Not much to say, autoimmune disease still sucks. I'm glad to say I'm feeling much better, so thank you all for the support and well-wishes I was given. They mean a great deal to me. I've been going over a lot of art recently, I guess it sort of gives me things to think about. I wanted to even commission a few very talented people to draw some items for me, it always makes me feel better seeing images in my head be given justice in art beyond storytelling. Yes, this could also be translated as "he be trollin the deviantarts" but who doesn't? Heh, it's still fun. It's still awesome knowing people like Minako25 and Peachery actually DID draw some of my TBV (my story titled lazy-ified) characters. I still go all fanboy over that. Anyway, thank you all again for your supportive and constructve reviews, and I look forward to writing more of what has been weighing on me for so many years.
Also, woot for finding a donor to replace my obliterated internals... they've been especially tempermental recently. Nergal be praised!
"So... this is Soul Society. I'm not impressed."
"Oh come on, it's not like we're here for sightseeing. That and you're never impressed. I'm fairly certain that is in a league of 'unattainable stupid crap.' You know?" Noel gave her companion a sideways glance and smirked. Fade's scowl did not convey much emotion, aside from a lack of amusement. "You and Ichigo have way too much in common. You both have that 'I'm all big and bad, I'm gonna rip out your colon and make balloon animals,' mean glare."
"Are you finished?"
"No, are you ever going to let any of those bubbly happy-go-lucky memories actually give you a soul? You hold the crossed-arms record for Hueco Mundo." Fade just pushed past the other arrancar and slid down the side of the hill they were standing on. Noel followed, her griping reduced to self-aimed mumbling. Not until they reached the bottom did the raven-haired espada raise her voice again. "So I have my money on our side. You know what I mean? If those weak excuses for fodder they threw at us are what passes for captains then I have a bad vibe this whole 'invasion' is going to be boring."
"We have not engaged the best the Shinigami have to offer."
"God, I hope you're as right as you are an utter downer to be around. You think after hanging around Mr. Boohoo McAngstypants, the espada formerly known as Ulquiorra, I would be immune to the 'tough guy' act. It still makes me want to rip something apart, extrovert a little!"
"Are you finished?" Noel stopped in her tracks and glared with annoyance at the other. Fade didn't even turn to look, still walking calmly over the field towards the buildings in the distance.
"Well excuse me, but you are not exactly the pinnacle of entertainment material and I'm bored. I was promised a good fight, I got hero worship and a hike. I want to crush something."
"You will get your chance very soon."
"I better, don't want to have to resort to trying myself against you," Noel growled with a sneer, her fingers flexing as she started to take a tackle stance. She didn't have a moment to suck in breath as Fade simply turned her head and opened the only visible eye wide. The resulting spiritual focus drove into Noel like a planet had just been dropped onto her shoulders. Her bones creaked and the air was ripped from her lungs.
"Don't even think about it." Fade's voice was as calm as always, but even Noel knew just how serious the woman was. Like brushing dust from her jacket, Fade moved her attention away and Noel was released from the punishing grip of the spiritual aura.
"I was kidding, jeez. You don't have to get all dramatic."
"Then control yourself."
"Yes ma'am!" Noel saluted, but Fade still wasn't watching. Simply rolling her eyes, she trotted up to walk side by side with the other arrancar. "You aren't the least bit anxious?" Noel asked with a finally steady voice, even perhaps a hint of concern.
"The last notable fight I was in did not end well for me." Her understatement seemed unintentional, but Noel still chuckled at the thought.
"Yeah... you died. That had to have sucked."
"The act of my return brought us our memories back. You could say I'm more locked in the past to care about the future as much as you do. It is an... annoyance." Flicking a stray bang out of her face, Fade gave her former sister a wave of her hand before again focusing on the path ahead.
"Pfft. Me? All about the 'here-to-come.' The next battle, the next kill, the next ribcage I get to rip open. Why get bogged down in the past? It's done, past, over with, which all translate to-" throwing her head back Noel began to imitate an incredibly loud snore. "Have I made my point?"
"Unavoidably. But again, the point you only account when it serves your purposes, I died. Ichigo brought me back, at great expense to himself. It took almost an entire year for him to recover from my restoration. If I were to simply ignore the past, what would his sacrifice be worth?"
"Aw, now you had to go and get all sappy and sentimental. Augh... fine, you make a good argument. How about we agree to disagree?"
"Don't we always?" A rare smirk crossed the corner's of Fade's mouth. Noel winked at her then they both put eyes front and kept on. Though, the only took a few more steps when both stopped. Ahead, past the lines of buildings and short towers stood the immense walls. The Seireitei just beyond. "There it is, citadel of the shinigami. All that stands between us and them is a wall."
"So... absolutely nothing then?" Both espada set idle hands on the hilts of their prospective weapons. "Hard to believe we're finally at the eve of the battle we were practically made for. I can't wait to bathe this whole plane of existence in still-warm blood."
"Your ruthlessness still inspires."
"Yeah well Ichigo made it a point to bring me for this little picnic, the only Mas even on this lttle mission. You think it was for my good looks and appealing personality?"
"No, those are the reasons he brought Harribel."
"Oh, so why am I here then if you have all the answers?"
"I have been debating the reasoning myself. Perhaps Ichigo sees your 'skills' as inspirational comic relief, but my thoughts are simply because he needed to fill a slot and the others were busy." Fade whirled and blocked just in time to stop Noel's fist. The impact forced the girl not only back, but deep into the soft ground. Her words dripped from her mouth with a venomous hiss.
"You crossed a line, you arrogant bitch." Throwing off her front hand, Noel lashed out with the other, smashing it into Fade's cheek. The blow spun her around, but also gave the momentum for a counterattack that sent Noel careening across the field.
"And you forget your place."
"You always have something smart to say! I've put up with your overbearing attitude for long enough!"
"This is not the time or place for sibling rivalry, Noel."
"Siblings? Not anymore we're not. But I'll be the better person here and say this, let's blow some steam. I need a good warm up and you pushed me far enough to want it," Noel said with a sneer as she dropped her gauntlets to the ground.
"Oh, an amicable stance. Just like old times perhaps?"
"You bet. You know the rules," Noel said with a grin as she drove her zanpakutou into the ground. She watched Fade do the same and stand ready.
"I know the rules." Both girls charged at once, their fists passing each other to be immediately deflected by the mirror off-hands. They launched into a dance of kicks, spins, and skilled blows that looked almost practiced in its precision.
A blow to the chest that allowed Noel to grab and counterattack her opponent was met by a sweeping kick that flipped her upside-down. The espada caught herself on the ground and kicked her own feet out like a windmill, driving a punishing heel into Fade's side. The other arrancar took the hit, driving a hard jab into her opponent's upside-down stomach that flipped her so hard she face-planted and nearly folded in half.
"Know the rules, huh?" Noel snarled as she spat out a mouthful of dirt. "I sensed you bleed spirit energy into that."
"Matching you, stop blocking with your iron skin."
"Touche." Cracking her neck for good measure Noel leapt forward headfirst towards Fade. The other espada drew her block up, but instead of taking the tackle she opted to punch straight at the other arrancar's forehead. The punch drove through Noel's hair as she moved her head aside and dragged her foot over the ground and took Fade's ankles out. A masterful spin and she put a full-bodied punch directly into the sternum of her horizontal rival.
Just as the blow struck she knew she'd put too much force into it, Fade's chest was moving faster than her legs and a punishing kick smashed against Noel's temple. Both fighters were spent spinning before rolling to their prospective stops on the ground. Both recoveries were flawless, the competitors flipping up to their feet and taking their stances again.
They were about to go again when they halted a moment, looking around to notice not only a crowd but people cheering. "Four on the black-haired one!"
"You're head's itchy, that one with the horn thing is so on top of her game!"
"I am so getting fired for ditching work for this... and I don't care."
"Go pretty lady!" Even children were amongst the spectators. Both Fade and Noel wore expressions of confusion, but ultimately they gave each other the same look. They were filthy, bloodied, and bruised. But no one could deny the looks of battle-lusted glee they bore. The warriors charged and again locked in their contest of skill.
The crowd had been only a few at first, but several spirits had run into town and shouted to the masses of a duel on the outskirts. The criers had brought people by the house-full. Men, women, children, everyone had come to revel in some rare and welcome entertainment, even if it were bloodsport. It was not the fight, not entirely, bu as mucht the show of impressive skill that appealed to the masses.
As the crowd increased the duel too grew more heated. Watching it was like watching a work of art, and in the back a tall figure smirked at the show. A brimmed hat hid much of the face in shadows, but the mouth was visible to show this much. After a few long minutes of continuous battle a victor was quickly rising.
Noel ducked under the first thoughtless punch and with a quick hand she grabbed Fade's shoulder and slammed her to the ground. Leaping on top of her opponent she gave the other espada no time to defend, driving her first down with brutal force. The crowd went quiet, the only sound that of panting. Noel stared down, not even noticing the drips of blood falling from her split lip or seeping nostril. She panted hard, finally letting a grin cross her mouth.
Fade looked to the fist that had dug into the ground not even an inch from her head, then back to Noel before grinning herself. " I concede." The other espada ripped her hand from the dirt and stood, reaching down to grab Fade's hand and pull her up.
"Good match," Noel said as she raised her open hand up. "I expected more cheating, but you proved hard enough plaing fair."
"I couldn't agree more," Fade said with a nod, grabbing the raised hand in her own and clasping firmly to give the gesture a frienly shake. "But you know you lost the first match."
"I can't help it if you are so damn good at getting under my skin. I win fights, not loaded arguments."
"I know how to push your buttons." The conversation was cut short as a roar of cheering sounded from the crowd. Fade and Noel both just stood and stared, not knowing how to respond to this. They had expected to be feared, or at the very least seen with contempt. These spirits had all but welcomed them from the start. Were they really so ignorant, or just complacent? Neither espada knew...
Nor given chance to debate further. A slow clap seemed to drown the cries and cheers of the crowd. Every strike of the palms released a wave of spirit aura, enough for the arrancar to tense up with each clap. They homed in on the source, and both glared at the origin of such a focused power. A tall figure with a hat and cane moved towards them slowly while clapping.
Within moments they were mere feet away, the former sisters still containing their spiritual presence, now driving it all the deeper within them. Had they been discovered? Impossible, they couldn't even sense one another above the bare minimum. Was it their mask fragments? Passable for simple decorations, and what remained of their uniforms were so filthy it was questionable what color they could even have been.
The figure reached up and took the green and white striped hat from its head and let a river of purple hair fall down. While Noel was simply simmering, Fade took this one crucial moment to sum this individual up. Woman, dark skin, tall, obvious spiritual presence, unique clothing especially considering the hat and cane... only one conclusion. A shinigami.
"Zanpakutou, matching uniforms... just who might the two of you be? A little young to be playing rough, hmm?" The woman chuckled to herself, yellow eyes belying the hardened spirit behind them despite such a mirthful expression.
"Just a sparring match, we had a... disagreement."
"What's it to you, shinigami?" Fade winced, she could imagine herself giving Noel a backhanded slap for such a thoughtless exclamation. She had practically just screamed they didn't belong.
"Using such methods to solve your issues, something I can certainly relate to."
"Yeah well..." Fade grabbed Noel's arm and stared into her eyes hard before she could finish her sentence.
"Remember what the boss said. We shouldn't be making trouble."
"The boss was very clear."
"Right," Noel sighed and pulled her arm back. She softened her expression, but it was obvious a battle still waged within her. "Sorry if I was rude. We'll just be moving along." She barely made it a step before the cane smacked into the ground, barring her path.
"Interesting apparel you both have."
"Trophies," Noel spat and stepped over the cane, not noticing the momentary look of surprise that crossed her partner's face. Fade was impressed at the speed her former sister had come up with a response that didn't involve a threat. "Just like these," she said proudly as she pulled the armored gauntlets back on from where she'd dropped them. It was the truth as well, the former bearer of the items had not parted with them willingly.
The woman turned and watched as Noel drew her zanpakutou and swung it down as if checking its weight. "I see." She replaced the hat on her head and tossed the cane up only to catch it with a swipe of her hand. "I wanted to say I enjoyed your demonstration, as did many others. Perhaps sometime I could see you both in true form, not holding back so much," she spoke these words with the faintest hints of a smirk.
"Perhaps..." Fade's glance was all that was needed to keep Noel silent.
"Alright everyone, on with your day!" The woman waved her hand as if to shoo the crowd off, and it worked as well. As the people dispersed, all discussing the events transpired with excitement while the three women stayed silent, remaining as the spirits emptied the fields. Their eyes spoke for them, and the intensity of the moment had no equal that day.
"So, you wanted to know about our choice in headgear then spill on yours. What's with the goofy hat?" The question brought a glare from Fade, but Noel didn't seem to mind as she shoved her blade back into her belt. The question hung in the air, the woman's face changing as if falling into a long-gone memory.
"Mementos, much like yours. Good day." She spun on her heels and marched off towards the town. But not before looking back as she walked and leaving the espada with one last comment. "We will meet again, I think."
The two arrancar stared hard, their face's expressionless. They gave one another a single glance before vanishing into thin air, leaving nothing but the signs of their match in the field.
"Enough!" All voices fell silent as the wooden staff slammed on the floor. "This is not a debate, this is a trial!" The silence was deafening after such an outburst, only broken by the clinking of metal chains.
Toshirou stood tall in a room he knew all too well. It had been so long, and yet not a thing had changed. The captain's meeting hall, here when he had served as a peer... not as a criminal. His wrist, ankles, and neck were all chained and his zanpakutou was set within a powerful barrier floating in the center for all to see. Only one glance told the stories of the missing captains.
Abarai and Hisagi lost to Hueco Mundo's defenders, Rukia at Ichigo's side... all too similar to his own tenure. Captains fighting one another, nothing ever changed. Not in a quarter century, not in a thousand years. "Hitsugaya Toshirou, former captain of the tenth division! You have been brought before the leaders of the Seireitei under charges of treason against all of Soul Society!" The Captain Commander's voice was as hard as his glare, but Toshirou stood strong still. He knew from the beginning this might happen, his hopes had had no purchase. So, he would face this with the honor he still had, and the pride he could still claim as his own. "What say you!"
"There is nothing I can say that will change the decision you have all already made. But I will have all of you know this; I never drew my sword in hostility against those I once fought beside, only in self-defense. I joined with Ichigo out of necessity for my continued wellbeing, worked with him on his crusade in that very name. That I am brought before you in chains and thrown to the wolves is testament to the cause your enemy fights for. I am not being tried before the judges of the Seireitei, but the captains; and that is but one of many admonishments I bring before you." He let the words sink in, taking the moment to glance over his trial.
Some captains seemed disinterested, others watching coldly. But there was one he felt the boring eyes dig deep into him without even having to look. Hinamori was behind him in her position as fifth captain, where her arm had once been a bandage that wrapped about her whole torso now in place. He knew Matsumoto watched also, but he dared not look. He had words that still needed said, and he did not need distraction. "I never had any desire to bring harm, but neither could I stand and allow myself to be cut down without the time to voice myself be given its due."
"Is that all you have to say?"
"I see no reason to waste more breath." Yamamoto's staff slammed against the floor again.
"So be it! Despite any intention or word, you have still been found guilty in aiding one of Soul Society's most dangerous and begrudged enemies! For this, you will be sentenced to the Senzaikyu." Toshirou's head fell slightly, his eyes closing as the weight of this hit him full force. "There you will contemplate the crimes you have committed. Your name will be given place beside Kurosaki's, and his blood will be spilled just as yours will. All of the Seireitei will witness your execution, and all record of the deeds you have been honored for will be stricken to oblivion." The staff struck down one last time. "Remove this traitor!"
Four men walked in and set tethers to the collar on Toshirou's neck. He turned and walked from the captain's hall for the last time. Not in honor, not in remembrance, but in chains. He looked up for only a moment to lock eyes with Momo. His expressionless face matched the ice of his spiritual aura, but even he could not hide the sorrow that stilled in his eyes. There was no anger in Toshirou's gaze, only sadness.
He was not given chance to see her face for but a moment as he was led out the doors. The walk to the great white tower was silent. The guards never spoke, there were no voices nor even a bird. All this gave Toshirou almost too much weight to delve into his own thoughts. He thought back to better days. Lunch with Momo and listening to her chatter the day away only to return and find Matsumoto snoring on his desk. He remembered battles side by side with those he would have laid his life down for.
In a way... he did. The day Zangetsu ran him through, the pain it speared through his body and soul as he pushed with all his might to force Ichigo back into the closing portal. The battle that had waged between them for days. The sands of Hueco Mundo had been whipped into such a storm in their wake. Truly the greatest fight for his life he had ever had, and here he marched to contemplate a death he had never dreamed of.
Perhaps he should have known this would be came to pass, maybe he had in the darkest corners of his mind. Even as a captain he had suspected change, paranoia seeping into the rigors of what had once been fueled by honor and duty. He had dismissed it, been too trusting. Soul Society was not what he had nearly died to protect... he had not saved that place. This was not the great plane of the spirits he knew and loved, so to Hitsugaya Toshirou... the greatest battle of his life had failed. His hopes for naught.
Even as the door to his cell closed the once regal warrior sat and stared from the window, a broken shell of his former glory. He heard the door open and close, but his eyes stayed fixed to the Sokyoku hill. The sun was already beginning to set on the last day before the anniversary. That fateful day...
"Toshirou." Her voice... it did him no favors, only cruelty. He turned to look at her, his face betraying no emotion. "You surprise me."
"Have you come to gloat, Hinamori?" His words carried more poison than he had intended.
"I thought you would have fought. Broken the chains and taken up Hyorinmaru to fight your way back out. No, you simply took it all and walked out like a scolded child." Her words were angry, given bite by the pain that she most definitely suffered from. "You spoke of self-defense and now you simply lay down and die?"
"I fought to defend what I believed... some battles are not waged with swords."
"What you believed? And yet you allied with monsters? Look what they did to me!" She placed her hand on the wounded shoulder. "That... thing's sword did more than just take my arm! I can never be healed! Nothing can be done for this! You stood by them, you defended them! The same creatures that would kill and maim, and laugh as if that were the only sport they had!"
"You speak things I already know."
"Then answer me, Toshirou! I wanted to believe you were just hiding in wait to strike at Ichigo..."
"As you did?" Her face twisted in anger at his words.
"I thought when we gave you the chance you would take him down. Instead you simply read that damned book. We opened the doors to the betrayer's very throne room, and you did nothing."
"I was too busy fighting you off to worry about anything else."
"Do not turn my words against me. You know what I mean."
"Feh... still the spoiled girl. You believe everything you are spoon fed, and expect to know the intentions of others. You don't know me at all. Do not think for a moment you understand me well enough to judge."
"Oh?" Toshirou was a little impressed, she was controlling herself well. He had expected almost for certain she would have flown into a rage, not seethed as she did now. "Well look where you have landed yourself! You had every chance to redeem yourself, but now you just drown in your own self-pity. I knew you well enough, Toshirou... and you disgust me."
"It isn't easy... this being my last sight." His voice was calm, his words still hinting that sadness that flowed just beneath the surface. "I dreamed for years of coming home, of being welcomed as a returning hero. The years in the twilight realm were not easy, and I bear many scars... just as you do."
"Your words are hollow, just like your friends." Momo's words did nothing to faze him as he stood to look out the narrow window once more.
"The years I spent with Ichigo... many were as begrudged allies. I even tried myself against him a number of times. Over time though... things changed. We fought side by side, we watched over one another. I watched his pain fester within him, saw what we had done to him." Toshirou turned and stared at Momo, her anger momentarily replaced by a stony glare. "I came to one undeniable conclusion. Ichigo never betrayed us, but we did him."
"The same man who ravaged his own home town with a hollow army. He's twisted you, corrupted you to believe his delusions and lies. And to think I came here to give you closure."
"Fine way you went about it. The truth is so overwhelmed, at this point there is no reason for debate any more. There is simply what is believed by whomever an ideal belongs to. Justice to some is vengeance to others, and I have had my fill of argument. Say what you will, Hinamori. Deal your final wound." He sat back down, and for the first time Momo saw this man in a way she had never once considered. Toshirou was defeated. For all the anger she bore to this man, all the wrong she knew he had done, she could not help but remember that young boy glare at her as she wiped soup from his cheek.
Here he was, as a man, broken and beaten to the point he no longer cared for his own life. He defended her, himself, and the ideals he once upheld only to return to chains and death. His dreams were gone, and for a single moment she saw all hope drain from him. He turned to look at her, his stoic face belying the void behind it. She could not muster the words she wished she could lash out with.
Hinamori rose, a wince at the grief her shoulder gave before turning to the door. Two knocks and it was opened. She halted at the threshold, and gave Toshirou one last look. "Little Shiro..." Only his eyes regarded her at his hated nickname. "Goodbye." The door was closed, and Momo was left simply staring at the wood. She blinked, her vision becoming blurry.
What was this? She touched her eye and found it wet. She was crying? Why? Why would she cry for a man long since dead to her heart?
The questions grew, but the answers fled. Captain Hinamori steeled herself, but her heart still tore about in her chest. She had had her fill of the white tower, and did not even notice who it was she bumped into on her flight from it.
The guard regarded this newcomer a moment then nodded, opening the door to Toshirou's cell. The visitor waited for the door to be closed before taking a seat in front of the bars. "That could have gone better I think."
"Frankly I don't see how it could have gone any different. Have you come to heap your anger and contempt on top of Hinamori's, Rangiku?"
"No. I simply came to see you. Is that so bad?"
"I imagine not... I rather be left alone though."
"I don't believe that for a second." Time passed after those words, minutes and hours filled with conversation from simple banter to heated statements. It was not the accusation of foes, or the debate of ideals. It was simply talk between old friends.
Friends given time to reflect, and that is all it would ever be. Toshirou's meal was brought and Rangiku made it a point to bring it to him herself. His cell door was closed, and the captain who had taken his position needed only look outside to remind herself of the time. "It's late... I'm sorry I couldn't stay longer. You looked... lonely."
"Thank you, Rangiku. You've done enough already." She smiled and knocked twice. As the door was opened Toshirou had one more thing to say. "Rangiku?"
"What... what happened to Ukitake? I would have liked to see him again."
"He and others were transferred to Division Zero. They're the royal guards now."
"I see, so that's why... thank you."
"Of course." She nodded to him before stepped out the door. The last sounds was that of the latch, then the bolt. Hitsugaya looked out at the Seireitei and Sokyoku hill as night had fallen. He sat down, plate in his hand and sighed. It really was good to see it one last time. He took hold of the plate's edge and shifted his other hand underneath it, pulling the attached slip of paper from where it had been stuck.