Chapter 16

Kyouraku allowed himself to be led towards Central 46 by a pair of special forces shinigami. He saw no reason to protest or try to free himself, as he honestly didn't even know if he was innocent or guilty. Besides, the authorization slip he'd been shown was signed by the Captain Commander. He still had enough trust in the old man to assume he would ensure things were handled appropriately. It was a little surprising, however, that all this was taking place in the middle of the night.

Immediately outside of Central 46 waiting to meet them stood the person he recognized as Kageroza Inaba. For reasons he did not understand a good portion of the self loathing he was currently feeling about what had happened to Nanao was turned and directed towards Inaba, radiating outward and readily apparent on his face.

This was a fact not missed by Inaba. "What's with that glare Captain? Is it because I gave you that shot earlier?"

One of the special forces shinigami spoke up, "Sir, please do not address the Captain directly."

"I don't see why not. Plans have changed, we're actually headed towards the precipice world." He handed them a piece of paper.

The shinigami took it and pulled a spiritual pressure scanner out of his pocket, using it to check the document. "Well, it's confirmed that this was actually signed by ranking Central 46 members. We really are taking him to the precipice world."

"There's an old prison storage area contained within one region of the precipice area. We'll be depositing him there. I'm here to show you to its location."

"Sir, what about the bursts?" The shinigami looked worried.

At that, Kyouraku too became curious. Why would they send him to a prison area that was no longer authorized for use, in the middle of a crisis that was making that exact same area unsafe?

"Don't worry, they will soon be under control. It won't be an issue. This was something Central 46 took into account."

Kyouraku spoke directly to the special forces shinigami who held his bindings in place on his arms as he walked. "Say, do you think I could see the Captain Commander since we came all this way? I'd just like to confirm everything. One last request from a ranking officer?"

Inaba spoke before he could be given a response. "The Head Captain is currently in an important meeting and cannot be interrupted, but I will have him sent your way as soon as I can." He finished his words with a smile.

Something was not right, Kyouraku knew it. He was resigned to his fate though, and decided to take no action and allow it to play out as it would. Slouching, he shrugged his shoulders and closed his eyes, the image of his sword impaled in Nanao's chest flashing through his mind. "Fine, I understand."

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Nanao followed closely behind Ukitake and Unohana as they led the way to Central 46. Walking inside the great hall of the main building, they were stopped at the entrance by a couple of administrative clerks.

Captain Unohana spoke for the group, "We need to speak to the Captain Commander who's currently in a meeting with members of Central 46. It's vitally important."

"We have orders not to interrupt the meeting for any reason."

"I am overriding these orders and taking personal responsibility on security grounds. I will fill out the necessary paperwork."

The clerks turned to look at each other. One of them spoke, "Fine, but Captains only. She'll need to stay here." He was pointing at Nanao.

"She's part of the reason we need to talk to the Head Captain." Ukitake didn't want to let Nanao out of his sight for Kyouraku's sake.

"Either she stays or you all stay, your choice."

Unohana made the decision for them. "Nanao, will you be all right by yourself for a moment?"

She wasn't going to hold them back, she would be fine waiting in the lobby of Central 46 with the admin clerks. "Yes, that's fine, it will be no problem."

Ukitake's concern flared, "Why don't I stay with Nanao while Unohana gets the Head Captain..."

"Sir, it's fine, go. She may need your help and additional influence."

"All right, I suppose we won't be long." One of the clerks led Unohana and Ukitake past a door into a long hallway. She watched their backs walk away until they turned a corner out of sight.

Still standing at the desk, she addressed the remaining clerk. "I heard Captain Kyouraku was brought here earlier. Is there any chance you can tell me where he's being held? I'm Ise, his lieutenant."

"He was never brought into the building. Taken instead to some special holding center."

Worry fluttered in Nanao's stomach. "What? Which one?"

"That's all the information I have in front of me. I'm sorry. And, I need to take care of something, so I will now be taking my leave of the desk. Is there anything else you need?"

"No, thank you, that's fine. I'll just wait in the lobby if that is all right."

"Fine." He disappeared through the same doorway that had swallowed Unohana and Ukitake further into the cavernous building.

Nanao turned, walking towards the sitting area. As she made her way around the corner, she found herself face to face with Kageroza Inaba. They shared a look of surprise.

Before she could flash step out of his reach, Inaba had roughly grabbed her shoulder, holding it tightly. He brought his hand down fast, stabbing a needle into her arm. His face was expressionless and he spoke almost in a whisper directly into her ear, "How fortunate, I was just thinking that I didn't really have time to deal with you."

She felt her eyes droop closed and her body go limp as she fell back into Inaba. As he pulled her off her feet and swung her over his shoulder, carrying her tightly, Nanao's mind began to drift into darkness completely.

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Inside a large open area of the precipice world, Kyouraku sat on a bench chained to a wall. He had heard this place existed, but had never been given reason to visit. This was something that predated even his time, something used before the existence of the 13 guard squads. It was accessible only with a specially attuned key that opened a forbidden region of the precipice world. There were no individual cells, instead it was only a large room protected by a special force field.

The area could be sealed, sucked back into the walls of the precipice world, forever entombing its inhabitants, allowing another prison room to come into existence in its place. It was situated to avoid any interaction with the Cleaner, but that didn't mean it wouldn't feel the effect of any bursts or explosions. Kyouraku just had to hope he hadn't been left here to die. There was only so much he could do to protect himself should a burst happen.

As he sat starring off into space, trying to make himself remember what happened between him and Nanao hours previous, the opaque force field wall slid open. Inaba again.

"What's this? Back so soon?"

Inaba was carrying someone on his shoulder. He said nothing to Kyouraku, only depositing the body into a crumpled heap at the entrance. Without any further comment, he was gone, sliding the force field shut once again.

Kyouraku made his way over to the limp small form whose face was obscured by the angle her body had landed. He gingerly reached out, pulling on her shoulder to bring her face up. He had known who it was as soon as Inaba had entered.

She looked different than before when he'd seen her in the body bag behind the glass in the examination room. Upon closer inspection, it was very obvious there was no longer any large open chest wound. What was going on? Frantically, overcome with expectations, Shunsui grabbed her wrist, checking for a pulse. It was there, beating back at him, affirming that what he was seeing could actually be true.

He straightened her out completely flat on her back. Leaning over her, he brought his hand to her face, holding it in front of her mouth, her breath on his flesh accentuating the fact she was alive. Pulling back his arm before he could complete the soft caress of her cheek he intended, a motion brought on by sheer reflex given he was so glad to see her alive, he was deterred by the image of his sword in her lifeless chest replaying in his head.

What exactly was going on here? He remembered Inaba sedating him back where he had been found at the 12th. Perhaps he'd used the same thing on Nanao. If so, he needed to wake her up so they could find a way to get out of there before there was another cleaner burst. He hadn't cared to find a way to leave immediately before, but now with Nanao returned to him and in danger it was an urgent matter.

"Nanao-chan."

Nanao heard her Captain's voice and thought it part of a dream. In her wake less state under the effects of the drug she was still just unseen mist, eternally floating. When the sound persisted she finally opened her eyes, her brain taking a moment to adjust. He was looking directly at her? Brought back to the moment, she recalled waking up in the lab, everything she'd learned, and meeting up with Ukitake, Unohana, and Mayuri. She sat up a bit, looking around, taking in her surroundings. The walls looked like the precipice world, but instead of a tunnel they were in a large contained room. That's right, she finally remembered the last detail, Inaba had grabbed her.

Still, the dream reminded her of the fact she was whole again after weeks of being incomplete, her body back, and now he was there and with her, his eyes focused in directly on hers. The double's memories still sat at the front of her mind, though, and as she focused on him, she could see the look of being betrayed he expressed when he fell to his knees at her hand.

Shunsui searched her expression. She was looking at him strangely and not responding. "Nanao-chan? Are you all right?" There was something he needed to know before anything else now that she was awake. Moving slowly, he held his hand up in full view, indicating he intended no harm. "I just want to check something for sure." He took his palm and placed it on the top of her sternum, sliding his hand barely under her uniform to the spot over her heart where his sword had been impaled. He felt the warmth of her skin and the life affirming beat of her chest, but no wound.

His hand still in place and still not breaking direct eye contact, Nanao brought her own arm towards him, placing her hand inside his uniform moving towards his side, the exact motion used by her replacement to get close enough to hurt him. She rested her hand on top of his bandages.

She spoke to him, her eyes glancing away for a split second before returning to his, both of their hands held over the site of expected injuries. She ran her finger along his bandage,"This is real." Pulling her arm out of his uniform, she moved to hold his hand, gripping it over her heart. "My wound is not."

They sat like that for a moment after her words, speechless, hands in full contact, Shunsui crouched at Nanao's side. She broke the silence first, still tightly gripping his hand. "Where are we?"

He shifted himself slightly without really moving, unwilling to remove his touch. "In a prison within the precipice world."

Having their location confirmed brought home to Nanao the fact that they were probably in very real immediate danger. "Oh no. Sir, the bursts. I'm sure Inaba put us here to experience that. We need to find a way out of here right now."

"I don't know for sure if there is a way to get quickly get past that type of force field. While we think of solutions, here's what we'll do. Cast the highest level kido barrier around you and I that you can. Once you do so, I'll reinforce it with my own spiritual pressure. It should be enough to cover us for at least the first burst that happens."

She did as instructed, first sitting so close to Captain Kyouraku she was practically in his lap. The smaller the barrier she had to make, the stronger it could be made to withstand any explosion. Once it was up around them, he placed his hands on it, closing his eyes. She felt a wave of his spiritual pressure press out into the wall, visibly thickening it. It pulsed around them, straightening out into a square shape.

He smiled at her. "Perfect. This is the best we can do for now. The bursts don't ever happen successively, so once we survive the first one, we'll immediately move out and use the maximum amount of time to try to dismantle the force field."

She breathed a sigh of relief, leaning back, almost into his chest, not even caring how much she was violating her Captain's personal space. They would get of this situation together, she just knew it.

He regarded her sitting in front of him, real and alive. She even seemed livelier to him than she had in the time since she'd been rescued from her own precipice world experience. "So, Nanao-chan, now that we're just waiting, you feel like explaining what's going on? Starting with what happened to your wound." When he spoke the last part he looked away from her, breaking eye contact, sadness flashing across his face.

"Sir, that wasn't actually me that was injured. It was a special gigai made by Kageroza Inaba, ran by an imprinted mod soul. In fact, this is the first time you've actually seen me in weeks."

He blinked rapidly at her words, placing his hand on her shoulder and pressing her in closer to his chest. "A gigai? Nanao-chan, please continue explaining."

"Yes, the last time you actually saw me was before my soul essence was separated from my body."

"It doesn't seem possible that I would be so easily fooled by a fake Nanao."

"It was remarkably well made. It even fooled Unohana physically. More then that though, it was run with my own memories, with a direct connection to my own brain."

"You were aware of what it was doing?" He thought back to every experience he'd had with her since she was brought out of the hospital. It's true she had been a little off, yes, but he had chalked that up to after effects from the ordeal. So easily tricked was he. He thought he knew her better than that.

"Only after the fact. Once I woke up when the gigai was stabbed, every experience clicked into part of my own memory."

He was hesitant to ask her what he wanted to know, afraid of the answer. Even if it had been an impostor, he still couldn't forgive himself for stabbing Nanao. He took a deep breath before asking. "Nanao, that does mean you also know what happened between us that made me stab you?"

"It was an accident. You intended to stab Inaba, but the replacement was compelled to protect him, so it stepped in front of the blade at the last second."

He hoped she wasn't just trying to make him feel better. "That kind of lack of control doesn't quite seem like me, especially aimed anywhere near you."

"I had given you an extreme muscle relaxant Inaba had provided me. I injected you with it, it also had some kind of drug in it to restrict your spiritual pressure so you didn't heal. I used kido directly inside your chest repeatedly to cause your wound. I was able to get close enough to cause real damage by kissing you." Her cheeks reddened. "I mean, my replacement did. It was trying to kill you. Unfortunately, it all seems like part of my own memories now."

A kiss with Nanao, fake Nanao. One he didn't even remember that had led to serious injury. It would have been their second kiss, their first shared when she'd been drunk, and on her couch. Except, that hadn't really been her either. None of it had been – his confession, their sparring, the time on his roof. He was strangely relieved, but also a bit sad.

On one hand, all progress he thought he had made was lost. On the other, of course, she was here, actually alive. How quickly he'd been reminded that was all that mattered, it was all enough to make him not want to waste another second not acting out how he really felt for her. Even though he was deep in thought with her words, his mind wasn't really on their current predicament, as he was sure they'd would find a way free. He resolved himself to truly tell her how much she meant to him once they were out of this situation.

When he didn't say anything, Nanao felt guilty for the injury all over again. She spoke, changing the subject. "I hope the cleaner burst happens sooner rather than later."

"Anxious to get out of my lap? You know, Nanao-chan, now I'll always have to be on my guard when I kiss you." His tone was light, teasing, almost normally playful.

She didn't know what to say, he didn't seem angry or betrayed, even knowing it was her own brain that guided his attempted destruction. She knew him well enough to know his reaction was genuine. The relief she felt overwhelmed her emotions, and she felt tears at her eyes. The day's events and her awakening after being under for so long was catching up to her. She hid her face behind her hands, embarrassed by her display.

"I'm sorry, sir, it's just there's a lot happening right now."

He pulled her hands away from her face, wiping away her tears, pulling her all the way into his lap and pressing her face into his chest. "No apologies, Nanao-chan." He held her tightly, remembering when he'd been balled up on his bed mourning her loss, wanting desperately to hold her the exact way he did now. He would have to ask her later if she had used her presence to reach out to him that night. Sitting close, she didn't resist his touches, and allowed him to wrap his arms completely around her small frame.

Around them as they held each other closer, an expansive explosion of compressed spiritual energy from the cleaner burst through the room. He trusted the barrier to hold, but still took one hand off Nanao, placing it on the field's side. Releasing a large wave of his own spiritual pressure into the structure, he used his other arm to shield Nanao's body as best as possible.

Nanao felt the barrier threaten to buckle, and then her Captain's response as he released more spiritual pressure around them. It coursed through her as well as the barrier, rippling the air, electrifying her skin.

When it was over they both jumped up to their feet. Kyouraku turned towards the force field wall, placing his hands on it. "Now we need to move quickly."

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