The antsy crowd shifted, and for a split second she saw him, lying face up under the hot sun, his blood turning the dust around him into mud. The sight of blood bubbling out of her father's mouth, mingling with the foam and the sweat and the fear of a dying man, scared Melika more than she could believe. Terror rooted her to the spot, tried to tempt her into standing there, frozen, and letting it happen, letting the fear win. With a firm jolt, she flew into action, pushing aside the onlookers and gawkers. It was slow going, for a few eternal moments, until those in the crowd started to recognize her.

"It's the girl...the Healer...the daughter's here...if anyone could heal him..."

In almost comical fashion, a path suddenly opened up for her, and she nearly lost her footing in her haste to get through the now-cooperative crowd. In a moment she was dropping to her knees, cursing the dust that clouded up and threatened to invade the wound, even though a close look told her there would not be enough time for any infection to set in. She looked at the gurgling chest wound, at the fear in her father's eyes, and her breath caught in her throat. She closed her eyes, tried to force air into her lungs, and laid hands on the tattered body. With an efficiency borne of practice, a haste designed to keep her suddenly-flaring reiatsu as unnoticeable as possible, she delved into his body to assess the damage.

It was worse than she thought. Not only was the material body damaged to the point that it was a wonder her father drew breath at all, but his heart was already faltering. That was not what really frightened her, though; his spirit force, not hardly anything to begin with, was already retreating, detaching itself from this form, this world. She could feel it start to spin, to whorl, to surrender to the pull of the spinning planet to which it was returning. There was no time, no time for her to be subtle, no time to mask. For the first time in her long life of secrecy, she had to drop her guard and forsake caution, in the name of keeping with her the one person who meant anything to her.

When her reiatsu released, the tiny part of her that was still her winced at the ripple it made. That shard of awareness knew that something irrevocable had been done, and she knew in her soul that she had passed the point of no return. Losing herself into her father's body, his spirit, she found the familiar rhythm and song of his spirit force, and in a near-instant her own reiatsu matched it, synched with it, became one and the same...her heart started to beat for his, her flesh began to knit together the broken veins and muscle. Slowly, inexorably, she began to piece back together the man before her, all the while that tiny piece that was her tried not to notice that his spirit was still slipping, still spiraling away...

And then there was nothing of her left to notice, as the cost of her talent slammed into her. Every tear and break in his body resonated in hers, the pain clouding her vision in a red mist. She felt everything that had happened; the attack from behind, the first blows that landed, the blows her father managed to connect before the stab to the chest, the agony of the knife ripping him open...The ghosts of his injuries laid into her small, trembling frame, the echo of his fear, his dying burned their way into her mind, her heart, and for a moment she, too, felt like spiraling away from the agony, of sinking out of this world and back into the real one...

A gasp tore at the back of her throat, as she broke loose from the dead body in front of her. She sat there for what seemed like half an eternity, the dusty air burning her lungs as she reeled, tried to get her bearings. It was a long time before her breath slowed, the violent trembling of her body calmed. It was a long time before she realized that someone she did not know had pulled her back from the brink...It was a long time. Time enough for the crowd to hush, to stand rooted in place, unable to break away from the spiritual residue of what they had just witnessed. The sun was almost touching the horizon when the girl finally raised her head, eyes wet with tears, green as grass, angry as death. In her trembling hand was the knife that had stolen away her one comfort in this forsaken place, the one companion that shared her lonely path. Into the silence, her low purr sent shivers down each and every spine.

"Who did this?"

The simple folk of Rukongai had no way of understanding what they were seeing. A tigress sat before them, with the sun setting behind her, and they could swear her emerald eyes were all but glowing with hate. No one could speak, no one could move. The silence was an unbearable weight on every shoulder, guilty and innocent. Reiatsu poured out of the golden-haired harpy sitting in the bloody mud, and reached into each one of them, testing, tasting for guilt. For her part, the half-mad Melika didn't know if she was looking for her father's murderer, or for the mystery person who had prevented her from joining him. It seemed the world would shatter from the tension, the dank scent of danger in the air, when from the back of the crowd, a voice like cool, tinkling water flowed over them.

"There is no need for this, child."

No one moved as the tall, elegant speaker glided forward effortlessly. The fading sun caught the sheen of her silky, black hair, gracefully woven over the woman's shoulders and down the front of her kimono.

"Death cannot be healed."

"ANYTHING can be healed!" The harsh cry tore itself from her, as the girl turned her glare on the serene figure before her. Their eyes met. The young one shivered, the blaze within her dampened by the sincere and forthright understanding in those deep pools of eyes. After a long moment, the girl sighed, and slumped just a little. A rustling sound rushed throughout the crowd as the now-sealed reiatsu allowed the onlookers their first breath in what seemed like an eternity. The spell broken, the confused and overwhelmed plainfolk began to dissipate, breaking off into small groups, or going off alone to try to forget all that had just happened. It wasn't long before the girl and the woman stood alone in the dusty, wretched square.

Unohana waited, patiently.

The sun had long set, and the moon was high in the sky when Melika took her last, long look at the man who had been her guardian, father, friend. No more tattered hole in its chest, the perfectly healed body lay empty and abanonded before her. She drew a ragged breath. It wasn't a goodbye, not really; the memory of his injury, of his death would always be with her, branded on her soul. Just like all the other healings she had done. He would never really be gone. That's what she told herself, and it was just enough to give her the strength to stand to her feet, turn her back on his body, and face her fate.

Woman-child and Ancient regarded each other for a while. It was Melika who had to speak first.

"I have no choice, do I?"

She would never forget the understanding, the grace in Unohana-Taicho's face as she answered.

"Even if you did, child, what choice would you make?"

A long pause. A resigned nod, causing golden curls to bounce. What choice, indeed?

As Melika took her first step toward her new life, she banished the memories of the life she had known. Living with her father in their hut, his endless love and devotion and protection. The first healing she had done, a baby bird that had fallen from its nest and broken its wing. The first life she had saved, an old man who had been jumped in an alley. She banished the loneliness, the stares, the fear and suspicion by which she had always been judged, even by those who put all their hope in her to save their loved ones. All the hard work and secrecy to keep her ability from Sereitei and the fearsome Captains who would have her for their own purposes if she was ever discovered. All the lives she had let slip away for fear of this, of exactly this - releasing enough reiatsu that even the weakest soul would sense it. All of it gone, smoke in the wind. The pain and anger of that first step almost destroyed her.

But she had already faced death once today, and survived. And then the step was taken, and another, another...and she felt oddly free. The fire had passed, the price paid, and she carefully wrapped up centuries of memories and put them away. Child indeed, she thought to herself. I'm older than they know. I still have some secrets. So it was that with nothing but courage she crossed the market yard and stood before her new mentor.

It was a common misconception that Unohana never felt anything but calm and pleasant. That was far from true. Unohana was perfectly normal in every respect, and a woman besides. She felt every emotion in the spectrum, at times to very great degrees. It was simply a matter of resolve that a certain demeanor prevailed. After all, one might feel anger, but that did not force one to act angry. And since very few behaviors exacted the proper response more than the graceful dignity she chose to exude at all times, there was little impetus to change. If at times she felt concern that she was perhaps a bit too removed, and bit too remote in her bearing, good sense always prevailed. And the intelligence and perceptiveness of those who knew her well, be it the other Captains who she was graced to call her friends, or her subordinates who had long ago learned to read her myriad subtleties, she was content to know that some, if not all, understood her true depth and warmth.

Today, however, she was especially remote and calm outwardly, for inwardly she was rather vexed. The new girl gave her no end of worry and concern; for though she was still called the new girl, Melika had been accepted into the 4th Squadron nearly a year ago. Many others had joined since, graduates of the Academy, and seemed to effortlessly insinuate themselves among the ranks and files. Melika, on the other hand, seemed to have made no friends at all, with the sole exception of a promising novice named Hanatoro. Which, while this delighted Unohana, did nothing for the girl's social standing. And while such things mattered little to Unohana, she knew the girl's loneliness and ached for her. It didn't help that the child had such a strange, and obscenely powerful, gift. Unohana herself had to admit that in all her countless centuries she had not seen its like before.

When that flash of reiatsu had surged through Soul Society all those months back, it had taken Unohana all of a heartbeat to flash-step to Yamamoto-sama's court room. While the reiatsu itself was completely unrecognizable, even Yamamoto-sama could see that whatever it was, it was of a healing nature. Within moments she had received his approval to deal with situation herself, with one caveat - she MUST bring whoever was capable of such a powerful thrust into Sereitei and find out everything she could about this unknown talent.

Perhaps taking the girl directly into the squadron and under her personal supervision, instead of putting her through the Academy like all the others, hadn't done her any favors. Singling her out in such a way only added to the mystery and distrust surrounding the child. It also didn't help that the girl was stunning; slender and tall, with rich golden curls surrounding a surprisingly young face. And those eyes - large, jade orbs that were as open and expressive as they were guarded and mysterious. Eyes full of secrets; more than once Unohana had wondered how old the child really was, and how deep her secrets truly ran. There was something...otherworldy about the girl. In any event, the girl's presence and appearance had often earned her unwanted attention from the opposite sex and, subsequently, even more derision from her own gender.

Unohana sighed. Looking back, there had been no other conceivable choice. The girl had a talent completely unknown to Sereitei; even Mayuri-Taicho had never heard of a healing technique that involved the synchronization of spirit pulses. He even went so far as to insist that a single spirit being was incapable of achieving such a union without a terrific amount of energy supplied from an outside source. He flat out refused to acknowledge the possibility that the girl could have done a spirit sync all on her own. He outwardly denied the girl's talent, yet it took all of her influence in court to block him from seizing her as a test subject...

She realized all of a sudden that a familiar itch was tingling the very edges of her awareness. Without a moment's hesitation, she summoned Isane. The girl appeared in a few heartbeats, bowing in perfect form and asking what her captain required. Unohana pleasantly made her request, and set out to prepare some tea as Isane flash-stepped away to do her bidding.

She had just enough time to make the tea and it was just setting to cool as Isane returned, running normally but still running. The golden-haired beauty was panting along side her. Strong as the girl may be, there was still much she had to learn, and shunpo was still unknown to her. Unohana released Isane, and quietly set out a cup of mint tea as Melika composed herself. As she waited for the girl to relax and take her first sip, Unohana checked in on the tingling; it was getting stronger, and more quickly than usual...but there was still time. Unohana decided some small talk would do nicely.

"How is your training going, Melika-san?"

Green eyes looked surprised at being addressed so, but she recovered well. She even almost managed to conceal the flash of frustration that flitted across her unusually expressive face.

"It goes well, Unohana-Taicho." Her tone was stiff, and the unspoken 'but' hung heavily in the air.

"I offer the chance to speak openly, Melika-san. Please do me the honor of granting my request." It was all Unohana could do not to smile at the relief and fear warring across Melika's striking features. After a moment, the girl took a chance.

"It's not that I'm not grateful, Taicho. Or that I believe I have nothing to learn. But..." Another pause, as she gathered her words. "...they are teaching me things that seem so useless. And at such a slow pace...why should I learn how to heal a cough through applying compresses and herbal teas, when I can heal a thousand stab-wounds with a single touch?" The girl shook with suppressed frustration, and Unohana let a moment of silence calm her before offering an answer.

"You must understand, child, that there are certain ways these things have always been done, since time unknown..."

"But that doesn't make them the only way!" Melika clamped her mouth shut, her face suddenly burning with shame at her impudence. Unohana allowed her embarrassment to last just long enough to make its point, before picking up where she'd left off.

"...and when something new comes along, it must be handled carefully." Unohana sipped her tea, and watched her words sink in. "You have much to teach us child, but some lessons are dangerous. Are they not?"

Sensing the change in Unohana Taicho's mood, Melika regarded the ancient healer with guarded eyes. "Taicho? I don't understand.."

"Would you have us learn your talent, if any of us could replicate it, without truly understanding the consequences?" Her usually sanguine eyes had become bright with perception. Melika flinched as they bore into her own, cutting through her defenses and demanding truth. "Did you think I did not see what your talent exacts from you in exchange for your miraculous healings?"

Melika tore her eyes away, chose instead to intently study her delicate teacup, intricately designed and thin enough almost to see through. Stupid, she accused herself. Did I really think I had kept that hidden? Who else but my Taicho could have pulled me back from the brink of death that day...? Lost in self-recrimination, it was a long moment before she composed herself, and when she spoke she hated how defensive she sounded.

"It's not dangerous, not to one's life I mean. It's just the pain, the echoes of the injury, or illness. It's a memory transfer, as best I can tell." She gulped; why was it so hard to talk about this? "It's never done any actual physical harm. And it passes, over time. Mostly it passes..." She trailed off, forcing herself to sit up straight and meet Unohana's gaze.

"The price is more than worth it, to save a life. I pay it gladly."

Unohana looked long and deep into the girl's eyes, saw there were still secrets, but that in this, at least, she had told all that she knew. Satisfied but still contemplative, she released the girl from her direct gaze and gave a small sigh.

"That may be, child. But it may be an indulgence to think that choice rests solely on you." She wanted to say more, but in an instant time ran out. The tingling in her senses suddenly shifted into an intense burning, and within moments they received the visitor Unohana had been expecting all evening.

Shunsui appeared in a sudden flash step, and spoke quickly.

"It's bad. Worse than I've ever seen him. He won't make it here."

Unohana took a moment to turn to Isane, who had already appeared, knowing these drills almost as well as Unohana herself.

"Isane, please take care of any urgent concerns that may arise in the near future. I will be away for some time, I think." She did her best to ignore the tightening of Shunsui's features, the carefully hidden fear that flashed through him at her admission of the gravity of the situation. She also did an admirable job, she thought, of ignoring Isane's surprise. She did her best to smooth over what dear Isane could only see as an insult, and offered what she could. "For the time being, I must leave the operation of 4th Squadron to you. I trust you will do me proud." Isane hid her confusion at being left behind well, and nodded in assent. Unohana then addressed her long-time friend; formally, since subordinates were present.

"Kyouraku, please attend our dear 13th Squadron Captain; I will be right behind you." In an instant, he was gone; only one who had known him as long as she had would have noticed the flick of his eye in Melika's direction. She very nearly laughed; trust Shunsui to appreciate a beauty no matter what the situation. Turning calmly, she dropped the final bombshell.

"Melika-san, if you would please attend me." A start, green eyes glowing in shock. "I believe that tonight there may be a lesson worth learning. If you would be so kind?" She had to admit, the girl recovered nicely. In a moment, the teacup was set down, and the shock replaced by quiet determination. Unohana allowed herself to believe that she had been right about the girl all along. At least, she was right about the girl's fortitude. As for the cost...she shook off the quiet doubt in her heart. What must be done must be done. Only time would tell if the risk she was about to take would prove itself worthwhile. Or completely disastrous.

Taking the girl's hand, she flash-stepped...