Do thine eyes deceive thee? An update! And it didn't take six months!

Haha. Don't hold your breath for the next one... this one just came easy.

Bleach is not mine. Not even the most recent manga volume, dangit.

Chapter Three - Double Standard

"You know, I fucking hate you."

Ichigo started in surprise, fumbling for Zangetsu before she remembered he wasn't with her here. Here, in this odd sideways world where is was raining, raining, always raining. The voice caught her off-guard, since in however long she had been here, Ichigo had been alone with nothing but her thoughts for company. That was why she was slow to turn around.

"Wu - what the hell?" she breathed, staring in shock.

The person standing behind her could have been her reflection in the mirror: orange hair that fell a few inches past the shoulders, hard brown eyes, black shihakusho and - Zangetsu? - slung across her back. There were only small differences to assure Ichigo she wasn't going crazy. The double's skin was pinker, a healthier shade than her own permanent pallor, Zangetsu's cloth was white, not red, and her wrists were reddened and raw… like she had wrestled free of a painfully tight rope.

"What am I?" the double asked, her tone thick with the sort of loathing Ichigo could only correlate to what she had felt for Grand Fisher. "Here's a better question, utsuro. What are you?"

"What sort of question is that?" Ichigo demanded, getting angry. She sprang to her feet. "Why the hell do you look like me? And what the fuck are you doing with Zangetsu?"

The other glared back at her disgustedly. "I look like you? You couldn't be more wrong. It's you that looks like me. You that's been parading around like the world's yours. You that's been a plague on my family, acting like a rabid monster that ought to have been put down years ago!"

By the time the double finished, she was shouting. Ichigo stared. Shaking her head slowly, she pronounced, "You… are crazier than shit."

"I wonder why?" mirror-Ichigo snarled. "Maybe because a piece of filth shut me up in my own soul and stole my life?"

At least she didn't deny it… Ichigo thought, off-balance. Usually she knew why she was being insulted, but she had no clue why some look-alike was claiming she had hijacked her body.

Then on instinct she was leaping backward, over a gap between two towering skyscrapers, to dodge a terrific slash from the insane bitch and her odd, white-clothed Zangetsu. The attack left a gouge a dozen feet deep in the building's side; it would have sliced her in two. Easily.

It was a bizarre role reversal, to see Kurosaki Ichigo chasing after her, Zangetsu in hand, thirsty for blood, and Ichigo realized as she gave ground again it was one she really didn't like. In fact… she felt - she felt… scared. If only she had a weapon, any weapon. It was insanity to try and fight Zangetsu with bare hands.

Only… she frowned. Had this copy of her ever fought with a sword before? Because she certainly didn't seem to understand how. She didn't cover herself; she didn't look for weak spots; her strikes were powerful but easily avoided, and she was so terribly inefficient it made Ichigo want to cringe. She caused more damage to herself than she did to Ichigo.

Ichigo continued to dodge, waiting for the double to slip up. There - she'd left herself wide open by attempting a two-handed hammer strike. Ichigo swooped in like a hawk, zeroing on the other's red-raw wrists with an ascending crescent kick.

Mirror-Ichigo dropped Zangetsu with a howl of pain, the single kick causing the skin of her wrists to crack open and bleed. Ichigo dived for the sword; unfortunately, the clone anticipated her, lashing out with a surprisingly powerful kick of her own that might have caused a concussion if it hadn't been dodged. She, too, went for the sword.

Neither of them got it.

A shadow intercepted them both, swiping the blade out from their grasping hands and slipping some feet away before it straightened and began to coalesce in a familiar form.

"Zangetsu?" both Ichigo and the double said. Both immediately exchanged angry looks.

Zangetsu glanced between the two of them, his eyes shadowed as he had been a second before and strangely sad. "Why are you fighting?" he asked quietly. Oddly, it was Ichigo he directed his question toward.

She sputtered. "Because she attacked me, that's why! She's crazy!"

"And you're a bloodthirsty animal who kills for sport," the other replied archly, suddenly reminding Ichigo strongly of Ishida - the Ishida before he had gotten his slice of humble pie during the Hollow-killing contest. All hatred and contempt and arrogant stupidity.

"Ichigo, stop," Zangetsu ordered, this time looking at the double.

"Don't call her that!" Ichigo snapped. There wasn't a chance she was letting this freak use her name. "Call her whatever, but don't call her that!" It was her name, damnit.

"It's my name," the other retorted.

"It's mine!" Ichigo searched for a name that would piss the other off, and recalled how angry she'd gotten when she had said they looked alike. "Not yours, Kagami."

Infuriated, Kagami raised a hand as though to use a kido, but with a glance at Zangetsu, thought better of it. "You claim it now," she drawled, "but it should never have been yours to begin with."

Zangetsu closed his eyes.

Hitsugaya Toshiro was an accomplished and respected captain despite his height and apparent age. He was one of the youngest in recorded history to have gained bankai, let alone captaincy, his zanpakuto was considered to be the most powerful of its type, and he was one of the few captains who routinely completed their paperwork on time.

However, despite what the shinigami recruiters who swept the Rukongai ever few decades said, there were definite downsides to be a captain on the Gotei 13; one of them, Toshiro often thought, was the people he had to work with. Missions with Captain Ichimaru were loathsome, missions with Captain Zaraki were arguably worse, but Captain Kurotsuchi was the worst of the lot.

The head of research and development spoke with a peeved expression on his painted face, portraying clearly his desire to be back in his labs with his newest specimen.

"The resistance of her reishi composition to my available methods of investigation is impressive," Kurotsuchi admitted grudgingly. "Preliminary experiments have proved largely inconclusive."

"So we're called here to hear you say you haven't managed anything worth talkin' about?" Zaraki cut in.

Toshiro privately agreed. He had better things to do with his time than listen to Kurotsuchi give a report on what he had had not been able to do to his specimen. Especially when that specimen was a fifteen year old human girl a captain of the Gotei had kidnapped from the human world for expressly that purpose. The Court Guard had its own ways of doing things, that was true, but there was no precedent for that.

"Largely, Zaraki," Kurotsuchi snapped, "if your feeble mind is capable of understanding that. I have succeeded in confirming the presence of several genetic Hollow reishi markers."

Hollow genetic markers? Toshiro straightened a little upon hearing that. It wasn't unheard of for Hollows to take advantage of spiritually aware human women, but it was rare enough - especially in recent times - to elicit attention. "Explains the hair," he commented.

"That is likely why her reishi is so resistant," Kurotsuchi continued, as though he hadn't been interrupted. His eyes seemed to unfocus as he considered. "Depending on the breed of Hollow… probably a higher class. Likely adjucha. Or maybe advancing gillian. I'd have to-"

"Kurotsuchi, get to the point," Yamamoto ordered roughly.

"Kurosaki's a first- to third-generation part-Hollow," the twelfth division captain snapped. "With a great potential for both growth and evolution. Her natural reiatsu is currently between assistant captain and captain level, has probably never been below that of a seated officer, and could possibly advance enough to outclass even you, Captain-General, given enough time. But that's not all."

That's not all? Toshiro felt shaken, but at the same time intrigued. That sort of talent didn't come about often; in the roughly five thousand years since Yamamoto's ascension to Captain-General, there had been no shinigami to come close to matching his spiritual pressure. And Kurotsuchi said there was more?

"What more can there be?" Aizen asked curiously.

Kurotsuchi's painted faced twisted in a disturbing approximation of a gleeful smile. "The girl's not just part Hollow. She's trueborn, as well."

The meeting fell into anarchy.

Rukia didn't turn around when she heard someone enter the visitor's area of the cell she resided in, though she wondered who it was. It wasn't time for supper, yet, Renji had already visited, and Byakuya hadn't visited at all except to deliver her sentence.

"Kuchiki, look at me. I'd rather not talk to your back."

"Captain Ukitake?" she exclaimed, not expecting the friendly warm voice. Rukia turned around, gaping unbecomingly. "It's you?"

"That's better." The thirteenth division captain smiled at her through the bars, and then studied her profile. "You're too pale, Kuchiki. But I suppose nothing can be done to help that."

"I wasn't expecting you," Rukia admitted. It wasn't like she was anything special - just another unseated shinigami that had broken the law and was paying for it. Her brother may have been nobility, but she was only adopted.

Ukitake laughed softly. "Maybe not. But we just left a captains' meeting, and I thought I'd drop by and visit. Byakuya hasn't been here, has he?"

As usual, Ukitake saw straight to the heart of the matter. Rukia averted her gaze. "I'm sure he's been busy. You said there had been a captains' meeting?"

"That Byakuya… always such a stickler for the rules…" Ukitake shook his head, but went with the topic change. "Yes. Captain-General Yamamoto required that Captain Kurotsuchi report periodically on his… research."

Feeling sick at her stomach, Rukia's hands fisted and she turned away again. Research… they call vivisection 'research'! "I can't believe the Gotei has fallen so far as to kidnap souls out of the Living World for Kurotsuchi's sick amusement," she snarled.

She could imagine him looking sadly at her back. He said, "I don't disagree with you, Kuchiki. If nothing else, the oversight keeps him from doing anything too permanent long enough for Central 46 to reconsider."

Astonished, Rukia felt hope blossom in her chest. "…Reconsider?" She glanced back again it time to see her captain nod. "But that requires four captains to appeal…" Decisions of the Council of 46 were virtually never overturned, or even just objected!

"Yes. We got our fourth today. Captain Unohana and Captain Aizen objected to taking Kurosaki from the start, and Captain Hitsugaya submitted his appeal after the meeting. It's your luck, Kuchiki," he said, "that you stumbled across the most potentially powerful trueborn shinigami in thousands of years."

Rukia turned fully to face him, mystified. "What are you talking about? Ichigo's mother was eaten by a Hollow six years ago and her father is spiritually blind."

Ukitake took this in passively, a thoughtful look on his face. "But she is trueborn, and you don't get that sort of talent on accident. I'd almost think one of them must have had their reiryoku bound… maybe even both. What were her parents' names?"

Well, I guess that's possible… Rukia bit her lip. It was rare for three children born to spiritually blind parents to all be spiritually gifted, let alone to Ichigo's or Karin's extent…. "I don't actually know the name of Ichigo's mother… but her father's name is Isshin. Kurosaki Isshin."

The captain of the thirteenth division blinked, surprise flickering across his face. "Isshin?" he repeated. "You're sure his name was Isshin?" Rukia nodded slowly. "Tall, black hair, moderately built?"

She nodded again, feeling more disconcerted by the second. "You don't… know him?"

Captain Ukitake hemmed. "If it's who I think it is, then yes, I do. And it would certainly explain quite a bit. You might want to keep that name to yourself, if anyone else asks."

"Why?" Rukia couldn't imagine Kurosaki Isshin being anyone that would make a case against Ichigo, unless it was a case for potential sainthood. Isshin was just strange. Nice, but strange.

"Well…" Ukitake paused, debating something in his mind. Probably whether to tell her. "I never knew a Kurosaki Isshin… but I was rather fond of Sakushu Isshin. He was the captain of the tenth division before Toshiro, but left some hundred and twenty years ago. Not that he really had a choice - he committed a high crime, and rather than taking the chance that he would be executed, he chose to desert. They searched for him, obviously, but he was never found."

"What sort of high crime?" she asked, unable to fit the contrasting pictures at all. It was a bizarre coincidence if it was one, but she thought that just as likely as it being the truth.

"He went too far in pursuit of power," Ukitake said cryptically, and although Rukia wasn't satisfied, she realized she wasn't getting any more information. "So," he added. "How are things going with your friend, Abarai? He's been aggravating everyone with his temper as of late."

Toshiro stared at the Hell butterfly in consternation. On the whole, this was good news. The appeal had been successful; Central 46 had reviewed the case in light of the new information provided by Kurotsuchi and revoked its former decision on Kurosaki's fate. They agreed it was foolish to waste the girl's potential.

On the other hand…

"What's wrong, Captain?" Matsumoto inquired innocently, stifling a laugh.

"Why do I have to babysit her until they're satisfied she's not a threat?" Toshiro asked the air, disgruntled.

His assistant captain let slip a giggle. He leveled her as nasty a glare as he could muster.

The busty woman shrugged, unaffected. She smiled slyly. "Maybe they just think you're the most qualified."

Toshiro rolled his eyes, organizing a few forms and petitions he had been reading over when the message arrived. "Over Ukitake? Over Aizen?"

"Well…" Matsumoto's grin widened. "They probably think you're more likely to be underestimated."

"More likely they think Aizen or Ukitake'll get too attached," he groused, before shaking his head and getting over it. She'll need a place to sleep… He found a scrap of blank paper and scribbled a quick notice to the tenth's restrictive housing department, feeding it to the butterfly and sending it off with a touch of reiatsu. …and probably medical treatment… "Matsumoto, go on ahead and set Kurosaki up an appointment with Captain Unohana later today. Give me a couple of hours; it'll take that long to get her away from the twelfth."

Matsumoto grew serious and nodded. "She'll need some clothing and amenities as well," she added. "I'll have them sent to her quarters when they're ready. And probably some books…. Maybe some sake."

"She's underage," Toshiro remarked.

The assistant captain looked at him. "So?"

He rolled his eyes again. "Never mind. Just get on it."

"I don't like this place," Ichigo complained, scowling at the windowpane she was using as a seat. "It's a stupid, sideways place that's too bright and contains even stupider me-clones. What happened to the desert? I liked it just fine."

Behind her, she heard Zangetsu breathe out a sigh. "The desert is gone, Ichigo. Things are different now."

"No shit!" Ichigo snapped. "What the fuck is going on, Zangetsu? What's with the extra passenger?"

Zangetsu was quiet. "She's you and not you. She's a decision you didn't make. She's what could have been. The question is, what will you do about her?"

Ichigo paused, turned around slowly, and stared at the zanpakuto avatar. That was downright cryptic. "What is that supposed to mean?" It sounds like he's saying I've got some alternate reality Ichigo in my head.

"I promised to aid you on whatever path you chose to take, comandante," he said. There was an odd note in his voice. "But I will not choose that path for you. What will you do with her?"

The orange-head hesitated. "I want things to go back to normal," she admitted, but remembered abruptly with a twinge of discomfort the painfully red-raw wrists her double had had. There was one thing to beat someone into submission, and it was quite another to tie it up and then beat it when it couldn't fight. Most people learned to keep in line when they figured out there was no way to win.

"I'm going to fight her," Ichigo decided. "If I win, she learns to keep in line."

"And if you lose?" asked Zangetsu.

Ichigo thought about Kagami's sloppy swordwork and only passable hand-to-hand, and thought that unlikely. She had always learned fast when put on the spot - but that went both ways. "Then I didn't deserve to boss her around, anyway."

Zangetsu smiled. "True."

"I guess I ought ta get to it, then…" Ichigo said, and sighed. "So where-"

A jolt of pain shot through her, cutting off anything she was about to say. Zangetsu started in concern and moved to crouch down beside her as her body was shocked by a second round of pain that didn't fade, unlike the sunlit sideways world and her zanpakuto's worried face.

The blurry room that swam out of the darkness was familiar, like a snapshot from a nightmare, and if her limbs hadn't been so heavy and so numb, Ichigo would have immediately tried to bolt. As it was, she could hardly stand, and the assistance of the girl - Nemu? - was all that allowed her to make if off the table without falling to the floor.

"Lord Mayuri wants me to see that you're properly washed," said Nemu quietly, half carrying her though several winding halls. From the corners of her eyes, Ichigo saw several shinigami - some of them nearly as misshapen as the Mayuri clown freak - looking at her curiously.

Taking a breath, Ichigo tried to speak around a throat that was constricted and scratchy. "What… what's…" What's going on…?

"The Council of 46 rescinded my lord's study permit." Nemu stopped at a door with the symbol for 'sanitation' emblazoned on it and opened it. "He has been ordered to release you into the custody of the captain of the tenth division."

Study permit? Ichigo gave a mental snort. Although her mind was already trying to acclimate to her body's condition, she hadn't felt so ravaged since… well, since about two years ago, when she pissed off too many of the wrong people, got her ass busted all the way down the Plaza, and probably only survived because Chad and Orihime came to the rescue.

She had never looked at them the same way since.

But that memory was depressing, and Ichigo was brought rudely back to reality when Nemu turned on the shower, raining steaming hot water down on abused skin and red-raw wrists and ankles that fairly screamed under the assault.

Oh God…. Ichigo gasped at the sudden pain, and bit down on her tongue to distract herself so she didn't cry out. Nemu didn't seem to realize, but let her drop to the floor as she located some manner of hair product and began to smear it in.

Concentrate on the present, Ichigo tried to tell herself. If she was going to be realized into someone's else's custody, then she would be better off if she knew what she was dealing with. The orange-head struggled for several minutes with her reluctant throat to form the words. "Who… tenth division… captain?"

Nemu rinsed the shampoo out with all the aplomb of a hairstylist and then got out the soap. She didn't reply.

Not long after they had begun their dash into the dangai, the border world, Yoruichi was swearing under her and wondering just what possessed Kisuke to send this freak of nature back to Seireitei, let alone for so serious a reason. Kurosaki Isshin was nothing like the formidable, ends-oriented captain she remembered, who had truly lived up to the name Sakushu… exploitation.

"Kurosaki!" she finally snarled. "Stop acting like a tour guide!"

He smiled innocently at her. "But Yoruichi, it's not every day someone gets to see the dangai…" The former captain glanced around and then pointed, hooting like an excited child. "And look, over there! That's where Takura the Great got stuck trying to gatecrash Soul Society."

Inoue was giggling. Sado appeared to be listening intently. Ishida, on the other hand, was staring at Isshin as if unable to believe he was real and not some demented hallucination.

"What happened to this Takura?" the Quincy offered dubiously after a second. "I've never heard of him."

Isshin shrugged, unbothered. "The shinigami would've left him to the hollows, but since Takura was spiritually powerful, they sent a squad from the tenth division to harvest his reiatsu and dispose of him."

Yoruichi remembered that, and despite her irritation at Isshin for not being the comrade she had expected, stifled a snicker. The reaction of any shinigami old enough to remember that incident would be hilarious if they heard that idiot referred to as 'the Great'.

"Harvest his reiatsu?" Sado repeated, having picked up on the most important part of the story.

The former tenth division captain shrugged again. "Yeah. It's easier to take it off of criminals than convincing active shinigami to donate, after all."

"Donate?" said Inoue. "Like when Rukia asked Ichigo to loan her some reiatsu so she could use kido?"

Yoruichi's head shot up. Kuchiki had done what?

"Yeah, that's exactly it, Orihime, you've got it just right!" Isshin swooped down and gave Inoue a congratulatory hug. Inoue squealed and hugged 'Isshi-daddy' back, and the two started what might have become a mortifying reproduction of their exchange right outside the Senkaimon if Ishida hadn't cleared his throat. She was really starting to like that kid.

"Why would it be difficult to convince shinigami to donate their reiatsu?" he asked. "There were no negative side effects to Kurosaki."

To Kurosaki, yes. Damn Kisuke! Yoruichi realized she had bared her fangs and tried to calm down. This changed things. Apparently Isshin would get his way after all - the twelfth division would have Kuchiki's gigai, and they'd need that.

"Why don't most people donate blood?" Isshin asked rhetorically, sidestepping the question. "After all, there's no negative side effects to-" Abruptly and alarmingly, Isshin broke off, glancing back and forth past the walls of koryu he was holding up via a captain-restricted kido. "Oh dear…"

Yoruichi felt her fur stand on end. "It's not…?" Oh God, not now. Not now of all times…

"The kototsu," Isshin affirmed. He pouted like a child. "I think it's mad."

"Well, what are you standing around for?" Yoruichi demanded, taking off as fast as she could manage on four paws without using shunpo. "Run, you idiots!"

BTW - No, Whitey-chan and Ichigo are NOT related. Just clearing that up, because Dolphin River pointed out to me that might be misconstrued.

I'm going to break faith and ask for reviews here... I'm anxious to know what you think. Thanks!