"Jūshirō-sama, no! You mustn't…!"

"Actually, I must," he declared with a smile, before plunging his knife into luscious pink flesh.

A few seconds later, Jūshirō Ukitake had effectively seeded the watermelon. He took a few moments to chop it up into perfect cubes. Meanwhile the servant Rin danced from one foot to another behind him, as if worried he might slice off a finger. Her concern only brought a smile to his face. It was nice to still be venerated a little.

"There." He turned back to his head of household staff and presented a bowl filled with chopped fruits. "Work your magic with this, please. I'll see about cleaning up the mess. And no," he held up a hand to forestall her as she was about to protest, "There is no need to get one of the other girls. I said that you could all go home early today for the Halo unveiling, and I do not want to see anyone running late on my account."

The young woman's face softened. "You really are too kind, Jūshirō-sama."

"Kindness is an armor against life, as Shunsui wrote last week."

Her expression darkened immediately. "Yes, well… I am sure His Excellency has many wonderful attributes," she stated in a frosty tone. "But his talent with the pen does not fall into that category."

"Oh dear." He turned away and began wiping down the countertop to hide his smile. "Has he been sending you poetry again?"

"To call it such would be the greatest kindness." Rin selected some of the flavorful nuts and herbs from their larder, her voice rising in pitch to make sure she was heard. "I certainly hope His Excellency does not expect me to invest any time in reading such… scribblings. I have a nephew still learning his letters, so I am beset by all the atrocious grammar one can take."

Ukitake grinned happily as she continued with her invectives against his friend. Despite the loss of his shinigami powers, or perhaps as a result of them, life had never seemed quite so splendid. As minor nobility and a retired captain (an unheard of position before now), he was permitted to orchestrate his own day without consideration for anyone else. Of course, because of his nature, he couldn't simply throw inhibition to the wind and behave without any consideration for those around him.

Kyōraku already filled that position so very nicely.

It was almost like a dream come true. In less than half a year he had rediscovered the joys of simply living in Soul Society. Under the proper conditions, it truly could be considered a paradise for the spirit. His ancestral home in the Court of Pure Souls had not been obliterated like the rings of the Rukongai during the war. It was something of a relief to find that was so upon returning here. Though there had been precious little time to visit in the past two millennia, his heart had always been comforted by the thought that should he ever need to return, his first home would still be waiting for him.

Of course, it took some doing to identify all the new faces. Lesser spirits devoted to his family had passed away during his age-old tenure as captain of Division Thirteen. Their descendants as well as eager replacements were only too pleased to find the master of the mansion had returned home. Some even whispered that there might be time for him to marry and settle down, raise a family, all the usual priorities of the noble class.

Yes, he considered while attending to the cleaning, I really should give the matter some thought. But where to even begin? I am somewhat out of touch with the peerage after so long. And I certainly wouldn't want to feel as though I was visiting the market in search of a bride. These things must be contemplated with neither excessive urgency nor temperance. Why, if done properly, I might even be able to consider potential brides in terms of love. Why not? If Byakuya Kuchiki of all people could do it, then surely I…

"Pardon me, Jūshirō-sama. A visitor has arrived at the mansion."

He turned to find another servant girl attired in his household livery waiting at the door to the kitchen. Her name was… Hanabi. "Thank you, Hanabi." He snagged a towel to finish drying his hands. Excitement gripped him. A visitor? Perhaps it might even be an emissary from another family looking to initiate courtship. Wouldn't that be a bit of irony considering his previous line of thought? Mustn't keep them waiting, now.

Jūshirō breezed by his servant and practically skipped down the hall. He couldn't remember feeling so buoyant and, well, alive since his youth. Before the onset of the wasting sickness that all but crippled him in his later years. Now that ailment was completely gone, at the cost of his pride as a shinigami.

While thinking this he passed an open door, glancing inside involuntarily. Some of his lighthearted euphoria died a little. For there, resting on a stand in the room reserved for family heirlooms, was Sogyō no Kotowari, his former zanpakutō. The two blades were arranged in the mahogany stand on a shelf at waist height, their scabbards clean and new-made. Once these blades had represented the part of his soul that marked him as a death god, a living testimony of the power that had guarded their world for centuries. Now they were bereft of that vitality, even as he seemed to have gained it. This was a disquieting thought. Though no longer as fast or strong as a captain (or any shinigami for that matter), Jūshirō was able to exercise a greater degree of freedom in his choices and his activities than were ever available as the Taicho of Squad Thirteen.

All it cost was a part of his soul. It saddened him to think it. Are you still out there somewhere, Sogyō no Kotowari? Waiting for the next hand to take hold of your power? I pray they do you justice, as I could not.

"Rest in peace 'til then, old friend," he murmured on his way past.

A few more turns of the hallway, and the white-haired nobleman found himself in the courtyard. Further ahead at the gates to his manse a tall figure waited patiently with another servant. He recognized the visitor instantly, and once more his heart soared with joy.

"Komamura-san!" Jūshirō exclaimed in delight.

The fox-headed man turned and, upon sighting him, bowed solemnly. "Jūshirō-sama," he intoned in a grave manner. "It is an honor to be in your home."

"This is certainly a first." He approached his old comrade carefully, as if any sudden move might scare him away. "We haven't seen you outside in a while now. I'm pleased you accepted my invitation to drop by." There had been numerous attempts made to coax Komamura out of his self-imposed hiding, but why dwell on that? He was here now and that's what counted.

For his part the giant spirit did not seem overly enthusiastic about his visit. Saijin Komamura could never be called lighthearted in all the time Jūshirō had known him, but the events of the Autumn War had seemingly robbed him of any motivation beyond quietly punishing himself. His existence was now composed of isolation and self-reproach.

Well, time for that to change! "Come in, please, you're most welcome." Ukitake stood aside and gestured for his old comrade to proceed into the main house. "You look tired. Shunsui is here as well, he'll be glad for the extra company. The three of us haven't been together since… ah…"

The last time they met was when visiting Yamamoto's sickroom. Hardly any words were spoken. They simply stood around in that room listening to the sound of the machines which kept their crumbled Command-General breathing. Yamamoto never even woke up the whole time they were there. Still, it was not a wasted effort, paying respects to someone who had fought so hard to keep them all safe. One could almost forgive the old man for all he had done ostensibly in their names.

Jūshirō had long ago resolved to forgive his teacher and master. Just as soon as Yamamoto died.

Coming back to the present, Komamura merely plodded forth towards the house without saying a word. Anxiously the older spirit followed along behind, marshaling his servants and sending them on errands with only looks and gestures. They would have something prepared to greet their new guest soon enough, and their master would take care of him until then.

"I'll take you to see Shunsui. We're collaborating on a new publication for Seireitei Weekly." Jūshirō prattled happily as they walked down the corridors. He was as willing to fill the conversational gap as Saijin seemed to empty it. "It's going to be called 'Resting on Your Laurels'. Really they just want to let us know we're still appreciated. As it happens, some of them dropped hints that they would like to hear from you, Komamura-san."

"I have no facility with words," his hulking houseguest replied tersely.

They walked for a minute in silence. Now that he had some time to think about it, the white-haired lord was baffled by what might bring Komamura here. It must be something of pressing importance to draw him out of seclusion. Nanao had mentioned she was going to visit him when she stopped by last. He had been entirely too thrilled to see her at the time to give the matter much thought. Really, it almost seemed like losing his status as a shinigami had granted him the surplus of energy he had been missing for lo these many centuries. Like his body had been storing it all up, just wanting for him to take a breather so it could come roaring out.

Which brings us back to the current situation. Maybe Shunsui would have better luck getting him to open up? Speaking of which…

"Here we are." They came upon the quarters reserved for his old friend. Jūshirō knocked politely before sliding the rice paper screen open. "Kyōraku, look who's he…!"

"EEP!"

A blur shot by them. Ukitake only caught a glimpse of the blushing maidservant who went tearing away to disappear down the hallway. Bewildered, he looked back to find Kyōraku Shunsui scrambling upright, attempting to rearrange his somewhat disheveled wardrobe.

"Komamura! What a delight!" the handsome rogue proclaimed smoothly while tying his sash securely. He swept his fingers back through long curly hair that was only slightly touched by gray, gathering the long locks up and winding a tie around them to make a ponytail. "Ah, please forgive my current state, we were… discussing poetry! The young lady wanted some suggestions, and I was more than willing to…"

"Yes, yes, Shunsui," the maid's master waved a hand tiredly. He had been through this situation often enough throughout his life. It was almost a relief to know that becoming a powerless soul could not dim Kyōraku's zest. But this might be considered taking advantage of his host's goodwill. These people served him because they regarded it as a privilege. Maybe the girl was a willing participant, but… could you really call it that with the difference in their status? "Let's repair out to the gardens. I'm sure a light meal has already been prepared for us."

"Wonderful." Kyōraku beamed at them as he stuffed something that looked suspiciously like a slip up his sleeve. "Let's go, I'm starving. So, Saijin-san, to what do we owe the pleasure?"

"I wished to speak to you both." Komamura spoke quietly as they continued down the hall together. When nothing more proved forthcoming, Kyōraku threw Jūshirō a curious look behind the big man's back, to which he only raised his eyebrows in a mystified fashion. This really was an unusual occurrence.

A few minutes later saw three former captains of the Seireitei sitting on cushions in a tiny gazebo. The Ukitake family estate sprawled around them. Perhaps it did not quite compare in size and splendor to, say, the Kuchiki, but it was no less well tended. And, in Jūshirō's opinion at least, no less beautiful. Mulberry bushes sprouted around a stone-rimmed pond, and shade-giving trees grew in a pleasingly synchronous arrangement throughout. A small family of quail had made its nest in the sandy soil beneath a beech tree, and their mother poked her head out to watch her bipedal neighbors curiously as they took their places.

One of the family servants poured steaming rosehip tea into ancient porcelain cups before retreating with a bow. Now free of prying eyes or indeed any possibility of eavesdropping, Ukitake took a sip before setting the cup down. "So, Saijin," he began in what he hoped was a welcoming manner. "I know you can't have come here for any minor reason. Please, as a friend, I'm more than willing to hear you out."

Pointed ears twitched, while that still massive frame hunched in upon itself. The dog-man's golden eyes gazed unblinkingly into the steam wafting from his own teacup. He looked to be collecting himself. At last Saijin Komamura spoke.

"A few weeks past… Ichimaru came to see me."

Ukitake's eyes widened. Kyōraku left off blowing on his tea with surprise. The two of them exchanged glances, speaking much without words.

"I can only imagine," the master of the house spoke carefully, "that this was not a social call. Any more than your being here. Regardless, I'm pleased to find you still alive."

The great shoulders lifted in a shrug, as if to indicate he did not share such a sentiment. It was heartbreaking to see this once powerful man brought so low by grief and recrimination. Still, he had always been a dutiful soul. Perhaps it was this that sustained him, and had brought him to see them today.

"His purpose in seeking me out concerned an old mission we shared command on," Komamura continued gravely. "One that held a measure of… personal interest for me." Golden eyes lifted then to regard them both. "Were you informed that the Wild Hunt had been sighted in the human realm again?"

"I…" Jūshirō realized his mouth was hanging open, and closed it hurriedly. "No… I was not. Kyōraku?"

"Hm? Oh, well… Nanao mentioned something along those lines to me earlier, but I didn't want to worry you." An accusing glare from Ukitake only caused him to smile amiably. "Not like it would have done any good."

"I would have appreciated the opportunity to determine that for myself," his friend retorted coldly. He rubbed at an ache in his neck he had not noticed until now, feeling far more weary than he had been only seconds past. Jūshirō might no longer be in the game, but it seemed evil did not take retirement into consideration. It made him shiver to think that this peaceful, tranquil home could be set upon by monsters still, and he no longer able to defend it.

With an effort he shook off such unworthy thoughts and returned his attention to the bearer of these bad tidings. Komamura was speaking again.

"Ichimaru and I were tasked with destroying the Hunt on its last known escapade. This is common knowledge. The Hunt has not been seen nor heard from again in almost half a century. Gin came to inform me this was no longer the case. But I did not need him to."

About to speak, Jūshirō paused when a low growl came to his ears.

Before him, Saijin Komamura's hackles were raised. Those once mighty hands fisted in the fabric of his trousers. Sharp teeth were bared in a snarl. There was a look in the beast-man's face now that both captains found unsettling. Something unpleasant, wild, and in no way human.

"I already knew…" Saijin lifted blazing eyes to regard them, "… for I was Cernunnos."


Check it out.

Eh? What's that, Inu no Mure?

Makizō Aramaki brought down the booze gourd he had been gulping out of with a contented sigh. He wiped the back of one hand over his mouth a bit unsteadily, cheeks flushed red and eyes glazed. From his position atop a small bare hillock, the lone shinigami scout scanned the nighttime terrain of Hueco Mundo disinterestedly.

What? I'm not seeing anything.

Look. I see a hell butterfly. Lots of 'em.

Makizō complied. Sure enough, what appeared to be a swarm (flock? Hive, maybe?) of tiny dark creatures flapped overhead. Hard to tell what size they might be, what with how high up they were and his admittedly none too sober state of mind. But he was certainly not so far gone in drink to miss something straight off the bat.

Inu no Mure, you numbskull. Those aren't hell butterflies. They're bats!

Butterflies. Bats. Same thing.

No! No, they're not!

Whatever.

Sighing, the Tenth Seat of Squad Eleve… (no, Tiger now, Tiger Squad! Lieutenant Kusajishi had impressed this point quite clearly into his head, along with her piranha-sharp teeth, the little savage! He was not about to let himself get away with any slip even in his own mind).

Having assured himself of this, he watched the gaggle (that didn't sound right) of nighttime flyers swoop overhead on their way… somewhere else. Their presence did not disturb him. Even being alone in the very heart of enemy territory was no cause for concern. Siamese and Tiger had cleared out this stretch of sand and rock months past. There hadn't been a Hollow sighted within fifty clicks. Which sort of defeated the purpose of anyone being posted to sentry duty as he was. After you had catalogued the present surroundings (which amounted to sand, sand, few rocks here and there, sand) you were pretty much left to your own devices.

Nothing to bother or interest you. Just find a way to amuse yourself until your shift was over. In Aramaki's case, that usually meant quality time with some good strong drink. Never knew when trouble might come calling, after all.

Know what I think?

That word doesn't really suit you.

What word?

'Think'.

You trying to say I'm dumb?

You're certainly not intelligent company, and I should know. Pretty much all my friends are dumb.

So what's the problem? Just be dumb too. It's got you this far, right?

True, but what do I have to show for it?

I don't follow.

Look around us, Inu no Mure. We're all alone in the middle of nowhere with nobody to talk to. And nobody waiting for us at home when we get back, I might add! Lots of shinigami have girlfriends or even wives, but not me. And I'm a ranked officer, even! But there's hardly a chance I'll rise any higher. Over forty years I've been in this company. That's a lot longer than most transfers. But survival without prospects isn't much better than dying. So what do you suggest I do?

You got anything to drink?

You know I do. Is that seriously the best advice you can offer me?

Can't hurt. You already look wasted. No wonder girls aren't interested.

Nettled, Aramaki withdrew the zanpakutō from its sheathe and examined his reflection in its blade as best he could. Even to his own slightly bloodshot eyes, there was not much to recommend him. His face was too square, his mouth too wide, and his eyes set too close together… or far apart, he couldn't really tell. His moustache was neat and trim, at the very least. That said something. Personal hygiene was important. Especially in the Ele… Tiger! Gotta remember it's Tiger now!

But as he was saying, you had to keep yourself at a minimum of proper appearance. This was as much a matter of survival as any tactic or swordplay they taught you at the Shinigami Academy. He once knew a guy who got killed just for smelling bad. Makizō was sitting right behind him when it happened. Poor stinking slob plopped himself down, and as he was reaching for a bottle on the table, Makizō remembered seeing colorful feathers twitch ever so slightly, and a voice proclaimed, "You're offending my nose, ugly."

The malodorous malcontent in question responded, "So stick it up your a…"

That was as far as he got before a fist smashed his face in. He then made the rather unwise decision to draw his sword. Unlucky bastard died choking on his own teeth a few minutes later.

Makizō didn't feel any need to regret this incident. As it turned out the dead man had been the previous holder of the position of Tenth Seat in their division, and his passing meant Makizō automatically got a promotion, making him technically one of the top combatants in their peerless squad of warriors extraordinaire. More a matter of seniority than any exceptional martial prowess on his part, but rules were rules.

He reflected on his appearance. Maybe I should grow a beard? Makizō rubbed his chin thoughtfully, angling the blade and picturing how he might look with full facial hair.

It was thanks to this he saw the woman standing behind him.

"Can you help me?"

"EYYAAAAAAAH!"

Aramaki Makizō screamed loud enough to bring Hollows rushing from all corners of Hueco Mundo and beyond. His attempts to scramble upright saw him pitching forward to land spread-eagled in the sand, arms and legs flailing back and forth like he was trying to swim away across the desert. Only after swallowing a mouthful of silica did it finally occur to him to stop wriggling unsuccessfully and leap to his feet, spinning around with both hands clapped around the hilt of his trembling sword.

"W-W-WHO ARE YOU?! IDENTIFY YOURSELF!" he screamed in what was meant to be an intimidating fashion.

"Misato Ochi."

After this straightforward declaration she simply stood there looking at him, in no way unnerved by his shout or his drawn saber. Well, at least not as unnerved as he was. His heart wouldn't stop pounding, and he had a bad case of the shakes which might be the result of alcohol (but sadly were not).

They stared at one another. It finally dawned upon Makizō that this was not a Hollow, unmasked or otherwise. Nor was she one of the Vaizard. In fact her soul felt, well… human. This was lent further support by her casual and modern attire; pants, blouse and thin sweater. The woman stood several inches shorter than himself, with brown hair falling around her shoulders and some trendy glasses. Kind of cute, really.

Wonder if she's got a man?

"What are yo–"

"–ou a shinigami?"

They spoke at exactly the same time, leaving Makizō thoroughly confused and uncertain how to proceed. Aggressively? Chivalrously? Cowardly? However Misato did not share his indecision and promptly launched into speech.

"You're dressed sort of like the ones I've seen, but that's a new style if I'm not mistaken." She indicated his brand-new togs, which fit quite well in addition to being Grade-A body armor. "The soul cutter clinches it. You're a shinigami." Misato crossed her arms and smiled then. "Good. Means you'll do. Follow me."

And without another word she promptly marched past him, lifting her legs high and powering through the sand like a competitive athlete.

The incomprehensible woman hadn't gotten a few yards before noticing Aramaki was not following her. She spared him a clearly cross glance over her shoulder, and upon finding him still staring dumbfounded, reversed direction to march on back to where he stood.

By this point the bewildered shinigami had recollected himself to feel sufficiently in control. However odd it was to find any living person in Hueco Mundo, it did not change the fact that he was a man, an officer of the spirit world, and she no more than a frail and clearly not very powerful human woman. It was his duty to not only take charge of this situation but see to it that she be escorted to a safe environment where they could then determine how she came to be here where no mortal had any right being.

Having decided this for himself, the Tiger officer drew himself up resolutely and looked down his nose at the approaching female the way he remembered higher-ranked officers doing to him. He was feeling remarkably more sober.

"Young lady, I'll have you know that I-EEEYA-TA-TATAH!"

This was as far as he got as Misato reached up to seize his right ear and twist it so painfully and expertly he felt certain it must have come off in her hand. His gratitude at realizing this was not the case proved short-lived as the miserable death god found himself being unceremoniously dragged across the dunes by this puny woman while he babbled in pain, quite unable to stop.

"Lemme go yoOW that hurts please stop I'm not kidding GAK about to pass out heYAH wha'd I ever do to you?"

"I'm going to keep this lecture brief," his obscurely cheery-faced dominatrix said as they proceeded in a beeline across the desert. "Right now maybe half a dozen teenagers could be lost in this desert, which I'm guessing from all reports is Hueco Mundo. We were brought here thanks to an idiot, and right now the two of us are going to follow that flock of bats, because I can't think of any other way to locate my students. If you don't prove helpful, you will be left behind."

Ochi then released his smarting ear so suddenly he almost fell over. Only the clear threat in her words kept his legs moving as though in recognition that here was someone not to be trifled with. Aramaki stumbled along behind this intimidating trailblazer as they continued in the direction the bats had taken. A desire to avoid provoking her wrath any further awoke within him the manner usually only reserved for superior officers (or just plain anybody who managed to scare the living hell out of him). Makizō Aramaki was nothing if not keenly attuned to his own survival.

Hey. We're gonna save some girls! Alright, let's do it, Makizō.

Fat chance. I'm running away the first chance I get. You watch and I'll…

As if sensing this line of thought Misato glanced warningly back at him, causing Aramaki to cringe and smile nervously to express his support of her leadership and the expedition in general. The sweat on his flushed and perspiring face apparently assured her of his compliance and she turned back around.

Maybe I should send a hell butterfly telling the regiment what's happening? Along with my last will and testament. Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.

I get your girly mag collection.

Do I have to explain the concept of what my dying involves for you again?

Makizō… we're gonna save some girls.

Another dire glare from Misato, and both zanpakutō and master shut up after that. When her back was turned, though, Aramaki swiftly called forth a hell butterfly, gave it a recap of current events and sent it on its way. After this the unlikely party then continued trooping beneath the starry skies of Hueco Mundo, following a flock of bats.


There was hissing in the tunnels. Whispered communications floated seemingly from one passageway to another, carrying with them a sense of urgency unlike that which the denizens had grown accustomed to. This was different. This peril could potentially mean their end.

Lagrima strode onwards without listening. She didn't need to be burdened by the half-mad, fear-filled worries of these craven worms. She didn't need to hear whatever they thought or knew might be happening. All the dungeon's leader needed to know was that something had disrupted the delicately maintained equilibrium of this mausoleum over which she presided. If the mob panicked, fled, if she lost control even for a moment… it would mean her end. His Holiness would kill her, or they would.

Is this the day when I must die…?

NO!

Her pace quickened, and Lagrima practically sonido-ed down the tunnels. I can't fall, not like this, not for nothing! I've got to try and survive as long as possible. Why, when I have done nothing wrong?

Nothing wrong, nothing… I have done nothing! Nothing to deserve this… nothing not to deserve it! I am a lowly worm! My existence has comprised no worth until now. I must strive to accomplish something to prove my value!

A rattling sound now filled her ears, growing stronger the closer she approached her destination. Lagrima forced herself not to think about death rattles she had heard from human throats. Not now when she might be faced with the same thing. She skidded to a halt, feet sliding on polished stone to arrive at the chamber in which her dream catchers hung.

It was like walking into a beehive. From the ceiling, every single one of her hundreds of carefully prepared snares was filled, rattling against one another from the thrashing familiars imbued with their deadly essence. Their glow lit the otherwise darkened chamber. Several Hollows crouched beneath these rustling eaves, glancing worriedly between each other, and clearly just as confused as herself.

A shiver went up her spine. Turning, Lagrima focused on the one face she recognized, belonging to one of the Jackal's discarded refuse. She strode forth and grabbed the little wretch by the hair, twisting painfully until it sank to its knees with a cry, single visible eye wide with fear.

"When did it happen?" she demanded.

"I don't… know," the black-haired little Hollow gasped. "I heard and… came here and… they were just like this!"

"All of them?" Lagrima hissed, yanking her hair again for emphasis. The prodigal cried out. Another one, very similar in build but with short sandy hair, seemed about to rush forward, but Lagrima snapped her head up and fixed the fallen soul with her empty eye sockets. It halted at the threat visible within their depths and shrank a step back, angry but unwilling to risk itself. She turned back to her informant. "They all came back at once? That is not supposed to happen! All of them together…!"

She didn't let herself finish. All those feeders in a flock… someone was bound to have noticed. Hollow, shinigami, even the hybrid pack who had staked out their claim here first. Someone would come to investigate. And they would find this place. Their only sanctum would be breached. Then she and her followers would be slaughtered, cowering in these lightless depths.

They would have to flee. Abandon their refuge before it was too late.

A sound impinged upon her senses. Looking up, Lagrima was reminded once again of what lay overhead. There was a feast of essence contained therein, more than she had collected in all the last year. She hadn't been expecting to reach this level of saturation for another five. Now that it was hers, she was almost afraid. Would this be enough? Did he need any more than this? It might be sufficient to bring him back fully, or at least capable of moving with them when they left, so that he need not be carried or abandoned for dead. Almost amusing, that; for if they did leave him behind, then she would assuredly die. His Holiness would have her head for failing Him.

Suspicion blossomed within her. The Hollow viceroy unslung her harp and plucked nine separate strings of different color. The reverberations went out, and when they returned, she almost dropped her weapon in surprise.

Two were still in the mortal realm, but the rest of the vessels were… here, in Hueco Mundo!

Lagrima was stunned by the implications. It was always too much of a risk to try and capture any of them. Something like that might be noticed. But if the vessels were within her reach, then she could actually use them to provide the feeding. This could very well be the key to a complete rejuvenation! Not to mention her freedom.

If she didn't panic, this could be her salvation. The key to escaping this prison.

Her choice was made before she even thought about it. Lagrima turned to the mob of Hollows clustered at her back, many of whom quailed before her. She detached seven strands and held them out to her vassals.

"Bring them to me," she whispered.


Clad in a comfortable white yukata, sitting cross-leged on the floor of the Kuchiki dojo, Tōshirō Hitsugaya strove with all his might to meditate. The atmosphere was perfect, as expected with anything involving this clan. Candles burned softly on posts. Two swords rested in their stands. Other than this, the room was bare save for tatami straw mats. Designs painted on the sliding screens evoked feelings of tranquility and harmonious nature. Not a thing to disturb you, not even the creaking of the home's timbers. It was like even they knew their role and were pleased to offer their humble services.

It therefore made Tōshirō vaguely guilty that all he could think about was he had never felt so bored in his life.

Yet another word often associated with Byakuya.

The young captain could not find it in himself to remonstrate his zanpakutō. He did not even dare chance a peek at the man himself seated in an identical position to his right. He knew what he would find: nothing. A classic image of indrawn meditation. No sign of agitation, not even the slightest hint that this required any more effort on Byakuya Kuchiki's part than anything else he succeeded at admirably. The man was so perfect it made it hard to like him.

Hitsugaya Tōshirō was not of an ungrateful nature. Having been scorned so severely in his youth, he could appreciate when someone honestly wanted to help you. And when Captain Kuchiki met with him after the Autumn War and offered to help him train, it seemed like a golden opportunity. With the rumors surrounding the Kuchiki, perhaps quite literally.

It was on the first day that reality came crashing home. A horde of instructors fell upon him, complete with lectures and printed material for him to read. Tōshirō didn't even get to see Byakuya for two weeks. Any fantasies of a no-holds-barred battle with the superlative shinigami quickly dissipated. Instead he was actually subjected to tutorials; on the nature of the spirit, the essence of swordsmanship and proper social discipline, all delivered by frowning old geezers who probably hadn't lifted a sword since Byakuya's grandparents' day.

Needless to say, the situation did not improve when the lord of the manor himself decided he was ready to descend and start the real training.

Both of their zankaputo were nestled in stands against the far wall. The captain of Greyhound Company hadn't said a word when he laid Senbonzakura into her cradle, then stood aside patiently with arms crossed. And so Tōshirō had been forced to silently follow suit, all the while wondering how much they could accomplish without weapons.

The answer was, 'Not a hell of a lot'.

At least, not from his point of view. Apparently Byakuya had a different definition of tutelage than his eager young disciple had first imagined. There would be no swordplay, no testing of their spiritual limits. Not even demonstrations of sorcery, or fleetness of foot. No. Instead, their time together was spent doing… this. This mind-numbing tedium of seeking to achieve inner peace, personal insight, and other vague fanciful concepts that belonged in the pages of a book, not a battlefield! Honestly, what was he supposed to learn from this: how to think people to death? Maybe if I drop into the lotus position on the battlefield and start droning, "Ommm," Aizen will be too busy laughing to notice when Ichigo Kurosaki chops his head off.

Would you do so if that was assured of happening?

Maybe. Maybe not.

This is exactly what Lord Kuchiki is attempting to address. You lack clarity.

Not true. I can very clearly picture decapitating Aizen.

And you will be no closer to making it happen than when you first fought.

Tōshirō bristled slightly.

Your enemy assuredly does not spend his time daydreaming about killing his opponents. Instead he makes certain that he can. How assured are you that, were Aizen Sosuke to present himself before us right now, the victor in the battle would be you?

I'm working on it. Why else would I be here, subjecting myself to this misery? Next time we meet, I am going to kill the bastard!

You do not even know when that might occur. What makes you think you will succeed where others have failed? An entire legion of captain-class warriors stood arrayed against him, yet you yourself remain certain that he survived the battle, perhaps even triumphed. What does that indicate about such an opponent?

That he cheated? What else would you call four vasto lorde and a sword that distorts your opponent's perceptions?

I call it beyond your reach. And it was three vasto lorde.

About to launch into a full-scale argument with his spiritual partner, Tōshirō was distracted by a door sliding open to one side. Revealed there was one of Byakuya's servants with head bowed and fists pressed to the floor.

"I beg your pardon, my lord," the man intoned in the manner of a condemned criminal. "Please forgive the disturbance, but our precious Lady Rukia has returned to the manner. She requests to speak with Your Lordship, at his convenience."

Tōshirō could have hugged the messenger, and kissed their precious Lady Rukia. This swift-blooming goodwill towards all mankind died out just as quickly when Byakuya made no response to the revelation. Not even the slightest twitch of an eyelash. The smaller captain cast a sidelong glance at him mistrustfully. Had the Captain-Commander slipped into a state of perfect Zen-like meditation such that he could not be bothered to recognize the world around him? Or was he simply taking a nap? Heaven knows the previous Commander-General had suffered from a similar ailment, such that you could never really tell if he was awake during the captains meetings or not. On the other hand…

Right then Byakuya Kuchiki's stormy eyes slid open, such that Hitsugaya almost jumped in surprise. While he gaped the aristocrat rose smoothly upright.

"I must attend to other matters, Hitsugaya-taicho," he spoke with the severity of a judge laying down his ruling. "My absence should not prevent you from continuing with your training. I will return shortly."

So saying, Byakuya strode majestically from the room, leaving Tōshirō by himself.

The young captain wasted no time in flopping onto his back and flinging out his arms and legs with a contented sigh. He closed his eyes in sheer bliss. Oh, but this feels good.

I see we are only concerned with appearances when other people are there to witness them.

Hang the cost. I need a break. My back's so stiff there might be a pole jammed up my ass. The pole of discipline.

Child, you are weak.

This unexpected attack would have caused him to bolt upright were he not so wound tight. Instead Tōshirō simply frowned and furrowed his brow.

What's with you today? I can't remember the last time you let me have it so badly.

There are monsters hovering over you, separated only by the paper-thin walls of a hand-knit heaven. The shinigami have still not fully recovered from their losses sustained in the Autumn War. Hollows continue to assault the living despite your forces in Hueco Mundo. And how do you react? By sulking over how mistreated you are.

What exactly do you want me to do, Hyōrinmaru? I'm not God. I can't solve everyone's problems on my own.

How would you even try?

What?

What would you do? Take me up and use me as is your will? Attack with spell, steel, and any other weapon that came to hand? How do you intend to defeat your nemesis? Should Aizen…

Hyōrinmaru's words began to sound more faint. This was all too much. Tōshirō felt himself beginning to drift off to sleep, and welcomed it. He didn't even have enough spirit left to resist, much less argue his case. Heaven knows he could use the rest.

His sense of the world around him was diminishing. A presence spoke to him then, hands, reaching out to embrace, and a woman's voice, whispering…

"Captain?"

Tōshirō's eyes snapped open, to find Rukia Kuchiki bent over him with a worried expression.

So much for appearances.

In a single fluid movement he had spun about and sprang to his feet, almost cracking her jaw with his head in the process.

"Lieutenant Kuchiki," he stated with no indication that she had caught him in an embarrassing position. "I was…"

Words failed him at this point. In all the months he had been here, Tōshirō had only seen the lady of the house once, and then from a distance. Her position as a lieutenant obviously demanded her attention, and he couldn't spend all his time here. But still, it felt a little odd suddenly speaking like this.

While he struggled to save face, Rukia had already straightened upright. If she was perturbed by this situation, her royal training would not permit her to show it.

"My apologies, Captain. I was in such a rush to pay my respects that I failed to consider you might still be meditating. If you like I will leave you to continue with…"

"That won't be necessary." Any opportunity to have something resembling real human company would not be refused at this point. His sanity was hanging by a thread, after all. "My training can wait until after we've spoken."

Crouched on her knees in front of him, Rukia smiled politely, losing any resemblance to her emotionless sibling in the process. "I'm pleased to hear it. Would you do me the honor of sharing tea together?"

"It would be a pleasu…"

The door slid open softly, and before he knew it there was a low table placed between them bearing two jade cups and a teapot of the same carved to resemble a dragon coiled around itself. Several plates of artfully decorated sweetmeats served to complete this repast. Whatever servants responsible for this registered as mere flickers out of the corners of his eyes, only to disappear upon some unseen signal from their mistress, shutting the screens behind them and thus leaving the pair alone once again.

Steam rose from the teapot dragon's mouth along with an almost palpable sense of warmth. Without hesitation Rukia lifted the implement and poured for them both, a fine aroma completing this impeccable presentation. She gracefully held out his cup and Hitsugaya took it, feeling unaccountably awkward by comparison and afraid he might spill the beverage all over himself.

This in and of itself was new territory. He did not usually worry about the proper way to hold a drink, much less how to sit, where to look, or any such laughably basic concepts. But here in Kuchiki Manor, one could not help but feel as though generations of aristocratic shades were watching you from the shadows with condemning eyes, silently demanding you not only be aware of their longstanding traditions but obey them impeccably so as not to bring dishonor upon their memory. His own upbringing had certainly done nothing to prepare him for such rigidly orchestrated opulence. One would think after living in the Seireitei for so many years he would not find himself befuddled at mere social niceties.

Both took their first sip of the beverage, with Tōshirō reminding himself at the last second not to slurp. This was certainly not his office where he could do as he pleased without fear of reproach. As if to emphasize this, Rukia lowered her cup and fixed him with what seemed an inquiring stare. To his beleaguered brain it looked like she was awaiting something from him. Were they supposed to talk now? Should he begin the conversation? Which of them had spoken last? He honestly could not remember.

I am somewhat at a loss to explain your current mental state. Or lack thereof.

Whatever! If I mess this up, I'll be saddled with His Lordship again. We have to milk this interlude for all it's worth!

"So, Rukia-sama," he blurted out quickly, "what… brings you by?"

She lives here, remember?

Don't sass me, Hyōrinmaru.

Perhaps next you could comment on how much she's grown?

What did I just say?!

"I returned mainly to pay a call upon the Research and Development Bureau," Rukia responded without noticing his inner argument, and Tōshirō hurriedly strove to appear interested. "One of our friends in Karakura might be suffering from an unknown malaise. I brought a sample to see if they might determine the facts one way or another, and decided to visit home while I wait for their results."

He snapped to full attention at that, no longer needing to feign interest. "What does this involve?" Tōshirō inquired, voice grave and wary.

"I am uncertain." His hostess glanced out the window as she took another sip of tea. This might have indicated stress on her part, or merely a desire to appreciate the beautiful scenery outdoors. "With talk of the Wild Hunt these last few months followed by an almost oppressive silence, the town feels like it's on edge. And yet I have seen nothing overly suspicious. Only now one of Ichigo's classmates is experiencing strange dreams which do not bode well, as they concern..." here her face betrayed a possible shadow of discontentment, "… his other half."

"I see." Hitsugaya sought time to ponder by taking a drink. All the captains were aware of the particular burden hoisted by Ichigo Kurosaki. The peril represented by his inner Hollow could not be downplayed, as Rukia's brother would attest. A part of him remained unconvinced they had anything to really worry about. The Vaizard were functioning admirably with their inner demons, and apparently had been doing so for over a century. Nanao Ise had even taken up the human boy's training. Surely with so many people forewarned and forearmed, there was little chance of anything suspicious being overlooked. This very episode proved that. They were all being careful.

And yet there were many unknown variables working against them. Threats unseen were far more grave than those you were aware of.

Take, for example, the very person sitting tranquilly before him right now.

Tōshirō hated to admit it, but Rukia Kuchiki made him uncomfortable. Through no fault of her own. This lady, a noblewoman of the highest peerage and ranking officer of the Gotei 7, also happened to be an assassin trained by Aizen Sosuke himself. The only thing which prevented her from remembering this was a memory spell Rukia herself had willingly proposed to have placed upon her. To top that off she had also served as apprentice to his childhood friend Momo Hinamori, whose own betrayal was covered up just as securely as her continued existence. As such, he had to exercise a certain degree of self-possession around her not normally attributed to the somewhat blunt and straightforward leader of Leopard Company.

The young captain was not alone in this predicament. Over a dozen of his friends and allies always had to keep in mind that Rukia remembered nothing of what had taken place following her defeat of Gin Ichimaru during the Autumn War. Her role in that affair, both ignoble and awe-inspiring though it may be, now served as one of the most closely guarded secrets of the Seireitei, privy only to a select few. And as much as he might have wanted to speak to her, to learn whatever secrets about Aizen and their history together only she could reasonably supply, he was honor-bound to respect the tremendous sacrifice this strong-willed woman shouldered.

It had never occurred to him how difficult it was to keep a secret from somebody you knew. How in the world had Byakuya Kuchiki successfully deceived this girl for nigh on fifty years without cracking from the strain? Was there anything he could not do? The thought left Hitsugaya resenting and envying his frustrating teacher to an even greater extent than before. This place really was going to drive him insane.

"We shall know ere long if there is true case for concern," the young woman stated with precise decorum, her gaze settling on him again. "In any case, I'm pleased to find you well, Captain. My brother informed me that you were visiting us today and I wanted to be certain to pay my respects, since there has not been an opportunity before now. I trust your lessons together are proving productive to your education."

Not a hint of a smile or even change in her inflection; all the same, he could not rid himself of the suspicion that she was laughing at him on the inside. Or perhaps it was just a case of frayed nerves. Resolved not to let his worst impulses get the best of him, Tōshirō settled on telling the truth.

"You can't disturb what wasn't happening. Your brother's example is… a very difficult ideal to reach."

Oddly enough, this was what brought a full-blown smile to her face, causing Rukia to glow like sunlight reflecting through an icicle.

"Yes, Nii-sama has completely mastered a state of inner reflection," she abruptly gushed with no attempt to hide her pride in this accomplishment. "He is writing a treatise on its applications in the area of soul purification and the basis of the shinigami essence. The academic community has been eagerly following his accomplishments towards successfully developing the mythical 'bare-handed absolution' technique, allowing the purification of Hollows without even drawing one's zanpakutō. This would represent a radical reformation not only of Academy doctrine, but also the very nature of our existence as death gods. I'm very excited to read his final draft!"

Hitsugaya was honestly surprised. He had never heard anyone speak so highly of Byakuya before. At least, with no trace of jealousy or underlying rancor. To his even greater surprise, he found himself somewhat interested in reading that treatise himself.

I cannot say which of us is more horrified.

I know. If this is the result of living in Byakuya's presence 24-7, I really need to get out of here fast.

"It's… an honor to learn from him," he lamely replied.

"I know," she sighed, and he could have sworn he saw a blush creeping into her cheeks.

I want to go home.

It came as an almost divine relief when a hell butterfly chose that moment to come flapping into the room towards them. Tōshirō's heart soared in response. Yes! Plausible excuse, come to me! Rescue my sanity and let me abandon this noble nuthouse!

To his dismay, the messenger instead bobbed over to Rukia, who held up her hand to let it alight. So much for an official reason to ditch meditation. For perhaps the first time in his short life, the acclaimed savant wished he could act the way he looked, behave like a child and selfishly forego all this… tedium.

Would that we lived in less dangerous times.

I don't need a lec…

His inner dialogue was interrupted by a gasp from Rukia. She glanced quickly up at him. Just as he was about to inquire what might be wrong…

The look she gave Tōshirō stopped him altogether.

It didn't last long, as her expression assumed that firm Kuchiki discipline natural to the family. She stood up, and he followed suit.

"Unfortunately, my duty calls. I won't keep you from your meditation any longer, Captain," the lieutenant bowed respectfully. "It has been a pleasure seeing you again. Nii-sama will rejoin you shortly once he has completed some tasks that require his attention."

"I'm looking forward to it." No further evidence of discomfort was given away. Still, what he had seen was sufficient enough…

"I hope we have another chance to converse. Pray enjoy all the comforts of our home while you are in attendance."

"Thank you." He inclined his head in response, keen emerald eyes never leaving her face. Rukia did not flinch or even acknowledge his intense examination as she turned and strode smoothly from the room, a testament to the Kuchiki's remarkable ability to restrain themselves. Hitsugaya did nothing to prevent her from departing.

The butterfly flapped lazily towards the window as she left.

In a flash Tōshirō traveled clear across the chamber to seize the departing insect in his fist before it could escape. His reasons for doing so were simple. The way Rukia had looked for just a split second back there… the horror she momentarily couldn't hide. Her immediate reaction was to look at him; not to ask for help, but more as though he were somehow linked to whatever had caused her such distress. There was no way to tell now what the message might have been, whether it regarded the matter they had touched upon before or not. Only the intended target could access that information, which had already dissipated after the transfer.

But every shinigami, even a young one like himself, picked up a few things they didn't teach you in the Academy. While one couldn't spy on the exact message, if you caught a hell butterfly soon afterwards, it was at least possible to determine through tactile contact who had last sent it. Which could very well lead to answers.

The information he wanted came swiftly, and upon registering this it was Tōshirō's turn to feel shock, so intense his grip went slack. The hell butterfly flapped somewhat sulkily away at this treatment. Its wings brushed against his face with almost palpable accusation.

He didn't even notice. The identity of its sender had momentarily rendered him speechless.

Rukia Kuchiki had just received a message from his traitorous lieutenant, Rangiku Matsumoto.

Moments later he had snagged Hyōrinmaru and was moving to pursue the young Lady Kuchiki. His reiatsu was hidden by magic as he stole through the halls so as to prevent her noticing him. Whatever Rukia might believe, or any reason there might exist for not immediately informing him of this development, it concerned him. On a very personal level. As an officer of the Gotei 7, as a dutiful shinigami… and as someone who had a score to settle.

Matsumoto. That woman was going to answer for what she had done. To him, personally. The rest could wait until Tōshirō had his say.


"Switch!"

The soccer ball arced through the air. Without altering his gait, Kon caught it on one upraised knee and proceeded to bounce the ball from one leg to the other. His superior pistons enabled him to do so while still maintaining a higher-than-average walking speed, causing Karin to jog to catch up. As they made their way down the street, the middle-schooler laced her hands behind her head and studied her outwardly teenage cohort for a few seconds.

"Say, Kon," she finally hazarded, "Could I get legs like yours?"

Absorbed in his athletic accomplishments, the lanky mod soul did not look at her when he spoke. "No."

Expected as much. Still, Karin was feeling adventurous, and so she pressed on. "I mean, say I died, and went to Soul Society. Would I be able to get them then?"

A faintly cross expression passed briefly over his face. "I wouldn't recommend it. Besides, the person responsible for giving them to me isn't around anymore, so you're out of luck. Switch!"

He passed the sphere back to her. Karin had to concentrate much harder than him not to lose the bouncing rhythm while maintaining a straight line and avoiding any other pedestrians. She recognized also that he was trying to distract her from asking any more questions. School had been out for almost half an hour and the press was starting to thin. They were only a few blocks from their destination now, so the conversation would have to wait anyway. Still, she resented how closed-mouthed her protector got concerning his past. Couldn't hurt that much to share, right?

Thump-thump. "So what if… a Hollow… ate you…?" Karin panted while continuing her training, feeling proud at being able to resume the conversation as well. Score one for multi-tasking! Thump-thump-thump. "Does that mean… it'd get… super-fast too?" Thump-thump.

He stuffed his hands into his pockets while slouching along. Sometimes Karin wondered if he knew just how much he looked like her older brother at times like this. "If that happened, the only thing the Hollow would get is nausea."

Karin glanced at him quickly before returning her attention to maintaining loft on the soccer ball. "You're kidding… right?"

"No, actually, I'm not. We mod souls are designed that way. If I didn't know any better, I'd think Ku… my creator threw that in as a joke. But he was seriously nutty that way."

"Oh."

He almost gave away a man's name there, Karin pondered in deliberation. Ku… Kuchiki, maybe? Could Kon have been created by Rukia's family? It would explain how they knew each other. Ichi-nii mentioned once that they were super-rich in the afterlife. Maybe the Kuchiki had their hands in all sorts of businesses and experiments and what-not, same as wealthy folks here. And Rukia had an elder brother they had never met. Her imagination pictured something along the lines of their current prime minister; unsmiling old guy in a three-piece suit. Only this guy would be dead.

This brought her back to a topic she had been considering for a while now.

"Kon?"

"Yeah?"

Karin continued their shared game, never letting her attention waver for a moment. "What will happen? When I… die?"

He made a sound then, and stopped walking. Karin caught the ball and paused as well. She glanced over at him, and was astonished to find her guardian rubbing his eyes with the palms of his hands. Kon's teeth were gritted like he was biting back from saying something. After a while he dropped his arms to peer at the girl studying him curiously with the soccer ball pressed to her stomach.

"Were you this much of a headache for Ichigo before we met?" he demanded. "Cuz it would seriously explain his bad personality! Why are you even thinking about dying at your age?"

To his concern, this actually made her smile at him. "Because my dad's a retired shinigami, my brother's a part-time shinigami, his best friend was made by a shinigami, and they're both in love with the same dead girl, who is also, guess what… a shinigami!"

Kon stared.

"Who told you I'm in love with Nee-sa… ! Wait a minute." His face took on a look of sheer incredulity. "You think I'm Ichigo's best friend?"

"Uh-huh," she nodded.

"Are you kidding me?! What about Chad! Or Tatsuki? That idiot Keigo… hell, even URYŪ!"

"Nope." Karin wore her cheekiest grin now, the very picture of pain-in-the-butt little sister. "You're definitely the one who gets him best." As he drew breath to proceed with further exhortations, she suddenly demanded, "So how 'bout it? What will happen when I die?"

This zig-zagging from one unrelated topic to another left Kon feeling incredibly flustered. For a while he could only stare at her in exasperation. He didn't remember feeling this uncomfortable back when he was just a doll. Since his elevation to living breathing human status, there had definitely been a difference in the way he was treated by Karin. Maybe it was a sign he was growing up? Or she was. It remained unclear which prospect left him feeling more outmatched. When she finally gets boobs she's gonna be an absolute nightmare for guys the world over.

Inevitably, his imagination began to wander…

HALT! CEASE AND DESIST! AROINT YE, VILLAIN!

Karin watched in silence as Kon began to inexplicably beat his head against a tree trunk while screaming, "BAD! BAD! BAD!" It was best not to ask with him. She didn't really think he would do much damage… to the tree, that is. Instead she decided to make the last leg of the journey to Ishida's house alone and let him get all the crazy out.

Upon her arrival, however, it seemed like strange behavior had beaten her there.

"BRING THEM BACK, YOU OLD RETARD, OR I SWEAR I'LL CALL ISHIDA-SAN'S DAD!"

"NO, PLEASE! LAST TIME HE THREATENED TO… HURT… ME IF I CAUSED ANOTHER INCIDENT!"

Mahana Natsui was apparently the one doing the yelling. She was standing in the Ishida's front yard with her fists balled in Don Kanonji's jacket, while Michiru Ohgawa hovered around them looking unsure of what to do. No one else was in evidence.

"Hey," Karin called upon strolling up, looking from one face to the next in search of an explanation. "What gives?"

Three heads swung to focus on her.

"Karin-chan?"

"Karakura Red!"

"You're here!"

Explanations followed.

When it was over, she looked straight at Don Kanonji and declared, "You dumbass."

Their flamboyant elder adopted a crestfallen look and hung his head. "I have failed once again. But allow me to make it right!" He then swept his cape around himself while raising that ludicrous magic staff overhead. "For you too are infected with the same fetid miasma as the other ones, little sister! If I can coax even one out from you, we might use it to track these fell creatures to their source! Brace yourself as I…!"

Karin lifted one arm and pointed at a tree several yards off. "Go sit over there and don't bother us. Otherwise I'm calling Keigo's sister and telling her what you did."

Where the threat of Ishida Ryūken had served to dismay him, this new menace reduced their whacky sponsor to a quivering puddle of dread. "Please… do not tell Mizuho-san…" he whispered. "I won't…"

The showman then beat a hasty retreat, passing Kon as he did, who gave him a funny look before jogging over to join the three girls. Kanonji obediently dropped down where previously indicated with his legs tucked against his chest, eyes that had bravely faced the worst the afterlife could offer now darting fearfully about at the thought of facing the wrath of a certain high school senior. His friends blatantly ignored his presence as they continued their discussion.

At this point Don Kanonji spotted a monkey in the trees, but before he could think to call anyone's attention to it…

"Hey there. Got a minute?"

The Visionary Vizier looked up to find…

…. enormous breasts…

…smiling down on him… with the kindness of a goddess.

All thoughts of primates and guilt were swept away. His heart soared, his mind went blank, and he found himself stammering, "H-how may I be of help, o divine lady?"

Unmindful of what was transpiring a short distance away, Karin had a cell phone to her ear and was listening to a dial tone. After a while she frowned and thumbed it off. "No answer," the girl sighed before calling up another number. Rukia couldn't be reached, and Doctor Ishida had changed his number so many times to keep Ochi-sensei from bugging him she couldn't possibly remember it. That left the Dragon Lady, and after that Ishida Jr.

"Lemme get this straight," Kon's brow beetled furiously beside her as he addressed Mahana. "They all got kidnapped by ghost bats?"

"Actually, I'm thinking it wasn't an intentional kidnapping." The curly-haired girl had her own phone out and was busily tapping in some information. "I mean, it can't be a coincidence that Michiru and I are the only ones who didn't get spirited away… besides Kanonji-san, that is. My guess is they got pulled in by accident when the bats flew back to their cave, or whatever, cuz they were still connected somehow. Makes sense if you think about it."

"Maybe to you. Although come to think of it…" Here the mod paused as a thought seemed to occur to him. "One time, when we were at the park, I could have sworn I saw something fly out of Tatsuki while she was sleeping. Thought it was maybe a hell butterfly, but it might have been one of those… things."

"But what are they? And why only them? Why not us? Or me?" Little Michiru was trying not to sound ungrateful at being left behind from this ghost-napping, but her heart clearly wasn't in it. Karin couldn't blame her; despite being older, Ohgawa was the weakest among them in terms of spiritual strength. She could hardly see ghosts. Although in this case it might have worked out in her favor. Being so slight spiritually could explain why she hadn't been sucked in, or even what allowed her to catch that thing in the first place without splattering it the way Keigo had.

Was that why Michiru hadn't been targeted by those bats? Was it only people with a certain level of spiritual development? The theory had an obvious flaw; that womanizer Mizuiro barely ranked higher than her, and he was gone with the rest of them.

Wait… hadn't Kanonji mentioned there being something inside me as well? Maybe I should ask him about that now.

Karin looked over to where she had banished the goofball, and her jaw dropped.

"… tried to stop them, but by then, it was too late! The bad su-pirit-su had already done their work, and absconded with all the lovely ladies! Minus three, myself included. But never fear! I shall allow no ill fate to befall such a beauteous angel as yourself, oh vision of loveliness! The Psychic Psychopomp shall shield you from any supernatural stalkers! OH, YEAH, HE-RO TIME, BAY-BEE!"

It wasn't the ridiculous monologue, which she must have reflexively tuned out up to this point. No, it was the one on the receiving end of this diatribe.

Don Kanonji happened to be sharing a drink with none other than Rangiku Matsumoto.

Noticing her staring at them, Rangiku smiled. "Yo, Karin-chan," the fugitive death god grinned gamely, saluting with two fingers.

Stunned, Karin had only just registered her surprise at this situation when she found herself being grabbed by the collar and thrust roughly behind Kon, who now interposed himself between her and the sweetly smiling woman. From this position she could not see his face, but by his posture, it was clear he meant business.

"Oh, relax, big boy," the buxom beauty sighed as she reached over and snagged the saké flask from Kanonji, refilling her cup. "I'm not here for your little playmate. That particular mission's been rendered moot anyway, as of today. The Psychedelic Psychic here already explained everything to my satisfaction."

She stood up then, dusting herself off and tossing back the drink. Breathing a heavy sigh that caused her chest to bounce enticingly, Matsumoto shook her head in rueful reproach. "I swear, you people are almost more trouble than you're worth."

Mahana came strolling up to peer in simple curiosity at her. "So this is the crazy lady?" she mused aloud.

"Where are they?" Kon growled, ignoring the question and focusing in solely on Matsumoto. His voice sent an involuntary shiver up Karin's spine. "What did you do with them? If you don't bring those kids back safe, I swear I'll…"

"Want a drink?" Their adversary held out her cup, never losing that charming smile. "C'mon, it'll settle your nerves." When he did not move to accept, she shrugged and chugged the shot back.

When her head came up, Rangiku's face had lost any trace of friendliness.

"I'll be brief just in case you've already called Nanao-chan," she spoke with a hint of steel in her voice. "I'm not responsible for any of this. We've been tracking those things, trying to follow them back to their source." Her eyes flickered briefly to Karin and back again. "Last time we met I was trying to get the kid to drink a spell mixture. Had I succeeded, any of those Harvesters that came out of her afterwards would have carried a small tracking signal. Not that she would have remembered it; the spell was designed to make her forget our meeting, just like the others did."

Karin eyed her mistrustfully. "Harvesters? Others?"

"Your lost playmates." As she spoke, the vixen reached up to draw a pink silk scarf negligently off her neck. "A lot of you have been infected. Those bats were harvesting something from your souls. I managed to slip a mickey to the rest without them noticing. If they recognized me, they forgot soon after. Karin was the last, but there was no easy way to do it with her. Even mortals take notice when somebody tries to mess with a kid's drink. Doesn't matter how hot you are; the old protective urges win out. So I tried the direct approach and…"

There came a slight 'woomph' of displaced air, and then Kon stood before Rangiku with one hand encasing the wrist that held the pink scarf and the other wrapped around her neck.

It was hard to say which of them was more surprised by this. Karin hadn't even noticed him about to move, much less seen it. He was simply too fast. For her part, Matsumoto's great blue eyes had gone even wider, unfeigned shock written across that lovely face.

"Well," she murmured, throat working a little against his grip. "You've… made some improvements, I see."

"You used that trick before, remember?" The mod soul's youthful features had gone dark. When she shifted slightly, he tightened his grip as a warning. Matsumoto went still then, regarding him with what looked like a new level of respect. Certain that he had her full attention, Kon continued. "I wouldn't recommend teleporting. We'd both go together, and then I just might find your evil hideout."

"And then you might just die," she flashed him a look equal parts menacing and sultry.

"Yeah. But as you said, I've got some new tricks. Chances are I'll get away, and then even the biggest boobs on earth won't be enough to save you, I'll bet."

She seemed to consider this, cocking her head as much as his hold would allow. "You know…" Rangiku then smirked in a way that looked oddly affectionate. "You might just get lucky after all."

Her hand opened, the scarf dangling limply, only to fall free moments later.

"Too bad."

At this Rangiku snapped her fingers, and the air tore open right behind her with a weird cry.

Even as Mahana grabbed her shoulders to pull Karin back from this display, one word was flowing through the girl's mind: Hollow! She had seen this same type of jagged darkness ripped out of the environment before, whenever those soul-eating monsters were making their way into this world. It led to their nesting ground; Haiku Mundo, or whatever it was called.

But nothing came out of this portal. Instead, Rangiku only smiled at the man still holding her in a grip of steel.

"I'd let go… if I were you. You do not… want to go where I'm headed, believe me."

With that she took a step back. Kon's whole body stiffened in an effort to restrain this escape attempt. Her free arm shot out, only to be blocked by one lightning-swift kick from his leg. She grimaced as if in pain, and they struggled on the very cusp of falling into the black hole. The valiant mod refused to back down, as if he fully intended to get dragged along with her, so determined was he not to let go.

As they struggled together, something small dropped from a nearby tree and took advantage of the distraction to dash forward in a blur, slipping past their legs and disappearing into the void.

Right then Rangiku gave a tremendous heave backwards. For a moment it appeared they would both fall into the darkness together. But as the dueling pair teetered on the brink, her eyes drifted over his shoulder. "Gonna leave the kids alone?" she gasped the challenge mockingly.

Kon's features twisted, and with a curse he released her and sprang clear of the Garganta, landing close to the girls. They all watched as the tear in space knitted up. From within it Matsumoto rubbed her neck gingerly. Before she disappeared from sight, however, her uncharacteristically serious eyes locked with Karin's.

"Be careful, kid. You've got something they want."

And with that she was gone.

For a while no one moved. The pink scarf lay where it had fallen in a crumpled heap. Noticing this, Kon stepped forward and picked it up. With a frown he tucked it into his pocket and continued to stare at the spot where his enemy had disappeared, considering.

Karin joined him. "You okay?" she asked with some concern.

He looked down at her, then back at the rest of their small group. At last he shook his head, apparently reaching some decision. "C'mon. I'm taking you all to the Usagi Shoten."


'Hey, Gin. You'll never guess where I am: Hueco Mundo! Wish you were here. No, seriously, get over here NOW! I didn't intend to come alone, and it would take too long to come back now. No time to explain. Just follow our spell, which is what I'm going to do. Hurry up and save me!'

A hell butterfly arced away from Matsumoto's fingers. Clad in black now in the middle of a white desert, the rogue shinigami turned to where her gigai sat waiting patiently.

"He won't be here for a while yet. I'm going in. Keep a low profile, and wait for one of us to come back. Run if anyone tries to catch you."

"No problem, boss lady," the amorous avatar crooned, dragging her feet seductively through the sands with a saucy wink.

Satisfied, Rangiku then withdrew a cell phone from one pocket and opened it. The screen now showed a conglomeration of homing beacons relative to her position. Fortunately, it wasn't far. Shouldn't take long to reach the source of this trouble. She only hoped whatever she found didn't prove too overwhelming, or Gin might go on a rampage when he caught up, depending on her condition.

He loves saving you. It turns him on. Makes me think there's something of the hero in his personality.

You wouldn't know it to listen to him. He can be such a mother hen.

It shows in his actions. Some of the best sex we've ever had came after he rushed to your rescue!

I know where this is headed. I'm not getting injured just to satisfy your cravings.

Spoilsport.

Don't pout. Makes you appreciate the real thing more.

"Can we go already? I'm tired of waiting."

The voice came from behind. She had no idea who had just spoken, but that didn't prevent Matsumoto Rangiku from responding with utmost control and precision.

Her well-trained reaction to being surprised in a situation like this was to yelp, spin around, and quickly yank open her robes, exposing her bountiful décolletage in all their glory. And it worked, because the kid standing only a few feet away from her was too busy gawking at this unexpected peepshow to react when her gigai sprang forward and pinned him to the ground.

She smoothly redid her attire, studying their captive at the same time. What came as a surprise was that he didn't struggle. At first she thought it was due to him still being in shock. Heaven knows her body had that effect on men, regardless of how young they might be. But when his messy little head lifted to look at her, his face proved completely calm. Like he didn't have two very strong arms and legs wrapped around him like vices. Like she couldn't separate his head from his shoulders in one stroke. Like he was completely in control and not afraid to let her do as she pleased to prove it.

To be honest, it was a little intimidating. And exciting, even.

Maybe he'd react if you stuffed your chest in his face?

Time for that later.

"So who are you?" she asked casually, crossing her arms and staring down at him with carefully feigned indifference. "Make this snappy. I've got somewhere to be, and you're five seconds away from a Level 80 bakudō up your bu…"

"I'm Masahiko. Lead the way, cuz I'm coming with you. That fast enough?"

She considered this unforeseen development. Strange colored eyes. Bad haircut. Attitude out the ears. Kinda cute if he cleaned up. And a very powerful shinigami for his age, one whom she hadn't noticed at all until a few seconds ago. Honestly, it was like she had stumbled upon a messy, brown-skinned version of Captain Hitsugaya. The thought was strangely comforting. But where in heaven's name did he come from, and why hadn't she sensed his approach?

Well, enough of this. "Bakudō 89: Great…"

"You're going to need my help, if you want to win this."

His declaration made her pause, and she threw an inquisitive look down. This was eating up time, but curiosity compelled her to learn just what she was dealing with. Gin always said it didn't pay to leave unquantified elements at your back. Alive, at any rate. "Have we met somewhere before? Because you're acting pretty fresh, not to mention self-confident."

"I heard most of the conversation, here and back on Earth. I think we share the same goals, chiquita."

He grinned impudently; at the same time, a brief flash of recognition passed through her. This feeling faded even as she tried to place it, leaving her much more uncertain than before.

The boy, Masahiko, continued. "Whoever the hell butterfly was for, it's going to take time to track you down. Those humans are in danger now. I want to rescue them, and also find out who's behind this. Only you know how to do both, but it hardly matters, because even knowing where they are, you won't save them on your own. And if you're not taking the hot gigai, it's because you want to leave it as an emergency escape route. So that means you know your odds look bad. From what I've heard, your side doesn't have many people to throw at big problems like this to begin with."

His erstwhile captor bit her finger in trepidation. Honestly, Gin was better suited to this sort of complicated undertaking. It should be him here right now. Of course, that probably meant this poor kid would be dead instead of incapacitated. Her long-time lover had very lethal reactions, especially when taken by surprise. Not that this was a common occurrence.

Where were we? Oh, yes. Well…

"Bring him up."

The gigai complied, straightening into a sitting position and taking the youth with her. This new arrangement hardly left him any more room to wiggle, though it did give her a better look at him. He had the stub of a well-chewed pencil tucked in his ear, and was sporting a short-sleeved button-up shirt untucked from his black trousers. His feet were bare. There was little in his attire to mark as informative or distinguishing.

And yet, when they rose, something caught her eye. Reaching down, the beautiful spirit grasped the collar of his shirt, which had come up in the attack. He flinched when she lifted it further, his unusual golden eyes narrowing in challenge.

Rangiku took little notice of this. She was more interested in the small pink bunny head that someone had sewn into his collar.

"You're one of Rukia-chan's, then?" she mused aloud. Masahiko did not respond. He didn't need to, really. The girl's proclivities were well known, at least among those who enjoyed keeping abreast of rumors in Soul Society.

It was this, more than any of his previous arguments, which helped decide her course.

"Get off him," she sighed.

Her obedient servant complied. Moments later they all stood together on that lonely dune beneath the skies of Hueco Mundo. Rangiku perused this odd little soul once more. Masahiko did the same.

She frowned, closing her eyes and running a hand through thick honey-colored hair with a groan. "So we're clear, I'm not your nursemaid. We get in a fight, don't expect any help from me."

He nodded. "Sure. Great tits, by the way."

One sky-blue eye slid open to fix him with a withering look. The urchin only laced his hands behind his head and smiled happily. Like things couldn't be looking any rosier in his book.

Fifty, a hundred years from now, I'd totally do him.

"Lead the way, Tetas."

Oh, yeah. I'll make him pay for that one.

Looks like they were already off to a great start. Before they left, however, there was one thing she really should take care of. As a courtesy, one might say. With that, the freelance death god summoned another hell butterfly and imparted her message to it.

'Dear Rukia-chan: Surprise, it's me! Long story short- in case you haven't heard already, some of your little schoolmates are trapped in Hueco Mundo. I'm imparting their current coordinates now. And you will never believe who I just met! His name's…'


Four members of Siamese Company held watch at their assigned position. The military operation they were currently engaged in had a broad scope, requiring sentries at regular intervals to detect any enemies . It was uneventful work, and held markedly less chance of seeing any action like those who had to work with Tiger Company this week. Still, they remained attentive to their surroundings so as not to miss an opportunity to impress the top brass.

Scanning the horizon, one of them squinted. "Hey," he nudged his partner. "You see that?"

The woman looked where indicated. "What? I don't see…"

Her vigilant ally felt blood spatter against his face. The next thing he registered was a brief glimpse of something white, smiling at him through black teeth.

Yellow eyes…

Then it took his head off as well.

After this the Hollow made short work of the other two. It crouched among their corpses, scenting the wind now flavored with the delicious tang of blood. They were close now, along with a whole mess of shinigami, including a few he recognized. He would have liked to play with them all, but time was running out. He needed to find his true targets fast. And so the Hollow sped on to his destination.


"You know, Tatsuki, we'd make much better time if you carried me on your back."

"Even better if we just left you behind, Chizuru," she responded over her shoulder.

"Tatsuki-chan, maybe we should slow down? For her sake."

Their spikey-haired spearhead ignored this suggestion as she continued to slog through the sands. As a matter of fact, she was already moving at a vastly reduced pace for her friends' sake. Orihime had an admirable physique and could be depended upon to move briskly, but Chizuru lagged far behind in terms of athletic ability. She was the last person you'd want on a long trek across hostile territory with no clear destination in sight. Which happened to be their precise predicament at this time.

Although Inoue had recognized the general terrain as belonging to Hueco Mundo, this proved to be the limit of her previous experience. She had never been outside the bounds of the castle in which she was imprisoned, and thus had nothing to offer in terms of the terrain. With little to call landmarks and nothing in the way of discernible stars, they had simply chosen a direction and started walking.

Tatsuki had recently developed a little mantra to help keep going in this situation. With every footstep, she repeated it to herself.

'Kill…'

Left foot.

'… Kanonji.'

Right foot.

'Kill…'

Left foot.

'… Kanonji.'

Right foot.

After a while she had tried to look back to gauge their progress, only to find this was impossible. Everything looked the same around them: sand, hills, little valleys. To top it off, their footprints had completely disappeared only a few yards back, almost as if they had been swallowed up immediately by the all-encompassing waste. There was not a sound to be heard other than the ones they made. No wind blew here. Nothing moved. This world was, for all intents and purposes, dead.

'Kill…' Left foot. '… Kanonji.' Right foot. 'Kill…' Left foot. '… Kanonji!'

"How about we stop and rest for a bit?" Chizuru called behind her. "We can discuss our options, conserve our strength, maybe huddle together to stay warm…"

Tatsuki pressed on. "I'm not cold. This is our only option. Keep moving."

She could hear Orihime reassuring their classmate that they would take a break in ten minutes. It was not in the gentle teen to turn down someone in distress. Normally Tatsuki would have happily kicked that horny lesbian's butt the rest of the way. But not this time. After all, Chizuru couldn't help herself. There had been no sign of any of the others since they got here. Doubtless she was just as scared and miserable as they all were, assuming everybody remained alive (please be safe, please be safe, please be safe). The girl was only trying to hide it by falling back on what she knew best. In an odd sort of way, that proved comforting. Like a reassurance that normalcy was not too far away, just waiting for them to find it.

And upon resumption of the daily routine would come Kanonji's big fat head, just begging for her to unload on it without anything resembling restraint. So keep it up, Chizuru. Keep bugging the bejeezus out of me. That'll make the anger nice, fresh and hot for when it comes time to deliver both barrels point-blank right between the dumb bastard's goofy eyeglasses!

'… Kanonji.' Right foot. 'Kill…' Left foot.

She didn't know how long it would take them to locate anywhere resembling civilization in this giant litter box, much less a place they might actually find themselves welcome as something other than food. Her own stomach was starting to growl; there hadn't been a chance to snag any chow at the meeting before everything went to hell. Yet another valid reason to reserve all her justified wrath for the person most deserving of it. Tatsuki kept looking straight ahead so as not to unnerve her comrades with her expression. She was making no attempt to hide the black murderous rage that was no doubt transforming her face into something even a Hollow would know to steer clear of.

Right foot. 'Kill…'

She judged it just about time for another bout of whining. Lay it on me, girl!

Only nothing followed.

Tatsuki glanced backward. Sure enough there came Orihime, chugging away with a determined look etched into those kind, beauteous features. And close behind…

… stretched only empty desert.

Oh no.

Seeing the look on her face, Orihime quickly spun about. The loss of their friend registered a second later, and she let loose a wild cry.

"CHIZURU-CHAN?!"

About to race past in search of the missing girl, Tatsuki suddenly felt something clamp painfully around her ankle. The moment she looked down was accompanied by a sense of disorientation as the very ground seemed to shrug her off, disappearing beneath her.

She tried to speak. "Ori-…"

Then there came a rush, and darkness.

This slight noise made Orihime Inoue whip around, to find that she had been completely abandoned. Disbelieving, she stood alone halfway up a hillock of sand. There had been no warning. None at all. From three friends lost but together, it had now dropped to one. Where could they have gone?

The explanation was so simple it made her angry she hadn't thought of it sooner. Trained impulse took over next, and she spoke the words without thinking. "Santen kishun, I…"

Something grabbed hold of her leg!

"… EEK!"

Off balance, Orihime fell backwards, the warding charm dissipating. Moments later two huge bone-white tendrils shot upwards to twist and flail where she had previously stood. Distracted by this new threat, she almost didn't notice the rest of the body emerge, white sands sliding off it in sheets to hover high above her, outlined black against the moon. It looked down at her, from only one great purple eye, opened its mouth and...

"AAAAHHH!"

Somebody screamed then, high and panicked, and Orihime thought it might be her, until she realized it was actually the monster before her doing the yelling. Before she could respond it shot back into the ground fast as lightning. The sand settled, leaving nothing to disturb its pristine surface.

Confused and alone, the solitary human could only stare.

Her arms and legs would not respond to any commands. Slumped like a discarded sack of rice, Tatsuki heard the sliding of sand, followed by a whump of something large settling near them. With it rose a weird clattering and creaking, like branches tapping against a window. In the darkness she heard voices rise.

"Loly, what the…?"

"I can't!" a woman sobbed. "I can't go up there! It's her! Dammit, Menoly, it's HER! That… fucking monster-woman!"

"Shit," the other one breathed, and there was no hiding the fear in her voice.

"What's wrong?" somebody else demanded. A shuffling sound emerged from elsewhere in the almost total void. What felt like bugs ran over her cheek, and Tatsuki desperately strove to shake it off, only to realize an instant later that it had just been sand falling from above. "Where's the other one? There are supposed to be three! Lagrima won't…"

"Fuck it!" the thing called Loly yelled in a frenzy, and the clattering increased to a fevered pitch. "Fuck her, she can kill me if she wants to! But she can't… bring me back afterwards, holy hell. Holy hell!"

After this Loly fell to muttering and cursing. Still helpless, Tatsuki lay without moving. They hadn't gotten Orihime. And they hadn't killed her right away. Two things to be glad for. Chizuru was probably in the same state as herself. The attackers (Hollows, by my guess) had hit them with something that left her virtually incapacitated and able to do little more than wriggle. She could not strike out, or see, or even speak. But she could still listen. And think.

The conclave of demons had fallen to debating somewhere in the shadows over her.

"What'll we do? Azmuth, what'll we do?"

"Go back up there! We're all screwed if you don't! If you don't, I'm going to…!"

A noise like nails on a chalkboard, and the protest cut off in an animal roar. Something hot and wet spattered against the martial artist's bare legs. She heard the familiar sound of a body hitting the floor soon after.

"You're already dead," a flat, threatening tone she recognized as belonging to Menoly followed. "Do the rest of you want to try and match us? You fucking masked cowards, you've got no idea what the hell's going on here! Or what we're up against!"

No response came back, only hisses and whimpers more animal than man. After this it sounded like Menoly drew away to be near Loly, and the two conversed in soft whispers. While the exact change did not reach her ears, there was the distinct impression that Menoly was attempting to convince her partner of something, and meeting angry resistance. The rattling sound began to subside, however. After a while, both returned.

"All right, listen. We're going back with what we have."

A slight intake of breath, as if in protest, was quickly silenced. The threat of immediate dismemberment hung heavy in the air. Menoly was doing the talking again. "Loly won't go, and she's the only one of us who can tunnel. If you want to stay here and try, be my guest. I don't give a rat's ass. Azmuth's dead now, so there's no time to waste. We're taking these two before his venom wears off. No telling what kind of freaky powers they might use when that happens. So you can either follow along, or stay here empty-handed until Lagrima decides who to send to kill you. Maybe it'll be me, if I'm lucky."

Her smile then was unmistakable. All was quiet save for some restive movements. Seconds later the sound of heavy feet retreating in a slow plodding rhythm could be heard. Menoly had been right; these guys were cowards.

"Good move."

Someone picked her up then, and they proceeded to follow the ones that came before. Tatsuki let herself go completely limp. She was positive now that they were currently underground in some kind of tunnel system beneath the desert. The Hollows were taking them elsewhere, probably to give to this Lagrima person. And apparently the paralysis was temporary. If she just kept her cool, an opportunity might present itself. To fight to the death, at the very least. Just remain in check 'til then, Tatsuki. It'll all be worth it, mark my words.

In the dark, she could detect the sound of heavy footfalls. And Arisawa resumed her chant.

'Kill…'

Right foot.

'…Kanonji.'

Left foot.


"I'm coming with you."

Kon glanced up from his preparations. Behind the screen, he could see Karin silhouetted with her arms crossed and assuming what even in shadow-play was a very impressive stance. Too bad all that determination would have to go to waste.

"Sure you are. Because I'm the dumbest guy alive, right?" He bent to continue tying on his shoes.

"I'd like to know how you plan to stop me."

How about if I tie you up and lock you in a closet, smart girl? It felt so good just to think it. For once the unhealthy kinkiness aspect did not result in self-castigation. There were more important things on his mind.

"Karin…"

There! All set. With that Kon rose and moved around the dressing screen in his room. The girl had followed him in here, undeterred by his threats that she was about to see him naked. Apparently Karin was still too young to find this sort of thing inappropriate. Now she took up step behind the agent of the afterlife as he left the room, a single raised eyebrow being her only response at his getup.

"Why won't you at least wait for Ichi-nii? He'll be here soon! Him and Nanao, and maybe even..."

"Because I don't have to anymore."

It felt good to say it. And a little scary too. Whether anyone else recognized it or not, this was the chance he had been waiting for. An opportunity to put his newfound persona to the test. And also to measure the strength of his own convictions. Kon had resolved to take every opportunity life had to offer. That meant accepting all the responsibility that was a consequence of being a bona-fide living person. He had the strength, the capabilities, and a lot to make up for. Kon was going to save those kids even if it killed him.

Maybe that would show Nee-san just how deep his resolve would go.

Michiru and Mahana should already be waiting in the Usagi Shoten's secret cellar. Both had agreed to help Ganju run the shop while the other employees were busy. At first the big galoot was insistent on accompanying him, claiming that his Shiba magic and spiritual strength would be of great help. Kon politely refused. Ganju then pointed out that he did not know where he was going or what the layout of Hueco Mundo might be, to which he had countered that neither did Ganju. This might have gone on longer, but Kon was anxious not to have his thunder stolen. So when the Shiba shop attendant had just been preparing to go get his own gear ready, he clandestinely whispered in his ear that should Ganju insist on abandoning the earthly duties assigned to him by his clan, then the head of that clan was going to hear about it.

There was something rather disheartening at seeing a noble member of one of Soul Society's Five Great Families go white as a sheet and start gabbling like a storm-flung hen.

But a win was a win, and Kon accepted his with only the smallest trace of misgivings. He assuaged his guilt by enticing the shrunken soul with the knowledge that he would have three cute girls helping him run the store, of which he would be the senior assistant in charge for a change! Ganju's spirits improved noticeably then, though he remained troubled by this whole prospect. Couldn't blame him. It had taken some desperate convincing to allow this affair to proceed as planned. Noboru was nowhere to be found; probably training with his foul-tempered mentor in Soul Society. But Ururu was on board (her possible opinion as to the foolhardiness of this venture went unvoiced) and so the deed was done.

Which left him with one last knot to tie up.

"I've fought Hollows before," his self-appointed shadow insisted as they made their way to the back rooms of the store. "And the others are already in trouble, so why should I stay out? I'm no more important than they are!"

"Now you're just being stupid," he shot in rejoinder. Entering one room in particular, Kon grasped a rope handle set into the floorboards and pulled up. Bright yellow light bathed their faces. The hatch rose to reveal a subterranean stronghold whose existence would have shocked the shop's regular customers.

"I want to help."

This admission gave Kon pause, and he turned to study her. Karin's head was down. Her shoes were shifting restlessly, fists clenching and unclenching as if in search of a target to strike out at. A thought occurred to him. Maybe she's not just being stubborn and self-assured? I think the kid's actually… worried about me!

At this she looked up at him and whispered angrily, "Why won't anybody let me help?"

Oh. So that's it. Funny I didn't pick up on it before. Especially since it's a topic I'm intimately familiar with. Karin didn't want to sit by helplessly while someone she cared for went off into certain danger. She didn't want to be useless. Now that is something I can understand.

"It's only because of you that I even know where I'll be going, imoto-chan. That's better than nothing. Plus if I have my way, you'll never even get near any danger for as long as you live. You're welcome, by the way."

With that he smiled fondly, patting her lank little head. Naturally she smacked his hand away and drew back to deliver a more solid blow to his gut.

"Let me be the hero just one time. Okay, Karin?"

That finally stopped her. She was a smart girl, and he could tell by the way she regarded him now that she had probably figured him out. Not hard; his motivations could easily be described as transparent.

"Fine," the angry adolescent scowled, thrusting both hands into her pockets and stomping past him to start down the stairs. "Hurry up and go if you're going. Rukia and the shinigami will probably have rescued them by the time you show up anyway."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence." Grinning, he quickly picked her up in his arms, and before she could so much as yell, Kon shot into the pit.

There was no time to spend admiring the scenery even below his current velocity. This barren rock garden Urahara had created held only the appeal that anything broken here would not be missed. Moving at unheard of speeds, the mod and his charge ground to a halt before two looming rock mesas in under a second. Between these pillars stretched a large wooden column. The tiny form of Ururu was visible perched atop this beam. Don Kanonji sat crestfallen between Michiru and Mahana, with a frowning Ganju crouched large at his back. The teens had dressed in some yukata that were kept on hand for those friends of the owner wanting to hang out and keep the store's vibe. In this case, though, the outfits were their uniforms for later.

Kon stopped before Kanonji and settled his charge gently on her feet. He got off with only a punch to the stomach that he gladly accepted. Rising upright, the leader of this band of misfits gave a nod to his fellow artificial soul. High off the ground, Ururu saw and began to chant. "In my right hand, the stone that connects two worlds. In my left…"

Ganju Shiba grunted something under his breath, twisting his palm against the earth as he did. The ground beneath Karin abruptly rose up to encase her feet in shackles of stone. She glowered down at this display of sorcery but did not move. Her guardian was satisfied. No chance of her getting sucked in now. Or following afterwards, I might add.

"Prepare yourself, mystic," Shiba grunted.

Their de facto benefactor gave a morose nod and gripped his magic cane. His preclusion from anything resembling battle or indeed conversation seemed to have rendered Kanonji more broken up than usual. This was the only role in their plan he was permitted. Not even shop duties would follow.

With that, the Don of the Undead waved his wand over the sour-faced girl standing with feet shackled before him. "Evil Su-piritsu…"

"You'd better come back safe," Karin growled without bothering to look at Kon. He kept his own eyes fixed on what was transpiring above.

"Whatever you say. Just… tell Ichigo to get the lead out when he arrives."

"…I strike the ibis when the clouds gather…"

Energy flared overhead, followed by a noise like an old gramophone needle being dragged across a vinyl record. At this signal, Don Kanonji slammed the butt of his stick to earth.

"… BEGONE!"

Once again a globe of green energy emerged, now encasing Karin. And just like before, a swarm of gray bats came bursting out of her. This time, however, there was no panic on their part. As Kon had half hoped, half predicted, the Harvesters sped as one towards the portal to Hueco Mundo which Ururu just finished opening. They were from there!

The mod soul felt his heart race from fear and exhilaration. This is it! I'm on my way! With a final look around at them, he grinned and leapt into the Garganta.

"Take care of each other!" Kon cried, and then all thought was bent on pursuing the Harvesters.


Upon spotting her approach, Neliel flung both arms wide and leapt to embrace her with a loud cry of, "Rukia!"

"Hello, Captain Odelschvank," she spoke, muffled slightly by the arrancar's expansive chest. All the same, Rukia submitted to this embrace with due diligence. The co-commander of Siamese Company held a great deal of affection in her, so much one could almost forget she was a Hollow. And the Kuchiki princess reminded herself she had suffered much worse treatment from much less friendly captains in the past. This was a piece of cake.

Of course, none of this explained why Neliel tu Odelschvank was dressed in a Sexy Santa Claus outfit.

The corset was red velvet, clinging to the ex-Espada's every curve as though it could not grip her tight enough. Black buttons on the bodice were stretched to their limit, allowing tantalizing oval glimpses of the bounteous banquet between them. Its white-furred hem stopped scandalously high atop the thighs, granting anyone of a less than advantageous height (present company included) with an uncomfortably personal eyeful. Green and white striped stockings were also skin-tight and ended just above the knee. A broad black belt with a golden clasp encircled her waist, into which she had tucked her zanpakutō. The shirt's bodice was cut so low as to be salacious by any standards. Red gloves with ermine trim were complemented by shiny black shoes and gold buckles. To complete the ensemble, atop her Hollow ibex skull was perched a stocking cap with a small sprig of mistletoe dangling off its tip.

Drawing back to release her slightly, the vivacious Captain Odelschvank took notice of how Rukia's eyes lingered on her hat. "Do you like my outfit? Renji recommended it. He said it's traditional apparel with worldwide appeal!"

"I… must say, few could wear it as well as you, Captain," the little lieutenant spoke stiffly, striving with all her might to present a picture of shinigami respectability to make up for what her superior clearly lacked.

"I can get you one too if you like!" Nell chattered happily. She rounded on the two fracciōn waiting patiently at her beck and call. "Dondochakka, Pesche, would you go rustle up another in her size…?"

"No need, Taicho." Rukia did not miss how some of the already salivating members of Siamese Division gathered around her had actually perked up even further at this prospect. She also took advantage of Neliel's distraction to fix Renji with an absolutely vicious glare. It was meant to serve as a warning that she would soon discuss with him about his behavior regarding their naïve but no less estimable co-captain. Chagrined, the flame-haired rogue's cheeks had gone a shade to match those very locks, and he refused to meet her eye. No doubt to save what little scrap of dignity he might yet lay claim to possess, the unscrupulous dog! "I come in an official capacity on behalf of Ibis Company and Captain Kotetsu. I trust my dispatch about the current situation was received beforehand?"

"Oh yes, Renji informed me about it right away." Around them shinigami patrolled the encampment's perimeter in groups, welcoming back returning units or bidding farewell to the ones on their way out. Those remaining in camp huddled together quietly talking or watching the three high-level spirits converse. As the reigning commander whilst in Hueco Mundo, Neliel was the general now and Renji her subordinate. They depended on her experience and know-how to determine how best to proceed in this world. Ignorance about mortal customs in no way precluded her established seniority in anything involving the world of the Hollows.

"I've already sent notices to Tiger and the Vaizard," the lime-haired lady continued. "They're coordinating with us in our search for the stranded mortals. I've also had an emergency aid station set up, along with making preparations to transport them back to their home dimension once they have been properly quarantined. There hasn't been any contact so far, but our hunting territory is pretty large and will take a while to thoroughly search. The possibility that they wandered into a Hollow-controlled region is low. Unless it's the dead zone. That's a whole new can of worms."

Rukia rubbed the handle of her soul cutter for comfort at this notion. At the same time, a brief sense of unease fell over her. This had been happening frequently since leaving the manor nearly an hour past. It was almost like she was being watched. But there had been scant time to think upon this too closely, and now was no different.

"Ibis will be sending a detachment to aid in treatment and purification within the hour," she responded. Then, in a much softer tone, "Thank you for your help, Captain Odelschvank. I know how terrified those girls must be right now. Their safe return is our highest priority."

"No problem. We're…" Right then Neliel leaned in to the slight death god's neck and inhaled deeply through her nose, causing Rukia to give an uncomfortable shiver. The Hollow heaved a sigh and resumed speaking as if this hadn't happened. "…only too glad to help."

"Ah, Nell…?" Renji took Rukia by the shoulders and guided her a safe distance back. He gave an uneasy smile at the same time. "Maybe we should discuss our course of action. You know, get everybody on the same page?"

"Agreed." The festive fighter moved to lead them both into the pavilion. All three then took up places on cushions arrayed around a low circular table. Neliel swept one hand over its surface, calling up a map of the surrounding area. This image expanded out to include the surrounding terrain of Hueco Mundo. There was little to distinguish it. However, one point in particular was marked by a glowing yellow dot. It was here their attention focused.

"Not to sound a disparaging note," Neliel declared, "but we've been over this stretch of territory repeatedly in the last few months with no sign of any Hollow activity." Pesche came rushing in to deposit a platter of some kind of sliced meats beside her, to which his mistress immediately helped herself. Renji caught Rukia's eye and signaled her not to follow suit. She didn't need anyone to tell her that but silently thanked him all the same before continuing to listen. "It's isolated, to be sure, but if Matsumoto is setting a trap for you, I can think of a lot better places to do it."

Abarai rubbed his pointed chin in restless tension. "We've got independent confirmation that a very large Garganta opened without warning around the vicinity of the Ishida residence in Karakura. Nothing came through, so we didn't know what to make of it at first. Even before the Autumn War, Hollows knew better than to come sniffing around there."

A faint disturbance of her senses caused Rukia to glance around. It faded, and she drew back to the discussion at hand. But at the same time…

"Nanao-san is with Ichigo. They were busy with a training session at the time. It happened so fast, which is why no one on their end could react in time. They're preparing to make the journey to Hueco Mundo together. She's confirmed Karin is safe with Kon at my place, and the seven missing are all members of the KOPS except for her and three others. How do we proceed, then?"

Neliel sketched with her finger on the map, causing red lines and circles to spring up around the point previously indicated. "Our forces in Siamese are deployed in separate concentric segments surrounding Target Alpha. The corridors between these segments will be kept clear of personnel, allowing any Hollows attempting to escape to enter and be set upon from both sides. Once we have secured the area, we'll conduct a thorough sweep to determine if there is a hidden nest and whether the missing humans have been taken captive. If that is the case…"

Hey, I just felt…

Yes. I've got it too. Let's hold off for now.

"…then it will probably have to be an underground facility. Would explain why it hasn't been found up until now. They always have escape tunnels, which is why the staging area is so big. Renji will command the reserve unit and pick off any Hollows that might be fleeing. I'll take point for the initial charge once the entrance is determined. After consulting, we both decided not to inform Tiger Company about this part of the procedure. Captain Zaraki and his chipmunk are currently unavailable anyway, but their subordinates still aren't really suited for what might amount to a hostage situation. They're best at all-out carnage. Speaking of which, at least two of the Vaizard will be here within the hour. They'll be directed to the rendezvous and provide a third wave only if absolutely necessary. No offense to our allies, but they can be a little indiscriminate from what I've seen, and rescuing the hostages will require finesse."

The gaily bedecked war leader turned to Rukia. "We head out now. It's up to you where you want to be in this strategy, Lieutenant Kuchiki. I'd be glad to have you along if you're absolutely dead-set on heading in to fight."

She made a show of considering, one fist pressed thoughtfully to her chin. "Actually, if no one objects, I would prefer to stay here and help coordinate the relief efforts for afterwards."

Her best friend's tattooed eyebrows lifted in surprise. "You would?"

We would?

Yes.

"Yes," their tiny cohort nodded assuredly. "It would be best to keep one senior officer in reserve for emergency. This search is mainly a question of manpower. You have more than enough to scour the area. One more person, regardless of rank, will hardly make a difference."

The two leaders of Siamese exchanged glances. "Huh," Renji grunted. "Thought for sure you'd be all gung-ho to charge in and find them yourself."

"I will leave such reckless behavior to those more accustomed to it, Abarai-Taicho" she smiled ever so sweetly back at him.

A growl rose from his throat, and his tattoos scrunched together. "Why, you…"

"Well, that's settled." Neliel sprang up and sauntered over to a post where a tattered and somewhat blood-stained cloak was hung. Taking it down, she slung the battle-worn garment over her shoulders. Upon turning around the head of the largest division in Soul Society had assumed the full mantle of her authority. "The operation has now commenced." And then, true to character, she giggled. "I'm so excited! I get to eat!"

With that she swept from the tent, already shouting for her bodyguards to make haste. The two remaining shinigami rose up and looked at each other. "Don't worry," Renji supplied quickly. "I'll make sure she sticks to Hollows and doesn't touch any of the kids. Nell can be a little… impulsive."

A fond smile played around Lieutenant Kuchiki's lips. "You seem to have things well in hand. Good luck, Captain Abarai Renji."

He appeared surprised at the compliment, not to mention the note of sincerity evident in it. The red coxcomb clearly rose a little higher even as his chest appeared to swell proudly. "Yeah… I mean… just sit back and I'll show you what Siamese Squad can do!" Flashing an eager grin, he crossed over and swept the flap back, exiting the pavilion and loudly barking orders to his followers at the same time.

For her part, Rukia remained seated.

As I thought. It's waiting for all of us to leave. And I think I can guess why.

Her head dropped down low. Over by the wall, some cloth shifted restlessly, as if disturbed by a breeze. Only if one were to be standing right next to her would they catch what came next. The girl gave a slight sigh, breathing out her words at the same time.

"…udō #9: Geki!"

A red glow flared to her left, followed by a curse. In an instant Rukia leapt up and drew Sode no Shirayuki. What she saw revealed before her now gave the warrior maiden pause, however.

"Hitsugaya-Taicho?"

The boy captain stood only a yard away, her admittedly low level spell already dissolving away from him. Even at full strength, she doubted it could have held a soul of his caliber. All the same, he appeared quite cross at being found out like this.

"Dammit," Tōshirō muttered, emerald eyes narrowed in frustration. "Should have gone in sooner. How the hell did you even notice me?" he demanded.

She sheathed her sword slowly. "Concealment spells like Bakudo #26, Curved Light, will be perceived only if the viewer is stronger than the caster, and then only if they are looking directly at their location. It's not much of a weakness considering you're a walking blind spot to begin with. But a less well-known caveat is that the spell actually creates two 'blind spots'; one for each eye. And if you stand too far to one side of a person, they go slightly out of sync, so that the images curving around from behind you on that side are reflected in their other eye, creating a sort of 'reflection.' I have been trained to notice this flaw."

For a while he just glared at her. "I should have known better than to underestimate a student of Momo's when it came to magic," he finally gritted through his teeth.

"So you have been trailing me since I left Kuchiki Manor. Why?"

"You know why." The expression he wore now chilled Rukia's blood. Only the knowledge that his wrath was not directed at her served to dispel any conviction that she was about to die.

"I won't ask how you learned Matsumoto contacted me." She had her suspicions, hell butterflies not being completely inviolable. "By now you've heard most everything. The reason you're still here…" her eyes drifted to the table, "must be because you needed to know where to go next. And Neliel just inputted it on the map."

He strode over to her without responding. A touch of his finger, and the exact coordinates supplied by Rangiku appeared before them.

While his attention was off her she studied this cold and reclusive individual. "Captain, why stay hidden? Why not simply reveal yourself and insist on accompanying us? You have the authority."

"Because we have different goals." Hitsugaya nodded as if satisfied. Then, still concentrating solely on the map, "You may leave me now, Lieutenant Kuchiki."

Her spine stiffened at this dismissal. An involuntary retort was swiftly cut off. Instead the junior officer gave her superior a deep and most proper bow. "As you command, sir."

She departed immediately after. The prince of ice waited until he was certain she had gone, after which he grasped Hyōrinmaru's hilt and withdrew it. Once clear of the sheath, he pulled loose a green cloth secured with a gold medallion which tied the scabbard to his back, allowing it to fall free. Time to retrieve that later. No one would be entering the dual captains' quarters while they were out. A flick of his wrist and the scarf unwound to far greater lengths, twining back to enwrap him in its depths. As the teleportation charm activated, Hitsugaya concentrated on precisely where he wanted to go.

A moment later the tent was empty, and he was standing on a barren expanse of rock and sand. He looked at the terrain, then down at his feet.

"Where shall we begin searching, Taicho?"

An explosive curse, and he whipped around to find Rukia Kuchiki standing sedately behind him.

"HOW…?"

"Bakudo #26," She responded primly and properly without the slightest hint of derision. One short eyebrow rose a fraction. "The best way to counteract those weaknesses I previously mentioned is to stay out of the target's field of vision completely. Easy when you're invisible. You were probably standing at my back before, which is why it took me so long to notice anything. I took a cue and did the same."

Careful, girl. He looks ready to cut your head off and claim mutiny later.

I believe we can expect at least a modicum of self-control from one of the most advanced shinigami in existence.

And I believe his teeth will break if he keeps clenching them that hard.

The object of their opposing viewpoints had mastered himself enough to speak by now. "I told you to…!"

"You told me to leave, but there was no mention of me not coming back."

Rukia felt certain that had he not already been used to this sort of insubordination from his former lieutenant, her career might be in peril. Must remember to thank Matsumoto for that should we actually meet.

"I admittedly deceived Renji and Neliel as to my motivations earlier," she continued as he was still attempting to process the current level of thwarted anger. "I wanted to know who was spying on us, and now that I do, the situation appears most fortuitous. A small strike force consisting of two well-trained people could ascertain the location of the mortals more quickly than a full-scale military expedition."

"I already told you I'm not here to rescue anybody!" he retorted, so angry that snowflakes were beginning to form around them from his increasing levels of reiatsu. "This is a personal matter that doesn't involve anyone else!"

"Actually, it does." She locked eyes with him, deepest blue clashing with sharpest emerald. "There is one part of Matsumoto's message I did not impart to anyone else. One of my employees from the Usagi Shoten is with her. I don't know how he managed to accomplish this, but it doesn't matter. His life is in danger no matter how you look at it. And his safety is my responsibility. We are going to find the two of them together, and I will make sure he is safe from any threat."

Her own reiatsu was allowed to rise then, not in any foolhardy attempt to match his own, but enough to let him feel her resolve. "You can imprison me with a spell if you choose, but know that if you do so, then my employee's safety will become your responsibility as a result. Do what you will only if you are prepared to accept that burden… Captain."

The two shinigami stood there in the middle of a wasteland, a light breeze causing their white and black robes to flap ever so slightly. The moon shone down on their confrontation. Neither of them moved or spoke for a time.

You seem to have an issue with headstrong women in your life.

I was just thinking the same thing, Hyōrinmaru.

"I don't have time to argue," he stated aloud. "Let's just try not to get in each other's way."

She nodded, face set and defiant. "Agreed. Now, where shall we begin our search?"

Off in the distance, a huge explosion of rock and sand erupted into the night sky.

"There," Hitsugaya stated, and took off. Rukia followed close behind.


"I'm positive. They came down somewhere here," Misato declared as she stamped her foot.

"Whatever you say, madam," Makizō Aramaki replied, rubbing his hands and smiling with all the conviction of a professional suck-up. The woman crossed her arms and pinned him with a slight frown that still somehow managed to make his insides quail.

"Don't think I can't smell insincerity. I'm a high school teacher; half my job is figuring out when somebody is lying to me. Now granted, some of those kids are pretty darned clever. Little buggers, if 'Prevarication' were part of the curriculum, I'm sure that they'd ace. But still I…"

She then appeared to completely lose interest in even finishing her own sentence and began stomping around again, leaving slight indentations in the surface of the desert to mark her path. The hijacked shinigami stood hunched over slightly as the only observer to such a weird display.

Eventually this frightening young woman drew to a halt with head bowed and hands on hips. "We were there." A twist of her head indicated a dune far back on the horizon. "And we saw the bats all descend… right… here." She then jabbed a most implacable finger earthwards. "There is not a doubt in my mind that this is so. Am I right?"

"You are," he insisted. "Most definitely, madam."

Right about what? What are we talking about?

Makizō chose not to respond, long used as he was to his zanpakutō's idiocies.

"Well?"

Her back was turned, but the question was clearly directed at him. "Well… what…?" Makizō stammered, confused.

"DO SOMETHING!"

He jumped at this shout. A second later she had her hands fisted in his tunic and was glaring up into his face with cold chilling purpose. By contrast her voice now sounded very casual, almost conversational. "Use your magic, draw your sword, do a little dance. I'm not particular about how. Just make whatever is down there open up so we can get in."

"M-m-madam, I don't… that is to s-s-s-say, I'm not…"

His tongue failed him at last, and he could only stare in sweat-stained misery at his own meager reflection in her glasses. It occurred to him this diabolical creature might be a relation to former lieutenant Nanao Ise. They certainly looked alike, and that woman in particular had an unusually high ability to transform him into a puddle of damp fear with just a look. Perhaps if he offered her money she would let him live?

"Fine."

Eh?

Misato released him and turned away. She drew several paces off and knelt down, rolling up her pants to remove something that was seemingly strapped to her ankles. Afterwards she began rummaging around in her pockets, muttering and seemingly unconcerned with his continued existence. As he had been doing a lot during their time together, the craven drunkard took this opportunity to dispatch a hell butterfly with his latest update. The woman took no more notice of this than she had the others. Her new task seemed to be taking up all her attention, involving as it did moving around in odd patterns and holding something aloft.

Is that booze she's pouring on the ground? Can we have some? Go and ask her.

Actually, he was somewhat curious about this display himself. Taking a few cautions steps closer, Aramaki managed out, "Ah…"

"Don't step on that," she called back, indicating at his feet. He looked down but saw little that made sense. Just something that resembled lines of liquid silver glowing in the moonlight. Was she making a sand painting or something?

"Madam, if I may… be so bold… what exactly are you doing?"

Ochi waved a negligent hand, the other holding a collection of small gleaming sticks and tubes. "Oh, just something I picked up from Darling."

Who's Darling? Are we Darling? C'mon, why won't you answer me?

"Yes." The chipper damsel was now happily engrossed in pouring out the contents of those vials in odd patterns over the sand. "He kept them lying around, and I kept asking what they were for, and he kept refusing to tell me, so I kept on asking. Naturally we're so devoted to one another that he couldn't keep anything from me for long. Once I got the gist of it, I asked Uryū-kun for a demonstration. He showed me in exchange for a free meal. But he didn't realize I was recording him on my cell phone, or that I had already borrowed these things from his father. I've been practicing getting it to work on my own, and I think I've finally developed a functioning substitute."

At last she drew to a halt and stepped back to examine her handiwork. Limned over the ground in lines like fine spiderwebs was a great pentagonal symbol of some kind. Silver shafts were all driven into the five spokes.

"I'd get out of there if I were you, shinigami."

Huh?

Not one to question like his soul cutter, Makizō quickly complied. Moments later they were both standing near one of the spokes. Misato held up a final gleaming flask.

"I didn't want to use this right away, but I guess there's no choice." She sighed and threw an accusing look his way, clear indication that whatever had gone wrong, it was all his fault.

With that she upended the contents of the tube onto the silver stake.

"Okay." Misato turned around. "Now run!" So saying, she bolted away at top speed.

Once more her henchman did not question. He simply dashed off in hot pursuit. Wonder how long we have before… ?

At his back, the world exploded.

Blue fire leapt high in a bonfire so bright that it lit the bone-white surroundings with its aura. The shockwave lifted Makizō off his feet, sending him flying past Ochi, who had already hunkered down with hands cradling her head.

He hit the ground moments later. For a while, the stalwart man of Tiger company was content to simply lie there. And hurt. And smoke. And burn. It dawned upon him that his moustache was on fire at the tips. Reaching up, he assuredly snuffed them out with his fingers, then went back to quietly basking in the pain.

A few seconds later, somebody had hoisted him up to a sitting position, and through much struggling and heated exhortation, Aramaki Makizō finally stumbled to his feet. He was then marched at an unsteady pace back the way he came (flew, to be more precise). The smoke had mostly dissipated. At last the two of them stood at the edge of a newly made sinkhole some fifty yards across. Pale sand cascaded down its sides in torrents, forcing them to constantly adjust their footing or risk sliding in. They examined this bit of geographic remodeling together, her blandly interested, him still wobbly and wondering if that ringing in his ears was permanent.

"Lot bigger than I expected," the public school teacher threw out offhandedly. "I certainly hope nobody I know was hurt in that blast, otherwise the school board might revoke my license to teach."

He nodded, only somewhat registering her words.

She pointed. "Hey. See there? That's a tunnel in the side, isn't it?"

He looked where indicated. Sure enough, their demolition project had unearthed a previously hidden bore hole. Visible elsewhere were several other shafts, all clearly not made by nature and certainly not the result of the explosion.

"All right, I guess we should just pick one. Hmmm…" The architect of this devastation regarded her handiwork with a critical air. Then she leveled a triumphant finger at one exposed cave in particular. "That one right there." So resolved, she trooped around the edge of the crater with Makizō shambling in mindless obedience behind her. Once they came to the desired spot Ochi stopped to consider. "Now how do we get down there safely? Jumping doesn't seem an option."

"Bakudo #18: Stair of Starlight."

It was a testament to his durability that even this low-level spell managed to bear fruit. Before them there appeared several transparent planes that descended in a curve until they reached the open tunnel. They looked a little unstable, but solid enough to do the trick.

"Well, hey, you're finally proving your worth, fella," the mistress of pain declared and patted him not unkindly on the shoulder. She then proceeded to troop down the glimmering staircase. Aramaki did not hesitate to follow. His thinking process was simply too blasted to really have an opinion on how smart an idea this might really be.


Being slung around in near total darkness had allowed Tatsuki's other senses to sharpen as a result of her blindness. At times it sounded like they went by people who were engaged in sweeping the floor, of all things. She could pick out whispered conversations that grew more distinct and then receded, indicating that they were probably passing other Hollows massed throughout this dungeon. Their tones held a distinct note of stress and uncertainty, far more than she would have expected from bloodthirsty monsters. Just what the hell were they all doing down here, anyway? It certainly didn't seem like they were amassing for an invasion, which had been her first thought. The atmosphere in this place felt almost claustrophobic. It was as if they were trapped down here.

The girl had long since given up trying to memorize their route. There were simply too many twists and turns to keep it all straight. It would take a miracle to get back to where they left Orihime. Much to her relief, she and Chizuru had not been separated. There was a certain measure of comfort in knowing that were they to die, at least it would be in each other's company.

Of course, there was a fairly long line of people she'd rather spend her final moments with, but beggars couldn't be choosers.

There was no way to tell how long their journey lasted. It came as a surprise, however, when they finally drew to a halt. There came the sound of a door opening with a low rumble. The process took a while, and in this time she subtly attempted to determine whether or not her body was getting back to normal. It felt as though the muscles might be trying to respond to her commands… maybe.

To Tatsuki's shock, it was her eyes that suddenly started working again. There was light somewhere nearby. Not much, but enough to see by. It enabled her to dart a few quick peeks around. She was held in the crook of someone's arm. Someone big. There were four others of similar make, bulky misshapen beasts boasting masks that marked them instantly as Hollows. Chizuru Honshō dangled over the shoulder of one of these. As far as she could tell, the redhead was still alive and in one piece. The reason for this might be about to come clear.

Two of the figures in their party stood out for the simple fact that they looked human. Both were female, short and slender, wearing white clothes that further marked them as different from the naked brutes with whom they traveled. Each had a sort of bone eye patch covering one eye. Their most distinguishing characteristic was their hair; short and blonde for one, long black pigtails the other. Otherwise they were pretty much the same. She guessed these must be Loly and Menoly.

The hunting party moved forward past a tremendous door that had a detailed carving of a skull etched into its surface. This new chamber was no mere tunnel. It sounded huge, judging by the way their footfalls echoed. Weird lights like will-o-the-wisps glowed around its perimeter. Arisawa craned her head with utmost caution, trying to get a better view of the place as they moved further into the room.

"I gave you lot three strands to follow!" a woman's voice snapped angrily. "What became of the third?"

"This is all we could get," Loly replied, holding out a hand that looked to be empty. "Your third turned out to be Orihime Inoue. She shielded herself in time and there was no way to get to her. Azmuth died trying. We decided it was best to return with those we had captured rather than risk winding up totally empty-handed."

None of the remaining Hollows saw fit to speak out against what they all knew were lies. Whether the listener believed her proved a moot point anyway. "I will not bandy excuses with the likes of you, filth!" A slender hand snatched something out of Loly's palm. "Keep the unused two will return at once and apprehend the escapee. Should you die in the process, consider yourselves fortunate! We must have all of them if we are to ensure the rejuvenation's success. Now GO!"

Tatsuki still couldn't see who was speaking, but she caught the looks of fierce disdain Loly and Menoly now wore. It looked like they were both getting ready to throw caution to the wind and attack their abuser. In response, there came a liquid rumbling growl, and the sound of something big lumbering closer. Both Hollow women drew back at this clear threat.

"Yes, Lagrima," Menoly spit in acid distaste. The duo's anger had been replaced by fear, so that seconds later saw them quickly retreating back the way they came.

"Berrinholtz. Take them up."

At this command, Tatsuki found herself handed off along with Chizuru to a Hollow that proved even larger than the hulks who held them before. It must have stood around twenty feet tall by her guess. Its claws were long in the manner of moles for both hands and feet, with short spikes sticking out all along its massive hide. This one just felt stronger than all the rest. Still, the thing exercised care in holding them. Once more it became clear that they were being kept alive for a reason. What that reason may be could prove worse than death, though.

"The rest of you may leave. Rejoin the others and find out what is taking them so long."

The pack obeyed this order with even greater alacrity than had Loly and Menoly. Her shift in handlers allowed Tatsuki to get a look at the one called Lagrima. This Hollow proved to be partially human in appearance, tall and dressed in a toga with long milky hair and a mask that sported only different sizes of holes. Her appearance in no way imbued the same sense of brute strength as the one called Berrinholtz, and yet clearly this slender female was the one in charge of the rat's maze in which they lay. She cradled a large urn in the crook of one arm and had what resembled a harp strapped to her back.

None of this could hold the paralyzed teen's interest for long, because it quickly became apparent that the ruler of this sunken burrow was standing at the edge of a pool filled with blood.

Even with the light being so dim, there was no denying it for what it was. She could smell it, even like this. When the door leading into this cavern had closed, Lagrima carefully placed the urn on the floor before sinking to her knees. She faced the pool with the harp now in her lap and plucked one string. The note it produced echoed almost sweetly to their ears.

For several minutes there was nothing. In that time, Tatsuki was pathetically pleased to feel one of her toes move ever so slightly.

Her relief at this triumph did not last.

What happened next guaranteed her nightmares forever should she survive. The surface of the lake began to froth in a nauseating fashion, at which point something rose from its depths. Not emerging; it was more as if the blood itself lurched up to greet them, fashioning itself into the torso of a great loathsome demon whose skeletal form was made of sluggishly moving gore. Its crimson skull was held in both hands, and it fixed eyes bright with hunger and malice upon them all.

"Ah," the embodiment of horror chuckled. "So this is why you see fit to call upon Us without Our leave."

The way it spoke made her ears hurt and flesh crawl. Of all the revolting, insane things that had happened in her life, this was the one that had Tatsuki Arisawa seriously wishing none of this spirit business could be real. What in her normal everyday life could possibly make sense when something like that lurked just around a corner, waiting to destroy anything remotely resembling a safe happy world?

Meanwhile, Berrinholtze had dropped to one knee. Lagrima was abasing herself in full form, prostrate on the floor with arms outstretched as though to worship some god. "Your Highness," she whispered in fervent devotion, "An unexpected harvest has come our way. I know not how, but the vessels have all been transported here, to Hueco Mundo!"

"What is this?" her hideous deity growled. It lurched forward, causing waves to lap against the edge of the pit. Those unnatural eyes fixed upon the girls in a way that was almost curious, before quickly darting back to Lagrima. "And you had no part in this, We suppose? No inkling was given that such a thing might be planning to occur?"

"Many harvesters returned at the same time, but that is all. I swear it to be so, in Your name." The worshipper shivered where she lay. Tatsuki couldn't blame her, really. Things had gotten ugly for everyone concerned, whether dead or not.

"Yes. Of course. Our faith is well placed in you." The fleshless titan observed them all in turn, finally settling on Chizuru. That severed skull twisted somewhat in its own bony grip so that it appeared as though it had cocked its head. It gurgled out nasty pink bubbles, as if in a sigh. "Lagrima."

She started up. "Highness?"

"Have you determined when and how this chattel might have come in contact with all four of us?"

His servant managed to sink even lower to the floor. "As You mentioned before, the dark-haired one was present during that first scouting mission to the human world, as too the big male, and Inoue Orihime. That would explain how she became a vessel. But the one with red hair was not, and we cannot say for certain how she or any of the others were blessed."

"Nine. Nine humans with our taint on their souls. Yet only three whose origin we can precisely pinpoint. How did they survive these encounters? When did they meet them? When did they meet Us? And why do We not remember this?"

As it spoke the monster planted one hand on the stone floor and stretched out the other which held its head. Tatsuki quickly fixed her eyes downwards, hoping that Chizuru would do the same so as not to give away the fact they might be starting to come around. All the same, she could feel prickles of dread traveling instinctively up her spine, letting her know that she had fallen under the attention of something monumentally fatal. She had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering.

"Neither of you, it seems," that sepulchral voice mused over their heads. "But at least one among you did. How is it… that We did not eat you, then?"

Don't let me pass out, she prayed. I don't want to die like a coward. At least let me know it's coming!

Even as she thought this, the feeling of imminent death withdrew.

"It matters not, We suppose." That besmirched bone turned to regard its idolater once more. "You have them now. And your intentions are clear. Take them to him, and see that he is well fed. Keep them alive until he no longer needs them. This is Our will. Obey, and flourish."

"It shall be done, Your Grace."

With that, the demon god slipped back into its fount, disappearing without a trace. The pool now appeared as calm and foul as it had been when they first entered.

Lagrima stood. She collected the jug which she cradled like a child to her breast before looking at her bulky bodyguard. "Bring them." So saying, she led them towards a tunnel gouged in the wall.

This experience had actually done Tatsuki a great deal of good. For starters, she had renewed her determination not to die. If she could survive a meeting with whatever that had been, then nothing less should have the right to do her in. Secondly, now that she thought about it, Lagrima had mentioned they were the only ones captured so far. Which meant her friends were still on the loose. How long this would last was anyone's guess, but still, cause for hope. Help might even be on the way right now.

And finally, most important of all…

Slung under the huge Hollow's arm, her fingers stiffly curled into a fist.

I can fight again.


Four members of Siamese Company held watch at their assigned position. It was uneventful work, and held markedly little chance of seeing any action. Still, they remained attentive to their surroundings so as not to miss an opportunity to impress the top brass.

Scanning the horizon, one of them squinted. "Hey," she nudged her partner. "You see that?"

The man looked where indicated. "What? I don't see…"

His vigilant ally then felt a hand grab her butt.

"HEY!" she yelled, rounding on him furiously.

The next thing both shinigami registered was a sonic boom that threw them off their feet. Bewildered, they looked at one another uncomprehendingly.

None of them noticed Kon already speeding off into the distance, grinning at his accomplishment. If he could cop a feel on a shinigami and get away before anyone even noticed him, then this body really was up to snuff. Satisfied, he then returned to scanning the flight of the bats. Was it his imagination, or were they starting to come down? Better hit the accelerator just to be safe. Moments later, he was shooting across the desert of Hueco Mundo so fast his footprints barely disturbed the dry soil.


If I just stop moving, maybe she won't notice I'm gone? Makizō discarded this prospect almost immediately. He did not want to be left alone down here, wherever here may be.

This cave system was immense from what he could make out. There were branches leading off in every direction. Ochi had taken the lead again, using another one of those magic tubes to light their way. Where did she keep getting those? More importantly, the light might serve to attract the attention of whatever lived down here, in which case, they would probably die. The only worse prospect would be to have no light at all. Then they would die in the dark. How did she even know which direction to take?

Mustering up his courage, he finally decided to ask. "Do you know where we're going?"

"No."

I do. To our deaths.

I'm having fun.

No you're not. I'm not, so you're not.

No girl's stuck around us this long in a long, long time. It's fun. Don't you think it's fun?

Actually, I think I'm starting to grow more comfortable with the idea of being a lifelong bachelor.

Tell her you like her.

No! Why would I do that?

Grab her, Makizō.

WHAT? What for?

HOLLOWS!

Before he could think twice the Tenth Seat sprang forward and grabbed Misato around the waist, leaping backwards even as she gave a surprised exclamation. The glowing stick dropped from her hand. As it hit the ground, a masked demon the size of a small car leapt from the shadows to pounce upon this light source. Several more came into view behind it.

"There it is!" one of them shouted.

"Be sure to take her alive," another growled. "The shinigami can die."

Aramaki had heard enough. It was time to leave. More of them were on the way, without a doubt. He turned and sprinted back the way they came. Draped over his shoulder, the human was pounding on his back with her fists and kicking him indignantly, but he did not let go. She could abuse him as much as she wanted once they were safe. That much he could live with.

A small bobbing light globe he conjured served to illuminate their way now. Unfortunately, this was the only comfort to be found. Because before he knew it, they were completely lost. Even more than they had been before. That passage up to the right, should he take it? The sound of snarling and slithering alerted him this was not the safest course. So he continued on into the next one. Why wasn't he getting a good feel for the Hollows' souls? It was like they were covered up. Only his zanpakutō's senses had noticed their approach, and that at the last second. Just have to hope my luck holds out.

True to form, it didn't. Because shortly afterwards he found himself facing a dead end.

Noises back down the way alerted him to their approaching peril. Spinning around, Makizō cried out, "B-Bakudō #... 81! D-Dankū?!"

His desperation was evident in using such a high-class spell. What was even more apparent was that he couldn't pull it off. The barrier did appear to block the tunnel, but it flickered and bent in a way that indicated weak casting. Shadowy figures appeared at the mouth of the trap, hissing and growling upon finding their prey cornered. They began to slowly advance, as though they wanted to savor this moment.

Makizō?

Yeah?

It's time.

I was afraid you'd say that.

His decision had been made. Swallowing resolutely, the lone fighter deposited Misato on her feet. Immediately he thrust one hand into his robes and emerged with the gourd of booze from earlier. He concentrated, muttering a certain spell with much more confidence and assurance than he had the defensive one. This was something he knew down to a tee.

"Excuse me, are you about to get drunk? Cuz if so I'd like some of that."

He ignored her. Fangs and claws were now ripping into the Dankü. He could feel it crumbling already. His will was about to cave under the pressure of all this day's fears as well as life's staggering disappointments. But at the same time, his spirits soared as he felt the flask grow warm in his hands. Yes! Salvation!

With that Makizō Aramaki threw back his head and began to slam down the kidō-mixed drink.

"Seriously, I don't think…"

He whipped up one finger to prevent her from speaking, never ceasing to chug. The precious juice sloshed down his throat, burning and warming him at the same time. Already his cheeks were turning red, nostrils flaring, eyes rolling up into his head. I feel… the power!

Makizō Aramaki. Coward, bootlicker, and fool. Every shinigami knew these things to be true. The man was charitably described as a stooge. They laughed about him openly. But some of the more intelligent ones also posed a question: if Aramaki was such a useless dolt, then how was it he had managed to get into the Tenth Division, which was reserved for the most battle-hardy aggressively violent maniacs of their race? Those in the know speculated he was sent there as punishment for some indiscretion. That sort of thing happened every now and then.

They couldn't be more wrong. In fact, whether Aramaki himself realized it or not, his assignment to the Tenth had been a reward. Because he could not hold his liquor. Give him a drink and he was tipsy after just a few swigs. It actually served to clear his head, making him more perceptive and, strangely enough, a better man overall. Maybe because he wasn't thinking so hard about trying to please people.

But give him a kidō-mixed drink…

"REYAAAAARRRRGH!"

The flask was flung against the ground. A zanpakutō leapt from its scabbard, and Misato Ochi heard an unfamiliar voice scream, "SAVAGE, INU NO MURE!"

Spiritual energy exploded like hounds let off the leash. She fell on her rear and regarded the figure standing before her with awe. An unholy red radiance washed over his body. His shoulders were hunched, legs bent as if in preparation to spring. That lumpy face had actually transformed into something impressive, or rather, downright frightening. Teeth bared, eyes flung wide, moustache standing out in points, her toady shinigami had become a war machine.

Her admiration lessened slightly when she noticed he was holding what looked like a key chain in his hand.

That was the term which best described it. From his clenched fist where once a fine katana had been now dangled a short chain. The mass of keys at its end all resembled weirdly shaped blades. They clinked against one another, no two alike, some with curves, others boasting serrated edges, a few that simply qualified as hooks, and many that resembled no weapon she had ever seen. The only thing they all shared was teeny-tiny size.

Right then, Makizō drew back his arm and whipped his puny weapon forward with a scream.

It elongated. No, wait… it enlarged! The whole thing grew along its length, links getting thicker as it went out, key-blades growing vaster and infinitely more dangerous. Now it was the length of a flail, then a spiked morning star, and after that it became an industrial crane's hook. A veritable armory of sharpened steel tore down the tunnel, smashing through the protective wall like it wasn't even there. The Hollows clustered behind it fared no better as that cannonball of swords blasted through their ranks, tearing them to shreds. There was no space to dodge or hide in these cloistered confines. Blood flew everywhere. The splattered pieces of their corpses hit the ground, dissolving even as they did into butterflies that disappeared so fast it was like they had been traumatized.

Amazed, the children's educator found that her estimation of this man had risen considerably in the last few seconds. His soul cutter retracted back into his grip, once more at trinket dimensions. Its owner looked down at her with blazing cheeks and slightly loopy eyes.

"C'MON, BABY!" he ordered, and gestured towards the exit.

Misato rose and dusted herself off with a smile. "Lead the way, good sir."


Tatsuki stood before a corpse.

They were in a mausoleum, one that reminded her of Italian catacombs from ages past whose pictures they had seen in History class. Shards of skulls and pieces of bone lurked in crevices dug out of the walls. The only illumination came from two black tapers whose wicks sputtered like they were in the act of dying out.

This feeble light served to reveal the body reclining at the end of the grave shaft. Laid out in a private sepulcher, it had the shape of a human, though fairly tall. Nothing more could be discerned, as it was covered in a gray shroud which prevented any great detail from showing through. It did not breathe. It did not move.

And yet somehow, she realized this thing was alive.

Lagrima had bent down near the body. She whispered to it in a low voice. Berrinholtz remained behind her, still holding on to both girls in his great paws. The undead priestess opened the jug she carried and brought it up to its mouth.

As she tilted it, the cloth stirred.

No.

She paused, then drew the urn back. Its head moved, almost painfully slow, looking past her. Unseen eyes lingered for a while on Chizuru, before transferring over to Tatsuki.

Her, it croaked.

Lagrima looked at Berrinholtz and gave a nod. In response the behemoth stalked forward. His mistress stepped aside to allow him room. The two captives now got a better look at what lay under the shroud. It resembled something that had been burned down to ash but still retained its shape. Even the slightest movement sent crumbling flakes sliding off its skin. Whatever was animating this, only a supreme act of will could keep something so fragile from simply falling apart. Death clearly hovered eagerly over this figure with every breath.

So this is what they've been saving us for, Tatsuki realized. The next thing she knew, Berrinholtz had lifted her up. She now hovered over the corpse's face. In this position, their eyes met briefly. With it came a weird sense of recognition.

Then she was brought down lower, and a mouth latched onto her throat.

Her head snapped back. All traces of lethargy seemed burned away at this violation. She sought to break free, but Berrinholtz's grip was iron. He would not let go. Arms pinned to her sides, legs flailing helplessly, Tatsuki could feel that ghastly maw sucking at her neck. It was hungry, but gentle, like a timid lover seeing how far he could go. That made the experience all the more horrific. Its mouth was cold, and this sensation traveled throughout her whole body, leeching away all warmth as the vampire drew something essential out of her and into itself.

Lagrima had caught her by the hair to prevent her from struggling. The girl's teeth were clenched, breath exploding in and out of her nose in rage. She snarled and gnashed like a mad thing. At no time in her life had she ever felt so humiliated, so completely demeaned, as right now. A red haze of fury settled over her vision. The urge to hurt them was so great she could not even speak. And still it suckled tenderly at her skin, teasing and tickling her with its weak wispy caresses. Get off of me, you fucking animal, damn you to hell! I'll kill you I'll kill you I'll kill kill KILL KILL!

From the depths of her soul, Tatsuki wrenched her head downward with all the strength she could lay claim to at this time. She felt hair rip loose from her skull, and then she was free!

Before anyone could stop her, the deranged young woman gave an inhuman snarl and sank her teeth into the vampire's throat.

A choked scream sounded in her ear, the loudest noise this thing had made yet. No longer did its loathsome mouth invade her. Exhilarated, she bit down harder even as a taste like charcoal on her tongue threatened to suffocate her. Still it uttered weak breathless cries. That's right, bastard, she exulted as she sought to chew its head off. Do you like that?! Do you want some more of what I can give?! HERE, TAKE IT ALL!

She was pulled off at last, dragging away the shroud and half the vampire's neck with it. Lagrima shrieked in fury as she attempted to pour a glowing blue liquid from the jug into the damaged monster's mouth. Got you! Their rebellious sacrifice gazed eagerly at her handiwork with the cowl still clenched between her jaws. She would have gladly ripped them all to shreds and feasted on their putrid undead flesh.

As she thought this, Berrinoltz opened his mouth and placed her head inside. She could see what looked like another smaller mouth inside the pitch black void. From what sounded like very far away, Chizuru screamed her name.

Go ahead. I'll bite your tongue off, at the very least.

No.

Everyone stopped moving.

Mine.

The dusty lich remained flat on its back. It lacked even the strength to move, let alone rise. Yet still when it spoke, its voice made them all halt, as though some angel of death had whispered in their ears ever so softly.

Mine. They… are mine. I need them… alive.

That declaration apparently used up all its strength, for the ghoul spoke no more. Shivering, Lagrima stood staring down at it. Her whole body showed how repellent she thought this thing to truly be.

After a time, she cursed softly under her breath. The priestess unslung her harp. She plucked two strings, one black, one red. As the notes sounded, a surge of intense pain tore through Tatsuki's whole body. Every nerve lit up at once. It felt like her skin had been stripped off to expose what lay underneath. As swiftly as it started, the torment passed, leaving her once again unable to move and dangling like a dead fish from Berrinholtz's claws.

"There," Lagrima declared, satisfied. "They will cause us no more trouble. Use the other one this time." She indicated where Chizuru hung. "Perhaps there is less fight in it."

Berrinholtz dropped Tatsuki. She hit the ground like a bag of garbage and just lay there. It felt good to know that she had managed to strike out against their captors. But at the same time, her anger flared hot when she saw Chizuru about to be put through the same degradation as she had. And there was nothing either of them could do to stop it.

Without warning, there came a low boom, and the ground shuddered beneath her. At the same time, a string on Lagrima's harp snapped with a loud twang.

Startled, the Hollow peered down at her instrument. "What is this?" she rasped, nerves frayed and obviously teetering on the brink of collapse. "What is this, I don't understand, what is going on?!" Her head whipped around accusingly at all of them before returning to study the damage. Pale fingers lifted the limp strand, rubbing it experimentally. Then she let it go with a gasp.

"My dream catchers. Someone… someone has destroyed all my dream catchers!"

Her empty eye holes rose to train on Tatsuki. She took a step forward, and one trembling hand rose to hover over the same black string as before. "You…" the furious seneschal gasped. "This is… all your doing! All a trap! You brought them here, didn't you?! Whoever this is, you led them right to us, didn't you?!"

The harp sung its tune, and once more the girl's body was awash in agony. Only this time it sounded again and again, so that Tatsuki writhed in dreadful torment that did not recede in the slightest, until finally, she simply passed out.

Lagrima clutched the harp to her chest, gaze darting wildly between the ash vampire, her urn, and the two prisoners. "Cannot… cannot leave," she mumbled to herself. "We cannot leave him like this, but he will not survive the move! His Holiness… forbids it. We must… we must stay. We must fight!"

Her head jerked up, and now a new string was plucked. The sound it made was deep and low, like a bell tolling somewhere far in the distance. As it did, Berrinholtz gave a violent tremble.

"Go now," the murderous musician hissed. "Whoever is responsible for this, be it shinigami or traitor, find them and kill them! Kill any who dare to invade our domain!"

The huge bear skull slowly nodded. Her champion dropped Chizuru to the floor before turning to plod down the tunnel. Moments later he had vanished into the darkness ahead.

Shuddering, all alone, Lagrima sank to the stone. And there, she began to sob. His Holiness must be informed of this. He would be wroth with her, she knew it. Her weakness, her unsuitably, would be made plain. Just as it had before, when the Jackal's vile silver-haired servant had broken her, forced her to betray all the trusts He had placed in her. The other servants all suspected it had been her, she was certain of it. They never trusted her again, nor Lagrima them. Everything she ever valued had been taken away… by shinigami!

And now they had come for her life.

Rising, the grieving servant hobbled away to summon her god and receive his fury once again.


Gather ye rosebuds while ye may/ Your head will soon be flying/ You know not where its course may lay/ But who cares? You'll be dying.

A swing of his arm, and more Hollows were purified into ribbons, giving up all their grief and remorse under the bite of his soul cutter. Inu no Mure's steel song rang in counterpoint to the verses he composed, and Makizō laughed wildly upon hearing them both.

Since I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me/ We shared a drink, our blades did sink into your anatomy.

There was very little going on in his head now. He knew only that battle was upon him, and he welcomed it. In addition, there was a woman he had to protect. That was something new. She hunkered down by his feet, clutching his leg as he swung his multi-pronged death implement round and round this large cavern where he had chosen to make his stand. Inu no Mure's screaming blades cleared a space around them in ever increasing arcs. Sometimes high, sometimes low. Like jump rope! Around the world, here we go, see if you can keep from getting hit! Some shot their Ceros at him, which he swatted aside or gleefully dodged to let them go arcing by and explode into the Hollows swarming at his back. Nice shooting, morons!

This was the sort of mania which made Aramaki the man he was today. Formerly a member of the Thirteenth division, he had joined the Gotei 13 eager to make a very comfortable living for himself. And for a while there, everything seemed good. He had a nice house, the food in the Seireitei was excellent, and his comrades were occasionally willing to have him tag along whenever they went out to drink. His prospects looked good.

Then one night, some rowdies from the Eleventh came bursting into their division, led by a red-haired galoot with tattoos for eyebrows. A party started soon afterwards, one which would go down in division history for sheer amount of injuries and property damage. Makizō found himself a member of these revelries, much to his delight. He drank, he ate, he enjoyed himself.

Late in the evening, someone handed him a kidō-mixed drink, and he was off.

A militant splinter faction of this wild party eventually detached itself to go in search of more liquor. Aramaki was at the head of this mob. Leaving chaos in their wake, they made their way to a bar in the 42nd ring of the Rukongai, where they proceeded to level the surrounding area. Residents evacuated en masse. The flames could be seen from the walls of the Seireitei. By then, the Mustache King, as he had crowned himself, was engaging in a spirited game of 'You Chop Me, I Chop You' with his new friends from the Eleventh.

Five minutes later, Captain Zaraki Kenpachi wandered into the bar in search of a good time. Seeing only another target, Makizō hauled off and delivered his mess of blades full straight into the big man's head.

When they fell away, Zaraki's lip was bleeding. And he was smiling.

Two months later, the Mustache King awoke in a hospital wing of the Fourth Division inside a full body cast with only the memory of that god-awful smile still clear in his head. The medics informed him that he had been transferred to the Eleventh as a result of his actions that night. What he and they did not realize was that this had occurred as the result of an actual formal petition from Captain Zaraki, one of only two he had ever made in his career. He got Lieutenant Nanao Ise to help him with the paperwork to make absolutely sure everything was official. And so, with no clear understanding of why, Makizō Aramaki was welcomed into the happy-go-lucky Squad Eleven. After that, drinking became necessary for his survival. And so he was always prepared.

Getting back to the present, after fighting for an indeterminate length of time, the blood ceased to flow. Aramaki kept swinging his death dealer for a while until this fact finally presented itself to him. Panting, he retracted Inu no Mure to give himself a chance to figure out where to aim next.

The answer came quickly. The Hollows were retreating into tunnels, casting fearful looks back at him. The reason for this came squeezing out of another passage. A Huge Hollow, by the look of it. Big sucker, too, all spikes and claws. It had the skull of a bear, and the sight of this made him grin.

"Gonna make me a bearskin RUG, boy!" he boasted gleefully. "Drink brandy by the fire on you!"

At this, the Hollow opened its mouth and roared. Its huge mitts came up, and they began to spin like two drills. As they did so, sparks shot out of its joints, and even its eyes and mouth. In moments the looming monstrosity had transformed into a blazing dynamo, and the whole thing came charging right at him.

For as surely as the rain doth fall/ Your blood will splash upon the wall…

Makizō let Inu no Mure loose. The bladed warhead ballooned up and smashed right into his new adversary. To his frustration, this attack in no way blunted its momentum. The beast came on.

Aramaki quickly snatched up his woman and flash-stepped aside just in the nick of time. Bear-boy blazed on by them, impacting against the wall in a huge detonation of yellow energy. That entire part of the cavern came down in an avalanche of rock. The night sky was visible through a crack in the ceiling. Fuzzy Wuzzy shot out of this mess before the dust could even settle, streaking along the floor to come up short, standing there stock-still watching him.

Makizō snarled in readiness for its next attack. Looks like I'm gonna have to give it my all! He looked blearily over at his girl. "Hey," he hiccupped, and coughed. "While I'm… keepin' him busy, I want you to… climb…" He gestured over towards the sloping hill of detritus. "Climb the stairs… all the way to the stars… 'n get outta here. Got it?"

The hottie looked at him and smiled. "Only if you die," she promised. That's my girl, all the way! Now ready to go, he flash-stepped to the center of the remaining clear stretch of ground. Tearing open the front of his robe, the buzzed berserker slapped his chest and bellowed to get the enemy's attention.

Pray ask not why your hour is nigh/ The bell doth toll, give up your soul…

Once more the Electric Bugaboo began to spark like a Roman candle, so bright it made stars dance before his eyes. This time, however, it chose to stalk towards him, drawing steadily closer and leaving streaks of light trailing behind it. In response he grasped Inu no Mure by the chain with his free hand and began to swing him up and down, faster and faster, letting him grow out to a goodly length 'til he raked the floor with each revolution. A red aura flared around both his body and weapon as he unleashed the very depths of what his soul had to offer. Aw, hell, yeah! Bigger than life! I got you, ugly! I got you good!

The Flare Bear started to pick up speed. Looks like he wants to get in close before charging this time. Okay, Honey Badger, let's see you come back from this!

Twenty yards away, the flaming Hollow suddenly barreled towards him, great piston feet smashing the floor to fragments. "I AM THE MUSTACHE KING!" Makizō shouted, dizzy and proud, before dashing forward to let his ultimate attack fly.

I do daresay that come what may/ I'm NOT in a giving VEIN THIS DAY!

They met head-on in a collision of red and yellow that swiftly became orange. For a few moments this was all that could be seen, a miniature sun which lit every corner of this secluded underworld. Then the ball slowly started to dwindle, shrinking down with ever-increasing speed, until at last it resolved into two shadowy figures at the heart of that incandescence.

When it winked out completely, Makizō Aramaki was down on his knees before his opponent, a length of broken chain held out defensively before him. The rest of Inu no Mure lay in shattered pieces on the ground. The brute Hollow rumbled its pleasure. For his part, the shinigami took pride in simply having survived. He looked up into its dead black sockets with a smile. From the corner of one eye, Misato was visible edging over towards the only means of freedom available. Atta girl. No, wait… she's picking up a piece of rock. Aw, c'mon, I went to all the trouble of giving you a way out! Don't just go and…

The stone went sailing through the air to strike the Hollow on the snout. Its head turned slightly to take in the human glaring defiantly.

"HELP!" she sang with what sounded like very little concern while bending to pick up another fragment. "If anybody can hear me, we need some HEEELP!"

The brutish victor considered her for a moment. Its pointed ears seemed to twitch. Then it turned back to Aramaki. Great fang-filled jaws opened, and both claws raised overhead. A rock bounced off again, but this time it did not pause. Stupid girl, go on, run! The opening in the roof was still an option. He could see the stars glimmering through it. They twinkled so prettily. With his vision still blurry, it almost looked like snow was falling through the hole.

Hey. That is snow.

Stupid. It doesn't snow in the desert.

As he was thinking this, Berrinholtz's claws swept down to behead him.

There was no pain. Only a sharp clanging sound and a very strong sense of… cold.

Makizō blinked, eyes coming back into focus. Before him, his would-be executioner had somehow failed to complete its strike. The explanation for why became obvious. Two swords crossed together held back the blows from falling upon him. The Hollow's arms shook, claws scraping against those sharp edges, and it gave a dark growl at finding itself so balked.

In turn, Aramaki's rescuers spoke at the same time.

"Tensō Jūrin!"

"Hakuren!"

Following this there was a white burst of spiritual combination. For a while snow and mist veiled his vision. When it cleared, the monster had been frozen solid, trapped in the very moment of its triumph. But something far more important than simple survival was becoming evident to his wine-heavy senses. Namely, one of those people standing to either side of him had on a white haori, while the other wore a wooden badge on her arm.

Every last trace of alcohol was swept from his system in a subservient flash. "Hitsugaya-Taicho! Kuchiki-fukutaicho! How wonderful to be in your presence! Thank you for saving me just now! How may I be of service to you?"

Even on his knees, both these people were still at eye level to him. All the same, to Aramaki's imagination, the pair towered over his huddled form in their splendor and overwhelmingly superior rank.

Lieutenant Kuchiki lifted her chin in regal disdain. "Are you from Siamese, then…?"

"Hi, Rukia-chan!" Misato waved. The icy warriors regarded her as she hopped briskly over to join them. "That was a nice save there. Are you here to rescue us? Good. You get a passing grade this semester."

The noblewoman's face took on a shade of confusion. "Ochi-sensei, I am no longer one of your students." A cheerful shrug was the only response she got back, and Rukia made an obvious effort to get back to business. "Never mind. Can you tell us where the other missing students are right now?"

"No idea. We haven't seen any of them since I got here. But don't worry, they're not dead." The woman took off her glasses and rubbed both eyes tiredly. "At least I wouldn't think so. I heard one of these Hollows say earlier they wanted to take me alive, so it's probably the same with the kids. Stands to reason, right?"

Replacing the lenses on her face, she once more assumed that chipper grin which was somewhat unnerving considering their current situation, before turning to Captain Hitsugaya. "You're a captain, I take it."

"I am…"

"But you look ten years old. That makes it hard to take you seriously. I just want to mother you. C'mon, gimme a hug." And she held out her arms, beckoning him in cheerfully as though this suggestion were the most natural thing in the world.

A vein was starting to twitch in the snowy prodigy's temple. His frigid gaze turned back to Aramaki. "You…"

The lickspittle scrambled upright and stood stiffly at attention. "Aramaki Makizō, Tenth Seat, Eleventh… I mean Tiger Division, sir!"

"You will take this… woman… back the way we came and get her to safety. Siamese Company has this area surrounded," Captain Hitsugaya declared while fingering his blade in a most intimidating manner. "Inform Captain Odelschvank of our position and confirm there are Hollows down here."

"And be sure to stress that we can't feel their reiatsu," Rukia added.

"Yessir. And ma'am. Absolutely right away. And if I might say…"

Both top-tier commanders leveled identical frigid glares at him.

"You know, maybe it is time we were going." Laughing shrilly, Aramaki jogged over and swept up Misato in his arms. "Let's leave them to it, eh?" And so saying, he sped across the cave, up the landslide and out the cavern roof like his life (and more importantly his career) depended on it.

Rukia glanced sidelong at her companion. "I thought you were only concerned about Matsumoto?" she questioned him.

"I am." The boy genius then began to twirl the heavy sickle attached to his sword by a chain. "But it seems there's something down here worth cleaning up as well." So saying, he swung the gleaming crescent moon and beheaded the frozen Hollow. Its great skull crashed to earth. They watched it roll back and forth before coming to rest. The captain scowled. "This thing was pretty tough, and yet it had no spiritual signature I could detect."

"I've been in a situation like this once before." Rukia's face had grown grim as old memories resurfaced. "A large group of shinigami entering enemy territory, only to find they can't sense their enemies' reiatsu." She looked over at Tōshirō. "We cannot allow a repeat of the Hollow Bog incident."

"I've read the reports," he mused. "They might be using those 'sombras' to hide their presence from us same as during the War. But if their leader is the one responsible for it like back in the Bog, we need to find and destroy it as soon as possible. Otherwise our men will be going in blind."

"At least we know if the humans are here, they're still alive. Assuming what Ochi-sensei said was true." She drew in a deep breath and let it out with a sigh before examining their surroundings. "So where shall we go from here? We can't just assume another lucky break is going to show us the right way."

At that moment, a hell butterfly dropped down to land on her head.

'Hey, ba-san! It's me. I'm still with Madame Jiggles, in case you're worried, but she said that the location of that spell we're tracking has moved. Sneaked a peak at the new coordinates on her phone; here's what it said. We're underground, by the way. Get down here quick, you're missing all the fun!'

"Never mind," Rukia frowned irritably. "They're this way."


"You have failed Us."

Lagrima's head hung low like a whipped dog's. "Yes, My Lord," she murmured dully.

"The invalid's safety is of paramount importance. And you allow enemies to enter this domain while he is still incapacitated? It would seem Our decision to rely on your abilities was an error in judgment."

The abeyant adjuchas did not dare even look at Him now, so ashamed did she feel. "What would You have me do, Highness?"

"Do? Surely that is a jest. You can do nothing. Your forces are inadequate." A sloshing, splattering sound reached her ears. "Too much is at stake here to risk further failures. If some rebel riffraff would profane Our works, then they shall greet death at the hands of the King of Hueco Mundo. And let those who look upon their ends be warned."

A hoof made of blood struck the ground near her. Looking up, Lagrima found her master had risen completely from the depths. The dullahan, Barragan Luisenbarn, walked among them once more. He took a few slow steps to allow the blood which comprised His avatar to stabilize, and then moved past her astride His bony steed with head clenched in both hands. A long red tail grew from the end of the horse component that kept Him connected to the scrying pool. This was necessary to maintain His presence in this world.

The way must be cleared for Him, she realized. Energized at the chance to walk with her lord and king again, Lagrima raced to the door and flung it open. Outside a mass of her Hollow followers clustered in agitation. "Make way!" she cried angrily. "Make way for your king!"

They did so, slinking fearfully back as the mighty vasto lorde rode out. Moans and wails of adulation escaped their masks. The great Barragan paused to give them a chance to bask in his fearsome countenance.

As He was about to step forward, however, the Master paused. His head moved from side to side warily, as if sensing something out of place. His mount pawed the ground restlessly.

Lagrima came up to his side. "Does something offend You, Majesty?"

He remained silent for a short while. "No. It is nothing." He did not sound certain of himself, however. As if sensing these treasonous thoughts, eyes crafted of blood dropped to regard her. "Locate Berrinholtz. The rest of you, go forth and apprehend the remaining vessels. Destroy any other trespassers you find. Make certain a watch is kept upon Our sanctuary whilst We are occupied elsewhere."

"It shall be done," his despondent worshipper intoned as He trotted past her down the hall. Although she knew nothing could harm Him, still Lagrima silently prayed for His safe return. His last command returned to her thoughts. She then noticed three masked Hollows standing back against the wall. They looked powerful, enough to cause her to doubt approaching them for an instinctive dread that they might fall upon her with all their terrible might. Would the king stop them if they did? She was no longer sure anymore.

"You three," she indicated the trio. "Remain here and guard the master's chambers until He returns."

The two on either side glanced at their partner in the center, a female, who said nothing. Then the left-hand Hollow sketched a courtly bow. "With goodwill, O Mistress," he sneered unnervingly.

The tone of his voice made Lagrima once again fear for her safety. Rather than run the risk of angering them, she strove to hide these cowardly inclinations and hastily walked away in pursuit of her duties.

All three Hollows watched her go. The one on the right leaned out and craned his neck to get a better view until she had passed from sight.

"Well, wasn't that bizarre?" Keigo Asano said, and clicked his teeth.

To be continued…