"The mind is its own place, and in itself

Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

What matter where, if I be still the same..."

--John Milton

The first Mayuri knew about Aizen's betrayal was along with nearly everyone else. He only had to hear a little of what happened to dismiss the news as largely irrelevant.

Ichimaru's involvement was hardly a surprise. Anyone with even a portion of a working brain would have noticed his innate corruption.

Tousen's betrayal, on the other hand, was something he hadn't foreseen, and that rankled. Oh, the fact of the betrayal itself didn't matter in the least. What mattered was that he'd somehow missed the signs, and that never should have happened. An investigation into the facts was called for, that much was certain. He made a mental note to interrogate Hisagi Shuuhei as soon as possible, before anyone else could interfere.

As for the news about Hitsugaya and Hinamori, the only thing that annoyed him about that was the sloppiness of the reporting. It was unclear to him whether they had been killed or merely injured, and while their deaths would have been relatively inconsequential, it bothered him not to have all the pertinent facts.

Then there was the matter of how Aizen had faked his death so convincingly. That was something he must learn. Whatever method Aizen used, it had been enough to lead Unohana's diagnostic kidou and--more tellingly--Mayuri's own instruments to the same conclusions regarding the matter of his death. If it had been beating at the moment, Mayuri's heart would no doubt have gone into mild tachycardia at the anticipation of learning something both new and potentially valuable.

The last words of Isane's spiritually broadcast message had barely faded away when a timid voice chimed in with an utterly useless question.

"Did you hear that, Mayuri-sama?"

He had to concentrate to keep himself from reflexively sighing in exasperation. Couldn't the girl see for herself that he was mostly re-formed? She was designed to be smarter than that.

"Of course I heard it," he snapped. Mayuri had no patience for ill-considered rhetorical questions that did nothing but fill the air. He had other things on his mind; namely, his body, or what there was of it at the moment.

The entire process of reconstitution was singularly unpleasant. Mayuri clung to the washroom screen, trying not to breathe too much or too deeply because trying to do so with half-formed lungs was like trying to draw air through a sodden sponge.

It was almost enough to make him revert to a puddle again, just for the sheer relief of not having to deal with internal organs that were trying to settle into their proper places. Even worse was the erratic firing of neural pathways as they re-established connections not just to his original nervous system, but to all the assorted ports, relays, amplifiers, sensors, and switches he'd added over the years to upgrade and refine what he saw as a fundamentally flawed and poorly designed life support system/data-gathering instrument for his mind.

He winced as his heart (he kept meaning to replace that with something more efficient one of these days) woke up and stuttered and wobbled its way back to a normal, self-sustaining rhythm.

Still, none of this was nearly as unpleasant as waiting for his bones to re-crystallize had been. Bones were always the worst part.

Sometimes he wondered if he might be able to bear the unpleasantness better if it didn't manifest as something very like a full-body case of intestinal flu.

"What shall we do?" Nemu asked.

He'd nearly forgotten she was there. The curiosity and drive to learn that he'd built into her were an asset in the laboratory but an irritant when they found outlets elsewhere. And this was a path he did not want her to pursue. Not yet, anyhow.


She shrank back as expected at the casual contempt in his voice. There'd be no more curiosity from her, at least not on this subject. Behavioral conditioning had done much to keep her from indulging in independent thought when it didn't suit his needs. As maddening as they were at times, the emotions he'd allowed her to develop were quite useful when it came to keeping her in control.

"I have no interest..." He let his voice trail off, signaling to her that the whole matter was beneath their notice.

In truth, he was only vaguely interested in what would happen over the next few hours. Aizen and his allies would escape pursuit, or they would not. Their pursuers would be injured or killed, or they would not.

What Mayuri was really interested in was what Aizen had been planning for all these decades.

Oh, he'd known for quite some time that Aizen was planning something, he thought smugly as he sent Nemu to bring him his replacement mask and a fresh set of clothes.

She scurried off obediently, and once again Mayuri was left alone in the comfortable presence of his own thoughts.

Shortly after Urahara had blessedly vanished, the Fifth's taichou began to make regular visits to the Twelfth. He'd even deliberately sought out Mayuri's company. At first Mayuri thought the other man (who had such a reputation for being "nice," as if that were a useful trait) was trying to draw him out socially, "for his own good." Normally, Mayuri would have run him off straight away, the way he'd run off Kyouraku and Ukitake and any number of others who saw some need for improvement in him.

Aizen, on the other hand... Mayuri had been quick to notice that there was an incisive intelligence and a distinct sense of purpose behind that bland prattling.

Casual inquiries into Mayuri's health and social life framed far less casual questions about his research. Aizen was careful, but there were times when his questions betrayed far more scientific background--especially when it came to the nature of Hollows--than a man with only the standard Academy training should have had.

So, while he did not actively discourage Aizen he did not encourage him, either, and Aizen would only open up so far on his own. (One of these days, Mayuri would find a way to pry open the human mind the way he could pry open the human body--it would make finding things out so much simpler.) It was very much like a chess game where neither player wanted to commit to a strategy until he knew his opponent's style of play.

Over the course of these conversations, Mayuri eventually noticed that whenever they reached the more interesting topics, Aizen's head was always slightly tilted so that his glasses caught the light just so, making it impossible to see what was in his eyes.

Just as Mayuri was recollecting how the flat glass (he doubted anyone else had ever noticed they weren't prescription lenses) became panels of silver-white, Nemu returned with his things. She'd completed her errand within an acceptable amount of time, so he sent her away again with nothing more than a curt wave of his hand.

A faint tremor in his hands was the only thing that betrayed his relief as he put on his mask and felt the synthetic skin adhere tightly to his face. The world came into sharper, truer focus and even his thinking became more precise as the various neural enhancements embedded within the mask automatically connected to the port which now sat in place of his left ear. It was only then that Mayuri deemed his reconstitution to be complete. The clothes followed, and he checked himself quickly in the mirror he'd been carefully avoiding up until now. He'd been told by others that his natural face was quite handsome, but he'd always dismissed those remarks as irrelevant. The black-shrouded face he now saw in the mirror was the one he felt was truly his own. In an odd way, Mayuri mused as he adjusted the ties on his hakama, Aizen's mask--though far simpler than Mayuri's own--was far more concealing.

His thoughts drifted back to those early conversations with Aizen. They'd been quite extensive, extensive enough that Mayuri had Nemu go to the trouble of laying in a supply of tea and sugary biscuits for his guest, since apparently that was how such things were done.

One day, after a distressing amount of small talk had kept Mayuri away from a pet project, Aizen made what at first sounded like a casual and meaningless comment:

"Perhaps one day the two of us should collaborate, Kurotsuchi-taichou. I think it could be quite..."

Mayuri would have guessed that the next word would have been something meaningless like "enjoyable," but Aizen had surprised him.

"...profitable. Yes, quite profitable for both of us, don't you think? I do hope you'll consider it."

It was the closest Aizen had ever come to making him an overt offer of any kind. Only much later would Mayuri wonder exactly what sort of collaboration Aizen had in mind.

"Perhaps," Mayuri had replied cautiously. It was a tempting proposition. But only, he thought, if the collaboration were on his terms. And he wasn't going to make his terms known until Aizen had made his very clear. The matter was never brought up again.

Soon after, Aizen's visits became noticeably fewer and further between, leaving Mayuri with many unanswered questions, a mild addiction to caffeine, and five unopened boxes of sugary biscuits (which were quickly disposed of by a grateful Hiyosu). That seemed to be the end of the matter, and Mayuri was pleased not to have to waste any more time on idle chit-chat.

Several weeks after Aizen's final visit, however, Nemu brought it to Mayuri's attention that various reports and research were being accessed without proper authorization.

Nearly all of the research in question had involved Hollows or the now-forbidden studies and clinical trials on Hollow hybridization. It didn't take long to figure out who had gone browsing through the Twelfth's records. Only someone with captain-level reiatsu combined with a near-genius intellect could have bypassed the techno-spiritual safeguards Mayuri and Akon had placed throughout the database.

Normally, Mayuri would have immediately gone on a rampage and tracked down whoever it was that was violating security and stealing his research. But not this time. For one thing, he was certain of the culprit's identity. For another, he hoped that Aizen's own illicit research might prove to be useful in due time, especially when it came to hybridization. Mayuri was far too cautious to dabble in illegal matters directly; even a two-percent chance of being caught and losing the freedom to pursue his other research as he saw fit was an unacceptable risk. But if he had a chance to peruse someone else's illegally conducted research?

Why, he could reap all of the benefit and pay none of the penalty!

Mayuri put on his haori and left the washroom. After informing Nemu that he wished to speak with Hisagi Shuuhei as soon as possible, no excuses, he set out for the Fourth.

Unohana was not only a very observant individual and a brilliant scientist--or she would have been if she were not hampered by an artificial and arbitrary code of ethics--she had seen Aizen both dead and "resurrected." Her observations and insight would prove to be invaluable, especially if Aizen managed to escape.

Because if that was the case, Mayuri would need to decide if it was worth the risk and trouble of secretly tracking down Aizen to find out if that offer of collaboration was still open. If it appeared that Aizen would be on the winning side in the end, then it might be very worth it indeed.

In the end, after all, the only thing that mattered was how much he could learn and how much he could discover. As long as he could continue to expand his mind and pry his way to the secrets of the universe, nothing else mattered. Nothing at all. Loyalty (another artificial and arbitrary construct) could go hang, as far as he was concerned.

x x x

Two hours later, Mayuri stormed into First Division's headquarters.

A guard blocked his path before he could reach Yamamoto's office.

"I am sorry, Kurotsuchi-taichou, but Yamamoto-soutaichou is recovering--"

Whatever he was going to say next became a scream of pain as Mayuri planted a hand on the man's chest and delivered a blast of electrically enhanced reiatsu. The guard crumpled to the ground and Mayuri entered Yamamoto's office with no further impediment.

Yamamoto was sitting slumped in his desk chair, and he looked up at Mayuri as calmly ever, despite the fact that he seemed exhausted by his recent fight. "Kurotsuchi. There is good reason for this interruption, I presume."

Normally, that flinty tone would have stopped Mayuri cold, but now it broke against the towering rage that had brought him here.

"I have come to inform you that no one in my division will even sleep until we have brought that traitorous bastard in for execution!" Sheer anger had constricted his throat so that the words came out tight and almost garbled.

Yamamoto raised one eyebrow. "No sleep? None at all?" He sounded almost amused.

"There are drugs," Mayuri snapped, waving his hand to dismiss a trivial objection. "There are supplements. Side-effects are irrelevant. The faster we bring down Aizen the better. My men are yours. Anything you need. Anything at all. Anything. Even my laboratory."

That got Yamamoto's full attention. He sat up straight despite his fatigue.

"Even your laboratory? What happened? I've never seen you quite so..."

"What happened is that there is a menace on the loose, a menace that I swear to you I will stop by any means necessary!" Mayuri slammed his hand down on the desk, causing Yamamoto's inkwell to hop a full inch up into the air before toppling over and sending a stream of ink trickling over the edge of the desk.

Mayuri stood there for a moment, trembling, his hand splayed across Yamamoto's desk. Then, he took a deep breath. And another.

"I apologize. My temper seems to have gotten the better of me again," he said in a brittle tone he knew many people found disconcerting. It had no apparent effect on Yamamoto.

"Will you send me everything your team has on the Hougyoku?" Yamamoto said casually, testing the waters. "Everything?"

"Everything," Mayuri promised without qualification.

Yamamoto looked as if he was about to ask another question, but after a moment, he merely inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement of Mayuri's statement.

"I'll send Nemu over with a preliminary report this evening," Mayuri said. "And now, if you'll excuse me, Yamamoto-soutaichou, I must return to work. Immediately."

He was dismissed with no more than a nod. No mention was made of the spilled ink.

As he headed back to the Twelfth and the Research Division, shinigami scrambled out of Mayuri's way faster than they normally did when he was out and about.

No wonder, given that rage-tinged reiatsu was still boiling off him in waves.

His hands clenched as he thought back to what Unohana had told him.

Illusions. Illusions that had made a mockery of her senses and his sensors.

The sensors could only read what was there in fact. They were machines--perfectly and flawlessly designed. They should not have been fooled by mere illusion.

Which meant that it was him who had been fooled. The instruments had not deceived him when he had scanned Aizen's "body." It had been his mind--his own mind!--that had been interfered with and tricked into betraying him.

It was not to be borne. His mind was his, and his alone. It was the sum and total of everything he truly was. And for Aizen to meddle with it so that he could no longer trust himself to know what was fact and what was falsehood?

He could imagine no worse hell than that.

"That bastard thinks he'll storm Heaven and become God, does he?" Mayuri snarled as he strode along. A pair of Fourth Division officers were so startled they tripped over their own feet trying to get away from him. "Thinks he'll make paradise in his own image, does he?"

His voice was practically a screech. The streets in front of him were now completely empty.

Paradise. A foreign word, one that had only crept into their vocabulary in the past century or so. It was supposedly some garden of all delight.

But Mayuri knew better. Oh, yes, he did.

Whatever the word might mean now, it came from pairi--"around" and daeza--"wall" in some ancient language, and was originally used to describe an encircling wall, the kind one might find around a garden.

Or a prison.

Mayuri had learned long ago that words, like bodies, often yielded interesting and valuable secrets when you pulled them apart to look at their component pieces.

He knew that if Aizen had his way, he would have them walled off in a world of his own devising. A world where all the rules of the universe--the very ones Mayuri had spent centuries trying to understand--were all but meaningless.

"Well, if he's going to play God," Mayuri hissed, smiling broadly, "then I know exactly what role I intend to play."

It was a role that was well suited to dealing with traitors, according to many cultures. Yes, it would do very well indeed.

By the time Mayuri reached the Twelfth, he could see in his mind exactly what would happen when Aizen was finally brought low. And Aizen would be brought low.

Thoughts lingering on each and every detail of how it would all play out, Mayuri made his way down to the basement levels that housed the Research Division. He went lower, and lower still, smiling as he reached the lowest levels of all and heard the cries and pleading of the Twelfth Division members who had been elected to serve in his latest round of experiments.

In the end, Mayuri swore with satisfaction, he would not be the one who was trapped in a world of someone else's devising.