Chapter Sixteen

Infiltration

"You just had to say it, didn't you?"

"Shunsui…"

"You just couldn't resist, could you?"

"Shunsui-san…"

"Would it have been so hard to wait just a few minutes?"

Juushiro pinched the bridge of his nose, trying very hard not to sigh. "This is not happening because I said 'let's go home.'"

The two captains were still standing on European soil, amidst what once had been Esprit's town square. No sooner had the gate to Avalon closed than Shunsui had realized another hurdle in their path. They needed to get Caylen, or more specifically the strange orb embedded in his chest, back to Soul Society, but there was one large problem: Caylen was, inexplicable as it might be, still alive.

"How many times have I made innocuous comments just like that, only to have you harass me about how badly things turn out?"

Ukitake's dark eyebrows knitted together. The last legacy of the hair color he had lost to sickness before Kyoraku had met him, they lent his expressions a certain gravity that his white hair and thin frame might otherwise have denied him. "When was the last time you said anything innocuous?"

"I asked you to take a walk with me the other week, remember? I just wanted to lift your spirits, but you gave me no end of grief…"

"Shunsui, you 'walked' us onto the roof of the Ninth Division women's bathhouse."

"You've told me steam can be soothing for your lungs. Is it my fault they have an open-air hot spring? They're practically next door to my headquarters, how can you expect me not to make use of that?"

Ukitake blinked several times. "I'm going to forget I heard you say that."

"Ah, the very thought makes me long to return all the more. Think, Juushiro. There has to be some way we can get this boy to Soul Society. What about konso?"

"He's not dead. A soul burial on a living human would just drive his spirit from his body."

"Well that would be a start, right?"

"His soul chain would still be connected, unless you mean to kill him. And it's his body we're trying to get to the afterlife."

"Kido, then. Is there some kind of stasis spell we could use?"

Juushiro pondered for a moment, but shook his head. "Nothing comes to mind."

"Bah!" Shunsui growled, wiping a hand across his forehead with agitation. "We've got more contingency plans and response scenarios than we could hope to use in a lifetime of crises, but you're telling me no one's ever thought of something to fix a problem like this?"

"Honestly, getting human bodies into the afterlife isn't something shinigami have cared a great deal about before."

"Figures." Folding his arms into the sleeves of his haori, Shunsui scowled at the ground, mind churning for some old trick, a half-remembered lesson, or anything that might get them out of their current predicament. The flicker of an idea came to him. He drew his wakizashi, and knelt beside Caylen.

"What're you doing?" Juushiro asked.

"Maybe we can't get his body to Soul Society with konso, but if we release his spirit, at least we can talk to him. He might be able to give us some clue about what Kijuro did."

"I suppose it's worth a try," Ukitake admitted. "Just be careful. We don't want to damage his chain."

"I'll be the soul of caution." Holding Katen Kyokotsu hilt-first, he lowered the sword to tap the knight lightly on the forehead.

No sooner had the pommel made contact than Shunsui drew the weapon back with a yelp. The feeling that had surged as soon as he had touched the man's body left his arm numb and tingling all the way up to his elbow.

Instead of drawing the knight's soul out of his body, the act left the glowing seal of soul burial upon his forehead. The icon faded, spreading outwards across Caylen's form with a wave of faint light. The glow intensified when it reached the orb in his chest, and a second surge washed outwards from there, receding slowly into his body.

"I don't think that was supposed to happen," Shunsui said, rubbing his arm as the pins-and-needles sensation slowly faded.

Ukitake was studying the knight's prone form, his brow furrowed in concentration. He reached out a tentative hand to touch Caylen's arm, and his expression became even more intense. "Impossible…"

"Eh?"

"His body. Feel it, Shunsui. It's been turned into spirit particles."

To his amazement, Kyoraku discovered that his friend was right. Though shinigami were invisible to humans, they could interact with the living world thanks to their reiatsu. And since they could exist on both planes, they possessed an instinctive feel for the difference between spirit particles and their tangible counterparts. Caylen's body was now unmistakably made of the former.

The more time they spent around this orb, the more worried Shunsui became. There were rules that defined his world that he had worked with for centuries, rules as clear as the boundaries between the world of the living and the afterlife, or hollows and shinigami. For the past day, he had seen more and more of those concepts expanded, bent, challenged, or even outright thwarted. This little thing was now proving itself the worst offender in the assault on his worldview. And no matter how long he lived, Kyoraku had found the fear of the unknown to be a universal constant. Experience only served to reduce the frequency of occurrences. "I don't like this, Juushiro. I don't like it at all."

"You think the orb may be dangerous?"

"I know it is, but not just how you're thinking. We're standing on rotten ice, my friend. It's bad enough if we return to Soul Society with news of a captain missing, probably dead," he gritted his teeth at the admission, but there was no sense in denying it now. They had bigger concerns. "There won't be any hiding that. But if word gets out of something like this, an object we don't yet understand in the least, the rumors will feed off of one another until they're out of control."

"You're worried things will get blown out of proportion."

"To say the least. Morale is already low, and the loss of a senior officer won't help. But if it becomes known we brought this thing back at the same time, we'll have tall tales of a captain performing desperate experiments in foreign lands, and soon everyone will start thinking just a little too much about our current state of affairs and how the plague has progressed."

"I think you're letting your imagination get the best of you," Ukitake said doubtfully. "But you still might have a point. Until we know just what this orb is, the fewer people who know about it, the better."

"Right. We need to have Retsu examine this boy, or maybe someone with a grasp of what the kido might have done. Better yet, both."

"I agree. But to do that, we're going to have to get him back to Soul Society quietly."

Kyoraku was already thinking the same thing. "I can make us a gate straight to Eighth Division headquarters."

"Through the dangai? Remember, only the two of us will have hell butterflies."

"Of course."

"But what about the time dilation? Or if we run into the cleaner?"

"Not a problem. Remember who you're talking to."

That only made Ukitake look more confused. "Forgive me, Shunsui, but this doesn't strike me as one of your areas of expertise."

Kyoraku wagged a finger at him, shaking his head. "For all my years of effort, it seems I still haven't trained you to think correctly. You see the precipice world as a dimension full of twisted time and perilous non-sentient housekeepers. I see it as the most fabulous drinking escape in all existence. I can spend days, even weeks, in blissful refreshment, and emerge without having missed out on so much as a good night's sleep, let alone a captains' meeting. The scenery leaves something to be desired, of course."

Juushiro regarded him in stunned silence for several seconds. "It seems that after all this time, you can still surprise me."

"Why thank you," Shunsui replied, with a grin that was understated, but by no means humble. He bent down to pick up Caylen. The knight was not a large man, a few inches shorter than Kyoraku and more sinewy than muscled. He didn't make a sound as the captain slung him piggyback over his shoulders. With a free hand Shunsui drew his katana, calling forth a gate to Soul Society. The doors slid open. "My office in headquarters should be deserted, which works out well for us. Stay close."

They traversed the inky blackness of the dangai, moving between the undulating walls of the wresting flow at a brisk jog. For once luck was with them, and they saw no sign of the Kototsu's weekly cleansing sweep. They reached the entrance to Soul Society without incident, and Shunsui was as good as his word. They emerged in the center of Kyoraku's office in Eighth Division headquarters, and the familiar surroundings buoyed their spirits at once.

From behind them, a startled noise and a wooden thud cut off the relief of their homecoming with a burst of panic. Any hope of a clandestine return seemed to have been lost before their feet had even settled on the floor. They whirled to find the source of the noise, but whoever had spotted them had taken a tumble behind Shunsui's ornate wooden desk on the other side of the room.

"I thought you said the headquarters would be deserted," Juushiro snapped, craning his neck to try and see behind the furniture.

"They should be!" protested Kyoraku. With his absence from Soul Society and an unfilled lieutenant's post, by rights no one should have been in his office. Since when did I have any officers crazy enough to do my paperwork for me, anyway?

"Owww… that'll leave a mark," a feminine voice came from behind the desk. A young woman lurched into view as she rose to her feet. She was rubbing the back of her head between a pair of braided pigtails. When she caught sight of the new arrivals, the bump on her head was abruptly forgotten. "Captain Kyoraku!" she blurted. She snapped to attention, her pained expression vanishing at once. One hand shot up for a fleeting moment to adjust the skewed pair of spectacles perched on her nose, and snapped back to her side just as quickly.

"And who might you be?" Kyoraku purred. The shock of an unfamiliar face sitting in his office, even one sitting at his own desk, was of no consequence when said face was as fetching as this one.

"Sixth Seat Lisa Yadomaru, Captain Kyoraku, sir!"

"What brings you to my office, Lisa-chan?"

"Just, well, there were a few forms, sir," she said uncertainly. "I, ahh…"

"Surely no one's putting someone like you to work as a courier."

She looked confused for a moment, but fought it down at once. "Courier, sir?"

"Ferrying forms between divisions is work for enlisted men," Shunsui said smoothly. He could almost hear Ukitake's stifled groan, and didn't have to try hard to imagine the eye roll he was being subjected to. His best friend had heard this tone all too often when a pretty face was in proximity. "If your captain has you doing legwork, then I might just have a word with them about the proper utilization of resources. Perhaps even a transfer, if you'd be interested in working for me."

Shunsui had encountered a great variety of reactions to his charm. He was man enough to admit not all of them had been as positive as he would like, but Lisa's expression was something new. Her face fell, just for an instant, but in that heartbeat she looked almost hurt. Then her gaze hardened, her eyes narrowed, and the businesslike tone she adopted matched her new demeanor to a tee. "That would be difficult, sir. Considering I already serve under you."

"Ah," Kyoraku said lamely. His amorous grin soured into something almost comically pitiful as he groped for a more articulate recovery.

"I thought it best if someone kept up with the day-to-day operations of the division," she continued, all business now. "We hadn't expected you back so soon." She made her comment on the timing of his return sound like an unrelated afterthought, and Shunsui didn't miss the implied slight on his bureaucratic prowess. But unfortunately for Lisa, while such words might serve as cutting insults and shameful reproaches to most men, Shunsui Kyoraku was decidedly not most men.

"Ah, Lisa-chan, your dedication shatters my fragile heart. How could I have gone so long without recognizing the devotion my officers have shown me?"

A majority of subordinates would have interpreted such a statement as an apology, and fallen over themselves in earnest graciousness to soothe their captain's feelings. But Lisa Yadomaru, in turn, was decidedly not a majority of subordinates. "The devotion of your officers isn't that hard to recognize. Your third seat is only in his office because he's passed out drunk there. Your fourth is probably sitting at a dice table in Rukongai, assuming the building didn't burn down around him. And your fifth seat wouldn't touch a report for risk of getting inkblots on his expensive clothes. I'm all you've got, and you didn't even know I was in your division. Captain." The rank came out hastily, betraying just a hint of uncertainty that she'd gone too far.

Not that she should have worried. Staving off a shiver that had nothing to do with fear, Kyoraku leaned towards his friend, shielding his mouth conspiratorially. "I think I'm in love."

"I think someone needs promoted," Juushiro whispered back.

If the content of the two captains' mutterings unnerved her at all, Yadomaru showed no sign. She waited patiently to be sure they were done before continuing. "What brings you back from your mission so soon, sir? And with a… guest, I see."

Kyoraku had almost forgotten about the unconscious English knight slung over his back, which was another point in Lisa's favor as far as he was concerned. Not that she needed any more; between her sharp tongue and her cool head, he had liked her at once. And with long experience, Shunsui trusted the people that he liked. "It's a long story, Lisa -chan, too long to fill you in just yet. But I'm going to ask you to trust me that it's important that we get this man in front of Captain Unohana or a kido expert, as quickly and quietly as possible."

"Captain Unohana is in Rukongai," she replied without hesitation. "It won't be possible to get to her unseen. And between the riots and the arson, there are too many wounded for her to be called back to the Seireitei without her absence being noted."

"Riots?" Juushiro gasped. "And arson? What in all the heavens happened here?"

"We don't have time for that," said Shunsui. Enough injuries to bring Retsu outside the walls was too big a story for them to add to their troubles just yet.

"Our best bet for a kido master would be Twelfth Division, of course," Yadomaru went on, not missing a beat. If she noted Captain Ise's absence, which Shunsui was sure she had, she made no mention of it.

"All right. How do we get there without anyone seeing us?"

One of Lisa's eyebrows perched upwards, betraying a small piece of the frustration she had to be feeling. "You really didn't think this through, did you?"

Kyoraku shrugged. "Spontaneity, Lisa-chan. If you want to work here long, get used to it."

"The service tunnels can get us there unnoticed," she suggested.

"Service tunnels?" Kyoraku said blankly.

"They run underground all throughout Seireitei," she explained. "Fourth Division uses them for maintenance and moving supplies around."

Kyoraku and Ukitake shared a look. "I didn't even know they were there," said Juushiro.

Though her stern expression didn't waver, and her frown only deepened if anything, a hint of a blush crept onto her cheeks. "I… used to be in fourth," she muttered.

She could have said that she was from another planet, and that would not have succeeded in surprising Shunsui near as much as the admission she actually made. "Are you a healer?" he wondered. Any shinigami with enough spiritual power to merit a sixth seat posting wouldn't find themselves relegated to the support division unless they had an otherworldly talent as a physician; Unohana tried not to keep anyone with that much combat potential away from the front lines. Though it made Fourth Division the butt of far too many ignorant jokes as far as Shunsui was concerned, Retsu knew better than anyone how to put people where they would do the most good.

If the deepening flush on her face was any indication, healing talent was not what had landed Lisa Yadomaru in Fourth Division. She grumbled something, too low for Shunsui to hear.

"What was that?"

"I said I couldn't see!" she barked. She was scowling furiously and her face was the color of Shunsui's flowered drape. She pushed her glasses further up the bridge of her nose. "When I went through the academy, my vision was so bad that I knocked one of my swordsmanship instructors out cold instead of hitting the training dummy he was standing next to. I was too strong, and my classroom work was too good, to keep me from graduating, but the only division that offered me a post was fourth."

Corrective vision implements were a new invention, which Shunsui knew from the ecstatic discovery Kijuro had made no more than a few decades ago. Ise's ingenuity, combined with a few new engineering processes his third seat had cooked up, had made the spectacles offered in Soul Society a great deal more comfortable and compact than the bulky and ungainly models still in their infancy in the living world. Even so, their availability was something that had only just become common knowledge, and effective pairs were fiendishly expensive. It would have taken a seated officer years to save up enough for them.

"Well, Fourth Division may have had you first, but I'm glad you've found a home here, Lisa-chan," Kyoraku said.

She nodded, her color returning to normal. Her expression became almost wistful. "Approving my transfer request was one of the last things Lieutenant Koda did before he passed away," she explained. "He said… Well, he seemed to think that you'd notice me, sir."

Shunsui couldn't help but smile at that. You really did have my back until the end, Masaki. You dog, you even picked your successor without bothering to tell me. "He did have an eye for talent," he said. "And I promise not to waste it. If you can get us through the service tunnels, lead the way."

Lisa wasted no time. She ushered the two captains and their unconscious charge out of Shunsui's office and down the stairs. They passed the offices of the lower seats, and down again to the level that served as their quarters. The next level was the common area, but she kept descending. Through the mess hall, the enlisted barracks, and the kitchens, still she led them down. Kyoraku had honestly forgotten just how many levels his own divisional headquarters had. They were at least two floors underground and moving through the storage cellars when she brought them to a hatch, set in a forlorn corner underneath several bags of rice. Tossing aside the foodstuffs, she wrenched the trap door open, summoning a ball of raw kido into her hand to light the way.

An unexpectedly sturdy stone staircase led down into an even more unexpectedly robust series of tunnels. Carved of the same stone that formed the tiles of the Court, the passages were clean, dry, and far larger than Shunsui had anticipated. The only thing they seemed to lack was adequate lighting, as the only illumination beyond the energy in Lisa's hand was from a few dim panels mounted at long intervals on the walls.

She led them down the passage, taking them through several turns and intersections. After a few of the detours Shunsui was feeling as though they were going in circles, but he chalked it up to the disorientation of being underground. For her part, Lisa showed no sign of being lost, never once stopping to get her bearings or slowing her steady pace.

That made it quite a shock when she brought them to a sudden halt just short of a large crossroads. Yadomaru held up a hand for quiet, clenching her fist around the kido she held to snuff out the light. Before Shunsui could ask what was going on, he heard footsteps ahead, the scuffle of sandals across stone tiles.

"Should anyone else be down here?" Kyoraku asked, keeping his voice as low as he could.

"My knowledge of fourth division cleaning schedules is a few months out-of-date, sir."

"That's too bad. You never know when knowledge like that might come in handy."

Lisa frowned up at him. "These are maintenance and supply routes, not watering holes."

Shunsui grinned. "So you say."

"Keep it down, you two," Ukitake breathed. The shuffling footfalls were getting louder. "How close are we?" Kyoraku guessed his friend's thinking at once; they might be able to flash step by whoever was approaching and continue on to their destination unobserved.

"The entrance to Twelfth Division's barracks is to the left, just past this next intersection."

There went that idea. That was right where the sounds were coming from.

The footsteps stopped. Everyone held their breath. "H-Hello?" a voice called. "W-Who's there?"

Well, so much for going unnoticed. Short of knocking out some hapless fourth squad member whose only crime was trying to sweep out the wrong tunnel at the wrong time, they didn't have many options left as stealth went.

"Is s-someone there?" the voice asked, high and tremulous. It almost sounded frightened. "Akula-san, if that's you, then you've got me, very funny… just please don't lock me in a storage closet again…"

With an inward sigh, Shunsui stepped forward. Just around the corner, he came upon a young shinigami, dark-haired and slouched. He gave a start when Kyoraku came into view, holding a broom out in front of him in what might have been a defensive posture. His heavy-lidded eyes went wide, which did little to lessen the dolorous cast of his face.

"Hello there," Shunsui said amiably, as though they were crossing paths on a Seireitei street, as opposed to the sewers beneath them.

"C-C-C-Captain Kyoraku!"

"Nice day for a stroll, isn't it? Keep up the good work!" He clapped the young man on the shoulder as he walked past, making no mention of the unconscious man slung over his shoulders, or the presence of Juushiro or Lisa as they followed him by.

"Yadomaru-sempai? What're you doing here?"

Lisa stopped, and peered down at the boy. Slight as she was, she topped him by several inches. "Yamada-kun?" His face brightened at her recognition, which made him look merely morose as opposed to despondent.

"You know him?" Juushiro asked Lisa.

"I do," she replied. "This is Hanataro Yamada, a Fourth Division member."

"I haven't seen you since your transfer, sempai. How are you? And what are you doing back in the maintenance tunnels?"

"She's helping us with a very important mission, Yamada-kun," Juushiro put in, before any more awkward questions came up. "It's important that you don't tell anyone that you saw us down here."

"Oh, don't worry about that, Captain Ukitake," Hanataro replied. "No one in my squad really pays much attention to me, anyway. Someone was supposed to come down and relieve me from cleaning duty about a week ago, but I think they forgot I was here."

Lisa sighed. "Are you still letting them push you around like that?"

"I don't mind, really. I like it down here, it's nice and quiet. And…" he trailed off, blinking heavily in Shunsui's direction. "Captain Kyoraku, who's that you're carrying?"

"This is why we need you to be quiet, Hana-kun," Shunsui said. "This man is from Avalon." It wasn't strictly true, but it was easier than trying to explain how Caylen was technically still alive.

"Is he hurt?" Hanataro asked. If encountering a soul from one of the other afterlife regions startled him, he hid it well. "I've almost completed my medical training. It's not much, but Captain Unohana said I should qualify for a seat once I'm done."

"Thank you, Hanataro, but we're trying to get him to Twelfth Division," said Ukitake. "That's why we're here."

"Really? The maintenance hatch to twelfth is right here, then." He pointed. The stairway up into the barracks was visible just behind him. "If you're trying to get him in quietly, let me go first. If anyone's there, they won't think twice about someone like me showing up."

"He has a point," Lisa admitted.

"I think we've had enough surprises for one day," Shunsui agreed. "All right, Hanataro. Lead the way."

Yamada shuffled ahead, climbing the staircase. Pushing open the hatch, he peeked inside, taking a good look around before beckoning the rest of them up. They emerged into a storage cellar similar to the one that held the maintenance hatch in Eighth Division, though this space had fallen out of use, and was filled with dust and cobwebs as opposed to food and sundries. Hanataro arrived at a small, rickety-looking wooden ladder that led straight up to another trap door. He climbed the ladder, but this portal proved less cooperative than the others. The boy might not have weighed five stone soaking wet, but he threw himself against the hatch with a grunt. Predictably, it didn't budge.

"Don't hurt yourself, kid," Shunsui said. "Get down from there."

Hanataro obeyed. Once he was off the ladder, Shunsui shifted Caylen off his shoulders, handing him over to Hanataro. Kyoraku climbed, braced himself, and gave the door a firm shove. It opened several inches before it was pushed back down by something heavy and wooden, judging by the noise. He felt whatever was stacked on top of the door shift after a second push, and the third got the door open at last. They'd made enough racket by now to wake the dead, but after a glance around the room appeared to be deserted. He shot a sour look at the desk that someone had decided to sit right on top of the hatch as he climbed out. "Come on up," he told the others.

Juushiro was the next one through, joining Shunsui in what appeared to be the common room of the Twelfth Division barracks. Both captains knelt to give Hanataro and Lisa a hand in lifting the unconscious knight through the trap door. It was then that the sound of a door opening prompted Kyoraku to turn.

Two men were standing in the main entrance of the barracks, staring at them, mouths caught open in the midst of a conversation that had been interrupted by the sight of five people making an illicit entrance to a division where they did not belong. Shunsui recognized one of them at once. "Ah, Kisuke-kun," he said with a friendly wave. "You know, I bet this looks rather strange. Why don't I start at the beginning…"


In many ways, it was the most beautiful thing Kisuke Urahara had ever seen.

It was such a little thing, a sphere that could have fit easily into the palm of his hand. Its colors were vibrant but unremarkable, shades of violet and blue jumbled together like a blot of paint. But it was not its size, its shape, or its colors that intrigued Kisuke. It was its presence, its sense of mystery, and an almost tangible aura of the inexplicable that resonated through every fiber of his being. Its existence struck a chord with Urahara, begging the very questions that drove him, the eternal queries of what, why, and how.

The orb's container provided his own share of mysteries, as well. A living human, spontaneously converted into spirit particles after becoming host to a manifested kido. The fact that he was even here while technically still alive would have kindled the flames of Urahara's curiosity, but everything added together? It was almost enough to make him forget that his captain had given his life to bring it about.

The scientist in Urahara had full control of his faculties, however, in every sense of the phrase. At the moment, time was too precious to squander on mourning.

"Has he shown any signs of regaining consciousness?" Kisuke asked, his gaze sweeping over Caylen, recording every detail.

"He hasn't made a sound since we found him," Captain Ukitake replied. The frail captain was sitting on one of the few uncluttered chairs in Urahara's private workshop, a small annex of the Twelfth Division offices he had appropriated to serve as his personal laboratory. It was filled it with all manner of extraordinary equipment, primarily of his own design, in various stages of development. Half-assembled devices were strewn about in a fashion vaguely resembling organization, benches and tables piled high with half-recognizable components of the technical wizardry that was just starting to infiltrate the Gotei Thirteen through Kisuke's handiwork. The room was also one of the most secure locations in the Seireitei, being that most of the squad knew well enough to avoid the place. After all, it was better to be called in for fire control from a safe distance than risk being caught in the not uncommon conflagrations when they started.

Urahara's eyes narrowed. "No reactions at all? This is something deeper than a simple loss of consciousness."

"Could it have something to do with the orb?" Captain Kyoraku wondered.

Urahara couldn't suppress a smile. "That would be a safe assumption. How or why, though, is anyone's guess."

"Can you figure out what it is?"

The scientist frowned. "That depends."

"On what?"

"Whether you're asking me if I'll determine what it is within my lifetime, or whether I can tell you what it is before you leave this room."

Shunsui gave a bark of laughter. "I deserved that. I suppose I'll settle for any guesses you might have."

"The orb's reiatsu signature is remarkable, unlike anything I've ever felt," Urahara said. "It's a complete jumble of hollow and shinigami spiritual resonances."

"I feel that, too," Ukitake agreed. "Is it possible this orb is some sort of container, a spell binding the spirits caught within?"

Kisuke shook his head. "I know what you're asking, because I hope for it, too. Unfortunately, I don't think that's the case. It's not just that the spirit bodies have been packed together in a small space… they've been melded somehow. Fused in a way we never thought possible. Whatever this orb is, whatever it contains, it no longer possesses any distinction between shinigami and hollow."

There was no missing the deflation of the room's atmosphere. No one spoke for several moments, but in that time some of the life left the postures of everyone present. Urahara hated to deliver the bad news so blithely, but he had said no more than the truth. Since it was one of the only things he had been able to determine from his brief exposure to the orb so far, he wasn't about to withhold the information, however depressing it might be.

"You're positive about that?" Kyoraku asked, uncharacteristically somber.

"I'm afraid so."

The captain of Eighth Division stood with a sigh, adjusting a parcel hidden beneath his kimono. "Then we have another stop to make," he said, with a significant glance at Captain Ukitake. "Yama-ji's not going to like this news."

"Genryuusai-dono deserves to hear it from us, and sooner rather than later."

The two captains moved towards the door of the lab. Kyoraku stopped, leveling Urahara with a significant glance. "I'm sorry that we've dropped this on you, Kisuke-kun, in more ways than you know. The Captain-Commander isn't going to be happy, and he's going to want answers to the questions this little pickle will bring up. All the questions." It was not a sensation Urahara would have associated with the man generally agreed to be the most carefree of the captains, but he could feel the intensity behind Kyoraku's gaze, just as he could feel the sweat begin to bead on his brow. "We'll be the ones taking the heat for the moment, but you're going to need to have your answers ready. You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"

Urahara suppressed the urge to swallow through a suddenly dry throat. "Yes, Captain Kyoraku, I think I do."

The silence in the laboratory was palpable upon the captains' exit. Even the buzzes and whirs of the motley machinery in the background seemed subdued.

"Hmm," Tessai Tsukabishi rumbled from his place along the outside wall.

Urahara nearly jumped out of his skin. "Damnit, Tessai, I wish you'd stop doing that."

"It is a poor subordinate who tries to make himself noticed when he is not needed," the big man replied, eyes inscrutable behind the glare of his spectacles. "It was not my place to comment to the captains about what I observed."

"If you had some ideas about this orb, I'm sure they would have been happy to hear them. I mean, just look at it, Tessai! Can't you feel its energy?"

Tessai stepped forward deliberately, his gaze never leaving Urahara. "I wasn't referring to the orb."

Kisuke blinked. "Sorry?"

"It is not that I failed to observe the orb. I felt the same thing everyone else felt about it; the twisted energies, the vast chasm of sensation it exudes, as inviting as a dark abyss. The same things everyone felt… except for you."

"Don't be ridiculous, Tessai. I know it wasn't the time or place to start spouting theories in front of two men who had just lost an old friend, but surely you see the possibilities here? This object, whatever it is, has shown us a way to break the boundaries between shinigami and hollow… and it was crafted by kido! If we could reproduce this material… synthesize it, somehow…"

"There," Tessai interrupted. "That is what I observed. I do not like the look in your eyes, Urahara-dono. It was not my place to point it out to the captains, but with you I shall be blunt. You see this thing for what it might be, and not for what it is. You are not wrong: it might be groundbreaking; it might be incredible. But it was forged by the very essence of a man we both admired, to contain an evil that we can just barely comprehend. You must not allow its potential to drive its nature from your mind."

Kisuke felt oddly ashamed, but only for a moment. He wouldn't admit it to most people, but Tessai and Yoruichi were the two people who knew him too well for him to deny their observations. Yoruichi could be wheedled or cajoled, up to a point, but Tessai served as much as his conscience as he did his subordinate. He wouldn't be fooled by false contrition. "I don't like looking at it that way, Tessai-san. I can't abide a world where people and things just are. They can change, or they can be changed. Nothing is static. Captain Ise may have died to create this, and he may have destroyed a terrible hollow in the process, but I can't help but see what this discovery might allow us to do, the things it might make possible. That's just who I am."

Tessai seemed to ponder that for a long while. "Then we had best make sure you can discover those possibilities properly. The captains went to a great deal of trouble bringing this boy here unseen, so we had best keep it that way. I'll set up a barrier for now, until a more permanent solution can be devised. A modified Kyomon should work for now, I think, to keep out prying eyes."

"Thank you, Tessai. For what it's worth, I'll try not to forget what you said."

"Hrmph," the big man sniffed. "If I understand Captain Kyoraku's intimations, I may have to enjoy offering blunt advice to you while I still can."