A/N: WELL. UM. WOW. A lot has happened in the manga since I last updated, and I'm sure many of you were wondering what this means for the story, whether I'm going to be retconing or not.

I'll just go ahead and say here that Kisuke's bankai is not changing; I got close enough by guessing it would be reishi manipulation, but I've always known my execution couldn't have been identical, or even close to Kubo's (which was spectacular btw, I was so happy with it). For everything else, the short answer is yes to things that don't mess up my story, no to things that do. For a more detailed explanation, look to my chapter notes.

Speaking of chapter notes, I have given my tumblr a bit of a clean-up, so from now on, chapter notes can be found under the 'Pages' option in the nav menu.

My apologies for the long delay in updating. I was very busy with academic matters, and then it took me about a month extra to get over the worst block I've ever experienced. Still not entirely pleased with the chapter, but I can't sit on it any longer or it'll drive me mad. I hope it doesn't disappoint.

Cultural notes:

Shihakushō: The black robes Shinigami wear.

Nikujaga (lit. meat-potatoes): A winter dish made with meat, potatoes, onions and assorted vegetables. Your basic stew, but with a Japanese touch, since it's cooked in soy sauce.


CHAPTER 12: The weight of the world


.

JUNE 3RD, 1956 A.D., URAHARA SHOP, KARAKURA TOWN, JAPAN

.

"Well?"

Parting the top of the paper container with care, Kisuke took a deep breath in and closed his eyes, letting out a soft moan of pleasure. "Ohhh my…"

Her latest exploits from the journey to Indonesia recounted, they had moved on to opening the presents she had sent over weeks ago. It was part of their post-traveling ritual: enjoying a meal together while she regaled him and Tessai with new stories, then moving on to the gift unwrapping. Given her Spartan way of travel, lugging around souvenirs until her return was impossible. And yet she had always loved seeing their expressions upon opening their respective presents.

As such, following her first return home, she had instituted a rule that no gift unwrapping was allowed without her presence. She had no doubt Tessai had never broken said rule, just as she had no doubt Kisuke had broken it repeatedly. Nevertheless, his reactions were always believable enough.

"It's from Java," Yoruichi said, grinning at him.

Looking up from the package of deluxe Javanese coffee, Kisuke gave her a beaming smile. "It smells positively divine. Thank you very much, Yoruichi."

"I bet it's even better than that Ceylonese variety you're so fond of," she said. Catering to Kisuke's coffee addiction was perhaps not the best of ideas, but his insufferable mood post caffeine crash was the stuff of legends. The very least she could do was make certain he didn't complain about the quality of the beans.

"Ah, well… You know what they say about your first love," he said, his eyes taking on a mischievous glint.

Yoruichi gave him her most disparaging eye-roll, then prompted Tessai to open his own gift. While he busied himself with the wrapping, she caught Kisuke's eye again, just in time to catch him winking at her.

Looking away at once, lest the situation get completely out of hand, she cleared her throat and turned to Tessai. "It's a topeng," she said, as Tessai peeled the last of the paper away, revealing a glossy mask. It depicted a grinning, mustachioed man wearing an elaborate circlet. "Theater performers in Bali wear them, and there are a number of standard varieties. This one here is called a Topeng Manis, and it's meant to represent a refined hero."

Tessai almost dropped the mask in shock, his quivering mouth gaping open. "L-Lady Yoruichi… What a marvelous, thoughtful gift!" he said, voice quivering with emotion. "I am ever so humbled by your generosity."

As she waved off Tessai's ardent declarations of being unworthy of such a gift, Yoruichi caught Kisuke in her peripheral vision. He was staring from his gift to Tessai's and back again. "Something to say, Kisuke?" she asked, lips stretching into a smirk.

"No, no! Of course not," he said, chuckling. "One of us gets gifted with coffee, the other receives a piece of traditional art... One could very well argue such refined coffee beans represent the pinnacle of culinary achievement, an art all of its own."

"I did consider getting you a mask as well," she said. "But they were all out of Topeng Keras Bues."

"Another archetypal figure, I assume?"

"Mmmm-hhhm."

"…Of? A dashing hero? Bit of a rogue? Someone popular enough that stock ran out?"

"Oh, it's popular all right," she said. "He's the comedy relief."

The ring of the customer doorbell barely registered over her gales of laughter and Tessai's modest chuckling. Kisuke gingerly placed the coffee package back down on the table. "I had to ask," he said in a low mutter, getting up to answer the door.

Wiping the tears off her face, Yoruichi let out a sigh and returned to her miso soup. She took a moment to appreciate the wafts of aroma spiraling up from the bowl before lifting it up to her lips. Though trying the local cuisine was always the highlight of her trips, nothing ever made her more content than Tessai's signature dish. It tasted of home, or warmth and laughter, and it was one of the things she always missed the most while traveling.

Full belly sloshing pleasantly, Yoruichi lay back against the cushions, stretching. With the distracting cloud of hunger dispelled, her focus shifted to the newcomer. "Is that Sentarō?" Yoruichi said, recognizing the familiar spiritual signature.

"Ah, so it is!" Tessai said, glancing toward the foyer. "And not a moment too soon. We haven't had a delivery in quite a while; the Boss was beginning to worry our connection to Soul Society might have been compromised."

"Oh? How long has it been?"

"Nearly two months to the day," Tessai said.

For decades now, either Sentarō or Kiyone would visit every month on the dot, depending on who was available. In those rare occasions neither of them could make it, they always sent word ahead of time without fail.

Even with her ear trained toward the foyer, Yoruichi was unable to make out the conversation between Kisuke and the boy. She did, however, hear the distinct jingle of money exchanging hands, which likely meant their operation remained incognito. Satisfied that nothing was amiss, she went back to giving Tessai a more thorough cultural background on his gift.

It was only when she heard footsteps approaching that she realized Kisuke had been gone for far too long, almost half an hour. She read the tension in his spiritual pressure long before he appeared beneath the threshold, face ashen, lips pressed into a straight line.

"What's wrong?" she said. Arms planted against the table, she was only barely keeping herself from springing up to her feet. "What happened?"

Kisuke shuffled into the room, hat held in his hands. He appeared to be struggling to find the words to phrase what ailed him.

"Boss? Does this concern the shop? Have we—?"

"No, no," Kisuke said, shaking his head. "Everything's fine on that front, no need to worry. I, ah—" He cleared his throat, eyes resolutely staring at the floor, unseeing. "Kotsubaki was just explaining why neither he nor Miss Kotetsu could make it earlier. He apologized profusely, of course, but it's perfectly understandable, given... everything. He... he informed me…"

For the briefest of moments, Kisuke's eyes flitted over to hers before he redirected them elsewhere, anywhere but her direction, it seemed. It had lasted a fraction of a second, but she had seen it: the tell-tale pang of guilt.

"The Thirteenth Division has been mourning a tremendous loss," Kisuke said.

"Oh no… Captain Ukitake?" Yoruichi said. For as long as she had known him, the Captain had always been of poor health. His affliction had never been disclosed to anyone, save his closest friends and confidants, one assumed. Yoruichi had always believed it to be something truly devastating, if it could reduce a man as powerful as the Captain to his current frail state.

"No, not… Captain Ukitake," Kisuke said.

A cold, hard feeling took root deep within her. A sensation she couldn't quite identify, like a child's nameless fear of the dark. Somehow, Yoruichi knew what she was about to hear before Kisuke spoke the words out loud. Hands shaking upon the tabletop, she willed the tightness in her throat to subside. "Kisuke?"

With great difficulty, he met her eyes at long last and there was an inexplicable apology written there. "Lieutenant Shiba and his wife were slain in battle five weeks ago."

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

JANUARY 15TH, 125 B.H.I., THE COURTYARD, ONMITSUKIDŌ COMPLEX, COURT OF PURE SOULS – 7:30 A.M.

.

"Again."

Her command was met a round of soft groans. Individually, they might have gone unnoticed, but in unison, they became loud enough to alert their respective owners to the fact that they had just sealed their fates.

"Ohhhh?" Yoruichi said, folding her arms before her chest as she peered down at the six men before her. Bedraggled and covered in welts they would only truly feel tomorrow, they all sported similar looks of contrition at her smirk. "Anyone wish to voice any complaints?"

A chorus of "No, First Officer Shihōin," came in response.

"I know you're all exhausted," she said, figuring she might as well offer a modicum of encouragement. "But you will not be excused until one of you manages to lay a hand on me. Stop trying to land the victory blow yourself and start working as a unit."

One by one, the six members of her second squad rose up to their feet, preparing themselves for the next round. Behind them, the members of squad one looked upon with sympathy. The third squad awaited their own turn in a state of wary resignation.

Yoruichi fell into position, her eyes sharp and alert for the first sign of movement. To her surprise, it didn't come from one of her own squads, but from a member of the Inner Court Division.

Materializing beside her, the man fell into low bow at once. "Apologies for the interruption, First Officer Shihōin," he said. "Lieutenant Shihōin will be arriving shortly to speak with you."

Oh what is it now? Straightening up, Yoruichi dismissed the man with a curt nod, then turned to her team. "At ease, everyone," she said. "Take a few minutes to rest and hydrate, we will resume momentarily."

The towel and cup of water were in her grasp the second she extended a waiting hand. Yoruichi dabbed her forehead and downed the cup with greed, the weight of the previous day heavy on her shoulders. Unfortunately, she'd had no choice but to show up for duty today pretending to be in top form; for all intents and purposes, she was meant to have spent the last four days on leave, resting.

However brief, her visit to Nagasaki had left her both mentally and physically unfit to perform at her best. She had yet to see Kisuke since their encounter back in the Material World, and what little time they'd had, had been cut even shorter when the Onmitsukidō stormed the scene, forcing her to flee. In her haste to disappear into the woods where she could release Maya and cast a portal, she had badly sprained her left ankle. Visiting either the Onmitsukidō infirmary or the Fourth Division had been out of the question. Considering the circumstances of her last foray into a medical facility, she had the distinct impression no-one would believe her sprain to be a simple training accident.

The incident was a stark wake up call to the fact that she needed to stop relying on Kisuke for healing and start practicing her own kaidō. If she'd had, she would have been able to fully heal herself and not spend the entire day favorite her right, weaker leg. The strain alone of trying to hide her injury was already taking its toll. And she still had one more squad to see through their morning routine.

At least my beloved cousin is visiting; that oughta brighten up my day, she thought wryly. Akira was approaching from the other end of the courtyard, weaving through the sea of black-clad men and women.

Yoruichi handed the cup and towel back to her assistant for the day, then stepped forward to meet her cousin. Behind her, she heard all three squads follow her lead into standing at attention.

For someone who had spent the last few hours dealing with whatever fresh bureaucratic hell Kisuke's actions had unleashed, Akira appeared to be in an oddly good mood. He dismissed the entire patrol with a cool wave of his hand and addressed Yoruichi with an amiable smile. That alone, was more than enough cause for alarm.

"Good morning, First Officer," he said. "Excuse the interruption, I only require a moment of your time."

"Yes, Lieutenant?"

"I arrived at my office this morning only to find my inbox in complete disarray," he said. "I came by to ask you to please resubmit your Friday report at your earliest convenience today."

"Was there something wrong—?"

"Nothing on your end, I assure you," Akira said. "I simply want to make certain nothing goes missing when I reorganize my paperwork."

Though Akira was nothing if not unfailingly professional in their dealings, he was never familiar with any of his colleagues. Especially not his subordinates. Even if his affable air hadn't already raised alarm bells for Yoruichi, the fact that the Lieutenant himself had made the trip to the courtyard to deliver a simple message would have been suspicious enough all on its own.

"Understood, sir," Yoruichi said. "I will have it sent to your desk by afternoon."

"Excellent," Akira said, allowing his eyes to wander over to her troops. A fond, almost longing smile crossed his features at the sight of them. "You know… I've been so mired in administrative duties lately, I've forgotten how revitalizing a proper workout is for both mind and body. I confess, I decided to make the rounds personally this morning if only to take the sight in, but now that I'm here, I fear I cannot resist the temptation. And I just so happen to have some time to spare. What do you say, cousin?" he said, turning to her. The pleasant glint in his eyes was even more unnerving that the unnatural smile that graced his lips. "Will you do me the honor of a friendly spar?"

He knows.

Yoruichi didn't have the slightest idea how that was possible, but there was little doubt it was true. He knew she had snuck her way into Nagasaki and he was trying to prove it. His amiable tone, his use of their familial relationship, the audience... He was making certain she had no recourse but to accept the duel.

Did I leave a footprint behind when I stumbled? I know for a fact there were no traces of my spiritual signature in the area, I was careful.

Realizing there was no point in agonizing over the possibilities, at least not now, Yoruichi schooled her expression into a genial smile and gave Akira a bow. "It would be my pleasure."

An excited murmur rippled through the small crowd as Akira stepped forward into the center and began to stretch. Yoruichi joined him, trying to buy some time to calm her nerves. It was one thing, going up against a squad of only competent Onmitsukidō men. Fighting Akira while trying to conceal her injury was going be troublesome.

As they both stood in place across opposite ends, Yoruichi met his onyx eyes and considered her opening move. Running was out of the question, but if she waited for him to come to her, she would be allowing him to set the pace of the battle. And that's the last thing I want. She needed to end this fast, before exhaustion led her to inevitably reveal her injury.

Her mind made up, Yoruichi Flash Stepped forward, covering the distance between them with ease.

Before he had time to register that she had landed on her good leg, she came swinging, her punch whistling past his cheek as he dodged. Akira grabbed hold of her wrist, pulling her forward as he twisted his hip and went in for the kick.

Yoruichi dropped down lower, feeling the ripple in the air above her that followed in the wake of his leg. A dangerously narrow miss. She swept the ground beneath him with her left leg, careful to aim with the shin and keep her ankle safe. Akira was forced to let go and leap out of the way.

In a Flash, he had rematerialized behind her, right as she spun around from her sweep to face him. In terms of power, he was giving it his all, she thought as she kept blocking kick after kick. But his technique was… the only word for it was strange. She had seen Akira fight, she knew he favored quick blows chained with Flash Steps in an effort to break his enemy's defense and find an opening. And yet today, he was being deliberately slower. Where he would once have tried a different approach once his blows were deflected, he was now persisting, keeping her hands occupied even though it was becoming clear she was not letting him through.

He's trying to get me to use my legs. Trying to trick me into kicking.

Well, she was done playing cat and mouse. If he was so very eager to test his hypothesis, she was going to indulge him.

The second he dashed forward again, she gave a broad sweep with her left leg, one she knew he could easily counter. Akira didn't disappoint. Triumph flashed in his eyes as his hand closed around her ankle, and though she had braced herself for the pain, Yoruichi had to muster up every ounce of self-discipline not to scream, or even grimace when he tightened his grip around the sprain.

It was clearly not the reaction he had expected, but it was precisely his surprise that she had been counting on. Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, Yoruichi bent backwards. Using the momentum of her backflip, she gathered a hefty amount of spiritual energy into her right leg and brought her heel crashing into his jaw.

With a sharp yelp, Akira released her, and Yoruichi flipped back on both feet just in time to see him tumble to the ground.

I know that hurt.

Holding his –now dislocated- jaw, Akira glared up at her with a mixture of shock and fury. Their spar was over; if Akira had any intention of continuing this charade, he would have already been up and charging straight for her. Whether he was willing to let this go, or if he was considering a different course of future action she didn't know, but she felt safe in the knowledge that for today, he was done. And not a moment too soon. For all her nonchalant act, she didn't think she had the strength nor the stamina to keep pretending any longer.

"Have you gotten what you needed?" she said. "Lieutenant?"

She could feel the spikes of rage in his fluctuating spiritual pressure as he approached, but to any casual onlooker, he did no more than smile to his cousin and give her a curt inclination of his head.

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

JANUARY 15TH, 125 B.H.I., LIEUTENANT MATSUO'S OFFICE, THIRTEENTH DIVISION BARRACKS, COURT OF PURE SOULS – 5 P.M.

.

A streak of dark red lined the underside of his fingernail. Kisuke frowned at it, trying in vain to clear the crimson mark, only to push it further in. His hand flew at once to his nape, to the spot behind his ear. It was a foolish notion, thinking he might be able to tell by touch whether the water had washed away all of yesterday off his skin.

The shihakushō lay heavy and foreign on his shoulders, as though it had grown a mind of its own, already well aware that it was no longer a possession he had a right to own. Kisuke ran a hand through his damp hair and exhaled, wishing Matsuo would hurry over already. He only hoped the Captain wouldn't be making an appearance alongside her. Dealing with one enraged and disappointed superior at a time was just about all he could take, on top of trying to maintain his spiritual pressure at an inconspicuous level.

His fingers pressed into the glossy marble furnish of Matsuo's desk, trying futilely to sink into the hard surface. One jagged fingernail caught into a chink on the otherwise spotless desktop, the shrill sound of nail against stone oddly reminiscent of a scream—

The door flew open, jerking him out of his reverie and sending him jumping to his feet before he had even registered who had entered. It was Matsuo. Alone. Thank goodness.

She wasted no time with pleasantries, marching over to her seat behind the desk. "Sit."

Kisuke did so, suddenly very aware of every dip and bump in the uncomfortable wooden chair.

Matsuo gave him the one-over, her sharp brown eyes unreadable. "Did you get your foot healed? Got the all-clear from the Fourth?" Her voice was even, but a hint of brittleness lingered under the surface, like she was making a concerted effort to remain calm.

To say that the hospital staff was surprised to see him return would be a lie. He remembered very little of the visit upon his return from Nagasaki, but the looks of recognition he received on arrival would've been hard to miss. He nodded at Matsuo's question.

"I'm going to need to see the release form."

Given his earlier stunt with the DAMA form, he couldn't exactly blame her for asking. Slipping a hand on the inside of his robes, Kisuke retrieved the hospital release form and handed it to Matsuo. As she skimmed through its contents, it occurred to him that he had yet to utter a single word, not even a cursory salute. Fear bloomed within him, at the possibility that he might be unable to muster the courage to speak during interrogation. Unexpectedly, Officer Shutara's face swam into the forefront of his mind.

"I'm not surprised someone like him was asked to pack up and leave the Thirteen."

He saw himself in his mind's eye, reliving the memory of visiting Harada's home after that conversation, only to find it empty, a thick veil of unease permeating the house. Half-made bed; rotten leftovers on the table; a trail of crusted mud on the wooden floor, covered by a solid inch of dust. Was he about to suffer a similar fate to the recruits and officers who had inexplicably vanished?

"I don't know how I could have made myself any clearer, Urahara," Matsuo said, her words forcing him to focus back on reality. "I told you; you step out of line again, and I'm benching you. I know you hadn't forgotten," she said, dropping the release form on the desk.

Speak, speak, sp— "I hadn't; you're right, Lieute—"

"I'm not done."

The knot he had forced undone by sheer force of will retied itself around his throat, and Kisuke fell silent.

"I will be perfectly upfront: I wanted you out."

Kisuke's shoulders seized up. Say it, say it. Get it over with, I can't—

But Matsuo was only getting started. "You saw fit to return to active duty against medical advice, refused to share information with a superior when prompted," she said, the glimmer of fury in her eyes growing stronger with every item added to the list. "Abandoned your post against express orders, left a teammate behind to engage an enemy who –by all rights- should have been well beyond your fighting ability, and then a squad of Onmitsukidō men come to find you covered in blood, the building in shambles, traces of nearly a hundred soul signatures in the air, the Quincy's body in literal shreds and you're not saying a single word." Nostrils flaring as she paused to catch her breath, Matsuo let out a deep sigh, jaw clenched. "Give me one reason why I should even consider keeping you on after this. Hell, I'm not even looking for a good reason, Urahara, just something that isn't an apology or a mutter or any of the half-assed excuses we've managed to wrench out of you in the last few hours."

Kisuke's eyes seemed unable to move, now boring into Matsuo's, unblinking, as his lips parted tremulously.

He was a young boy with a long scar running down his face. Determined enough to summon and consume the dead to take me down. It was the most exhilarating moment of my life. And then I tore him up from within.

"Well?"

Finally managing to tear his gaze away, Kisuke swallowed, eyes downcast. "I have none, Lieutenant."

Matsuo could only sigh. "You even got the Captain conflicted, and that's saying something." Out of the corner of his eye, Kisuke saw her reach up to massage her temple. "I pushed for your immediate dismissal. Captain Ukitake was considering it, but the decision has been taken out of his hands. The Central 46 intervened."

What? Kisuke looked up sharply, certain he must have misheard.

"Apparently, we are not to tarnish the festive atmosphere that is meant to follow the official end of our conflict with the Quincy," Matsuo said. "Especially not by making an example out of a Soul Reaper who took down one of the ringleaders."

A nervous feeling, not unlike sickness, clung at the pit of his stomach. It festered there, filling him with an apprehension diametrically opposed to the one he'd been experiencing before Matsuo's arrival. Where he'd dreaded facing the inevitable before, he was now consumed with the unshakable feeling that he was missing something, a piece of vital information.

Even if what Matsuo had just said was entirely true, it made no sense for the councilmen of Central 46 to intervene on his behalf, a Soul Reaper of negligible rank, and even more negligible lineage. His dismissal from the Thirteen could have easily been handled under wraps, with no one being none the wiser.

"Your punishment, however, still falls within our purview," Matsuo said. "You're suspended for three weeks without pay and removed from active duty until… until I damn well please. Might as well be indefinitely. Dismissed."

It took a few moments for her words to sink in, Kisuke's mind still far too preoccupied with the bizarre circumstances of his reprieve. The knot slowly forming on Matsuo's brow made him realize the meeting was now over, and he sat up at once, falling into a rigid bow before her. "Lieutenant."

He was not aware of leaving her office or even placing one foot after the other, not until he found himself standing out by the barracks entrance, the first few droplets of an oncoming rainfall landing on his hair. Kisuke looked up at the dark clouds gathering, wondering if there was more than one storm brewing in the horizon.

One crisis at a time, he told himself, his scowl deepening. He may have temporarily escaped a more severe punishment, but he was not out of the woods quite yet: evidence of the events that had taken place two days ago still remained. Thankfully, Yoruichi's involvement in Nagasaki didn't seem to have been picked up by anyone. He had urged her to lay low once the Onmitsukidō had arrived at the scene, and hadn't met up with her since. With any luck, she would be in the clear.

With a Flash, he set off toward the Training Grounds, his senses on alert for a possible tail. Given how tight-lipped he'd been about what had transpired in Nagasaki, he wouldn't put it past Matsuo to have him constantly followed in search of answers. By the time he reached the Sōkyoku Hill, the rain was pelting the streets of the Court in earnest. Grateful for the shelter, Kisuke slipped through the concealed gate by the hillside. He made his way down the long ladder, Flashing over to the small valley where he had defeated Benihime only a scant few hours ago.

It took less than a moment's glance for Kisuke to realize something about the picture before him was not right. Though not entirely cleaned up, the scene was missing one key element: the Tenshintai. Everything else, from his backpack to the bedroll was still where he'd left it hours ago. And the area was crawling with Yoruichi's spiritual signature. If she had intended to clean up the scene, she would've put everything else away as well, which could only mean—

DAMMIT, YORUICHI!

Her vibrant, lingering trail was an open taunt, and as he followed it out of the Court, part of him had to wonder if this wasn't her idea of revenge for being left out of the loop. It certainly wouldn't be the first time she retaliated for a perceived slight. In his fury, he almost missed the sudden change in the signature's strength. Though the path continued on to the Rukongai, the sudden shift implied that there was a second trail, one she had been meticulous about hiding before returning to this point. And he had a pretty good idea why, as well as where the traceable path would end.

Chilled to the bone, limbs heavy and taut with tension, Kisuke landed on his front yard. He marched with purpose though the muddy puddles and up the front steps, pushing the front door of his home open. As he had expected, he found the firepit already lit, the warmth of the roaring fire staving off the worst of the cold.

Curled up into a tight ball of fluff, Yoruichi lay before the roaring hearth. One of his indoor robes was draped over the cabinet, and the table bore evidence of a recent meal.

"Made ourselves comfortable, have we?" Kisuke said, pushing the wet fringe off his forehead with a sniff.

Yoruichi's bright golden eyes popped open in the semi-illuminated room. "I came here a while ago," she said, letting out a yawn. "Got bored waiting." She stretched her front legs, then settled her chin upon her paws.

Eager to change out of his dripping clothes, Kisuke slipped off his sandals and wet socks, then picked up the discarded robe on his way to the washroom. Yoruichi's eyes followed him along the way, and he could tell by the twitch in her tail that she was expecting an imminent outburst. She said nothing, nor did he hear her move about as he peeled off his uniform to lay it out on the clothesline, where a towel had already been hung out to dry.

He had come here eager for a confrontation, even a quarrel, the trying day he'd had shedding his meager defenses layer by layer, until he was left feeling like an exposed nerve. And yet… Kisuke buried his nose into the robe, inhaling the faint trace of jasmine that clung to it and closed his eyes, sighing. Forehead pressed against the wooden panels of the wall, he tried to hold on to the last few vestiges of anger and frustration, but found that it was futile. They were driven away in a spell by her scent on his clothes, by her invading presence all over the house.

Slipping into the robe, he picked up a clean towel and stepped back out into the living room, rubbing his hair dry. "So… what did you do with it?" he said as he sat down on the futon beside her, towel draped over his shoulders.

A hint of a smirk appeared on her lips, her tail furling and unfurling playfully around her coiled form. "Kept it safe from you, apparently," she said. "You were going to destroy it, weren't you?"

Kisuke reached for the empty teacup on the table and filled it up with what turned out to be lukewarm tea. "Last time I checked, it was mine to do with as I pleased," he said, setting the kettle down and bringing the cup to his lips. "So…?"

Yoruichi rolled onto her back and stretched again. "So?"

Setting the cup down, Kisuke pinched the bridge of his nose. "The Tenshintai, Yoruichi," he said. "I'm going to need it back."

"Mmmmmmm—" Busying herself with swatting a nonexistent fly in mid-air, Yoruichi pretended to mull his suggestion over. Her hind legs still facing the hearth, she twisted her upper body into an angle that would've been impossible for her true form and stared right at him. "—mm… Nope."

The earlier soothing effect of her presence quickly diminishing, Kisuke found himself in the early stages of developing a raging migraine. "This is serious—"

"Oh, I know," Yoruichi said. "I'm not hogging it just to be annoying. I'm simply waiting until your Drama Queen phase dwindles down; then it's all yours."

"My Drama—"

"See, there you go, right there," she said, pointing a paw at him. "Every single time something bad happens, you brood and you wallow and you blame yourself for everything, and then you get testy, which granted, is kind of enjoyable since it's almost impossible to get a rise out of you otherwise—"

"I am not wallowing—"

"Yes, you are. So you killed a person, who –might I point out- was your enemy," she said. "And it's not like this is the first time you've killed someone."

A muscle tightened in his jaw. No. First time I slaughtered someone, though.

"Nor will it be the last. It's kind of a job requirement for us, y'know?" she said. Her tone was casual, but Kisuke knew that she had not forgotten the incessant tremor in her hands the day after she had first taken a life, the strain in her voice, the sleepless nights that had followed. "So how is this any different? Did you get kicked out of the Thirteenth for disobeying orders?"

"No."

"Demoted?"

"No. Just suspended."

"So this really is all about you getting freaked out by that mysterious bankai of yours."

Kisuke froze. "This is about you hiding a dangerous—"

"Did I mention evasive? Broody, wallowing, self-hating, testy and evasive—"

"Yoruichi," Kisuke said, not raising his voice, but injecting it with a kind of finality that brought an arch to Yoruichi's brow. "The Tenshintai must be destroyed. Please understand this. I built it for our shared use, but I think it's been made abundantly clear that this can no longer be the case."

"You achieved bankai; why could this not help—"

"Because it's not worth it!" Kisuke said. "What you have with Maya… Trust me, you do not want to see it crumble before your eyes, to find yourself unable to—" He sighed. "I told you before and I'll tell you again: you were right. Some things take time and I— I just wanted to prove it could be done." I wanted to beat him. I wanted to impress my superiors, and you and... and your father. "And I have. Experiment over."

Yoruichi fell silent, her feline face now bearing a striking resemblance to her true one as she gave him an earnest look. "Are you telling me that when you first conceived of this you never pictured the number of ways it might be used in the future?" she said. "What about all that talk of revolutionizing bankai approach?"

"That was— Before. Besides, there is no way to use this other than to challenge the spirit within to a duel."

Yoruichi scoffed. "Off the top of my head: helping someone close to materialization understand the concept, help them get used to the physical strain of materialization, building a better working relationship with one's spirit. If I can think of three different ways, you can think of a hundred and three. So don't lie."

Kisuke wrapped his arms around his knees. Part of him understood that had Yoruichi known what had transpired in that church, her line of questioning would've been far less invasive. It was natural for her to be curious, concerned, even. But facing her reaction, having to live with the consequences of telling her the truth, was not something he was prepared for. His mistakes in Nagasaki and the days leading up to the confrontation had already taken enough from him.

His attempt to shift the conversation elsewhere wasn't the most elegant of maneuvers, but it would have to do. "You want to use this in the Onmitsukidō?" he said, turning to her. Her assertions that the Tenshintai could be used on a broad scale could only mean that she had considered this.

"Perhaps. Once things have settled down."

"Settled down from what?"

Yoruichi flopped onto her belly, resting her chin on her paws. "I'm pretty sure Akira knows I was in Nagasaki," she said, her tail twitching. "And he's trying to prove it."

"How would he even—? You left no trace behind, I'm certain of it."

"I thought so, too," Yoruichi said. "But I think he was already starting to suspect something when his squad found your colleague, Nishimura. I was there, in hiding, and when I tried to snatch one of those Quincy tubes before they moved their bodies, Akira saw something."

"He doesn't know about your cat form, does he?"

Yoruichi shook her head. "But later on, when I made a run for it, I tripped and sprained my left ankle. I must've left a footprint behind, because he knew. He came up to me today during morning training, pretending to be there for a spar and he kept trying to get me to use my left leg."

So much for thinking she was in the clear... From what Yoruichi had told him of Akira, Kisuke knew he was a skilled tracker. A deep, misshapen footprint in the ground would have been easy for him to interpret correctly. And given what he already knew of their relationship, making the mental jump to Yoruichi helping him out in some shape or form was a natural conclusion.

Still, it would be impossible for him to take action without concrete proof. "What did you do?" Kisuke said.

The expression on the cat's face was a very close approximation to a smirk. "I used my left leg."

Kisuke laughed. Yoruichi's tolerance to pain was legendary; he had no trouble picturing her toughing it out and fighting even when severely injured. The fact that she had managed to keep it a secret, however, was remarkable. "How bad?"

"Ehhh…"

If she wasn't dismissing his concern at once, it could only mean she was experiencing great discomfort. "Go change, then."

There was a slight twitch in the flutter of her tail as she stared at him in silence. "You're wearing my robe." Had her feline form been capable of such a thing, he knew she would have smirked right about now.

"Of course, how unforgivably thoughtless of me," Kisuke said, shaking his head. Yoruichi's presence in his home had been such a constant from the very beginning, the way she moved about within its walls so natural. Even in her absence, it bore evidence of her involvement everywhere, from the new furniture to the young maple tree growing in the garden.

It was often difficult to remember that he actually lived alone.

Getting up, he made his way over to the washroom in search of another yukata. Once undressed, he stuck one arm out through the threshold and tossed the vermilion robe in her general direction. He could hear her shuffling about the living room as he changed into the new robe and hung back by the door, unsure of how to proceed. He was about to call out a warning, when Yoruichi beat him to it.

"Are you decent?"

Laughing, Kisuke ambled back into the living room. "Haven't been in the last century or so, no," he said, making his way over to the futon.

It wasn't until he saw the yukata on Yoruichi that Kisuke took the time to appreciate it. In the past, it had been an entirely utilitarian garment, and he could not recall ever giving any thought to its aesthetic properties. The vermilion color that most likely washed out his pale skin looked stunning against hers. He had never even noticed that it was embroidered with white lotus flowers throughout, the crest of the Urahara clan.

Forcing himself to abandon his current train of thought, Kisuke took a seat on the futon across her. After a moment of trepidation, Yoruichi slipped her ankle into his waiting hands. When his fingers pressed against the slightly swollen area, she let out a hiss, her foot giving an involuntary jerk. "Here?" he asked.

"Mmmnnn."

She hadn't lied; as he reached out with an exploratory kaidō, he could feel the damage in the offending ligament. A near-rupture of this magnitude was a difficult injury to heal. How had she even been able to withstand walking, much less fighting Akira?

With a gentle hand, he placed the sole of her foot against his knee and set about repairing the damage. As much as he needed to concentrate, he wished she would at least break the silence. Right now, he would welcome any distraction from the feel of her ankle against his hand, or the soft moans of discomfort that resonated in her throat.

Miraculously, Yoruichi seemed to have read his mind. "If... If you don't want the Tenshintai in someone else's hands, I won't pressure you," she said. When his eyes flitted over to hers, she shrugged. "It's your invention. I just don't want you to destroy something –quite frankly- ingenious because you're afraid. That's all. Take a few days to cool down; what happens to it afterward is your decision."

"I don't need to cool down."

"Yes, you do. You're tense."

I'm tense because it's been a shitty day, my career has been basically flushed down the drain, my greatest invention destroyed my relationship with Benihime, and yet all I can think about right now is how soft your skin is and how I'd like nothing more than to touch every inch of you.

"Mmmm, it's called thinking," Kisuke said, chuckling when she retaliated with a playful kick of her free heel.

At the very least, her words had given him something to consider when he returned to the task at hand.

It was a delicate position he had found himself in, both proud of his single greatest creation and terrified of its misuse in the wrong hands. A few days ago, it would have never occurred to him to count himself among the latter. But the temptation had been too great to ignore, the promise of a shortcut in acquiring power too tantalizing. He hadn't be able to resist it. Could anyone?

And yet Yoruichi had made a compelling argument of her own. Scientific advances would always run the risk of being subject to abuse, no matter how noble the original intent. But when armed with knowledge of the potential risks, with real-life, empirical data, he held the power to determine the course of the invention's future however he saw fit. Assuming he chose to do so in the first place.

"All right," he said after a long pause. "You can have it. Under three conditions."

Yoruichi's shoulders perked up. "Yes?"

"One, you only use this for Soul Reapers close to materialization, and not before you've explicitly outlined the possible ramifications of failure."

"Yes, of course—"

"Two, you do not reveal who built this. The Development Department of the Onmitsukidō can have all the credit, I don't care."

"And third?"

Kisuke looked up to meet her eye. "You never use this yourself. Ever."

Braced for an argument, Kisuke kept a close watch on Yoruichi's face as her eyes narrowed imperceptibly. He expected her to accuse him of having no faith in her abilities, of mollycoddling her, of insulting her even, but after a long bout of silence, Yoruichi only nodded. "Deal," she said. "It's not like I need it, anyway."

"True enough," he said, returning the smirk she flashed at him.

Because she was his friend, she refused to let him give up, refused to tell him what he wanted to hear, and instead always told him what he needed to hear.

Because she was his best friend, when he expressed the desire to spend the rest of the day by the fire, doing nothing, she did not leave him alone with his thoughts and stayed the night, her soft purrs lulling them both to sleep.

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

MARCH 13TH, 125 B.H.I., THIRTEENTH DIVISION BARRACKS, COURT OF PURE SOULS

.

Kisuke rubbed his bloodshot eyes with the balls of his hands and let out a deep sigh. This turned out to be a singularly Bad Idea. The cramped, musty office hadn't been properly cleaned since the formation of the Thirteen Divisions, Kisuke assumed; one breath was all it took for decades' old dust to lodge in his throat, sending him into a coughing fit.

As he banged his fist against his chest, his stinging eyes watered with the effort it took to regulate his breathing. If the sheer dullness of his newest post's responsibilities didn't kill him outright, the environment very well might. With a –careful- sigh, he returned to the report laid out on the tiny desk before him. Next to him, the massive stack of documents he had to go through before the end of his shift loomed like an unscalable mountain.

"…of special designation were dispatched with every individual squad. Members were chosen by their casting ability in late 70s level kidō, and served as invaluable beacons of communication throughout the deployment."

"Of course," Kisuke said out loud into the empty room, sick of the tomb-like silence in the office. "Why wouldn't you engage extra Soul Reapers to do meaningless labor that could be done by a simple device?" Cheek resting against his balled fist, he flipped the page and continued reading.

"They were essential for contracting officers. They allowed us to stay in constant communication with each other and with personnel at the site. Our Logistic Group commander, who approved all purchases for the deployment, could contact his contracting officers at any time with requests or questions."

"Was the question how can we cost our Division even more money in a dragged-out, suboptimal operation?" he drawled.

"Hmmm, what would you have done differently?"

Kisuke whipped around in his chair at the sound of the familiar voice. Leaving no trace of spiritual presence in the air, his visitor had gone undetected, but there was no mistaking that voice. His mind was already preparing itself for a face-to-face with his Captain, long before his eyes confirmed what he already knew.

Captain Ukitake stood by the threshold, the scant light emanating from the corridor outside bouncing off his long, white hair; Kisuke hadn't even realized the sun had long ago set. The Captain's expression was disarmingly affable. In the many scenarios Kisuke had mentally acted out in preparation for this event, the staggering majority involved a far less genial Captain. In fact, the only good scenarios he had been able to come up with involved the meeting never taking place. Since returning to the Thirteenth a week ago, he hadn't seen hair nor hide of the Captain, and had –mistakenly as it turned out- assumed his superior had nor the desire nor the time to admonish him in person.

Kisuke leapt up onto his feet, dropping into a low bow. "Captain Ukitake."

The Captain gave him a gentle nod in response, then motioned toward the exit. "Take a walk with me, Urahara."

The excuse left his lips before he had even consciously formed the thought. "The uuhh… that is to say, my reports—" He didn't fear a lecture, or even an angry confrontation. Yet he was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Captain's Ukitake's disappointment, expressed in his calm, soothing voice, would be a thousand times worse than a roomful of superiors shrieking at him in unison.

"I have already spoken to your supervisor. You are dismissed for the day," Captain Ukitake said, then, without waiting for a response, stepped out into the corridor. "Come."

Swallowing hard, Kisuke picked up Benihime and secured her on his obi before following the Captain.

No words were spoken until they had left the barracks, stepping onto the green, dewy grass of the exterior grounds. Captain Ukitake breathed in the crisp night air and smiled up at the stars, arms folded behind his back. A healthy pink sheen tinted his cheeks, and Kisuke was reminded of an off-hand comment Matsuo had once made, about how the Captain tried to take advantage of his better days and drink in the outdoors as much as his responsibilities would allow.

Kisuke followed along as they wandered about the small cherry orchard, trying to keep his stares as inconspicuous as possible. Figuring he might as well enjoy the walk for as long as he could, Kisuke followed the Captain's lead, allowing the fragrant, borderline cloying scent of the blooming sakura to soothe his nerves.

"You haven't answered my question," the Captain said.

"Sir?"

"About what you would have done differently," Captain Ukitake said, turning to face him.

"Oh," Kisuke said, feeling color rise to his cheeks. His comment had no doubt been taken as haughty criticism, which, to be fair, it partly had been. "I didn't— I only meant—"

"I'm not admonishing you, Urahara. I am genuinely curious."

A little taken aback, Kisuke mimicked the Captain in crossing his arms behind his waist. "Well… I personally think it's a waste, engaging so many high-ranked officers for simple missions when their talents could well be needed elsewhere."

"I don't think anyone would challenge this," Captain Ukitake said. "But communication between squads is vital, is it not? Hell Butterflies are reliable, but ultimately too slow for relaying urgent messages, and sadly, Tenteikūra is far too complex a spell for non-seated officers."

"I agree, sir," Kisuke said. "All I'm saying is that instant communication could be achieved using far simpler and less costly means."

"Elaborate, please?"

The expression of interest now drawn upon the Captain's face encouraged him to go on. "If casting ability is an issue, why not imbue an object with the necessary spell? It could serve as a seal, of sorts, allowing the user to activate it whenever they wish to relay a message."

"There have been attempts to do so in the past, but they never worked."

One of the greatest problems when it came to research within the Thirteen Divisions, aside from the lack of an organized force, was scale. What few efforts were made always focused on matters like gigai development: worthy projects that ultimately either failed due to absence of a defined scope, or never received enough financial support to be actualized to their fullest potential. Interest in scientific advancement was nonexistent, because the salient parties had failed to demonstrate how even small, everyday problems within the divisions could be easily overcome with the right solution.

"Yes, I am aware," Kisuke said. "But I think the problem was that Tenteikūra is, as you said, a far too complex spell. The base material is always important when it comes to imbuement, and no material could— Well… I suppose a more correct way to put it is no current material in the market— Anyway, not important— What I'm trying to say, is that the main obstacle isn't the material, it's the spell. And a simpler version of Tenteikūra would work. At least when it comes to relaying short messages, which is the objective 87% of the time anyway. Longer, more complicated messages that aren't a priority can still be relayed via Hell Butterfly."

He hadn't even realized they had stopped moving until his tirade reached an end. Captain Ukitake was now regarding him as though fearful –of his sanity perhaps- yet more than a little intrigued. "Are you saying this is actually feasible?" he said. "That is, this is a project that could be completed in—"

"Anywhere from a week to a fortnight. Or more, depending on the amount of objects that are meant to be enchanted," Kisuke said. "Once the prototype is perfected, it's only a matter of replicating the process."

"And you can… do this? By yourself?"

"Well… yes, sir. I wouldn't have suggested it otherwise."

Captain Ukitake stared at him with wide eyes, looking as though he wanted to speak, but said nothing. Kisuke grew self-conscious under the scrutiny, and after a few long seconds of pregnant silence, he began to wonder whether he should speak up first. The Captain, however, beat him to it.

Regaining composure, he gave Kisuke a smile, then continued to stroll ahead. "Well… I am glad to see my decision has borne fruit already."

"Sir?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Captain Ukitake looked at Kisuke with a decidedly less genial gaze than he had so far worn. "I faced quite the dilemma. When it came to what was to be done with you, that is."

And there we go. It would have been naïve to expect Captain Ukitake would opt not to mention the Nagasaki events at least once in this outing, and despite the earlier, friendly conversation, Kisuke hadn't once dropped his guard.

"Sir, please permit me to say that I deeply regret—"

"That won't be necessary," Captain Ukitake said. "Your remorse for your past actions has been evident since the very day you were brought in for questioning; that much has never been in doubt. I hope you do understand, however, that this is in no way a reprieve?"

Kisuke met the older man's penetrating, somber eyes. Captain Ukitake had always radiated a quiet, venerable sort of strength, the subtle, but undeniable power and wisdom that came with centuries of experience. "Of course, Captain," Kisuke said.

"I fully support Matsuo's decision, make no mistake," the Captain went on. "That having been said, it seems to me that we are allowing your talents to go to waste. I have always believed that a punishment is, or rather should be, an opportunity to learn. A Captain is meant to be a tutor and a guide, not merely a leader. And as the situation stands, all I have managed to teach you is how to wallow in bitterness while engaging in menial, mind-numbing tasks. There is value in this, in being afforded some time to think and reassess. But it is not enough."

The Captain came to a halt, his long, white robe swaying in the breeze as he turned to face Kisuke.

"I assume you are aware that Lieutenant Kitano was lost to us in Nagasaki?" he said.

Kisuke nodded. "Yes, sir. I hear Third Seat Officer Yamada is slated to be promoted to replace her."

"He is. However, the situation has left Captain Unohana with a vacuum she will be unable to adequately fill for a while," Captain Ukitake said. "The position of Third Seat Officer requires extensive medical training, and the Captain has confided in me that she does not feel strongly about any of the candidates quite yet. She requires more time to provide them with sufficient training before she can make her decision. The problem is that a Third Seat Officer's duties in the Fourth Division include certain administrative tasks as well, tasks she feels would distract them from the intensive training they are meant to undergo. To that effect, she needs Soul Reapers to temporarily fill in for said duties. I took the liberty of assigning you to her service for the foreseeable future."

"But… this is not a transfer?" Kisuke said, frowning. Clear though the Captain's words had been, co-operation between Divisions outside of combat was exceedingly rare. Kisuke could only assume the long-standing relationship between the two Captains was the reason for such an exception.

"No. You would merely be lending your assistance to Captain Unohana until the position of Third Seat Officer is filled," Captain Ukitake said. "As I said, I feel this would be an excellent opportunity for you to learn by Captain Unohana's side. Perhaps she could share a few pointers on how to properly suppress your newfound pool of spiritual power."

There was a very knowing, subtle smirk on the Captain's face as he spoke those words. Frozen on the spot, Kisuke could do little but stare. Captain Unohana had already been suspicious enough of the circumstances concerning his hospitalization three weeks ago. When the subject of working in the fourth Division had been brought up, Kisuke had assumed he would have little to no contact with her, but right now, it was becoming obvious Captain Ukitake's suggestion was not quite as innocuous as he had originally thought.

Had Captain Unohana requested him personally? Was this assignment merely pretense in order to wrest a better confession out of him concerning the Nagasaki events? Either way, it appeared he had no choice in the matter; Captain Ukitake had already made the call.

"Understood, sir," Kisuke said. "I am grateful for the opportunity."

"Excellent," Captain Ukitake said. "You will report to the Fourth Division barracks tomorrow at seven sharp."

On the bright side, no more paperwork.

"Once you are dismissed from the Relief Station," the Captain went on. "Report back to Lieutenant Matsuo to resume your duties in the administration office for the day."

…Fucking HELL.

If there was one thing Captain Ukitake had been wrong about, it was his perceived failings as a mentor. After that night, Kisuke learned to never again assume an already bad situation couldn't possibly get any worse.

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

JUNE 3RD, 1956 A.D., URAHARA SHOP, KARAKURA TOWN, JAPAN

.

More than once, she considered using the pillow trapped between her arms to smother a scream that she was never quite able to muster. It was all there, the rage, the despair, the whys, but instead of bubbling up to the surface they festered somewhere deep within her, rendering her body numb and lifeless.

All she could do was stare at the night sky outside as she lay on her side, feeling more impotent than she ever had in her entire life.

Kaien. Miyako. Dead.

What little she had been able to wrench of out a tight-lipped Kisuke painted a clear enough picture: Miyako had died first, her squad slain under mysterious circumstances in an otherwise routine mission. Kaien had followed soon after, taking it upon himself to face the Hollow that had taken his wife's life. The details were still somewhat shrouded in mystery, but from what Sentarō had recounted, all deaths had been attributed to a Hollow that had the unique ability to destroy Soul Cutters.

She hadn't needed to hear Kisuke's analysis to arrive to a conclusion as to who was behind this.

She felt it again, the urge to scream, and clutching the pillow even more tightly, she dug her nails into it. Impotent, powerless, while somewhere out there, the culprit roamed free. And Kūkaku had lost one of her brothers.

It had taken every ounce of discipline she had not to visit Soul Society in disguise in the past, to keep an eye on things and report back with any new information. She had always convinced herself that the risk was not worth it, that the friends and family she had left behind were all safe.

Until they weren't.

If Aizen had made such a bold move within Soul Society, there was little stopping him from making an even bigger statement.

Stop it, stop it stopit… You'd be playing right into his hands, she reasoned. But the weaker, softer parts of her, the ones that she had long ago suppressed, the ones that only ever manifested in the quieter, reflective moments with Kisuke, those parts could only whisper back Kūkaku's name in unison. And Suì-Fēng's. And Yūshirō's.

Shutting her eyes and ears, she tried to silence them all, tried to ignore the voices –Go back, go back, they need you, go back- and this time, it seemed, her scream would barrel through the lump in her throat and pierce the air, the walls—

"Yoruichi?"

The gentle hand on her shoulder made her jerk back violently. She opened her eyes in the dark room, only to find Kisuke standing above the bed.

Pursing his lips, her let out a soft sigh and set the tray he was carrying upon the nightstand. Yoruichi scooted back so he could take a seat next to her, but he made no move to close the distance. "I brought you some dinner," he said. "You haven't eaten anything since morning."

Yoruichi shook her head. "I'm not really hungry. Maybe later."

"All right," he said, nodding. The scant light coming from the corridor kept him mostly shrouded in darkness, but she could still make out his eyes, the same guilt-ridden eyes he'd worn ever since Sentarō's visit. "I'll just leave it here. Is there anything else I can get you?"

"You're not coming to bed?"

"I… Not yet. Still muddling through the shipment," he said. "But you needn't wait up, get some rest."

She might've challenged the blatant lie, might've even powered through every deeply-ingrained habit against showing weakness and asked him to stay. But everything about him, from his distance, the tension in his shoulders, his bafflingly apologetic tone, made her keep her silence.

Kisuke hesitated, then reached down to pull up the sheet over her shoulders. His hand hovered near her head for a moment, then he withdrew it and turned his heel, heading for the stairs. Under different circumstances, she might have questioned this bizarre behavior: while not always comfortable dealing with someone in distress, he'd at least made a genuine effort in the past. Always diplomatic, always careful, but he'd never before treated her as though she were made of glass.

His steps came to a halt at the threshold. The dark silhouette lingered, one hand gripping the door frame. What seemed like an eternity later, Kisuke turned around to face her again, his body half-illuminated by a swath of light. "I swear to you, I will make this right."

It was the tremor in his voice more than anything that made her sit up in bed. "What?"

"Aizen. He will pay for this," Kisuke said. All vestiges of guilt seemed to be siphoned away at that moment, replaced by a coldness, a hardness she had never seen in his eyes before. "I'm done sitting idle. He wants a fight, I'll give it to him."

Jaw slackening, Yoruichi stared at Kisuke, trying to filter his words in a way that made even the remotest sense. "What are you…? What would we even do?"

Kisuke marched the length of the room in a few strides, apparently no longer in the mood to be tentative, and knelt by the bed, hands splayed on top of the mattress. "I'll think of something. I won't let him take anything away from you ever again, I swear," he said, and she was shocked to see the edge fade away in his gaze, overtaken by despair so palpable, she momentarily flinched back. Pain flashed in his eyes, but he was otherwise undeterred. "I… I know you don't— You won't have to deal with me, I'll stay out of your way, I promise. I just wanted you to know I'm not letting him get away with it, not this time."

Yoruichi held up both hands, taking a deep, steadying breath. "Kisuke, just… back up a moment. You're not making any sense," she said. "What are you talking about?"

"You… You understand that what happened… Aizen must've been behind the creation of such a Hollow, it's otherwise imposs—"

"Yes, I understand that, I'm not an idiot," Yoruichi said, scowling. "What I don't understand is what exactly you think we might be able to do about it. If we made a move in Aizen's territory, playing his game, we would be slaughtered. You know this, so what's with the knee-jerk reaction? And all that crap about staying out of my way? Where the hell did that come from?"

Kisuke pursed his lips again, looking away. "You're angry, I underst—"

"You're damn right I'm angry!" she said, reaching out for his chin and forcing him to look at her. "And if you so much as take a step toward the basement to obsess over that thing again, I'm going to be even angrier. Oh, you thought I had no idea?" she said, upon the look of shock that crossed his features. "That I didn't know what happens every single time I leave?"

If his words and actions were out of character, they was nothing compared to the sight of his expression, contorted beyond recognition by anguish. "Look I… I screwed up, I know I did, I just need—"

"Are we having two separate conversations here? What the hell are you even going on about?"

"I… I just… I'm trying to—"

Burying her face into her palms, Yoruichi let out a groan. This morning might have happened half a lifetime ago, Kisuke's narration of the events made a thousand times worse by her imagination, his senseless apologies and guilt-ridden mutterings making her head spin. "Kisuke, I swear," she said. "This has been a trying enough day as it is, and if I have to coddle you to get a single straight answer out of you—"

And in a maddening turn of events, instead of dropping the act and being honest with her, all he could do was look away again, his voice barely above a whisper. "See, this is exactly why I said I'd stay out of your way."

It was just about all she could take. And it was starting to become clear that he was being deliberately obtuse, in the hopes that it would drive her to a breaking point and make his apparent fear a reality. Well, she was about to indulge him.

"You know what?" she said. "If you really do want to stay out of my way that bad, let me make it a little easier for you."

"Yoru—" He reached out, but he was too slow for her, always had been, his fist closing around an empty shirt, the one she had worn but a moment ago.

Her feline body streaked up to the window ledge, fast as lightning, and with a jump, she became one with the shadows, the voices in her head screaming run, run, run.

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

APRIL 24TH, 125 B.H.I., FOURTH DIVISION RELIEF STATION, COURT OF PURE SOULS

.

As his head rolled back to rest against the wall behind him, Kisuke closed his eyes, struggling to catch his breath. He could feel the beginnings of a cramp developing in his calf, but the tiny storage closet left little room for him to stretch. Carefully, he pressed his foot down against the floor hard, feeling the throbbing in the muscle intensify for a moment, before it slowly ebbed away.

"Oh shit."

Kisuke slipped his eyes open. "That bad?"

The petite redhead straddling his lap let out a chuckle, before pushing the fringe of damp, copper hair away from her flushed forehead. "I'm late," she said, gently disentangling herself and climbing off him.

Kisuke watched her as she scrambled for her discarded underwear and hakama, not entirely certain how to feel about the whole situation. His first experience with a lover had been… well, quite frankly terrible for all parties involved. The second could only be described as educational. The third was something entirely new and altogether unexpected. When he'd first met Tsukuda Jun, he had never dreamed the ensuing events would lead to them sneaking in for a quickie in a cramped storage closet ever so often, but then again, stranger things had happened.

She was cute, clever, and most importantly, very casual about this entire affair. In short, a perfect, pleasant distraction in the current mess that was his professional life.

"What are you late for?" he asked, pulling up his own hakama as Tsukuda set about combing her fingers through her hair.

"Believe it or not, I do have things to do other than chase down identity thieves," she said with a smirk.

Kisuke chuckled, rolling his eyes at her. "Identity thief," he said, scoffing. "I was only—"

"You forged my signature to check out books from our library," she said, turning to face him, arms akimbo. "What would you call that, if not identity theft? You're lucky I let you get off so easy."

When he had recounted the story to Yoruichi a few days ago, she had thankfully focused on the part where he'd been unfortunate enough to choose a girl's signature to forge; in his defense, Tsukuda did have a unisex name. They hadn't discussed what had followed, though it hadn't been for a lack of trying on Yoruichi's part. When she'd asked him how the girl in question had reacted once she'd discovered his antics, Kisuke told her the truth: that he'd explained to her he was looking for literature on his developing gigai and that Tsukuda had asked to see the gigai in question.

Yoruichi had asked him if that was a euphemism or the literal truth. He chose not to tell her that it had actually turned out to be both.

Now dressed and looking presentable once more, Tsukuda carefully opened the closet door and took a peek outside at the corridor. After a few silent seconds, she beckoned him over and they slipped outside, falling into a casual stroll.

Kisuke glanced at Tsukuda's wristwatch: 3:13 pm. With his own shift at the Fourth Division close to an end, he was supposed to sign off on all his paperwork and get back to the Thirteenth for the remainder of the day.

So far, he had been able to avoid encounters with Captain Unohana and today looked like it would be yet another successful day. Though he didn't doubt Captain Ukitake's sincerity when it came to the reason for his new assignment, Kisuke had no desire whatsoever to spend more time with Captain Unohana than necessary. He had a feeling the whole idea had been the brainchild of both Captains, but primarily Captain Unohana's, who had expressed a great deal of skepticism over his excuses when he had been her patient back in January. He wouldn't be surprised if he'd learned she had issued a particularly condemning report following the incident.

Though he kept his eyes and ears peeled for any surprise encounters, Kisuke felt his concentration wane at the sound of Tsukuda's incessant muttering.

Looking agitated, she wore a deep frown and kept repeating the same words under her breath. "Wind, water, wound, wonder drugs and…?" she said, letting out a frustrated sigh. "Guh, what am I forgetting? Wind, water, wound, wonder drugs…"

"Walking," Kisuke said.

Tsukuda's head snapped toward his direction. "Wh— Yes, walk— Wait, how do you even know this?"

"It's the mnemonic for post-operative fever diagnosis, isn't it?" Kisuke said. "Wind, water, walking, wound, wonder drugs. Ohhhh, are you one of the candidates for the Third Seat position?"

Apparently forgetting all about the need for haste, Tsukuda came to a stop and stared at him, her frown of concentration turning into a softer one. "Yeaaahhh, I— Seriously, how do you know this?"

Kisuke let out a chuckle. "I didn't borrow those books just for show, you know," he said. "I read them."

"That was barely a week ago," Tsukuda said. "That tome on surgical procedure alone is 800 pages long. Post-operative complications aren't even covered until chapter thirty two."

He shrugged. "I'm a fast reader." In all honesty, it was also the first one he'd picked out to read, but still, it had flowed easily enough.

Tsukuda looked as though she wanted to say something, but their brief discussion was interrupted by a presence that took both of them by surprise. Kisuke hadn't even sensed the familiar spiritual pressure until it was too late.

"Seventh Seat Tsukuda," said the calm, amiable voice of Captain Unohana. "Just barely in time for my class, I see."

In unison, Kisuke and Tsukuda turned around to see the Captain approaching, a serene smile on her lips.

"Captain, I—"

"It's quite all right," Captain Unohana said, coming to a stop before them. "Please go inform your classmates we will begin with a small delay. I have a matter to attend to first, but I will be there shortly."

"Of course, Captain," Tsukuda said, giving her Captain a deep bow and hurrying down the corridor, presumably to her designated classroom.

Kisuke was about to follow suit, eager to make himself scarce before he had to spend any time in the Captain's presence, but she seemed to have other ideas. Turning her heel, she motioned at him to follow.

He allowed himself a second's pause before he heeled along, the excuse ready on his lips. "Captain Unohana, ma'am, I thought you said you had another matter to attend to? I do not wish to—"

"You are the matter in question, Urahara," she said, staring straight ahead, the unnerving smile never leaving her face. "Hurry now, I have a tight schedule to adhere to today."

Kisuke had to wonder if the rest of his career in the divisions would only ever consist of Captains with obscure motives asking him to follow along. "Yes, ma'am."

In the time it took for their brisk walk to lead them to her office, Kisuke tried to reason with himself. If she only had limited time to deal with him, the situation couldn't be nearly as dramatic as he was making it out to be in his head.

On any other day, he might have openly coveted the veritable library that adorned the walls of Captain Unohana's office, but right now, he was otherwise preoccupied. Captain Unohana asked him to close the door behind them and swept over to her desk, but instead of taking a seat, she began to rummage through the drawers. "Captain Ukitake tells me you like to tinker, is that true?" she asked.

Kisuke arched an eyebrow at that. "Er… excuse me?"

"You have a fascination with machinery."

"Uhhh, yes. I suppose that is true, Captain."

"And you apparently enjoy reading medical textbooks in your free time?" she said, taking a brief pause from her search to give him a curious look.

Ah. So she had overheard his discussion with Tsukuda. "I… I am interested in gigai technology," he said. "Their study and development requires a deep understanding of anatomy, physiology—" He was about to continue, before he remembered just who it was he was talking to. As the Captain of the sole Division dedicated to gigai development, she had no need for him to explain what she was already intimately familiar with. "You know all this, of course," he said, adding an apologetic smile for good measure.

"It is not my chosen field, but yes, I do," Captain Unohana said. "Are you ambidextrous, Urahara?"

What in the blazes…? "Er… to a small degree."

"How small?"

Her refusal to visually acknowledge him as she continued to rummage around her desk, coupled with the odd line of questioning was making him even more on edge. "I can fight adequately left-handed," he said. "Beyond that, I cannot really say, Captain."

He had been working on improving his left hand's functionality for years now, but he was still not entirely satisfied with the results. Developing strength was a prerequisite to moving on to more delicate movements, but it was hard to break the habit of automatically doing everything with his dominant right hand.

"Well," Captain Unohana said, standing up at long last and depositing an odd wooden tablet on her desk. "Let's put it to the test, shall we?"

The strange device turned out to be a pegboard. Pairs of small, round holes ran the length of the board in the middle. For the ensuing few minutes, Captain Unohana gave him a veritable battery of tests: placing small pins in the holes using each hand separately within a time limit, using both hands together, repeating the entire process with tweezers, a more complicated assembly test and finally, a separate test in which he attempted a single-handed knot with either hand.

Judging by the Captain's expression by the end of the session, he must've done reasonably well. Instead of explaining herself, or even commenting on his performance, however, Captain Unohana stood up and beckoned him to do so as well.

"Hold out your hands," she said.

"Uhh…" More confused than ever, Kisuke did as he was told, but not without comment this time around. "May I ask w—?"

"Quiet."

"Yes, ma'am."

Captain Unohana's focused gaze remained on his outstretched hands, and Kisuke realized she was checking for any signs of tremor. After nearly a full minute of silence, she reached out, cradling his right hand in her palms and gently twisting the wrist, examining it further. "Hmmm… A little big for surgery… But you make up for it with dexterity. Left hand somewhat lacking, but you will work on it." It was not a suggestion.

If there was any time to speak up, it was right now, but his throat seemed to have failed him ever since the Captain had uttered the word 'surgery.'

"I know from your transcript spellwork is not an issue," Captain Unohana went on, undeterred. She let his hand go, then looked up to meet his eyes. "But experience will be. The basic skills are transferrable from other disciplines. Real life experience is not. Normally, Third Seat officers are required to have only minimal surgical experience—"

She same to a stop the second she saw his facial expression; former Third Seat Yamada was the one who had operated on him back in January. The procedure in question hadn't been overly complicated, but still nowhere near the realm of what Captain Unohana was describing as minimal experience.

As though reading his mind, she gave him a disparaging look.

"Officer Yamada had been Third Seat for fifteen years, and is exceedingly talented to boot," she said. "I do not like to surround myself with mediocrity, Urahara. But you can now fully appreciate, I trust, why a solid replacement for Yamada is non-negotiable? So to that effect…" She turned around, marching back to her office and over to a stack of documents. She leafed through them quickly, and when she found the one she had been searching for, she make a few quick notes before handing it over to him.

"Er…"

"Fill this out with your personal information and hand it over to administration," Captain Unohana said. "Assuming you are interested in the position of Fifth Seat officer of this Division."

It took a few seconds for her words to sink in. Kisuke held up the document, frozen on the spot, only sparing it a glance once Captain Unohana appeared to be losing her patience with him. It was an application form, no doubt for participation in the training program Captain Ukitake had mentioned. "I'm sorry... Fifth Seat? I'm a little confused, you said—"

"I know, yes," Captain Unohana said, and for the first time today, her expression softened, betraying she wasn't oblivious to what it was she was asking of him. "This potential transfer does not come with a promotion, I'm afraid. But I would still like you to be trained along with the Third Seat candidates," she said. "I understand this is not a very attractive offer, but there will be advancement opportunities in the future."

"I… Captain Uk—"

"I will talk to Captain Ukitake myself."

"…What of… my duties over at the Thirt—?"

"I will not make excuses for you, you will ride out the remainder of your probation for as long as Captain Ukitake deems fit," Captain Unohana said. "But if you decide to move forward with the application, you will be excused from administrative duties in the Fourth Division," she said. "Either way, I expect you in my office tomorrow at seven."

Pressed for time, Captain Unohana summarily escorted him out of her office where he stayed, his gaze still locked upon the application form. The Captain had left most fields blank, only adding in her signature and a few select observations. Kisuke's eyes fell upon a particularly interesting filed:

MOTOR SKILLS

0 Not observed
1 Inept
2 Technically poor, but manages.
3 Average capability.
4 Good Hands. Rapid and precise.
5 Potential to be a surgeon.

Captain Unohana had circled the fifth option.

Though he was still struggling to process this afternoon's proceedings, Kisuke was now convinced of one thing: no matter what Captain Ukitake had told him, his assignment over to the Fourth Division and Captain Unohana's apparent interest were anything but coincidental or unrelated. He was being pushed toward joining Captain Unohana's squad.

And perhaps that wasn't an entirely unfortunate turn of events altogether.

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

MAY 6TH, 125 B.H.I., SHIHŌIN CLAN ANCESTRAL CASTLE, COURT OF PURE SOULS

.

"I had an interesting talk with Commander Sasagawa yesterday."

Yoruichi paused mid-chew, glancing toward her father. She had been expecting something of the sort when Mizuho came to her room at noon, announcing that her parents had requested they dine together for the evening. Which is code for father wants to speak to me but doesn't want it to seem like he does.

While on leave from the Onmitsukidō, she would usually have her meals in her room, as she had during childhood. Every now and then, her mother might join her, but for the past three years, she only ever ate in the dining hall for special occasions. Or when her father had something to discuss.

With her mother feeling under the weather and not there to act as a buffer, the atmosphere in the dining hall was more strained than ever. Yoruichi had just ran out of random items in the hall to stare at blankly, picking at her udon listlessly, when her father broke the silence.

"We were discussing the changes in the troops' training program," he said. "And I brought forward a matter I've been mulling over the past couple of months."

Yoruichi gave him a questioning look, now waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"There is a certain… tool that was allegedly created in the Development Division," her father said. Something about the tone of his voice made Yoruichi realize where the conversation was headed even before he clarified. "A magnificent invention, holds the power to materialize a Soul Cutter spirit within an instant."

In retrospect, she had to admit she was surprised it had taken him this long to bring up the matter. She had no doubt he had known who the creator of the Tenshintai was upon sight. "Sounds useful," she said, both her voice and expression deadpan.

There was a glint in her father's eye as he spoke next. "Quite," he said, steepling his fingers. "It is also something beyond the technical ability of anyone currently in the Development Division. They admitted as much upon inquiry. And when I spoke to the Commander, he explained you were the one who first presented the Onmitsukidō with the invention, refusing to reveal its maker."

"It's true."

"May I ask how you chanced upon such an artifact?" There was not a single confrontational note in his words, only mild exasperation, but Yoruichi knew he was running out of ways to broach the subject laterally. He was also running out of patience with her laconic replies, and to be honest, so was she.

Enough games, already. "You already know how I chanced upon it," Yoruichi said, trying her best not to sound disparaging –with only moderate success.

It appeared as though her father was also not in the mood to dance around the subject any longer. A knot formed on his forehead as he threaded his fingers and laid his hands upon the tabletop. "Why the secrecy?" he said, surprising her with his candor; she had expected an admonition at the very least.

As much as she appreciated the more mature approach, however, this was not a conversation he needed to be having with her. "I'd say that's a question best directed at the original creator," she said. "I was only honoring their request by keeping their anonymity."

"I see…"

Taking his prolonged silence as a cue that the matter had been dropped, Yoruichi returned to her meal with renewed gusto. The sooner she finished up, the sooner this ill-advised dinner could come to an end.

"The Commander also tells me he's very pleased with your work in the Corrections Corps."

Oh, sonow that the important stuff is out of the way we've moved on to me, have we? Would he even have bothered to ask if she hadn't shot down his questions about Kisuke so fast? Or was he simply trying to fill the awkward silence? He had made his opinion of her choices crystal clear in the past. Did he expect her to sit there and make small talk, pretend she didn't already know he disapproved?

A more forgiving person might have at least given him time until the end of the meal, but Yoruichi was not in a forgiving mood tonight. If her father wanted to have a frank discussion about her career, a discussion she would truly welcome, all he needed to do was first acknowledge his past errors in judgment.

Until he was ready to do so, and stopped harboring the delusion that all the bad blood could simply be wept under the rug, she refused to cooperate.

"I should hope so," she said, placing her chopsticks down and patting her lips with a napkin. "I've been diligent with my duties so far; I don't think he has any reason to complain."

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her father's eyebrows arch gently. "You haven't finished your—"

"I'm quite full," she said, getting up on her feet. "Goodnight, father."

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

SEPTEMBER 12TH, 125 B.H.I., URAHARA RESIDENCE, 2ND DISCTRICT, NORTHWEST RUKONGAI, COURT OF PURE SOULS

.

The jerk was snoring.

Forty five minutes of waiting for him in the marketplace, thinking he had been caught up at work, and he had been asleep the whole time.

Arriving at his place in exasperation, she had found the living room in complete disarray and the jerk in question passed out on his futon, a journal acting as his pillow. His hair was askew, his stupid mouth hanging slack and emitting noises that a befitted a saw rather than a person.

Clenching her fists, Yoruichi gave him a hard nudge on the shoulder with her heel, pushing him onto his back. "WAKE UP!"

Whether it was the push or her shout that did the trick, Kisuke obliged. He made a sound between a snort and a gasp, his eyes snapping open as he rolled over. The imprint of his notes was faintly tattooed upon his cheek. "Mwhuh?"

"Yeah, hi, remember me?" Yoruichi said, looming over him, arms folded before her chest. "The person you stood up for about an hour?"

Clearly disoriented, Kisuke glanced around his mess of a living room with a blank gaze, as though he were trying to make sense of his surroundings. Sniffing, he trained his unfocused gaze back on her, scratching the back of his head. "Izzit noon a'ready?"

"It is. Why aren't you at work? We said we were meeting for midday break."

"Got the day off," Kisuke said, rubbing his bloodshot eyes with the ball of one hand. "Last minute studying an' all."

"You wanna go back to sleep?"

"No, no," Kisuke said, pushing himself off the futon. "Just… gimme a minute to wash up and we'll go."

Yoruichi watched him stumble across the living room, her fury abating somewhat when he stubbed his toe against the tea table. Now hopping his way to the washroom, he let out a string of muttering that sounded an awful lot like obscenities.

She had always found it difficult to stay mad at him when he worked himself near death as he was wont to. His legendary all-nighters happened often enough that she had to wonder if he truly had any use for the upstairs bedroom. Nine out of ten times she had come over to find him asleep it had been by the firepit, surrounded by stacks of documents and journals.

And again, nine times out of ten, he looked as pitiful as he did right now, dragging his feet out of the washroom: pale, underweight and almost permanently hunched.

The fresh air revitalized him somewhat, but it wasn't until he had a cup of strong tea in hand that color began to return to his cheeks. It was a warm enough day to sit outside, and she figured the change of scenery might do him some good. The lively chatter of the patrons in the teahouse and the rich, autumn colors of the trees lining the marketplace certainly made for a better environment than the inside of his unkempt home.

"So…" Yoruichi said, taking a sip off her own cup and leaning back in her chair. "Exam's tomorrow?"

Kisuke nodded. "Mmm."

"I won't keep you long then, we'll just grab a quick bite—"

"It's fine," Kisuke said, waving off her concern. "Anything I haven't learned by now, I'm not going to learn in an afternoon. I needed the break."

"And the sleep, apparently," she said. Trying to balance his responsibilities in the Thirteenth Division while keeping up with Captain Unohana's lessons must've been exhausting. She only hoped it hadn't all been for nothing. "Is Captain Ukitake even willing to let you go?"

"He is," Kisuke said, resting one elbow against the table and raking his fingers through his hair. His errant fringe now nearly reached the tip of his nose; he was in dire need of a haircut. "Lieutenant Matsuo, however, seems to think I'm being rewarded for abysmal behavior."

Yoruichi gave him a wry grin at the sound of that.

Kisuke let out a chuckle. "You don't agree?"

"I think you've both been punished and punished yourself long enough," she said. "I mean, how is it in any way fair that you're taking the same damn test as the Third Seat candidates, but you're not eligible for the position?"

She expected him to show a small sign of displeasure at the very least, but if anything, Kisuke looked contrite instead. "Yes, well… I did come very close to being dismissed from the Thirteen altogether," he said. "Promotion or no, the transfer came at an opportune time. I was quite fortunate."

Fortunate. Luck had had very little to do with this job offer, and she was certain that despite assertions to the contrary, Kisuke knew this as well.

A mind like his did not go unnoticed for long. Every single time he doubted himself or gave up, someone always seemed to conveniently swoop in to steer him in their preferred direction. A confident Kisuke was a force to be reckoned with. A directionless one was a ripe fruit, ready for the plucking by the highest bidder currently in the game. With Yoruichi's own father currently out of the running, it appeared Captain Unohana had stepped up to the plate.

Perhaps already grooming her next Lieutenant for when Yamada moves on.

"I suppose there is no point in staying in the Thirteenth with Matsuo breathing down your neck all the time," Yoruichi said. "Not that she's wrong or anything, but regaining her trust could take years, and that's time better spent advancing your career in other ways. Assuming, of course, you actually want to become a healer."

Despite his clear interest and talent with kidō, it was senseless to make a career shift to healing when he could have easily joined the Kidō Corps, instead. And while she did not voice the logical continuation of her train of thought, she could tell Kisuke had heard the insinuation in her tone.

Even so, he did no more than shrug. "Eh."

"Eh? Eh?" Good grief, he's going to be the end of me. "Kisuke, you're fewer than twenty-four hours away from sitting an exam that will ensure you will become just that for the foreseeable future."

"It's not like I had anything else to aim for," Kisuke said, wholly sanguine as he took another sip of tea. "It's new, interesting and I'd be improving my spellwork immensely. I like the idea." Upon sight of her scowl, he chuckled, pointing his cup in her direction. "Sprinting up the ladder to the top is your ambition, not mine," he said with a grin. "I'm comfortable just going with the flow, you know that."

There were a dozen arguments she could have made in response, but Yoruichi kept her silence. Stressing Kisuke out on the eve of an important exam would accomplish nothing.

She merely wondered whether he was aware of his own circumstances, or if he was also lying to himself. For a man who claimed not to care, he had worked and studied himself into exhaustion to escape into the Fourth Division. And straight into a position that would ensure his days on the field would from now on be limited to support.

Where he would once actively seek out opportunities to test his mettle in battle, he now shied away. Yoruichi couldn't even remember the last time she had seen him train with Benihime.

Even now, he was still punishing himself.

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

DECEMBER 20TH, 125 B.H.I., THE SUPREME COMMANDER'S QUARTERS, ONMITSUKIDŌ COMPLEX, COURT OF PURE SOULS

.

The sky burned orange as the sun descended beneath the mountain line in the distance. Twilight was approaching when Yoruichi crossed the suspended walkway, making her way to the Commander's quarters under the slowly waxing veil of purple.

The entrance was flanked by two men of Sasagawa's personal guard. They made no move to stop her, merely acknowledged her with sharp, hawk-like eyes, allowing her to enter.

Sasagawa Mitsuru was leafing through the short stack of documents in his lap, legs casually draped over short dais the Commander's chair rested upon. To a layman's eyes, the room would have appeared empty save for the Commander himself, but Yoruichi knew two more men stood on either corner of the room, blended in with the shadows.

She stepped forward, dropping down on one knee. "Supreme Commander."

Though she knew he had felt her approaching a mile away, Sasagawa was polite enough to only look up once she had spoken, pretending he hadn't noticed her until now. "First Office Shihōin, do come in," he said, gesturing toward the empty seat at the foot of the dais.

Private audiences such as today's were a common enough occurrence as of late that they had fallen into a steady pattern by now, usually spending the first few minutes of her visits discussing her latest assignments. At their inception, their one-on-one meetings had been nothing but a source of discomfort for her. Though a certain amount of preferential treatment was to be expected, given her lineage, it had taken her a long time to relax in her superior's presence and accept that despite his ulterior motives, Sasagawa's advice and tutelage could only be of benefit to her.

Yoruichi's tea had grown cold by the time they'd reached the last sheaf of paper in the dossier she had brought along. She was still debating whether it had been wise to include the file in question at all, but her growing rapport with Commander had emboldened her to try and get some answers on a matter that had been troubling her for the past two years.

Sasagawa had to take but a glance at the list of names before Yoruichi saw the glint of recognition in his eyes. Fingers stroking his chin, the Commander set his deep blue eyes upon her. "And this list would be…?"

"The name of every Soul Reaper whose personal file has gone missing from our archives over the last two years," Yoruichi said, downing the last few dregs of cold tea from her cup. "In every single case, I was informed they were relocated and given a place in your rehabilitation program."

"Indeed," Sasagawa said, busying himself with his own cup of tea. He held her gaze for a few moments, and she knew he could see every unspoken word written there. "Why don't you go ahead and ask your question, Officer Shihōin?" he said, smiling.

"Not a question. More of an observation."

"I'm listening."

Yoruichi pursed her lips. "I was under the impression that your program was meant to be put into effect for political prisoners," she said. "That list not only contradicts this, but I have yet to hear more of this program other than the fact that it has been on trial mode for a while now."

Sasagawa nodded at her, setting his cup down on the table. "And I'm afraid that will be the case for much longer," he said. "The reason you have not heard more is because there isn't more to say. The program has encountered obstacles along the way, and gaining enough political support to officially put it into effect has been difficult. As callous as it may sound, I wanted to test the waters and see if a broader scope in… shall we say subjects, would garner more support. So far, it has not."

"I… I see."

There was sympathy in his expression as he returned the list to her. "I am well aware that the program is one of the reasons you wanted to join the Corrections Corps in the first place," Sasagawa said. "But I feel that until any and all development issues are resolved, we are wasting one of our most talented operatives in a position that is beneath her."

"Sir?"

"In less than a month's time, there will be a shift in the ranks in the Intelligence Division," the Commander said. "Which will leave an opening for head of the first platoon. I would like to see you lead it."

The proposal took her by surprise. Though she had never meant to spend more of her career than absolutely needed in the Corrections Corps, she hadn't expected to be offered a promotion so soon, at least not to a different unit of the Onmitsukidō. "The Intelligence Division?"

"Indeed," Sasagawa said. "Now that you have familiarized yourself with the administrative intricacies within a unit, I think it's time for you to move on. Your patrol members have only complimentary things to say for your leadership skills, you display an acute understanding for the dynamics within a squad, and you have a talent for strategy. All necessary requirements for a leader in the Intelligence Division. What do you say?"

She couldn't deny that she had grown weary of her duties in the Corrections Corps as of late. Once the novelty of leading a patrol had worn off, there had been very little to learn in that division that she didn't already know. For a long while now, the only time she had ever felt truly challenged was during her sparring sessions with Kisuke.

"I would be honored, sir," she said, lowering her head into a deep inclination.

"Excellent," the Commander said. "I would like you to return again next week to discuss the specifics. I'm afraid I will be unavailable and so will Lieutenant Colonel Noguchi, but I imagine Lieutenant Shihōin will be up to the task of filling in."

Though she tried to hide it, her reaction was so automatic and involuntary, Sasagawa couldn't have missed it if he'd tried.

"Now, now, I saw that," he said, chuckling. "That scowl. Not too keen on working with your cousin, are you?"

"I— no, sir, I didn't mean—"

"There is no need to lie, you are not obligated to enjoy the company of all your colleagues," Sasagawa said. "And don't think I haven't noticed. Still, whatever… conflict there is between you, I am pleased to see it has yet to affect your job performance. As it should be. That having been said, I would still advise you to be careful."

"I have no intention of ever letting personal matters interfere with my work, sir," Yoruichi said.

Sasagawa's eyes took on an indecipherable expression as he stared at her over the rim of his teacup. "That was not what I meant, Officer Shihōin."

Sasagawa's words stayed with her all the way to the Rukongai. As she waited in line for the dango stand in the brightly lit marketplace, she kept bringing the Commander's enigmatic gaze to mind. The more she did, the more she became convinced he had been trying to issue a warning. For what? Or whom? Akira? Somewhere in between the tantalizing smell and the distracting sizzle of the grill, Yoruichi lost her train of thought. There was little point in worrying over this without more information, and as she paid for the dango, she decided to give her mind a break for tonight. At least until she asked for Kisuke's opinion on the matter.

Package of dango in hand, she took the path leading out of the marketplace and over to Kisuke's, where dinner courtesy of Asuka awaited. Yoruichi pushed the front gate open, side-stepping the eager and ever-present kittens who had come running at the scent of food. It didn't take them long to realize the take-away meal in her hands was nothing they would find appetizing, and they retreated back to the garden.

As Yoruichi crossed the winding stone steps, her eye caught one of the tabbies scampering over to the young maple tree in the back and climbing up its slim trunk. Planted a mere three years ago, it was already thriving –most likely the only piece of flora in Kisuke's neglected garden that received daily care. Smiling once at the well-chosen gift, Yoruichi turned away and trotted up the steps to open the front door.

She found Kisuke sitting by the fire pit, elbows braced against the tea table, forearms framing his face as his fingers dug through his hair. He was staring at a letter that lay sealed before him with a wariness that implied it may well explode on him at any given moment.

When Yoruichi slipped her shoes off and approached him, he turned up to her, his face ashen. "Please tell me you know what this is," he said, handing her the envelope. His expression was an odd mix of terror and eagerness.

"Unless I'm mistaken, it's this newfangled invention. The kids are calling it a letter, I think?"

There was a comical shift in his features, from worry to something akin to exasperation.

"All right, all right, okay," she said with a chuckle, exchanging the package in her hands for the letter. The envelope was made of especially fine paper, bearing a wax seal with a distinct, and immediately recognizable four-maple-leaf crest. "That's my family's seal. And my father's handwriting."

"I know."

Yoruichi glanced at him once for permission, which he readily gave with a casual flick of one hand. She broke the seal, handing him the envelope back and flipped the letter open. Its contents were brief and succinct, quite typical of her father's economical prose: Kisuke was being invited to the estate for a private audience with her father. Although there were no further explanations given, Yoruichi felt confident she knew the precise reason for the invite.

"Took him long enough," she said, smiling.

"You knew about this?"

"Not exactly," she said, returning the letter so he could read it himself. "But I had a feeling it was going to happen sooner or later. To be honest, I expected it to be sooner."

Frowning, Kisuke skimmed the letter a couple of times before meeting her eyes again. "You know what your father wants to see me for?"

With a grin, she took a seat opposite Kisuke by the table. "I'd say he's just about done being stubborn."

If he was at all bothered by her cryptic comment, Kisuke didn't show it. He read the letter a few more times, asking her no more questions, then placed it back in its envelope. The impending meeting wasn't brought up again, nor was anything else discussed until Kisuke stepped over to the kitchen to fetch the pot of nikujaga Asuka had so generously dropped off earlier on. Together they set up the table and dug in, famished after a long day.

"How did your meeting with the Commander go?" Kisuke asked, fishing the carrots out of the stew to deposit them over to her dish.

"Pretty well. There was some talk about a promotion."

Pausing with his chopsticks mid-movement, Kisuke smiled at her. "You're making Lieutenant already? I'll drink to that," he said, picking up his glass of sake.

Chuckling, Yoruichi arched an eyebrow at him. "You'll drink to anything. And no, not Lieutenant quite yet," she said, taking in a bite off a potato. "Sergeant. There will be an opening soon in the Intelligence Corps."

"Leading the first platoon?"

Yoruichi nodded.

Kisuke's eyes narrowed slightly as he downed half his sake. "You don't look excited."

"Oh, it's not that. I'll actually welcome the change of pace; I think I've learned everything the Corrections Corps had to offer me." Which was true enough. Starting off from a position admittedly inferior to her talents, learning the ropes, was a decision she would never regret. If she aspired to one day lead the entire Corps, she wanted to be intimately familiar with all its operations. Still, she was more than ready for a new challenge.

"But…?"

Yoruichi took a few more mouthfuls in before answering. "Something else the Commander mentioned… about Akira, I think."

"What about him?"

"That's just it, I'm not ever sure it was about Akira," Yoruichi said, toying with a strand of hair as she rested his chin against her balled fist. "But it certainly sounded like it. All the Commander had to say was be careful. No specifics."

As though mustering up the courage to say something unpleasant, Kisuke emptied his glass and set it back down slowly. "Okay, um… Can I say something?" he said. "Without you getting mad?"

"I dunno; can you?"

Kisuke gave a gentle chuckle at that, then sobered up once more. "Commander Sasagawa… I know you hold him in high esteem, and he seems to be a good mentor to you, but have you ever considered that… perhaps...?"

"He's using me?"

Her deadpan tone sent his eyebrows disappearing beneath the fringe of his hair.

"I swear, both you and Kūkaku must think I'm so naïve," Yoruichi said, sighing. If she weren't positive both her friends had only her best interests at heart, she might've been genuinely angry, instead of only mildly annoyed. "Yes of course he's using me and of course I'm well aware. He bet on the wrong horse ages ago and now he's trying to correct his course; I'm not blind. Or an idiot."

"I never implied that!" Kisuke said, holding up both hands. His cheeks flushed in that tell-tale sign that always heralded his breaking into a nervous sweat. "It's just... this doesn't bother you?" he said, his brow creasing.

In all fairness, she would have assumed as much were she in his position. Under different circumstances, she would have been quite offended by the Commander's attitude. But not in this instance.

"Sasagawa is a clever man," she said, shrugging. "He knows his days as a Commander are numbered and he's trying to secure his future. He wouldn't be the first to do so; the former Commander has always had the new Commander's ear. The only difference is that in the past, the title always stayed in the family."

Her answer seemed to clear up Kisuke's confusion at once. Understanding dawning on him, Kisuke refilled his glass with sake, then hers with tea, his eyes taking on their usual curiosity. "So what happens when the new Shihōin heir is chosen for succession?"

"Commander Sasagawa will be expected to formally hand in his resignation," she said. "To the outside world it will look like just another retirement from active duty, and he will be properly compensated for the rest of his days. Still, there have been many power struggles from former Commanders who refused to step down."

She had fully expected him to add to the discussion, but for once, Kisuke had nothing to say and simply listened to her explanation with piqued interest. He was usually so well-versed in everything, including her own family's history, that she hadn't considered the clan's succession mechanics were likely as foreign to him as they were to anyone else.

"Money or not, it's still a position of considerable power and I guess they didn't want to relinquish some of the political influence that comes with being Commander of the Onmitsukidō," Yoruichi said. "I think my father may have been one of the few heirs in history who never put up a fight. He knew he wasn't right for the position and abdicated in favor of his youngest brother."

"That certainly sounds like him," Kisuke said.

"So you can see how the incumbent Commander might be inclined to forge a relationship with the upcoming Commander. Sasagawa seems to think that should be me."

"And Akira knows it."

"The Commander hasn't exactly been subtle about it," Yoruichi said.

He had always shown her preferential treatment, long before she had even joined the Onmitsukidō. Originally, she had assumed he was merely being polite to the current head's heiress. And yet his attitude during the last three years had led her to see that he was slowly but surely withdrawing his implicit support from one candidate to the other.

"You think he'll cause trouble?" Kisuke said.

Yoruichi was all but certain Akira would, in no small part due to the Commander's actions. "Probably," she said, sighing. "Anyway, it's still too early to be even talking about succession."

Akira's coming of age was still fifteen years away, by which point she assumed a final decision would be made by the clan elders. With no-one other than herself in the running, it wouldn't be out of the question for the clan to wait until her own coming of age, though she suspected Akira would not wish to wait the extra ten years. Most likely, he would push for a vote as early as possible.

"But to answer your question," Yoruichi went on. "No, it doesn't bother me that the Commander is trying to get into my good graces. He's very well-liked and I could learn a great deal from him. I'm using him, too."

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

AUGUST 12TH, 1956 A.D., URAHARA SHOP, KARAKURA TOWN, JAPAN

.

One by one, the smoke rings floated up, slowly expanding, little ghostly spirals against the black, spangled night sky. Leaning back against the window frame, Kisuke watched them rise until they were caught up in the cool breeze and dissolved into nothingness.

Seventy days, four hours, sixteen minutes and forty two seconds, give or take.

He wondered if his existence would now forever revolve around her continued absence, if he was doomed to spend every night by the window, listless, counting the days and seconds since she had left, hoping against all hope that she might one day return.

He had never revealed to her how many sleepless nights he'd spent in bed in the past, terrified her wandering steps would one day lead her back to Soul Society, to her family and everything she'd left behind. He had never revealed to her that part of him had always hoped they would.

The universe was, as he knew all too well, not without a sense of irony.

Running a hand through his hair, Kisuke let out a sigh and pondered the bottle of sake in his hand, pipe stuck between his teeth. Almost empty. He could try going to sleep, or he could stumble downstairs and refresh his dwindling supply. Option number one seemed like the most sensible one. Then again, he doubted he would be able to quiet his mind long enough to relax and fall asleep. Alcohol might at least help in that endeavor.

Option number two it is, he thought, slipping off the ledge and up to his feet. He wavered on the spot for a moment, the slight buzz he'd been lovingly nurturing for the past couple of hours working its magic on his sense of balance. Excellent. Only half a bottle away from a stup—

The flash of familiar spiritual signature in the air had been brief, but unmistakable, even in his current state. Dropping the empty bottle on the floor, Kisuke leaned out of the window and frowned at the sky in concentration. With each passing second, the already faint signal of spiritual pressure in the air weakened, making the trail harder to follow; if he meant to track it, now would be the time to set out.

Biting down on his cheek, Kisuke spent all of two seconds weighing his options. Oh screw it; what's the worst that could happen?

A lot, the higher mental functions that had yet to be inhibited by alcohol shot back at him. He appeased them by grabbing the slim black cloak by the wall hanger, and with a leap, he was off, climbing high above the rooftops. Throwing the cloak on, he became one with the shadows, his presence masked from all senses, and followed the trail.

All around him, the flickering essences of Hollows lit up and almost instantly died out like candles in the wind. Karakura Town was slowly but steadily becoming a sizeable hub of spiritual sensitivity; he had done his fair share of slaying these past few years whenever Soul Society's forces were not enough, but it seemed he was no longer alone in this task.

And for all his misgivings about whether or not it was wise to engage, the sight of Hirako leaping out of a Hollow's path with grace brought a broad smile on his face.

Kisuke came to a rest on the rooftop nearest the ongoing battle and took a seat by the edge, grinning. Legs folded carefully beneath the cloak, he dared to pull the hood back just a fraction, just in time to catch Hirako curse at the close swipe that tore the sleeve of his red, checkered shirt. He had to wonder just how Hirako could even move in this getup, stylish though it was: fitted shirt, pale brown cardigan and trousers to match. Not to mention the hat. But then again, he couldn't deny that an outfit just wasn't really complete without a hat.

Hirako seemed to have reached the same conclusion, and instead of endangering his wardrobe more than he had to, he merely directed his hand toward the Hollow. Without making eye-contact, still too busy pouting over his ruined shirt, he spoke the incantation in monotone. "Hadō number 63, Raikōhō."

A sphere of blinding yellow light bloomed out of his open-faced palm. Like lightning, it hissed and crackled, erupting into a stream of energy that poured forth, vaporizing the Hollow on the spot before the poor creature could even register pain.

He couldn't help it; he clapped.

Hirako started at the sudden, invasive sound, head whipping over his shoulder as he tried to locate the source.

Kisuke waited for the opportune moment, and just as Hirako turned in his direction, he pulled back his hood and grinned at him. "Evening."

"GEH!" Clutching his heart, Hirako glared at him through wide, saucer-like eyes, panting. "Fuck's sake, ya blockhead; how long have you been sitting there?"

"A couple of minutes," Kisuke said, as Hirako floated over to him, sheathing Sakanade. "I see you haven't lost your touch."

Still half-heartedly glaring daggers at him, Hirako stood before him, arms folded. "Neither have you," he said. "You look—" Squinting, Hirako bent forward, giving him the one-over. "Are ya drunk, or just hot under that thing?"

Having been witness –and accomplice- to most of his truly intoxicated moments, Hirako had no trouble identifying the early signs.

"Not drunk," Kisuke said, and it was the honest truth. "But I've had a few."

"Well, I'd like ta say that explains all… this," Hirako said, gesturing vaguely at him. "But ya don't really need the booze to be an ass." His posture was still quite rigid and he'd yet to come any closer, but there was warmth in his eyes, and the insult didn't feel or sound like one at all.

"It seems you and your comrades are on top of things," Kisuke said, glancing past Hirako's shoulder into the distance.

"Can ya really feel them? We've been very careful about cloaking our presence."

"I felt you for a spell a few minutes ago," Kisuke said. "The rest, I extrapolated."

"Ahh, I knew I slipped up for a sec," Hirako said, pushing the brim of his hat back. "So… how ya been, Kisuke?"

"Thriving, as you can see."

"Tessai and Yoruichi all right?"

Oh, super. Tessai is sick to death of watching me mope about and I haven't the faintest where Yoruichi even is. Kisuke gave a cursory nod, starting to feel his artificial smile crack around the edges. "I've been thinking about you, actually. And how to contact you," he said, eager to change the subject. "I have some… news."

Hirako's eyebrows chased the edge of his flaxen fringe. "Sound like the sitting down type of news."

"It's not pleasant, I'm afraid," Kisuke said, now fully allowing his smile to falter.

By the time he was done repeating what Kotsubaki had told him two months ago, Hirako had taken a seat beside him, his expression grim. "Shit."

"Indeed."

Letting out a sigh, Hirako dug into his pocket and withdrew a small, slim carton. "Want a smoke?" he said, holding the pack out before him.

Being more partial to the pipe, he had never tried a cigarette before, even though they were a regular stock item at the shop. But how different could it be, really? He accepted Hirako's offer, and the two of them sat in silence for a few moments, a small, grey cloud hovering above their heads.

"Yoruichi knew 'em pretty well, didn't she?" Hirako said.

Kisuke nodded. "She did. Lieutenant Shiba, at least."

"How d'she take it?"

"…Not well." Understatement of the century.

"Well… Tell her from me not to—" Hirako said, rubbing his temple with his free hand. "I mean, I know she already hated Aizen just as much as we all do, but don't let her get all… consumed by it, yeah? Torture herself over what mighta been, what she mighta done if she were there… Doesn't really lead anywhere. Trust me on this."

"Hm. Well… I'm not so sure about that myself."

Hirako flicked the cigarette stub away. Kisuke watched the still glowing ember spiral down into the darkness, and it wasn't until Hirako spoke that he realized his comment had left the man downright affronted. "You sayin' Yoruichi was responsible—?"

"Of course not," Kisuke hurried to say, nearly choking on his drag of smoke. "How could she be?"

"Then what are you—?" Hirako came to what appeared to be a sudden realization, one that caused him to roll his eyes at Kisuke. "Oh, for the love of— Not this shit again."

Kisuke stared at him questioningly.

"Lemme guess," Hirako said, and he leaned back, supporting his weight against his outstretched arms. "The moment ya heard about this you started goin' on and on about how you were gonna make this right and how you were gonna fix it," he said, head bobbing from side to side in tedium.

It was a good thing his own cigarette had already gone out, otherwise it might've burned him as he held it slack between his fingers, gaping at Hirako.

"You didn't say any o' that crap to Yoruichi, didja?"

"I…"

Letting out a long drawn out groan, Hirako pushed himself upright again. "For fuck's sake, Kisuke, you need to stop doin' this!"

"Doing what?"

"Feelin' responsible for every little thing that has the most remote connection to Aizen!"

Kisuke looked away, a knot forming on his forehead. He hadn't deluded himself into thinking that he was being subtle about it, not now nor in the past. Yet he'd always assumed everyone expected him to at the very least acknowledge all the ways in which he'd failed them.

Hirako sighed, his voice growing a touch softer. "Look, it's… it's not that people don't appreciate yer efforts or anything," he said. "We do, believe me. But the fact that you're about the only person who could outsmart that asshole doesn't mean that everyone's expecting you to. Ya don't hafta put yer whole life on hold until ya get even with Aizen. If you ever get to do it, that's fine, we'll all be right there with ya, but if you don't… no-one's gonna think any less of ya."

They should, he thought, his frown deepening. It was the one damn thing he had always been praised for, the one thing that made him tolerable despite all the other, crasser, more insufferable parts of him. The one thing he had always been proud of: his mind.

And he had failed to rise up to the occasion the only time that had truly mattered.

"She was… just so devastated," he said, his voice a hushed whisper as he stared at the silent city ahead, unseeing. The memory of Yoruichi's face falling at the news, the emptiness in her eyes, the resignation in her voice as she excused herself and headed upstairs, never to reemerge from the bedroom. "I— I didn't know what to say or do—"

"Did it ever occur to you to just listen?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Kisuke's gaze sought Hirako. Something about the tone of his voice had suggested he spoke from experience, rather than simply offering advice.

"You did it to me, too, y'know," Hirako said, staring at his knees. "When we met up after— After we left."

Kisuke understood this to mean after their unamicable separation a decade ago. Hirako was the only one of the eight he had seen again a couple of days later, and after he had been briefed in on their intel from Osaka, Kisuke had never seen him again until tonight.

"Talkin' about how you miscalculated, and how you felt terrible—" Hirako went on.

"But… How can I not feel resp—?"

"Because yer not!" Hirako insisted, and just as Kisuke opened his mouth to argue, he cut him off, holding up a hand. "Yeah, yeah, I know, yer a friggin' genius so you feel if anyone coulda seen it, it shoulda been you."

Kisuke pursed his lips, trying not to let his mounting frustration lead him to say something he might regret. But for all the sarcasm in Hirako's tone, that was the simple, uncomfortable truth, wasn't it? There wasn't a single person in Soul Society who could have seen through Aizen other than himself.

Despite his efforts to keep his thoughts to himself, they must've been all too apparent in his expression, as Hirako rolled his eyes at him. "I'm not offended ya think yer smarter than anyone else, ya moron, you are," he said. "That's not the point here."

"Then what the hell is the point?" Kisuke said, throwing his arms up in exasperation.

"It wasn't yer damn job to keep an eye on Aizen!"

"But—"

"IT WAS MY JOB!"

Hirako's outburst was followed by a pregnant, ringing silence. Breathless, Hirako tore his gaze away to stare at his knees again. He looked shaken at his own words, but at the same time, it was as though an invisible weight had lifted off his shoulders. Kisuke had to wonder just how long he'd been waiting to voice that particular thought out loud.

"Hirako…" he said. "No-one—"

"Blames me?" Hirako said, a wry grin on his lips. "Yeah, I know. Took me a long time to come to terms with it, too. So why the hell can't you?"

Sighing, Kisuke ran a hand through his hair and pondered the question. It was a perfectly legitimate one, but Kisuke had no answer for Hirako, not even after more than five decades of mulling it over.

"Thing is, Kisuke," Hirako said. "You didn't spend almost every waking hour with that psycho, but I did. I was his superior. And I know you were tryina make me feel better by taking the blame yerself, but dammit, I wanted the blame!"

They held each other's gaze for a moment, Kisuke being at a loss of what to say, but it seemed Hirako wasn't done just yet.

"I ain't gonna sit and wallow about what I coulda done differently," he said. "But back then… back then I needed that. I needed to talk about all the crap I'd done wrong and you just—" Hirako clenched his jaw, scowl deepening. Whether he was trying to soften an oncoming blow, or simply find the right words to phrase his thoughts, Kisuke didn't know. "By shouldering the blame ya made the situation all about you and how you had failed, when I needed to talk about my own failures, get it out in the open."

Stunned at the revelation, Kisuke could only sit there, slack-jawed. Too consumed with his own guilt, he had been quick to accept blame early and openly, terrified that if he didn't, someone else would inevitably voice their resentment, given enough time. By heading them off, he could at least feel some relief in displaying self-awareness.

It had never, not once, occurred to him to blame Hirako for the entire Aizen debacle, not even privately. It had also never occurred to him that perhaps this was precisely what Hirako might need.

"I'm sorry," was all he could say.

Hirako waved one hand dismissively. "Like I said, I know yer heart was in the right place and all, I'm not mad," he said. "But you gotta stop tryin' ta fix everything. Some things just can't be fixed. Ya think Kaien's gonna magically come alive if ya killed Aizen today? Yoruichi didn't need ya to come sweepin' in and promise to make it all better, she probably wanted you to just… let her talk, let her vent. She doesn't blame ya."

Kisuke pressed his hands against his mouth, fingers steepled. If he was being entirely honest with himself, it was Yoruichi's condemnation he had always feared the most. He could have handled being blamed by any one of them, even Tessai, even Hirako, but from her? The words would've cut with the force of a thousand knives. How could she not resent him, even a little? How could she not be wishing she hadn't sacrificed everything important about her life, every achievement, every friend, every family member, in order to save someone who—

Someone who doesn't even have the decency to let her speak her mind openly.

"See? See this?" Hirako said, sighing. "We're still ramblin' on about you and yer damn guilt. S'what I was talkin' about." Leaning forward, elbows resting upon his knees, he sought Kisuke's eye. "No-one blames you. And no-one blames me; our friends are awesome that way. So that's that. Go back home and talk to Yoruichi, will ya?"

Jaw tight, Kisuke willed his trembling throat to quiet down, and he spoke the words he hadn't had the courage to admit even to himself in private. "She left."

"Well then whenever she comes back from her walk or wherever it is she went."

"I mean she left for good," Kisuke said. "I think."

Even at their drunkest, most honest, he and Hirako had never spoken openly about their innermost fears or desires. A few cryptic words, perhaps, when either of them was feeling particularly low. Understanding each other without the need to voice every errant thought was a cornerstone of their relationship. Kisuke had always known how Hirako fretted over Aizen, how he felt about Hiyori, and Hirako had always known both the best and the worst of him. Kisuke had never expected to be fortunate enough to find this level of understanding from anyone other than Yoruichi, and Hirako… well, Hirako had been the one person he had been able to count upon to keep the secrets he couldn't bring himself to tell Yoruichi, back then.

Still, despite their shared preference of not oversharing, Kisuke was no stranger to Hirako's advice, or even words of comfort. Which was why his friend's next words were so unexpected.

"Friggin' drama queen," Hirako said, getting up to his feet and stretching. "Go home, Kisuke. And stop drinkin', it's makin' ya weepy and dullin' yer senses."

Kisuke had barely even had the time to feel hurt over Hirako's cool dismissal; the comment about his dulled senses had been a little too pointed, and coupled with Hirako's smirk, it made Kisuke raise a questioning eyebrow.

Hirako, however, didn't seem to be in a clarifying mood. He rested Sakanade over his shoulder, his smirk turning into a soft smile. "I'll see ya around."

"I— Yes. Take care, Hirako."

"You, too. And thanks for the heads up." With a playful salute, Hirako turned his heel and Flashed away.

Kisuke stared at the empty air Hirako had previously occupied far longer than he cared to admit. Leaving the shop, even for such a brief outing had felt good, a change of pace from his latest routine of sleepwalking through the day in a state of permanent gloom.

Seeing Hirako again had been just as much a blessing as it was a curse; he was now palpably aware of exactly how much he'd missed him, and Hiyori and the rest of their group. Of how much he'd missed talking to a friend. His daily interactions with Tessai were nothing like they had been, now tainted with the unspoken, unacknowledged event of Yoruichi's possibly permanent departure.

But above all, he was painfully reminded of the one person he wished to see and speak to the most. Not that she'd ever left his mind to begin with. Before tonight, however, he'd at least held on to the comfort that he'd driven her away for her own good. Hirako's words had opened his eyes to the fact that he'd somehow managed to screw things up yet another time before their parting.

The bottle of sake he'd been planning to open before his encounter with Hirako felt more inviting than ever.

In a daze, he made his way back to the shop, slipping in through the open window to his bedroom. Weary and numb, he pushed his hood back and was in the middle of unfastening the cloak, when his eyes fell upon the bed and his entire body froze on the spot.

"And stop drinkin', it's makin' ya weepy and dullin' yer senses."

Sitting by the edge of the bed, clad in his –her- blue yukata was Yoruichi, wrists locked between her knees. As his lips parted at the sight, their eyes met, and Kisuke was startled to see in hers a reflection of the misery that had plagued him for seventy days, five hours and three minutes. Give or take.

Yoruichi stood up, tucking her loose hair behind her ears, and that simple, familiar gesture was more than enough to unlock his limbs and send him rushing forward.

He crashed into her, his hands clawing at her with the ferocity of a man who was terrified she was but an apparition, a litany of apologies spilling out of his lips –"I'm sorry, I'm sorry, please—" whenever they weren't sealed against hers, but it wasn't long before Hirako's earlier words reached the miniscule part of his mind that wasn't singing with joy at her presence, and he stopped talking at long last.

And in the early morning hours, when the world was veiled in blue and her soft voice broke the long silence, when she laid her heart out bare while she spoke of her friend, of the Kaien she had known, he wrapped his arms around her and listened.

.

.-. .-'. .-. .-. .-. .-. .`-. .-.

:::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\::::::::.\

' `-' `.-' `-' `-' `-' `-.' `-' `

.

DECEMBER 25TH, 125 B.H.I., SHIHŌIN CLAN ANCESTRAL CASTLE, COURT OF PURE SOULS

.

It looked different, somehow.

Intellectually, Kisuke knew the White Gate of the Shihōin Clan ancestral castle hadn't changed in millennia, much less in the nearly four years since he'd last crossed it. Standing there, however, before the portcullis, looking up at it, Kisuke felt small in its presence.

The last time he had heard the creak of the pulley being drawn, the gate had snapped shut behind him with such a finality that a future return had seemed ludicrous. And yet there he was, the letter bearing Lord Shihōin's crest burning in his pocket, his heart racing as the gate was drawn up from within, granting him entry. Thanking the guards, Kisuke felt a very strong sense of déjà vu as he crossed the bridge over the moat and made his way toward the estate. For many years, this had been his routine every fortnight on the dot, when he would meet up with Lord Shihōin for their game of shōgi. This was the first time he would ever be making the trip as a mere visitor, and not as one of the Lord's faithful subjects.

Like stepping into a half-remembered dream, he hiked up the familiar path through the grounds in a daze, returning the polite smiles and respectful head inclinations of the staff, of people he had known since childhood. Yet at the same time, there was a distinct tightness in the pit of his stomach, an awareness that he no longer belonged there, and perhaps never truly had.

Despite the clear signs that the staff had been alerted to his visit, he was still only allowed to enter the estate with an escort. The pair of guards allowed him to lead the way up the stairwell, keeping a respectful distance. They remained silent and impassive for the duration of the walk, save to give him an odd look when sheer muscle memory led him to a brief stop at the residential wing on the fifth floor. Shaking his head, Kisuke gave one quick, wistful glance down the corridor, toward the apartment he had once shared with his mother, then continued up the stairs.

He wished the guards would have given him a moment to collect his thoughts once they reached their destination. Before he could object, one of them gave a discreet rap at the door to Lord Shihōin's study, and Kisuke now had all of a few seconds to mentally prepare for the meeting.

Then again, he was willing to bet even a few hours wouldn't have been enough.

At the sound of Lord Shihōin's voice, Kisuke took a deep breath in and slid the door open. Not meeting his former mentor's eye, he kept his gaze to the floor as he stepped forward, following the path of the luxurious tatami mats all the way to the desk.

All the while, he could feel the tension in the Lord Shihōin's immense spiritual pressure. To his great surprise, Kisuke found that he no longer felt strain in his presence, that ghostly sensation of being forced into submission by a force that, for all of Kisuke's life until now, had been far vaster than his own.

Still, even with that small boost of confidence, he dared not lift his gaze as he dropped to his knees and into a deep bow. "My Lord Shihōin."

"Kisuke," he said, and in his peripheral vision, Kisuke saw that he was being given a signal to rise. "It has been quite a while. You seem well."

Standing up to full height, Kisuke slowly lifted his eyes to look upon Lord Shihōin. "I am, Sir," he said. "I was honored to receive your invitation, and hope I find you both in good health and spirits."

Lord Shihōin glanced at his desk and the two seats on opposite sides, a hesitant look in his eyes. He seemed to be debating whether or not to offer him a seat, and Kisuke understood why all too well: with so many unresolved issues between them, even the simple act of being in the same room was borderline unbearable. The older man's eyes swept over to the shōgi board by the other side of the room, then flitted back to Kisuke.

"How about a game?" he said.

Kisuke was mentally transported back to their first private meeting, when he had been but a nervous little boy, standing in awe at the presence of greatness. The more things change… "Of course, sir."

Cup of tea in hand, sitting in his usual spot across Lord Shihōin with the shōgi board between them, Kisuke hoped that the incoming discussion would be far easier to deal with. To his credit, Lord Shihōin said nothing until the servants had vacated the room and the two of them began the process of setting up the board. Perhaps the situation was almost as nerve-wracking for him as it was for Kisuke himself.

"Congratulations on your transfer," Lord Shihōin said, breaking the silence at long last.

"Thank you, Sir."

"Why the Fourth Division?"

Because they offered. Because I couldn't bear to look Matsuo in the eye anymore. Because it's… better that way. "I spent the last three years in the battlefield," Kisuke said. "It was an invaluable experience, but it left me woefully behind on my spellwork. Joining the Fourth Division felt like the best opportunity to ameliorate that."

"I was under the impression a transfer was usually accompanied by a promotion."

Kisuke had the distinct feeling that if he'd been offered a promotion on top of being allowed to change Divisions, Matsuo might have hunted him down herself and killed him. "Usually, yes. But I was glad for the change of pace either way."

I might have been a trick of the light, but Kisuke could have sworn Lord Shihōin looked personally insulted as he spoke his next words. "Frankly, I would have expected Captain Unohana to offer you the position of Third Seat," he said. "There was ample time between April and September for you to gain the necessary experience needed. Your spellwork is already well beyond what the position required."

Asking how exactly he was privy to such detailed information would have been a childish question. Lord Shihōin had ways of knowing everything that happened within the Thirteen Divisions. Or rather, the entirety of the Court.

"Still, I suppose Fifth Seat is quite the achievement for someone of your age," Lord Shihōin said. There was no need for him to say more, Kisuke was certain he already knew the implicit words: But not for someone trained under the Shihōin roof.

They spoke no more of the Thirteen Divisions. In fact, they spoke of nothing for a long time, settling into the game in silence. Kisuke was beginning to think Lord Shihōin had invited him over for no reason other than to remark on his less than impressive career –or lack thereof- when the man opened up a new subject.

"I had the distinct pleasure of examining an interesting invention a few months ago," he said. "The researchers over at the Onmitsukidō Development Division called it a Tenshintai."

Kisuke's hand froze above his Dragon King, and he could feel Lord Shihōin's eyes on him. This, at long last, explained a number of things about today's bizarre invitation. The reason behind it, as well as Yoruichi's surprise it had taken her father that long, for Kisuke had no doubt Lord Shihōin had spent those past few months trying to reverse-engineer the Tenshintai in order to understand it. Pulling his hand back, Kisuke met the older man's eye.

"It is a marvelous artifact, meant to materialize the spirit within a Soul Cutter instantly," Lord Shihōin said. "Everything about it, from the concept, to the design, to the assembly is… elegant. Even the very choice in materials displays a level of creativity and care that is rarely seen, even in my circle. And I know for a fact that not a single man or woman in that team is capable of producing such an artifact."

He didn't know whether Lord Shihōin was expecting some sort of reaction, or an explanation even, but Kisuke gave neither. He simply folded his hands on his lap, waiting for Lord Shihōin's speech to come to an end.

"I should note here that Yoruichi did not betray your trust," Lord Shihōin said. "I've seen enough of your work to recognize it on sight."

"I never thought she did," Kisuke said.

Lord Shihōin gave him an inscrutable look, folding his arms before his chest. He said nothing for a few moments, until he eventually let out a sigh and placed his hands on his knees. "All right, I must know: what type of material did you use? It feels familiar and yet it is not, there is nothing in the market like it."

Kisuke let out a chuckle. "I modified the base material of a gigai," he said. "The idea is that instead of centering upon and mimicking the body's particles—"

"It mimics the particles that make up the Soul Cutter," Lord Shihōin said, his lips parting. Letting out a scoff, he shook his head. "I cannot believe no-one ever thought of this before," he said, reaching for his cup of tea. "It's so… simple."

To anyone else, the word might have sounded like an insult, but Kisuke understood what Lord Shihōin was trying to say perfectly. For as long as he'd known the man, he had always valued and insisted on elegance, on the brilliance of simplicity in any design. Calling an invention simple was his highest praise, and it was that more than any of the earlier praise that made Kisuke's heart swell.

Whatever Lord Shihōin's endgame was in regards to this meeting, whether he was manipulating Kisuke's keen desire to please him or not, Kisuke found that he didn't care. He knew for a fact that he had managed the one thing he had been striving for since childhood: impress Lord Shihōin. And that was more than enough.

"So… You have achieved bankai, then?" Lord Shihōin asked. Upon sight of Kisuke's raised eyebrows, he could only give him a mildly disparaging look. "Why else would you have built the Tenshintai if not to speed up the process?"

Why, indeed. "I have, sir."

"How long did it take you?"

Perhaps he should have waited for Lord Shihōin to place his cup down before speaking, but part of him couldn't help it. "Three days."

Lord Shihōin choked on his sip, his face quickly turning the color of his estate's famous maple leaves. With a shaking hand, he set down his teacup and reached for some water instead, waving off Kisuke's exclamations of concern. He cleared his throat loudly and took a few, steadying breaths, glancing down at the shōgi board once more. Kisuke assumed the game would continue in silence, but instead of making a new move, Lord Shihōin shifted his eyes toward the golden clock on the cabinet by the door.

Kisuke had witnessed this display countless times in the past, and understood its meaning at once: his audience with Lord Shihōin was over. Though he hadn't expected to spend much longer in the Lord's study, Kisuke couldn't help but feel a little disappointed all the same. Was this all the meeting was meant to amount to? Satisfying Lord Shihōin's curiosity over the Tenshintai?

"Well then…" the older man said. "We shall continue our game in a fortnight, as always."

Even though he could only claim the remotest connection to nobility (and not even by name any longer), Kisuke had been brought up amongst nobility of the highest order. Loss of control over one's emotions, even something as innocuous as staring, were actions one simply did not indulge in, especially in such illustrious company. And yet Kisuke could have no more stopped himself from gawking at Lord Shihōin than he could stop the sun from rising in the east.

Lord Shihōin himself was the picture of serenity. Curiously enough, he didn't even react to Kisuke's expression, as though he had been expecting it. "In the meantime, there is a new project starting out in the Vault this week," he said. "I expect you to adjust your schedule accordingly to join the development team."

Kisuke willed himself to close his parted mouth out of fear that he might legitimately scream; whether in joy or frustration, he honestly didn't know. Part of him was elated that he was no longer persona non-grata in the Shihōin clan, but the smaller, pettier side, the side that held all the little morsels of anger, resentment, pride, was not quite so easily placated. After more than three years of being shunned, after the treatment he'd received the last time he had set foot in the castle, after all the bitter words that had been said… Was he now simply expected to bow his head and be grateful?

It was the sensible thing to do, of course. Especially considering the fact that the last time he had spoken to Lord Shihōin face-to-face, he had chosen the road exactly opposite of sensibility. But for all the resistance his pride put up, his traitorous heart was precisely that: grateful.

If nothing else, he could take comfort in the knowledge that Lord Shihōin had extended his offer without making any more demands, at least for the time being. He seemed to have accepted Kisuke's choices regarding his career in the Thirteen Divisions, and in retrospect, his previous comments now felt like they had been no more than genuine conversation instead of criticism.

In the end, it all came down to one simple fact: for almost a full year now, he had done little more than what he was expected to do. And as much as it stung to admit, for once, what was expected of him and what he truly wanted happened to coincide. He couldn't have found it in him to deny Lord Shihōin's offer even if there had been no repercussions whatsoever.

"Yes, sir. Of course, sir," Kisuke said.

He expected to be asked to show himself out, but Lord Shihōin surprised him by declaring there was one more detail to take care of before Kisuke left the estate: meeting the development team.

Kisuke didn't know quite how to feel about the casual conversation that took place as they descended the stairwell together. As welcome as it was, being back on speaking terms with his mentor was a jarring shift that would take time to get used to once again. He wasn't naïve enough to expect any lengthy discussions pertaining to the past, but he did wonder whether it would ever be acknowledged, even in passing.

They had just reached the ground floor when a servant approached them, bowing before Lord Shihōin. "Pardon the interruption, my Lord," she said. "I have been asked to inform you that your presence is requested in the east wing by councilman Akiyama."

Lord Shihōin paused at the foot of the stairs. "Is this urgent? I am running late as it is."

"I do not know, my Lord, I have only been sent to deliver the message."

Pursing his lips, Lord Shihōin let out a discreet sigh and took a moment to make up his mind. "I suppose his Honor Nomura will not mind a small delay… Have my driver be on standby," he said, then turned to Kisuke. "Kisuke, I shall ask for your patience for a few moments, this shouldn't take long."

"Sir, if you wish to reschedule, I would be more than happy—"

"No, no, I have a full schedule to adhere to the following days," Lord Shihōin said. "I may not have time later in the week, and I wish to have this taken care of today. I will send for you to meet me down at the Vault in a few minutes."

Kisuke watched with a fond smile as Lord Shihōin sped down the corridor toward the east wing of the estate. The efficiency, the strict schedule, the rare glimpses of his mentor rushing from one meeting to the next… Even the Fourth Division's Relief Station had nothing on the controlled chaos that was daily life in the Shihōin compound.

As he sat idle, workmen weaved across the corridor, carrying a shipment of crates from the courtyard to the basement. Kisuke's eyes fell on the crest that adorned every single crate and recognized it at once as the emblem of the Shiba Clan.

His curiosity piqued, he glanced down the stairway, then back to the direction Lord Shihōin had disappeared to. Figuring he had a few minutes to spare, Kisuke hurried down the stairs to the basement, only to be greeted by the sight of Shiba Kūkaku. Ahh, of course… Barely a week till the 31st. Wrapped up in a long, thick traveling cloak, she was surrounded by stacks of the same crates Kisuke had just seen, keeping an eye on the whole process. All around her, workmen filed in and out of the basement, making room for her shipment in between the long rows of assorted stored goods.

As soon as she spotted him, Kūkaku broke into a surprised smile and waved at him. Kisuke ambled over to her, an identical smile on his lips.

"Well, well, well…" Kūkaku said, resting one elbow against a tall stack of crates that came up to her waist. "Look who's out of the doghouse at long last."

"Miss Shiba," Kisuke said, inclining his head at her.

"Mister Urahara," she said, returning the gesture with a grin. "How ya been, kiddo?"

"Can't complain. And you?"

"Same old same old," Kūkaku said. "What's this I'm hearing from Yoruichi? You run with the bandage crowd now?"

Kisuke laughed at her choice of words. "I do."

"Hmmm… never pegged you for the healer type."

"I'm just full of surprises," Kisuke said, motioning toward the shipment next to her. "Here for your fireworks delivery?"

"Indeed I am," Kūkaku said, slapping his hand away when he tried to open the top lid of one of the crates. "Ah-ah-ah! No touchy. I don't want your grubby little paws all over my masterpiece; you'll just sneak one into your pocket and try to make a run for it."

"That happened once, and it was a misunder—"

"And once was more than enough. You'll have to wait till the grand unveiling, like everyone else."

"I'm not quite so certain I'll be invited," Kisuke said. Despite what Lord Shihōin had said earlier, when implying their professional relationship was back to its earlier state, Kisuke made no assumptions about what this meant in regards to their personal relationship. Hoping to join the festivities for the Founder's Day celebration so soon after their reconciliation might be pushing the envelope a little. "So unless Lord Shihōin specifically mentions this—"

"Old man Shihōin is around?" Kūkaku said, arching both eyebrows. "I thought he wasn't going to be at the estate all morning. At least that's what he told me when we last spoke."

That explained Lord Shihōin's earlier comment about making his Honor Nomura wait for him. "I think he may have rescheduled," Kisuke said. "He did seem to be in a rush to leave after our talk."

"Awwwww—" Kūkaku reached out to pinch his cheek, grinning broadly. "—Did his lordship reschedule an important meeting just so he could have a heart-to-heart with lil' old you? That's touching."

Kisuke pushed her hand away gently, feeling his neck and ears growing warmer. "I'm quite certain that's not the case at all."

Chuckling, Kūkaku pulled away. "So what are you hanging around for? Waiting for Yoruichi?"

"No, just waiting for Lord Shihōin to return, we— Wait, Yoruichi is here?"

"Yeah, wandering around somewhere with Kirinji. Maybe even sneaking in a Shunpo lesson for old time's sake, who knows?" Kūkaku said.

Their conversation was cut short when Kisuke heard a vaguely familiar voice call his name from the direction of the stairwell. One of the estate servants stood by the threshold, which most likely meant that Lord Shihōin had returned and was waiting for him at the Vault.

"I'm afraid I have to run," Kisuke said, turning to Kūkaku. "Will you still be here in a few minutes?"

"Probably not, gotta go see Kirinji off after this," Kūkaku said. "Tell Old man Shihōin I send my regards."

"Will do," Kisuke said, giving her a parting smile and a wave before turning his heel.

He was almost mid-way up the steps when he sensed it, the odd droplet of raw, volatile energy hitting the air. He swiveled around, feeling time grinding down to a near halt as he watched Kūkaku lift the lid of the crate nearest to her. There was no time to reflect upon what it was he had just sensed; it was instinct more than anything that fueled his body as he fell into a Flash Step, his hand reaching for Benihime without conscious thought entering into the equation.

He thought he might have shouted a warning, but it was futile either way. The world went white as his fingers closed around the scruff of Kūkaku's cloak, and he only had time to see Benihime's shield bloom like a flower, rich crimson stark against white, before he was launched off his feet and sent soaring through the air.

His breath was violently expelled from his lungs when he slammed against the wall and slumped down to the floor, stars erupting in his field of vision. A loud roar sent his eardrums pulsating to the ripple of the shock wave, followed by a second, more muted blast, then ambient sounds disappeared altogether, only to be replaced with a painful shrillness. He had no idea how long he might have lain there, flat against the cold stone, sensation sluggishly returning to his limbs.

"…up, ge… up…"

The first thing he became aware of was the steady pump of his heartbeat radiating through his right fist, which was still tightly clenched around fabric. The piercing sound persisted, the rest of the world nothing but a faint, muted buzz, as though he were listening in while submerged underwater. There were shouts somewhere in the distance. He only registered them as an observation, like he was no longer part of his own body, but a silent onlooker.

"Get up, Kisuke."

His left hand burned around the handle of Benihime, throbbing in tune with his shallow breaths.

"Get up, get up…"

Clenching his eyelids, he let out a groan while the shrill sound intensified, his breath coming out in a gasp as sound and color and feeling returned to him all at once, his eyes popping open. Coughing at the motes of dust that clogged his throat, he relaxed his grip on Benihime, pushing himself up to one elbow. His vision swam for a second, head light and mind still in the course of processing scattered bits of information: the volatile spiritual energy; the blast; his shield still standing in the distance, mostly intact, a steam-like mist clinging to its other side as an aftereffect of the explosion; the rugged fabric bunched up in his—

With a start, Kisuke whipped his head to the side, only to find Kūkaku, laid out next to him on her back. Her eyes stared at the ceiling, unseeing, her chest rising and falling rapidly, her skin glistening with a sheen of sweat. It was then that he realized he couldn't have lost consciousness for more than a few seconds. Kūkaku herself didn't seem to have regained her capacities in full; if she had, she would have been screaming at the strange shadow that was quickly crawling its way up her right arm.

Shit, shit, SHIT— Scrambling up to his knees, Kisuke reached for Kūkaku's arm. It was a spell that had caused the explosion in that crate, that much was certain now, its aftereffects taking root under her skin and working so methodically, there was little room for doubt as to whether the blast had been an accident. Recognizing the need to prioritize, Kisuke pushed all irrelevant thoughts out of his head and willed himself to concentrate on the more pressing issue.

The spell seemed to have chosen her fingertips as a point of origin, the shadow leaving nothing but necrotic flesh in its wake. It was no use trying to inject life back into the blackening tissues, they were long gone. The shadow had crept past her elbow now, and in a desperate attempt to stall for time, Kisuke summoned a surge of energy, meeting it head on. It felt like a tsunami crashing against a poorly built dam; Kisuke's entire back broke out in sweat as he struggled to hold on, to keep the invading force from advancing any further.

There had to be something, a weakness he could exploit, some way to break down the spell's composition and create its natural opposition. The spell was custom made, that much was clear as day, but beyond this meager observation, Kisuke had little else to go on. It was not unlike trying to look in both directions at once: probing the spell's exterior, searching for a point of entry, while simultaneously trying to keep it at bay. A crudely built spell, he could tell that much, but ingenious in its simplicity. The irony of this did not escape him. Given enough time, it shouldn't have been difficult to counter, but its brilliance lay in the fact that it was built to work so fast, any possible weaknesses became irrelevant: it would have taken a monstrous reserve of spiritual power to block its course while simultaneously working on disarming it. The kind of power he simply did not have.

No, come on, come on… Give me something. There has to be… something…

For the first time since regaining awareness he took to his surroundings, sweat trickling down his temple. There was a number of spiritual signatures in the vicinity, far fewer than there should have been, given the crowd inside the basement before the explosion. Trying not to dwell on those who had met their demise instantly, Kisuke reached out for the faint traces of energy around him. Some injured, many more unconscious, but none in a critical state. Save for Kūkaku.

With the dust settled, he could appreciate the full magnitude of the damage the explosion had caused, showering the floor with shredded wood and the remnants of whatever had been in storage. The entire stairwell had collapsed, the exit to the rest of the estate sealed shut with debris. He could hear voices from the other side, but until the way was cleared, he was alone.

"Is it too far gone?"

Kisuke's head snapped back toward Kūkaku. She was staring at him through half-lidded eyes, her cheeks pale and clammy under the shock of dark hair that fell across her forehead.

Kisuke tightened his grip on her arm. "Don't try to speak—"

"Is it?"

Pursing his lips, Kisuke leaned closer to her, hoping the despair in his eyes was not too transparent. "I have to stop it before it reaches your heart," he said.

She seemed to understand what he was trying to tell her. Swallowing hard, she nodded, breathing in hard through her nose. "How… how bad will it be?"

Like nothing you've ever experienced before. Reaching for her other hand, Kisuke clasped it tightly into his. "I'll make it quick."

Kūkaku's breathing became more erratic, a tremor in her hand as she tightened her fingers around his. She seemed to be working herself up for what was coming, and Kisuke wanted to give her more time to mentally prepare herself, but it was taking everything within his power just to keep the shadow at bay. Whether she sensed this or simply accepted her fate swiftly he didn't know, but Kūkaku released her vise-like grip on him and closed her eyes, giving him a curt nod in okay.

True to his word, he made it quick.

Even so, he suspected it felt far longer to her when the beam of kidō tore through flesh and bone. It took less than a fragment of a second for the shadow to consume the severed limb in its entirety; it dissolved into a cloud of dark mist before it even hit the ground. Everything else became an afterthought as he focused on stopping the bleeding, every feeling, every sound in the background fading away. Everything but her scream, which continued to echo somewhere in the far reaches of his mind even after her eyes rolled back and she passed out.

Seal off the blood vessels and nerves. A clean cut. Good, that means no traces of bone fragments.

"KISUKE!"

Reshape the remaining muscle. Smooth and even. Just—

"KISUKE!"

The hand on his shoulder forced him to swivel around and acknowledge reality. Yoruichi stood before him, real and whole –and safe, SAFE— and wild-eyed, and all around her, the world seemed to have come to life again. Members of the estate staff were already pouring into the basement, and before Kisuke could answer her frantic questions, he felt himself being pushed aside as Kirinji Tenjirō swept down to Kūkaku's side.

Plopping down on the floor, watching while Kirinji checked her vital signs, Kisuke felt like the world's greatest idiot. What did I do? What the hell did I just do? Kirinji was here, I knew he was here, I should have waited, I shouldn't have—

"What the hell just happened?" Yoruichi said, kneeling down next to him, her eyes sweeping from him to Kūkaku and back again in distress. "We heard the explosion and ran back here—"

Running a hand through his hair, Kisuke tried to silence the onslaught of incoming questions and theories in his head that tried to vie for his attention from a thousand different directions. Who could have done this? A seal, you should have tried a seal— Could there be more traps rigged to blow— The target who was the target why Kūkaku— You should have Flashed out of the basement you idiot— How many dead— What if I'd opened the lid before she stopped me— You knew Kirinji was here— Did I remember to seal off the nerves— But why Kūkaku not her it makes more sense if a Shihōin was meant to be the victim—

"You should clear the room," Kisuke said.

"I— what?"

"The explosion… it was a spell. Someone sabotaged one of Miss Shiba's crates," Kisuke said. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Kirinji glance at him through narrowed eyes. "I think. Whatever escaped out of there did the damage to her arm. There could be more traps rigged; I haven't had the time to check. We should move the wounded out of the basement and seal it off."

He could tell Yoruichi wanted to rush to her friend's side, but she took his words to heart. Nodding, she stood up on her feet and got down to business at once. Though Kisuke kept his eyes on Kūkaku, he could hear Yoruichi in the background, ordering her staff to hurry and move the injured to the upper floors.

Kisuke's gaze flitted over to Kirinji. No longer checking Kūkaku for vital signs, the former Captain was now examining the film of kidō that was wrapped around the end of her severed arm. Kisuke waited for Kirinji to say something, to admonish him for acting rashly, to comment on his botched amputation perhaps, but he said nothing, a look of intense concentration in his eyes as he examined Kisuke's work.

The silence was going to drive him mad. "No-one else required medical attention," Kisuke blurted out. "I… I checked."

"Yeah, I figured as much, kid," Kirinji said, still not looking at him. "What was that thing? Custom spell? Hadō type?"

"I— Yes, how did you—?"

"It's faint, but there are still traces of it left," Kirinji said. Perhaps sensing Kisuke's oncoming words, he hurried to clarify. "In the air, not on her wound. It's a clean cut. She'll be fine once she wakes up."

At the very least, he now had confirmation he hadn't made a complete mess out of this. Kisuke nodded at the Captain. "What about the second explosion? Was anyone hurt?"

For the first time since entering the basement, Kirinji turned to acknowledge him, brow furrowed. "What second explosion?"

The intensity in his gaze gave Kisuke pause for a second, but it wasn't enough to make him question what he already knew to be true. "I heard a second one just before I was blasted away," he said.

"You sure you're not concussed, Blondie?"

"I am positive—"

A faint cough, followed by an even fainter voice drew both their attentions back to Kūkaku. "Prototype…"

"Oi, Kūkaku," Kirinji said, his voice firm but not unkind. "Don't try to speak, you've just been—"

Looking right past Kirinji, eyes locked on Kisuke, Kūkaku spoke again. "Prototype… A gift… for Yoru's father…"

Her words were too emphasized, too deliberate to be the dismissed as the ramblings of a pain-addled mind. She was trying to tell him something. A gift? What does this have to do—? A prototype for study. That means it could only be in— "The Vault," Kisuke said, his eyes snapping wide. Kūkaku held on to consciousness long enough to give him a firm nod, then let her eyes slip shut again, her jaw clenched.

"The hell does that even—?"

"Lord Shihōin is there."

Kirinji took the hint at once. Exchanging a look of alarm with Kisuke, he stood up at once and fell into the fastest, most perfectly executed Flash Step Kisuke had even seen.

He was about to follow, when one of the more persistent voices in his head gripped his attention. With no information as to how, why and more importantly who had sabotaged Kūkaku's crates, the situation unfolding in the estate right now was as potentially volatile as a chemical experiment gone off the rails. Anyone could be behind this. And if Lord Shihōin had just been— No, NO. You do NOT know this, don't make assumptions— Either way, protecting Yoruichi and her mother should be first priority right now. But with so many likely culprits, who could he possibly trust? Certainly not the Onmitsukidō, or the state guards, or even the rest of the clan. There was no-one, not a single— No. There is one person. Just the one.

The Hell Butterfly landed on his shoulder the second he summoned it forth, and Kisuke turned to it, whispering a succinct but comprehensive account of the situation into its velvety black wings. The creature gave a gentle flutter in acknowledgement and took off at once. Waiting for a response was torture, but he couldn't afford to leave until he knew for certain. Come on, come on, hurry, please No sooner had he formed the thought than the butterfly returned, floating into his waiting hand. The response was thankfully the one he had been hoping for: "I am on my way."

With a sigh of relief, Kisuke gave Kūkaku's shoulder a gentle squeeze and pushed himself up, about to follow Kirinji, when Yoruichi swooped down upon him, a crease in her brow.

"What's going on? Where did Kirinji go?" she said.

Kisuke felt his lips part involuntarily, but he made no sound. He was certain guilt was written all over his face, and he was scrambling for the words to phrase this so as not to cause her even more alarm. He had hoped he might be able to distract her with something else to take care of in the basement, but it seemed she had managed to get her staff to clear the room in no time. There was no-one else left there but the two of them and Kūkaku.

"Look, I—" Kisuke hesitated. "I don't have time to explain, but—"

Yoruichi was not fooled. "Don't give me that crap; what's happening? What aren't you telling me?"

Kisuke clenched his jaw, making one last frantic mental attempt to find some sort of excuse, but his conscience, an entity he could have sworn had abandoned him at the tender age of forty seven, chose this moment to make its triumphant return. He couldn't lie to her, not about this. She deserved to know. "There was a second explosion," he said. "I think it might have been at the Vault."

Yoruichi had no trouble connecting the dots. Her eyes broadened for a split second, pupils blown wide in horror, but she kept her cool. "Let's go."

"NO— Nononono, you can't—"

"No?" Her hand was on him before he could even blink, and he found himself being yanked toward her as she grabbed a fistful of his top. "You do not give orders in my house, Kisuke, I give orders in my house, so when I say I'm coming with—"

"I know, I know, I'm sorry—" Reaching for her hand, Kisuke gently pried her fist open, a placating expression in his eyes. "But Yoruichi, we— I don't know what we'll find down there… And… Just in case…"

There was no need to say more. He could tell by the shift in her eyes that she had understood the implication: You are the heir. If worse comes to worst, you are the clan's leader as of this moment. And you could be the next target.

Nostrils flared, Yoruichi slackened her hold on his shirt, letting her arm drop. "I can't just… sit here."

"Your entire clan is counting on you to do just that. For now."

His words must have had an effect: Yoruichi seemed to be fighting an inner battle, her legendary stubbornness at war with her rationality. She tore her gaze away from his, letting out a soft groan as she rubbed her forehead. He was almost convinced he'd done it, managed to sway her into staying put, but her tenacity had always been an unstoppable force of nature. "No," she said, meeting his eye again, her jaw set. "I will not accept—"

Kisuke wished he had more time to talk her down, give her a few better chosen words of comfort, but this was a luxury he could not afford right now. Before she had even finished her sentence, he Flashed away, making for the exit.

Dropping down on one knee, he clapped his hands together once and slammed them down onto the floor barely a second before Yoruichi got there. The thick, orange barrier blasted into being between them, bringing her to a screeching halt, betrayal written in her eyes.

"WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING?"

"Please just listen—"

Now well and truly beside herself, Yoruichi flattened her hands against the barrier, frantically pawing along its surface for any weak spots. She would find none. "Undo this right now, Kisuke," she growled. "Or I swear I am ending our friendship this instant."

The barrier hummed between them and Kisuke locked gazes with her, his determination weakening for just a moment at her words. Her silhouette rippled behind the orange filter, her features muted, but there was no mistaking the burning fury in her eyes.

His resolve hardened and with it, his expression. "If that's what it takes."

"KISUKE!"

He could still hear her screaming his name —mixed with a number of choice expletives- as he walked away, hurrying down the corridor.

Somewhere within the agitated crowd flooding the hallway, he managed to locate a face he could trust with this one, last task before he could make his way down to the Vault to meet with Kirinji. It was Sakumo, one of Yoruichi's personal guards since childhood, and a man Kisuke knew would gladly suffer any horror imaginable before he would ever betray her.

"Sakumo!"

A hint of surprise colored the man's face upon seeing Kisuke, but it was closely followed by relief. At the very least, no matter what anyone within the castle might've made of Lord Shihōin's choice to banish him, Kisuke was glad to see Sakumo knew he could be trusted.

"Thank goodness you're here; I just found out, what is—?"

Kisuke cut him off, flashing him an apologetic grimace. "Listen to me carefully," he said. "The Princess is secured in the basement with Lady Shiba. Have someone send for a few men, choose only people you would trust with your life. Half of them, the most competent of the group, should get to Lady Shihōin's chambers at once and the rest of you should stay here at the entrance. No-one approaches the basement. If anyone tries to break the barrier even after being warned, detain them. Kill them, if need be."

He knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that there was no man or woman within the castle capable of shattering his barrier. But anyone who so much as tried was to be considered a suspect. Yoruichi would be safe for now, until the only person capable of dispelling his bakudō made it to the castle.

"I've sent word to Tsukabishi Tessai, he should be arriving shortly," Kisuke went on. "Please make certain he will be granted entry to the complex and the estate. Once he arrives, you listen to everything he has to say and follow it to the letter. Do not allow the Onmitsukidō to call the shots, or the estate guards, only Tessai. Trust no-one else."

Sakumo's eyes grew progressively broader the more Kisuke spoke. "You… you don't honestly think—?"

"No-one, do you understand me?" Kisuke said, leaning closer to Sakumo. "Not a single soul. The Princess, Lady Shihōin and Lady Shiba are not to be trusted with anyone else unless Tessai himself permits it."

Kisuke waited just long enough to see Sakumo give him a nod in response, then clapped his shoulder once. "Good man. Don't forget what I said." With a Flash, he was off to the stairwell leading down to the Vault.

The air was thick with dust as he hurried down the steps, and he was both glad and dismayed to see he had been proven right. Sheltering his eyes and mouth with one arm, he pushed through the clamoring guards that blocked the narrow passage, until he came face-to-face with Kirinji.

The crate hadn't even made it to the Vault, it seemed. Judging from the scattered wood and debris that littered the floor, the second explosion had gone off right there, in the corridor. There were no other bodies that he could see, injured or otherwise, save for the one laid out on the floor before Kirinji: Lord Shihōin. The front of his kimono was stained scarlet, and Kirinji's hands were plunged into the gaping hole that was his chest cavity.

Something inside Kisuke went stone cold at the sight, his body reacting before his mind could reassure him that there was still a signature in the air, the spiritual presence was not gone. But it was weak, and growing fainter by the second.

"Is there… is there anything…?" he began to say, unable to finish his sentence.

Kirinji's head snapped up at the sound of his voice. "Fuck's sake, Blondie, only took you forever, get in here," he said.

"Wha—?"

"He'll live," Kirinji said, and despite the strain evident in his flushed, sweat-soaked face, his voice carried no uncertainty. "But I need a second set of hands. C'mere."

Kisuke hurried over, dropping to his knees beside Kirinji. "I had to make certain the Princess was sec—"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," Kirinji said, and without warning, slipped one scarlet-stained hand out to grip Kisuke's wrist. "Get your hands in there. I need you to plug up the descending aorta. I assume you know what the hell I'm talking about?"

"I— Yes, of course." Keeping his eyes resolutely away from Lord Shihōin's pale face, Kisuke did as he was told, slipping his hand through the still warm –Warm, it's WARM, thank goodness- organs. Careful not to unwittingly cause more damage, he reached around until his fingers were pressing at the point right next to Kirinji's hand. He could feel the remnants of kidō in the surrounding tissues, but oddly enough, the trace of whatever it was that had caused this injury didn't match the spell that had been inflicted on Kūkaku. "It's not... This injury was caused from a different spell."

"Yes, yes it was. You got it?" Kirinji said.

Kisuke nodded. "You can let go."

Kirinji pulled his other hand free and Kisuke moved his fingers to replace his at once, grateful for the weak, but steady pulse of Lord Shihōin's heartbeat beneath his fingertips. He expected to be given more instructions, but Kirinji turned away, snapping his fingers at once of the guards looking on in horror.

"You, short round," he told the guard standing nearest to them. "Three things: one, have your estate healer send a stretcher down here. Two, arrange for transportation to Shiba Kūkaku's, and three, send a message to them to prep the canon."

The canon…? So Lord Shihōin was going to be transported to the Royal Realm? The situation certainly seemed dire enough; Kisuke had to admit that upon first sight, he had immediately assumed that Lord Shihōin was too far gone to save. If there was any way he might be healed, it could only be there, in Kirinji's realm. And he was certainly an important enough man to merit the trip.

The guard was startled out of his stupor upon being spoken to. "Send… send a message to…?"

"Fuck if I know, whoever's available!" Kirinji said. "Just make sure they know we're coming!"

"Try the Shiba manor," Kisuke said, glancing up at the guard. He sought Kirinji's eye next, the former Captain arching an eyebrow at him. "Shiba Kaien should be there, he will know what to do."

Kirinji nodded. "Yes, that. Do that," he said, addressing the guard again. "Let them know they should be expecting three passengers."

The guard gave Kirinji a somewhat tremulous bow, then slipped away through the throng of men surrounding the scene.

"Three?" Kisuke said. "Are you taking Lady Yor—?"

Kirinji shook his head at Kisuke. "I told you I need a second set of hands, didn't I?" he said. There was a very odd, almost appraising look in his eyes as he seized him up. "You're coming with."


.


A/N: If there's one thing Kisuke has always refused to do, it's play by someone else's rules. And yet I've always found it very curious how, in TBTP, he simply went along with the flow, looking almost apologetic for the fact that he had made it to Captain. It's not until his talk with Shinji that he decides to take charge. In storytelling terms, Kisuke in the modern timeline has always been a very proactive character, instead of reactive, like, say, Ichigo.

This, of course, is the result of a few centuries of experience coupled with a brilliant mind, but what happens when said mind suddenly finds itself directionless? At this juncture in his life (that is, the way I've set it up), Kisuke is quite literally adrift, and I wanted to explore this tangent, since TBTP has already paved the way for it.

Originally, he wasn't even meant to join the 4th Division at all, just be Unohana's errand boy for a few months to justify him snooping around their library. It certainly would've made his healing Kūkaku more impressive, but I couldn't resist exploring the dynamic between Unohana and Kisuke in future chapters, as I feel they have a lot in common. Editing that change in and altering my planned timeline is part of the reason why it took so long to update. So again, apologies, but once the idea came to me, I couldn't let it go.

Considering Ichigo held out against a Gillian-level Menos Grande in episode 14 of the anime (remember that time when HOLLOWS were the biggest threat in Bleach?), it might seem silly to claim a member of the Royal Guard actually had to deal something like that. But here's the thing, this is actually canon! When Rukia is terrified at the sight of that Menos in early episodes, she mentions that very fact, and this is why I had Kirinji be Yoruichi's Shunpo master in earlier chapters. The idea here is that he knows Yoruichi's father, and continued to maintain a relationship, visiting every now and then when his duties brought him passing through Soul Society to the Material World (which was when he stole some time away to tutor Yoruichi). The Shibas, of course, know all members of the Royal Guard since they handle the transport.

I hope you enjoyed this, see you again in the next instalment!