Thus begins the chapter where everything starts to make sense. The next few chapters will all have similar revelations. Can you figure it out before the characters do? That is, if everyone hasn't figured it out already. Enjoy!

Chapter Specific Warning: I used the word fuck for the first time in a fic. Also a bit of abuse, I guess.

Chapter Sixteen

Jericho Had Walls

"If you forget even one detail..."

Rangiku Matsumoto laughed, waving her hands in reassurance. "How could I? We've only been going over the plan with a fine toothed comb for nearly a day. Kenpachi's men are already breaking up into groups. They'll leave one group at a time and mingle with the crowd. Hanatarou and I can handle the rest!" She reached over to envelop the prince in a shameless side-hug. "Had Shuu take down the flag hours ago, and the ship's name is covered, disguised as cannon damage. No one will know which ship is the pirate ship until you point us out." Her hold on the prince became noticeably tighter at those last words. She meant business. She hadn't forgotten anything about the plan, but would the other half required for their success do his part?

Hitsugaya grimaced from his spot at the rail, the light from the setting sun shining as a backdrop to his silhouette. It illuminated where he had been all too well but left his destination in shadow. "You'll suffocate him before I even reach the duke's manor."

"Is that where the king is staying?" Rangiku asked, curiosity getting the better of her as she freed her poor prisoner.

"It's the largest estate in Resurrección, complete with holding cells and a strategic view of the port itself. Not to mention the duchy has no choice but to be hospitable to the king. Of course that's where he'll be," the young man sighed, massaging the skin directly above his right ear.

"That one then," Renji Abarai, who hadn't seen any reason to butt in on the discussion concerning their plans (he'd already made it very clear what he thought of placing so much trust in Hitsugaya), pointed to the large, castle-like manor that sprawled egotistically across acre after acre.

"That one. You'll be able to see from here when they open the gates. After that, Abarai and I will be alone in the estate."

"Don't lose him, Renji!" the woman captain huffed as she slapped her compatriot playfully across his back. "All you two are doing is announcing our presence. Tomorrow at exactly noon. That's when you ensure the king is waiting for us right there on the dock. If we don't receive your signal, we won't raise the pirate flag."

"Yeah, yeah. Heard it a million damn times," the red-head grumbled as he followed his charge off the galleon. How did he always end up babysitting?

Urahara released a monstrous yawn, readjusting his hat as he stepped out into the salty sea air for the first time all day. Forget all-nighters. When Kisuke Urahara crammed for test day, he could keep going for days on end. In comparison, the thirty or so hours he'd locked himself up with Yoruichi were nothing.

"So, what do you think? Verify with Retsu?" the woman beside him purred. "She was the one who got a look at them firsthand. You had a barrel full of water obstructing your view."

"As soon as possible. Then I think it's time to tell Rangiku."

"If it has to do with how reckless she's being, you're about a week late," interrupted a disgruntled Shuuhei Hisagi.

Urahara chuckled. "Actually, it's about our hostages."

"You can't really call them hostages anymore. Ran's officially promoted them to partners in crime," the man sighed as he ran a hand through his short, tousled hair.

"What is she up to now?" Yoruichi questioned warily, getting a bad feeling in her gut. Had she and Kisuke gotten too used to being the ones calling the shots? Rangiku wouldn't have made a move without consulting them first, would she...?

"She's sent the prince's bulldog as a mediator. He and Renji are supposed to convince the King to go through with the trade. Don't ask me why she picked Renji. Probably figured Hitsugaya was the brains and he was the brawn."

Kisuke's complexion had paled exponentially with each word out of Shuuhei's mouth, and Yoruichi was impossibly tense.

"She already sent them? That wasn't the plan."

"Hitsugaya insisted they leave at sundown rather than sunrise. Something about who runs the guard at what time..."

Shuuhei didn't have a chance to continue. Kisuke and Yoruichi were already gone.

Hitsugaya and Abarai approached the large gate in silence. Neither of them wanted anything to do with each other, and since the plan was already set, they saw no reason to engage each other until absolutely necessary. Hitsugaya wasn't held back by any physical bonds, but he could feel the redhead's stare as tightly as any noose.

Not for long, thankfully.

A few muffled shouts could be heard from the other side of the gate, and when the two companions reached it, it slowly opened to let them through. Three people were waiting for them, blocking their path. All three were in uniform and carried weapons, but two were dressed in the green uniform of the duke's guard. The large man in the middle, the only one with a notable rank and the only one wearing armor, was dressed in the infamous white of the Loyal officer.

Hitsugaya recognized him and inwardly rejoiced. Jidanbou Ikkanzaka. Ikkanzaka nearly always chose night shifts, knowing that that was when most rules were broken, that that was when he would be needed. He also happened to have a serious shoulder injury, one he received right before Hitsugaya set sail which had prevented him from following Hitsugaya out to sea. He was loyal, simple, and best of all, he was sorely underestimated by everyone of royal blood. According to the monarchy, he was good for nothing more than standing in the doorway looking big and scary.

The gate shut loudly behind them, blocking off their escape.

Hitsugaya looked quietly up at Ikkanzaka, and Ikkanzaka looked quietly down at Hitsugaya. Not five seconds later, dirt flew as Renji Abarai was pinned to the ground by the handle of a giant axe.

"Wh-What the hell!"

"Toushirou!" Ikkanzaka called with a wide open grin, completely ignoring the struggling man he'd just captured. "You're alright!"

"I am fine, thank you," he affirmed, wiping some dirt from his shoulder.

"But I heard-"

"I am fine," Hitsugaya repeated with more force. He removed his attention from his shoulder in order to return it to the flailing redhead. "Jidanbou, I have a request."

The gate keeper looked absolutely ecstatic at the news. Not only was Toushirou here and in great shape against all odds, but he was counting on him. So much so, he even referred to him by his given name.

"Take this man to the holding cells yourself. I wish to speak with Aizen uninterrupted, and that won't happen unless he's out of the way. Have Kurosaki on stand-by outside the Duke's chamber. Third level, the room furthest from the stairwell, yes?"

Ikkanzaka nodded, admittedly confused as to why Hitsugaya would ask directions when he must have known from the beginning, just like he'd known Ichigo Kurosaki would be here.

"Make sure that Kuchiki delivers a fruit platter to Kurosaki. Apples, pears, and strawberries. I'll no doubt be hungry when I finish negotiations."

Two very different reactions were brought about by these words. Jidanbou Ikkanzaka's eyes widened in sudden understanding at the mention of fruit, and he nodded furiously, even more energetic than before. Renji Abarai, however, instantly stilled and paled when he heard the name Kuchiki, all else utterly lost on him. It was painfully easy for the large man to haul the tattooed pirate onto his feet and begin to guide him toward a side entrance.

Hitsugaya watched the two of them for a moment before adding one last remark. "Oy, Jidanbou. Your right shoulder?"

The gate keeper rotated the joint happily in illustration. "Lookit that! Almost good as new!"

Quietly eyeing the two other men with an unreadable expression, Hitsugaya only shook his head. Then he turned away to march through the main entrance into the manor, ignoring the strange looks he received from the duke's guard.

"I don't know. It still looks stiff to me."

"You stupid little girl!"

Rangiku Matsumoto glared up at the man from her place pinned against the wall. Two muscular arms stretched past each side side of her head until two fists met malleable wood above her shoulders. Kisuke Urahara was livid, matching the woman's glare blow for blow. Today, he wasn't a mere navigator. He was a predator.

"Why didn't you wait?" The question was growled, Kisuke's voice throaty and raw in his anger.

"He said it needed to be sundown! A man named Jidanbou is in charge of the guard at that time, and Hitsugaya insisted the man would work with him!" she snarled in return, more frustrated with being called a little girl than with being called stupid. "He and Hanatarou are the only ones on this ship with intimate information on the royal guard. I wasn't about to jeopardize the plan by forcing him to pass an impossible gate keeper!"

"You know nothing about these men! What on Earth makes you believe you can trust them?"

"Excuse me?" In an aggravated sweeping gesture, Rangiku knocked one of his arms away and escaped his hold, spinning around to glare daggers at him from the opposite direction. "I know nothing about them? You're the one who interrogated them until one passed out and then locked yourself away without so much as one word of explanation! All your newspapers and logs won't tell you anything that I know about them!" She was shaking now, forcing herself not to draw her sword. "I've been talking to them, spending time with them! We have proof that they're working against their own king! I know they're not the type of people who could string lies like this! What more do I need to know?"

"How about why?" the blond countered dangerously, removing his remaining hand from the wooden wall to stretch his injured fingers. "Think, Rangiku! I know you're more intelligent than this. Why would one of the heirs to the throne plot against the man who gave him everything he owns?"

"Hanatarou just follows Hitsugaya's lead, and Hitsugaya has a lady back home. He's trying to keep her safe. Her and everyone else," the woman captain hissed. "Why can't anyone just accept that King Aizen is an ass, and they aren't?"

"But why are they different, Rangiku?"

"They just are!"

"You can't tell me that in all that time you spent talking, you never once questioned their motives. Think! Think long and hard about with whom you are entrusting Gin's life."

Matsumoto hesitated.

"You know, I heard that our little whitey threw a fit and pounded the prince down in the sick bay."

She'd spoken to both of them endlessly. And she'd enjoyed it. She thought she'd figured them out.

"Well… um… When… When things happen… sometimes you think about them because of other things, and you know that no one's trying to hurt you or bother you, but it still hurts you anyway, especially when you can't tell them why it hurts, and so you try to endure it and you try to endure everything else, but that one thing keeps coming back and just won't go away, and you even try telling people, but they don't listen because you're not important enough, and everything just gets worse and worse until you can't stand it anymore, and you need to do something, but you still can't, and it just makes you want the whole world to end, it makes you want it so badly that you'd do anything, you'd even k-!"

She had figured them out. She could predict where they'd be, how they'd react to what. She didn't have it down perfectly yet, but when she made a mistake, she always knew the right fix.

"My parents had no need to sell me off to the palace."

They were nothing but a pair of misfits in a cruel world. She related to that idea so well.

"If our hostage is suffering from anything, it's nightmares."

They'd probably had their fair share of beatings. Of losses. That was why they were so secretive and chaotic.

"My, you're so flushed already, Hitsugaya? Just how many of these silly sex questions have you been drinking to?"

But they had a noble purpose. They were willing to do anything to meet their goal, to help their people.

"H-He married her to protect her from something, a-and he doesn't r-really think of her in that way. I think you surprised him because... Because he liked it. And he knows he shouldn't..."


Especially lie.

There were some things in this world that no one wanted to tell anyone.

"That way... rank would have nothing to do with anything."

Rangiku bit her lip, cursing under her breath before taking off. Kisuke moved to follow, but Yoruichi reached her hand out to his shoulder to stop him.

"Let her run. We can walk."

He closed his eyes, breathing deeply to calm himself down. Then he nodded, cradling his face in his hand. Walking sounded nice.

"Toushirou. Resourceful as always, I see. Pray tell, how did you manage this?"

Hitsugaya closed the door behind him and surveyed the room before he risked opening his mouth in response. It was just as he remembered from prior visits - the same forest green and gold accents, the same furniture, the same paintings on the walls - except for the occupants. Sousuke Aizen was sitting on the large, draped canopy bed instead of the duke to whom it belonged, and apparently he had another visitor.

The man standing in the corner cradling a champagne flûte was pale and gaunt, made only more obvious by the loose, colorful robes he wore. Hitsugaya couldn't escape the feeling that his very soul was being read by eyes that didn't even appear to be open, and that obnoxious grin widened while Hitsugaya watched him warily. This visitor didn't seem to have anything to say, so Hitsugaya did his best to ignore his overbearing presence, stepping forward to address King Aizen.

"The captain of their crew is acting under the impression that Yamada is the Sixth Prince."

"Aaah. So it wasn't through any intelligent move of yours. They were merely ignorant. I should have known," the ruler smiled knowingly from his shaded position on the bed. He crossed his legs, leaning forward to take on an overly exaggerated thoughtful pose. "You must truly hate them, to pull such a humiliating stunt."

Hitsugaya grimaced at the accusation, hands balling into fists. It wasn't true. And Aizen knew that. That was why he was saying it. How did he already know?

"I'm here to ask that you allow them to leave unharmed."

"Toushirou." The man's tone was deadly, and Hitsugaya immediately silenced himself. "I do not negotiate with pirates."

"Then negotiate with me."

Aizen rose from his seat, driving forward to grasp one of Hitsugaya's wrists and slam it back into the wall behind them. There was no anger in Aizen's gestures, no aggravation or rage. Only force. Devastating force that bruised and battered without bias. Fingers twitched involuntarily when Aizen tightened his hold around the slim appendage, keeping it in place high above Hitsugaya's head. The younger gritted his teeth at the pain but refused to back down. He was so accustomed to this by now that it was surprisingly easy to endure.

"You own nothing in this world that I do not already have, and you know this."

But he did. He did have something. Rangiku Matsumoto's secrets were his and his alone. He wasn't sure why he was so proud of that knowledge even now, but he clung to it with reckless abandon as he met unyielding brown with cold, hard teal. He wouldn't give those secrets to Aizen, but he could let the arrogant ruler know that something did exist. He owned something that Aizen hadn't yet taken, and he could use it to fuck with Aizen the same way the man always did to him.

"How 'bout obedience?"

Both the king and his victim broke off their intense staring contest and turned to the man in the corner, who was now tracing intricate patterns along his flûte's rim. The man's smirk was impossibly wide - a scheming fox, a poisonous serpent.

"It don't look like ya have much o' that," he chuckled in explanation.

Hitsugaya couldn't suppress the shiver that ran down his spine when Aizen slowly turned back to him. He was smiling. That generous, fatherly smile. Hitsugaya hated that smile more than anything.

"Well, Toushirou?" Aizen intoned smoothly, sweetly.

It was getting difficult for Hitsugaya to breathe, especially with the man so close. He was genuinely afraid of Aizen's next words because he already knew what his answer would be. He didn't have a choice.

"How much are their lives worth to you?"

Rangiku wasted no time being gentle as she stormed through the doors to the sick bay, much like she had done in the early hours of that morning. This time, though, she knew exactly what she wanted.

"Hanatarou. Captain's cabin. Now!"

The prince looked meekly up at Isane, and she nodded with a small, sympathetic smile. Neither of them knew what Miss Rangiku was upset about, but Hanatarou knew from experience that it was best to get this sort of thing over with as soon as possible.

He trotted up to the designated room and just as he reached his hand up to knock, he was dragged inside, the door slamming behind him.

Not only Miss Rangiku but Kisuke Urahara and Yoruichi Shihouin were gathered in the small quarters. All of them wore grave expressions, though only Miss Rangiku was acting forceful. Hanatarou was confused for a moment, and a little worried that he had done something wrong, but then suddenly, far too soon, it clicked.

They knew.

"Who are you?" Miss Rangiku demanded.


"Who are you!" she repeated, slamming a hand down on the heavy desk beside her.

Hanatarou watched the papers and tools littering the desk jump and scatter at the blow. Miss Rangiku knew about their lie. Now she just wanted him to admit it. But now... Admitting it now would be disastrous. Hitsugaya was already gone. What... What would happen to him once he admitted the truth?

"I don't understand. I-I'm Hanatarou. H-Hanat-tarou Y-Yamada..."

Urahara and Shihouin exchanged looks in the corner of his vision. Shihouin whispered something in Urahara's ear, and a blond brow rose in intrigue. He nudged her in the ribs when he realized Hanatarou was watching them.

"Yamada," the curvaceous woman nodded, stepping forward with hands at her hips. "Your friend can't do this alone. I'm sure you realize how much he could end up sacrificing. Where his plans fall short, we can help compensate."

Rangiku looked just as surprised as Hanatarou was. Just how much did they know? Because if they really knew that much, then there was no point in hiding anything at all.

"H-His Highness..." Could Hanatarou really do this? Could he tell them the truth after all the effort they put into keeping it a secret? One look at Miss Rangiku's confused and hurt expression told him he could. She knew less about this than her own subordinates did. No one was telling her anything. She deserved the truth. "We knew His Highness w-would never go through with the trade. H-He would never give up Ichimaru. At first... At first we just wanted to get back, but now he wants to make sure His Highness doesn't execute you! He's just trying to make everything right!"

"Who are you?"

Miss Rangiku's voice was quieter this time as she soaked in this information. It was an awkward mixture of knowledge, both damning and praising the pirates' would-be allies. They weren't traitors. They were just deceivers who had taken away this crew's last hope at regaining their captain.

"I..." Yamada took a deep breath and gulped down his hesitance. "I am the property of Toushirou Hitsugaya, Sixth Prince and youngest heir to the throne of Hueco Mundo."

Chapter Sixteen End