its head at her, holding out a hand. "Come play with me!"
But it was standing on the water! "I—"
"Don't be scared, c'mon!"
She took a step forward and sank into shallow water. Great, now she was wet.
The child laughed at her. "You have to concentrate. Again!"
Shaking her head, wondering if she were losing her mind, Karin sloshed back onto the shore and tried again, this time picturing a ledge under the water, strong enough to bear her weight. She closed her eyes, took a step, and . . . didn't sink. "I did it!"
"You might just have it in you, after all. I was starting to worry." The child took a step closer. "Come 'ere girl, come 'ere! You can do it!"
"I'm not a dog!" she snapped, walking forward. She was so annoyed she didn't even stop to consider what she was doing, to picture a ledge. She just walked. One step away from the crazy light kid, she looked back. "Wow, I'm doing it. I'm actually walking on the water! I—"
"Bad move, never look back." The child floated above her.
"What?" She screamed as she broke through the surface of the water, sinking deep into the bottomless lake.
Karin sat up with a gasp, choking. Drowning, she was—It was just a dream. She stood up and swayed, unable to find her balance. Reaching up, she tapped the water out of her ears.
Just a dream, huh?
She tiptoed through the dark house and eased open the door to her husband's room. He was fast asleep, curled up in one corner of the double bed. She crept up to the bed and crawled in behind him. Immediately he rolled over and pulled her into his arms.
She'd never pegged him for a cuddler.
She relaxed into his grip, feeling safe. Home.
"Mmmm, Karin?" He started to pull away. "What are you—"
"Shut up, Toushirou. Just go back to sleep."
"Are you wet?"
"I said, shut up!"
"Mmmm. You shut up," he muttered, his breathing evening out again.
She snuggled back into him, and this time, she had no trouble falling asleep.
It's baaaaaack! Sorry it took so long, I didn't have a word of this written last time I posted, and then life, and vacation, and a new job, and Nanowrimo, and okay, I'll stop making excuses now. For those of you who were worried I gave up on this story, I definitely did not. It's in its prime!
While you may have noticed some additional pairings, this is still, at its heart, a HitsuKarin fanfic, and their story takes precedence. Oh, and I've decided not to mess with the rating. It's unfair to do a bait-and-switch to the young-uns, and I'm not gonna be accused of corrupting anyone who wasn't already predisposed. If there's anything M-related that needs to happen, I'll post it as a separate oneshot.
Well, that clears up the old business. As for the new, 254 reviews! You guys rock! I really appreciate all of your support and kind words, thanks so much for all of the encouragement! I hope this chapter was worth the wait!