A.N. Welcome back to Retsu's Folly. Finally off the very long hiatus. A lot of you have continued to review and recommend this story, thank you for your support. This chapter takes off right after the last one ended. Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 12

Love & Death

I had placed the bed across from the door. It was so I could react quickly if someone decided to break in. Habits picked up in Rukongai are hard to break. It didn't make it any easier to sleep. I had gotten up and checked the lock on the door and the window three different times. The hope that once I was sure I was safe I would fall asleep was dashed. I laid awake.

I wished I'd never found my actual dorm room. It had become necessary to find a private place to keep the cat animagus. So Rangiku and I had hunted around for the room assigned to me and turned it into a temporary prison for the cat. But now that it had served its purpose it was awkward to go back to Rangiku and Kukaku's room. After all I didn't have the excuse that I didn't know where my room was. So I laid awake, irritated with myself for not being able to sleep alone.

There was a knock on my door. I drew my sword and lept to the side of the door. In another moment I felt the reiatsu of the person on the other side of the door and sheathed the sword. I tried to keep the smile off my face as I let her in. It wouldn't do for her to know how relieved I was to see her.

Rangiku had shadows under her eyes, her hair was frizzy, she was holding a pillow. "Please tell me you couldn't sleep either," she begged, her tone annoyed and hopeful.

A sigh escaped my lips and my shoulders slumped. "Not a wink."

"We're fucked up, huh?" she said, stepping fully into my room. She set the pillow next to mine on the bed.

"Maybe. I don't care much though, do you?" I asked.

She snorted and climbed into bed and waved me over. I lied down next to her, my back to her, as was usual. For once she didn't turn her back to me. Her hand snaked over my side and slipped inside my hand. Our fingers intertwined and I breathed in relief. Human contact is such a fundamental need. The only kind I had been shown in my childhood had been the kind to cause pain. It wasn't until Hermione, really, that I realized that I was worthy of being touched with compassion too.

It was her hugs, gentle gestures, a kiss on the cheek on occasion that reminded me of how I had thirsted in my childhood for such things. Aunt Petunia was never sweet to me like she was to Dudley. But life in Hogwarts had made me used to kind physical contact, and life after death had ripped that away from me. Most days the only way I could function was not to think of my friends, of what they were fighting. So when I missed them in such a primal, basic way, I buried that too.

Somewhere in there Rangiku had come along and attached herself to me. Her bright gray eyes reflecting all her mischief and poorly hidden loneliness could always distract me from my troubles. Her annoying, loyal, parasitic, and compassionate company had saved me from burying my heart completely. As I laid there I came to a terrifying realization. I loved her.

I didn't know what kind of love it was. Was it how I loved Hermione? Or Ron? My throat tightened - was it like Ginny? Was I betraying Ginny and all of my friends by making a new friend, loving Rangiku?

Deep exhaustion overtook me; I was so tired from hiding from my grief of leaving my friends behind, guilty for being content in that moment next to a scrappy little girl.

But nothing could be done. One day when I discover my way back to them, I will face the choice between my friends in the afterlife and those I left behind. That day hadn't yet come. So I squeezed Rangiku's hand in mine and let her hot breath on my neck lull me to sleep.

(Break)

Warm fingers ran through my hair and caressed the line of my jaw. I felt more than heard heartbeat next to my face. There was a fragrance that woke me, I couldn't really give it a name like lilac or sandalwood, but it reminded me intensely of home. The half-lucid, half-asleep thought of home made me open my eyes with a gasp.

Hair the color of blood was streaming down on me, little gold bells tinkled as it swayed. A sweet smile reflected in the face turned down to me. My heart almost leapt out of my chest. It was a few dazed moments before I realized why I was reacting like I was. The woman's whose lap my head was rested on knew my deepest most desperate secrets. She knew just what would turn me into a gibbering child crying for his mummy.

And-she-never-failed-to-remind-me.

"Izanami," I greeted quietly. Forcibly reminding myself that the warmth of the hands cupping my face and the fragrance of the skin was not of my mother. It was a Izanami, my zanpaktou.

She didn't respond but continued to play with my hair and smile with this far off look in her eyes. For some reason I couldn't sense her emotions which I had discovered a while ago that I could. I laid there, guiltily accepting her attention.

"Ano...Harry?" Rangiku's voice broke me out of my comfort. It was surprising to hear her voice. After all I was in my soul scape.

I sat up and there in front of the throne Izanami and I were sharing was Rangiku. She was looking curiously at me and Izanami. A pink furred kitten was hissing and growling at her from a few feet away but she was ignoring it.

"Rangiku?" I asked slowly, not knowing if I was dreaming.

"What is this place? Where are we?" Rangiku said in return, waving her hands at the statues dotting the floor.

"This...this is my soul. Rangiku, what are you doing here? How did you get here?" I demanded.

"I don't know!" she snapped back.

"Children," Izanami scolded softly. Rangiku rolled her eyes but I turned my attention to the capricious spirit of my sword. "I brought her here. Her kitten has been getting in my dresses and sharpening its claws on my robes. If she doesn't do anything about it, I'll kill the menace myself." Izanami crinkled her nose at the pink furball which was hopping around Rangiku, hissing and growling.

"I don't have a kitten," Rangiku said with a frown and then looked around again as if she were searching for something. "Where is the thing anyway? I can hear it but I don't see it."

The kitten was right in front of her and she couldn't see it. I glanced at Izanami suspiciously. She was looking at Rangiku as if she were silently trying to communicate something. Rangiku noticed her gaze and in a way that only she can misunderstand decided that Izanami wanted a staring contest. She obliged.

The kitten's ears drooped and it mewled pitifully as it turned away from Rangiku. I stepped downstairs and scooped the creature off the waterlogged floor. It was so small that it fit in my hand. I ran my hands through its soft pink fur and scratched it under the chin, which was covered in white fur. The kitten purred contently, its silvery-gray eyes narrowed until they closed and it went to sleep in my hand.

I looked up from the kitten to Izanami and Rangiku. They were still having their staring contest. Rangiku's eyes were watering… In the fae light of my soulscape her eyes looked silvery-gray just like the kitten's were. The pieces began to fall together in my mind. There was another time when I had heard growling coming from Rangiku but there had been no sign of anything around her. Then there was the time that I had seen and heard Lisa-san's zanpaktou.

"Izanami, the kitten is Rangiku's sword spirit, right?" I asked.

Izanami's smile bloomed and she gave a nod of acknowledgment. "Well done, my master. You're developing your senses finally."

"What kitten!" Rangiku blew up.

"The one in my hand," I said. Rangiku blinked at my hand in a nonplussed way. "You don't see it. Have you been meditating on your sword spirit?"

"Of course, I have! You know that, it's frustrating as Hell that I haven't been able to find it," she moaned.

"That's because you're wounded," Izanami said. Rangiku and I looked at her in question. Luckily she needed no further prompting to explain, "Something happened to your soul, child," she addressed Rangiku. "Before you met my master, you were hurt someway. Part of your soul's potential, it's uniqueness as a Shinigami was sliced off. Not all of it but enough to handicap you."

A look of recognition passed on Rangiku's face. Her mouth opened a little and eyes widened until they narrowed in fury. She shook her head and said, "I was leaving the market and was walking through woods when I was jumped. I was knocked out, so I don't know what happened to me, but when I woke up I felt weaker. After that I was never as strong as before...never hungry as before either." She sighed. "I thought my spirit energy was messed up but I don't really know anything about such things." She locked eyes with me and said in a wondering tone, "Until I met you, after that I slowly started getting stronger, I was hungrier too...I just thought it was the training, but…"

"What? You think I had something to do with you getting better?" I laughed.

Izanami put her hand on my arm to quiet me and spoke softly, "That is precisely what happened." She stood up and moved to the great mosaic of the white tree. As always she looked magnificent, that day she was dressed in robes of black and purple, a sheer veil covered her face. I spied Annette reading a book at the base of the tree. She looked like she had been painted inside the mosaic. I wondered if Rangiku could tell Annette was alive.

"Did you feel the wound all those times you healed me?" Rangiku asked.

My mind flashed to the many times I had treated Rangiku's battle injuries. They'd run red, shown bone, terrified me that I would lose her or she would be disabled. I had put all my strength into healing her a few times not counting all the other times. "No, I think I only ever noticed your battle injuries."

"Shinigami are interesting creatures, souls encapsulated in spirit particle bodies. Your magic, your weapons, your bodies, everything are deeply affected by the soul. Because that's what this realm is, this is Soul Society," Izanami lectured, still observing the mosaic. I wondered what she was looking for. "My master's brand of healing is very...intimate." She turned to smile and wink at us. I blushed hard and glared at her. "He wasn't taught to limit how much of himself he puts in healing. The other shinigami wear gloves and are taught other measures not to cause reiatsu contamination. My master was not taught these things...and he's close to you, and you to him, Rangiku." I very carefully did not look at Rangiku, this was deeply embarrassing for both of us. Instead I focused on why Retsu hadn't gone over the idea of reiatsu contamination with me. "Last night," Izanami continued. "For the first time you two accepted how much the other means to you. And after all these months upon months of my master sharing his soul with you, Rangiku, you finally realized that part of you had been given to him as well."

I heard Rangiku gasp. My heart thudded in my ears. I was going to kill Izanami for embarrassing us. But the bitch just went on baring our souls, "I was then able to pull you into our soul world. So you can be healed truly and be united with the spirit of your sword. You would have met the annoying rodent eventually, growing as you have been, but since you guard my master's back in the outside world, I decided to help." Izanami returned to the throne and lounged on it, putting her jewelled legs and feet on my lap. I carefully lifted the hand holding the pink cat so it wasn't knocked off. "Your sword spirit felt and understood the connection between you and my master long before either of you did. So it found refuge in my world when it couldn't get you to see it. Also, Annette adores the creature, she wouldn't let me throw it out."

I smiled at the thought of sweet Annette falling in love with the, frankly, adorable little kitten and begging Izanami to let her keep it. But there were more important matters at hand. I finally dared to look at Rangiku. The girl had her head bowed and her arms crossed over her chest. She was frowning in concentration. "There's more, isn't it?" she looked askance at Izanami. "You're a manipulative bitch and you're insane. There has to be something in this for you."

Izanami's feet flew off my lap as she surged from the throne at Rangiku. The normally placid water on the floor crested behind her like a wave. There was a bright flash and Rangiku's scream. I stood up in shock, my eyes clearing and seeing Izanami standing over Rangiku's fallen form. My friend was sprawled on the ground, her hand was on her cheek, and blood was trickling from the corner of her mouth. Izanami's hand was raised as if she were going to strike again.

Her green eyes were filled with something so alien and remote I couldn't understand it. I could feel the power of her spirit tightly restrained but pushing to be released. Her emotions felt like my own, of wounded pride and disappointment; which gave me pause. "Child," she said, her whisper echoing in the dark expanse of my soul scape. "I love you because my master loves you. I adore you because he adores you. But make no mistake, I am a goddess - your goddess!" She dropped her raised hand and returned to the throne to sit on it regally.

Rangiku got to her feet with her jaw clenched tightly. Her eyes shone with unshed tears and unexpressed fury. Izanami spoke again like an empress might to her knights. "You are right that there is more. Your soul is wounded in the worst, most disgusting manner. Your uniqueness was damaged and no matter how many times my master pours his heart into healing you, you will never recover what you once could have been-"

"But you said-" Rangiku interrupted but was in turn stopped by Izanami's stern look.

"What can be done is for you to take on new potential," Izanami said and then looked at me, "You can be gifted with things to nurture what is left of your uniqueness. The cost would be even deeper ties to my master and through him to me."

It was as if Izanami was asking for my permission. I nodded to show my agreement. I didn't like that Izanami had struck Rangiku. However, I understood that Izanami truly wanted me to have strong followers so she would honestly help Rangiku. It seemed Rangiku agreed as well, because she asked, "Either way I would be stronger than I'm now? I'll be able to stay up with Harry?"

Izanami smiled benevolently. "Child, your powers will become legend right before your eyes."

"I don't want her hurt, she's my friend, Izanami," I said.

Izanami rolled eyes in annoyance. It looked so odd when she was sitting with such poise that I couldn't help but laugh. She deigned to give me a smile as well and snapped her fingers. The sound of heavy marble moving on stone reached us. Something was sliding out from between the innumerable black statues. A sculpture rose and came to rest on the raised platform with the throne. It was of a cat, long limbed, with tall ears, a nose ring, and a bronze choker decorating it. "This one of my instruments lived in a place known to my master as Egypt. It has an extraordinary ability to see and defend against spirits. Its very being can terrify evil to flee. But for you who has trouble with seeing your zanpaktou spirit, the power of this instrument's perception is important. It will teach you," Izanami explained as she walked around the sculpture. She trailed her hand along the sculpture's back.

Suddenly it came to life, standing as tall as a Great Dane. It's fur was a sleek black with spots that were even darker than black. It's black pupils in green eyes widened and narrowed as it looked at us. Then in an unmistakable gesture it bowed to me and then to Izanami. It moved to me in quiet graceful steps and sniffed the kitten in my hand. The nose ring on the cat gleamed golden. "Poorrrrr thing," the Egyptian cat murmured with a pleasant pur in its speech. I couldn't tell if it was male or female. It grabbed the sleeping kitten from the scruff of its neck and lifted it from my hand to place it on its back. It then walked to Rangiku who was looking more than a little apprehensive at a cat that was level with her chest. "An evil touch, I smell… two smells, one old and one recent," the Egyptian cat said gazing at Rangiku.

"But the same smell," Izanami said or questioned, it was hard to tell. The Egyptian cat gave a short bow.

"What does that mean?" Rangiku said.

"It means you have been in the presence of the one who wounded you not long ago. I sensed the same presence on you as well, my dear master," Izanami explained. "You have met the creature or the weapon that injured your friend as well."

Rangiku and I shared a look. We had our next goal. To find and possibly kill whoever it was. The fact that we were in the sanctum of the shinigami meant that it was one of them.

"Good," Rangiku growled. "Perfect time for me to get stronger and kill the bastard who did this to me."

Izanami smiled like a proud parent. "Then be on your way." The Egyptian cat, the pink kitten, and Rangiku disappeared from sight. I presumed they went to Rangiku's soul.

I sat down on the throne and turned so I could look at Izanami. She looked back with a faint smile on her painted lips. "Thank you," I found myself saying.

Surprise touched her eyes. "Of course, my sweet flower," she answered.

We sat quietly, me basking in newfound civility between my zanpaktou spirit and myself; her, probably, in self-satisfaction. A thought crossed my mind. "Izanami, when I walked through those statues the first time I saw many cat or cat-like ones."

"As always, some are mere instruments like the one helping your friend, it has no true name even. There are others which embody an aspect of death, some dare even be a face of death," she said. Then dipped her head a little to look up coyly at me with a wicked spark in her eyes. "All cats in likeness."

I laughed and shook my head. Izanami is quite manipulative. "I suppose Rangiku will have many teachers then."

"I did say I would make her a legend. She is your shield and your second sword in the world outside. What sort of goddess would I be if I did not help her reach her potential and desire to serve you?" She hummed.

My mood soured a little at the reminder of her potential that had been taken from her. "Do you know who we met who might have hurt her?"

"No. There are times you do not carry me with you. Though we are always connected, if you leave the sword behind I cannot see what you see." She drew a facsimile of my sword from her robes and motioned me to look at something on the blade collar. "The triangle, symbol of the cloak in your mortal life. You will learn to make me invisible so that you're never without me."

"Ah." I smiled. "So that's how we get around the Shinigami's restrictions on places you can carry your zanpaktou. Although, once I graduate I will be able to carry you everywhere."

Izanami made a tutting sound. "There's wisdom in appearing unarmed when you are not. Remember, Death is unexpected. So must you be."

I sighed. She was right. "Alright, teach me."

(Break)

The sun was low in the sky and it washed the white walls of Seireitei in brilliant yellows and oranges. It was not too long ago that Rangiku and I had stood outside those high walls wondering if the people on the other side would accept us. The great earthen flagstones had baked all day in the heat making me sweat and shift from foot to foot. I was anxious for Mao Melissa to arrive for our date. Unlike the other girls I had been out with on very awkward dates, I liked Melissa. She was funny, a good teacher, straight forward, and had an incredible body. She was also a little scary, which in addition to all her other qualities made me want our date to go well. I was also terrified of telling her I would like to just stay friends as I had with the other.

But while I waited for her to meet me, I pondered on what I had resolved on the night Rangiku stayed in my room. I couldn't hold myself back from connecting with anyone because I was on a warpath to go back home. It had been over two years since I had died.

I had died - the thought never really felt real. I didn't want it to be true. But it was.

So I wondered that if Melissa actually liked me enough did I really have a reason to say no to her?

I was in that internal turmoil when she arrived. She was wearing a short length red yukata with a white obi. It accentuated her curves and showed off her powerfully muscled legs. Typically they were hidden inside her gym pants so I had a hard time looking away. She was smirking at me by the time my eyes made to her face. "You're wearing lipstick!" I blurted stupidly. It was a light shade of violet that matched her eyes.

She raised a brow and put her hand on a cocked hip. "Really? That's what you have to say to me? Maybe I should start kicking your ass now instead of waiting until after you've showed me a bad time."

"No, no, you look gorgeous… I was stunned...a little," I stopped when she started laughing at me.

"The look on your face!" She chortled. "Hah you're precious. Come on, lover, let's start with dinner. I'll show you my favorite place to get crabs and beer."

She hooked her arm with mine and started leading me. In the other hand she had a ridiculously large bag. I wanted to ask but decided that discretion was the better part of valor.

(Break)

Eating crabs was messy. Her choice of dinner showed why I really got along with her and why she didn't have a man already. The crabs were brought in a pail and dumped on the table on top of a newspaper. We were given two knives, as much cheap beer as we wanted, and told to have a good time. Melissa had rolled up her sleeves and shown me how to crack the crab, clean the guts, and eat the meat. After that display no one would have any doubts about Mao Melissa being a delicate flower of femininity. And if any doubts were left, they would be dashed to pieces by the next two hours of guzzling down beer, cracking jokes that made me blush, and putting away a sea lion's weight in crabs.

It was the best time I had on any date so far. It helped that I had decided to live my dead days and stop worrying about guilt.

"Ahhh, it's ten!" she exclaimed looking at the clock in the restaurant. She stood up as if electrified and then burped. "Oops, excuse me. Come on, let's go, lover."

She had been calling me that all night, 'lover.' I didn't mind it at all. "Where are we going?"

"Where the real fun begins," she said and winked at me. She led me out of the shopping area and into a park. Seeing we were going to a secluded place I started getting a little hot around the collar at what might be coming up. "Ok, quick, take off your clothes," she said in a business-like tone.

"Um, here?" I stalled, trying to figure out the change in her.

"Yeah. Now," she said a little more urgently and unclasped her yukata. I could only stare. She was wearing a sports bra and boy shorts underneath. The planes of her stomach were smooth and flat with muscle. I didn't get too long a look because she pulled out an old baggy dress that she slipped herself in. A brown headscarf hid her hair. She surprised me again when she bent down and grabbed some dirt which she rubbed on her face. In moments she looked like a woman I would walk by in the farther parts of Rukongai and make no note of.

She rummaged in her large bag and threw a bundle of clothes at me. "Change," she said simply. Melissa may joke around but she could be very serious too. I didn't get to see that side of her often but I got the feeling I should go along with her. I took off my shirt and pants when I heard her whistle. "Nice scars, Harry, and you're putting on muscle too. A little scrawny for my taste but you'll be there when I'm through with you."

"We can't all be Amazons like you," I said. After changing in front of Kukaku and Rangiku I had gotten over being bashful.

"Are you calling me manish?" she asked in a dangerously low voice.

By that time I was pretty sure the night wasn't going to end like I was hoping it would. Melissa was up to something and romance was clearly not it. But my new resolve to live without guilt and probably the beer made me a little fearless. Instead of cowering like I usually did when she threatened violence, I stalked to her, grabbed the back of her head, and kissed her.

It tasted like dirt, crabs, and beer. But she started smiling while kissing me back and that made it a thousand times better than the kiss with Cho. We parted and she hummed in thought looking me up and down with a smirk. "Well, this arrangement will definitely have some nice fringe benefits."

"Arrangement?" I asked.

Her demeanor changed, she dropped her smile and straightened up. "When I first decided to take you out I was hoping for a night like we had. It was fun. But things have changed."

I felt disappointment well up in me. "What happened?"

"You attracted the attention of my patrons… Harry, I'm a retainer of the Fong clan. I worked in their fields as a child, my family has been working for them for generations. They did my family an honor by taking me in and training me," Melissa explained and motioned me to follow her. We started walking into the woods. "I received a coded message. I have to train you up to standard…up to being taken in for training by the main Fong family." She paused in her words but not in her steps. "It's an honor for both of us." She sounded anything but honored.

"You don't sound happy about it," I observed.

"It's very dangerous. What you and I have been doing in the Hakuda classes at the Academy is a joke. There are many retainers who risk their life and limb. The Fong are no easier on their own family, they're only harder," she said. "You're to be trained in the Fong way, in Fong techniques in utter secrecy. Eventually you will be taken from me to a master of the arts." She stopped and put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed it. "I promise I will make you strong. I have to."

"Thanks," I said awkwardly. "You're amazing at Hakuda, so I guess I'm not surprised. But you're not stuck up like the Fong."

She let out a delighted laugh and snorted. "Talk like that will get you a whipping." She sighed. "Anyway, we will slip away several times a week for your training. Our cover is that we're dating."

"That shouldn't be too hard," I said with a smile.

She caught my eyes and deliberately shook her head. "No, Harry, until I've fulfilled this mission for the Fong, it is just a cover. I like you and you like me, that's great. But I hated all my trainers and if I'm doing my job right you will hate me too. If we get past this...then…" She closed the distance between us and kissed me next to my lips. "I'm sure we'll have fun."

I dropped my head so it rested against her head for a moment and sighed. "Fine, now, where the Hell are we going?"

"There's a fight club in district seventeen. There's no rule against killing. Only rule is no weapons and no demon arts." She smirked. "That's where I make my pocket money."

I was noticing a disturbing trend in my female friends: They were all hustlers.

(Chapter End)