"Can we pretend that airplanes

In the night sky

Are like shooting stars?"

-Airplanes, B.O.B.

Chapter Eleven

Heart Choke

"That's not me."


"I'm telling you that's not me!"

Shimizu Kouryuu's shout echoed desperately through the crowded room, and there were no more protests. Rangiku watched him with a soft frown, her hand floating halfway between herself and the angry boy's shoulder, while Kurosaki grimaced at the screen, as if trying to figure out how both the video and the boy could be truthful. Kuchiki Rukia was not quite as forgiving.

"Is it possible to fake video like this?"

Shihouin shook her head. "Straight from the source. It couldn't have been tampered with."

"The place look familiar?" Kurosaki cut in, turning to the boy in question.

Kouryuu took a step back. The feeling of being surrounded was becoming overwhelming. The worst part was that he knew exactly how implicating the truth was. Nobody would believe him if he tried to explain. He didn't even want to explain. Just another tally in the endless list of reasons Shimizu Kouryuu was a pathetic outcast. As if he wanted to share something that would pry him away from some of the few people on the planet who didn't think he was completely insane, even if plenty of them were borderline themselves.

"Of course, it does," Urahara answered for him without looking up from the folder that had captured his attention. "Kouryuu-kun was a resident there for several months. Two and a half, wasn't it? In-patient care after a severe automobile accident of which he was the sole survivor. He had several psychotic episodes very similar to the one recorded on that tape. According to these reports, they were quite fascinating."

"Then he's lying!" Rukia concluded.

"No!" Rangiku interrupted before Kouryuu could make a run for it. "When he told me he'd never heard Taichou's name before, he wasn't lying. At least, he didn't associate it with anyone."

The Kuchiki was still bothered, but she seemed to trust Rangiku's word, whirling back to the video with a frustrated pout.

"Of course, he wasn't lying," Urahara confirmed once more. "I said that these actions were categorized as a psychotic break, didn't I? Kouryuu-kun was hardly in his right mind at the time. He was in Hitsugaya-taichou's."

Dead silence followed as the occupants of the room digested the ridiculousness of what Urahara had so casually let slip.

With a gasp, Rangiku joined Rukia and Kurosaki in staring at the television screen. She bent down, letting her fingers caress where the boy was rocking back and forth in the corner of the room. "That's not Kouryuu. It's..."

"How does that make sense?" Kurosaki demanded of Urahara. It looked like the annoying salesman was the only one who knew what was going on here.

Shihouin proved that assumption wrong. "Ichigo, Toushirou and Kouryuu may share the same body, but they're not the same person," she explained, pointing at the boy with two fingers as he took another step back and scissoring them to emphasize the act of separation.

"I know that," the ornery redhead insisted.

"What she means," Urahara Kisuke supplied as he finally looked up from the documents he was holding, "is that there are two souls currently residing in Shimuzu Kouryuu's body."

"That's impossible."

"Ah, but Rukia, it is possible," the salesman regaled. "There is one method that would make such a feat doable. I have no doubt Aizen has discovered it."

There they were again, talking about him, around him, through him. Badmouthing the man he trusted most, saying something was wrong with him, insisting he was the key to this missing bastard of a captain. He grit his teeth, and another backward movement had him hitting the wall behind him. The walls were closing in, and he was losing himself again, bits and pieces of his identity flaking off like dead skin.

Then a new sensation hit him. A cooling, calming feeling that seemed to radiate from his gut outward to every extremity. The angry dragon!


It was a rebuke, if even that. It was a petulant, aggravated retort. But it reminded Kouryuu of so much more. It didn't matter who the former owner of the dragon was. It was his now. Even if he had nothing else, he had that. If he ever needed it, he could just call the dragon's name, and a piece of himself would be standing boldly before him.

"How?" Rangiku asked quietly.

And everyone was surprised when Kouryuu added, "Yeah, get to the point. I have homework, you know. I can't stand here all night while you beat around the bush."

Urahara Kisuke approved of the change of heart. "Well, if Kouryuu's asking, I guess I have no choice," he conceded wryly.

The blond man closed the report he'd been reading, waving it in the air like a conductor to signal that he was going to start explaining. All eyes were on him, open ears waiting expectantly to absorb the information for which they'd been so desperately searching. It brought a small grin to the man's face, to be the center of such unwanted attention.

"The most important thing to remember is that Aizen's interest lies with Kurosaki Ichigo," he began with a bold swing of his arm, pointing his folder at the frustrated substitute shinigami. Everyone's gaze shifted. "As long as you can keep that in mind, the rest becomes quite clear. If asked the question 'What is Kurosaki Ichigo?' how would you answer?"

"A delinquent."

"A healthy teenage boy?"

"A human shinigami."

"Ding, ding, ding! First round goes to the Lady Kuchiki!" Urahara proclaimed. "Kurosaki Ichigo is alive, but he still houses the power of a shinigami! Imagine you are a man who has thoroughly exhausted the amount of research you are capable of conducting on the souls of the dead, but Seireitei will not give you leeway to conduct the research necessary for experimentation on another living soul with the same potential. If you wanted to further understand how Kurosaki Ichigo's soul functions, what could you do? What resource do you have in abundance?"

"Prisoners of war," Rangiku whispered, slowly catching on to what Urahara was implying.

"Round two to lovely Miss Rangiku," the shopkeeper crowed. "The problem with this, however, was that any prisoners he may obtain would be dead. His only option was to resurrect them. You can imagine that any soul not powerful enough to withstand these experiments did not last long. He would eventually find it necessary to obtain a more powerful subject, a subject of great but not vital importance. Essentially, he needed someone whose disappearance would shake the Seireitei but for whom Yama-jii would not assign a full-scale rescue.

"Hitsugaya-taichou fit that description quite nicely, don't you think?"

"At least look less suspicious when you say things like that," Rukia scolded with a thin frown. There wasn't much heart in her protest. To hear something like that spoken so bluntly...

"That still doesn't explain-"

Before Kurosaki could finish, Urahara cut him off by shoving the psych report into the teenager's face. "We can deduce from Kouryuu's existence that Aizen succeeded, yes? The question is how. The answer is in this document."

Kouryuu dashed forward as Kurosaki opened it, peeking around him to try to get a good look. The others in the room leaned in as well, more than a little curious.

"The official diagnosis does little good for us, but the notes regarding early observation are key. After only two sessions, two of three psychologists were convinced Shimuzu Kouryuu was suffering from Associative Identity Disorder. He had abruptly changed - one moment a violent, emotionally-unbalanced authoritarian figure, the next a quietly frightened child. Apparently, they changed the diagnosis when the two separate personalities began to switch at a faster pace and then fuse. Now imagine this scenario while assuming that, rather than two personalities, two souls resided in the same body."

"One soul, one body," Rukia insisted. "If there were two... they must have fought for dominance. One should have consumed the other."

"The personalities fusing is explained by that battle," Shihouin prompted with a wave of her hand. "Kouryuu's soul was consuming Hitsugaya's. Obviously Hitsugaya's soul was too powerful to be devoured by a normal soul, and he must have halted the process somehow. Doing so left Kouryuu with full control of the body, and he was allowed to stabilize."

"I think I'm gonna throw up," Kouryuu conceded as he scrunched up his nose, the words on the page making him nausious.

"In this house, we do that in the sink." Rangiku gave a quick nod to Kurosaki before ushering the smaller boy into a restroom.

Ichigo didn't understand what the nod was for until Rukia nudged him in the ribs. "Well? Your face says you want to ask something."

His face? Confusion motivated him to turn toward a mirror, and even he was surprised at the concern staring back at him. Brows peeled back, eyes softened ever-so-slightly, lips a thin but unsteady line. Damn, he really sucked at this whole being stoic thing.

"I do have something I want to ask, but..." he trailed off as he eyed the direction Rangiku had taken Kouryuu. It only took a moment of hesitation, however, before he manned up and decided answers were the most important thing right now. He could deal with the rest later. "You guys are talking like it makes sense that the kid's soul was the one winning. Toushirou definitely isn't that weak."

All the playfulness left Urahara Kisuke's posture then, evaporating at the boiling hot touch of such a simple, innocent observation.

"Ichigo, there was a period of four weeks between the day Hitsugaya Toushirou disappeared and the day Shimizu Kouryuu was checked into the hospital."


A sigh followed, heavy and world weary. "A lot can happen in a month."

It was dark. No, not dark. Black was a better word. Pitch black. He couldn't even see his hand when he held it in front of his face. He hadn't quite decided whether he preferred this or the snow blindness caused by the otherwise white-washed walls.

The first few hours, he'd spent trying to gain a better concept of his predicament - the size of his prison, what it was made of, where the exit was, what sort of noises he could hear from outside the door. The cell was small, just wide enough for him to lay down if he bent his knees a little and about twice his height in length. When the door had been open and light had flooded the room momentarily, he thought the ceiling had reached an average height. The walls were made with the same sturdy materials as the rest of Aizen's would-be palace. No wood or brick to whittle away. The door was some sort of metal, heavy and with an intricate design embedded into it, located along one of the longer walls. He'd save exploring that design for a while, he decided. It was something he could do to pass time when he needed it more than he did now.

As for what he could hear outside... A prolonged silence had had him worried that the cell was soundproof, but finally he'd managed to hear a soft clattering - metal on stone - and surmised that he would only be able to catch loud sounds muffled by the thick walls.

Dutifully, he ignored his own condition. He wasn't certain he wanted to know how badly off he was. Every part of his body hurt in some fashion, and it was probably best for him to simply be careful in all of his movements. Rather, he focused on clear problems outward of his person. His reiryoku was shot. That meant the stone cuff wrapped tightly around his ankle was most likely sekkiseki. It served no purpose otherwise. Hyourinmaru, the beautiful blade Hitsugaya was rarely without, was missing. No doubt left behind with Matsumoto's body in the Rukongai or being probed back in those sterile, white chambers. The spirit remained with him, however, and that was perhaps the only reason he was still so calm.

Aizen wouldn't place him in these conditions for no reason. Even torture for the sake of torture seemed out of the question for the overpowerful mastermind. In that case, Hitsugaya could only assume that Aizen wanted something from him. The man had said he would allow Hitsugaya to be useful. Was he bait then? For whom? The bastard had also insisted on leaving his wounds untreated. No trade would be made then. Whatever happened, he wouldn't be leaving this place without a fight, and at the moment, he had no way of fighting.

No, that wasn't entirely true. If Aizen wanted something from him, the best way to fight would be to not give it to him.

No one had ever accused Hitsugaya Toushirou of being yielding.

"No doubt Aizen inflicted some sort of damage in order to weaken his soul. If either soul was too powerful or too weak, none of this would have been possible. The stronger would have obliterated the weaker in an instant," Urahara confirmed quietly, folding his hands beneath his chin. Now was the time. With Shimizu Kouryuu out of hearing range, he needed to make his point as clearly and concisely as possible. It was something none of them could run away from, and he had to make sure Kurosaki Ichigo understood that. "That, however, is in the past. Our real problem lies in the future."

"And what problem is that?" Rukia frowned, deep and dark. She moreso than the bothered Ichigo seemed to understand the dire situation this created for them, especially the young boy being sick in the restroom.

"Hitsugaya's soul is going to recover its strength. Kouryuu doesn't have much longer."

"How can you-?"

Ichigo stopped when Yoruichi placed her palm at his chest. "It's inevitable, Ichigo. If Hitsugaya's soul is strong enough to still exist, then it is going to grow stronger. Especially if Kouryuu is building his own reiryoku."

"Can't you just take Toushirou's soul out then? If Aizen shoved it in, you can take it out, right?"

"It's not that simple," the behatted salesman replied, his solemnity a stark contrast to Ichigo's agitation. "I warned you as we were leaving Sousuke's apartment that he would not have told us what he did if we could do anything to change it. The small amount of fusion that took place the moment their souls met ensured each a claim on the other. Hitsugaya's soul is buried not beside Kouryuu's but within.

"There is nothing to be done for Kouryuu. You wanted the little captain back, and now you'll have him."

"We left him behind once." Urahara Kisuke met Kurosaki Ichigo eye to eye - cold and bitter green versus angry, steel brown. "It's not happening again."

"Which one, Ichigo?" the older enunciated sharply. "Protecting Kouryuu is the same as killing Hitsugaya. Protecting Hitsugaya is the same as killing Kouryuu."

"That's where you're wrong, old man."

Urahara could tell that Ichigo was holding back an explosion of temper, and so he didn't question when the teenager stomped toward the exit.

"Making a choice is as good as killing both of them."

He slammed the shop's door behind him, and Rukia hastily moved to follow. Urahara let his hat slip down over his eyes, but a moment later, two slender, confident arms wrapped themselves around his neck from behind.

"Trying to discourage him won't work. You know that better than anyone, Kisuke," Yoruichi whispered into his ear.

"I had to try."

"We probably have another ten minutes or so until Rangiku and the kid come out of the bathroom."

"Don't let go."

She didn't.

A knock on his office door told him that someone was looking for him.

"Come in. It's open."

A young girl hesitantly stepped inside, closing the door behind her. Her uniform's skirt was misplaced on one side. She must have been clutching it rather tightly. A dark bob cut framed her concerned expression.

"Suzuki Nyoko, correct?"

She nodded.

"I'm sorry to bother you after school hours. I'm just really worried, and I know he's always looked up to you, so..."

Aizen Sousuke reached out a comforting hand to her shoulder. "What's wrong?"

"It's Kouryuu-kun," she admitted. "I don't think he wants anyone to know, but I can't stand seeing him like this. These people are trying to help him, but I don't think it's working. They talked about you too, so I thought you might be the only person I could ask."

"Ah, 'these people'? The same people Shimizu mentioned the other day?"

"He told you about them?"

Nyoko seemed surprised, so he thought he should clarify. "He told me to be careful, but don't worry. I let him know that they're just some old friends of mine."

"They didn't sound like they liked you very much."

Aizen laughed. "No. No, they don't. Not anymore."

Nyoko pushed forward then, looking up at him in pleading anticipation. "Then please tell me, can they really help Kouryuu-kun? Or...?"

He smiled.

Chapter Eleven End