There were a few basic truths of life (and death, as it were) for which Yoruichi occasionally found herself very grateful. The first was that, of all the possible animals in the world, she could transform into a cat. Tied very closely to this was the fact that cats could go just about anywhere, and never be noticed. If a place could be squeezed through, jumped over, or strolled across, a cat could do it, and at worst she might have a shoe thrown at her by some cranky old man or another. Very few people gave cats a second thought, and those who did rarely thought much different than "oh, look, a stray" before going on with their lives. These qualities meant that Yoruichi didn't have to rely on Kukaku or her rather flashy method of entry into the Sereitei; as a cat, she practically strolled right on in.

Another truth is that it is very easy to hide from people who aren't looking for you. To the best of Sereitei's knowledge, Yoruichi was already barred from entrance, along with most other outside threats to justice. As a nondescript black feline, she had her run of the place…hell, she could probably do just about anything short of streaking through first division in her human form and get away with it scot-free.

A third happy truth is that nobody, not even shinigami well aware of how easy it is to run along roofs or even on air, ever thinks to look up.

And, going back to the first point about cats, even if one did happen to glance up into that particular tree beside that particular pathway, he likely wouldn't do more than blink an eye at the black cat sitting on a branch midway up the trunk…despite the fact that said cat also happened to have an equally black butterfly perched on top of her head.

"I've got some bad news and some good news. Which do you want first?" said a male voice. Not a single passing shinigami noticed; the voice was for the cat's ears alone.

That depends, the cat replied, equally as silent to outside listeners. How bad is the bad news?

"…we're out of reiatsu-conductor. I barely had enough to cover one side of the interior frame, and that's dangerously sparse as it is. We're working on it, but the Senkaimon might not be ready in time."

The black cat blinked slowly, though she never stopped staring at nothing.

Can you gather or make more?

"In six days? Not nearly enough, no. But we're working on it."

And the good news?

"We're doing a much better job at gathering allies. The Vaizard have been contacted, and they aren't happy. Plus, we have a certain Underpod willing to help out with whatever is necessary."

Not much good if you can't get them here – or us out – in time. Yoruichi rubbed a paw over her face. The butterfly fluttered its wings, but remained steady atop her head.

"Have faith in me! I'll get it done somehow."

The sooner the better, please. I'd rather not be on the run in Soul Society with those two in tow.

"Ah, of course. Speaking of which…how are things on your end?"

For the first time in several minutes, Yoruichi's eyes focused on something: a white tower in the distance, just visible through a gap in the leaves.

They were moved to the tower yesterday. I really considered taking them then and there, but it would not have been a wise move.

"…Onmitsukido?"

The cat grunted aloud.

All over the place. They were well hidden, but I could see, sense, and even smell them, watching from the sides. I'm fast, but not that fast, and not with two reiatsu-drained lugs to drag along.

"And now that they're in the tower…" Urahara mused, letting his thought trail off. Yoruichi had known him long enough, however, to correctly read where it had been going.

Security isn't impossible to overcome, Yoruichi replied with confidence. In fact, it might be simpler now than it would have been during the move yesterday. But I'd still have the problem of getting them both to a safe hiding place before we could be stopped, and neither of them can access any powers…including shunpo.

"We stick to the original plan, then, as much as possible. I'll keep you updated on the escape route. Has anything changed regarding the execution?"

Not that I've heard. Same day, time, place and means as ever. They seem pretty confident now that it's less than a week away and there's not been any invasion or rescue attempt.

"And you intend to take advantage of that, I take it?"

Of course. Though first, I'll be paying a few visits of my own…it might help to have a few allies on this side of the fence, too.

"Be careful," Urahara warned her, his voice uncharacteristically grave. "If you make too much of a commotion, they might catch on."

Don't worry, I know what I'm doing. Besides, I'm the Flash Goddess. They can't hope to catch me!

With that, Yoruichi shook her head firmly, dislodging the black butterfly and sending it fluttering upwards into the higher branches of the tree. Standing up and stretching, Yoruichi checked the sunlight outside.

Late afternoon. It would be better to save her visits for the night hours, when fewer people were likely to stumble across her. After all, a cat might go anywhere unnoticed, but a cat talking to certain rather high-profile persons might be somewhat suspicious.

Still, she thought as her yellow eyes fixed on a shinigami who had just scurried into her view, perhaps there was one very helpful person she could corner right now…


Renji was sound asleep the first time something tickled his nose. Hardly roused, he jerked his face to the side and resumed his slumber. The tickling returned, and his hand flew up and flapped over his nose. A light frown creased his tattooed brow and he grumbled something unintelligible, shifting again. Again, his nose itched and tingled as something brushed over it. His entire face screwed up, his chest heaved, and the tickling thing quickly got out of the way of the explosive sneeze. That was enough; Renji jolted awake, blinking through the darkness as he rubbed his hand over the bridge of his sharp nose.

"You sleep deeply for a warrior."

The low voice seemed to come out of nowhere. Renji tried to sit up, but an unfamiliar weight on his chest gave him pause. Sitting upright on top of him and blending perfectly into the darkness save its bright yellow eyes and sharp white teeth was a black cat.

Initially dismissing it, he shifted his eyes to the shadows around him, but the little light which came in through the high-set window revealed nothing else in the room.

"Who are you?" he chanced, and before he could blink the cat had cuffed him up the side of his head with one paw.

"Keep it down! I'd rather not have to wait until tomorrow night to sneak in again! Time is short"

Renji's jaw dropped, his gaze fixed on the very obviously talking cat.

"And it is I, Yoruichi," the cat continued, apparently unphased by Renji's reaction.

Renji blinked dully, his mind switching laboriously from trying to work out that there was a talking cat on his chest to the idea that said cat was actually the dark-skinned woman who had once helped Ichigo gain Bankai. After several long moments of wrestling with this, he flopped back on his pillow with a groan, closing his eyes.

"Crazy dream…"

Yoruichi's eyes narrowed.

One minute, four narrow scratch lines, and countless hissed expletives later, Renji was sitting fully upright, grumpily nursing his face as Yoruichi regarded him regally from the floor beside his futon.

"I must say, aside from the initial reluctance, you've taken this much better than Ichigo. I actually had to transform for him to understand."

"Ichigo's an idiot," Renji grunted, wincing as the scratches across his teeth pulled. "…so, what's the plan?"

Yoruichi tilted her head ever-so-slightly.

"Plan? What plan is this you're imagining?"

"You know. The plan…to get that moron out of prison," Renji finished in a low whisper. "Isn't that why you're here?"

"Yes, it is."

"Well, then –"

"You aren't part of it."

A thick silence descended.

"What d'you mean, not part of it?"

"I mean that the plan, as it stands right now, has little room for you save as a distraction at the zero hour. If you take that role, there is a very good chance that you will either have to abandon Sereitei and your role as a vice captain…or your life. We are not going to ask that of you."

"But you're gonna get it," Renji growled. "Ichigo's the biggest moron to cross worlds, but he's always looked out for his friends. If it were me on the block, I know he'd have my back, come heaven or hell. I'm the worst sort of scum if I can't say I'd do the same for him."

"I understand that."

"If you did, you wouldn't be saying things like—"

"Stop. Hear me out."

A long staring contest commenced, ending in Renji backing down with a begrudging "this'd better be good."

"As the plan stands now, it is relatively simple, but precise in timing. I will arrange for a few distractions at the appropriate moment through another accomplice I picked up today. The Kurosakis and I escape in the chaos; no one else should be brought into this.

"Instead, I want to make sure I have certain…agents…on this side of the gateway. Isshin and Ichigo will be fugitives, on the run for perhaps the rest of their lives. Though it's very possible for them to escape successfully and never be caught out again, it would be helpful to have an insider or two high up in rank who can notify us quietly should the Shinigami come too close."

"I'm not Onmitsukido," Renji remarked wryly.

"Yet you are a vice captain, and as you have awakened a Bankai captaincy is a real possibility," Yoruichi pointed out. "You will be privy to information which my only other Sereitei contact could not gather save as rumors. Think about it."

Renji laced his fingers together and scowled at them, seemingly forgetting about the scratch marks adorning his face, though the motion must have stung.

"I…I'm not a spy. And while being a vice captain is great, and captain would be…amazing…sorry, Yoruichi-san. I can't. I have to fight."

Yoruichi sighed heavily.

"It is your choice, I suppose…though I should warn you: the only Senkaimon Kisuke can create at such short notice promises to be dangerously unstable. We need to make it through the moment it opens, and that means if you hang back to fight, you will either be trapped in Soul Society or lost when the dangai collapses."

Surprisingly, Renji grinned.

"Don't worry about that. Get Ichigo and his old man through. I'll stay here, be a distraction…and then I'll take off to Rukongai or something. I know my way around that place, and it's easy for a soul to get lost. Change my clothes, my hairstyle…"

"Your tattoos and your reiatsu?" Yoruichi asked with raised brows, casting her yellow eyes over the geometric patterns on Renji's forehead.

"If you can hide that orange-headed trouble magnet in the world of the living, I think I can hide myself in Rukongai. I'll figure something out."

Yoruichi huffed. "I'd rather not wound the Gotei 13 with the loss of another vice captain, but if that is your choice, then there is nothing more I can say against it."

"Good. Cause even if you did, I'd still be breaking myself out of here to get them when they got moved to the tower."

This caused the cat to still very suddenly. All through their conversation, Yoruichi's ears and whiskers had been twitching about, constantly on alert for outside noises, but that changed with Renji's offhand comment.

"…you don't know?"

"Know what?"

"When do you think this tower move is to happen?"

"Usually it's a week or two before the execution, right? So…in a couple of days to a week from now?"

Yoruichi paused for a moment, and then decided that blunt was best.

"They were moved yesterday. The execution is in six days."

"What?"

Yoruichi hissed and twitched her ears towards the locked door of Renji's closed, private room-like 'house arrest' cell. Luckily, nobody seemed to be coming…yet.

"No way," Renji whispered harshly. "I've been trying to keep track, it can't be more than two weeks since…"

"The grace period was shortened by a week. Apparently Justice is worried about being thwarted by Ichigo's popularity among very powerful individuals."

Renji swore quietly. He then looked Yoruichi square in the eyes and bowed as best he could from a seated position.

"Thanks. For coming and telling me this. I'd already been planning to get out, but…I might've been too late."

Yoruichi nodded in wordless reply. Renji straightened again, still looking a little upset at the idea that he could have missed his opportunity had he been left without this information.

"Does that change your escape plan?"

"Not really," Renji replied. "It was pretty simple anyhow. This won't be the first time I slip a jail cell."

Yoruichi nodded thoughtfully, flicking her tail.

"Very well. I will keep you updated on happenings outside, as I still have a few arrangements to make. The moment we can affect the rescue, I will send you word. Keep your eyes open for hell butterflies without the red markings – they're Kisuke's latest little toy, and actually quite useful."

"Okay," Renji said seriously, "but just to warn you: even if you don't send me anything, I'm getting out of here that morning. I'm not gonna just let them die."

"Since that is your resolve, I wouldn't have it any other way."

"But, Yoruichi-san…"

Yoruichi, who had turned and crouched to leap toward the window, paused to let Renji know she was listening.

"…what about Rukia?"


The last rough Senkaimon gate took eleven days to complete and shattered in just over a minute…seventy-three seconds to be very precise. The frame for the new one took only three days to build, thanks to an unexpected windfall in construction materials – someone had recently finished building a new house not far from Orihime's apartment and they gave the excess wood to whoever asked for it. All the practice the boys had in building the first one also helped.

Ideally, they needed to finish lining the frame with chips of white stone within the next six days.

Urahara's pre-gathered supply had run out yesterday.

As it turned out, making a workable synthetic substitute was not as easy as any of them could have hoped.

Orihime bent down and peered at the graduated beaker on the table before her, carefully measuring the pink-tinted liquid inside. Every step was delicately precise, as they had all discovered when the vaizard Kensei became impatient and poured a little too much of a chemical into his own mixture. The explosion hadn't been too bad as far as explosions went, but it still required a fifteen-minute break to clean up and heal the burns on the man's face. Kensei was still missing most of his eyebrows; there hadn't quite been time enough to bother regrowing them.

She triple-checked the written instructions at her elbow, just to make absolutely certain that she was performing the correct step. Assured that she was, Orihime cupped her hands around the beaker, flared her reiatsu slightly, and poured it into the mixing bowl at the center of the table. Across from her, Chad added a powdered substance to it, letting her move on to preparing the next step.

Within a couple of minutes the mixture was completed, creating a sloppy blue goop similar to wet plaster in consistency. It steamed lightly, though it wasn't hot in the slightest. Chad lifted the bowl easily and poured it into a flat tray, which was then set aside with others to dry, shrink, and harden into what would be, hopefully, a useable Senkaimon brick.

Without her meaning to, Orihime's gaze wandered over to a small pile of broken white rock not too far away: all the failures in this project. Sad wastes of time, effort, and material, these stones could not conduct reiatsu at the required levels to create a gate between worlds. Orihime had tried to 'reject' one in an effort to salvage the material at least, but bringing it back to the mixed stage to re-set had no effect whatsoever, and she could no more reject the substances back to their original forms within the same bowl than she could separate water and milk with her fingers. It simply kept on running back together, and her powers were too wholesale to reject one liquid out of a solid block at a time.

Still, she reflected briefly as she unscrewed the cap on a bottle of a crystal-clear, sickly-sweet-smelling liquid, they were getting better at this. The last rejected stone had been over half an hour ago, and they had been making progress. Sixteen flat, hand-width stones in the last six hours…it was something, at least.

While waiting for Chad to finish cleaning their bowl, Orihime cast her gaze over the long trestle-tables which had been set up in Urahara's massive underground training area. They were littered with bottles, beakers and test tubes, bowls, mixing rods, whisks and measuring spoons; a dizzying array of laboratory and kitchen materials. At the far end of the table, Urahara himself worked alone, measuring and mixing with brisk efficiency. This was his formula and his forte; he didn't need to stop and consult a page of instructions to be sure of what he was doing.

To his left, an eyebrowless Kensei hunched over his array of chemicals, measuring with greater care than he had earlier that morning. Shinji sat across from him, piano-toothed grin replaced with a more serious visage. Rose and Love were the next working pair, followed by Lisa and Hiyori. Tatsuki sat between Hiyori and Orihime herself, and Ishida between Lisa and Chad's currently-empty seat. Green-haired and ever-hyperactive Mashiro had not been trusted to mix unstable liquids and powders together, and so she had been put 'in charge' of running fresh supplies up and down the table. Hachigen, being of a size far too large to trust himself in such small, delicate measurements, simply busied himself in maintaining a reiatsu-hiding barrier around Urahara's basement. And Kon…

Orihime turned her head toward the biggest surprise of the past few days. The mod-soul no longer wore the body of a stuffed lion. Instead he was in a gigai, taking the appearance of a young man of roughly average height with pale skin, vaguely European features, and dirty-blonde hair tied back in a short pony-tail. He had long legs and a slightly rounded face, giving him the gangly, mis-matched look of emerging adolescence, along with large and highly expressive hazel-green eyes. In short, he was just a little too far on the side of 'adorable' to be any sort of suave lady-killer by looks alone, but he didn't have an unattractive appearance either…a fine balance of satisfying Kon's personal vanity and keeping him from finding skirt-chasing too easy.

The mod-soul in question was busily – diligently, even – fastening finished and tested chunks of reiatsu-conductor to the inside of the giant frame which lay on the dusty ground. A pot of shiny amber goo which Urahara called "the finest reishi-based glue off the market" sat beside him with a brush handle sticking out of it, alongside a small stack of uneven, misshapen white stones, which Kon picked up one at a time, turning them over and over to fit together with as few cracks and openings as possible.

Orihime blinked suddenly and cast one more quick glance over all the people working in Urahara's basement…working to save two individuals from death.

We all want to help Kurosaki-kun and Kurosaki-san

The thought carried the flavor of realization, though it was something she had already known. She looked at the Senkaimon frame, their last attempt and effort and one which, unless they could somehow cover it completely with manufactured stone in only a few days, may not last long enough to allow the Kurosaki's time to pass through it…and certainly wouldn't allow use enough for any of the vaizard to get into Soul Society beforehand to help the rescue effort.

but this might not be enough.

Chad returned with the clean, dry mixing bowl, and Orihime shook herself out of her gloomy thoughts, intent on doing everything she could to help – even if it sometimes didn't seem like much.

Still, she felt as though there was something she had missed, a feeling that bothered her right up until they stopped for dinner, for Urahara to receive another black butterfly's message, and to check on their raw supplies (getting uncomfortably low here and there, and while a few things actually came from a standard human drugstore, others were notably harder to gather) and the progress of the frame itself.

"Well done, Kon-kun," Urahara said, examining the stones already laid in. "You're certainly earning your keep."

Kon looked rather smug behind his sub sandwich.

Most of the vaizard, however, wore noticeably less pleased expressions.

"We ain't gonna make it," Kensei said suddenly. What little conversation there had been ground to a halt.

"What're you talking about?" Mashiro asked, all wide-eyed innocence.

Kensei shook his head, made a motion as though he was about to put down the sandwich in his hands, then changed his mind and tore a large and ravenous bite out of it.

"…we're too slow," Shinji mused in his stead. His voice was low and reluctant. "This is gonna take too long. At this rate, we'll be lucky to finish in two weeks' time, forget one."

"I wouldn't lose hope yet," Urahara said. "Yoruichi is more than competent. It will be…challenging…but I'm sure she can hide them long enough if they get out into the mountains."

"The Soul Society has been faced with highly powerful traitors and captains-turned-criminals in the past," Lisa put in, as calm as though she was reciting from a book. "This is how they came to develop the Soukyouku and its execution stand, in addition to various reiatsu-suppressing objects and the Tower of Penitence. All these things were designed and created specifically to overcome and drain away even the deepest and most powerful of reiatsu – the soutaicho himself could be imprisoned and killed by these methods. As it should be. By now, the Kurosakis will be powerless, and it will take them a very long time to regain their former strength. Tell me, can Yoruichi really extract them from the Sereitei on her own?"

"Oh, she won't be alone!" Urahara flapped his fan emphatically. "She contacted me briefly just before we started eating, if you remember. She's got a little bird flying under the radar to make a few things easier, and Vice Captain Abarai has sworn to help however he can. She'll be checking with Fourth Seat Kuchiki tomorrow night."

Orihime felt her heart lift; Renji and Rukia were both strong people, and they would do anything to help Ichigo. Perhaps it really wasn't so hopeless after all.

"Better, but still risky. Wish we had a better way to do this," Love remarked.

"You're half-shinigami, right? Why don't you open a Senkaimon yourself?" Ishida asked, pushing his glasses up with a sharp look at the vaizard.

Shinji shrugged, opening his mouth—

"Stupid glasses!" Hiyori sneered loudly, drawing a look of deep insult to Ishida's face, "don't you know anything about how the Senkaimon gets opened?"

"Seeing as I am not a low-life shinigami, no."

"Hey, hey, calm down!" Shinji said, only to be slapped across the face by Hiyori's sandal before he could speak further.

"Shut up, baldy, I'm talking here," she ordered. Rose, who was also sitting near Hiyori, subtly began to scoot away. "Okay, s'like this: a zanpakuto acts like a key to open the dangai. When you try opening a gate, spirit particles sorta read the sword. If it's live and belongs to a shinigami in the Gotei 13, bingo, it's open. But we're vaizard. They couldn't get a reishi sample of us to lock us out of Soul Society, but they had records of our swords, just like they had records of fuzz-face's blade over there, and they were mad enough to shut us down whether we were dead or not. Our keys don't work anymore. Simple enough for ya, or should I use smaller words?"

"If you wish to fight, I will gladly oblige you," Ishida growled, beginning to rise. A shadow fell over him suddenly as Chad moved between the two before an actual quarrel could break out. Hachigen, similarly, had his hands pressed in a seal, ready to cast a quick shield, and Orihime had reached up to her hairpins instinctively.

"We can't do garganta either," Shinji muttered from the dirt several feet away, rubbing his face gingerly. "It's just too hollow, kinda like negacion…though Hachi does a mean imitation of that one with kido."

"So you're pretty much saying we're stuck doing what we have been," Tatsuki summed up. "Great."

"It's better than nothing," Rose said diplomatically.

Several minutes of near-silence passed. Ishida and Hiyori finally calmed down enough for those around them to relax, Shinji crawled back into place with dust in his hair and covering the back of his shirt, and Chad moved to sit down.

Just as he did so, a lightbulb clicked on in Orihime's mind, and she jumped to her feet with the idea practically shining in her smile.

"Nel-chan!"

The vaizard, Urahara, and Tatsuki looked at her blankly. Chad and Ishida, remembering the hyperactive Arrancar child, simply looked confused.

"What about her?" Ishida ventured, but too late; Orihime was already addressing another member of their party.

"Urahara-san, could you open a garganta into Hueco Mundo for us?"

"Yes," he replied, folding his fan away. "But may I ask whatever for?"

"There's an Arrancar I know who used to be an Espada but isn't anymore and she's a tiny little girl except when she grows up again and Ichigo took care of her when she was little and he was in Hueco Mundo and she'd do anything to help if she knew he was in trouble, and I'm certain she can open a garganta into Soul Society for us!"

A long, silent pause passed.

"Eh-heh…I'm afraid you'll have to run that one by me again," Urahara said sheepishly. "Slowly. While I get the equipment out, yes?"

Orihime nodded quickly and complied, following Urahara as he swept away through the rock formations of his underground basement. Chad, Ishida and Tatsuki trailed along after them at speed; they weren't quite certain what Orihime was talking about, but it seemed to be a shred of hope at least, and hope was something which they could really use at the moment.


"What about you?"

Ichigo tipped his head backwards to look at his father. They were both sprawled out on the smooth, white stone floor, regaining their breath and feeling the sting of new bruises. Their last bout had lasted longer than any other in the past, and for the first time in quite a while there was no clear winner; both simply dropped after one last pass.

"Hah?"

Isshin rolled over onto his stomach, folding his arms under his chin and kicking his heels in the air like an overgrown kid. Ichigo refused to follow suit. Laying spread-eagle on his back and tilting his head back to stare at Isshin upside-down was surely better than that childish pose. Besides, he still didn't feel like moving.

"You asked me if I regretted deserting for Masaki. What about you and that hollow?"

"I wish he'd never existed," Ichigo replied immediately, hardly taking time to think about it. The mad eyes, wide grin, and lust for control…he could have lived without any of it, and would have in a heartbeat if given the choice.

"So…you regret it, then? Being a vaizard. All…this." Isshin untucked one arm and waved it at their surroundings.

Ichigo opened his mouth to reply…and then promptly closed it again as he realized he didn't know what to say. His brow furrowed. Wishing his hollow away was one thing, but regret

Gathering his thoughts, he finally found the energy to push himself upright, turning around to face Isshin properly.

"That's a bad question, old man," he said at last. "I never asked for it. I didn't know this was going to happen, not like you knew what you were doing."

"You had to know there was a risk…"

"Yeah. But only for that one time," Ichigo replied bitterly. "All Sandal-Hat told me was that if I didn't get Shinigami powers, I'd become a hollow and get killed. There was nothing about dealing with the crazy thing from then on, or about how having a hollow in you could get you executed."

A short period of quiet passed before Isshin ventured another question.

"What if you did know?"

"What kind of dumb, pointless question is that?"

"Indulge me. What if you were to, say, go back in time right now, to the point where you were getting your powers properly. What would you do then?"

"Are you kidding? I'd…" Ichigo had been about to say that he would make sure to summon Zangetsu before the hollowfication could begin, but then he remembered a bright sword falling toward his head, his muscles locked and trembling with the exertion of his brand-new bankai, and the unwanted intervention. He hated it at the time, and for months afterward, but looking at it from further away and from the safety of a mind which would not be overthrown anytime soon…

The hollow had saved his life then. Byakuya would have killed him. Then he would have killed Rukia, perhaps, unless Aizen got there first.

The hollow saved him against Renji and Zaraki, too, come to think of it. Hadn't the mask manifested itself at crucial moments, moving between his skin and what should have been a fatal blow both times?

Its interference when he fought Yammy was unnecessary – more harmful than helpful, in fact, but once it was under control it provided strength Ichigo needed to battle the Arrancar on equal footing. He could never have defeated Grimmjow without it. And Ulquiorra…

He pushed away the memory of what he found upon waking, but still had to admit to himself that without the hollow he would have died there. Ishida would not have been wounded by his hand, but Ulquiorra could have killed the Quincy, and possibly even Inoue, with Ichigo gone.

So many times he might have died, been overcome by an enemy, if not for that one hated power of his. So many friends who might have been killed without him there to intercept a blow or cause a distraction at least. And the vaizard, allying themselves with him and, therefore, with Soul Society for that last battle…what might have changed had they not been there, had they never forged any sort of tie with him, wanted or not?

Ichigo's head spun with the possibilities, none of them good and all of them returning to Isshin's question. If I could go back, if I had the chance to erase the hollow from existing, would I...?

"No," Ichigo murmured softly, almost stunned by his own answer.

"What was that?"

"I…that hollow's what helped me save Rukia, and Inoue, and beat Aizen. I still hate it, but if I could do it again…I'd take the hollow in, and then I'd kick its sorry ass first chance I got."

The relieved grin which crossed Isshin's face took Ichigo aback.

"That's good, son."

Ichigo eyed Isshin very warily. This conversation had been too serious.

"What was all that about, anyhow?"

He tensed as Isshin stood up, stretching, and got to his own feet as the man approached. The expected attack did not come; Ichigo blinked in confusion as Isshin simply passed him by to peer out one slit window.

"I hope there's a way out of this," Isshin confessed at last in such a low, serious tone that Ichigo almost turned around to see if someone else had somehow entered the tower. "For you at the very least, anyhow. But the days keep going by, and I…don't know. Maybe there's nobody coming and no chances to get out. Maybe we'll really be up there in a few days, and we'll just get fried and that's the end of it. If that is what's gonna happen...we won't be sorry. No regrets; just good memories of life and the people we knew. Okay, Ichigo?"

The boy in question could only stare, mouth agape, as Isshin turned away from the window, came forward and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Good memories," Isshin repeated. "Don't drown in any others. Do me that favor."

Then, without taking advantage of his proximity or his brief hold on Ichigo's shoulder for a headlock, a knee strike, or even a quick throw, Isshin brushed past and headed for the tower stairs.

"Sun's starting to go down; it's getting late. We should get some rest; no point in insomnia, I always say."

Ichigo's face dropped into what some of his closest friends might have recognized as a 'thoughtful' scowl. The first hints of budding realization began to manifest in his mind; Ichigo may not have been the smartest person of his age, but he was no idiot either, and some things were starting to make a bit of sense. Then, making a quick decision, he stretched, rolled his neck around, and took a few steps toward his father's retreating back.

"Hey, dad…"

Isshin turned around…straight into the fist which drove around and up into his gut. There was not a hint of reiatsu behind it, but the blow still sent him sprawling and tumbling across the floor. Laying on the ground and staring wide-eyed at his scowling son (upside-down, in his current vision), Isshin suffered from the bizarre sensation of experiencing a very vivid moment in someone else's shoes.

"You left yourself open," Ichigo said, and though his eyebrows never lifted, the corners of his mouth twitched upwards briefly.

Isshin, in a surge of proud euphoria which completely washed away the new and sudden aching in his stomach, surged to his feet and threw himself toward Ichigo, tears streaming down his face.

"THAT'S MY BOY!"


A/N: I apologize, for this chapter is both short and very overdue. I can explain the first in terms of plot pacing: I have had the entire story plotted out in bullet point format since the beginning, and so I still know exactly what happens to whom and when. Unfortunately, I did not sit down and divide up chapters beforehand as well, trusting myself to simply go with the flow and figure it out from there. Usually this works well enough, but not this time…I wound up with the unfortunate consequence of having a very natural break in chapter content at a point which either would have resulted in two slightly shorter chapters than what is normal in this fic or one entirely-too-long-for-any-fic chapter. Honestly, I'd rather go the shorter route and hope that you can forgive me for it.

That said, the next chapter (as of now) unfortunately contains no father-son interaction, despite this being the major point of character exploration in this fanfiction. It was necessary, as the next chapter is the last bit of preparation and drive on the parts of their friends and allies for their (hopeful) rescue, and it is important to go through it so you know where everybody is coming from.

By the by, interesting trivia note: I had originally planned on keeping Renji in the Soul Society as a high-level informant. Sort of a just-in-case figure for the future. Then he absolutely refused. I could not get him to agree to the idea; I see him as too loyal to Ichigo in many ways, and too eager a fighter in others. I really did not want Yoruichi to be further clearing out the upper ranks of the Gotei 13 in that way – enough damage has been done there already!

Ah, well, what's done is done, and I'd rather not risk warping these characters out of their proper personalities…not too much, at any rate.