Title: Turnabout
Author:
darkling59
Fandom: Bleach
Date:
8/16/2014
Rating: T
Disclaimer:
Bleach and all associated characters, settings, concepts, etc. within this story do not belong to me.
Warnings: Apparently I've been cagier with information than I realized. Rest assured, all questions will be laid to rest in due time.

Please read and review!


Rebellion- Night 2

Starrk's sleep was not as dreamless and peaceful as he'd hoped. So much negative interaction with shinigami combined with the tension and wariness he'd been experiencing since the beginning of the rebellion manifested as specters in his subconscious. It wasn't long before he was tossing and turning in the remorseless grip of nightmares.

...Lilynette in shinigami garb and her hollow helmet ran across a rooftop in Rukongai, shooting a cocky smirk over her shoulder. Suddenly, she lost her balance and fell to the street below, landing with a cry of pain. In response, tendrils of darkness spread across the sky like ink, until it was as black as Hueco Mundo. Ritoshin Jalk – the bandit 'king' who had tried to kill her – stepped out from behind a nearby building, grinning and laughing in a horrible rasping voice. Only, when Starrk blinked, between one breath and the next, Ritoshin turned into the crazy wild-eyed captain with the bells in his hair. Still laughing madly, he raised his zanpakuto, already dripping with blood, over Lilynette's head…

The two white-clad shinigami from Hueco Mundo, offering him an opportunity he ached to accept, but dared to reject. The whistle of a blade he could not see and did not expect. Blood and pain. For once, he wished his mind was not so sharp – then, maybe he would have died before seeing Lilynette's death, before realizing what had happened. Indistinct figures of the shinigami he'd encountered during the rebellion intruded on the memory – watching him with judgmental, satisfied expressions as he fell.…

The dorm room at the academy was a featureless blur in his drone-like mind-controlled state. Lilynette was the only thing that stood out in sharp relief and even though his dream-self yelled at his body to stop, Muramasa's mind control was too strong in the nightmare. He watched his own sword kill his other half, the expression of betrayal on her face and the light going out of her eyes as she died at his hands. Like a puppet, his body turned away without any second thoughts or concerns, ready to follow the order of his new master and kill the shinigami…

Starrk jerked awake with a muffled gasp as his final dream concluded, the image of Lilynette's nightmare death at the academy overlaid with the memory of her death in Hueco Mundo. Feeling unsteady, he pushed himself into a sitting position on the wide tree limb he was using as a bed, running a clawed hand through his hair and scratching at his twitching wolf ears to wake up. The longer he spent awake and looking at the physical world, the easier it was to recognize the line between dreams and reality.

While he'd been asleep, the sun had fallen almost completely below the horizon and the city was bathed with the dying light of the day. In contrast, the forest where he'd gone to ground was cast in shadow by the massive overhanging cliff of Sokyoku Hill. His hiding spot, concealed high in the foliage of a tree on the edge of the tree line, was dappled in shades of black and dark green, occasionally broken by a particularly strong ray of sunlight. However, the atmosphere did not feel as calm as it appeared – the reiatsu-charged overcast that had dominated the sky during the day still persisted, churning slowly and lending an air of impending violence and barely restrained energy to the scene.

He knew where he was and what had happened, but he could not get the memory of Lilynette's death from his mind – her lively pink eyes faded and blank, crimson blood staining pale skin and sand, the sense of losing the one thing that mattered, the belief that it was his fault…

He shuddered and instinctively reached out with his reiryoku, searching for the reiatsu signature that matched his own. He'd meant to contact her earlier, but evading the shinigami had kept him too busy; likewise, she had probably been too busy at the academy to talk much. But it was evening now; the final rays of daylight were fading fast; so she was probably free.

He found her reiatsu signature packed in with hundreds of others still confined to the 'safe zone' at the academy. It was steady and strong, and he let out a breath of relief at the evidence that she was uninjured and safe. However, she did not seem happy - he could feel her irritation through their bond, even halfway across the city.

"Lilynette?" Starrk called into her mind.

"WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!" Her response was so forceful that he flattened his ears back, even though he could not physically hear her. "They've been talking about how many zanpakuto have been captured and killed. Almost all of them are gone! They're saying it's almost safe to come out!"

It took him a moment to figure out why this was bad from her perspective, considering her teachers had probably given it as good news. She was worried.

"I'm fine, Lilynette. They can't hurt me."

"Don't be an idiot! There are CAPTAINS out there! They'll squash you like a bug if they find you!"

He promptly decided not to tell her what he'd been up to for the past day. At least, not until they were back together.

"I'm fine. I promise."

"Well…stay that way! You're MY zanpakuto and they have no right to-! I mean, they're captains so of course they're…well, maybe…but I…"

"I get it. I'll stay safe." Trying to reconcile 'proper shinigami deference' with her aggressive (and possessive) personality would be quite an endeavor, Starrk mused wryly. "How are things at the academy?"

"Fine." She grumbled. Sensations of annoyance and intimidation accompanied her words. "It's really crowded and there are lots of upperclassmen around – I think I'm one of the youngest people here – but they're pretty nice. The kido professors split us into groups of four to use 'the buddy system' and we've had to share food and stuff all day."

"That bothers you?"

"Hell yeah! I can handle myself! These guys don't even have zanpakuto yet, and they're cowards! I could have snuck away to meet up with you if they weren't watching me every minute of the day!" Starrk was suddenly extremely grateful that the instructors had the foresight to do so, but he knew better than to tell his wielder that. "Aimi isn't so bad, though. She's a second year and really likes kido – she keeps trying to teach me how to do shielding stuff, even though Iko-sensei told her not to. The others – Toki and Harue – keep sparring and they laugh at me when I want to join in! Toki even called me a little kid!"

Starrk winced, remembering the typical effects of her short temper. "What did you do to him?"

"Nothing." She grumbled, irate. "I wanted to kick him in the nuts, but the last time I did that to a condescending moron a few weeks ago, the professor said I'd be expelled if I did it to anyone else. Even though Toki deserves it."

That was a surprise – for as long as he could remember, Lilynette had held a 'my way or the highway' attitude; the only person for who she'd ever modified her behavior was Starrk and even then, it wasn't much. Granted, she'd never had to be 'socially acceptable' around him because they knew everything about each other, and he'd never asked her to change the way she acted because he'd never seen anything wrong with it. But he could see the benefit, if it helped her fit in and make friends with other people. Though she didn't sound all that friendly at the moment.

"So practice with the girl." Starrk suggested.

"But kido's so BORING…"

"Kido's the only thing that worked against the zanpakuto. You need to learn it some time."

"I guess..."

"Besides, you don't have a sword at the moment."

"That's your fault, ya-."

Starrk rolled his eyes and yawned, settling back in his tree to watch as the last rays of sunlight vanished and stars began to appear in the rapidly darkening sky. His wielder's commentary quickly shifted from complaining about him to complaining about her 'buddies', the cramped building they'd been forced into for safety, and just general annoyance about the situation. She'd be forced to pay attention soon, pulled away from communicating with him by whoever was caring for the academy students, but for now Starrk allowed himself to be reassured by her presence in his mind and allow the feeling of her reiatsu – alive and safe – to wash away the images and emotions of nightmares and memories.


The atmosphere at the makeshift command center of the provisional coalition currently leading Seireitei was grim. With the head-captain missing, Shunsui, Jushiro, and Retsu had, as the oldest and most experienced captains, immediately been looked to for guidance and, naturally, they had stepped up to organize their subordinates and put down the rebellion. Unfortunately, now that the shinigami were once again in control, there was uncertainty as to what to do next.

After the confrontation with the wolf-zanpakuto (and the 'discovery' of Kenpachi), the captains met with Ichigo to learn what he was doing in Seireitei and if, perhaps, Urahara had sent any relevant information. They were surprised to find that in the short period of time since his arrival, he had managed to both lose and reclaim his zanpakuto and they quizzed him thoroughly to find out everything he knew. (In the interests of expediency, Zaraki was forced to confine his 'greeting' for Ichigo to a bone rattling clap on the shoulder and a promise for a future sparring session. When he realized he'd been tricked away from hunting down the zanpakuto, he scowled and set off to find any other sword spirits worth fighting.)

The meeting with Ichigo brought forth a few answers but far more questions. On the one hand, he'd proven that a shinigami could reclaim their zanpakuto through defeating it in battle – a major relief, considering they'd been wondering if the condition was permanent. On the other hand, there was still no information on what happened if zanpakuto were defeated by someone other than their wielder, where the officer-class weapons were holed up, the purpose or trigger behind the rebellion (other than 'we've had enough of being your slaves'), what happened to Byakuya, what happened to the head captain, or the motives behind the leader of the rebellion. At least they had a name now, thanks to Ichigo: Muramasa, a zanpakuto himself, with disturbing and vague mental powers.

Unfortunately, a name without information attached to it was not remarkably useful.

Once the boy was thanked for his trouble and dismissed, Ukitake, Kyoraku, and Unohana put their heads together in the meeting room of the fourth division they were using as headquarters, contemplating what they'd learned and what needed to be done.

"My, what a mess." Kyoraku sighed, tilting his hat forward and rubbing at his eyes. "These spirits are mighty upset…"

"Mhm." His best friend frowned thoughtfully, diligently scanning the notes strewn liberally over the large rectangular table around which they were sitting. The papers contained all of the information they had collected so far; interviews with the squad members, captains, and lieutenants that had encountered and captured zanpakuto, reports from the squad twelve members studying the captured spirits, personal accounts of shinigami injured in the initial attack, suggestions on the nature of their attackers, etc. There was also a great deal of information on rebuilding the city and its security, but that had been stacked in a corner for now, deemed less important when compared to the looming threat of attack. "Although if, as Kurosaki-kun suggested, Muramasa is exerting some form of mind control then perhaps the situation is not as complicated as we thought."

"True, true…One target is far easier to handle than two dozen."

"In theory, yes, but only if we know his motives. And I am hesitant to believe that his control is absolute – last night, the zanpakuto seemed far more intent on wanton destruction than obeying Muramasa."

"Unless wanton destruction IS Muramasa's goal."

"I suppose…"

"Perhaps it would be best to consider the situation from a different angle." Unohana interjected, silencing her peers. "What resources does this spirit have at his disposal? And how can we counter them?"

"Well," Jushiro pulled a different sheaf of papers forward, glancing over the contents with a practiced sigh. He'd already read through it many times. "Most of the shinigami affected by the destruction have been accounted for and, while there have been many casualties especially amongst the lower ranks; it seems that the soutaicho is the only one outright missing. There are several lieutenants and captains undergoing treatment in the fourth division, but they should be well enough to fight by the end of the day. Of the zanpakuto, we estimate that ninety percent of the spirits weaker than lieutenant level have been reclaimed, captured, or destroyed."

Sighing deeply, Shunsui took up the count. "On the captain and lieutenant level, only Ichigo Kurosaki and Abarai-fukutaicho have reclaimed their zanpakuto. We've barely even seen any of the others; Hisagi-fukutaicho is an exception - his sword spirit was sighted five times over the course of the day, always on a collision course with Hisagi-san, though they only fought once."

"And Byakuya's still missing, of course."

"That too. I suppose Muramasa might have taken him, as he did the soutaicho, but there is no proof and no apparent motive."

"What about that spirit from this afternoon? The wolf?"

"No one will claim him." Jushiro spread his hands in a frustrated helpless gesture. "He was capable of some truly astounding feats using kido (including casting without an incantation, which I had believed to be impossible) and outrunning Kenpachi, as well as successfully attacking and immobilizing him, so I am certain he belongs to a captain. However, his most telling feature was his final attack; that wolf technique was highly specialized and unique and nobody recognizes it."

"Are you certain?"

"It is a very distinct ability, and its very nature does not match any of our captains. The soutaicho and Toshiro both have elemental-based zanpakuto, Soifon and Mayuri are poison-based, Komamaura and Byakuya's have already revealed their forms, and I'm certain we can agree he does not belong to any of us. That only leaves Kenpachi, and his zanpakuto was not affected by Muramasa, presumably due to his absence at the time of the attack."

"What about lieutenants? It's possible some of them have hidden depths."

"Possible, but unlikely. Most of them are still unsure of the appearances of their zanpakuto spirits…but the wolf simply does not seem to match any of them in personality or ability. I thought the most likely would be Sasakibe-fukutaicho or Iba-fukutaicho, but they are both adamant that it is not theirs. Besides, I have trouble believing such a powerful ability as casting kido without an incantation could manifest in a lieutenant without being noticed."

"How very strange…"

"Indeed." Unohana's tone was grave. "It seems Muramasa is not our only mystery. Will this other spirit be a problem?" Of the three of them, she was the only one who had not observed the earlier confrontation.

"I think it is unlikely. He was not present during the initial attack last night, and his only hostile actions were defensive in response to Kenpachi. In fact, he ran away when attacked. Even though there are several reports of sightings from today and last night, there's no record of him ever attacking anyone."

"That is a puzzle. Perhaps Muramasa is using him in a different capacity?" The eighth division captain mused.

His best friend frowned and looked up from the paper he was reading (the records of captain-zanpakuto sightings). "I hope not. That would indicate a level of control far greater than we've observed so far." It was an intimidating concept and the two male captains grimaced in unison.

"If we are agreed that Muramasa is at the center of this rebellion, then that is where we should focus." Unohana interjected, tone thoughtful. "If, as you observed, this wolf-spirit is not overtly hostile, then it will fall into line when it is reunited with its wielder; and if we can remove Muramasa from power or silence his orders, the wolf is likely to remain peaceful until we are able to locate him or her."

"I like the way you think." Shunsui grinned at her and nodded. "To use a human expression: 'Cut off the head and the snake dies'."

"Indeed." Their white-haired third member was not as confident. "However, in order to contain Muramasa, we need more information on him." And that took them right back to the beginning – they had the name of the rebel leader, but still did not know who he was. The three of them settled back with dissatisfied sighs and grumbles.

It was Jushiro who recovered first. "Well, if we have to start from the beginning, then I suppose we had better start. I'll send a squad to the archival building to sift through records of all known zanpakuto, past and present. Perhaps that will at least give us a starting point."

The other two nodded in acceptance, silently acknowledging that he was correct. It wasn't much, but until Muramasa (or any of the zanpakuto under his control) made a move, their hands were tied.

X.X.X

"Isn't there anything we can do?" Ichigo paced around the hallway outside the command center in the fourth division; bristling with energy for which he had no outlet. "I mean, the zanpakuto are out there – I could help round them up!"

"Don't be an idiot." Renji grumbled. He was acting more laid back and self-assured, standing at attention beside the door as befitted a lieutenant- a position belied by the tension in his shoulders and the quarreling, troublesome duo that represented his zanpakuto. Hebi and Saru, the spirits of a young male naga and an older monkey-woman conjoined by a length of unbreakable chain, had proven far less well-behaved than Zangetsu. The two of them even refused to return to Renji's spirit world, which would have alarmed everyone as a sign of continued rebellion had Renji not taken it in stride. As it was, the they were uncomfortably overlooked: it was bad form to interact with or even discuss the spirit of someone else's zanpakuto. It was an old taboo which was being relaxed considering the situation, but for now, the shinigami made their questions and comments to the wielder, eyes instinctively skittering over the spirits as if they were not there. The zanpakuto made it easier by only expressing interest in talking to Renji – well, for the most part. Both of them had already insulted Ichigo multiple times.

"I'm not! I could go hunting…"

"The squads have been hunting all day. Trust me, with your reiatsu sense, you'll be more of a burden than a help."

The substitute shinigami scowled and paused to stare out a window…just in time for the door next to Renji to open suddenly, startling Saru and Hebi into banging into each other and protesting loudly, although even they fell silent when Ukitake-taicho stepped out, expression grim, though it automatically lightened into a smile at the sight of them.

"So? What are we doing? Are we going after Muramasa?" Ichigo questioned eagerly, all but bouncing on the balls of his feet.

"Ichigo!" Renji hissed, mortified by his behavior. "He's a captain."

"Well, yeah, but…" The human didn't even realize he was being disrespectful.

"I'm sorry, Taicho." Renji interrupted and ignored Ichigo, bowing formally to Ukitake. "Do you have any orders for us?"

Ukitake smiled, but it was small, and that more than anything told Renji that the situation was not good. "I think, for the moment, you should spend some time with Kuchiki-san. She should be waking up soon and she could use a familiar face."

Something inside of Renji's chest clenched as he struggled between grateful and dismayed. He wanted to see his friend, of course, especially since she'd been so badly injured by her zanpakuto, but he also wanted to get in on the action. Something of his internal struggle must have shown on his face, because Ukitake's expression gentled.

"Do not worry, Abarai-fukutaicho, you will not be missing out on anything. Our next step is to search the archives for records of Muramasa's abilities and weaknesses and once we have that information, I will make sure to let you know."

"Thank you, Taicho."

"You're not going after Muramasa?" Ichigo protested. "But-!"

"No, Kurosaki-san. At this point, without knowing the scope of his abilities or his location, that would be foolish. We must be patient."

The human boy flushed at the gentle reprimand, but nodded firmly. "Then I'll go with them to search the archives."

Jushiro chuckled. "While I appreciate your enthusiasm, I'm afraid you cannot accompany the group. The archival building can only be accessed by shinigami."

"So I'm just supposed to wait?"

"Why don't you visit Kuchiki-san with Abarai-fukutaicho? I'm sure she will be glad of the company when she awakens."

Ichigo scowled as the captain departed. He'd already spent hours by Rukia's bedside saying everything he thought she'd want to hear; in fact, he'd helped bring her in; and he didn't think he could stand anymore forced inactivity. Besides, Renji probably wanted some time alone with her – he hadn't seen her since last night when she fled to the human world and told Ichigo what was going on in Soul Society.

Instead, Ichigo turned in the opposite direction, intent on finding a friend he hadn't seen yet, who would no doubt sympathize with his plight. Ikkaku would know how to get in on the action…


After Lilynette was forced to 'hang up' in order to have dinner, Starrk did not permit himself to slip into anything deeper than a light doze, despite how much he felt like going to sleep. There had been a vague fear in the back of his mind that she would treat him differently after learning more about his identity and seeing his new appearance, but she had not even mentioned it; and the heavy topics they'd skirted around last night were completely avoided. Oh, they'd have to talk about them in due time; she was much too curious and straightforward to let it lie for long and he was loath to hide anything that might make a difference in keeping her safe; but it would be easier to put it off until they were able to speak face to face. Or, even better, in her Inner World – there was no chance anyone would overhear them in there. His chat with Lilynette reassured him greatly, but it also reminded him of the tense situation in Seireitei which was the reason for their current separation, and the necessity of remaining alert.

As evening turned to full night and stars slowly winked into existence overhead, the wolf spirit spent more of his time away from the deep cover of the tree foliage, instead perching on the outer limbs to stare up at the sky and marvel at the full moon and stars as they appeared. It was far from a clear night, but he didn't care. In Hueco Mundo, the eternal crescent moon was the only feature in the unchanging sky, while Lilynette's inner world was essentially confined within a stone cavern, so he'd actually never seen them before. He absentmindedly noticed several zanpakuto reiatsu signatures stirring within the forest and headed his direction, but the only change he made was to back further into the leaves so they would not see him as they left the forest and crept towards the city.

However, the response of the shinigami immediately snapped his attention from the sky. The peaceful quiet was broken by sudden explosions and yells from the nearby buildings and flashes of reiatsu. At first, there were only a few different reiatsu signatures, but as soon as the first *crash* rang out, dozens more zeroed in on the spot – captains, lieutenants, and second division punishment squad members. In the chaos, one of the spirits managed to escape and Starrk watched with mild interest as a huge red gorilla-like man dressed in a loincloth and holding some sort of spear ran past. About ten minutes later, Zangetsu's wielder, who the sword had referred to as 'Ichigo', followed.

Starrk was considering following them to observe the clash that was surely to come (there were several more zanpakuto in the area– Ichigo could not avoid all of them if he stuck to the path) when, instead, he caught sight of a small black…thing creeping across the ground like a living shadow.

The sight of it put Starrk's hackles up and he grunted slightly in annoyance, barely suppressing a growl. It was too far away to smell yet, and he wasn't sure why the mere appearance would irritate him. When the shadow finally slunk close enough to resolve into a physical figure, he immediately understood: it was a cat. Just a small domestic black cat, but still a cat.

Starrk was a wolf.

Felines and canines were ancient competitors for food, resources, and territory and they always clashed no matter what the species, size, or spirit type. His instincts eagerly prodded him to chase the furry creature, knowing it would run and he could indulge his innate urges to hunt and chase. But Starrk was comfortable where he was and more than capable of suppressing his instincts. Instead of jumping down and creeping towards it, he rolled his eyes and returned his attention to the shinigami and zanpakuto tearing through the forest, expecting the small animal to vanish into the forest or city to forage.

There were more shinigami coming, he realized after a moment; several lieutenants, a couple captains, and a whole group of unranked soldiers trailing behind. There were far too many voices and bright lights coming towards the forest for his comfort. Starrk grumbled and flicked an ear unhappily, considering his options. He could hold fast and hope they didn't see him (unlikely, considering how many there were), descend further into the forest to hide (and potentially encounter zanpakuto), or get involved.

It wasn't much of a choice.

He dropped silently to the forest floor, landing in a crouch and relying on his darkly colored fur and coat to help him blend in. To his surprise, he landed face to face with the slitted yellow eyes of the black cat. It froze, evidently just as shocked to see him, then growled deeply, tail lashing as it tried to decide whether to hiss or flee.

Starrk arched an eyebrow at the very small predator, amused that it had the audacity to challenge him, and then turned towards the forest. At the last second, he took a deep breath, absentmindedly scenting the air. And stopped. Frowned. Looked back. Cocked his head.

The scent that reached his nose did NOT match the form in front of him. He leaned closer, ignoring the creature's warning hiss, and sniffed deliberately. The double check confirmed his original impression.

"You are NOT a cat." He informed the creature, head cocked in confusion. It froze, yellow eyes widening in shock. "Why do you smell like a shinigami?"

For a moment, there was a fierce intelligence in those eyes as they sized him up…before they glazed over and the small beast relaxed and meowed. Sitting down, it cleaned a paw, for all intents and purposes ignoring him and looking the quintessential housecat. It was an obvious ploy and Starrk furrowed his brow in disbelief.

"I can smell that you're a shinigami." He informed it. The creature did not spare him a second glance.

The shinigami-cat paused and looked up, triangular ears perking and Starrk followed suit, pricking his wolf ears and following the cat's gaze to see the shinigami, lit by torches and kido, advancing in the distance.

There was a faint rustle and he turned back just in time to see the tip of a black tail disappearing into the trees. Slightly offended by the dismissive treatment, but mostly curious about the strange creature (plus, it was going the direction he'd intended to go anyway), he followed.

X.X.X

When Yoruichi decided to follow the zanpakuto spirits into the forest, hoping that they would take her to Yamamoto but resolving to be satisfied if they just took her to Muramasa, she knew she needed to be fast, quiet, and inconspicuous. Using her feline form was a given – she had used it to similar effect many times in the past in Seireitei and the human world. Even the people who knew animal shape shifting was possible often overlooked her diminutive form.

So it was a stroke of truly bad luck that the very first zanpakuto she ran into happened to be a dog. The clumsy oaf nearly landed right on top of her, and he was lucky she was NOT in her human form; if she had been, he would have been kido-punched half way across the forest. As it was, she decided her best bet was to play it as a cat. He had to have better things to do than chase a random small animal, or at least too much pride to act so stupid. (Though with dogs, who could really tell?)

For a moment, it seemed to be working; he was losing interest in her in favor of the shinigami in the distance – but then he stopped dead and sniffed her.

She knew what was coming.

"You are NOT a cat." Surprisingly, he did not immediately attack. "Why do you smell like a shinigami?"

Why do you think? Instead of vocalizing the thought, she settled into her kitty-act while she considered her options. Seeing as the zanpakuto was being so nice and polite in waiting for her (two qualities that typically did not fit canines or rebel zanpakuto in her experience) she might as well take her time.

Her opportunity arrived sooner than expected when Aizen's lieutenant (Or rather, the lieutenant of the fifth division. She really needed to learn that girl's name.) scouted ahead of the exploratory group, creating a burst of noise coming in their direction. In unison, the canine and feline perked their ears and turned…but for Yoruichi, it was a passing glance while for the zanpakuto it was a matter of great interest. While he was staring, she slipped past him and into the forest, following the trail left by the myriad of zanpakuto spirits that had come through. It was easy enough; they weren't hiding their tracks, apparently they'd grown sloppy in their over- confidence. (Although considering that none of the current shinigami had tried this yet, perhaps they were onto something.)

To her annoyance, the dog followed her. He didn't chase or bark or attack, but he refused to be shaken no matter how many small holes she crawled through or supposedly un-follow-able acts of agility. With him on her tail, there was no way she could discretely infiltrate the zanpakuto hideout.

She didn't have time for this.

The next time she approached a tree with a branch at roughly his neck-height, she leapt nimbly onto it and as soon as he got close enough, she hissed and lashed out, scoring a direct hit across his cheek and leaving four bleeding furrows behind.

He instinctively yelped and recoiled and she leapt down and raced off into the underbrush, lending her steps enough energy to reach low shunpo-speed (a much more difficult undertaking as a cat than a human).

To her surprise, he recovered almost instantly and chased after her at equal speed, growling low in his throat.

Whoops. Looks like she made him angry. And underestimated him - he was faster than she'd expected.

But angry people were more prone to making mistakes, and an idea sparked. Her paws effortlessly shifted in the direction of Ichigo's reiatsu signature. The boy should be capable of taking down another zanpakuto, especially since he'd already reclaimed his. If nothing else, he would certainly be a suitable distraction.

X.X.X

As the feline ran towards Ichigo, Starrk's footsteps faltered. The aggravating creature was going to lead him directly into trouble, which was exactly what he did not want to happen. However, he was loath to let the cat go; not after what it had done, and not without knowing exactly what it was.

His caution proved stronger than his curiosity. Before they were within sight or hearing distance of the boy, he reluctantly slowed to a halt. His quarry paused up ahead, flicking its tail and cocking its head. He would swear the cat smirked before vanishing into the underbrush.

The wolf spirit huffed out an annoyed grunt, considering following from the trees or at a slower pace, but decided that was more likely to attract attention. Attacking it was similarly off the table, for the same reasons as well as the fact that a single paw-swipe really didn't deserve an all-out energy attack (even if the rapidly healing furrows still stung, his pride as well as his cheek) – he might be irritated with the creature, but he wasn't homicidal. Maybe there was something else he could do…

Considering his techniques, he remembered his attempts to manifest as a wolf when he was confined to Lilynette's Inner World, and recalled an experiment he'd never really managed to complete to his satisfaction. It wasn't exactly an attack, but it used the same theory as his energy manipulation. Supposedly, if he understood the basics behind zanpakuto reiatsu correctly, he could manifest his wolves and control them mentally. In fact, in battle with Lilynette (if and when she mastered his sword-form properly) that would likely be his role. If that was true, then it followed that he could use the energy beasts for his own purposes, whether or not battle was involved.

With that in mind, he flicked his ears and ran a hand through the fur lining his coat, drawing energy from himself into his hand and sending the mental order for a wolf to manifest. As with the one he'd set on the white-haired captain, it was only a projection, an empty vessel (rather than the soul-fragment it would have been had he been an arrancar), but it would obey his command and he was pretty sure he could use it as an avatar. The only differences were that this one was not formed with orders already imprinted (attack/distract the shinigami) and it held the bare minimum of reiatsu necessary to carry out the kido. As a result, the blue figure was more of a vague outline in the indistinct shape of a wolf, but it blinked up at him with eyes that glowed the electric blue of his own reiatsu, the only part of it that was clearly visible. He eyed it dubiously, not sure it could persist at a distance with so little reiatsu, but then shrugged. He might as well give it a shot. Why not? If nothing else, he could use it an opportunity to explore his powers.

"Follow the cat as long as you can." He ordered, vocally and mentally. "Don't let anyone see you." The words fed into the kido he'd formed, working themselves into the wolf's 'blueprints'. As soon as he was sure the commands had joined the energy pattern and imprinted in its reiatsu structure, he sent out another mental command and it darted silently away amongst the trees, just another shadow in the undergrowth. Its insubstantial paws did not even leave dents in the forest floor where it passed. Hopefully, the cat wouldn't realize it was there and Starrk could track it down or recall it later, or use it to observe his quarry. After all, he didn't have to catch the cat (though it chafed to let it go) he just wanted to know why it smelled like a shinigami.

For a moment, he tested his technique, allowing his mind to wander and projecting a thread of consciousness into the empty wolf, looking through its eyes at the forest through a curtain of hazy blue and momentarily experiencing the feeling of running on all fours and following a scent. He pulled back quickly, tamping down on a sudden longing for the massive four-legged form that he held inside Lilynette's inner world, which had come to feel more natural than standing on two legs since their rebirth. What mattered was that his experiment was working; the wolf was successfully following the cat's trail and he could use it to watch the animal. Satisfied, he checked the make sure the reiatsu was stable enough to maintain a physical form for at least another day, then withdrew his mental link, leaving only the barest minimum connection so he'd be able to find it regardless of where the chase ended.

With that dealt with, Starrk turned his mind back to his current location…and realized that the cat had led him into a very sticky situation.

The forest itself was small; the wide dirt path that stretched all the way from the edge of the city to the sheer cliff face that was the base of Sokyoku Hill (the entire length of the forest) could be walked in half an hour. In breadth, it was not much bigger; the trees formed a half-circle around the base of the cliff, surrounded by city on all open sides. The part directly under the overhanging cliff of Sokyoku Hill was the most densely forested and it gradually thinned until it was abruptly cut off at the edge of the city. During the afternoon and evening, the forest had felt like a safe place. It was all but deserted, there were many good napping spots, and there was plenty of cover to avoid what few zanpakuto and shinigami passed his tree.

Now, it seemed everywhere he turned there were people he'd rather avoid. Ichigo was only the first interloper; the lieutenants, captains, and unranked shinigami he'd noticed in the distance were now in the forest as well. Using his acute senses, Starrk was able to pinpoint the location of the others in relation to himself, and it painted a worrisome picture; in front of him, towards the cliffs and turning left, the boy was weaving erratically through the trees; to Starrk's left, a powerful but currently passive zanpakuto spirit was standing sentinel; to his right, two female lieutenants were in the final stages of a fight against their zanpakuto, and at his back, there were shinigami emerging from the city. While it was possible that this spot…right in the center of the conflict…was a coincidence, Starrk had a sneaking suspicion that the cat had led him into a trap on purpose.

As if to drive home the direness of his situation, the nearest fight – which until now had remained limited to a stretch of trees at his right– abruptly extended with a series of loud shouts and explosions. The zanpakuto of the female lieutenants had taken to the trees and were now throwing around their specialized attacks while their wielders went from trading gibes and short range sword fighting on the ground to dodging through the understory and focusing on ranged kido. For a moment, Starrk's ears perked up in consideration, but he quickly realized that these were techniques he already knew – while more powerful than the kido corps attacks he'd encountered in the city, they were the same spells and, as such, of little interest.

He decided his best bet would probably be dodging around the passive spirit to his left, but before he could consider how to actually implement that plan, fire erupted from a tree behind him, accompanied by a shrill voice yelling. Starrk ducked the blasts, pinning his ears back, and stepped behind the nearest tree, looking for somewhere to hide. They were headed straight for him and there did not seem to be any way to escape; even the trees were now off limits because that was where the lieutenants and zanpakuto were trading blows. If he dodged around them, he would run into the unranked shinigami on the other side that were forming an effective barrier (unless he chose to cut them down, but that wasn't an option. It wouldn't have been an option as an arrancar, let alone as a shinigami's zanpakuto). And if he tried to run to the left, in the direction he'd been planning, he was sure to be spotted – there was a large clearing directly in the way, fully visible from the trees where the fighting was taking place.

Lacking any better alternatives, Starrk kept to the forest floor and looked for cover – bushes, roots, rocks…anything big enough to hide behind. Unfortunately, the fight ended before he could find anything suitable, so he found himself sheltering on the opposite side of a wide tree trunk from where the other two zanpakuto were brought down, relying on the dark coloration of his clothes for camouflage in the dark. Leaning against the tree, he listened as the shinigami – two women by the names of Matsumoto and Hinamori – chastised their zanpakuto – Haineko and Tobiume- who were still under Muramasa's spell. He listened idly as the two zanpakuto rebuffed their wielders' words (though they seemed more interested in fighting with each other) and continued yelling and protesting until the group of weaker shinigami came closer with a cage on a cart and the lieutenants ordered them to take the zanpakuto to the fourth division.

Then the lieutenants set off into the forest after Kurosaki and came in Starrk's direction. With an irritated growl, he leapt nimbly up into the tree and crouched down, hoping the flicker of energy from his slight shunpo would go undetected.

No such luck.

The younger lieutenant slowed and stopped right beneath him, frowning.

"Matsumoto-san." She called back her companion. "Did you feel that?"

"Hm?" The woman came back, scanning the landscape with light blue eyes and flicking her long red hair over her shoulder. The elaborate motion was obviously a practiced habit. "No. What did it feel like?"

"Just…a very small surge in reiatsu. Maybe it was nothing?" Doubting her own senses, Hinamori seemed to shrink into herself slightly, even as her reiatsu –stronger than most he'd felt today, though still weaker than his own – tentatively expanded in an attempt to find the disturbance.

Starrk stayed still and quiet, alert to discovery and annoyed by the situation but not anxious. While he'd prefer to continue hiding his full abilities and not get involved, if they attacked he was more than capable of defending himself. Honestly, the longer he pretended to be weak, the more of an unnecessary hassle it seemed to be.

It was Matsumoto who looked up and saw him first, eyes squinting and then widening to make sense of the hunched form buried in the shadows. She drew her sword and yelled in alarm. "Zanpakuto!"

Starrk grimaced and darted around the tree, putting it between him and the lieutenants as the second one mustered a kido attack. It took them precious seconds to run around the giant tree trunk, roots, and undergrowth and he took full advantage; being on the other side put him in sight of their bound zanpakuto and the lower ranked shinigami loading them into the cage. All of them looked up at him, and the soldiers shouted in panic, dropping their captives and scrambling away. Immediately, the two female spirits also took action.

"Hey! Get us out of here!" the red-headed, cat-eared female obviously belonged to Matsumoto – beyond the identical reiatsu signatures, there was more than a passing resemblance in appearance.

"Yes! Please help! We would be most grateful!" He was startled to recognize the smaller spirit as the fire zanpakuto that had been laying waste to the city the night before. Unlike her companion, she smiled up at him, expression strained but hopeful.

Haineko, on the other hand, hissed loudly. "Ya deaf, dog?! Get us out!"

Did he mention he didn't like cats?

"Don't be rude!" Tobiume snapped at her companion. "He's going to help us!"

"He hasn't helped us yet!"

"You don't have to be such an angry witch about it!"

"WHAT DID YOU CALL ME?!"

Starrk's ears flattened at the mounting volume of the argument and then one swiveled to follow the progress of the lieutenants who had almost beaten their way back through the underbrush. With only a moment's hesitation, he leapt down next to the two female spirits, stunning them into silence, and ripped through the kido binding them. It wasn't difficult – he'd managed to destroy a captain-level spell with ease and, while these kido bindings were well done for a lieutenant level, his claws still made quick work of the strands of energy.

"Hell, yeah!" Haineko shot upright. "We're back in business!" She smirked wickedly at her wielder as the red-haired woman finally came around the tree and stopped dead, a beleaguered expression on her face.

"You again?"

"What do you mean, 'me again'?! You old hag! You got a lucky shot in last time, this time I won't-!"

"Thank you for your assistance." Starrk blinked down at the small fire-spirit and she smiled up at him, bowing slightly. "My name is Tobiume. I don't believe we've met…?"

"We haven't." He nodded at Hinamori where she was creeping forward with a determined expression fixed on the two of them, kido glowing in her hands. "Is that your shinigami?"

"Oh! Yes." She smiled at him, then rose into the air and readied the giant bells hanging around her neck, lighting them on fire with her own reiatsu. "Thank you again for your help, but now I must destroy her."

"…Yeah."

He watched for a moment as the lieutenants clashed with their zanpakuto, the flashy attacks and blocks holding the attention of the four involved as well as the weak shinigami previously in charge of the cage-cart, and then he turned and left, heading towards the passive spirit that had been his target earlier. It seemed the least likely direction to cause a problem as he tried to escape the trap he'd been tricked into by the black cat.


Of course, when he was almost there, there was a sudden massive expenditure of energy and a huge column of ice shot high into the air, piercing through the clouds that had marred the sky ever since the original rebellion. Shouting voices emanated from close up ahead and, for a moment, he considered turning back. However, a new presence – a shinigami captain– arrowed in from the direction of the city at full shunpo speed and the voices in the clearing up ahead fell silent, so Starrk slowed his pace to a moderate walk and kept his course, hoping the fighting would be finished by the time he got there. Laziness, along with a certain fatalistic certainty that no matter which direction he took they would all be equally as bad, and a growing impatience with maintaining his 'harmless' cover, kept him from trying to circle around.

He arrived just after Ichigo left, and in time to see an ice dragon zanpakuto spirit confronting a captain with matching reiatsu, separated by a small lake. The captain was a child, to his surprise. He hadn't known children could be captains…and he hadn't actually had a chance to meet a captain-spirit yet, or observe one in action. (Ichigo and Zangetsu might be of a similar power-class, but the boy did not wear any rank markers and, whatever his talents, he definitely was not a captain.)

The wolf paused, perking his ears forward curiously, and the ice zanpakuto momentarily frowned towards his spot, rudely dismissing the young captain.

"I know you are there." The dragon stated monotonously, apparently at nothing. His expression remained blank but irritation was obvious in the roiling of his reiatsu. Starrk could tell most of it was not aimed at him, but the zanpakuto was looking for an outlet. Ice crackled around his hands. "Who are you?"

Starrk considered his options, then shrugged and stepped into the clearing, hands folded into his pockets and shoulders slumped – purposely non-aggressive. He was on the same bank as the captain, though farther downstream than both competitors.

"Nobody important." He stated, tone nonchalant. "Who are you?" Frustration and despair momentarily broke through the dragon's blank mask and Starrk felt a surge of empathy. "You don't remember?"

"No." The hard line of the stranger's shoulders eased at not being forced to explain.

"That sucks."

"I…yes. Yes, it does." Hyorinmaru eyed him closely, taking in his appearance and body language. Slowly, he cocked his head and frowned. "You are not like the others."

"Eh." Starrk shrugged, noncommittal, then shot a significant glance between the zanpakuto and his wielder. Tension and hurt boiled in the air between them. "Is something wrong?"

"This boy claims to be my master." The zanpakuto did not sneer but there was a dismissive tone to his voice that obviously bothered said boy. Starrk simply twitched an ear and cocked his head.

"…And?"

"You…believe him?" Recoiling in shock, the ice elemental shot another disbelieving look at the young captain.

"Well, you do have the same reiatsu signature."

"You ARE my zanpakuto." Toshiro interjected, voice strong but with an undertone of desperation and hurt. "I am not lying." He did know why the wolf-spirit was suddenly backing him up, but he'd take any opening he could find.

"He is a child." Hyorinmaru protested, gaze remaining on Starrk. "And I am very strong." There was no arrogance in his words; it was a simple statement of fact.

Toshiro flinched – it was annoying to be referred to as such by his peers, but outright hurtful to hear it from his zanpakuto, who had always been his biggest supporter and confidant and never put him down for his size or age.

Starrk merely shrugged. "Kids don't stay kids, zanpakuto-san. And I don't think zanpakuto change based on age." He furrowed his brow and turned towards Toshiro in question. "Do they?"

"Um, no."

His attention switched back to the ice zanpakuto. "And if he's already powerful enough to be a captain," Toshiro chafed as he was one again dismissed, "then imagine what he'll be like as an adult."

Hyorinmaru blinked and turned a look of consideration rather than dismissal on Toshiro who, under the scrutiny, straightened his back and squared his shoulders. There was an undercurrent of desperate hope in the zanpakuto's expression that resonated with the emptiness calling out from within Toshiro. But the sword spirit was still too unsure to take the first step. That made sense – it was Toshiro's duty to reclaim his zanpakuto, not Hyorinmaru's to return on his own.

"You are my zanpakuto." This time, the only undercurrent in his tone was steely dedication. "And I'll prove it."

Hyorinmaru cocked his head in question, while Starrk 'hm'd' quietly and switched his gaze between the two of them.

"I'll show you I'm worthy…I'll make you remember!" With a loud *sching!*, Toshiro drew his sword. Hyorinmaru looked taken aback, but slowly nodded, then more definitively and took a step forward, raising a hand trailing ice to attack. Abruptly, he paused, a flicker of uncertainty creeping across his blank expression, and turned to Starrk.

"That will be enough, will it not? I will remember?" He didn't know the other spirit, but there was something there…a sort of fellow-feeling he had not experienced with the others, most of who had told him he was lucky to lose his memories and be freed from his master (though he'd mostly interacted with lieutenant-spirits, so that was hardly an exhaustive list). There was a sense of age to this one, the weight of it showed in his eyes, and an innate calm that predisposed Hyorinmaru to trust his judgment.

Toshiro's progress was also arrested and, interested in the answer, he also turned towards Starrk.

The wolf spirit shrugged, but it was a softer movement than before – almost apologetic. "I don't know…most zanpakuto already know who their wielder is. When they're defeated, they return to their previous state. If you don't know what that state is…" He trailed off, remembering the emptiness of his own 'rebellion' and how Lilynette had called him back. At the devastated expressions of both zanpakuto and captain (expressed mostly through their eyes – both had very good blank masks) in response to his words, he slowly continued. "But…I know at least one other zanpakuto who lost his memories. He remembered when his wielder was able to call his name, and prove their connection."

"I see." The dragon nodded slowly and then turned back to Toshiro. "And do you know my name, boy?"

"Yes. It's-"

"Stop." Hyorinmaru held up a hand to stall him. "Not yet. I do not…it is possible I will not know my own name, at the moment. You are truly confident about our connection?"

"Yes."

The zanpakuto took in Toshiro's diminutive form, and the aura of fierce conviction that seemed to surround his entire body…then he looked at the empty sword he held and a vague feeling of familiarity stirred in the back of his mind. It was still difficult to believe a child was capable of wielding his power, but the wolf spirit didn't seem to think anything of it…and he ached so badly for answers, to fill the chasm inside his soul…Finally, he nodded decisively and brought his hands up, ice magic pooling within his palms. "Then very well. If you prove that you are worthy of being my master, boy, I will listen to your words."

Toshiro nodded, satisfied. That was as it should be. If he was worthy, then he would be able to reclaim his zanpakuto and return Hyorinmaru to himself.

"I thank you for your assistance." Hyorinmaru took a moment to look to Starrk who was still standing on the sidelines, watching them with his ears perked. "However, this is my battle."

Starrk had been curious about the abilities of a captain-class zanpakuto and, without prompting, probably would have stayed to watch, but he understood the dismissal and he wouldn't challenge the other zanpakuto at such a time, not over something like this. He understood what it was like to lose the other half of your soul, and he wouldn't do anything to extend the time that Hyorinmaru was forced to be apart from his wielder.

"…Yeah, sure. Good luck." With a final glance at the two ice-wielders, Starrk melted back into the undergrowth and away, following the trail of his spectral wolf deeper into the forest. When ice blasted the trees behind him, the sound of clashing swords rang through the air, and the roiling overcast overhead finally broke to reveal a clear sky, he did not falter or turn back. Mentally, he wished Hyorinmaru luck. He wouldn't mind talking to the ice dragon again, if they encountered each other after the rebellion.


There wasn't really anywhere he could go after that. He was now beyond most of the fights (Hyorinmaru had been the side of the 'trap') and as far away from the city as he could get, but confined to the left side of the forest where it curved around Sokyoku hill and fed into the cliffs. Judging from the number of zanpakuto scent trails, Muramasa's hideout was nearby but he had yet to encounter any sign of a guard. With nothing better to do, he absently followed the reiatsu signature of his spectral wolf and the cat it was following.

He tracked it until he stumbled over a wide dirt road right at the base of the stone cliffs and stretching out to either side, presumably ringing the base of Sokyoku Hill. That was the end of the forest; save for a small grassy patch on the other side of the road, there was no more foliage and a sheer rock face rose high overhead. He furrowed his brow as he realized the tracks actually led back into the cliffs on the side of the Hill, following a winding vertical trail…and that there were many zanpakuto trails going the same direction.

What on earth was that cat doing?

Instead of following – he had no intention of accidentally stumbling into the zanpakuto hideout – Starrk decided to wait until the beast came out to make a move. He was toying with the idea of leaving the forest and finding a deserted store room in the city where he could relax and either sleep or use his projection to spy on the cat, when an unsettling familiar signature pinged his senses. Where once a Garganta would have been no big deal and possibly welcome, now it grated on his senses and its presence indicated there was something very, very wrong.

With a frown, he turned in the direction of the disturbance. It was oddly sporadic. Typical Garganta opened and closed on the whim of a hollow; they neither stayed open indefinitely nor faded in and out of existence on their own. With nothing else to do, and feeling uniquely qualified to investigate a hollow-based problem, Starrk figured he'd take a look, figure out what was wrong, and leave.

By the time he realized that this was a very bad idea, he was too close to get away.

The Garganta suddenly solidified and Muramasa's reiatsu signature appeared. As if on cue, Ichigo shunpo'd to the same location, followed by Matsumoto and Hinamori. Just beyond the edge of the clearing, Starrk stopped dead and considered backing away, but another signature appeared directly behind him at high speed, faster than anyone he'd encountered so far.

"Who are you?" It demanded, tone haughty.

Starrk turned towards it and blinked, cocking his head at the sight of a zanpakuto spirit wearing an ornate purple kimono and a snarling red and gold mask that completely obscured its face. Before he could respond, reiatsu surged in the clearing – from both Ichigo and Muramasa. Abruptly, the new spirit abandoned his line of questioning and leapt into the fray to interfere on Muramasa's behalf.

And that's when things got really interesting.

Because it seemed the newcomer – Senbonzakura – was a captain's zanpakuto and he had no qualms about fighting the boy. For the first time, Starrk got a good close look at the abilities of one of Seireitei's best and brightest and he watched with fascination.

It was definitely impressive; the scope of the shikai was massive, every detail was perfectly formed and supposedly relevant to the wielder, and the nature of the individual technique was unique and deadly (clouds of thousands of razor-sharp miniscule blades in the shape of flower petals was certainly an ability he'd never seen before). The zanpakuto threw the pink blades around with the ease of long practice, hindered only by his increasing aggravation at the boy's continued evasion. Eventually, both competitors released bankai and he found himself impressed by the remarkable size and strength of Senbonzakura's attack, though not intimidated.

The other beings in the clearing; Muramasa, Matsumoto, and Hinamori; stayed as far back as they could, watching carefully and dodging backwards whenever Senbonzakura's attacks lashed out. Starrk was less reverent; he simply flared his reiatsu to deflect the petals when the trailing edge of the pink cloud occasionally came too close for comfort.

When the fight was winding down and it was obvious the boy was winning, Starrk's attention strayed and he absentmindedly scanned his surroundings...then paused and looked up. Standing in the tree above him, a shinigami captain stared back, expression inscrutable. It was obviously Senbonzakura's wielder due to their matching reiatsu, but for a long moment he showed no sign of advancing into the clearing or interfering in the battle – he just eyed the wolf zanpakuto. Starrk stared back, puzzled, occasionally deflecting errant blade-petals as they passed. It took a moment to realize that every time he did so, the shinigami's eyes narrowed further, and he realized the shinigami did not like his casual treatment of the attack.

He nearly snorted and rolled his eyes, wondering just how prideful someone had to be take offense at that. "Can I help you?"

Without answering, the shinigami abruptly vanished into shunpo and appeared in the clearing, putting an immediate halt to the fight. Belatedly, Starrk realized his cover had been pretty much destroyed by the petals…but no one was looking at him.

The shinigami captain was apparently named Byakuya Kuchiki and he'd been missing since the beginning of the rebellion. He was on Muramasa's side. With that revelation, the tension in the clearing ratcheted up and, for a moment, he thought he'd be seeing another fight.

Then…

"Hey! It's you!" A pink, clawed hand grabbed him on the shoulder and shoved him forward into the clearing. He stumbled in surprise, then growled and turned to look at the pink-furred cat woman standing behind him. Haineko sneered at him, baring her fangs, and sashayed past into the clearing. "Should have figured you'd cut and run when you got the chance. Dogs are cowards, after all."

"Don't be mean." Tobiume muttered, following. But all she spared for Starrk was a strained smile as she scurried after Haineko towards Muramasa. It took a moment to realize Haineko's confident strut was just as tense and worried as Tobiume's hunched wariness.

As soon as Starrk was pushed forward, everyone in the clearing turned to look at him…and simultaneously turned away, dismissing him as a lesser zanpakuto and, as such, not a threat. Not in the face of such powerful competitors, anyway.

Well, all but one.

"It's you." Ichigo narrowed his eyes at Starrk. "You were there when I was fighting Zangetsu, weren't you? What are you doing here?"

"Nothing." He raised his hands slightly and took a step back, "I made a mistake, that's all."

Haineko snorted rudely and flicked her tail in his direction.

"Just like a dog, isn't it? Getting lost, butting in where you're not wanted, cringing…run along, puppy, us adults have work to do."

Ears pinned back and hackles raised, Starrk immediately put his hands down. He was not an aggressive person but nor was he a pushover, and the feline's treatment did not sit well, especially after he'd helped her earlier. For a fleeting moment, Lilynette crossed his mind, but he knew he would have her full approval if he attacked the creature, to say nothing of simply speaking up.

"Adults, hm? Is that why you required my help earlier?"

Immediately, Haineko's tail straightened and fluffed out in defensive anger and she hissed at him. "I didn't need your help! I would have escaped on my own if you hadn't interfered! Maybe this ugly twerp-"

"Hey!" Tobiume yelped. "That's mean, you old hag! Especially since YOU are the one that got us caught! Twice!"

"ME? Why you-!"

"That's enough."

Muramasa's voice was low and commanding, but there was a rasp to it that reminded Starrk of his initial impression that the leader of the zanpakuto was physically sick. The arm wrapped around his torso and hunched posture supported the probability. But he was commanding enough that the two female zanpakuto immediately fell silent, confining their argument to nasty glares at each other and Starrk (these were mostly from Haineko).

Without bothering to acknowledge Starrk, the leader of the rebellion turned his attention to the two lieutenant zanpakuto spirits.

"What are you doing here?"

"I brought them." Byakuya's tone of voice never wavered. "As a sign of my allegiance, I have freed these two from their imprisonment."

Somehow, Starrk wasn't surprised to learn they'd lost to their wielders a second time.

"Indeed?" Muramasa smirked. "And what is in your heart, that you wish to follow me?"

"Byakuya, what are you doing?!" Ichigo cut in. "He's the enemy! He hurt Rukia!"

The captain did not respond. Muramasa's smirk widened, but as he was opening his mouth to speak, he suddenly coughed, then hacked and doubled over, blood seeping between his fingers from his mouth and from the corners of his eyes.

Starrk was not surprised when he vanished without another word, taking Byakuya, Senbonzakura, and the female spirits with him.

…Nor was he surprised to be left behind. After all, he was just a 'common zanpakuto', of little use to Muramasa

"Byakuya!" Ichigo shouted at the sky, more from frustration than any expectation of a response. "Why are you DOING this?!"

He turned to storm away and abruptly stopped, looking at Starrk. His hand clenched around the hilt of his sword, torn between demanding answers and preparing to fight. In the end, he did both. The two female lieutenants stood at his back, though they were panting heavily and unstable on their feet; they'd been negatively affected by all of the captain-class reiatsu that had been thrown around.

"Why are you here? You're one of them!" He demanded, sword pointed at Starrk's throat.

The wolf spirit shrugged. "I'm not invited."

"You're…what? Why?"

"Not strong enough, I guess. Only the captain and lieutenant zanpakuto get to join the party."

The boy had no answer for that, and Starrk did not wait to see what he would do. He vanished into shunpo, this time headed straight for the city. His most recent plan – find a deserted store room to shelter in – sounded far more workable than staying in the forest, now that they knew the zanpakuto were holed up in the area. Hopefully it would work better this time than it had during the day; at least there wouldn't be as many zanpakuto around to stir up trouble.

He heard the boy shouting at him and trying to follow (he was surprisingly fast), but he did not have Starrk's senses and he quickly lost the trail.

In an irritated mood, Starrk once again left the cover of the trees and re-entered the city, determined to hide out as long as he could, but knowing he'd probably be interrupted before the day was out.


Author's Notes:

I guess this is the month for super long updates…

I hate that stupid forest. It makes no sense whatsoever. I mean, seriously; why on Earth is there a random wooded area in the middle of a dense, highly populated and rigidly planned/structured city? It's not a garden or a park, it's barely maintained, and it does not seem to serve any function. But it's a key part of the plot so…*shrug*

Something else that sort of bugs me is next chapter: 'Day 2' of the rebellion. In the anime, this passes all of five-ten minutes. You get episode upon episode of day one, even more episodes of the second night, one tiny little scene in the daylight of the second day (and maybe one or two inside scenes that seem more like night-time, but could as easily be day time. I've decided to interpret them as daytime), and then tons of episodes of the third night. It took a while for me to realize there even was a second day and the two giant blocks of night episodes were not just one, super long night. There are also a lot of canon inconsistencies, which really stuck out because I've been researching canon timelines for 'Five Years'. However, most of them are menial and not necessary for the story, so I've decided not to acknowledge them.

Hm...I know there was more that I wanted to say, but I can't remember what it was...

Oh well, maybe I'll remember later and edit the comments. For now, I'm going to call it quits.

I hope you enjoyed the chapter!

Reviewer Questions:

Question: How did Starrk and Lilynette die?
Answer: I have gotten many reviews and pms asking this and I hope this chapter helped clear up some of the confusion. If not, I will summarize what has been said so far: the Winter War has not happened yet, Shunsui did not kill them, and they were killed by shinigami in Hueco Mundo. I don't want to come right out and say it because it has not been revealed yet in the story, but there are enough clues in the text to figure it who killed them.

Please Review & let me know what you think!

Reviews are a great source of encouragement and inspiration – I'm always happy to hear your input!