Dreaming was a good sign. It was the surest indicator he was still alive, even if he had collapsed within sight of the tower. It was better than the dreamless, deathlike void that occupied the time between dreams and waking; one that even sleeping shinigami captains had no awareness of, let alone control over. But with practice, one could dream lucidly; controlling the course of their dreams while fully aware that they were not real. Mastering the art of lucid dreaming had been a high priority for Gin, being the control freak that he was. He would never jolt awake in the middle of the night, heart thumping madly from some nightmare; nor would he mutter embarrassing statements in his sleep. As Gin passed through puberty he even learned to avoid nighttime emissions…unless that was what he wanted, of course. Harnessed to his imagination alone, Gin's dreams granted him true respite and freedom.
Now he dreamed of Matsumoto as she had been when they were younger. They were in the Academy still, before Aizen first approached him, before her captain had even been born. No longer living off the streets, they were finally free to hold each other sometimes; and they waxed in strength as the months passed. Then Aizen took him away, and after that point, he had to banish her from his dreams.
So why was she back now? Gin didn't dare to hope that he would see her again even if he had escaped Aizen. Even now, there was a dark shape still coiled around her…
Shinsou. Gin gritted his teeth.
The teenage Matsumoto still chatted cheerfully with other academy students in a corridor, all oblivious to the weight and presence of the oily black serpent wrapped around her waist. Shinsou, the only dream element Gin could not control (since he was an independent entity) had summoned her memory from the depths of his subconscious for a reason.
Gin stretched out his hand, intending to grab Shinsou's head to force a conversation; but realized that in reaching for the invisible snake, he would appear to be molesting her in front of the other students. At any rate, when Matsumoto turned towards Gin, he realized the crafty spirit had positioned his head….oh for god's sake…in her ample cleavage. The naga didn't even bother to look at Gin. Instead he flicked out an impossibly long, forked tongue to slowly caress Matsumoto's chin.
Gin frowned in increasing agitation. Shinsou finally deigned to acknowledge Gin out of the corner of one eyeless socket.
You want a ssecond chance, yess? Don't let go of her thiss time. But ssomeone might make it harder for you…
Before Gin could figure out how to reply, Shinsou's form became increasingly transparent. Smooth, rounded scales merged to form a polished surface, while the head lengthened into a more draconic shape. Flaming red eyes glowed where previously there were none. Gin immediately recognized the form.
"Hyourinmaru? Well of course…I already know her 'lil 'Shiro-chan' ain't gonna be happy to see me."
Once Gin spoke aloud, Matsumoto turned to face him with an expression of curiosity. But Gin stepped away from her in horror. Because Shinsou (or was it Hyourinmaru?) suddenly grew alarmingly in size, until the icy coils completely obscured Matsumoto from view. She started screaming now, as if suddenly aware of her predicament, and the ice dragon slowly wound his coils tighter, the frosted surfaces grating together in a sickening counterpart to her agonized shrieks. The students she was speaking to earlier fled in terror, their own screams mixing with the sound of snapping timber as the rapidly expanding dragon's body burst through wooden walls on every side.
Hyourinmaru was mind-bogglingly massive compared to Shinsou. With no further regard for his safety, Gin threw his spindly teenage self at the monster, beating his fists on polished ice to absolutely no effect. Then in a single nauseating crunch of ice and bone, the coils constricted with a sudden jerk…and the screaming abruptly stopped.
Having long since lost emotional control over this nightmare, Gin turned to flee as well; but something pierced through his panic and froze him in his tracks. Against his better instincts, Gin turned around.
Hyourinmaru was still there. Blood now oozed disgustingly between the loosened coils. But it was Shinsou's sibilant voice hissing through the dragon's lips.
"The ansswer is yess…and no."
Unaware of Gin's troubled sleep, the rest of the party dined with their host. Sojirou's home was warm and well-stocked with material comforts from the human world. Though not extravagant, the dining hall was well- lit by rows of lanterns on the walls; while padded wooden chairs provided comfortable seating around a large, central table. The food and drink was ample and fresh; and also clearly of Earth origin. Tousen and Ashido ate and drank ravenously while the hollows respectfully consumed a more modest amount, having had the opportunity to forage for food during the journey. Nell and her companions spent most of their time chatting among themselves.
"So you have turned away from the former captain of the Fifth, and wish to evade him now?"
Tousen politely swallowed a mouthful of tuna sushi before he replied, "Yes." Beyond what he had been told by Gin and Ashido, he knew no more about his host and did not want to risk offending him. Once he had something to drink, he'd frankly and politely discussed their circumstances in response to Sojirou's questions. Intriguingly, like the vizard, Kusaka Sojiro wore a hollow skull as a mask; though this air of mystery did not intrigue Tousen as much as it fascinated Wonderwice. Being blind, he couldn't think of a good excuse to ask his host to reveal a face he could not see. Wonderwice sat beside Sojiro and grinned eagerly at the man; before lunging suddenly and sticking a bony finger into one of the masks numerous slits.
Instantly silence reigned, until Dondochakka whimpered in nervousness. Sojirou did not move or react to the sudden probing for several seconds. Wonderwice…you idiot; Tousen winced inwardly. Then unexpectedly, Sojirou chuckled.
"It's ok Wonderwice…you can take it off and play with it for a while, if you like." The arrancar immediately did so and the atmosphere in the room calmed immensely. Though relieved, Tousen inwardly cursed his blindness – for him, the removal of the mask only clarified that their host was indeed a shinigami and gave him no further impression. He knew what some faces were like, even if he stared past them; and the play of subtle contours that gave them individuality and expression. He knew the feel of Gin's bony cheekbones as well as he knew Aizen's slicked hair and Hisagi's three vertical scars. Wonderwice's bony crown was easily distinguished, and Komamura's luxurious pelt was even more unmistakable. Few people ever offered their face to the touch of a blind man, to let them form a tactile image that would be remembered for life…
Tousen felt Sojiro's hand grasp his own. He felt the other shinigami lift his hand upwards, until his fingers encountered Sojirou's face. A rare smile moved Tousen's lips. It was a touching and deeply understanding gesture, one that he experienced only rarely in Soul Society and never in Las Noches.
Sojirou seemed to be a surprisingly young shinigami, his skin supple and smooth; with long hair framing angular features and a gentle smile. As his fingers travelled to the right of Sojirou's face, from the centre of his host's cheek and upwards, he could feel the skin suddenly wrinkle into a mass of scar tissue.
So this is why he wears the mask, Tousen realized. "Thank you." He hoped Sojirou could sense in his words how much the gesture meant to him, above the sound of Wonderwice murmuring contentedly over his new toy.
"Don't be afraid to ask anything of me. I am sure you must be wondering the reason for our hospitality. We do not get visitors often, and you are the first castaways of Soul Society I have encountered here."
"I must first apologize for my companion…he seems fascinated by masks when they are worn by beings other than hollows. But yes, I cannot help but wonder."
"I sympathize with you as I have also fled Sereitei; in fact it is the cause of my scar. Like you, I don't blame the Gotei 13 – the Central 46 commanded this injustice. The only reason I don't live permanently in the human world now is because my place is with Ying and Yang, here in Hueco Mundo. Like Nell and her companions, they are endangered simply because they do not want to ally themselves with Aizen."
"I see. I'm deeply moved by your assistance, Kusaka-san."
"Please, just call me 'Sojirou'. Once your companion has fully recovered, we will gladly create a garganta to the human world."
"To be truthful, I'm not sure Nell and her brothers would want follow us there. They only wish to avoid Aizen and the Espada."
Sojirou furrowed his brow slightly, and then shrugged. "Hueco Mundo is a harsh and lonely place for a little girl, even though I sense she is more powerful than she appears. They can stay with us – "
He was cut short by Gin entering the hall through a side door, accompanied by Ying. The thin shinigami was connected to an intravenous drip stand which he pushed ahead of him, but wore his usual, thin-lipped smile.
"Ah, I see our savior dines with us! And from yer conversation I realize Tousen 'ere's told ya our sad 'lil tale. So what did'ya do to rile 'em, eh? The Central 46, if you catch my drift…"
"Gin, just quit eavesdropping. Sit and eat." Tousen snapped. They were in no position to annoy their host.
"Ne, I'm only curious. What wuzzit? Stole somethin' big? Stabbed a lieutenant? Sodomised a Kuchiki?"
"Gin, SHUT UP." Even as Tousen spoke, he could sense Sojirou inhaling sharply. Gin made his way to sit next to Ashido, ignoring the vizard's disgust.
"On the contrary, it was nothing of that sort, " Sojirou curtly replied. "They merely didn't like the fact that I happen to share the same zanpakutou as one Toshiro Hitsugaya…"
Kira stared at the doors, almost willing them to open under his gaze. They didn't, so he slipped the binoculars into his robes, gulped another mouthful out of his water flask and scampered quickly to where Komamura and the others were camped. Whoever lived in the tower didn't seem to care about his presence – though he hadn't spotted any sentries, he doubted that a mere sand-colored cloak was sufficient to disguise him from someone powerful enough to erect a magical tower out of nowhere.
"Do you think its Aizen's?" he asked the captain, who was currently picking sand grains out of his ears. Komamura shook his head and grunted. "From what we've seen of Las Noches and other secondary buildings erected by Aizen; this one does not fit the usual architectural theme," he replied. "None of Aizen's buildings are terraced like that. I have no idea who built it – my guess would be one or more independent arrancar."
"If this is built by a powerful arrancar, our former captains may be relying on help from them to escape to the human world. We have to confront them now." Hisagi added thoughtfully.
"Well, we can assume a few things. One, the occupants of the tower are not interested in fighting us. Any lookout could have spotted us from miles away and observed my approach. Two, there is no fighting going on within the tower itself; I did not sense the flare of reiatsu in combat and believe Gin and Tousen have not come under attack." Kira sounded optimistic. He was sick of the endless chase over the dunes especially since he was usually asked to scout ahead due to his swiftness.
"If the tower contains arrancar who seem to want to avoid bloodshed; then I don't think I mind meeting them. If we can persuade Tousen and Gin to cooperate and return to Soul Society; this will not end in violence." Once he had spoken, Komamura rose to go to the tower; plodding slowly through the sand.
Kira still ventured ahead of the group to approach the double doors, despite his fatigue. The bleak despair that hung over him seemed to lift with each step he took in its direction; to be replaced by a fervent and desperate hope.
Come back, my captain…he silently begged.