"To your health." Isane Kotetsu raised her glass.

Katsurou Arashi responded in kind. "And to yours."

They toasted one another before taking a sip of plum brandy. The vintage was a Kotetsu product dating back generations, which in that family meant ages of the world. Around them spread a large rock garden on the Arashi estates. Diligent servants kept a respectful distance as they went about their duties. Using rakes, they drew lines in the sand, forming patterns around boulders and smaller rocks arranged carefully throughout the landscape. Here and there an occasional pine tree sprouted to lend shade. It was beneath one of these the conversing nobles sat on a blanket, the ground softened by a carpet of fallen needles.

Lady Isane quaffed the fiery liquor, enjoying the sensation of it burning down her throat. She seldom drank, having learned her lesson from some heavy bouts of inebriation with certain friends. It only made sense in the company of people she trusted.

Her fellow ruler settled down his cup and leaned back on one hand, the other tucked securely in the front of his robe. "You seem well, Isane-dono. Marriage clearly agrees with you."

His words brought a helplessly radiant smile to her face. "Am I still beaming like a fool?" She put the cup down and pressed both hands to her reddened cheeks, looking at him with an expression of delight. "I swear, nothing like this ever even occurred to me! Over a thousand years of sickness and war virtually unabated, suddenly I become a newlywed bride and just like that I'm an artless child again!"

"I understand it can call for a drastic reassessment of one's outlook on life," Katsurou conceded.

He looked amused by her giddiness, which only added to the problem. Isane placed a hand to one glowing cheek in rueful joy. She recalled a time when, devastated at the loss of both father and brother in such a short span, she was forced to endure the official well-wishes of the other clans' representatives as the reigning Lady of the Kotetsu. Isane had been on the verge of panic the whole time, capable of only mumbling disjointed thanks and nodding when prompted. Distress at what her future held nearly drove her to distraction. Most of the words of sympathy and support offered, however well-intended, fell on deaf ears. She truly feared breaking down weeping in front of them at any moment.

The only person to offer any true comfort came in the form of the young heir to the Arashi clan. Katsurou had been less than 100 years old at the time, still a child. His father made formal pieties to the distraught new lady. However after bowing and accepting her tear-choked thanks, little Katsurou had gone out and returned not two minutes later with a small flower. Despite the line of mourners, he insisted on giving it to her at once, declaring with childish assurance that she was upset and he wanted her to have it.

The bloom turned out to be an azalea, selected because he found it the most pretty. Isane remembered thinking how the boy had no way of knowing this plant was traditionally toxic. Nor was there any way for him to understand its significance in terms of symbolism. The azalea flower denoted concern for another's wellbeing, as well as a symbol of womanhood. A reclining shrub, it flourished best in the shade out of direct sunlight.

He could not have picked a more telling bloom to describe Isane at that time. The tall noblewoman bent down to accept this gift from her tiny supporter with tears of gratitude falling. She had loved the little prince from that day forth. There had even been talk of them being wed once he was grown. Fortune did not favor their union, however, and so the centuries passed for both of them. Now, it seemed that time was to end.

"Katsurou, why this sudden intention to marry Rukia Kuchiki?"

He tilted his head, the smooth braid sliding around his shoulders as a result. "Are you wondering if my intentions towards her are honorable?"

There was a teasing quality to his words. Isane offered a wan smile. "Well, she is my lieutenant. I have to look after her."

"Of course." Arashi inhaled and drew up to meet her eye frankly. "Rest assured, I hold no malice towards Lady Rukia. What I do is entirely with honor in mind. As my wife she will come to no harm."

The older woman watched him carefully. "Any other reason?"

Katsurou remained silent for a time.

"Yes."

Isane anxiously touched a long strand of silver hair clasped with jeweled beads that marked her rank. "Will you tell me, then?"

This time his answer was immediate. "No."

She drew back with a dispirited sigh. So much for honesty. "Why not?"

"I do not wish for you to be involved, Isane-dono. If, despite my best intentions, conflict should arise, I would prefer that the Kotetsu not be drawn in. You have lost as much as anyone. Now that you are happy, it would be ungracious of me to bring strife upon your line."

His words were a fist tightening around her heart. "Is it going to be like that time?"

Katsurou gazed on her with grave eyes. They could almost see the memories in each other's faces, hearkening back to an era of unprecedented conflict and bloodshed where never a single sword was drawn. "I will die before I let another Manor Wars occur, Your Highness," he said.

"That might be the problem," she pointed out sharply.

He uttered a rueful laugh. "Then perhaps you will save us all from ourselves."

Isane blew out her breath in frustration and looked around the cultivated rock garden. Lines drawn in the sand made ripples in every direction broken by small upthrust rocks. It always reminded her of a miniature ocean complete with islands, and they two gods seated upon its frozen swells. That sort of lofty thinking inevitably led to strife. They must never consider themselves above reproach or repercussions. Two royal families were almost completely annihilated for making that mistake. She only hoped no such further calamities were brewing on the horizon.

Noting the look she sent him, Katsurou complied by standing to hold out his hand. With his assistance she stood up, feeling clumsy in all these layers of heavy cloth. Jūshirō would have to peel her like an onion when she got home.

Try not to drool at the prospect.

Oh, hush. I'm a woman wed, I can fantasize about my own husband.

To hide these thoughts she brought a sleeve up and spoke from behind that barrier. "Times are troubling, Katsurou. I hope you know what you are doing."

"All will be well, Isane-dono," he affirmed with her fingers still held in his own. "I have the matter in hand."

His other arm emerged from its hiding place with a metal gauntlet now at its tip. Held in those long spidery fingers was an azalea blossom, which shimmered upon being exposed to sunlight.

Isane shook her head in delight at this old sign. She bent down to allow him to affix it in her hair, coming up with a smile Katsurou reciprocated. They then bid farewell to one another, and the willowy lady departed from the meditation gardens of the Arashi.

After she was gone Katsurou made no move to follow. He sat back down and retook his seat, dismissing his zanpakutō in the process. With only one good hand now he served himself another cup of choice Kotetsu vintage while he reflected on the future.


"So we're agreed?" Karin Kurosaki asked.

Sitting on the bed across from her clutching a stuffed lion, Yuzu scrunched up her face in sibling solidarity. "Yes! We can do this!"

"Alright." The elder sister stood and headed out into the hallway. Yuzu gently replaced her treasured guardian in its place of honor with the other mementos of childhood before rising in pursuit. Together the twins marched over and knocked on their brother's door. "Ichi-nii?"

"Yeah?"

Taking this as permission, Karin turned the handle and went inside. She could see Ichigo's feet sticking out at the end of his bed. He seemed to spend a lot of time sleeping these days. It was starting to concern the other members of the family. A general listlessness had settled over him since the affair with Rukia. But in a way, that was precisely what they intended to discuss. Maybe this would do him some good.

As she came into the main area a few things stood out to her. There was homework open on the writing desk that looked like he hadn't even started on it. Her big brother was indeed lounging on top of his sheets just studying the ceiling with hands laced behind his head. He regarded their entry with a slack disinterest. "Dinnertime?"

"No."

He grunted and closed his eyes. Hands on her hips, the middle-schooler studied their unresponsive elder. It was hard seeing him like this. She was tempted to think their brother had abandoned his body at some point and left a sort of dreary useless ghost substitute in his place. That would almost be a relief. She looked over at Yuzu, who had grown visibly distressed. A nod of reassurance caused the younger girl to stiffen her spine and clench both fists before her with renewed determination.

At this point Karin remembered she had forgotten to lock the door just in case and quickly moved back to correct this oversight.

As the latch clicked, she heard her sister say, "Ichi-nii, we want to talk to you about sex."

A cold breeze ruffled her hair along with a whoosh of displaced air. When Karin turned around she spied the window had been flung open. Upon stepping back it also became obvious their brother had flown the coop. Yuzu stood gaping in confusion.

With a muttered oath she hopped up on the bed and crawled over to stick her head outside. "He's about halfway down the street," the dark-haired girl informed her twin. The sound of a car horn drifted through the air along with angry shouting. Karin sat back and gave a disgruntled sigh. "Well, at least he didn't break the glass to get out."

"Was Ichi-nii wearing slippers at least?" Yuzu asked with heartfelt concern. "I hope he doesn't hurt his feet like that. It's the middle of winter, he should at least have taken a jacket!" With a decidedly mopey expression she looked for support. "What now, Karin-chan?"

"Baka-nii," her cohort muttered darkly. "Now we've got no choice."

Yuzu paled and clutched her sides in distress. "You don't mean…?"

" 'Fraid so."

A minute later they stood at the open door of their father's study. Isshin looked up from his laptop where he had been perusing an electronic health report and smiled. "What's up, my beautiful daughters?"

"Otō-san," Yuzu began ever so humbly, hands clasped before her. "We need to have a very important conversation with you."

"Well, well! Both of you? I think I know what this means!" Their cheerful parent swiveled away from the desk. He leaned back in the chair and patted his legs. "Come, then! Sit on your wonderful father's lap and tell me everything!"

Karin's face assumed a very apprehensive look. Her hand tightened into a fist, and only iron will prevented it from busting his filthy mouth. At a pleading look from her sister, though, she consented to stomp over and flop onto the seat provided, silently promising to rocket kick him to the moon afterwards. Yuzu sat down across from her. Isshin clapped a hand on each of their shoulders, grinning salaciously. "So, then. I guess this has something to do with your brother's prospective marriage to Rukia-chan! Rest assured, my dears, once your new sister-in-law is installed in the family, my love for you will not diminish one bit! In fact…!"

"Honorable Father," his youngest daughter broke in quickly. "That's not what we wanted to discuss."

"Oh?" The single parent raised his eyebrows. "Then what is?"

"We wish to know about sex."

Karin was mildly alarmed at the expression that came over their father's face at this moment. It looked for all the world like a man getting unexpectedly kicked in the nuts by a horse while receiving a green onion enema at the same time. His eyes became hollow pits, teeth clenched in death-like rigor. She half expected him to turn to stone.

"Otō-san?" Yuzu reached up to pat his cheek. When no response occurred she threw a worried look at her sister, who only shrugged.

Just when it seemed like they might have broken him for good, Isshin twitched awake. For a moment he appeared to have forgotten where he was. Then with a gasp his eyes flew wide to focus on Yuzu.

"Stay away from boys! Men are evil, Yuzu! They are wicked goblins who will gobble you up if you let them get close!" His head snapped around to regard his eldest daughter. "And girls are the same way, Karin!"

Her brow crinkled in confusion. "What are you going on about?"

"Hark! A call!" Isshin swiftly stood up, nearly sending the girls sprawling in the process. He whipped out his phone and held it to his ear. "What's that you say? A construction accident? Both LEGS, you say?!"

"It didn't even ring, idiot," Karin pointed out as she dusted herself off.

"It was on vibrate! Yes, I hear you, Prime Minister! Don't worry, I'm on my way!" The frantic physician pocketed the phone, grabbed a medical bag on the floor, and dashed from the room with a heroic cry of, "GANBATE!" The sisters watched him tear down the hall. They heard the front door slam, along with the screech of tires. Screams of, "MEDICAL EMERGENCY! DRIVE! DRIVE! DRIVE!" reached their ears, followed by more tires squealing off into the distance.

Karin and Yuzu looked at one another. "Well, that's pretty much everybody we could ask," Karin shrugged. "Unless you think the Dragon Lady might have something to say."

An emphatically terrified shake of the head told her that suggestion had been voted down. She pondered for a time. Maybe they should just look online? But this really was the sort of thing that felt like it needed a solid face-to-face chat with a grownup. So who did that leave?

One phone call and about ten minutes later, Yuzu closed the front door with a grateful smile. "Thanks again for coming over to so quickly, Kon-san."

"No problem." He slipped off his shoes and rubbed the stubbly hair that had taken a turn of the seasons just to get this long. "I was kinda grateful to get the call." After removing his coat and muffler, Kon hunkered down with both arms draped over his knees. "And hey, Yuzu-chan? Lemme say again that I'm really sorry about what happened with your brother. I never wanted to scare you like that, it just… took me by surprise, is all."

"You don't have to apologize." She gave his hand a reassuring pat. "Ichi-nii forgave you, so that's all there is to it. I was more upset with him once I found out how shamefully he treated Rukia!"

"Er… yeah." She led him down the hallway and into the living room where Karin waited. Sandy-haired little Yuzu beamed at him with such simple joy he couldn't help but feel welcome, whereas the other girl looked particularly cross. A heavy kotatsu table had been set up in the middle of the room as soon as winter hit, and it was here she brought them both. They all took up places around the heated appliance. It was cold out, and Kon was already looking forward to warming his tootsies. Upon sliding his long legs under the table it came as a surprise to find the heat wasn't turned on yet.

"Oops, just remembered!" Yuzu exclaimed aloud, smacking one fist into her hand. "I completely forgot to start it up! Let me hit the switch." She ducked underneath the insulated blanket. Kon felt her fumbling around down there, knocking into him as she sought to get things started. He grinned helplessly at Karin, trying to imply without words that he was not enjoying this in any way that might be considered impure.

For some reason Yuzu was holding onto his ankle, which made him squirm. To cover it up he asked a rather pertinent question. "So what did you two need to talk about?"

Karin didn't answer at first. Then from below the table Yuzu exclaimed, "Got it!" She popped out with a proud grin.

As if waiting for this, her sister looked straight at him and said, "Sex."

Expecting to be halfway to Kyoto by now, Kon was rather floored (quite literally) to instead find himself sprawled across the floor. Did I trip, he wondered? With his instinctive escape attempt temporarily thwarted, the mod soul looked back to determine what might have caused this unforeseen delay in departure. What he saw left him aghast.

"Did you handcuff me to the table?!" he screamed incredulously.

"Relax, it's just an old blood pressure cuff. We tied the pump end to the table leg to keep you from running." Karin had come over and knelt down beside his feet. "Where would we get handcuffs, anyway? Here, let me get it off you."

"Thank y–"

Ka-click!

About to bolt once again, Kon looked down to find his ankles now locked together. "DID YOU JUST BOOT ME?!"

"Don't be stupid. See, it's Dad's bicycle lock." Karin inspected the U-lock now fastened securely around his ankles with a critical air. "It's half an inch of hardened steel, so I don't see you kicking it off anytime soon and… HEY!"

Kon had managed to leap upright and was now hopping like mad for the front door. "Like I'll let two teenybopper temptresses plunder my purity of essence!" he yelled.

With a curse Karin tackled him around the waist to send them both pitching earthward. Intent on escape, Kon dragged himself one hand at a time across the floor with her holding onto his pants. "Yuzu!" she shouted. "Hit him in the head! Knock him out!"

Her sweet-natured sibling watched these proceedings with dismay. "But then how will he answer our questions?"

"I'M NOT!"

"JUST DO IT!"

"Ooooh!" Tip-toeing around the shouting mass of flailing limbs, Yuzu selected a sufficiently heavy book from their father's collection and came marching back. She hoisted it high overhead, trying not to overbalance and fall flat on her butt as she took careful aim at Kon's skull. Wait, maybe I should sedate him instead? That way he won't get hurt. Where's the anesthetic?

Only then did a slight draft from the hallway register, and she looked up to find the Dragon Lady looming over them.

Nobody moved. Behind her glasses Ise Nanao's eyes had narrowed to a lethal extent. They took in the sight of Kon flat on his stomach, pants yanked halfway to his knees showing off boxers with frolicking bunnies printed on them. Karin had one hand fisted in his shirt and the other hooked into the side of his mouth. Yuzu's arms were beginning to shake violently, so Nanao reached over and plucked away the medical text one-handed. She continued to regard them for a few moments more.

About two minutes later the girls were sitting on the couch with Kon in between them and their implacable overlord pacing slowly behind. While fully dressed, Kon retained the U-lock, possibly to ensure he did not attempt to run away. Yuzu appeared ready to burst into tears at any moment, while Karin sulked with arms crossed and burrowed as far into the backrest as possible.

"I suppose this episode could explain why your father isn't answering his phone," Nanao pronounced as she prowled from one end of the room to another. She had produced a fan from somewhere and was tapping it in the palm of one hand. Tap. Tap. Tap.

"They tried to have their way with me!" Kon blurted out as he spun to face her.

"We wouldn't even know how, that's the point," Karin felt it necessary to make clear at this stage.

Tap. "I can understand your curiosity." Tap. "You are both nearing 13 years old now. Childhood is almost over." Tap. "And there is a great deal of information you will need in order to become adults."

Tap.

"So I will teach you."

Before they could fully digest the implications of this statement the Dragon Lady crossed around and sat behind the kotatsu facing them. She spread out her fan atop the heating unit while regarding them steadily. "I will hear any questions you may have, and decide whether or not you would benefit from knowing the answers at this time. While I do not claim to be an expert, what knowledge and wisdom I possess is at your disposal. Now, then…" She tilted her glasses up to regard them with grim determination. "Who would like to begin?"

The Kurosaki twins looked equally unenthusiastic at this prospect. After glancing between them to gauge consensus, Kon hesitantly raised a hand. "Ummm… Ise-sensei, I don't really need a lesson, I'm kind of… well-versed in this area already. So maybe you could see clear to letting… me… go…?"

As the words left his mouth the light in the room dwindled down to nothing. Blue flames leapt up to silhouette the shadowy figure seated before him. The only visible features on this sinister specter were a pair of glasses gleaming with a cold witch-light.

"Kon-san," a hollow echoing voice declared. "You may either participate in the discussion, or be used as a prop for illustrative purposes. Which do you prefer?"

"Talk time!" he managed to squeak at the prospect.

Things settled back to normal. "Splendid." Nanao reached behind her and came back with what resembled a deck of slides. "I will now take your questions."


"I'm pleased that you've returned, Lady Kuchiki."

"Thank you for your hospitality, Lord Arashi."

The two of them met at the peak of a curved bridge under which flowed a stream. Overhead the skies were dark and rain fell gently, creating a thousand tiny circles on the surface of the water. A servant apiece held umbrellas for both nobles to keep them dry.

Katsurou gestured out over the grounds of his palace. "I had intended to show you more of the estate today, but it seems the weather has not cooperated." His hand withdrew into the folds of a green robe. "That being the case, would you instead care to visit the archives?"

Rukia's mouth fell open slightly at this suggestion. Byakuya had informed her of the most sensitive areas known to exist in Katsurou's stronghold, and this was surely one of them. Was he really offering to let her into a location so restricted? This was only her third visit over the past three months. Why would he permit her to enter the fabled Arashi archives? She had assumed that he would only entrust her with such secrets after the wedding, and even then it would require months to build that level of trust. Where was all this openness coming from?

When she noticed him waiting for a response, the answer seemed clear. "I would be delighted. You do me too much honor."

"Not at all."

He then took up step beside her on their way across the bridge. It didn't escape Rukia's notice that Katsurou insisted on walking next to her instead of a step ahead. For one of his rank to make such a concession to another, even the sister of a clan head, was most telling. It was as though he considered her an equal. The journey was made in silence, which she appreciated. It gave her time to think.

It could be out of kindness.

For some reason it feels like we're walking into a trap and can't even see it.

I agree. Yet at the same time, there seems to be a great deal about him that is genuine.

No offense, but you have a history of letting people take advantage of you.

Are you accusing me of being easily manipulated?

No.

Good.

I'm calling you gullible.

I beg your pardon?!

Don't stress; it's part of your charm. I just get the feeling everything he does is carefully planned. Maybe you should come right out and ask him?

You clearly haven't been paying attention the last fifty years. That is not how nobles behave.

Keep up appearances, then. I'll keep my eyes open.

What she had told Sode no Shirayuki was largely true. After spending more time together, she felt less anxious about the prospective marriage to Lord Arashi. Which didn't mean she had no reservations. Unconsciously her hands slid down to touch the slight curve of her stomach hidden beneath thick robes. Three months along, and she was starting to show. It had seemed like a dream at first. Now there was no denying it. I'm going to have a child. But will it be with the man I love, or another?

She had experienced morning sickness on more than one occasion. There were also certain bodily changes that no one else had seen fit to point out. It was at times uncomfortable, though the most distressing part so far was the craving for strange foods, the more bitter the better. Strange in that she normally wouldn't touch such items. Like persimmons. Hopefully this did not indicate an acerbic personality on the part of her child.

Accompanied by their attendants, the couple passed over a few more streams before arriving at a large plaza. Here a row of masked Arashi servitors stood as though awaiting their arrival, seven in all. At Katsurou's approach they parted ranks and allowed them to pass with a bow. The warriors then moved to flank their procession across the empty plaza. Upon drawing closer Rukia noticed that there was a tremendous hexagonal carving which dominated a large portion of the ground ahead. They passed over it to stand at the center of this decoration. Looking around, it became evident the hexagon was divided into six sections which she recognized as astronomical phases of the moon, with the seventh being in a circle at the center.

The masked attendants took up position at each of the facets. They knelt and pressed their hands to the stone, upon which Rukia detected the deep pulse of magic. The seventh mage led them onto the carving until they reached the middle. He then reciprocated his allies' actions. Symbols carved into the wet rock shone green, lighting them from below. At the same time the hexagon began to rise into the air, taking their party with it.

More curious than anything else, the Kuchiki princess considered the situation. They were about ten feet off the ground and getting higher. Was this a transport of some kind?

Suddenly it was like her head poked up through a hole, and she found herself in a building.

Startled, Rukia looked quickly about and down as well. She caught glimpses of dark walls and floor with dim illumination. Below the edges of their levitating transport one could still spy rain-soaked cobblestones with the six enchanters performing their arts. Droplets struck the platform beneath their feet, but none touched the umbrellas held above them. As the hexagon rose this view was cut off, until at last it came to rest as a part of the floor in this floating complex they now found themselves in.

The servants closed the umbrellas. Now Rukia could finally see everything clearly. They were on a raised altar at the end of a tremendous hall. And spread out in ranks below this perch were what looked to be hundreds of wooden bookshelves for as far as the eye could see. Great paintings of mythical beasts on the ceiling glowed with a ruddy orange light that offered the only illumination. Retainers in Arashi livery moved among the stacks bearing carts and binders. A soft steady clattering noise filled the great hall, reminiscent of the buzz of cicada, though not nearly as aggravating.

"Our most cherished collections are stored in separate dimensions. To prevent unauthorized entry."

She looked to Katsurou, who regarded her right back with amusement dancing in his dark eyes. "This particular haven contains details on zanpakutō throughout the ages." He gestured towards a short flight of steps leading down from the altar to the library floor and held out his hand. She placed her own in his automatically, still astonished at the departure and arrival. "It has not been entered by someone from your clan in centuries. I imagine it must hold a somewhat legendary status by now. Your young Lord Kuchiki no doubt made mention of this."

His insistence on referring to Byakuya in a semi-derogatory fashion had not changed since they met. Regardless of her own heated opinion on the matter she never chose to correct him, and he proceeded to lead her down to the library floor.

Rukia turned slowly as she sought to take it all in. Row upon row of shelves stretched away from them. There were no backboards within, allowing her to look through them from one end of the room to another. Nor were there any actual shelves to speak of. Instead the interior held long poles upon which hung a series of metal loops. Each such ring sported sets of carved identical wooden talismans nestled neatly against each other. They resembled old-fashioned keychains she had seen in mortal literature. Hundreds of these tablets were held in each shelf, and the entire extra-dimensional complex stretched past her field of vision. It was a remarkable trove.

Katsurou led her over to one storage unit out of many. A few librarians passed with humble bows he did not acknowledge. On the end of each bookshelf was an ornate metal alcove holding a set of three prayer wheels, the type seen in certain Buddhist monasteries. Over this around normal eye level was a blank expanse of paper between two rollers. The clan head drew a small key from his pocket and inserted it into a mechanism. He then turned a questioning eye on Rukia. "Is there any zanpakutō in particular whose history you wish to view?"

She hesitated, wondering whether to play it safe or be more daring. In the end caution won out. "My own, Sode no Shirayuki."

At a touch of his hand the prayer wheels began to spin without stopping. Immediately the wooden talismans further back started flipping round and around on their rings, producing that clattering sound which permeated the complex. Before her eyes the spools of paper turned as well to form words and images which looked to be hand-painted upon the parchment. To her surprise there was a beautifully detailed illustration of a snow-white sword. Even more shocking was to see her name listed therein.

The manuscript stopped and Katsurou began to read. "Sode no Shirayuki: a newborn zanpakutō, meaning it has been held by less than three wielders. First known wielder, Rukia of House Kuchiki, in the past century. An ice elemental weapon capable of generating intense cold through commands called 'dances', four of which are known."

HEY! When did he…?!

Noting her surprise, the scholar-lord merely smiled before proceeding to read. "Speculation has it these dances reflect kisetsu, the turn of the seasons. Accordingly they increase in power from spring to winter, the strongest so far being…"

"Thank you, my lord!" she snapped icily. Shock at this level of information on his part left her feeling more exposed than ever. "Might we see another example?"

He waved a hand, and the spinning wheels stopped. The information on the page bled away to leave it pristine once again. "What shall we view next?"

Her temper was up, and she decided to make him answer for it. "Kyōka Suigetsu."

"Ah." Once again the cylinders spun, talismans clacked, and now there arose an image of a relatively plain sword, only beneath it was a small pool of water in which the weapon's reflection appeared blurred. "As it happens, this too is another infant weapon. It has appeared only once throughout history, in the possession of Aizen Sosuke, former shinigami captain turned rebel. Originally thought to be a water zanpakutō capable of producing mists that cloud and befuddle the mind, it was later revealed Kyōka Suigetsu has the power to control the senses of anyone who visually perceives its form. The wielder can make multiple targets hear, see, smell and sense detailed illusions which are indistinguishable from reality, even if the afflicted recognizes what is being done to them."

"And was this information known to the Arashi before or after Aizen's defection?" Rukia asked in a challenging tone.

In return he offered her a mild look. "After. Our sources were as much in the dark about Kyōka Suigetsu's true nature as the rest of Soul Society. Aizen proved capable of exercising impressive deception on a wide scale. As I'm sure you are aware."

He certainly sounded sincere. Maybe even a touch of reproach in his words. Was it meant for me or himself? In any case Rukia chose to proceed more diplomatically. "I am curious about something else in this matter. In order to claim his captaincy, Aizen reputedly offered to perform bankai. What exactly did he display in this demonstration?"

Katsurou twirled a wheel more rapidly, and further information came up. "At the time of his exhibition, Lieutenant Aizen performed the following as proof of bankai. Upon second release the weapon transformed into a spear and a pool of water spread along the ground beneath the wielder to a radius of fifty feet whose surface he stood upon. Dipping his spear into the pool, the wielder scattered droplets from its tip. After striking the surface each separate drop created an identical copy of the contestant all armed as he was at intervals around him. Four Hollows were then released into the field. The wielder's copies moved independently of their original twin to dispatch the enemies. In this way Aizen successfully demonstrated a second release to the observing captains' satisfaction."

Do you think that's his real bankai, or just another illusion he created?

Probably the latter. I doubt he wished to announce anything about his power that could just as easily remain hidden.

Rukia realized Katsurou was waiting to see if she wished to make any further inquiries. Now seemed a good time to steer the conversation elsewhere. With a bow she declared, "I greatly appreciate being shown the archives, my lord. If it would not be too much trouble, might I request further representatives of the Kuchiki be given access to them?"

"At this time, I cannot countenance that, my lady." A touch of his hand stopped the cylinders, allowing Aizen's weapon to fade like its own illusions. "Though after our houses are joined, certainly there would be greater latitude in dealing with one another. It would be of great benefit to both of us."

Better than nothing. "Then I will eagerly anticipate that day."

Katsurou then led her on a small tour of the facility. Apparently information about soul cutters was arranged by their status as direct assault or kidō-based weapons, and from there to elemental powers and more esoteric blades. Each shelf held specific information stored in those wooden talismans. However all the stacks were interconnected for retrieval, meaning you could browse the contents of the entire collection from any spot in the archives. No mention was made how this information was obtained, leading her to wonder if it might be an even greater secret than the location of the library itself.

They took tea together in a small antechamber secluded from the main area. "I have always been impressed at how skilled the Arashi are in the manipulation of dimensional construction." Rukia had a sip of black tea and found the bitter taste strangely pleasing. Pregnancy certainly did alter one's palate. "Were it not for your contributions in terms of finance and expertise, there is no way we could have established the Halos in such short order to house Soul Society's residents, much less craft stable permanent residences for them to enjoy."

"My clan is always willing to offer aid in time of need," he spoke while nursing his own cup amidst the cushioned alcove. "At least regarding non-military support. The fashioning of sub-dimensions was part of the Arashi legacy long before either of us was born. Only when the demand for such skills declined did we take to chronicling the records of Soul Society." He picked up a sweetmeat from the table and popped it into his mouth. "It kept us busy and did not raise undue clamor. It is my understanding you yourself had reason to visit one of my people's earlier efforts during the war."

Once again the breadth of his knowledge left her a tad leery. This was in reference to the time when she was sent to retrieve the King's Key, which required entering a pocket dimension closed off from Soul Society proper. During this mission Rukia came face-to-face with the renegade Gin Ichimaru and nearly lost her life to him. Only by dint of their shared history did she win the day.

Mercy won out in the end, prompting her to spare his life. At the time it felt right. Now that she was pregnant, however, such benevolence did not seem quite so reassuring. The thought of Gin coming anywhere near her child gave Rukia chills.

Katsurou continued speaking while she pondered her situation. "In a way, the war might have done Soul Society more good than harm. It gave us the impetus to address ailments that had long gone unremarked in our world. Focusing our energies on a topic other than warfare has allowed areas such as the arts to flourish and contributed to the development of new realms for our guests to reside in."

Steam from the tea floated around his face as he spoke. Watching him now, he didn't seem quite as old as she initially thought. Perhaps it was simply a matter of being amongst more relaxed settings. Katsurou appeared to enjoy spending time in the archives. He looked very much at ease since coming here, and his manner of speaking was more artless. For some reason she wondered how he would look with his long braid unbound.

The Tiger Lord locked eyes with her, and Rukia realized that she had been staring. Feeling a bit of embarrassment the flustered noblewoman settled her cup down and pressed on. "By now you must have heard we are approaching 50% permanent resettlement. Within a few months we'll have reached that goal. I'm told festivities are underway to celebrate the occasion. Do the Arashi plan to attend?"

"The matter has not escaped my notice." He stroked his chin contemplatively. "I would not deny my people the chance to appreciate a well-deserved respite in honor of their great good works."

Katsurou leaned forward to grasp the teapot and refill her drink, another sign of unprecedented courtesy. Rukia retrieved the cup. "Does this mean you would also be present yourself?" she asked, taking a sip while casting hooded eyes at him over its edge.

The corner of his mouth lifted. "If such a request were tendered, I might see clear to making an appearance."

That sounded like a yes. Curling back against the cushions while nursing her drink, she smiled to herself. This might be the perfect opportunity to arrange a meeting between Nii-sama and Lord Arashi. Give them a chance to patch up old wounds by celebrating a shared project of demonstrable lasting worth.

Sure that's all you're doing?

Yes, why do you ask?

Anyone watching might think you were flirting with him.

Sode no Shirayuki, are you trying to make me angry?!

Oh, we both know I can do a lot better than that, sister. I'm just letting you know to dial down the charm so as not to give him the wrong idea.

And that would be?

Well, unless I'm gravely mistaken, your heart is spoken for.

That's… never been the issue here.

I guess that explains why you've never brought up Ichigo with Katsurou.

It's hard to picture them in the same room together. Talking about it is only slightly less awkward. And my engagement… might be for the best.

Are you committed to this marriage?

I will do what my family requires of me.

I hate it when you dodge the question.

What other action is available?

Just keep one thing in mind: in the past fifty odd years, for reasons beyond our control we've lost three people whom we cared about. Don't lose another when you've got the chance to say no.

"Are you feeling well, Lady Kuchiki? Does your condition require attention at this time?"

Katsurou was watching her keenly when she came back. Perhaps owing to the bitter-sweet memories recollected by her partner's last words, Rukia remembered something else she wanted to know. "My lord, if it would be possible, I have two requests."

He made a magnanimous gesture. "Speak on."

An ache of sadness ran through her bones as she spoke. "There is another zanpakutō whose history I was hoping to learn."

He put away the tea and indicated for a member of the library staff to approach, who left off what they were doing and did so immediately. "The weapon's name?"

It felt like forever since she had spoken it. Her voice came out in a reverent hush. "Fuji Kujaku."

Katsurou frowned as though unable to recall any such title. Meanwhile the archivist went back to one of the shelves and performed a search; however only a few moments later he came back wearing a troubled expression. "Forgive me, Your Ladyship, but we have no record of such a zanpakutō in our history."

The news caused her to actually gape in dismay. "None? Its wielder was a seated officer in the old Gotei 13 for over 50 years!" Although thinking about it now, Rukia realized she wasn't entirely certain how long he had been a part of the Court Guard Squads. Still, shouldn't there be some mention of him?

"My humblest apologies." The librarian bowed deeply. "It is possible I did not input the name correctly."

"No, thank you. I believe I know the issue. Pray do not trouble yourself." That's right. He never told me her real name. 'Fuji Kujaku' was just an alias he used for her. I wonder what she was really called? Still, to press any deeper might cause the truth to come out. And he made me promise to keep that a secret from everyone.

Upon dismissing the servant her future fiancé regarded Rukia in a thoughtful manner. At last he asked, "There was another topic you wished to address, my lady."

This one was so simple she felt glad to have saved it for last. A craving had fallen upon her that made everything else take an immediate and certain backseat.

"By chance do you have any… dried persimmons?"


Wattles of fat bloody flesh spilled through his fingers, and the Vaizard realized someone was watching. He looked up in a panic to find Ichigo's Hollow standing across from Hachi's corpse.

What's he doing here?

"Go away. I'm busy."

"Yeah, I can see that. Sorry to interrupt your necrophilia." The creature's face twisted in a scornful scowl as it looked upon the remains of his colleague. Stalking forward it delivered a swift kick to the corpse's side.

"STOP THAT!"

Hachi's body lurched over in the sand with all the grace of a mattress being flipped around. His sad dead eyes now stared straight up, bobbing on the sandy swells and mouth open slightly as though about to ask a question. The Hollow sneered through its black shiny teeth. "What a fucking disgrace that guy was. How does somebody let themselves go that bad, huh? I'm surprised you guys had anything left to eat with this lardo around." Before he could respond it crossed its arms and lifted its chin to look down on him. Only then did it dawn on the Vaizard that he was on his knees before it. "Anyway, get rid of this turd. We need to talk."

Do it. Let's hear what the draft horse has to say.

Cowed, he complied. The image of his personal sin disappeared from the rocky lookout they stood upon. To his horror, however, the blood didn't leave his hands. He could hear his Hollow chuckle maliciously. With a gasp of self-loathing he tucked them beneath his sleeves. How could I let it see me like this? "What is it?" he demanded in hoarse tones.

"Where the fuck have you been? I've been on my own for months!"

"Have you forgotten that you are at my beck and call, not the other way around?" He stood up with every effort to appear relaxed, dusting off his knees in a perfunctory manner while trying to ignore the blood.

"Don't screw with me."

The Vaizard walked around his ostensible ally. Examining the dreamscape, he noticed with a frown that a number of huge masks resembling warped versions of his own helm sprouted off in the distance. They rose high into the starless sky, a testament to how deeply his dark side had spread its roots throughout their soul. He came about to regard Ichigo's Hollow.

"Thanks to your owner, I can't move around with the same level of freedom as before. The others are aware of me. Not that they know it's me, but they recognize there's a traitor in their midst. It's made things… awkward."

"Do you know what's happening? With Ichigo?"

"No. As I said, I've been busy." A hole appeared in the ground between them, causing sand to spiral down in a vortex of particles. It caught them up and sent the two demi-demons rotating slowly around, never taking their eyes off one another. Neither bothered to step out of this sinking sand trap. It occurred to the Vaizard that he had never seen the Hollow so visibly upset. Not even angry, or threatening. More like it was feeling imperiled. Interesting. "What about him?"

"He got her…!" Here the Hollow hesitated, face twitching and hands opening and closing convulsively. "… pregnant!" it finally spit out.

The Vaizard blinked, surprised. "How?"

"I DON'T FUCKING KNOW! DAMN!" For once the thing's fury didn't intimidate him. It was clearly displaying fear. The two had now sunk to the level of their knees in the sand, and were drawing ever closer as they circled the pit's center. Its yellow and black eyes burned into him with a sick need. "You gotta stop it."

His head tilted to one side. "Why?"

"BECAUSE I'M TELLING YOU TO, YOU PIECE OF SHIT!"

He neither flinched nor spoke a word at this outburst. Instead heterochromatic eyes continued to regard the Hollow without a change in expression. It looked ready to spring forward and attack him. When no reaction came, however, the beast grew more subdued, staring right back with a sort of hungry cunning. "Because if you don't, I'll tell Ichigo about you."

It wasn't bluffing. That much was certain. Their relationship had always been based on mutually assured destruction. He controlled its freedom, and it held the ability to condemn him to the status of a hunted outlaw. This type of partnership was at not of their own choosing, instead coming at the insistence of another who pulled their strings. And the balance of power had always been precarious. He knew this creature would destroy his life without a second thought.

And so he answered, "No."

They orbited the hole with only a small space between them now. Who could say why he chose to stand up for himself at this stage? Maybe he was just tired of all the deception and constant subterfuge. Or perhaps the thought of what he knew it asked of him was crossing a line he hadn't even noticed up 'til this point. Every man had his limits. I might just have reached mine.

"You think I won't do it?"

"I simply don't care."

The Vaizard glanced about the empty world that surrounded him. The Hollow masks had drawn in to form a ring of soaring edifices all around them reminiscent of ancient sacrificial altar stones. The thought left him disturbed. "I'm tired. Don't bother contacting me like this again. I'll come to you once I figure out a way to do so without alerting the others. Oh," he added as a thought came to him. "And if you make a move towards that girl without my say-so, I'll put you back in your cage and never let you out again." His yellow eye glowed dangerously. "You think I won't do it? Go ahead and find out."

With that he woke up.

The dream was fresh in his mind. The peril it presented was real. Ichigo's Hollow might decide to just throw up its hands and betray him. But right now, for whatever reason, the Vaizard felt certain that was not the case. Funny thing about Hollows. Big or small, they were creatures ruled by fear. And as had been proven in the past, it only took a little bit of hope to motivate them past any limitations placed on them as such.

He clambered upright in his cell and strolled out to the mess hall, as it were. There he found Mashiro and Kensei sitting quietly around the burning firepit. Exchanging a nod with them both, he accepted a cup of coffee the green-haired lieutenant offered him poured from a pot shoved into the coals.

The Vaizard took a seat without bothering to make conversation. The former 9th Squad captain and his Second Seat neither looked at him nor spoke to one another. From what he could tell, the bond those two shared had suffered the least at the partial revelation of his secret. Things had gone precipitously downhill in their little community ever since Ichigo decided to drop a truth bomb into their midst. Now suspicion and mistrust lurked in the shadows. Nobody knew whom to turn to anymore. Behind any sudden movement there was the potential for a deadly attack. It was said that misery loved company. But to find all the other members of the Masked Army reduced to the same anxious burnt-out wrecks of paranoia he himself had become proved small comfort.

Being an observer and the only one in on the secret that was destroying them all held no solace. In fact it only made him feel worse. These were his friends. This shouldn't be happening to them. It's not their fault. I never intended they should come to harm. Not after all we've been through. He had cooperated with them in terms of setting up new ground rules to keep a semblance of civility going. Before they hunted in pairs. Now such outings happened less frequently, and then it was always two captains and a lieutenant. This way the lieutenants left behind would always have one captain-level shinigami to protect them if the other turned out to be a traitor, and the ones on patrol could count on a lieutenant's help should their partner turn on them.

For all the good that did. Everyone was waiting for the mask to drop, for some Judas to show their true colors. A part of him wanted to admit it. If he ended the charade, just stood up right now and confessed to them, would they understand? Was there even the slightest chance that he could explain things, at least enough to take away that burden they were all laboring under? Already his life had become a slow drip of anguish and self-inflicted torture. Could death be any worse?

Go ahead and find out.

His own words to Ichigo's Hollow thrown back at him. The brief bout of suicidal valor died, and he sipped his coffee in silence.

After a while, though, he noticed something out of place. "Has anyone seen Hiyori today?"

Muguruma and Mashiro exchanged glances and shook their heads.

This left him feeling uneasy.


The shutter clicked one final time. "And that concludes the lecture. Any questions?"

Nanao's three students all looked between each other. To her mild surprise, it was little Yuzu who raised her hand first. "Sensei, are the cat ears really necessary?"

For a while their teacher did not speak. Then she lifted a hand to push her glasses up a little higher. "No."

The black cat headband she wore seemed to twitch its ears ever so slightly.

When nobody else said a word, the former shinigami retrieved her belongings and stood up. "I have an appointment to keep if there is nothing else. Should your father return, please let him know that we can reschedule for tomorrow." With that Nanao swept from the room, opened the front door and left.

Kon and the girls remained in their seats.

"That was the most discouraging presentation of sex I have ever seen," he finally declared.

All three were silent.

Beside him Karin suddenly said, "I'm thirsty. I want…"

WHOOSH!

"… some juice," she finished in exasperation.

Too late. Kon had already disappeared. The sound of the door slamming was the only sign of his departure.

Not knowing what to make of this little venture, or whether their questions had been answered at all, the Kurosaki twins finally agreed to table this discussion for a better time. They then went to have lunch.


A member of Heron Company stuck his head in the door. "Lieutenant? The captain is asking to see you."

"I'll be right there." Rukia laid a reassuring hand on the shoulder of her trainee. "You're doing very well. His brains are almost back in. Just keep at it and ask for help if anything happens."

"Yes, fukutaichou!" The girl nodded vigorously and bent to her task. Rukia stood up, examining the hospital layout. A group of the most seriously injured from Tiger Squad's latest debacle had been brought in for treatment this morning. Say what you will about them, but that group of warmongering misfits certainly kept her own division from growing complacent. Not to mention offering new and exciting challenges when it came to healing. You don't really know what you're capable of until faced with a man who has a giant tooth dripping acid jammed through his head and yet still is conscious enough to insist you're not bandaging him properly. "Unohana-taichou always wrapped in the other direction!" One of the most important lessons early on in your career at Heron was restraining yourself from throttling an already injured person.

She spoke to a few people present about their progress. Having determined to her satisfaction that every case was in good hands, Lieutenant Kuchiki left the ward on her way to the captain's office. Urgently conversing members of her division offered greetings as she passed before going back to their diagnoses. A light snow was falling outside as she passed beneath the archways, but it did not feel cold as a result.

Sudden discomfort in her abdomen caused Rukia to stop and rest a hand against a post for support. She felt flushed and dizzy for a while. At times she had the oddest sensation that she was no longer alone…

"Lieutenant? Are you alright?"

Rukia looked up to find Yasochika Iemura approaching her. The Third Seat of their division usually bore himself like a soldier on inspection before his superiors, a holdover from the condescending attitude most other shinigami had adopted towards the Fourth division prior to the war, even their officers. Now only concern was spelled out behind his square-rimmed glasses as he drew up beside her.

"Yes, Iemura-san. Just a touch of dizziness."

"Are you headed to the division headquarters? Let me accompany you." He moved to stand by her side. Rather than rebuke him for any presumption, Rukia merely set off once more, not entirely displeased at the company. If she did pass out and hit her head having someone nearby would be helpful.

Their path led them around the snow-drifted perimeter of the medical center. A desire to reach out and catch some of the falling flakes arose which she resolutely suppressed. Her thoughts drifted to the rabbits in their hutch back at the manor. It had been a timid winter, with spring already around the corner. Soon enough the time to set them free would arrive.

"You aren't showing yet, if it's any reassurance."

Without slowing down, Rukia turned her head ever so slightly to regard Yasochika. His attention remained fixated straight forward.

"I've attended on ladies in your… condition before, ma'am," he spoke with grave courtesy. "It's part of the job. The signs were all there for anyone looking closely. And you needn't concern yourself. I can be depended upon for discretion."

"Thank you, Iemura-san," she responded warily.

His blonde head nodded in sage fashion. "It's the least I can do, Lieutenant. You have so much to take into consideration already what with your royal obligations, the demands of overseeing a Halo, and now this." Iemura glanced casually off to one side as they walked along together. "If it would not be overstepping my bounds, perhaps you might consider taking a leave of absence from Heron? Rest assured, I can be relied upon to oversee your duties until you return, however long that might be. I consider myself ideally suited for the role, as my…"

They had reached the officers division. Without further ado Rukia slid open the door, then promptly shut it behind her without so much as a goodbye.

Ambitious little creep.

He's always got his eye on advancement.

You should sleep with a knife under your pillow.

That might be taking things too far.

Back outside the door, Yasochika coughed ostentatiously and glanced around to make sure no one had seen that. Wouldn't want rumors to spread. He liked Rukia Kuchiki, he really did. Any misgivings or personal resentment at her assuming the Second Seat in Heron Squad after its formation even when more ostensibly qualified candidates were available did not detract from his opinion of her as a valued shinigami and excellent officer. Of course the stress of that position could prove quite telling. It would be no blemish on her reputation if she were to reach out for his guidance on certain matters.

'Officer Yasochika! You… you wouldn't tell anyone about my… condition, would you?'

He glanced up from the report he was reading to take in the young woman on her knees before him, face worked in anxious appeal. 'Certainly not, Lieutenant.' A smug smile drifted over his lips. 'Of course, there are many ways you could… express your gratitude.'

Settling down the report he moved to crouch beside her. She recoiled from him slightly, hand clutched to her breast, large eyes wide with fright and lower lip trembling. 'Iemura-san, I… do not know what you mean!' The noblewoman looked hastily away, eyelids fluttering closed. Yet his keen eye did not fail to detect a flush to her cheeks and rapid breathing. The sight pleased him immensely.

'Then let me be clear.' His hand reached out to touch her–

The daydreams of his zanpakutō were interrupted when a hand clamped around Yasochika's mouth with crushing force. "We need to talk," a soft voice he recognized as belonging to Captain Soifon whispered in his ear.

With that Officer Yasochika Iemura vanished, causing several people walking by to glance over in puzzlement at his sudden absence. However to a man they all dismissed it a second later and went back to work.

Rukia moved along an anteroom lined with desks and cabinets where ranked members of her Squad devoted themselves to the business of running a division. Rookie shinigami might dream of achieving high office, but hardly any of them could be expected to know what taxing demands such status involved. It wasn't all heroics in combat. A clerical order could prove just as important as one issued on the battlefield. Lives hung in the balance either way. Although something told her this meeting had more to do with her role in the nobility than as a shinigami.

Upon approaching the end of the room she knocked on a frame. "Captain Kotetsu?"

"Come in."

She entered, sliding the door shut as she did. The captain's office was brightly lit and sparingly decorated. A low table next to the wall held a miniature bonsai tree and a tiny ceremonial gong used for meditation. Beside this was a cabinet loaded down by neatly arranged records, reminding her peripherally of the Arashi archives. On the opposite wall there hung two calligraphy scrolls, one bearing the word 'serenity' and the other 'firefly'. These two were apparently holdovers from Captain Unohana's tenure. She sometimes wondered if they might have held a psychological significance for that legendary figure. Rukia could picture the ancient healer sitting back at her desk after a hard day to regard those words in search of clarity.

Now the desk was occupied by her own superior, Isane Kotetsu. The leader of Heron looked up from a large book she had been reading and smiled. Closing it Isane then gestured for her to come closer. Rukia approached and stood before the other woman.

"Please have a seat," Isane said. When she had done so, the captain cocked her head to study her. "Are you feeling well, Lieutenant? You seem a bit flushed."

"Thank you for asking, Captain. I feel perfectly fine."

"I see." The First Seat looked at her hands for a moment, then back up. "I've spoken to Lord Arashi. It's my understanding the two of you are becoming better acquainted."

So this was family business. Odd to hear Captain Kotetsu discuss politics so openly. "We have met on a few occasions. From what I can see, our temperaments at least are amenable. A match between us could be of benefit to both."

Isane nodded as though aware precisely of the sentiment behind that statement. "The Kuchiki and the Shihoin have not had many dealings with the Arashi for several centuries now." She reached up to toy self-consciously with the beads strung into her hair. "Whatever one might learn from spies, you can't get a true feel for a person's character without meeting them yourself. I had concerns that you might have heard things about Katsurou from your family that would color your opinion of him."

Rukia still had no idea what the ultimate purpose of this conversation might be. The captain appeared uncomfortable just to be broaching it. Hesitantly she admitted, "In truth, Taichou, I was told precious little about Lord Arashi. Almost as scant as the reasons given for the feud in the first place."

Now those dark brown eyes settled on hers with a measuring feel. After a moment Isane laced both hands before her on the desk with a troubled expression. "I suppose there's no harm in telling you. Understand, Rukia-chan, this reticence you experienced probably has less to do with individual choice on your family's part than a sort of… I suppose you might call it 'trauma'. The Manor Wars left a lasting impression on the Great Houses and their subsidiaries. Those still alive who survived that period tend to avoid discussing it. Then too there is the natural inclination to avoid matters which do not cast us in the best light. No one likes to relive their worst mistakes."

In spite of herself Rukia felt intrigued at the prospect of learning more about this. Having known Katsurou Arashi for only a short time, she had to admit he was proving a tempting mystery. Not only concerning his motivations, but everything about him, from his history to the loss of his hand. And it was true Byakuya and the other members of the Kukichi had been less than forthcoming about the precise reason beyond any hatred he might feel for them. She had not felt comfortable consulting records on the matter. As Isane said, some things you needed to hear directly from those concerned.

"You are aware Katsurou had a younger sister?"

The question came suddenly, causing her to swiftly recollect the situation. "Yes, Captain. Lady Manami, wed to the last Lord of the Takuiyoku."

"Then you must know the lady and her children were among the last to die in the Manor Wars, which concluded with her husband Kaito's execution at the hands of Ginrei Kuchiki, the 27th head of your family."

"I do." For some reason Rukia threw a glance at the wall scroll bearing the word hotaru. Some people's lives were just as brief.

"The evidence brought against him was irrefutable," the captain went on to explain. "Kaito died the next morning with a sentence imposed by the King of Soul Society. He never admitted to the crimes, even after learning what became of his wife and children." Her face had grown sad, troubled eyes drifting off to one side. "Had you known her, you would have been hard-pressed to believe Manami Takuiyoku capable of condoning a massacre. She was a meek girl, prone to hide rather than face any unpleasantness, even as a child. Not a tiger by any means. Although very devoted to her family whether it be by blood or marriage. She had four children, the youngest of whom outlived her by seconds."

Listening to her recitation, Rukia recalled this ancient soul was alive for all these events, and might have witnessed them with her own eyes. While privileged to learn the truth in this way, it still left her feeling uneasy.

Isane looked up. "In any case, the actual charges and all the most damning evidence were brought by Ginrei himself. He had collected it over decades with the help of the Shihoin and submitted his report in its entirety, withholding nothing. There was no indication Manami had colluded in a knowing capacity to bring about harm to anyone involved. Even though she did as her husband instructed, it was only to diminish losses to their own house. The general consensus was that she could not be considered an active conspirator, but was simply an unwitting pawn of Kaito's ambition."

"Forgive me, Captain, but was it not the Lord of Shiba who actually killed Lady Manami?" Rukia knew this much for herself, having done research on the Shiba clan following her entry into the 13th Division, where one of its scions had held the position she now claimed. "How then did this cause a feud between Arashi and Kuchiki?"

In response Isane sighed heavily. "Katsurou felt that Ginrei had not done enough to stress his sister's innocence. And there was no official declaration from the King of Soul Society regarding her one way or another. Yudai Shiba used this lapse as his defense when called upon to answer for her murder. An official duel afterwards only made things worse. This exacerbated the eventual decline of that family. But Lord Arashi has never forgiven the Kuchiki or Shihoin for contributing by omission to the deaths of Manami and her children."

A shiver went through her at those words. This is the man I might be made to marry. Against the dictates of nobility she found herself asking the next question. "Captain, do you believe I or my clan stand in any danger from the proposal of marriage Katsurou has given?"

"He has no intention of precipitating another war between houses," Isane was quick to reassure her. "The matter has always been more a question of pride than outright antagonism. I've had the most cause to deal with Katsurou over the ensuing years. He is a noble man, and very passionate about protecting those whom he cares about. Should you become his wife, I believe it will not take you long to recognize these qualities."

Suddenly Isane leaned forward, and the expression she now wore seemed surprisingly similar to her predecessor, possessing a depth of wisdom only conferred by age.

"But he is also very cunning, Rukia-chan, and the suffering he endured has taught him patience. I've spoken to Katsurou. He insists there is no malice intended towards you, which I believe is true. That put my heart at ease. Having looked at the matter from several angles, I see no detriment to your life from it. Still, that doesn't mean you are safe. As your captain I would not condone an action that brought you harm. Without breaking any confidence, I will only say that you are best advised to be extremely careful of this arrangement."

She leaned back to regard the younger woman. Apparently the captain had said all she cared to on the matter. Recognizing this, Rukia stood up and bowed to her.

"Thank you, Kotetsu-taichou. I will take your recommendations to heart."

"Give my best to your family, and our friends in the human world. You are dismissed, Lieutenant." The silver-haired First Seat turned her attention back to paperwork.

Upon exiting Rukia shut the door and stood debating for a while. It was good to know more, and from such a trusted source. Having served under Isane personally for almost two years now, her admiration for the senior noblewoman had only grown. She had taken up the mantle of Captain Unohana with a surety and conviction that served to support their world through some of its darkest hours. Many shinigami had been surprised to find the normally unassuming and soft-spoken lieutenant so naturally suited for command. Those were the ones who never even knew her true position in their world.

After a bit she swept off down the corridors. That conversation had served to give her a measure of reassurance, which was exactly what she needed right now. Rukia felt more secure about her prospective future. At the same time, she recognized a newfound determination to take a more active role in this affair. Byakuya-niisama had conducted the proceedings up 'til this point. Now his sister was resolved to contribute more than just her presence. I do have resources not overtly tied to the Kuchiki, after all.

Lost in thought, Rukia passed by two female shinigami peering out a window. "Why is Third Seat Iemura hog-tied and hanging from a tree?" one of them asked curiously.

"Who knows with that guy," the other responded. "Maybe it's a new type of joint-loosening technique? He's always trying to get attention."

They lost interest after a while and proceeded in the opposite direction of Rukia, who took no notice of this. Iemura remained in that same position for half an hour until he was spotted and cut down by Hanatarō Yamada and Harunobu Ogidō, both of whom he made swear on pain of gruesome death to never breathe a word of his predicament to anyone.

Back in her office, Isane Kotetsu sought to concentrate on the running of her division. This proved frustratingly difficult. After a time she put the pen down and rubbed her temples with a grimace. It was hard. But for everyone's sake, she had to stay focused.

Try as she might, however, her thoughts drifted to the distant past…


A stentorian voice boomed out. "It is the ruling of this court that Captain Shiba of the Seventh will not be charged for any incidents which might have occurred during the performance of his duties. The matter is settled!"

So ended the murder trial of Captain Yudai Shiba for the death of Lady Manami Takuiyoku.

From her place in the gallery Isane heard these words and felt sick at heart. The plaintiff, Lieutenant Katsurou Arashi, sat a short distance away looking absolutely murderous. He must have known how this would turn out even when he leveled the charges. Although Manami hadn't been included in the death sentence ordered for all Takuiyoku, what other possible result might there be? An official order from the King of Soul Society, and the express command of the Commander-General? To say nothing of the fact that the 46 leaned heavily in favor of the Gotei hierarchy on their rulings. It was a foregone conclusion.

In addition the only witness to the crime had not been permitted to testify. Even under normal circumstances a shinigami of Jūshirō Ukitake's status and seniority would never be brought before the court for any reason. Yamamoto did not like the idea of his preeminent disciples being subjected to potential embarrassment. In this case, it was still a close call. While having relinquished his position as head of house, Jūshirō remained, on paper, a vassal to the Arashi. The delicate line between military and political stature was one Isane could well appreciate. Right now she was only officially present as a lieutenant under Captain Unohana. Supposedly Jūshirō had insisted on appearing, as a way of upholding his own integrity. She liked to think that was the case. Not that it had made any difference.

Her attention drifted over to the center of the chamber where Captain Shiba still stood in the space reserved for the accused. His expression hadn't changed once during the whole proceedings. Utterly emotionless. Who could say what he might really be feeling, though? After all, no one had suffered more during the Manor Wars than the Shiba clan. The number of families and estates lost was appalling. Isane remembered hearing that Yudai attended the funerals for each family member to perish during that long-running atrocity. Whether distant relative or mere subordinate to the clan, it made no difference. Their lord stood in observance as the bodies of children were laid upon the byres to burn. Some whispered his grief at losing so many friends and loved ones had unhinged him. Others believed he used his status as a shinigami captain to take revenge during the genocide of the Takuiyoku. In retrospect the fact that Shiba and Takuiyoku had always maintained close bonds made the betrayal even worse. Seen in this light, Lady Manami's unplanned execution might almost be understood, if not excused.

In the silence following the verdict, the dead woman's brother rose to his feet. "This trial was a farce," Katsurou Arashi swore darkly.

There were shocked whispers from the observers around him. Meanwhile the members of the Central 46 looked down from their lofty elevation. "Lieutenant Arashi," one juror spoke warningly. "You may not–"

"Spare me that title," Katsurou declared. "I am Katsurou, Lord of the Arashi, and I will not serve another day with the murderer of my kin. Nor shall any other soul under my purview."

Before the eyes of all present, the angry aristocrat pulled off his badge of office and flung it to the floor where it came to rest before Captain Shiba's feet. Yudai glanced down at this token without interest before lifting his eyes to regard his accuser. He did not flinch in the slightest beneath the younger man's venomous stare, only remained calmly standing before the assembly.

A pair of bailiffs came forward to remove the ceremonial wooden cuffs around Yudai's hands. At this Katsurou spun about. Flanked by his masked guards, he strode from the room with regard for no one else. A few of the spectators present called out, imploring him to remain and perhaps persuade him to reconsider.

As for the ranks of the Central 46, they remained silent, though whether due to disinterest or unwillingness to openly beseech another person was known only to them. Traditionally the Arashi had control of Squad Five. Following the previous lord-captain's death, a replacement was found to fill the role until such time as young Katsurou could assume his place as head of the division. That was nearly two centuries ago, and he had held the post of lieutenant for fifty years now. Some were wont to speculate that he did not have what it took to achieve bankai. Perhaps for this reason the Central 46 did not fret over his departure. The loss of all Arashi supporters from the ranks of the Gotei 13 might not be so easy to ignore.

The next day, Isane received word that Lord Arashi had challenged Lord Shiba to a yurei duel.

Supposedly the yurei, or haunting, was a holdover from a more violent ancient age. It was restricted nowadays to the Great Houses, intended as a sacred means to settle scores without resulting in death on either side. Usually a yurei occurred in response to a wrong done against one who could not issue the challenge themselves, such as a young child or a person already deceased. Grudges could supposedly be abolished in this fashion, allowing harmony to prevail. Such duels often ended at first blood.

Upon viewing the report, she knew in her heart Katsurou intended to kill Yudai.

The match was agreed upon three days later. Less than a week after that, Lady Kotetsu found herself sitting under a pavilion accompanied by officials from the other Houses. The Lords and Ladies of both Shihoin and Kuchiki did not attend. And of course, the Takuiyoku line was no more. Which left her the highest-ranking person present. Aside from the two participants, that is. Katsurou specifically marked his notification of challenge as an ubume. The 'mother ghost' addendum made it clear he intended to avenge not only his sister Manami, but also the dead prince Sosuke, even if by royal order the boy's execution was explicitly condoned. Yudai might have even been able to use this technicality as a means to discard the challenge. But he did not. The reason why was never known. Perhaps he too still thirsted for whatever vengeance he could take.

They faced each other before the sun's rays could even finish burning away the morning mists. Stripped to the waist, both men stood at opposite ends of a circle of dirt marked by warding charms. To leave the bounds of this arena meant forfeiture. Elsewise a challenger must be made to yield before their opponent. Spells were not permitted. Traditionally one also did not call upon shikai during a yurei, much less bankai. However this did not rule out the chance.

Katsurou did not bother hiding his hatred, whereas Shiba regarded his opponent with no more interest than were they competing in poetry. Isane could only watch in dread. Even though unable to warn Lord Shiba, she still hoped he did not take the peril lightly. This was more than a matter of restoring honor to Katsurou. His zanpakutō's power meant he could deliver a fatal blow with naught but a scratch. Was Yudai aware of this? It was not an aspect of his soul cutter Katsurou often alluded to, and few even knew the true power of his sword. If Shiba did not view him as a threat, or worse, knew of its abilities but considered Katsurou too weak to injure him, they might be faced with the head of one clan killing another.

It began without fanfare. An adjutant handed each fighter their swords. At a sign from the sanctioned observer, the young lord lunged across the field at his nemesis, blade held in a backhand grip. Yudai met him in a classic kendo pose, both hands wrapped around the hilt of his sword extended to meet the assault. The first clash made Isane flinch. Their ringing soon became a song that filled the glade. The difference between captain and lieutenant was on display for all to see. Arashi was a man full-grown, and Shiba at least twice his elder. Yet every swing made by Katsurou was countered with little effort. Despite numerous attempts to break through the other man's guard, not once did Shiba even take a step back or respond with an attack of his own. This inactivity only served to enrage Katsurou even further. His strokes became more violent. The cuts grew savage and aimed for parts of the body not normally intended for duels. Isane could see perspiration gleaming on his cheeks and dripping down his bare chest. Meanwhile Captain Shiba remained cool as ice.

In the act of deflecting a savage thrust, Shiba's sword licked out and scored a shallow cut along Arashi's left arm. "Yield," the grave-faced lord declared aloud.

Katsurou either did not hear or ignored him. He kept up his assault, growing angrier with every moment. He made not a sound. All the same, it was clear after a few minutes the strain was beginning to tell. The blows fell slower. His shunpō suffered. At one point he staggered from an overstep and nearly fell, righting himself only at the last second. Isane felt her heart go out to him.

Almost half an hour after the duel started, it was obvious to everyone that Katsurou was on his last legs. He stood panting and shaking with the effort of holding up his sword. A dozen more shallow cuts decorated his body, causing blood to leak into the dirt. He looked ready to pass out at any moment. Yet despite this, he still mustered the energy to give one last heroic charge, raising his sword overhead and barreling towards his unmoving adversary with a scream. The double-edged jian licked out, and Yudai raised his own weapon to meet it.

A burst of spirit energy, a visceral tremor of fear through her stomach. Next thing she knew Shiba's blade had been knocked aside and four sharp talons were tearing at his face.

Isane missed what happened then. She only caught the aftermath as Lord Shiba disappeared only to manifest a ways off. He touched his cheek but came away with no blood. Scowling, the incensed swordsman regarded his attacker.

For a brief moment Isane saw Katsurou clearly. His zanpakutō Jorōgumo had transformed into a pair of tekko-kagi claws on either hand. In addition the skin of his body had turned completely white. There was no time for further analysis as he sped in pursuit of Yudai, who now gave ground with every warding blow. Gone was the lethargy and clumsiness that marked the Arashi leader only moments before. His previous debilitation proved to be nothing more than a ruse as he pursued his quarry with the speed and ferocity of a tiger, steel claws moving to knock aside the warding saber in pursuit of a quick kill.

In full shikai, Katsurou was proving to be a greater challenge than anyone might have anticipated. Yudai was on the defensive for real now, unable to fight back. He concentrated on preserving the distance between them, using the superior reach of his weapon to good advantage. But Katsurou's brutal assault proved telling. At one point he nearly forced Shiba outside the boundaries only to let him slip away to one side and continue their duel. Isane doubted that was done by accident. Katsurou didn't want the match to end until he had scored a hit. Should that happen, would Yudai's superior reiatsu enable him to withstand the strike altogether? Or if it did indeed penetrate his natural defenses, could he actually resist the power of Jorōgumo? And why not deploy his own shikai to counter it? Was there simply no chance to do so in the face of this unrelenting onslaught?

A cut to Katsurou's wrist proved useless. It laid open his skin but beneath there was only a dark substance and no blood. Now fighting with controlled fury, the vengeance-seeker drove his opponent across the ring. There were shouts from the spectators, though when Isane made no move to intervene, they were forced to follow her example. Katsurou, Yudai, I beg of you, end this now before anyone can be hurt!

Lord Shiba went to one knee. With an eager snarl Katsurou leapt forth and brought both sets of talons down against the upraised blade, intending to shatter it.

Instead he stumbled forward when no resistance met this blow. There came a flash of light off steel as the arisen Lord Shiba stepped nimbly past him, composed as ever. He followed this up by sheathing his sword in one fluid movement.

"It is over," Yudai declared. "I yield."

Behind him, Katsurou's severed hand landed on the ground.

There was no blood to be seen. All the same, Isane's hands flew to her mouth as Katsurou unleashed a roar that caused several spectators to stagger, so great was the force behind it. Crippled, he swung about and sprang towards the uncaring Shiba, the wildest of hatred contorting his face into something unholy as he sought to strike the man down from behind.

Another imperceptible movement followed, ending when the hilt of a sheathed sword cracked firmly into Arashi's forehead. His body went limp in midair to go rolling across the dirt arena and wind up lying face down. The tekko-kagi strapped to the backs of his hands reverted into a sword. At the same time the unconscious man's skin returned to normal, and blood began to gout from his arm.

Isane was there before anyone else could reach him. By the time more people came up she already had a bandage in place and a spell to stop the bleeding. The Squad Four lieutenant took control, ordering them to bear her patient back to the pavilion and collect his sword arm as well. This was her domain now.

Once he was settled in she dismissed the onlookers and got to work. Her magic settled into his body, and Katsurou's eyes flew open. He looked at her, then down at the wounded limb. His lips twisted in bitter anguish.

"Don't worry," she sought to reassure him. "The cut was clean. I'll be able to reattach it with ease."

"No."

His words caused her to hold off. Lieutenant Kotetsu gazed down at him with a stricken expression. "Katsurou…"

"I will not come away from this with nothing," he rasped hoarsely, sweat beading his forehead as he stared up at the ceiling with one good hand clenched into a fist. "At the very least, he has given me a token to remember it by."

Hesitantly Isane watched him for any sign that he might change his mind. It could be due to the pain or grief; perhaps a combination of both. Yet his words and face registered only firm resolve. Thus with utmost sadness she agreed to his decision before doing whatever else she could. The arm was burned that very day. Once assured he was not in any danger she allowed his attendants to bear him back to the Arashi estates where he might recover.


Captain Shiba returned to his home and command following the duel. Although he had technically settled the matter by yielding first, this did not produce quite the closure one might have expected. Had he submitted beforehand or even stepped out of bounds, it would have been sufficient to end things and allow honor to be retained by both sides.

But maiming the head of another clan during a duel was not considered laudable by noble standards. Even if no one said it aloud, such conduct earned Yudai greater opprobrium among the noble houses of Seireitei than ever before. The fact that Katsurou clearly meant to kill him in no way mitigated their reproach. While largely a political move considering the Shiba clan was weakened and the Arashi remained strong, personal sentiment played no small part. Other families quietly withdrew their support from Yudai. His family suffered as a result. With their influence grievously lessened by the Manor Wars, the House of Shiba limped along for several more centuries before finally losing all status and prestige. In a way, Katsurou won.

Yet even that might not be enough. Could he still yearn for revenge?

Isane went to sleep that night in her husband's arms feeling more troubled than she could say.


Ganju Shiba planted himself at the starting line with arms crossed and feet spread wide. His face was deadly serious. "The rules are simple! Start when I say 'Go'! First man to launch his firework and return across the finish line will be proclaimed the winner! Are you ready, gentlemen?"

Standing side-by-side before him, Kaizou Konpaku and Noboru Kuchiki grinned at one another. After that nightmarish stint with the Dragon Lady and her underage apprentices, Kon sorely felt the need to work himself to the bone and thereby prevent any of that rot from settling in his already perverted brain. Since the shop was closed today so that Nee-san could catch up on her shinigami duties, this had proven the perfect opportunity to take Noboru up on his oft-repeated challenges.

Now both stood ready to answer a call each kept close to his heart. In their faces the two contestants recognized the self-same excitement they themselves were feeling at this very moment. For those who lived and died by speed, one simply couldn't resist a chance… to race!

"Can I offer you a head start, old-timer?" the Kuchiki prince drawled.

"Pfft!" the mod soul shook his head. "Who you calling 'old-timer'? I'm half your age at best!"

"Take your places!"

Ganju's bellow meant warmups were over. Both challengers assumed their starting positions. "No fair stretching your zanpakutō out to win even if it is part of your soul!" Kon called out.

"No fair biting off your tongue and spitting it across the finish line if we're neck and neck!"

"Seriously, kid! You are spending too much time with that crazy ninja chick!"

Noboru simply laughed like it was all a big joke. The requisite one-upmanship was out of the way. Thus the contenders gave a nod to their appointed referee. Sporting a backwards-turned baseball cap and bright striped shirt that he had brought back from the mortal realm, Ganju Shiba raised his arm. "On your mark… !"

Kon couldn't help shivering as he crouched down. His heart pounded with anticipation. He hadn't raced like this since he was back in the labs. Time to see who the fastest man in all of Soul Society might be!

"Get set… !"

Too bad there's not an audience. Rukia, maybe, or some hot babes. Man's gotta have babes waiting to jump all over him after he wins a big match…

"GO!"

Ganju was promptly blown off his feet as two living missiles launched.

The world became a blur, flashing by at a supernatural pace. Kon darted a glance over at his opponent before pouring it on. He was resolved that be the last time he check the kid's position for the rest of the race. From here on out unless Noboru happened to pull in front of him, only what lay straight ahead mattered.

Before them stretched a track marked by flags far past the point either of them could see. Thirty leagues long from one end to the other, it was set in the grasslands of Soul Society's outer limits where no living habitations existed. Noboru suggested it; apparently his father had fought a battle here early in his career as a shinigami against what some suspected was an early iteration of the Espada. Byakuya's proud offspring excitedly recommended the course be booby-trapped in honor of that event to add a further element of risk; yet another sign the Viper Company captain was having an ill effect on him. Kon and Ganju voted his amendment down.

This event was considered an even match. Kon had on what he affectionately called his Super-Suit, crafted by the R&D Bureau specifically for speed-mods like him. This boosted his abilities tremendously. He had been wondering for a while now just how powerful his natural modifications enhanced by this getup were when compared to, say, an above-average shinigami soul. Like a lieutenant. Or a captain, even. And this was an excellent chance to test that. Noboru hailed from a line famed far and wide for its fleet-footed legacy, trained to maximize speed to its limit. His soul cutter Hanuman was now released but kept at its smallest length, clipped onto a custom-made belt behind his back. They were both at maximum power, each eager to see just how that compared. Scientific enhancement against natural-born legend! Which would triumph?!

Kon powered on, allowing his limbs to move without holding back. There would be no question of getting tired over a mere 100-mile dash. And that's where his best advantage lay. For all Noboru's innate talent, he had limits in terms of endurance. His soul body wasn't fully matured, for starters. He couldn't sustain high velocity indefinitely. Thanks to this gigai and the suit's amplifications, Kon could go full-tilt practically from the get-go. That should allow for a comfortable lead. Full throttle; both barrels; feet, don't fail me now! Ultimately speed would decide everything! Kon blazed across the grasslands faster than the wind.

And there was Noboru, smack dab in his field of vision.

No, oh no, come on! How is that even possible?!

Just like that the kid pulled out even further, giving Kon a clear look at his form. The boy moved like he came out of the womb running. He didn't glance over his shoulder or crow out discouragements or anything you might expect. Instead he just went right on past. Kon had never seen the normally mercurial Noboru so focused on anything. When he ran, there was no bravado or lightheartedness. He raced like there was an enemy chasing him, as though his life depended on it. Is that how his mother trained him?

While Kon was engrossed by this performance, the speeding youth had pulled a full body length ahead. Disbelief turned to outrage, and the mod turned his attention back to the race. Don't get distracted! If you let him outpace you, he'll never slack off! Gotta increase the pace, gotta go faster!

His stride lengthened. At the same time he increased his output to the point where the strain went from being negligible to undeniable. It was a mad pell-mell frantic burst that enabled him to close the gap.

For a moment, at least. But when he failed to overtake Noboru fully, despair crept in. His gain became simply keeping up with him. Then little by little, Kon began to fall back. More! More!

I can't. I'm already at 100%, there's nothing more to give. I'm going to lose… again.

What's coming in second in a two-man race, Kon? Dead last…

Don't be like that. So he's got something chasing him? You know all about that. Remember when you were born? The tests, the races? Those who didn't perform well were destroyed. You felt Death on your heels back then. It's the same now! Let it motivate you!

Dread of disappointment. The need to outperform others or risk being deemed a failure. Simple, honest terror. These lashed him on. Kon drew upon the deep-rooted fear that this performance could be his last. And the lengthening gap between the two racers came to a halt.

No idea how long they had been running. But up ahead, the halfway point reared into view. Two fireworks launchers were set up within a few feet of each other. They looked like bazookas sticking straight up out of the ground connected to pedals at their bases. Ganju had explained how all you had to do was pump the pedal and it would launch. Unless your firework was spotted you wouldn't be the winner even if you crossed the finish line first. He had to set it off. That meant it was time to start slowing down.

Between one step and the next Noboru suddenly lifted both feet off the ground, hit the earth and jumped!

He soared along like a bird, held aloft by the awesome inertia propelling him forward up to this point. And it hit Kon that he was going to land right on top of the pedal. There would be no talk of slowing. The little maniac had turned himself into a huge mallet falling towards the target. And the instant he fired his missile he would kick back off in the other direction.

His decision happened instantaneously. Noboru's move was bold and unexpected, to be sure. However it necessitated he stop moving to reorient himself, even if for only the briefest possible time. This offered a slight advantage if Kon could just manage to not have that heartbeat of immobility.

So he made the only move he could. And that was to charge forward without lessening his gait in the slightest.

He was moving so fast he outpaced the mechanical click as the speed prince's palm slammed into the launching mechanism. Before the firework could even ignite Noboru had already bent down to reverse course.

Another click, and Kon dashed past, smashing his foot atop the pedal without stopping. Just have to hope it was enough. He then executed a U-turn so fast and tight anyone watching might seriously believe the mod soul had been replaced by someone moving in the opposite direction. The strain was telling. All that forward momentum had to be reversed, converted without losing any more than necessary. For a moment he felt certain his pivoting ankle was going to fly to pieces.

Maybe in any another body, it would have. But this one held. And as the two contestants sprang into the second half of their race, it was Kon who managed to take the lead.

His teeth were clenched tight enough to crack. 'There's a bomb behind you,' he told himself, 'and it's about to explode. Gotta get as far away as possible before then.' Technically it was true. Fireworks counted as explosives. Faster, faster, away from the blast radius, if you hear it then you're dead.

A green flash lit the world, followed almost immediately by a crimson one. The fireworks both got off. That just leaves the race itself.

There was no sound anymore. They were moving too fast for that. Yet when he saw a shadow move up to join his own striving double on the ground, Kon knew that Noboru had overtaken him again.

If he wins, he gets a pat on the head from his Mom and Dad. But if you lose, your father will kill you, Kon. He'll pop you out of that gigai and hand you over to Nemu to be disposed of. Just like that. You'll join all your brothers and sisters. Can you feel them right behind you, reaching to grab hold? If they touch you, you'll become one of them. Don't let them catch you! Outrun the dead! RUN!

Tears poured down his face unnoticed. Kon was so scared he didn't know what to believe anymore. He honestly feared everything that had occurred to him over the past few years was naught but a dream, and now he was right back in the training grounds where he started, blazing past the others whom he knew might be condemned to death by his victory. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I just don't want to die!

Pain. Tiredness. None of that mattered. Only fear.

Ganju was visible off in the distance, holding a long red ribbon the other end of which was clamped between the jaws of his beloved boar Bonnie, who slouched across from him. It was so absurd Kon took it as a sign that he had gone mad.

Even worse, however, was when a slight flicker on the edge of perception in his left eye slowly gained focus into what he recognized as Noboru Kuchiki.

I can see him. That means he's winning. Or we're tied. Would that be so bad? No clear winner? Everybody's happy and nobody's upset. Just back to square one.

Don't settle for a dead heat, you loser. No sharing of the victor's cup allowed. What, think Ichigo's gonna share his 1st place prize with you? Let you have a taste of Rukia-chan?

No?

Then WIN!

He was screaming in one long sustained howl. No doubt about it. Shrieking aloud, burning all the reserves his soul had to offer and anything that was left over. Mine! Mine! MINE! She's mine I saw her first you're killing me I WANT IT ALL!

MINE!

Kon hit the earth as his legs gave out beneath him. He slid to a stop and just lay sprawled out, not even breathing, staring at the topsy-turvy world that met his eyes. He was shaking with terror and exhaustion, heartbeat sounding faint even though he knew it must be pounding like a jackhammer. Upon looking at his hands it dawned on him that he was bleeding.

Wait, that's not blood. It's just a red ribbon.

"Winner: Kon!"

At these words, he passed out.

Kon regained consciousness as fast as he left it. He felt cold and sick. On top of that there was a noxious smell in his nostrils, and he was being jounced up and down against a rough scratchy surface. His arms and legs flopped a bit. Whatever cotton had been jammed in his ears went away, allowing him to hear what turned out to be an unpleasant grunting close at hand, accompanied by words.

"…inally home. And stop being such a brat! Losing is no cause for abandoning one's pride."

"Easy for you to say! I've never seen you win anything."

"Hmph! Some prince you are. Snapping and moaning at the first little defeat. Such behavior is the only disgrace you've earned today." There came a short sharp whistle that caused Kon's method of conveyance to lurch to a halt. The grunting subsided as well. "A true man honors the victor without complaint, viewing it as a chance to improve himself! That's how we do it in the Noble House of Shiba!"

"Funny, I seem to remember someone from the Noble House of Shiba screaming, 'Please stop, Nee-chan, I'm gonna puke!' And then his sister threatened to pack him into a cannon as wadding and fire him into…"

"Didah wyn?"

This last came from Kon. He had opened his eyes by that point and could now see Ganju and Noboru clearly. Doing so allowed him to finally realize he was draped across the giant boar Bonnie's back like a sack of rice. Right now his body felt about as versatile. All the same, when the animal drew up short he slid off her and somehow found his footing, holding onto her rough hide to steady himself.

"You all right?" Ganju looked him up and down with concern as he trussed the four-legged beast to a stall.

"Yeah. Think so." That sense of bone-deep exhaustion had eased to some extent. Upon looking around Kon discovered they were back at the lonely Shiba household. The deceptively small home was flanked by two gigantic stone arms bearing the owner's motto of 'Guts'. Those familiar with the layout knew the larger part of the complex was buried underground, allowing the family head to practice her pyrotechnic arts without fear of damaging the landscape. Did we really come all the way back here? Man, was I out of it.

Noboru idled on over and nudged him in experimental fashion, as though curious whether Kon could stay on his feet. "That was quite a slide into home you did," he pronounced. "Left a trough in the dirt longer than Ganju's leash. We had to dig you out."

"You little punk, I oughtta–!"

"Relax, vaquero, just letting off steam. I'm not used to getting beat by anyone but my Mom. And maybe Feng," he added when Ganju looked about to jump in with a retort. "Aggghhh!" Noboru then bent over and savagely mussed his hair into a thoroughly messy state before snapping upright to stand there fuming. "I hate losing! It sucks! Once more, Kon, c'mon, let's go again!"

"Guess that means Kon's the champ now, eh, boys?"

They all looked over to find Ganju's older sister Kukaku standing by the open door. For once she wasn't smoking a pipe. However this was not the most glaring alteration to her usual attire. The white burnoose that usually held up her spiky mane was gone. Once unruly hair had been combed and brushed into submission. Sleek black twin tails fell all the way down her back held by jeweled clasps. In addition Kukaku now had on a dark green silk kaftan with more cloth hanging off it than looked possible, much less comfortable. An embroidered sleeve was rolled up to the elbow allowing her tattooed arm to show. Its mate hung loose, flapping slightly in a breeze. She sported no further jewelry, but in her hand was held a huge white shawl hemmed in gold thread. It rippled from a gust, allowing them to see the black symbol of her clan standing out against those pristine folds. Kukaku's eyelids were outlined in kohl that glittered faintly whenever she blinked.

Kon found himself unable to tear his eyes away. He had never seen her look so dolled up. There was a mesmerizing quality about this exotic princess from foreign lands that clashed with his mental perception of the bombastic bombshell who ruled over her small family with an iron fist.

"Yo, Anego!" Noboru waved eagerly beside him."Looking spiffy! What's with the new coat of paint on the old battlewagon?"

Kukaku flicked her eyes at the cheeky little monkey-prince, and they could all see a vein throbbing unrestrainedly in her forehead. The requisite blow to the head never manifested, however. Instead she turned away to regard the darkening eastern sky. Even Noboru looked surprised to not have his crown cracked.

"I'm going on an o-miai," the one-armed woman declared.

As they absorbed this information, from behind the house twin guardsmen Shiroganehiko and Koganehiko came trooping out hoisting a palanquin between them. While the bronze and silk trappings were old, they had been tended assiduously so as not to lose their luster. Both bearers settled this burden down in front of their mistress and came around to stand before her. Kukaku held up the shawl, which Koganehiko obediently accepted to place with great reverence atop her head. The fabric was so long it nearly touched the ground and enveloped her like a cape.

Now fully invested in this formal wear, she came about to confront the trio. Kon experienced a strong urge to fall to his knees before her. For the first time when it came to the Shiba Clan it felt like he was in the presence of royalty.

"I've left a study packet for you, Ganju. Have it completed by the time I return."

"Yes, Nee-chan! I wish you good fortune in your pursuits!"

A slight narrowing of the eyes followed by the teensiest grimace almost spoiled that majestic countenance. Having said all she cared to, Kukaku stepped into the palanquin as Shiroganehiko held open the drapery for her. Once settled inside the burly bodyguards took up their respective places and lifted the silken box carrying its precious cargo. They then trotted in perfect unison down the lane.

"An o-miai?" Kon finally hazarded as they watched the party leave. "Like a blind date for a prospective marriage? I didn't think your sister would be involved in something like that."

For once Ganju surprised them both by maintaining a serious mien totally unlike his normal over-the-top state. "It's her duty as the head of the Shiba Clan. Nee-chan must present herself to potential partners so as to find a suitable match from which future generations will spring. We are all that remains of our bloodline, so it's doubly important that we do so."

"Yeah, I know about that." Noboru chewed his lip. He seemed antsy on the topic, and Kon thought he understood where that anxiety stemmed from. After all, there was another marriage in the works neither of them could say they were looking forward to. "So who's she stuck with tonight?"

"The seventh son of the Sassato."

Unused to the intrigues of the afterlife, Kon could still guess by the way the young prince's brow furrowed this held a measure of importance. "I think that's one of our vassal families," Noboru said. "And a pretty important one too." He clearly understood something about this whole affair when he added, "Mom and Dad might be up to something. Even if the Shiba don't have as much clout as they used to, your name still carries weight. Marriage doesn't happen in our families without a lot of stuff going on behind the scenes."

"Nee-chan once told me our older brother Kaien had been promised in marriage before, but he broke the agreement when he married Miyako. She said our father was furious with him. However at that point there was nothing that could be done." Ganju's thick lips curled. He pulled off his head covering and twisted it restlessly between his fingers. "I'm no different. Nee-chan has arranged a few o-miai on my behalf, and I have attended them so as to bear up our proud heritage."

Noboru scuffed his toes through the dirt in hesitation before asking, "So… how'd they turn out?"

Still gazing off into the distance, Ganju said only, "The suitors were not impressed. By us, or our family's prospects."

Hearing the thinly disguised hurt in his voice, Kon's heart went out to him. This whole line of conversation drew uncomfortable parallels to the most divisive issues currently in his life. He shot a look at Noboru. An unspoken communication passed between them, and he stepped forward to drape a reassuring arm around the big man's shoulders. "C'mon, Ganju. Waddaya say we pop open some of the good stuff and toast three of the most eligible bachelors in Soul Society?"

"I'm with you, champ!" Noboru spoke up with an eager grin. He had apparently gotten over the sting of losing by this point.

Ganju leveled a heavy frown at the royal rascal. "No booze for you. Still too young."

"Yeah, we'll see about that." The trio of friends made their way into the house in search of something to liven up the mood. After walking for a bit, though, Noboru spoke. "Hey, Ganju?"

"Yes?"

"I'd marry your sister. In a heartbeat."

For a moment that blockish jaw clenched, as though striving to determine how to take that comment. At last he let out his breath with a heavy sigh. "Thank you, Noboru-sama."

A few seconds passed. Kon counted them in his head. Any minute now…

"So, got any naked pictures of her? Like just getting out of the bath and reaching for a towel to –"

"YOU DIRTY LITTLE MONKEY!"

Now it was Ganju chasing a happily laughing Noboru down the halls. "While I've got your attention, Shiba-gozen, how would you feel about marrying my aunt?"

"WHEN I GET MY HANDS ON YOU…!"

Smiling affectionately, Kon shuffled in the wake of yet another two-man race. I won the last one, he reflected. Maybe there's still a chance I can pull off another miracle? Or at least put in a good showing.

Let's hope so. Second place means death. At least where I'm from.


Upon entering the R&D Bureau to be greeted by her eager-to-please subsidiaries, Rukia preempted their presentations with one of her own. "I need a volunteer."

Perhaps that statement held implications in this building with which she was not familiar. For immediately upon uttering it, every single one of those formerly eager academics tensed like a deer in headlights. They clustered before her at the first floor testing hall, eyes darting furtively from one side to the other, hunting for a solution their brilliant minds clearly needed more information to digest. To say the least, none of them leapt forward at the prospect. No surprise. Upon reflection it sounded like something Mayuri Kurotsuchi might have said before one of his famously fatal experiments. Well, then, seems a little salvage is in order.

"The matter I am proposing is in no way detrimental to your health."

Several shoulders visibly relaxed.

"However it will require a great deal of time to be spent upon it."

To her surprise, they now cringed as though she had threatened them with summary execution.

Honestly, it's like telling children they have to stop playing and come inside.

Little Anbu seemed about to step forward and thought better of it, perhaps realizing this might be taken as a sign of acquiescence. "Patroness," she spoke politely, taking off her glasses to polish them. "You know we're only too glad to offer support in your enterprises. But with our current timetable and spate of experiments, I'm afraid anything that took us away for a prolonged period would have terrible repercussions for the state of our research."

There was a rumble of consensus to go along with that. Rukia regarded them all, a bit unsure how to proceed. She had not been expecting so much dissent. I wonder how they usually decide on this sort of thing?

"Sorry I'm late! The vending machine wouldn't take my drachma."

There was a low rustle of cloth as all heads turned to fixate on Rin Tsubokura, who had come sliding in through a side door. With his headlight eyes widened even more so from confusion, the little scientist looked imploringly between them, the rat tail at the front of his forehead wiggling back and forth. "What did I miss?"

As if acting on a signal, Anbu perked up and shouted, "1-2-3, NOT IT!"

"NOT IT!" her fellow white-garbed researchers announced in unison.

The great chorus of negatives caused Rin to jump. With that the collection of the best minds in Soul Society bowed politely to Rukia, giving well-meaning offers to view the fruits of their efforts later, before turning to stroll away leaving her alone with their duly appointed sacrificial lamb.

Well, guess that answers that.

She pursed her lips, debating whether or not to exercise some lieutenant-level authority. But the die had been cast. No sense complaining about the result now. It was a selfish request to begin with. Beggars can't be choosers.

Very funny.

Let's get started.

Shortly after this unwitting election saw her reclining in a small room that might have been Rin's personal quarters. A large collection of monitors displaying the current goings-on in other parts of the complex took up nearly one wall, while boxes and unopened packages were piled atop one another in rickety fashion. Seated in a chair that had been frantically swept clear of food packets and highly detailed diagrams, the Patroness and her new lab monkey were coming to terms.

"Here you are, Ojousama." Rin came out from behind a stack of boxes with a plate of items resembling coconut macaroons and kyauk kyaw, a bright pink seaweed jelly confectionary. He settled it down on a small coffee table and smiled anxiously. "Please help yourself."

She felt just a bit ashamed at making him go to all the trouble of getting these for her. But truth be told, Rukia enjoyed sampling the goodies Rin put so much stock in. Perhaps a holdover of her life on the streets when food was scant and sweets hard to come by. Most people would be leery about eating candy received from a member of Ibis Company, even after Mayuri Kurotsuchi's departure. However Rukia enjoyed a somewhat more privileged status in this department than even allowed for by nobility. As such she promptly set to on the aforementioned dish with gusto. Picking up a cube of sweetened cellophane, she took a bite.

"Ummm…" Rin hopped from one foot to another. "Does it… taste alright?"

"It's delightful," she affirmed, pausing only to take a sip from her juice box before continuing.

"You know," Rin volunteered with a bright smile, "I've been curious for a while now what constitutes any difference between taste experienced here and in the mortal realm. That is, does a chocolate bar eaten in the afterlife seem recognizable to a new soul fresh from dying? Do they remember it tasting the same? And what affects this flavor? Is it the memories brought over from the dead themselves? Does it exist separate from them and thereby inhabit anything construed to be food from the living world?"

"Rin-san…"

There was a note of silent menace in her voice that did not go unnoticed. As such poor Tsubokura clammed up quick. Rukia took some time to enjoy her repast (and the adorably frightened expression he now wore) before getting back to business. "I appreciate your willingness to shoulder this undertaking, Rin-san. Having seen your work firsthand, I know you can be depended on to produce quality results."

"That's… very kind of you… my lady. How may I be of assistance?"

He had apparently accepted his fate. One less thing to worry about. Rukia withdrew a small pyramid from her pocket. Made of blue glass with an orange metal tip, she extended it out to him.

"Enclosed herein is the entirety of the marriage proposal being offered to me. The charm is set to be updated whenever new material is added in the immediate future. Your task will be to go through these forms relating as they do to the laws of nobility and determine if there might be anything untoward or otherwise hidden contained within them."

When she looked up, it was to find him staring at her.

"M… marriage proposal?" he blurted out, aghast.

Rukia raised an eyebrow. "Did no one inform you?"

"NO! I mean… we're a little secluded here, sure, but… why didn't you tell us you were getting married?!"

It came as a surprise to see him this upset about the topic. Since when did Rin care about that sort of thing? She had never known him to be concerned about anything unrelated to science and snacks.

Maybe now is not the best time to mention that you're pregnant too.

Agreed.

He took the offering a tad sulkily, handling it as though unsure which way was up. When he turned back to her there was an expression of remonstrance that seemed quite out of place on his normally downtrodden face. "I'll go over this thoroughly, my lady. Ah… I take it you don't want the contents to be scrutinized by anyone else?"

"That is a key stipulation. Consider yourself under contract, as such. No word of these affairs should be let slip under any circumstances."

"I understand." Here Rin looked to ponder something before speaking next. "And the marriage itself? Can I tell the others? Or is that a secret too."

"You mean your colleagues here in Ibis?" He nodded quickly. After some internal debate she finally said, "I see no reason why not."

"Alright. Let me get a secure storage container set up for this. I'll be right back, Ojousama. Please ring if there's anything you need in the meantime."

He scuttled out into the hallway, the door closing behind him with a soft swish, leaving her alone for the time being. After glancing about the cluttered confines and finding nothing of notable interest she settled for watching the viewscreens. They looked to show some of the public areas of the labs where displays and trials were held, as well as communal spots. Rukia remembered how Mayuri liked to have his assistants on call every hour of the day.

There was so much going on it was hard to know where to look first. A new explosive was being tested; that could prove useful in future engagements. Was that a miniaturization trial being conducted? Hiyosu's 'Lucky Mallet' had entered the final stages by the look of it. For a moment she actually caught a glimpse of Rin as he went traipsing towards the lower levels.

Wait…

Was that Ichigo…?


"What brings you by, Kurosaki-san?" Captain Urahara asked.

The boy accepted the offer to sit across from him with fists tightly clenched. Their relationship had never quite recovered from Ichigo's accusations following the Autumn War. The fact that Urahara never bothered to confirm or deny them only served to rile him up all the more. Six months of solitary confinement had done its part to help Kisuke take a more reserved outlook on things. Perhaps the same could not be said for Ichigo. Regardless, there would be no chance of unleashing Benihime on him. Unless he insisted on throwing his weight around, of course.

Imagine our anticipation of such a display.

For once you and I are in complete agreement.

"Did you have anything to do with Rukia's pregnancy?"

I imagine it's just eating him up not being able to take a swing… at…

Chin in hand, Urahara stared at the red-haired teen.

Boring. Deal with this matter.

Benihime's departure left her erstwhile master to collect himself. After a few moments of careful consideration, the captain leaned forward and affixed his one-time protégé with a steady gaze. I could rile him up with a sly innuendo. Maybe recommend couples counseling. Or perhaps string him along to get more information. Nah, too much work. I've got enough on my plate, and as much fun playing games with Ichigo can be, in this case I believe I'll take the conciliatory approach.

"I'm going to need you to start at the beginning, Kurosaki-san."

"Rukia's pregnant."

"Understood. How did she wind up that way?"

"I don't know! I mean…" Here his face turned quite red and he crossed his arms, clutching the sleeves of his shihakusho. "Well, nobody told me that was even possible for a gigai! Except for my Dad, and we never talked about that. I just assumed it would take… something more," he concluded lamely.

Urahara felt a faint stirring of sympathy for the bewildered youth. It left him more inclined to be helpful. Always more chances to screw with him later. He leaned back in his chair and looked around the office. "Let me make a few things clear for you, Kurosaki-san. First off, yes, you are correct that under normal circumstances a shinigami in a gigai would not become pregnant if they were to engage in sex with a human."

It was adorable the way the kid twisted in his seat like a bashful child at that word. A deftly placed fan prevented Kisuke's smile from being too obvious and he continued.

"Even if two shinigami wearing gigai had sex, the result would be the same: nothing. Faux bodies maintain a rudimentary semblance of living beings when inhabited, allowing one to eat, breathe, and even bleed should that be warranted. But they don't mimic your systems completely. As you know, a gigai's primary purpose is to allow weakened shinigami to recover their strength. In fact, wearing one for an extended period can prove uncomfortable for us, even toxic. You're essentially walking around in what amounts to a mannequin and…"

"Is all this necessary?" Ichigo demanded acerbically.

One blonde eyebrow rose in a derogatory manner. "Only if you're interested." Before the boy could frame a retort he proceeded. "Now, in the case of your father, the matter was rather tricky. In order to fully invest his gigai, he had to seal his power completely, rendering him a regular soul without access to shinigami abilities. The product he received from me was specially designed to have the potential for things like reproductive capabilities. I'll spare you the details on what that involves. Suffice it to say, the living body you have always taken for granted as your father is actually more of a reanimated corpse with a soul inside."

"As for Rukia's gigai, it was developed here, but not under my purview," Kisuke said. "The 12th Division invented false bodies and thus they were in charge of manufacturing them for any shinigami who came calling. Her special gigai provided by me was listed as destroyed following her arrest."

The boy didn't move in his seat. He just glared at Urahara as though judging the veracity of his words. Clearly he intended to ask next about whether Rukia's gigai had undergone any modifications without her knowledge. And in truth there was good reason to suspect as such under the circumstances. Right now Urahara himself couldn't determine one way or another as to whether Mayuri might have set out to do that very thing, much less why he would have done so in the first place. In fact he had just been about to carry out another reanimation procedure on the person in question when this scowling firebrand came barging in and started poking his accusatory nose everywhere.

Although, if given the proper prodding…

"When it came time for her to return to the mortal realm after our little encounter with Ulquiorra Schiffer and his pet rock, she requested and received a custom gigai constructed by the R&D Dept. The whole thing happened under Mayuri's tenure well before I ever made it back across the divide. So if you have any questions, you'd best talk to him."

A slight twitch on Ichigo's part did not go unnoticed. It wasn't difficult to guess what he thought of that suggestion. "I'll just ask the people who worked on it! Who were they?"

"According to my records…" he pretended to look up some information on a screen that was clearly blank before swiveling around with a bland smile. "Mayuri Kurotsuchi."

The look of impending murder that descended on Ichigo's face would have been funny if aimed at someone else. "Is there some way…" he bit out, "to learn… what he might have done?"

"I'm glad you asked. As a matter of fact…"


Twenty minutes later saw them in a sub-laboratory of the sprawling complex. Ichigo looked around the huge room while he waited. Tiny dolls that resembled Mayuri Kurotsuchi hustled about doing odd cleaning.

"Okay, all set. Right this way, Kurosaki-san! Your table is ready."

A distinct sense of trepidation descended on him which he tried to ignore. Ichigo approached the setup Kisuke had been puzzling over since they got here. His annoyingly audible comments of, "Whoops! That would have been bad!" and, "I wonder if he'd notice if I… nah, better not," had been grating on the voluntary guinea pig's nerves for a while. He was glad that the procedure appeared to be ready. Although Ichigo did have to admit he doubted his sanity at agreeing to something like this. Perhaps the revelations of the past few months had done more harm to his judgement than originally thought. Even his little sisters had been affected negatively by his actions, making him feel more guilty than ever.

I still can't believe I'm doing this.

The apparatus didn't appear complicated. There was a surgical bed he was meant to lie on. Beside this stood Kisuke Urahara holding a metal cap with jagged spikes sticking out of it. It looked like a morning star that had been cut in half. He dimly recalled seeing something like that before, and realized it was similar to what Mayuri wore back during the Autumn War when he showed up in Rukia's old gigai. Those memories were too disturbing to linger upon, so he didn't.

Wires had been strung from the spikes on the helmet to connect with a ring of metal rods at the center of which was the late Mayuri Kurotsuchi himself. Ishida had related to him what fate befell the former 12th Division Captain during the war, but this was his first time seeing it in person. All that remained of Mayuri was a giant green stalactite the color of chrysoprase. Supposedly he remained alive despite all appearances to the contrary. Urahara had been insistent that he not try and touch it while they were getting things ready. Ichigo simply remarked that he would never have touched the guy while he was alive, why would he do so when he was… mostly dead.

Kisuke patted the raised platform vigorously. "Have a seat, my daring young explorer."

He obeyed, though not without caution. Why the hell did I ever agree to do this? "Should I ask him if he has any suggestions for you on how to break him loose while I'm in there?

"If you like."

The spiritual huckster managed to sound utterly disinterested at the idea of receiving Mayuri's input. Big surprise. Those two would sooner tear their own throats out than admit they needed help from one another.

"It's not too late to change your mind, you know."

When Ichigo looked up, it was somewhat surprising to find Urahara regarding him with calm scrutiny, eyes alert to any sign that there might be a change of heart on his part. This more than anything served to cement Ichigo's resolve. "Let's just get it over with."

"Very well."

With that he placed the helmet on Ichigo's head and tied a strap beneath his chin. As he set about making some last-minute adjustments to the contraption that easygoing voice continued in its lecture. "As I said, there's a good deal of danger involved. Even if he wasn't currently operating under the influence of several lifetimes worth of devastation, I've no doubt Mayuri has safeguards in place to prevent intrusion into his mind. Which is why we never tried this procedure before. The precautions we've taken should keep you from falling into the feedback loop that's kept him shut down all this time. If there's any trace of his consciousness left in there, it'll be up to you to find it. Remember, we still don't know how his condition works. There's a very real chance that even with the firewalls installed you might be overwhelmed by the pain loop the moment you enter. Should that happen, Nemu will break the connection without fail."

He indicated over to where his impassive lieutenant stood patiently waiting for the procedure to begin. Ichigo rather wished he had a guardian angel in his corner who didn't look like she couldn't care less whether he lived or died. But that was probably the least troublesome part of this endeavor. "What's the worst that could happen?" he asked, half joking and half curious.

"Worst case scenario? Your mind will become trapped in there with him and we'll never be able to get it out. Meaning you'll be prison-torture-cell buddies with Mayuri Kurotsuchi forever."

"I think I see why nobody volunteered for this procedure before," Kurosaki groused with a straight face.

"Very low chance of that happening. Try not to think about it. Too much." His work complete, Urahara took a step back and stood with hands on his hips studying this latest experiment and the person attached to it. He passed an arm across his brow, sighed, glanced all around, and then finally looked at Ichigo and said, "All cards on the table, kid. If worse comes to worst, I will go in there myself to bring you back, even if it means I get left behind. So just relax and do your best to wow us like you always do."

This quiet admission, part reassurance and part encouragement, was so surprising the shinigami substitute found himself at a loss how to respond. At last he settled on, "Thanks."

"What, you think I plan to be around to explain to Rukia, your Dad, and Yoruichi why I let you get mind-wiped? Not on your life, young man. Eternal pain beats that scenario hands down. While you're in there try and impress on Mayuri that I'm doing everything reasonable to fix his little affliction and he should hold out as best he can." He then held up a small rectangular remote. "We're all set. Let me know when you're ready."

Swallowing down the taste of bile roiling in his throat, Ichigo declared, "Do it."

"Okay." And Urahara pushed the button. "Remember, don't trust anything you find in there."

I wonder if I'll feel any–


Ichigo gazed about slowly.

A path stretched below his feet, very narrow, wide enough only to allow one person just barely. It looked to be made of a soft white light.

Where am I? How did I get here? Everything's… fuzzy.

All about loomed the most impenetrable grey fog imaginable. But not empty. For falling softly through this swirling abyss there came giant crystalline snowflakes.

At least this was the first comparison that came to mind. They were beautiful, turning round and around as they drifted downwards until becoming lost to view. Each was huge, bigger than himself. They seemed to emit a tingling note at intervals, like wind chimes clinking in a faint breeze ever so gently. It was quite peaceful standing here just listening to those glimmering glass artworks. Each had its own tune which they traded off to one another in a round-robin of soothing litanies Any thought of continuing onward was swept away, and Ichigo continued to stare in total peace at this display. All worries and fears which beset him until now had grown vague and unquantifiable. Far better to stay right here and marvel at this wonderland.

While he watched one of the crystal stars drift close to his position, an urge to reach out and touch it came upon him. Ichigo lifted a hand to act upon this compulsion.

On the verge of doing so, he stopped.

The snowflake turned towards him, and he could have sworn it… smiled.

It was so very realistic. For just a moment facets and panes lined up to as to resemble a terrible grin, full of unrestrained glee and eagerness at the prospect of their touching. He had no idea what it truly meant. But right then Ichigo knew for a fact that these things meant him harm.

Shaken by this realization, he pulled his hand back. The construct went drifting by to disappear into the bottomless void below this position. Now trembling from the presence of peril, the adventurer continued down the glowing path, trying to ignore the musical entreaties slyly demanding attention. After a while when he looked back they were nowhere to be found.

This place is a threat to everyone who approaches it. Was all this entirely in the mind? If that were the case things appeared bleak. While he no doubt had the edge in terms of spiritual strength, Mayuri had him severely outclassed in terms of mental firepower. What am I supposed to do about it?

Of a sudden the gloomy shroud went away to be replaced by a red swarming morass of sluggish plasma. In some strange way it almost seemed to be transparent. Purple lightning crackled off in the distance, and he could faintly hear thunder accompanying it, which made his ears tingle unpleasantly. He could have sworn there was a smell like blood in his nose.

This crimson dystopia started to press in on him from all sides, and the path grew even more narrow. Ichigo found himself unable to take another step and had to resort to inching along with his body turned to one side along the tightrope down which he struggled.

Staring at the shifting turmoil a few inches from his nose made him dizzy. Feeling as though he was about to fall off, Ichigo desperately dropped down and grabbed onto the pathway with both arms and legs wrapped around it. Now that his perspective had changed he found this reminded him of the ropes they used to climb in gym class, the ones that stretched all the way to the ceiling. A person could get killed if they got high enough and fell. Why would anyone allow something so dangerous to be made available to children? It was like they wanted a few to drop.

A noise came from below, building steadily. Upon looking down he was greeted by the sight of a rising crimson cataract travelling up the line he clung to. This frothing mass rose like foam in a shaken soda bottle towards his position.

I've got to climb!

The hellish geyser was drawing closer by the second. Now it was as if he could see himself from a great distance, a tiny figure clutching his dwindling lifeline as that roaring cataclysm closed in on all sides to consume him. There was no way out.

Wait. Didn't Urahara say not to trust anything? This looks bad on the surface. But if I let go, it could be I'll break the rules. Let go, hands. I'm ordering you to release your grip on the rope. I won't drop. You'll see. It's all part of my plan.

What the hell am I thinking? If I can't trust anything, then how do I know what's going on? Maybe I should start over.

"Hey!" he shouted into the ear-splitting tumult. "I think I messed up. Can I try again?"

The world went still. It was as though someone was considering his request. Dangling like a worm on a hook, Ichigo remained in this frozen environment with an odd sense of equanimity. Whatever happens, happens.

He looked up to find an outstretched hand reaching towards him from a fountain of starlight above. It offered refuge. And so he accepted.

Darkness fell. The light line vanished in a burst of sparkles. And once more, he stood on what felt like solid ground though nothing as such presented itself.

/Well, this is a bit syrupy.\

The intrepid explorer tensed.

/Syrupy? No, no, that isn't right. I meant… ah, such a common word, but it eludes me. How very… surprising! There we go.\

"Who's there?" An obvious answer occurred to him, so he tried it out. "Mayuri?"

/Who?\

So much for that, then. He was starting to grow worried. "I'm looking for Mayuri Kurotsuchi. Are you him?"

/Me? Goodness, no. Or maybe.\

"Maybe?"

/Definitely not. No, you see, I'm an independent simulacrum designed to protect the Master in case of mental invasion. Since I don't operate on the same pyscho-spiritual wavelength as him, I'm exempt from the current predicament which has rendered the Master non compos mentis. He actually uses me to hollow out a little cubbyhole to take refuge in now and then. I'm handy that way. A drowning man will grab hold of anything close at hand to save himself, eh?\

Though he looked all around, Ichigo found no sign of whoever might be speaking. The darkness went on without end. "What do I call you?"

/Call me Bob. Bob Nagasaki.\

"Really?"

/No. Call me… Obit.\

"O…kay. Nice to meet you… Obit."

/Nice to meet you too… intruder.\

The facetious way it said that made his skin tingle, in a strictly abstract sense. "Obit, wait, I'm not here to…"

/Don't interrupt. Now, let me see…\

There came the strangest impression of someone pacing back and forth in thought.

/Before I could take action last time, the previous intruder brought a great big mess of TA (that's Terminal Agony to you) which rendered any contribution I might make null and void. Everyone has limits, after all, and the Master didn't take something like that into account when he fashioned me. But don't tell him that. He's touchy about making mistakes. Honestly, for some people it's like the slightest misstep and they let it ruin their whole day. Anybody else and I'd call it a weakness of character. For him, it's… a topic of conversation at parties.\

Okay. I should have guessed that anything associated with Mayuri's brain would be nuts. Ichigo decided to try a more conciliatory tact. "Obit, if you give me a chance, I'd like to try and convince you that I'm not here to hurt your master. I just want to talk to him about something."

/Who's calling, please?\

"Huh?"

/*sigh* Give me your name, sport.\

"Oh… uhhh, it's Ichigo Kurosaki."

/Got it. Here we go, Kurosaki Ichigo!\

A sudden blast of frigid air forced him to raise his arms to shield himself. His hair ruffled, black robes whipping with the sound of a clothesline in a gale. Squinting against this unpleasant assault, he cracked his eyes open.

The point of a sword leapt towards his face, and Ichigo sprang back with a startled shout.

When he landed, it was to find he was holding his own zanpakutō in both hands. When did that happen? You with me, Old Man Zangetsu?

An answer was not forthcoming, which left him even more confused. No time to explain as the enemy came charging forward once again. He raised his weapon to block the assault, and in that time, got his first good look at his attacker.

"Rukia?!"

It looked like her, no doubt about it. She was dressed exactly like the first time he met her, in the shinigami uniform considered outdated even by the current standards of Soul Society. Sode no Shirayuki shone in her grip. The white ribbon sprouting from its hilt waved around her as though with a life of its own.

Before he could question further the Kuchiki princess shot towards him. She aimed a cut towards his legs, forcing him to hastily twist Zangetsu point down at an awkward angle. The white saber rebounded with less force than expected. A feint, he realized too late as the woman in black pirouetted past him on the other side, sword licking out to slice into the back of his knee on her way past.

/Not bad. She a friend of yours?\

There was nothing imaginary or dreamlike about the pain that followed. When Kurosaki swept around it was to find droplets of blood spattered at his feet, lending a gory semblance of structure to this otherwise featureless dimension at last. The Rukia lookalike stood a few paces off with zanpakutō pulled back at shoulder level as though preparing to thrust it through his heart. Her face held that look of narrow-eyed determination she normally wore when engaging with a deadly foe. It was so incredibly similar to the real thing he caught himself about to shout her name in hopes of putting a stop to this before anyone could get hurt.

But that can't be.

"I'm not fooled, Obit," he growled, taking a firmer grip on Zangetsu's hilt.

/No? Well, that's hardly the point, my good man. I'm preset to retaliate against specified individuals with countermeasures that will prove hardest for them to deal with. In your case, that seems to be the young lady.\

While the lips didn't move, her body did, racing forward and taking a running leap to come dropping from on high with blade at the ready. Despite his injured leg Ichigo chose to meet the attack in kind. He crouched low and rocketed skyward. It's not real, he told himself as they flew at one another. Rukia's safe and sound. This isn't her. So just get a grip and do what you have to!

Ichigo took advantage of his soul cutter's greater reach and lashed out quick as a cat. This time the blades connected solidly, knocking her smaller weapon aside. Taking a cue from their past encounter, he twisted in midair, bringing Zangetsu around in a swooping arc that would cut her in half at the waist and you'll HURT THE BABY!

A flash of instinctive panic saw him check his swing at the last second, yanking back so hard he overbalanced to go spinning round and around. For a moment he panicked. Where's the floor?!

Ichigo got his answer a moment later when he smacked right into it. Cursing, he spun around on his back with huge blade raised like a shield down his body. Not a moment too soon, as the tip of Sode no Shirayuki slammed into his warding weapon to remain quivering there. For just a second he could have sworn the false Rukia glowered in annoyance at him.

Then her mouth opened.

"Some no Mai: Tsukishirō!"

At first his only thought was, 'Sounds just like her.' Beneath them there grew a circle of white that swiftly encompassed the pair. Cold shot through Ichigo's form. His eyes flew wide at the realization of what was about to happen. A dozen kidō spells flashed through his mind, but in his frazzled state he couldn't choose between attack or defense. Everything around him blazed with a cold luminescence that became a column ascending heavenward.

Wait a sec. Why not just…?

"BANKAI!"

There followed a roar. The smooth pillar of Rukia's First Dance exploded from within at its base, toppling and cracking in the very moment of its formation. She herself came sliding out of the mist, a yellow shield on one arm vanishing as she did. Meanwhile the icy mist dissipated with one slash of Tensa Zangetsu, leaving a glowering Ichigo now dressed in the cloak of his final release and ready for action.

"Can't believe it took me that long to remember this," he grunted. Apparently however this place worked you could still call on bankai. Good to know.

/Oh, so that's how it's going to be, then. Well, if you're upping the ante, how about this?\

Rukia's chin rose. Frosty eyes dripping with regality, she leveled a look of utter condescension at him as she spoke. "Bankai…"

Ichigo gaped. No way!

A puff of frost emerged as her lips formed the words…

"Tsukiyome Touketsu."

Quick as a flash the whip-long ribbon on the white sword's hilt wound around her frame from shoulders to feet. At the same time Sode no Shirayuki itself shattered into sparkling ice crystals which were then absorbed into her dress. The fabric glowed white as the moon, standing out against their midnight surroundings so brightly it almost hurt to look at her. When it died down Rukia was now clad in a supremely elegant shiromoku bridal kimono, only with a spreading train in the hiki-furisode style hiding her feet, tied by a sash around the waist with sleeves that hung clear to the floor. The whole thing was completely white. There were no designs to be seen upon the garment, but all the same tiny rainbow lights glittered around the edge of her body, limning the newly formed winter maiden in an aura of twinkling stars.

"Woah," the teen breathed, dumbfounded. He couldn't help himself.

At this Rukia flung her head back and threw her arms to either side. Instantly both sleeves billowed out wider than ever, and bolts of white silk came spilling forth in every direction, trailing lengths of the samite substance behind them. These rolls then curved upwards on their paths and went soaring out of sight above them. When the shining maiden dropped her arms the silken banners detached to remain hanging in a profusion of white pillars. Standing in a copse of lonely flags, she raised one forearm slowly before her face until only those malicious purple eyes were visible. It was as if she were fairly daring him to set foot into this domain; the Frozen Moon Bride beckoned to her potential groom.

When nothing else happened, Ichigo regained his composure. "Knock it off!" he shouted angrily to the darkness. "You're cheating, Obit!"

/Who said anything about rules? My only purpose is to defend the Master's mental sanctity. Your perception of fair play doesn't count for diddly squat in my book.\

"But…!" he sputtered indignantly. "This doesn't make sense! Rukia doesn't have a bankai!"

/FYI: turns out the Master conducted a study of the young lady's powers for whatever reason, and he developed a working theory about what her bankai might look like if she ever achieved it. Since she's your Achilles heel I get access to all that information. Lucky thing, because between you and me, I'm not that creative. And judging by the way you're shaking, it's super effective.\

Furious at himself and what this madman's brain had concocted, Ichigo sought a solution to this latest obstacle. A cautious attempt at walking around the outpost proved fruitless. No matter which way he went, that grove of silk remained firmly in his path. With no other options available, he strode resolutely forward. Upon his approach the previously inert banners suddenly billowed without sound or wind. For a moment he lost sight of the maiden bride at their center, and in that instant she seemed to vanish. He studied the twisting maze of fabric for some sign of her presence only to come up empty.

I don't know what the deal is, but with Mayuri involved, sure bet it's dangerous. Still, the whole thing seems to be stationary. You have to actually go inside. And with my bankai activated, I should be fast enough to make it through before this deathtrap can go off.

He glanced down at his black sword. Sure would be nice to have Zangetsu here to tell me if I'm being stupid. Guess it's up to me to find that out for myself. Could launch a Getsuga Tensho to help clear the way, but… no.

Before he could deliberate further on the reasons behind that last decision, Ichigo activated his bankai's special ability and took off at impossible speeds. To his relief the silken drapes now looked to be frozen in place, relatively speaking. Good. That should make things easier. With renewed confidence he entered the False Rukia's bankai.

Dodging the shrouds proved easy. There was plenty of room to slip between them no matter what shapes they had flipped and twisted themselves into. All the same Ichigo made sure to keep as far away as possible. He didn't want to learn what touching any of these things might precipitate.

For a while it seemed like smooth sailing. No traps arose to bar him as one might expect. Glancing around at the blank lifeless tapestries made him frown. Is this really all the thought Mayuri put into her bankai? Seems like a dud to me. There was no sign of the False Rukia either, for which he felt uncomfortably grateful. The thought of attacking something that so closely resembled his girlfriend was deeply disturbing. It reminded him of his fight with Grand Fisher so long ago and the craven tactics that vermin had deployed to save itself over 50 years of infamy. Come to think of it, whatever became of him? He never showed up again. Gotta remember to ask when I get back.

Hang on. Shouldn't I be clear of this place by now?

Ichigo inspected his surroundings as he sped forward. It dawned on him that he had been running for a little while, yet he still hadn't reached the edge. The bankai hadn't seemed that big from outside. So why am I still in here?

Choosing a slightly more secluded spot, he came to a halt, keeping careful track of the breezy banners now blowing on all sides. A peek over his shoulder only showed more pale scarves in his wake. They didn't even go that far back; it looked like he could return to his previous position in just a few seconds.

As he pondered the best route, an intangible gust sent one bolt of silk flapping forwards. On instinct he lashed out with his weapon and cut the flimsy stuff in half before it could touch him. The severed end drifted dispiritedly down and pooled near his feet before disappearing in a puff of frost. Frowning, Ichigo regarded it with suspicion.

A chill had settled in his heart.

Taking up the gauntlet again, the resolute trailblazer sprang forth in a random direction. Yet no matter how he dodged and spun, nothing resembling the border of this place presented itself. For a while it felt like he might be running in circles. Upon pausing to catch his breath more of the questing white blankets drifted towards him, and he slashed them apart almost contemptuously. Maybe I'm supposed to get bored and quit.

As he cut through another banner Ichigo felt a shiver travel up his spine which he dismissed immediately afterwards.

Time to try something new. He promptly called out, "Hadō #31: Shakahō!" In response a glob of crimson fire burst from his palm to impact against a swirling wisp of silk. It caught fire immediately, burning a hole through the center. This was the strongest kidō spell he currently could lay claim to knowing, and that mainly because it had been a point of pride to beat Renji at something. Being a relatively straightforward enchantment, he had to admit it came more easily to him than some of the complicated stuff. Still seemed to get the job done this time.

Just as he was about to repeat the process, however, the flames eating out the fluttering bankai dwindled and vanished a moment later. To his disbelief, the tapestry then reformed whole right before his eyes.

So taken aback was he by this development that Ichigo failed to notice another white tendril approaching him from behind. It ghosted in gently to brush against his back. And when it did, the banner vanished. At the same time he shuddered from a sudden feeling of cold.

Uh-oh.

Now Ichigo picked up the pace as he flash-stepped through the moonlight grove. That icy sensation hadn't diminished despite how fast he was moving. A suspicion was growing inside him. In a blatant act of self-destructive behavior he reached out to grasp one of the shrouds as he sped by. It burst into frozen sparkles the moment he touched it, and in doing so, the racing shinigami substitute found he could no longer feel his fingers. Tucking them under his armpit didn't help in the slightest. A stupid move? Absolutely. But it was worth it. At least I hope so.

The implications were starting to become clear. This bankai wasn't like any other he had ever known. Most were designed to enable a one-shot kill against the target should the wielder so desire. Since a second release of one's zanpakutō ate up spirit energy at a furious rate, it only made sense that it be capable of an assault which would end a battle quickly and effectively.

Not this one. It's cumulative.

Ichigo felt his heart labor from fear as more unassuming avenues of silk presented themselves with no available egress. He felt certain of his conclusion. The whole place was a head game. You see the dinky little sheets like laundry draped over a clothesline and think you can just barge in and blow it all away in a second. But if you touch any of them, whether with a weapon or your own body, it starts to build up inside you a little bit with every one. Just like being outdoors when it's really cold and you don't have that much on. At first you don't notice it much. You figure you can tough it out for a while before there's anything to be concerned about. Only after a bit, you notice you can't feel your toes anymore. And your ears are starting to hurt from how frigid it is. The whole time the situation's getting worse little by little, until you reach the point where you either get indoors or you're gonna die.

That's what this thing does. It's not meant to blow you away. Instead it seeps in ever so gradually while you still think you're hot stuff. Something like this couldn't be a threat to big mean Hollows or captain-level guys with bankai like me. Only that's exactly who it's designed to kill. Macho jerks full of themselves who can't see the forest for the trees. A pretty box with a white ribbon around it inviting you to come inside. Idiots check in, but they don't check out.

What to do? Hadō spells were no use; they just used up even more of your energy without doing any real damage. The best solution was to get out of the perimeter. Except it didn't allow you to do that. So what's left?

Go straight to the source. And cut it off.

After a moment to gather his bearings the shivering teen sped in pursuit of his quarry. Somewhere in here the False Rukia lay hidden. If he found her and took her out, the bankai would end. No way to tell if this was a truly limitless space or if it really did keep turning him around in circles. At the moment, however, there didn't seem much difference.

In his grasp Tensa Zangetsu flickered for a moment, briefly turning back into the larger shikai form of Zangetsu before settling into its compact black katana. A sure sign his strength was starting to fade. If my bankai runs out, I won't be able to dodge the drapes so easily. That's when my problems start to snowball. No pun intended.

C'mon. Give me a sign! Something, anything to tell me where she might be!

Everywhere he looked there was only pitch-black night barred in bands of waving white. He recklessly tried to squeeze into a narrow gap between two banners and misjudged the distance, winding up touching both of them as a result. Doing so caused his limbs to shake. Not good. Wish I knew a spell that could safeguard me, but the ones offering full-body protection are the high-level kind we hadn't got around to yet. Gotta make sure to ask Nanao to step up the lessons when I get back.

Or I'll just stay lost in here, with no idea where to go or what to do until I die and Mayuri eats my brain like ice cream. I need an edge. Think, Ichigo, think!

He remembered something then.

Or rather, half-remembered. They had gone over this one during training to help him find his way. It was somewhat advanced for his stage, but Sensei figured the sheer usefulness made it worth learning early. How did it go? 'Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee?' No, that's not it. Something about wind. Seeing all these flags flapping in the nonexistent breeze is what got me thinking about that in the first place. So start from the beginning. Cardinal directions. We made up a little dance to help me recall.

All of a sudden Ichigo stopped running and dropped low to kneel on the ground. Immediately three silk specters drifted over to alight upon him before vanishing, but he made no move to avoid them. Instead he clapped a hand to his heart, then immediately came up to point at his eye, followed by off to the left, after which he stuck a foot in the opposite direction. Yeah, got it!

/That's an awfully cheerful routine considering your situation.\

Ichigo ignored Obit's taunts. Instead he released Tensa Zangetsu and bent forward to place both hands palm-down against what counted for the ground. "Heart of the south, eye of the north…"

/… flash in the pants, bats in the belfry. Are we making up jump-rope jingles?\

"…finger of the west, foot of the east…"

More of the surrounding bankai reached in and caressed him with deceptively soft fingers, leaving the anxious spellcaster fearing his chattering teeth might ruin the incantation. Yet he pressed on.

"…arrive with the wind and depart with the rain. Bakudō #58: Summon of the Tracking Sparrows!"

Before him there blazed a golden diamond split into four quadrants. A beam of yellow light shot from each tip in the cardinal directions.

To his dismay, however, no indication of where to proceed appeared.

/Ooo, tough luck, sport. Try again for a kopeck?\

The gusting sheets tickled his feet, his ribs, and with every touch he could feel their icy power growing more prevalent throughout him. Did I say it wrong? Was it rain first and then wind? No, I'm sure I got it right! Should I try again? Maybe if I concede defeat Obit will let me through. Could that be the answer? The one nobody would expect? That might just be what a loon like Mayuri would come up with. Still, doesn't sound right for some reason. Not cruel enough, maybe. So where does that leave me?

Ichigo breathed in deeply, and was dismayed to see it come out as visible mist. His throat began to feel raw as though subjected to sub-zero temperatures. He looked up to find the sinuous silken dancers closing in from every angle.

Haven't I seen something like this before? Or not quite seen… more felt.

Yeah. Back when this whole mess started, shortly after I first met Rukia. I learned how to sense souls, even did it on my first try, but since then there wasn't much of a need for it. We had devices to track Hollows, or they were just so strong even I couldn't help noticing them. It was like they were ribbons or threads of spiritual energy that one could reach out and touch to follow them to their source. Just like the ones around me now. Reiraku, Ishida called them.

A shinigami's is red. I remember him saying so.

More and more of the lethal fabric whisked forth to impart their deadly curse into his blood. He couldn't move, yet at the same time shook as though afflicted with palsy. His heartbeat sounded slow and dull.

Ichigo closed his eyes. I'm in a world of darkness anyway, what does it matter? Like this he could still feel the deadly scarves' touch, and thus the directions they came from. Reaching out blindly he caught hold of an approaching strand. It dissipated almost instantly, but in doing so he managed to get a brief feel for its energy. He could also sense the ones moving in to take their turn. A whole crowd. But one of them… one of them must not be coming nearer, right? The root of all this. That's the one she's hidden behind sending out the rest. Waiting 'til it's time to emerge and finish me. So if I can locate that…

For just a second, between one breath and the next, it seemed like he was running again, fast just as Yoruichi had taught him during their training together. He traveled along the web of spiritual energy in which he was ensnared, inspecting every strand in turn. They might look separate on the outside, but each is drawn from the center. Where's the linchpin holding it all together?

A great distance from where he knelt, or maybe close enough to touch, one of the silk tapestries fluttered red as blood on snow.

At that Ichigo snapped upright, snatching Zangetsu as he did. With all his strength he whipped the ebon blade back and then hurled it like a javelin at a spot barely remembered. The opaque missile sliced through any number of pale strands in doing so, allowing him to feel every one adding their burden to his approaching death shroud. It had grown so cold, and he could feel himself collapsing backwards. Just lie down and let it take you…

There came a sound, like a slight exclamation from someone being punched in the stomach.

When this happened, every single white banner began to slide listlessly downwards in rippling waterfalls of silk. Soon they were only piles of pale cloth lying strewn all about Ichigo's body.

Doing so revealed the Moon Bride standing a ways off, a black sword thrust deep into her stomach. She looked down at it with a certain measure of surprise before crumpling soundlessly to the floor with the slow elegance of her own banners.

/Nice shot.\

"Drop dead," he managed to whisper back through frigid lips.

"Join me by the fire, then? You look as though you might benefit from it."

Ichigo sat up to find Mayuri Kurotsuchi sitting in an armchair across from him. The demented scientist was puffing on a pipe and grinning ear to ear.

"I imagine we have a lot to discuss."


Urahara approached the monitor stand. "What's the status?"

Nemu remained absorbed in tapping out commands depending on the readout before her. "Mental strife has lessened noticeably in the past few seconds. It is possible that contact has been established, though whether it be with Mayuri-sama or no is something I cannot speak to with any degree of assurance."

"Huh." Could it actually have worked? That's quite a surprise.

A snort of disgust came from off to one side, and Kisuke looked over with one eyebrow raised. "Something on your mind, my dear?"

Hiyori Sarugaki glared at him from her place leaning against a wall. "This your way of killing two birds with one stone?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you might be accusing me of," he responded unctuously. Seems she remained upset at being asked to hide when Ichigo came calling. "The situation is well in hand."

"I'll bet." The rough-and-tumble Vaizard rolled her shoulders and rubbed the back of her neck vigorously. "That kid's been your flunkie since Day One. Everything he does comes kissed with your seal of approval first. Is that all we were to you? Pawns to get back at Aizen?"

"That hurts." Leaving Nemu to her task Urahara walked over until he stood face-to-face with his old Second Seat. She bristled at his approach, exhibiting a wariness that caused him more distress than she would ever know or believe. "We're in this mess together. I've made choices and sacrifices more times than I care to recollect since it started. But never once did I do so under the impression that somebody acting on my authority had to die."

Except your precious Lady Shihoin. And the little Kuchiki girl.

I didn't know for sure Rukia would be killed. And Yoruichi was ready to die for her loved ones. Thankfully it turned out to be unnecessary in the end.

No thanks to you, boy.

The jab from Benihime left him angry, which he had to push aside before continuing. "Any chance you might cut me some slack, Hiyori? I'm not playing the ringmaster nowadays. This little science fair is as safe as I can make it, at the cost of potential success, I might add."

"Oh, please," she scoffed. "Ichigo would have gone charging in there even with a bomb strapped to his head. He doesn't worry about dying. Thinks he's invincible, even more than your average teenager." Growing more subdued, the Vaizard studied him for a time, then asked the question he had been waiting for. "Did you arrange for the kid to find out one of us was a traitor?"

"No."

"But you made certain he came straight to us afterwards, right?"

"No." Now it was Kisuke's turn to pose a long-withheld query. "Did you already know?"

They stared at each other. In the end, it was she who looked away. "Just a hunch. A feeling, y'know? Maybe all of us suspected. At the time we weren't thinking straight. Seeing Hachi dead…" The snaggletoothed gamin tucked her hands tightly into her armpits, as if to forestall herself from losing control again. "Our bad sides took over. After we all calmed down, everyone assumed Grimmjow killed Hachi because he was in the vicinity when it happened and he had the power to pull it off."

"Makes sense on its face," Urahara tried to offer sympathy. The dirty look she gave back showed how far that effort went.

"Thing is, nobody saw him do it. And Hachi… I know it's messed up to say it, but… he died too clean. One cut across the throat. No signs of a struggle, or that he tried to defend himself. It was like somebody walked up and popped him while he just stood there." Narrow eyes rose to watch Kisuke, and the captain swore he saw them flash from yellow to brown and back again. "It didn't feel right."

The sight of her Hollow side made his senses tingle with the prospect of danger. "Should we learn anything relevant on the topic, rest assured I won't hesitate to share the intel with you. Just promise you'll keep your natural urges in check 'til then. Wouldn't want to see you arrested. I can confirm firsthand the Maggot's Nest has lost none of its charm."

"Tell it to my Hollow, dickweed." She moved past him to study the insensate human lying on the slab.

His scholar's heart quickened as a line of conversation presented itself. While his short-tempered colleague brooded for a while longer, Kisuke sauntered up to her side. "I seem to recall you mentioning that your inner Hollow didn't start speaking to you… at least, in what we call words… until over a decade after I used the hōgyoku on you."

Hiyori turned an uncharacteristically neutral look on her old boss. "Yeah. What about it?"

"Well, since we're comparing notes…" His smile was more banal than ever, but the eyes remained sharper than steel. "In your professional opinion, did young Master Kurosaki's Hollow strike you as unusually well-developed considering it was born only a few months before you met?"

Her lips twisted distastefully. "I didn't really notice while it was choking the life out of me."

"I see." He went back to studying their guest. Sarugaki tugged at her earlobe restlessly but did not choose to continue the conversation.

For his part Kisuke Urahara had fallen deep into thought. Rukia Kuchiki, who from my examination did not come by shinigami powers naturally, and Ichigo Kurosaki, whose Hollow is markedly more advanced than one might expect. Now that there is exactly the type of thing to catch my attention.

I wonder if Mayuri felt the same way?

Before he could think further, Nemu looked over her shoulder and stated, "Contact confirmed."


The room was dark, lit only by a log fire crackling in the hearth. Pops and snaps lent a soothing atmosphere to this already cozy chamber. A large Persian rug of intricate design was spread out in front of the hearth atop hardwood floorboards. Bookshelves lined the walls stocked with volumes of all kind, but the orange glow of the flames didn't seem to reach far enough to allow their titles to be read. Altogether, it was a very pleasant and tranquil environment. Of note was that there were no doors or windows of any kind. No means of entry whatsoever.

"So when do the knives come out?"

Mayuri looked up from relighting his pipe, taking a few experimental puffs. "I beg your pardon? Did you say knives?"

"Yeah." Sitting across from him in an identical plush leather armchair before the fireplace, Ichigo managed to look uptight even while holding a full goblet of brandy in one hand. His eyes darted furtively from side to side. Every snap from the fire caused him to flinch. "Like, you press a button and everything flips over to reveal… surgical apparatus and body bags and all the books become jars filled with organs and stuff." He eyed the brandy like it was cobra venom, then put it carefully down. "This is seriously not what I was expecting to find inside your head."

"Ah." A noncommittal nod, and Mayuri went back to smoking without further explanation.

The layout was bewildering enough. Add to it the fact that the mad doctor looked almost human and you couldn't get farther from comfortable. His skin had color to it instead of white and black body art, his short hair was curly and blue, and he wore a taffeta smoking jacket over imperial yellow silk pajamas with green slippers on his feet. The only recognizable aspect was his eyes, which retained a smoky gold glimmer that almost seemed to shine in the low light.

One leg crossed at the knee, Mayuri wagged his slippered foot and blew a long stream of smoke before rising and crossing over to the fire. There he picked up a brass poker. Ichigo tensed in preparation of the blunt implement being turned on him, but the only use Mayuri put it to was the one it traditionally had been designed for. He poked the smoldering logs, causes sparks to shoot up from the crumbling blaze.

"My dear boy, surely even someone of your cudgel-sharp intellect must have realized by now that there is far more to people than what is displayed on the outside. Look at Aizen Sosuke, for example. Or Retsu Unohana. More perfect specimens of hidden depths than could ever be asked for."

After settling the poker back in its stand Kurotsuchi came back around, top lip curled to expose his prodigious incisors. "What we are willing to display of ourselves to society at large speaks volumes in and of itself. Most choose to hide their more distressing qualities in favor of elements deemed sedate or salutatory. Whereas in my case, I elected to proudly display those traits so as to there being no misunderstanding about my intentions. I find it saves time and trouble in the long run not having to field so many questions at every turn."

Unwilling to let down his guard, Ichigo watched him carefully. Smoke drifted around Mayuri's head, and for just a second there was a face in the cloud, mouth opening, eyes wide and angry. A wave of the sedate scientist's hand, however, and this illusion was dispersed.

"I thought you were supposed to be in pain," Ichigo asserted.

"Hmm. Did you?" Gleaming eyes watched him through a cloud of ash.

"That's what Ishida told me. He said you were suffering like the damned. Seemed pretty pleased about it." The human looked around them. "So what is this place? Not exactly what I envisioned hell would look like."

Mayuri followed his gaze. "Yes, it is rather picturesque, come to think of it. Allow me to relieve you of your understandable ignorance. What you are currently speaking to is a relatively small biopsy of my consciousness. The rest is out there," he waved vaguely around the windowless chamber, "undergoing some very acute karmic backlash. Obit, whom I'm sure you recall, serves the unintended purpose of allowing me respite from an otherwise dreary and unproductive experience. In short, we're undergoing a brief layover until the next round of sheer torture sets in."

For a second the room quaked with a low rumble. Some books slid off the shelves, but before Ichigo could get to his feet it had already subsided. "You came at a good time," the other occupant mused. "Won't be long before I'm once again cast into the fires of eternal suffering. Not long now." The madman grew distracted for a bit, head cocked to one side as though pondering his own impending agony with objective dispassion. His gaze slid back to Ichigo, and a smile tugged at his lips. "You're welcome to come along if you're curious. Heaven knows I could use the company."

A voice whispered in his ear. When Ichigo looked behind him, he could have sworn someone looked back before dissolving into the shadows outside the circle of firelight. He whipped around to ask Mayuri about this, only to find his abnormally affable host looking in the same direction with a small frown. On catching Ichigo's expression he shrugged.

"No need for concern. I'm positive Kisuke took every precaution before sending you uninvited into my little thought bubble. First sign of danger and he'll pull the plug in a flash." The boy blanched upon hearing this, causing Kurotsuchi to chuckle. "Poor choice of words. I didn't mean to imply that my old research partner might have viewed this as an opportunity to rid himself of a distressingly powerful and dangerously uncontrollable variable which would otherwise staunchly resist any effort to terminate its existence. Pray don't let my unworthy insinuations trouble your mind, Kurosaki-bozu."

That arrow hit its mark so assuredly it left him wondering just how much of his own thoughts might be open to Mayuri's perusal under these circumstances. Were they sharing more brain space than he was initially led to believe? Because it hadn't escaped his attention that Urahara might have been baiting him into volunteering for this expedition. He said yes partly to determine how far the man could be trusted.

"I'll make sure to bring that up with him when I get back." Ichigo crossed his arms and glared. "Now what do you say we get right to the point."

"Oh, I am at your disposal." The blue-haired bon vivante raised both arms in theatrical manner and bowed with a facetious smirk. "Ask away. I'm curious what impending catastrophe could have compelled you to subject yourself to such a risky and potentially mad endeavor. By all means, let's get this mind-rape underway."

As Mayuri crossed back to an armchair Ichigo sought to compose his thoughts. The term 'mind-rape' had unsettled him more than anything else so far. Strictly speaking, this did qualify as an unwarranted invasion of another person's sanctity. Combine that with his reason for being here in the first place and you have grounds for a felony charge back home. Did I cross a line without even realizing it?

The memory of fighting the fake Rukia got him back on track. Anger built up fast as a result. I owe that shitty experience to this bastard. He's no spotless saint to begin with. It's high time I finally got some answers to the issues in my life.

When the other man was seated Ichigo leaned forward to lock eyes with him. "I want to know what you did to Rukia's gigai."

"Everything I could think of."

He was on his feet before he knew it, mad beyond belief. "WHAT THE HELL DOES THAT MEAN?!"

"Ah, me, you are operating under a lot of stress." Mayuri looked him up and down as though he was a disappointing job candidate. "One little tug and it all comes apart. Sit down, boy, you couldn't harm me if you tried. That sort of antagonism is far beyond us at this stage."

He waved his pipe in admonishment, and reluctantly the irate youth retook his seat. After studying him for a while the lone inmate in this mental prison clucked his tongue and settled back into the leather-stocked armchair. Another earthquake occurred, and he waited until it subsided. "For the sake of expediency, let us put all our cards on the table. I assume something has taken place regarding the Ojousama that has brought you before me? And it pertains to a matter I had a hand in, one which might be considered… defective? Sub-standard? I take offence to any such admonishment of my craft."

"For your information, I personally oversaw the creation of the faux body put at Lady Rukia's disposal as part of the strike force sent to your dimension prior to the Autumn War." The ex-captain closed his eyes at this point and hummed a long drawn-out note before flinging them open again. "Its capabilities were augmented exponentially and power restored in full prior to being handed over. Where precisely do you feel there might be cause for complaint?"

Ichigo clamped his lips shut and glowered. Upon observing this Mayuri leaned slowly forward to cross both arms over his upraised knee. He tapped a foot in idle rhythm, head tilting to an angle that looked as though it must have been causing him pain.

"She's with child, isn't she?"

Two hands fisted in his robe and hauled Kurotsuchi to his feet where he faced a furious bulging-eyed Ichigo. "HOW…?!" he gasped between clenched teeth, unable to articulate further.

In response Mayuri smiled. "You don't hide things very well, boy. And in case you missed the announcement, I happen to be very clever." He reached up and placed his hands over Ichigo's, disengaging them with what seemed very little effort and lowering them to his sides. The anguished youth found himself unable to do anything more, as if the option for further violence simply didn't exist here. Instead he remained where he stood, and Mayuri strolled past him to lean an arm against the mantelpiece contemplatively.

"You know, had I been informed of this occurrence at any time prior, I would have wagered that your head had already been separated from your neck courtesy of Byakuya Kuchiki's blade. The fact this doesn't seem to be the case leaves me cross at certain… shabby treatment I received from him." He hissed out a stream of blue smoke and sucked it back in through his nostrils. "Well, no accounting for taste. Tell me, how far along is she?"

"SHUT UP!"

A goblet of brandy shattered against the wall near his head. Mayuri dabbed at a few droplets that had struck him as he turned. Ichigo Kurosaki stood a few paces off. Far from appearing furious, however, the boy was crying, sucking unsteady gasps of air and shaking like a leaf.

"What a mess," the madman complained. "That's not in reference to the décor, mind you. I mean, just look at yourself." He flicked a desultory hand at his guest. "There you stand, ill-equipped and unprepared, with no idea how to proceed from here on out. Scared out of your mind, I might add. Oh, cease your blubbering. Come, sit down."

Surprisingly he exercised remarkable care escorting Ichigo back to his chair, who offered no resistance. Slump-shouldered with hands held limp between his knees, this once-powerful hero now appeared wasted and spent. Mayuri pulled his chair closer until they were only a few feet apart and sat down in it. His voice when he spoke was harsh but firm. "Hear me, boy. I'll make this very simple. There were no alterations done to Rukia Kuchiki's gigai I am aware of which would explain her becoming pregnant by a human such as yourself. Whatever answers you need aren't in here." He tapped a meaningful finger against his own cranium. "They're in there."

His arm shout forth to jab Ichigo lightly in the temple, who flinched and brought a hand up to that spot.

"Yes, you've wasted enough of everyone's time by now and with precious little to show for it. At just what point in you humans' lives are you expected to stop grabbing onto others when a crisis arises and start working on the problem yourselves?"

"I don't know how to handle this," Ichigo rasped in an uncharacteristic confession. "This is huge. I'm just a kid."

"Exactly!" Mayuri tilted his head at another odd angle. "A child couldn't find a workable solution to this dilemma. It takes an adult. So that leaves you with only one very obvious course of action: slough off your infantile shell and make way for a new era!"

Kurosaki blinked, confused. "What's that mean?"

For once the scientist's expression did not appear threatening. Instead it might almost be classified as commiserative. "It means it's time for you to grow up, child. Adulthood is no longer measured by graduation from a training academy, or a celebration being thrown in your honor with cake and ice cream. The moment you become a father is when you can no longer cling to the conceit that this world revolves around you. Henceforth you are expected to make personal sacrifices, whether in terms of time, energy, hobbies, sleep, peace of mind, and even your blood if need be. From this point on no demand is too great! Any rewards and happiness you have come to expect will be wrested from your grip, and if you are patient and do not focus on yourself, you will find new treasures that will make the old ones seem like the basest dross."

"Happiness…?" Judging by the look on his face Ichigo seemed unfamiliar with the word. He remembered now that Mayuri himself was a parent, of a sorts. His daughter Nemu was supposedly the result of another experiment on his part. Their relationship might never be called normal, but could it be this madman actually took some pleasure out of fatherhood? Would Mayuri himself have been surprised to find that he cared about his child in a way no test or hypothesis ever suggested?

No matter what, I'm going to be a father from now on. Can I possibly do any worse than Mayuri Kurotsuchi, of all people?

The very thought made him duck his head and groan.

Oddly enough, Mayuri too seemed unnerved by that previous admission. His nails scratched the armrests at a frenzied pace, and he squirmed in discomfort, as though beset by an itch he could neither locate nor alleviate. For a moment his head violently snapped from side to side in search of an intruder.

Quick as it came the fit had passed. Kurotsuchi subsided, leaving him a bit put out but otherwise in control. The captain refilled his pipe and lit it, eyes now resting on the huddled teen before him.

As he considered this prospect, another rumble shook the comfortably-stocked cubbyhole, longer and louder than before. Mayuri's golden orbs bobbed off to one side as he puffed on his pipe. He studied the flames, which watched him right back. The blaze snapped and crackled in a way that almost sounded like a human voice raised in desperate warning. Smoke curled lazily between his half-parted lips as he listened to it. He sucked his teeth for a while, a slow smile creeping up his face as it ineffectually strove to get the boy's attention.

And then he said, "There is another alternative, actually. Would you like to stay here?"

Ichigo looked up. "What?"

His self-appointed life coach gave a dismissive wave. "In this place, there are no paltry concerns. You can put aside such troubles as you currently labor under for a while. Give yourself time to think. And when you come out, it will be as a man more matured and better equipped to handle these difficulties."

"I… can't do that." Ichigo appeared more wary than troubled now. He had the oddest feeling someone was trying to speak to him, but when he concentrated on it, nothing came clear. "This isn't the time for another training session. I've got to get home."

"Oh, please. You take yourself much too seriously." The witch doctor wore a smile now that made him look eerily familiar, face paint or no. "Do you know I have never seen you laugh once?"

Instinctively he bristled at this comment. "So? It's not as if we've known each other very long."

A snort of laughter greeted his statement. "I have a theory even if that wasn't the case, it still wouldn't change things. But answer me this: do you know where humor derives from?"

Out of all the discussions he might have had with Mayuri Kurotsuchi, this one had never even remotely presented itself as a possibility. It was flat-out weird. "Are we really having this conversation?"

"The answer is… suffering."

When Ichigo gave him a funny look Mayuri nodded excitedly. "It's true. I've done the research. Think about it: have you ever laughed at someone else's good fortune? Told a joke that had to do with only something pleasant happening? Ever broken out in riotous guffaws upon witnessing benevolence and good works? Of course not. That's because humor is born from misery, and pain. It springs forth in response to torment inflicted by the world. Humor is a coping mechanism. Why else would it have evolved in humanity? Not as if laughing out loud helps you be a better hunter. You'd just frighten away the gazelle, or alert a hunting tiger to your presence. In fact, humor might very well be what has permitted mankind to survive in the face of all the horrors evident in opposition to your continued existence."

Mayuri leaned forward, face lapsing into a scowl. "So now the question becomes this: why do you not laugh when you see the misfortune of others?"

Ichigo had assumed a well-used frown. "Because pain isn't funny."

"All evidence indicates otherwise." His host crossed his arms in supercilious fashion. The pipe twirled between knobby fingers, leaving loops of smoke drifting behind it. "But consider this: watching someone get kicked in the gonads makes children laugh, right up until the point they receive the same treatment. From that moment onwards, whenever they witness the same, now instead of merriment, it only reminds them of the agony they endured, and so they cannot help but commiserate." He settled the pipe on a nightstand beside him. "Shared pain renders us less likely to experience humor from the same source. The more you endure, the less you can laugh about it. Which makes for less laughter. So answer me this, Kurosaki-bozu… are you capable of laughing?"

Before he could respond, without warning Mayuri stood up.

"Have you felt all the pain that ever existed?"

The blue-haired doctor took a step forwards, and Ichigo found he could not move.

"Is there no bit of agony you have not yet experienced?"

Mayuri approached him. Leaning down, he rested his hands on the unresisting teen's shoulders, staring intently at one another. Those shining golden eyes had gone very wide, and they quivered ever so slightly.

"Have you ever lived in a world made of pain?" His hands began to squeeze. "Have you dropped into an existence where every heartbeat, every movement, every breath was an unbounded scream?"

Those hands slid up to fashion around the boy's throat, and still he did not resist, though his wildly palpitating heart screamed at him that he was in danger again.

"Where everything you can see attacks your eyes, every sound feels like it's rupturing your skull, and all thought is concentrated on how much ruination is coursing through every scrap of your senses, never subsiding, only growing worse, and worse, and worse?! UNTIL THERE IS NOTHING LEFT TO LAUGH AT! Until…"

Ichigo gurgled and gasped as those strong fingers cut off his windpipe.

"Until you come along, Ichigo Kurosaki," Mayuri hissed softly as he choked him. "A pathetic, dimwitted, self-absorbed intelligence barely worthy of the name. And that makes me laugh, Kurosaki-bozu!"

At this he threw back his head and fairly screamed with merriment, an infernal jack-in-the-box. When Mayuri came back down there were tears in his eyes, teeth on display in the biggest smile one could ever see.

"I find that FUNNY, boy! Absolutely hilarious, even, that you think whatever piddling pinpricks of pain you have experienced in your oh-so brief and sunny life make you the most woeful soul ever to live! Unable to manage even so much as a chuckle!"

He thrust his head forward until they were nose to nose. "Well, if your life is truly so wretched, I will gladly switch places with you!"

At this Mayuri's grip became so intense it felt as if his fingers were sliding through flesh and blood to grip his trachea directly. Like he had become a part of Ichigo's body. And maybe he was. Try as he might for some reason Ichigo simply couldn't fight back.

"Yes! Doesn't that sound fine?" The ghoulish visage hanging before him seemed to flicker, flashing between Mayuri's normal face and the skull-like features he wore in Soul Society and beyond. "I'll leave you here to have a nice vacation, and you can finally get to say that there is nothing left to laugh at because you have known all the anguish a person ever could! Just like I have! And while you're so occupied, I will seize the reins of your future! I will become you, accepting upon myself all the travails and torments that seemed so oppressive in your eyes! I will take the Ojou-sama for my bride, and she will never know it is me! No one will be able to tell the difference. Not Kisuke, not your family, not even Aizen should we ever meet again! I can play the part of a vapid teenage lout, oh, have no fear of that! Yes, and still make time to engage in my own pursuits. You will accomplish far more that way than could ever have been the case otherwise. I'll give them the security and comfort you were too weak to provide!"

Ichigo could only manage a strangled wheeze in response. Everything was going dim, as though the fire had burned low. All he could see was Mayuri's gleeful smile and bulging eyes.

And another face, hanging behind him. A ghostly, half-formed wraith whose features were contorted in rage.

Who is that?

Seeing the sudden confusion on Ichigo's reddened features, Mayuri turned his head. He jerked in shock.

MONSTER…!

With a howl the phantom flew backwards to impact against the book-lined wall, and as it did the whole thing shattered like a pane of glass, behind which was revealed the same red storm of lunacy from before.

"DAMN YOU!" Kurotsuchi shrieked.

A hurricane-force gale tore through the room. It ripped books from the shelves and swallowed them into that gaping hole. The chair Mayuri had sat in clattered on its legs before tipping over to go tumbling backwards out of sight. Kurotsuchi screamed as the wind lifted him off the ground, holding onto his victim for dear life.

While still unable to move, Ichigo felt that whatever was sucking Mayuri back into the hellscape had no effect upon him. It drew more and more of this place into its depths. Now the maniacal philosopher was flapping up and down like a flag in a gale. His fingers slid out from within Ichigo's throat as he snarled in utmost fury. Desperate eyes locked with those of the boy he clung to. "HELP ME, YOU FOOL! YOU'LL NEVER SURVIVE THIS WITHOUT MY AID! IF WE WORK TOGETHER WE CAN–!"

"Like HELL!" Ichigo gasped furiously. "NOW GO BACK THERE, MAYURI!"

For a moment the raging demon held on by only his fingertips. Then that last contact between them tore free, and the tempest seized hold of Mayuri Kurotsuchi to pull him screaming and clawing back into the endless nightmare of eternal torment that had become his world.

The chair in which he sat rocked violently back and forth before launching after him, taking Ichigo with it.


"Something's wrong," Urahara affirmed as he watched the controls.

"There are no indications as such." Nemu never left off examining the readout as she spoke.

"Exactly. What are the odds nothing has gone tits up? This is Ichigo we're talking about."

She seemed to consider this. "Mental equilibrium is unusually placid for this advanced stage. Which indicates the possibility of a factor actively affecting the readings to divert our attention."

Her captain threw a glance at the other occupant of the room who continued glowering at him. He then leveled a dire look at the motionless green monolith ringed in technology not far off. Are you trying to play me, Mayuri? He fingered a similar psychic headgear like the one Ichigo had on. If nothing's changed in the next 30 seconds, I might just have to go in and…

Right on cue the screen went red and filled up with warnings. EMERGENCY! EMERGENCY!

"GET HIM OUT OF THERE!"

"Cut the connection!" Urahara ordered immediately. Nemu had already begun to do so. Any suspicions he might have had about her devotion to her father appeared groundless at this point. Loyal though she may be, apparently Kurotsuchi's prized creation held a similar work ethic as he did. As such she would not accept failure of this test even if the result might be his reconstitution.

In mere moments the stream of consciousness between Kurosaki and Kurotsuchi was broken. The warnings disappeared. Kisuke heaved a sigh, then quickly went over to check on his patient.

Rukia had already beaten him to it.

The kid lay still with eyes closed. "Ichigo?" Reaching down she disengaged the helmet carefully. "Can you hear me?"

A moment later his lids fluttered open. He peered all around, focusing on the young woman bending over him. "Oh, hey," he murmured. "What are…?"

"You BUFFOON!" And she slapped him. Then before the echo could even die the Kuchiki princess bent and wrapped both arms around his neck. She remained that way without moving for a time, until Ichigo gave up on asking questions and just reached out to pull her onto the table with him. They held one another, her cradled against his chest with nary a word being spoken.

Urahara watched them for any sign of unpleasantness. He glanced at Nemu. After a few moments carefully analyzing the readings, she turned back and gave an affirmative nod. Apparently her father was neither worse off nor better as a result of this mission. Additionally Ichigo showed no signs of affliction that their instruments might detect.

Oh, well. That makes 62 unsuccessful attempts now. Four more and I get a free t-shirt.

He quietly left the room then. Nemu could deal with anything until his return. Outside he found Hiyori waiting for him. She had slipped away unnoticed when Rukia intruded on their little crime syndicate.

"Everything all right?" she asked.

"Right as rain," the indefatigable genius grinned. "They're hugging things out as we speak. Care to join in?" He spread both arms wide in open invitation.

Her face spoke without words: 'You wanna die? Huh?' It was rather comforting to find they could still joke about things. To his surprise, however, she refused this perfectly good opportunity to smack him, which left Kisuke disappointed. Not that he fancied himself a masochist. Hiyori might be more worried about her Hollow side than she let on.

His old playmate jerked a thumb over one shoulder. "That does it for me. I'm heading out. Take care of the lovebirds."

"Remember, don't spread the word about Kuchiki-chan's condition. It's a sensitive topic." His face grew somber then. "The others will want to know where you've been. Sure you don't want me to come along and offer an explanation?"

"Positive." Hiyori turned and stomped off. "Besides, I've got a much more believable escort in mind. And he owes me one."

"Safe journey, my friend."

She stopped. The Vaizard half-turned to offer him a disparaging scowl. Having become more than accustomed to decoding her various grimaces, he took this to mean his well-wishes were grudgingly accepted. With that the ex-lieutenant of this division gave a snort and proceeded on her way.

Behind her Urahara looked around before heading quickly in another direction. He needed to check up with some people, and now was as good a time as any.

Time to see if a certain silver-haired psychopath had fresh information he wanted to trade.


Ichigo and Rukia walked together side by side through the halls of Ibis headquarters on their way out. "It wasn't a total loss," he insisted. "I got confirmation that whatever happened, it's not because of the gigai."

"From an unscrupulous source who had every reason to withhold the truth," his girlfriend shot back with a haughty sniff. "A wasted effort with nothing of substance to show for it."

"Least I did something," Ichigo muttered while trudging along, for which he only got a snippy 'Hmph!' Their time spent snuggling had been nice, but after leaving Nemu's workshop with her assurances to report any abnormal findings, good old healthy antagonism wasted no time in rearing its waspish head back in their relationship. "Seriously, there wasn't…"

"Oops!"

Someone bumped into him hard, causing Ichigo to stumble. He caught himself and frowned at the white-clad division flunky who went trundling by wheeling a cart. A very dirty look passed between them before he was forced to hurry to catch up with Rukia.

As he did a pit opened up at his feet. Ichigo lurched out halfway over it, arms windmilling as he strove valiantly to keep from toppling into the breach. Giving a massive jerk he managed to snap back and fall flat on his butt where he sat panting and unnerved. Where the heck did that come from?!

"Be careful, Kurosaki Ichigo!" A girl with pigtails and glasses bent down beside him smiling. "You almost stepped right into a dimensional confluence I've been researching. Gotta stay sharp around here if you don't want your immortal essence refashioned across the length and breadth of creation!" She giggled in an unwholesome fashion.

"Why is something like that lying in the middle of a hallway?!" he demanded of her. Upon noticing that Rukia had continued on her way without even deigning to notice his near brush with transubstantiation, he hopped up and took off in pursuit. Drawing to a walk beside her once again, he looked around nervously.

It was only now that he noticed every single individual in sight was giving them the hairy eyeball. Or, to be precise, those menacing looks were directed rather pointedly at him. What did I do to offend these jerks? Not like I helped bring Mayuri back to life. That I could understand them being upset over.

"Are people… glaring at us?"

"You're imagining things," Rukia shot back. "And don't underestimate how cross this little incident has left me. If you wanted an excuse to get yourself off the hook, there are ways to do so without risking your life and sanity."

"Hey, I never mentioned anything about ducking my responsibilities! This was just me trying to give us both some peace of mind about things we otherwise don't have any explanation for! Can you honestly tell me you don't want to know the truth about how you got… I mean, how we got… I mean–"

He caught himself from spilling the beans in earshot of any eavesdropping academics. The subject of Rukia's pregnancy still wasn't common knowledge around Soul Society. Still, it wouldn't take much to get rumors flying. Maybe he should talk to Byakuya about how things were proceeding from here? Not like he or his sister told him half of what was really going on anyway. Specifically, whether there was any news about the guy Rukia might be forced to marry.

Much as he might have sought to bring the conversation with her around to that uncomfortably sore point, he was somewhat preoccupied fighting off a snarling sharp-toothed slug-crab currently attempting to tear his head off.

"EEEEYAAAAHH!" Ichigo screamed while thrashing on the ground as this stalk-eyed mutant horror the size of a dog snapped fearsome jaws inches away from his face. He wrestled against a multitude of clawed limbs while scooting across the floor with the fleshy crustacean writhing atop him.

"Hold on a moment." With that Rukia came over and proceeded to scratch a spot just behind the creature's ostensible neck. Instantly all fight went out of it, and the slug-crab left off attempting to decapitate him, instead twisting around to nuzzle playfully at her wrist with an almost canine whine of joy. "Good boy," she affirmed, continuing to scratch it.

"Sorry about that, Ojousama." A freaky guy with a huge smile and hair that belonged on a certain Stooge came trotting over holding a large round sphere. "He must have gotten loose when I wasn't looking. Nobody was hurt, I trust?" The balding bag of wrinkles turned closed eyes and bared grin on Ichigo, who recognized what few other people his age could correctly interpret as cold-blooded murder.

"We're fine. Just be more careful in the future." Rukia actually picked up the horrible mutation and helped settle it back in the ball, which opened a hole in its side allowing for the return of its contents before closing up again. She looked down at Ichigo, who gazed up at her shuddering and uncertain how to proceed. Apparently the sight met with her approval, for a fond smile made her seem much more approachable. With that she reached down to offer him a hand up which Ichigo accepted.

"I think these guys are trying to kill me," he muttered beneath his breath while scraping some rather nasty secretions off the front of his robes.

"You're just jumpy from the encounter with Mayuri. Believe me, I know how nerve-wracking a conversation with him can be. I was looking over my shoulder for days after the first time."

Squeezing his fingers, Rukia promptly resumed their journey. Ichigo felt somewhat reassured by her words and allowed himself to be led along.

Sadly, his girlfriend remained blissfully ignorant to the number of vicious scowls and muttered comments being aimed in their general direction. To one side Ichigo caught sight of a small group of white-robed scientists, among them the amphibious Hyosou and tiny Rin. To his shock that androgynous bug-eyed mouse reached up and drew a thumb sharply across his throat, being sure to make eye contact with Ichigo at that moment. A few others offered similar menacing gestures clearly intended for him.

It felt like being back in the old Eleventh Division when they all wanted a piece of him to boast about to Captain Zaraki. Just what did I do to deserve all this?

"You got The Stuff?" Hyosou muttered from the corner of his wide mouth after the couple had passed by.

"Right here." Rin held up a juice box, unremarkable save for the slight wisps of smoke emerging from its seams.

"Good. Once it's done its work, you keep her occupied while I switch 'em out." The bigger man produced something that resembled a hastily stitched together Frankenstein version of Ichigo's head. "She'll never know the difference." They exchanged meaningful nods, and slowly set off in pursuit.

Try and take away our Patroness? Not likely, you fluorescent meat sock!


The six Vaizard were lounging about the main cavern when Hiyori came waltzing back in. None of them made a move to approach her. Though just the sight of the whole crew acting so casual served to set her nerves on edge. One wrong move, and they might just attack.

"Yo, Hiyori." Hirako Shinji dropped the book he had been reading to dangle between his knees. Heavy-lidded eyes and a pronounced frown made his expression anything but welcoming. "Where you been? You had us worr… ied."

The captain's voice trailed off and he shot to his feet along with all the rest.

From out of the tunnel behind their returned associate emerged Tessai Tsukabishi, head of the Kidō Corps and their former partner in exile. He carried a tall staff topped by a large golden pinecone. The towering sorcerer cut an imposing sight swathed in midnight robes of office that marked him as one of the most powerful spell-casters alive. His spectacles gleamed in the firelight as he spoke. "I bid you all greetings. It's been too long."

"Tessai-san," Lisa spoke with cautious courtesy. "To what do we owe the visit?"

"I agreed to accompany Hiyori-chan back to you after she conversed with Kisuke." He indicated to the frowning girl who stood with arms crossed in front of him. "It afforded me an opportunity to see you all once more. One can get wrapped up in work if they're not careful and forget there are other important things that require tending. Like old friends." He rested the staff against his broad chest, head bowing at the same time. "Before that, I wonder if I might trouble you to pay my respects."

"Of course." Rose gestured towards one tunnel. "We all should, really."

"Thank you." Tessai set off where indicated. The Vaizard took up step behind him, and he led the way down this short route until he came out in a small hollow. There an altar had been set up to their lost colleague, Hachigen Ushōda. A sword lay in its sheathe upon the shrine. Upon approaching it the prime wizard went to his knees. He reached forth and opened the door on the tiny house, where a picture of the departed gazed out at them. Clapping his hands together loudly, Tessai's head sank in prayer as he offered well-wishes to the man who had once been his loyal lieutenant. His compatriots followed suit.

Those who had not been expecting his arrival knew what it meant. The Kidō Chief was vouching for Hiyori's absence, which would otherwise have caused deep suspicion. If anyone could be said to be above reproach when it came to Hachi's death, it was Tessai. He had grieved openly for his pupil, performing the ceremonies and extirpation of the body back in Soul Society personally. Everyone had been in attendance. While Urahara's word was notoriously untrustworthy and Yoruichi could charm her way clear, Tsukabishi would never lie when it came to something concerning this. And so Hiyori had an airtight alibi, at least as far as this crew was concerned. There would be no question of her having slunk off to conspire with their enemies.

"If one of you has anything they would like to tell me…"

The Vaizard tensed at Tessai's quiet words. He did not move or look back at them as he spoke.

"… I beg you, do so now. While we are still friends."

None of them spoke.

"Very well."

He began to pray then, a low rumbling benediction that rustled over their skin and caused more than a few to shiver. Yet none dared leave. Whether from respect or fear, the Vaizard joined their old ally in keeping the vigil of a murdered colleague.

And all the while, they wondered which of them would be the next to die.


"So anyway," Orihime Inoue gabbled without need to pause for breath, "you know that cellphone novel that everyone was into a few months back? The one about vampires, and the little beggar girl with the red scarf?"

"I never read it." Tatsuki Arisawa shrugged at her friend's image on the phone.

"No?" the sweet-tempered redhead pouted in disappointment. "Well, I heard through the grapevine that it's being converted into a visual novel, and then a manga adaptation! Do you think it'll get an anime, even? OH! I wonder who they'll get to play Rania? I hope it's Fumiko-chan, she has such a nice voice, they really should give her more work and–!"

'That's enough.'

Arisawa tensed.

'Get rid of her.'

"Listen, Orihime, I need to get in another jog before I work out. But afterwards I can stop by and we 'll have dinner. Sound good?"

"Oh… okay." Her face got a little bigger, as if she were clutching the handheld closer to herself. "Tatsuki-chan? Are you doing well?"

Her eyebrows rose. "Why?"

"It's just… lately, you've been looking…" Here Orihime hesitated, as if hoping she might offer an explanation, or even the smallest detail. When Tatsuki remained silent her beautiful gaze drifted off to one side. "Well, I guess it's… nothing. Maybe we'll talk when you get here."

"Alright. See you in a little bit. Bye."

"Goodbye."

Tatsuki ended the call. She stared at the colorful pane with its friendly bouncing icons and digital assistants asking for her input. The light it gave off illuminated her in the otherwise darkened cavern.

As she did, a pair of black arms reached out and drew her back against the living shadow behind her.

"Let's make this quick," she snapped fiercely, eyes narrowed with anger and revulsion. "I've got a dinner date."

There was no response. Only the feel of his cold mouth fastening against her throat and the tickle of his teeth as he took his first bite. Every muscle in Tatsuki's body clenched in an effort to resist flinging the loathsome monster off. He had ignored her complaints about the marks of his feeding showing through on her skin, only asking in his dry lifeless voice where specifically she would like him to touch her. The question left Tatsuki so furious she couldn't bring herself to broach the subject again for fear of things growing violent.

Instead the angry young woman resolutely allowed herself to be used as this undead creature's meal, as she had for close to a year now. If this went on for much longer she wasn't certain what would happen. He couldn't be trusted. She knew that for a fact, even before getting solid proof that he was holding out on her. Ulquiorra hadn't opened up any more about what their relationship involved or whether he expected her to survive it.

But she never forgot the reason why she was doing it. Tatsuki held onto this purpose with all her soul.

If I'm damned, so be it. As long as it's only me. This is the best way I can think of to protect us if the beast ever gets loose again.

I only pray I'm strong enough to handle things right if that should happen. For all our sakes.

Especially Ichigo.


Ichigo Kurosaki's Hollow flung itself back and forth across the slopes of Hueco Mundo. Anyone watching from a distance might have assumed it had lost its mind, or perhaps fought against an invisible opponent.

Closer inspection would reveal that it held in its hands a golden thread attached to the hole in its chest, and it was against this the Hollow struggled.

"C'mon!" the living antithesis of its master cursed. "Piece of SHIT!"

Despite all its efforts, this super-powerful being could not damage the enchanted line in the slightest. Finally in frustration it flopped down to sit panting with arms draped over its upraised knees.

"Fuck," the Hollow muttered. "Fuck fuck fuck!"

For a while it just sat there trembling.

A howl sounded in the distance. Ichigo's Hollow raised its head.

Far away, against a line of hills, there towered several Menos Grande. Their heads twitched and jerked as they watched him. At their feet was another creature. Not as big as a Menos, but large enough to be worthy of notice. They clustered around it like hunting dogs on the leash.

The Hollow felt the Hunt Master's eyes upon it, and growled deep in its throat.

As if hearing this warning, Cernunnos and its brood turned and sped off across the wastes to rejoin their fellows in the Wild Hunt.

When it was alone again, Ichigo's Hollow settled chin on forearms and stared broodingly at the blasted landscape. "I'm not gonna let you fuck it up," it whispered to itself.

There was still time. No need to play a trump card. That was always an option, one even that dickbag Vaizard wasn't aware of. We'll see just who comes out on top in the end.


Isane Kotetsu had taken her leave half an hour ago. Yet still Katsurou remained in the rock garden long after their discussion. The groundskeepers unobtrusively departed, what servants remained staying out of sight for the sake of their master's privacy.

Alone in the blissful silence of his carefully tended domain, Lord Arashi continued to sip his drink. He looked out over the cultivated environment, tended to for generations.

As they did so often, his thoughts turned to the past…


Having dismissed the healers and attendants, young Katsurou lay flat on his back trying not to scream. Lady Isane knew her craft. The ministrations of lesser mages would not be necessary. Whatever damage he would suffer had already been done.

With care so as not to pass out, he raised his right arm. No blood showed through the bandages yet. There was something surreal about the way it ended halfway up the forearm. He swore he could feel the fingers move when he tried to flex them, even though nothing was there.

The wound throbbed. Feeling feverish, he dropped his ruined limb back to his side to focus on the ceiling.

"Feeling any better, my lord?"

Katsurou sat upright, perspiring heavily. "Who dares…?!"

His throat clenched when he saw who it was.

"Sorry to intrude." Sitting in a corner of the room, the captain poured a drink into a dish. "I thought we might have a chance to talk."

"About what?" Jorōgumo whispered warnings in his mind, and he confirmed she was close by in a ceremonial stand. It came as no surprise that none of his servants had noticed the intruder enter, or indeed came in response to their presence now. Such a legendary figure went where they pleased. For some reason, though, as life-threatening as it may look on the outside, Katsurou felt certain this individual was not here to assassinate him.

After a swallow of saké, the white-clad figure sighed. "The official report states that only Jūshirō witnessed the execution of your sister and her boy. But that's not technically accurate." A lift of the head, and they regarded one another directly. "I was also there, in hiding where no one could see."

His body had grown weak. Yet the young lord kept himself from collapsing to the cot through sheer willpower. "Your information… holds little value to me at this stage."

"You're right." The captain shrugged. "No point in us discussing the past. Instead, maybe you'd like to talk about the future. Specifically…"

And here a new tone crept into that idle voice, one that made Arashi shiver in response.

"… how'd you like to make Yudai Shiba pay for what he did?"

Katsurou remained silent. He thought about the proposal, and many factors related to it. His family. His name. His vows and responsibilities. It did not escape notice how this could be a trap. Nor did he allow himself to act impulsively. When he made his choice, Katsurou's heart was steady as stone.

"I will lend an ear to whatever you have to say, Taichou."

At this, Kyōraku Shunsui lifted the brim of his straw hat and smiled. "Outstanding."

To be continued