Petals in the Wind

A/N: Directly follows "Lone Flower". Still don't own Bleach, BtVS, or any other mentioned canons. Warning for possible brain breakage.

If she ever caught up with Ethan Rayne, Buffy thought, she was going to do something violent, premeditated, and probably R-rated. Possibly involving flaming skewers, and a looped tape of Cordelia in full-blown social-status shred mode.

If being the operative word. She didn't know how the chaos mage had slimed his way away from Sunnydale's less than Law & Order-level cops, and honestly, she didn't want to know. At the time, she'd just considered it a lucky break that the spell-shocked Scoobies, herself included, had had enough presence of mind to bolt when they heard the sirens. Leaving Ethan taped to the wall for the friendly neighborhood officers. Joy.

Actually, if she were going to be honest with herself - and lately, Buffy had a hard time not doing that, no matter how much it stung - it wasn't Ethan she wanted to pester into gibbering insanity. The one she really wanted to torment was Armandra. Who was, conveniently, fictional in this world, and so beyond any possible revenge outside of a purely vindictive book-burning. And Giles had hidden his whole Titus Crow series. Darn it.

And if she were going to be really honest, the aftermath of Halloween had pretty much been of the good, so far as Slayage was concerned. Willow with a bag full of sharpened pencils equaled dusted vamps. Cordelia was actually civil by fits and starts, clued in by her spirit Mowz just how many things of the creepy she rubbed shoulders with on an average Sunnydale day. Xander had perked up like a cat in cream and tuna; he might not have Train Heartnet's indestructible gun, but the ex-assassin's hand-to-hand skills, superhuman senses, and agility meant Xander and Giles' crossbow were becoming very close friends. On top of all that, Ukitake's last battle with Dark Phoenix had put enough fear of unnatural storms into the local demon population that all Willow had to do was crackle a little lightning to get most Big Bads bolting right back out of town. Which Buffy kept expecting her friend to wonder about - until a few comments made it clear that the redhead had decided it was Armandra who had put the fear of skybolts into the creepy-crawlies.

Which might have even been true. After all, who knew how many of the locals had actually seen Ukitake?

Lightning didn't stop Ford….

Yeah. Well. Ford didn't exactly count as a Big Bad. Just a kid a little older than her, so scared of dying he'd been blind to what he was about to do to everyone not suffering along with him.

Hope he's okay.

Which was yet another 'Shirou-thought, sinking what was left of her mood even further into gloom. Train wasn't real. Armandra wasn't real. So Soul Society, and any hope for a soul that sure as heck wasn't headed for Heaven but didn't really deserve Hell-

It wasn't fair.

And given she was really wallowing in the self-pity block of her daily schedule - and face it, this was almost as bad as the post-Master fiasco, despite her best efforts to get her head back on straight - she might as well admit that what really sucked, was what she was dealing with now.

"-I'm sorry we didn't get there faster, oh mighty Slayer," Xander said yet again, leaning on a library desk with a cocky tilt to his grin that made Buffy want to grab one of Giles' scimitars and hack up some landscape. "We just thought- well, you know…."

"No, Xander," Buffy said patiently. She was going to be patient, if she had to find yet another construction site slated for a wrecking ball to take out the spitting mad on after school. There were at least a couple of abandoned buildings currently being demolished around town; nobody would mind if she snuck in and ripped down some walls. "I don't know." Though I think I can guess. Darn it.

"Juushirou was fast," Willow blurted out, wringing sparks from her hands. Ms. Calendar wasn't letting her anywhere near the computers in class these days, not unless she was absolutely calm. They'd already lost part of the school mainframe to a "freak power surge"; Snyder couldn't prove anything, but he was giving them even more suspicious looks than usual. "Why didn't you just get out before they shut the door?"

"One, there were hostages, and two - I'm not Juushirou," Buffy stated, for what felt like the hundredth time. Frustration won over patience, and she stalked away. "Reiatsu isn't magic. I'm human; Slayer, maybe, but human. He was a taichou - a captain. I'm a spark; he was a laser beam. I just don't have enough reiatsu to pull off shunpou - flash-step. Not unless I knew exactly what I was doing. And I don't."

"It must be terribly frustrating," Giles stated, closing his latest dusty tome of demon lore with an expression of concern.

"I'll get over it." Turning away from the door, Buffy gave him an honest smile, feeling some of her frustration melt as she saw the real worry on his face - worry that, just a few days ago, she had a feeling she would have misread as typical adult disapproval. "What I remember of hakuda is pretty cool." As was the sudden understanding of how kenjutsu actually worked… but given Train's fictional past with the evil sword-wielding assassin Creed Diskenth, she didn't plan on bringing that up anytime soon. "I guess it just bites that I think I could do it, if I could just figure out where I'm missing something. You know?" Juushirou's misty memories said he'd instructed thousands of shinigami; she could swear she had the Cliff's Notes version down pat. It just wouldn't work.

Giles frowned, considering the problem. "Have you tried breaking it into steps?"

"Yeah," Buffy sighed. Felt like the Hellmouth was itching at her again; with an effort, she hardened her reiatsu against it. And thanked whatever might be listening that even if she was stuck at school over the damn thing, at least she didn't have to sleep here. "Problem is, it's so simple. You focus the energy in your feet, try not to think about where you are too much, look at where you're going to be…."

The faintest of quivers in the local aura, and familiar hands rested on her shoulders. "Two points you've missed," a voice she only knew from foreign memory murmured. "There's no shame in that; even the most dedicated students have difficulty finding these flaws, when they first try to teach others. First, women and men have different centers of gravity. Try focussing a bit more into your toes. Second - you're trying to match the feel of my reiatsu. But everyone's auras are different. Accept how your energies feel, here and now, and step-"

The world blurred.

Teetering on the upper level of the library, surrounded by books, Buffy looked up in shock. She knew these hands. She knew that voice. She knew that face, dark brows framed by snow-white hair, even if she'd only seen it in mirrors of memory.

Juushirou Ukitake smiled shyly at her. "Hello."

Not real. Not real, this can't be happening, not real-

"Aww." And that voice, she definitely knew. "'Shirou-chan! You didn't tell me she was so tiny!"

Book. Grab. Hesitate for one moment, wondering what she was thinking-

"Nanao would thank you for it," Juushirou murmured.

Blurred step, and thwack.

"…And you didn't say she could hit so hard, 'Shirou," Shunsui Kyouraku groaned from the floor.

A waft of air, and Juushirou was standing beside her, smirking slightly. "As I recall, you were watching when I reviewed hakuda techniques with Eleventh Division. In fact, I seem to remember you laughing so hard after Ikkaku went through the wall that you were apparently unable to help when Yachiru ordered half of Eleventh to jump me while she went to get the other half. Including, or should I say especially, Zaraki."

"Zaraki-taichou?" Buffy said warily, recalling a bell-haired, scarred monster of a man who'd have sent the entire Sunnydale football team running for their mommies just by grinning at them. "Killed my predecessor, eat Hollows for breakfast, have enough spirit pressure to knock out my own division if I get cranky, Kenpachi Zaraki?"

"There's only one," Juushirou nodded. "Thank the gods."

Buffy nodded, still in shock. Glared down at the brunet rubbing his sore head as he started getting to his feet. "You deserved that one."

"Ah!" Shunsui pressed a hand to his heart. "So frail and delicate without; yet within, a core of purest diamond. Or perhaps more the graceful willow, which bends before the storm but never yields… and speaking of." The shinigami captain smiled broadly at the wide-eyed redhead by Giles. "Is this the young lady who was possessed by the wind-youkai? I can see why. Light on her feet, intelligent, knows how to look at things from odd angles, lovely…."

"Hey!" Xander said heatedly. "You are not hitting on my bestest bud."

Buffy tried not to roll her eyes. "No, he's not. He may break a dozen hearts a month, but Shunsui has never, ever, messed around with anybody underage. Doesn't mean he can't think she's still pretty." The Slayer froze, thinking about what she'd said, and who she'd just said it to. "I- I mean Kyouraku-taichou, really, I- oh God, you're real…."

"So are you." Juushirou gave her a faint, impish smile; I exist, and you exist, and nothing's managed to kill us yet. Isn't it amazing?

Yeah. Yeah, it was….

Students walking into the library was odd enough. Strangers, who acted as though they knew Buffy, one of whom then vanished and reappeared with her without raising so much as a yelp-

Well, to be fair, Buffy didn't often yelp. For all her untraditional training and unusual tactical grasp of situations involving the supernatural, Giles had long since realized his Slayer was quite mentally resilient. Moreso, certainly, than most of the Council of Watchers put together. Which was why even a proper British upbringing could not hide his blink as Buffy abruptly sat down on the floor.

Some sort of mystical assault? He'd halfway expected as much, given one acted as if he knew the Slayer; his general impression from Buffy's conversations was that she hadn't spent much time around adults before coming to Sunnydale, which implied these men were either rare exceptions or - and with their luck, more likely - another case like Angel. A dozen possible responses ran through his mind, from tossing the nearest heavy object at the strangers' heads to drawing on his own rarely-used mystical talents-

Impossible speed. White hair on the one called 'Shirou-chan, and Buffy had called the other in denim and rainbows taichou. Even discounting all of that, there was an odd sense of presence to the two men. Nothing so trite as a glow, or aura; simply the impression that those two, here and now, were ever so slightly more real than everything else.

No wonder they move as if space is only an illusion. For them, perhaps, it may well be…. "Juushirou Ukitake?" Giles hazarded.

"Giles-san." And the graceful tilt of snowy hair was the same, even if the man were wearing a rather ordinary green sweater and slacks instead of a silken kimono… and stood at least a foot taller than the diminutive Slayer. "Have you and Cordelia been well?"

He'd forgotten the sheer civility of their guest. Oddly like a sledgehammer to the jaw, after dealing with Californians. "A bit dismayed by what we can now discern of our surroundings, perhaps, but otherwise well enough." Giles bent a frown on the long-haired brunet currently patting Buffy on the shoulder. No matter what his suspicions of their origin, that wasn't quite cricket behavior for someone who looked like a man in his thirties. "And you are?"

"Shunsui Kyouraku," the man - the shinigami - grinned, stubble shadowing his chin.

Kyouraku-taichou, Buffy had called him. Which, from the shreds of what the two of them had discussed as purely fictional memories, would make him Juushirou's oldest, closest friend, the captain of the Eighth Division of the Court Guard… and so one of the most ancient of thirteen awesomely powerful creatures standing between the souls of the dead, and all who would destroy them.

Not angels, Juushirou said. Still… surely as close as a flawed soul like myself could hope to see in this life.

No wonder Buffy was on the floor. He rather felt like joining her. "Surely you have - more important tasks to perform…."

"'Shirou took a sick day," Shunsui said shamelessly. "Nobody's going to expect him to show up unless there's an emergency."

Which fit terrifyingly well with the nightmares that had joined Buffy's usual Slayer dreams. Not the ones about the doomed shinigami Kaien, but more general terrors of sweating in a sickbed, tasting blood, and struggling for the next breath. And the one after that, and after that….

"And people are used to me taking time off if 'Shirou needs me," Shunsui went on.

"Which could well be because it's difficult to find anyone else willing to risk accidental lightning strikes," Juushirou admitted ruefully.

Shunsui rolled his eyes. "You have never hit a person by accident. No matter how out of it you are. Trees, a few buildings, the odd Hollow having a really bad day…."

"Accidental lightning strikes?" Xander finally yelped. "Whoa, whoa, time! We saw you - well, Buffy-you. Sword, weird trick with auras, binding spell, sure. Since when can you throw lightning bolts?"

Juushirou arched a dark brow at Giles. "You didn't mention it?"

"There was no need to," the Watcher said frankly. "The battle was over, and Cordelia was embarrassed enough at having to admit how she could recognize Dark Phoenix in the first place."

Xander snickered. "Queen Cordy, reading X-Men! How low-class."

"I think it's kind of nice," Willow objected. "Everybody should have heroes."

"Normal people, sure. Cordelia?"

"Giles wasn't the only one not talking," Buffy admitted. "I mean, even when I didn't think you were real… you told Giles and Cordelia, even though you could have gotten in deep trouble, because it was the right thing to do. But Willow and Xander weren't there, they weren't hit, so-"

"Thank you," Juushirou said sincerely. "That will make things easier." He turned his gaze on Xander. "The long story is very long, but in short - yes, I do have considerable talent with lightning. But our foes were, for the most part, either innocent, or vampires. Who can be quite easily handled with just a sword."

Xander looked skeptical. Willow, in contrast, was oddly pale. "…You weren't scared of Armandra at all, were you?"

"I was frightened what she might do to others, and how it might scar the soul she had possessed," Juushirou admitted. "But frightened of her? No." He glanced at his friend. "I'm far too familiar with wild winds to find that power disquieting."

"But you're real," Willow insisted. "Nobody else was real, and Armandra got Janus to only touch real people, and- oh, not good…."

"Depends on your point of view." Shunsui smirked shamelessly at his old friend. "I think Kenpachi is looking forward to a good fight."

"Try it, and I will smuggle your entire library of erotic prints into a Women's Association meeting," Juushirou said dryly.

"…Now, that's just cruel."

A guardian of souls who collected pornographic material. Giles shook his head, trying to reconcile the two clashing concepts. After all, Juushirou had said they weren't angels. And the current Slayer and guardian of all mankind thought nothing of spending hours and ungodly amounts of cash finding just the right pair of shoes to complete a new outfit. Which, admittedly, wasn't quite on the same level, but… right. Aspirin. Definitely.

"Stealing a man's porn? Seriously low. We're talking Evil Overlord level here," Xander said in shocked agreement. And found himself the target of two focused female glares. "Not that, ah, I would know anything about that…."

"You're male, Harris. Stop digging yourself in deeper." Cordelia breezed through the door, faint silver light coalescing into Mowz on her shoulder. The razor-toothed spirit ermine trilled brightly, preening in Juushirou's direction. "Okay, okay. He is here. Guess I should listen to you more often."

Mowz chirped, settling herself against Cordelia's neck. Flashed sharp, self-satisfied teeth.

"Almost a shikai." Shunsui perked up, obviously interested. "Blonde, brunette, redhead…." He eyed Xander. "Young man, you are seriously not applying yourself! Three beautiful, intelligent, determined young women, and the best you can think of to do is set them against each other? When with just a little kindness and appreciation, you could all-"

"Don't say it!" Buffy and Juushirou chorused, blushing.

Shunsui smiled innocently. "Share an ice cream sundae?"

Still pink, Buffy glared at him. "If he mentions whipped cream, I get to hurt him."

"Indeed," Juushirou agreed. "You don't want to know where he likes to hide the cherries."

Buffy flushed, almost incandescent. "Ack! Did not want, did not want… God, why couldn't that part be more blurry?" Grabbing a desk, she banged her head against it, as if to jar loose the same images Giles was now unfortunately imagining.

"I- you remember that?" Juushirou reddened himself. "I'm sorry, I never would have… you're too young, my sisters would have knifed me if… oh, no."

"See?" Shunsui winked at Xander. "When you're good, people know."

"Wow," Xander said reverently. "Ow!"

Shaking out the hand that had impacted the back of Xander's skull, Cordelia rolled her eyes. "You know this- this-"

"Dedicated and ardent student of the fairer half of humanity?" Shunsui swept her a generous bow.

Cordelia snorted. "I was going to say bum."

"You did mention that she was intelligent," Juushirou murmured, trying to keep a straight face at his friend's woeful look. "Cordelia, this is my best friend, Shunsui Kyouraku."

The brunette looked at him. Looked at Shunsui. Looked back at him, and shot an incredulous glance at Buffy, who was still rubbing her eyebrows as if to erase lurid thoughts. "Okay, now I get why you ended up with him in your head."

"Hey! You're not saying that Buffy's-" Willow stumbled to an incoherent halt.

"Hello? He's the guy who's blushing? They're obviously two of a kind." Cordelia cast a sour look at Xander. "Which ought to be a Jeopardy-sized clue that she's way too good for you, hard as that is on my ego, so kick your inner puppy and stop mooning over her. It depresses the rest of us who have a pulse." She stepped forward, offering her hand. "I know I said thank you before-"

"And she's still alive? Call a press conference," Xander muttered.

"-But nobody's ever said I deserved to be saved," Cordelia said firmly.

And if that wasn't a sad commentary on human nature, Giles didn't know what was. Her home life must be far more difficult than I had imagined.

"It is," Juushirou said precisely, "what souls of decency and strong heart do for one another." And shook it.

Cordelia winced. "Earth to Juushirou? Hand? Not iron bar."

"My apologies." Juushirou released her hastily, and turned to Giles. "That, I fear, would be why I do not have more important tasks, at the moment. We will be in the front lines. If I cannot judge my own strength…."

"But you weren't in costume!" Willow blurted.

"Depends what you mean by costume, Willow-chan." Shunsui tugged lightly at his shirt. "Juushirou and I are spirits."

The redhead frowned. "You're ghosts?"

"Way past that," Buffy stated. "They're sh- special kinds of spirits. You wouldn't be able to see or hear them if they weren't in gigai… false bodies." She shrugged. "So they're kind of in costume right now."

A certain awful comprehension was beginning to dawn on Giles. "So when Juushirou possessed you…."

"The spell considered me costumed as a Slayer, as much as she was dressed as me," the white-haired shinigami said ruefully. "I did mention Ikkaku and a wall?"

"We're just lucky it was Ikkaku," Shunsui said practically. "You could throw him through walls all day and he'd walk away fine, as long as he had his reiatsu up."

"Did he have his reiatsu up?" Buffy asked, in a tone Giles knew from long exposure meant she was morbidly curious.

"Er… almost?" Juushirou ducked his head, embarrassed.

"…That, had to hurt."

"On the upside, I don't think Eleventh's had that much fun since the last Hollow incursion," Shunsui chuckled.

Juushirou shot him a look askance. "How would you know? You were too busy laughing to see!"

"I read Nanao-chan's notes?"

Buffy shot him a mild glare at that. A familiar glare.

He does rather sound like Xander, ancient or not, Giles thought. No wonder Buffy had been so swift to peg him one with a hefty text. If Cordelia's observations were accurate - and cutting as they might be, they often were - and Juushirou and Buffy did have a great deal in common… well, she had years' worth of memories to tell her he was a trusted friend, and no reason to believe he would take it amiss.

"Nanao," Juushirou said dryly, "had her hands more than full helping me."

"Um... to get back on topic... and I can't believe I'm saying this..." Buffy started, the duck of her head clear signal that she was a bit uncertain about interrupting them, "comes to the Slayer-stuff, I don't know what to tell you. If you remember as much about me as I do about you… man, that's weird… Willow and Giles are more of the research-handy."

"And I do wish to speak with Giles-san as well," Juushirou nodded. "But you have the most experience in how to deal with a world grown suddenly more fragile."

Shunsui leaned on his friend's shoulder. "What he's not saying is, he shot out of a sound sleep from one of your nightmares about that so-called Master. And he wants to make sure, given what little time we've got to work with, that you get enough of the basics down so hopefully nobody else gets a chance to drown you." An expansive wave, as he smiled at Willow. "Not to mention, I'd like to see if Willow-chan knows any tricks with winds I don't."

"So." Juushirou looked over them all. "Is there anywhere in this town we can raise a small amount of power, and not be noticed?"



"Ow…" Xander groaned, feeling every pebble and stick on the abandoned mansion grounds dig into his back.

Wind blasted over unkempt grass as Willow dropped earthward. "Xander, are you all-"

Whoosh. Crash.

"Even if your ally is down, Willow-chan, you can't let yourself be distracted." Sheathing his sword, Shunsui walked over and leapt into the lower branches of the bare-branched maple tree, offering her a hand down out of her impromptu bird's nest. "He's fine. Just had the wind knocked out of him." A light touchdown, and he snagged Xander's wrist, pulling the teen up with effortless ease. "You might want to ask Giles if he'll teach you along with Buffy. He might not be able to match your raw speed, Xander, but he seems to have a good eye for technique."

"If he can't move that fast, how can he help us?" Xander objected, dusting himself off.

"Not everything is about speed. He can find the holes you leave wide open for anything faster than you." Gray eyes were serious. "And you will run into things faster than you. Count on it."

"You mean, like Buffy?" Willow asked.

Xander hid a wince. Way to rub it in, Wills.

"If 'Shirou has anything to say about it, yes," Shunsui nodded. Raised a brow at Xander. "That bothers you?"

Damn, he thought he'd kept a straight face. Maybe spirits could mind-read? "Bother me? She's the Slayer. She slays. We Scoobies are more Slayerettes, we… research. And bring snacks."

"And give a Slayer CPR?" Shunsui shook his head. "Lone warriors sound noble and heroic, but we all last longer with people we can count on. I doubt Buffy minds protecting you when you need it. Why do you mind letting her?"

"You have to ask?" Xander blurted out. "Definitely not human… er. Um."

"No, actually," Shunsui admitted easily. Switched his gaze to Willow. "Am I missing some kind of mortal taboo? I thought living people had decided that men always protecting women was… how did that kid in Rukongai put it? So last century."

"W-well, women's lib, and the right to vote, and…." Willow took a deep breath, and straightened her shoulders. "I think it's fairytales. You know? All those knights rescuing princesses from dragons. Nobody talks about the princess rescuing him."

"I see." Shunsui gave Xander a wry, understanding smile. "If it helps, three of the scariest people I know are women. And men or women, the junior members of my division know I need them all if we're going to do our duty and keep Hollows from eating innocent souls. But they also know there are some things they cannot take on, and survive. That's my job." He crossed his arms, regarding them both. "You've got potential. With training, you could probably handle most of the creatures Juushirou says you met on Halloween. But if you overestimate what you can do - fates worse than death, people. Trust me, I've seen them. Do you want Buffy to have to kill demons with your faces?"

"That's not fair!" Willow protested.

"Willow-chan, my sweet - this isn't about fair. This is who lives, and who dies." Shunsui looked back at Xander. "This might have been easier if you'd been raised samurai… Buffy knows she is going to die."

"No." Xander shook his head. "No, you're wrong. And don't tell me you've got a prophecy, we've beaten those before-"

"Listen to me."

The air was heavy and thick, choking off protest. Like a thunderstorm. Like the helpless quiet before an aftershock.

"Maybe not today," Shunsui said with terrible gentleness. "Maybe not tomorrow. Gods willing, not for years. But there is a world of darkness out there, and if what Juushirou told me about the Slayer is even half right, everything in it considers her their enemy. They only have to get lucky once."

Willow sniffled. Scrubbed at her eyes. "But… you can help, right?"

"There are limits to how much we can interfere in the world of the living," Shunsui said soberly. "And we have our own enemies. A few months from now… Juushirou and I may not be able to help anyone."

"Someone's gunning for you?" Xander asked, disbelieving.

"Oh yeah. And he might be able to pull it off, too," Shunsui said, almost as an afterthought. "Anyone who can fool us all for over a century…." He shook his head.

"Are you seriously telling me there are things out there that kill ghosts?" Xander persisted. "Can we say redundant, much?"

Shunsui raised a brow. "Did I not mention fates worse than death?"

"Like being turned?" Willow said, her voice very small.

"Something like that." He shrugged it off. "The important thing is, Buffy knows. Which is why she protects you. Think about it."

No. I don't want to think about it. You can't make me-

Willow gulped. "She's going to die… but we don't have to."

Dammit, Willow! You can't say that- you'll make it real if you say that-

"You're her friends, and she loves you very much," Shunsui stated matter-of-factly. "Don't underestimate that. Evil doesn't understand love. It can use, and it can manipulate, but it can never understand why anyone would throw themselves in the path of a blade. Unpredictability can save you when nothing else will."

Which fit with some of the things they'd both overheard from the G-man. Buffy hadn't been trained like the average Slayer. Which gave Giles some hair-tearing fits. On the other hand, it meant that monsters who thought they knew what Slayers would do, never quite managed to put Buffy down for the count.

"Add to that, she is the Slayer," Shunsui went on. "From what I've seen with Juushirou, a blow that would be fatal to you might just be a bad night for her."

Okay, that was a definite point. He'd seen Buffy get electrocuted, for goodness' sake.

"And don't discount the survival value of sheer spite," the spirit added. "If they kill you, they hurt her. If she saves you, then no matter what else happens, she wins." He lifted a finger, with the air of one about to impart a great secret. "And if you can convince your enemy that you will win, no matter what it takes - your odds get a lot better."

"So… letting Buffy help us, helps her?" Willow ventured.

"Brilliant! Ah, if you were only a few years older…." Shunsui shrugged, and looked serious again. "I would never tell you not to fight, Xander. We each make our own choices to face evil, or not. But learn what your limits are." His hand went to one of his sword-hilts, as he waved them back on guard. "After all, if you don't know them… how can you learn to break them?"

Half-listening to the thuds, crashes, yelps, and wind-blasts just out of sight, Buffy thumbed through yet another page of dense Japanese text. "Were these written by who I think they were?"

"If you recognize Kisuke's handwriting, yes."

Seeing Juushirou's solemn expression, Buffy swallowed hard. "Yamamoto-Genryuusai-soutaichou must be ticked…."

"He ordered me not to bring this matter to his attention," the shinigami said bluntly. "In light of what Kisuke found, that was probably wise."

Yeah. That was a heart-in-shoes lump, no question. "The Slayer's power… comes from a youkai?"

"What?" Giles exclaimed. "That cannot possibly be accurate-"

"I might not trust Kisuke with my relatives, my Third Seats, or anything flammable or explosive, but scientific data?" Juushirou met his gaze. "The essence of an ancient dire wolf, broken into shards for each Potential. Only let loose to use its power when that Potential is Called. Buffy has it… and now, it seems, so do I."

"Okay, translation for those of us who don't get wrinkles squinting at dusty books?" Cordelia shook out the beach towel she'd brought yet again, finally satisfied enough to sit down.

"An elemental creature," Giles filled in. "The Watchers often translated youkai as demon, on their first encounters with Japan, but that's not quite accurate. It seems most likely that they originated from Earth itself, and were part of the forces that drove the true demons off this planet when it was cleared for humans. They're rarely evil… but often they are very, very inhuman. So much so that humans are best advised to avoid them, for they will kill over what seems a simple misunderstanding."

"Oh, that doesn't sound like Buffy at all," Cordelia mocked, rolling her eyes.

Will not pull hair. Will not, Buffy told herself firmly. "Be careful, will you? If he finds out you went to Kisuke-"

"I had to know," Juushirou said soberly. "If I went to Twelfth Division, Kurotsuchi would do his best to ensure I could not walk back out - and the chaos that would result from Sougyo no Kotowari calling in help would be the perfect opportunity for Aizen to strike."

"Bad guy," Buffy clarified for Cordelia. Giles apparently already remembered the name from their talks, if the level of glasses-polishing was anything to go by. "Very bad."

"And I need to know about him why?" Cordelia griped, smoothing her skirt.

"Because while you are a living human, you have some of the powers of a shinigami. Which would make you interesting, if he learned of you," Juushirou said frankly. "Those Aizen is interested in… tend not to survive."

Cordelia swallowed dryly. "So, bad guy, Buffy slays…."

"Buffy does not slay. Buffy runs like hell," Buffy said frankly. "The Master I could take, with some help and a sledgehammer. Sousuke Aizen? If I were lucky, I'd feel him coming in time to split. If not-" She shook her head. "I'd be dead, and the Watchers would be looking for the next Slayer."

"I fear your fate might not be as kind as death," Juushirou murmured.

"Huh?" And why was Juushirou pulling on an odd red glove, embroidered with a flaming skull?

He moved so fast.

Buffy wobbled back to her feet, and caught her breath, trying to figure out why even the wind felt different. Glanced down at - not her slacks and sleeveless gold blouse, but red-striped white gi sleeves, and red hakama.

What the- An Academy uniform?

And farther down, where her body slumped unconscious on the ground. "You - what - how?"

"I say!" Giles exclaimed. "Buffy, are you all right?"

"Yes, and no." Striking his gigai with the glove, Juushirou stepped clear, captain's white haori flowing in the wind. "Using a bankai has consequences. The amount of spiritual force… no living body is meant to withstand it. Nor, apparently, is any chain of fate."

Buffy sat down hard. "I'm dead?" she whispered.

"You died," Juushirou clarified. "Even if your soul had remained in your body, it's possible you would have Hollowed, if you did not realize what was happening in time. However," he added, apparently ignoring Giles' angry glare and Cordelia's gape-mouthed shock, "I am not an ordinary shinigami. I was born to the clan of Ukitake; a lesser house, yes, but a true-born one. The spell made you a shinketsu as well. And on the rare occasions that a true-blood is born into the mortal world, the human body can survive. Even when the chain of fate is severed." A slight shift of shoulders. "In essence, your body becomes your gigai. Usually it's still far too fragile to risk in combat if you can avoid it; but as you are a Slayer, that shouldn't be nearly as much as a hindrance." He chuckled softly. "I didn't expect the uniform… but that is where I was, when I was equivalent to your age."

Blinking, Buffy nudged her still-breathing body. "Oh, this is just too weird…." Silk rustled, and she glanced up, eyes widening at the familiar red-wrapped grip and black sheath. "That's-"

"Asauchi zanpakutou," Juushirou confirmed, presenting it with a bow. "I don't want to think about the regulations Shunsui broke to requisition it…. Treat it well, and forgive me if I pray you do not need it any time soon."

Buffy swallowed the lump in her throat, trying not to let her hands shake as she accepted the katana. "Thank you, taichou."

"I am the one who changed your fate," Juushirou stated levelly. "There would be no honor in leaving you unarmed to face it."

Buffy swallowed again, blinking back tears as she thrust the sheath through her obi. This was… this was like Giles, making sure they all hauled out the books before she raced off to stomp the latest demon. Like her Mom, trying so hard to make sure she stayed in school and out of trouble; even if Joyce didn't have a clue that the sneaking out and teacher disapproval came from Slaying, not any deliberate attempt to play bad girl.

This is what responsible looks like.

I want to be like this.

Eyeing her oddly, Giles cleared his throat. "I understand zanpakutou are your blades, but asauchi?"

"An empty vessel, to be filled as the shinigami's spirit grows strong enough," Juushirou nodded. "She likely won't be able to manifest it while in her body until she learns shikai, but you have live blades for that."

"Shikai?" Silver glowed, and Cordelia stroked Mowz. "That Kyouraku guy said she was like that."

"She is a manifestation of your inner spirit," Juushirou stated. "It is very likely, when you die, you will have the strength to become a shinigami."

"Can we not talk about the whole death thing?" the brunette said uneasily. "I like breathing. A lot."

"As you wish," Juushirou inclined his head. "But if it should happen, ask for me, or Shunsui, and ask those you meet to direct you to the Court of Pure Souls. And if all else fails, find the Shiba clan. Aizen may have targeted the shinigami, but Kuukaku Shiba is more canny than most people realize." He straightened. "Now. While we have the chance… let us see what a shinigami Slayer can do."

Finally, Buffy grinned. A chance to pull out all the stops, and spar with someone who could match a Slayer strength for strength. With someone who, unlike Giles, she didn't have to worry about holding back to keep from killing him. Oh, this was going to be fun.

And then she saw the serious look in hazel eyes, and remembered exactly who she was dealing with.

Oh, this is going to hurt….

Walking in on a guy trying to break your friend's arm - and legs, and ribs - was definitely not cool, Willow thought, hands still trembling from the sheer force of wind Shunsui had goaded her to unleash. Not cool, and she was going to stop it. Right now. As soon as she could see which blur was who.

Green-and-gold separated, and Buffy collapsed on the ground. "Ooo… water… medic… room service…."

"It takes some time to work up to multiple flash-steps." Juushirou was sweating a little, but swiped it off with the cuff of his sweater, and smiled at them. "How did it go?"

"Wouldn't throw them against a Hollow just yet, but they're getting there," Shunsui said easily. "So. Did you ask yet?"

The white-haired spirit sighed. "I didn't want to worry anyone before practice."

"Consider us worried," Xander muttered, limping in behind them.

Shunsui glanced at the teenager. "So you've already been looking for Phoenix?"

"…Eep?" Willow managed. Phoenix? Buffy had said something about that right before they had to leave Ethan's, but - head down. Breathing good.

"We've been looking," Buffy said, sitting up. "But I couldn't sense her. And Ethan split before we could ask him who he sold that costume to."

"I, for one, still have difficulty believing he could do anything so idiotic," Giles observed. "Despite the evidence. If he knew he would be unleashing the characters of those costumes that night-"

"Maybe he didn't know," Cordelia said thoughtfully. There was a smear of dirt under one of her cheekbones, and her hair looked as if she'd just gotten done picking leaves out of it. "I mean, here's Spirit Samurai when he was aiming for Killer Frost. Didn't you say he snarked something about an eighteenth-century gown he wished he'd stuck Buffy in? When Phoenix first went evil, Mastermind's trying to convince her she's a reincarnation of his upper-crust wife from about that time… not one word, Harris."

"Word? I wasn't going to say a word," Xander said innocently. "Did I say a word?"

"I rather think you said several," Giles said dryly.

"So you know of Phoenix." Juushirou raised a dark brow at Cordelia. "And given you were looking for her… it is, then, possible for her to return to life after her own destruction?"

"Revolving door on the afterlife," Cordelia nodded. "Though after she came back the first time, Jean Grey didn't have more than her own powers… why are you guys looking at me like that?"

"I'm an idiot," Buffy groaned. "I've been looking for Phoenix's reiatsu."

"Which is overwhelming, and unmistakable," Juushirou agreed. "What we need to search for is the reiatsu of the human who was possessed by Phoenix-"

"-And I don't know about you, but I only got the edges of what that felt like," Buffy sighed. "For all I know, she could've walked right past me in the hall at school."

"But if that is the case, at least we are not searching for Dark Phoenix herself," Juushirou said, obviously relieved.

Buffy blinked. "You thought- oh my god, Aizen might have-"

"He's got a way of talking people into things," Shunsui said wryly. "If he got his hands on that kind of power… let's just say, I really hope you're right, Cordelia-chan."

Hoping Cordelia was right. Could the day get any worse? Willow shivered, eyeing lengthening shadows. "Um, guys? Sunset soon."

"And it's Red Cross night." Buffy's shoulders slumped as she creaked to her feet. "Oh, I am so not looking forward to this."

"Red Cross?" Shunsui frowned.

"The local hospital often transfers blood out of town," Juushirou informed him. "It's become a regular target for vampires."

A grin lit Shunsui's face. "Really." He waggled his brows at Giles. "You know, the less times we open the senkaimon, the less chance anybody has to notice we're here. And since we're not planning to leave until tomorrow…."

"If you are offering to take on patrol for the night - I do believe someone could use time to finish a book report," Giles observed.

No, no, no, Willow thought. No book reports. Not when this is the only night Buffy can be sure she'll meet him! "We could cover for that, really, Sunnydale's dangerous at night-"

"I thank you for your concern, but I think we'll manage," Juushirou murmured.

"Not to mention, Angel's still kind of wiggy about the whole almost-stabbity thing." Buffy's shoulders slumped. "Maybe a night not seeing him would be a good thing."

"Oh." Willow nibbled her lip. "But it wasn't your fault…." Freezing, she cast a wide-eyed look at Juushirou.

"Kind of the problem," Buffy said sourly. "Every time he finds me, he wants to forgive me for what happened. 'It's not your fault. You weren't exactly yourself.' Blah de blah, oh look I'm so noble for not blaming you for this." She let out an angry breath. "But you know what? It's not my fault. And it's not Juushirou's fault either. He was trying to deal with a demon. Just because Angel has a soul doesn't mean Juushirou had any reason to believe it was Angel who was in charge." She flung up her hands. "I don't know how to fix this. And I just got slammed around by a professional. Much as I might want to avoid the Evil Book Report of Doom, my bruises say a night off would be very much of the good."

"Study party?" Xander brightened.

And of course Xander would go for anything that kept Buffy away from Angel. Willow donned resolve face. "But you know he's not a bad vampire now, so you're not going to hurt him. Right?"

"Of course not, Willow-chan," Shunsui said virtuously. "But if he does show up… well, we wouldn't mind a chance to talk. Right, 'Shirou?"

Oh, why does that not sound good…?

Infinitesimal puffs of vampires dissolving into dust reached Angel's ears, and he let out an unnecessary breath of relief. Sounded like Buffy had already figured out that the vampire minions hitting the blood run had started showing up early, and had crashed the party even earlier.

Good. We've really got to talk- Angel rounded the corner as the ambulance sped off, and stopped.

No Buffy. Just a calm hospital, an empty street, and a faint scent of vampire dust leading away.

Which made no sense. Buffy knew he'd be here. And they had to talk. Ever since the Halloween craziness, she'd been pulling further away, and he had no idea why. That very night, when her mother had been safely out of the house, and he'd been expecting - well, a lot more than a sober kiss at the door and an "I need to think."

And since that night - well, she wasn't avoiding him, exactly. But when they met on patrol, her focus was a lot more on "see vampire, slay vampire" and "map out where vampires are likely to be" than on him. On top of that, usually one of her friends was along for the slayage… and between the crossbow and the wind-powered pencils, any mood for sneaking off alone together was killed almost as dead as the vampires.

And when Buffy wasn't on patrol - calligraphy? Ink painting? What was up with that?

Focus, Angel told himself, warily tracking dust-scent down the sidewalk. Something had to have killed Spike's minions, without any scent of the perfumes the Slayer usually wore. Which meant it wasn't Buffy who'd dusted them. And anything dangerous enough to take on vampires might try to take out a Slayer-

"Nice night for a walk, isn't it?"

Angel tried not to start as two strangers slipped out of the shadows to walk beside him, casual as if this were an ordinary night in an ordinary, definitely not Hellmouth, town. The white-haired man had glanced at him once and gone back to scanning their surroundings; the brunet in tie-dye and denim was still grinning at him, gray eyes amused. "Giles says hi," the brunet went on. "Buffy's on homework patrol."

"Anyone could say they know Giles," Angel said uneasily. They definitely smelled of vampire dust. And - Buffy, voluntarily doing homework? She was a Slayer. She had more important things to worry about.

"Not anyone would know Giles once asked you to find The Pergamun Codex," the white-haired man observed. Looked at Angel again. "I'm 'Shirou." Gestured at his companion. "He's Shunsui. And you are Angel, yes?"

"I'm not exactly the kind of guy the Council usually goes looking for," Angel said warily. Watchers and vampires, after all; pretty much oil and water. Or maybe sparks and gasoline.

"Not all of Giles' contacts are with the Council," 'Shirou said levelly.

Not from the Council? "What's wrong? Who's coming after Buffy this time?"

"Nobody, hopefully," Shunsui stated.

"Hopefully? What did you do?" Angel lunged for the man's collar. "What did you bring here?"

Shunsui stared down at Angel's fists, and met the vampire's gaze, obviously unimpressed. "For a young man who remembers existing for over two centuries, you could stand to learn a little patience."

"Buffy doesn't have time for that!" He narrowly decided against using game face. Council allies or not, most humans didn't react well to fangs-

"Geki," 'Shirou declared behind him.

Red light engulfed the vampire, freezing Angel in place.

Tugging his shirt collar back into shape, Shunsui stepped clear, and raised a brow at the furious vampire. "Make time."

"Sorcerers," Angel gritted out, unable to so much as turn his head to glimpse white hair. "Should have known."

"Is he always this quick to jump to conclusions, or is this a special occasion?" Shunsui asked wryly.

"When it comes to Buffy… yes, I think so," 'Shirou observed.

Angel saw more red than spell-light could account for. "Don't talk like you know her!"

Shunsui's eyes narrowed, suddenly not amused at all. "I have a feeling I know her better than you do. And I certainly know young, idiot men." He gave the vampire a long look, up and down. "Xander may be a little too persistent and oblivious, but he already knows how to take no for an answer. What would you do, if Buffy told you to go to Hell?"

"What?" Angel blurted. "She'd never do that. She needs me! What have you done to her-"

"Nothing," Shunsui cut across his words. "We've done nothing, except help her out when she needed it. In the daylight. When you couldn't be there. When she couldn't even call you to help with research, because you never give her any way to find you - even though you know damn well where she is."

Angel let his demon surge forward, feeling the spell's hold start to weaken. "You sick, perverted-"

"I'm sick?" The last trace of friendliness disappeared from Shunsui's face. "You're a vampire. She's the Slayer. From the look of you, you were at least twenty before you were turned. She's a sixteen-year-old girl, who walks out every night knowing it might be the last thing she ever does. How dare you."

"I love her!"

"If you did," 'Shirou stated, still out of sight, "you would have listened to what we said, rather than the jealousy devouring your heart. We never touched her. We never would." A deliberate pause. "Is it the demon who drives you to this obsession, or the man?"

Finally, some reason from these jerks. That, he could answer-

The last of the red light faded, but Angel held very still. Trap. It's a trap.

Blame it on the demon, and he'd be admitting his control over the vampire wasn't good enough for a Watcher to consider safe. Say it might be the man- "Who are you?"

"Friends," 'Shirou said dryly.

"Friends?" Angel sputtered in disbelief, spinning on the white-haired sorcerer.

'Shirou smiled wryly. "I never said we were yours."

Wait - that's like what I said to Buffy, before the Harvest-

'Shirou pointed a finger. "Shou!"

Invisible force struck Angel's gut, blasted him back. His head hit concrete, and the world grayed-

They were gone.

Reverently, Giles stroked the ancient journal, one of ten just delivered to his apartment a day ago. His Slayer was safe at home for the night, he was ensconced in his one reasonably comfortable chair, there was a cup of tea steaming beside him, and he was about to delve into Lord Abraham Wingates' Account of the Mon-o-noke, or Oddities of Japan and Nearby Isles, 1857-1896.

History likely hadn't recorded the author as more than a minor member of the British upper class; a sickly, polio-lamed second son, content to travel the world, collect odd facts, and otherwise avoid embarrassing the first son and heir. Certainly not as a field researcher for the Watchers' Council, avidly poking his nose into matters supernatural where previous Englishmen had not been able to tread.

Though Spike might recall him. Vaguely. Lord Abraham had died by vampire bite in the midst of the Boxer Rebellion, after all; reportedly he'd been found in a very dusty, muddy room, surrounded by shattered glass vials of the sort Watchers used to carry holy water.

Shaking off the morbid thought, Giles turned pages to where he'd left off before school the past morning. Umbrellas coming to life after a hundred years of use… abandoned warehouses that devoured women, leaving only clothes and hair behind… resurrecting a living being from bones and secret herbs….

That one he scribbled a note on in his own journal, in light of the Master's near revival. Granted, that vampire was no longer a threat. But it would be useful to have multiple sources on such matters, given the number of ancient vampires who had already been drawn to the Hellmouth.

Note complete, Giles set the journal gently down, thoughts circling once again to their current guests. Before the shinigami had so vividly proven the reality of their existence, he'd thought - well, he wasn't quite certain what he'd thought. Besides a sober relief that for once luck had apparently smiled on his young charges, providing someone level-headed enough to guide them through the chaos.

"And be not slow to aid a stranger, for many have entertained angels unaware," the Watcher murmured.

Odd, how he'd never wondered about it before. But then, he was a Watcher, born and bred. He'd grown up with the knowledge that the powers of darkness were all too real - and that while holy water might be useful backup when a stake missed, not even a church was safe refuge from evil.

"Let the masses have their pretty stories," his father had said dismissively. "Angels! Saints! Glinda the Good Witch! Ha!" A stern headshake, and a lecturing finger. "There are no angels out there to save the cowering sheep from the dark, Rupert. There is only the Slayer. And us."

All true, so far as the Council knew. And yet - for near two and a half centuries, while the Tokugawa ruled, no Slayer had set foot on Japan. Or been called there, so far as Giles could tell; he'd checked the records, and no suspicious gaps showed up. So how had Japan not been the center of an apocalypse?

None of which had crossed his mind when he'd first "met" Juushirou, of course. At the time, the Watcher had simply been worried - and truth be told, no little put out - that the one night monsters yielded to humans had been tossed so awry.

And then he'd been purely amazed, as the Slayer he knew would take Willow's side in a heartbeat - defended Cordelia instead. And proceeded to then give Miss Chase the polite, stern chewing-out she'd obviously needed for years. All without raising her - make that, his - voice.

Rather reminded Giles of a retired SAS instructor the Council had hired. One who didn't care about nobility or tradition, only what would keep his Watchers-in-training alive against impossible odds.

Between that, and the skilled use of diplomacy, not to mention the wry sense of humor… well, it wasn't Buffy. Though he'd had serious doubts of who, or what, it was. Train and Armandra hid nothing about who they were. Juushirou had been sparing of details as an angry Scot parting with coin for English beer.

And then, that fight with Spike's minions….

Out of pure curiosity, he'd asked Jenny to help him look up both "Beast Lord of Kham" and "eladrin". The first, it seemed, were a circle of evil mages in a fantasy game, who used malign magic to create little horrors like the Familiar Killer that had assaulted Cordelia. The second….

Eladrins were not angels. The game had a listing of different angelic beings, and eladrins were a different manner of creature entirely. But they were celestial warriors for Good, bound to defend the innocent and destroy all forces of darkness.

And the most powerful of them, it seemed, not only bore glowing auras when bringing their powers into full play, but used a sword drawn from the very substance of their souls.

It had fit well enough, when he'd thought about it after Halloween. Eladrins were even known to conceal their natures and identities when they walked among humans, the better to ambush large forces of evil. Buffy's memories of Soul Society didn't quite match the description of the planes eladrins called home, but otherwise….

After all, what else could he believe? That there had been war in a kind of Heaven, and a trio of higher powers had defected to darkness, and death was not merely not the end, but an open door to wonders and horrors no Watcher had ever dreamt of?

Which seemed to be exactly the case.

Right. Tea.

A warming sip, and Giles set the cup down again. Admit it, he told himself firmly. While you're grateful to know Buffy may yet have a chance for a sort of peace - albeit after her death - knowing that makes it all the more painful to think of losing her.

And they'd come so close to that, so many times already. For the children's sake, he kept up a brave face… but sometimes, it hurt.

Don't think about it, Giles advised himself. Think about what you need to ask the shinigami; they've already said they can't stay. Why? And why have they never come before? Juushirou had no qualms about destroying vampires, and we could certainly use more help-

Someone knocked on his front door.

And here they are. Giles stopped just short of opening the door, realizing the source of that sudden certainty. A comforting prickle at the base of his neck, instead of the irritating itch that was the Hellmouth's new version of unexpected job hazards.

And indeed it was Juushirou and Shunsui on his doorstep, the former stepping over the threshold without hesitation. Which was odd behavior for one who seemed of Japanese origin, but perfectly understandable, if he did have Buffy's memories of Hellmouth survival. You never invited someone in after dark. Ever.

"I'm sorry, Giles-san," Shunsui said contritely, as soon as the door was locked behind them. "We've kicked a hornet's nest, and we won't be able to stick around and help you roast it."

Ominous. "There are a number of hazards in town; perhaps you could be more specific?"

"Angel," Juushirou sighed.

"Ah." Not that it made the matter any clearer, but at least the Watcher was fairly certain the world was not about to end while they discussed it. "Tea?"

He offered them the most comfortable chair, was politely assured the rickety ones Xander had once jumped on were quite sufficient, brewed up fresh cups, and waited while everyone settled. And raised an inquiring brow.

"I was concerned by his behavior on Halloween," Juushirou obliged. "What the spell let me recall of Buffy's life gave me even more reason for worry. Still, all I knew was Buffy's view of the situation, so I asked Shunsui to give me his informed opinion."

"Very informed, thank you," Shunsui said grandly. "From the shyest Academy student leaving candy at someone's door, to the paper airplanes of equations over in Twelfth, to the shattered mask-pieces some tongue-tied guy in Eleventh will pile up before he'll even think about asking for a date - Seireitei's got a thousand kinds of love, and I've seen it all." His smile turned wry, and he shook his head, brown waves catching the lamplight. "And I've seen what happens when one of a pair goes badly wrong. This one's headed that way."

Giles winced. "You did find Angel, then."

"Found, asked a few questions, got threatened by…." Shunsui rolled his eyes. "He's obsessed. And not in a starry-eyed, I've found the right girl way."

"He's convinced he bears the guilt for Angelus' actions," Juushirou stated, as Giles grimly considered his tea. "He has focused on aiding the Slayer to alleviate that guilt. Mention that it might not be enough, that there are situations in which he cannot aid, instead of chooses not to, or even that Buffy sees herself as much more than the Slayer…."

"I don't think he's at the kill her before I let her go stage," Shunsui said soberly. "But if either of them gets stressed - and let's face it, this is a Hellmouth - things could get very ugly, very fast."

"I… see." Giles stared into fading steam. "I hadn't considered that scenario." It'd never come up before, after all; what Slayer would fight beside a vampire? "What would you usually do?"

"Reassign the people in question while I pound sense into whatever head needs it," Shunsui admitted. "Not exactly an option, here."

"And this is just the human side of the equation," Juushirou observed. "I don't know what effect the demon will have on this, but I doubt it would be a beneficial one."

"Considering the human side," Giles said levelly, "indeed." He met the white-haired shinigami's gaze. "If you could act on Halloween against mere minions - why did your people allow the Master to walk?"

Juushirou didn't flinch. "First, and foremost: we are not allowed to patrol near Sunnydale."

"What?" Giles glance between them. "Why?"

"We'd ask the Council of 46," Shunsui said dryly. "Only they're dead. And even if their souls are reborn the normal way, if we can find them, if Aizen didn't take the opportunity to run another of his experiments on such ancient spirits… they're not going to be in any shape to answer."

"Second, there are limits to how much we are allowed to interfere with the living," Juushirou stated. "Of late some have been relaxed slightly, and others may yet be reconsidered, but unless Hollows are involved, or we are defending specific, spiritually-touched areas where violent death tends to cause angry ghosts… it is not up to us to choose who lives, and who dies."

"Third, and worst - Giles-san, there aren't enough of us," Shunsui said bluntly. "Thirteen divisions. About 200 shinigami per division, when we're up to full strength - and we never are. Yama-jii started the Academy about two thousand years ago, and only after he got some students graduated were we able to carve out a spot that's mostly safe for souls to dwell in, instead of just sending raiding parties after Hollows that had broken in and eaten people. Took decades after that before we could start hunting down Hollows in the living world, hopefully to get them before they could eat other souls, and encouraging souls to pass on, so they wouldn't become Hollows in the first place. Now we're tracking Hollows all over the world, and… well, I know you can count."

"Am I to understand you're here recruiting?" Giles said, stunned.

Shunsui blinked at him, surprised. Juushirou chuckled. "We would definitely appreciate it if you chose our path, after you died. But that would be your choice."

"If Aizen leaves any choices for anybody," Shunsui said grimly.

Giles shook his head. "What does the man want?"

"Power, if you believe his own words," Juushirou answered. "If we can believe anything he says… he's reached his limits as a shinigami. Now he claims the throne of Heaven is empty, and he will take it."

Terrifying thought. But- "What if he's right?" If their world was truly a place where the living had had to create the Slayer to protect them, and the dead had had to organize themselves to protect each other from monsters… where, in all of that, was any sort of loving god?

Shunsui and Juushirou exchanged a speaking glance; one of friends that had discussed it long into the night, and reached the same conclusion. "If he's right," Shunsui said bluntly, "then that throne can damn well stay empty."

"You hold him responsible for Kaien Shiba's death," Giles noted.

"I hold him responsible for far more than that," Juushirou said darkly. "A hundred years ago, he committed some of the darkest treachery upon his fellow captains, and we didn't know…." Ceramic shattered in his grip, and the shinigami flushed.

"It's all right." Giles retrieved some dishcloths from the kitchen, helping him find all the various fragments. "Buffy still breaks things, from time to time."

Shards gathered and dumped in a waste-bin, Juushirou sighed. "Even if Kaien were his only murder… I would rather have the world we live in now, cruel as it may sometimes be, than the one I know Aizen would create."

Never compromise. Even in the face of Hell. Giles inclined his head. "So you will fight."

"We don't have a choice," Shunsui said frankly. "Outside of Yama-jii and Unohana, we're the oldest captains. Aizen can't let us live." A wry grin. "Especially since 'Shirou's the only captain who hasn't seen his shikai."

Giles raised a brow, intrigued. "You wouldn't be fooled by his illusions."

"Unpredictable bouts of illness occasionally come in handy," Juushirou noted. "Though it seems that now, I'll have to fake them."

"Fake-" The Watcher's words died in his throat as the implications sank in. Of course. "The Slayer does not normally get ill, and can heal from impossible injuries…."

"Between Unohana and Kisuke… they don't think I'll ever be fully well," Juushirou stated. "But while I may not be able to fight to the full measure of a captain's ability-"

"Three days straight without stopping, sometimes, if you were wondering," Shunsui stuck in.

"-It's beginning to look as though, if I build my strength carefully… I may, at least, be able to manage a few hours."

"When Aizen and his bunch should be expecting him to fall over inside thirty minutes," Shunsui finished.

"My." Giles let a little of Ripper show through in his toothy smile. "What an unpleasant surprise."

"With any luck," Shunsui grinned back.

"Upcoming wars aside," the white-haired shinigami stated, "we were wondering if you would spare us some time to discuss how best to train everyone tomorrow, and what help we might be able to provide that would not entail deliberately violating the prohibitions on Sunnydale." He leaned back in his chair. "For example, I understand from Buffy that her Slaying has always been most effective when backed by your research. And I believe we could direct you to some sources a Watcher might not yet have encountered…."

Sweaty, bloody, and still shaking off the ringing in her ears, Buffy collapsed onto the ground and watched Shunsui unload his duffel bag. Willow was asleep a few yards away, curled up like a kitten and breathing softly; Xander snored beside her, while Juushirou healed the gash the teenager had won by getting overconfident against Shunsui's blades. Cordelia was half-asleep sitting up, Mowz long since vanished to save energy, and even Giles looked like he could use a few more hours horizontal. That, or a really big cup of coffee.

Embroidered glove. "Given the things that can happen to unguarded bodies around here, you want to be careful about using this," Shunsui said practically. "But you should try to get in some training in shinigami form, when you can. And it's good for smacking out demon-possessions, too."

"Though that can be tricky; you may get both the demon and the soul out," Juushirou noted. "And if the demon's faster at realizing what happened - well."

A small first aid box. "Unohana put this together," Shunsui stated. "In case you do get hurt outside your body - really, really hurt - use this to patch up before you go back in. A soul can withstand injuries a body can't. We don't need to find out the hard way if that goes for a Slayer, too."

"Ouch," Buffy murmured.

A hand-thick stack of books. "First-year strategy and tactics. And - um - Algebra." Shunsui gave her a wink. "Sometimes, a second look makes things clearer."

"They're in Japanese," Cordelia objected.

"Not a problem," Buffy pointed out. And brightened. "Hey, does this mean I can skip out on the whole foreign languages gig?"

"Buffy, tempting as it may be, you cannot simply drop a course due to supernatural influence…." Giles trailed off, a thoughtful look on his face. "Actually, there are college competency exams. If we could arrange one, it might be possible."

"One more free period a day Herr Snyder couldn't yell at me for slipping out to do Slayer-stuff," Buffy pointed out. "Who knows, I might actually be able to get my grades up to where Mom isn't always giving me the Look of Doom."

Giles gave her an approving nod. "Worth a try, indeed."

"Besides," Buffy said brightly, "Xander says there's some really cool anime out there, and people keep arguing if it's better subbed or dubbed, and he wants a second opinion." She waited. "What, no sigh? No eyeroll?"

"I was rather fond of Kurosawa films as a younger man," Giles admitted. "He's still considered one of the great filmmakers, in any language."


Xander's wounds faded to thin white scars, and Juushirou nodded, satisfied. "And one more thing." He reached into the duffel, and pressed the small object into Buffy's hand.

"An international phone card?" Buffy blinked.

"Keep it with you," Juushirou advised. "If Aizen or his minions do find you, you may have very little time to flee. Or worse… he may make certain that he does not find you first."

As in, her friends and family were now targets, to a guy at least as power-hungry as the Master had ever been. Pale, Buffy nodded.

"If something happens, call Kisuke. He has ways to get word to us." The shinigami hesitated. "I can't promise we'll be able to help."

Because a few months from now, you don't know if anybody will be left, Buffy finished silently. Not even Kisuke Urahara. Aizen got the Hougyoku, after Kisuke did his best to hide it… not good.

"But call," Juushirou finished. "We will try."

Enough with the depressing, Buffy told herself firmly. "So… any luck finding used-to-be-Phoenix?"

Twin headshakes. "Lots of demons, lots of humans that feel a little weird, lots more who are so spiritually numb they might not feel anything until a Hollow was halfway through eating them," Shunsui said frankly. "Speaking of - the only good thing about this Hellmouth is, its reiatsu seems to bother the Hollows as much as it does us. Any that form in town probably move out fast. Toward Los Angeles, I'd guess."

"Great," Cordelia grumbled. "Not enough I have to dodge bloodsucking monsters through high school, I'll have to dodge soul-sucking monsters after it."

Buffy leaned back a little, surprised. "You want to go to L.A.?"

"Doesn't everybody?" Cordelia's eyes narrowed. "What, you don't think I can make it?"

Buffy held up defensive hands. "Used to live there, remember? If anybody's tough enough for that town, you are. But back when I did live there… total ditz, honest, before the whole vampire gig. You told me you don't like being alone. If you don't know the right people - and after a month, they're not the right people - L.A.'s the loneliest place there is. One massive round of making sure you're seen seeing the people it's worth being seen seeing. Doesn't matter if they like you or not, and usually they don't. And that's the nice ones. Ones who aren't nice, or just get a little bored one night? Spread the right rumor in the right place, and no one talks to you for weeks. Which, since the party crowd has all the attention span of your Cordettes on speed, means you're ancient history, beyond socially dead, and no one talks to you again ever." The Slayer shook her head. "My Dad lived for it. My Mom… after the whole burning down the gym bit, she had it. Maybe she gave up L.A. to try to make sure I'd have a chance to actually graduate, yeah - but after her sixth friend gave her a plastic smile and a line about how horrible it was that her daughter was a freak? She couldn't take it anymore."

"I believe what Buffy is trying to say is," Juushirou said delicately, "if you want more for yourself than you have been able to create in Sunnydale, Los Angeles may not be the change you seek." Pure mischief lit hazel eyes. "Have you considered traveling abroad? Karakura, Japan is very nice."

"Soul-sucking monsters?" Cordelia said suspiciously.

"But no vampires." Shunsui grinned shamelessly.

"Huh." Cordelia crossed her arms, looking thoughtful.

"So. Phoenix." Juushirou shook his head. "When it comes to the soul who hosted her - if that power were still here, we would have found it. Beyond that-" he shrugged.

"So we keep an eye out for a Jean Grey-style telekinetic," Buffy stated. "Invisible girls, body-swapping witches, Incan mummies… I think we can deal."

There we go, Buffy thought, relieved, as something in Juushirou's eyes finally relaxed. It was scary seeing a two-thousand-plus spirit that worried. Especially about them.

"I would you could stay longer," Giles said formally, "but I am grateful you came. And I hope that one day, you can return under better circumstances." He hesitated. "I admit it's not much, but if there is ever any way we can assist you-"

"We know just who to call," Shunsui said seriously.

Silent, Juushirou knelt down, and cupped her shoulders in his hands. "Be safe." A wry, bittersweet smile. "And if you can't be safe - be magnificent."

Lump in her throat, Buffy gave him a thumbs-up as he stood. "Got it."

"See you around," Shunsui announced, zanpakutou unlocking the senkaimon. The painted screens opened, and the shinigami stepped inside-

I want to go….

-Faded, and were gone.

"So…." Cordelia drawled into the heavy silence. "How will we know if they win?"

"Given what Buffy and the captains told me of Aizen - we'll be all too aware if they lose." Giles frowned. "Buffy? Are you all right?"

I'm sad I'm not going with them. I'm glad I'm not going after Aizen. I'm mad that I'm that scared of the guy - he's just a guy! Even if he is majorly powerful….

And I don't want them to die.

Buffy swallowed, and put on a brave face. "Just another sunny day on the mouth of Hell."

Giles eyed her, brow arched; nodded slightly, hands in his tweed jacket pockets. "Every night, I know you walk willingly into harm's way. And every night, I have faith that you will strive with all your might to come back."

"Faith, huh?" Buffy smiled wryly.

"Faith, nothing," Cordelia grumbled. "What those guys need is the SR-71 Blackbird."

"Yeah?" Buffy eyed the brunette speculatively. "What else?"

Cordelia blinked. "You're serious."

"Bad guy comes out of the Tokugawa era," Buffy pointed out. "Might not have even heard of X-Men. And Urahara is a wiz with the science mojo." She glanced at Giles. "Ideas can't hurt, right?"

"Indeed not," Giles agreed, walking over to Xander, who was muttering something about Twinkies and milk. "Remind me to direct you to a book on the Ghost Army. Given your interest in Hollywood, Cordelia, you might find them intriguing as well; an American Army unit in World War II who used acting and various special effects to convince the Germans there were numerous forces moving where no such forces truly existed." He chuckled. "They were so effective, more than one Allied commander showed up demanding reinforcements from the tanks he 'knew' were there." Still smiling wryly, he poked Xander.

"I didn't shoot the fish!" Xander half-levitated off the ground, jerking his gaze all directions before letting out a sigh of relief. "Oh good, they're gone… wait. They're gone?"

"Time crunch, remember?" Buffy reminded him. "They've got their own bad guys to slay. And speaking of." She gave her buddy a calculating grin. "Willow's got the all-clear to sleep over at my place, right? After we get there, I want to pick your brains."

"Um." Xander backed up a step. "Really hope you didn't mean that the way it sounded, Buff. One brain-munching demon was more than enough for this Scoobie."

"And you want his ideas on how to fight Weird War III?" Cordelia said dryly.

"I want everybody's," Buffy said firmly. "We're going to brainstorm it, we're going to write it down, and we're going to fax it." She blinked, and turned to her Watcher. "Um… a fax is-"

"I'm well aware of the uses of a fax machine, yes," Giles informed her archly. "Infernal racket, but at least the scent of toner lingers in memory longer than any dancing electrons." He was near enough to Willow to shake her shoulder, but did not touch the redhead. Train's lingering memories included how to appear perfectly harmless when suddenly woken. Armandra's, in contrast, focused on how to best toss an intruder across the room, for no one dared wake her unexpectedly. "Willow? It's time to go home."

"Mmkay," Willow yawned, tiny breezes combing dust and leaves out of red hair as she sat up. "They're gone?" Her face fell. "They were kind of cool."

"They said they'd visit." Buffy grinned at her. "Want to help make sure they get the chance?"