Contains: Spoilers through manga chapter 423, descriptions of violence.


Nanao watched the small monitor in the surveillance room of Twelfth Division, transfixed by the grainy picture. On the screen Captain Ukitake fell through the sky, blood pouring out of his chest wound and hanging in the air above him like a scarlet ribbon waving in the wind. Captain Kyōraku shouted at his friend in the false Karakura town but there was no sound in the chilled room in Twelfth.

"Put that camera on the large screen," Nanao said to a bald man with an oversized head. He nodded and the picture appeared on the main monitor. The room of odd technicians, officers from the Gotei 13, and members of the Kidō Corps watched in stillness.

Nanao heard a small whimper from Kiyone Kotetsu, one of Ukitake's seated officers, from the back of the room and half turned to speak to her when a sudden movement on the monitor drew her attention.

The Primera Espada had taken advantage of Captain Kyōraku's distraction to flash behind him. A cero burned through her captain before he could defend himself. Then he too was falling out of the sky, and Nanao's heart fell with him.

Her face was calm and cold, because her entire body was frozen in place. She watched Captain Kyōraku fall until he disappeared from the screen. "Do you have another camera?" Her voice tasted like ash in her mouth.

The technician with the huge head cranked out one of his eyeballs, scanning through pictures on the small monitor. "We don't have anything intact in the lower area of that quadrant. I can reposition a camera from another area, but it will take some time."

"Do it," Nanao said. "Change the large screen."

The main monitor cycled through scenes with Captain Soi Fon and Omaeda. Nanao could hear Kiyone sobbing behind her into the shoulder of her fellow Third Seat Sentarō Kotsubaki, but Nanao could give her no comfort now and did not try.

Not when her mind was full of burning thoughts of her own captain. He's not dead; you haven't seen a body, he can't be dead; they'll find a camera and he'll be fine, he's not dead he's not dead he's not dead.

The battle continued, but the outcome seemed obvious. The might of the Gotei 13 would not be enough for victory. Why hadn't the other captains returned from Hueco Mundo yet? Where was the boy Ichigo Kurosaki that they'd been sent to retrieve?

What would Nanao do without her captain? She pushed this question away, hard, because he was not dead, not until she'd seen him, and she swallowed down the bile and ashes rising in her throat.

Suddenly a group of strangers jumped into the battle, and Nanao realized with a start that they were not strangers after all, but long-dead officers of the Gotei 13. She bit back a hysterical laugh when Vice Captain Yadōmaru flashed across the large screen. The dead are walking and my captain can't be dead, because the dead aren't even dead.

The tide of the battle turned in favor of the shinigami with the appearance of the new allies. Nanao would have felt hope if she could feel anything, but her body was cold and her heart was ash.

"Vice Captain Ise! I have something!" The big-headed technician cranked his eyeball back in. "I'm putting it on the main screen now."

On the large screen the Primera Espada appeared again with a sword coming through his abdomen. Behind him, holding the sword and half-melted into a shadow stood Captain Kyōraku. Nanao shivered as her blood began to run warmth through her body again.

She nodded once to the technician. "Good work."

The fight between the two men continued across the main screen, different cameras giving chase as needed. Nanao nearly cried out when the Espada cut a deep wound across her captain's back, but she choked back the sound and her face remained tight and cool. She was in command of the Gotei 13 in the absence of the captains. It would not do to show emotion or worry when so many were looking to her for guidance.

She followed the battle with her arms crossed and her eyes locked on Captain Kyōraku's swift figure on the screen. When it was over and the Primera Espada was the one to fall, not her captain, she gripped her arms tightly with her hands.

Nanao coughed once to clear the relief from her throat. "Change the screen," she said, although she wanted to drink in the picture of her captain, alive and victorious.

A messenger from the Secret Remote Squad entered with a question from Fourth Division about the distribution of the triage teams that would be sent into fake Karakura as soon as the battle ended. Nanao clarified her orders, giving the messenger her full attention. Swift triage would be critical for minimizing casualties. Any confusion could result in unnecessary deaths.

She glanced at Kiyone, wondering if even the most rapid triage would be enough for Captain Ukitake. Don't think about that now. Focus on what has to be done. The messenger vanished from the room and Nanao walked back across the room to stand behind the bug-eyed technician.

On the main monitor a host of shinigami, past and present, confronted Aizen. Even Ichigo Kurosaki was there, standing alert behind the others.

"Vice Captain Ise, Captain Unohana also arrived in the false Karakura. She is tending the wounded," one of the other technicians said.

Nanao nodded. "Thank you for the update."

As she watched the fight unfold she couldn't help but feel hope rising in her chest. The shinigami could do this, they could defeat Aizen. He was wounded and surprised by the combined attacks of so many. A collective cheer rose in the room as Captain Hitsugaya impaled the traitor through the chest.

"We're winning!" Third Seat Kotsubaki shouted.

But they weren't winning.

Suddenly it wasn't Aizen impaled on the blade of Hitsugaya; it was Momo Hinamori, gasping and near death.

Suddenly the shinigami weren't overwhelming Aizen with their numbers and tactics; they were being overwhelmed by the strength of his illusions.

Nanao saw her captain fall for a second time that day with a long slice through his back and shoulder and her heart stopped beating for a long moment. All the secret dreams she'd protected for so long slipped with him to the pavement, shattering.

Her confidence in the Gotei 13 cracked as each of the shinigami, past and present, dropped out of the sky like wingless birds.

The vice captain of the Kidō Corps—an unpleasant small man with slicked back hair and a grating voice—spoke to her, but she didn't hear him. Nanao only turned to him as the shinigami disappeared from the screen, leaving Aizen and the Kurosaki boy.

"What are your orders, Vice Captain Ise?" He was anxious, sweating. She had received a memo from Vice Captain Sasakibe that this man had protested that Nanao was given the command position, arguing the Kidō Corps should have the lead of Seireitei, but Captain Yamamoto had refused him. The Gotei 13 had primary command in matters of war.

"We wait," Nanao said, staring him down.

"The Gotei 13 captains have fallen. The Central 46—"

She cut him off as his voice rose. "Captain Commander Yamamoto has not fallen. We wait. I know my orders," she snapped, and he shrunk even smaller at her lacerating tone.

Captain Yamamoto was burning high fires across the false Karakura town, and Nanao placed her hopes in him. Please, please win. We must win here.

But that strange young Espada that had ripped through Captain Ukitake devoured Yamamoto's fire. There was an explosion Nanao recognized from descriptions in books. Sacrificial kidō, and so powerful, surely Aizen was killed.

The Twelfth technicians struggled to find a working camera in the area, and when they did the smoke made it impossible to see the outcome for several seconds. "No," the bug-eyed technician whispered.

Aizen stood smirking in the burned out ruins of false Karakura.

The shinigami failed. The captains of the Gotei 13 were defeated and Aizen triumphant. Nanao stood frozen again, eyes riveted to Aizen's relaxed face. How had this happened? How? There was a faint buzzing in her ears, and she realized it was the vice captain of the Kidō Corps.

"Captain Commander Yamamoto has fallen. What are your orders, Vice Captain Ise?" That terrible little man smirked at her, lips curved up like Aizen's.

Kiyone and the other shinigami officers stared at Nanao; the technicians turned in their seats to watch her.

"What are your orders, Vice Captain Ise?"


Two Days Earlier

The summons from First Division came so early in the morning that Nanao was still in her quarters dressing for work. She watched the hell butterfly circle around her head for a few moments before holding her finger out to let it land.

She anticipated perhaps a request to wake her captain and herd him to the First—it had happened before—but instead it was a summons for her alone to come and meet with Captain Commander Yamamoto. Surprised and puzzled, she took a minute to straighten the folds of her uniform into crisp lines and smooth her hair. If it was about a paperwork failure in the Eighth, surely the captain commander would not personally address it? Such issues in the past were resolved with nothing more than a written rebuke by the vice captain of the First.

The only thing important enough to command Captain Yamamoto's attention would be the coming war with the Arrancars. Nanao stepped out of her quarters and slid the door closed. The chill in her body had little to do with the crisp weather of early morning. She glanced in the direction of her captain's quarters, but turned away to step into shunpo. It wouldn't do to keep Captain Yamamoto waiting.

Vice Captain Sasakibe greeted her at the door and walked with her to the captain's office.

"I apologize for the earliness of the hour, Ise-san, but the preparations for the Arrancar war have made the captain's schedule very tight."

The halls of First Division were orderly, with shinigami walking between offices quietly. There was no chatting in doorways or laughter ringing through the building. Nanao had to admit she preferred the bustle and life of the Eighth, even though it made completing her work more difficult. She doubted that Sasakibe was ever faced with frantic subordinates who had accidently set the roof on fire during their Summer Celebration Sake Party.

Twice.

In the same afternoon.

After that incident, setting off fireworks in the division courtyard was expressly forbidden. Putting out literal fires was not in her job description, a fact she made very clear to her captain by drenching the entire courtyard and everyone in it with the same water kidō she used to smother the fires.

"We were just having some fun in the beautiful summer weather, Nanao-chan," he'd said, water dripping off the edges of his hat, grinning widely at her.

"Captain, if you set off one more firework inside the division I will ask Captain Hitsugaya to freeze all of the division grounds, as it is obvious the fine weather has a negative impact on the intelligence of our division members." She had scowled up at him, one hand still lit up with kidō.

"Would Toshirō-kun do that?"

"Captain Hitsugaya is very grateful to me for teaching him a tracking kidō that works even when reiatsu is suppressed."

"Now I see why his vice captain has looked so hassled lately. What did Rangiku-san do to you to deserve such retribution?" He leaned his face down towards her, gray eyes glittering with amusement.

"As if I would do anything for a reason like that. I taught the kidō to Captain Hitsugaya as a professional courtesy," Nanao said, but she smiled a little. She was certain Rangiku would never again go through Nanao's closet and throw out some of her "unstylish, unsexy clothes" and replace them with mostly indecent outfits purchased from the Living World. Nanao had suspicions her captain may have also been involved in the incident, but there was no proof of that and Rangiku denied it vehemently.

"My Nanao-chan is so vengeful." He raised a hand to cup her cheek, but she stopped him with the hand still lit with kidō, giving him a small electric shock.

"Don't be ridiculous. Enjoy the rest of the party. It's probably the last one for a while." The wetness of the courtyard and everyone in it had not dampened the spirits of the shinigami, and they were busy dumping water out of their sake dishes and squeezing it out of their uniforms, laughing.

"Why don't you stay? We'll have a good time!" He gestured with his arm and inadvertently sprayed her with water.

"Your good time causes a lot of property damage. Someone has to be sober to put out the fires," she said, though she was certain he could have put them out himself—he'd probably let them burn just to draw her out of the office.

"What better place is there to keep watch over us than right here?" Kyōraku whipped his pink haori off his shoulders and wrung it out between his hands, then spread it carefully on the ground, where it was immediately soaked again.

Nanao opened her mouth to refuse out of habit, but he was watching her much more intently than she'd expected. The other members of the division had paused in their partying to see if she would stay. With the preparations for war with the Aizen picking up, there really would probably be no more days like this one.

Nanao closed her mouth and nodded once, tightly, before perching carefully on her knees on the pink haori. Her uniform hakama were immediately wet, but the cool water was pleasant on her skin in the heat of the summer afternoon. "Only for a little while."

"Of course," he said, and sprawled out beside her on the haori, radiating happiness. "Nanao-chan is joining our party! Let's have fresh food and drink for my enchanting Nanao-chan," he called out, sending several division members scurrying to find non-flooded refreshments for their vice captain.

The courtyard was filled with laughter and talking and singing, and Nanao let herself smile at the antics of the division and the pleasure of her captain lounging beside her.

Now in the quiet halls of First Division Nanao realized that Sasakibe was waiting for her to speak.

"I understand completely, Sasakibe-san. The captain commander's time is very valuable. If I had known that he wished to meet with me, perhaps I could have prepared in advance, to use as little of his time as possible." She raised one eyebrow in polite inquiry.

"Do not be concerned, Ise-san. There is no preparation necessary for this meeting, and I am certain the captain will make judicious use of his time." Sasakibe's reply was just as polite as Nanao's probing, but gave her no information on the reason for this summons.

They walked in silence the rest of the distance to Captain Yamamoto's office. Nanao waited while Sasakibe introduced her and waved her in. Sasakibe exited the room and closed the panel behind him, leaving Nanao alone with Captain Yamamoto.

"Come forward." She walked to wait in front of the captain's desk, a respectful distance away. He did not look up from the papers on his desk, shuffling through them a few times. After several minutes, he spoke without looking at her. "Vice Captain Ise."

"Yes, sir?"

"You have performed your duties as a vice captain exceptionally well. I am pleased with the efficiency and clarity of your division's written work."

"Thank you, sir," Nanao said, having no real sense of where she was being led in this conversation.

"Given that your captain is Shunsui, it is fairly remarkable you have stayed at your post for so long. Few of his vice captains have come close to even half your time in the position."

"Yes, sir," she said, because he seemed to require a reply.

"Presently, you are one of the longest serving vice captains in the Gotei 13. Every now and again, there is a cycle of shifting positions and replacements. You must have witnessed this several times by now. But you have been very stable in your work and in your life, have you not?"

He looked at her, and Nanao forced herself to remain very still, refusing to show her discomfort. Captain Yamamoto's gaze today was not so heavy as the one that brought her to her knees during the incident with Rukia Kuchiki's execution, but it was weighted enough to make her feel like a bug on the end of a pin. This man could end her existence with only his eyes. He always made her feel incredibly young and weak. Still, she had her pride, and she never dropped her head, even when she felt beads of sweat coating her back.

"Yes, sir."

"You are aware, I am certain, that the war with the Arrancars is approaching. Originally we believed this battle would not begin until the winter, however, we have lately obtained information that leads me to believe Aizen will strike much sooner than that. In fact, I am sending a contingent of shinigami to Hueco Mundo tomorrow."

"To Hueco Mundo?"

He looked at her sharply. "Captain-level shinigami. Their mission is to weaken the Espada, gather information, and secure the return of Ichigo Kurosaki to the battlefield."

"Ichigo Kurosaki? To the battlefield? What battlefield, sir?"

"As you know, we will be using an advanced kidō to transfer Karakura town to the outer edge of Soul Society. An exact replica of Karakura has been constructed in the outer districts of Soul Society and will be substituted for the real location no later than the middle of this week. The battle will take place in that false Karakura town, allowing the captains of the Gotei 13 to fight without concern for civilian casualties."

"This week? The war is beginning this week?" Nanao was shocked by this turn of events. She was aware of the construction of the false Karakura, and the return of Captain Hitsugaya's advance team from the Living World, but she had not expected the war to begin so suddenly.

"You are surprised by the speed of these developments. I am certain Aizen was hoping to catch Soul Society unaware, so that he could destroy Karakura town to create the King's Key and invade the Royal Realm before the Gotei 13 were mobilized for war. However, we will not be outwitted by Aizen. When he attempts to invade Karakura, we will stop him there, in the false town. He must not set a single foot into the real Karakura."

"Yes, sir."

"Vice Captain Ise, I am certain you are aware that the primary military strength of the Gotei 13 lies with its captains."

"Yes, sir, I am aware of that."

"Aizen is also aware of this fact. That is why I am certain he will not invade Karakura town with a large quantity of weak Hollows. He needs to destroy the captains to cripple the Gotei 13 and carry out his plan with no resistance, and no matter how numerous his troops, only the Espada will be able to present a real threat to us. Therefore, all of the captains, all but one of the vice captains, and a selection of other strong shinigami officers will be going to the battlefield."

"Sir? We aren't bringing the full divisions into battle?" Nanao was surprised by this. His logic surrounding Aizen's possible strategy for war made sense, but then why had the First Division sent out so many memos encouraging all divisions to train hard for battle, if Captain Yamamoto had never intended that they should fight?

"Just as low level Hollows are no danger to captains, the vast majority of shinigami would be only fodder before Aizen's forces. You may wonder why I have had all of the troops train with such vigor of late, if I did not intend to send them to war. In truth, it is necessary for all shinigami to become stronger now. We will likely suffer the loss of some of our most powerful warriors and leaders in the coming battle. Each shinigami must be strong enough to face the loss of their leaders and carry on with their duties. The intent of my training was to strengthen their resolve to grow in power and to unify each division in a way that is only possible in the face of potential death. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," she said, and she did understand his intent, even if she found his methods deceitful. Hundreds of shinigami had believed for months that death might await them in the coming war, only because the captain commander wanted them to be unified and strong? It was a bit distasteful to Nanao, but she said nothing further.

He looked at her in a way that made her feel as if her thoughts were scrawled across her face in bright red ink. Nanao continued to stand at attention, keeping her eyes on his face.

"In any case, very soon now the major powers of the Gotei 13 will be leaving Soul Society. In the absence of our captains, leadership must be appointed to keep the functions of Soul Society running smoothly. Souls in the Living World must still have konsō. Hollows must still be slain. Even when we are at war, the weight of our responsibilities will continue to press down on the shinigami. I must select a high-ranking officer who is capable of leading all the divisions of the Gotei 13 in their duties. Removing my vice captain from consideration, you are the most organized and, in many respects, the most responsible of the vice captains. You have served longer at this position than nearly all of the rest of the present vice captains. Vice Captain Ise, I have selected you to remain in Soul Society and assume the leadership of the Gotei 13 while we are at war."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Nanao was surprised and pleased at the trust Captain Yamamoto was displaying in her, yet she also felt a pang of disappointment and worry that she would not be going into combat with Captain Kyōraku.

"War is hard on everyone, Vice Captain Ise. It exacts a special price on those that must stay behind and tend to duty. I would not select you for this task if I did not believe you were equal to it."

"Thank you, sir."

Vice Captain Sasakibe appeared in the doorway when the captain stamped the ground with his cane. He carried several books, which he handed to Nanao.

"These manuals will give you any necessary information for the running of Seireitei in our absence." He began to flip through the papers on his table again.

Nanao bowed low and turned to follow Vice Captain Sasakibe at this apparent dismissal.

"There is one more thing, Vice Captain Ise. Set the books down and come with me." Captain Yamamoto nodded once to Sasakibe, who closed the door as he left. The older man, leaning heavily on his cane, walked to the side of the room and opened a screen to a high terrace overlooking the Seireitei. Nanao followed and came to stand at the rail of the terrace, a few feet away from the captain.

He breathed deeply of the crisp morning air. "The newly reformed Central 46 has issued an order for the upcoming battle."

He did not look at her, and Nanao was not certain if he wanted a reply, so she said again: "Yes, sir."

"This order will apply to you, as you will be the only one with the necessary authority and ability to carry it out while I am away on the battlefield. This is a very critical order, and also highly confidential. You must tell no one you have received this order. There will be no correspondence related to this order, and you and I will not speak of this again before the battle. The importance of this secret cannot be overstated."

Nanao was sweating again, but she kept her face composed and even. "Yes, sir. I understand the seriousness of the confidentiality."

"Captain Kurotsuchi, while working on matters related to the upcoming battle, developed a technique that combines technology and kidō. He believes this technique can destroy souls completely. He has created several machines that, when operated by powerful members of the Kidō Corps or Gotei 13 members skilled in kidō can completely annihilate any souls within an area. The size of the area is determined by the number of machines and operators."

"Completely destroy souls? As in, the souls of Hollows?"

"No, Vice Captain Ise. We are discussing the destruction of human souls."

"Sir, please, what is the nature of this order?" Nanao fisted her hands at her sides to prevent them from shaking in front of the captain.

"The Central 46 has ordered these machines to be placed throughout Karakura town, the real Karakura that will be moved to the outskirts of Soul Society. Hundreds of operators will be positioned just outside the town to operate these machines remotely with mechanical devices. It is theorized that souls destroyed by this technique disappear completely from existence. Therefore if the souls of the humans in Karakura were destroyed by this method, Aizen would be unable to use their soul power to create the King's Key. His invasion to overthrow the Soul King would be delayed as he searched out a new location of concentrated soul power to replace Karakura town."

"Unbelievable," Nanao whispered. Her mind was hardly following the captain's words, and her fists were shaking at her sides.

Captain Yamamoto continued as if she had not spoken. "It is the order of the Central 46 that if the Gotei 13 fails to stop Aizen, if we are defeated in battle, you are to give the order to activate the machines and destroy all the souls within Karakura town, to prevent Aizen from succeeding."

"Sir, that's not—that order is—" Nanao could not collect her thoughts.

"It is the will of the Central 46 that if the Gotei 13 falls to Aizen, you—Vice Captain Ise—will give the order to destroy Karakura before Aizen steps into a gate to Soul Society. The Royal Realm and the Soul King must be protected above any other considerations. This is our highest duty. This is the command of the Central 46. This is the order you have been given. Do you understand this order, Vice Captain Ise?"

"There are one hundred thousand people in Karakura town, sir."

"I am aware of that. The life of the Soul King is valued above all other things. If the Soul King is destroyed, the Soul Society will cease to exist. The cycle of reincarnation will be interrupted, and then fail completely. Life as it exists in this universe will end. The lives of the people of Karakura cannot stand against this possible outcome. Do you understand your order, Vice Captain Ise?"

Nanao clamped her hands around the railing and looked out over the Seireitei. This order seemed monstrous, horrifying, yet it had come from the Central 46. If the Soul King's existence was as critical as the captain said—and Nanao could not contradict his information, as data on the Soul King was very limited and highly restricted in the Seireitei library as well as the Twelfth Division database—then Aizen was threatening not only the Gotei 13 and the Soul King, but the order of the universe itself.

She breathed in deeply. The sun was higher now, and the air warmer. Even if the order was monstrous, she had a duty to the Gotei 13. Besides, surely Aizen's forces could not stand against the full might of Soul Society's captains? This order was based on a worst case scenario. She would likely never face this choice. Not that there was truly a choice, when an order came from Central 46.

Captain Kyōraku had chosen to stand against orders from Central 46, in the matter of Rukia Kuchiki's execution.

She pushed the thought away. Those orders had been false, and what Captain Kyōraku would do to stand against the execution of one person could not be compared to what he would do when presented with an order of this importance. Nanao knew her captain well. While he would prefer to avoid a fight and would try his hardest to get out of one, when he was in a battle that could not be avoided he would fight with utter ruthlessness. He cared nothing for style or perceptions of honor in battle when victory was necessary.

The first time she'd seen his eyes in a serious battle with several Menos Grande, she'd been frozen in place by the darkness staring out of his familiar eyes. He'd given her a small, sad smile and turned away from her to strike down two Gillians with one smooth movement. From that moment Nanao never doubted why he was a captain.

From that moment Nanao doubted that she could ever be a captain.

Now she was being presented with an opportunity to prove her command skills in leading all of Seireitei, but it was coupled with the possibility of giving an unimaginable order. This is what it is to be a leader, she thought, and nodded her head. "I understand the order, sir."

Captain Yamamoto stared at her with his pinning eyes for a long minute. Apparently satisfied with what he saw, he nodded. "Very well then, Vice Captain Ise. Please return to your division. You will be alerted before the captains leave Soul Society, so that you can take up your command of Seireitei."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Nanao bowed once, picked up her books, and walked out of First Division, feeling infinitely heavier than she had when she walked in. She almost laughed as it occurred to her that it would have been easier to go into battle.

"War exacts a heavy price," she whispered, and walked slowly to Eighth Division.