Disclaimer: Bleach and all affiliated characters and settings are the creative property of Kubo Tite-sama. Used and abused without permission for non-profitable entertainment purposes.

Yes, I know this was a long time coming. Notes are at the end of the chapter.

Except this: Shout out for my awesome, awesome friend Kellen (as always), who again let me throw this at her constantly for encouragement and quick flow and plot checks. All mistakes left are still mine. Hurr.

Part X

Ichigo completely ignored Rukia's murmured protests against his chest as he carried her back towards Urahara's shop. Well, not entirely – he did tell her to shut the hell up and rest at one point – but for the most part, his mind was racing with more than enough thoughts on his own, and Rukia's tired voice wasn't helping him sort through them. Once again, he hadn't been strong enough to protect those around him, and once again, he had nearly lost control to the damned son of a bitch he had the grand misfortune of sharing a body with.

Orihime looked startled when Ichigo kicked the door down to the front of the shop, but the surprise quickly faded as Orihime assessed the situation and helped Rukia lay down once she pried herself from Ichigo's arms. Ichigo watched as Orihime looked over Rukia's wounds, ignoring as Abarai and the others crowded in behind him. Rukia hissed when Orihime hit a tender spot, and Ichigo had to turn away then.

"She's going to be fine," he heard Orihime say in a light-hearted voice. "A little sore, but fine."

Abarai sighed in relief behind him, echoing his own exhaled breath. Then, Ichigo burst out the door, intent on finding Shinji and demanding some goddamned answers. He hesitated only a heartbeat when he heard Rukia call his name, but ignored it as he rushed towards where he knew he could find Shinji – one of the nearer neighborhood parks. Shinji was waiting for him, perched on top of the slide with a neutral expression, body relaxed in vain confidence as if waiting, knowing that Ichigo was coming

"Shinji, you bastard, I think it's about time you explained a few things," Ichigo growled as he approached the play structure.

A look of mock insult spread across Shinji's face. "What, no 'Why thank you, Shinji-sama, for tossing my stupid ass back in line back there?' or, 'Shinji-sama, I owe you my life for keeping me from slaughtering all my little friends, how can I ever repay you?' You should learn some manners, Kurosaki." Shinji stood and stretched his arms over his head. "So, come to finish what you were trying to start earlier? Wanna go?"

"What the fuck did you mean when you said that shorty-taichou was just a pawn in the game?" Ichigo said, ignoring Shinji's snide remarks. "What game are you talking about here?"

Shinji sighed dramatically, leaping down from his perch to land only feet away from where Ichigo was standing. Leaning forward conspiratorially, he smiled that broad, obnoxious grin of his that made Ichigo want to punch him in the face. For a few moments, he said nothing as they stared each other down.

"Are you entirely sure you're on the right side, Ichigo?" Shinji finally said. "Because I need to know what your intentions are here. You really planning to become one of Yamamoto's lapdogs, or are you in it for keeps?"

Ichigo scowled. "The fuck – I just want people here, like my goddamned family, to stay safe. Any side that opposes what Aizen's trying to do will do for me, as long as the job gets done."

Shinji clucked his tongue disapprovingly. "Ah, kiddo, but that is where you are mistaken. It does matter what side you're on, and I hate to break it to you, but those Gotei clowns aren't going to all make it out of this alive."

The reply was almost like a slap to the face, and Ichigo somehow managed not to flinch. "Damn it, stop it with this vague, I-know-better-than-you shit. It's getting old, Shinji. What the fuck is going on?"

Shinji started walking towards the short outer concrete wall that surrounded the park's small perimeter. "You know very well by now – I'd hope – that there's a war coming. It's going to come down between Aizen and his faction taking over the Living World, and anyone who opposes him, which – as you know – include not only Soul Society, but Vaizard as well."

"I knew all that, jackass."

"Then keep listening, Kurosaki," Shinji said, tone completely serious. "When I asked you which side you're on, that didn't include Aizen. I'm talking about which side you're gonna be on when you do oppose that bastard."

Ichigo raised an eyebrow. "I hardly see how that matters."

"Oh, but it does," Shinji replied. "Here's the deal – Soul Society knows about the Vaizard. Yamamoto's known about us since the beginning, mind, not that he likes us any for it. He sees us as an abomination – a freak accident out of science and medicine and the human soul's capacity. In all honesty, I think he'd rather see us dead, much like what he tried to do with the Quincy. I'm shocked he's let you get away with running around as freely as you do now for so long; he must be blind if he didn't see that you are also Vaizard." Shinji paused and cracked his neck. "But what he doesn't really get is the fact that we're pretty much his last line of defense, at this point. He's got such a wide open gap in his armor that he's going to have a huge surprise coming if he thinks his little pawns can handle Aizen's coming storm."

"And why is that?" Ichigo swallowed a lump that was forming in his throat.

Then Shinji smiled, and it made the hairs on the back of Ichigo's neck stand up. "Because Aizen's been planning this for far longer than Yamamoto realizes. There are so many pitfalls and booby traps within his own goddamned troops that Yamamoto can never hope to beat someone who can literally take his entire army down piece by piece."

A look of understanding crossed Ichigo's face. "That's why that kid captain was having trouble."

"You're starting to get it, kid," Shinji replied, nodding. "Aizen has been planning his destruction of Soul Society long before Hitsugaya was even alive as a human. That other white-haired captain – the one with the long hair and the nasty cough – he's not sick by any sort of unlucky kind of chance. I have to admit, as much as I hate the guy, Aizen has a great deal of talent picking out the humans who will likely pose a threat to him in the afterlife, and then he lays down traps and pitfalls within the humans' lives – and deaths – that he can trigger later on to break them as easily as snapping toothpicks."

Ichigo raised an eyebrow in surprise. "You're saying that they planned to have that white-haired kid break down long before he was even a shinigami?" he said, doubt edging into his tone.

"You'd be surprised, Kurosaki," Shinji replied. "I guess you really don't quite get what you're up against, do you?"

The smug self-assurance with which Shinji regarded Ichigo started to make the younger man even more irritated than he was before, but it was pretty obvious that Shinji did know a great deal more about the situation than Ichigo had ever been privy to with Soul Society. Not that he was officially part of their organization, but they didn't seem to mind including him when it suited their purposes.

Shinji had a few good points going, here. But it still didn't make Ichigo like him any more.

"Wait a second – how do I fit into all of this?" Ichigo suddenly asked, suspicious.

The smile that spread across Shinji's face made Ichigo shudder. "That's because you're the trump card, Kurosaki," he said slowly. "Aizen wasn't expecting someone like you to come along, because you were the result of something that should have worked in his favor. That's the main reason why Soul Society has been so welcoming to you, even as an outsider brat – I think Yamamoto's figured out that you're really their last line of defense."

Ichigo wasn't sure what to say to that; it seemed like a lot of pressure to him, but at the same time... hadn't he pledged to do whatever it took to protect his family and friends? He swallowed painfully around a lump in his throat.

"I think you're starting to get the idea that this is serious shit," Shinji said approvingly.

"And you're telling me that the Vaizard stand a better chance against Aizen than the Gotei captains do, because...?"

"Because Aizen underestimates our potential," Shinji replied. "Sounds a lot like Yama-jii, doesn't it? He also thought we were a freak accident – he's half the reason why we're not part of Soul Society. But he's got another thing coming, if he thinks he can dismiss us so easily."

Frowning, Ichigo opened his mouth to ask the first thing that came to mind – why, if Aizen was so goddamned fucking smart, would he ignore a pretty blatant threat like the Vaizard? But then he really thought about it, and remembered that the Vaizard were vastly outnumbered, and it sounded like Aizen had already had bad dealings with Shinji and company in the past. Maybe that's why Aizen hadn't really paid much attention to them – they were a small outcast faction that he didn't think had enough power to pose a threat in the upcoming war.

"So you really think that one more person would make that big of a difference?" Ichigo asked, still doubtful about the entire situation. Hell, he hardly knew what to think anymore.

"That, my boy, is where you've entirely underestimated yourself," he said, his flat-toothed grin growing even broader than it had been before.

Ichigo waited for more explanation, but after a few moments of staring down Shinji, he knew he wasn't going to get one without some sort of commitment on his part. He took several deep breaths; hell, he was already pretty damn far into this mess as it was. What difference would one more step down the rabbit hole make? It wasn't like he was breaking his ties with Soul Society or its shinigami, really.

... He hoped.

"What do you want from me?" he finally said, sighing.

Against all anatomical odds, Shinji's grin had to have broken some kind of record as it grew even wider. "That's more like it, Kurosaki. Exactly what I wanted to hear."

Urahara was at it again.

Renji knew this, mainly because he hadn't seen the man in freaking days now, and he'd been around Urahara's shop for most of that time. For sake of simplicity, Renji had made the executive decision of making Orihime stay there, except when they all went to school together. It seemed odd to him that they were all staying at Urahara's when they rarely saw him, but Renji was pretty sure Urahara didn't care. Wherever he was. Probably in the lab that Renji was sure was hidden somewhere around the shop itself.

The tension that had built steadily just after the latest attack had faded by now. Rukia was fine, with hardly a mark on her – Orihime's skills seemed to become more fine-tuned and honed every time she used them – and Ichigo had finally stopped moping around like a whiny, petulant child. He was still pretty quiet, even when Rukia tried almost endlessly to get answers out of him regarding the blond-haired guy they'd seen at the fight, but at least he wasn't being so goddamned tetchy anymore.

... Except now that Ichigo wasn't so easily goaded, Renji decided things had become pretty damn boring again. Rangiku still hadn't returned from Soul Society, and none of them had heard any word on Hitsugaya-taichou's condition. Renji had to admit that he wondered if something really bad had happened while they were gone – Rangiku seemed worried as hell when she left – but it was really hard to tell.

Renji hated being left out of the loop. It made him feel vulnerable, in case something else came up that he wouldn't know how to handle responsibly because he didn't have enough information. He wondered if this was how Hitsugaya-taichou felt when he was in charge, and didn't have all the pieces to the puzzle.

Who was that blond kid anyway? He'd seemed pretty capable of handling the Arrancar, and even handling Ichigo in his transformed state. Ichigo seemed to know him, too – and hadn't Renji seen the guy around school before? It was so fucking confusing, sometimes.

So was the situation with Orihime. Why the hell did Aizen want someone whose skill set included a great deal of healing and barrier-creating, and nothing more? Orihime was useful in times of battle, to be sure, but she wasn't a fighter, not in the least. And it seemed like Aizen had no shortage of Arrancar – who were practically indestructible anyway, it seemed – so he wouldn't necessarily need a healer to keep his army up. Renji scrubbed his face with his hand; none of this made any fucking sense.

He stared at the homework he was supposed to be doing for school – what a joke history homework is, he found himself thinking with wry amusement – and decided he should at least try to be productive. It wasn't like he had anything better to do right now, except train down in Urahara's underground training lair. Ikkaku was likely down there, working on improving his bankai (Renji wasn't supposed to know about it, but he did anyway). He had no clue where Yumichika was, and part of him really didn't want to know. Rukia was in the room with him, completely absorbed in an art class project.

The homework assignment took him a grand total of ten minutes, and after that, Renji decided he'd been more than productive enough, and that he hated being this damn bored. Slamming his textbook closed, he summoned a hell butterfly and – ignoring Rukia's bewildered stares – began relaying an angry message to Matsumoto demanding some goddamned answers and oh yeah, where the fuck are you?

"Renji," Rukia said, voice low in warning. "That really isn't necessary."

Renji shot a glare at her, then stared back at the waiting butterfly. No... no, it wasn't necessary, and he really did know that. Damn it, he was even the same rank as Rangiku – lieutenant, second-in-command of a division. It was just... well, Rangiku had been a lieutenant for longer, and with a captain like Byakuya, there weren't exactly many opportunities to be a true leader.

Suck it up and be a man, Abarai, he told himself. Clearing his throat, he looked back at Rukia – she was still staring intently at him, and he couldn't hold it for long. He looked away again and back at the butterfly, and with a quick chant, cleared the initial message and sent a new, simpler, much more to-the-point one:

Requesting an update. Abarai-fukutaichou.

The butterfly delicately lifted itself into the air and disappeared. Renji shot another look back at Rukia, who was concentrating – by all appearances – intently on her art project again; but he didn't miss the small smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

All he had to do now was wait.

... Damn it.

Three hours passed, and just before Rukia decided to throw a binding kidou at Renji, a hell butterfly appeared and hovered in front of Renji's scowling face. Renji blinked a few times, almost forgetting that he had been waiting for that particular response, and then nearly smashed the poor messenger butterfly to pieces when he grabbed at it to find the message it carried.

"Where are you? Go to Orihime-chan's apartment for a call."

Renji looked up at Rukia – who had also heard the message – and she nodded. "I'll keep an eye on Orihime-chan," she said quietly. "Ichigo should be back soon, too."

Renji thanked her, and then scrambled for a light jacket and shoes as he headed out the door, relieved to know that Ran had managed to get back to him, but concerned that it had taken her an entire three hours to send that message. Unless, of course, she had been trying to call the communications portal in Orihime's apartment the entire time (but not for an entire three hours, he hoped).

Hitsugaya winced as he shifted uncomfortably under Yamamoto's intense, cool stare. They were in one of the First Division's traditional tea rooms, kneeling across from a cha-no-yu setting on the tatami mat floor. It didn't matter that in the tea ceremony, rank was traditionally equalized between tea master and guest; the feeling just didn't permeate the room, leaving the atmosphere thick with tension. The formality of the ceremony was almost embarrassing to Hitsugaya, though he felt almost a vindictive hope that it was a sign that Yamamoto was feeling guilty for how he'd handled the situation with Karura.

They had foregone the nakadachi in favor of not making Hitsugaya move around excessively, the young captain swallowed several sips of water and washed his hands with a warm cloth in ritual purification, having trouble not letting his hands shake under Yamamoto's gaze. The older captain finally looked away as he placed a tall, freshly-woven bamboo basket of flowers in between them. A simple chabana arrangement consisting of a knobby twig, a breathtakingly beautiful white fringed iris with blue and orange patterns on its drooping petals, and a tall grass caught Hitsugaya almost by surprise. The iris could mean anything in this case. It was somewhat insulting, for the flower arrangement to leave him wondering what Yamamoto truly meant by it.

The fact that Yamamoto had chosen a tea ceremony now seemed almost ironic to Hitsugaya. It was hardly becoming a place of reconciliation, or of celebrating a return to health for the younger captain. What was the purpose of this requested audience, anyway?

It had taken over a week before Unohana would allow Hitsugaya to have an audience with Yamamoto – the old man really must have infuriated the healer, Hitsugaya realized later – and while it had been frustrating at first, Hitsugaya was feeling rather unsettled now that he was finally here. Yama-jii's face was never a good place to look for any sort of indication of what the old captain was thinking; it certainly wasn't helping now. Hitsugaya shifted again, ignoring the small aches as he did so.

They proceeded through the cha-no-yu ceremony in relative silence – broken only by the ritual exchanges as was customary – Yamamoto preparing and serving the tea while Hitsugaya politely waited through the traditional steps. Once they were finished with the formal end of the ceremony, Yamamoto straightened fully and regarded Hitsugaya with that same irritatingly blank stare that told Hitsugaya nothing of what was to come.

"We have a great deal to discuss, Hitsugaya-taichou," Yamamoto finally said. Hitsugaya had to restrain a snort at the comment; of course they had a lot to talk about. That was the whole reason he'd even bothered to climb out of the infirmary to get there. "There are a lot of things that I need to tell you, now that you're in the right state of mind to be able to handle them."

Hitsugaya was slightly taken aback. Right state of mind? As if he had been incapable of thinking clearly on his own before – he tried hard not to let the insult show on his face, hoping that Yamamoto really hadn't meant it that way. He said nothing, waiting for the older captain to continue speaking.

"Aizen and his cohorts placed a rather unfortunate curse upon you long before you ever came to us, Hitsugaya-kun. It appears that our enemy has even been consorting with the gods of other realms outside Soul Society – he must have discovered your affinity with the ancient dragon lords long ago, and had Gin send you one of the Karura, letting it sit dormant within you before you ever joined Gotei."

"One of the Karura?" Hitsugaya vaguely recalled both Yamamoto (and Hyourinmaru, if that hadn't been a dream) addressing the beast dwelling in him as "Karura," but he hadn't realized it was in reference to it as part of a whole. A race of beings, perhaps?

"The Karura are harmless guardian entities, in their most natural states. But as the old folk tale says, there is a feud between the dragons and the crows – around all naga, including the dragons, Karura often turn violent and will try to consume their perceived enemies."

Ah. If this feud was part of lore, there was likely truth to it, and Aizen probably had known about that ahead of time. And if that was the case... "Aizen must have seen Hyourinmaru before my death, then."

Yamamoto nodded slowly. "It is possible that either Gin or Aizen – perhaps both – knew of your connection with the dragons, and knew that they could use the Karura against it. There are rare cases in which zanpakutou begin to materialize long before the death of a human's soul. Ukitake's zanpakutou did the same."

Ukitake-taichou? The revelation came as a bit of a surprise to Hitsugaya; perhaps that was why the sickly, white-haired captain seemed to have some kind of attachment to him. Aside from them both having white hair – unless that had something to do with it as well? But that is beside the point in this conversation.

"So Karura became more of a curse for me. Why now? Why not when Hyourinmaru first awoke here in Soul Society?" There had to be some kind of explanation.

"That much, we're uncertain of. Aizen or Gin may have placed in some kind of failsafe – a trigger, if you will – in your subconscious, and it somehow managed to activate recently. It would account for a lot of the changes you've been experiencing of late. I had you come back from the Living World as soon as I realized what was going on. If we had waited any longer, Karura would have started to consume Hyourinmaru – and you, by extension. It could have rendered you incapable of your duties as a shinigami, if it didn't kill you first."

The ordeal with the puppet-hollow – perhaps that was some kind of trigger, to break the seal on Karura. It would lend a motive to what had seemingly been a random attack at the time.

Hitsugaya frowned, the last half of what Yamamoto had said sinking in. "Then why the farce with the interrogation, if you knew? Why not just tell me outright?" Why let it become so damned deadly first?

Yamamoto breathed deeply through his nose, and out through his mouth. Then he spoke. "The Karura spirit in you didn't need to wait as long as it did before it attacked. Because it was linked to your subconsciousness, we couldn't keep you informed; it would have been like sharing information directly with the enemy. We had to let it think it was winning until the moment we were ready to perform the actual exorcism."

So they had been preparing a ritual, trying to keep Karura out of the loop. That much makes sense, but... "What was in the serum?"

"The only thing that can ward against an angered Karura is liquid blessed and purified by a Buddhist priest. What we gave you was exactly that – it was essentially a talisman, intended to help protect you and Hyourinmaru from Karura."

That would explain what the serum was and why Karura seemed to act up when it was introduced, but that still didn't explain why he seemed to have such a bad reaction to it. Hitsugaya had a bad feeling that Yamamoto wasn't telling him everything, and worse, he probably would never tell. He resisted the urge to wrinkle his nose in distaste, and to call Yamamoto out on the situation anyway – it wouldn't do anything but likely irritate the old man, and Hitsugaya wouldn't get the information he wanted.

Instead, Hitsugaya remained silent and kept an even stare with Yamamoto's, whose eyes were glittering beneath the narrow opening between the old man's wrinkled eyelids. There was almost a challenge there, and Hitsugaya felt more and more upset and less comfortable the longer he was in the man's presence.

"I wish things hadn't needed to be that way, Hitsugaya-kun, but you do need to understand that if Karura had completely taken over your body, there would have been far more trouble than what we faced in my office that day. I don't think you would have wanted to live with that," Yamamoto finally said.

That still isn't an apology, Hitsugaya noted. But as much as Hitsugaya hated to admit it, Yamamoto had a point – even if he absolutely did not agree with the method, nor did he think he was getting the full story, the main issue was that Karura had been stopped. He wasn't sure he could have lived with himself if Karura had managed to cause more devastating problems in his own body than the crow deity already had. Shaking his head slightly to clear the gruesome images that accompanied that thought, he remained silent for a few moments.

"... Why go through all that trouble?" he asked, after several moments' pause. "Why me?"

"Aizen's war has already begun, no matter what kind of warning he gave us." Yamamoto hesitated, and again, Hitsugaya got the feeling that he was getting a very abridged version of the whole explanation. "And I don't think you are the only one that Aizen has targeted in this manner. I have a feeling that there are far more... surprises in store for us in the near future."

Of course there are, Hitsugaya carefully didn't say aloud. Aizen's obviously planned this a long while back; he's a top-class strategist. There's no way in hell he wouldn't keep far more cards up his sleeve than necessary.

... But if Aizen had planned this out ahead of time, and this Karura deity was supposed to incapacitate me, then why am I still alive? Hitsugaya shuddered at the thought. Aizen's plan couldn't have simply failed, could it? Wishful thinking, at best. If that is indeed his intention – to kill me, or take down Yamamoto's other defenses.

There has to be something else coming.

Yamamoto's cool stare was on him again, and Hitsugaya brought himself back to the conversation at hand and nodded slightly. Yes, Aizen had surprises for them. He would have to take some time to process this information, and certainly not in front of Yamamoto.

"Is that all you wished to say to me?" he asked, hesitantly.

Yamamoto's eyelids flared open almost imperceptibly."I also want to caution you, in regards to vice-captain Hinamori Momo."

Hitsugaya almost flinched, as if he'd been slapped. Almost. He hadn't seen that coming, to be honest, though he really should have. There had been far too many issues surrounding his childhood friend of late. Carefully – "H-Hinamori? What does she have to do with this?"

"I am afraid that Aizen's hypnosis still has a stranglehold on her ability to make sound judgments." Yamamoto paused, studying Hitsugaya seriously. The younger captain fidgeted. "Until we can tell otherwise, I would like you to proceed with extreme caution when discussing important matters around Hinamori-fukutaichou."

Of course not. Hitsugaya had figured out quite some time ago that there was still something not quite right in Momo's mind. Aizen had horribly confused her, and he couldn't blame her if she just needed the time to get things sorted out properly in her mind. Until she did, she was a liability – a dangerous one, at that. He chose to say nothing of this to Yamamoto; the old man already knew that, obviously.

He bowed his head slightly in an obedient gesture. "Yes, Yamamoto-soutaichou."

"Might I ask a favor of you as well, Hitsugaya-taichou?"

Ah. Yamamoto was now back to using formalities – the previous conversation was now over, and the old man had a business proposition. Hitsugaya quirked an eyebrow. "Sir?"

"Once you return to your post in Karakura, I'd like you to keep an eye on Kurosaki-san."

Hitsugaya's eyebrow rose higher. The tone Yamamoto used... without having said a word on the matter, Hitsugaya knew immediately that Yamamoto did not want Kurosaki – or any of his other subordinates, here in Soul Society or Karakura – to know about this request. Yamamoto wanted him to spy on Kurosaki.

The air felt thick and heavy around the tea room now, and it made Hitsugaya shift again in his seat. What are you planning to do with this information, Yama-jii? What are your plans for Ichigo now?

He didn't have a choice, however. Not in his current position, at his current state of health. Again, he had to strongly keep his expression neutral to suppress a snarl. "I will do as you request, Yamamoto-soutaichou," he said, proud that his voice was as even and neutral as he'd intended it to be.

Yamamoto's eyes narrowed as his lips curled up into what could almost be called a smile, if Yamamoto was even capable. He seemed pleased enough. "Please take care of your health, Hitsugaya-taichou," he said, friendly but crisply fake.

Hitsugaya bowed as low as he was able. "Thank you, Soutaichou."

He stood, wincing as his aches complained over the time spent in a sitting position, and made his exit as properly as he could. As he left the room, he took a deep breath, reveling in how much lighter the air was outside the tea room – or how heavy it had been inside. Though it lifted what felt like a heavy burden off his back, Hitsugaya still felt drained, and knew he would be spent for the day once he made it back to his own quarters. He hated feeling this weak and vulnerable, but at least it gave him time to think over the strange, uncomfortable conversation.

Perhaps there was some merit to the backlash being murmured through some of the ranks in Gotei – there had been a lot of doubt that Yamamoto could capably and effectively lead Gotei against the coming war with Aizen. These had surfaced just after Aizen's (and his companions') betrayal, in the midst of a lot of confusion and reorganization. And now that Hitsugaya had had the chance to discuss a few of the pending issues with Yamamoto, as subtle as the inferences had been, Hitsugaya began to entertain thoughts along the same line. His stomach clenched painfully, and he knew it had nothing to do with his wounds.


Rangiku flinched, freezing in her tracks, one foot midair with a toe pointed as she tried – rather unsuccessfully – to tiptoe past Hitsugaya's office. He wasn't even looking up from the stack of papers he held in one hand; how the hell did he do that?

"Taichou?" she asked, innocently – both feet now planted on the ground as if she'd meant to be caught anyway. She knew exactly what he was talking about, and could almost see the irritation manifesting itself in a dark cloud around the captain. Shit, she was going to be in trouble.

"You didn't finish this report – it was due four days ago."

Matsumoto chewed on her lip, then approached Hitsugaya's desk with her hands clasped together in front of her. "I'm so sorry, Taichou!" she said dramatically. "You were still on leave, and I was positively ill with worry the entire time! You couldn't possibly expect me to work under such harsh mental conditions, could you?"

Hitsugaya finally looked up, frowning. "Let me guess – you were so worried, that you went out partying all night three nights in a row."

"Of course!" She clapped her hands. Brilliant! "I had to distract myself with alcohol, otherwise I never would have had any sleep!"

He glared. "You know damn well it was just a formality for me to stay there an extra few nights," he growled, thrusting the half-filled paper in her direction. "Cut the crap and the dramatics, take this report, and do it right."

Ouch. Matsumoto stuck out her lower lip as she took the paper. First day back, and he was already cracking the whip like a slave driver, the grouch. "You're no fun at all."

"And that's why I'm in charge," he replied flatly.

He had turned his attention back to the stack of papers, and was no longer looking at her; she took the moment to study him, while she had it. For the first time in a long time, Hitsugaya hadn't spiked his hair up and out of his face, and it hung in unruly clumps around his face. Maybe he had just been too tired to deal with his hair; she looked closer and realized that he still looked tired, even after so much rest, never mind the fact that most of it had been ordered by Unohana. The exhaustion wasn't quite there, though, and that much was a relief. She really had been worried, and it had helped her to relax by going out to drink after so much stress. Besides, Hitsugaya liked doing the paperwork, as much as he grumbled about it.

Suddenly, Hitsugaya looked up and shot Matsumoto an inquisitive glance, raising an eyebrow and looking somewhat suspicious. "Was there something else?"

Clearing her throat, Matsumoto shook her head and smiled. "Nothing. I'll go make some tea."

Hitsugaya looked at her uncertainly again for a moment, then sighed and turned back to his work. Some things never changed, even after Hitsugaya had spent an entire month at this point recovering in the Fourth's rooms. He still was the same crabby, workaholic captain she knew from long before, despite the new scars he bore across his chest and stomach as a reminder. (Matsumoto hadn't seen them herself, but Koutetsu had told her about them.) That much wasn't about to change any time soon.

And yet, at the same time, everything had changed. Matsumoto just wasn't sure how yet.

If Hitsugaya heard one more voice whispering outside his borrowed bedroom – just one – he was going to have to kill something. Or someone. Because some certain people here just did not know how to whisper without making it so loud and grating that it cut straight through Urahara's paper-thin walls. Contrary to popular belief, talking wasn't so bad – it was background noise, and thus easy to tune out while he tried falling asleep. Whispering?

... They honestly thought they wouldn't wake him by whispering, did they?

Hitsugaya flopped onto his back and glared at the dark ceiling. It wasn't like he was made of glass, goddamn it; it was almost embarrassing enough that Matsumoto insisted on herding him to bed like a mother would her child. And he had thought Unohana was bad.

He couldn't begrudge his lieutenant, though. Although the back paperwork from his absence had been left almost entirely up to him, Matsumoto had done a pretty good job keeping the others in Karakura in line. When she was there, at least – he'd heard, mostly from Unohana, that Matsumoto had followed him back to Soul Society shortly after the nasty exorcism. Everyone seemed to be in pretty decent spirits upon his return, so he assumed it had gone well enough.

Well, on second thought, Ichigo had been far broodier than usual; it made Hitsugaya suspicious that something had happened with the kid that nobody was telling him. Either they didn't want to trouble him, or Ichigo simply didn't want anyone else to know (which was stupid, because he was more than obviously bothered by whatever it was). And if it didn't rear its head in the near future – if that happened, Hitsugaya would just deal with it when it came up – it likely wasn't a big deal, and wasn't his business. He hoped that the latter was the situation, after all the crap they'd all had to put up with of late – and so he wouldn't have to say anything to Yamamoto. Not that he was planning to say much, unless he thought it was necessary.

Tracing his fingers along the scars trailing across his chest absentmindedly, he wrinkled his nose as he heard Matsumoto shush Ikkaku loudly. There was a pattering of feet outside his door, and then the voices moved down the hall with them. Finally, some real quiet.

Hitsugaya turned back onto his side and closed his eyes, but it wasn't as easy to fall asleep as he was hoping it would be, even with the quiet. There was simply too much to think about, and not enough exhaustion to chase errant thoughts away for the night.

Like how he still never quite got the full picture of what had happened in Yamamoto's office after Karura had taken over. Bits and pieces of his memories were distorted and fuzzy, as if seen through shattered textured glass. Hyourinmaru had been eerily silent in the back of his mind of late. He could still feel the dragon's presence, but it was more subdued than usual. Part of him seemed to recall a dream that felt distant, and yet so real that sometimes he had to think twice before realizing that it had to be impossible.

... Right?

Hyourinmaru stirred in the back of his mind – he could almost see the dragon's scales shining as they brushed his subconscious – but remained silent. Hitsugaya didn't feel anger or fear from the reassuring gesture, but it seemed as though the dragon was concentrating on something and had brushed his inquiry aside like a distracted father ruffling his son's hair without looking.

And it irritated him.

Perhaps that was part of why he couldn't sleep. Hyourinmaru might have had something to do with it.

But before Hitsugaya could push his will on his own dragon spirit, the small Hollow indicator that Urahara had given him beeped twice in quick succession – making him jerk reflexively, dammit – before it began wailing.


He fumbled his way out of the sheets and grabbed at the indicator, juggling it a bit before he managed to get a good grip on it and glare at the screen so he could figure out what it was warning him of, and thus how to make it shut the hell up. One look at the read-outs, however, and Hitsugaya pulled himself to his feet, grumbling. Menos Grande.

Pulling on his robe hastily and rushing out the bedroom door, he nearly smacked directly into Renji – who was already free of his gigai and ready to go – just on the other side. Trying not to look flustered as he straightened the front of his haori, Hitsugaya looked up at the redheaded lieutenant seriously.

"It's close by," he said simply.

Renji grunted. "We can handle it," he replied gruffly. He looked away from Hitsugaya when the young captain began to show signs of irritation. "Ikkaku and I are on night watch anyway."

A likely excuse. Hitsugaya wanted to be pissed about how they were all treating him like he was made of spun glass, but instead he relaxed his shoulders and sighed. They needed to know that he still trusted them to do their jobs (they could easily handle a Menos Grande, especially after they'd dealt with Arrancar before), and he was pretty damn tired. And Hyourinmaru hadn't exactly been talkative lately, which made him... uncomfortable. Not worried. ... Really.

"Fine," he said finally. "Just... don't make a mess. I want the report on it by noon if it goes without incident."

Renji nodded, shoulders relaxing in relief as he turned and headed out the door, calling for Ikkaku as he left.

Hitsugaya sighed once Renji was gone. This was the second Menos Grande attack that day, and the second time that Hitsugaya had let his subordinates handle it for him. He had to admit it made him feel almost useless; even though a captain's strength shouldn't be needed to handle that level of a Hollow, he still wanted to show the others that he was fully capable of standing his own ground again.

But there was that little niggling feeling of doubt in the pit of his stomach, the part of him that reminded him of Hyourinmaru's silence causing it to gnaw further into his innards. It was getting harder to shake now that he had rather easily let Renji talk him out of going on an extermination, if it could even be called a discussion.

There will always be more, he reminded himself as he turned and trudged back to the room to try to catch at least a little more sleep.

Without the noise, it was surprisingly easy to fall asleep in spite of the remnant feelings of doubt and frustration. He didn't dream – hadn't been doing much of that lately, it seemed – but it was a deep sleep, and when his alarm woke him a few hours later, he felt rather refreshed, if not fairly startled by the sudden noise.

"Taichou!" Matsumoto's voice floated through the other side of the shoji – she'd noticed the problem as well, then. "It's Arrancar!"

... Shit. If she was actually letting him know about it, then Renji and Ikkaku likely hadn't returned from taking care of the Menos Grande. Which meant that there could be other problems at hand, and in turn spelled out a long night in Hitsugaya's mind. He jerked on his robes again, tying Hyourinmaru onto his back as he rushed out the door. Matsumoto was waiting for him, and together they rushed in the direction of the signal. It was left unspoken that Urahara would keep an eye on Orihime for them.

Hitsugaya hoped that the speed they were going masked the fact that his hands were shaking. The silence in his own subconsciousness created an empty, gaping maw that made him feel almost sick with self-doubt. Could he handle this? Hadn't he done this before?

But the moment he caught sight of the Arrancar – smirking, standing with arms crossed as if it had been waiting for them purposely – Hyourinmaru suddenly roared to life in his mind, and he lost his mind to the rush of icy wind as the dragon took over.

The Menos Grande seemed almost too easy to destroy after having fought so many Arrancar of late, Renji thought. Ikkaku had taken the initiative, launched an attack the moment they saw the towering Hollow, and before Renji could blink, it was over. He hadn't even done anything.

... It was rather annoying, actually. Renji had kind of been hoping for some sort of outlet that he could vent his frustration with. It had been quiet lately, at least since the young captain had returned to his post. Nobody knew how to address Hitsugaya anymore; it wasn't like they didn't trust him to be able to do his job correctly, but from what Matsumoto had said (in the vaguest of terms), whatever had happened in Seireitei had very nearly killed Hitsugaya. Not that Hitsugaya seemed to act in a way that indicated he'd essentially been to hell and back, but Renji couldn't help but worry for the kid. Hitsugaya had been through a hell of a lot lately.

At any rate, there hadn't been much going on, and Renji once again found himself increasingly bored. This Menos Grande venture was supposed to help him, but Ikkaku had taken care of it all too quickly. So when Ikkaku suggested they go out for drinks afterwards, Renji didn't argue.

"We should've called Rangiku and Yumi," Ikkaku said absently as he stared at a can of Asahi that he'd picked up at a local convenience store. "They dig this kind of shit."

Renji nodded; they would have enjoyed this too, but Hitsugaya would've caught them if they'd gone back. He stared down at his own can of alcohol, some kind of wussy fruit beverage that Ikkaku had shoved in his hands. It wasn't providing the effect he'd been hoping for – that pleasant buzz in the back of his mind that let the world fade to white noise in the background. Nope, it'd take at least half a dozen of these to get there. At least.

He took another swig and scowled. "This shit is nasty," he said finally.

"Here, try this one instead–"

"I'll pick my own this time, thanks," Renji growled, rummaging through the bag they'd picked up. He pulled out a bottle of sake. "You were holding out on me, you son of a bitch."

"Hey, that one's for later, bastard!" Ikkaku grabbed for the bottle, but Renji held it up and out of the way.

"Fuck that!" Renji shoved Ikkaku's hands away and worked the cap off the bottle as quickly as he could. Taking a healthy swig out of the open bottle, he sighed contentedly as the liquid burned all the way down to his stomach.

"You're wasting it, you uncultured jackass!"

Renji smirked. "This? Still piss water, but better than that goddamned girly drink you made me drink earlier." His face felt oddly warm, and the smirk turned into a full-fledged grin. "It'll do."

Ikkaku opened his mouth to protest further, but the shrill wail of the damned pocket radar cut him off and made Renji jump in the process. Growling as he tried shaking some of the spilled sake off his bare arms, he shot a scowl over at Ikkaku just in time to see a wicked grin spread across the bald shinigami's face.

"'Bout fucking time," he crowed, getting to his feet – swaying a moment as his body reminded him that they'd just been drinking as much booze as fast as they could – and looking off into the direction of the signal.

"Arrancar?" Renji asked, also getting up almost too quickly.

Ikkaku didn't answer; instead, he raced off, leaving a swearing Renji in his wake. Renji increased the length of his shunpo in order to catch up. Wait for me, you asshole!

The Arrancar, it seemed, wasn't terribly far from Urahara's shop, which could very well be an indication that the Menos Grande had shown up as an intended distraction. Matsumoto had likely picked up the signal as well. They'd have to be careful, in case this Arrancar was also ranked.

Renji nearly slipped on the ice that suddenly coated the ground beneath him, once he got close enough. Ikkaku was already skidding to a precarious stop ahead of him; Renji could barely make out his silhouette in the thickening, cold mist around them. An icy wind blew through, clearing the mist, and the mild alcohol buzz dispersed with the wind.

In the middle of the icy destruction stood a very frozen Arrancar, and just beyond it, Renji caught a glimpse of a white coat with the Tenth's kanji symbol on the back. A breath later, and the ice surrounding the Arrancar exploded in a burst of frozen wind. It was gone after that.

Hitsugaya slid his long zanpakutou back into its sheath on his back, and Renji shivered at the way the young captain's eyes practically glowed through the remaining mist. It took Renji a moment to realize that Hitsugaya hadn't even released his shikai.

Holy fucking hell.

Renji made a mental note to never piss Hitsugaya off again. Perhaps there wasn't any cause to worry over the kid's safety anymore.

If Urahara's could have been any quieter, Matsumoto was sure she would be able to hear a fly land on the wall. And Ichigo had been missing for a few days now; according to Renji, he had gone to visit some "Vaizard" guy – a term that seemed almost familiar to Matsumoto, but not quite – for training. Here she thought it had been pretty damned quiet when Hitsugaya had first returned from Seireitei. It was like walking on pins and needles now.

This time, though, it was different – instead of everyone else being so blatantly worried for Hitsugaya's sake, now they all seemed almost terrified of him. Or at least respectfully fearful. Not that she could blame them; Hitsugaya's little display with the Arrancar had been almost entirely unexpected.

She never saw Hitsugaya as a weak individual, mind, but she had never particularly seen him as frighteningly powerful. It was like a second layer of seals – above and beyond the limits placed on them by Gotei's rulings – had been lifted from whatever source that drove Hitsugaya's spirit, and Matsumoto had to admit that it did make her a little hesitant to pick on the young captain the way she had before.

But when she really thought about it, Hitsugaya seemed to notice that everyone was treading lightly around him, and yet he still acted as serious and grouchy as he had before. No more, no less – but with some obvious effort to hide an exhaustion that went far beyond the physical body.

So she tried damned hard not to treat him any differently than she had before, but... it just wasn't as easy, now that he was less a little kid and more of a leader figure. Power tended to carry a lot of followers with it; Hitsugaya's was no different, it seemed. He even looked a little more mature than he had before the entire ordeal, if her eyes weren't mistaking her.

Had Aizen's precautions against Hitsugaya so long ago really put such an impressive seal on Hitsugaya's true potential? Matsumoto couldn't help but wonder if the incident with Karura had affected Hitsugaya so much that it made him seem almost like a different person without the crow deity's presence. If that was the case, did it really take a full-blown deity to hold the young captain back? Aizen must have pulled all kinds of strings in order to be able to harness the power of otherworldly gods. And if Aizen and Gin had taken such drastic measures against Hitsugaya, then who else might they have targeted?

Did she even show up on their radar, now?


Even now, she could still remember the smile on his face when he left to join Aizen in Hueco Mundo, and it almost made her hurt just to think about him. How he'd worked his way past her own defenses, taken her down, and then left her out to dry. It wasn't fair, sometimes.

She would have liked to think he'd given her the choice to follow him, and though she didn't regret a single moment of remaining loyal to Hitsugaya, it still hurt to have that little seed of doubt that told her she really hadn't been given the option to stay with Gin.

Then she wondered that maybe this was what Gin had intended all along. Is this Aizen's way of neutralizing me as well?

If it was, then... perhaps, it was working. And it was a damned scary thought, one that she tried desperately not to bother her while she served afternoon tea to Hitsugaya in silence.

Shinji smirked when he managed to glean news from the Kurosaki kid that the short, white-haired captain kid had come back from Soul Society alive. Maybe Yamamoto was growing soft in his old age, hm? In any case, it certainly worked in Shinji's favor – for now. Kurosaki had seemed to be a little concerned over the kid's physical condition, but from reports that Shinji had picked up, it sounded like the boy was doing just fine for himself.

Hell, even if it was only a small victory in the grand scheme of things, Shinji couldn't complain. He was going to take every goddamned little opening that Aizen gave him to bite back – and bite fucking hard. Aizen was still a punk kid in Shinji's mind; the little shit had underestimated all of them since day one, and Shinji wasn't about to let him get away with it.

Aizen wasn't entirely stupid, of course. Shinji had to stack his own deck favorably, and keep it quiet – there were still a lot of risks involved. Aizen had already noticed Ichigo, after all; that hadn't actually been in the original plan, but at least it had given Urahara a chance to gain the boy's trust. Urahara had been damned lucky the boy hadn't up and fucking died on them when that snot-nosed token noble brat captain had nearly taken him out so early on. Perhaps it had been a fortunate turn of events in the end, but Urahara had almost been too goddamned late to take advantage of it. Their plans lay in a very delicate balance, after all – one small slip-up could make things a hell of a lot more difficult. They'd already invested a lot in this plan.

Shinji watched, trying to school his bored expression as he watched Isshin's boy spar with Hiyori. As much as the girl's fiery temper made her seem like an absolute beast, she had taken a liking to Ichigo – after all, there weren't many people she'd invest so much time pounding into the ground again and again like that just to get a point across. Most people just got pounded into the ground once, and then were ignored.

Maybe it was just because Ichigo got up again and again, and Shinji was pretty sure Hiyori hadn't encountered many shinigami with the kind of fortitude it took to keep taking a beating just to gain power. Except maybe Isshin. ... Ichigo was definitely Isshin's kid.

And to think, this was only the beginning.

So, Kurosaki... Where will you take us from here?



I actually did a decent amount of research for the cha-no-yu (Japanese tea ceremony) setting. However, I have to admit that I totally bs'd the chabana (tea ceremony flower arrangement) itself, because I had a bit of a hard time finding decent information on meanings behind flowers used in these arrangements. Minor details, I know, but I'm a dork and tried to make it right anyway? Feel free to point out errors if you see any, because I certainly am no expert.

Also, ask away if you have any other questions, because I honestly can't remember if there's anything else I might need to put notes here for.

Finished for this story, at least. (Geez! Finally!) More to come, if I actually get off my lazy butt to write them! If you haven't already noticed, I've started calling this an arc – which does indeed come with a giant plot of doom! (tm) attached. ... I hope. Please forgive the mistakes – plot-wise and technical – that I'm pretty sure are chilling out in this chapter. I haven't really had it looked over, and I'm too tired to do it myself now, but I wanted to get this UP and OUT of my HAIR.

Why yes, I did incorporate parts of Bleach-108 into this, as it came out just as I was finally getting around to the grindwork on this chapter. I'm just hoping I did it well enough to make it all work. Somehow. If you know what happened in the -108 side chapter, then you'll likely pick up some of the inferences I made?

... Err. Anyway. I'm extremely sorry for how long it took me to finally finish this; life and stuff just kept getting in the way. I meant to have this done by my birthday, but obvioulsy I didn't quite make it, as it's just now past midnight on April 3rd my time. Hey, only three days off! At least I almost made my own deadline this time? Lol.

I'd like to thank everyone who took the time and effort to read and comment on this so far; I can't tell you how much your words inspired me to finish this, even though I often felt like I wasn't doing Bleach any kind of justice. I really appreciate all your support, even if I didn't get around to actually replying to all the reviews (I'm sure I missed at least a handful – I really suck at this)!

Much love, peace out, and HOORAY IT IS FINISHED. Time to celebrate! 8D

... Until the next time!