Where am I? It's so dark. Fearful brown eyes looked up at the sky. The little lights in the sky seemed so far away. Small hands reached upwards, fingers outstretched as if they wanted to touch the stars.
Lost in the dark, the little girl did not notice the white masked face appearing out of the night. As the sky was full of stars, so did other white masked faces materialize out of the darkness one after the other, surrounding her. The grotesque bodies moved silently towards her.
Etsuko froze at sight of the first mask when she lowered her gaze. Her small body attempted to run, but it was as if she was made of stone. She did not realize she was screaming out loud. It was the desperate scream of a child in danger – no, the scream of an animal knowing it would die, pleading with the world to save it.
In her desperation, she did not notice the wind pick up and howled along with her. The darkness prevented her from seeing the wind whipping around her, keeping the hollows from advancing towards her as it raged to confront the hollows.
A light pierced through the darkness. As it approached, she saw two men at the forefront of group of people all dressed in black, wielding katana. These swords were bathed in light and one by one, the white masks disappeared, until all that was left were the black clad men in the shadows.
As the two men approached her, she backed away. She could see them now as the other men behind ignited some form of light she did not know. The two knelt on the ground so they could meet her face to face, though she still had to look up at them. Her eyes welled up with tears that shone both relief and apprehension. Her dark eyes looked up at them with untainted purity, vulnerability, and the embodiment of loneliness. The two men soften immediately after, dropping whatever defenses they might have had and erased whatever suspicion they came at her with.
"Daddy, Papa?" Her small voice was on the verge of breaking. The winds around her immediately died down. It was calm. The trauma of the recent past left her vulnerable and the aura that radiated from the two men reminded her of her previous protectors. She threw her little arms around the two men. "Are you real? They said you weren't coming back!"
Ukitake Jushiro and Shunsui Kyoraku looked at each other in shock. They had never seen this child before. Gently removing her hands from themselves, they examined the girl in front of them. She looked to be only ten years old with all the frailty of an abandoned child. Her disheveled raven hair seemed to be in between a cropped and bobbed hairstyle. It was sad to see a child in that state. They deduced it was most likely shock that caused her mistaken memory.
"Hello there, little one," Jushiro greeted her warmly. "My name is Ukitake Jushiro and my friend here is Shunsui Kyoraku. Can you tell us your name?"
"Daddy! The way you told me to memorize it?" The child questioned and continued after the man nodded. "My name is Abe no Etsuko, of the Abe clan, descendant of the great onmyoji Abe no Seimei. But Papa always said that the clan has been gone for centuries and he doesn't know why you make me protect a city that doesn't believe in us."
"Princess Etsuko?" Kyoraku smiled though his mind worked in overdrive. "Can you tell us how you got here?"
"Papa, why are you being weird?" Etsuko asked confounded. She looked at the ground like a child who did something wrong before she spoke again. "And why are you with shinigami? You told me to stay away from them. You always told me to be careful. I'm sorry, Papa and Daddy. I wasn't careful. I stayed away from the shinigami and I never killed any of the hollows because you told me that it was wrong. I only put up barriers like I always do to stop them from attacking people. One of them got pulled into a really scary giant door and I wanted to see what was inside…Papa, something came out and attacked me but something pulled it back in! Then I was carried by the wind and more hollows were chasing me."
Jushiro thought the Abe clan had died out hundreds of years before, or the onmyodo parts at the very least. Humans should never try to do what shinigami did; it was dangerous enough let alone for a child to be pulled in. He frowned as he saw realization dawned on her as she started to cry. After speaking, she knew what happened to her.
Kyoraku and Jushiro looked at each other. Nodding to his friend, Jushiro embraced the child as she continued her crying. Shunsui had gotten up and given the orders to their squads that they were heading back. Drawing out his katana, he turned it as if it were a key, opening up the Senkaimon.
"You're not going to perform a konso?" one of the men in black asked.
"It would probably cause more damage. You did see what she did right? Do you want that happening in the Rukongai if she ends up anywhere past District 50?" Shunsui answered. "And I was looking forward to some sake poured by my Lisa when I got back. Not looking forward to see old man Yamamoto."
"Etsuko," Jushiro began as the gates opened and he picked her up in his arms, a strand of white hair dropped onto his face as he gave her a smile. "We're going to take you to our home: Soul Society."
"I don't want to go! Don't make me! I'm not dead! Daddy you promised that you would teach me so that I could protect all the people that can't see what we can see! I have to protect them, Daddy! You said it was my job! I don't want to go through that door! I'm scared! It's going to get me! I'm not dead! Papa, help me!" She cried louder kicking her legs struggling to get away not noticing that the winds picked up again.
"Oi, oi, little princess!" Shunsui grabbed her from Jushiro in one quick move and put her up on his broad shoulders, grimacing as she hit his straw hat with her little fists. "Captain Ukitake and I won't let anything bad happen to you."
"Promise?" She asked, letting her hands rest on top of his hat. Her voice dripped of innocence and blind trust. She knew him as her Papa and everything he said was always true. He had been her protector since before she could remember.
It was all the two captains to do to give the most cheerful 'of course'. They knew that they had just given their word and honor to a child whose fate was uncertain. The two looked at each other uneasily. The gravity of their answer was not lost on them. The head captain was not so lenient and to keep their promise they would have to go against him in all probability.
True to their fears, when the two captains got back to Soul Society, they immediately called a Captain's meeting which was getting to be more of a shouting match rather than a meeting.
"The longer we squabble, the longer she sits there in Senzaikyu! Why did you even put her there, old man?!" Shunsui was livid. He could not imagine what the child who tugged on his heartstrings and who called him 'Papa' was going through as she sat in a cell where her power was being drained. The look of betrayal in her naïve eyes as they locked the cell doors burned in his memory.
"It's the only place we could put her and know she couldn't cause any trouble. Captain Ukitake already told us she's one of Seimei's descendants. When he came here, he could already control his power and he died peacefully. She cannot and therefore is dangerous. Worse, she's traumatized by her violent death." The fourth division captain spoke plainly. Retsu Unohana had been alive to see Seimei before he was promoted to guard the Soul King.
"But she's just a child! We cannot imprison her forever for something she was born with!" It was unusual for Jushiro to be just as furious as Kyoraku. The hand that rested on his zanpakuto clasped the hilt as if it was it only thing keeping him together. "Captain Urahara will find some way to restrict her power until she can learn to control them. She's just a scared little girl!"
He put a lot of faith in Urahara. The new captain's Shinigami Research and Development Institute would be able to help her. He had already made breakthroughs in his new division.
"Will you two take responsibility for her should Captain Urahara be successful?" The Captain Commander finally spoke up. "If he is not successful, she will be kept prisoner until there is a time when she becomes useful."
"You mean to use her?" Kyoraku spoke through gritted teeth. His hand found its way resting on his daisho. "Over my dead body, old man,"
"You want to challenge me, brat?" Captain Commander Yamamoto glared at his old student. His sinewy hand tightened on his staff.
"If that gets her out of that prison, then it would be our honor to take responsibility!" Jushiro attempted to diffuse the tension in the room. "Right, Kyoraku?"
Kyoraku hand fell from his swords before a grunt of acknowledgement.
"It's so nice to see you two acting like fathers!" Hirako Shinji piped up referring to the part of the story where the girl thought she knew them. His finger twirled a lock of his long blonde hair.
"You are crazy to joke with them right now," another captain replied, diverting attention to himself.
"If this meeting is over, Captain Commander, I have other duties to attend to," The sixth division captain, Kuchiki Ginrei announced. He was not one for joking around with the younger captains.
Ukitake breathed a sigh of relief walking out of the meeting. It was the best possible outcome he could have hoped for. It was now all up to Urahara to find a way to limit the accidental manifestation of her immense reiryoku.
"You'll be out of here in a matter of days, princess," Kyoraku answered Etsuko's question before she had even asked. The man with the flower kimono on his shoulders visited the child captive every day.
Kyoraku reassured her that this wasn't to be her life. It had been only a month but Kisuke was a genius when it came to experimenting. He was almost done with something that would limit a person's spiritual power in a similar manner to the sekkiseki in the walls of the prison.
"Where's Daddy?" Etsuko asked him. It was the first time the white haired man didn't visit.
"He's not feeling so well today, little one." Neither Kyoraku nor Jushiro had the heart to correct the child when she referred to them as fathers. It was for the best; letting memories and faces come back naturally after the trauma of her death would be safer for everyone.
"Is he sick?" She looked up at him through the bars of the cell. There was a small hint of dread in her voice. "Last time, they said Daddy was sick and he didn't come back. They said that you got sick too and that I couldn't see either of you. Papa, can I go see him?"
The way she looked at him pleadingly broke his heart. "As soon as Captain Urahara says you can, we'll go visit him together. He'll be happy to see your cute face."
"Ki-chan is a really nice man." Etsuko smiled remembering the man who was going to help her leave.
"Ki-chan?" Kyoraku was surprised that she had given him a nickname. She would scream every time she was alone with him. "Does that mean you don't think he's scary anymore?"
"He's not scary! He brings me candy!" It was being locked up in a cage that made her so amenable to a kind gesture from a stranger. "Ki-chan says he makes them himself. One day he says he'll teach me if I'm good."
"Ah, well, princess, let's not accept any more candy from strangers, ok?" Kyoraku scratched his fuzz on his chin. He didn't think he'd be giving a parental warning to a child locked up in a cell. "Captain Urahara is the exception. No more taking candy from strangers."
As usual, Kyoraku gave her lectures about the world she was to live in now. He was surprised at the questions she had asked him every time.
"Papa, please tell Daddy to feel better! I don't want him to go away again," Etsuko spoke after saying her goodbye. She gave Kyoraku a small smile before he left leaving him feeling more depressed each step he took from her.
True to his word, Urahara Kisuke found a way to restrict Etsuko's spiritual power. It had become an obsession that he spent most of his waking hours working on to the dismay of his lieutenant. The little girl imprisoned in Senzaikyu had piqued his interest. Her reiryoku was on par with the captains with the potential of expanding with growth and knowledge of how to use it. Figuring out a way to dampen her power could lead to so many different possibilities. However, after visiting her, she became his only priority. He had inadvertently been captured the same way that Kyoraku and Ukitake had by the purity of soul. With a grin he readied his invention and stuffed a few pieces of candy in his pocket and left to see his little experiment.
"Et-su-ko!" Kisuke's playful voice cut through the silence.
"Ki-chan…" She had been crying. Ever since she came to Soul Society, the child had the same nightmare, but she could never remember what it was. She only knew that there was someone she had to help, but no matter how much she reached, it was never enough. Waking up, she would find little nicks on her arms and legs though she had no memory of how they had gotten there. Afraid to ask if it was normal in Soul Society, she kept it to herself.
"What's wrong, kiddo?" A bright smile flashed on his face in an attempt to make her feel better. Kisuke had grown close to his patient much to the dismay of his scientific half. "If you give me a smile, I'll give you a special candy I just made."
She attempted a smile. "Sorry, Ki-chan. I always feel sad when I wake up."
The man ran his fingers through his blonde hair, thinking of a way to make her more at ease. "Say 'ah'"
He popped a piece of candy in her mouth and watched her little round face light up after tasting the sweetness. Opening the bag he brought with him, he proceeded to take out four metallic cuffs to be used as bracelets and anklets. Kisuke had spent all his days and most of his nights at the lab, puzzling out the problem. These cuffs were the solution. They had been infused with enough sekkiseki mineral so the wearer could still move around while their spiritual powers would remain inert. The breakthrough had given him so many ideas of other developments. The possibilities were endless.
"So cold!" The little girl exclaimed as the man clasped the cuffs around her ankles and wrists. She fell into his arms as if she were a ragdoll. Kisuke scooped her up in his arms and took her out of the cell. Etsuko closed her eyes and buried herself in the warmth that came from her blonde liberator as he carried her to her new life in Soul Society.
Etsuko woke up from her afternoon nap as she felt something move beneath her. She had been using a man's arm for a pillow. Getting up she looked down at him, her face split into a mischievous grin. The messy haired Kaien had become her babysitter as well as best friend since she was freed from her cell. Her home had become Ugendo and she lived there with her father who she had come to learn often fell ill. His second in command, would always visit and unwittingly became her companion. His wife Miyako was a godsend to the two men she called her fathers. Miyako had become a surrogate mother to the little girl. Etsuko had never had a mother figure before, so it took some getting used to though she relished every moment with the woman.
"Kai-chan!" She threw herself across his stomach and mimed a swimming action. "Wake up!"
"Urgh!" Kaien snapped awake, annoyed. It bolted up, causing his little charge to fall into his lap. It had become their routine. "Etsu, I'm going to kill you!"
She giggled and ran out of the room and into the garden and stopped abruptly. Etsuko always waited for Kaien before they would go to the teahouse on the lake to see her father.
"Daddy's going to eat all the ohagi if we don't get there!" She grasped his hand and pulled him in the direction of Jushiro. "Hurry, Kai-chan!"
Kaien grinned at the girl pulling her. When she came to Ugendo, she had been almost emaciated. Now she looked like a healthy little girl and even started acting like it. She had warmed to up them quickly despite being imprisoned; most of it that to do with his captain who indulged her fantasy that he was her father. He didn't mind it either; Etsuko made everyone in the 13th Division smile.
"Estu, you can't go in looking like that. Captain Ukitake will kill me if you go in looking like you just woke up." Before entering the teahouse, Kaien stopped.
He knelt down and fixed her kimono collar, straightened up her obi and smoothed out some of the wrinkles that formed when they were sleeping. Kaien grimaced at his job. If he never had to learn how to dress a girl in a kimono and tie the obi, he would have been much fine never knowing. He was much happier when Miyako was there to do these things.
"Good afternoon, Daddy!" Etsuko slid open the door and flew into her father's lap. "Are you feeling better today?"
"Good afternoon, Captain," Kaien echoed her greeting and sat down at the opposite the two.
"I'm better now." Jushiro laughed.
Stuffing her face with ohagi, Etsuko stopped paying attention to what the two men were talking about. She had been ravenous since she came to Ugendo and ate everything that was given to her. It seemed that the only things she did was sleep and eat. The cuffs the girl wore constantly drained whatever energy she had. Even a little exertion would leave her feeling as if she played the entire day. It had only been a week she had been feeling like the cuffs weren't there, but running from Kaien had made her sleepy again and she dozed off sitting up, leaning against Jushiro.
"Princess! Wake up!" Etsuko was shaken awake by Kyoraku.
"P-Papa?" The girl responded weakly. She felt something cold running down her face. Looking at the man's face, his eyes were wide and his face full of concern. "What's wrong?"
"You were having a nightmare, Etsuko. You were screaming and flailing around," Kyoraku told her outright. His voice was strained as if he had been trying to wake her for a while.
It had seemed she had not gotten over her death, no matter how happy she was. He looked at his friend as he cradled their adoptive child in his arms. He had felt the small gust of wind in the room when it happened. If she could still access her power, however weak it was, through the sekkiseki she wore, it would become a problem. They knew it was time for another visit with Urahara.
"Ki-chan? I feel fine." Etsuko found herself in Urahara's lab licking a lollipop while the blonde haired captain ran tests on her.
"I'm just making sure you're ok, Et-chan," he replied with a smile.
Before she knew it, she fell asleep again. Kisuke smiled. He had found a way to deliver anesthesia to children.
"Is she alright?" Jushiro asked immediately after. His white ponytail disheveled and his face showed the same stress.
"I wished we could have waited until she got better acclimated with the sekkiseki. She's still not used to wearing them, but if her spiritual power is manifesting through it, then we've got no choice. You have to let the head captain know. I'll suggest it would be for the best to actually teach her, but it will have to be his decision what to do with her. In the mean time I'll get starting making stronger cuffs."
Both men grimaced at his statement. Neither of them could tell what Yamamoto would do.
The stood in front of the Captain Commander and plead their case. His office seemed more intimidating than ever.
"She could be one of the greatest Shinigami with the right training." Kyoraku was playing up to the self-interested side of his teacher. "She'd be able to protect Seireitei single handedly. The Gotei 13 always needs the best."
"You cannot impart a harsh judgment on a child who did nothing wrong. Look at all the options, sensei." Jushiro couldn't help but be biased.
"And you think I would put everyone at Shino Academy in danger by enrolling her there?" Genryusai saw the affect the child had on everyone she had come across. He never wanted to set eyes on her lest he fall under the same enchantment. "According to Urahara, without those bands, that place would be rubble in a matter of seconds."
"All the more reason, she needs to learn how to control it. We could train her!" Kyoraku's head jerked up so fast his straw hat nearly fell off.
"On top of all your duties? Neither of you have the time for that." Yamamoto frowned at his two students. It was a difficult decision.
"You could make a rotating schedule and ask the captains and their lieutenants for their help." Kisuke walked into the room. He wanted to be of help to Etsuko and didn't think it was right for children to be imprisoned. "I volunteer some of my free time. I'm sure there are others who would be interested in honing her potential. If anything, it would be an interesting experiment and I don't see any downsides to it. If it doesn't work, you can always lock her up, but control of her power is too good to pass up. As of now, I'm working on infusing more sekkiseki into the cuffs to accommodate her awakening her full potential. It will be done by tomorrow."
Kyoraku and Jushiro looked at Kisuke, covering their surprise rather well. They knew their faith in him was well founded. He was a good man.
"Fine," the head captain resigned himself to the popular sentiment. "Bring her to tomorrow's captain's meeting and we'll figure it out."