It's her first day as a full-fledged shinigami and Momo is as nervous as she's ever been. The crisp black robes almost seem too dark on her after six years in white and red as a student. An apprentice. Now she's the real thing. And even though she can hardly believe she deserves them, the robes feel good, like something to be proud of, even if they're a little too long in the hakama. This uniform means something.
Momo hopes she can live up to it.
She hop-skips in a very fast walk before giving up and jogging. So what if she looks overeager? She is overeager. Not every shinigami who finishes the academy makes it into the Gotei 13, and the ones who do don't always get accepted into their first choice of division. Momo can still remember the anticipation she'd felt waiting for her assignment, the way she'd tried not to get her hopes up, telling herself it wouldn't be so bad if she couldn't be in 5th--and then the ecstatic glee when the letter came to announce that she would be. Folded carefully, that letter lies underneath her pillow. And even better, Renji-kun and Kira-kun will be there too!
She knows she’s early when she reaches the assembly room where Captain Aizen is to meet with all the new members of his division, so she expects to be the first one there. She doesn’t expect the captain himself to be there, alone, looking up to greet her with a kind smile. She tries to skid to a stop, but momentum is not on her side, and inertia plus a misplaced step on her own hakama hem sends her flying to the ground. It’s only sheer luck that lets her get her hands out in front of her so they take the blow instead of her face.
Warm hands are on her in an instant, helping her to her feet. “Are you all right?”
“Ca-Captain Aizen!” she squeaks, dying by inches. “I’m so sorry!”
“No need,” he chuckles. “Just be more careful, Hinamori-kun. You’re a valued member of our division now.”
The blush she can feel on her face must be bright red. He knows my name. “I’m all right,” she says, squeezing her hands into nervous fists. “—ow.”
“You’re bleeding.” He takes her hands in his, carefully examining her palms.
“It’s just a scratch,” she protests. She doesn’t want to be sent to get a bandage from the 4th and miss the assembly.
“Easily taken care of.” He smiles and to her astonishment, his hands begin to glow. In seconds, the small wounds from where she hit the floor are gone. “There. As good as new.” He pats her hand and releases her.
“Captain Aizen, you can heal?”
“Of course.” He looks a little surprised. “Not as well as Captain Unohana—it takes a great deal of skill to reverse damage instead of causing it.” He adjusts his glasses. “I understand you did quite well at kidou yourself, Hinamori-kun. Your teachers spoke very favorably.”
“Oh, thank you,” she says. “I—I hope to do well here!”
“I’m sure you will. Ah, here are your fellows,” he says as other shinigami begin shuffling in. “Welcome to the 5th division, Hinamori-kun.”
The first official day she spends as vice-captain of the 5th division is nearly Hinamori's last. It would not be such a bad way to die, in service of the cause to which she's devoted herself and beside the greatest captain the Gotei 13 has known. But all things considered, she is very glad to still be breathing after the enormous hollow cuts her open as it howled its death throes.
"Hinamori-kun!" In a blindingly quick flash-step Captain Aizen is there beside her. "Hinamori-kun, are you all right?"
Thankfully, no blood comes out when she coughs--there's enough coming from the wound that runs down her shoulder to her thigh as it is. "I-I'm okay, Captain." It's a battle to keep standing, one she loses as he catches her and lowers her to the ground with such gentleness.
"Shh, now," he says, the healing kidou already begun. It's warm, but not as warm as his presence beside her. "You didn't need to step in like that, Hinamori-kun. I could have dodged that hollow. There was no need to risk yourself."
She shakes her head, smiling even though the pain is still present. "You have to be able to count on me," she breathes. "I don't want to let you down."
"Ah, Hinamori-kun." It might be her imagination, but he seems to hold her tighter for a moment as he finishes the healing. The pain fades away as he sets her on her feet. "Do you know why I chose you as my vice-captain?"
No. She shakes her head. No, because she's barely dared to think too hard about it, in case it is no longer real. Momo knows her own abilities. She is better than many of the shinigami she knows; better than the rest of her division. It still doesn't seem enough.
"I chose you because I have faith in you," he says, the seriousness echoing through his voice. "There is no one I would rather have as my vice-captain, Hinamori-kun. But as far as you've come, I see how far you can go. You have such potential. Together, I think we can bring that potential out. Do you agree?"
She's nodding before she even has a chance to really register what he's saying. When she does, the pride rises up so big and warm that there's not even the phantom memory of pain. "Yes, Captain Aizen."
"Good. Then you've got to take care of yourself," he says. "I'm counting on you, Hinamori-kun."
The first time she lies with a man, it hurts only a little. Nothing at all like how her male friends made it sound when they gossiped about girls and sex at the academy when they thought she couldn't hear. This is a wound that is worth all the pain, and not even really a wound at all. It feels something like a dream and maybe it is a dream, for in the morning, the world shows no sign of tilting on its axis.
There is a lingering, muted pain between her legs and there is Captain Aizen's smile. But in another first, Momo knows this smile is only for her. There is a secret in it that just the two of them share. This is real, it says. This is real.
The first time Momo sees the real Captain Aizen is not the first day she believes in what she sees. She can't help but cry when she sees his face, smiling at her like he always has. He's here, he's alive. The joy is nearly enough to overshadow the pain of his zanpakutou slicing through her. And when the pain does come, hot and icy at the same time, it is nothing compared to her confusion.
Captain Aizen is alive. Captain Aizen has run her through.
She does not understand.
Everything is dark for what feels like an instant. When she opens her eyes to see Captain Unohana's gentle eyes looking down at her, Vice-Captain Kotetsu's worried face hovering in the background. When Momo moves a stiff arm to touch where Captain Aizen--where he--
With a calm, knowing expression, almost as comforting as Captain Aizen's, Unohana takes Momo's hand and explains things. There is no more wound; it's been healed for weeks. There is no more captain of the 5th division, either, nor 3rd and 9th. The ryoka have gone, but they are no longer enemies. Toushirou will surely come to see Momo when he can, but now he is in the living world on a most important mission. Momo was wrong before, so wrong about what her oldest friend was capable of, but today the lie is true. Toushirou and Captain Aizen are enemies. And he will kill Captain Aizen if he can.
"No," is all she can murmur at first. "No, no no."
She cries out in denial that sets her healers to pitying glances, and in time, when she can stand and walk again, makes excuses to a distant Toushirou that sound pathetic even to her ears. Because Momo is not stupid and she is not a little girl. There is a difference between knowledge and faith. She knows that Captain Aizen has done something terrible, and will continue to do worse. She knows that Ichimaru Gin has only ever been her captain's subordinate. She knows that Captain Aizen hurt her grievously, and for all that she saw in his eyes, remorse was not there.
But no matter what illusions Kyouka Suigetsu can cast, her love for him was real. And what is faith but choosing to believe in what should not be possible? What kind of love can she say she has if she has no faith to go with it?
But there comes a time when Toushirou and the others return with bitter hearts and tired bodies. Aizen has done another terrible thing, they say. He's taken one of the ryoka from her home, brought her to Hueco Mundo to use. To treat as a thing. There is nothing of belief in their eyes; Momo can tell, just by looking, that they know. And from their knowledge, she can feel her last bits of belief crumbling away.
The first time Momo strikes out against the man who used to be her beloved Captain, if only in her heart, she's standing in the middle of a war. Literally in the middle, because everything that has happened has turned around Aizen for more years than Momo knew. Her zanpakutou cuts into his belly, lower than she'd wanted. Even now, she doesn't have the ability to break his heart. But maybe he can't break hers anymore either, because the blade that's cutting back into her doesn't hurt nearly as bad as it did the last time.
It's only for an instant that they stare at each other. Aizen is smiling; Momo is not. For once, there's nothing she can recognize in his smile. A strange feeling blooms in her gut along with the pain, and Momo thinks it might be relief. "Ah, Hinamori-kun," he says. "So it's you, after all."
There's no time to ask what he means by that. As their blades slide out of each other, the moment passes and the shinigami left standing are on Aizen all at once. She staggers backward, holding her wound with one arm and staying well out of it. She's not waiting to die, but she's not seeking aid from the 4th, either. She's just watching, the last spectator in an invisible war.
However this battle comes out, Momo has the sense that something is ending, has ended and she's only just feeling it now. It feels a little like floating, and she wonders what will tie her down after today. She doesn't know the answer or if there even is an answer, so she slides to the ground and tries not to die and watches, waiting to see if the world will end.