A/N: Well, I have finally returned. :) It has been way too long, and I'm so sorry about that. I got busy after starting university, but now that I've finished my first semester, I'm going to try fitting writing into my schedule again. (And I also have to reply to so many PMs/reviews in my mailbox - thank you for those, by the way :) - as well as write quite a few reviews of my own).
I wanted to update one of my current stories, but somehow my muse for writing completely left me in the past few months, and I was in no mood to write a whole chapter. Writing short drabbles to get my inspiration back seemed like a good idea, so I literally found a random word generator online and used the word to write the first scene that popped into my head. It was supposed to be only five, but then I started having fun and it became ten. :P
None of these stories are connected to each other, by the way. They are ten separate scenes from ten different stories. Also, I challenged myself by not once using the word prompt in the story itself. It was surprisingly tough, and I had to delete a lot of sentences to make it work.
Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or any of its characters.
"Are you scared of me?"
He paused, taking a step back, and licked his lips nervously. She watched him, her face serious, demanding, and when he didn't answer quick enough for her liking, her eyebrows furrowed in anger. He watched her lips thin, tightening her mouth to match her fury, and shook his head in instinct.
"No." It was a mumble, barely audible even to himself, and it did nothing to appease her. Instead, she took a step towards him, stretching out her arm. He had no clue as to what she was about to do, and so he did something he instantly regretted: he took a step back.
She flashed him a sad, bitter smile. "See? You are scared of me."
He stopped breathing for a moment, listening to his heart thud in his ears, unable to turn his gaze away from that smile. He was only vaguely aware of the sound of shoes scuffing down the hallway, heading their way as the two of them stayed locked in their staring contest. A moment later, a nurse rounded the corner.
"Karin-chan, there you are!" she exclaimed, sounding breathless from relief. "I've been looking everywhere."
The girl finally stepped back, away from him, and tore her eyes from his. "Am I late?" she asked, raising a questioning eyebrow.
"Almost," was the nurse's reply, and she checked the watch strapped to her wrist. "It's not your meeting time just yet, but the doctor is already waiting for you in his office."
"I'll head on over, then." When the nurse made to follow her back down the hall, she held up a hand and shook her head. "I know where it is. I can take myself there."
They watched her shuffle around the corner, the nurse looking slightly nervous, and him...
He wasn't quite sure what he was feeling. Curious, perhaps? Because she was an interesting girl.
"Who is she?" he finally asked, his voice soft and quiet. He couldn't look away from the spot she had just been standing, even though she was long gone.
"Who, Karin-chan?" the nurse asked, looking down at him in surprise. She must have thought they were at least acquaintances, but they were far from it. Instead, he'd found her accidentally while looking for the right room, and she'd kept him there with first a condescending sneer, and then that puzzling question.
"Is that her name?" he wondered with mild interest.
"She's a patient," the nurse explained. Looking down at him in pity, she clicked her tongue at the young man. "Oh, dear. Did she frighten you?"
His temper flared, sudden and unjustified. "No," he snapped, in complete contrast to when the girl had asked him. Why did everyone assume he was so capable of being frightened by a single girl? He didn't think she was anyone to be scared of, anyway. Just because she was here didn't mean she wasn't a person.
The nurse hummed, clearly not believing him. He'd answered too quickly, been too eager to defend himself. She knew all too well how the public tended to treat those that were here.
"Are you looking for someone?" she finally asked him, and it was clear he was annoyed with her now for her earlier question. He wouldn't accept her help.
"Yes," he answered coolly, "but I can find the room myself, thanks." With his hands buried deep in his pockets, he huffed and strode away, leaving behind a very amused woman.
The white walls and white tiles all looked the same, so even the white doors blended in. It was not an easy place to navigate alone on his very first visit, and he wondered if it was actually a soothing color for the patients here. Did that girl find comfort in white, too?
Why is she here? he wondered, unable to shake her from his mind. Was it an illness she had been battling in her head for years, or had one moment of insanity made her a patient in this place, just like the sister he was visiting? Had she sought him out - a complete stranger - because she was lonely?
Was she used to having people fear her?
Outside his sister's room he had to think of nothing but family, but even so he hoped that, during his next visit, he would somehow get to see her again. He would tell her - confidently this time - that no, he was not afraid of her.
.. ღ ..
What am I doing here? Hitsugaya thought irritably, shifting in his seat.
He had in no way planned to get trapped in the Kurosaki home when he woke up that morning, and yet the whole day had passed and here he still was. The twins had called him up, along with Matsumoto and Hinamori, claiming that they were bored and wanted company to spend the day with. He'd found himself getting dragged along, and the five of them had proceeded to get bored together rather than apart.
It was at some point in the afternoon that Yuzu remembered how Karin had recently learned some card magic from a boy at their school, and she prompted her twin to show them by putting on a little show. After a lot of prodding from the girls' part, she'd set up a table in front of the living room couch, where her audience sat, and pulled out a clean deck of cards. Since then, she'd been entertaining them with everything she had learned.
Even he had to admit that some of them had been rather interesting, puzzling him for quite some time, but now the show was almost to an end. Karin had insisted that she knew only one more.
"I've never practiced it myself before, though," she told them, spreading out the complete deck on the table. "I haven't seen it, either. He only told me about it."
"That's fine!" Yuzu assured her, shaking her leg in anticipation. "We'd loved to be your first audience."
"Okay, then, one of you needs to pick a card from the deck," she instructed. "I'm going to turn around, so one of you pull one out, show it to everyone else, and then put it back anywhere."
She looked to the opposite end of the room with her eyes shut tight, and Yuzu excitedly picked one out. After confirming with all of them that it was the seven of diamonds, she placed it back near the end of the deck, taking care to position it perfectly so it didn't stick out.
"Okay!" she declared once she had finished and taken her place next to him on the sofa.
"All ready?" Karin double-checked, swinging back around to face them. She gathered the cards back together into one deck in her hands. "Then, I'm going to shuffle them again one more time, and when I snap my fingers, the card you picked will jump to the top of the deck."
He rolled his eyes when the three girls around him started clapping enthusiastically. After shuffling, she placed the cards back on the table, and looked to her audience.
"There's just one last thing I need to make this work," she declared.
"What is it?" Hinamori asked, in complete awe of the whole show. He scoffed and leaned back on the sofa, just waiting for the end. Karin didn't let him rest for long, though.
"Hitsugaya Toushiro!" she boomed, pointing a finger straight at him. He straightened in his seat instantly, just as shocked as the girls around him. She didn't stray her gaze from his, however. "For this to work, I wil need a little assistance from you."
"What is it?" he asked, instantly cautious as he tried to sink back into the sofa cushions.
She smirked, quirking just one end of her lips. "A kiss."
He froze, his muscles tightening. What?
Vaguely he registered Matsumoto hooting from her place, or Hinamori and Yuzu gasping scandalously, and then stifling their giggles behind their hands. His attention, however, was on the magician alone.
"Excuse me?" he muttered, scrunching his eyebrows deeply in thought. "Just what do you need that for?"
"It's a crucial part of the method," she explained impatiently, tapping the table before her with her fingers. "I'm not strong enough to make the magic work myself. I need help from someone, and for that we need physical contact."
"Between our lips?" he asked, somehow incredulous and mortified at the same time. The rest of the audience was still flustered by the declaration, and he glared at each of them. "Why me?" he demanded.
She rolled her eyes. "I can't kiss Yuzu, because, ew, she's my sister. And I can't kiss Matsumoto or Hinamori for obvious reasons."
Before he could argue that was in no way a valid reason - or any reason at all - both women were nodding along beside him, in complete agreement with her.
"Just do it!" Matsumoto prompted him, and he could practically feel the excitement coming off of her in waves.
"I'm not a child," he argued. "I don't need this little show to make me think this is all real. I know magic doesn't exist."
"Excuse you," Karin cut across him furiously, "but I don't go around doing fake magic. It's all real, okay? Now are you going to kiss me or not, Toushiro? Because you're holding up the show."
He didn't even have a chance to respond before Matsumoto aggressively pushed him off his seat and towards her. He stumbled, almost falling over the desk before he slammed his hands down on it and caught himself. Now they were face to face, only inches apart.
That was when she faltered for one quick moment. Shocked by their sudden proximity, her cheeks flushed and her eyes widened, but in an instant she had rearranged her face back to that cool impatience.
"Well?" she demanded. "Get to it, Toushiro."
The ladies behind them dissolved into gleeful laughter, encouraging him to carry out the kiss. He was still so close to her, and all he would have to do is move his face forward just a tiny bit...
Oh, fine, he relented and, screwing his eyes shut, he pressed his lips to hers for one very brief second.
The audience screamed, much to his mortification, and Karin smirked happily.
"Ta-da," she exclaimed devilishly. "And that is how you get Hitsugaya Toushiro to kiss you."
.. ღ ..
She fiddled with the stand of napkins on the table before her nervously, waiting for him to join her once again. The line at the counter seemed to be moving inhumanly fast - too fast for her.
It was no surprise that he returned much too soon. "Here you go," he offered as he came up behind her, handing her one of the cups in his hands.
"Thanks," she mumbled, refusing to meet his eyes. She accepted the coffee, taking extra care not to let their fingers brush together. She was scared that there would be a spark, even after all these years. Not for him, though. Just her.
Only her that was facing this excruciating pain, all alone.
She knew he was watching her as he took a seat across the table, but she wouldn't look up. Instead, she fiddled with the cup he had given her, rolling it in her hands and strumming her fingers against the rim of the cover. When she finally took a sip, the flavor that hit her taste buds had her ripping the cup from her lips and making a face.
"I thought you liked it black?" he commented. He had been watching her.
She shot him a steady, unrelenting look, though she felt anything but. "Yeah, well, people change, Toushiro."
The tension between them ignited on high, and she did not regret that she had been the first one to instigate it. He should suffer, even just a little bit, like she had.
He didn't say anything in return, perhaps unsure of what he should say, and she sighed impatiently. "Why did you call me out?"
"I heard you were back in the country," he stated.
Why do you think I left?
He was looking at her as if unsure that he should know this. The fact that they were sitting here now wouldn't change, however. He always had been awful in uncomfortable situations.
"Yuzu told you, didn't she?" she deadpanned, but she knew the answer. Her sister had meant well, of course; though she felt bad for her twin, she had always insisted the two needed to talk things out to finally get their long-awaited closure. She wasn't upset with Yuzu for only doing what she thought would help. Her sister had no way of knowing how much sitting here would make her feel like someone was twisting her heart with a knife.
"Yes," Toushiro answered, still watching her carefully. He knew about her temper better than anyone; he had been the one to cool her down for all those years, after all.
But the memories he had of her were years old. She meant what she had said: she had changed. It was his fault he had no way of knowing it.
"I... I thought we should talk," he carried on. "I wanted to apologize."
She swirled the disgusting drink in her cup, thinking over his words in silence. Finally, she leaned forward and looked him straight in the eye. "Are you apologizing because it's the right thing to do, or because you actually mean it?"
He blinked, taken aback by the intensity in her gaze. "Because I mean it, of course."
She scoffed, leaning back in her seat again as she rolled her eyes and looked off to the side. She knew the answer was because he thought it was the right thing to do - it was just like him - but she had hoped after all those years together, he could still be honest enough with her to tell the truth. Obviously, time had changed more than just her.
She finally looked over to him again, noticing how much he was shifting in his seat. At one time, she would have found it charming, but now it made her feel so unbearably sad. This was what they had been reduced to.
"Was it worth it?" she finally asked him quietly. It was a question she'd been thinking in the back of her head all this time, when she was trying to forget all about him but couldn't.
He faltered, looking at her with a face dripping in guilt. "I..."
She took that to mean yes, and though she had prepared herself to hear it, it still broke her heart like he had that night, so long ago.
She didn't want to hear anymore.
"I'm gonna save you some time, Toushiro," she spoke up, slamming her hands on the table top as she made to get up. The look she shot him was frosty, cruel, and spoke of all the pain she had been bearing alone. "Apology not accepted."
She left him sitting in the shop as she walked out, feeling as unwanted as the cup of coffee she threw into the trash.
.. ღ ..
She fumed as she waited outside his door, the offending newspaper scrunched in her death grip. There were words and arguments and curses floating around in her head, and she had half a mind to just let them all out at once when she saw him, just so the message was clear: she was pissed.
From beside her, the receptionist sitting at the front desk received a phone call. After answering, she turned towards the impatient young woman tapping her foot and nodded. "He's ready to see you now."
She didn't need telling twice. Without a moment's hesitation, she barged into the office, taking care to slam open the door and stomp her feet. She'd show him she didn't have any control over her body language.
The man behind the desk was younger than she had expected, and definitely more handsome, but that didn't put a stop to her. She had come here for one reason only, and she would see it through for the sake of her distressed theater group.
"You must be Kurosaki-san," he guessed, shooting her an uninterested gaze that just incensed her further.
"And you must be a first-class asshole," she spat out, crumpling up the newspaper in her hand and throwing it straight at his face. It hit him right in the middle of his eyes - thanks to her perfect aim - before falling on the floor. A small feeling of triumph in her chest gave her more confidence.
He just fixed his crooked glasses, unfazed. "Is that all you came to do?" he asked calmly, and it deflated her a bit. "I am extremely busy, so if that is all -"
"No, that's not all!" she growled, stomping closer to him. "I want to know why you wrote those things in your review about our play. Do you have any idea how much work went into that production?"
"I see a lot of plays, Kurosaki-san, so if you don't elaborate which one you're talking about, I'm afraid I can't help you much."
"The one you said was a string of mismatched scenes held together by an abysmal plot and an even poorer cast!" she exclaimed, quoting straight from his article. She thrust her face right into his, leaning over his desk to do so. "What right did you have to write off our hard work like that?"
"It's my job," he deadpanned, not in the least bit impressed by her burst of emotion. "Clearly you didn't put in enough effort. Otherwise, I would have been happy to give you a deserving review."
She glared at him, wishing she could burn a hole right through that cool face of his. It had been her first ever play - the first time she had been allowed onstage, even though she was still in the midst of taking her acting classes. The members of the theater group had been so kind, so encouraging, and she hadn't wanted to let them down. Now, their disappointed faces were all she could think about.
"And just what was so bad about my acting?" she wanted to know. It had crushed her to read that one line that destroyed all her hard work. It had taken him just one sentence, and she had let down her entire team.
"You were robotic," he replied instantly. "I sensed nothing from your body language, and your control over your voice hardly conveyed the appropriate emotion for each scene."
"How could you possibly find that much to critique?" she demanded. "I was just a minor character! I had just three scenes and two lines."
"Is that the mindset you had when practicing?" Finally, he showed a reaction for the first time since she had barged in. Interlocking his fingers together, he rested his chin on his hands to glare at her from the rim of his glasses. He was the picture of disapproval. "It's no wonder your acting reflected so strongly on that kind of work ethic."
She opened and shut her mouth, unable to think of a comeback. Damn him and his frosty character. It made it impossible to properly defend herself.
"'I'm just a minor character, so no one will be paying attention to me.' Is that what you thought?" he continued. "If so, then I only gave you a fitting review. If you can't handle criticism when you don't do your job properly, then I suggest you find another field besides acting. In fact, it would probably be best if you gave up on working altogether to save everyone from your short temper, because you have to handle bad reviews in every job in this world, Kurosaki-san."
He was lecturing her like some child, and though it infuriated her to no end, she could not think of one single comeback. Because, damn it, he was right!
She ducked her head, shutting her eyes to hold back both the anger and the shame. Somehow this was her fault. She hadn't given enough effort, she'd slacked off too much, and she'd expected everyone to handle her carefully just because it was her first play. Why was she blaming this man for just doing his job properly?
"I get a lot of people who come in here like you do, Kurosaki-san," he suddenly said to her. She looked up at him in surprise, and noticed that though his face was still as stoic as ever, somehow it had softened just slightly. "I'll give you the same advice I give them. Go through my articles, find a play I have approved of, and then go see it in person. Study it - watch the actors, feel the emotions, take in the set and the music, and observe how the audience reacts. Then compare it to your own work, and only come back for another argument with me if you can honestly claim that your production deserved that same praise. If not, then work and perspire until it does, and I will be happy to give you a fitting review."
"I..." She gaped at him, shocked by that sound advice. He hadn't said it to be mean, or to win the argument so she would finally leave. It was genuinely good advice, as if he wanted her to succeed. It embarrassed her slightly to know he wasn't completely evil, that she had just been heavily biased against him when she had walked in. All she could manage was a muffled, "I will."
"Excellent. Then I suggest you start as soon as possible. In fact, there is a production in the theater tonight that I highly recommend watching. Perhaps you could start with that?"
With an encouraging head nod, he returned to the stacks of paper on his desk, already filing through them. A little dazed, she showed herself to the door, turning back only because he called out to her.
"One more piece of advice for you, Kurosaki-san. I've never said this to anyone else, since not as many people get so genuinely roused like you did." His eyes twinkled with amusement and she felt her face immediately flush. "Act out your next role with just as much passion as you've shown me here today, and I'm sure I'll have no choice but to give you a rave review."
She exited his office with red cheeks but a new-found determination. Her encounter with him was just what she had needed. Already she made plans in her head to watch the play he had chosen for her, to apologize to her group members, to take her acting classes more seriously, and to definitely treat her next role more carefully than she had the last.
She was determined that someday, somehow, she would earn his approval.
.. ღ ..
He liked torturing her.
It was unclear where this sudden emotion was coming from, as he had never been the type to take pleasure this way - not before he met her. It almost scared him how much he was enjoying this, but for now his brain was too clouded with amusement to hold back.
It couldn't be helped, however, because there was just something about the way she stood there, expectant and nervous like he had never seen her before. Her body said it all for her, though she couldn't mask that tinge of annoyance in her eyes for making her wait this long.
It was almost out of his hands. All he could do now was drag this out just a little bit longer.
"I'm sure you've been waiting for this day very patiently,'' he remarked, looking up at her from his desk.
She fidgeted, unnecessarily straightening her blazer. "Yes, Hitsugaya-san." The answer was automatic, and rightfully formal for the workplace.
He'd heard from a giggling Matsumoto what she called him out of the office though, mostly when the coworkers went out drinking together after work. It was anything but polite, and often came along with a list of complaints about her slave-driver boss. He considered mentioning it now, just to watch her panic, even if it would give her more reasons to curse him.
He managed to control himself for the time being. "You'll be happy with this, I think," he said, smirking at the sudden hope in her eyes. She couldn't hide anything with those blatant windows to her soul. "It's quite high for someone so new, and in a position like yours. Then again, my company is top-notch."
"Yes, Hitsugaya-san." Again, she answered mechanically, but her eager eyes were on the envelope in his hand.
"But, you know," he continued, watching her face fall almost instantly, "I think it might be a little too high."
"What do you mean?" Her voice was a mix of both fury and dread; anger at his refusal to give her what she had earned, and fear at the possibility of losing it completely. Oh, she definitely believed all those things she said about him privately if she really thought he would deny her her hard-earned pay.
And she did work hard. She was an exceptionally loyal worker, drunken murmurings aside, and always made sure to hand in her work on time. It was a pride thing with her, he was sure, because she was also the type to undoubtedly argue every chance she got. Luckily, she was also the type who knew when to keep her mouth shut. He was always wary of hiring new workers who had only just joined the workforce, but he did not regret signing her on.
But there had been a few mishaps here and there.
"Well," he drawled, "there is the cost of that coffee machine you broke last month. I might have to subtract that."
"Matsumoto said that machine was old anyway. They were thinking of buying a new one for a long time." Her eyes immediately blazed up in that offensive way he was long since used to seeing. They were entering familiar territory now.
"Yes, well, it's true it was old. Then again, old things do tend to break when someone is careless enough to drop them from the top cabinet."
Her cheeks flushed, though from embarrassment or anger, he wasn't sure. "It was heavier than I thought it would be. I don't drink coffee much."
He already knew that. Whenever she brought him his coffee, he always noticed that she balanced a second cup filled with tea on the tray for herself. It always smelled different every time because she loved trying out different herbs and flavors, and he wondered if she was secretly a tea fanatic.
"All right. I suppose I can accept that it was a genuine mistake. And the new coffee maker is exceptional, too, so that possibly makes up for the old one breaking. But what about the report you messed up last month?"
As soon as he said it, he instantly regretted it. It had only slipped out because it was the most recent incident, but he watched as her face visibly fell from one of heated defiance to guilty shame. Last month had been a bad time for her, when she discovered she had accidentally mixed up two important reports and missed the deadline for one by mistake. She had stayed overtime for weeks, making up for her blunder, and vehemently apologized to everyone in the office, even though they assured her everything had worked out thanks to her endless hard work.
He knew how much that mistake had eaten away at her. Behind the laid-back character, he knew she could be a bit of a perfectionist. That one report was something she was not likely to forget for some time, and she would surely use it as a reason to push herself for all future assignments.
"Well, everything worked out," he quickly assured her. "We got the contract, and their president even mentioned how impressed he was about the thoroughness of the report. I suppose you're earned this."
Finally, he handed her the envelope, which she accepted carefully and cautiously. She didn't seem to trust him one bit, and probably wondered if he would snatch it back suddenly. When he didn't - when they safely transferred it between them - she hugged it against her chest and gave a deep bow.
"Thank you, Hitsugaya-san." With the formalities over, she happily raced out of his office, no doubt prepared with a new list of curses and complaints for tonight. At least he had managed to milk the moment for a short while.
He definitely enjoyed torturing her, but he wondered if it might be a bit too cruel to make this a habit every month.
.. ღ ..
He couldn't believe it.
After all the years he had known her, how could he have never found out about such an important thing? He definitely should have noticed, especially if the fear was this powerful. She couldn't even keep it from showing on her face, and with a shake of her head, she took a step back.
"I can't," she called to him hopelessly, once again shaking her head furiously. "It's way too far. The distance is too wide."
"You just saw me do it," he yelled back. "It's not as hard as it looks. Just jump."
"I can't,"she insisted, and he could tell there would be no way to convince her otherwise.
She was scared of heights.
It was unbelievable to the point that he wouldn't have believed it if he wasn't seeing it for himself firsthand. No one could fake such realistic fear, and even if she had such an amazing, hidden talent for acting, she was too proud to pretend she was scared of anything. Especially not something like heights.
"Why didn't you ever tell me?" he asked, wondering just why his best friend would be embarrassed to tell him anything. She could discuss the pain of her menstrual cramps with him, but not her deep, secret fear? She needed to get her priorities straight.
"Because it's stupid, okay?" she shot back heatedly, determined to defend herself. Even so, her cautious gaze was tacked onto the empty distance between them. "I mean, it's heights. My brain knows there's nothing to be scared of, but I just can't help it."
"Have you always been scared? What about all the other times we..." He trailed off, coming to the realization that in all the years they had been friends, they had never done anything that involved great heights. Just how had he never realized it before? Granted, they hadn't been best friends for long - only since he moved to her hometown a few years back - but since then they were barely ever apart. He had missed too many clues.
"It started when I was three," she explained in response to his question. "I slipped and fell down the stairs, and had to go to the hospital. Since then. You know the distance looks enormous when you're little. It took months before I was okay going up and down the stairs again."
"So that's why you're okay with small heights," he deduced, nodding along with her.
"Yeah. It's only the really big heights that get to me." She took another step back, edging farther and farther away from the empty space. "So I'm not jumping!"
He sighed, so used to her stubborn ways. She only compromised when the odds would be mostly in her favor. It was important that she jumped, though. There would be no other way to get to where they were going.
Stepping closer to the edge himself, he held out his arms before him, urging her to come forward. "Come on. I'll catch you."
"No way!" she protested, scoffing at the very thought of it.
"And why not?"
She eyed him distastefully. "You're scrawny."
Immediately he felt his irritation flare. "I am not scrawny," he snapped. "I'm still growing."
"But until you grow you're scrawny. We'll both definitely fall, and I am not risking that."
He gazed at her seriously, locking his determined eyes with her scared ones. "You really think I'll drop you?" he asked, his voice soft and grave. He had always thought she trusted him more than this, like he trusted her. That was why he always bailed her out when she got in trouble at school, or went along with all her grudges against anyone who dared to challenge her - because he wanted her to know he had her back, like with everyone he cared about.
She noticed the tone of his voice and made a face. "That's not fair. If you play that card, you're basically giving me no other choice than to jump."
"I'll catch you," he promised, still waiting for her at the very edge.
She looked around helplessly, as if someone would miraculously pop out of nowhere and build a path for her to walk on instead. When no such miracle occurred, she started inching towards her own edge.
"You better catch me," she muttered.
"And we better not fall."
Once she was the closest she could be, she grit her teeth and looked up. She had never been an overly religious person by nature, but in that moment she prayed more than she ever had before - that her legs were strong enough to make the jump, that her best friend secretly had amazing muscles under that shirt of his, and that she would never be stuck in this situation again.
With her eyes screwed shut, she made the leap, putting all her trust in his outstretched arms.
.. ღ ..
His father had always told him that when he grew up, everything their family owned would one day belong to him.
This included all of their fields, their equipment, their property, and most importantly, their factory. It was crucial that he learn to manage it before the time came for him to run it, which was why he followed his father to work from a very young age. As he grew up, more and more of the duties were passed onto him, until his father barely had to lift a finger anymore. Instead, he handled the menial, less demanding tasks, such as hiring new workers to harvest their grain and create the flour that earned them their living.
That was how he met her.
"She'll be working here today," his father introduced them, pointing at the young woman he was sure was younger than even him.
He appraised her, unimpressed. She was filthy from head to toe, and on top of that, she didn't look strong enough to handle working in a factory filled with adult servants. An errand girl was all she would be, which must have been what his father intended when he picked her up off the streets.
He gave her to one of the other workers, telling her to just follow the commands she was given and then banishing her from his mind. He had more important things to think about than some sewer rat.
As days turned to months, he had to admit that she was at least a competent enough worker for them to keep her on. He still didn't give her much thought aside from when he saw her, but the worker she was under took it upon herself to report how she was managing whenever he asked for updates on the factory work.
"She don't say a word to no one, though," the woman relayed to him, unaware that he was barely paying attention. "But she's got good hands for workin', and she always gets the job done. Never keeps the money for herself. Since she gets a bed and food as part of pay, she always sends her money away to somewhere. I think she's got a husband waitin' for her."
"At her age?" he asked, raising an incredulous eyebrow.
"Ain't unheard of," the woman relied. "True, there are less girls gettin' married so young nowadays, but there are still men who don't mind marryin' young ones who can still work and earn their livin'."
It was at least nice to know his money wasn't being wasted on a frivolous servant. If he was giving her his money, she had better be spending it wisely.
Aside from these monthly reports, he put her out of his mind completely. Instead, he oversaw the farmers who harvested his crops, double checked the amount of product they were getting, organized what was to be used at home and what was to be sent to the marketplace to sell, and managed the pay of all his workers. His father spent his evenings at the tavern, bragging to anyone who would listen about his son, and how with a brain like his and a property as big as theirs, he would be a catch for anyone to take as a husband.
He worked from dawn until dusk, spending his day out on the farms and coming back up to the plant only at night, to make sure no one had been slacking.
On one such evening, when he was overseeing the workers packing up his flour for sale, he turned around to find the errand girl looking through the papers he had left by the door. She was casually scrutinizing each one, her gaze curious as she flipped through the files.
His temper flared at her audacity. A servant was not meant to be trifling through her master's things! He had not hired her to stand there and look into his personal belongings. Striding over immediately, he snatched the papers from her hands.
"Get back to work," he snapped, tapping his hand against the papers to line them up properly.
She blinked at him for a moment, not saying a single word, until finally she spoke for the very first time.
"Your counting system is not very efficient, you know."
He gaped at her, both for her words and for the way she spoke. Her accent was completely unfamiliar to him, meaning she must have truly come from somewhere far away. He had never even met a traveler with a drawl like hers, though he did not make it a point to hang around in taverns like his father. But her words were clear and much more sophisticated than what he expected from a common servant. What she had just said had been business terms, hadn't they?
"What would you know about counting?" he demanded, not trusting her one bit.
She shrugged. "I went to school. Not all my life and not for a while now, but for as long as I could."
"You've learned how to count?" he asked incredulously. What master would spend money for a common servant to learn something that was useless to an errand girl? Unless she shared his bed.
"I was not always poor, you know," she explained, and to his shock, the irritation in her voice was blatantly clear. She was daring to talk back to him, and in such a callous manner at that. "My family could afford to send me to school. But father and brother died in the war, and I have a sister to take care of."
"Why doesn't she simply get married?" he asked, surprised to find he was genuinely curious. It was a common practice for the girls in his village to just find a husband to care for them when they did not want to work anymore.
She shook her head. "Not so young. I will not allow it." Defiance burned in her eyes, and she set her jaw in determination. She would never yield on this matter, or on any matter that concerned her sister.
"All right, no marriage. But your sister does not work? Or your husband does not help you?"
"I am not married," she replied, furrowing her eyebrows at him in confusion. His cheeks heated up, realizing what he had repeated had only been idle gossip. "The money I earn I send to my sister. She lives with a friend of our father's who took us under his roof, but it didn't feel right asking him for money to buy the things we want, so I came looking for work."
No wonder she worked so hard and so diligently. She thought of her sister to help her get through the day. It was sad that someone who had earned a slight education and had come from a partly proper family like hers had still ended up an errand girl. Cases like hers were rare, but not unheard of.
"All right. Then, if you've learned how to count, what's wrong with our system?"
She stepped closer to him, murmuring the answer into his ear rather than saying it out loud so it could offend others. "I wouldn't trust your farmers to count the bushels. You have them work all day, and then one worker will count the bushels every hour to send to us here, right? Well, they make mistakes a lot."
His eyebrows furrowed. "How? All the men on my farm have had an education."
"Yes, but that doesn't mean they use it properly. I checked your paper just now, and the one who sent us wheat at lunch time wrote down thirty bushels." She snatched the papers from his hands, rifling through them before she found the one she was looking for. "See here? It says thirty. But I counted when I was working, and you actually had forty."
He looked down at the number in anger, realizing just how much he could have lost over the years if mistakes like this were constantly being made. He did not pay these workers to slack off. The errand girl was paid less than half their salary, but she was working harder than they were!
"I'd suggest changing things a little," she carried on. "Instead of having one guy counting every hour, have each of the workers mark a piece of paper every time they get a bushel. Then you can have someone you trust count the marks instead. Like you. I heard you've got a pretty good education." She flashed him an encouraging smile. "Or me. I wouldn't mind doing it for you."
Once again, he felt his cheeks heat up, but more as a response to that pretty smile of hers. He couldn't help it. After all the incompetent girls he had met, it had always been an instinct in him to fall for the smart ones just a little bit. She could count and everything!
He gruffly took the papers back from her, stepping away and nodding frantically. "Thanks for catching that. I'll, uh, come to you tomorrow then, and have you count for me. Just because I'm busy with other things, you know," he tacked on hurriedly.
She nodded in understanding. "Then I'll head on back to work, Sir, and wait for you tomorrow." She made to scurry to her post before the work day ended, but turned back at the last second. "One last thing, Sir. Are you the type to think a man's wife has no place getting an education?"
He blinked, taken aback momentarily, before he furrowed his eyebrows together and shook his head. "No. The exact opposite."
She smiled again, much wider and purposely prettier than before. "Good to know."
Then she ran off to her awaiting task, leaving him thinking for the first time of something other than his farm.
.. ღ ..
The man before her was not a very helpful one, she thought with irritation. If this trip ended up being just a waste of her time, there would be hell to pay by somebody. She would make sure of it.
"Are you sure you can't tell me anything else?" she asked through clenched teeth, poising her pen over her notebook.
"Yes," he replied, calmly taking a sip from the steaming cup of tea in his hand. "I've already told you everything I know."
"I know that's not true, Hitsugaya-san," she accused him, starting to lose her patience. "I saw another article written over the incident. You had plenty to tell that person, didn't you?"
"She came to me early enough," he replied carelessly, unfazed by that vein throbbing in her forehead. This woman had such a ridiculously short temper. "I had to forget a few things to make way for storing new information in my head."
"How does someone just forget everything they saw about a brutal murderer of four in an empty parking lot in broad daylight!" she blew up, so heated that she bounced on the sofa cushion. "You can't call yourself human if you forget things like that so easily."
"I don't remember ever claiming I was human."
Behind the rim of his cup, she saw the amused smile playing at his lips. He was enjoying this. The bastard was messing with her now!
"Are you this insufferable with everyone, or is there something special about me?" she snapped.
"I'm tempted to say it's not you, but that wouldn't be very true."
She had to breathe sharply through her nose to keep from exploding at his snarky attitude. Cheek had always been her thing, but he was beating her in the game. All she wanted was a little information, so she had put on her best smile, rung his doorbell, and watched things go downhill from there.
She had briefly thought about seducing him, but the trauma from her last attempt had not worn off just yet. She'd followed Matsumoto's advice to the tee, but the guy had just barely managed to hold in his laughter before finally letting it all out. She just could not bare it if the same happened with this man, too, especially with his cocky attitude. He seemed like the type to listen more to reason, anyway.
"Hitsugaya-san," she tried again, much more calm than before, "believe me when I say that if I could go to someone else, I would. But you were the only witness. There is no someone else."
"And I've already recounted what I saw to dozens of people. I should be allowed to move on from this now, don't you think?
"Just recount it one last time," she pleaded. "Then I can be out of your hair." And you, out of mine.
"Just ask the police or read over that other article, then," he prompted her, not willing to bend to her wishes. He'd felt extremely sorry for the murder that man had committed and dutifully turned him in, but visitors had been hounding him for days now and he was growing tired of the routine. When would his peace return to him?
"You know I can't do that," she sighed. "I've talked to the police and learned as much as I can, but the only one who saw exactly what happened was you. Why would you tell that other journalist but not me?"
He was quiet for a moment before finally admitting, "She's my cousin."
She faltered, not having expected that. But it explained so much. "So the only reason you told her was because you're related?" she cried, quickly losing hope. He shrugged carelessly, which she took to mean yes.
"So you're not telling me not because you forgot and can't, but because I'm not your cousin and you don't want to," she summarized, chewing on her bottom lip. How petty. She couldn't lose just because of a case of favoritism.
"Now that you understand, could you please -"
"No way," she interrupted him, firmly folding her arms over her chest in defiance. "I'm not leaving until you give me the information I want. Not even if I have to sit here all day."
He glared at her, his irritation for her insistence slightly winning over his respect for her determination. All the other reporters had left soon enough when he made it obvious he would give them no comment, so why couldn't she?
"You might just have to sit here all day," he warned her gravely.
She huffed. "Try me."
Their stalemate indeed lasted well into the evening, until one of them finally caved.
.. ღ ..
Her heart was racing faster than it ever had before, but still her legs ran much quicker. Her breathing came out in shallow, exhausted gasps, but she knew she couldn't stop.
Taking a deadly chance, she whipped her head back to check if they were still on her tail. She had run far enough now that she could no longer see them, but she knew they were behind her, relentless in their chase.
Stray twigs snapped under her feet, and oddly angled branches from the trees surrounding her scratched her legs, making her regret putting on shorts that morning. She couldn't afford to stop and tend to the cuts; instead, she put up with the pain until she was somewhere safe enough to stop.
In the pitch black of the night, it was impossible to tell where she was going, but she knew she just had to keep running. The white light of the stars illuminated her way, and though her eyes had adjusted slightly to the surroundings, the black around her was dense. She couldn't see much past her own two feet.
Her muscles moaned in protest as she quickened her pace, and she knew she couldn't keep running for much longer. The adrenaline rush had worn off long ago, when her brain realized she wouldn't be stopping anytime soon. Every second from now on would be a dangerous one.
Am I going to die here? she thought, darting around a tree and running off the path. No, don't think like that. I can outrun them -
A hand suddenly snaked around her waist from behind, jerking her back until she almost fell without its support.
"No!" she screamed, feeling her heart stop beating for a second. She immediately starting resisting, twisting her body furiously and jabbing at the person behind her with her elbow. "Let me go! Right now! Let me-"
'Miss," the person hissed in her ear, and she froze when she realized it was not a voice she recognized. This was not her perpetrator.
She pushed him away, twisting around to get a look at the man's face. Curious, teal eyes looked back at her.
"Who are you?" she asked between pants, bending over slightly to catch her breath.
"My name is Hitsugaya," he explained slowly, trying not tot scare her. His eyebrows furrowed deeply in serious thought as he noticed she was gasping for air. "Are you in trouble? Who's following you?"
"They - they're coming," she told him, unable to choke the words out properly. She took a step back, preparing to dart off again. It was not safe to stop for this long.
His lips thinned out at her words, and he gazed off in the direction from which she had come. He was listening intently to the silence, and she swore she saw his ears twitch for a second. Suddenly, his eyes flashed.
"I hear them," he told her, and her heart thudded in her ears again.
"I'll help you," he said, grabbing her wrist and pulling her deeper into the forest. She wanted to resist, completely wary of strangers at the moment, but his grip was too strong.
He pulled her past the thick groves of trees, kicking aside the scratchy bushes to make a clearer path for her. They jumped over fallen logs and stepped over dried leaves, disappearing deeper and deeper into the forest. He was a faster runner than she was, but despite how her legs ached, she didn't complain or ask him to slow down.
"Here should be safe," he whispered some time later, slowing them both down to a halt. They had come to another mossy log, one with a small, cleared space underneath. "Quick, we'll hide under here until they pass."
He let her get in first, nestling herself on the leaves cushioning the area, before following her. It was a tight fit with the both of them, but she was too preoccupied with listening for her chasers to notice.
She managed to catch her breath, but the paranoia did not die down. She was still half unsure whether stopping and hiding had been a good idea; if they found her, all that running would go to waste, and she would have no escape. Also, now that she had stopped, the pain in her legs was finally beginning to set in, and she was growing uncomfortable.
"You're bleeding a lot," he whispered from beside her, looking back at her scratched legs. Each line of his face had hardened considerably.
"It was the branches," she explained. "I didn't have time to stop and clean them."
"I could smell it back there, too. That's how I found you. I thought someone had been hurt out here and came to investigate."
"What if they smell it, too?" she asked, her voice tinged with fear. "They could find me."
"It's fine," he assured her, but his voice had thickened. "I just have a very strong nose."
He was oddly stiff, as well as constantly gazing back at the cuts on her oozing legs.
She mistook it for concern and nodded hastily in understanding, turning all her attention back to keeping a lookout for the ones who had been chasing her. She didn't notice that tonight the sun's nighttime companion was full, or that her savior smirked down at her hungrily from the side, baring back his upper lip until his fangs glinted savagely.
The echo of his howl was only muffled by her bloodcurdling shriek.
.. ღ ..
His shop was empty today, and he blamed the unbearable heat outside. Many stores around him had closed early because of the lack of customers, and now that the day was ending, he was almost the only one still left open. He didn't believe in leaving work early.
It was close to sunset when the bell at the front entrance rang, signifying someone had entered. He looked up from the counter to find a young woman peering in curiously, taking in all the shelves lined up inside. It was rare that he got customers like her; with her raven hair and grey eyes, she looked nothing like the antique collectors he was used to dealing with.
"Are you still open?" she asked when she noticed him.
"Yes. Closing time is in an hour," he informed her.
She breathed out in relief. "Thank Kami. All the shops are closed today. I've been driving around for hours." She couldn't mask the tinge of irritation from her voice.
"Well, take your time," he assured her, flipping a page of his book.
She was already wandering through the shelves, looking through everything he had tediously organized. "This is a lot," she murmured, rather impressed by the collection. "Have you listened to all of these?"
He looked up at her through his lashes, his head still resting in his hand. "For the most part."
"Great!" She beamed, racing up to him at the counter. "Then you can help me."
Reluctantly, he shut his book and gave her his attention. "What exactly are you looking for?"
"It's my father's birthday in a week," she explained. "It's the big one; he's turning 50. So I thought I would get him a record of his and my mom's song - the one they used to listen to when they were just dating."
"What's it called? These shelves are arranged in alphabetical order by artist, and then song name, you know."
She bit her lip, looking rather sheepish. "Yeah, but the thing is that I don't know what the song is called." He immediately narrowed his eyes, and she hurried on. "I just heard it on the radio with my dad, and he told me it was their song. So I thought, how great would it be if I could find it for him again?"
"But how exactly do you expect to find it without knowing anything about it?" he asked, an eyebrow raised in impatience.
"Well, I know what it sounds like," she muttered in defense. "You've listened to almost all of these records here, right? So if I hum it for you, you could find me the ones you think match, and I can listen through them for the right one!"
"Closing time is in an hour," he reminded her with a scoff.
"Hey, the customer is always right!" she shot back. "What's wrong with doing a little extra work if you can make a sale? It's not like you have any other customers today."
She made a very excellent point. The shop was completely barren, and had been for a few hours. Not many people came into record stores in the first place, aside for the occasional collectors or teenagers going through a phase, and the heat had only made things worse.
"What if you don't even find it here?" he asked with a sigh, but he was already walking around to the other side of the counter.
"Then I'll pay you for the cost of the labor," she promised, thrilled to have convinced him to help her.
"All right, then. Hum it for me."
She paused for a second, filing through her head to remember the song as accurately as possible. Eventually, she meshed her lips together and let out a small, soft hum. He listened closely as the song rose and fell in rhythm, going soft at the gentle part but instantly sharp at the passionate ones. This was most definitely a love song.
"Keep going," he encouraged her when she stopped.
"That's all I know," she admitted.
"Then keep humming that part for me on repeat."
With a shrug, she did as she was told, following him around the shop as he ran his fingers over countless records in search of the right one. Fortunately for her, he couldn't shake the feeling that he had definitely heard that tune somewhere before, but it was difficult to pinpoint when all she could do was hum just a small portion for him. Eventually he had assembled a small pile in his hands of what he thought could be the possible song she was searching for.
"Shall we try these for now?" he suggested, and she finally stopped humming in favor of agreeing eagerly.
In the back corner of the shop sat an ancient but still usable record player, though it hadn't been put to use for quite some time now. He gingerly pulled the record out of its case, blew off any dust, and placed it on the player. The music played out slow, soft, and they listened quietly as the lyrics started.
Instantly, she shook her head. "I don't think this is it." She listened for a few more beats and then shook her head again. "This is definitely not it."
"Then let's try this next one, shall we?" He carefully placed the first one back into its case and reached for the next one in the pile.
They repeated the routine multiple times with all the records he had compiled, and each time she shook her head sadly. When the pile exhausted itself, they wandered through the shop again, with her humming as he looked for any more possible records that matched that tune.
Eventually, they were five minutes away from closing time, but they still had not found the present she wanted to give to her father.
"This is hopeless, isn't it?" she groaned, putting a hand over her eyes in exhaustion. "And I really thought I would find it here today."
"Why don't you just ask your father what the song is called?" he questioned, adding another failed record to the growing pile.
"Because I want it to be a surprise! I don't want him thinking of the song even a little bit when I give it to him. Besides, he's at a conference this weekend and won't be back for a few days. How suspicious would it be if I called him just to ask him for the name of a song?"
He breathed out heavily, quite exhausted from the search himself. "Let's try this next one, then."
With a heavy heart, he placed it on the player and switched it on. Immediately it began to spin, and a gentle melody washed over the music store. Even as the song grew more heated, it was strangely soothing.
He watched her eyebrows furrow in contemplation. "This isn't it?"
"No...but hang on. It sounds..." She trailed off there, but he could understand her fascination with the song. It was a captivating piece with meaningful, soulful lyrics that anyone could relate to.
"Is it weird that I've never heard this song before, but it feels like I grew up listening to it?" she asked, and though this was not the song she had come searching for, there was a small smile playing at her lips. "Let's listen to it all the way through."
And so they closed their eyes and let the music wash over them, enraptured by the gorgeous score and the message behind the words the singer belted out. It only lasted for a few, enthralling minutes, but she breathed out heavily in awe when the last few strums of the guitar faded away.
"An undiscovered gem," he told her. "It was never a big hit, but those who have heard never stop loving it."
"I can see why," she breathed out. "It's pretty, like all the instruments are in perfect harmony. And it makes me think of so many things: home, family, friends, childhood, and almost everything in between. Somehow it was nostalgic for me, even if it probably isn't a song of my generation, you know? As if the band sat down and decided to write a song that feels like they took everything you care about, and every moment that has ever made you feel any sort of emotion, and piece it together into these few lyrics."
He watched her with arched eyebrows, in shock over her touching little speech. It was everything he had thought when he first heard the song, too, but phrased into words that somehow captured the feeling perfectly. She'd even managed to get herself overexcited about it, to the point where he could easily catch that twinkle in her eyes or the small sprinkling of a flush on her cheeks, even if it was just one, simple song.
She had such beautiful thoughts.
Realizing just how much she was saying and how over-sentimental it must sound, she flushed an even deeper red and ducked her head.
"Well, anyway, it was a good song," she finished rather lamely, and he smirked at her embarrassment.
"I agree - that it's a good song, and with everything you just said." He set it back in the case, but rather than placing it on the pile, he handed it to her instead. She took it, but cocked her head in confusion. "Would you like to take it with you?" he offered.
"I couldn't do that!" she protested, and attempted to give it back. He just pushed it right back into her arms.
"If you love it so much, I think you should have it."
"At least let me pay for it," she insisted. "I was thinking of buying it, anyway. I won't let you just give it to me when I have to money for it right here."
"All right," he finally relented, knowing there was no way he would win. She had that same stubborn set to her jaw that most of the people in his life did, and he didn't want to add another argument to his growing list.
"Good. Now let's set this aside and find the song we're looking for. I won't let you close until we do!"
With their spirits renewed, they returned to searching for her parents' song, unaware that someday, the melody they had just heard would become their song.
A/N: These are meant to be ambiguous scenes; I leave it to you to decide what happened before or what happens after. :) If any of you get inspired and want to expand any of these into an actual story, be my guest. I doubt anyone will, but if you do, I give you permission now.
Now, I'm facing a little dilemma, so I thought I would ask you what you think. Since Valentine's Day was a few weeks ago, I started writing a story for it. Obviously I did not finish, but the plot was such that it could take place a few days later and still work as a Valentine's one-shot. But now it's been two weeks, and I can't decide if I want to bother finishing it. There are only two more scenes left to write, but looking back on it, it's not the most exciting piece of writing ever (and definitely not like what I write for last year), so I don't know if I still should. What do you guys think? Even if it won't be some sort of masterpiece, should I still put it up for you to read?