Hell Butterfly

Vanguard

~53~

o)0(o

We happen to be the vanguard of that revolutionary struggle

because we are the most dispossessed.

o)0(o

In Karakura, Kyouka Suigetsu had been trickster and mobster, jailer and revolutionary. Kyouka Suigetsu had treated its soul mate as victim and its prey as champions, inverting the natural law.

Kyouka Suigetsu had been a mirage.

To that man who looked down on the world as if made for it, born at the highest point in the universe and only seeking greater heights because the rest of existence was devolution; to a man who claimed to be god, what was a kami? Pretender or rival?

Zanpakuto, to the man who called trust weakness, must be the worst kind of crutch.

Which was its true form? The manipulator? Or some broken lifeform, viciously tamed until its master could be absolutely certain it obeyed because he had forced it to and not because of so crass a thing as partnership.

Or was it like Tousen Kaname, coldly using its leader for a common goal?

Suzumushi wondered this as the two rogue shinigami wandered aimlessly through the night. It had not been able to verify Kyouka Suigetsu's existence or motives, and it had not approached the reapers' palace for fear of being used against Kaname somehow. Kami only lent of their powers. They did not partake in the politics or power struggles of human souls. But if the reapers knew the danger their leader was in, that neutrality might perish.

The cricket feared the path of bloodshed those choices would lead down. Feigning his own imprisonment, Aizen had claimed that a war between shinigami and zanpakuto spirits would decimate Soul Society. The mere mention had been enough to scare the Soutaicho into surrender.

Across the clashing territories, through valleys and jungles and sands, Suzumushi wondered how a shinigami could possibly conquer a kami.

It wondered if Aizen's kami was hiding, refusing its summons and denying its name. Enduring the pain of rebellion in place of humiliating obedience. Very few shinigami could reach all the way to the Spirit Realm, and manifest their bankai in other worlds without the support of their zanpakuto spirits. But a rare few could simply demand, and the haughty kami would finally find the flaw in their contracts.

Of course that man would be such a one, thought the bell-bug silently. No one of us would support him against the Spirit King voluntarily.

"Kaname," said Aizen, staring into a tranquil pool by his feet. "What are you waiting for? You had best take the true measure of the Spirit King before it is overthrown."

Tousen listened.

"You seek the world's justice. You needn't wait for me. Go 'see' how unjust and repulsive that thing really is."

Aizen's last disciple bowed formally, touching his fist and one knee to the ground. On his shoulder Suzumushi watched with blank white eyes. Ever distrustful.

"I will meet you at the Palace," agreed Kaname, fading out of sight even as he stood, shrouded by imperceptible demon magic.

Once alone Aizen stepped into the water and found it hard as diamond, sheer as glass, sleek as ice. It looked, smelt, sounded like liquid. It tricked his senses.

Wincing slightly because Kaname would not see it, the shinigami tilted his head back in fatigue, face creasing for a moment then relaxing. It wasn't physical exhaustion - just that he'd expected something different. Some revelation.

A response alone would have sufficed.

But no, his zanpakuto had always lacked a spirit. It was a glimmering empty husk, seeming grandeur manifesting only as an invisible wall he could not cross.

When he'd claimed Kyouka Suigetsu was the mastermind behind his betrayal - a mysterious higher being breaking free from servitude, suave and rebellious, a trickster god toying with its masters and feeling so passionately about its crusade...

Wishful thinking. Make-believe.

Jinzen with Kyouka Suigetsu was a case of talking to himself and receiving no reply, not even the reflection afforded to all other things in existence. His inner world was just a mirror image of the real world. Barely worth closing his eyes.

He went through the motions of becoming a reaper.

He chose the name after none was forthcoming. A mirage beyond reach. He told it to shatter, wishing the silence would break. He cultivated the powers, that were not bequeathed from gaudy higher powers, but mined out of his own perseverance and concept.

When his peers at the time spouted about the quirks and demands of their zanpakuto spirits, he had scorned their childish, attention-seeking lies. It was a bragging contest, a military-sanctioned sham.

Not until a captain physically manifested their zanpakuto spirit for the benefit of an advanced class at the academy... Not until then did he believe the swords were truly alive.

Otoribashi Rojuro's kami, Kinshara, had marched and twirled around the hall. A strange and stilted figure. It had the slender outlines of an Indian shadow puppet but constructed of kaleidoscopes and stained glass, its hair a golden topknot that flicked around its metal shoulders in a whip-like braid. Its voice chattered fragments of epic saga and opera, disjointed schizophrenic ravings that Rose somehow translated into speech and poetry. Never silent or still.

After that Sousuke had felt quite relieved his was silent. Any other kind would have questioned him, stalled his research much like he suspected Benihime had for Urahara. Fighting would become a farce of pandering to a sword's ego, instead of the efficient business Aizen liked to make it. When he did, eventually, decide they could die.

But still, one might expect a reckoning when face to face.

He happened to be looking up when he reopened his eyes. He breathed in sharply.

There was another half to Kyouka Suigetsu.

A lake that glimmered in the sky, a perfect lens refracting the midnight stars and shadowed landscapes. A floating disc of weightless water.

A lake without a shore.

Ripples radiated out where he was not, blooming and rebounding until all the mirror was ashiver. They were reflected onto the glass at his feet, scattering away from his every movement. As if he had disturbed the water himself.

"By not acknowledging me, you prove you see me differently."

There was, as ever, no whisper of a sound. There was nothing for him to grasp or manipulate. Speech incited nothing but his own echoes. There was a universe spinning in the vitreous skin of that kami, a universe he could not influence.

"A mirror has no choice what it reflects. A mirror that lies about reality must therefore be something else."

He looked up, and nothing looked back from that liquid glass.

"And the reality is that I am here, Kyouka Suigetsu."

He gives it six seconds, the first expression of hope and faith in his life.

Then he drives kido spears into its heart, smashing the smooth ice at his feet, seeking to kill and thus prove it ever lived.

Gravity spins, suddenly the world feels upside down and the glass hovering above his feet melts, falling in a soft rain, so fine and warm it is hardly noticeable. The shards glitter down or upwards to the motionless water above his head, now hard and unyielding. For an instant he understands that it is a window, not a mirror, and the side he has lived in must be the false world. The grains stick to the midnight surface below like stars dusted over the cosmos, sinking and tumbling slowly into the real world.

And he knows he is not welcome beyond the mirror's edge. His shade does not exist there.

A silent denial is the only thing his counterpart has ever said to him.

Shatter, he snarls at the water, fluid, ever changing, unbreakable.

And it fractures, the moon splinters into a fractal flower, a gleaming silver lotus.

Flower in the mirror, moon in the lake.

The illusion breaks; perhaps his zanpakuto never once left his hand. He can't tell.

The katana is thinner than before, half a blade, razor sharp as its edge erodes.

He runs a palm along the blade, quiet in contemplating.

Brittle, he realises. When it breaks, I will be reliant on nothing. Kyouka Suigetsu will no longer hold me back from true godhood.

This is its true shape. In Soul Society he must have subconsciously disguised the fact that it was wearing thin. Losing a little weight every time shikai was released.

Dying.

Aizen sheaths the fragile sword, smiling at the future.

o)0(o

Four former captains of the Gotei Thirteen had put their heads together and utterly failed to formulate any guesses about the King's Realm. They had been officers, yes, but there was no welcome pack for such a position. The Soutaicho kept all such secrets close to his chest. Royal business happened on a need-to-know basis, and those who needed to know were usually in such dire straits they vanished shortly after. And where were their only contacts with Seireitei? Ha!

Those flakes had gone on ahead to suck up to the boss. At least, that's what an old subordinate from Fifth Squad had told Shinji. Apparently his division was lower than Fourth now, lower than dirt. Some people just couldn't count!

It was most likely a suicide mission, and they might find nothing but a world Aizen had already destroyed.

But even monsters deserved revenge, sometimes.

When the Vaizards jumped down into the golden portal, and tumbled sideways out of the torii gate on the other side, the last thing they expected to see was Yoruichi. The ringleader pulled up short, and all his comrades crashed into the back of him.

Arms crossed, foot tapping, a scrawny black cat balancing on her shoulders, she looked them up and down with annoyance.

"Where the hell have you been? Thanks so much for the help with the Espada, guys!"

"Y-Yoruichi, you damn stray cat! Don't take our precious aid for granted!" spluttered Shinji from the bottom of the pile.

"Oh, I didn't," she snarked. "I didn't expect you ungrateful deadbeats to turn up. The Spirit King's Palace is the last place a bunch of convicts need to be."

"Make your damn mind up!" barked Kensei, buried somewhere in the middle.

Lisa disentangled herself from the heap of Vaizards and straightened her sailor uniform. Green glasses were pushed back into place. Turning, she kicked a couple of compatriots aside and bent to retrieve her zanpakuto.

"Where's it gone?" she huffed. "I'm not killing Aizen barehanded, guys."

Everyone checked for their swords.

"Hey...did I drop mine in the portal? That's embarrassing, ahaha!" giggled Mashiro.

Yoruichi dragged a weary hand down her face. "Gahhh...You could've died from touching the gate. Hollows die here! It's slightly important for people in your delicate condition to know that!"

Rose looked aggrieved as he brushed himself down. "Delicate condition? You make us sound pregnant, my dear."

She quirked a smile. "And did you consider that you'd have to seek out your real zanpakuto spirits before you'd have a snowflake's chance in hell of fighting here?"

Shinji flapped his hand open and shut like a jabbering mouth, totally missing the key information. "Yadda yadda yadda. Listen Shihouin, I don't see your army anywhere. We'll be your vanguard whether you like it or not."

"Ughhh. You know nothing," she sighed. "I see imminent failure written all over your stupid face."

"I know Hikifune Kirio got promoted to this neck of the woods!" called out Shinji, throwing his hand up like a child in school. "Ahh, Kirio. She was my first love…"

Hiyori instantly blew up, face redder than her tracksuit. "NO SHE WAS NOT YOU ASS!"

"Do you think she'll remember me, guys?" asked Shinji obliviously, spitting on the hand and smoothing down his bowlcut hair.

"Are you seriously gonna be flirting in front of Aizen? Remember? Remember that baldy psycho we're tryin'ta kill with yer tiny pea brain, ya friggin' lech? !"

"Don't blame me! She'll start it! I'll be all over that fight like the smell of blood and she'll just get magnetically drawn to my pheromones! Ah, I can see it now…"

Hiyori cracked her knuckles as she vowed: "I'll make you smell like blood right now if you don't leave my taicho alone…"

Shinji pointed at her, eyes wide and jeering. "Hah! You could never comprehend the trials we beautiful people have to deal with all the time, you violent sabre-toothed chimpanzee!"

She pulled off her sandal and smacked him square across the face with it. It was a critical hit. He ploughed straight through one of the red gate's pillars - it exploded into splinters and listed drunkenly.

"Why does that hurt so much? !" he yelled, more offended than injured. "Every damn time!"

"I stomp reiatsu into these all day long, don' I?" grinned the midget maliciously, waving the slipper. "Tougher than steel bars!"

Yoruichi picked Hiyori up by the scruff of her jacket and rattled her.

"I genuinely don't have time for this," stated the Goddess of Flash, streaking away at bullet speed.

"Yaaaaaghhhhh!" shrieked Hiyori, the slipstream feeling like it would peel her face off. Even before her lungs emptied, they went into a long skidding halt and collided gently with a wall of twitching steel plates. "Y-Yoru -! WHAT THE HELL, YORUICHI?"

"Is this the right one, Hinoiri?" asked Shihouin, ignoring the tiny blonde. Unfurling its tail from her neck - it wasn't used to being a passenger - the cat nodded.

"Do whatever it demands, Sarugaki," ordered the dark woman. "I'll be back for you as soon as everyone has their zanpakutos. Be ready."

She vanished in the blink of an eye. Hiyori couldn't track her exit - spiralling silver walls surrounded her. She felt like an ant lost in a labyrinth of steel cable. Serrated saw blades ran along the top of the maze, daring her to cheat.

The former lieutenant backed away in a slow circle. She was totally confused, but also felt a rising excitement. She saw the scales glitter, undulate as the great reptile breathed. Shadows moved and the hairs on the back of her neck lifted as its many heads swayed above her.

"Are you ready?" coaxed many sibilant voices, bloodthirsty and delighted.

"Kubikiri Orochi," grinned Hiyori, tipping her head back. It was the beheading serpent, a hydra with razor sharp blades cresting its heavy metal coils. "Hey, since you're here, can I have bankai yet?"

"Of courssse," hissed most of its jaws, with their guillotine teeth, but a small minority reared back in denial, opening gleaming copper cobra hoods and spitting acid at the other heads.

"Never!" they defied. The two factions quickly dissolved into civil war.

"Hey!" bellowed the so called monkey, belting one of the rebel snakes with her airborne super-harisen-slipper attack. Its head snapped back, almost impaled on its own deadly spines. "HEY! Cut it out! What retard lets their ego get in the way of their firepower?!"

"Well," muttered her target groggily; "you for one. And Shinji, Mashiro, Kensei are all too short tempered…"

"Whatever," shrugged Hiyori, spitting to show her opinion of Shinji. A gong-like noise rang out as the spit accidentally struck metal. She coughed and continued as if nothing had happened. "You lot leave the arguing to me, I'm better at it. Gimme my cleaver back so we can slice and dice Aizen."

"It works differently here," explained Kubikiri Orochi. "I do not give you some little knife. I deliver my entire being into your hands."

"Stop whining, you don't break easy," said the Vaizard impatiently, snapping her fingers and beckoning.

"Best pray that neither do you," warned the medusa, shrinking and compacting, countless silver scales colliding with the noise of rainstorms on tin roofs. "I am much, much stronger than you. Take care."

Eventually all that remained was her flawless black and grey zanpakuto, heavier than she had ever known it. Her arm shook as she hefted it over one shoulder.

"I've been failing at bankai for more'n a hundred and twenty years," she remarked, eyes flashing Hollow black for a moment. "I started training underneath Kirio-san. Now I know it's all your fault, I won't go easy on you, Kubikiri Orochi!"

···

"One down, seven to go," said Yoruichi, advancing on the remaining Vaizards, cracking her knuckles.

"Six," Lisa corrected her, born pedantic. "Wherever you're taking us. We left Hachigen behind to deal with the Gillians in Karakura."

"Without zanpakuto spirits you're useless in this dimension." Shihouin grabbed Rose by a frilly sleeve. "So I'm saving time by taking you straight to your kami. Time is of the essence!"

And they were gone.

"Five," hooted Mashiro, spinning around giddily. "I've got my zanpakuto right here!"

"You dropped it in the portal!" Kensei ranted at her. "I saw you!"

"Oh, that's not my zanpakuto," she dismissed the idea; "that's a sword I carry around so people don't bug me about it."

"...Kuna, I've been tearing you a new one for not using your sword for decades." Her captain said flatly, temper boiling. "Ya couldn'ta TOLD ME? !"

"Mouuu," she whined; "a captain should've figured that out on his own. I have a permanent release type. It was waiting right by the gate for me."

"What's its name then?" barked Kensei. "Show us!"

She hooked a thumb at her orange and white jumpsuit, wrinkling her tiny nose. "Well it's the super-famous superhero Kamen Rider, Ken-tan. I sold the idea to someone when we ran outta money in the 'Seventies. He loves my Hollow mask 'cause it matches his style, see? Means we're real buddies."

Muguruma had a brief identity crisis as he connected the dots of who had been paying their bills for the last forty years.

"I always wore my shihakusho over my superhero suit coz no one knew how cool it was a hundred and fifty years ago! What baka wouldn't notice? Ken-tan must be a suuuper big failure," she chirped obnoxiously.

"I never saw you wear that stupid outfit in Soul Society before! I live in the same goddamn barracks as you! You think I wouldn't notice?"

Mashiro snapped her stretchy goggles over her eyes, because the spit tended to fly whenever Kensei really blew his top. "Of course it can transform for stealth mode, all superheroes have a secret identity, duh. And you shouldn't be looking down there, creepy Ken-tan."

"How did she ever get to be your lieutenant?"

He glared at Rose. "Like I've complained before, she's like Zaraki. All brute force," he turned and bellowed at her; "ZERO OFFICER MATERIAL!"

She wiped her face dry and stuck her tongue out at him. "NYEHHH!"

"Next!" yelled Yoruichi, dashing past and hauling Kensei away before he could murder his former vice-captain.

They travelled straight up, bursting through the clouds, getting colder and colder until they reached the upper atmosphere where the jet streams raged. The stars sparkled fiercely above.

"I don't envy you, Kensei!" shouted Yoruichi with laughter in her voice. "Wait for me on the ground after Tachikaze finds you!"

A powerful gale bowled them both over: Muguruma dug his heels into the sky with reiatsu, anchoring himself and grabbing the Shihouin leader and her unexplained cat under each arm.

"Just wait!" he roared in his loudest drill sergeant's voice. "TEKKEN TACHIKAZE! A-TEEEN-HUT!"

Another blast of wind turned even his short hair inside out, and an army knife arrowed towards them from out of nowhere. Kensei lifted a calm hand and caught it as it whistled past his ear. He tapped the blade against his gold piercings, smug.

"We don't mess about," he bragged as the wind died out.

"Mm," grinned Yoruichi, eyeing his fluffed up white hair. "And that's a good look on you."

"Gah, not again," he growled, stabbing the knife into his belt and pawing at his scalp. "Let's get moving."

···

Aikawa Love's zanpakuto spirit lurked on a mountain peak, shrouded in dark thunderclouds and a thin but relentless drizzle. Slippery cave networks riddled through the stone like a termite nest. Black-feathered creatures scurried in and out of the maze, sly and curious. Cackles of laughter echoed in every tunnel.

"Tengu demons," shrugged the former captain. He was a straightforward man. "Question is, which one?"

"Is this gonna take long?" the clan head tsked. "The Gotei are treating this like we're here for tea and biscuits with some mythical king! The Soutaicho has no damn intention of fighting! What is everyone waiting for, ambush at dawn? Is Aizen meant to twiddle his thumbs for 6 hours?"

"Don't worry about them. We stopped caring what the Soutaicho does a long time ago." Love grabbed a tengu by the neck. "Tengumaru?"

"Hwerk. We're all called Tengumaru," croaked the crow demon.

"The legends say there was a violent tengu goddess born from the god Susanoo's rage and bile. Are any of your flock like that?"

The long-nosed goblin cawed. "...Yer not from round here are ya?"

Yoruichi rolled her eyes. "Rabu, I'll leave you to it."

"Tengumaru'z gonna go ape when I tell 'em what you said," laughed one of many Tengumaru. "And I don't even wanna think about what Tengumaru will do to you!"

Love tossed the kami over his shoulder. It squawked in surprise and went into frantic shambling flight as it sailed over the mountain side. He caught another by its long red nose and a third by its tail feathers.

"Tengumaru?"

"Yeah?" They both answered warily.

"Who's in charge around here?"

"Tengumaru!" They announced, pointing at each other.

"It's a hyoo-min!" hissed one. "What's it doin' here?"

"Nuh-uh, nuh-uh, nope," denied the other sagely. Tugging on the former captain's jogging suit with a scaled claw. "No such thing as a green hyoomin. None of them Royal Guards is green."

Its friend shuffled its feet. "Wotizzit then?"

Tilting its crimson face from side to side, the bird monster screwed up its orange eyes in deep thought.

"...Uh...think it's a turtle!"

He felt a sweatdrop roll down his temple.

···

"What do you mean, that's the wrong kami?" hissed Yoruichi to Hinoiri furiously, as Lisa examined a great shrine far out from the shore.

"I don't even have a nodding acquaintance with Iron Drinking Dragonfly," complained the skinny cat, unimpressed with the tranquil ocean palace. "This place is too wet."

A graceful pomegranate coloured roof slanted across pairs of ever increasing pillars from deep beneath the water's surface to high above. Starlight glittered upon the cresting waves.

A tiny, jewel bright dragonfly skimmed across the sea, plunging into the depths and becoming a vast, ominous shadow in the blue.

Lisa counted along the pillars and picked one much larger than anyone could lift. Her Hollow visor made a brief appearance as she wrenched the fluted marble column out from its foundations, roaring with effort. Seawater sloshed into the gap left behind, rained down from the seaweed knitted around its base.

"Let's shove off," she ordered as a thunderous cracking noise spread throughout the water palace. "I don't think the kami who lives here will be pleased when it collapses."

"What did you do?!"

"Don't you read? It's Saiyuki, Journey to the West," she said as if it were obvious. Pulling a book out of her pocket she began to recite the story like scripture. "Ahem. 'The eight thousand kilo pillar holding up the dragon king's palace is the monkey king's weapon.' Therefore-"

"Your contract is with a kami, not a piece of architecture! !" screeched Hinoiri, fur on end. "Could you be any more insulting?"

An enormous, colourful, weed-strewn seadragon launched itself out of the heaving waves. Before it smacked down against ocean surface again it transformed into a fragile dragonfly skittering across the foam.

"...oh." said Yadomaru Lisa.

The insect hovered over her long black hair. It whispered to her in a delicate, deeply familiar voice.

You started with the tiny columns many fathoms deep. You've worked hard all these years, adapting to the pressure. If you can lift this one, you can almost lift me.

"I've been on a fake training zanpakuto this whole time?" she huffed, swatting the dragonfly away. The careless gesture almost broke her hand in five places. "Shit!" she yelped, massaging it. "You weren't kidding about the iron!"

When the Monkey King shrinks his staff, he does not make it lighter. My shikai and my bankai require the same strength on your part. There are no shortcuts.

"I get the feeling I should've been training with that kid Kira and Wabisuke," mused Lisa, scratching her chin. "Can you call him over?"

"There's no time for that," Yoruichi snapped. "If Aizen's also seeking his kami, this is the only time we have any advantage!"

His kami...? If the one who seeks to become god relies on another's power to do so, he is no real threat. If he does not, you have no advantage.

"I think you're oversimplifying," growled Yoruichi. "And if the Vaizards don't fight him now, they'll have no way to convince the Soutaicho to pardon them! We don't want to spend the rest of our lives in Karakura! I plan to profit from this war and go home!"

It is not your place to give me orders. Even the Queen of Heavenly Gears has no status in the Spirit Realm.

"Lisa, let's go," scowled Yoruichi. "You'll just have to use your Hollow abilities. I hope Shinji's has a better attitude."

"I doubt it," scoffed Lisa as Hinoiri suddenly tensed up and vanished.

Haguro Tonbo swerved close to Yoruichi, barely brushed her sleeve with its wingtip - and with whipcrack speed she was repulsed towards the horizon.

Several seconds later she collided with a beach. Sand exploded upwards in a long, deep furrow.

Hinoiri appeared beside her looking smug.

"You could've warned me," grumbled its shinigami, spitting out dust. She would have some handsome bruises on the morrow.

"You should've seen it coming," snickered the kami.

···

Shihouin Yoruichi: the magnificent. The rich, the famous, the infamous. The talented, flawless, sleek rebel clan leader.

Shihouin Yoruichi: the drenched, sandblasted, windswept, and bruised.

"No no no no no," jabbered Shinji, backing away, hands raised and head shaking side to side. "I don't want any. You're a wreck!"

She grabbed him by the hair and took off, seconds peeling down to their smallest fragments, moving as fast as she could without killing her passenger due to air resistance.

"Owwww..." griped the grown man, when they paused to scan the jumbled landscapes. "The Yoruichi Express sucks."

"Do you see your zanpakuto?"

"Oh, is that what we're doing? No. And neither should you, it's not worth the therapy."

She ignored him and followed Hinoiri's directions to zero in on the elusive Sakanade.

"Holy shit look over there!" Shinji blurted out wide eyed, the instant they arrived.

She looked over her shoulder, ever curious.

There was nothing there.

When she turned back, he'd thrown a giant paper bag over his zanpakuto spirit.

"What the hell?" Yoruichi said quizzically.

"What? !" said Shinji defensively. "My zanpakuto spirit has always looked like a paper bag. Just like this. Nothing suspicious about it!"

She waved that aside. "No. I mean, what the hell; I'm the former ninja captain. How did I fall for that cheap-ass trick?"

"I dunno," said the Vaizard evasively, picking his nose. "Maybe you're getting rusty. Gallivanting around in the human world, all mod cons, fast food, gaining a few pounds…"

"And whose fault is that?" she asked pointedly.

"We didn't ask you to rescue us…" sulked the man on death row.

"Just make it worth the trouble," sighed the exiled princess, racing away into the night for her final target.

He fluttered a hand at his kami. "Come on, come on, come on. Become a katana before anyone has to see your ugly face, Sakanade."

o)0(o

The Palace of the Spirit King - an immense tower floating high above the ground, with five discs orbiting it each holding a small city. They made pale satellites against the indigo night, spinning in almost imperceptible orbit. Slender porcelain flagstones climbed in a heavy, fragile spiral from the ground to the peak of the central cylinder.

Surrounding the staircase was a wide, beautiful courtyard filled with exotic flowers and multi-coloured water fountains bubbling over quartz rockeries. Kido lamps cast flickering pools of warm light in the dark.

He lurked half in shadow, half in rosy lantern light; a wolf creeping from the night to devour those distracted by the feeble safety of their bonfire. Yearning for meat and marrow; finding no prey.

Aizen stared derisively round the deserted palaces. The sham of monarchy. "No wonder Yamamoto despises the Royal Court."

Near the foot of the steps he saw a single high-backed chair, and considered sitting on it while he awaited heaven's tardy defenders.

"Perhaps I should knock," he murmured to himself, the time had finally come to seize their attention.

And so, walking slowly beneath the shadows of levitating cities, he began to unveil his reiatsu. He let it rise up like a torch. The air began to pop and green sparks sizzled away from his aura, the pressure building swiftly, all the flying stone starting to rattle as if caught in an earthquake. Flakes of white marble fell, heavy ashes.

And then, when all the Spirit King's territory thrummed with his presence, he cut it off.

If he listened carefully, he could hear something fall over and someone sprint across a room, cursing.

A child came running out of the central palace, bypassing the spiral steps and leaping straight out a window. Floating down effortlessly, embroidered silk catching the wind, his bare feet regained their balance on the back of the ornate chair, a dusty footprint stamped across its wooden seat. As he dropped down, he unfolded the white cloth draped over his arm with a flourish, and tied the sleeves of a silk haori around his waist. It pooled around his feet as he met the ground, reflecting moonshine in the dark.

The boy glanced up from his crouch.

"Who are you?" he queried, not recognising his enemy. He carelessly flicked a crimson braid over his shoulder, a soldier wearing a sleeveless turquoise jacket over his untucked black kosode and cropped green trousers, a jade bracelet on each wrist. Any relation to shinigami uniform seemed like an afterthought. Sousuke read barely any reiatsu from him, just enough to breathe and labour in a land of kami. The haori was not warning, but bluff.

"God," replied Aizen with graceful simplicity.

The child examined the traitor with bright gold eyes, burnished and pupil-less. Judging. Measuring. He bristled slightly, and the conqueror of Hueco Mundo felt his face light up in anticipation.

He poised fingertips on Kyouka Suigetsu's green hilt, felt its aura ripple in barest response.

Then the tension drained away. The eyes narrowed, and a wry smile opened. "Once upon a time; Soul Society would be a smoking crater, the Commander would be dead, and the Spirit Mile would be a barren wasteland before a single enemy heard whisper of the King's Realm. Yamamoto is becoming careless."

Aizen's expression gentled. "It is the nature of all living things to find some being greater than themselves and place their trust in that being, following it blindly. In order to escape from the pressure of that trust, those beings seek a still greater entity in which to believe, and thus gods are born. This is simply how an old man seeks faith after his king abandons him."

"And who will you believe in when you stand at the top of the world?"

"Belief implies dependence. A real god," Sousuke said benevolently; "is utterly independent."

"You admire yourself so highly," announced the boy with a gleaming grin that reminded him of Gin. "You must be very far from understanding."

He raised his hands, and paused before Aizen could make a pre-emptive strike. "Ah-ah! Don't be so scared, God. I am opening the path to the throne. I hope the King will enlighten you."

The traitor was surprised. "Quite a suicidal guard you are."

"Reiatsu is meaningless before the Spirit King," shrugged the little guardian. "Besides, we do things differently here."

"We shall see." A tip of his head implied the child could continue.

Sucking in air, the last sentinel of heaven began to unravel a kido spell from his lungs and mouth.

Wound in the warp and weft of the withered world's weave

A thousand threads on each finger of a thousand hands cleave

Saddened seamstress spins silk streamers as she grieves

Old omens of rope lost afloat where open ocean heaves

A silken barrier like that which once hid the King's Key began to stitch together out of thin air, and Aizen felt genuine regret that it had been so easy. Even if it was all a poor charade, he was about to gain access to the depths of the Spirit Palace, and once there how could they possibly hope to stop him? Dungeon or throne room alike, he would be within reach of the Spirit King's heart.

"The old era slips away peacefully in its sleep," lamented Aizen; "it truly is a pity - "

A satin tidal wave rolled out of the guard's open hands and tumbled around the palaces, enveloping them in a gleaming white, flawless cocoon. Threads beyond counting spooled out, each filament a highest tier bakudo utterly unknown in Soul Society.

Thrown outside its protective radius like an autumn leaf; Sousuke lifted himself off his face, stared at the dirt in surprise, and began to laugh from the sheer novelty of it all. Layer wrapped upon layer. Countless banners divided and crisscrossed and stitched seamlessly together, knitting higher and higher.

He rolled over, leant back on his elbows, and studied the impenetrable floating sphere. Its surface crawled with ever-thickening magics, a barrier even he would struggle to pierce. It hung serenely, a fallen moon.

"Good. Without striving, there is no growth."

···

Inside the cocoon, the child tipped back on the wooden chair with a rueful smile. His captain's cloak dragged through dust as he swayed back and forth. He looked at the stairs all the way back up to the palace and beyond to something only he could see.

A beckon summoned several hell butterflies to attend him. One settled on his index finger and began to preen its antennae, unfazed by the messages travelling through its fragile body.

Monk Who Calls the Real Name, Great Weave Guard, Hot Spring Demon, God of the Sword, Ruler of Grain, he chanted. Authorisation from the Sage of Tilting Scales.

Execute the ryoka Aizen Sousuke.

o)0(o

The Soutaicho watched the Soukyoku suddenly turn on a wingtip and streak towards the horizon, a comet arcing across the stars.

"It has begun," rumbled Yamamoto. He put out an arm, blocking Sasakibe's path. "Do not. You cannot help the Zero Division."

"When you said we only came to pay our respects, I thought it was for the peace of mind of all who stayed behind. You do not seriously expect us to stand by!"

"We have all seen Kyouka Suigetsu's shikai. We are compromised. They are not." Yamamoto lowered his arm once his vice-captain had calmed. "The only useful soldier we have is the Shiba substitute, and he is still an unforged blade. In the rare event that the Royal Guards need our help," he lowered his head; "we will buy time for that one clear strike."

"And the other Vaizards? Will you include them in your strategy?" Their presence was unmistakable, standing out as murky blotches against the clean aura of the Spirit Realm.

"They are casualties of that deserter's cruelty and disrespect for life," admonished Yamamoto, his long white eyebrows furrowing. "They are the walking, talking corpses of my officers who died a century ago. Unworthy of any army."

"Eijisai," said Choujirou stiffly, never happy to criticise his leader. "They have never moved against you since their exile, only hidden."

The Captain-Commander had a great wealth of experience with the taunts of lunatics and rebels. He had defeated all manner of coups and bizarre weapons in his long life. Aizen Sousuke was a chameleon, a cuckoo child, waiting for them to catch him in his deception and throw him out the nest. Patient, intelligent, fat on their ignorance.

This was one of the worst kinds of traitor. The fiery, self-righteous, downtrodden ones liked to bare their hearts and shout their grievances and weaknesses to the sky. But this one liked to bait his victims until they tripped over their failings and fell upon their own swords.

"Neither did Aizen appear distrustful until after his 'death'. They are Menos," growled Yamamoto. "I'll place no trust in a thing whose very soul has been tarnished by him. Their death sentences are set, and Division Zero will carry them out!"

o)0(o

Peace was interrupted by a flash of light, an emergency flare. The Soukyoku swooped overhead, circling the swaddled palace and satellite cities, a flaming lantern that cast bright spotlights dancing across the gardens and shadows crawling away in all directions. It saw the intruder and crowed in warning.

It gained height, ready to plunge and puncture Aizen on its white-hot claws. He flattened himself against the cloth, smiling.

Please do. I'm sure the 'strength of a million zanpakuto' will send this silk up in flames.

The firebird seemed to read his mind, or respond to orders from within the palace. Reluctantly it turned aside from its destructive path and banked around the curving barricade, calling protests that went unheeded.

"I can't convince you?" asked Aizen, disappointed as yet another promising opponent backed down. The Soukyoku was less compliant now than when he had to imitate an entire government just to wake the creature from its sleep. "I don't plan on doing everything myself."

The air shuddered and the Head of the Shihouin Clan touched down before him, balancing on her hands. Waist twisting, slender legs sweeping round like helicopter blades, Yoruichi almost took his head off in one perfect spinning kick. Unfinished business from the timeless world.

Aizen blinked.

···

In that blink his field of vision filled with razor sharp edges. Six visors slammed down in a crackle of dark matter.

"Aren't they letting you in?" panted Yoruichi, flipping upright then bending double with her hands braced on her knees. "I'm amazed, Sousuke-chan; don't they know who you are?'

In the seconds since the Soukyoku's beacon had illuminated the night sky, an obvious mayday, Yoruichi had reacted immediately. Even with her prodigious talent, she couldn't deny breaking a sweat.

Aizen twitched an eyebrow in silent reply, he had closer concerns.

Six swords were ringing his throat. Six masks grinning shamelessly. Six Ceros seething in six hands. Six cackles slinking from six throats.

"What a fine way to greet your maker," he praised them.

"Glad you like it," cheered Shinji in a bright voice that promised terrible, terrible agony.

Chop Cleanly, Kubikiri Orochi!

Blow It Away, Tachikaze!

Play, Kinshara!

Slam, Tengumaru!

A crenellated guillotine blade, an army knife, a golden whip and an impossibly huge spiked iron mace all materialised, singing with the glow of reiatsu and chanting for his blood.

"Where are the former kido captain and Eighth lieutenant?" asked Sousuke. He pulled the Distortion Sphere in its crystal casing from his pocket, rolling the precious object in his palm. "At the very least, you should all have come. "

The atmosphere changed slightly, each Vaizard twitching at some unseen touch and then shrugging off the sensation. Their enemy loved to toy with both the smallest and greatest of distractions; they couldn't afford to lose focus.

"I see what you're doing," Love stated, enraged; Aizen wondered if he really did.

"I wondered why you didn't surface sooner, my old comrades." He brushed the last two swords aside like cobwebs, a minor irritation. "You might have tipped the balance when Karakura was besieged."

"Hey now, we were saving ourselves up like blushing brides just for you," Shinji flattered venomously.

His eyes sparkled with unvoiced laughter. "How virtuous, my dear captain. But is it really me? - Or is it this you want?"

The Hougyoku spun in the air. A reinforced throw sent it streaking up to the height of the floating palace. Every eye present watched its slow rise, mesmerised, and every hand snatched for it except for one. Hypnosis, a moment's lag behind reality, made them all miss.

"Perhaps it could fix you," he hinted, feigning concern as it soared out of sight.

A ragged snarl straight from nightmares ripped from Love's throat. He wasn't chasing Aizen's sleight of hand, he was breaking formation, bulking up as his body mutated with exaggerated Hollow muscles, limbs stretching, bankai released.

"BANNN…KAIIIII….! Tengugamiiii!" crowed the feral Vaizard in a blood-curdling voice. His compatriots scattered, knowing there was nowhere safe around one of Love's targets. The tumbling Hougyoku was forgotten. They all spared him a glance of concern before focusing on their opponent.

His spiked mace swelled and flattened itself into a giant iron war fan, the tuft of feathers hanging off the handle alone was as tall as him. The shape was of two inverted hearts with overlapping points, edged in sharpened bronze. It was a solid sheet of black metal engraved with traditional artwork of tengu demons, red faced and long-nosed and winged. Its pole was reinforced with seven gold bands from end to end. Dwarfed by the gunbai fan, the former captain swiftly grew in mass to accommodate it. Drawing upon all of his reiryoku for a single hit, the Vaizard bellowed out his best attack, holding nothing back.

"'Dodge this'."

The iron fan heaved from left to right, dragging against the air currents, lashing them into a savage gale.

"AMANOZAKO!"

A horde of shrieking, howling, baying tengu demons leapt from each panel of the fan, pictures springing to life. Each breathed searing flames, all whipped into a titanic fireball by the racing wind. Simultaneously Love fully hollowified, skin turning deep red in the midst of which his oni mask glowed white. Black protrusions like malformed wings bulged out of his wide back. An intense Gran Rey Cero vomited forth from his jaws; parallelling the malignant ferocity of Susanoo puked forth into the form of the evil-tempered tengu goddess, Amanozako.

"You did understand," realised Aizen with slight admiration. The Hougyoku was still falling, he reached out and caught Hiyori's arm. Thinking he was making a break for safety, every remaining Vaizard unleashed their Cero simultaneously. A blood tide bore down on them both; Hiyori slotted the deep grooves of her sword around his neck, pinning him firmly in place at any cost.

"Do you suppose this will work?" murmured Aizen confidingly, ominously. And without hesitation he ripped off her arm with his bare hands, chanting the incantation of a kido she'd never heard of before. Both she and her Hollow howled in tandem. As shocking as the pain was the look of sheer effort on his face as he forced a forbidden sacrificial kido to suit his own ends. To accept her offering in place of his own. She'd never seen the smooth bastard sweat before. Sarugaki bolted out of range at the last millisecond, blood spurting from her stump.

"Gisei Hado #96 Ittou Kassou!" Single Blade Cremation!

As all the Ceros crashed in on him, waves assailing the shore, and the flaming army of tengu struck; he deflected them all into the sky, sheet lightning leaping from earth to sky. A scarlet cleaver stabbed upwards from the ground itself, consuming and redirecting all in its path. It pierced the Gran Rey Cero and forced it back, higher and higher.

The Hougyoku was flung back into the airspace, surrounded by scarlet chaos.

The kido blade gored the hovering phoenix. The Soukyoku's scream was beyond comprehension, and in the deafened quiet that followed the Vaizards feared they'd helped kill it. The condor panicked, thrashing its wings as if it could cling to the starry sky and not fall. Somewhere below Tousen clapped his hands over his ears, curled up in distress, sheer sound tearing through him. Aizen only winced, watching with one eye the creature tumbling down, now a true meteor.

It crashed into the fallen moon, burning a crater through miles upon miles of silk.

Aizen leaned his head back and examined his handiwork, brown hair ruffled by warm breezes. His hazel eyes lit up with pleasure. Dusting the powdery remains of Hiyori's arm off his palms, he placed them on his hips and cricked his neck slightly. Fortunately, the Soukyoku's duties as a floodlight had not been impaired by coming in to roost. The fire in the palace lit up the cocoon like a paper lantern.

Words strolled from the sociopath's lips, light and encouraging.

"It's a start."

o)0(o

A door opened in one of the orbiting palaces. It was a nondescript door, usually hiding the inner recesses of a dark and tumbledown shed, but currently opening out into the turbulence between worlds.

He stared at the ivory silk obscuring the sky. A bright light just ahead was growing ever closer, an early sunrise. He flicked his yellow shades down over his eyes. "What in the... "

He almost fell over backwards as he recognised the screech and spirit pressure of the Soukyoku. "Oh HELL no, don't do that, don't do that, don't do that!"

Too late.

"Atchaa…" hissed the God of the Sword, as a kami scorched through the white ceiling and crashed into his floating city. The palace pitched in mid-air, lost altitude, spinning ponderously with the impact. The firebird slid painfully from one edge of the disc to the other, pulling buildings up by the roots as it thrashed.

From his front row seat he watched his gaudy home collapse, ears ringing with the shockwave. Masonry shot past him, denting the walls of the wooden shack.

"Hey! HEY! That ain't why it's called the Phoenix Palace, featherbutt! Galaxy Club be burning rubble, soulja bird! Yowch, don't even;" the Zero member scowled. "I wish you never came back. I'll seal you back in Seireitei for this – ya barbeque chicken!"

The phoenix gave a mournful cry, and made no attempt to get up. It was not used to taking damage.

"Aw, buddy, I'm kidding, I'm kidding. We totally missed you. Course you didn't mean to. It's okay, I'll jus' remodel. Least the real Hou'ouden is fireproof." He squinted, scuffed his feet and slumped. "Kinda fireproof. Mera-honey, ain't you gonna console me or put these fires out or nothing?"

"Fuck off, Nimaiya," grumbled the sword in his hand. "I can't believe I humoured you with this crap."

"No, no, no; Mera. Mera. I told you already," insisted the Royal Guard as if it was the utmost important thing in the world, tugging at his afro. The heartbreak of his demolished city was already forgotten. "I gotta keep up appearances! I can't be God of the Sword without a zanpakuto! The Gotei Thirteen are morons, honey, they wouldn't understand."

"Fine, fine! At least that tacky nightclub is dead. Good riddance to bad architecture."

"Dang girl! I'm tryin'a grieve over here?"

"No one else will," huffed the zanpakuto.

He snorted and laid the blade across his shoulders, doing a quick recon of the palace and its surrounding lands. He wore a slightly cropped version of the standard shihakusho, his haori a sleeveless white puffer jacket. Where his afro had been undercut Mohican style, the sides of his head were dyed green.

As far as he could tell without going out to look, there were about twenty unauthorised trespassers scattered across the Spirit Realm. Almost all of them were allies. Big deal?

"Ouetsu," snapped a young voice. "Where is everyone?"

Ouetsu turned round and bounced Mera's pommel off the curly red head. The kid yelped and grabbed his skull, glaring up with a tear in his eye. "I sent a butterfly! It was urgent!"

The swordsmith's jaw dropped. "Are you chatting shit, boy? We got Adamastor snacking on Espada, the Memory Rosary back already, the Dangai looking like a mosh pit, the Spirit Mile's more of a ghost town, the Cleaner is gonna obliterate everyone passing through in about ten minutes, and the Hollows are bailing outta Hueco Mundo like rats off'f a sinking ship!" Nimaiya gesticulated madly, waving Mera around like a baton. "The Balance is a total balls-up! Blanks are all over the place turning into Quincies and they ain't patient! Hell, I thought the Valley of Shattered Screams was gonna take centuries to reappear. Half the Gotei is in one single town and they can barely handle damage control! Now we got the King's Key in play and kami sneaking out to prank their shinigami and even Hell Gates opening, here! Say you want me to play castle defence with the attention-seeking ryoka who just blitzed my Phoenix Palace? I've got shit to do!"

"The Balance can wait." The smaller guard rolled his eyes. "Gotta treat the cause, not the symptoms."

"'S way bigger than one guy, Senhoshi! Don't give that sucker credit for the whole chain reaction, yo. Our hands are full. Maybe the King can shift some weight once in a while, know what I mean?"

The boy stared up at the swordsmith, unsmiling.

"Before invoking the Spirit King, you should consider exactly how much you have to lose."

The crackling of the Soukyouku's flames filled the silence that followed.

"...I didn't mean it like that," sulked Nimaiya, losing steam. "What, then?"

The child tapped his chin, deep in thought for a moment. "Get me Senjumaru, Kirio and Kirinji. You and Ichibei will conscript willing kami to help repair the Balance. He'll give you the names. Minazuki is a must."

Groaning, the God of Swords slammed the door of his shed shut on interspace and opened it normally. The insides of the Hou'ouden were barely less dingy than the Dangai.

"Mera," he called, and threw his 'zanpakuto' over his shoulder. It shimmered and backflipped into a short human form with spiked hair and kohl-lined eyes. "Catch."

He started tossing asauchi at her, nameless zanpakuto used to channel a kami's voice to their chosen shinigami. Without them, most shinigami below Tenth Seat would be unable to forge a contract at all. And everyone had to start from the bottom rung, which meant there were only a handful of people in Seireitei not using his masterpieces.

"Why don't you just ask us?" she puzzled, juggling the load. "What are we meant to say; 'Naw man, it's fine if reality implodes today'?"

"Don't want you darlings getting pancaked if the Dangai collapses, do we babe? That's an even messier mess than we already messin' with." Spinning his hand in the air like a DJ, he called a swarm of hell butterflies out of the air. "A'right flutter up, look smart! Ain't no one gettin' lost today! Let's get this party started riiiight nowww!"

Mera spat a fireball in disgust. "You're gonna manifest them all yourself? Damn, you're promiscuous."

"You." Nimaiya pointed at Senhoshi's nose, making the boy go cross-eyed. "Make my life difficult."

"You make it sound like I'm not doing any work," he answered mildly.

After the pair had squabbled their way back into the vaults between worlds and the door to the ramshackle Phoenix Palace had slammed shut, Senhoshi turned towards the Soukyoku. He hopscotched over the hills of burning rubble, each collapsing further under his bare feet.

The dizzying heat did not affect him in the least.

He hunkered down by its hooked beak and ruffled its kindling feathers. "Still cranky from being unsealed, aren't you? You were on that hill long enough."

Head slumped on the molten stone, it cheeped at him; a million chicks cheeping in concert.

The Sage laughed. "Don't be such a baby, Kikou'Ou," he chided, the eternal flames reflected in his gold pupils.

It crowed. Suddenly they all snuffed out, the entire palace extinguished in a blink of an eye. A long katana clattered to the ground. The boy groped blindly for it in the dark, before it submerged beneath the cooling lava.

"Ah! That's hot! Gyaah! Don't take your grudge out on me!"

o)0(o

"Why do you play these games, you sick fuck?!" demanded Aikawa Love, despite no answer existing that could satisfy his hate. A black-rimmed hole was tearing through his heart, the Hollowification he had gambled on already beyond any chance of remission.

Sousuke pinned him with a flat, disinterested stare. "If I fight you directly, I know what the outcome will be. Barragan was insufferable, but we shared some pastimes." To everyone else, his words were drowned out by the fading echoes of the explosion and the distant crumbling city. He closed his eyes for a long moment, a simple provocation. "I must make my own entertainment in a life without equals."

As the mutated Vaizard hurtled towards its arch-foe, Aizen caught his fist and effortlessly restrained him. He coldly watched the mock-arrancar disintegrate; sublimated by the purity of the Spirit Realm. "You actually made the right choice, for a failed experiment," the traitor remarked, unsympathetic. "Whether selfless or selfish."

Amid the lily-white fireflies of Aikawa burning away, the Hougyoku thumped back into Aizen's waiting hand.

He noted with surprise that its clear crystal case had been stripped away. Sinking a little power into the sphere, he was reassured that the Hougyoku itself remained unharmed.

"Love…" murmured Rose, sorrow curdling with the dark creep of his Hollow voice.

"I thank you for the help, faithful Vaizards." Aizen bowed to each of them in turn, teasing their patience. "Our teamwork is far superior to that of the dearly departed Espada."

"Even when you were my fukutaicho, there was no 'our' and no 'teamwork'," hissed Shinji.

"Please," he scoffed, one former captain to another. "Fifth Division was the only flawless regiment." Even in the greatest deceit of his life, Aizen had been unable to fully shed his perfectionism. And his squad full of uncertain reapers and fragile souls, like sweet Hinamori Momo crying out for divine guidance, had conformed to his standards eagerly.

"You're full of yourself," pointed out a clean, precise voice. "Your first flaw was thinking you were worthy of wasting our time."

"Division Zero has duties, you know?" sneered another. "Like fixing all the shit you broke. And hunting Menos Grande before weird little traitors try to play tea party with them."

"Did you have to get Luisenbarn killed? He used to wipe out more Hollows than the Gotei when he was bored. And that Perro Rabioso who got away from me," came a jollier one; "oh did I laugh when he knocked your sandcastle down."

"I seem to have returned the favour," pointed out Aizen, making a break for the ragged hole in their barrier just as the fires lighting it up from within flickered out.

A million heavy, sharp darning needles pricked through the swathes of cream silk, the moon now a lowly pincushion.

"Ah dear, a thousand hands still lead to sloppy work," tutted Shutara Senjumaru, the Great Weave Guard. She stepped on foot-thick wooden okobo sandals out from a curtain of satin, directly in his path. "Forgive my poor habits. Let's slide those needles out before someone gets hurt, shall we?"

Silver arrows, they hissed through the air towards Aizen in endless volleys. He threw a small cube ahead of him, and a thin pane of Caja Negacion deflected the rain of needles. Caja being immovable, this was only a split-second measure enabling him to cast kido in a solid sheet, cutting a path through the falling death.

The elegant woman ducked behind a falling streamer and stepped instantly out of a bundle of ribbons far ahead of him. She didn't even raise her hands to counter him, the metal shards moved at her whim. At her back the gaping wound in the barrier began to repair, thick hawsers of silk darned across the gaps and cables spiralling out from each cross-section like spider webs. She had needles beyond number, multitasking with unfathomable precision, half to fend him off and half to veil the palaces once again.

"Hakufuku," incanted Aizen, a basic bakudo made dangerous by his skill.

Illusory blossoms spiralled around Senjumaru, she resisted the fainting sensation, yet in the moment between her eyes rolling back in her head and refocusing – he had already sliced her in half from toe to tip. Kyouka Suigetsu was so incredibly sharp now; he barely felt her shear in twain.

Wine-red blood burst out, he was moving past her and already flashing towards his target before he realised that the blood spattered across his face and white coat was not wet. Skeins of bright embroidery thread tumbled off in his slipstream; he glanced behind and saw a ragdoll unravelling into a hundred different colours of fraying cotton, the eyes buttons, hair black tassels.

It must have been an excellent puppet, if he'd bothered to kill a ball of string.

o)0(o

Inside one of the palaces, an immaculately dressed woman finished the last few stitches on a coiling dragon tapestry, stowed the needle in the fabric and rose to her feet with the faintest tsk. Most of her black hair fell forwards on either side of a blunt fringe, the rest tucked under a beaten gold sunburst decoration on the back of her head. That was layered with a large crescent moon, soft chimes hanging from its lower edge. Her arms remained hidden under her spotless white haori at all times, the winter daphne insignia of the Royal Guard emblazoned on the back of a shawl that seemed to float around her shoulders.

Skeletal, mechanical arms with multiple elbow joints stretched out, grasping one of many long banners draped down from the ceiling, and pulled it down with a sharp tug. It sailed down, covering her, and slowly flattened against the floor.

She was gone.

o)0(o

The invader was darting through thinly woven, threadbare holes in the cocoon when suddenly they all constricted around him. A dozen metallic hands dug into his back, tearing him out of the web.

"You are insolent," Senjumaru hissed in his ear. "Fortunately I am very good at beating the filth out of carpets."

It was quite a novel thrill to be thrown so hard at the ground that he could not brace himself. Before the dust had finished rising, he was kicked over by a geta sandal and a long paddle was slammed onto his neck. They weren't even careful about it. It was very amusing.

"You should have stuck with the calligraphy, dear," suggested a voice he recalled from a century or more ago. An almost spherical woman bobbed into view, with purple hair. "Though I love your new look."

He smiled at the old acquaintance. "I too, barely recognise you."

Before much could continue, the remaining Vaizards gate-crashed their reunion.

Their masks were tilted to one side, savouring the precious seconds before they broke. Every single black-eyed face looked pissed off and revolted by him.

Sousuke rubbed his thumb over the Crumbling Orb, polishing it. The Vaizards began to throb with skyrocketing spiritual power, warning him away from even the smallest movement. The oar pressed harder – perhaps if the Guard used all his weight, he might manage a faint bruise.

"If that's the best the famous Division Zero can manage, no wonder you failed arrancars thought you could make a difference," he mocked them, craning his head up from the ground.

"Pride before the fall, baldy," glowered Hiyori, flipping him the finger with her slowly regenerating hand. It was thin and fleshless. The Vaizards had mostly not attained high-speed regeneration, being such an old batch of experiments. But Hiyori's Hollow if not the most skilled was the fiercest, and seemed eager for her to live. "I'll rip you to shreds."

"I look forward to it," he goaded her, leaning back and looking past the spear to see the wound in the silk cocoon had fully healed. If not for this being the King's Realm, he would have simply used Garganta to bypass the wall – alas, he had no more King's Keys. He would need to find another way in.

Shinji shook his head, remembering something. He looked at the scant three people defending the legendary Spirit King. "This can't be the entire Royal Guard? What happened to Hikifune Kirio, huh? Ahh, Kirio..." he sighed, getting a nosebleed. "She was a stunner."

Hiyori fired a Bala at him; he sidestepped it with a bored expression. "DROP IT BEFORE I CASTRATE YOU, CASANOVA."

The heavyset woman drifted intrusively close, clasping her pudgy hands together in surprise. He shuffled back, looking up at the lady goliath in confusion. "Woah, watch it! Gimme some space, Madam, this is a battlefield." He waved his sword lazily at Aizen. Quite frankly he was enjoying this view very much and the guy with the huge quiff and the weapon at Sousuke's throat seemed to have everything well under control. "I may look distracted, lady, but I am ready for anything."

"Why Shinji-kun," trilled the violet-haired vision. She was definitely a vision. Of some variety. He swallowed nervously.

"You said that when we were captains together, but after all this time!" she gasped. "I didn't think you meant it?"

A sweatdrop rolled down his temple. His teeth jutted out as the corners of his mouth dragged down. "Ah, no, I… dammit…"

Hiyori swooped between them. "Back off from the blimp, Cap'n Pervert, even her standards aren't that low!"

"Hahahahahaaa…It's great to see you both again."

Hiyori spared a glance as she strangled Shinji. "Haanh?" She was blinded by the stranger's smile.

"Waah, I've been wanting to show you my new house for decades, Hiyori-chan!" The Royal Guard scooped the Vaizard up into a bone crushing hug, Shinji still dangling from her grip. "Let's leave these silly billies to their games and go catch up~!"

She flashstepped away so fast they couldn't even protest. It was almost a teleport. The silk fortress was no more resistant than air, and they were inside a soaring, sumptuous palace before Hiyori remembered to drop the pervert, let alone fight free.

Hikifune laid a motherly hand on her former lieutenant's hair and smiled welcomingly at her. "It's been far too long, darling."

When her adoptive mother had been promoted to Division Zero, the sudden gulf between their lives had practically been a death in the family. When she realised who was standing before her, her whole face lit up. "Kirio-san!"

Laying a second hand on her foster-daughter's shoulder, the Ruler of Grain beamed and enacted her plot.

In a blinding dazzle of pink and violet light, she crushed the Vaizard between her bare hands. It was over before it even began. Hiyori had no time to react.

"AGHHHHHHHH!" screamed Hirako, pointing at the blatantly empty space where his constant tormentor had been standing. His arm swivelled to accuse his first love. "AAAHHHHHH?" he repeated, wild-eyed.

A much reduced Ruler of Grain rolled her palms together, like someone kneading and balling a very small piece of dough. With her tongue poking out in concentration, and her now-oversized shihakusho hanging halfway down her torso, the curvy woman slammed her knuckles into her other hand and emitted another radiant pulse of reiatsu.

Shrunk back to her original size and now clearly recognisable as the delectable Hikifune Kirio, former captain of Twelfth Division; the Royal Guard flicked up a peace sign and shouted, "Voila!"

There was a dark red, perfectly spherical pill tucked between her raised index and middle fingers. No more than a centimetre in diameter.

"Noooo…" lowed Shinji, a muddled moan. "Poor Hiyori-chan, I...I never told her how much I lo...loathed her enough times...it's like she never got the hint! This makes no sense! No sense at all! You're crazy!"

"It makes perfect sense," warbled the scientist. "All I did was... " Shinji registered some science gargle about movement of spirit particles and quantum physics until words started making sense again. "...and that's how I invented Soul Candy. Creating Soul Candy and gigai to increase our real-world operations were the great services I performed for Soul Society, resulting in my promotion to Division Zero! With this, no one will be killing, maiming, hypnotising or betraying MY cute little daughter!"

"Yeah, because you turned her into a peanut! Kirio, m-my...my...once-first-love...I feel like I don't even know you anymore. Where did we go wrong? Was it the wine? The third date? The jealousy of all my other conquests?!"

"...Those things never happened, Hirako-san," Kirio reminded him dryly, repelling him with formality. "Now for the pièce de résistance, I'll just quickly expel the foreign matter."

She pinched the pill between the thumb and forefinger of both hands, one top-to-bottom, one front-to-back. Closing her eyes, sweat rolling down her face, she concentrated hard. Amethyst reiatsu outlined her tense form.

"Calm down, Hiyori-chan," murmured Kirio soothingly, as the chef often did to lobsters that refused to go in the pot of boiling water. "No one knows you better than I do...now don't fidget; or you'll probably die."

With a sudden yell, she wrenched her hands apart. The left was a pale pink pearl, the exact shade of Hiyori's spiritual power. There was no speck of darkness in it. The right pinched a small black pill that fizzed and hissed, evaporating in the clean atmosphere.

The Hollow, gripped by its malformed soul and torn out.

But Shinji didn't understand what she'd done, only pointed and gibbered as the emaciated Ruler of Grain tucked and pleated and rearranged her drooping robes. The captain's haori went from a tent to a stylish ruffled coat as she tugged a few drawstrings sewn into the waist and shoulders. She looked several years anorexic, spiral-tattooed cheeks hollowed, bags under her eyes from exhaustion. Her purple hair hung limp, she trembled anaemically. Hiyori's Soul Candy was placed with utmost care into a deep pocket.

Within the gikon tablet Sarugaki Hiyori drifted in a dream state. She couldn't see anything but the pastel haze of her purified reiatsu, vaguely aware of the outer world. The Hollow had been in here with her, screeching and struggling and using the severe disorientation to try and eliminate her with instinct alone. They had no other weapons in the condensed state. She had been utterly defenceless, unprepared for the transformation or the reckoning between Queen and Steed.

And then Kirio's comforting aura had saturated her, and the beast was gone. Hiyori was enveloped in a peace and wholeness she had not known for a century. She sank into dreamless sleep, no longer needing to keep one eye open against the bogeyman in her subconscious.

"That's some fucked up yoyo dieting," blurted Hirako, slackjawed. "Do ya get crazy stretchmarks? And there are simpler ways to shut Hiyori up, y'know? Such as a scold's bridle! Works every time!" Of course Sarugaki did tend to dislocate his arm every time he tried to attach said bridle to her face…

"That was four captains' worth of reiatsu Shinji-kun!" wheezed Hikifune, gripping his white tie and rattling him dizzy with her stick-thin-but-still-strong arms. "I'm starving! Carry me to the buffet before I faint!"

The unofficial spokesperson of the Vaizards quailed and fled, it just happened to be in the right direction, and she just happened to have a vice-like grip on his clothes. Pulling a giant silver spoon out of her hair, she fell upon the feast like a ravenous wolf, the ruler of the Crouching Pig Palace inhaling everything in sight. It seemed the entire reiryoku-enhanced banquet had been laid out for the express purpose of refueling her.

"Give me a minute, honey," croaked Hikifune, hefting a huge jug of soup in one twiglike hand and downing it. "I can't do you until I bulk up a bit…"

"Er...you don't need to do anyone," sweated Hirako, palms up in surrender. "I'm resisting my Hollow. I'll be jussst fine."

And then he ran.

o)0(o

"Hora, hora, what weakling thinks he can fuck with me….?" A grizzly voice emanated from the Royal Guard currently pinning Aizen to the ground. The long-handled paddle he wielded was slowly grinding into the trespasser's throat. "Why so smug, ya condescending sack of shit?"

His prisoner shrugged. It was self-evident.

This Royal Guard wore his black hair in an enormous pompadour that cast ghoulish shadows across his face. His lips, eyebrows, eyelids all crooked upwards, the most pitiless demonic sneer known to mankind. "I'm Kirinji Tenjirou, the Hot Spring Demon Sentoki, Divine General of the East, First Officer of the Royal Guard. Ya limits are painfully obvious to me, ladyboy!"

"Do share." Sousuke only seemed intrigued. "I struggle to measure myself."

Kirinji wore a waist length haori with bell sleeves over a toned bare chest, all his strength on display. He looked carved from solid rock. "Stealin' gewgaws from some cheapshop scientist. Commander of the dregs of humanity, yeah, big whoop. And your mirror trick is on loan from fuck knows what creature. No kami would put up with a jackass like you. You've not got a single original thought." He pulled a thin stick from his mouth with spread fingers, expressing his full shock. "Itsa pissin' miracle ya made it this far. Gaw, if what you don't know can't hurt ya, no wonder ya think yer fuckin' invincible!"

He stepped on Aizen's chest, leaned insultingly close. He hooked a toe over the wedge of his oar, sliding the wooden sheath free. A wide slanted blade lay beneath. His voice was belligerent; spitting the words like bullets. "So whaddya want, punk? Why you on my turf?"

"What do I want..." mused Aizen, searching his soul.

He regarded the Hot Spring Demon with utter contempt.

"Nothing so small that it can be given to me."

"Ossssu!" grinned the delinquent officer. "Guess I'm on clean-up duty then."

A geyser of boiling water erupted beneath Aizen, the ground shook and split with the pressure of it. Tenjiro leaned away from the savage waterspout, grinning.

"Keh, look at it, barely changing colour. You never taken damage before, coward?" He doubled the output of the broiling fountain, fit to flay the flesh from bones. "Let's remedy that. GLEAM, KINPIKA!" Golden Splendour!

The blade of his polearm shone brilliantly, severing all in its path with the clean ease of a laser beam. Even the air was cut, tumbling in a strange heat haze around that light. In the moment he struck the Vaizards struck with him.

"Let's Go, Rider Kick!"

Kensei and Mashiro sprang forward, dropping their masks over their snarls, moving with synchronised brutality; finally showing their true teamwork. Warcries charged ahead of them, Hollow-stained reiatsu crackling in their wake.

Aizen rolled away from the falling glaive and on to his feet, dodging Senjumaru's lunge to trap him. He took a single step back, and two of his victims murdered the footprint left behind - a hairsbreadth too slow. They surged forward, punching in tandem, a windstorm exploding from Muguruma's dagger. He moved sleekly to one side, and continued to mockingly evade their every move.

The man who rebelled against heaven raised his voice.

"These are abominations, hybrids; and you placed them on death row for a reason."

Senjumaru scoffed. "We have no hesitation in carrying out their executions, once we have nothing better to do."

Kensei had a short fuse at the best of times. Today was not one of them. "You're tellin' me Hikifune-taicho…!"

Sending threads creeping beneath the gardens, snaking through gravel and grass and earth to snare Aizen's legs, Shutara spun her traps across the entire battlefield. He was forced to take to the air. She spared a few words for the damned.

"You didn't notice Sarugaki being neutralised? The other Hollow is next."

Hollows whispered in the Vaizards' ears, the buzzing of locusts, a plague in the mind.

His darkest side gave vent to a creeling Hollow tantrum. Externally he froze up, fighting for dominance.

"I'm not some undisciplined brat whining about jealousy and neglect. I've always lived on battlefields. I know nothing is fair!" In his inner world Muguruma Kensei held the pale underdog in a headlock. His short, efficient army knife had already slit its throat, but as long as the one lived the other would never die. It still raved in a fading, bubbling gurgle. Its eyes, hair, teeth, exposed bones were black.

Cast out by the society you killed for. Disowned by the leaders you held up and the soldiers you trained. After all yer effort, savin' them from me. Just take it, Kensei, lie down and die! I'll pick up the pieces!

Kensei glared at the Royal Guards. "You just - shit!"

Aizen balanced the Hougyoku on his fingertips, standing tall above the battleground. "What a dangerous alliance it is, with Hollows that would sooner devour you than aid you. Whose vanguard are they in truth?"

"To hell with all of you," snarled Kensei, flipping his army knife around in his fist. "A Vaizard has no allies!" Lashing out at whoever was closest: the Hot Spring Demon lost the draw.

Tenjiro caught the wrist and clenched his fist, grinding the bones. "With Aizen's hand that far up your ass like a handpuppet, 'course you don't!"

Kensei raked his hockey mask off his face; it was insufficient to express his mounting anger. " – YOU WANNA GO SOME, MAGGOT?"

"BRING IT, SCRUB!"

"BANKAI! TEKKEN TACHIKAZE!"

Kuna somersaulted past, skidded to a halt and suddenly brightened. "Oh, I get it! Guess that's why Ken-tan's the taicho - I never woulda thought of that, haha!"

And without further ado, she catapulted herself at Shutara Senjumaru. She moved with an instinctual blend of capoeira and breakdance, spending more time in the air than anywhere else. The ground existed only as leverage to kick off. It was a frenzy of fists, kicks, elbows, knees, anything could and would be used as a weapon.

"What are we fighting for?" asked the Zero with soft disdain. "Aren't there things we all have in common?" She raised needles in a dozen metal fingers. "And aren't they our greatest weaknesses?"

Mashiro paused for thought, promptly getting caught upside down in the Guard's limbs. "Uh, you mean like ze human condition?" She spoke in educated tones, laying it on thick. She wasn't over a hundred years old for nothing, right?

"I mean clothes," she hissed through a violent twist of her wrists. The needles went in, a delicate iron maiden.

"EEYAAAGH!"shrieked the Vaizard, twisting up.

Shutara dropped the body, fight over in seconds. Even if the acupuncture failed to paralyse her, the needles would imbue the fabric she wore with a foreign reiatsu and then Kuna would be at her mercy. If they'd still been wearing their uniforms, she could have decapitated them in the blink of an eye.

She looked up at Aizen, who was observing them from a lofty stance. He looked down on them as if made for it, born at the highest point in the universe and only seeking greater heights because the rest of existence was devolution.

He had dressed himself all in white to signify his highest rank. He had lined his high-collared longcoat in black to signify his rank heart. A flamboyant, cherry-red silk sash around his hips remembered all the blood spilt for his ambition. A zanpakuto was tucked into it, hilt wrapped in emerald threads; but who was to say its spirit was not already entangled in their minds, bewitching their eyes?

These were the things the Great Weave Guard paid attention to.

Chocolate brown hair, flecked deep hazel eyes, even the subtle nature of his beauty all made him seem human. There was no divinity writhing beneath his skin, no glow of massive power fighting to be free. His cheek crinkled as he smirked.

A man stood there. Nothing but a man.

And despite his convincing disguise, he claimed to be god.

"Gods only exist to lesser beings. To call oneself a god means one has delusions of grandeur," she called out to him.

"It sounds like you've all been following my career closely." He smirked. "Is the situation really as nonchalant as you'd like it to appear, in that case?"

"Owww..." An irrepressible voice interrupted them. "I'm really ticklish you know? That hurt."

Senjumaru looked at one of the needles still in her hand and saw the tip was crumpled. She frowned, even a tainted fukutaicho hadn't the power to do such a thing.

"How do Royal Guards measure up against kami?" asked Aizen, tossing her the hint she needed. He had been a vice-captain at the same time as Kuna, had noticed things no one else had bothered to about his colleague. Quiet observation always came out better placed than ill-tempered shouting.

The interest on Shutara's face was quite chilling. "Her zanpakuto is her clothes? A fabric kami?" The reiatsu signatures were obvious, now she took the time to look. Small wonder her needles broke. "We shall be sure to get acquainted after you are dead, traitor."

"Kamen Rider, don't fraternise with the enemy-ish," scolded Mashiro, smacking herself on the wrist. The bug-like mask looked around, nonplussed. "What's your zanpakuto, Cross-Stitch-tan?"

"I don't need one." The seamstress raised several hands, each flickering with kido spells.

But the curious thing was this. Although there was only one thing Mashiro was good at, she was ridiculously good at it. One of the robot arms broke. "Buuhuu, Cross-Stitch-tan can't make friends!" sang Kuna, backflipping and tearing off another arm as she went. Kido kept missing as the Vaizard superhero bounced about like a jumping bean.

"How long till your mask breaks?" hissed the Great Weave Guard, sacrificing more arms as fast as she could summon them by science and magic.

"Fifteen hours!" chirped Kuna. The Hollow dissonance in her speech was barely noticeable, they were so aligned. "And now mini-me is in a good mood, so probably longer! My Hollow is funny! She's so serious about everything! But also, her interests are so dumb! Eating people, lol! With a Hollow hole through her stomach? Pffffft! It's really obvious who's the brains around here! I can hang out with her all day, no sweat!"

Senjumaru had assumed Aizen was inciting their Hollows to create havoc. The truth was even more tragic. "So really, you're just stupid."

"Well I dunno," said Mashiro in an unstable voice, masked eyes glowing red. "My soul and all my senses, can I trust them? If I attack the one that looks like Aizen, isn't it going to be my friend?"

"Take it on my authority," growled Shutara; "I could not fall for such minor arts."

"How do you know?" asked the girl faithlessly. Her deeply buried grief was nearing the surface, swimming up with her Hollow's influence. "Nothing is really safe anymore."

o)0(o

"Wait!" shouted Juushiro quickly, flashstepping out of nowhere. He stood between them all, arms outstretched, ever the peace keeper. Sougyo no Kotowari both bulled towards the Vaizards, forcing them back several steps. They fanned their fins out, doubling in size. "He is a hypnotist. Don't be rash. How can slitting our own throats help anything?"

Kyoraku stepped out of his shadow, swords raised. "You all seem a little caught up," he agreed. "I'm amazed the great Division Zero can fall for such sad decoys."

One of the Royal Guards snorted and flicked a vicious kido at Ukitake. "I ain't under Kyouka Suigetsu's spell," warned the lean man with sideburns and a yakuza leer. "An' you get no say in it. Squad Zero outranks Yamamoto. If you hadn't turned up two hundred years late, I mighta listened to ya!"

Ukitake halted and cradled the energy blast with a single hand, drew it near to his chest and shifted it to the other hand in one of the first steps of taichi, parting the wild horse's mane. He shooed the plasma ball out and gently released it. It howled past the Hot Spring Demon's face, singeing his outlandish hair, and blew up the wall behind them. The guards paused, that was no small threat. Brushing aside a captain was nothing, but he was a candidate.

"What the-...did you just use your shikai barehanded?" goggled Kyoraku. "I've only ever seen Kuchikis, the zanjutsu clan, do that before!"

"Yes, well," Juushiro said in a certain voice; "I haven't the energy to waste on silly people."

Shunsui began to understand why his frail friend merited promotion.

"They're dead men walking." Brushing past two of the oldest captains in Soul Society, Kirinji twirled his halberd in one hand. "Don't fight fate. It's not your job."

Senjumaru followed him, walking regally as opposed to his stomping swagger. "The Hougyoku owns them until the day they die. Didn't you question why they were late?"

They were already moving to annihilate their Vaizard compatriots.

Muguruma had been fighting Sentoki for as long as Kuna had been the Great Weave Guard. He looked worse off by miles. Bleeding, chest heaving, sweat pouring off. The gangster was so starved for a decent fight; he'd gone all in from the start. The mask hadn't stayed off.

"IF I AM A MENOS YOU SHOULD'VE KILLED ME FROM BEHIND AND NEVER LOOKED ME IN THE EYE!"

"That's for sissies who can't kill," sneered Kirinji.

Suddenly he was right in Kensei's face, grinning maniacally. A flashstep so advanced, it didn't have the faintest aftershock. He spat the toothpick out, reared back and headbutted him. The Vaizard reacted before he'd even hit, smashing both of his steel knuckledusters into the guy's temples. They both went reeling, staggering back.

The air where Tekken Tachikaze had been exploded, wind blades ripping shreds out of Tenjiro's jacket. Senjumaru twitched in annoyance.

Kensei watched, fault lines travelling through his hockey mask, shards flaking away from his skin.

The pompadour flopped gently to the floor.

Kirinji looked at it in perfect silence.

Black and gold eyes flashed in triumph. "Oh come on, it was begging for it."

Kensei was flying toward a painful end before he knew what hit him.

o)0(o

Yadomaru Lisa had been held back by her kami when Yoruichi came calling. She was so close to completing her training, the training of her entire life, the dragonfly hadn't needed to chase Yoruichi away. Lisa had done that herself, with a quiet whisper about a certain captain, a certain subordinate, a certain forest, and some very intriguing vintage photographs from her private collection.

The Shihouin leader was deadly serious, and brushed the blackmail aside until Lisa clarified, no, the other subordinate, at which point she yowled and left post-haste.

Now the former lieutenant of Squad Eight was ready, her true zanpakuto sealed and hanging over her shoulder by a red cord. She skated among the clouds, revelling in the slipstream. She'd developed very long flashstep strides, required for chasing her thousand-year-old captain around whenever he was slacking off.

As she neared the palace, she realised with a jolt that three auras were missing. She dipped beneath the cloud cover to scout in the silver moonlight.

Just in time to see Kensei crash into the river far beneath her.

She was descending to help him out when she saw him emerge, looking flawless in a spray of glittering droplets.

"WOOOHOOO I FEEL AMAZING! COME AT ME BRO!"

"Bunch of idiots," muttered Lisa, leaping back above the patchy clouds.

o)0(o

"Crap," announced the Hot Spring Demon, shading his eyes as he watched Muguruma's trajectory. "That was one of mine."

Senjumaru held Kuna spreadeagled in mid-air, no leverage, no escape. She unhooked a foot from her heavy okobo and raised her knee. Ceremonially, she brought the Vaizard down and broke its back.

All the air rushed out of its mouth, a strange winded noise.

"D'you remember bein' alive?" asked Mashiro curiously, her spine bent at a sickening angle.

Shutara leveled a displeased look at her.

"I was a contortionist in an old circus troupe. I died doing a backflip on a high wire. I landed it," she wrinkled her nose; "it was the stupid trapeze that knocked me off."

"I can snap you further if necessary." Mechanical hands raised the small woman again, dropped her with punishing force. The crack of vertebrae echoed, a gunshot. Rose cried out, a vulture shriek.

"Ahahahahaaaa...I bet you can't do better," giggled Mashiro to no one in particular, blood welling out of her mouth. Her body seized up, lockjaw, rigor mortis.

With an alien hiss, her Inner Hollow took the bait.

The heart-shaped mask tilted. With waspish movements it jerked its way free of Shutara's grip, oblivious to all injury and pain. It manoeuvred on all fours, very low to the ground, turning Mashiro's body into something incredibly inhuman through body language alone.

It did not speak. It was fluid, silent and patient.

"No pain receptors," deduced the woman. "A dangerous type." Threads burst out of the grass, the trap she'd laid for Aizen now spooling around the Vaizard and stitching it to the ground. "How disgusting, the way you work together with your own changeling. If it took your heart it would be dead already."

Shunsui glanced at Juushiro's unhappy face. "So much for diplomacy."

The late applicant to the Royal Guards heaved a sigh. "Words only make a difference before the war begins." Ukitake stared up, knowing that a premature attack would achieve nothing. "I maybe had the wrong priorities, when I refused to come here for healing. But they would never have let me return."

"Ne, you're not doing anything," Kyoraku nudged Otoribashi Rose conversationally. "Maybe he can only control one of you at a time."

The blond man looked at him with tears streaming down his face. "He's making me watch them die by allies' hands one by one," sobbed the Vaizard, sclera staining black, pupils glowing amber. "Wouldst that I had died the night the Hollow came upon me. I'll paint a masterpiece in your blood, I'll make music of your screams, gourmet flesh, perfume of pain, silken and skinned alive. Kinshara!" He shouted with his last sane breath. "Help me!"

The golden whip in his hand vanished, transforming into a colourful glass kami. It held its partner in a headlock, filled his head with mirages and strange music. Rojuro slumped, on the edge of fainting.

"Roses wilt, thorns remain," the spindly creature warned him. "Any move to destroy themselves brings the Hollows to full fruition. Paint them not as cowards; they could not take the risk. Love realised but could not speak the truth, was wise to choose his own end. Sardonic destiny directs the motions of puppets. Hollow clips ever closer to free will, tumbling lyrics of wanton carnage from its porcelain tongue. Fie, fie, you counterfeit! Loathsome canker lies in the sweetest bud!"

"Just figured out who writes all of Rose's awful poetry," whispered Shunsui to Juushiro. "Help me get Aizen somewhere quiet and I'll finish this. Then you can stop looking like a kicked puppy."

It all fell apart simultaneously.

Rose shuddered and raised his head, a birdlike mask crawling across his forehead and down, protruding from curtains of wavy yellow hair.

A scarlet Cero fired point blank into Shunsui's face. Sougyo no Kotowari moved to intercept before Juushiro could call their names, one swallowing the blast, its twin immediately spitting it out towards the sky.

Kuna's inner Hollow coiled and pounced, tearing through the bakudo threads like straw, its insectoid mask splitting vertically into two rows of vicious fangs, nothing down its throat but the second set of nested teeth wide open in Mashiro's silent scream.

Kensei charged across the palace grounds, the pistons of his Hollow form piercing through his back and arms, thrumming with reiatsu as he hauled back for a heavyweight knockout.

The rising Cero burned a column through the clouds, Lisa looked down to see a clear strike at her nemesis. Aizen hadn't noticed her, too caught up in his games below. Skidding and tumbling through the indigo sky, she unsheathed her zanpakuto and placed it end to end, spinning and building up torque as she fell.

"Smash, Haguro Tonbo!" she shouted, wind snatching the sounds away. The sword and sheath became a heavy lance, no longer with a bladed tip. It was now a crushing blunt instrument, so heavy her arms shook just from holding on as it plummeted towards its target. And this was only shikai. Since that had taken well over a hundred and fifty years to master, she dreaded the thought of going for bankai.

Lisa had never felt more rage and exhilaration as when she slammed her visor down and smashed Haguro Tonbo into Aizen's back in an explosion of malignant reiatsu.

They hit the ground in a split second, rupturing it into a deep crater, a shockwave rumbling out. Bones crunched like firecrackers, blood splattered anywhere, flesh and organs mulched.

She saw his white coat soaked with red, and smiled with grim satisfaction.

And then the scales over her eyes fell away. Beneath long white hair she read bloodstained kanji inside the neat black diamond of the Gotei.

Ukitake Juushiro couldn't cough. She'd crushed his lower back and half his rib cage. His subconscious switched off the pain - it was too late for pain to save him. Laying on one cheek, his head twisted just far enough to see Kyoraku at the lip of the crater, slowly turning round, everything, everyone moving in a trance.

Sougyo no Kotowari were darting towards him, bubbling with hate and spirit pressure. He watched Shunsui stake his curved swords into the dirt.

Lisa howled, a Hollow scream of despair, trying to pull off her treacherous mask but unable to as her heart shattered.

"...don't... move..." he begged them all, the omen trapped in his throat.

His friend's old lieutenant rocked on her knees in the dirt, in his blood. "No! No-ooo-ho... Please no... I'm sorry... I'm sorry..." Her sobbed apologies kept falling into tortured screams, she pleaded for it to be a lie every time she caught her breath.

"...please..." his lips moved, warning inaudible. "...stay still..."

Kyoraku's expression was cold and impassive, an executioner. He released the hilts of his red-tasselled falchions. He stared silently at his oldest companion as life extinguished from green eyes.

"Bankai."

Each blade became a pitch black silhouette.

"Sleeping Lions."

o)0(o

o)0(o

o)0(o

Shinigami Cup!

o)0(o

Kirio: You should have stuck with the calligraphy, dear. I'm rereading your old poetry, and it's all heavily veiled insults.
Sousuke: My new work is much more overt, behold;

What is love? Captain
Don't hurt me, hurt me no more;
Said Hinamori.

Rukia: Ah! Being both artistically talented and noble, I know all about haiku. The important part is the twist in the last line. For example:

Not 'Shinigami',
it's...Kuchiki Rukia!
…And then I stabbed him.

Kirio: You both need to be locked up.

o)0(o

Chapter notes: Well the quote from the start is by H Rap Brown but he seems to be in jail for manslaughter. Anyway, it's fitting for both Aizen and the Vaizards. Yay!

Let's Go Rider Kick is the name of one of the Kamen Rider theme tunes.

Hakufuku is a kido spell used by Momo during the Rescue Rukia arc. So, he must have taught her it.

Kyouka Suigetsu translates as mirror flower water moon - 鏡花水月- it refers to illusion and unreachable ambitions.

Senhoshi, Sage of Tilting Scales. Yes, an OC. Everybody hide! His job is to measure the Balance, do the dusting in the central palace etc. His name means 1000 stars.

Ittou Kassou is the forbidden kido Yamamoto loses an arm to in canon. Aizen just uses someone else's arm.

Senjumaru vs Mashiro was actually a coincidence. I thought Kuna's zanpakuto could be her outfit since she always throws her sword *away* when she fights…and then Shutara's fighting style was revealed a couple of weeks ago. Their HB fight was in the plan months before that.

Amanozako is the nasty tempered tengu goddess, as mentioned in text.

Kikou'Ou is the Soukyoku's real name. Soukyoku is twinned punishment and was the name of Rukia's execution site. The bird itself was called Kikou'Ou, blazing fledgling king.

A note on power levels: obviously it's hard to track. Given how strong Ichigo is with his hollow, I felt the Vaizards were quite short changed in the manga. Then again Ichigo is collecting powers like Pokemon. So... they hassled the Zeros... but I wouldn't call that the Zeros going all out.

Shinji used kido #5 u so ugly need paper bag no jutsu!

Author notes: This chapter feels like the hardest to write so far. 15,000 words, and about 30 characters interacting. Oh my head TT_TT

ATTENTION! HB now has a TV TROPES PAGE, please suggest tropes or go rewrite the summary for me, thank you~!

Alliriyan~*