If you hadn't seen it, here it is: Don't own Bleach. Making no money. Do not sue. Instead, buy Bleach stuff! This chapter is rated a little harsher for language.

- x -

Zaraki's Kenpachi was afraid.

Well, maybe not afraid. Not for himself, anyway.

Just . . . maybe worried was better. Mildly anxious, or slightly concerned. Fuck. Where the hell did this sudden vocabulary come from?

Damn brat was biting off more than she could chew.

It wasn't like it was the first time. He let her get her fair share of cuts and scrapes for her mistakes. Couldn't learn no other way. He let her pick opponents out of her league. Sometimes she surprised him. Sometimes she didn't. He snorted at her when she won, and patched her up when she needed it.

And she tried to do the same for him. Except she was just so damn small. She was still a baby.

A baby with a zanpaktou.

A zanpaktou with flowers as a hilt guard.

But, possibly worse than the flowers were the wheels.

Her zanpaktou's sheath had wheels.

Well, he'd figured, staring at it disbelievingly the first time she'd manifested it, the damn thing was more than half her height. And she was still a damn kid. Made sense that she couldn't carry something that big at her waist or on her shoulder. He didn't want her getting all hunch-backed like those hags back in Rukongai.

Heh. A pink-haired hag.

At more than half her height, he supposed it was a big fucking sword. It just didn't have quite the same reach as the katanas that hung from the men staring at her.

In disbelief.

"Waaai! Ken-chan! They don't understand Japanese!"

She didn't even turn to look at him. Didn't turn to make sure he was there. In fact, he'd only now caught up to her. Of course, he was pretty sure, if this really was the place, that just about everyone they encountered should have some spirit pressure, and he couldn't have announced himself any better if he'd been bellowing. It wasn't like she had to look to make sure he was there.

But it woulda been nice. One of these days, he wasn't gonna be.

One of these days, that little, angry, pink-haired girl in the too-short, too-ragged kimono was going to be her own strong little person.

One of these days, he'd hear Yachiru say goodbye.

He casually drew his zanpaktou and leaned it up against his shoulder, causing the shinigami to tense. Two of them were sweating profusely, and the third looked as though he was ready to pass out on the spot.

"Yeah they do. They're just stupid."

He had expected better, but he was getting used to disappointment. All the decent opponents had run to this place – where the hell were they now? The three guys in front of Yachiru didn't even have equal spirit pressure to her. Combined. And they were supposed to prevent anyone from marching through those big, white gates behind them?

Che. What the hell was Yachiru waiting for? Permission?

He'd barely looked the place over as he'd sauntered after her. Dashing was out of the question – she was just too damn fast. Freakishly fast. And she was only going to get faster with age. If he really, really wanted to, he could probably still outpace her. But he figured he was the only one. And it wasn't worth the effort. It wasn't as though she could get herself in over her head, right?

He was wondering if maybe that assumption had been a little wrong.

Oh, they didn't need to worry about these three 'admission specialists.' Probably the bottom of the barrel, assigned to inspect the reiatsu of the trash from Rukongai as a punishment for being weak and useless. They even stood in front of a little white room, probably supposed to look all impressive and shit. Apparently, since Yachiru seemed unwilling to simply blow past them, it meant something to her.

When the hell had she learned about authority? It wasn't like he acted like her brother or father or nothin'. Wasn't like he paid any attention to laws.

What he was payin' attention to now was the fact that those huge, white walls behind that stupid little hut were blocking spirit pressure.

And now that he was standing in line of sight of that open gate, he was very, very sure that these three were the bottom of the barrel. Because what he sensed inside was . . . well, he could sense something inside.

Him. The one who couldn't sense spirit pressure if it bit him on the ass. He could barely sense Yachiru, and he was pretty sure that was only because she was usually a growth off his back instead of a separate person. He couldn't really sense those guys in front of her at all.

He could sense people through those gates, though. A lot of 'em.

And if he could sense them, they could sense him.

If Yachiru went plowing through these three and tearing in there, there was no telling what she was going to come across.

And even if it was over her head, it promised to be a good time.

It, of course, was the famed Seireitei, the Court of Pure Souls, the great white castle where the muckity-mucks celebrated their superiority over all the other souls that had come to Soul Society. Unless you were a shinigami or born into a noble family, it was entirely off limits. There was housed the army of Death Gods, and the Gotei 13, rumored to be the thirteen strongest souls in Soul Society.

And that was a rumor worth checking into.

"I . . wanna be . . . a shinigami!" She repeated it slowly, clearly, and loudly.

The one that had been considering collapsing made his decision and did so.

Not surprisingly, this made Yachiru giggle with delight, and in the next moment the two still standing drew their zanpaktou.

At least, he figured that's what they were. They didn't look like much more than a basic katana. They even had the same hilts, which he thought was a little weird. The guys didn't look like twins. One was a dark-haired, muscular man and the other was brown-haired with a huge widow's peak and a hook nose that looked like it had been smashed in and popped back out a few times.

It had been his experience that zanpaktou were all individual.

Since, thank god, his wasn't covered in flowers or some shit.

She giggled again, and without bothering to draw her own, she lightly leapt up onto the closer man, standing on his widow's peak with her little bared toes pointing slightly inward.

She liked her feet bare. She liked her everything bare, actually, but he'd figured out some time ago that this was probably not a good idea. He'd been scrounging for clothes for her ever since. And it wasn't like it was easy, neither – she was too small to get any use out of the clothes of the idiots they had to kill, and he wasn't accustomed to walking into a store and buying things. And forget trying to get her to stand still long enough to see if something actually fit.

No, this last kimono had been a gift from an old guy they'd passed in the 23rd district. It had replaced the tattered brown sack she'd been wearing prior. And since it was pink, she was inordinately pleased with it, and wore it even though it was now far too small. It barely even covered her knees.

It didn't matter to her. She'd been talking non-stop about the new robes she'd be getting as a shinigami.

Shinigami this. Shinigami that. He'd never seen her so single-mindedly interested in anything. Since about the 60th district, when she'd watched a little skirmish between Kenpachi and a couple idiot young shinigami, she'd wanted nothing else.

Che. As if he needed corny black and white robes to make him feel powerful. He already knew who he was. Kenpachi. Didn't need some dumbass shinigami to tell him so.

But it was true, that all the good opponents he'd encountered had all been heading here. To the Seireitei. To train up their spirit pressure and become Death gods. Save souls and slaughter Hollows and all that crap.

If not for Yachiru's unflagging interest, he'd have stormed the place just to get in a few good fights. But no. She wanted to join this academy or whatever. So he was okay with waiting. It wasn't like they wouldn't accept her – she was probably more powerful already than most of the graduated students. For sure, if these guys were a good example.

Once they let her into this stupid academy, he'd be free to go dig up his old 'friends' and see if that training did them any good.

And then he'd go find some new friends. Like the ones he could sense, apparently coming closer to the gate.

Yachiru was bent at the waist, looking down at the eyes that belonged to the head under her feet.

"Oo, Pointy-Forehead Man, your zanpaktou is awfully small," she observed seriously. "Wanna see mine?"

Damn. She was going to nickname every single one of these morons.

The guy she was standing on was too stunned to move, but his buddy took the initiative and a swipe at her. She leapt away easily, jumping onto his outstretched arm, and from there somersaulted back to the ground.

"I think they're mad, Ken-chan."

He frowned, not taking a step forward or his sword off his shoulder. This was boring. "Told ya. They're stupid."

"What are you!" the first one finally managed, taking a step back as he did so. Giving ground to a little kid . . .

Kenpachi looked past him, catching a glimpse of a silhouette on the top of the wall. Just one, and he was still pretty far –

No. He wasn't far at all. He was standing between the two shinigami and Yachiru.

Kenpachi blinked, but didn't otherwise respond. That was . . . that was impossible. He'd seen a bit of a blur, and suddenly the dude was right there. But that was only a little faster than Yachiru. What was weird was that he hadn't run.

He'd been standing on the wall, and then he was standing there. His posture and position never changed. He didn't even take a stride. He just – moved.

Yachiru was startled, but only for a split second. "Oooooooo!" she squealed, and dashed up onto his shoulder to check out this new shinigami.

He was significantly more powerful than the two still standing, though he looked to be the same age. His uniform was a little different, and there was a badge with a number on it tied to his left arm. Maybe a ranking system? Indicating his strength? From this angle he couldn't really read the kanji. Hell, he'd never been too good with reading from the start. Six? Eight? Eventually the guy would tell him.

A thick black bar was tattooed across more than half his face, and it did a decent job of disguising his surprise. Despite it, he hadn't flinched, and he remained still and allowed her up-close inspection.

So he wasn't stupid. Or scared. In fact, he was almost ignoring her altogether.

His dark eyes were meeting Kenpachi's squarely.

Yachiru had put a finger in her mouth as she'd looked him up and down, from his spiky black hair to his sandals, and now she plucked it back out with a huge smile.

"Do it again! Do it again!"

He turned his head towards the little girl slightly, but never took his eyes off Kenpachi.

"Perhaps in a moment, little one."

She huffed in irritation and grabbed his face, yanking it so he had to break eye contact with Kenpachi. He snorted lightly. She hated being ignored.

"I wanna be a shinigami!" she declared hotly. "An' these guys won't say nothing!"

She had his full attention now, and Kenpachi almost shook his head as the man laughed softly.


"Is that so, little one. And how old are you?"

Her little face turned as pink as her hair, and she planted her hands on her hips. Her not-so-little mouth opened to start screaming at him for laughing-

And then she blinked, straightening, and popped that finger back into her mouth. After a moment, she turned and looked back at him.

"Ken-chan? How old am I?"

Good question. "Beats me," he replied, noting another arrival on the wall. Was there a walkway up there, or were they all just jumping? How many of them could do that weird moving thing? If they could do that and fight at the same time-

"Ken-chan!" She stamped her little foot, indicating this was not the answer she was looking for, and the shinigami that was playing her host turned to glance back at the other weaklings.

"It's alright. Take Iraran-san to the Fourth Division first aid station. I'll take care of this."

"Hai, fukataichou!"

Ahh. So the dumb badge did indicate rank. Lieutenant. That meant there was a captain, general, or admiral around somewhere . . . Kenpachi felt his face split into a grin. "That so, shinigami."

The shinigami's attention returned to him as the other guys scooped up their comrade and ran. So they couldn't all do that weird moving thing. Just the higher-ranking ones.


"I'm 9th Division's fukataichou, Hisagi Shuuhei." He turned back to the girl on his shoulder, though it was clear she still only had a portion of his attention "That guy over there your father?"

Again, she went slightly cross-eyed as she thought.

"He's Ken-chan!" she finally declared, as though this would clear things up.

He was trying to fight that smile again. "And what's your name?"

"Kusajishi's Yachiru! Ken-chan named me," she added proudly.

That seemed to throw the 'fukataichou' for a minute, and he paused to consider her words. He still didn't seem that put off by her proximity to his face. And assuming not everyone was as bad as he was at detecting spirit power, that meant that this guy knew exactly how powerful that little kid was and he wasn't concerned about it.

"Now will you do that thing again?"

He schooled his features to be very solemn. "First I must speak with . . . Ken-chan."

"Okay!" She dropped off his shoulder without ado and came scampering back to him. He expected her to mount up, as it were, but instead she just stood at his feet and beamed.

"Stripey-face is really smart! And he talked to me! In Japanese!"

"Huh," he responded without really listening, and casually shifted his zanpaktou from his right shoulder to his left. The shinigami chose to ignore the movement, though his hand never strayed far from the hilt of his own.

It was nothing like the hilts of the wusses he'd seen before, and looked as though it had a slightly better reach.

It also looked like he knew how to use it.

Things were definitely looking up.

"What is your intention?" the fukataichou Shuuhei asked quietly, when he was close enough for such conversation. Kenpachi noted that whoever was on the wall was staying there for the time being, but he also had the impression that more than one pair of eyes was watching.

For not having attacked yet, they were certainly drawing a lot of attention.

"To fight," Kenpachi answered without hesitation. "You ready?"

Yachiru pouted for just a moment, realizing that there was now going to be a delay in getting her demonstration, but then she perked up as usual and scurried off to the top of the little white 'academy admissions' hut. She always loved to watch him fight. Usually she was better about picking safer places to do it, though. The white outbuilding wasn't out of the way by far, but apparently she'd noticed the shadow on the wall and wasn't feeling ready to join it just yet.

What the hell was she waiting for?

The fukataichou Shuuhei leaned back a little on his heels, though he couldn't tell if preparing to run or to fight. Or do whatever that moving thing was.

"It's rude to challenge a stranger who is being polite."

"I'm a rude sort of person."

"This I can see."

Kenpachi took that as an acceptance and brought down his blade, not surprised to see a little blur materialize into his opponent, now about twenty feet away. He was surprised to see the shinigami hadn't drawn.

"Chasing opponents is a pain," he called to the man. "Come back over here and fight."

"Entrance examinations of this sort aren't necessary," the man called back.

What the hell? That idiot was laughing at him.

"I ain't looking to become a shinigami." He started forward, as it was becoming apparent that this unwilling opponent wasn't about to return. The other shinigami had needed a little encouragement as well, so it wasn't completely unexpected.

This also seemed to startle the lieutenant. "Oh?" was all he said.

And then he raised his right hand. His zanpaktou was not in it.

"Bakudou 61: Rukujyoukourou. Luminous Prison of 6 Bars."

And, inexplicably, Kenpachi suddenly found himself surrounded with a halo of yellow light, from which it appeared shafts of the same were actually sticking into him. He could feel their presence, but they didn't hurt. What they did do was prevent him from walking. They prevented him from moving much of anything but his head.

"What the hell is this!" he roared, trying ineffectually to swipe at the light with the sword still in his hand. He could bend his arm only at the wrist, and his feet only at the ankle.

"Kidou," the fukataichou replied, and then turned his back.

Turned his back!

"I didn't peg you for a coward!" he yelled towards that back, but infuriatingly, the shinigami didn't respond. He was heading towards the little hut.

Headed for Yachiru.

She was on her feet, her expression one of outrage. "That's cheating!" she cried, pointing at Shuuhei. "You let Ken-chan go right now!"

The shinigami asked her something he couldn't hear, and he struggled harder. The bars were very brittle; they didn't give at all. They'd break, if he could just get some leverage –


Her voice was much less incensed, and more confused. He strained harder against the – whatever the hell it was. Somehow it was condensed spirit pressure. A shitty way to fight.

The lieutenant said something else, and Yachiru took a step back from him.

What the hell . . .?

"No!" she said suddenly, and with one deft movement, she had hurled herself at the shinigami, zanpaktou drawn and held steadily exactly as he'd taught her.

This guy was out of her league.

And it was also his opponent.

He'd taught her better than that. One on one was the only way to duel. What had the shinigami said -?

He did his moving thing – and Yachiru followed him. Kenpachi almost forgot to struggle as he watched the shinigami in a constant state of blurred retreat, with that familiar pink blur following him. She was almost howling with rage, and every time they paused, she was just a little bit closer.

So he could keep up with her. All the higher-ranking ones could keep up with her.


Seeing that she was holding her own, at least temporarily, he tore his attention away and stared down at the halo. So, brittle. He couldn't move much. It was actually impaling him, but there wasn't any blood. Not that it would have mattered. This fukataichou wasn't serious yet.

His mistake.

If the light was inside him, and it was brittle – Kenpachi took a deep breath, and then contracted his abdominal muscles. This brought with it pain, which was not unexpected, and he gritted his teeth as he felt his insides being crushed against the bars.

He strained harder, his teeth groaning with the effort.

And then something else was crunching.

Once one broke, they all broke.

The halo shattered when the shafts did, and he stumbled forward slightly as the bars exploded. Not hard enough to cut him, even. Not even knock him down.

What a hassle.

Locating the shinigami and Yachiru wasn't difficult. Apparently pieces of the shattering thing had at least attracted their attention, and while Yachiru broke into a happy grin, the shinigami used the opening to . . . move . . . behind her, securing her zanpaktou hand with his own, the other arm wrapped around her waist.

She was quite efficiently pinned. And none too happy about it.

She immediately bit the hand covering hers.

To his credit, the shinigami didn't even wince. Nor did he release her. He was staring at Kenpachi with stunned eyes.

"You . . ."

Kenpachi grinned. Maybe now he'd get down to business. "Yeah. Me."

And then there was another blur, and he found himself looking at a huge mound of a shinigami.

With a bucket on his head.

The shadow that had been on the white wall remained there.

Kenpachi sized up this new opponent. His uniform was also different from the standard shinigami, with a big white coat over the usual black and white layered kimonos. His zanpaktou was in proportion to his height, a hefty, thick blade that looked very good for chopping down several trees in a single pass. He was easily eight feet tall, and his gauntleted hands were large and blocky. The . . . helmet, he supposed, had narrow, long slits for seeing, and through them he could make out eyes the color of honey.

He also had enough spirit pressure for Kenpachi to sense. More than the fukataichou.

Maybe the white over-robe indicated rank as well? Or the helmet?

"I am Captain of the 7th Division, Komamura Sajin," a very deep, rough voice intoned.

Captain. One of the Gotei 13.

One of the 13 strongest souls in Soul Society.

Kenpachi's grin stretched all the way to his ears.

"You should not so welcome death," the voice admonished.

"Death is the cost of fun," he replied, and without another word launched himself at this new opponent. Size didn't matter so terribly, he knew that. He'd defeated men far bigger than he with little effort, and been nearly defeated by opponents almost as small as Yachiru.


His zanpaktou whistled through the air, directly for the giant man's broad right shoulder. It was apparently too fast for even the captain to counter; he didn't draw his zanpaktou. He didn't react at all.

The blade landed squarely on its mark.

And nothing happened.

Kenpachi blinked, frozen in place. Staring.

His zanpaktou was resting on the white robed shoulder, having cleanly sliced through the fabric down to the white inner kimono. Where it had, somehow, been stopped.

No blood. No cut. No wound.

"Your zanpaktou is dull," the voice observed. "And badly damaged. What is its name?"

What the hell?

"Name?" he parroted back. Dull? Damaged?

His zanpaktou looked like it normally did. It had all manner of dings anddents from previous battles, that he'd never bothered to smooth because he couldn't find a stone hard enough to work them out. Nor had it ever needed sharpening. He could see how cleanly it had cut the fabric.

Dull? It was sharper than anything he'd encountered. Sharper than Yachiru's. Sharper than the shinigami he'd fought. Sharper than the claws of a Hollow.


"You do not know." The voice sounded almost patronizing. "All zanpaktou have a name. You must hear it before you can accomplish shikai."

Shikai? What the hell?

He withdrew the blade from the giant's shoulder, and still the captain did not move.


He'd heard that tone in her voice only two other times.


He tried another swing, harder this time, a slash across the chest.

The captain finally moved.

One of those blocky gauntlets caught his zanpaktou before it had a chance to connect, and the next second found him on his back, with a massive foot planted crushingly on his chest.

He growled, refusing to release the hilt, and tried to wedge his free hand beneath that mound of foot. The captain didn't wrest the sword from him, or increase the pressure, which was good, because he could hear his ribs creaking and drawing breath was difficult. He risked a glance towards Yachiru. Despite having bitten the other shinigami bloody, he had not released her. He was speaking with –

When the hell had she gotten there? He hadn't even noticed.

A woman with short grey hair was kneeling beside the shinigami, trying to talk to the struggling Yachiru. She didn't look very old despite the hair color, and she wore what looked like a normal uniform, except with the armband again. So the armband marked the lieutenants, not the sleeveless kimono. Yachiru wasn't listening to her, though, and was struggling for all she was worth.

And, not surprisingly, it looked like it was taking everything that fukataichou had to just hold her. She wasn't accustomed to opponents that had the strength to pin her little arms.

Neither was he.

"Ken-chan!" she cried again, the note of panic in her voice significantly more pronounced.

The shadow was also no longer on the wall.

In fact, it was walking right towards him.

And it was still a shadow. Dark skin, partially lightened by the white overcoat and an odd orange scarf that curled up on one side. His hair was bound back save a few locks, and behind goggles his eyes seemed like nothing more than white orbs.

He, too, was giving off a lot of spirit pressure.

Kenpachi just lay there and looked at him, for the first time unsure of what to do. He'd met opponents he couldn't beat before, but he'd survived, survived to get stronger. Clearly that was what he had to do here.

But Yachiru. What the hell were they trying to do with her?

"No need, my friend," the bucket said, without turning. "I believe he has realized his mistake."

The dark man said nothing, and stopped when he was shoulder to shoulder with the much larger captain.

They were probably both captains.

"You just gonna stand there?" he finally grated out. He didn't have room to yank the blade down, and no matter how he strained, he was unable to move that hand – or foot – so much as a centimeter. He was also quite efficiently pinned.

Well, fuck. Now what?

"Perhaps he does not consider violence a mistake," the shadow finally said.

"Still," the bucket said consideringly, "he shattered that kidou with nothing more than strength. That passion would be suited for the 11th Division, don't you agree?"

The shadow said nothing.

Behind them, he saw the shinigami that carried Yachiru straighten. And head for the wall.

He nodded his head sharply in their direction. "Where's he takin' her?"

"It is cowardly to attempt infiltration into the Seireitei by use of a child," the shadow said tonelessly, staring down at him. "She will be taken to a safe place, and given an education. You will not see her again."

What the . . .

Kenpachi couldn't help himself. He dropped his head to the dust and howled with laughter. He laughed until his sides ached, which didn't take long considering the massive weight pressing down on him. When he finally got his breath back, he found the two captains continuing to regard him with solemn eyes.

"I was right the first time," he rasped. "You're just stupid."

"I think perhaps we were mistaken, Tousen," the bucket intoned thoughtfully, as though nothing had interrupted their conversation. His foot shifted slightly, and Kenpachi's ribcage groaned in protest. "He seems to genuinely care for the girl."

"Then why the deception?"

"You think I tried to use the brat to get inside the walls?" Oh, this was priceless. "Che. I came to find you."

"And now that you have found us, what do you wish of us?"

Finally. "To fight," he repeated.

"You cannot. You are too weak. Your spirit pressure flows from you without control." To make the point, he leaned in a little harder. Kenpachi growled but otherwise didn't react when one of his ribs finally gave. He could let go of the hilt, get both his shoulders behind it -

"Though it is significant," the shadow noted softly. "I imagine he is very thin indeed."

"Skeletally," the bucket replied.

The shadow was blind. He couldn't see.

But maybe the cripple could still fight. He was a captain, after all.

And he was right. If he couldn't even cut this guy, winning this fight was out of the question. But letting 'em take Yachiru –

Well, hadn't he been planning to leave her anyway? Hadn't she been wanting into that academy? They'd just said 'give her an education.' That was probably what that meant.

They were givin' her exactly what she wanted. To be a shinigami.

"What is your name?"

He stared at the shadow. So this was what he needed to be. This was the top of the list. If he could get strong enough to defeat these two, he could defeat any of the captains. They were strong, but they weren't unbeatable.

He just needed to get a little stronger. Just needed to be able to cut them.

"Zaraki's - Kenpachi."

Zaraki was the name of the province she'd left him in. Probably figuring he couldn't make his way back here. He didn't remember why, or if she'd even told him. He didn't remember much about her but her back, her back and her eyes. He wasn't sure she'd even said goodbye, but he remembered watching her walk away.

Yachiru had left him there.

He'd been too weak to follow her. Probably just a baby then. But he'd gotten stronger. He'd scrapped and bitten and fought until one day he'd found a boy that was stronger than he was. Much stronger. A boy with a knife, aknife that could cut souls. He'd done the best he could, but the other boy was stronger. He'd been knocked to the ground, his hands outstretched to try to block that cutting blade –

And he'd found that he'd blocked the attack with a blade. It had come out of nowhere.

Once he'd gotten that zanpaktou, everything had changed. He'd gotten stronger by leaps and bounds. He'd left the 80th district, heading back to the center of everything. At first with the intent to find her, then with the intent to find decent opponents, and finally because a little pink-haired baby said she wanted to be a shinigami.

Yachiru had, in a way, led him right back to Yachiru.

She had to be here. He knew he was strong. He was almost as strong as these captains, the strongest. He would be the strongest someday. If all the strong souls were born in this white castle, that meant he had been born in this white castle. Born and taken to the farthest point by Yachiru.

He'd become the strongest because of her. He knew he'd have to travel a long way to get to her. Hated that he was too weak to follow her. He was going to get stronger and stronger, so that he was never too weak to follow her again. Never so weak that she would leave him.

He had been a weak little soul, born into a place that only accepted the strong. That was why she had abandoned him there. There in the roughest part of Rukongai.

To get stronger.

And Yachiru had brought him back.

He had to be strong enough. Had to.

"Kenpachi?" the bucket repeated. "I'm afraid that title is taken."

Kenpachi felt his face curl into a snarl. "That so?"

"The eleventh division taichou has claimed it," the shadow replied.

Kenpachi grinned ferally. "Then bring him out here and I'll claim it back."

"You would die," the bucket said reproachfully, shifting slightly so those hidden amber eyes inside could pierce him. "Surely even now you see this truth."


Kenpachi didn't glance her way again, but the very sound grated the bones in his ears. She was scared. Not of being hurt or killed, he knew that. The shinigami had told her that they were taking her away.

She was scared that he was going to leave her.

Hadn't that been the general idea?

He hated his uncertainty. Dammit. Why did he have to stop and think about this shit?

"What will you do now?" the bucket asked bluntly. The wind their reiatsu made was tugging at the threads unraveling from the gash in the white overcoat. And there was another shadow on the wall.


"Get stronger," he growled. No point in hiding it. Better that they knew he'd come back. Better that they prepared. Then it would be a more even fight. Then they'd be ready for him.

And he'd be ready for them. All of 'em.

"You can do that here," the bucket noted.

The shadow didn't turn his head, but his calm expression changed ever so slightly. "Komamura-"

"I was hated and feared," the bucket murmured, "because of what I appeared to be instead of what I really was. If Yamamoto-sama could give me a chance, I do not see why we should not do the same for this one."

"I believe in this case, appearances are more than skin deep," the shadow responded, with a hint of . . . something.

Something dangerous.

Kenpachi grinned into those blind eyes.

"I will put my trust into Yamamoto-sama to decide that," the bucket replied.

After a very long pause, the shadow finally nodded his assent, once. "Very well."

What the fuck?

And suddenly the great weight was lifted, and his zanpaktou was released.

Just like that.

"She is very fond of you," the bucket said, extending his hand downwards. "It remains to be seen if you deserve that affection."

Kenpachi stared at the hand with derision. God, these guys were stiff. He got to his feet, refusing to acknowledge the pain in his chest, and after a moment, the bucket withdrew his offer of assistance.

"I ain't interested in becoming a shinigami."

"I heard you the first time," the bucket replied. "Reconsider. What is most important? To become stronger? Or to salve your pride, little Kenpachi?"

Kenpachi stared at the bucket, and it stared back. The shadow never shifted. They stood in the slight breeze their reiatsu was kicking up, and regarded one another.

Get trained up like the losers he'd sent packing here.

Go to some stupid class like a kid. Learn that bullshit 'kidou.' Bury souls.

Well, at least the killing Hollows part had some appeal. So long as there were actually strong Hollows somewhere.

Become stronger.

Strong enough to defeat them.

Strong enough for Yachiru.

The little brat's muffled cries were just that, muffled by those huge white walls.

What if she wasn't in there?

What if he'd come all this way, and Yachiru wasn't there? What if he couldn't find her?

What would he do if he did?

What if he wasn't strong enough?

The bucket and the shadow turned, showing him their backs, and started to walk away.

Walking back in there. Without a word.

He watched them a moment, then propped his forgotten zanpaktou on his shoulder and followed them.

They said nothing, and he said nothing. The white walls got closer and closer, and then they were at the gate. A huge, hulking . . . man, he guessed, without a shinigami's uniform and sporting an axe almost as big as the grey-haired shinigami girl stood inside the gate, bowing deeply to the captains. When he looked up and caught sight of Kenpachi, they eyed one another a moment.


There was a sudden blur of pink, and then frantic little hands were clinging to the back of his thin shirt.

He broke eye contact with the gate guard, glancing down and to his right at an angle that made his neck ache familiarly. His ribs were still creaking grouchily, but it wasn't too bad. He'd live.

And get stronger.

Huge, teary eyes were staring at him imploringly, and if anything, her grip on him tightened.

"Ken-chan! They were gonna . . . and you were out there –"

He shook his head, taking a good look around. White buildings and red shingles, as far as the eye could see. This seemed to be one of the main entrances, they'd entered a grand courtyard of sorts with bushes and fountains and, most importantly, shinigami.

The guy with the bar tattoo and the grey-haired woman were standing off to one side. Shuuhei? was looking at the shadow like he expected the guy could see him, and oddly, the blind captain just nodded once. The weaker shinigami frowned slightly, but took his hand off his zanpaktou's hilt and stepped back. The grey-haired girl was trying to reach for his bitten hand, and he was doing a good job of not giving it to her, staring at Kenpachi instead.

It was a disapproving sort of look. He grinned.

Maybe there was a way to become a captain without having to go to pansy school. Maybe he could just challenge his way up.

The little pink-haired girl on his shoulder sniffled loudly, and wiped her face noisily on her too-short sleeve.

He sighed.

"Che, Yachiru. You didn't think I was gonna leave you here without sayin' nothin', didja?"


Author's Note: Yes, I know. More fluff. Admit it. You smiled. It counts as humor, darnit!

I've pretty much answered most of my questions, so if you have any more that need to be addressed, please leave a comment and tell me so! (Wasn't that a nice, subtle way of asking for feedback? ;) Thank you guys so much for all your comments, help, and support!