Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach.

Translator's note: 'Ue-sama' is a term of respect; but its most common usage is to refer to a customer.

Author's note:

Thanks to all of you who provided wonderful reviews and commentary. A special thank you to stormcrowley, fading into the background, and laughingspider for their friendship and input. As always, reviews are the best - and questions are open season. I welcome any and all you have - thanks for sticking with me. It's been a great ride.

With cheers,
-Nathan J


"There are no such things as fairy tales."
~Kuchiki Hisako

"Sure there are, Sako-chan. You're just saying that because you haven't read any."
~Shihoin Zarina

"No - for once, I actually agree with Hisako-san. No happy ending could ever come from something that simplistic."
~Shiba Kanchi

[Hey, I believe in fairy tales. Why not? A little optimism never hurt anyone.]
~Kuchiki Hikaru


Sheldon Horace Grimworth Jr. wheezed out of the open senkai gate, huffing and puffing with a laborious gasp borne of too many years sitting on his ass. Thankful to be free from the gurgling plum chaos of the Dangai Precipice World, he fell to his knees and sucked in the refreshing, dry warm air of the sunny sky.

The ground looked familiar, and he picked up his head to survey his surroundings. It was nearly deja vu - a whitewash of brick and clay with tiled roads; the familiar red-shingled roofs of the Sereitei mazes. In fact, it was so familiar that he even recognized the location - the corridors just beyond the edge of the Central 46 compound.

He wasn't sure if that was good or bad. Instinct told him that it would be wise to use some caution. Hunger told him to find someone and order them to feed him.

"Hey!"

Sheldon looked over his shoulder at a shinigami who was calling him.

"Seize him - and get the fukutaicho here!"

Before Sheldon could even react, he was hauled to his feet by two muscle-men shinigami, and was dragged into what appeared to be some sort of shinigami checkpoint station. It was a simple booth-like structure, but he was tossed in a chair and the door was slammed on him before he had even finished catching his breath.

A moment later, a beefy female shinigami came into the booth. She was tall and broad; just shy of six feet and built like a rugby player. She had wide shoulders, curvy hips stacked on tree-trunk thighs that were surely made of solid muscle, a chunky chest, and heavy arms that even would have looked out of place on a butcher.

She was, at least to Sheldon's eye, highly unattractive. Exceedingly so, in fact, and not just her stocky, curves-in-wrong-places body. Her mess of wavy dark brown hair was held out of her face by a red headband, and her nose was large and unwieldly; set in thick, brick-like cheekbones that gave her a distinctly pugnacious look. Despite this, her intelligent eyes were softer; with a highly feminine quality that was a saving grace for her otherwise tough-as-nails-and-even-uglier presentation. She was basically the youngest-looking hag he had ever seen. No, scratch that - she was too ugly for the word 'hag' to be sufficient.

Even her deep voice was unappealing. "You are hereby charged with unauthorized senkai travel. How do you plead?"

"What?" demanded Sheldon, putting on his Central 46 Supreme Court Judge act. "How dare you accost me? Do you know who I am?"

She grunted like a cop who has heard this before. "Listen, buster, as far as I'm concerned, you could be the tooth fairy. How do you plead?"

"This is preposterous!" he challenged, pointing a finger at her. "You can't arrest me!"

She shoved one of her tattooed, fat-fingered hands right into his chest, pushing his rising body back into the chair. Her vice captain's badge was now visible, and he could see she was from the Sereitei Guard Unit. "Sit down and answer my question, you hooligan, before I decide to hand you over to the 2nd division prison team."

"My name is Konoshima Subentara, and I am a judge in Central 46! I demand to be let go this instant!"

"Is that so?" the woman asked with a chuckle, clearly amused with him.

"You let me go this very moment, or I will have you court martialled the moment I get back to Central 46! And then I shall have you lashed in public!"

"Great, another crazy," the pug-woman muttered. She yanked him out of the chair, spun him around, and slapped handcuffs on him. "I don't know where you came from, but Central 46 hasn't been around for over a hundred years. I'm taking you to lockup for unauthorized senkai entry." She then searched him, confiscating the small zanpakutou he had stolen with him, along with his dime bags of heroin, cocaine, and his bottle of ecstasy pills. "And drug trafficking charges, while we're at it."

If Sheldon hadn't been so used to his position of authority, it could have dawned on Sheldon that he was not in Kansas anymore. However, he was not accustomed to having people say no to him, so he continued to struggle. "Who do you think you are, the Queen of Sheeba?"

The woman harumphed. "Like I haven't heard that smartass remark before," she grumped sarcastically, and then hauled him to his feet and carted him off.

-:-

Hitsugaya looked up from his glass of mint soda. "Thanks for coming."

"Must you invite me here?" Kuchiki asked, sitting down across from him. "The manor would have been more... private."

"I think not," he returned pointedly, "...given the nature of the conversation I wished to have. What's wrong - not classy enough for you?" he smirked smugly.

His company scoffed at him with an irritated scowl. "Nonsense."

"Order something," he offered, gesturing towards the waiter. "On me."

The waiter approached. "What may I serve you?"

"Red wine. Old."

"Burgundy, cabernet, merlot...?"

"Pinot noir."

The waiter paused. "Perhaps I may recommend a syrah?"

"That will suffice."

"Certainly, Ue-sama," the waiter nodded, and made haste to fetch the request.

"So, what is the drama in your saga that we must meet, thick like thieves, upon the backdrop of dark-lit dining?"

"You've been reading Kobayashi again lately, haven't you, Kuchiki?" Hitsugaya grinned smugly. (Again.)

That remark was met with distaste. "I take it you are waiting for my glass."

"Imbibe and quaff / the soul's desire of drink," he recited, quoting one of the poet's most famous works.

"You have been rather brooding lately," Kuchiki sighed with a grimace, frustrated over the lack of an explanation. Eventually, the waiter returned with a large glass. "Now that we have disposed of the formalities of etiquette, I suggest you commence."

"Impatient?"

"You are rarely so drawn out," Kuchiki countered.

He sighed. "I... need to make a confession of rather... shall we say... monumentally complicated ramifications."

"Unless you have requested my presence in order to spit in my shoe, I cannot imagine it would be of such signficance," Kuchiki said dismissively, citing a biblical reference that Hitsugaya would be certain to deduce, even out of context. "Go on."

He turned his head to the side in a dismissive agreement; no, he was not here for that, which he admitted would have been a frightfully awkward question. Not that the thought even presented itself; he was focused elsewhere. "I... well, not quite that messy."

"As I spoke; out with it."

He sighed. Might as well be direct about it. "I am having an affair."

The initial response was nothing more than a skeptical eyebrow raised far above the glass perched on Kuchiki's lips. After a good moment, the glass was set down and the silence broken. "That is an odd choice of language for one who has never married. It is even more peculiar given that the last time you were romantically bound was long ago indeed."

Hitsugaya could not look Kuchiki in the eyes. "True, to some extent."

"You must be intimating that your adultery is not of flesh but rather of cause?" Kuchiki asked insightfully, although in a mildly mocking manner. It was a complete sidestep around what Hitsugaya's last comment had intended to answer. "That is equally challenging, considering that your mistress does not differ in worldview."

His eyes shifted back to level with his company. Of course Kuchiki knew. I should have guessed. "You're dodging the obvious."

"Perhaps," Kuchiki chuckled. "But the matter is of no surprise."

Hitsugaya shook his head, slightly incredulous and slightly marveled. "You have changed so much and yet so little. It never ceases to astound me."

"...I like to think that I preserve the important matters and let the rest fall away to the tide of change."

"Is that a subtle pun," he asked, annoyed, "or are you deliberately poking fun at me?"

Kuchiki laughed. "Now that I realize it, it was an admittedly clever touch of wit, now wasn't it?"

"Ha ha. Ha ha. Ha ha, ha, ha. I almost died laughing."

"So tell me, Hitsugaya-san - will you eventually settle into a permanent domestic arrangement, or will you stay on the lam for the duration of your so-called affair?" Kuchiki teased. "Have you picked out a domicile yet? Perhaps southeast Sereitei, with a nice view of Soukyoku Hill?"

"Oh yeah, I bet the Soutaicho would love that," he answered with a roll of his eyes. "Just the kind of thing to keep all of the unseated officers on their toes, right?"

"Ukitake Soutaicho-sama might tell you to be discreet, but if you informed him of it, I am sure he would consider it both personally and strategically wise to continue. Assuming, of course, that he is not already aware."

"That is an awfully impersonal commentary on my love life."

"He is wise enough to know how not to let business and pleasure mix," Kuchiki dismissed.

Hitsugaya was distracted. "How would your family take it if you ever reconsidered your appetite for the opposite sex?"

Kuchiki withdrew suddenly. "I... I think... not well."

"You're still not - "

"-No," Kuchiki answered definitively. "I am not. Nor will I."

Hitsugaya wanted to challenge that answer, but decided it was not wise. "Anyway, that's all," he shrugged. "...I thought you would protest more."

His restaurant companion paused, and only spoke after great deliberation. "...I have learned to judge people by that which defines their heart, and not let my judgement be clouded by the extraneous. I feel that, given what we have seen, your mistress is even more noble than I; so I have no reason to dissuade you."

"I feel like I've turned my back on the grave," Hitsugaya blurted out, finally letting it off of his chest.

Kuchiki's chest tightened, as the words that wished to flow were jamming up inside and could not depart in a sensible coherence. Finally, with significant hesitation, the words managed to emerge. "This is the land of the dead," Kuchiki whispered. "Death is where everything begins again."

"You are a hypocrite of epic proportions," he retorted, unenthused and unsatisfied.

"Perhaps," Kuchiki admitted with an earnest sigh, but then a clever smirk materialized. "But there is no sense in both of us being wrong. I can be wrong for both of us; how does that sound to you?"

Hitsugaya huffed. "Fair enough," he answered. "But don't expect my guilty conscience to be alleviated."

"And likely why your mistress likes you so much," Kuchiki returned volley. "Misery loves company."

"Cliche," he frowned.

"Cliche; but true. Say hi for me."

He snorted, not believing that Kuchiki would actually be so nonchalant about it. "What do you bring something like her?" he asked parenthetically, just for the hell of it.

"Yourself," Kuchiki answered, thinking silly of him. "What else could you give her that she does not have?"

Hitsugaya shook his head. "You're something else, Kuchiki."

The only remark was a send-off. "Good evening, Hitsugaya-san. Go to your beloved."

"Ah," he sighed in confirmation; admittedly rather relieved. He was never one to understand himself in love matters; and 'beloved' was not the word he would have used - but he supposed it fit. Without another word, he got up, left money for the bill, and walked out.

-:-

"Another whacked-out bozo?" Sheldon heard from the intercom. They were standing before some ominous compound that Sheldon assumed was a jail building, or at the very least some kind of holding cell block.

"A bozo with places to go," the fuggly female lieutenant answered with a snort. "Make sure you get a reiatsu seal on him."

"Alright, alright, I'm coming," the intercom muttered, and with a buzz, the gate opened to reveal another lieutenant; a fact Sheldon deduced from the badge tied across her upper left bicep.

The 2nd division vice captain was, in Sheldon's book, the most exquisitely exotic lady he had ever seen. Her skin - exposed on her arms and face - was the deepest brown he had ever laid eyes upon; it was so dark he could say that she was black and mean it in the most literal sense. Her tawny eyes and perfect white teeth were a stark contrast, but it was her hair that seized his attention. The left half - or, at least, left from his perspective - was a deep sheen of lustrous royal purple. The other side was a light golden blonde, too dark to be platinumish but still rather fair. The blonde half of her head was so different than her skin color that it had a ghostly effect. Her only other adornment was a covered kodachi that hung from a sexy black belt buckled around her divinely sculpted waist. Combined with her lithe, stretchy figure (covered only by a blissfully-tight spandex Onmitsukido uniform, praise-the-lord-so-sweet-it-was) and her ample but not overdone bustline (bless the cold air in here, what a sight to see), Sheldon couldn't resist pondering how good she would be in the sack.

Then she backhanded him across the face. It rattled his skull so hard he thought his head would swivel off. "Stop leering, you hentai."

"Caught him coming through an unauthorized senkai gate," Fuggly Hag Jr. explained, and pushed him through the door. "Had enough drugs on him to dream up a party around him, complete with a mariachi band. Have fun with this one. Thinks he's a Central 46 judge. He wants a lawyer, too."

"One of those, huh? Alright, I'll put him in a high-security cell and call the 5th, see if they can come over for the seal," the hot one mused out loud. "Alright, fatso, get a move on," she insisted, and then she shoved Sheldon down into the main cell block. She was sure to push him by the back of his head, discouraging him to try and steal another glance.

It was tempting, but Sheldon behaved himself. When he got out of here and had his position returned to him, he would order his underlings to bring him the tawny-eyed, perky-spandexed woman and have her clothes ripped off in front of him. Until then, he would just have to let her think that she had the upper hand.

-:-

Shunsui was tired and annoyed. His vice captain had bailed on him again, most likely having another one of his anxiety freakouts. For the life of him, Shunsui never understood why they had to have put him in Death Last Standing. The coveted spot on the elite extermination squad would have been better suited for Abarai's lieutenant, not his. Of course, Shunsui knew that after Hisagi Fukutaicho had been kicked off of DLS for not playing nice with the rest of them, they had decided to put someone who wouldn't stir up trouble. There was no doubt that the 8th division vice captain wouldn't stir up trouble - he was too... "cooperative" for that. Sometimes, Shunsui wondered if they had put his fukutaicho in Hisagi's spot just as a way to stick it to him: your aggressive behavior is causing you to be replaced by one of your primary victims.

Drowning in paperwork, Shunsui wondered what he had done to deserve this. It must have been revenge for the many years he had dumped the forms on his previous lieutenants. Kami sure had a sense of humor.

The door to his office swung swiftly open, nearly startling Shunsui, and Rantao walked in hurriedly. Her face registered total seriousness and mild alarm. Kyouraku was concerned. Apparently, whatever she wanted to tell him couldn't wait until later. "Rantao-san? Everything okay?"

"Shunsui," the 12th division vice captain swallowed.

"What? What is it?"

"I'm... I'm pregnant."

Shunsui gulped. "AGAIN?"

-:-

About an hour later, Sheldon could vaguely hear his exotic captor's voice from outside the cell block. "Hey - whatcha doing here?"

The tinkling, high-pitched soft voice that answered was hard for him to make out. Something about the 5th not being available. He wasn't sure what that meant.

Moments later, the cell block was opened, and a rail-thin yet elegantly beautiful woman approached. She was in a lacy white maiden's dress and bore a blue cape. A small pewter (?) dagger was tucked through her cotton sash; it was particularly noticeable because of a red opal in the center of the crossguard (or maybe it was actually ruby - he couldn't tell in the dark). When she turned to face his cell, he could see that she had distinctly angular features underneath her fine, silky-straight light blond hair. Her eyes, however, were such a penetrating blue that he almost didn't notice how her ears came to a point.

"I am relieved," Sheldon said, "to see that they have finally sent someone to release me. And so nice of them to send such a beautiful escort."

The slender woman released her reiatsu, and it was so powerful it flattened his lungs and he gasped for air. "You are not of stature to so much as breathe in my direction, much less utter a word from your addled tongue in my presence," she said peacefully and calmly, as though she was reading a telephone book. She repressed it again, and Sheldon gasped for air.

"You shall no more see me as your deliverance than you would wish to dine on the filth and scum that accumulates between the balls of your toes," the tinkle-voiced woman continued, "of which said scum would be an overestimation of your actual entire worth."

Her Japanese was atonishingly arcane; it was plastered with an accent that could only have been a blend between Scottish brogue and medieval Norweigian highbrow. From behind a mask of imperious, almost cruel indifference to his plight, he could see that her only public emotion was either contempt or disdain. Which one it actually was didn't really matter all that much.

"Begone from my sight, you loathesome mildew of a man," she added, and then raised her clenched fist beside her head. With a flick, she snapped it open, and Sheldon felt a hot branding sear into his back. It was over almost instantaneously, however. The shock of the sudden pain, which then vanished equally as suddenly, made him gasp in surprise.

The elfin lady turned on her heel and departed, apparently too bothered with such a trivial task to remain. Apparently, she was not his lawyer. When his lawyer came, he was going to make sure he had the platinum-haired princessa beaten with a cane.

-:-

There was a knock on the apartment door. "C'mon in!" Yoshino called, and the door opened. "Hey, how are you? Good to see you. What's new?"

"Well! I am well! I have most wonderful news," Shiki replied excitedly. She was wearing her often-donned blue yukata rather than her shinigami uniform. "Here!"

Shiki watched as Yoshino moved agonizingly slowly to reach for the letter. It was like watching slow motion on a stop-clock video. "Lost today?" Shiki asked with a haughty smile.

"Oh shut up," Yoshino muttered. "You weren't looking so hot on Thursday when you got whacked - what was it, six times? - either."

Shiki nodded and took pity. "What a nasty zanpakutou, isn't it?" Yoshino was her vice captain's regular sparring partner, but as 3rd seat, Shiki faced off against Constantine and her wielder just as often. Constantine halved the speed of anything it touched, making it an extremely difficult fight to win. There was a reason Kanchi-rin was a fearsome lieutenant. Yoshino's Galesifter was one of the few whose own zanpakutou gave her some ability to work around Constantine's effects, but Yoshino still ended up losing half the time.

If Kanchi-rin was fearsome, then it spoke volumes about how skilled Yoshino-dono was. Aside from Kenpachi Hisagi, Yoshino and Shiki were the only fully ambidextrous shinigami in the Gotei 13, although only Yoshino was naturally so. When she wielded her katana, it was impossible to know which hand of hers was dominant, although Shiki knew from their long history that Yoshino, like Shiki, was right-handed. Once upon a time, Shiki had been able to regularly best Yoshino; but now the Hikifune was clearly the superior. Shiki didn't mind; by now they were closest of good friends more than sparring partners, especially since they had so many responsibilities to their respective divisions.

Yoshino took a good long time to open the envelope and removed an invitation. She read out loud. "With great joy and celebration, we are to pleased to invite you to the most honorable celebration of the highest order, in honor of Ryogi Shiki-sama on the occasion of her - engagement!" Yoshino squealed and didn't even bother to read the rest. She slowly reached to give her good friend a hug - Shiki took pity and came in close to embrace her tortoise-speed friend. "Shiki-chan! Congratulations! I'm so happy for you! This is wonderful. To who?"

"Shihoin Pomadora-dono."

Yoshino thought hard. Pomadora...dono? "Wait - is that Shihoin Tokine Fukutaicho's son?"

"Yes," Shiki answered with a smile. "It was Zarina-dono's idea."

"Really? That's wonderful!" Yoshino was thrilled. Shiki had been looking to get married forever, and had inordinate difficulty trying to find someone. Yoshino knew that her medical condition was an unfair factor, but that was the way things were. Speaking strictly from nobility's perspective, marrying a Shihoin was quite the way to stick it to all those who had snubbed their noses at Shiki-chan. "How did she come to suggest it?"

"Her family was having just as much trouble finding him an arrangement," Shiki pointed out the obvious. "Even though his mother is a very high-functioning and successful vice captain, autism scares away nearly everyone in the noble families. She realized we likely had similar experiences, and made the logical assumption that we would not be so prejudiced."

"Wow, and it was a good fit? I don't really know anything about him. Is he even in the Gotei 13 at all? Is he cute?"

"He's... plain," Shiki admitted. "...And he has rather dorky-looking glasses. He's not a shinigami, either; as the eldest son he has opted to take over his mother's duties to the House of Shihoin. He mostly manages a lot of the real estate transactions and the grain farming and production. But he's very, very sweet; and wonderfully kind. He's a rather gentle, quiet man, but I've met him now at least six times and I like him very, very much. He seems like he would make a wonderful, devoted husband and a very caring father - along with his brothers, he has helped take care of his mother for many years. It is obvious that he has his priorities in the right order."

"That's some incredible praise," Yoshino commented, a bit taken aback. In true noble fashion, Ryogi Shiki rarely spoke highly of others (except maybe her captain, Kuchiki Rukia-dono). "It sounds like true love already," Yoshino teased. "Otonashi/Kaneda, Mustang/Hawkeye, or is it a classic Romeo/Juliet? Maybe a more muted Sakakibara/Misaki?"

"You otaku nerd," Shiki replied with a roll of her eyes. "Even my father thinks he is a good suitor."

"Hanbo-Horo-Hugo-Harry-Happy-With-Any-Name-dono likes him? Well, then, that's a whole big bucket of win right there," Yoshino needled her with a sassy grin.

"What am I ever going to do with you?" Shiki shook her head with an amused smile. "And what of you? How was your big date?"

Yoshino made barfing noises. "What a prissy shmuck," she grimaced. "If Nee-san ever sets me up with another Kuzaku, I think I'm going to tornado her into Kentucky."

Shiki wasn't really sure what Kentucky was, but understood the sentiment. Shiki had seen Galesifter make a tornado once - and once was enough. "How is Muertara-dono doing?"

"The usual. She and Jun-Jidano-san are still fighting over which family the baby will be in. I'm sure Tara-neesan will win. She usually does. Jun-Jidano-san has a leash on him, much like all Kyourakus do."

Ryogi understood. Both Kyouraku Jun-Jidano and Hikifune Muertara were the head of their respective families. Both wanted to produce a natural heir. Given that the Hikifune Family (often casually referred to as the 5th House) was dwindling - and was prone to die out in the first place - she could understand Muertara-dono's concern. It was the reason that Muertara-dono was lining up suitors to court her sister. Yoshino may have been on the flat side, but she was still an absolute stunner. She had an honest-to-goodness gorgeous-beyond-description face of pure innocence; with almost-black brown hair and crystal-clear twinkling light hazel eyes that seized your attention - so it wasn't hard to find a bunch of high-ranking young noblemen who would jump at the opportunity. "Who does she have lined up for you next?"

"Someone from the Omaeda Family," she winced painfully. "I begged her to contact the Nikayui Family, but she's got some beef with Banzo-no-Kimi that nobody but Tara-neesan understands. Knowing Neesan, it's probably centuries old and no one even remembers what her grudge is about. Anyway, I'm hoping she'll relent soon enough. Any of the Nikayui Boys would be a major step up from the rest of these losers."

"Why don't you just ask Sarashina-dono? I'm sure she would speak to her father if you wanted her to. She could likely find out from Vojiro-dono if any of their cousins are interested."

"Oh, I have. Nikayui Sentao has already expressed interest, and I would love to meet him. But you know how it is. Centuries ago, Cousin Miyako-sama didn't go through the right channels and kicked off a giant shitstorm when she said she wanted to marry Shiba Kaien-dono. Kyouraku Taicho even told me about it once. Don't want that to happen again. Tara-neesan is already a pain in the ass, I don't need her to go double-ass crazy on me. She's knocked up and thus driving everyone up the wall as it is."

"Muertara-dono would be appalled to hear you use such language."

Yoshino laughed. "She can bring it up with my captain. He must be rubbing off on me."

"Abarai Taicho still fantasizing that against all odds, you'll suddenly discover that you have a thing for older men, that he is the only man for you, and that you'll run away with him?"

"Oh shut up, he is not," Yoshino grumbled. Although to be honest, she wasn't quite sure.

-:-

Hisagi hated it when they looked at him funny. "You got a problem, you punk? What are you staring at?"

The shinigami who had cowered in the presence of the violent vice captain sputtered. "N-n-nothing!"

"That's right, you wussy pussy shitlicker!" he shouted in his face, up close and personal like a drill sergeant. "That's right, you're not staring! Otherwise I'll punch your mouth in so hard you'll be puking out your nose, you got that?" A tap on his shoulder interrupted him, and he immediately turned and shouted "What is it, bootlicker?" as aggressively as he could.

Except that he found he was staring at somebody's obi knot. Looking up, he discovered he had just shouted at the 4th division captain's belt. Oh shit, I am so dead.

"Hisagi Fukutaicho," Isane smiled cheerily. "You wouldn't be threatening one of my patients, would you?"

"N-n-n-n-no, ab-ab-absolutely n-n-not," he shuddered.

"That's good to hear," Isane grinned widely. "I wouldn't want to have to evict you from my hospital."

"N-n-no, Ma'am, n-no, that won't be necessary," he said quickly. "I was just going!"

The giant woman with the armspan that could hurl him halfway to the moon patted him on the head. "Then I don't want to keep you. Go on, Hisagi-kun."

Hisagi made for a quick exit. If he was lucky, Isane Taicho wouldn't tell his mother. Isane Taicho could send him halfway to the moon, but Ma could send him to Hell.

-:-

Komamura Kitsune sighed with patience. By now, he had made regular trips here with his best friend, but he only came for support. He himself had no connection to this place.

Makahiro knelt before the tombstones. They were simple; together. In many ways, it was sad; in theory, not all five of them should have been together. Sometimes, though, that was the way things were. As he had once seen a group of humans do in a different cemetery, he took a few stones off the ground. For a shinigami, laying flowers on the grave was impractical - they were not supposed to tamper with any life form in the Land of the Living; and bringing from Soul Society was just too much effort. When he had once seen humans deposit a pebble on top of the gravestone as an indication of their visit, he had immediately adopted the practice. He had been doing it now for over a hundred years, and although many of the pebbles had blown away, the gravesite was littered with them everywhere. Makahiro made sure that, among the oldest tombstones of Karakura Cemetery, these were always kept clean and well-tended; even if he had to do it himself.

He started by placing the largest pebble on his mother's monument, offering a prayer that Kurosaki Karin rest in peace. He then placed a pebble on his uncle's marker for Hikaru-chan, and then on their grandparents' markers. Finally, he placed a stone on Yuzu-obasan's monument. He never really knew her that well; but he always offered a prayer for her just like he did for the others.

Kitsune noted that Makahiro had been more solemn than usual. Makahiro usually made this trip once or twice a year; although he also came when he was particularly confused or stressed or bothered. "What ills you, Hiro-kun?"

Hitsugaya sighed. "I... you wouldn't believe me even if I told you."

Kitsune let out a bellowing chuckle. Even the smallest of laughs that ushered forth from the enormous 7th division vice captain could shake the earth. "I find that hard to believe."

Makahiro hesitated. He and Kitsune had become best of friends for many reasons, family complexity being among them. Kitsune's mother was the bastard daughter of the previous Soutaicho, and his father was - well, an animal. Makahiro's father was likely going to be the next Soutaicho, and was not even all that much older than he was; and his mother had been a human. If there was anyone who would understand unusual family situations, it was Kitsune. "My father dropped a bombshell on me this morning."

"Oh?" Kitsune asked, his eyebrows peaking in piqued curiousity.

"Yeah," Makahiro sighed. He was so conflicted about this, he didn't even know if he could voice it. "He wanted to tell me that he's been seeing someone. For a long time already."

"...That's hardly difficult to digest, Hiro-san," Kitsune shrugged. "Obviously no one can replace your mother, but he doesn't deserve to live alone for the rest of his life. He has millennia ahead of him, still."

"That's - " Histugaya began, but stalled. "Karu-chan's mother has never sought anyone else."

"Hikaru-dono's mother also literally shared a soul with her father," Kitsune pointed out. "And even so, she is very lonely; no matter how hard she denies it. If anything, Kuchiki Oujotaicho is the exception that proves the rule."

Hitsugaya exhaled with conflicted feelings. "I know, but... but that's not really the issue. I suppose if I wasn't such a faint-hearted moronic wuss, I could get used to the idea of Father seeing someone else, but this is far more complicated."

Kitsune's expression twisted into skepticism. "How so?" This he wanted to hear. Most likely his friend was exaggerating the severity of the problem, as he usually did.

"You have to swear to tell no one."

"Why?"

"Swear first, and then I'll tell you."

"Alright, Hiro-kun, I swear."

"On your father's sword, Kit-kun, I'm not kidding."

Kitsune rolled his eyes. This was not the first time he had been asked to make such a drastic oath for silly reasons. "Fine, fine; I swear on my father's sword, Hiro-kun, that I will not tell a soul."

Makahiro hesitated. "Father has... he has - ugh, how do I say this?"

"Say what, Hiro-kun? You have to get this out, it's eating you alive."

Hitsugaya couldn't hold it in anymore. He exploded in frustration. "My dad has been dating a hollow, Kitsune-kun. For like, well over ten years, at least. Probably as long as fifty, even."

Kitsune's eyes went wide with doubt. "A hollow? That's preposterous."

"Well, not just any hollow."

Komamura was beginning to wonder if this time, his oath had been taken in good reason. "Why? Who could he possibly be involved with?"

Makahiro grimaced. "The King of Hueco Mundo."

"What ! ?"

-:-

"Where are we going?"

[You have the patience of a walnut.]

"Is that better or worse than a poppy seed?"

[A poppy seed is worse. A walnut is less than a cashew, though.]

"You use the strangest metaphors."

[Different language,] she shrugged, [different expressions.]

"Does a macademia nut fit into this sliding scale?"

[It's at the high end. You have yet to achieve the zen-like stillness of a macadamia nut's patience.]

"You're enjoying this little mystery, aren't you?"

Hikaru smiled wide in order to mock him. [Of course.]

Vojiro shrugged. "Where are we anyway?"

She patiently signed the name, letter by letter. [78th District - 'Inazuri'.]

"Nice place. To think that a place named 'Howling Dog' would be so pleasant. Especially for somewhere so far from Sereitei."

[It was where my mother grew up with Renji-san. The Kuchiki family has invested a lot to rejuvenate it in her honor.]

Vojiro was a touch surprised. He knew from Hikaru that Kuchiki Oujotaicho had been adopted from the Rukongai because her natural sister had married Kuchiki Oujitaicho, but he did not know much about the details. "Well, they've done a nice job."

[Kurosakis never go half way,] she smirked, [and mother is about as much Kurosaki as she is Kuchiki.]

"So I've heard," he shrugged. "Okaasama met him a couple of times. Said he was really headstrong. Coming from my mother, that's saying something."

[Where else do you think I get it from?]

He laughed. "That's for sure."

[You still see Lulu?]

"Yeah, she's here," Vojiro pointed up in the air at the bat that was flying overhead. It had been his turn to babysit today. Sarashina had been called in by the 2nd for a reiatsu seal; the 5th division fukutaicho had been off somewhere doing nobody knows what. She was like that sometimes. "She's pretty good, she doesn't like to be out on her own. I keep a close eye on her. If I lose her, forget Okaasama and Otousan - Sarashina-chan will Raiden my ass into oblivion." His sister's sigma zanpakutou was, in its wielder's hands, completely useless in sealed form. Sarashina couldn't fight with her pewter stiletto at all. In shikai form, though, forget it. That quarterstaff would be raining down lightning bolts on him enough to make him glow until next week.

[I still can't get used to it,] Hikaru signed with bewilderment. [I mean, Zari-chan can turn into a cat, but somehow that seems so much more normal.]

"I think Lulu just likes being able to pee on people's heads, if you ask me."

[Charming, V-kun, just charming,] she signed sarcastically. She never bothered signing his name anymore; it took too long to spell out the foreign letters.

He laughed. "C'mon, I know you prefer me just the way I am," he laughed, catching himself and substituting the word 'prefer' for something else that may have been more... confessional.

[On occasion,] she signed cautiously, detecting his near foray into the overtly flirtatious.

Hikaru was still hesitant to accept that Vojiro had anything more than friendly, platonic interest. Someone with his looks could get anyone he wanted, and Hikaru was skeptical that Vo had really set his eyes on her. Although Hikaru knew it was ludicrous, she somehow always feared that Vojiro was using her as an avenue to learn more about Hisako, who was every boy's dream. Considering how most boys treated Hikaru - like crap - it was too hard not to let the fear hover over her. Anxiously and unconsciously, she shifted the violin case over her shoulder, trying to keep it from chafing against her extra-long nodachi that was hanging across her back.

That didn't even begin to address what Vojiro would think if he found out about her condition. Obviously, he was aware of her plain figure, but she was sure that he assumed there was something... "feminately compatible" underneath her shinigami uniform. If he ever made any transparent advances, she would need to seriously consider how she would tell him - and that was assuming she could even confess to wearing a padded bra without dying of soul-crushing embarassment. For right now, any mention of it at all was premature.

Hikaru could very well opt for surgery and thus he wouldn't have to make the decision - but she really wasn't there yet. Hell, she didn't know where she was at all when it came to this issue.

"Where are we going?"

[It's a secret,] she signed with some serious gesticulation, glad that he had backed off a bit. The only person she had told so far was her younger brother, Sado-kun. She needed to bring someone along, otherwise she never would have been able to communicate. Even with her textable phone, a lot of the people here couldn't read; so she couldn't just type things out for people who didn't speak sign language.

"How much longer is this going to take?" he asked. "And doesn't your captain need you to, I don't know, help run your division or something?"

[I told Kiyone Taicho I was taking today off. I dumped my work on the other upper seats. A little extra paperwork won't kill them.]

"I dunno, it kills me," Vojiro sighed. It was his day off, too; but that was part of his regular weekly rotation.

[That's because Hitsugaya Taicho has been doing all the paperwork for centuries by himself,] she signed with humorous intent. The inability to produce a sound when laughing gave most people the creeps, so Hikaru tended to avoid laughing when she could. [He finally got someone who will actually help him with it, so he's making up for all the free time he lost.]

"Yeah, well, I don't like doing paperwork either," Vojiro grumbled. "The only reason I do it is because I'm sure he'd tell my mother to beat my ass if I didn't."

[Momma's boy,] she chided.

"Daddy's girl," he shot back.

[Speaking of which, we're here.]

"Huh?" Vojiro asked suddenly. That was a very unusual segue.

The auburn vice captain of the 13th knocked on the door to a wooden townhouse. It was modest but not in disrepair - much like the standard housing for much of the district, which was poor but clean and relatively safe. It was lower class housing by Rukongai standards, but not anything like the truly poverty-stricken districts, where the lucky ones had canvas tents and the unlucky ones had nothing at all.

A small, filthy boy with a shaved head answered the door. He wore a thin, threadbare brown tunic; the standard garment of the inner-city poor - but it was free of holes and fit well. The boy didn't look hungry or starved, either. "Oh, it's you," he said rudely to Hikaru. "Who's the fop?"

"Hey!" Vojiro frowned.

Hikaru just shrugged. Very, very few here could understand sign language, so she signed to Vojiro. [Tell them you're my translator.]

Vojiro did so, and the bald boy shrugged. "Whatever. Hey, Okaachan - Shinigami-chan is here. She brought some other shinigami with her."

"Let them in," came a woman's voice. "And set the table for company. Oh, and tell everyone to wash up, please. You too."

"Renaldo and Henry better help! And if Jackie complains about having to watch Oksana, I'm telling her to stuff it!" the boy yelled with disinterest.

"No, you'll tell her to come to me, Dario," the voice within insisted firmly.

"Whatever," the boy shrugged. "C'mon in, shinigami."

Hikaru gestured for Vojiro to go ahead. He waited for Lulu to park herself in the eaves of the house, and then he gave her a stern look to tell her to stay put. Lulu chittered back an "I'm taking a nap," which even Vojiro could barely decipher.

Vojiro entered reluctantly, not sure what to expect. Inside, the tiny house was a single room with three double-decker bunk beds lining the wall, totalling six. It was clean, and appeared to be well-maintained - the ceiling was plastered, which was something rare in outer districts. It indicated that, however humble this abode was, someone had invested in it to make sure it didn't have a leaky roof. It was something Vojiro had never really had to think about before. He also noticed that the beds had thin mattresses - a far cry from real comfort but infinitely better than loose straw that he had seen in other districts this far out.

Close to one wall was a small table, suitable for maybe four adults to sit at. A curtain lined a corner where Vojiro assumed they had the chamber pot. In the center of the room, a simple wood stove with an exhaust pipe out the ceiling was the main attraction. It provided a cozy warmth to the small room. A starkly beautiful woman was standing over it, cooking a pot of something that smelled amazing.

The Banzo prince carefully studied her. She was relatively tall, with angular lines and long, flowing orange hair. The darkest of its strands were still lighter than Hikaru's brightest copper highlights. She was dressed in simple brown hemp worker's pants and a matching, loose, short-sleeved cotton shirt. They were peasant's clothes, but they were spotless and in good condition. Vojiro noted that, compared to others he had seen in the district, the woman was dressed rather well. Hemp and cotton were relative luxuries here; most clothing was linen or canvas. "Welcome," she said warmly, her Japanese intonation immediately bespeaking of someone who was well-educated. Vojiro was either easily fooled, or this woman was not the average Rukongai citizen. "Dinner will be ready in just a minute. Henry, is the table set?"

"Not yet, Ma," a boy answered, weaving around his older and younger sister. The former (if Vojiro remembered correctly, Jackie) was trying to keep the latter (Oksana?) from crying.

Vojiro tried to be polite. He had no idea what peasant customs were, but his mother had drilled into him that his noble roots weren't worth a bucket of warm urine in someone else's home, so he treated the mistress of this humble house as though she was the Queen of the Kingdom. "Please allow me to introduce ourselves, I am Banzo Vojiro, vice captain of the 10th division in the Gotei 13. This young woman is - "

"Kuchiki Hikaru-dono, vice captain of the 13th," the woman interrupted with a chuckling smile. "I know who you both are."

Vojiro felt a bit dumb. He was not used to it - he tended to be smoother than this. "Oh, excuse me, then; my apologies. And you are?"

[Ako Masaki,] Hikaru signed the letters swiftly with an amused smile. It had taken a while, but Hikaru had found the first of them. [My grandmother.]

-:-

The indignity of jail was revolting to him. Where he had once dined on the finest caviar and wagyu beef, he was now being fed tepid water and overcooked rice with undercooked peas and unripe broccoli that came from a shutterhole in the back wall. His outrage at being unjustly locked up infuriated him, and when he finally got to speak to a lawyer, he was going to make sure that whoever that uglier-than-a-pug lieutenant was, she was going to pay for it many times over.

The click of the cell block door got Sheldon's attention, and he perked up. "It's about time!"

"Yes, it certainly is," a sinister voice slithered out of his range of vision. He came over to the bars to find the most horrible monster of a face staring back at him. He couldn't really tell whether the shinigami was a man or a woman, but his new company shocked him into jumping back towards the back wall of his cell, not wanting to be any closer than necessary.

The bald head was rippled with stitched scars that traced down the face. The eyes were mismatched, with one just slightly smaller than the other and ominously glowing a lighter shade of fecal brown. Surrounding both eyes was a grotesque patchwork of lumpy, red flesh that had been scratched at until it bled, and it was now covered in oozing scabs that leaked pus. The shinigami continued to compulsive scratch at it, an itch that could not be satisfied, ripping off the uncomfortable scabs and squeezing out the putrid contents within. When the infection was cleared, it - for the pronouns 'he' or 'she' were not suitable to describe the visceral beastliness of the being in front of him - flicked the yellowish goo through the cells at him, splattering the rancid flecks onto Sheldon's cheek.

"It has been nearly two centuries, Konoshima Subentara," it noted, the voice a raspy imitation of a whetstone grinding away at an axe of bitter scorn. It was a sound that made him feel like he was sucking on the exhaust pipe of a deisel truck; a polluted, smoggy harshness that had a tangible terror, as though each word was a cockaroach that crawled into his ear and laid its eggs there. "You and I - we have business to discuss."

"Y-y-you know who I am?"

"Of course I do - I've been looking for you," it answered; the bloated, graying toungue licking the ghastly lips as though it was ready to feast on his innards. Its parsed, chapped, blistered, oozing lips curled into a razor smile that would scare Satan enough to run from his abode in Hell. "Do you know who I am?"

"N-n-n-no," he stuttered, nearly wetting himself as the monster unlocked the cell door and delicately stepped inside. As it approached, he could see that the approaching ghoul had live writhing maggots across half of its face, feasting on the necrotic flesh. The shinigami didn't even seem to notice as one burrowed under its eyelid.

"Here," it smiled as it drew its katana, "they call me Hinamori the Cruel."

With a diligence from another world, it bound him where he stood with some sort of paralyzing kido. The first thing it did was remove his eyelids with a surgical cut of its sword, forcing him to be unable to pull his eyes away from the living horror.

Then, it proceeded to break every bone in his body, starting with the individual digits in his fingers and toes. When it had accomplished everything shy of the hammer, stirrup and anvil inside each of his ears, it used bone repair kido until he was fully healed, then repeated the process. After it was done with a few cycles of that, it burned off sections of his skin and mutilated his genitals, stopping only to heal him so that he could live through it all over again.

The screaming did not stop for four hours - but only because he started choking when Hinamori needed a break to relieve itself by urinating directly into his mouth. To further humiliate him, it used his face to clean up after its monthly discharges. To remove the stain, Hinamori then opted to scour his face clean with acid, smiling with a sadistic lust as he was forced to look at its writhing, wriggling face of nightmares. The screaming then continued for another six hours as it inflicted further layers of suffering upon him, followed by healing phases that gave him abyssal pangs of fear instead of the slightest ounce of respite.

When the warden-on-call finally showed up the next morning, he couldn't explain how a seemingly unharmed prisoner had died with a look of such agony on his face.

-:-

Kuchiki Hisako was having a perfectly normal day until the strangest thing happened. As she was leading her division 6 unit out of a senkai gate, a human ran into her at full speed.

"Oof!" the young girl gasped as she got to her feet. "Ugh, where did you come from?"

"Oujosama!" one of the shinigami shouted, reaching to help her to her feet. With grace, she accepted his hand. The many other shinigami men were envious. The two women in the party were jealous. (That was how it was in the presence of Head Lieutenant Hisako the Supermodel.)

Hisako looked at the offending lummox. She must have been a teenager; how old that was in human years, Hisako did not know. What astounded her was that this short-haired, athletic girl - admittedly attractive, with a certain flair of sorts that bespoke of concrete self-confidence - could see her. This random commoner human girl could see her. "You," Hisako ordered. "Who are you?"

Tamani looked with great surprise - possibly even fear - at the woman in black robes. This must have been a shinigami that Sora-kun was talking about. The woman was characteristically beautiful. She stood at about five and a half feet tall, with obsidian hair that was long and ramrod straight, even blacker than her onyx garb. Her deep indigo eyes were icy, cold, regal, uppity. She had a round, packed and bulging bust - covered with great modesty but impossible to hide its appeal from anyone's imagination - and possessed a tight, chiseled waist that even put Tamani's alluring figure in the shadows. She could have graced the cover of any modern fashion magazine.

Tabaki Tamani, though, was always attentive to detail; and what stuck out most were the two badges she wore, one on each arm. A brass one on the left arm had the kanji '6' etched in it, and her right arm bore a wooden badge with a skull and undifferentiated set of crossbones - a perfect match to Tamani's own.

With a nervous shiver, Tabaki Tamani removed the wooden batch from the latch at her hip and showed it to the woman. "Tabaki Tamani," she said as bravely as she could, holding out the badge defiantly towards the party of black-robed soldiers. She had no idea what the badge should mean, but it was her best guess as how she could garner some immediate respect.

Hisako herself stopped suddenly. What was this human doing with a Death Last Standing badge? DLS was supposed to be the most elite of elite Shinigami extermination units. They were dispatched to deal with anything short of a vasto lorde, which was the captains' domain. Why did a human have one of these? Had she stolen it off of a previous member of DLS? Hisako could not have even recall if there had ever even been an opportunity for a DLS badge to be pilfered. Assuming that a human would ever be able to steal one off of an elite shinigami. "Where did you get that, girl?"

Tamani didn't like the woman said the word 'girl'. She wasn't the type of person who let herself get pushed around, especially not by high school cheerleader queens. Any trace of anxiety was pushed out of the way by a sense of personal offense. "I don't have time for a history lesson right now, Pop Star," she spat back, thinking of the first demeaning thing she could that might actually stick. (It was lame and she knew it, but the haughty woman registered an affront, so Tamani figured it was good enough.) "I'm being chased by someone who can see you, too. You have to help me deal with him."

"Who are you to make demands of me, petty stain? Do you know whom you are talking to, you impertinent runt?"

"Someone with a stick up her ass," Tamani answered rudely, not backing down at the woman's insult. Looking over her shoulder, she spotted him. "That's him," she said, pointing to a man in a gray suit. "Jonas, the Fallen Saint. He has plans to blow up this shopping mall with sixteen hundred pounds of C4 - all strapped around a dirty bomb that will then radiate this town into mutant freaks for a hundred years. Like it or not, I'm your ally," she bullshitted, hoping that the matching badges would back her up, "so you better deal with him - now!"

"Tch," Hisako sneered. She would have to teach this brat a lesson. "You slight my pride. I will teach you what that costs-"

"Kiss my ass and move, Sweet Cheeks," Tamani ordered, not caring about the gaping mouths of the other shinigami at her rudeness. "Save the pompous talk and impending threats for when you've proved me you can dispatch him."

With great haughty ire, Hisako leveled her Kuchiki Doom Stare at the human, and then pushed her aside with force, intending to teach this runt their difference in power. She was surprised at how her shove accomplished very little. The human girl was clearly much stronger than she had initially assessed. Shifting her attention to the man, she withdrew Skyfire, preparing to give this supposed threat one last opportunity to surrender.

"Stop," she ordered to the man, who was quickly encroaching. "Surrender and be spared, or suffer death and humiliation."

The man paused, stopping suddenly. He studied her face with deep thought, studiously surveying her appearance. Slowly, he removed his sunglasses and studied her again. "...The King of Clubs," the man said - this Jonas, as the teenager had called him.

Hisako's eyes narrowed in contempt. "The King of Clubs?" King? Does he think me a man? And how dare he associate me with some barbaric cudgel!

Jonas opened up his phone, taking a hard look at Tabaki. "The King of Clubs," he said into the phone. "Retreat!" With a look of contained rage that would live to fight another day, the man closed his phone and turned tail.

"What are you doing?" Tabaki shouted at the shinigami. "Go after him!"

Hisako sheathed her zanpakutou and turned her attention back to the human. "How dare you imagine yourself noble enough to order me like a common slave," she reviled. "I offered him a chance to spare his life. I will not go back on my word."

Tamani rolled her eyes. "You are one dumb chick."

Hisako seized Tabaki by the throat. "What did you call m-"

With dexterity even greater than Hisako, the teenager literally jack-sprinted up Kuchiki's torso. Grabbing Hisako's wristlock bone with both hands to pry it off her neck, Tamani thrust her foot high up into Hisako's chest, twisting her whole momentum so as to scale up Hisako's body while twisting, her jump arcing down onto the top of Hisako's tricep and shoulder. Painfully, Hisako was hurdled to the floor as the expert martial artist suddenly had the shinigami's face crouched to the floor, her arm twisted back painfully with the human's knee embedded on the back of her locked elbow.

"Oujosama!" her attendants shouted, and began to approach to save her, but stopped at their vice captain's command.

"Stop!" she barked at them. "Human - "

"Tabaki," the girl insisted. "Tabaki Tamani." I don't know where you come from, but you'll show me some respect.

"Tabaki," Hisako repeated with tried patience, not even deeming this audacious girl worthy of an honorific. "Move."

"No."

"Then I will hurl you into the heavens."

Tamani grit her teeth. "No. You'll stop foaming at the mouth over your damn wounded ego and start chasing an international terrorist whose sole existence is to eradicate the channel between Earth and Soul Society," Tamani answered. She hoped that what she said made sense. It made no sense to her, but if she remembered correctly, that was what Sora-kun had told her.

With seething ire, Hisako tugged in her arm, allowing the human to get away with her brazen insult. "Fine-"

"Hey, what are you sitting around for! ?" a young man chastised them, flashing to a stop. "He's getting away!"

Hisako was startled. Another human? With shunpo? But -

"Shinigami!" the lanky, black-haired pencilneck ordered, flashing his copy of the wooden badge. "After him!"

Hisako was astounded. Another Death Last Standing badge? Was someone giving them out as trinkets? Or worse - was there a secret cabal in the Gotei 13 that was conspiring to undermine the authority of Hisako and her unit? Hisako could not believe what she was seeing. Was her own Death Last Standing badge so worthless?

"Welcome to Karakura," Tamani laughed darkly at the dumbfounded imperial. Whoever you are, you snooty bitch, learn this: things are never quite so simple in the real world.


-THE END-
...as all Endings are simply Beginnings by another name