"It is a miracle!"
A woman sobbed, clinging to the robes of a stranger. Her finery met the dirt as she knelt and wept.
"A great man has died!"
Throngs of peasants surrounded them, the rumour spreading like wildfire. A famous man fresh from his deathbed; a celebrity from the living world that few, in their tumbled timelines, had heard of. But for a noblewoman to leave her gated estate, and beg in the filth for a stranger's assistance, he must have been of great note.
"I have not been dead yet an hour," snorted the physician; "and already: work."
The doctor held the baby in careful hands, examining it from downy head to miniscule toes. "And this child is from your own body. Not one that died in a troubled birth…"
"It is mine own," insisted the aristocrat; "my only son and heir."
The newcomer had not had time to question whether this place he found himself in was heaven, hell; or someplace stranger. "How can anyone be born into the afterlife?"
"That is his privilege," said the mother fiercely, her layered robes stained from the babe she refused to entrust to a servant. "As was I born into Soul Society, it is his inheritance!"
"How blessed…" noted the doctor, aghast at the infant's pitiful coughs.
"Save him, and I will give you a life no Rukongai peasant could dream of," vowed Ukitake Komurasaki. "Fail him, and I will have you banished to the furthest districts where you will never taste of food nor peace again until you pass over."
He did not know what 'Rukongai' was, but the mass of commoners in the endless muddy streets of this city seemed no different to any slum he had seen in life. Just that there was no filth, as the dead need not eat.
"There is no way to drain the lung of a babe without it dying." The famous medicine man frowned. "I cannot affect its survival."
"Nobles have stronger souls!" she argued, her own hair streaked with grey from her cultivated spirit, he could not guess at her true age. "Only keep him from drowning, and he will survive."
"He will survive because he must," added the father, who had married into this clan of lesser nobles and could not sustain the bloodline by any other wife. Nor was he her first husband. She had annulled or outlived several marriages in her long wait for an heir.
"You had best leave," the doctor warned, capitulating. He wished he too could leave. He knew nothing of where he was or how the world worked now, only certain he was dead. The absence of all the flaws and pains gathered up in his old body had convinced him. In the minutes he had had to speak to others in the streets, it had sounded as though many struggled to remember their pasts here. If his learnings deserted him he would soon be no more than a murderer.
They did not move, fearless.
"He must live," she re-avowed.
Ukitake Komurasaki had trusted in her future, and it had failed her. She had trusted in husbands, doctors and kido to no avail. Now she trusted in superstition.
In the far west of Rukongai hid a shrine of great reputation and notoriety. It was whispered that blessings sometimes came true there, and it was known that curses always did. Legend had it the right hand of the Soul King had fallen to earth long ago and deified itself there as a local god: Mimihagi. The statue raised by its worshippers was of an upright arm, a half-closed eye surveying all from the back of the hand, the fingers furled behind it, wrapped in carved mantles and haloed by a wooden ribbon.
Her son was not yet seven years old, and she hurried there with him along dirt tracks in the dead of night against all advice. He was a dead weight in her arms, the flecks of blood he continually coughed up speckled her cloak. In her eyes he was the most beautiful child that had ever tried to live. Green irises stark against his black hair; demeanour always peaceful despite his suffering.
Mimihagi's statue rattled; the dull knock of wood against stone. The icon seemed to breathe in anticipation. Dark water began to seep through the cracks in the woodgrain, muddying the statue's skin. It did not cast a shadow, but rather laid out perfect rivulets of opaque black ink, from which no light escaped until it opened the glowing whites of its eye.
Sasakibe Choujiro Tadaoki, young, precocious, unknown. Not so long before he had been doomed to perish, a trainee scholar and accountant from the most reclusive clan. Something had called out to him, chased him into danger; driven him out of his ancestral stronghold.
"The voice told me to be quick, and not to miss my chance to impress it," the obedient adolescent had reported. "So I used shunpo within the city limits unpermitted and reached the outskirts just in time to be surrounded by the Quincy advance squad." He sighed in relief.
Yamamoto had looked the weed up and down. He had cast his eyes to the stormy sky, the thunderheads that had formed in moments from an empty blue expanse. The charred corpses scattered in a circle around the administrator.
There was a strange light in the boy's face. A calling.
"As you were," Shigekuni dismissed him, and so began a war of attrition whereby Choujiro vowed to make the pessimist acknowledge him. To Tadaoki, his new military value was a mathematical absolute that could not be denied. To the commander, the Sasakibe Clan was the only one wholly off-limits.
Years later, he was preparing his next attack on the monolith who ruled the few 'shinigami' in an iron fist. Calculating angles of attack and a range of eventualities - when a message resounded through his head as if transmitted by his bones. This was not the crackling, supercharged voice that had inspired him and invited him to rise above his peers. This was an intrusion, a delusion of entitlement.
Do not let Mimihagi save the child, whispered the Soul King to his bones, unbearably loud. It does not need to live.
When Choujiro left his ambush spot, and walked to his appointed task looking completely shaken, Yamamoto recognised the look. He had seen it on Sasakibes in the past, when the King of Soul Society chose to meddle. The bright gold eyes lit from within by an imperative. The face grimacing in disbelief.
The silken river became another hand, standing taller than the first, scooping the sickly child up in its palm to examine it.
This child wants to die, echoed the right hand of a god. He did not hear the first time it spoke, but the echoes resounded. Won't you tell your maker?
Juushiro rolled over to stare into the depths of the being's eye. It was the first non-human he had seen. He had never seen a Hollow or Kami, or even an animal outside of the ancient fish in a tank in his room. He had been sheltered from the entire world, except the fragments brought to him in mortar and pestle and bitter medicines.
This child doesn't see the point in balancing on a stepping stone for a lifetime, when it has almost crossed the river, mocked the voice. This child thinks it immaterial if a bloodline ends. This child, who has never wanted for anything, thinks all lives are equal.
The mother, brave and tremulous in the face of a faceless monster, reached high and snatched her only son from its grasp. "Juushiro," she chided, shaking his shoulders. "You must not leave me - I have waited decades - I have tried everything - just to meet you - just to cradle you in my arms!" She looked up recklessly. "Do you lack the power to save him, Mimihagi!"
Ha, echoed the shard of a god. If I become his lungs, he will breathe until the day the sun burns out. If I become his heart, he'll be the strongest soul this city has ever known.
"I doubt that," hissed Sasakibe Choujiro. His shikai pierced the obsidian god with a crackle of lightning. "The strongest soul in this city is Eijisai!"
Ukitake-hime flared. "You! Upstart, so-called shinigami trying to force us all under your martial law! I am a member of Central 46! Don't you dare gainsay me!" Her seat on the council had been in recession since the first sign of pregnancy. She had made Juushiro her only priority - it had been necessary to. "Do not interfere!"
"My orders come from higher than that," Choujiro replied scathingly. "The Spirit King has no need of a disobedient right hand like this."
Even if you've seen your leader, chuckled Mimihagi, growing into a great shroud that could rival a Menos; you don't know the Soul King like I do.
"This cull has been ratified for the Balance of Souls," whispered Sasakibe. Mimihagi heard.
No, uttered the local god. That thing only told you this child does not need to be saved. That king is curious about how it will die. It does not view life the way you do.
"I have seen it," confessed Sasakibe, very low now. "And I am sure it has its...reasons. However they are conveyed."
Mimihagi indulged in a rich, delicious laugh. You only think you have seen it. Suddenly it spread its fingers wide, silhouetted against the indigo night and moon that would fit in its palm. Forget this sickly child, speaker for the lesser clans. It is you that I shall bless.
And it clenched around her before she could voice a single sound of dissent, and its chill settled deep into each bone.
When the deed was done, and the silver in her long hair replaced with onyx Mimihagi black, and strange twisted marks still crawled under her skin like living tattoos, Komurasaki staggered to her child and knelt to scoop him up.
"No one will forget you, my love," she soothed him, although he had maintained an exhausted calm through all this. Their matching green eyes closed in relief, in sync. "I will find a way for you to be well. I will never stop searching."
Her son smiled back lovingly, he had no qualms about his mortality. And she wondered when those first silver hairs had appeared upon his crown, his body grown too tired to paint them black.
Later still she wondered when had her irises grown dark, with the piercing whites of Mimihagi and only the faintest flecks of emerald?
Juushiro sat up in his futon, wrapped in blankets, with no company save for a great and precious fish bowl. The sun burned his fair skin, the light hurt his eyes, the dust made him cough, so he seldom went outside. He stayed always alone in his rooms, watching the koi carp turn round and round and round in its kingdom. The bowl was so wide he could not fit his arms halfway round it.
His hair was turning white. It had started with strands, and progressed to clumps, and on to whole long locks. With each pass of his comb, more changed; he wondered if Mimihagi had eaten all his colour.
When morning came, he looked just like his salt-and-pepper mother. She noticed immediately and he waited calmly for the storm of her caring to pass. That evening, as he held a black tuft from the left and a white tuft from the right to compare, he wondered why Mimihagi had been so rude.
"Are you alright?" he asked her, naïve to the irony.
"I don't feel any different," she admitted, not telling him about the century of medical records she had sifted through pertaining to herself and her previous husbands. There was no way of knowing what in her Mimihagi had chosen to fix, or if it had been her partners lacking like she thought. The medicine of the day was little more than guesswork.
"Maybe there was just no one ready to be born," shrugged the child, reading her concerns on her face.
"Maybe," she said, heart twisting again.
All that night he watched the fish, and wondered if people lived the same way.
Turning round and round in a vat they could not see.
In the morning his mother saw the shadows under his eyes and the droop of his neck, and wept quietly in the hall with one hand upon the sliding door, afraid to go in.
Juushiro had been refusing food. Juushiro had been coughing blood. Juushiro had refused to let her sleep beside him to nurse him through the night.
This child wishes to die, Mimihagi had said, but not a word more since it entered her body.
His hair was mostly silver now. He was only interested in the koi, feeding it the finest tidbits and asking if it was happy each time it crested the water to nibble from his hand.
On the third night he fell into a deep stupor. Wandering empty reaches of his mind, sinking deeper into warm ocean blue, not missing the air at all. He felt there should have been shoals of fish, but all he could see for miles and miles were the shafts of light piercing the depths.
I am the only fish I need, he thought absently.
And in the dark, after sinking all night, he was alone with his instincts.
I am supposed to live, he supposed idly, and I don't mind if I don't, he reminded himself, but does it really matter when? He muttered in the silence, on the precipice of the path of konsou. Why not tomorrow, or next year, or next millennium?
The only thing I can't figure out, he realised; is how the next life could be any different.
The koi went round, and round, and round in his memories, the circle of samsara.
So I might as well stay, affirmed Juushiro, and rushed up through the ocean, and awoke with a gasp.
His parents were fitfully asleep next to him, both holding his right hand, leaning against each other. It was clearly expected to be his last night, like all the others before it. The little boy tugged his fingers away from theirs and wrestled free of his blanket cocoon. He scampered to the mirror on the far side of the room and peered on tiptoes into it.
He prodded the black eyebrows that had refused to follow suit with the rest of his long white hair. He frowned, and they bristled as much as his youth would allow. He let them rise up, eyes widened in surprise. Still green. Untouched by Mimihagi.
He felt certain that Mimihagi had done nothing to him, not even the bleaching of the hair.
He had simply made his mind up.
He looked over his shoulder at his parents, and at the loyal koi in its glass world, and out the window at the coming dawn. And nodded, once.
"Sickeningly," announced Ukitake Komurasaki; "my firstborn must traditionally be given only the finest hand-to-hand combat tuition. Allow me to state my dissatisfaction that there are no hakuda masters of higher prestige than the over-privileged and inbred Kyoraku Clan. Even the gentlest forms of tai chi have no better, less abrasive practitioners, despite the trawling of Rukongai for alternatives."
Her words echoed in Juushiro's memory as he commenced his first spar with his new teacher, which was turning out to be verbal. The lessons came as a great victory for his health - and soon to be the same for his forbearance.
"I heard a homeless vagrant saved your life as a babe." Kyoraku no Jiro Shunsui Sozosa, as he had been announced by his entourage, hailed from the Five Great Houses and all their conceit. "Are you really so impoverished you beg your staff from back alleys?"
"We poach the most famous Wholes from commoner precincts after they die. Are you the only Clan arrogant enough to solely speak to other nobles?"
"Who else would you expect to learn anything from? Idiots that died of plague and childbirth? The madmen that claim to be from a magical future where metal flies, books speak and the air is full of insects - and women inherit - are they your entertainment?"
"The world moves in the physical realm," the boy obediently parroted his mother. "Your dynasty is stagnant. Only the astute House of Ukitake is wise enough to follow the politics of both Rukongai and the living territories -"
"Why don't you go there then," scorned Shunsui, darting forward with a raised fist. Juushiro side-stepped this primly. Shunsui blinked.
"Hey, when your hair turned white, did you really pray in the dirt to the Soul King's blackened asswiping hand?"
"If even the cheapest gods won't talk to you, I can't help you," smirked the frail little lad, and skipped out of reach of the Kyoraku heir's temper once more. Said heir had already read his disciple's movements. Naive, elegant instincts that had never so much as swatted a fly. He whirled away from all provocation quite beautifully.
Shunsui had been a child for a very long time, and such was nobility he'd met few others. Nodding to himself, already listing things he could teach this sheltered eccentric, he palmed a heavy coin from the money string in his sleeve.
"I'll pay for you to have a proper medicine man," offered the blue-blooded imp, and flicked his wrist. One gold disc ricocheted around the room six times - hitting only the wooden frames and never the paper screens - he snatched it from the air a millimetre from striking Juushiro's face.
The pale boy blanched, his dark brows shooting up comically. And then something strange happened. He became awestruck, instead of insulted as Ukitakes ought. He squirmed with fear and delight.
"Aiya! Your clan really does make for better entertainment!"
Shunsui quirked an eyebrow, that wasn't what he'd meant.
"Call me Shiro-chan," insisted the legendary helpless son of Komurasaki. Grabbing his hand and dragging him through endless paper halls, navigating by the delicate paintings on the otherwise identical sliding doors. "I think you can help me - and then - I'll share my sweets with you!"
"It is the oldest fish in Soul Society," said the boy from the lesser clan with great gravity, smushing his face against the murky glass and clanking on the glass with a pudgy hand. "Well it was."
"You're a brat with lung disease in the city of the dead." His little tai chi instructor was unimpressed. "Don't tell me they replaced your goldfish without telling you it died?"
"Oh, no one's been in here except me," Shiro-chan reassured him. "I think it reincarnated into two fish."
Something moved behind the cloudy glass, richly coloured and gleaming, nothing like the tired and geriatric koi carp of before.
There is a kami here, realised the commander of a very small military, little more than a daimyo-sanctioned dojo. The Clan leaders were too cultured and prickly to stomach calling each other the warlords they were, and now that their territories overlapped in the maze of Rukongai it was best to keep their feathers unruffled.
His unrivalled strength had once made him the pinnacle of leadership in the city that sprawled across several former 'countries' - then they had invented government and politics and hierarchies until the Central 6 had voted themselves higher than he, and demoted their master. Those five clans, and an unlucky puppet from the common folk, had then set about promoting their cronies until no less than 46 fools counted themselves now more important than him. Each of the Five Great Houses had assigned themselves six great sycophants, and the canny magistrate from the slums had demanded ten overseers to assist him with five districts each to govern. They were short-lived positions, but many citizens jostled for them just like the imperial scholars of the living world.
"Central 46," groused the old man. "I hope it collapses like all the other institutions did."
The alien presence he sensed hailed from the Ukitake core estate, Ugendo, and they were not so hard to deal with. They were aligned with the Kuchiki historians at present, contributing to the clan lore with all the most popular ramblings of the recently-living - stranded in the Rukongai from all mismatched eras. Most sounded the same, tales of agriculture and conflict - only the mad few raved about flight and a sixth element called polyester that was stronger than earth, fire and wood.
Unfortunately, the Kyoraku leader's wife was visiting with her second-born and retinue. He dreaded attempting to enlist any Kyoraku to his passé police force - they held themselves aloof even to the nouveau 46.
Of the Great Houses, only the Sasakibe teen liked him, and that was a strong euphemism for 'constantly attempted to overthrow'. If Yamamoto didn't rate grit so highly, he'd have thrown the youth into Hueco Mundo on his ear.
He would have left the situation as it was, but kami were dangerous when they left their lofty dimension to make direct contact with the favoured few. He wondered who in that crowded mansion had the double-edged luck of a shinigami.
Another bloodthirsty Kenpachi Unohana? A pitiless healer like Kirinji Tenjiro? Or competitive Tadaoki? Would he add a twelfth member to his Gotei 11 today?
The matriarchs of Kyoraku and Ukitake had been bristling at each other for the last hour, not caring in the slightest if their children learned a damn thing from each other. Custom was at stake, and custom meant everything in a society where only the aristocracy could have descendants. To break tradition would be to exist as a worthless, transitory dead soul, passing through the afterlife without provenance or influence.
"My heavens," Lady Kyoraku dripped condescension. "You let all manner of help just wander around, don't you?"
"Esteemed Commander-General Yamamoto Shigekuni of the Court Guardians," Lady Ukitake emphasised heavily. "How may my humble clan assist you this morning?"
"Humble," snickered Lady Kyoraku behind a dark red fan.
Gifting her highborn visitor a searing hot tea bowl, Komurasaki forced a polite smile at Yamamoto that would rather have been vindictively aimed at her rival's pain. "As a foremost member of Central 46, I consider it my honour and duty to assist a protector of -"
"If only you could protect your self-worth, handmaiden to the Soul King's severed -"
"And the safety of Rukongai is paramount -"
"Where else can one hire cheap attendants and buy the latest in daikon-sack kimono…"
"-Compared with the idle chatter of a jumped-up housewife who has never contributed to society!"
"I pity the man whose wife needs to work," smirked Lady Kyoraku. "Regardless of their station."
The verbal death match was interrupted by a child tiptoeing conspicuously past the rear of the hall, the only way out of the walled estate.
The child had long, bright white hair and black eyebrows furrowed in concentration over sparking jade eyes. His feet pattered quick and nervous across the tatami.
"My precious son," murmured Komurasaki, unnerved by something strange in his overflowing arms. "Whatever are you carrying?"
Aghast at his deception being uncovered so fast, Juushiro hissed over his shoulder to his partner in crime. Shunsui Sozosa was, as his name dictated, assisting.
They both broke into a flat-out sprint, pelting down the corridor screaming at the top of their lungs. Shunsui was quick to pull ahead, brown curls bouncing madly.
"Juushiro is a slowpoke! Juushiro is a snail! Couldn't catch an oni if he stepped on its tail! Yahh!"
The miniature hakuda master jumped off a wall over the head of a guard, spinning on his way down and kicking the grown man to his hands and knees. Juushiro huffed and puffed, bringing up the rear, scrambling over the winded man's legs and skidding through the door. "We have to set them free!" he cried, breathless and impassioned.
"What are they…holding?" repeated Komurasaki numbly.
"... Fish." The consummate Lady Kyoraku was completely nonplussed.
Yamamoto ground his walking staff into the floor until the tatami straws snapped.
They scampered through the gardens and leaped over gates and walls, each fish bearing the maltreatment in brave silence. Their fins opening like sails as the children went screaming down steep hills.
A purple-haired girl appeared near a fork in the road. She said nothing but pointed towards a dense orchard outside the Ugendo estate. Her turquoise eyes were impassive. Shunsui immediately switched direction.
"Who's that?" gasped Juushiro, short of breath.
The response was a brief frown. "Uh… My cousin," said the scruffy boy in finest vestments. "I think. She teaches me hakuda."
"Really?" chirped Juushiro, free from the family grounds alone for the first time. "You know so many people!"
"Ack. Mostly she gets me to prank people…" Kyoraku heaved his borrowed koi over a wicker wall. "Like this…"
The strange quartet scrambled into an apple tree moments before their pursuer caught up, which he did in a single step.
"Kami should be aligning with warriors," growled the Soutaicho of a defunct military. "Not endangering sickly infants."
Shunsui plucked an apple with a grim expression as the cousin quietly joined them in the canopy. "Him?"
"In trouble with 'the burning man'," sighed the Kyoraku prince. "Again."
Aimed, and threw with all his might.
"He really did catch fire," said the awed Ukitake later.
"He's haunted by a fire spirit," explained his new friend. "When he's mad it leaks out."
"And your cousin punished you!"
"That was my reward! A new technique. Only winners get prizes," he said smugly.
"It looked painful."
"Don't fraternise with that jinxed shrine maiden," commanded the mother of the First Son of Kyoraku, steering him past the object of his affection with a steel hand.
"Lady Kyoraku. Always stepping on others to get what you want, I see." Komurasaki greeted her.
"Quite frankly I wouldn't step on you if you died in the street in front of me," rejoined the higher aristocrat sweetly, and proceeded to her seat at the great banquet, waving an ivory fan in farewell.
Lady Ukitake bent to whisper in the ear of her only son. "You are not required to mingle with the Kyoraku family outside of your hakuda lessons, my darling." She made it sound like a blessing.
Like a mirror image, the Ise representative leaned down to murmur a secret to the Second Son of Kyoraku, hidden behind his mother's back. He kept walking, affecting to ignore her and Juushiro both.
Later Juushiro noticed an empty seat beside his haughty instructor, and decided to fill it.
"I heard you demanded a place for your imaginary friend at this very expensive feast." He opened the second spar.
"That's my cousin's seat," Shunsui scolded him absently, mind elsewhere.
"Oh! Your servants should have said!" exclaimed the boy, mollified. "I shall move when she gets here."
"She won't," said Shunsui, twiddling a long hairpin in his fingertips, gaze never twitching from it. "She doesn't like our family any more than I do."
The pin was a dazzling, unbending silver alloy crowned with a delicate windmill design. The red sails were not quite enamel, not quite rubies, translucent and sharp.
"Stealing the sacred treasure of Ise is not a clever prank," whispered Juushiro, nervous.
"The Ise woman wants me to pass it to my brother."
"Awww," cooed Juushiro, instantly switching tack.
"I don't know my brother outside of ceremonies and the dojo," confessed Shunsui, bitter. "I don't know if he is happy to die in his lover's arms. But if he doesn't live, all his obligations will fall to me. If he had a daughter of Ise who became the main branch, she would cast their curse upon Kyoraku forever."
Juushiro looked confused; his childhood was still a childhood, and not the extended youth of the older Shunsui.
"She'll be wed to some nobody whom everyone hopes will die," explained the younger brother callously. "Her child will be a famous shrine maiden and inherit the holy sword of Ise. All her descendants will never be allowed near the Great Clans for fear their sons are destroyed by that sacrificial god she believes in."
"Anyone can die young," shrugged Juushiro, toying with his white hair.
Shunsui listened to this wisdom from the sickly miracle child, but tucked the pin into his brightly dyed kimono. He rolled his head lazily towards his student. "How's the burning man's dojo?"
"He told my fish they couldn't stay with me, so I cried until they came back," announced Ukitake, triumphant. "Then he tried to teach me kendo, but I got faint and had to lie down. My palanquin had to travel through common districts to get there, and we stopped for street noodles on the way back that tasted vile! It was the most adventurous day of my life!"
More so than meeting Mimihagi? Shunsui thought amusedly.
"You should come with me," trilled Juushiro. "We can protect people!"
"I am protecting people," said Shunsui dryly, smoothing his kimono flat over the hairpin. "The important ones."
His cousin appeared silently, as if she'd stepped from a shadow. She rested her elbows on his shoulders, flicked fingers towards the katana Juushiro had taken to carrying around. The pale boy did not notice her.
"Kyoraku has no need for weapons," murmured Shunsui, prideful.
She laughed noiselessly; he felt her body shake against his head. It seemed he had nothing she wanted, as she always forfeited him with strange pranks in exchange for her lessons. He could never give her anything to dissuade her from these tasks.
Her purple hair brushed his ear as she leaned over and pointed towards his mother and her heir. He ignored the sharp reminder of treachery against his chest.
"He'd never listen to my opinion," whispered Shunsui. "They think me absurd for studying under you, even though your hakuda skills far exceed theirs."
His cousin uncurled an arch smile. She patted his tumbled hair. She pointed to Juushiro, who was tottering towards the centre of the banquet hall to join his mother. She prodded Shunsui in the small of his back, shoving him forward, as a terrible idea blossomed in his mind. When he looked round she was gone.
This was the worst possible result. This meant she implicitly trusted him to carry out her will. The punishment for failure would be the sudden cessation of her visits for months on end, and the embarrassing possibility of losing to his elder brother in the dojo. Shunsui was only the second son but he wanted to be first at the family trade. Although he couldn't articulate it, he wanted his cousin to always be around.
He stood from the low table, and with trepidation once more began to follow Juushiro's lead.
"It pleases me to announce," aired Ukitake-hime; "the joyous blessing of my second child."
The room filled with gasps.
"Mimihagi's handouts," cursed Kyoraku-hime to her first son. Her rival, now closing the gap between them, was almost glowing with happiness.
"Not only this," she paused for effect. "My firstborn son has attracted the loyalties of the first new kami to be seen in the Seireitei for many years now. He will henceforth be a student of our military leader's new 'Shinigami Academy' and a future guardian of our peerless city."
The air above Juushiro rippled, distorting, a pond disturbed by a pebble. The waves flowed outward, filling the room with the scent of water and the sound of splashing. Before the incredulous eyes of the assembled nobles, a magnificent creature manifested: a giant and brightly-coloured koi emerged. The first half of Pisces curling and twining around Juushiro's head, scales glowing from within.
"These sorts of mediocrities who resort to parlour tricks to feign power," fumed the greater noble. "Should be put to death before they endanger others!"
"What 'sort', Haha-ue?" asked Shunsui, standing beside Juushiro, bearing a curved broadsword his cousin had slipped into his hand with a finger pressed to her speechless lips. "I have lured a kami too."
He heard the shy and retiring, sole heir of Ukitake break into unbridled laughter. A second alien being appeared and danced around Shunsui in a flurry of copper fins. A fish to the unwitting. A god to the wise. The deception was complete.
The entire hall broke into rapturous applause, fixated on the inhuman display.
"We do not mix with lower castes voluntarily," snarled Shunsui's mother for his ears only; "nor do we pretend to borrow their fish to create a spectacle-!"
"Feuds are the last resort of the petty," smiled Shunsui, trapping his mother in socially disastrous words. "Nor does our Great Clan need the help of kami to succeed."
His mother raised her hand to discipline him. He flinched and ducked his head - she was also a combat specialist. Komurasaki appeared behind them to extend her hollow congratulations and the query that wasn't Juushiro the sole proprietor of both fish?
"...My second son is a shinigami," said Lady Kyoraku smugly, working out a way to win a different, older argument. She glanced to Komurasaki. "A fine contribution to Soul Society."
Yamamoto looked at the two tiny recruits for his tiny academy, and sighed.
One sick in the body. He looked at the two koi, crimson streamers lashing them to the paler boy's soul. The other boy stood there with nothing but a wickedly sharp falchion that was too big for him, and a perverse attitude. One sick in the head.
Shunsui and Juushiro quickly became the star pupils of Yamamoto's fledgling academy, and Shunsui outperformed Juushiro in every arena imaginable thanks to his friend's changeable health. At zanjutsu alone was the interminably terminally ill man unparalleled. For years this continued, as they both sat an intense curriculum no foot soldier at the Academy was privy to, as no further kami appeared. The training for handling these travelling god-beings was beyond comprehensive, and often directly under Yama-jii. Yet Kyoraku was never once asked to demonstrate his kami connection, only endlessly versed in jinzen while Ukitake was busy summoning typhoons and sharks; devastating haunts of Hollows - until his lungs gave out and he retreated back to Ugendo and his new droves of siblings.
There was talk of the lesser noble being approached by the Kuchiki House who, through their love of sharp objects, had made the acquaintance of a kami more than a century ago. Some Kuchiki daughters had even suggested an offer of marriage and clan merger, though these seemed to evaporate after a short courtship as did every subsequent proposal.
He's only interested in protecting the city, thought the young man Shunsui.
He's pining for another, thought every woman who spent time with him.
They would then look at Shunsui, one arm around a woman's shoulder and the other clutching a dish of sake, and whisper behind their fans about Ukitake's doomed love.
One such woman was walking through the academy corridors; casting calculating stares at all who passed. She was nothing short of exotic, with a steel-forged aura that could even make a son of Lady Kyoraku shiver. Whose lofty footsteps, despite his wandering gaze, did not track down into Rukongai and the more questionable districts. The ostentation, the dyes no mere humans could afford, the intelligent stab of her glances. The gold and ivory decorations she dripped with. The half-open, front-tied kimono. He'd never seen the like. He moved only in the rarefied circles of the elite, and the strictures of the Academy.
To him she looked like a grim reaper he couldn't afford to be killed by. And he was one of the richest souls in Seireitei.
He ventured a salutation.
"You don't love your family," she greeted him with a mocking throaty laugh. "I wouldn't trust you with mine."
"Oh come now," he coaxed her; "I was born into this family by chance. I reserve my heart for the people I choose."
She drew nearer. "I am curious as to who those might be…"
"Ah! Well. Um." He scratched his stubble and looked down on the tall stranger from his great height. He spoke more freely than intended. "I suppose my cousin, and my best friend, and…"
"Not much for a man of your age and stature. A selfish heart couldn't fit one more in." She half-closed one eye. He swallowed.
"Best not to get attached," murmured the shinigami in training. "The length of my childhood implies I'll outlive most."
"Let me challenge you to a game of chance, you poor old man. Games of skill are for children, and you've been playing those for far too long."
"She's more into gambling," Shunsui laughed to himself.
"Guess the name of the girl with violet hair," commanded the woman, fixing him with her dazzling blue green eyes. The dark mauve ringlets piled on her head shook with restrained laughter. "If you fail, you must quit the Academy."
"Obviously," concurred Kyoraku, agreeing without questioning such a rule. It felt true.
Before he could make his guess, someone walked out of the nearest classroom.
"You've been allowed out?" joked Shunsui as Juushiro appeared looking queasy but determined.
"Siblings to feed," shrugged the dutiful eldest Ukitake child. "With seven hungry chicks, I need those Hollow bounties more than I need both lungs."
"I only come here to meet new people," winked Shunsui, tilting his head towards the mysterious madame.
Ukitake looked at her in astonishment, and at Kyoraku with uncertainty. "New? Surely she is your cousin's cousin, dear friend."
"And that is supposed to mean…?" scowled the elder student.
"Your hakuda teacher," prompted his partner. "Your 'zanpakuto spirit', as they are calling them now."
Asauchi were a cutting edge invention in the Academy, he had not been offered one, thus ignored their presence. The word 'zanpakuto' meant nothing to him.
"My cousin," he said sorely; "is my cousin. I grew up with her. She was around before I was. She was teaching me to fight when I was still learning to walk."
"She's…" Juushiro unveiled it gingerly, the truth of the many conversations that had gone on into the night behind his back. "...She is not in your family ledger. Your parents have explained it to you several times - your brother avoids you because you insist upon her existence - I know she is real, Shunsui-kun, but she isn't your blood..."
Shunsui huffed and began to walk away.
"I wonder how it is that you never once asked her name," added the only true shinigami of the pair, incisively.
"Her name is," began Kyoraku impatiently, for he knew it in his heart, he simply knew she disliked words… "Her name is-"
His mind guttered out like a candle flame snuffed.
"The name… is…" he struggled.
He looked at the cousin's cousin, all plunder and rapture, nothing like his private instructor.
The name in my heart is Katen.
He knew this without knowing why. He also knew he had never met a 'Katen'.
"Katen," he said bullishly, fully aware that he was throwing his career away. Perhaps he had tired of being an eternal student. Perhaps he secretly couldn't bear to be second best to Juushiro's otherworldly koi guardians. Perhaps he was weary of his family's, and his cousin's, emotional distance.
The gambler looked disconcerted. "Ah," she surrendered gracefully, hiding her sarcastic smile behind a silk sleeve. "I should have better specified the parameters of the game, no…?"
His combat master appeared and punched the stranger in the shoulder. She took the hit bravely, nary a wince at the deadly blow.
Shunsui turned on his cousin, who still looked as young as ever and still bested him in hand-to-hand despite decades of tuition. She had sprung from the shadows yet again - had she always been lurking there, following him around? He felt distraught, enraged that the wrong name had been in his heart, that he and his cousin had never had a foundation to their relationship, that in all their lives they had never exchanged a word.
"And you, cousin, if you don't tell me your name, I won't play with you anymore."
The prankster was shell-shocked by this betrayal. She clung to her sister's arm, suddenly beseeching. She gestured to Shunsui with tears in her eyes, stroking her voiceless throat in agony. The gambler gathered her under her wing.
"My sister's name," said the kami in a voice like velvet; "is Kyokotsu. If she never speaks it to you, still she shall hear it."
"And you are…" he asked breathlessly. Of course, Kyokotsu, I did know it all along. "Ka-"
"I am but a flower spun on a breeze." She smiled with painted lips. "I am free to gamble life away."
The sisters vanished before his eyes, never human, never family.
Now he sensed their presence in his soul, always his.
The heavy falchion in his right hand, that he had held only once before, now mirrored in his left hand by its perfect partner, for loss of a child's bet.
Four hundred years ago, a manifested Katen was looming over Kyoraku. She was one half of his zanpakuto, or rumour had it, one of two distinct swords. No other shinigami before or since could claim a zanpakuto whose sealed state was two separate blades. A tachi and a wakazashi - longsword and shortsword. Shunsui had smugly claimed they were sisters and that he was popular with all kinds of ladies, without ever directly answering the question.
Kyokotsu was a stoic, subtle, deadly young woman who would not look out of place leading the secret police of Division Two; since she could almost never be seen at all. Like a true ninja she dwelt in shadows, never letting on the madness beneath the patience in her namesake mad bones. She was the dagger slipped into an unsuspecting back.
Katen was the opposite. A gaudy, gambling, hard-drinking pirate; a singing, dancing, artistic, high-class entertainer. She drew all attention and revelled in it, bedecked in skulls and silks. Innocent as the flowers of heaven she was named for one moment, and malicious the next, she caught all eyes whilst her little sister efficiently slit all throats.
Together, they were almost uncontested. Together, they made Kyoraku's life very, very complicated.
Trying to claw his eyes out, screaming about how he'd sabotaged her game as he tipped back further and further, laughing nervously. "Calm down, Katen-chan, you're drunk!" She was climbing up his haori in a spitting rage. A black eyepatch with golden chains masked her left eye, fresh blood still trailing down from it. After they fell into a heap of colourful fabrics, Katen hissed and vanished. His swords reverted to their sealed state.
"Oh dear," mused Shunsui. "I hope that was the last enemy." He looked up, spotted the approaching Juushiro and waved, climbing to his feet.
"Now I see why you never got married," said Ukitake with a little laugh.
His oldest friend gave a guilty start and stared at him with a hint of fear.
"…That was a joke, Shunsui;" said Juushiro, humour fading. What a worrying expression. It was an expression that implied there were secrets between them. Old secrets.
"A good one..." agreed the captain, breathing again and looking away. Loath to meet eyes that could read him so well. "Ahh, just don't tell it to my family. Or Yama-jii. Or the council. Or pretty much anyone who'd like an exotic excuse to execute a guy who's just minding his own business."
He was prevented from walking away by a pale hand. Too late.
"How is that possible...?" Ukitake begged the question. "I thought you - all the women you're forever flirting with - are they just a cover? You don't do this with Kyokotsu too, do you? They're not human, Shunsui, how can you-?"
"Juushiro." He interrupted. His fists clenched tightly around the hilts of his zanpakutos, head bowed in shame. "If you keep asking, then we will no longer be old friends. Because I don't know the answers."
The white-haired man fell silent, grim, as his best friend walked away in a cloud of depression. No wonder. That was the secret of a lifetime, and he had just given it away by a slip of the eyes.
Upon his return home to the Eighth Squad office, Kyoraku collapsed on his futon and slipped into his inner world. It was a sumptuous, maze-like palace, full of paper doors and rich tapestries and empty sake bottles. Kyokotsu was there, playing solitary games with a dog-eared pack of hanafuda cards at her low mahogany table. She pointed to the door, indicating where her sister could be found.
Beyond the screen, Katen was lurking. She showed him the heavy gold coin in her palm. "Heads for a kiss, tails for a fist."
It was flipped, and bounced away behind her. "Lucky you," grinned the pirate, dragging his head down and latching onto his mouth with her painted lips.
Minutes later, when she'd grown bored and left (always and forever fickle), Kyoraku looked at the sovereign on the floor and felt his heart twist uncomfortably. This six-hundred-year infatuation wasn't one-sided after all.
The coin had fallen tails-up.
A certain confidant had sidled into Kyoraku's private quarters, and he could tell from the look on the man's face that Ukitake had Opinions. And bless the man, they would probably be encouraging.
"Oh dear," twittered Juushiro, going for the jugular. "Now I see why you couldn't use bankai back when we were dating."
"No need to dredge up the past!" hooted Kyoraku. "That was centuries ago -"
"But don't you see, you thought it was hangovers but in fact it was-"
"Shut up Juushiro!"
"-Your flower having the hump with you!"
"This doesn't need to be discussed! She's not someone I can ever meet!"
Juushiro turned sly. "Don't these spirits exist in the flesh in the place where our fabled king resides? With only asauchi around these days, most forget that."
"Now you're being ridiculous," said Kyoraku steadily.
"Not at all," retorted the Thirteenth Captain. "Perhaps you should stop giving up and start angling for promotion."
"Perhaps you should shut up before the Kido Corps lock me up. Let's not forget what happened to the last guy who got too close to his zanpakuto! No one wants another Baishin, ne? Don't want to end up sealed in stone with swords for fingers." He demonstrated via a jerky dance how his statue would be trapped with a look of surprise.
"Central 46 are inflexible," Ukitake conceded. "But I want my best friend to be happy."
"'Shinigami can only be happy when Central 46 are not pissed off at them'," quoted Shunsui, the moral of the browbeaten Gotei.
"What a shame," sighed his friend. "I thought you liked to dance no matter what."
"Don't talk like I'm the only truant here. And how do you think your mother felt when her one precious heir turned out to be gay?"
"She never knew that!" scolded Juushiro.
"Oh didn't she," hummed Kyoraku, downing another swig. "She knew every hair on your head."
"She'll turn in her grave!"
"She told me," Shunsui defended himself, all innocence. "I had no idea of such things!"
"No, you were busy trying to get busy with your manifested zanpakuto spirit!"
"Not back then?" said the guilty party mildly. "That took eons, to catch her eye."
"Took me eons to catch yours," grumbled Juushiro.
"When you live five lifetimes you can afford to experiment," nodded Shunsui shamelessly.
Ukitake rolled his eyes, because he still loved him in a corner of his generous heart, and poured himself another drink. "At least this proves you're a terrible judge of character. First you thought Kyokotsu was your cousin, and now you think a waking dream will be your wife."
"You, Shiro-chan, are capable of saying some very harsh things and I never should've become friends with you."
"I rest my case," finished Juushiro.
It was known that Soul Society was interpolated with the location of an empty valley in Japan, yet it was also known that many souls could pass through its gates that hailed from no known region. In particular the Shihouin Clan shared traits of dark violet hair and bright yellow eyes, and skin like the bark of a Japanese tree of some kind - taking pride in finding richly-coloured spouses to pluck from the throngs of Japanese souls.
The Sui-Feng family were dainty-yet-muscular, Chinese to a man; the rare blonds among the Kasumioji and Kira households were a sight to behold! House Kyoraku on the other hand, were tall and rugged with thick beards and waving brown hair. Shunsui had never visited the human world much, and his supposed ethnicity barely registered with him. And for whatever reasons over the centuries, whether by chance or design, the bloodlines of nobles did not much thin.
The inheriting branches were always 'Nii-san' to the immortal Shunsui. Still, the latest 'First Son' of the Kyoraku Great Clan was uncanny, one might say unnerving. It dragged up the most distant of memories for Kyoraku no Jiro Shunsui Sozosa, the genuine second son of the Clan back then who possessed all their history but only ever played assistant to the numerous 'First Sons', who would be perfecting their politics and punches while he punted about in a ramshackle military branch and occasionally killed monsters.
The likeness made him feel a double-edged brotherhood with the newcomer, and a distant fascination with his new 'niece', as if they really were only a single generation apart.
"He does remind me of your brother…" ventured Ukitake at one of their soirées.
"He looks the part," conceded Shunsui. Silent for a while, he suddenly began to spill the nostalgia in his heart. "My real older brother did once love a woman of Ise, but they never married due to the curse. Now the pairing has happened again 800 years later, I almost imagine they reincarnated. It's strange to think back so far."
"Do you disapprove of them again?"
"I never disapproved of them," argued Shunsui. "I disapproved of becoming the First Son. They were both good people, I simply helped them not hurt each other." A windmill pin glittered in his long hair, he noted the matching counterpart gracing the head of his great grandnephew's wife. He resolved to reunite them. An eight hundred year weight lifted from his heart.
"You've opened up to your clan again recently, with her influence. Do you think that could have happened back then, in those rigid days?"
"You needn't conflate them, Juushiro."
"I believe in living twice," admitted the invalid. "The same life, the same body."
" ...I know there is a cycle of reincarnation, but I don't believe it links our lives together. That is like saying a fox carries on the intentions of the grass in the belly of the rabbit it ate."
"Would you want to know?" pressed Juushiro, with a zeal he couldn't assign any provenance to.
"No. Of course not. Eight hundred years is already too long in the same job."
"Oh," his partner wilted, like a snowdrop. He hid a scroll of parchment from the king's own hand behind his back.
Two windmills lay across his palm, delicate, heavy. Heavy as the promises he had made to the dead. Heavy as the death of a dynasty.
Her shadow stretched across the floor, rejoining the corners of the old house.
"We all switched to asauchi, but here you are in person. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
Kyokotsu looked at the funeral casket and the swaddled zanpakuto, then stricken towards the distant silhouette of little Nanao. Her face was masked these days, a single eye no less expressive.
"You want to protect her from the curse?" Kyoraku Shunsui still failed to feel the same bonds his murder weapon did. How different they were. How the unearthly sisters loved his family.
She reached for the wrapped, blunt blade, and he realised for the first time that this one zanpakuto had never been exchanged for an asauchi. The sword became a bejewelled tortoise in her arms. A kami held in the bare hands of every Ise daughter born. It flashed like a mirror in the sun. She cradled it close and disappeared.
The Ise Heiress has already been executed for the loss of a 'great war power' and 'sacred icon', and the windmill pins made from a god's own scales. For knowing where they are and refusing to give them up, for spurning the holy inheritance of Ise. But still, this is some prank, Kyokotsu.
"I will have to wear the pins," realised the mourner; "so they believe I still have the sword. Or does your sister want me executed, too?"
Ukitake sat at a table in the plaza below the steps to Soukyoku Hill. The sun was out, the breeze was refreshing, the souls of deceased birds were singing. It was a nice day.
He tapped his fingers.
He looked sideways at Kyoraku, who was snoring under his conical hat.
He smiled in anticipation as someone approached, but it was only Kaien. He resumed pouting.
"This is a very long table Taicho!" His lieutenant hailed him. "I hope you didn't move it by yourself!"
The ailing albino straightened himself up and preened. "I can move mountains when I feel like it," he affirmed, which might have been exaggeration on anyone else's lips.
Shiba Kaien patted the wide, heavy scroll on one corner of the endless desk, and realised it must be the Ugendo dining table - the only piece of furniture in Soul Society long enough to fit the entire Ukitake clan. "Special occasion?"
His leader beamed. "Oh I'm surprised you didn't know, Kaien, today is my nine-!"
"Juushiro-chan!" cried a melodic, bubbly voice. Hikifune Kirio, a luscious example of humanity, appeared before him and slammed an invitation down on the table. It had so much gold leaf it clanged.
"Ah! This must be an invite to my surprise pa-!"
She spoke in a rush. "- I asked the Soutaicho about it and he told me to ask you, Juushiro-chan! He was so angry! It's from up top! Corporate! Division Z!"
He blinked excessively. It was just so odd that the Royal Division in charge of hunting Menos Grande and performing esoteric ceremonies should forget, nay upstage such an important day in his exemplary life?
She grabbed the lapels of his white cloak across the desk and dragged him up, overcome. "I'm going to the imperial hit squad in the sky!"
Ukitake plucked her hands from his coat of office and daintily removed her from his personal space, which was fully reserved for people with the correct priorities. "Quite frankly Hikifune-taicho, these types of executive orders are more akin to offers and you shouldn't rush your decision. Why not leave it to a more boring day like - tomorrow?"
"Goodness I don't have time for that right now," babbled Kirio, brushing flour and rice grains out of her bright purple hair. "I've been cooking all day! I'm not sure I can finish it all in time!"
"Special occasion?" echoed the man sadly.
"Oh you have no idea! Well, bye!" The spirals on her cheeks bounced up in the cheeriest smile as she vanished, the only mark left on his unfurled scroll a scrap of gold leaf.
He flicked it off. Fastidious.
"Do you have anything to say to me, Lisa-chan?" hinted Juushiro, full of hope.
"Nope." The Eighth vice-captain stomped past, braid flicking over her shoulder, reading partner in tow. They were heading up the hill to read in the balmy afternoon light, overlooking the courts ready for when the sun set. Lisa had hinted to the young girl, Ise Nanao, that there might be fireworks at midnight too. She seemed excited for the company, and ported a stack of books made taller than herself by the lantern on top.
"Lisa-chan," called Shunsui. "Don't be hasty. Let's all sit down and have a little chat."
"You know I'm not interested in pointless conversation during or after work hours."
"But it's been so long since I saw you this morning, Lisa-chan!"
She ignored him, palm out. "Distraction," she labelled him, damning. "Talk to me after you're dead."
"You always had a dark sense of humour, heh."
Lisa hunkered down next to her student and spoke in a honeyed coo. "The captain of Eighth Squad is an inveterate drunk who doesn't deserve a zanpakuto, let alone a position of rank. Do you know what 'inveterate' means, Nanao-chan?"
"Good girl. You'll surpass him someday."
Kyoraku feigned horror and began listing excuses on his long fingers. "But Lisa-chan, Katen is an oiran! Drinking is my jinzen! Also gambling, flirting, and music appreciation! What you see before you is a life totally devoted to the sword." He swept his hands out expansively. He paused. "It's not my fault if my sword just happens to be a total degenerate."
"An oiran? - That's a high class courtesan from the recent Edo period Nanao-chan. Ne Taicho, please don't tell me that sleeping around is also part of your jinzen?"
"Only if I want to be skinned alive… AHAHAHA LISA-CHAN IS SO SILLY. And please don't teach my little Nanao bad things, Yadomaru-fukutaicho."
"Your - ?"
"I have something you could read, Nanao-chan," interrupted Juushiro, pulling a stack of paper from beneath his chair. "This is a list of all the division leaders and seated officers in the Gotei, and under that is a list of all my friends!"
The little girl accepted the roster, confused.
"As you read you can cross off all the names of people who don't deserve to have friends, won't that be fun?"
"I can do that," agreed Ise Nanao seriously. She read the first and favourite name, Kyoraku Shunsui. That can go, she thought.
"I had it all planned," sulked the near-oldest person in Soul Society. "Yama-jii was going to arrive first and be all grumpy as he is, all 'what is this nonsense' and then when he realised, 'Ah! I'm so proud! You're like a son to me!' because I am indeed…"
"Heard he was combing his beard today," yawned Kyoraku. "Wants to look nice for tomorrow."
"Pah! And where is Sasakibe to offer me popular cakes from tiny islands in the West, mm?! He always has something up his weird sleeves..." He began to complain in earnest, regiment by regiment. "Shihouin - felicitations from your feline friend! Only takes five seconds to say! A tasteful gift from her excellent lieutenant perhaps, that Omaeda Marenoshin. Rose, one can hardly get to shut up, yet such silence today? Retsu-san didn't even drop off a token medicine packet, or the elder Yamada-san? I demand a smile from Shinji-kun - upside down or no! I deserve hugs from Aikawa and his afro, and a grudging fist bump from Kensei, and, and, Mashiro will scream 'WE NEED TO HAVE A PARTY' it's all she knows how to say and I will shout 'I KNOW!'"
He paused for breath. His two companions winced.
"And a respectable man like Ginrei has outright ignored me! I wanted to ask Soujun if his adorable son was still trying to be a rebel or if he'd been crushed by the strictures of the Kuchiki Clan yet...can't a person have a single decent conversation on a day like today?"
"At least Tousen from Ninth would've had a good excuse," suggested Kaien with a sly nudge towards Shunsui. "For not signing your scroll."
"Shinji-kun's dear fukutaicho would have helped him," wept Juushiro, scrubbing an expensive sleeve across his face. "He teaches poetry and calligraphy, Kaien! Sousuke-chan would have ensured Kaname-kun had the best signature on the banner! And now we'll never know how beautiful this celebration could have been!"
"Never helps Kaname pick his clothes," mumbled Shunsui. "He can't be that nice..."
"This is unfathomable," murmured the First Son of House Ukitake. "Wasn't that sweet lass from Twelfth only recently saying we had the nicest contingent of captains and vice-captains in Seireitei history?"
"'Only one psychopath'," quoted Kaien.
Shunsui eyed the barrels of sake lined up under the table. "Which lass?"
"The one who bumped into that Gorilla-taicho of Eleventh in a corridor once and knocked him over."
Shunsui chewed on a piece of hay and activated his superpower. "Kurosaki Masaki."
"That's it!" cheered Juushiro as Shiba Isshin appeared at his elbow as if summoned by some demonic conjurer. The Thirteenth wilted. "She's not here either."
Isshin wilted in kind.
"I need a favour from you, Uncle Issh," said Kaien grimly.
"Uh, ah, I can't really interfere in other divisions," muttered Isshin, edging away with his hands clinging to his medical stash sash. "Don't you outrank me anyway, you precocious kid?"
"Tell them it's an emergency census because a human-mimicking Hollow has been detected in the Central Offices." Juushiro stared down at his untouched banner, fists clenched, ponytail flurried by the sudden wind. The words fell like tombstones. He did not raise his eyes.
"This is a fight for my captain's honour," insisted Kaien, stone-faced.
There was a rumble of thunder high in the flawless sky.
"… He said what?" uttered Unohana faintly.
"We will have to move fast." She signalled the alarm to be raised.
"Tomorrow there will be no one left!" thundered the fourteen-centuries-unbested, one true Kenpachi. "A tsunami will have torn it all to shreds!"
"Mm, Shiro-chan, did I mention?" Shunsui stood up and rolled his shoulders, aching from the dull day. "Central decreed we're switching to the Western Gregorian calendar to fall in line with modern Japan because the ghosts are getting confused. Honestly I thought you'd notice the memos."
"Who gives a damn about that?!" snapped Juushiro in a rare fit of spite.
Kyoraku tipped his straw hat and prepared a city-spanning flashstep.
"They have leap days, so now your nine hundredth birthday is tomorrow. Ciao!"
Shunsui stepped out of shadow, into the palace of his mind, into the place he had always wanted to be.
She approached his back, garlanded in satin and bones, the red ribbon circling her throat. Like her arms, lacing around his neck in languid possession, her fingers catching her wrist like lock and key. He looked to his left, could only see the skull and crossbones crowning her lowered head.
"To the players in the game the world is a board.
To the players the rules of the game are the law.
To life the players are neither coward nor brave.
A winner is just a liar still digging their grave."
He tried to speak, she pressed a finger to his lips.
"Don't die today, Shunsui. It would be a waste if we couldn't dance."
"Ah," said the captain of Division Thirteen as he espied the closest thing he'd seen to a palace hovering over the horizon. "I'll ask for directions there."
He turned the flaking, two-century-old invitation over in his hand. "Not even a map on the back..." he clucked.
One of his twin fish wound around him, satin fins trailing over his shoulder. "Squeak," Juushiro sighed. "This war doesn't make the least bit of sense."
He remembered Yammy's collapse at a flick of Aizen's finger. "That could have been staged, you know," he counselled them. "Convincing your enemy you can mirror any magnitude of power sent against you is a brilliant way to make them fear attacking. I would believe it was a bluff," he paused diplomatically; "if I believed Yammy had two brain cells to rub together.
"And now we're scattered across a territory we have never been before, trying to reach weapons that have already failed, with the children panicking to grow stronger and survive while the old ones claim their figurehead king will make it all go away."
Away from his colleagues, the eternal optimist had dropped his facade.
He reached a hand out to each regal carp. "At least Aizen's charade that the kami had rejected us was a lie. I really couldn't bear to lose you both."
Soon you won't lose us ever again.
Juushiro's smile was uncertain.
He couldn't guess why he'd been invited to join the Royal Guard. He had met the members of Division Zero before; assumed most of them were pleasant enough if you took the time to really get to know them... but there had never been the time. Then again if they were willing to let him return home after the 'miracle healing' of his tuberculosis, could he really deny Soul Society the benefit of his full, never-before-seen, untapped strength? Could he beg them to release him after promotion? Was there greater need hidden in this land of superbeings?
"Who lives in those floating cities?"
They're mostly populated by Mod Souls. Sougyo rarely spoke, but when they did it was in unison, voices bubbling like children's laughter.
"Weren't all Mod Souls destroyed?" mentioned Juushiro, left far more curious by the answers than the questions themselves. The koi were already shaking their heads. The pierced rings flicked from side to side.
"Someone should tell Kon," mused Ukitake. "Rukia-chan would be delighted to get rid of him."
Will Katen let go of our old friend?
Jyuushiro groaned, his memories flashing back to the moment hundreds of years past when he'd accidentally uncovered the secret of their strange relationship. Now they were genuinely face to face for the first time in their lives, and he wondered how they would handle it in the flesh, as it were.
"She didn't eat you then," he was greeted with relief.
"Not yet," chuckled the Eighth Captain. "Give it a week, she'll want to kill me soon enough."
"Sa, we can't all have the Law of Pisces," said the Thirteenth, pitying.
"Ne Shiro-chan, what is the Law of Pisces?"
Ukitake raised his eyebrows in surprise at the question that came a millennium too late. "It's, 'Just keep swimming'."
They walked in companionable silence for a while. Kyoraku soon became restless and broke the peace, as was his habit.
"Do you plan to stay here?"
The air became weighted, stark. Juushiro met his anxious gaze.
Their progress dwindled to a halt. The path to the Soul King's Palace stretched before them. It hovered on the horizon, the terrible consequence of loyalty.
"You know, my mother called my childhood 'The Three Miracles'... and we're standing here at the top of the world a thousand years later…"
"The Three Deaths, you mean," coughed the other. The younger turned, hands akimbo, all disbelief. His partner continued. "Famously, The Three Deaths. Of a physician, a fish and a feud."
They stared each other down, one all surprise, one all amusement.
"So we'll go out beating a fellow captain bloody in the court of the Soul King," snorted Shunsui.
"Well, what can you do," laughed Juushiro benevolently; "after ignoring every chance for a kinder death than this?"
Chapter Notes:A word on ages - I'm sure that at the start of Bleach all the Soul Society characters were implied to be much older than they are now shown to be. The easy example is Rukia being ten times older than Ichigo. With new subplots such as Ise Nanao's coming in, and having seen Shunsui grow up over the course of her childhood (unless his brother waited a LONG time to have kids), I have to admit my age structure is now way off. However, it all ties into aspects of the plot I decided ten years ago so please just give it your best Bleach shrug.
Author Notes: In short, I had a long-term illness, insane fatigue and couldn't think straight. I have been trying to write this whole five years. Massive gratitude to everyone who responded to the help advert so fast, in particular to Scaehime for proofreading, Sage of Wind Dragons for feedback and the wonderful PA2 for beta reading the whole HB master plan!