Summary: Sometimes, you look at a person and just know. Of course, what you know isn't always what's actually true.
Spoilers: Up through the second arrancar encounter in Karakura (early 200s, manga-wise)
Title, Author and URL of original story: Matchmaker by sophiap
Thanks to maeveth for last-minute smoothing.
Matsumoto Rangiku was stretching to work out the kinks caused by the fierce battle when she heard the soft purr and sniffed the subtle scent of a campfire long burnt out that signified the materialization of her zanpakuto in this world. "I really do wish you'd come when I call, Haineko-chan," she said beguilingly, turning to see the familiar figure lounging in the center of her guest futon. "Wouldn't we do better in a fight if I could use bankai?"
The ash cat stretched, her spine curling in a long arc, and kneaded the bedcovers with soft paws that revealed nothing of the claws beneath. As if any respectable feline would come when called, she scoffed in a voice only Matsumoto could hear. Bankai is yours to attain, not mine to grant to spoiled, self-indulgent shinigami. She fixed brilliantly green eyes on Matsumoto's. Come stroke me.
She sighed and strode over to comply with her sword's wishes. Who was self-indulgent now? But though she'd never admit it out loud, there was something comforting about sitting and petting the partner to her own soul, knowing that it would be on her side in an instant if danger came. Especially on a night like tonight. Matsumoto's heart ached for the emotional pain of Orihime-chan and the very physical wounds of Ichigo, Renji, Ikkaku and poor Kuchiki, who'd barely been breathing when the vice-captain had fetched her. And for Captain, of course, who'd been so brave.
Perhaps in response to her acquiescence, Haineko moved to allow Matsumoto to sit on the futon with her, and they shared a few minutes of warmth. "Now, what are you here for?" asked Matsumoto, knowing the zanpakuto nearly as well as she knew her own soul. She never put forth the effort to manifest without a reason, usually a self-serving one.
It's that little boy of yours, Haineko said in a noticeably cooler voice than before. The one who plays at being a leader.
"He is my captain," Matsumoto reminded her. "And a good one. Otherwise, I wouldn't leave all the paperwork for him!"
If you say. She sniffed. I suppose he'll be expecting you to fawn all over him for defeating his enemy tonight. As a captain is supposed to do, I remind you.
"I doubt that very much," Matsumoto said dryly. "Captain expects more out of himself than anyone else. It's a very admirable quality. Don't tell him I said that," she added quickly.
As if I would! Him or that great frigid beast of his, always sniffing around like a dog looking for scraps. It's disgusting. I don't know why you associate with either of them when there are more fun people around, like that lovely Kyoraku Shunsui...and his zanpakuto Katen Kyokotsu, she purred. Twins.
Matsumoto removed her hand, simultaneously trying to repress a full-body shudder. She knew that zanpakuto had their own souls and personalities, but there were some things she didn't want to know. "You're being silly. Captain doesn't expect anything from me other than to live up to his standards as an officer, and he's got a long way to go on that," she said. "Don't be silly."
I can just sense things about men. Well, if you can count him as a man. And this time Matsumoto could hear the definite hint of a sulk in her voice. I'm just trying to warn you! He's unstable.
She opened her mouth to refute the accusation yet again, but was cut off by a strangled scream from the direction of Captain's room.
Told you, Haineko said smugly.
She'd been nervous before learning her zanpakuto's name. Rumors swirled around the Academy for the first few years, until students started learning their shikai, about what they could expect. She'd spent a lot of time wondering. What if she got some great beast, something that would be difficult to earn respect from? Not that she wasn't up to the challenge, but still. She'd gone on wondering until she'd been drifting off to sleep late one night after a long practice, and heard a soft purring next to her head. She'd sat bolt upright when she remembered she didn't have a cat.
She and Haineko had begun training together the next day. All in all, it was a successful partnership. Matsumoto found her sword's spirit to be quite acceptable, despite her laziness and occasional snobbishness. She was always by Matsumoto's side when she needed her, and she was a lot smarter than she acted. Most of the time, they were of one mind.
Most of the time.
It wasn't until Hitsugaya Toshiro was installed as her new superior officer that Matsumoto's opinion differed significantly from Haineko's. From the first day the young captain had made an appearance in the Tenth Division offices, Haineko seemed to regard him as some sort of lothario who was just waiting for the chance to seduce Matsumoto. Or he was a sexual prodigy who would use his adorable baby face to get Matsumoto to seduce him. She could never really decide.
It was a ridiculous idea, though. It wasn't that Matsumoto didn't like him; in spite of his inability to relax (and his propensity for ragging on Matsumoto for her extraordinary skill at doing so), she liked Hitsugaya quite a bit. He was smart, funny in a dry sort of way when he forgot to be stern, and easy to get along with if she didn't take his grumblings seriously. He was also cute. Young, true, but she could tell that someday he'd be quite a looker.
He was looking at your chest, Haineko accused in the back of her mind as she strode off to lunch one day.
"Of course he was," she replied. "It's right at his eye level." She wondered what Captain would like to eat. She hadn't told him, but she was planning to bring something tasty back for him. He'd been working too hard since he'd taken on the Fifth's paperwork following the death of its captain.
A gentleman would look away.
"A gentleman would be very boring," she scoffed. "I don't know why you're so paranoid. Captain doesn't see my breasts. Well, of course he sees them, but you know what I mean."
I still think you should put in for a transfer. You'd do much better under another captain.
"Like who? Kyouraku, I suppose?" she said. "Don't even think about it. Besides, I wouldn't go after Nanao's job."
There are still eleven other options.
"Like Gin, I suppose?" she said, her tone lighter than what she felt. Once upon a time, she had imagined what it would be like to work under Gin, putting their unique understanding of one another to work in a way that would make them the best team in Seireitei. But it had been a long time since they'd been close enough for such flights of fancy to be worth her time.
Haineko was quiet for a long moment. Not Gin, she said at last. Shinsou never talks to me. I don't like him.
"Really?" Matsumoto was surprised. Not at the fact that the zanpakuto spirits spoke to one another; Haineko had let that one slip years ago, and ever since, she'd used this knowledge to get some truly choice gossip whose source no one ever guessed. But Haineko had never sounded so wary of one of her comrades. "Well, sweetheart, perhaps he just doesn't want us to pass on his wielder's secrets." Never mind that in the past, Gin would have had no secrets that Matsumoto didn't already know. It would have been nice to think this was still true.
Hmmph, was the only reply.
"Cheer up," she soothed. "Perhaps we'll run into one of the ryoka today and you'll get to talk to someone entirely new while we smash their head in."
Oh, never mind about the ryoka, Haineko dismissed the suggestion. Hoozukimaru said he thinks the strange shinigami was traveling with Zangetsu, and I don't have anything to say to that one. It may have been centuries since I've seen him, but I doubt he's any less taciturn.
Matsumoto stopped in her tracks; it was a good thing the shortcut she was taking was deserted except for her, or she would have looked very silly, stopping to talk to (what looked like) herself. "Now that's interesting," she said. "You knew him?"
A long time ago. He never had any good gossip. Said it wasn't honorable. He was no fun at all.
"I wonder if Captain knows," she mused, walking again. "I'll have to mention it to him when I get back."
Oh, if you have to. There was the trace of a grimace in Haineko's voice. Just don't expect me to talk to Hyourinmaru. He was very impertinent last week, expecting me to pass some secret message from his wielder to you. I told him to go away.
"What was it about?" she asked, pouncing on the hint of something juicy. She doubted that Captain would really resort to using their swords to send a message when there was always an interoffice memo or his own vocal criticisms, but if it would be funny if it was something she could tease him with.
Nothing important. Haineko sounded firm. Go get your lunch. Just don't eat something that'll make you fat.
"Haineko, you're so mean~!"
It had been the last lighthearted moment before everything Matsumoto knew turned upside down, and she learned just what kind of secret Gin was really hiding. In the aftermath she kept close by her captain's side, even though Hitsugaya was far too out of it to register her presence. She hovered in the background as Fourth Division officers got him settled in his bed for the healing only time could achieve, and located the building's most comfortable chair to take vigil in once they were finished.
She watched him sleep for a while, breathing labored but steady, then took his hand. With his eyes closed, maybe he needed something tactile as a reminder that the world still held those that would wait for him. She felt a little silly about the overly sentimental gesture until her hand closed over his; the single point of warmth at their connection was comforting, soothing some of her own anxiety. She held on until she blinked her eyes open and realized she'd fallen asleep and her hand had gone slack and hung beside her chair.
She hoped she hadn't been snoring. Captain needed his rest.
Twelve hours later, Hitsugaya woke up and Matsumoto used her gentlest voice to tell him what had happened to Soul Society and to Hinamori. This time he was the one to reach for her hand, and she took it, hoping to reassure him in a way she knew her words couldn't until she found the right ones.
She expected Haineko to make some derisive comment about how even an injured Hitsugaya ought to keep his hands to himself, but the only sound she heard was a gentle purring in the back of her mind and the feeling of soft fur against her neck.
Most of the next two days were spent by Hitsugaya's side, until Unohana informed them that he had permission to try walking. She promptly gave him some privacy, as she had a pretty good idea of where he'd want to go and who he'd want to see. Besides, she could use a little privacy herself.
She took a bottle of sake and two dishes to a high ridge just outside the borders of Seireitei. It didn't face the area of Rukongai that she and Gin had walked through on their way to the Academy so many years ago, but the sky was clear and and she could see far into the distance and it was easy to pretend.
There had been no pretending or fooling herself in that final instant before the glow of negacíon ripped through the sky and nearly blinded her. Gin had kept her guessing for years now, but she'd known with a rare, crystal clarity that this was her moment to decide. She could toss away everything she'd earned for herself in order to follow her oldest friend, or she could let him go to become an unforgivable enemy.
She would have liked to have thought that there was a moment of doubt, that she at least retained the loyalty and affection that Gin had apparently tossed away, but there hadn't. The moment she realized there was a decision to be made, she knew what her decision was, and she'd let him leave her for the last time. Part of her felt guiltier about this than if she'd seriously considered deserting Soul Society and her captain.
The truth was-and oh, it was a truth that burned its way through her-though she still loved and would always love the boy who had been her best friend and first lover, that boy was gone long before Gin floated into the sky. As she watched him go, she didn't feel the stirrings of lost love...she just wished she did.
As the sun set and turned the sky before her orange, Matsumoto poured the sake into both dishes. She lifted one to her lips and drank it slower than she would when she was out drinking with friends. The other she let sit until the sun had slipped beneath the horizon and the evening began to grow dark and cool.
Matsumoto and Hitsugaya spent the next few weeks working harder and closer together than they had since they'd first become a team and had to work out their system. When she wasn't napping, anyway. For the most part, Haineko kept her comments to a minimum, though she still grumbled about propriety every time Captain's eyes strayed anywhere near Matsumoto's bust. Matsumoto didn't bother to correct her anymore, thankful that some things, at least, did not change.
It surprised her that she almost enjoyed the more tedious work when they were doing it together. It was boring, but they were accomplishing something, putting their world a little more back in order with each sheaf of paper. And it was fun to try and make Hitsugaya laugh. Once or twice, she was pretty sure she came close to actually doing it.
She spent a fair amount of time just listening, too. He wouldn't have come to her for advice, but since she was there, every once in a while he would reveal a few of his true feelings. His worry for Momo; his fear that Soul Society would never be the same; his dread about what Aizen had planned for the days to come.
Matsumoto couldn't offer any answers, but she thought he appreciated that she didn't pretend to.
She found her own ways of drowning her sorrows. Kira, Hisagi, Renji and Captain Kyouraku were steady sources of comfort as long as it came in liquid form, and when they went out to bars together, none of them questioned her if she drifted off into her cup from time to time, possibly because they had a tendency to do the same thing.
It was after one such outing when she was walking back to her quarters, a little drunk but far from the most plastered she'd ever been, and spontaneously decided to stop into Tenth Division on her way. She couldn't explain what made her do it; it wasn't as if she planned to take any paperwork home with her, and anyone who'd been looking for her in the office would have seen the note she'd left.
Inside, she found Hitsugaya still seated in his chair, sprawled out over his desk, the pen he'd been using wrapped in one slackened hand.
Disgraceful. Haineko couldn't resist making a comment on his most undignified appearance.
"No," Matsumoto said softly. "No, that's not it at all."
She'd never before had the chance to find out, but it turned out that Hitsugaya was a sound sleeper. She was strong enough that it was no trouble at all to lift him from his accidental bed and lay him to rest on the office couch. She knew it would ensure a much comfier night; she'd tested it enough on her own to be sure. It was a warm summer evening, but on impulse, she found a spare blanket and tucked it around him. She smoothed back his bangs and kissed him on the forehead once before leaving; a maternal gesture, though she didn't feel the least bit motherly at the moment.
Haineko sighed. You indulge him.
"Once in a while someone should," Matsumoto said, and went home to dream her own sake-infused dreams.
Matsumoto volunteered to sign up for the mission as soon as she heard about it. A crack team on an expedition to prepare for the upcoming battles, while hanging out with the only still-living shinigami and an exiled captain at that? Count her in. It had also been ages since she'd gotten a chance to visit the living world, which she loved doing. She wondered if she'd get a chance to visit some of the shopping districts in Roppongi while she was there. New clothes were always fun.
Besides, it would give her something to do other than wonder over and over again what had been going through Gin's mind. It wasn't as if she were likely to ever find out.
She was thrilled when Hitsugaya announced he was coming, too. Even if he thought it was to keep an eye on everyone else, it would be good for him to get out. He could stretch his boundaries. And she couldn't wait to see what he looked like in the cute little school uniform. They had their fittings the day before they were depart, all the boys in one room, she and Kuchiki Rukia in the other. It wasn't a big deal for Kuchiki, who had worn one for two months while living in Kurosaki Ichigo's closet (and boy, was Matsumoto hoping to get close enough to Kuchiki on this trip to ask her about that; such a living arrangement had to have netted the girl some prime gossip).
"Kuchiki-san, you look adorable!" she squealed, grabbing the girl's hands in hers. "These uniforms are so cute! I wouldn't think living world schools cared so much about style!"
Kuchiki smiled weakly at her. "I'm not so sure they do, Vice-Captain," she said. "There are much more...oh, but they gave you the wrong size shirt!"
"Eh?" Matsumoto looked down at the sound of the younger woman's concern. "No, this is fine! It's very comfortable." She let go of Kuchiki's hands and dashed for the door. "I've got to go see how Captain is doing. See you tomorrow, Kuchiki-san!"
Renji, Ikkaku and Yumichika exited the other dressing room in a loudly jabbering pack as she approached, so Hitsugaya was the only one left when she twirled inside. She felt a curious skip of her heart as she saw him in his uniform. He looked so smart in the crisply-pressed outfit! It was fun to see him dressed in something other than what she usually saw him wearing.
But what did he think of her? The question came to her mind spontaneously, but seemed oddly important all the same. "Well, Captain, what do you think?" she asked, spinning around once on her toes.
His eyes went a little wider, but for a minute there was no other response. He's ogling you, Haineko hissed in her mind, but he wasn't. He wasn't even looking at her breasts, which were more apparent than usual; the white cotton shirt clung more than the basic black of her shihakusho. Hitsugaya was just staring at her legs. She hadn't thought much about them before, but she suddenly wondered if they looked gawky beneath the short skirt. She didn't usually wear them uncovered like that.
"Captain?" she prompted, and after a moment, his eyes cleared and he stammered out something about how the uniform was fine, just fine, and he was going to go oversee some last-minute details before their departures. Then he'd strode out, not looking behind him once.
It was silly to be hurt, and possibly sillier that she'd wanted to show off in the first place. He was a good captain and they made a good team, sure, but he was never going to think of her like that.
Matsumoto waited a few minutes after the scream before going to Hitsugaya's room, to give him a chance to regain his composure. Maybe he'd just had a bad dream, but she'd be a poor vice-captain if she didn't at least check on him.
She knocked on the door gently, in case he was indecent or something. She wouldn't mind that, but he probably would. "Captain? Are you all right in there?"
He's fine, Haineko sniffed. He can cope for himself.
I'm sure he can, but he doesn't have to. She knocked again.
"Everything's fine, Matsumoto," she heard after another moment. "Please come in."
She poked her head in. "Are you sure everything's okay?" He didn't look entirely okay, standing there in his nightclothes, but he didn't look aggravated, either; he looked nervous, a rare emotion to see on her captain's face.
He nodded. "It's just that...well, there's been something on my mind for a while, something related to you, and, well, to me, and..."
Her heart plunged. He was going to tell her that this mission was too dangerous for the both of them, she thought irrationally, that at least one of them should stay at home to lead the divison, and it wasn't going to be the one who had already achieved his bankai. But his next words chattered her train of thought.
"The thing is, I think I may be a little bit in love with you."
What?! Haineko cried.
Hitsugaya appeared to be bracing himself, as if he expected her to yell or hit him, but all she could do was smile. "Really?"
He smiled back at her for a brief moment before putting on his serious face, but she wasn't fooled. "It won't work, you know."
That's right it won't! exclaimed Haineko. What's he thinking? You know that disgusting dragon put him up to this!
Matsumoto just ignored her and raised an eyebrow.
"There are any number of reasons," he said stubbornly.
"'Any number of reasons,' huh? Name them," she challenged.
"You're my subordinate," he said. "It's improper. In fact, it might even be against regulations."
"Yeah, right. Like I'd honestly care about that." If he thought that one would work on her, he really didn't know her at all.
"I'm still not entirely over my childhood friend," he continued. "It's going to take me some time to work through that."
The idiot. Didn't he know she was dealing with the same thing? Gin and Hinamori were vastly different people, but that didn't mean letting go of either of them was any easier. "Oh, I might know a thing or two about that," she said softly, and straightened. "I totally agree that rushing into a relationship right now would be a bad idea for both of us. That being said, I don't mind waiting if you don't. Besides, Hinamori's going to need your help for a good long while, isn't she? And you're going to give her that help because she's your friend, right?" She hoped he caught the warning there. With Aizen's betrayal, Hinamori was going to need him more than Matsumoto did for the time being.
His lips twitched, as if he wanted to smile but was holding himself back. "I've been told that I'm an emotional moron."
That one was true, she had to admit. "Well, I wouldn't call that an insurmountable obstacle. I don't think you're a hopeless emotional moron," she clarified. Not even her prodigy captain could be perfect at everything at first.
Stop encouraging him! Haineko demanded.
"And... well, I don't think your zanpakuto likes mine very much."
"What?" She wondered how he knew. Just what had Haineko said to Hyourinmaru?
"Look, just forget the whole zanpakuto thing. I have no idea where that came from. Anyhow..." He took a breath. "I'm much too young for you. And besides, I... I'm still a child. Sort of."
"Yeah, that's true," she said, and grinned. "But that'll only be the case for what, ten, twenty years tops?" Before he could answer back or she talked herself out of it, she grabbed his hand and pulled him forward. "Let's just say that I think you're the sort of guy who's worth waiting for." And she'd be willing to wait, knowing what was to come. She winked. "And like I said before, I don't mind waiting."
She kissed him once, not too hard and with absolutely no tongue, but long enough to communicate her intentions. He looked a little bit dazed when she pulled away, and part of her was cheering. She'd never made him make that expression before, and she'd cherish the memory.
Sometimes actions really did speak louder than words, so she didn't say anything more, instead made her way out of the room, making sure to sway a little for his benefit. He'd need to remember what they were waiting for, too.
Matsumoto felt as if she were floating as she finished getting ready for bed and wrapped herself up in her blanket. It was easy to ignore Haineko's protests. He's too short! And too serious! And not remotely cute, and are you even listening to me, Rangiku?
"No, Haineko-chan," she said happily. "I'm not. Say, why don't we do some more bankai training tomorrow?"
Normally it would be very hard to fall asleep with an angry cat yowling in the back of her mind, but for once, it was easy. The dreams that followed had never been sweeter.