Here's Chapter 22. If you're wondering why it took so long to come out, it's because my November was absolutely insane. I rarely had time to think about Doctor's Orders. There was another reason for the late chapter as well, but I'll talk about it after you've read the chapter. Finals week is coming up, too, but after that I should be able to get out two to four chapters over the next six weeks.
Special thanks to apathyninja, Slothman30, Mileryn, perfect beauty, shaggy-bear, Mungetsu, stormcrowley, RangerH, Substitute Deathberry, Nathan J Xaxson, Superforeigner, Silverwriter582, firelarc, koolawantxox4u, Tomas the Betrayer, Orion 101, laughingspider, Richasa, mauralucky7, Shrodinger's Kat, Writing bunny, Thorn In Your Side, Majin Hentai X, and Rassilon001 for the encouragement and reviews so far. Extra special thanks for your patience.
Responses to Questions/Comments:
Thorn In Your Side: Um... busted? I don't have an explanation for Rangiku knowing about the Maggot's nest, so I guess that this would be a second departure from canon, in addition to the timeline stretch. I will say that Genjo is savvy enough to have found out about the Gotei Thirteen's "no retirement" policy, even though he's not supposed to. I'm glad you're enjoying the story, though.
Perfect Beauty: Er... Unohana *did* talk to them about her dreams. She did it shortly before Isane's group fought Mod-Isane.
Everyone else: Thanks for the continued support, and for sticking with the story.
I do not own Bleach, or any part of it.
Chapter 22 – Welcome to the Show, Part 1: Come one, Come all!
The lights are on; the set is down; the curtain pulled away.
To all you creatures of the night, I say it's time we play.
We'll show you things that in your life you never dreamed you'd know.
And now before the ghosts arrive, it's WELCOME TO THE SHOW!
Lyrics from "Welcome to the Show," by Savatage
First Division, Upper Patrol Route - 12:03 p.m.
Unohana walked beside Yamamoto as they made their way around the First Division. She had to admit that the view was impressive; she could see almost the entire Seireitei, and even some of the Rukongai beyond. "Is this a visual metaphor for what you were saying earlier?"
"Yes, I suppose so." Yamamoto grunted. "From this height, you can see all of the traffic moving about, the patrols, the supplies moving, the Reapers on leave heading out to rest or relax." He pointed at one group, "For instance, that patrol is going to run right into one of the gate giants if they keep going that way – and they will, too, because they can't see him just yet. They don't have the right perspective."
Unohana raised an eyebrow. "Of course, we could tell them to take another path…"
"And you can tell your division how long their training will take, what the results will be, and what they have to do. But you can't give them the experience that would let them determine those things for themselves." Yamamoto made another one of his hhmmms. "Think about trying to describe the view up here to someone who has never been here before. You can pass along the information, you can tell them what you see, and you can even paint them a picture. But until they get up here, they don't know what the view is like. Not like you or I do."
"We could help them get up here…"
"Which is what we're already doing."
Unohana sighed. "I was afraid of that."
Yamamoto snorted, amused. "You hoped I knew of a way to surgically implant knowledge and experience into Soul Reapers? I run an academy and a military, not a shop of miracles." He continued on his walk, his staff thumping with every other step.
Unohana followed him. "Captain Kyoraku – Shunsui – wondered if my Division was properly motivated. He suggested that maybe they wanted change, but didn't believe it was possible."
"Shunsui is a bright boy. Do you agree?"
"Not initially, but after this morning, I think it might be possible." Unohana said. "Maybe you can't teach patience, but surely there's a way to inspire more confidence."
"Certainly." Yamamoto chuckled. "But it may be harder than you think. I can make Soul Reapers confident about their skills. You can make them confident about medicine and healing. But it sounds like they need to be confident in battle."
"I would talk to the Captain with the greatest battle confidence in the Gotei Thirteen. Not myself, of course. In fact, Jushiro and Shunsui are a bad choice, too. We're all too old and too smart to be completely confident in the middle of a fight, no matter what we say."
"So who do I talk to? Zaraki?" Unohana smiled. The image of asking Zaraki to give her drill advice was highly amusing.
Yamamoto didn't break stride. "That would be a good choice."
Unohana looked at him sharply. "You must be joking."
Yamamoto looked back. "I am not. Good grief, woman – just look at his division."
"I don't want to turn the Fourth Division into the Eleventh! My officers would kill me, for one thing…"
"Bah! One thousand years, and still you don't listen. I'm not telling you to hand your division over to him. Just go talk to him. Watch him. See how he motivates his squad. I'm sure you'll learn something."
Unohana shook her head. "That's beyond ludicrous. What makes you think he'll agree to talk to me?"
Yamamoto still remained unmoved. "He likely won't. You'll have to offer him something he wants."
"That's even more unlikely. All Zaraki wants is a good fight."
"Then give him one."
"Are you planning to oversee it? Captain battles can be messy."
Yamamoto's beard and moustache twitched and his eyes crinkled. "I have enough faith in your abilities that I'm sure no one will be killed. As for injuries, well, there's supposedly a really good doctor somewhere around here…"
"Your confidence is appreciated." Unohana said flatly. This conversation did not go the way I was hoping it would.
Minazuki spoke up as Unohana made her way back to the Fourth Division and her duties. No, but this will be good for you.
Indeed. Minazuki responded. And might I suggest the perfect location…?
Karakura Town, Karakura High School - 12:30 p.m.
"I'm back!" Rangiku said, climbing through the window.
"What's going on?" Isane asked, as she hunched over the open casing of the Hollow tracking monitor.
"They've canceled school until they figure out why the roof blew up. I don't know what they'll blame it on, since 'magical spirit blasts from Hueco Mundo' is usually not something mortals think of."
"Probably a gas leak." Isane said.
"Maybe." Rangiku shrugged. "And they said that you'll be paid for the school days regardless, but payday is still Friday. So we might still be on the not-eating-anything diet, unless you've changed your mind about raiding Orihime's pantry." Her statement was punctuated by a loud growl from Isane's stomach.
Isane gritted her teeth. "I swear, from now on I'm treating all of Renji's wounds without anesthetics. But to answer your question: no. I told you last night that we're not going to steal anything from any mortals."
"Except for jobs."
"You're not going to let that go, are you?"
Rangiku leaned over to watch what Isane was doing. "It's pretty much the only moral high ground I have. On a side note, we should probably ditch our Gigais somewhere else before they inspect the building." She added, changing the subject.
"Alright. Give me another second here…"
Rangiku peered into the tracker. "Any progress with the tracers?"
"No." Isane finally leaned back, disgusted. "They just weren't designed to do what we need them to. A single set of tracers can't cover an entire city – it would take at least ten sets, stretched to their limits. Even then I'm not sure I have the technical skill to pull it off."
"Where can we get more?"
"The Seireitei, and we'd have to sneak back in to get them or explain why you and I are back before the mission is complete – It's pretty much the same problem as before."
"Oh, yeah..." Rangiku frowned. "Well, we could always wait for Soto to show up again. I mean, with school cancelled there's not much else you can do here, so we might as well go and hang out with Chad until she comes back for him. The problem is that it's totally reactive, which the captain says is a bad move…"
"Right - we don't know what she wants with him in the first place. If we just guard him, Soto might be able to get whatever it was from somewhere else."
"Which brings us back to how to find Soto."
Isane rubbed her forehead. "We're going in circles. Maybe we could –"
She was interrupted by a sudden burst of spiritual pressure, almost immediately recognizable as Soto's. Both lieutenants were out the window and swallowing their soul candies in an instant.
Karakura Town, Kurosaki Household - 12:30 p.m.
Ichigo lounged back on the living room sofa, taking a break. He and Rukia had spent the last forty minutes coming up with a plausible story for Yuzu and his father about why they were home early, why Chad was with them, and why school was closed while Karin studiously ignored them. They'd done a pretty good job of it, he thought, when they felt Soto's spiritual pressure again.
Rukia sat bolt upright. "I've just remembered; I need to… um… to go iron my hair!"
Ichigo slapped his hand to his face. Even after months of living in the mortal world, Rukia still occasionally mixed up her generic excuses. As she bolted up the stairs, he got up from the sofa.
"Where are you going?" Yuzu asked innocently.
"I'm going to go help her find the iron." Ichigo said, rolling his eyes as he ran up the stairs after Rukia.
Yuzu stared at the staircase, looking pensive. "You know, I've always wondered how she got her hair to stick out in the back like that…"
Karakura Town, Downtown - 12:31 p.m.
Isane and Rangiku emerged from flash step. They had arrived just under a minute from the time of the burst of Spiritual pressure, but Soto was nowhere to be found. Isane frowned. "Is she gone already?"
"Something isn't right here."
"I know. I can't sense her spiritual pressure anymore."
Rangiku scanned the nearby rooftops. "We couldn't feel it earlier until she cut loose on the roof, remember?"
Soto's spiritual pressure flared up again – once again, across the city. The two lieutenants looked at one another. "How is she getting around that fast?"
Isane grimaced. "I have a better question – if she's that fast, why not just send her to the Seireitei and have her kill everyone? If she's moving so fast that Kurosaki can't track her…"
"I don't think she is." Matsumoto said, tapping her lips with one finger. "I wonder… do you think she has another way to travel?"
Isane sighed. "You think she can teleport?"
"It seems likely." Rangiku nodded. "It's rare, but possible. In fact, we have artifacts in the Seireitei that can do it. If a Hollow truly mastered the same kind of power that lets them travel from Hueco Mundo to the world of the living and back, then she could go just about anywhere, in no time at all."
"That's a disturbing thought. I hope Ichigo and Rukia had the sense to stay with Chad." Isane said.
Ichigo and Rukia chose that moment to emerge from flash step. "Where is she?" Ichigo demanded.
Isane rubbed her forehead. I never get to be right.
Rangiku raised an eyebrow, "That's the question of the day, isn't it?"
Isane looked at the two of them. "Where is Chad?"
"Back at the family clinic." Rukia answered calmly. "If we can trap Soto here…"
Isane shook her head. "We won't be 'trapping' Soto anywhere. Rangiku and I were thinking it over, and we think she can teleport. How far and how frequently, we don't know, but we really are going to have to wait until she comes to us."
"That's insane." Ichigo growled. "You seriously have no way to tell where she is? Or to keep up with her?"
"Not really." Rangiku shrugged. "We tried Kido earlier, Isane's tracers don't have the range, and it's really hard to sense anything with you standing right there... it's like trying to find someone on the other side of the sun."
"Fine. But we're not keeping Chad in my house. I saw what Soto did to the school roof – I don't want that pointed at my sisters."
"Agreed." Rukia added. "We need somewhere open, too. If Soto really can teleport, then any obstacles are just going to get in our way."
"Fair enough." Rangiku shrugged. "We're open to suggestions. Where are we going to go?"
Fourth Division, Main Gate/Eleventh Division, Practice Field - 2:21 p.m.
Unohana had considered taking something with her, other than Minazuki, when she went to see Zaraki. She ultimately decided that if the fight went on long enough that she had to pack dinner for it then she didn't deserve an answer from him anyway, and simply took a basic medical bag. She had already made the necessary arrangements with Kyoraku and Ukitake as well – theoretically, she should be back in time for the evening practice, but if not they could start without her. Finally, she had made the necessary arrangements with her division. Iemura would be in charge while she was out, which would serve the dual purposes of taking his mind off of the division troubles and hopefully keep him from talking to himself.
Now all that was left was to actually go and see Zaraki. She made her way out the door and toward the Division's main entrance, and stopped. There, on the back of the gate, was a brand new poster. This one depicted a Fourth Division medic trapped in a tiny room into which water was pouring through a crack in one of the walls – the water was almost to the ceiling, and the medic was trying to keep his head above it. The caption beneath it read:
We'll fix it sooner or later.
Minazuki's voice came to Unohana. It seems that the mystery artist has recovered his or her strength.
Lovely. Unohana thought back, dryly. Now my day is complete.
She casually took it down, wadding it up into a ball as she walked. When she passed one of the cleanup patrols, she added it to their garbage bag.
Upon arriving at the Eleventh Division, it wasn't hard to find Zaraki – indeed, Zaraki could be located easily at any time, from anywhere in the Seireitei, simply by the nature of his spiritual pressure. The newer Soul Reapers had likened it to living near an airport – after a while, you could ignore it, but it was impossible to forget where it was.
She found Zaraki in the middle of a fight, of course. He was currently trading hits with Third Seat Madarame and two Reapers that she didn't recognize. She waited patiently until the three of them called for an end to the session, and then approached as Zaraki sat down on a nearby crate. Before she could say anything, a black-and-pink blur bounded down from the nearby rooftops. "Kenny! Hey Kenny! It's the braid-lady!" Yachiru giggled as she landed near Zaraki, her tiny body bouncing to a halt just next to him. "I think she wants to talk!"
"Huh?" The Kenpachi turned and stared at her with his non-patched eye. "What do you want?"
Unohana maintained her composure. Zaraki treated everyone with a total lack of respect, up to and including Yamamoto. "Lately, I've been stepping up my division's combat training standards, and I'd like to ask you a few questions about the way you operate your division."
Zaraki blinked. He gestured to the practice fields around them, currently crowded with Eleventh Division personnel. Almost all of them were either fighting or watching the fighting. "Isn't it obvious?"
"He runs it with swords, booze, and blood! And sometimes candy." Yachiru giggled again.
"You're the only one obsessed with candy. And you usually steal it." Zaraki growled at her before turning back to Unohana. "Hrnh. Anyway, I recruit anyone who can fight and wants to fight. Then, we fight. That's all there is to it."
Unohana considered. "Fine. Then I'd like to ask you how to correct a few deficiencies in the Fourth's training before-"
"Send 'em back to the Academy." Zaraki snorted and got up. "I don't have time to go into everything that's wrong with your division. I've got to get back to training my own."
"I suppose there's no way to convince you otherwise?"
"Che. I'd be willing to talk… if you're willing to fight me for it." He shrugged and started to move off. That was usually how Zaraki ended conversations that he was bored with.
Unohana sighed. She still didn't understand why she was even here, or what Zaraki could show her, and yet Yamamoto – and surprisingly, Minazuki – had been all for it. "Let us say that I am."
"Yeah, that's what I thought." Zaraki said, anticipating her response, and walked a few more steps before he stopped. "Wait, what did you say?"
"I said that I am indeed willing to fight, if that's what it takes."
Zaraki blinked at her. No one ever took him up on that offer, except some of the higher seats from his division. And the other captains certainly didn't. "You're serious?"
"Well alright!" Zaraki laughed unpleasantly and drew his zanpakuto. "Come on then, I'll let you have the first –"
"Not here." Unohana said sharply.
"Huh? What's wrong with here? It's a friggin' combat field."
"Yes, and I'm sure that two captains will stay on that field for the entire course of the fight." Unohana responded with uncharacteristic sarcasm. I have to put this in terms he'll understand. "There are all kinds of problems with sparring here. My division would have to clean up, you would have to hold back to avoid squashing your own division members…"
Unohana slung Minazuki back over her shoulder. "There is a much better place for it - if you're willing to follow me."
"As long as there's actually a fight at the end of it. If this turns out to be some lame surprise party for Yachiru I'm gonna pick the first person I see and beat him up anyway."
Yachiru jumped up onto Zaraki's shoulder. "Yay! Kenny's gonna have a party all on his own!"
"Certainly. It is a bit of a hike, so we should get going." Unohana took off at a brisk trot.
"Hey, Madarame! Keep everyone here going until they've beaten the pansy out of each other!" Zaraki shouted back at his third seat as he ran after her.
"Got it, boss!"
Karakura Town, Unknown Location - 5:05 p.m.
Soto deposited the body on the third-to-last cot, toward the back of the huge basement under Alegria's hideout. "Ninety-Eight!"
Alegria walked in. "Excellent. Did I hear you correctly earlier, that one of the awakened humans came back?"
"Yep!" Soto smiled cheerfully, inclining her head toward her latest catch. "That's him now."
"Oh?" Alegria thought for a moment. "So which one did you skip?"
"The big one. He has six or seven Soul Reapers sitting on him."
"I see." Alegria frowned. "I thought that numbers weren't supposed to be a problem for you."
Soto frowned. "Normally they aren't, but the kid, Kurosaki… he's really strong." And thinking of him reminded her of something. Soto made a mental lunge for the memory, but it slipped out of her grasp, her thoughts returning to the task at hand. A moment later, she'd forgotten even what she'd been wondering about. "Anyway, I'll have to be careful."
"Please do. Genjo and I are hardly enough to defend this area and oversee the humans as-is." This was especially true since Alegria didn't trust Genjo (and the feeling was mutual), but she kept that observation to herself. "Do you need help?"
"Nah. I can take them. It may take me a bit, though."
"Well, take your time and get it right. And make sure you disable that human before bringing him here – if what you said is true, one good shot from that arm of his could put us weeks behind schedule if he's still conscious when you bring him here. We don't have that kind of time."
Soto brightened. "Kay!" With a burst of displaced air, she was gone.
Alegria stood there for a moment, still thinking. Soto had seemed increasingly distracted as the day wore on, although she had gone on quite a spree – managing to obtain all but the last two of the humans they needed to create the King's Key. Unfortunately, they needed two more humans and only knew of one – Szayel's analysis indicated that the Quincy would be unsuitable for use in the creation of the key, which meant that once Soto grabbed this "Chad," they would need to lay low for a while, waiting for another one to pass through Karakura.
She once again cursed Zarraga and Bastida for getting themselves killed. If they hadn't, she would have enough manpower now to send them to another city and still keep this area guarded against detection and intrusion, increasing the odds of finding the last awakened human that they needed. As it was, the plan was about to slow down quite a bit. It was incredibly frustrating to be so close, and then to have to wait on pure chance.
She took a deep breath. Relax, Alegria. The odds are still in your favor. The Gotei Thirteen hasn't swamped the area with Reapers – in fact, they still seem to be unsure that you exist. You've collected ninety-eight percent of what you need, and Soto is about to make it ninety-nine. It's just a matter of time until the last human passes close enough for you or Soto to detect, and then it's game over.
She smiled as she began hooking up the new human to the necessary equipment. Zarraga and Bastida's defeat was a fluke; Soto is much stronger than they were. LordAizen planned this venture himself. Things will work out just fine.
Rukongai Outskirts, South Pass Ruins - 6:44 p.m.
A pair of captains could cover a lot of ground very quickly. Unohana led Zaraki out of the Seireitei, past the outermost districts of the Rukongai, to some of the wilderness beyond, and then on a steep climb up a narrow path to a pass between two of the Soul Society's mountains. They had been moving with a combination of a dash and flash-steps ever since leaving the Seireitei, but she finally slowed to a walk as they reached the final turn, taking them into view of their destination.
The first thing visible was an old, faded sign. Zaraki frowned. "What language is that?"
"Late Middle-Ages Japanese." Unohana said. "It states that this place is the Crimson River Clinic."
Zaraki burst out laughing. "You're kidding, right? Even I know that's a stupid title for a hospital. Who's the idiot that named this place?"
"The name makes perfect sense," Unohana responded flatly. "In the spring, ice on the mountain thaws and the nearby Crimson River fills and flows down toward the Rukongai. In fact, it's bigger today than it was when the clinic was founded."
"Yeah, but who cares? It sounds like it was named specifically to scare people off."
Zaraki trailed off as they passed through the last narrow part in the path, finally seeing the clinic proper and the surrounding mountains. The clinic itself – a mostly circular complex of mid-sized buildings surrounded by a crumbling wall – was abandoned, the paint faded, the wood graying and splintered, the stones worn and the building thoroughly looted. More impressive, though, were the scorch marks and craters on the nearby mountain face. "Well now… it looks like someone had a real party here." He looked at one spot on the mountain in particular, where a rather large boulder was cracked evenly down the middle. "I'm sorry I missed out on it."
"I suppose you would be." Unohana sighed. Coming back here was more painful than I thought, although I'm impressed that so much of the clinic is still standing. Why was it so important to have our little fight here, Minazuki?
I can't tell you yet. Minazuki responded. Wait until you're done, and then ask me again.
Very well. Unohana felt more than ever that she had acted rashly. She perversely wondered if Yamamoto had suggested this just to get her out of his hair for a while, but dismissed that idea. I might as well make the most of it.
By now she and Zaraki had managed to reach the clinic's central courtyard. A dry fountain stood in the middle, with most of the cobblestones intact around it. Weeds and vines spread out from it, pushing their way through cracks in the stone, sliding their way into the windows. It was ultimately a fairly dreary place. "Alright, Zaraki. This is far enough. Let's get this over with."
"Che. That's all wrong. I wasn't sure about this trip, but I like this place. Open spaces, terrain... and no one to interrupt. It's perfect. Why rush a good thing?"
"Because I have duties to take care of that don't involve stabbing things?" Unohana suggested, beginning to feel a bit irritated.
"Not right now you don't." Zaraki grinned disturbingly as Yachiru leaped up to the top of the clinic, some three stories up. "So come on, Unohana. Let's see what you've got. I can't wait to see why everyone in my division is afraid of you." He drew his nameless weapon again, swinging a couple of times to warm up. The force of the swings set what few intact windows there were rattling.
Unohana drew Minazuki and hung the scabbard on the nearby fountain. She settled into her most familiar fighting stance and nodded her readiness. Zaraki laughed as he charged.
Karakura Town, Karakura Riverside Park - 6:47 p.m.
It was a grim group that waited in Karakura Town's riverside park. "I still can't believe that we have to wait on her." Ichigo groused.
"Give it a rest." Rukia said. "Are you okay, Chad?"
She'd been asking him that since they got there. Chad just held up a thumbs-up.
Isane watched the construction crews working on the bridge in the distance. "We made a mess last night," she said unhappily. "We should have moved outside the city."
Rangiku shook her head. "And if we get caught halfway there, then we end up demolishing half of downtown. This is for the best, Isane. There's nobody here. And if they are, they'll leave when the fireworks start."
"We're supposed to be keeping humans out of the line of fire. At the very least, we should be above the park, not in it."
Ichigo crossed his arms. "And then when someone gets swatted out of the sky, they just kinda hit wherever. We can't do that. I remember that fight with Grimmjow – I was lucky we didn't take out a whole family somewhere along the line."
They had arrived earlier, still occasionally feeling blasts of Soto's pressure at random from all around the city. It had finally calmed down, though, and everyone was getting tense. It was now close to sundown, and although Soto had not yet made an appearance since their fight on the roof, everyone knew it was just a matter of time.
"I still can't believe that we have to wait on her."
Rukia started to lunge for him. "Oh, for the love of…"
"I'm heee-eeere!" Soto's singsong voice came to them. All of them looked up toward the lamp post that she was sitting on.
"You again." Ichigo pulled Zangetsu off of his back, the white cloth unwrapping from it. Rukia, Isane, and Rangiku likewise drew their weapons. Chad's arm morphed into its altered from.
"Ah! So hostile! Can't we all just… get along?" Soto spread her arms expansively. "I mean, Aizen's going to be ruling all of this soon anyway, right? You should be nicer to his employees."
"Like hell he will!" Ichigo shouted.
"Well, there's still no reason for you to be so cold."
"You kidnapped my friend!"
Soto looked confused. "The screechy dude was your friend? I'm sorry."
Rukia raised an eyebrow. "Then give him back."
Soto shook her head. "No, I mean, I'm sorry to hear that he's your friend. Having to put up with that guy every day? Sheesh…"
Ichigo growled and jumped up at her, swinging. Soto grinned. "Whoa, déjà vu!" She drew the oversized scimitar from her hip and blocked, even as she leaped backwards off the post. The two of them landed, still exchanging blows, as Chad charged after him and the others released their weapons.
"Dance, Sode no Shirayuki."
Soto jumped over Ichigo, slashing downward – Ichigo took the hit on the flat of Zangetsu's enormous blade. She bounced to a halt directly between the five other combatants, flourishing with her sword. She finally settled into a recognizable combat stance.
Isane watched her warily. Do you truly think she's strong enough to take all of us?
No. Itegumo's voice came back. So be very careful. She has to have some kind of trick, or else backup. Keep alert.
I will. She promised, as Chad and four Soul Reapers converged on the Arrancar.
This chapter was probably the hardest one to write yet, and not just because of RL difficulties. I realized right at the beginning of it that the story so far had deviated from the original outline enough that certain aspects of this part of the plot no longer made sense, so I had to redo part of the overall plot. I'm happy with the result of the new plotting, but I still feel like parts of this chapter are awkward – granted, part of that is because several questions are raised, like "Why is Unohana fighting Zaraki to begin with?" and "What's the deal with Soto?" that will be answered next time. The next one should go smoothly – not to mention coming out much sooner. I tend to "write" the fights in my head before I actually get to them, and a good chunk of the next chapter is already written for real, too.
Also, I had actually intended to start the fight with Soto this chapter, but I realized that it needed more buildup after the adjustments.
So, come back next time to see Unohana vs. Zaraki and Soto vs… well… everyone. Place your bets!
As always, comments, criticisms, questions, and the like are welcome and appreciated. Please review!