This dream is the worst.

"Rukia-chan, what are you doing?"

The worst, because in it, I can't move. And it makes me sick when she looks back over her shoulder, all innocent and pure, to respond, "This is homework. They assign it in the modern schools nowadays."

"You don't say."

Wait for it. Here it comes. He's going to do it right… now!

Smile.

"Ah, but look at the little illustrations you made! They really do highlight your work, Rukia-chan."

Right there. It's in the way he smiles. The way he says her name. The way he looks at her. And she doesn't notice it. She can't see how dangerous he really is. Rukia just flushes and points proudly at her drawings. "This one I had to erase and redo three times to get it right. The arms wouldn't work, but I knew if I kept trying…"

I growl before I can think to stop. I've done this so many times, and each one comes as a surprise. It's because I can never quite rid myself of the hope that maybe for once it will be different. Maybe, like I thought at the time when this actually took place, they won't hear me. How hard is it to ignore someone in my situation? Happens regularly in my experience. So why not now? Just once let it be the same here. Whoever's running this show, I'm asking you to change it. Please.

They don't hear me.

He does.

Not Rukia. Just him. He turns his head towards me. I can see his eyebrows lift in surprise, like he really had forgotten I was there. For a little bit we only stare at one another, and I want to stop, look away. So what if I lose the contest? This isn't anything worth getting childish over. There's something really bad in the works. If I look away, maybe he won't figure it out.

I just can't. If I do, it means I gave up. I didn't care about her enough, or more about myself. I won't do that. Not then, and not now. So instead I stare right back at him.

At first he's still confused, when out of nowhere it seems to hit him, and without warning… he smiles at me.

Rukia can't see. Her back is turned to him, and she's busy with more of her work. She doesn't see the way he looks right then. Evil. That smile is just plain evil. It's wicked, unpleasant, and it shows that he's figured me out. He's a predator. I know, and he knows that I know. He also knows that I'm not going to do anything about it. Because this guy can tell I'm afraid of him.

How could I not be? Before I met Rukia, there was nothing that scared me more than a shinigami. And that right there is 'death god' in spades. I've seen the face of Death itself. I remember how it looks when someone doesn't care at all if you live or die. This guy is the same. He'll kill me. But he'll laugh about it, that's the difference. He thinks it's funny. Like I'm a joke. Mocking me with his nasty, evil sneer. He's laughing on the inside. He loves it so much. Loves that I can't do anything to stop him.

As proof of this, he lifts his hand. I can only watch in renewed anguish and dread as he reaches for her. Rukia, still absorbed with scribbling away, doesn't take any notice of this. Me, I want to scream my head off, command him to get away or else! Not that it would do any good. Nobody sees what I see. I'm the observer, not a participant.

He never takes his eyes off me. Still smiling, letting me know what he's going to do. Don't you dare. He's about to touch her. I'm almost in tears. Don't you dare…!

"Rukia-chan…"

And he reaches past her to point at the paper.

"Think you forgot something on this problem."

"Hmm? Where?" She peers at the part he's referring to. It's so cute and so terrifyingly oblivious how her face scrunches up in concentration, then clears. "Ah! You're right! Why didn't I see that?"

"Oh, it's easy to miss what's right in front of you. Especially when it's small."

He says that while looking at me. Another insult. Telling me I'm not even worth noticing. I'm nothing. I don't count. And he's still laughing about it, damn him!

After he's done toying with me, he stands up. "Well, I think I'll get us all something to drink. Where do they keep the liquor hereabouts?"

Rukia chews her pencil, gazing abstractly at the equation to make sure there's nothing else she's overlooked. "I've never seen any, actually. The father doesn't seem to drink, regardless of the occasion."

"Perhaps he mistrusts any alcohol he doesn't brew personally. A wise precaution." Stretching his arms overhead, he yawns, boasting about himself with every movement. Another slight against me. "I'll just take whatever I can find. Be back soon."

"Try not to get lost in any mirrors," she advises.

"I make no promises." As he leaves, the bastard pats me on the head. This time I can't jerk away. "Take care of her now, little one." That sick, oily smirk stays right in place. I want to tear his head off. But I'm helpless.

Then he's gone, and it's just me and her, and I'm going to…

Wake up.


Kon drifted awake. There was darkness all around him, and for a few terrifying seconds he felt as if something dangerous had followed him out of the dream. He could swear he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye.

Mercifully it wasn't true. Being assured of that, the mod soul heaved a grateful sigh. He then subtly examined his surroundings. The girls were asleep in their beds. Kon himself was propped up on a dresser amidst all manner of sappy stuffed dolls and assorted critters. No matter how he pleaded, more often than not this was where he wound up spending his nights. It wasn't a bad deal, all things considered. Beats living on the street. Although he did often wonder if being homeless would prove half so undignified as this situation.

The window shades were closed, but something about the light still coming through caught Kon's attention. On further reflection he decided to take a closer look. With great care not to make too much noise the animated doll leapt to the floor. Catlike reflexes, he congratulated himself. He then crept towards the window.

One of the girls stirred restlessly in her sleep and Kon went still, prepared to play possum if necessary. Regardless of whichever it was there might be trouble. At the very least the bossy one would give him a tongue-lashing come the morning. Maybe even report him to the Dragon Lady when she came into work. The very thought had his stuffed knees trembling. Better to go through another bedroom tea party with all the other room mascots than endure that again. To his relief the kid only settled in to make herself more comfortable before dropping back to sleep. Thanking his lucky stars, the lion plushie vaulted nimbly atop the windowsill. He parted the curtains a crack and peered outside.

All around, Karakura Town lay under a blanket of white snow.

Kon gazed upon this tranquil setting with a measure of wonder. There were tiny filigrees of frost crawling around the edges of the window. He examined them intently before turning his attention back to the city. The snow was still falling, big heavy flakes that spun round one another on their journey to the ground, each one adding ever so minutely to the perception of perfect harmony. Not a single car engine could be heard, no dog barking or any such thing. Overhead shone the stars against a backdrop of blue velvet night. Even at this hour a few warm yellow lights still burned from the windows of homes off in the distance. It was a winter wonderland.

This is what peaceful is like, Kon reflected. Falling snow. Nighttime. Little children tucked safely in bed. What could be wrong on a night like this?

As if waiting for that thought, the dream came back to the forefront of his mind. Kon silently cursed himself. He had completely forgotten about that, and now here it was, back again. Why couldn't he just be done with such things? This sedate environment wasn't just for show. Karakura had been practically a paradise for the last five months, spiritually speaking. Only a handful of Hollows adrift for the entire town, and those had been finished off in no time flat. What had once been a Mecca for soul-hungry ghouls was now more like the Garden of Eden. Everybody safe and happy, no worries, not a care in the world.

Not quite perfect, though. They were missing one thing.

His winter goddess.

"Wat're ya doin'?" a voice mumbled.

Kon almost panicked before recognition set in. He turned to find Karin Kurosaki standing beside him, blinking sleepily. Wearing a lively green pajama set, the spiritually sensitive youngster still managed to scowl at him despite having only just woken up.

In response Kon stepped to the side and opened the shade a crack. "Look."

The girl frowned but complied. She crossed to the window, and he saw her tired eyes widen. Karin gazed spellbound much as he had. "Whoa!" she whispered.

"Yup," the mod soul nodded. "Finally got some snow." Both kept their voices down so as not to wake Yuzu. Gently Karin crouched down, resting her chin on her arms. Kon sat beside her so that the two of them could watch the white stuff as it came down.

"This wasn't in the forecast," Karin sighed after a bit.

Kon shook his head. "Could be a sign."

"Of what?"

He hesitated to speak his heart, finally deciding that it wouldn't hurt. "Maybe she's coming back."

"Hmm." There was no need to ask who he meant. Karin's face didn't change at his pronouncement. The tomboy continued to gaze out the window. After a bit, though, her head sank down to bury in the crook of her arms. "I hope so. Ichi-nii's been kinda hard to live with lately."

No kidding. I've met female dogs that were less bitchy than your brother. However, her unofficial housemate chose not to express his opinion on the subject. Truth be told, Ichigo Kurosaki had been an absolute pain in the ass to live with for almost half a year. If he hadn't been a poster child for surly teenage behavior before, the carrot-headed beanpole was working it for all its worth now. You could barely get a civil word out of him, and the father Isshin had actually gone so far as to ban his son from helping out at the family clinic. Which only meant more time Kon had to spend in a hormonal warzone. And that resulted in the mod soul's nerves being rather frayed. His temper was close to snapping altogether. Hero of Soul Society or not, that kid was going to get his rude mouth smacked one of these days.

Of course, Kon knew exactly what Ichigo was going through. Their mutual love interest was far-removed, and there was no longer an easy means of reaching her. To make matters worse it didn't require any great stretch of the imagination to see something seriously wrong happening while they were separated. Not just the obvious stuff, like Hollow attacks, but the more insidious kind of mind-bending suspicions. Like what sort of guys was she meeting? Were her bosses being nice, and were any of them trying anything with her? Was that gloomy prick of a brother attempting to set his little sister up with some fat-assed nobleman? Yes, there were many awful predicaments their dear Nee-san could find herself in without her two most stalwart defenders there to champion her honor!

Outside the flakes continued to drift down. Despite winter being almost over, this was the first snowfall of the season. It was nice to see the world getting back to an acceptable pace. Perhaps this too was a sign that Kon would soon find his life restored to a more pleasurable equilibrium. It wouldn't take a lot. Just one voice, one vision of loveliness returning to grace him with her presence. Was that too much to ask?

Right then Karin gave a yawn and stood up. "Goin' back to bed," she declared before trundling over to her cot.

"G'night, kid," Kon whispered. She paused in the midst of snuggling under her covers and threw him a questioning look, to which he responded, "I'm going to watch a little longer. See you in the morning, 'kay?"

"'Kay." The girl yawned and flipped over on her side. "Sleep tight."

"Pleasant dreams."

Even as the words came out of his mouth, Kon felt a tightness in his throat. If he tried hard, he might be able to forget the source of his nighttime troubles. He watched the two girls peacefully abed. They were safe now, right? All the monsters were gone, dead or locked up far away where they couldn't hurt them anymore. That meant a nice long life for the survivors of that war, his loved ones and himself included.

Kon went back to watching his own private winter display. He tried telling himself it was just being this close to the glass that made him shiver. But even as the stuffed toy climbed back up the cabinet to his reserved spot, he couldn't banish the feeling of icy cold that had settled inside him.

Sleep did not come that night.


"Ichi-nii, did you see?" Yuzu proclaimed in a delighted voice. "It snowed!"

Stumbling into the kitchen, Ichigo grumbled something unintelligible before flopping into his chair. Karin paused with a bite of egg halfway to her mouth to watch him. Her brother barely had his eyes open, yet she was certain that already their ridiculous parent had attempted to ambush him somewhere between the first floor landing and the kitchen. The sound of the altercation had hardly intruded on her breakfast nor did Yuzu pause in her cooking. Yet here their older brother was looking none the better for having that out of the way. Usually the daily sneak attack being thwarted meant he became a bit more relaxed. Instead Ichigo frowned with as much seething irritation as ever. He even seemed to regard the lovingly tendered breakfast Yuzu placed before him with a certain degree of animosity.

At last Karin couldn't take it anymore. She set the chopsticks down and stood up. Her twin glanced over with surprise. "Karin-chan, where are you going? The crepes are almost done!"

"I don't have an appetite," she responded. The sharp-eyed girl then sent a piercing glare at her overwrought elder which Ichigo failed to notice. He only desultorily picked up his bowl of soup and took a sip before setting to on his meal. Without even a single word of thanks for the person who made it!

"Ingrate," Karin muttered on her way out.

She heard him swivel around in his chair, but a half-formed retort died on his lips. Her jab had hit its mark. As she left Karin caught a faint sigh along with a mumbled, "Itadekimasu."

That was enough for now. Yuzu would be happy.

Karin trotted back to the living room. She passed by without comment where Isshin Kurosaki sagged against the floor, his head embedded in a wall. Her parent's effusive behavior remained undiminished by Ichigo's poor temper. One would think common sense might have an effect, but… no. And in spite of what their family went through back in the fall of last year, almost nothing had changed in terms of daily life. They went to school. They fought. They bickered. And when nobody was looking, they cherished one another. Because huge events in your life can either lead to earth-shattering changes or a simple appreciation for what you already have.

And what you didn't have.

"Morning, Mom," she whispered under her breath in front of Misaki's poster. More for her own sake than anyone else's.

When she turned around, a dark figure stood watching her.

"Good morning, Karin-chan."

She stiffened slightly, then relaxed. "Hey."

The person was wrapped in a gray overcoat with a scarf wound around their face. A faux-fur hat of Russian origin covered the head and kept their eyes lost in shadow. Snow lay on their shoulders, dripping down as that slender figure bent to place a pair of high-heeled leather boots by the entryway.

This done, the so-called Dragon Lady rose upright to gaze upon her small hostess. "Where may I find your father?"

Karin pointed.

"I see." The woman passed by while proceeding to unwind her scarf. Karin didn't stay to watch what had become an almost regular occurrence. Instead she headed upstairs to begin getting ready for school.

As she opened the door, a voice hissed. "PSST! Karin, is that you?"

The twelve-year-old sighed. "What would you do if it wasn't, Kon?"

"Uhhh…"

"Goofball." Maybe there was nothing inside Kon's fuzzy head except stuffing, but he didn't have to act that way. While she busied herself getting her homework put away, the animated plushie leapt down and padded over.

"Listen, kid, I need you to do something for me."

Last night's creative writing assignment had been about asking how your life would be different if you lived a hundred years ago. The question didn't make much sense. Wonder what the kids who haven't talked to centuries-old ghosts wrote? "What is it?"

"I want to go to school with you today!"

"What?" Karin rounded on him. "No way!"

"Listen, it's important!" Their live-in guard hopped up onto her book-bag. "I need to be outside today."

"I am not going to risk the other kids seeing me with a stuffed doll. I'd have to kick their asses to make them stop laughing!" She hesitated while shuffling up some math pages. "Why do you want to go anyway?"

"You know."

This gave her pause. Now Karin really studied the little lion toy. He had his paws crossed over his chest and wore a rather serious expression. Having gotten to know Kon pretty well in these last few months, she was used to deciphering his facial features. This was a side of the mod soul he didn't usually show around Ichigo, for the precise reason that her brother wouldn't take him seriously. But Karin had seen Kon at his best, so she did not discount his feelings so readily as her brother.

"Do you really think she's back?" the girl asked.

He gave his mane a forlorn shake. "I don't know. But if she is, I know we'll meet her at the school!"

"I'm in middle school, she wouldn't show up there. Why not tag along with Ichi-nii?"

Kon gave her a look that spoke volumes.

"Right. Stupid question." She then sighed. "All right, hop in."

"Sweet!" With that Kon proceeded to worm his way inside her backpack. About to close the top, he popped his head out and declared, "Don't worry, nobody'll even know I'm here!"

"She'll know."

A look of fear came over his rounded features as she closed the top and affixed the latch. Swinging her satchel up on one shoulder, Karin then headed out into the hall, passing Yuzu as she did.

"Karin-chan!" her sister exclaimed excitedly and rushed to catch up. "This is our chance!"

"To do what?" she drawled on her way towards the stairs.

"To find out where the Dragon Lady lives! If we follow her footprints in the snow, we'll see where she came from!"

Karin considered this. Yuzu was only mildly less terrified of their new help than Kon. And who could blame her? In spite of this she remained intrigued by the mysterious woman.

Always up 'til now, their father's new assistant had simply appeared at their door every morning without any warning. She didn't drive a car, and nobody dropped her off that the girls could tell. Nor did anyone pick her up when the day was done. At Yuzu's insistence the twins had attempted to tail her after she left, only the need to maintain a discrete distance from their target meant they always wound up losing sight of her. Even splitting up didn't seem to help. The Dragon Lady seemed to disappear simply by turning a corner. Speculation ran the gamut of her catching a bus to traveling beneath the streets by way of the sewer system.

Karin knew better, but didn't care to share her theories. She once suggested they simply ask the woman outright where she lived, and then had to spend five minutes consoling her hyperventilating sister.

Having retrieved her own already packed schoolbag, Yuzu stole along in her wake. "What if that woman really is a ghost, Karin-chan?"

"Pfft!" She blew out her breath in an attempt to make light of that suggestion. "Even ghosts are scared of her." That was a true statement. And it only made her discomfort all the more acute. The funny thing was, Yuzu had guessed right.

To be specific, the woman was a shinigami. A god of death, working in their clinic, doing their accounting and managing their inventory. For reasons no one cared to speculate on. Ichigo and Dad seemed to treat her presence as nothing out of the ordinary. But Karin had learned to recognize a certain sense that lingered around these people. It was something like the same eerie feeling she got passing by a cemetery. Like there were unseen eyes staring at her. Or a hand was hovering near her face just on the verge of touching. She had met more than a few shinigami wearing human guise after all, and even lived in the same house as one for several weeks. Months, if her suspicions regarding the matter of Ichigo's transformation into a death god were true. Whatever the case there was no doubt in her mind that their 'office manager' made her daily commute from a place no normal human could reach.

Why did everybody act like she was better off not knowing what was going on?

Karin hated being treated like a child. As if her inclusion in these obviously important affairs was unnecessary. She was therefore extremely glad at having availed herself of a willing source of information back when all the craziness happened. Thanks to a certain uncouth ghost-lady missing an arm, she now understood a great deal about what took place over the spring and fall of last year. A madman had sought to make himself king of the afterlife. Using monsters under his control, this person declared war on the shinigami, who were led in part by her brother Ichigo. Their father also played a role in that battle. And the site of this reality-altering conflict turned out to be right here in their hometown. All of Karakura had been in jeopardy… or not, she had a hard time understanding the full explanation. The whole thing was very confusing, riddled with double-crosses, fake-outs and outright lies from every side.

When it was finally over the maniac had been locked up in a dimension from which there was no escape along with his most powerful followers. His army was put to rout, after which the shinigami bent themselves to rebuilding their broken society. From that point on there were remarkably less examples of the so-called Hollows, fallen spirits of the deceased who preyed on souls both living and not. Actually, fewer ghosts of any stripe were seen of late. Being one of three members of the family able to perceive the spiritual realm at work, Karin was rather relieved to find that nothing truly weird was going on in these parts. Karakura Town had never been more peaceful in her opinion.

Except a few weeks after all that happened, Karin and Yuzu met a man on their way to school. He spoke to them by name. He smiled at them. He asked how their father Isshin was doing.

As he did, Karin suddenly had a mental image of herself and her sister lying dead in the street while this man smiled down on them.

She had grabbed Yuzu's hand and gotten away from there fast. Karin knew she shouldn't have been afraid. Ichigo was close by after all. He even stayed behind while a friend of his took them the rest of the way to school, obviously choosing to confront the stranger. But there had been something dangerous about that person which she couldn't get over. Later on both girls asked to know who he had been. Ichigo refused to divulge anything about what happened afterwards. He just informed them they should not to talk to strangers. But later on, he had taken Karin aside for a private chat.

"If you ever see that guy again," he spoke quietly, kneeling down and gripping her shoulders, "I want you to run. Don't let him catch you."

He was obviously furious, but she understood his anger hadn't been directed at her. This was different than a vague mistrust of strangers. Ichigo knew that guy from somewhere. Karin suspected he might be one of the shinigami, although there hadn't even been a single trace of anything supernatural coming off him. Come to think of it, he almost didn't exist at all, spiritually speaking. Karin couldn't tell if Ichigo was scared for their sakes or frightened of the man himself.

But only a few days after that, the Dragon Lady showed up. Their father made a brief introduction to let them know this beautiful but cold-faced taskmistress would be working there as an office manager from then on. And now wherever Karin went she had the uncomfortable feeling that woman knew exactly where she was and what she might be doing. Like 'Big Brother', only it was 'Big Sister'. Big Sis is watching you. Or maybe watching out for you. Still, nobody bothered to explain the situation to her in full. Her family was a dead end. Ichigo's friends seemed to treat her with consideration, but ultimately they remained tight-lipped about anything involving the afterlife. The only person she could really talk to was Kon, and he was not only ill-informed but a doofus to boot. Well, in her opinion, at least. Karin knew a lot about stupid people. The world was full of them after all.

"What do you think?"

"Hmm?" Karin looked up from winding a scarf around her neck. Yuzu regarded her anxiously while buttoning on her coat in the foyer.

"I said do you think she's a spy? Like from North Korea? Kubo from my class, he said they swim across the sea to Kyushu and then they get jobs so they can blend right in and nobody can tell who they are! So what do you think?"

She regarded her anxious sibling. Yuzu didn't seem aware that the person under discussion was in the next room busy extricating their father's head. At last she nodded solemnly and said, "Yes, she's a spy. Fear her, Yuzu." With that Karin hoisted her backpack onto one shoulder. She tapped her shoes securely before opening the door, calling out as she did, "We're off!"

"Karin!" the other girl huffed, "Don't say it if you don't mean it, I'm not…!"

The Dragon Lady stuck her head around the corner. "Be careful crossing the street."

"EEEK!"

Karin almost got knocked over by the force of Yuzu rushing past. She watched her twin flounder through the snow and glanced back at the source of this panic. The emotionless woman regarded her right back, face stiff and flat, like a stone statue. Her spectacles glinted strangely so that the eyes could not be seen. "Watch over them," the Dragon Lady said.

Karin instinctively knew it was not herself she was addressing. From within her bag there came a slight rustling. No doubt that meant Kon got the message. For her part the middle-schooler only nodded goodbye before setting out to catch her fleeing sister. Today it was Orihime's turn to walk them to school. Not her personal favorite, but a definite improvement over the sour-faced tailor.

Even these thoughts fell by the wayside as the girl entered that splendid scene of icy serenity. Taking a deep lungful of the crisp winter air, Karin let it out, enjoying the sight of her breath misting all over the place. Some things you had to take the time to enjoy no matter what. And all this meant snowball fights, sledding, winter tag, the whole deal!

"It's about time," she smiled happily.


"I think it's good you've spent this long a time apart."

"SHUT UP, ISHIDA!"

Ishida Uryū took a slow, deep breath through his nostrils, then let it go. He allowed all his anger at the surly red-haired jackass walking beside him to flow out with it. Control, Quincy, control. Much as he deserves a beating right now, you didn't start this conversation for the sole purpose of knocking that thick skull around. More like knock some sense into it, right? Yes, very good. Now then; proceed. "I only meant…"

"I TOLD YOU TO SHUT UP, DAMMIT!"

Ichigo walked on ahead, resembling a caged lion frantically pacing its cell back and forth. Back and forth, finding no way out and growing angrier by the minute. Depending on your personality you either mocked the noble beast or pitied it.

For his part, Uryū was picturing something else: namely, how his erstwhile ally would look with a Quincy arrow straight through his stupid donkey head!

His fingers twitched as though already drawing the shaft back. Let him walk a few paces on. Let him think he's had the final word in this argument. And then… TWANG! Right through the brain! Right through the brain! Mouth off to me then, you ungrateful immature violence-prone pinch-faced…!

The normally solemn student shook his head to dispel these notions. He had to get the conversation back on track. A lot of people were depending on him. Far from resenting this burden, Uryū appreciated it. Showed how much they valued and respected his abilities. He was the man willing and able to say what nobody else could.

That… or he was just the biggest sucker alive.

"Rukia is safest far away from you," he stated softly.

Several yards ahead Ichigo drew up short. He clearly hadn't missed that comment. Uryū stopped as well to wait patiently. He took stock of their surroundings. There were a few other students walking further up the street. His spiritual senses could detect no one behind them. The occasional car or motorcycle passing by would be moving too fast to notice anything that might happen. For a little while, at least, the two of them were alone on this snow-packed lane. A short alley in the wall beside them led to a stone staircase that ascended the hill. That would serve nicely.

When Kurosaki turned around and came walking back Ishida was ready for him. The guy was too upset to even hide what he was about to do. Uryū took in the blazing eyes, tightly clenched jaw, and surging red face. He had never seen him quite this ugly with wrath.

Then a blow was rushing at his head with enough force to break his jaw. There was no surge of adrenaline in the Quincy, only lightning-quick calculation and reaction. He swung one arm up in a swift cross-block that sent Ichigo's fist brushing right past his ear. Taking advantage of his foe's wild overreach on that first attempt, Uryū sought to end this before Ichigo could even think about fighting smart. He grabbed the man's coat sleeve and yanked backward, pulling him further off balance while turning them both all in one move. At the same time the slender youth spun around on one heel to allow Ichigo to go blundering past under his own momentum into the alley.

Ishida then followed him in. The angry numbskull went stumbling forward a few paces before whipping around in preparation for further hostilities. All too late. Ichigo Kurosaki had a brief moment to register the Quincy drawing back an arrow before the blue shaft of spirit energy short forth and took him right in the chest.

The impact knocked him off his feet. All that snow cushioned the blow somewhat, but Uryū still winced when Ichigo hit the ground. That looked like it hurt. This was all the time he gave himself for commiseration. His attack had been nowhere near deadly force; just enough to bring the big galoot down. All the same it had served its purpose. While Ichigo lay stunned and in pain, Uryū stalked forward, grabbed one wrist and kicked him over on his back. He then twisted the limb around, placing his foot between his classmate's shoulder-blades.

"You think you can bully me, Kurosaki? Don't forget the difference between us. Spiritually you might be a complete monster. But in the physical world, all that vaunted shinigami power doesn't amount to squat!"

He increased the pressure on his hold. Ichigo snarled incoherently but could not break free or even lever himself upright in this position.

"As long as you're wearing flesh you're nothing special. Whereas I am able to access Quincy powers no matter the situation. So I can talk to you like this, or release you so we can engage in a respectful discourse as equals. On your honor, which do you choose?"

For a few seconds Ichigo just panted with his cheek pressed into the snow. After a while he gave a curt nod. "Fine. I give, Ishida. Now let me up."

Uryū studied the beaten youth before letting him go. He squatted beside him while Ichigo nursed his aching shoulder. The shinigami substitute threw him a venomous look, and for a moment Uryū braced himself for the resumption of combat. Instead Kurosaki indicated towards a small bench set into the wall. "Have a seat if you want to talk so bad you'll risk being late to school."

This earned him a scornful glance. "I don't intend to tarnish my record over you." All the same, he took his place on the bench, brushing the snow off beforehand. Ichigo joined him momentarily, still rubbing his shoulder. Uryū did not fail to notice he seemed to be expressing more pain from that injury than one might have suspected. Actually, given his behavior up to this point, it would not be impolite to ask…

"Ichigo, has the Hollow been active lately?"

His comrade tensed beside him. After a while he leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, head drooping down with a groan. "No. At least not in any way I've been able to notice. Trust me, he's not into subtle stuff. If he tries anything it's usually obvious."

Uryū considered this. The creature's presence could have an effect on Ichigo's body, in much the same way that immune-deficiency viruses made their hosts more susceptible to pathogens and the pain of illness. This warranted further investigation. "Have you tried speaking to it?"

A grunt in response. "He stopped talking to me after the war. I think the experience of what happened in Hueco Mundo and then in Soul Society kinda freaked him out. He went into hiding after all that. Don't really know where. Sometimes when I enter my soulscape I look for him; keep expecting to find him hiding out in a cave somewhere. It never happens, though."

The Quincy considered. As he understood it Hueco Mundo was still engaged in a civil war following the defeat of Aizen. The so-called Masked Army had been attempting to assert control over the remainder of those forces that returned to the Hollow world after their failed attempt to conquer Soul Society. Further information was not forthcoming. His status as a Quincy notwithstanding, it would have been hard to get a detailed combat assessment out of that place under normal circumstances. And since Zaraki Kenpachi took his squad over there, any sort of order being restored seemed even less likely.

The plus side of all this meant the Hollows were less concerned with feasting on the living than surviving altogether. That left the human world as a sort of combat-free zone. After all, Soul Society could detect when a Hollow came into this plane, making it no longer a safe place to escape for them. So humans should be able to go about their business without fear from spiritual menaces for a change. How often could you say that?

The down side meant people in his profession had precious little work that needed doing. More time on your hands led to discontentment. Case in point: the living pressure cooker sitting right beside him.

"I know that you haven't had any Hollows to beat up in a while," Ishida began. "School demands haven't decreased in the slightest either. To top it off that woman keeps you busy trying to pound all her shinigami knowledge into your brain. And worst of all, there hasn't been any word from Rukia in over four months. Am I right?"

Ichigo nodded without looking up. It was time to start this session in full.

"That being said, you're behaving like a complete ass."

Ichigo scowled in frustration, rubbing his legs in an attempt to warm them. "I have been through a lot of crap in my life, I'll have you know," he muttered sullenly.

"You've got a lot going for you too, don't forget that." Ishida checked his watch to make sure of the time. "A good home life, friends who actually care about you more than what you can do for them, and the health to appreciate it. From certain perspectives you've been blessed. I don't understand why you choose to highlight the negative over all that."

"Because I know it can all go away if I'm not careful!"

"You don't act that way. In fact, you're in danger of losing some of those virtues out of sheer carelessness. When was the last time you went out with friends?"

"Who are you, my mother?"

Ishida was on the verge of hitting him for that tactless comment. Only at the last instant did he notice how Ichigo flinched away all on his own. Clearly his mouth was going faster than his brain, because only now did the big lout seem to realize the implications of that statement. He clammed up fast afterwards, drawing inward on himself in a way that was completely visible.

The bespectacled youth considered him. "Are you so afraid he'll hurt the ones you love that you won't even have anything to do with them? Is that it?"

"NO! Damn, you sound like a psychiatrist now! Just leave me alone, will you?"

They sat quietly for a while after that. So it's not the Hollow making him behave this way. Which left only one obvious explanation. One that was just as hard to deal with as an inner Hollow, and not so esoteric. Uryū didn't try to initiate further conversation. If anything useful was going to occur, Kurosaki would have to come to that conclusion himself. And so, patience.

In less than a minute Ichigo started to fidget uncomfortably. He scuffed his shoes through the snow and stood up to begin pacing around. The other teen only watched him without comment.

At last he rounded on him. "It's just they've all put me up on a pedestal! Got my whole life mapped out for me. Or death, I don't know! I learn Demon Magic, get stronger, become a captain or whatever they're calling it now, then go on to blast through any freaks that come my way forever! That's exactly the sort of crap Kyōraku had to put up with for eternity. He gets to relax now, so obviously somebody's got to take his place. I'm the secret weapon they're building up in reserve on the chance that psycho and his crazy posse pick the lock out of Nirvana! What the hell kind of future is that? Can't I take a while to deal with the world I'm living in now instead of worrying about what comes later?"

Obviously Ichigo had taken a different slant on his situation than other people. Soul Society was doing this as much for him as they were themselves. Even he, Ishida Uryū, a Quincy, had to admit that. The truth was that if Ichigo didn't avail himself of every possible resource and power at his disposal, he would eventually regret it. Those he resolved to champion would suffer for any lapses on his part. And yes, that was an extremely large burden to place on the shoulders of a sixteen-year-old boy. One that any person would find difficult to support without feeling resentful, unless they were a saint. So to discover that Ichigo was feeling confined by all the expectations and potential being heaped upon him was something an average person could understand.

Fortunately, Uryū was no such thing. He had been dealing with the exact same situation since childhood, so he could be relied upon to have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for this whiny dimwit.

"Kurosaki, you've thrown away better things than I ever had."

The redheaded teen emitted a sour grunt. "I knew I couldn't talk about this with anybody." Ichigo leaned back against a wall. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he glowered at the unhelpful Quincy, who had taken to inspecting his gloves punctiliously as if in search of a loose thread he might sew up. "You realize that I can't live my whole life for the sole purpose of defeating Aizen, right?"

The archer sniffed. "No one expects you to."

"Good!"

They didn't look at one another for a while. Ishida counted down in his head. Three… two… one...

Ichigo glanced up sharply. "Wait, you mean about living my life that way, or actually defeating Aizen?"

"You should be less worried about that than you are the immediate situation." Uryū left off his wardrobe examination. His face had adopted an even more deadly shade of serious than before. "It's obvious the biggest concern on your mind now is Soul Society. And unless I miss my guess, Rukia's at the heart of that matter. I spoke to your sisters yesterday, and they confirmed that you're as much a pain in the ass at home as you are during school hours. If all it took to make you a civilized human being again was having her back, then I would be the first to volunteer for committing suicide so I could get away from you and try to find Rukia in Soul Society! But the fact that she hasn't seen fit to return in all this time should be telling you something on its own."

"And that is?"

Ichigo had clumsily admitted to having a relationship with Rukia shortly after their return to Earth. While it came as no surprise, Uryū had a difficult time wrapping his head around the notion of full-blown romantic love. And with a dead girl to boot. But considering Kurosaki's parentage (another point he had let slip), perhaps it wasn't so farfetched. It was slightly irksome that he had to spend so much time analyzing someone else's love interest like this, but here goes.

"In case you haven't realized yet, Rukia is not your teenage girlfriend who can't be bothered to remember how to pick up a phone! As a high lady of the Kuchiki, she is in a position of authority over there. Their social system is still in a shambles, which they are trying to rebuild. And people with power need to set aside their personal concerns when faced with a crisis of that magnitude. Something the people of this country can relate to!"

That remark seemed to have pierced the haze of Ichigo's vanity, giving him a thoughtful expression. For that Ishida was very glad.

"Rukia is involved with something important. So important that she can't even make time to see the people she loves. And only when that is finished will she return, because to do otherwise would show disrespect for the tasks their society needs from her! That should tell you how much is depending on her actions right now. Do you think she's slamming doors and being a general pain to live with like you are? That sort of behavior in no way earns you the privilege of seeing Rukia again!"

He could think of nothing more cogent to say on the subject, so Uryū settled for letting his words sink in. The truth was that the rest of their schoolmates who shared a personal stake in this case had voted on him as the best person for trying to force Ichigo into recognizing his own poor behavior. It required a certain level of cool-headedness combined with a marked lack of concern for the other person that didn't quite border on hatred. In short, he was the perfect person for this job. At least on paper. It remained to be seen whether or not that theory proved valid.

"I just…"

Ishida looked up quickly. Before him, Ichigo was obviously struggling to put his feelings into words.

"I want there to be some kind of end, you know? Like something I can look at and know that it will be there for me once this mess is over, as a sort of… reward for having gone through all that crap. Otherwise what's the point?"

Now it had suddenly become very clear. It was so obvious. Ichigo Kurosaki had a hero complex. Everybody knew that. And when the hero finished his job slaying the dragon, there was supposed to be a princess waiting for him. To be honest, there were two of them. But he had already rejected one in favor of the other. Only that maiden wasn't around right now. Which left one frustrated hero at hand. How delightful.

Perhaps now it was time to slide the velvet glove of conversation over the iron mitt. "I'm certain Rukia is working hard for the same thing," Uryū spoke in a consoling manner. "Now then: you've been told flat out that this attitude problem is hurting your loved ones. You don't have the luxury of willful ignorance anymore. Are you going to continue like this?"

Ichigo shifted restlessly. "No," he admitted with obvious duress.

"Excellent." With that the Quincy checked his watch again. Satisfied, he stood up. "I'm glad that's settled in a timely manner. Now, you'd best start running unless you want Ochi-sensei to browbeat you in front of the whole class. Again."

Kurosaki scoffed at him. "Me? What about you, Mr. Perfect Attendance? I'd say we're both in the same boat by now."

In response, Ishida Uryū smiled craftily. "Oh, I think not. Quincy, remember?"

With that he formed a carpet of reiatsu beneath his feet. As Ichigo gawked, the spiritual savant lifted one hand in parting before he activated his Hirenkyaku technique. Ah, the benefits of not being a shinigami. With that Uryū zipped up into the air faster than the eye could follow. In moments he was nothing more than a small mote off in the distance.

"OH, YOU MOTHER…!"

Biting back further curses, Ichigo took off down the lane, burning pavement with such conviction he could slam through a brick wall.

His course took him past a roadside noodle stand where three people sat enjoying bowls of steaming noodles. Seated beneath the glowing red paper lanterns were two ordinary middle-aged salarymen, and one other, not so ordinary. This last figure was heavily bundled against the cold in a green coat and leather gloves. Even that was not enough to hide the curvaceous feminine figure that burst out past any attempts to hide it. But the most unusual aspect of her dress was a bamboo jingasa hat of the type once favored by Edo-era samurai. From beneath the rim a stray curl of honey-gold hair hung down. None of the other occupants of that stand seemed to find this peculiar token worthy of comment. Or her, for that matter. Considering how undeniably appealing she was, anyone with half a brain should have realized that something was not quite right here.

Ichigo took no notice of this at all.

Blue eyes the color of a spring sky watched the boy as he tore away before returning to their meal.


The school day couldn't go by fast enough. Virtually every kid Karin's age was visibly pining to be outside where everything from snowmen to icicle swords awaited. Never did their classes feel so tedious as when something preferable clearly lurked just beyond their reach.

Of course Karin had something else to occupy her thoughts. Namely, how long until Kon gave himself away somehow. Many was the time she found her eyes straying down to her book-bag after being certain of detecting some slight movement or rustle. However no one else seemed to notice any such thing. In fact, the teacher once upbraided her for dividing her attention between what he mistook for a cell phone and his lecture on biology. Other than this and a few weird looks from her classmates nothing out of the ordinary happened.

Watching the snow falling from within the warm room, Karin couldn't help but feel there was indeed something magical about it. Like those flakes cast a spell that caused everyone to feel peaceful and calm. She didn't share this impression with her hidden tagalong. Best not to get his hopes up. Overhead the sky was a pall of forbidding grey clouds from which snow continued to drift down. The light that came through them felt ultra-sharp to her. It looked like something dire was brooding up there, and yet nothing fell except for some dainty little snowflakes that took their time on the journey earthwards.

After classes were done she decided to head home on her own without any company. Yuzu was busy with her afterschool clubs, but since Karin's only extracurricular activity was soccer, the snow meant there would be no practice today. She could have mentioned this to Orihime, only this was a day just perfect for solitary walks. The kind that Karin loved best. Besides, she had Kon with her. That's good enough in terms of protection.

The journey home was everything she had hoped for. Even the traffic was slow and sedate. Cars crept by with utmost care despite the streets already being cleared. The soft rumble of their passing let Karin know every time one was coming upon her. A girl on her own was an easy target for kidnappers, or so the school officials would have them think. She didn't know anyone who was the victim of an abduction. Still, it paid to be careful. There were worse things than human scum out there.

Karin ambled along, hands clasped behind her head. On her own for the time being, she stared at the cloud cover high above. Her fancy imagined there were gods up there just on the other side watching people go about their business. Not like shinigami, but the real… well, the imaginary ones. Like Amaterasu, and Tsukiyomi, Susanoo. Brewing up storms and planning important matters for the land over which they reigned.

The sound of a zipper reached her ears. Moments later Kon's head popped up with a gasp. "Ahhh! Fresh air!" he breathed, then peered up at her. "What's the big idea heading home alone, Karin? It could be dangerous walking around like this."

"I can take care of myself. Besides, I've got you, right?" the girl affirmed while shooting a glance back over her shoulder. "Also I figured you'd want a chance to come out. Though you should've asked me if anybody was around first."

"Pfft!" he snorted. "Do you think so little of me? I can feel souls as well as a shinigami. Plus my hearing is top-notch! Mod souls were designed to be at the peak of physical capabilities."

"Too bad your creator didn't improve the brain too."

To her surprise, Kon didn't respond right back with an outraged comment. He didn't speak at all. Walking along, Karin wondered if she had said something she shouldn't. Usually the high-strung mod soul took her half-serious jibes with a measure of much-aggrieved good humor. Truth be told, they got along fairly well considering their relative positions. Him a semi-alive artificial soul, her a spiritually acute middle-schooler. Neither took their existences quite so seriously as others in similar positions. Like Ichigo. That meant they could kid around and not have to worry about hurting anybody's feelings for the most part.

Maybe I should apologize?

"Kon?" Karin began. "Are you all right?"

There was some shifting that let her know he had sank back down into the bag. A little bit later his slightly muffled voice came through. "Seriously, kid, you don't know what it's like being me."

"Sorry, I didn't think it would hurt your feelings."

Kon laughed then. It didn't sound happy. In fact it made her spine tingle. "Don't worry, you're not to blame. It isn't your fault I was born in a test tube and 'Dad' was a madman who killed off all my siblings. If Mr. Sandal-Hat hadn't been paying big bucks for black market goods snuck out of the lab, I'd be dead too." His voice brightened a little. "So remember that the next time your Pop goes all pervy-goofy on you. It could always be worse."

"Oh." Karin continued walking for a while, lost in thought. Finally she spoke. "Hey, Kon?"

"Yeah?"

"Do you… have a Mom?"

Some more rustling, followed by his pushed-in face peeking out of the bag. He looked somewhat concerned. "S'matter, Karin? I told you it's all right. You don't have to feel bad for me."

"I wasn't. Well, okay, I was, but that's not it. I just thought… you were born in Soul Society, not on Earth, right?"

"Right."

Karin stared at the featureless sky overhead. "So you didn't get to live as a human. You never had a Mom taking care of you when you were little. Some of the kids at school… they used to tease me about that. They said the reason I act the way I do is because I never knew my mother. She died when I was too young. I wouldn't even know what she looked like if not for photos. But I still… remember her, y'know? It's hard to explain."

Kon struggled up a little higher, crossing his arms over her shoulder with a sigh. "No, it's all right. I get it."

That surprised her. "You do?"

"Uh-huh." His voice became rather wistful now. "Believe it or not, I actually had a Mom. She only touched me once, but… I felt different after. We didn't speak. I couldn't even if I wanted to. But when she held me, it was like I suddenly knew what it meant to care about someone. I just learned how right at that moment. I never knew her name. Still, I can't forget what that felt like. And it's why I was so relieved the first time Rukia touched me, because I could feel that same thing coming off her. Concern for me."

This recitation had Karin practically entranced. She took slow, aimless steps without bothering on a direction. "What happened to her? Your Mom, I mean?"

He sighed. "Hell if I know. She never came back. After her the only woman around was…"

His words drifted off, and Karin heard him actually swallow like his throat had gone dry. "Well, let's just say you wouldn't want to meet that one. She was in charge of killing all the mod souls."

"Oh."

He shivered before slipping back into the bag. It was marginally warmer in there no doubt, but that probably wasn't the reason behind his sudden case of the chills. Karin walked on feeling just a touch guilty. She couldn't really say what the reason for starting this conversation might have been. They weren't even near the anniversary of her own mother's death. Maybe she had just been curious about Kon? There were a lot of things they had never spoken about before. And with his insistence that Rukia might be returning he seemed more talkative. At least in the sense that he had more to say than the usual brainless ramblings.

The snow was picking up. She only now realized that. There was so much more in the air than before. Karin shivered as a blast of icy wind blew against her bare legs. Maybe now wasn't the best time to be reminiscing together. After she got home, and changed out of her school uniform into something warmer, then it would be up to her how to spend the rest of the day.

Karin started off again at a brisk pace. In spite of the cold it remained nice to have snowflakes falling in her hair and onto her skin. They might get another few inches. Keep the snowplows busy, and maybe even cancel school tomorrow. Then it would really be time to party. She glanced up at the sky. C'mon, bring it, snow spirits.

Her feet ground to a halt.

Finally noticing they were no longer moving, Kon stirred in his hidey-hole. When nothing happened after a few seconds he began to grow nervous. Was somebody out there? A tap of his soft fist against her back through the bag garnered no response.

"Karin?" Kon finally whispered.

She didn't make a sound. There were no spiritual signatures to be found. All the same, a disturbing premonition was growing inside his cotton-stuffed chest. Disregarding who might see him, he crawled out to inspect the situation. "You all right?"

Karin paid his words no mind. She was too busy looking up.

Above them, the clouds moved. And not in a way that could be called normal. High overhead, the gray vapor was whirling about. It flowed and twisted in ways that made her think of a cyclone. If you looked very closely there might actually be forms up there, taking shape and breaking up far too fast to make anything out clearly. Karin frowned. She wasn't scared. Not yet, anyway. This was clearly something out of the ordinary, but there was no sense panicking. It didn't feel like when Hollows tore through, she could sense absolutely nothing coming from that leaden sky. Somehow that left her even more unnerved.

A weird wild howling came to her ears. At the same time, a form took shape high overhead. She had just enough time to realize what it was, when without warning…

The pack tore across the heavens.

Karin stumbled back a step, eyes growing wide as the breath left her throat in a misty gasp. It was a bunch of dogs, all made out of clouds. They were gigantic. Bigger than the school, maybe even bigger than the whole town. Great grey canines with empty hollows for eyes and teeth made of snow lunged from one end of the horizon to the next, disappearing in pursuit of prey. Their howls were the wind itself, a fierce cruel torrent of shrieks that made Karin feel as if she were being pursued by the pack, terrified and alone as they closed in upon her. Baying for her blood and ready to eat her alive!

It was endless. On and on that prodigious panorama flowed. While Karin stared, Kon tore his gaze free and peered swiftly around. Something like this couldn't be good. All the same, he knew better than to assume it was the only thing wrong. A big splashy show like that might just be a draw, a lure to keep your attention focused on it while a greater peril snuck up…

His head turned, and Kon sucked in his breath with a hiss. "HST! KARIN! BEHIND YOU!"

She whirled around, all thought of the cloud show forgotten. Immediately it was obvious what had caught his attention. There was a person approaching them. A woman if that curvaceous outline was any indication; tall and dressed in a fashionable dark green overcoat with fur-topped boots and black leather gloves. The top of her coat was left open to reveal an emerald green blouse partially unbuttoned, allowing two enormous breasts to poke out. While this in and of itself was no cause for concern, what immediately caught Karin's attention was the fact that the top half of this person's face was hidden beneath the brim of a bamboo jingasa, making her immediately think of old samurai movies.

Beneath that antiquated headdress, a pair of full pink lips parted slightly as if in surprise. The woman seemed to consider the girl and her protector for a while. At last she stirred, placing one hand on her hip and cocking her head slightly to one side.

"Umm… Hi! How you doin', Karin-chan?"

The voice was oddly familiar. While Karin was still trying to place it, that person started walking forwards. When she warily drew back apace in preparation of flight, the lady reached up and tilted her hat back while flashing a winning smile. This allowed Karin to finally recall where she had met her before. Crystal clear blue eyes on a face like that would draw healthy interest anywhere in the world, most especially in Japan. And while this person had only been in her home for a few hours last year, the bizarre company in which she left made certain that Karin would not be forgetting her anytime soon. If only she had a name to go with it…

"Oh, come on, you know me, right? I'm Rangiku! Matsumoto Rangiku, Rukia's friend?" the ravishing beauty sang as she drew ever closer. "Remember? I tried to seduce your brother? And I ate that pudding with your name on it! Of course you probably only noticed that after I was gone, but still…"

When Karin took another step back, the shinigami paused. "Hey, now," she sighed, dark golden eyebrows lifting in a worried fashion. "Don't tell me you've forgotten? I know we were never properly introduced, but…"

The girl spun around and took off down the street.

Watching her flight, Rangiku's eyes narrowed before she began to pursue.

Karin ran, spurred by the fear that at any moment a hand would grab hold of her. At the same time she fumbled for the cell phone strapped to her bag. It bounced and swung out of her reach as if actively resisting any effort to grab hold.

"Here!" Kon yelled in her ear. "Use this!"

Glancing back, she saw he had dug up the glove and was thrusting it towards her. "No way!" she shot back. Before he could insist she made one more desperate effort and at last caught the bobbing phone. Triumphantly Karin flipped it open, hitting the speed dial keys and lifting it to her ear. "C'mon, pick up, pick up…!"

To her dismay, there wasn't a ringtone. Only static greeted her ears. Was it that woman's fault, or did it have something to do with the craziness from before? Either way it didn't matter. Obviously no help would be forthcoming from this angle. That left only…

As she came to this conclusion a dark shape shot over an embankment on her left and dropped before them. Karin skidded to a halt, panting.

Rangiku Matsumoto knelt in the snow briefly before rising to her full height. No longer did she attempt to appear friendly. Now her face had become a grim mask. She didn't seem out of breath from the chase at all, only taking a moment to adjust her apparel before stalking forward.

"Sweetheart, I don't advise trying that again," the heavenly blonde spoke in low tones. "Whatever they've told you about me I can guarantee 90 percent of it isn't true. You're in no danger here, at least not from my end." She gave a quick pout. "I mean, come on, do I look like the kind of lady who'd hurt a little girl?"

Karin only paid this entreaty half an ear. Flushed and angry as she was, the rest of her attention was bent on reaching for the last available recourse. The very idea made her queasy just to think about it. Unfortunately there didn't seem to be any other alternative. Trying to look as natural as possible, the teen placed both hands on her shoulder, as if adjusting the strap of her book-bag. She then left them there. C'mon, stupid, hurry up! I'm ready right now so get it done before I lose my nerve!

"Now, then," Rangiku appeared satisfied that her target wasn't going to run. She reached into her coat, producing a small silver flask. "This won't hurt a bit, I promise. You just need to cooperate for two seconds and…"

Karin felt Kon slide the glove onto her right hand before he then grabbed hold of the other. Finally! Without wasting any more time she yanked forward, bringing the living doll up between them. She saw the woman hesitate, a flicker of doubt passing over her face. It was nothing compared to the anxiety tying Karin's stomach in knots.

I hate this part!

Trying not to think about it, she brought Kon up and kissed him.

Standing a few paces off, Matsumoto's eyes had widened to an astonishing degree upon witnessing this unforeseen act. They got even bigger when she recognized that gauntlet, one that bore a stylized skull wreathed in flames. In the same instant, Karin slapped the plushie on the back of the head with her gloved hand.

First came the gag reflex as Kon's mod soul pill shot from his mouth into her own, then a bout of nausea similar to carsickness. Afterwards disorientation hit full blast. It felt like being launched into a totally different environment. As if she were encased in a bubble in the ocean only to have it burst, complete with a popping noise.

And when it was over, Karin Kurosaki found herself to be a spirit, hovering behind her body that she was connected to by a length of chain.

"Grab hold!" Kon cried out, now wearing her skin. Without hesitation she obeyed, floating down and wrapping ghostly arms around her own neck just as they had practiced. As soon as he felt she was secure the mod soul sprang forward.

They were off in a flash. The girl and her ghost blew past the shocked shinigami, whose attempt to catch hold of them never even came close. Karin's legs, now possessing the spiritual amplification of a mod soul, tore along the streets faster than a missile. The snow on the pavement evaporated underfoot from the kinetic energy being applied to it. In only a few seconds they were over a mile away from where they had been.

"I don't sense her coming!" Karin yelled.

He took a firm grip of her spectral arms. "You won't. I think she's wearing one of the untraceable gigai that Sandal-Hat makes. That's why we didn't feel her before."

She glanced back behind them. "So what do we do if she goes full death god and comes after us?"

"Don't worry, Karin," Kon grinned. "I figure the whole reason she's got that meat-suit on is so nobody will know she's here. If she drops her disguise, then your brother and everybody else can draw a bead on her. Just relax and…"

Without warning Kon slammed on the brakes. He skidded forward, sending up a wave of wet slush before them. The mod soul then stood breathing heavily.

Karin looked around in concern. She couldn't tell what it was that had caused Kon to stop. Now that he had, their surroundings were becoming clear. They were at an intersection near a neighborhood park. No one else was about at this time; no people, and certainly not the shinigami responsible for their flight. So why, then?

"Kon?" she whispered, starting to get worried. "What is it?"

His head darted from side to side. "Didn't… didn't we just pass this place? I know we did! Why…?" With an angry grunt the speed demon then darted forward, causing Karin to hold on tight once more. The environment became a blur until Kon ground to a halt again. She could feel him trembling in her body.

And now Karin could see the reason why. That lamppost, the mailbox across from it, and the trees on their left… it was the same. Exactly identical to the place they had supposedly left far behind them. Like they hadn't gone anywhere at all! Right there was the park with a children's playground in the same place it had been before. What was going on?

When Kon seemed ready to zip off once again, someone spoke behind them. "Don't bother, little one. It's not going to make any difference how fast you go now that you're already in."

He spun about, taking Karin with him. Strolling up the lane, breath misting in the cold, came Rangiku Matsumoto. She didn't appear to be in any hurry. Her pace remained casual, like she was out on a Sunday stroll. At last their pursuer drew to a halt.

"I'm impressed you figured it out before I caught up. You didn't strike me as a particularly sharp whip in our first encounter, Kon." A smile lifted her lips. "Or was it Karin who noticed? Well, good for you both, either way. Now that you've realized the situation we can finally have a chat."

"What did you do to us?" Karin regarded her uncertainly. There didn't seem to be anything that might explain their current predicament. All the same it appeared that they had been trapped somehow.

Matsumoto offered her a teasing wink. "Not you. The ground you stepped on." She gestured around them. "Bakudō #59: Hateshinai Douro. Never-ending Road. This spell sets up a closed dimension. The intersection back there and the one up ahead of you are the beginning and end points. Walk through one and you'll find yourself coming out of the other."

Matsumoto then took a few quick steps off to her right. As soon as her foot touched a certain point on the sidewalk she simply vanished, only to reappear coming from the opposite side of the street. The voluptuous sorceress regarded them gamely, a teasing twinkle in her eye.

"See? No way out. It's a great spell because it's quiet and leaves virtually no detection. You must have run past this same spot a dozen times before it finally registered. Means we don't have to worry about being disturbed. Now that we've settled… "

Right then Kon lunged towards Matsumoto. Faster than a bullet he shot down the lane, with such speed Karin couldn't even hold on and was left dangling at the end of her spectral tether. Amazed, she watched as the undeniably valiant soul in her body flipped into the air, bringing one foot arcing down towards the shinigami with what looked like enough force to split a bus in half.

There should have been no way for her to avoid that blow. And truth be told there wasn't. Instead Matsumoto caught it, crossing her arms together to receive all that force head-on. Teeth gritted, the strain showed in her face as Kon seemed to hang in the air, driving downward with all his enhanced strength. He must have realized that there was no way to escape and decided to strike while the enemy was still off guard. A shinigami in a gigai was not immune to the demands of reality. Her boots actually dug into the ground, the heels snapping and concrete cracking beneath her.

In spite of this Rangiku held, only bending at the knees to keep balanced. The next thing Karin knew the woman had taken a step forward and was pivoting around, snagging the still-airborne child by the coat collar and dragging her over to a stone guard-column, quickly sitting down atop it. To the girl's chagrin she saw Matsumoto now had her preteen attacker draped across her lap. In this position Kon's legs couldn't even reach the ground or his enemy, leaving him to kick his heels in the air awkwardly. It looked for all the world like he was about to get spanked in her body, the idea of which left her so thoroughly creeped out the ghost girl could only gape in horror.

For her part the shinigami did not appear amused. She grabbed Kon by the wrist and pulled off the shinigami glove, dropping it well out of his reach. He fought desperately, pounding on her with his small fist, but to no avail. Only his legs received any sort of power boost as a result of hosting the mod soul. While he struggled ineffectually, Rangiku planted one elbow in the small of his back to keep him pinned down and once more produced the silver flask. She unscrewed the lid and used her other hand to get a grip on Kon's throat, angling his head up.

"STOP IT!"

Karin flew in and attempted to slug the blonde right in her pouty lips. As she had half-suspected, her blow went right through Rangiku, only causing her hair to ruffle slightly. The woman shot her assailant an annoyed glance.

"Relax," the deceptively beautiful lady advised. "You're not getting away. This'll go a lot easier on all of us if you don't struggle. And when it's over…" she began to move the flask closer to Kon's mouth, "you won't remember a thing. I promise."

"HEY! You fat bitch! Let go of him… or me, do you hear? Let go of us!"

Matsumoto didn't appear to pay her outburst any attention. And why should she? Like this there was nothing a mere ghost could do. Nothing either of them could do. She saw that Kon was crying, tears streaming down his red angry face. That got Karin mad too. He shouldn't be crying with her eyes! Or even allowing something this bad to be happening! Of course it wasn't as if she was faring any better. She could only watch helplessly as her body and possibly soul were about to be assaulted somehow. Watch as the tears dripped down her face to fall into the snow, melting it…

The girl's attention was caught by something then. Only a pace off there was a red splotch against the pristine white ground. Her shinigami gauntlet still lay where Rangiku had dropped it. For some reason Karin couldn't tear her eyes away from that patch of crimson, like blood against the snow. She found herself wondering why Matsumoto had bothered to remove the glove. What possible reason could there be for the shinigami to…?

An explanation hit so fast Karin gave a start. That's right! She's a shinigami! A ghost hiding in a borrowed body so no one will sense her! And that means…

With that she dropped and snatched at the discarded accessory. Can I even touch this? It's supernatural too, so maybe a ghost can move it. Her spectral hand closed around the unearthly item, pulling it up. YES! She then spun about and dove towards Matsumoto. The lip of the flask was moments away from being inserted into Kon's mouth. What might happen then was anyone's guess, but Karin was not willing to find out. The older woman's head whipped around at her approach, a look of surprise on her face, and with a wild yell Karin swung the glove to slap her on the cheek like she was challenging the death god to a duel.

There came a burst of energy, after which Rangiku Matsumoto floated to a stop in midair as a black-clad shinigami. Her gigai sagged forward lifelessly atop Kon's prostrate form. The pair of spirits faced one another over those two living bodies.

Any triumph Karin might have felt at her accomplishment melted at the look the honey-haired death god gave her then.

"Oh, you little…" Rangiku reached for her. There was no way to escape, she was still tied to her body by the chain.

Karin then noticed something odd off to one side. It almost looked like there were glowing cracks appearing in the air itself. She had just enough time to see Rangiku's eyes widen before a noise like a hundred windows shattering all at once broke the silence.

And then the Dragon Lady stood between them, arrayed all in black.

The grim-faced woman lifted one arm. Wasting no time, Matsumoto mouthed an incantation, conjuring up a wall of glowing yellow energy in front of her. This precaution proved worthwhile when a beam of white light shot from her opponent's finger to strike the shield. Bolts of miniature lightning flashed across its surface, and the whole thing began to quake. Behind it, the golden death god cursed and leapt backwards, moments before the magic wall blinked out of existence in a negation of spiritual energy.

Rangiku dropped down to land in the middle of the street. She appraised the woman coldly regarding her. Then she flicked her shining locks with one hand and heaved a much-put-upon sigh.

"You could have killed me, you know."

"I know." The Dragon Lady lowered her hand without ever taking her eyes off the sultry shinigami. Dark eyes flashed behind her spectacles. She proceeded to stalk forwards, fingers dancing to draw glowing characters that hung in the air. Power began building as a result.

With their attention on each other Karin took this moment to begin yanking herself hand over fist down her chain in a bid to retrieve a corporeal form. As she neared, Kon glanced up, an expression of shock on that familiar face.

"Wait! Karin, wait, not yet!"

She halted to regard him suspiciously. "Why?"

For a few seconds he just panted beneath the discarded gigai. Then his eyes dropped to one side. A lewd, lascivious smile twisted that young face in a thoroughly revolting fashion. "Her boobs… I can feel them, pressing into my butt. It's heavenly, Karin, let me experience this joy just a few moments more…!"

"You sick PERV!" The girl then bridged the gap between her spirit and flesh. A green pill flew out of her mouth. When Karin came to, the first thing she noticed was exactly the same sensation Kon had mentioned. With an exclamation of outraged disgust she immediately heaved that feminine deadweight off her. Face red and breath steaming in the air, the bedraggled teen took a moment to get her bearings. Then she sprang down and snatched up the mod soul marble, clenching it in her fists in a half-mad effort to grind the little slimeball into powder. Failing this she flung that orb into the snow and began stomping on it angrily.

'Karin! Plea-!' STOMP! 'Please stop!' STOMP! 'I'm sorry-y-y-y!' STOMP! STOMP! STOMP!

Observing this from a distance, Rangiku couldn't help but smile. She promptly turned her attention back to the icy witch preparing to strike her down. Her zanpakutō Haineko whispered warnings and exhortations to be drawn, however she chose to keep her hands well clear of the blade's hilt. Have to try and make it back to my gigai. With that she adopted her most charming smile.

"You certainly got here quick. And made short work of my Never-ending Road! Correct me if I'm wrong, but do I recall learning at the Academy how forcing your way in like that could be dangerous for anyone already inside?"

"Don't think you can distract me, traitor," the Dragon Lady warned as more evidence of magic began to take form around her body. With that she slipped one hand into her sleeve, emerging with a small tantō dagger in a black lacquer sheathe.

Matsumoto's face fell when she saw this. "Oh, come on, Lieutenant. Was what I did really bad enough to warrant the same treatment as Momo?"

"I am no more a lieutenant now than you are. The difference is I did not leave under a cloud of shame."

One vibrant blue eye closed in a wink. "And I bet they treat you a lot better as a result, am I right?"

Standing across from her, the potent spell-caster did not respond. Instead she pulled on her soul cutter's shaft, allowing an inch of naked steel to slip free. The light reflecting off that blade sent a shiver up Rangiku's spine. It seemed to be mirrored in its mistress' eyes, and she swiftly reevaluated her current level of peril. Apparently this one was deadly serious.

Rangiku drew a heavy sigh, causing her chest to bounce in ways other women could only dream of. "I never expected you would be fool enough to believe all those rumors. Do you think I could honestly have done what they accused me of?"

"It would not be the first time someone we trusted was revealed to be unaware of their true allegiance." Even as she said it, though, there seemed to be an edge of uncertainty in the sorceress' voice. So even she had her doubts. That explained why the attack hadn't continued yet. This became even clearer when she spoke next. "Disregarding your status as one of her seeds, are you claiming you did not commit the crime?"

"Oh, no, I did it." Matsumoto grinned devilishly, allowing an edge of malice to flavor her own words. "I killed them all! I was referring to the rumors that I slept with Captain Hitsugaya. He's still a wee bit immature for me."

The Dragon Lady's face went hard with anger. Her concentration was momentarily lessened, and Matsumoto took advantage of this to analyze the situation. Her gaze flickered around their environment. It felt like at least two more were on the way. The Quincy for certain was approaching them. In no time she would be surrounded. Under these circumstances, it seemed there was no way to get back inside her gigai. Confound it. What a waste. Even if I try to escape she'll cut me off… or down, depending on the spell she chooses.

He's going to be so upset with me.

A hum of kidō building let Rangiku know that the brief lapse on her enemy's part had passed. A truly vicious spell was coalescing in the air between them. Guess there's no way around it. She then raised her head slightly and called over the other shinigami's shoulder. "Karin-chan!"

The Kurosaki girl left off pounding on her perverted protector to look back at them, at which point she smiled and lifted a hand before her face in a gesture of atonement. "Gomen nasai, kiddo."

Karin frowned and opened her mouth to speak.

As she did, Matsumoto whispered, "Hadō #54: Haien!"

Before the first syllable left her lips a wall of Danku interposed itself before Karin to protect the girl. No surprise there.

What might come as a shock is that the spell was already behind that barrier.

At the feet of Matsumoto's gigai, a symbol appeared in glowing purple letters on the bamboo jingasa where it had fallen. To her credit the Dragon Lady sensed at once how she had miscalculated. In a burst of shunpō she crossed the space between her and Karin to scoop up both girl and mod soul pill before leaping to safety. An instant later, at Matsumoto's command the sleeping kidō inscribed into her hat's brim was activated, and with a whoosh of violet energy, the Abolishing Flames annihilated her earthly disguise and everything for two feet around it.

"Ciao, Nanao-chan!"

Nanao Ise looked up in time to catch a glimpse of Matsumoto Rangiku inside a winding ribbon of pink silk. The fallen shinigami blew her old comrade a parting kiss before disappearing into the teleportation spell, scarf and all. In moments only Ise and Karin remained on that snowy stretch of road.

After confirming for herself that the enemy was well and truly gone, Nanao then settled her charge on her feet. Without a word, she began examining the girl to make certain there were no lingering spells of unsavory origin anywhere on her person.

Karin squirmed restlessly but submitted to the examination. She didn't bother to make any comment about this woman finally revealing herself as a shinigami. Nor did she protest this potentially invasive treatment. It wasn't the first time, after all. Though Nanao was by no means as gentle as that silver-haired lady from before. All the same, she appreciated her efforts both now and from earlier. Speaking of which…

"She was trying to make me drink something."

Nanao nodded to show she understood while continuing with the evaluation. Her fingers passed lightly over the fair skin, occasionally warming in ways that caused her patient to shudder. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. Which didn't preclude the possibility that something might be wrong. They had been given ample opportunity to learn how devious Matsumoto really was. Who could say for sure what her intentions regarding this child might be? It paid to be cautious, as this episode demonstrated.

At last the checkup was concluded. Drawing upright, she looked down her nose at the scowling little human. Karin glared right back, seeming to notice the way Nanao's eyes lingered on the tear-tracks running down her cheeks. Hastily she rubbed them with her hands. "I wasn't crying," the girl informed her as if daring Ise to challenge the assertion. "That was Kon."

"Indeed." Nanao glanced down at the artificial soul clenched securely in her grip. She could feel the thing cringing at her displeasure.

'I tried to protect her, really! Please don't tell Ichigo about that last part, okay? I was under duress, first there were these dogs made out of clouds, then …'

With harsh finality she cut off his senses before proceeding to drop the errant marble into her pocket, at the same time removing a cell phone. She tapped in a precise code that would inform those in charge of the basics regarding this incident. They would send a clean-up crew to deal with the blast site and other examples of Never-ending Road Matsumoto set up in the vicinity. Can't have any humans wandering into those all unawares.

Satisfied, Nanao flicked the device shut before pocketing it. She held out a hand to Karin. "Come. It's time we were on our way."

The girl nodded in acceptance. She allowed the spirit's fluid fingers to settle on her shoulder before they both set out on the journey home. Even through the fabric she could feel that same odd tingling that came whenever a shinigami spirit touched her. Other ghosts were cold, but for some reason death gods always felt warm to her. Maybe it was a sign of their power. Although in addition, there was almost a sense of… well, perhaps you could call it gentleness. What some might label a motherly aspect. Like some measure of concern for her wellbeing was traveling over as well.

When they had gotten about a block away, a whisper of movement caught her attention. Looking up, Karin saw Ishida Uryū approaching them on a carpet of blue light, all dressed in white with a laughable half-cape swept over his shoulders. When he got closer she saw he was carrying Kon's plushy body in one hand.

The lanky high-schooler dropped down before them. "I felt something dangerous," he stated, a strange metal ornament dangling from his free hand. His attention went from the clearly hostile woman to the girl at her side. "Karin-chan, are you all right?"

"Your services are not needed here, Quincy," the stiff-backed shinigami intoned in a frosty manner. As they swept on by Nanao promptly grabbed the discarded toy from him and handed it over to Karin. "Good day."

Ouch. Karin glanced over her shoulder and snickered at the look of outrage on Ishida's face. In spite of everything she had been through, she couldn't help but relish seeing Ichigo's stuck-up friend flushing with indignation at this casual dismissal. A lot of these people had an overblown sense of their own importance. This guy in particular. It certainly wouldn't do any harm to bring him down a peg or two.

The girl and her two unseen escorts continued on their way without further incident. Empty-handed in more ways than one, the flustered Quincy renewed the spell to hide him from mortal sight before moodily flying off in another direction, vowing to persevere in his longstanding vendetta against all things shinigami and their despicable behavior.

Meanwhile, another black-robed guardian observed all this from her vantage atop a telephone pole. With a silent nod, she then sprang off and streaked away over the snowbound city.


There was an awful lot of quiet in the house after they got back. Yuzu and Ichigo were still at their after-school clubs, which left just the two of them alone with Isshin and the Dragon Lady. This only served to unnerve Kon all the more.

Once they got back home, Nanao consented to give him back to Karin before ordering them both to go upstairs. With nothing else to do, upon reaching her bedroom the girl reinserted him into his tiny body and promptly began booting him around like he was a soccer ball and she was practicing for the World Cup. Fortunately she already got most of it out of her system earlier, and they eventually found themselves lying exhausted on the floor. That episode had taken a lot out of them both from what Kon could tell. Picking himself up as best he could, the mod soul dusted off his spiky mane and turned to regard his roommate. "Seriously, though, how you doing there, Karin?"

With one arm draped over her eyes, the kid gave a weary groan. "I ache all over," she muttered, then shifted to regard him accusingly. "You went overboard. How come my legs feel like they're jello? It wasn't like that when we practiced before!"

"Meh, I was taking it easy on you." Kon crossed his arms and nodded his head in a sagacious and admittedly condescending manner. "Mod souls were designed to be placed in corpses, because there was always a risk that any vessel used might just implode from our sheer awesome power! I never had a reason to show you what I'm really capable of until today."

"For all the good it did."

He flinched and sent her a cross look which she gladly returned. To her surprise, though, Kon didn't keep it up for long. In fact, his face fell, giving him a rather crestfallen appearance. He even looked a little guilty now. "I'm sorry," the mod soul mumbled. "I didn't do a very good job protecting you, did I?"

His admission went a long way towards cooling her venomous ire. It was almost enough to forgive him for that whole gigai molestation issue… almost. Still, Karin felt bad at seeing the plucky little ragdoll so honestly contrite. "You tried your best," she sought to reassure him. "I can't think of anything more you might have done. I mean, for a second there, when you were hammer-kicking her? You actually looked kinda, well… cool."

"Really?" Kon glanced up at her in surprise. It was unusual to hear this cynical girl admit to admiring anything like that. Certainly not him. They had their moments, to be sure. Since their official introduction during the Autumn War, Karin had turned out to be a pretty good confidante. Or at least the one he liked the most, now that Rukia wasn't around. Yuzu remained in the dark about his identity, and their father belonged behind bars for some of the stunts he pulled. You'd think two admittedly perverted guys would have hit it off well, but there was no talking to the man when he was going into one of his tears. And some of his crazed ramblings involved his own daughters, which was just a little too out there for Kon's taste.

The less said about Ichigo the better. This left Kon with only one real avenue of acceptable social interaction inside this house. But while he had always suspected Karin held a higher opinion of him than she might let on, it had never really been confirmed before. At least not directly.

"Geez, would you stop looking at me like that?" she groused, hastily glancing off towards the window with a dark scowl. Was it his imagination, or did her face seem a little pink? Unexpectedly the thought made Kon shiver. I hope she's not getting to like me, or anything serious of that nature. I mean, I spend half my time in her brother's body! Not exactly the right setting to start anything. Wait, no, back up a second, I'm not thinking about stuff along those lines! A kid's a kid, and this one is practically like a sister to me. Not the way my Nee-san is, I mean her I'd be glad to get inside… hang on, this is getting dangerous.

Kon took a few seconds to try and puzzle things out, but only found himself getting more turned around. Eventually he just shook his head in an attempt to clear it. Wow. Never occurred to me I was this screwed up. Must be from the whole business of getting jumped by the Slay-boy Bunny back there. Good thing I was so scared of what might happen to Karin or I would have really gotten off on the way ol' Fun Bags was treating me. Oh, the way they felt when she fell on me…!

A finger flicked him right on the nose. With a yelp he clutched his furry snout, tears forming in his beady black eyes. Just about to snap at her for treating a hero this way, Kon was stopped by a small hand against his mouth. When he regarded her warily, it was to find Karin had lifted her head off the floor and appeared to be listening hard. She then flicked her eyes in his direction. "You hear that?"

"Uhhh…" He paused to listen. Sure enough, in the ensuing quiet there seemed to be voices coming from somewhere nearby. When Karin got up and crawled towards a corner of the room, he realized it was emitting from the heating grate. Kon hopped up and moved to join her. The two of them both listened attentively.

After a while it became obvious that they were privy to Isshin Kurosaki engaged in conversation with Nanao Ise elsewhere in the house. But while their voices were easily distinguishable, what they were saying was not. Try as he might Kon could only make out a handful of words. Too bad; the tone of their conversation left him thinking it was a pretty serious topic.

Karin seemed to be having just as much difficulty. At last she peered over at him. "Do you think you can fit through the heating grate?"

"And then what?" he bristled. "Try to navigate the ventilation ducts in the dark? I'm not getting lost in there to satisfy your curiosity!"

She seemed to consider this. "Well, maybe you could sneak downstairs and listen in? We already know the Dragon Lady can't always sense you the same way she does everybody else."

The very suggestion made his knees go all weak. Kon shook his head vehemently. "I am definitely not going to risk my health to that extent! Do you have any idea what that woman would do if she caught me eavesdropping on her? She threatened to set me on fire if I so much as touched any of her precious business logs! To top it off…!"

"Hsst!" Karin held up a hand to call for silence. "Did you hear?"

"No."

"Then listen harder, stupid!"

He complied. The two spies huddled for a while beside the warm air vent. After a bit they looked at one another. "You catch any of that?" she inquired.

"I think he said 'why hunt'."

"No," Karin shook her head in disagreement. "No, I'm positive it was 'wild hunt'. But what was that other phrase they kept repeating? It didn't sound Japanese."

Kon thought back. "It was 'sewer nose', I'm positive this time."

"There was another 'n' in there, that's why I had a hard time figuring it out. It made me think of Spanish class. Like… 'Ser Niños', or 'Sir Nuñoz'. Something like that."

"Sir Nuñoz… Sir Nuñoz." The words sounded so familiar, which was all the more irritating because Kon felt certain he had never met anyone by that name before. It wasn't like he spent all day watching Mexican soap operas or anything. In fact, a good deal of his time was spent confined to this room with all the other stuffed animals, dreading the prospect of being dragged into another of Yuzu's hellishly uncomfortable doll parties. Uncomfortable for him, at any rate, she really seemed to get off on them. Against his will he found his eyes crawling over to the troop of his fellow cotton cohorts arrayed atop the cabinet.

And that's when it hit him.

"I think they've stopped." Karin strained to pick out anything else, then finally noticed Kon ambling off on his own. "Hey, what are you doing?"

"Hang on." He proceeded to rifle through Yuzu's small book collection on the lower shelf of her nightstand. As she watched curiously, Kon skimmed over one title after another. "No, no," he mumbled beneath his breath. "That's not it. C'mon, you sexy beast, think. What was it… ah-HA!" With a triumphant cry he pulled out a large picture book and brought it over to where Karin sat.

When she saw the title, her skepticism returned full force. It was one of the mythology books that her sister had so avidly devoured a few years back during one of her ghost crazes. This one had to do with foreign religions. She remembered a few of the crazier-looking gods and heroes, but none of that helped her understand what this might have to do with what they had been discussing.

As if sensing doubt, Kon sought to make his retrieval plain. "I will freely admit to learning a lot of things I never knew as a result of being in contact with you and your sister. Especially Yuzu. She dreams up all kinds of imaginary conversations whenever she's by herself, most of it with a supernatural angle. Probably because you and Ichigo are the only siblings who can see ghosts. It also explains why she's in your school's Paranormal Phenomenon Club. But I'm getting off topic!"

He then opened the book to the back and quickly looked through the index. After some aborted spelling errors, he finally hit upon the right configuration of vowels and consonants. Kon then lifted an arm and pointed at the dresser top. When Karin looked where indicated she saw a happy-looking kitten doll with a sombrero on its head.

"That," the mod soul stated in a low, disturbed tone, "is my good friend Sir Nuñoz. He and I have weathered many a tea party together. And this," he then turned the book to a page indicated by the index, flipping it around so Karin could see, "is his namesake, the reason your sister picked that name in the first place. She thought it sounded Spanish too, see. But it isn't. It's Celtic."

Karin stared at the point indicated, working her tongue to try and frame the unfamiliar word. "Cur… Cer-nun…" Even knowing how it was supposed to sound didn't help her really get a feel for it.

Kon finally cleared things up. "It's 'Cernunnos'."

Saying it out loud didn't help. Rather, it was only when her eye fell upon a picture included with the name that she remembered. There was a crude image of a man with a pointed face and the antlers of a deer growing out of his head. And when she saw it a memory that had been pushed completely out of her head during the excitement today came back. Prior to Rangiku attacking them, there had been a pack of baying hounds running across the sky. And even before that she had seen…

Right then the door to her room swung open. Karin jumped upon seeing her older brother Ichigo standing in the doorframe wearing a livid expression.

"Ichi-nii?" she gasped, scrambling upright. "What is it?"

Ichigo ignored her, barging in without even asking for permission. His eye fell on Kon, who immediately looked nervous all over again. "What the HELL, Kon?" the angry teenager roared. "How could you screw up so bad? I thought I could depend on you for at least this much!"

"She fell on top of me, I can't help it if my skirt rode up!"

Ichigo's face took on a bewildered cast. "What?"

"Erm… nothing." Kon cringed guiltily.

Karin was looking between them. "Ichi-nii, why are you home so early? Don't you have club practice?"

"I got a call from Ishida. He told me what happened! Kon, I oughtta wring your rayon neck!"

"How could that fashionista tell you anything?" the mod soul demanded. "He didn't even show up until the end! And anyway, how come you didn't make an appearance? I'll tell you why, it's because you're so thick you couldn't tell if a vasto lorde was standing in the same room as you!"

Ichigo just growled and made a grab for the yellow toy, who deftly dodged aside. Her brother stumbled in his bare feet and spun around to try for another ineffectual lunge. Kon leapt and bounced off the walls with Ichigo charging along after him like an enraged bull. They were both shouting at one another, neither bothering to listen to what the other had to say.

Karin watched their embarrassing game of cat-and-mouse, feeling frustrated and pretty darn annoyed. When she finally had to slide out of the way to avoid getting dog-piled, that did it. "Alright, both of you: out of my room!"

She then proceeded to grab her honored elder's sleeve and drag him to the door. "What, me too, Karin?" Kon protested, trotting along at her heels.

"Yes, you too. I've had a very bad day and I want to get some sleep. Try not to make too much noise killing each other."

She nudged the velveteen sex-fiend out into the hall with her foot and shut the door. Karin then flopped down on her bed with a grateful sigh. Thoughts and questions were rattling around in her brain. She remembered Matsumoto's smile, the sight of that wicked shinigami facing off against the Dragon Lady, and the look Kon wore while he was trying to protect her. Then there was the ghostly pack and their leader. It would seem that things had gotten dangerous again.

Well, it was too much to process now. Best get some shut-eye until Yuzu got home. The sounds of different conversations slipped through the walls, reduced to simply a pleasant gurgle of voices. Like a stream splashing over rocks without sense or reason. It served to lull Karin's weary brain into a state of blissful torpor. In no time at all she was asleep.

Several minutes later, there was a stirring in the darkened room. As if finding nothing that would pose any threat, a small dark shape rose hesitantly out of Karin's slumbering body. It had no definite form. If anything, this entity resembled a collection of black dust motes held precariously together.

Bobbing along, the little shadow flapped its hazy wings and took off through the window, disappearing on its wayward flight home.


Nanao blew on her tea to cool it. She spared not a glance for Ichigo when he went trundling by the kitchen, only pausing to take a sip before setting the cup down and regarding the man across the table.

"The problem is we have no way of tracking them," the former lieutenant stated matter-of-factly. "And even if there were, it wouldn't make any difference. The Wild Hunt isn't even in this world yet. We have no way of mounting an attack until they do make an appearance. That's the way it has always been. But their presence is being felt in various ways including telecommunication disruption, explaining why the phones weren't working earlier."

"Huh," Isshin Kurosaki grunted. He rubbed his bearded chin, affecting a measure of calm determination totally unlike him. One eyebrow raised as he looked back to Nanao. "There's always Shinji and his crew. They're stationed in Hueco Mundo. I could ask them to try and track down our quarry. If he manages to get Zaraki on board, they could conceivably wipe out the Hunt altogether."

She crossed her arms and frowned into her teacup. The steam had made her glasses fog slightly, but Nanao made no move to take them off for cleaning. That must be inconvenient. Still Isshin appreciated her precaution. "You know as well as I that coordinated efforts to destroy them have been tried before. We're dealing with something that is as much myth and legend for us as it is regular humans. Virtually nothing is known about the Wild Hunt or the force that animates it. Whether or not they're really Hollows at all or some kind of natural phenomenon was a source of academic interest during my time at the Academy. Several papers were published on the topic. I could make discreet inquiries with some old colleagues, but I doubt they would have anything new to offer. I already read all their available works anyway."

"If only we had cameras back during their last run," her host mused thoughtfully. "Someone might have been able to snap a picture of Cernunnos, clear up this whole mess."

The noise of an altercation upstairs drew their attention. Both conspirators quieted down to listen. After a little while Ichigo came barreling down the stairs again, threw on his jacket without a word and slammed the door on his way out. When Nanao looked back at Isshin, she felt concern at the way his face seemed heavy with pain and anxiety.

Rub his shoulders. That'll make him feel better. Then you can…

Not now.

"There's no reason to think Karin or anyone we know was their target," Nanao swiftly sought to reassure him. "It could have been someone on the other side of the world and we were just seeing the tail-end of the pack."

"That's not what has me worried," Isshin finally admitted. He settled one arm on the table, leaning forward and gazing down at the wooden surface as if searching for hidden answers in the rings and whorls. When he got like this there was an air of tangible menace about him, a darkening of his otherwise carefree features that sent a thrill up Nanao's spine. It reminded her of something that regular contact with this man tended to make you forget: that in spite of his behavior, he remained a former captain of the now-defunct Gotei 13. One of the most powerful souls alive. "Matsumoto is a wild card, and there's no reason to think her presence in any way coincided with the Hunt. Regular humans can't even see it. But we can worry about her later. The fact remains that it is active again. And that means they're hunting someone. But who is it? And why have they been targeted for death? That's what I'd give my left nut to find out."

Nanao shared the sentiment, if not the sacrifice. "There is… one other avenue of information we might try," she phrased her suggestion carefully. "But it would require a visit to Soul Society, and possibly Hueco Mundo itself. That means…"

"Urahara," the Kurosaki patriarch finished for her, blowing out his breath with a sigh. "Assuming he's willing or capable of helping anyone."

"Not necessarily an issue. It all depends on locating our go-to-gal. That means Siamese Squad. Wherever they are is where their lieutenant will be."

"Well, it does make a certain sort of sense. And most likely nobody bothered to ask about the Hunt in particular when she was being grilled by Soifon's Vipers."

He stood then, and Nanao followed. The two of them headed upstairs. Stopping by Karin's door, her father listened with his ear pressed to the frame. Nanao waited patiently without comment. After a while Isshin gave a soft grunt of confirmation. He then opened the door slowly so as not to make the hinges squeak. Once this was accomplished the two outcast shinigami gazed on the girl curled up on her bed.

"When you want to know about Hollows…" Isshin whispered.

The Dragon Lady adjusted her glasses. "… ask an Espada."


Forced out of his sometime home, Kon made his way up onto the snow-covered roof to brood. There was nothing that got his goat worse than listening to Ichigo upbraid him about not trying hard enough. Who was he to judge? Dumb kid just fell into his shinigami powers out of the blue, not like he ever really had cause to complain about getting short-changed. Kon, on the other hand, had to make do with a very limited and specialized skill set. He could run. He could jump. He could kick. And he was a pretty mean break-dancer too, but that was hardly of any help in this situation. Still, with a little creative know-how, talents like his could get a person far in life. Were he really of such a mind, he could become rich and famous in this world, capable of things no mere mortal might ever achieve.

A brief image entered his head of him sporting a gold medal on the 100-meter dash winners' podium at the Olympics. Of course the scene was ruined by the fact that he automatically imagined himself in his little lion form, and the second and third-place finishers towered over him in spite of his standing on the top rung. This left Kon feeling even more restless and agitated. He glanced down at his stubby cotton legs, idly flexing them back and forth. Maybe if he had a real body, one he knew inside and out and could depend upon, things wouldn't have turned out the way they did today. Not that he was disparaging Karin, she kept herself in great shape. All that soccer really paid off in terms of leg strength. Still, it was always like putting on a different suit every time, he couldn't just acclimate himself right away without any hitches. Had he only been a little faster, more capable, that woman might never have laid a hand on his little sister.

Funny how he tended to think of her in that term more often than not. Both her and Yuzu. They were practically his only family in the world. At least, now that Rukia was gone. The other Spearhead Project mod souls were all dead years past. Who else could he turn to?

Kon stared out across the slate-grey horizon, considering. What I really want is a chance to fit in. Not just be a resource or a pest or however they actually look at me. I want to be treated… like a man, I guess! Show that orange-headed delinquent he can't razz on me whenever he's feeling steamed. Hell, I did a better deal of protecting his kid sister today than he did! Where was Ichigo, anyway? Off yelling 'Men!' and 'Kote!' and other crap like that. Who's he to judge me for not doing a better job? Rukia would understand. She took care of me. Treated me like a friend and companion! And occasionally a dishrag, but that's beside the point.

Not for the first time, he felt his chest ache with what he had come to recognize was a kind of dissatisfaction. With himself and possibly life in general. Kon never really viewed his status in the same manner he suspected everybody else did. They were all under the impression that he hung around because he had a job to do. But that wasn't really the case. Ichigo now owned a whole cartridge full of regular mod souls. He could use them whenever he wanted. Lately he just left Kon in his cotton carcass when a Hollow situation occurred, ostensibly to keep an eye on his sisters when he wasn't around, but also Kon suspected because he considered that an appropriate position in life for him.

Carrot-flavored ogre. Thinks he's so hot, maybe he should just stay a shinigami all the time! If we were on an equal footing body-wise, I'd show him a thing or two. Kick his butt. Make him lick my boots! Put him over my knee and spank him like a toddler, exactly the way…

The way I was today, when Karin stood in danger of being violated.

That ache around his chest turned into a stab of hurt, and Kon let out a gasping sob. Right then he noticed that he had been crying for a while now.

My fault. All my fault. I'm just a useless stuffed teddy bear, and because of that, a kid nearly got hurt. I couldn't do anything to prevent it. Tried my best. Karin even said so. Only it wasn't good enough. She saved herself, and was just being nice so as not to hurt my feelings. It wouldn't matter if I did have a real body, the end result probably would have stayed the same. And if Nanao hadn't come along to save us I might be dead right now.

The memory of being helpless today served to refresh his fears. He understood that feeling. It was one of the first things the mod soul ever learned. How it meant to sit very still, unable to save yourself, as those around you were taken away to die. Knowing that your turn would eventually come. Every time the lid on their container opened, Kon had experienced terror inside his little green pill as the cold face of Death loomed large over them, seeming to decide arbitrarily which ones she would take next. If not for some nervous little kid with big eyes and a rat tail sticking out of his scalp, Kon would have followed his siblings' fate, no doubt about it. He had been smuggled out to a land of hope and promise. A place where people cared about him.

And still I don't have anything to offer them.

"I'm… s-sorry," the mod soul whimpered, hunkering in on himself and crying unreservedly. His head shook from side to side in sad mournful arcs. "I'm… s-so… sorry!"

"It's all right."

Warms hands came around his waist. To his surprise Kon found himself being lifted up and set in someone's lap. As a pair of arms crossed over his chest in a gentle embrace, drawing him back to rest against this unexpected deliverance from heaven, a feeling of total peace and contentment stole over him. Looking out at the falling snow, he couldn't remember ever feeling quite so relieved and grateful. Except for that very first time, when he met…

Kon tilted his head around to see who held him. A soft smile greeted his eyes. In response, tears of happiness once more came to his own.

"Nee-san!" he whispered.

To be continued...