Substitute School, First Semester: General Education

A Bleach Fanfic

Written by Zero-Sennin

Lesson 25: Exam Preparation 101, or Taking the Big Tests

Monday, August 26, Noon

Karakura Town, Minamikawase: Kurosaki Residence/Clinic

In a week, on September 2nd, Ichigo would have to go back to school.

And, to be wholly honest, he was not looking forward to it.

Despite himself, the pattern he had fallen into over the last couple of days had been extremely comfortable. He'd wake up in the morning and have breakfast with Renji, Rukia, and his family, then go out for the rest of the day and train together. With Red Flame Cannon more or less resolved, he was moving on to Blue Fire, Crash Down, and some other minor binding techniques alongside his swordplay.

However, he was still worried by a number of things; Renji and Rukia had nothing to report since the failed Urahara apprehension, and he often saw them whispering about something when they were sure he wasn't looking.

On occasion, they would see Tatsuki, Orihime, Chad, or Ishida walking to Urahara's, and while they would say hello, Renji and Rukia intimated in a number of ways that they didn't have time to sit and chat with anyone, so he hadn't seen them very often, if at all.

Monday afternoon saw Ichigo and Rukia sparring on a flat rooftop in Ichigo's neighborhood, as they had been for the last couple of days. Renji and Ichigo's session yesterday had ended in Renji's favor, though it had been a dead heat near the end and thanks to Renji getting a bit too overeager, a thin, still-fading scar ran up the middle of Ichigo's chest; the tip of it was visible just beneath the white robes he wore under the black ones of his uniform.

Presently, Ichigo and Rukia were circling each other; Zangetsu and Sode no Shirayuki were in their shikai forms, but Ichigo's armband was on and Rukia's Spiritual Energy was locked down tight, pitting sword against sword at normal speed and power.

After a moment, Ichigo made the first move, charging in and swinging wide. Rukia stepped back, letting Ichigo's blade hit the ground, then darted in, taking one hand from Sode no Shirayuki and flipping her index and pointer fingers out at him.

"Hadou 4."

Ichigo bit back a curse and yanked Zangetsu up, barely blocking the burst of lightning that flew at him. By the time he pulled Zangetsu down for another strike, Rukia was swinging Sode no Shirayuki at him; the white ribbon's trail through the air distracted him for a moment, and she took that chance to swing her sword upwards in a perfect strike.

Had Ichigo not jerked his head back, his chin would have been marked with more than the thin scratch that Sode no Shirayuki left trailing up towards his mouth as it cut upwards at him.

Biting back a frustrated curse, Ichigo instinctively moved backwards, mentally keeping track of where the edge of the roof was. His air-walking skill was so natural to him now that he wouldn't fall from it unless he'd used up all of his Spiritual Energy with Getsuga Tenshous, but he preferred to remain aware of his surroundings regardless; he could still be taken by surprise if he stepped out over air when he expected to stay on solid ground.

With a step, Rukia came in and brought her blade down as if to cleave through his head, and he quickly rolled to the side this time, then rammed her with his shoulder, using a quick burst of Spiritual Pressure vented from his back to speed him up.

Renji, standing on the sidelines, winced, and practically felt his teeth creak when he grimaced as Rukia hit the ground. If he said anything to disrupt either of them at this juncture, he was likely to get yelled at, so he held his tongue so strongly he might have ripped it off if it were possible.

It was a testament to Rukia's growing prowess that she kipped up moments before Ichigo bore down on her with Zangetsu, springing back out of the way of his swing. However, while she was still airborne, the Deputy Reaper used another smooth burst of Spiritual Pressure to circle around to her side and lash out with a fierce kick.

He hadn't seen her slip her hand free of Shirayuki again, though, and so his foot smashed into a transparent blue wall instead of her ribcage. With no incantation and barely any prep time, the shield shattered as soon as he struck it, but that was distraction enough for her to gather her Energy again and fire another spell as she began to land.

"Bakudou 9, Strike!"

Ichigo felt his entire body seize as the red filled his vision, and before he could even begin to concentrate on breaking the spell, Rukia landed and smoothly approached him, pointing Shirayuki directly at his throat.

"Time for you to yield."

"You got lucky," Ichigo managed to say, grateful that she hadn't bound his jaw up at the very least. "And I'm not gonna give up just yet."

He flared his Pressure, crudely throwing off the Strike spell, and ducked low, swinging his leg out for a sweeping kick. Rukia was too quick, though, and jumped over the attack, then kicked him in the temple.

Of course, she used her full strength, and as a result, Ichigo went flying like a limp doll, sailing over the nearby edge of the roof and falling out of sight. Behind her, Renji snorted a few times before breaking out into a fit of raucous laughter, completely unable to keep on his "serious" face.

"Good one, Rukia," he managed to say between laughs. "Been practicing your Hakuda, I see."

Rukia stood up from her landing crouch and shook her head. It was only for a moment, but she spared a glance to where Ichigo had fallen, and laughed softly. "Hakuda? Not at all. That was just a regular kick."

It was then that Ichigo's hands slapped down angrily on the edge of the roof, and the sound made Renji and Rukia jump in fright.

"A regular kick?" Ichigo said as he pulled his head up over the edge of the roof. "Felt more like someone shot a rocket at my face. What if I'd died?"

"You used to get your ass beaten to a paste by Captain Soifon, didn't you?" Renji replied. "Compared to that, none of us should be able to hurt you that badly."

Ichigo put his other hand on the roof and climbed up; brushing off the bottom of his robes as he stood, then gave Renji a flat stare. "Your Zabimaru nearly cut me in half yesterday. I'd say that's a good example of hurting me badly, don't you?"

The redhead adjusted his visor, and looked away, scowling. "Rukia could have healed it!"

"Renji, you could have cut him in half from groin to neck if he hadn't moved in time," Rukia said, pressing her face into her hand with a sigh. "I'm pretty sure Captain Unohana would have had a hard time fixing that, which means I would've been able to do precisely nothing."

The statement did little to mollify Renji, but before the conversation could continue, Ichigo's Soul Phone went off. Sighing, he dug into his robes for the device and checked its screen.

I have important news and an errand to run in Karakura. Be prepared to take me to Urahara when I arrive in five minutes.

Captain Soifon

"What is it, Ichigo?" Rukia asked, noticing how his brows seemed to furrow a bit more.

"Captain Soifon is stopping by soon. She needs to do something at Urahara's place today, apparently." He frowned. "But even for her this message is terse. I think she's not in a good mood today. Renji's trash talk must have pissed her off somehow."

The redhead rolled his eyes, but didn't verbally respond.

As she'd promised, Soifon arrived five minutes after her text message, dropping down from the sky in a blur of Flash Steps. She had a brown box tucked under her arm, which she set down on the ground as soon as she could. Ichigo, Rukia, and Renji all bowed slightly, and in turn, she returned the greeting with a nod.

"There is no time for pleasantries, so I'll be blunt," she said. "Things have been going on since you were deployed here, and with Kurosaki returning to Soul Society soon I'll have to fill you in on them now." Her face twisted into a sudden frown, and Ichigo could almost taste the irritation and anger surging through her Spiritual Energy. "It will be a lot to take in, so listen carefully. If you interrupt me, this will take longer than it needs to."

And, with that, she began to explain what had happened since Yamamoto's return to Soul Society.

Ichigo's face went from confused, to blank, to shocked, to perplexed, to disbelieving, and back again as Soifon told him, Rukia, and Renji about Aizen's betrayal, Tousen's defection, and everything else they'd learned since. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Renji was paling and Rukia was shaking her head slowly, covering her mouth with one hand as if she was going to throw up.

What bothered Ichigo most, though, was Aizen. He couldn't imagine the soft-spoken brunette captain doing what Soifon said he had done, no matter how seriously she said it. Aizen had always been kind to him, stepping in when Hinamori's explanations didn't quite bridge the gap, getting food for him and Hinamori to eat between training sessions... So why would he want to betray Soul Society, and hurt Hinamori so carelessly? What would he have to gain by making these "Arrancar"?

None of it made any sense, not in the slightest.

"...and that is the situation as it stands now," Soifon said, and Ichigo forced himself to focus on her words, having missed some parts of the conversation thanks to his distraction. "By now everyone else in Soul Society has started to prepare for the worst-case scenario. Kurosaki, your training is going to start again as soon as you get back into school, so prepare yourself for sessions with Captain Kuchiki in addition to the rotational schedule we used before you left on your vacation."

His concentration was still too split to give an answer that wasn't monosyllabic, so Ichigo simply nodded in understanding.

"Now that we have covered that, I need to see Urahara and deliver these new Suppression Bands to those friends of yours. The bands will not be hard-locked, so they will be able to perform at their maximum strength should they have probable cause and need to remove them." She narrowed her eyes and glanced meaningfully at Ichigo. "If they do so lightly, there will be problems. I will let them know, but if you are near them it will be your responsibility to monitor their use."

"I understand, Captain," Ichigo said, doing his best to meet her eyes without getting distracted again.

Soifon matched his gaze for a few moments more, and then picked up the box. "Good. Now, time is short. Lead me to Urahara."

12:15 PM

Karakura Town, Mitsumiya: Urahara Shop

If there was anything that Kisuke Urahara hated, it was tense moments like the one he was dealing with right now.

While in the middle of an otherwise uneventful training session that Ichigo's friends had set up, the Deputy Reaper had stopped by with Soifon, Renji, and Rukia in tow. While the latter two greeted him politely enough once they stepped into the training room, Soifon did nothing but glare daggers at him the entire time, and was continuing to do so even as she explained to him the terms of a deal that Yamamoto was willing to broker with him.

"We understand now that Aizen possesses a Hougyoku, and that it is somehow involved with the Hollowfication experiment that got you exiled," she said. Behind her, Tatsuki, Orihime, Chad, and Ishida were busy swapping out their old armbands for the new ones; Kurotsuchi had included a dissolving agent for the old ones in the box, so removal had been quick and painless. Ichigo simply stood and watched, though he was also trying to underscore how careful they had to be with removing them. "That being the case, your knowledge would be indispensable. Captain-General Yamamoto would like to suggest an extension of the truce we have now, as well as collaboration between your shop and Soul Society, until we have stopped Aizen's threat permanently."

Urahara opened his fan and raised an eyebrow, masking the lower part of his face. "It sounds tempting, but will he be able to live up to that promise once the Central 46 is reconvened? Not many nobles would be willing to view this kind of alliance as necessary or proper—I am an exile after all. It wouldn't surprise me if they override his deal just to be sure that I'm not a threat."

Soifon's frown grew deeper. She couldn't exactly disagree with that line of logic, though she loath as she was to agree with Urahara of all people. "Nor would it surprise me. But the fact of the matter is that you are in no position to ignore this any more than we are. Aizen may not know precisely where in this town you are, but he is aware that you are here; he was informed of that much. And considering that Karakura Town in whole is his target, there's no escaping him if he attacks this place."

"That much is true," Urahara said, turning away from Soifon to stare up at the artificial sky. "But I still have nothing to gain directly by helping you all, I'm afraid. Considering the risk you're asking me to take, you're offering very little as an incentive."

It took all of Soifon's willpower to avoid nibbling at her lip in frustration. Urahara was being stubborn mostly because he could, and while she did have a contingency that might make him more agreeable to the idea of helping out, it would basically mean tipping her hand in a big way. Yamamoto had specifically ordered her to avoid using it unless she had no other choice...

She took a silent breath and made the plunge.

"Captain-General Yamamoto will grant you, Yoruichi Shihouin—"she swallowed the knot in her throat—"and Tessai Tsubakishi full amnesty for your actions. That is, if Aizen is successfully apprehended with your assistance, and if you are able to prove that you did not transform the missing captains and lieutenants 100 years ago."

Urahara raised an eyebrow, but kept his back turned to her. "And the 46?"

"Their objections will be silenced." Though only God knows how, she added to herself. "The Captain-General has vowed on his sword to see that through no matter what."

For a few more moments, the only sounds that passed through the training room came from Ichigo and his friends; they'd fallen into a quick sparring session to test out the new armbands, and Ichigo had drawn first blood on Chad by knocking him into a rock, while Tatsuki dodged shots from Ishida's bow, and Renji and Rukia practiced together. Orihime was standing by, ready to heal anyone if necessary.

"On Ryuujin Jakka itself?" the shopkeeper said at last. "My, my. He's serious, then."

"Will you help or not, Urahara?" Soifon asked, pressing her lips together so that she wouldn't start to growl. "Now is not the time for your stalling and childish games!"

Sighing, Urahara turned to face her, putting his fan away with a few quick flicks of the wrist. "Now, now, captain. There's no need for all of that." His gray eyes peered out at her from beneath the shadows of his hat, and they were serious enough to still Soifon's tongue. "I'll help out. So long as you get the same deal for Shinji Hirako and the other Visored."

Soifon furrowed her brow. "Visored?" she asked. "Is that what they call themselves now?"

"I like it," Urahara said with a sly grin. "Considering what their powers are like now, anyway."

"At any rate, inform these...Visored of the deal when you speak to them next. Do whatever you feel is necessary to make them accept it."

Urahara wagged his pointer finger and clicked his tongue. "I would like to remind you, Captain, that neither the Visored nor I take orders from you or your superiors. At least, not anymore. Therefore, I will attempt to inform them of the deal if I speak to them soon, and if they feel like accepting it, they will. If they don't, we'll have to make do without them."

Soifon sighed. "Fine." However, suddenly she frowned as a familiar Spiritual Energy twinged across her senses before she could continue speaking, and Urahara noticed it as quickly as she did, paling rapidly as she turned toward the entrance to the training room. Before he could stop her, Soifon had already launched into the fastest Flash Step she could manage, hurtling herself across the room.

At the entrance, Yoruichi, holding the unsealed Souboukon in her hand, looked up, recognizing Soifon's rising Spiritual Pressure. Despite herself, she smiled tiredly, and raised Souboukon to the side of her head.

She was therefore unpleasantly surprised when Soifon appeared and kicked her in the head, knocking her over—but only because Soifon's kick had actually come from the right and not the left as she'd anticipated.

"I'm not the same little girl you left behind, Yoruichi Shihouin," Soifon said, her voice cold as she landed. "You shouldn't assume that I haven't grown at all in over a hundred years."

Yoruichi pouted a bit as she sat up, rubbing her injured cheek with a sigh. "Well, well you haven't outgrown your hastiness. Would it have killed you to just say hello like a normal person would?" For a moment, the faked whining dropped from her voice, and her eyes became hard. "Unless you came here to fight, in which case..."

Soifon gazed down at her former mentor and leader, ignoring the softer part of herself that still missed Yoruichi. "Much as I wish I could take the time to knock you off your throne, I'm not here to do that. I'm simply delivering a message and some goods to your foolish shopkeeper friend and the human children."

Yoruichi stood up and folded her arms as Urahara touched down behind Soifon. "Well, fine. If you've done what you needed, you can leave."

"I will leave when I feel like I need to," Soifon responded, biting off each and every word as she returned Yoruichi's angry stare. "Rush me at your peril."

Though Urahara somewhat towered over the two women, he was reluctant to put himself in the middle of things to make them stop. When the tense standoff had gone on for at least five more seconds, he gently cleared his throat, and Yoruichi rounded on him in annoyance, though she softened her expression when he gave her a tired, but somewhat pointed, glance.

"Captain Soifon, please stop antagonizing Yoruichi," he said, looking between the two of them. "Yoruichi, stop trying to bait the Captain. Your problems with each other aside, you're both mature women; you should be above petty bickering regardless of whether you still hate each others' guts or not."

After a moment, the two women nodded curtly; Soifon was the first to turn away from Urahara, looking toward the ladder behind Yoruichi that led back up to the Urahara Shop.

"I have delivered my goods and done my duty. See to it that the humans receive the new armbands, Urahara. And as for you, Yoruichi...we will settle our account once Aizen has been defeated."

Yoruichi folded her arms, rubbing the thumb that rested on Souboukon's handle along the smooth black wood. "I have no objections to that."

With that said, Soifon brushed past her former mentor and began to climb the ladder. Before she'd gone up more than ten rungs, though, she felt a huge burst of Ichigo's Spiritual Pressure, and stopped where she was to look over at where he was training with Chad.

Below her, Urahara and Yoruichi did the same thing; Urahara went so far as to whistle in surprise.

"My, my. Ichigo-kun's quite the dynamo." He allowed himself a sly smile. "I suppose I ought to make my offer to him sooner than I thought."

Soifon heard him speak and dropped down from the ladder to stare up at him. "What offer?"

Urahara's grin grew. "Nothing important. Just something to give him an edge in this next battle. He'll probably need it."

Soifon glared at him for a moment longer, and he could see, beneath the anger, legitimate concern about something—or rather, someone. He could guess whom it was, considering who he'd just been speaking to her about, but for the sake of his health, he'd keep the smart-ass remarks he could make to himself.

At length, Soifon left them again, climbing the ladder without hesitation this time. Urahara and Yoruichi didn't bother watching her go, and instead Flash Stepped towards Ichigo and Chad. The two boys had stopped their fight after Chad hit a large rock nearby, and Orihime had rushed over to start healing a bleeding Chad; the larger teenager was lying on the ground while Ichigo stared off into space, his expression troubled and breaths heavy. Zangetsu had been propped against a nearby rock, clean of blood but still radiating some of Ichigo's Spiritual Pressure.

"Someone likes to hit hard, I see," Yoruichi said teasingly, glancing at the Chad-shaped impression in the huge piece of stone. "Where'd that come from, Ichigo?"

Startled by the unfamiliar voice, Ichigo jerked around to see who was speaking to him, scowling to cover up his momentary surprise. "Who are you and how do you know my name?" he asked, folding his arms.

Yoruichi simply returned his expression with a friendly, cat-like smile. "I'm Yoruichi Shihouin. Kisuke's talked about you a lot. Plenty of good things to say about you, too. You sound like quite the prodigy."

Ichigo spared Urahara a semi-withering glance. "Well, I'm honored. Though I don't know what he told you."

Urahara raised his hands in surrender. "Now, now, Ichigo-kun, don't give me that look. I only told her because I figured she would be able to help you out a bit—she just needed a bit of incentive to pay attention to you. I've discussed some things with her at length and I'm going to make a proposal you might want to hear."

In response, Ichigo nodded, pressing his arms a little tighter together.

"The conflict coming in the winter is, presently, not one you can deal with at your current level. I have no way of knowing how powerful Aizen's forces are likely to be, but the skill set of an Arrancar is not to be underestimated."

The jab at Ichigo's skill on top of the mention of Aizen made the young man bristle in annoyance, and Urahara raised his hands placidly, grinning a bit to calm him down.

"I have a few methods for speeding up your training so that you will be of use at that time. If you do your best, you will be ready, I promise you." His cheeky smile faded a bit, and he adjusted his hat. "But, of's going to be rather risky. Your life will be on the line. Are you all right with that?"

"What kind of a stupid-ass question is that?" Ichigo said, scowling in annoyance. "If all of this nonsense is going to come to this town, then I'll be risking my life to fight, won't I?"

Urahara nodded. "Well, yes, but it doesn't hurt to ask. And the first rule of making any kind of plans in combat is to understand what you're going into before you jump into it." He took a moment to look at a still-healing Chad, and then focused on Ichigo once more. "On top of that, the strength you gain from this training venture will likely put whatever you did to Sado-kun just now to shame."

A cold chill ran down Ichigo's back at that statement. He had only hit Chad with a Getsuga Tenshou in response to the large energy blast that Chad had shot out of his armored arm, and even then, Ichigo only been aiming to nullify the blast, not cut through it like he had. On top of that, he wasn't feeling the strain he expected to feel from using Getsuga Tenshou with his armband still on—he could probably fire one or two more before he got actually exhausted. If he were to get stronger still, then what could happen if he lost control?

"You're worried," Yoruichi said, noting how the strawberry-blonde boy had become a bit more tense as he got lost in thought. "Don't worry. We'll make absolutely sure that you can bring your strength to heel through the first few stages of the training. The last part will be the most dangerous and you'll be fine by then." She gave him a cat-like grin. "That is, assuming you don't quit early."

"I don't quit," Ichigo said, annoyed out of his pensive state by her teasing. "I'll be ready to go whenever you are, Urahara."

"Get your schedule straight with Soul Society first, and then we'll talk about how we're going to handle your training," Urahara said. "I do have your friends to work on, as well."

Ichigo nodded curtly, and then blinked as he looked past Urahara to see Chad stand up, a bit dirty from his impact but otherwise unharmed.

"You all right now, buddy?" Ichigo asked, walking briskly over to Chad and Orihime. "I didn't mean to wreck you like that. I was just trying to stop that big blast of yours."

"I'm fine, Ichigo," Chad replied. "I wasn't hurt as badly as it looked." He smacked his unarmored fist into his chest a few times, and smiled a bit. "I've been working on hardening my Spiritual Pressure around my body, so most of what could have hit me got absorbed instead."

Ichigo returned the smile with a slight grin. "That's good." He then turned to Orihime, and the expression became noticeably apologetic. "I'm sorry, Inoue. I didn't mean to inconvenience you."

"It's OK, Kurosaki-kun," she replied, absently smoothing out wrinkles in her pink shirt and white skirt. "I don't do very much aside from this during our training sessions anyway. I'm...not suited for practicing the way that the others do, because of what Tsubaki does when I use him to attack." A look of sadness passed over her face for a moment, and given how closely Ichigo was observing her he would have had to be blind, or stupid, to miss it. Before he could comment, though, she put on a smile and tilted her head to the side a bit. "But I've at least managed to get to the point where I don't need my incantation to use my powers; I just need to call their names out. I've had lots of practice with blocking things and healing."

Ichigo nodded, still remembering the crestfallen expression that she'd hidden away. "To be honest, I think it suits you. You're..." He stopped for a moment, gathering the words he thought would work best. "You're not the type of person that likes to hurt people. And if did, you wouldn't be the Inoue I know."

Orihime seemed genuinely surprised by the compliment, and began to blush violently, knitting together all of her fingers except her thumbs and looking off in another direction. Realizing what he had done, Ichigo began to pick his brain to figure out what the hell he could say to make the situation less awkward.

Luckily, coincidence chose that moment to intercede.

"Hey, Orihime! Get over here! I just knocked Ishida on his ass and he could use a little help!"

Tatsuki's loud yell caused Ichigo and Orihime to look up in surprise, forgetting their individual embarrassments for the moment.

"I should get over there," Orihime, said quickly, her cheeks paling to a slight pink. "Excuse me for a second, Kurosaki-kun."

With that, she jogged over in Tatsuki's direction, moving much faster than anyone would have expected of someone with her build. Ichigo watched her for a moment, and wondered if she could learn how to Flash Step or even use Ishida's variant of the technique. Urahara and Yoruichi came over to where he stood and gave her an appraising glance as well.

"Her speed's improved," Yoruichi said with a sly smile to herself. "She must have been working on those exercises. This is good."

Ichigo arched an eyebrow and gave her a canny stare. "What exercises?"

"Nothing in particular."

The stare became a glare, but Yoruichi continued to smile up at him without faltering, and at length Ichigo simply sighed through his nose and shook his head. "Whatever." He then turned to Urahara again. "So you want me to start coming by as soon as my schedule with Soul Society is solid. I'll do it, but you already know that if you're doing something stupid, I'm going to have to report you, right?"

Urahara snapped open his fan and gave Ichigo a vague, friendly smile. "Well, at this point we're all going to be fighting the same enemy. I see no reason to antagonize Soul Society when we all have a stake in seeing this through."

Ichigo returned the smile with an unchanged expression, but Urahara didn't shrink back in the slightest at his unfriendly stare. At length, the young teenager shook his head and sighed.

"Be mysterious, then. But what I said still stands. And more importantly, if you do anything to put my friends in danger, then I'll be dealing with you myself—Soul Society or not."

Urahara simply nodded his agreement, and Ichigo only held his stare a moment longer before leaving to get Renji and Rukia. Urahara watched him go, finally letting his smile drop as Yoruichi briefly pressed into his side.

"Are you afraid, Kisuke?" she whispered.

"For them," he said. "Not so much for us and ours, because we at least can protect Jinta and Ururu. But if these kids get any more involved with Aizen, then..."

Yoruichi shook her head. "This is their town, Kisuke. They have to defend it. We can help them, but we can't stop them from fighting now. They wouldn't allow it that to happen."

Urahara said nothing in response, but gently squeezed her closer to his side.

That was all the answer she needed for the moment.

Monday, August 26: Unknown Time

Hueco Mundo: "Las Noches" Fortress

If there had been one thing that Sousuke Aizen had learned from his long, long time with the Gotei 13, it was patience.

From the very beginning of his plans, patience had been the sole constant, barring his own ambition and drive. It was patience that kept him dangling Hinamori around like a puppet on a string. It was patience that kept his facade of pleasant cordiality intact. It was patience that led him to give even the slightest of slight pushes to help Ichigo get better at Kidou.

And now, the object he treasured so much was grinding away at that patience far quicker than anything had before or since.

He was standing, brooding in the center of the room where the Hougyoku was stored, where the light above him only illuminated the thin pedestal it sat on and a small area around that. The Hougyoku itself, a small, dark sphere within a clear prism, was resting in his hand; he was examining it with a frown on his face.

At length, he put it back down on the podium and closed his eyes. Though he wasn't wearing them, he had to restrain the urge to adjust his glasses; it was a habit he'd fallen into while playing the role of the smiling buffoon, and it was proving hard to shake.

"It's cracked," he muttered to himself. "Forcing it out of hibernation was already difficult enough for the Espada. With it like this, if I were to try and complete the may break. Or backlash against me."

He folded his arms behind his back, staring into the darkness for a while as he mulled over the possibilities. He'd begun working with the Hougyoku once he'd been a part of Seireitei for so long that no one bothered to hassle him, and while he had made many more discoveries than Urahara had about its capabilities, he had yet to get any closer than its creator had to understanding why it was still so incomplete.

To compensate for both his lack of understanding and the increasing wear and tear on the Hougyoku as he made Arrancar with it, he'd been extremely deliberate about how he used it, starting with his hand-picked Espada and moving on down. Better for it to make weaker cannon fodder than weaker Espada, he'd reasoned, and while the logic held up, he hadn't found the ideal Hollow for his little project until just after the Hougyoku had begun to show more significant signs of strain.

"If I could study Urahara's Hougyoku I would probably be able to understand how to complete mine. But that would mean testing at least some of the Arrancar against him. And if he's heard of my death somehow, then he'll be prepared for that. However, if it's just him, then…"

After a few more moments of thought, he came to a decision, smiling slightly at last.

"Regardless, it will be a good chance to see what they can do. Yammy and Ulquiorra will be enough for a simple test."

He took one more look at the Hougyoku, sitting quietly on its pedestal, and left the room.

The Hollow world of Hueco Mundo, despite its general emptiness, was in its own way beautiful. White sands and dunes made up the landscape, with the ever-present moon hanging in the perpetual night sky. Looking carefully, one could see Hollows moving about to devour one another every so often, though in this particular section of Hueco Mundo it was somewhat rare to see plain Hollows anymore.

Gin Ichimaru, dressed in a white robe with billowing sleeves, looked out upon this landscape from his room, one of many in the cylindrical towers that made up the Las Noches fortress that Aizen had built in the land of the Hollows. From behind, he appeared to be simply enjoying the view, but looking at his face told a much different story.

His sharp blue eyes were open and his smile was gone, replaced by a thin, pensive frown. This was only because he knew that he was the only person in the general vicinity, and that pleased him; right now, he didn't feel like putting on any masks for anyone. He needed to be alone with his thoughts for just a moment longer, so that he could remember who he really was.

"I hope you found it, Ran," he said to himself. "If you didn't, you're all going to die. And I don't...I don't want that."

He clenched his fist.

"I didn't do all of this for you to get killed by Aizen. And I didn't tell you how I felt about you just to go and die on you before I could come back. So hold out. Work hard, and survive. If you die, then...then this was for nothing."

He turned away from the window and walked over to the bed, idly tossing away his clothes in preparation to sleep if he was able to do so.

He would instead spend the night tossing and turning, haunted by an image of Rangiku lying on the ground, glassy-eyed and unmoving.


Teacher's Notes:


Writer's block + busy real life = double month delay.

To be honest with you I burned out just a little bit near the end, so that's why this took so long. Had to make sure I at least got a decent amount of questions answered and work done.

Now, as for Second Semester, I'm not going to start it right away. I'm going to spend a while handling my own original story ideas, and if I can get my spark back I'll probably try out Bellflowers and Wagtails instead, mostly because I want to try writing romantic stories (though Sekirei is harem-y, I will try to be a bit more serious about the subject matter).

Things I can tell you about what will be in Second Semester if I write it: it is the Arrancar arc, and the Winter War is actually a Winter War. There will be a much heavier focus on action over the slower nature of First Semester's plot, and hopefully I can showcase some of the fan-made Shikai and Bankai I came up with.

Student Review Corner:

All from Chapter 24.

nbons: Good catch. But I will not confirm or deny. Not yet anyway.

Love Psycho: I know the English names are rather funny but it's a matter of my odd personal preference. As for whether Ichigo saw Aizen's shikai, it hasn't been brought up yet, but assuming Second Semester goes up, you'll understand.

Galymed: I'm happy to hear that you enjoyed the story so much. I've done many a binge on a story that I've come across and found interesting so I understand where you're coming from with that feeling. I'm hoping you'll come back if/when the sequel goes up, as well.

Well, this is it from me, for now. For all of you that read with me up to this point, I thank you. I hope this finds all of you in good health. Stay tuned and look around, I might be back soon.

With regards,