This story takes place somewhere in the vicinity of two to three centuries after the main Bleach storyline. I am making every effort to be canon-compliant with the manga up to and including Bleach -97 (Let Stop the Pendulum), so if you're just watching the anime, consider yourself warned. I honestly don't find the shipping thing to be all that interesting, so I'm not going to spend all that much effort writing any romance. Having said that, if you absolutely can't stand the idea of reading a story where the following relationships are a fact - Ichigo/Rukia, Ishida/Inoue, and Ikkaku/sake (that's a joke, BTW) - consider yourself warned and spare yourself the inevitable grief. Soul Society will be a bit different, given the time lapse and some catastrophic things I am putting into my story's history, but I intend to make it feel as organic and natural as possible.

If anyone is interested in serving as a beta reader, let me know. Most of my online contacts are not manga/anime fan, so I have a dearth of interested and knowledgeable possibilities. Right now I am exploiting my spell check and grammar check functions (which don't always work so well for fiction with uncommon words and phrases). This story is all plotted out, with a sequel about halfway finished in outline format. I also have some background and history developed (likely to be made AU sooner or later) I have a kernel of an idea for a third story (hardly developed at this point). If you think that your beta-reading will improve upon knowing some of this information, at least, please let me know.

Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach or have any rights to any associated anime, movie, videogame or other products stemming from Kubo Tite's work.

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Ryujiro Kazutoshi heard the soft swoosh from the passing autopiloted car to his left as he walked down the small side street in Karakura Town. The cool spring night was a bright one, the moon nestled in a cloudless sky that shone down upon the streets. A couple was chatting loudly on the next street over, their rapid words melting into a half-coherent stream. He brushed back his long brown hair away from his face, unmasking his pale blue-grey eyes, as he jogged to the next alley.

"It's OK, you'll be fine there," a feminine voice said as Kazutoshi reached the corner of the alley, a bright light coming from about 10 meters in, shimmering in all directions. Kazutoshi saw a black butterfly fly upwards, soon disguised by the shadows, then fluttering out into the moonlight. "Kazutoshi-kun, finally caught up I see." A tall blonde figure stepped out of the alley, just shy of his height by a few centimeters, sheathing her zanpakuto.

"Junko-senpai, is everything fine?" Kazutoshi asked, his shinigami robes billowing over his trim frame as he walked, her leading by a step. He sped up, the two at eye level as their focus would cross while scanning the scenery.

"Yeah, just had to calm down a spirit before performing soul burial. I know you learned a bit of the approved methods at the academy, but to be honest, just try to calm them however works best," she said. She saw his eyes rolling up at the end of her sentence, and added, "Keep a careful watch! We don't usually get much activity on nights like this, but one can never be too careful." He exhaled deeply, refocusing his sight, as they continued on to the end of the side street, walking out onto a main four-lane avenue. Both pause and leap up to the housetop, him looking west with a sharp turn of his head.

"That's a hollow!" Kazutoshi said, his hand on the hilt of his zanpakuto. Junko smiled slightly.

"And that is Patrol 2 purifying that hollow," she replied, the shaft of light in the distance going upwards indicating that the hollow purification was finished. "When you get a bit more experienced, you'll have noticed that Patrol 2 had encountered a hollow about five minutes ago." He looked at her with widened eyes.

"Shouldn't we have gone to their aid, Junko-senpai?"

"If they hadn't finished it off in another minute or two, we would have gone on over," Junko answered. "Had we gone over there when I first sensed them, I'd have only shown my distrust in their abilities. I remember being on a patrol with our vice-captain and our third seat was fighting a menos grande. I was frantic and she said, 'Sora-chan, he is perfectly fine, I have every faith in his abilities. To rush to his aid right now would be disrespectful. We are all soldiers and we all have our jobs to do.'"

Kazutoshi nodded, his eyes flickering eastwards and down to the street level. "Were you waiting for me to notice?" he asked with a smile.

"Indeed!" she said, her light-brown eyes flickering in the moonlight. "Let's go down, I'll let you handle this soul." The two leapt down to the street, walking a half block to a small alcove that led downwards into a building's basement. A hovercar silently passed them by on the street as they walked into the alcove, the gate open, Kazutoshi taking the lead.

"Hello?" Ryujiro asked. "Don't worry, we're not here to hurt you. We're here to help." A young-looking teenage boy stepped out of the shadows, coming up a step or two, his face visible in the moonlight.

"I...I can't talk to anyone! No one pays me any attention! It's like I'm not there...I know there was an accident, but - "

"It's OK, take my hand," Ryujiro replied, extending his left hand to the boy. The boy came up under his own power, walking up in a pair of sneakers, jeans, and a t-shirt. His short cropped black hair was a contrast to his relatively pale complexion.

"Why're you dressed in robes? And is that a sword? What's going on here?" the boy exclaims, stopping on the steps. "Someone! Help! There are -" he exclaimed, stopping when he caught sight of Sora on the street, unable to draw his eyes away.

"We're shinigami." The boy's face went wide, eyes bulging out a bit. " And yeah, that means what you think it means," Ryujiro says, clasping a hand on the boy's shoulder. "We're here to make sure you go somewhere...better. A little quaint at times," he smiled, "but a better place."

"Do all the girls there look like her?" the boy asked, gazing intently upon Sora's slender figure. She smiled, Ryujiro stifling a laugh.

"Some do, some don't, just the same as here," Ryujiro replied. "I'm just going to tap you on the head with the handle of my sword here, and you'll be off." He backs away, drawing his zanpakuto, holding it up as the seal began to glow faintly on the end. The boy closes his eyes, inhaling deeply, as Ryujiro gently strikes the boy on the forehead. Ryujiro narrows his eyes, re-opening them as the light fades, a solitary hell butterfly climbing skyward above him. He resheathes his zanpakuto, joining Sora on the street. They walk westward, the other side of the avenue a park. A group of young adults, split evenly between males and females, are passing through the park, the scent of alcohol pouring off them. Ryujiro watches a few of them teeter on the edge of their shoes as the walking path inclines and turns, a wave of temporary uncoordination before regaining their footing. "I shouldn't have drank so much at the MarsBar," one of them said in the moonlit darkness. "But the contest to win an authentic UN flag that had flown on top of the Mars Settlement was just too tempting."

Sora jumped up to a store roof on their side of the avenue, Ryujiro following her lead. She removed a small very dark object from underneath her robes off a necklace, blocky and squared off in appearance. Ryujiro followed her from roof to roof until they reached the building at the end of that block. Sora found a small red wooden housing on the roof, no more than a foot in height, knelt down, and lifted the latch. Ryujiro thought he saw a warning sign on the the top of the housing, but it was actually a silvery reflective surface as he stepped closer.

"This is part of a reiatsu sensor system we have here in Karakura Town," Sora said. "It allows for instant communication to Soul Society when they pick up a powerful spike, but they typically need their reiatsu supply replenished about twice a month anyway for regular communications. We can tap into living world electrical sources for part of its operation, but to breach the barrier between the living world and Soul Society we need a reiatsu source." She slipped her hand with the small blocky object into the housing, her hand moving around until she pulled out with a similar looking blocky device, more light grey in appearance. She stood, reattaching the object to her empty necklace, tucking it underneath her robes.

"Why doesn't 12th Division handle the maintenance of these sensors?" Ryujiro asked as the two stood on top of the roof, looking out over Karakura Town. The two surveiled from their perch, also checking the skies over the town.

"They do what they can, and come out for major repairs, but the institute takes up most of their regular effort," Sora said. "So, did you notice that?"

"Err...what? I thought I felt an increasing pressure a couple of blocks northward, but don't we have patrols out there anyway?" he asked. She leapt across the street and began running northwards along the rooftops, reaching into her robes for her Soul Society communicator.

"Those aren't our division members, I've been keeping track of every single one of you and any soul or hollow that we've encountered," she said, turning the communicator on with one hand. "This is Junko Sora, 17th Seat of the 13th Division, I am detecting a massive and steadily increasing reiatsu in Karakura Town about half a kilometer northwards of my current position," she said into the communicator. "We are heading towards the scene, but request senior backup immediately!" She turned to Ryujiro. "That reiatsu is getting stronger, it's like when I was present when our captain was sparring the 5th Division captain." She drew her zanpakuto, and began to flash step across each building's rooftop, speeding up while not letting Ryujiro fall behind more than a building's length. She began to see the sky tearing, and she spoke clearly and strongly into the communicator, "It appears as if a Garganta is being opened, am proceeding to the site now, will have all patrols concentrate on my position." She flicked a switch on the side of the communicator. "All patrols join in on my mark, draw zanpakutos immediately." She put the communicator back as she and Ryujiro closed in on the opening Garganta.

"Kazutoshi-kun, be prepared for anything. Stay calm but stay alert," she said as they were about a block away from the now opened Garganta. They leapt to the rooftop of the next block, keeping a high ground, stopping about three buildings from the Garganta. Sora looked around, quickly scanning the entire 360 degrees before snapping her attention back to the Garganta. "Something's got to be coming through, Kazutoshi-kun, I can't sense any of the other patrols!" she announced.

She noticed a tiger-sized reptilian-looking hollow come out of the Garganta and land on the street, flicking its gnarled tail from side to side, followed immediately by a larger dog-like hollow who growled and snarled as it glared at the moon. "Adjuchas," she seethed. Junko looked back and saw Ryujiro take a step, but then stop. And then she noticed him going backwards, his legs trying to go forward but being pushed back some every time he lifted a leg. She turned her attention back to the Garganta, the adjuchas on the ground still prowling and circling each other. She lifted a leg to take a step towards the Garganta but couldn't. She felt a force pushing her back, taking a couple of steps before stopping herself. She narrowed her eyes, trying to get a better view of the hollows on the ground and the Garganta. Then the answer to the question in her mind stepped out through the Garganta, stood in the middle of the air.

An adolescent boy, slightly shorter than her, with blonde hair, a purple-hilted zanpakuto, reached a hand back and closed his fist, the Garganta closing up. He had a large bone fragment on the top of his forehead, looking rather still and serene. Sora tried to reach into her robes for her communicator, but she couldn't even lift her arm from its position. "His reiatsu...it's tremendous..." she whispered as she was rooted to the ground. The boy walked towards her on the air, drawing his zanpakuto. Sora glanced back to where Ryujiro was, two patrols coming up on his current location at the end of the block on the rooftop. The two adjuchas expanded their prowling circle, coming a bit closer to Ryujiro's location but not quite there yet.

"Shinigami, no? Pleasure to meet you," the boy said in Sora's direction. "Are you unable to draw your zanpakuto?" Sora tried to speak, to even raise her zanpakuto even the slightest, but nothing worked. A butterfly danced above Sora and this creature, the boy's attention distracted as he watched it fly across the sky. He followed it with his eyes, the butterfly dancing upon the air currents, but soon disappearing in the shadows. He turned his gaze back on Sora, tilting his head.

"Nooooo..." Sora wheezed as the boy turned his attention back to her. She tried to turn her head back to Ryujiro, but couldn't rotate even the slightest bit. His zanpakuto was larger than a standard katana, with a straight blade in lieu of the slightly curved blade, and the handle could easily accommodate two hands gripping it.

"Very odd, you know," he said as he slowly walked forward, reaching the square, blocky parapet of the building, standing on top of it instead of the air. He raised his zanpakuto, and brought it down. Sora closed her eyes, ashamed that she could not face her own end.

When she opened them, she saw a shock of orange. She tried to move but still couldn't, and she then saw white underneath the orange, which was covering up black. A black katana had halted the swing of the adolescent boy's zanpakuto, and Sora gasped.

"Kurosaki-taicho?" she wheezed as she managed to get to her hands and knees and crawled back, raising herself until she fell upon a rooftop shed that housed the door to the stairs. Sora looked back at Ryujiro, who was not under any direct threat just yet, and then she saw the adjuchas leaping through the sky towards Ryujiro. She tried to grip her zanpakuto tighter and move, but the standoff between Captain Kurosaki and the boy was pumping out incredible amounts of spiritual pressure. "Ryujiro!" she gasped as loud as she could.

Two whirling blue flames came from Ryujiro's direction, each one blasting one of the adjuchas back to the other side of the street, knocked over on their side on the opposite building's rooftops. A tall, dark haired figure in white appeared between the adjuchas, a flash of silver slicing through the lizard-like adjuchas first, and then another flash of silver taking care of the dog-like adjuchas. The combined flare-up from both hollow purifications shined like a spotlight, framing her view of the boy sword to sword with her captain.

"Wonderweiss," she heard the orange figure say in front of her. "Back off." He turned to face her, Sora realizing that it really was her captain as his face came into view. "Sora-chan, just hold on." Junko tried to say something but she was suddenly facing a tall man with extremely short brown hair wearing a white haori over black shinigami robes, his zanpakuto sheathed at his side. What looked like a week's worth of stubble rested on his face, his hazel eyes boring into her.

"Relax. Breathe," he said as she then took a breath, being shielded from the crushing reiatsu from her captain and the adolescent boy with whom he was locking swords, she thought. The next thing she knew, she was facing Ryujiro from a distance of no more than a meter, the dark-haired man having put an arm around her waist. She then saw a familiar dark-haired figure about a foot beneath her in height.

"Kuchiki-fukutaicho!" she exclaimed, as she saw Vice-Captain Kuchiki was looking at the standoff, zanpakuto drawn. She recognized at last the tall dark-haired man, who had since let go of her waist and had unsheathed his zanpakuto, looking at the standoff. "Harada-taicho! Who is Kurosaki-taicho facing there?"

"Arrancar," Harada breathed. "And a monstrous one at that. Fuyu-kun, move back to the position of the other 13th Division patrols and tell them to evacuate immediately." Sora sensed another reiatsu, when she looked over it must have come from the tall black-haired shinigami, with the 3rd Division vice-captain's badge on his arm, standing next to Vice-Captain Kuchiki. The 3rd Division lieutenant looked at Vice-Captain Kuchiki.

"Go! If Ichigo-kun has to fight, best that I be here with Harada-taicho," Kuchiki said, turning her attention back to the standoff.

"Immediately, Harada-taicho, Rukia-san" he said, flash stepping back to Sora's divisionmates in an instant. Sora stumbled a bit as she helped Ryujiro up with a hand, suddenly feeling a crushing weight from nowhere on her shoulders again.

She felt a hand on her shoulders, the weight lifted, Captain Harada extending his free hand onto her back. "Zaraki-taicho, Kusajishi-fukutaicho, welcome to our little party," he announced. Sora didn't notice a 3rd Division power limit seal on Captain Harada's chest. Given the weight of the reiatsu being thrown around...did any of the captains or vice-captains? "Kuchiki-fukutaicho, could you please bring your division members back to Fuyu-kun's position? I promise I will keep a very good eye on Kurosaki-taicho," he said, smiling at Sora, lifting his hand from her shoulders. "I know better than to let anything happen to him, especially when you're around." Sora grinned at the worst kept secret in Soul Society. She noticed Captain Zaraki draw his zanpakuto, his tattered haori settling down from his entrance, he and Vice-Captain Kusajishi a meter or two from the rest of them but still keeping a roughly equal distance from Captain Kurosaki and his opponent.

"I'll be right back," she huffed, as she brought back Sora and Kazutoshi to the rear position. Sora watched Captain Zaraki, with Vice-Captain Kusajishi on his shoulder, bound up to Captain Harada's position.

"I don't think any of the captains or vice-captains have their power limiters on, Ryujiro," she whispered in his ear as they moved towards the gate. "The last time this many captains and vice-captains went without power limits in the living world was supposedly two centuries ago or thereabouts." She caught a glimpse of Vice-Captain Kuchiki flash step back to the front of the encounter, next to Captain Harada. "Was that Captain Harada who attacked the adjuchas coming after you?" she asked, when she felt the reiatsu coming from the encounter less, the adolescent boy stepping away, a Garganta opening up as a yellow light surrounded him from above, lifting into the crack in the sky. Captain Kurosaki leapt back in an instant to avoid the boundaries of the light shaft from above, glaring at his retreating opponent.

"I think so," Ryujiro said. "I didn't hear anything, but I did see the flames coming from behind me – it looked like that one hadou attack with two blue flames, the one Vice-Captain Kuchiki demonstrated the other week during that training session." He paused as they stood and looked at the disappearing opponent, the crack sealing itself in the sky. Sora gasped at this, as Ryujiro continued. "I did see that it was him attacking the two hollows for that instant, and then he was over by you in a flash." She saw the 3rd Division's vice-captain, Fuyu Arata, walk over to them.

"Stop loitering, get through the gate, Zaraki-taicho and his vice-captain are coming back with us, as is Rukia-san. Kurosaki-taicho and Harada-taicho will be cleaning up here for the evening," Arata said as Zaraki and Kusajishi bounded past them into the Senkaimon. Kuchiki came upon them, dashing back with a stern look on her face.

"Junko-chan, Ryujiro-kun, you two will be coming with me to the 4th Division, no questions!" she said as they went through the Senkaimon, closing behind them as Captain Kurosaki and Captain Harada remained behind, Sora noticing Captain Kurosaki's sword was now in its shikai form. "The Meat Cleaver," her training officer had called it. They followed the dimensional portal to Soul Society, members of the 4th Division already in position to escort them to the barracks on the other side. She overheard Captain Zaraki, before wandering off with Vice Captain Kusajishi reciting directions in his ear, lament that there was no battle as he hadn't had a good one in far too long, especially against an opponent with such reiatsu.

In Karakura Town, Captain Harada pulled out a communicator and turned it on. "This is 3rd Division Captain Mitsuo Harada," he began. "All members of the Gotei 13 have withdrawn to Soul Society excluding myself and 13th Division Captain Ichigo Kurosaki. We will remain until we have completed a sweep of the town for soul burials and hollow purifications. The arrancar left of his own accord by a Negacion. We will return to Soul Society once our patrol is complete. We are reinstituting the standard power limit as the emergency approval is no longer valid." Harada turned to Kurosaki, who had returned his zanpakuto to its shikai form, and nodded. Both shinigami captains touched a finger to their own collarbones, a marigold seal forming on Harada's upper chest while a summer snowflake seal formed on Kurosaki's. Kurosaki was again wearing the standard shinigami robes underneath his long-sleeved haori.

"Captain Harada, return straight to Soul Society upon completion of your patrol. Report immediately to the 1st Division. Out," squawked the communicator. Harada flicked off the communicator and slipped it under his robes. The two shinigami captains began their sweep, flash stepping along on parallel streets – close enough to come to another's aid, but far enough they could carefully survey the entirety of the town quickly.