Clean and White

A/N: Rurouni Kenshin and Bleach belong to various awesome people who are not me. Oddly enough, this was spawned by Ellen Brand's description of Bleach as "Dead Like Me with sword-fights." To which I replied, "You can never go wrong by adding sword-fights!"

...At which point the bunnies presented me with the image of Hiko vs. a Hollow. Headdesk.

AU for both settings. For RK, splits off canon after the mess with Shishio Makoto. For Bleach - spoilers for Urahara and Isshin's background, through manga chapter 190.

Go. Go!

Vision blurred, Kenshin scrambled up the mountain toward a hermit potter's shack, following a translucent white thread of pain.

"Kenshin-" Huffing, Kaoru was scrabbling up the path after him, grimly determined to keep up, even in what for her was pitch darkness. "-this is a bad idea-" pant, gasp, "-Megumi - your wounds..."

He knew. Too well. Shishio Makoto had almost killed him weeks ago; and while he'd survived that, Megumi had voiced the words that would seal his fate.

Oh, the young doctor had said hurt. She'd said crippled. But he'd seen the truth in her eyes.

And prayed Kaoru had not.

I should have died in the Bakumatsu. Every day since is a gift.

And he had the gift of another decade, maybe two... if he could avoid using the sword skills that had both saved and shortened his life.

Which he couldn't, if there was a danger Hiko Seijuurou couldn't handle.

As this kami-damned feeling said there was.

What is wrong with me? Ever since the ougi... there are blurs where there shouldn't be. A sense of ki that is and isn't there.

The same sense he'd felt leaning over Hiko's unconscious body. Like crackling white fire in his veins, rushing through his hands as he examined the bloody wound left behind by the sakabatou; the raw, fierce determination that Hiko would not die.

Fire that had disappeared like green rain into thirsty fields, leaving Kenshin to fall into fitful sleep beside his master. Exhaustion had hung over him ever since; the odd blurs of colors and threads retreating into the background these past few weeks, easily ignored as he fought for his life and his friends. Only the eerie sense of a tie between them remained.

The same sense that had dragged him out of the Aoi-ya in the dead of night, avoiding Sanosuke, stray ninja, and even Yahiko-

But not Kaoru.

She hadn't stopped him. Hadn't insisted the others could handle it. Hadn't even asked why - which was just as well. How could he possibly explain?

Shishou is in danger, and there is no time-

Ice, sliding through his heart like steel.

White fire, washing a snow-white thread red as blood. The sweet, wistful scent of cherry blossoms.

Dimly, Kenshin was aware that Kaoru had his head in her lap, lightly slapping his face. "Wake up, wake up, I knew you were overdoing it - Kenshin, please, don't scare me like this..."

"I'm awake," he whispered, struggling to sit up. "I- this one is all right, Kaoru-dono. Please, just help this one up. We have to-" His eyes opened.

When did the stars get so bright?

That odd sense of threads and blurs was back, strong as any ki he'd felt on the battlefield.

So beautiful...

And deadly. The feeling of death and danger was thick enough to choke on. Kenshin forced himself to his feet. "We have to keep going."

From up ahead, near Hiko's hut, odd echoes of voices. "Oops."

"Oops?" Eerie echo or not, that was definitely Hiko; all arrogant annoyance, touched with a rare hint of true fury. "You couldn't even check that I had a pulse, you baka? What kind of shinigami are you?"

"Um... incoming!"

"Don't think the threat of imminent death gets you out of explaining!"

Ghastly howls cut the night, rising and falling like some unearthly cross between demon wolves and the screech of a braking train. It was all Kenshin could do not to clap his hands over his ears.

"Kenshin." Kaoru's hand was white-knuckled on his sleeve. "Did you... hear something?"

"Please wait here, Kaoru-dono." Slipping out of her grasp, Kenshin ran for the clearing near the potter's kiln-

And into a nightmare.


Lumpy, white-masked creatures that should never have been seen outside a bloody ghost story, snarling and spitting and slashing with claws like black iron.

The unmistakable stench of decay, thick as a days-old battlefield.

Hiko Seijuurou's body, lying limp and swordless on the ground.

A swirl of antique black shihakusho as two tall swordsmen fought back to back. One had short, almost Western hair, untamed stubble gracing his chin, unruly contrast to his formal white haori. The other's long black hair flew free, eyes gleaming familiar amber as he wielded the silvery flash of Winter Moon...

An uncanny laugh, and claws streaked for Kenshin's neck.

"Ryuu Tsui Sen!"

"Oh, that's not going to-" the stranger started.

Blunt steel flashed blue, searing deep into a white mask. The creature reeled back, cursing in a clotted voice.

"It's a blessed sword," Hiko said under his breath. "My baka deshi may have a chance after all." He glared between sword-strokes. "Kenshin! Get out of here!"

The rurouni ignored him, focussed on the fight. At least eight. Most larger than human. And with heads harder than Sano. Body shots? It seemed like the wisest course; that mask had jarred like striking solid steel. Flesh had to be less armored. And yet... something about the way his opponent had cringed back said that was their weak spot.

Try for part of the head that's not armored. But it'll be expecting another hammer blow...

Use the speed of Hiten Mitsurugi. Into the claws' reach, and up.

"Fool! This isn't your fight!"

"They can see him, he can see them," the stranger said practically, whirling his silver-edged black blade to hold off six claw-strikes at once. "Unless you think your kid can outrun the bastards..."

The rising slash hit something; skin split, not quite steely flesh, not quite fog. Neck half-severed, Kenshin's foe crumpled down.


Kenshin danced backward before the ground shuddered, all too able to picture rurouni flattened under a mound of inhuman flesh. Ducked. Slid sideways, a hair's breadth from striking claws. Gods, they're fast!

Not as fast as he was. Not quite. But there were so many of them...

"Oh no," Kaoru's furious voice reached his ears, "You are not leaving me behind, you baka- Hiko-sama?" She paused on the edge of the clearing, eyes wide. "What could-"

One of the smaller ones laughed and gurgled, shoulders shaking with the oddest feel of stagnant ki.

Kenshin snatched Kaoru and whirled.

Acid spit caught the top of Kaoru's shoulder, trailed a smoking line down his left arm.

"Ninja? Assassins?" Kaoru gasped, controlling pain with a swordswoman's discipline to grasp her bokken, even as tears welled in her eyes. "Where are they?"

She can't see them.

But she can see me.

Kenshin set her down by Hiko's body, and wove a glittering web of steel. "Follow, Kaoru-dono!"

Determination blazed in blue eyes. Kaoru's stance shifted, tracking the opponent his strikes outlined as there-

Wood smacked through unnatural flesh like glue. The leftmost monster hissed, recoiling.

"Not serious," he bit out between blows. "But you hurt it."


"Yuurei. I think." At least, they sounded like the half-remembered monsters one Shinsengumi captain had been known to mumble about in his cups, as an ex-hitokiri listened from the rooftops in the midst of Kyoto's bloody rain. And Saitou never joked about ghosts.

Ghosts don't get tired.

We're in trouble.

Hiten Mitsurugi was meant for attack, not defense. It relied on speed, height, and ki sense - and a fixed position hampered two out of three.

Steel split the night like lightning; two more of the monsters fell to the stranger's blade, masks cracking away. Winter Moon leapt out in a strangling dragon's nest of blows, shattering another.

If we can just hold out a little longer- that acid!

Not thinking, he knocked Kaoru away from the spray.

Something hit him like an avalanche.

So many... missed the claws...



Kaoru! No!

Kenshin clawed his way back to consciousness, blinking the night back into focus. It hurt to breathe. It hurt to think.

And his hands were empty.

Not possible. Hiko had drilled him sick, injured, asleep, and reeling into unconsciousness. He would never lose his sword.

A bokken dropped on top of limp red cloth. Blue flashed in the night, as Kaoru seized the sakabatou and struck out at unseen enemies.

I'm... over there?

Automatically Kenshin tracked the hitch in breathing that marked cracked ribs, the thinning rise of smoke from his acid-seared arm. The odd flicker of starlight off the thick chain linking his heart to that still beating under a red gi.

The acid-spitter chortled, like a rain-flushed gutter. "Can't dodge now, little soul!"

Oh, really? This form might be slow to answer his mind, yes, but the flying green slick of acid was easy to dodge...

It struck the chain, and Kenshin bit back a scream.

I'm on fire.

For a flickering moment he was facing Shishio again, the stench of burning human fat choking his lungs. Hope burning away, leaving behind only the yawning chasm of insanity, the bleak knowledge that he would have to finally break his vow and kill once more...

But I didn't. I didn't.

If only because he died first.

Will alone brought Kenshin back to this night, opened his eyes enough to see the sickly green glow of acid etching its way up the chain.

It's killing me.

No. It's worse.

He could feel the darkness rising in his mind as the chain started to corrode; the killing fury of the hitokiri, tainted with a lust for pain he'd never felt even in the bloodiest days of the Bakumatsu.

If it reaches my heart...

The stranger swore. "Don't know whether I'm going to kill or kiss Arai... kid! Catch!"

A hilt slammed into his hand.

Yes. This is one of Arai's blades.

Shakku Arai's katana sang to him like a summer bonfire, chasing acid's pain out of his bones. Kenshin clutched the sheath for one breathless instant, as if agony still overwhelmed him-

Uncoiled in one swift arc.

Double Dragon Strike!

The blade split the laughing white mask; the sheath shattered any will that might remain.

I can move!

Kenshin danced through claws and slashing tails, keeping the beasts off Kaoru's back. Easier to fight there, anyway, where he had less to worry about one of her stray blows clipping him. Though her strikes seemed to gain accuracy with every second, as if she could at least see something of their foes...

A misshapen hand grabbed the acid-etched chain, and yanked.

Kenshin flipped into the air, gaining a few seconds of slack. Zantetsu!

An inch above the corrosion, chain cut like butter. Pain flared bright, but clean-

And vanished.

Much better.

"Son of a- he didn't!"

"Oh yes," Hiko said darkly. "Work quickly, Captain. Or you won't have a new recruit left to save."

"Oh kami-sama... I'm never going to be able to explain this..."

He's as fast as Shishou. No one's as fast as Shishou!

Impossibilities later. For now, they had four enemies left. Now three. Two-

And the one whose mask he'd cracked, but not split, groggily rising to clawed feet as its flesh flowed back together.

Kenshin landed on top of it with all the force of a Ryuu Tsui Sen, driving its face back into the ground. "Who sent you?" he demanded, blade poised and ready to strike. "What do you want? Who are you?"

Laughter echoed from the earth like an earthquake. Echoing up and away from the gaping hole in its back. "So much blood you've spilled, Battousai... did you think the spirits of Kyoto would forget?"

Battousai. He could see the leather hand-guards, feel the thick cotton of a Choushuu-blue gi and haori. The black-and-silver blade in his hand shimmered, stretched...

Snapped back to an even more familiar size and heft. All that was missing was the instinctive weight of a wakizashi at his side.

What... how... later! "Ten years is a long time to wait. Why here? Why now?" Kenshin bit back the sudden, raw impulse to drive his blade through the hole where the monster's heart should be. "Why Hiko?"

"Ten years?" A gurgling laugh. "We want your pain, Battousai. And nothing would have tasted sweeter than seeing your master fallen to our side. But we'll still take you..."

"Not if I have anything to say about it!" The captain's katana slashed down, and the monster burst into a thousand glimmering points of light.

"Sorry to cut that short." The captain's hand was on his shoulder, steadying him. "But from the looks of that acid, you're on a time limit, kid."

Kenshin couldn't help but bristle. I am not-

"Ooo, touchy temper, too. Unless you've got a few centuries on you I don't know about." The black-clad stranger stepped back; held out a hand, Western-style. "Call me Isshin."

"A few centuries?" Kenshin said blankly. Recruit? For what? The last time he'd been recruited, blood had rained over Kyoto. He wasn't going to jump into anything twice. "Shishou?" He drew in a sharp breath, hearing sobs. "Kaoru-dono!"

"I told you not to call me that, baka... it's no good, she can't see you-"

"Kenshin?" Kaoru whispered, cradling his body in her arms. Looking up at him, blinking, as if he weren't quite in focus.

"One is here, Kaoru-dono." Kenshin knelt, brushing a strand of hair out of her face. Frowning at the effort; it was almost as if she were made of mist, not him. "One is right here."

"You're a ghost." Kaoru gulped. "How can you be a ghost? I can still feel your heartbeat..."

"Holy..." Isshin whistled, dropping down with no regard for dignity. He reached out to empty air, ki thickening about his fingers. A ribbon of white appeared in his grasp, tangled with frayed threads of red from another ribbon whipping angrily in the night. "Kid, either you've got the best knack for kidou I've seen in centuries, or you are damn lucky."

"Go with lucky," Hiko said wryly. "He cut his own chain of fate! Why is he even breathing?"

"Saw that," Isshin nodded. "Is he always this reckless?"

"With the little sword-girl's life at stake? This was a good day."

"Hello, right here," Kenshin grumbled.

"Long story short - and trust me, you don't have time for long stories, kid - you've still got your ki tangled up with your master's," Isshin said bluntly. "Looks like a healing kidou you worked and never quite let go of. Long as he's alive, you're alive." The captain eyed the cut chain. "At least as long as that holds out."

Kenshin looked down at the cut links, noting how the edges were already cracked and pitted. "I've... done something foolish, that I have..."

Hiko snorted. "Oh, you have no idea-"

"Considering the situation? The kid may have taken the best option," Isshin said flatly. "At least this way, if he Hollows, we're right here to put him down."

"Kenshin?" Kaoru's voice trembled in the night. "Please talk to me. All I can hear are whispers. And - and if those things come back..."

Isshin's head shot up. "She's right. There are more out there. Not close, but... Ah hell. I'm already in hot water." Isshin placed his palm against Kaoru's forehead, eyes half-closed in concentration. "Come on, miss. Your reiatsu's already halfway there, hanging around the redheaded firecracker here. Just reach back to us, and open your eyes..."

Kaoru eeped, and smacked Isshin's hand away. "Where did you come from?" She jumped again. "Hiko-sama? But... you're over..."

"And I will be again, in a moment," the sword-master shrugged, stepping over and somehow into his body. Sat up, rolled the kinks out of cape-clad shoulders, sheathed Winter Moon, and stood. "After all, you can't carry the shrimp inside by yourself."

Kenshin reached for his own body. Felt his hand pass through.

"Getting you back in is going to be a little tougher," Isshin said, face serious. "Your body's alive, but... you cut the chain of fate. There's no way back from that." His voice dropped. "Not as a human."

Unconsciously, Kenshin drew nearer to Kaoru.

Isshin's face split in a wide grin. "Lucky for you, your zanpakutou already likes you. I think you can do it."

"Do what?" Kenshin asked warily.

"What I've done," Hiko said matter-of-factly. "What all Hiten masters are supposed to do. After they're dead."

"Hey!" Isshin protested. "You went through the ougi! The jigokucho came straight to Soul Society; you can't miss that flare of ki, no matter what world you're in. You're supposed to be dead!"

"But I'm not. Which is his fault." Hiko glared at Kenshin.


Isshin blinked. "You mean, he's-"

"My student. My only successor. Possibly the last hope any of us have for passing Hiten Mitsurugi down to the next generation; gods help us all. Meaning the end of the noble Shiba family's line of combat-trained warrior souls, ready and able to rally those spirit-born brats of yours when a real threat shows up in the Seireitei. So if you don't knock enough sense into his head for him to become shinigami before the rest of his chain corrodes," Hiko went on, switching the glare to Isshin, "I will personally spend the next several centuries making your afterlife hell!"

Kaoru's jaw dropped. "Did he say...?"

"Shinigami?" Kenshin finished weakly.

Megumi is going to be so angry at me...

Must. Kill. Urahara.

Eyes closed, Kenshin lay on the futon and feigned sleep, sorting out myriad innocent scents and sounds. Tea brewing, the coughs and thumps of guests shoving aside screens to get an early start on the day, the near-soundless footfalls of inn employees who nightly doubled as onmitsu...

The Aoi-ya.

After weeks there, he knew it well enough to be sure. Though how he'd gotten here when the last thing he remembered was a bloody clearing outside Hiko's hut...

No. Not quite all. There were... fragments. Images, trapped in a shattered mirror.


A pit of pain.

Chain devouring itself with monstrous mouths.

Digging frantically through the muck and red mire of the battlefield that was the depths of his own soul. Bleeding fingers finding one red thread and clinging to it, even as all the innocents he'd killed tore at him with swords and claws and teeth...

Call my name.

And he was falling, drowning - it was never enough-

Call my name, Kenshin.

Never enough, he could never atone enough, save enough, to repay the lives he had stolen. Innocent blood swirled over his head like the raging tide, and he was so alone...

Never alone, never again. A quiet purr, crackling with hearth-fire. Call my name!



A quick breath through the flames, adjusting the daisho, trying to figure out what to do-

And then, the impression of a flash of light, and something missing from his memory...

I really want to kill Urahara.

Kenshin hid a frown, tamping the assassin's instincts down. He didn't know who this Urahara was-

Unruly blond hair, shadowed eyes; a cane that wasn't a cane-

Or just what the man had done in that agonizing blank he couldn't remember-

"It's simple, kid. Either you become a shinigami - or you Hollow, and we kill you."

But the part of him that was and always would be hitokiri had definitely marked the man as in need of a serious maiming.

Kill him a lot.

One is rurouni, Kenshin told that part of himself. One doesn't do that anymore.

'Perhaps we could only kill him a little?'

No. Kenshin hesitated. That silky voice could not be the hitokiri within him. Who...?

A purring laugh. 'You know who, Keneko.'


'Aha! I didn't think Urahara's little wiles could hold completely.' A feeling of warm fur stroked his soul. 'Are you ready?'


"Good morning, kid!"

Kenshin eeped and ducked, a sock-clad foot swiping past his hair with inches to spare. "Isshin-san?"

"Ah, don't -san me, Red. Isshin works. Isshin-kun if you have to, I do have a few centuries on you, but... what?"

Kenshin blinked. Stared.

"Ah. You like the suit?" Isshin waggled his thumbs behind blue lapels. Hat to socks, he looked like any of the new Japanese businessmen trying to deal with the foreigners; though he seemed to be missing the odd scrap of fabric Westerners called a tie. "Figured I'd try it out. Not that often I get an excuse to wander around the real world, much less when things are happening... though I hear things were a lot more interesting here in Kyoto back about ten, fifteen years ago."

Against his will, Kenshin felt his lips thin into a hard line. Forced them back into the harmless rurouni smile, keeping his gaze violet and innocent. This man is not nearly as shallow as he would like one to believe.

"Didn't get to see that much of it at the time," Isshin went on, more seriously. "But I remember performing konsou on more than a few samurai ghosts who were still going 'huh?' Didn't know what hit 'em." He met Kenshin's gaze. "Though at Toba Fushimi... well, then a few of them had time to see you coming."

Kenshin realized he was crouched, ready for a seated battou-jutsu. The sakabatou's grip was familiar and rough, with none of Nekomata's deadly warmth. It would be so easy to draw and strike...

And it would hurt him. Blunt edge or not.

How do I know that?

"I'm telling you I know, because I know I'm scaring you," Isshin said, almost gently. "And don't say I'm not. I'm a captain-level shinigami, and even in a gigai, even tamping down my reiatsu to where most shinigami couldn't sense me, you're a Hiten Mitsurugi master. You can feel how easy it'd be for me to squash you. Only an idiot wouldn't be scared. You're not an idiot. No matter what Hiko says." He patted a red-clad shoulder. "And you're not Battousai anymore."

Kenshin winced. "Isshin-san-"

"Now what did I say about that?" The shinigami scowled, then shook it off with a wistful smile. "Kid, you died. And you did it for the best reason in the world - protecting people you care about. Stop thinking you're going to Hell. It's not happening." The smile twitched into a grin. "Hell's probably scared to death of you."

"I... died?" Kenshin curled and uncurled his fingers, feeling the rise and fall of his breath, the warm pulse in his palms. The familiar ki of most of the Kamiya dojo, heading his way at a breathless slide.

"Just for a little while." Isshin winked at him. "Now, we've got some things to go over-"


The screen of his room shot open, and bodies piled in; Kaoru hitting him high, Yahiko low, Sano reaching over them all to muss red hair.

So warm.

Their ki slid over his like the confused babble of voices; a blend of worry and don't scare us like that and so glad you're okay-

"All right, let him breathe." Megumi bustled in with her medical kit, brow knit in concentration. "The man's been unconscious for days. The last thing we need is for you to drive him back into a coma."

Ack. Doctor on the warpath. "Really, Megumi-dono, one is fine..."

"Hush." Frowning, she poked and prodded, taking down his gi one shoulder at a time to ghost fingers over his bandages.

Or rather, where his bandages had been.

The bite-mark is gone.

He couldn't hide a shocked breath, almost as stunned as he'd been when that sickening feel of fever-hot teeth tore into his flesh. Shishio Makoto had meant to mark him, to hurt him; to tear at him in such a way that his sword arm would ever be weaker, did he chance to survive.

But the wound was gone. All his wounds… seemed gone.

My ki flows free.

No more of the choking stagnation that had thickened with every use of the ougi. The ache in bones and joints that had haunted him for weeks, that had gnawed at him to a lesser degree years longer than that… was gone.

He shot Isshin a look.

The shinigami dropped Kenshin another wink. "Never underestimate a healing kidou."

"What?" Megumi eyed him.

"I said, never underestimate the healing power of beauty!" Grinning, Isshin captured her hand. "Come on, you can tell us. Your mother was a kitsune in disguise, and along with her bewitching good looks, she passed on stunning healing techniques!"

Now Sano was eyeing the shinigami. "You want to explain again just who you think you are, Mister?"

"He's… a friend!" Kaoru jumped in guiltily. "Ano… we met him on the mountain…."

Now even Yahiko was looking at her oddly.

Thank the gods Kaoru wasn't in the Revolution. She can't lie worth a damn. "Isshin-san is a friend of Shishou's," Kenshin slid into the conversation.

"Ohhh." Sano drew out the sound in squint-eyed disbelief. "That explains a lot."

Meaning Sano knew quite well it didn't explain anything. Later, Kenshin mouthed at the tall fighter.

Darn right, later, Sano's twitch of a scowl shot back.

Now, if I could only come up with what I'll say, later….

'We could try the truth,' Nekomata suggested.

You. Kenshin had to restrain himself from shaking his head. Where are you? He could almost feel the weight of daisho at his side, though he knew only the sakabatou was there… and how had one sword become two? It made his head hurt.

'With your soul-self.' Where else, silly? Was a silent, cat-arrogant sniff. 'Sakabatou will serve you well enough when you can't leave your body behind. I stand with you when you truly fight.'

Daisho with an attitude problem. Wonderful.

'Oh? Sir "I will stand against the hitokiri alone, even though my friends are willing to fight and may be in danger if I leave them, because Shishio Makoto and his Juppongatana know only that the weak are food for the strong, and so have no honor"?'

Make that, daisho with a Hiko-sized attitude problem.

'I heard that!'

"Does it explain why Hiko-sama's on the roof?" Megumi said testily. "I swear, that man has the oddest superstitions about comas. He hauled you in here for me to take care of, Ken-san, all the while claiming that you weren't here. That you were training, and you'd be back soon, or dead." The doctor rolled her eyes. "I tried to tell the man you couldn't just train yourself out of a coma, but would he listen?"

"Could have been a kitsune mixed up in it after all," Sano said seriously. "Never would have thought you'd get caught by one, Kenshin, but they can take the strongest guys and make them think they're somewhere else-"

The strongest. "Where is Misao-dono?" Kenshin interrupted. She should have pounced me, as well.

"Bringing tea to the iceblock," Isshin said frankly. "You gotta knock that guy out of meditating so much, Red. Cleansing your soul is one thing, but that guy Shinomori's scrubbing like he wants to wear a hole right through his heart." The words were innocent enough. Isshin's face was anything but. "It's not healthy."

A hole through his heart.

The monsters - the Hollows - were ghosts, with holes where their hearts should have been.

'Yes,' Nekomata whispered. 'Now you begin to understand.'

"We should go to him-" Kenshin started.

"Ah, he's not going to fall apart on us tomorrow," Isshin waved a hand. "Think Hiko wanted to see you, when you were up to it." He had the grace to look sheepish. "Something about an explanation?"

"Oh, yes," Kaoru muttered, shoving back her sleeves. "An explanation would be a really good idea."

"You're taking a risk."

Unruly blond hair shading gray eyes, Urahara Kisuke folded his arms. Kyoto's breeze pulled at him, spirit or not, but the flap of his white haori was oddly muted, stifled by the spirit energy layered over them both. "With your kidou up, Yoruichi-san? I doubt it."

"Against other shinigami, or spiritually powerful mortals, I'd agree." The lithesome purple-haired beauty in nearly-nothing curled into a roof-shadow near him, bright amber eyes peering toward the figures climbing to the Aoi-ya's highest vantage point. "But these are Hiten Mitsurugi masters. They're not ordinary." Yoruichi's glance slid to him. "And I think your little redhead was serious about the luggage."

"Not like we could get him through the gates any other way," Urahara grinned, recalling the unconventional entrance he and Isshin had made through the Court's barred gates; one growling Hiten Mitsurugi master between them, while the other….

"What's in the bag, Urahara-taichou?"


The giant gatekeeper's brow had climbed. "Say what?"

Isshin had cast a glance back at Hiko's scowl - which had passed annoyed, left irritated gasping in the dust miles back, and was quickly closing in on Eleventh Division-grade murderous - and leaned in close to the now shaking shinigami barring their way. "You want to tell him he can't take it?"

Urahara had to admire the kid's control. Not one twitch of killing ki leaked out of the rough cloth sack, all the way through the gates, past division headquarters, and finally underground, where he'd dumped out one indignant redhead like a dusty futon.

After that, though….

"Besides, he's got that no-kill vow going for him," Urahara pointed out.

"The rurouni does, yes," Yoruichi observed dryly. "Battousai wants to carve you into tiny pieces. Slowly."

"Ah, he'll get over it."

An elegant brow went up. "You hope."

"Eh…." Urahara shrugged. "Ticked or not, he's an honorable kid. And he knows he owes us."

"Not nearly as much as Isshin does," Yoruichi muttered.

"True enough." The shinigami scientist smirked, recalling that frantic night he'd been woken out of a sound sleep by Isshin's hell butterfly-

Okay, maybe not that sound a sleep. Maybe only a light doze. After all, Isshin was going after a Hiten Mitsurugi master's soul. Not that Urahara had ever walked one of those back through the gates himself - at least, not yet - but rumors had it those ghosts tended to be cranky, experienced with reiatsu in the form of ki, damn near as fast as a lieutenant-level shinigami, and heavily armed. It was tradition that only captains went after them, and even then you gave them at least a month after the ougi to calm down, finish training their surprised successors, and make their peace with the world. It was also, according to various bloodstained notes in the Fourth Division's medical files, a damn good idea calculated to reduce the shinigami casualty rate.

Not like you had to worry about them getting munched by Hollows, either. The brighter Hollows wouldn't go anywhere near a Hiten Mitsurugi master, live or dead. And the not so bright ones… well, they ended up as a steady stream of shocked, newly-purified souls in Rukongai, wondering what the hell a Dragon Mallet Strike was.

As the little redhead had demonstrated, even without a zanpakutou.

"He's going to be one hell of a shinigami."

"He was almost one hell of a Hollow," Yoruichi pointed out. "That was too close, Kisuke."

"Eh, not that close," Urahara waved off her worry. "Kid kicked its shadowy butt all the way back to Hueco Mundo."

"That's what worries me," the shinigami onmitsu muttered.

"Hmm." Not much he could say to that, really. Himura had smacked the urge to reach for the Hollow away. They weren't dealing with a vizard on top of an illegal shinigami. Thank the gods.

Not that he'd intended to create a vizard. He'd have to be way, way more desperate to find a way to gain that power than messing with a Hiten master's pupil. But given the Hollow had apparently thought its acid would turn Himura - well, he'd worried. And looking into Himura's soul while two entities fought back to back to find Nekomata's name….

Not two. Exactly. Two-in-one.

Like Nekomata herself. The rurouni was the stronger, the more visible; the katana worn to warn the world, here was an honorable swordsman, not looking for a fight. But hidden from view by that gentle soul still lurked a razor-edged wakazashi, wielded by a scarred skirmisher in Choushuu blue and gray.

The kid's a killer.

Huh. Well, he was a Hiten Mitsurugi swordsman. They were all killers.

Dream on, Kisuke. Protecting the innocent doesn't make a slaughter in your soul like that.

He'd seen scary spirit landscapes before, sure. But Himura's got a five-star rating for pure torment.

What did the kid do to make him think he'd deserved that?

Well. Thanks to one shinigami academy student Urahara planned to make a better acquaintance of, he now had part of the answer.

Okita Souji… you and I are going to have a long talk, later.

On top of the talk he'd already had with one Shakku Arai. Which hadn't gone well. Exactly.

He'd swept into the smith's outer workroom with a practiced smile, ready and willing to dazzle a far younger soul. "We lost that extra zanpakutou, sorry-"

"No, you didn't," the smith had said, polishing yet another blade. He might look young - dying of natural causes did that to a spirit once they hit Soul Society - but his tone was dry as any ancient shinigami's.


"Isshin may look careless, Urahara-san, but he'd never abandon a sword. If it were extra, he'd have brought it back." Arai gave him a wry look. "No. That blade is exactly where it belongs."

Damn. This wasn't going according to plan at all. "I'd like to see its records, then."

"What records?"

Really not going to plan. "Honored sword-smith-"

"Don't worry." The polishing cloth never faltered. "The vast majority of souls - living or dead - have never seen what Winter Moon can do. Isshin left with a zanpakutou; your Hiten master came back with a zanpakutou."

Damn. So Seijuurou's blade was exactly what he'd thought it was: a zanpakutou that could take a physical form. A nasty surprise right there; his Benihime could do that, but a mortal swordsman's blade?

Then again… none of the Hiten masters had ever been exactly mortal.

"The books will balance," Arai went on.

"I suppose they will." Urahara looked at the smith askance. "You know Hiko-san? The Hiten masters are a-"

"Noble family secret? Tch." Arai wiped his hands. "Three swords I've made for that boy - well, four, now - and you shinigami still think you're the only ones who know about Hiten Mitsurugi."

The boy? Comprehension dawned. "Himura. But he shouldn't have even been there-"

"Story of that young man's life." The smith shook his head. "If there's a wrong place for Himura Kenshin to be, he'll find it."

Urahara blinked, taking that in. "Bad judgment, or bad luck?"

"Hmm… young judgment, I'd say," Arai mused. "He wanted to change the world. We all do at thirteen, I suppose. Himura just had the bad luck to have the skills to do it. By assassinating anyone in Katsura Kogorou's way."

One of the leaders of the recent mortal Revolution, or so he'd heard; konsou'd not that long ago, if he'd read the records right. "At thirteen."

"As I said, very bad luck." Arai's lips curled; not at all a smile. "And that doesn't even get into what happened with his wife."

"What happened with his-"

"Former fiancée of a guardsman he killed in an assassination," Arai said matter-of-factly. "Got close to the youngster to kill him. I don't know all the details-"

More like, you're not planning to share them, Urahara thought. He knew shaded truth when he heard it.

"-But Himura walked out alive. And she - and a whole pack of the Shogun's ninjas - didn't." Arai shook his head. "Himura always said he was a student of Hiten Mitsurugi. Not a master. Meaning the soul your friend went out to collect had to be Himura's master. I can't think of worse luck for that boy that to be there when the man who raised him like a father left him behind forever. So where else would he be?"

Urahara grinned wryly. "Guess you pegged that one." He lost the smile. "Still doesn't answer my question."

"Doesn't it?" Arai stared into the distance, toward the white tower where convicted criminals eked out their days before execution. "Despite everything that's happened to him, Himura believes in the Revolution. The right to justice and equality for all people. Not just nobles. Not just samurai - and you shinigami are very like samurai, for all that you accept applicants from Rukongai. And the day Himura walked away from Toba Fushimi, he swore he'd find a way to protect people without killing." Sharp eyes gauged the blond captain. "Tell me. What do you think would happen if he ended up in Seireitai the normal way?"

The nobles would take him apart.

"If he has half a chance to learn to be a shinigami before he dies, he'll have a better shot at surviving your twisted little world."

"Our world," Urahara pointed out.

"And there are days I wish you'd never plucked me out of Rukongai."

"Sword-smith like you?" Urahara had said, half-teasing. "The noble families would have found out where you were sooner or later."

"I know."

Well. That'd killed that conversation.

But for now, he knew enough. The innocent-looking redhead who'd fought so hard to keep his soul… had once been the most feared assassin of mortal Japan's Bakumatsu.

Not what you'd expect for a Hiten Mitsurugi master, either way.

Which gave Urahara all sorts of interesting ideas.

All of which depended on Seireitei not figuring out they had one living shinigami too many.

It'd been scarily easy to arrange. Isshin's panicked shock aside, this apparently was not the first time someone had survived the ougi. The Nine-Headed Dragon Strike had once been the style's ougi, centuries ago; and according to Yamamoto-Genryuusai-soutaichou, Hiten Mitsurugi students survived that all the time. Live body or not, Hiko was a proper shinigami, and his permit had been quickly - if quietly, and rather covertly - granted.

Hadn't taken that much for Urahara to get his hands on the paperwork and do a little… creative copying.

One extra permit; signed, sealed, and active. Couldn't attach it to a division….

But he'd done the next best thing. In the back of the Fourth Division's healer personnel files, there was now paperwork that stated one Himura Kenshin was an unseated member of the Tenth Division. Tenth, in turn, had all the proper papers to claim Himura as a member of the Eleventh Division. And those homicidal maniacs in the Eleventh had forms that swore Himura was a member of the much-maligned, peaceable, healer Fourth.

They'll never figure that out. Not in ten centuries.

"Isshin's not really used to dealing with mortals," Yoruichi reminded him.

"Like any of us are?" Urahara smiled. "Don't worry. I get the feeling he's in good hands."

The clonk of Kaoru's bokken on Isshin's head was enough to rattle their teeth.

The scientist snickered. "See what I mean?"

"This is going to come back to bite you," Yoruichi predicted. "Both of you. Maybe not now, maybe not for a century… but have you looked at that girl? She's going to take that idiot rurouni as a husband if she has to haul him to the priest bound and gagged."

"Ooo, kinky." His smile had a knowing glint to it. "Relax. With hair like that, I'm sure we'll see the kids coming."

Yoruichi was right, of course. Though it took a little longer than a century.

And even with hair like that, Urahara didn't see the kid coming.


Baka deshi - idiot apprentice.

Battousai - "Master of lethal sword-drawing". Kenshin's warrior name in the Bakumatsu.

Bokken - wooden practice blade.

Gigai - false body used by shinigami to pass as human.

Haori - formal jacket.

Jigokucho - "hell butterfly"; used by shinigami to carry messages and pass between the worlds.

Kidou - "demon arts"; shinigami sorcery.

Konsou - "soul burial".

Onmitsu - spies, ninja.

Ougi - succession technique; mastered as the last part of a style.

Reiatsu - "spirit energy".

Rurouni - "wandering swordsman".

Sakabatou - reverse-blade sword.

Seireitei - the Court of Pure Souls, in Soul Society; a walled castle where spirit world nobility and shinigami live.

Shihakusho - the black robes shinigami wear.

Shinigami - "little death god".

Shishou - "master"; found in old sword-styles.

Soul Society - the afterlife.

-Soutaichou - "Commander-General".

-Taichou - "Captain".

Yuurei - ghosts.

Zanpakutou - "soul-cutter"; shinigami blade.

Zantetsu - "iron cutting" blow.