One hundred and eleven years pass, a fitting number, Retsu thinks, before she sees the boy again. He is no longer a boy.

As she makes her rounds through the infirmary, she hears patients and healers whisper about a monster entering Seireitei, terrorizing buildings and walls with its bare hands. Something about a tiny pink demon in disguise catches her attention, and she tries not to frown at the absurdity. Retsu soon gathers from listening to the quiet conversations that the monster is not a monster, but a skeleton. A living, walking, breathing skeleton that carries the pink demon on its shoulder.

Monstrosity indeed. What kind of sake is Shunsui handing out these days?

On the last leg of her round, she learns that this skeleton uses a long weapon, jagged like a saw. Apparently it can slice buildings in half.

Perhaps Kurotsuchi Mayuri is experimenting on a new hallucinatory drug. Retsu thinks she may have to go and have a word with him later.

Just as she passes by the last bed, she hears one more thing. She hears it, and it takes several seconds for it to sink into her mind.

"They said it has a weird line down the side its face," the patient says. "All the way from the top to the bottom of its head. Like a scar!"

Like a scar?

Retsu's steps slow once she finds herself out of the infirmary and in an adjacent hallway. She stops completely. A scar? A skeleton? A jagged sword? Her knees shake for a split second, and she leans against the wall for support.

A stake is driving itself deep into her chest, piercing her heart. Familiar hot tears build behind her eyes.

"Captain?" a small voice says.

Retsu blinks out of her daze and looks down at the small silver-haired girl staring up at her.

"Isane? Is everything all right?"

The girl looks anxious. More anxious than usual. Her hands are clasped tightly together. "A Shinigami from Squad Ten just came in to get an inhaler for his asthma, but…I heard him say that he saw someone break through the Sekkiseki rock outer walls. Is there an intruder?" Isane asks nervously.

Retsu is silent for a moment. "Did you hear him say where this person broke through the outer walls? Was it the south of Seireitei? Or the west?"

"The north, I think."

The north. A jagged sword. A skeleton. A scar. "There is nothing to worry about, Isane. We are all perfectly safe."

The girl's gray eyes blink in surprise. "Oh." Then she smiles. "Thank you, Captain. I'll get back to work."

Retsu watches Isane disappear back into the infirmary. We are all perfectly safe. Except you, Kiganjou Kenpachi. You will die today.

Minazuki's great eye opens. And we will watch with joy.

"Yes," Retsu whispers, taking in a deep breath before heading out of the barracks.

The sun shines brightly in the sky. All is peaceful. No emergency alarms sound. They wouldn't, because the walls were not breached with spirit energy. They were not breached with Kidou or with a Zanpakutou. They were breached with raw brute strength, a body or a fist most likely, and this is undetectable to the spirit-based security of the outer walls. Good. He will make it to the Eleventh without resistance.

And she will be waiting.

Retsu shunpo-es to a rooftop overlooking the Eleventh division grounds. They are quiet. A few Shinigami loiter here and there, talking amongst themselves about the sighting of a walking skeleton.

No one notices her presence. She conceals her reiatsu and waits. She can feel him. She can feel the prickling of his destructive reiatsu as it gets closer. The stake in her heart twists.

Within minutes, more and more Shinigami filter into the Eleventh Division grounds. They say, "Have you heard?" and "Did you know?" One says, "He's heading for the Eleventh," then rushes into the barracks to alert his soon-to-be-deceased captain.

Kiganjou, the 10th Kenpachi, finally emerges from the doors. He is a whale of a man with a condescending look in his eye. A self-righteous bore who never acts on his word. When he does make appearances, seldom as they are, he preaches the importance of justice. After a long-winded speech describing how each captain could try a little harder in this way or that, he returns to his quarters and sits. Does nothing. Talks the ears off of the subordinates who look up to his sense of justice, then sends them on some errand disguised as significant.

Retsu has very little respect for the man. He cares for no one but himself, so proven by the fact that he refuses to choose a vice-captain. Kiganjou once tried to convince Retsu that she should be his assistant, because she would look nice standing next to him.

And she very much appreciates being treated like a decorative ornament.

Her response to his proposal was nothing short of polite, but he never dares speak to her again. Shunsui commented once that the large man is too frightened to even look her in the eye.

"Yer scary. I like that," the boy had said one hundred and eleven years ago. Retsu smiles as she looks out over the grounds, wondering if two hundred Shinigami are here. For a moment, she considers rounding some up herself, but it is unnecessary. More and more Shinigami are funneling in by the second. Excellent.

"What is all this fuss about?" Kiganjou asks, scratching his obnoxiously large belly. "Why have you disturbed me with such nonsense?"

"The rumors say the skeleton monster is heading straight for the Eleventh, sir!"

"Rumors? Skeleton monster? Are you people completely insane?" the giant man groans.

"Uhh, s-sir," another Shinigami pipes up. "There has also been talk of some sort of demon with him. Pink, I think…"

The healer stifles a laugh. Perhaps her old friend found himself a vice-captain after all. A pink, demonic one. It wouldn't surprise her in the least.

"Pink?" Kiganjou repeats loudly. "I hate that color." He turns to disappear back into the barracks, but stops then whips around, his beady eyes scanning the grounds in front of him.

Retsu pushes her palm against her chest and smiles. He is here.

The walls surrounding the grounds of the Eleventh Division shake violently. A deafening sound crashes off every surface in the area, like rumbling thunder. When the walls shake a second time, stone crumbles to the ground. There is a hole in the wall.

And there he stands.

The stake in her heart thrusts all the way through. She cannot breathe as she follows the long scar with her eyes, from his forehead down to his jaw. His dark hair is longer. He is much taller. But his grin, wild and shark-like… It is exactly the same.

The sun creeps down behind her, casting a shadowy red light onto everything she sees. Onto him. And then she remembers the image, the image of his young, boyish face bathed in the red light of the sunset.

Another stake drives into her. It twists until her vision blurs with tears.

Retsu clutches at her chest, steadies herself. Her heart throbs uncontrollably as she stares at his face.

It is handsome.

Not like other handsome faces.

This… This is different. It is primal. Visceral. Instinctual. Physical, emotional, psychological. It is natural.

Retsu gives herself a mocking chuckle. Of all the times for her legendary calm to be broken… Minazuki chuckles knowingly along with her.

Now that she understands, she can suppress those thoughts and feelings. They will be addressed at a later time, preferably not while she's hiding on a rooftop like an eavesdropping schoolgirl. At the moment, she feels too young and alive to distract herself with such heavy contemplations.

Just as she successfully stows away the secrets of her heart, something pink catches her eye.

Behind the man's left shoulder, a tiny head emerges. Retsu sees short pink hair, large maroon eyes, rosy cheeks, and an excited smile. A little girl, clinging to his back.

He steps through his self-made hole in the rock wall and into the courtyard.

Retsu suddenly remembers why he is here.

"What is the meaning of this?" Kiganjou shouts. "Who in blazes are you? And why have you damaged my property?!"

"Heh," the man chuckles. "Ya sure are a whiney bastard, aren't ya?"

Even his voice is the same. Deeper, stronger, determined.

Kiganjou has yet to move from where he stands. He only scowls in frightened rage at the person before him. "I demand to know who you are, intruder!"

"My name is Kenpachi," the man declares. "Zaraki Kenpachi. And I'm here ta kill yer ugly ass."

His name is Kenpachi. Kenpachi from Zaraki. Retsu allows the stake to drive itself deeper.

"You call yourself Kenpachi?" Kiganjou snarls. "How impudent, you filth. I am the only Kenpachi here."

"Not fer long," Zaraki Kenpachi tells his opponent matter-of-factly. "Yer about to be dead."

Kiganjou's beady eyes widen. "Excuse me?!"

"Tch, you deaf? I'm here ta kill ya. Then I'm gonna take that nice white coat from ya."

The tiny girl clinging to his back suddenly pops up and crouches on Kenpachi's shoulder, resting her chin in her palms. She smiles widely. "Ken-chan's gonna be captain!"

A heavy silence falls around the grounds, but Retsu smiles warmly. Ken-chan, she calls him. And this is the pink demon?

"What is that thing?" Kiganjou barks, pointing to the girl.

The true Kenpachi turns his head and eyes the girl on his shoulder. "She's not a thing," he says, turning back to glare at his future predecessor. "Her name's Yachiru."

The girl giggles and waves to no one in particular. "Kusajishi Yachiru! Ken-chan saved me from the forest and gave me a name. Now we're always together! I'm gonna be his vice-captain!"

She is not a demon at all. She is closer to an angel. She is his dearest friend. His daughter. Something to fight for. Live for.

"Hah!" Kiganjou shrieks. "Pathetic! I've never encountered such wretched little street rats. How dare you come here and threaten to kill me, a captain, the tenth Kenpachi! I'll slaughter that vermin on your shoulder before you ever think of striking me!"

Kenpachi scowls. "Like hell, fatass. Plus I've already thought of strikin' ya, you moron, so that was a real dumbass thing to say. I've been waitin' a helluva long time to come here an' kill you."

A rusty orange-colored reiatsu seeps up from Kiganjou as he shakes with rage. "How can you, a mere bottom feeder, be so stupid as to think that you can just kill me so simply?"

Kenpachi twitches. His smile is long gone. An irritated frown is set upon his strong features. "You'll find out how stupid I am when yer bleeding ta death on the ground."

"Go Ken-chan!" Yachiru calls with enthusiasm.

"Yeah yeah, shrimp," Kenpachi says to her. "Get down an' find a safe place to stand. I'm gonna cut loose."

"Aye aye, sir!" she chirps, bouncing off his shoulder. No one dares take their eyes off of the man challenging Kiganjou, so no one notices as she bounds effortlessly through the crowd and up onto a rooftop.

No one except Retsu.

The tiny girl is beside her, smiling, looking up with wide, sparkling eyes. "Woooow," she says in wonderment. "You're even prettier than he described."

Retsu's own eyes widen. Her heart thumps into her throat and she cannot speak.

"Is it okay if I stay up here with you while Ken-chan fights?"

The patiently excited expression on this tiny girl's face forces the stake deeper into the healer's heart. "Of course it is," she replies, her voice uneven. "We will watch together."


A single hit. Blood and organs spill out from the gash. Kiganjou is dead.

Yamamoto tells Retsu she was right.


The following morning, Yamamoto summons the new captain to the First Division headquarters for a meeting.

Kenpachi is still half asleep as the old man garbles about something he doesn't give a shit about. Captain for only twelve hours and he has to listen to old farts give boring ass speeches. Kenpachi stands there like a good boy and pretends to listen. Yamamoto mentions something about the fact that Kenpachi uses only one hand when he fights, and that it might be good for him to learn the benefits of using both, some shit called Kendo. Fuck that.

Then he says something about Yachiru having to go to the Shinou Academy before she can officially be his vice-captain. Six years of school? She'll finish it in one.

Then there's something about how other captains' positions are vacant because of some major tragedy that happened twenty years ago in which several of the captains and vice-captains were forced to leave. Whatever.

Kenpachi vaguely hears something about only four of the current captains holding their position for more than two hundred years. The old man, obviously. The guy with tuberculosis. The drunk with the hat. And Unohana Retsu.

Kenpachi is suddenly fully awake.

Yamamoto hides a grin, then quickly moves on to the next subject: the mechanics of paperwork.

"Yeah, that's real interesting an' all," Kenpachi interrupts. "But…there's somethin' I gotta do."

Yes there is, Yamamoto thinks to himself. The old man just nods.

Kenpachi turns and leaves.

People scatter like ants when the new captain passes them by on the streets. All he's doing is walking, what the fuck is wrong with these people? And how the hell do you get to the Fourth Division?

"Hey you," Kenpachi calls to a random guy scurrying away. "Which way to the Fourth?"

The Shinigami turns around, stark white, and points.

"Thanks," Kenpachi says, not seeing the man faint behind him.

Almost a fucking hour later, he finds the damn place. "Why don't they have maps or signs or somethin'?" he grumbles to himself when he finally sees the number four painted on a grand building.

Kenpachi suddenly stops. He can't just go barging in like this, can he? It's been more than a hundred years. Will she remember? Or has she forgotten him?

No. She said it herself. It wasn't a goodbye. Just a goodbye for now.

And now he is back. Just like he promised. He's done everything he promised. Hasn't died. Hasn't given up. Hasn't forgot his reasons for fighting or living. He's become a captain just the way she'd said he could.

"I think you can do anything if you always believe in the strength of your heart."

Will she still think his heart is strong? What if he's changed since the last time he saw her? What if she doesn't like him now?

All these uncertainties… They are painful.

He remembers her eyes. The way they looked at him with such care and kindness. The way they made him feel like he was worth something. Will she still look at him that way? One hundred and eleven years later, will she still care about him?

What if the answer is no? What if his memories are the only things he has to hold on to? Memories fade. He will fade with his memories. He will fade in the pain of being forgotten. Forgotten by someone whose face and voice propel him forward, drive him to get stronger. Someone whose heart is warmer and brighter than the sun.

No, that can't be. That won't happen. She made him promise.

"Promise me, whether it be in fifty or five hundred years, promise me that we will meet again."

Yeah. It'll be okay.

The doors to the Fourth open easily for him. The Shinigami who see him enter drop like flies. He just walks past them.

The smell of this place reminds him of her. Clean, fresh, sweet.

More Shinigami vanish at the sight of him. They're weak. Not like her. No one is like her.

He turns a corner.

She is waiting.

Kenpachi comes to a halt. Several feet in front of him stands a petite woman. Her hands are gently folded in front of her and her raven hair falls neatly down over her chest. Her blue eyes sparkle.

When she suddenly disappears through an adjacent doorway, he is afraid that what he'd just seen was nothing more than a hallucination. He follows her nonetheless.

Follows her right into her office, where she closes the door behind him.

As he stares into her eyes, he knows this is no hallucination. His brain couldn't possibly create something like this. She's even more beautiful than he remembers.

His heart throbs so hard he can hear it. He can't find his voice. "Uhh…" is all he manages to get out for the moment.

Why is she not saying anything? Does she not remember him? He is scared.

Retsu's lips part as if she is about to speak. She takes a hesitant step forward. Her blue eyes gleam with an overflowing fervor. "You kept your promise," she breathes.

Every fear Kenpachi has ever felt suddenly melts away at her words. Her voice is like the soothing water he remembers. And her eyes… They don't just look at him. They see him. They see who he is, not what he is. And once again he feels that he is special, worth something.

So he grins. Grins like he's never grinned before in his life. It doesn't matter how goofy he looks. Because she's looking at him with those eyes. Damn, he's missed those eyes. "Tch, 'course I did," he tells her happily. "Wouldn't'a been much of a promise if I didn't keep it. So here I am."

The tears are almost too much to hold back as she looks at him. A mystifying sense of déjà vu overwhelms her. "You've grown some since we last saw each other," she says, voice uneven. "A few feet, I think."

He chuckles, scratching idly at the back of his head. "Well, s'either that or you shrank."

Retsu laughs and the floodgate opens. Her tears start to fall. There's nothing she can do to stop them now.

"Hey… Y-Yer cryin'," Kenpachi says, suddenly afraid he's done something wrong. He takes a few uncertain steps toward her.

But Retsu just smiles through her tears. "I'm very happy to see you, Zaraki Kenpachi."

His dusty brown eyes widen for a moment. "Tch, if I'd'a known I was gonna make ya cry just by showin' up, I wouldn't'a kept any of my damn promises." Then he grins again. "I'm real happy ta see you too, Unohana Retsu."

Retsu doesn't wipe her tears away. They're meant to fall their full course. They've been waiting a long time. She reaches her hand out and places it against his chest, feeling the mighty heart beat against her palm. It's even stronger than she remembers. His heart has grown with his body.

When her lips curl into a subtle smile, the beat quickens. She closes her eyes and feels. His presence alone is stifling. Raw strength invades and overwhelms her senses. It's amazing that such an intensely powerful force can be packed into his body, just aching to break out. His muscles and bones practically creak with the strain of containing it.

The direct contact with his body awakes within Minazuki something primal. Retsu has been aware of the great eye's sharpened attention for a few seconds now. Something like this is very rare for the spirit inside her. It is the urge, the need, to feed. To consume the raw power that stands in front of her, to swallow it, digest it, and regenerate it into her own.

The sensation reaches its peak and, because Retsu and Minazuki are one in the same, the healer's mouth waters.

But Minazuki, the oldest and greatest female Zanpakutou spirit in Soul Society, quickly controls the urge and adjusts to the change. The great eye slowly closes.

Forgive me, Retsu. It has been a long time since that feeling has overwhelmed me so. It will not happen again.

'It is perfectly all right, Minazuki. You were far from kidding when you said I'd created a monster all those years ago. And what a glorious monster he's turned out to be.'

His monstrosity balances our own. We are compatible monstrosities.

'Compatible monstrosities,' Retsu repeats.

I shall refrain from devouring him.

'You needn't hold back completely. I'm sure he can withstand a good portion of our hunger. That is the beauty of our monstrous compatibility.'

Yes, you are quite right. He is the true warrior, and we the true regenerator. Compatible monstrosities.

Retsu retracts her hand from his chest and looks up at him. "Just as fierce as ever."

His entire being smiles, as if he's relieved to hear this from her after so long. "I was hopin' I didn't get weak over the years."

"Quite the opposite," she chuckles. "It's hard to believe you were once that scrawny young boy."

Kenpachi shrugs. "He's still in here. 'Sides, he's the one who got to meet ya first."

Retsu feels the blood rush to her cheeks at his words. She just grins, lets her eyes slip closed and bows her head. "You've grown up, there's no doubt about that. But you are still the same person at heart that you were all those years ago. I am thankful for that, so incredibly thankful."

Then comes the pain. The stake twists in her chest that tugs at something a century old, an aching guilt. Never in those one hundred and eleven years since their first meeting had that guilt left her. And now, seeing this boy turned man in front of her with the same toothy smile on his scarred face, the guilt comes rushing back just as fresh and crippling as ever.

She takes in a shaky breath. "There is, however, something weighing heavily on my own heart that I must confess to you."

Retsu looks up to find his smile fading into an apprehensive curiosity. His thunderous eyes study her face desperately.

"And that is the reason for our first meeting."

His eyes widen. He's never thought about that before. A captain of the Gotei 13 all the way out in the 80th district of Northern Rukongai… That had never seemed strange to him before. In his mind, their first meeting had always been meant to be…like destiny, not that he believed in that shit. But that was the reason why, when he saw Yachiru all alone in that bloody forest, he decided to take her with him. Meetings like that weren't just trivial things. Sometimes, without reason, they were just significant as hell.

"Seireitei has always kept track of the flow of reiatsu within the districts of Rukongai. Because the 80th district is the furthest away from Seireitei's protection, it has always been a popular feeding ground for Hollows. One hundred and eleven years ago, the Captain-Commander informed me that the influx of Hollows into that district had been steadily decreasing over the previous few years, but that the reiatsu in that area was not decreasing as it should have. Yamamoto-dono deduced that whatever it was getting rid of the Hollows was responsible for the extra reiatsu. He had a theory, a theory that whatever was producing enough reiatsu to make up for the decreased amount of Hollows was a single individual."

Retsu pauses, both to gage the emotions on Kenpachi's face and to give herself a chance to get her own storming emotions under some sort of control. As expected, however, she fails miserably.

"And so…he gave me the task of finding that individual and bringing him back to Seireitei with me, so that he could enter the Academy and become a proper Shinigami."

Her words click in Kenpachi's mind, and Retsu can see the realization of the matter hit him with full force.

"But I did not follow my orders. Even though I found the individual, witnessed the magnitude of his power, spoke with him, I did not bring him back with me." Tears as hot as lava bubble from her eyes. Her throat tightens as she continues to speak. "I left him there, in the worst environment known to souls, I left him there to fend for himself. He could've had a safe and comfortable life if I'd taken him back to Seireitei. He would've made friends. He would've been given a name. And he would not have had to kill for his food."

His face is unmoving as stone as he stares at her. Retsu feels the guilt weaken her body, and she is forced to lean against her desk for support. Her cheeks are drenched with century-old tears.

"I didn't take him back with me," she breathes. "I couldn't. I knew that he deserved a better life than the one he'd been living. He deserved it more than anyone. But he was…too special to be treated like everyone else. At the Academy, he would've been taught and trained to their highest standards, filtered in with all the other students. He would've graduated with high marks, entered the Gotei 13 and eventually climbed the ranks until he became a captain. But somewhere along the line, the thing that made him so special would have been bred out of him by a life in Seireitei. He would've lost the strength and fierceness of his heart."

Retsu looks at him, she looks at him as he looks at her, with those dusty brown eyes swarming with vitality.

"And because of that, he would be nowhere near as strong as he is now," she whispers. "He would not be standing here in front of me, the day after he entered Seireitei and claimed the captaincy of the Eleventh Division with his own bare hands, just as I knew he could. He would not be the same person I met all those years ago, the boy whose heart beat with more determination than that of a thousand men. And he would not have grown into the man I see now, the man whose heart beats with more determination than that of a million men."

She clutches at her chest, short of breath and crippled by the ache in her heart.

"And I would not be standing in front of him, my heart overflowing with the pride and joy of seeing him again, but with the guilt of having subjected him to a life of hardship and suffering…all because of my decision not to take you back with me."

Retsu shuts her eyes tight, attempting to block off the flow of tears that refuses to cease. It is no use.

"I'm sorry," she mutters. "So sorry…"

She hears him take a step, whether backward or forward she cannot tell, until his arms wrap around her quivering body. He gathers her tightly to his hard chest.

"Don't ya dare be sorry," he tells her, his voice rough. "That's the greatest favor anyone's ever done fer me."

The word favor rings in Retsu's ears. It's a strange word. But then again, perhaps it isn't, because he's holding her with his strong arms as she melts into his solid body. She can feel the beat of his heart against her cheek.

"I should be thankin' you," he adds. She wants to ask what for but he answers before she can. "Thankin' you for takin' the time to see me for who I am 'nstead of what I am. So thank you, Unohana Retsu."

Retsu smiles, and her tears fall onto his haori. "I should be thanking you as well," she says softly. "Thank you for keeping your promise to me, Zaraki Kenpachi. It has made me happier than you can imagine."

It isn't until he sets her down that she realizes her feet hadn't been in contact with the ground for the past several seconds. She laughs and smiles up at him.

"So, when will I have the pleasure of meeting your vice-captain?" she asks, choosing not to mention the fact that she'd already briefly met the young pink-haired girl.

A sense of alarm crosses Kenpachi's features when his vice-captain is brought up. Everything is just a whole different game when it comes to the brat. "Tch, knowin' Yachiru, probably as soon as possible," he says, rolling his eyes. "Last night she wouldn't go ta bed 'til I told her the story about how ya saved my life all those years ago. And even after I told her the story, she still wouldn't go ta bed 'cause she was too excited about makin' new friends. Then in the middle of the night she comes an' sneaks into my bed. I woke up this morning with her freakin' feet in my face and her drool all over my pillow. Runt takes up half the goddamn bed!"

Retsu tries not to laugh so hard, but that is one of the funniest and most precious things she has ever heard. "You're three times her size, yet you let her commandeer half of your bed?" the healer chuckles.

Kenpachi pouts and folds his arms over her chest. "She moves around a lot in her sleep. Kicks me in the stomach, hits me in the face, even shoves me completely off the bed sometimes. Freakin' ridiculous how strong she is fer such a runt."

"She'll do very well in the Eleventh Division," Retsu tells him.

He nods. "She'll have the entire squad terrified of her by the end of the day, and the rest of the squads by the end of the week. It ain't pretty when she doesn't get her way. Kid has a jaw like a pit-bull."

"She bites?" Retsu asks, alarmed and amused at the same time9.

Kenpachi holds up his wrist and points to a faint scar in the shape of a semi-circle. "I took her candy away 'cause she'd been eatin' too much." He pulls his haori aside to reveal another, deeper scar in the same shape on his shoulder. "I wouldn't buy her a cat even though we barely had enough money fer food."

The old guilt creeps into Retsu's expression again.

"But don't go blamin' yerself fer that," Kenpachi says, recognizing it plainly now. He angles her chin up with his index finger. "She would'a been killed or starved to death in that forest if I hadn't found her. Thanks ta you, that didn't happen."

"Thanks to me," Retsu repeats sourly, averting her eyes. "No thanks to me."

"Hey," he says firmly, calling back her attention. "Life might'a been tough, but me an' Yachiru had each other. And before that, I did just fine on my own. Don't feel guilty 'cause our life was hard. We got stronger 'cause of it. Wasn't that the whole point?"

She sighs and takes his hand into both of hers. His fingers are rough. "Yes, I suppose so." Retsu's eyes meet his. "And now that you're in Seireitei, will you promise me one more thing?"

"Geez, you and yer promises, woman," he says jokingly.

As Retsu's smile slowly stretches up to her eyes, Kenpachi notices the temperature in the room drop. He remembers this. He remembers that smile. He remembers it's scary as hell.

"Promise me that you will never lose the fierceness of your heart, now that you've proven it so greatly." The icy tone of her voice sucks the warmth out of everything around them. "If you do, I will be forced to beat it back into you."

He feels like he's shrinking beneath her stare. How can such a tiny woman have such an effect on him? Well, he doesn't bother questioning it. It's just who she is. She's the one who gave him a reason to fight, to live. She is the reason. She and Yachiru, two tiny females who have a certain power over him. They are his reasons. He'll keep getting stronger for them. And his heart… Like hell that'll ever get weak when they're holding it in their hands. It's theirs, all theirs, and he'll make it stronger and fiercer for them. He loves them.

Yachiru like a daughter.

Retsu like a… Well, he'd really love to say lover, but he's a helluva long way off from that. That's okay for now, considering the last time they'd met he'd only been a boy. Now that he's grown up, he knows what it is that he feels when she gives him that bone-chilling death glare.

Incredibly turned on would be a crude understatement.

So he'll bide his time until he's strong enough to be her lover. Whether it's in fifty or five hundred years, he'll wait until he's strong enough for her.

"I promise."

The pure determination in his voice melts the threat out of Retsu's smile. She believes him when he says that. She believes him because he keeps his promises to her. Not out of fear or obligation, but out of something much more genuine. Something that comes from that extraordinary heart of his.

And now that she has come to terms with the guilt and emotions of a century passed, something else suddenly occupies her thoughts. Something much simpler. Much more primal.

Her mouth waters again. But this time, it is not because of Minazuki's hunger. It is entirely her own.

Retsu feels the blood rush violently along in her veins as she stares at his face. It is a much more concentrated version of the feeling she'd experienced yesterday, when she saw his face bathed in the red light of the setting sun.

What is it about his face that causes such a feeling in her? Was he not a child the last time they met? She certainly didn't have this feeling back then, when his height was no different from hers. But now, now she tilts her head up to look at him, towering more than a foot and a half above her.

She always remembered him as the boy, too great for the flesh that contained him.

But somewhere between those one hundred and eleven years, somewhere within that foot and a half, something must have happened. Something must have shifted in him to warrant this feeling of heat condensing in her very core. What is it, now that the weight of her guilt has been lifted off her shoulders, what is it that makes her body so weak? What is it that makes the pounding of her heart cry out to every nerve in her body? What is it that makes her mouth water?

His face… She follows the hard, angled lines of his brow, his nose, his cheeks, his jaw, his chin, the long scare that gives him just the right touch of asymmetricality. His countenance is rugged and rough. The evidence of his difficult life is carved into every harsh groove and slope, but so too is his strength. Each line and angle is a mark of triumph over the hardships he's endured.

She can see his journey in his face. His journey from Zaraki to Seireitei, from nameless to captain, from boy to man.

Yes, somewhere in those one hundred and eleven years, somewhere in that foot and a half, he became a man. Fully and completely. More man than any man she knows.

And she isn't a woman if she hasn't always been drawn to the archetype of man.

Very few know this about her, but only because there have been very few occasions at which she's had cause to express it. The archetypal man is all but extinct these days. Life has become peopled with soft things: soft hearts, soft brains, soft wills. Too many of them. Where are the hard things? The sharp things? The tough things? The fierce things? Where have they gone?

Where is the archetypal man who fights his way through a harsh life, growing stronger and stronger, tougher and tougher, fiercer and fiercer? Where is the man who's been honed into a sharp blade, piercing through the weight of everything around him with the force of a charging bull? Where is that man who doesn't grow dull when he's thrust into a world of soft things? Where is he whose heart never relinquishes its ferocity?

Now she knows. He is standing in front of her. And she is looking into his eyes that burn with the inextinguishable fire of his heart and soul, a fire only made stronger by the constant presence of a little girl who has built her own blazing fire out of his. A fire like that…is miraculous.

She can only bask in its brilliance and warmth.