A/N: Good news! Almost twice as long as a normal chapter. Bad news! Don't expect any updates for a while, because school starts in a week and I'm gonna be busy as hell.

(Also this chapter ends on a bit of a cliffhanger so read at your own risk)

(5 Days Before Central 46's Ruling)

Any last hopes I may have had that this was all a bad dream—that what had happened in the original Bleach world was a lie and that Kaien and the others were okay—were promptly extinguished the moment I caught sight of Unohana's face.

"Hisana," she said, pausing as she opened the door. I supposed showing up at her office unannounced at four in the morning wasn't exactly proper protocol, but…was anything at this point? "What are you doing here?"

"Shiba-fukutaicho." I took a deep breath, trying to keep my voice from shaking. "Otoribashi-taicho. Hirako-taicho. All the others. What's going to happen to them?"

For a moment, Unohana looked every bit as old as her many centuries.

"You know, then," she said wearily. I tried to smile. Judging by the expression on her face, I didn't think I succeeded very well.

"Byakuya isn't very good at keeping secrets from me," I admitted. Not when I asked about them to his face, anyway.

"I thought as much." Unohana was silent for a long moment. "The situation is…complicated. Never before have so many high-ranking, influential officers been involved in a single incident, and—" She glanced away, looking shaken for the first time since I'd met her. "The head captain asked me to take a look at them." She said slowly, each word more pained than the one before it. "I confess, I do not think the situation is reversable."

"But we are going to help them, aren't we?" I asked, not quite able to keep the edge out of my voice. "Even if the hollowfication isn't reversable, even if things will never go back to the way they were before—we're going to help them, right?"

At that, Unohana glanced at me sharply.

"I will try my best, yes. You are going to stay out of this," she said, voice hardening. "This is no place for an Academy student, do you hear me? And until we figure out what exactly is going on, I won't have you involved."

I bit my lip.

"Byakuya…Byakuya tells me that Urahara-taicho and Tsukabishi-taicho were the ones behind it," I said softly. "But that's only according to Aizen-fukutaicho's word and taicho, I don't…Urahara-taicho wouldn't—"

"That's enough, Hisana," Unohana cut me off abruptly. "You will leave this issue alone, understood?"

I opened my mouth, about to protest.

"Hisana. That's an order." For the first time, I saw something resembling fear in Unohana's eyes. Not for herself, I realized. For me.

I looked away, shoulders slumping.

You'd do well to listen to her, Tenshi no Tsubasa said quietly, speaking up for the first time since the incident with Rukia. I felt a sharp pang of regret over the distance that seemed to have sprung up between us. The conversation between us was long overdue and I'd need to speak to her soon, but…later. Once this was all over.

"…very well," I said finally, to both of them. "I won't look any further into it, taicho. You have my word."

I didn't need to. I already knew who was responsible, after all.

Deep breaths. Shoulders straight. Calm thoughts. Remember, you've been preparing for this all week, I thought to myself as the door to the editorial department of the Seireitei's one and only newspaper opened, revealing a man who looked to be in his late twenties with slicked back dark hair and pale green eyes.

Hayakawa Mizuho, bastard of the Minamoto Clan, 18th Seat of the 9th Division and one of primary reporters for the Seireitei Communication Monthly.

"Well, well, isn't this a surprise. It's not often we receive visitors this early," he said, eyebrows raising at the sight of me.

"I apologize for the unannounced visit, Hayakawa-san," I murmured, bowing. "My name is Yukimura Hisana and—"

"Oh, I know. No need for you to introduce yourself, Yukimura-san," he interrupted, smiling faintly. "Come in, come in. I'll get someone to make you tea."

"There's no need—" I began hastily. Hayakawa waved me off.

"Nonsense. Oi, Suzuki-san! We have a guest!" He called over his shoulder, stepping aside to let me in.

Given that it wasn't even seven in the morning yet, Hayakawa and Suzuki—Suzuki Hana, 12th Seat of the 9th Division, civilian family, writer for the Seireitei Communication Monthly—were the only ones there at the office. Which was good; the fewer people around, the easier this would be.

"So Yukimura-san, what brings you to our humble office today?" Hayakawa asked. He and Suzuki, a pale woman around Hayakawa's age with long brown hair tied up in a bun, sat across from me, a tea table and a freshly made pot of green tea between us.

"What I imagine brings most people here," I said softly. "I need you to print an article, Hayakawa-san. Front page, for tomorrow morning's paper."

Both Hayakawa and Suzuki stiffened slightly in surprise.

"I'm afraid that won't be possible," Suzuki said apologetically. "You see, articles submitted by people not of the Seireitei Communication staff normally take between two to three weeks to get approved—"

"But I'm sure we can make an exception," Hayakawa interrupted, ignoring his colleague's glare. His smile widened, showing teeth. "Provided, of course, that you can make it worth our while."

"Oh, that won't be a problem," I said calmly. "What do you know about the incident involving Hirako Shinji, Otoribashi Rojuro, Aikawa Love, Muguruma Kensei, Kuna Mashiro, Ushoda Hachigen, Sarugaki Hiyori, and Shiba Kaien?"

Suzuki's eyes widened even as Hayakawa inhaled sharply.

"You know what happened?" He asked eagerly.

"That's classified information," Suzuki cut him off, looking at me intently. "None of the higher-ups are saying anything and I should know, I've tried asking. Are you sure you're not breaking any rules by coming here, Yukimura-san?"

"I'm…technically not," I admitted. "As an Academy Student, I'm classified as a civilian, not a shinigami, and as no one from the Gotei 13 has explicitly forbidden me from sharing any information—" Mainly because as far as the majority of the Gotei 13 was concerned, I didn't have any information. Or at least, I shouldn't have had. "—I am not bound by any law to keep military secrets private."

"That's good enough for me," Hayakawa grinned.

"Just in case though, we'll keep your identity anonymous," Suzuki interjected, sending Hayakawa a sharp look. "We also won't ask how you came by this information."

"That would be appreciated," I replied gratefully. "I do have a few conditions though."

"Of course. We'd expect nothing less," Suzuki nodded. "Continue, please."

I straightened my back, tilting my chin up.

"The tone of the article will be strictly in support of the captains and lieutenants affected; it will emphasize their innocence in the whole affair, how they were betrayed by a trusted comrade and subjected to horrific experiments against their will," I began, voice hard. "The focus will be on asking how the Gotei 13 and Central 46 are planning on assisting them. It will not be on revenge or justice just yet; that will come, yes, but this is a time for all the divisions to band together and support each other, not point fingers."

Both Hayakama and Suzuki, I noted with approval, had taken out notepads and were furiously scribbling down notes.

"The article will end by addressing the entire Seireitei, civilians and shinigami alike, asking them to show their support for the victims of this incident—" Victims weren't dangerous, after all. Victims weren't monsters, weren't beasts that had to be put down. "—and to remember them for the heroes they truly are. Mention their past services, all they've done and sacrificed for the sake of protecting those under their care. And finally, I expect every surface, and I mean every surface of the Seireitei to be covered with it by tomorrow morning at the latest. Bathroom stalls, the sides of trash cans, papering the walls, I don't care—I don't want anyone in the Seireitei to go five feet without seeing a newspaper."

Hayakama looked up from his notepad.

"You do realize, of course, that such a request is…expensive," he began delicately.

"And I would never expect you to cover such a cost," I said, pulling a bag of kan out of my shihakusho and handing it to him. He looked inside, face paling.

"This is—!"

"Half up front. The other half will come later this week, if my request is fulfilled to my satisfaction," I said, giving him a meaningful look. He swallowed, leaning back in his seat. Both of us knew that even 'half' was enough to pay for what I'd asked twice over.

Apparently the weekly 'pocket money' Byakuya insisted on giving me came in useful after all. Who knew?

"Just think of it as me covering the cost of subscription for the entire city," I said, taking a sip of my tea. "If you don't have enough staff on hand to deliver papers, I can give you a list of employment offices in the Seireitei." Also known as bars where retired shinigami (i.e. shinigami who had suffered a crippling injury and were unfit to fight) hung out, looking for job offerings. "As for the rest…consider it a tip for good service."

"I understand," Suzuki said, giving me an indecipherable look. "We'll send you a copy of the article before we print it out, so you can see if it meets your requirements."

"That'll work. Thank you," I said, relaxing slightly.

"No need to thank us. Although your compensation is…appreciated, given that both our captain and lieutenant are among those compromised—" She paused. "Well, we should be thanking you, Yukimura-san."

I looked away, silent for a moment.

"There is one more thing," I said quietly. "I'd prefer it if Tousen-san didn't know about this."

Hayakawa looked up in surprise.

"Our Third Seat?" He asked.

"He's got enough on his plate right now. With his captain and lieutenant gone, I'm sure he has his hands full trying to keep the Ninth in order. I wouldn't want to bother him," I said neutrally.

"Makes sense. While we're at it, once we're done printing, we should probably distribute the issues at night too, correct? Wouldn't want to disturb any of the other higher-ups either. I'm sure they're all very hard at work right now," Hayakawa said, eyeing me shrewdly. I smiled sharply at him, catching the unspoken If they don't know about it, they can't stop us from publishing it until it's too late.

"I'm glad you understand," I murmured.

"Well then," Suzuki said, leaning forward. "Now that all the logistics have been taken care of…shall we talk?"

(4 Days Before Central 46's Ruling)

"A word, Yukimura?"

I looked up from where I was fiddling with my walkie-talkie/cell-phone hybrid (Walkie phone? Cell talkie? Nah, both of those sounded lame) to see Iemura standing in my doorway, expression stern.

"Of course, senpai. What did you want to talk about?" I asked with a smile. In answer, he threw a copy of the Seireitei Communication onto my desk. On the front page, in bold lettering was the headline, Four Captains and Four Lieutenants Brutally Experimented On; Their Story and What You Can Do to Help.

"Yes, I saw that," I said, pursing my lips. "Everyone's been talking about it."

It took effort to keep the satisfaction out of my tone.

"Did you have anything to do with this?" Iemura asked harshly, ignoring me. I tilted my head to the side.

"Why would you think that, senpai?" I asked curiously.

"Because you are the one person in this city who consistently knows far more than she should and furthermore, is physically incapable of keeping her head down," Iemura hissed, taking my reply as confirmation. "What possessed you to do something like this? Did it ever even occur to you to keep quiet until Unohana-taicho and the other captains found out more about the situation? You told the entire Seireitei, and I quote, 'In the midst of all this uncertainty, there is one thing that is certain beyond doubt, and that is that the Visored can be helped. Their case is not hopeless and it is our duty as friends, comrades, and as citizens to give it to them.'"

"Yes, they did a rather good job with that, didn't they?" I mused. "The way they quoted me made it seem as if I was a person of authority…lieutenant level at the very least, if not captain."

"For god's sake, Yukimura, would you take this seriously?" Iemura asked, voice rising. "And what if you're wrong? You must know that there's a high probability your identity will come out eventually. If you're mistaken and the so-called Visored can't be helped…if they really are too far gone—"

"They're not. I promise you, they're not," I said, shaking my head.

"How do you know that? You haven't even seen them!" Iemura asked, now bordering on a yell.

How could I explain that my knowledge came from a fictional story? I couldn't.

"But I know them, senpai," I said instead. "Or at least, I know Shiba-fukutaicho and Otoribashi-taicho. And because I know them, what kind of people they are, I know that I owe it to them to try." I looked down, swallowing. "You asked why I couldn't wait until the situation was more certain to speak out. The truth is, I can't afford to wait. Central 46 is making their decision in four days, and that's having already pushed their decision date back. If I didn't speak out now…" I bit my lip. "When people are confused, it's only a matter of time before that confusion turns to anger and fear and Central 46…they're going to want to find a solution to the chaos, and quickly, even if it isn't the best one. I'm hoping that by providing answers before people start coming to their own conclusions—well, Central 46 may have a lot of power, but even they can't pass an execution order when they have the entire city clamoring for the opposite."

I mean sure, everyone was supposed to survive the hollowfication incident, but it couldn't hurt to stack the cards in their favor a bit. I'd already proven that canon could be changed, after all.

"I—" Iemura began.

"Don't worry too much," I interrupted. "It's not like I'm starting this PR campaign from scratch. The Visored…they're not unpopular people, senpai. No, they're widely respected, admired, loved officers; not just in their squads, but across the Seireitei. Each and every one of them are heroes in their own right. I just need to remind people of that."

"Yukimura, I—" Iemura hesitated. "You know I'll follow you no matter what, but—"

"Will you, senpai?" I asked with a smile. He sputtered.

"Don't be ridiculous. As your superior, it's my job to keep you out of trouble, and I can't do that if I'm going against—"

"Relax," I laughed. "I know I can count on you, you've looked out for me from the beginning after all. Still, it's touching to hear you say it."

Iemura huffed, crossing his arms.

"Still," he hesitated. "You're risking a lot by speaking out for them, Yukimura. If anything goes wrong—" He looked away. "Look, I know that you feel an obligation to defend them, but if they're truly your friends, they wouldn't want you endangering yourself or your reputation by—"

"It's not about that!" I burst out, voice cracking. "Yes, Shiba-fukutaicho and Otoribashi-taicho are both my friends, but this…this isn't about that, not really. It's not about friendship or debts, it's about people needing our help. And…and isn't that enough of a reason, senpai? To risk everything? Speaking as a Fourth Division member, as a healer…isn't that enough?"

Iemura stared at me for a long moment.

"I suppose I can't argue with that," he said finally. "Very well, then. The Fourth Division will stand behind the Visored." A pause. "I do hope you know what you're doing, Yukimura."

"You and me both, senpai." I tilted my head up to look him in the eye. "One more thing. I know that things are tense right now, but…I'd like to request a few days off, if it's at all possible."

I still needed to talk to Niijima-sensei, after all.

(3 Days Until Central 46's Ruling)

"Knock, knock!"

"Hwa?" I looked up, disoriented, to see Ran crouching in front of me, a muffin in one hand.

"Oh, bless you," I said gratefully as she tossed the muffin to me.

"When's the last time you got a full eight hours sleep?" She asked conversationally as I rubbed my eyes with one hand. "Actually, don't answer that, it'll make me sad."

"My coma," I replied dryly, causing her to grimace.

"See? Sad," Ran said, folding her arms across her chest. "Also, it's way too soon for you to be making jokes about that."

"Sorry, Ran-chan," I yawned before taking a bite of my muffin. "What's up?"

"Thought you might like to see this," she said gleefully. Plopping down beside me on the couch, she pulled out a copy of the Seireitei Communication. "I did what you said, encouraging people to write to the paper and show their support for the Visored, and the accounts are just pouring in. The editorials are absolutely flooded with all kinds of touching stories. Listen to this one: 'I remember one time, a couple decades back, I'd just found out that my boyfriend was having an affair. I was a heartbroken wreck for weeks; I could barely do any work, and when Otoribashi-taicho pulled me into his office one morning, I thought for sure I was going to get demoted. That is, until he pulled out his violin and started serenading me, of all the ridiculous things. Told me I deserved someone better who was going to treat me right. Until then, I wasn't even aware he'd known my name. Speaking on behalf of that heartbroken girl all those years ago and many others in my division who I know share my opinion, I hope that the Gotei 13 is doing its best to help my captain, because I can't think of anyone more deserving of it.'"

"Wow. I didn't know Otoribashi-taicho had it in him," I remarked, raising my eyebrows. Months of knowing him and he'd never shown a hint of that charm around me. All I got was 'Oi Yukimura-san, what do you think of this instrument I just discovered called a banjo.'

"I know, right? It's so sweet," Ran gushed. "And that's only the start of it. I never knew these captains all had such a soft side."

"Mm." I smoothed out the pages of the newspaper, silent for a moment. "Thank you for this, Ran-chan. I never could've done this without you."

"You don't have to thank me, Yuki-chan," Ran said, turning to look at me in surprise. "With Shiba-taicho as my captain, I was practically bound by contract to speak out loudly, emphatically, and repeatedly in support of Shiba Kaien and by default, the other Visored." She paused for a moment. "Visored. Was it you who came up with that? I remember seeing it for the first time in yesterday's paper."

"It's fitting, don't you think?" I asked. "Masked, but only partially. Much better than calling them the 'Hollowfied', anyway." It was a lot less threatening, too. 'Visors' tended to bring to mind summer tourists, not soul-sucking hollows.

"You really thought of everything, didn't you? Remind me to hire you if I'm ever in need of a PR expert," Ran laughed.

"Given that this is my first time dabbling in PR, I'm hardly an expert," I denied. Besides, it wasn't like I could take credit for the 'Visored' name.

"The fact that this is your first time dabbling in PR makes it all the more impressive," Ran replied.

"If you say so. But let's hope I don't have to do this again anytime soon, hmm?" Shifting so that my head lay in her lap, I let my eyes drift shut. "Ran-chan?"

"Yes, Yuki-chan?" She asked gently, stroking her fingers through my hair.

"I hope that it's enough, what we're doing," I said softly. "To give them a chance."

"Me too." Ran was quiet for a moment. "Let's talk about something else. Something happier." She glanced down at me, lips quirking up mischievously. "How are things going between you and Byakuya? You two finally have sex yet?"

Instantly, I felt blood rush to my face.

"Um," I cleared my throat, sitting up. "Actually—"

Ran's mouth fell open in shock.

"No way," she gaped. "Really? How was it? When did this happen?"

"It happened a few nights ago. He was very, um, considerate," I said, somehow blushing even harder.

"Oh?" Ran asked, smirking in obvious glee at my steadily reddening face. I probably resembled a beetroot by this point. "Considerate, hmm?"

"Yes, he was quite…thorough," I said, voice coming out muffled from where I'd covered my face.

"Look how red you're getting," she laughed, poking at my cheek with her index finger. "Fine, fine, I won't pry any more. I wouldn't want you to get a heart attack, after all. Kuchiki-fukutaicho would definitely come after me in revenge and I don't feel confident standing up to his thorough technique."

I needed better friends.

"You're awful," I informed her.

"You love me for it," she grinned. "Dang, though. I thought for sure Kuchiki-fukutaicho was the type to wait until marriage!"

"About that…" I hesitated before pulling out the jade plaque Byakuya had given me and showing it to her shyly. "I haven't told anyone this yet; given what's been happening, both of us decided to wait to make an announcement, but—"

"You're engaged." Ran covered her mouth with her hands, eyes widening. "He proposed? Yuki-chan, that's wonderful!" I let out a startled oof as she flung her arms around me. "I don't care what you say, we're celebrating. I know I've got a bottle of expensive sake stashed somewhere. Are you free tonight? I can get a cake or something too, there's the best bakery over by the Tenth and you just have to try it. My treat, of course. If you're busy, that's okay too, it doesn't have to be a long celebration, just twenty minutes or so—"

"I'm afraid Hisana's schedule is full tonight, Matsumoto-san," Byakuya said coolly from the doorway. "You'll have to find another time."

Ran grinned at him.

"Of course, Kuchiki-fukutaicho. I'm sure you both have…things to do." She waggled her eyebrows at me, ignoring the way I buried my face in my hands. Glancing at the box of gourmet cookies he was holding, she added, "Dessert, too? How very considerate of you, Kuchiki-fukutaicho."

"What was that about?" Byakuya asked once Ran left, forehead furrowing in confusion.

"It's better if you don't know," I informed him, popping a cookie into my mouth.

"Ya know, some people would call blatherin' on about a subject they know nothin' about ta be the height of ignorance," At the sound of that familiar drawl, I closed my eyes tiredly.

Goddamn it, I should have expected this. It was like he had some kind of sixth sense for when I least wanted to see him.

"And some people would call enforcing one's company on someone who clearly doesn't want it to be the height of rudeness," I replied. What was the point of having an office if just anyone could drop in unannounced? "I really don't have time for this today, Ichimaru-san."

"Always got an opinion, don't'cha, Hisana-chan?" Gin asked conversationally. "Never could keep ya mouth shut."

"Is there a point to this conversation? Because if not—" I began.

"What are ya hoping to achieve, Hisana?" He cut me off, dropping the honorific for once. "Ya really think Central 46 is gonna pardon a bunch of monsters just 'cause ya got some guys ta send in their sob stories? They're hollows," he said, unforgiving in his bluntness. "No matter what name ya give them, that ain't gonna change. Ya do know what we do to hollows, don't ya?"

"If they were hollows," I said, with more confidence than I felt, "Central 46 would have passed the execution order already. The fact that they haven't means that there's still hope."

"Because Central 46 is known for their mercy," Gin snorted. "The only reason Central 46 hasn't ordered all their heads lopped off yet is due to Shiba Kaien's status as the head of the Shiba Clan. You're foolin' yourself if ya think a few pretty words can change anythin', Hisana-chan."

"So why are you here, trying to stop me?" I asked, voice hard. "It shouldn't matter to you, right? If I fail or not? So why are you here, wasting both your time and mine, trying to get me to stop?"

"Ya don't think it's cruel? Givin' all those families false hope?" He asked, raising his eyebrows. "Ya do know that in order ta succeed, not only do ya have ta get the public on your side, you also need ta convince the remaining captains and most of the nobility."

"That's only three steps," I replied. "Seems doable enough to me, Ichimaru-san."

"And what happens if ya succeed?" He asked, voice going soft. "Hollows, even partial ones, are not exactly known for their restraint, ya know. A plus soul in the process of becomin' a hollow is just as likely ta kill as a full hollow. Innocents have died because shinigami have made the mistake of tryin' ta reason with one…and that's only with an ordinary soul. Imagine the damage someone captain-level could do." He paused, speaking each word with relish. "What happens the first time one of them slips, huh? Could ya live with that on your conscience? One of them becomes a little too angry, loses their temper, hasn't had lunch that day…decides to take a bite out of a nearby pretty little thing, maybe someone's little sister…just a tiny nibble—"

"Stop it," I said shakily.

"Stubborn," he sighed. "I'm tellin' ya, best thing ya can do right now is start preparin' funeral bouquets. Anythin' else is liable ta just make the situation worse." He paused. "Better get on that too. Flower shops are probably gonna be pretty busy in the comin' days; be smart ta get your orders in now."

"Get out of my office," I said coldly. Gin was quiet for a moment.

"I told ya once that I underestimated ya. I thought ya better than the rest of the canon fodder the Academy calls students." He shook his head. "Maybe I was wrong."

"There are worse things to be," I said softly. He glanced at me, eyes opening the slightest bit.

"Ya grew up in the Rukongai. The people who couldn't turn away, who couldn't harden their hearts, they were the first to go. You know this, you saw it," Gin said, a note of something almost urgent in his voice—a hint of frustration he couldn't quite hide. "Ya know ya can't save everyone, Hisana."

It stung, the truth in those words. More than anything else he'd said to me, those words stung.

I turned away.

"Who will I be if I don't try?" I asked softly.

He didn't have an answer for that.

At dinner, Renji and Rukia kept stealing glances at me.

"What is it?" I asked, after the fifth time Renji opened and closed his mouth without saying anything. My talk with Gin had drained the last bits of my patience, and I could feel a headache coming on.

"The…the Visored," he said, poking at a piece of fish with his chopsticks. "Is it true they're going to be executed?"

"Who told you that?" I asked sharply, even as Byakuya stiffened beside me.

"F-Fujiwara-san from the Academy—"

"Well, it's not true, you hear me? Don't go repeating nonsense that other people say." Renji flinched, looking down at his food, and I felt a sharp pang of remorse. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have been so harsh. Still, it's not good to repeat rumors. Shiba-fukutaicho and the others are going to be fine, okay? Nothing's going to happen to them."

"Hisana—" Byakuya interjected softly. Before he could continue, Rukia spoke up.

"How can you promise that? You don't know any more than we do," she pointed out, eyes burning. "You haven't even seen them. Even if Central 46 rules in their favor, how do you know they aren't already dyi—"

"Rukia!" Byakuya snapped. "That's enough!"

"It's alright, Byakuya. It's a fair question," I said softly, reaching out to grasp his hand. Turning back to Rukia, I took a moment to gather my thoughts.

"The truth is, imouto, I don't know. I don't know what state they're in right now, or if their souls are stabilized enough to survive long term. The only thing I can do there is hope for the best." I took a deep breath. "What I can promise is that I will do everything in my power to convince Central 46 to give them a chance…a chance to prove themselves, to get their inner hollows under control and win their lives back. I know that you're scared right now, but trust me when I say I won't stop until that happens." I smiled faintly, extending my pinky. "Pinky promise, I swear."

"I'm holding you to that," she said, hooking her finger around mine.

"Same," Renji added. "And listen, keep us updated on what's happening, will you? Don't leave us out just because we're kids."

"If we leave you out, it won't be because of your age, it'll be because you're hotheaded and unable to keep your mouth shut," Byakuya snarked.

I sighed. So much for maturity.

"Boys," I interjected as Renji opened his mouth to retort. "Please, no arguing at the dinner table. Renji, eat your peas."

"I've already eaten them, see?" He grumbled, holding up his bowl.

"Great! More room for broccoli, then," I said brightly, picking up the plate of broccoli in the center of the table and shoveling half its contents into Renji's bowl. Wisely, he stopped talking.

Glancing at Rukia, I bit my lip as I noticed the subdued expression on her face.

"Hey," I said softly, reaching out to ruffle her hair. "You okay, imouto?"

"Yeah. I mean, I'm doing okay; it's Shiba-fukutaicho I'm worried about. I just have a bad feeling about all this." She hesitated, chewing on her bottom lip. "I wish I could go see him. Them. All the Visored. At least to tell them that we're rooting for them."

She looked up at me.

"Couldn't you go see them, nee-chan? I mean, you're Fourth Division, right? Aren't you allowed to…I don't know, give them a health checkup or something?"

"That right is currently restricted to Unohana-taicho," I answered. "But I promise, if the opportunity arises, I will be the first to go check on them."

"Good," she declared, before hopping off her chair. "I'm gonna go finish that letter I was writing to the newspaper, about how Shiba-fukutaicho was super nice to you when you first came to the Seireitei."

"I'm gonna, uh, write a letter too. About Tonton or some shit," Renji added in a blatantly transparent attempt to get out of doing the dishes. I rolled my eyes, dismissing him with a wave.

"Kids these days. You'd think I was making them scrub bathroom floors with a toothbrush," I sighed, clearing the dishes away.

"The impudence of it all," Byakuya agreed, his hands sliding down to my waist and pulling me to him. I paused, feeling my face heat up.

"Someone's feeling affectionate today," I breathed out.

"Can you blame me? I've barely seen you these last three days," he said, bending down to kiss the crook of my neck.

"Not quite how you pictured our engagement period going?" I asked wryly. He huffed a laugh.

"Hardly." He paused. "Is it wrong of me to wish that all this hollowfication and Visored business wasn't happening right now? It's probably ridiculously self-centered of me, I know…I could have been one of the officers sent on that mission and instead I'm here complaining about how the timing is inconvenient, of all things, but—"

"But this should have been a happy time," I finished gently, turning around to face him. "A time of celebrating, rather than being worried and stressed. It's not wrong to wish that things were different."

"I wouldn't take it back for anything, though," Byakuya said, looking at me intently. "If given the chance to do it all over again, I wouldn't change a thing. I know I originally hadn't planned on proposing that night, but…I honestly don't think I could have waited much longer to ask you to be my wife."

"If you had much longer, you wouldn't have gotten the chance," I informed him. "Because I would have proposed first."

At the sight of Byakuya's horrified expression, I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.

"Come on, Byakuya. Is the thought of being proposed to really so awful?" I teased. "And here I thought you'd enjoy me getting down on my knees for you."

I watched as his eyes darkened, pupils dilating.

"Is that an offer, Hisana?" He asked lowly.

"Well," I said thoughtfully as I tilted my head to the side, pretending my pulse wasn't thudding in my ears. "I don't have a ring or a fancy plaque, but—" I yelped as he promptly picked me up, bridal style, and started marching towards the bedroom. "Wait, the dishes!"

"Leave them. Renji can wash them once he comes back."

(2 Days Before Central 46's Ruling)

Gin may have been an absolute dick, but he was right about one thing. Ultimately there were three steps to my overall plan of 'Keep the Visored Alive and Hopefully Their Lives From Being Utterly Ruined': Convince the Public, Convince the Captains, and Convince the Nobility.

As I stared into Kuchiki Ginrei's impassive face, I decided I hated steps 2 and 3.

"Yukimura-san," he said, expression blank. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to see you here. Do come in."

I swallowed as I followed him into his office, trying my best not to fidget. It was difficult, considering what I knew of him basically consisted of a.) his clan came first, b.) he loved his grandson, and c.) he'd allowed Byakuya to court me but was probably regretting that decision now.

"Am I correct in assuming that this visit is for business and not pleasure?" He asked, pouring me a cup of tea. "And that you came to speak to me about the…Visored, as people are calling them?"

"Yes, Kuchiki-taicho," I said quietly.

"Mm. My grandson seems rather set on the fact that the Kuchiki Clan should veto the execution order for the four captains and four lieutenants involved in the hollowfication incident—your doing, I have no doubt. I myself, however, am not quite so convinced," he said, peering at me sternly. "In my experience, trying to save a soul that has already been corrupted to such an extent never goes well, and attempting to deny that fact only causes more grief. Hirako-taicho, were he in his right mind right now, would agree with me."

I didn't say anything for a moment.

"You once told me that I could come to you if I ever needed help, Kuchiki-taicho," I said finally. He set his teacup down.

"Are you calling in the debt I owe you, Yukimura-san?" He asked slowly.

"Not at all. I told you I didn't want a favor from you for my role in Eiji's rescue, and that hasn't changed. I only want you to hear me out and if at the end of this meeting, you still haven't changed your mind, I won't bother you about it again," I promised.

"Very well," Ginrei said, after a pause. "You have my attention."

I took a deep breath, straightening up.

"To start off with, I'll begin by stating the situation as I understand it. Now, there are a few ways this trial could go. Central 46 could vote to eliminate the threat that the Visored pose; the benefit of this, of course, is that there's no risk of any accidents happening in the future. It might even be the humane option, as it's a well-documented fact that hollowfication is an…excruciating process." My voice caught a little and I hurriedly took a sip of tea, avoiding his gaze.

"The second option is that Central 46 vote to keep them alive for the immediate future. In order to keep them from posing a danger to others, they would remain confined in the Central Great Underground Prison. The thing is…the thing is though, we'd essentially be treating them like criminals and there's no telling what that kind of living situation would do to their mental state. That prison…it's no place to get better, Kuchiki-taicho. Keeping them there would be worse than killing them off."

"I'd be inclined to agree," Ginrei answered.

"The third option is that we rehabilitate them in a designated location set aside in the world of the living." At this, he glanced at me sharply.

"The world of the living?" He asked, tone unreadable. I nodded.

"I understand that this is the riskiest option by far. The consequences should things go wrong…" I pursed my lips. "They would have to be in a place far isolated from any humans, of course. The details are still being worked out, but the Kido Corps is working on modifying the seal placed on all captains and lieutenants when they enter the living world to limit each Visored's maximum reiatsu output to 5% rather than the standard 20%. In addition, they're working on creating a modified version of the barrier surrounding the Seireitei that would be capable of keeping in the Visored at their reduced power level. They would be placed on Earth with a team of qualified scientists, healers, and guards, and after ten years, Central 46 would revisit their case, consider whatever progress they've made, and make a decision then—to execute them, allow them back into the Seireitei, or have them stay in the living world."

"You are…alarmingly well-informed for your rank, Yukimura-san," Ginrei said after a moment. "How did you know the Kido Corps was working on this?"

I shrugged.

"I have a lot of friends," I said simply, before looking down at the cup in my hands. "If you could tell me without a shadow of a doubt, Kuchiki-taicho, that the Visored were beyond hope, then I wouldn't hesitate to ask you to put them down. Not because I don't care, but because I care too much to watch them turn into the same enemy they've spent centuries fighting. But I think that there is hope and I think you think so too, because otherwise you wouldn't be sitting here talking to me."

"Yukimura-san—" He began softly.

"I know I'm asking a lot," I said, looking away. "I know that there are risks, and that by speaking out for the Visored, the Kuchiki Clan will be putting its reputation on the line. But if we don't speak out for our friends, for people who need our help, then…then what is that reputation worth? What kind of legacy will we leave?" Bowing my head, I fell to my knees in front of him, palms on the floor. "So please, Kuchiki-taicho. Please, on behalf of the Visored and myself, please vote to give them a chance."

The silence stretched on painfully long. Then, just as I was about to give up hope, I felt him grasp me by the arms gently and pull me up.

"Stand up," he said, gray eyes—so much like Byakuya's—soft as he regarded me solemnly. "It's not fitting for a Kuchiki to kneel."

"Kuchiki-taicho," I said, eyes widening.

"I've lived a long life, Yukimura-san. Centuries of war, uprisings, death…" He smiled at me, a little tiredly. "And perhaps it's simply my age talking, but from what I've seen, the world would benefit greatly if we all showed a little more mercy."

Releasing me, he took a step back.

"Get some sleep, Yukimura-san. We all have a long couple of days ahead of us."

In retrospect, I was surprised it took Unohana this long to confront me.

"You know, it's interesting," she began, pouring out a cup of tea. I was drinking a lot of tea this week. "This morning, two members of the Kido Corps came to my office to discuss a proposal regarding the Visored. One of them was named Niijima Jun. A friend of yours, I believe?"

"We're acquainted," I admitted. "What did you think about the proposal?"

"It was surprisingly well thought out, considering they only began working on it three days ago. They asked me to introduce it at tonight's captain's meeting."

"The Kido Corps have always been very efficient," I agreed.

"Mm. Almost as efficient as the Seireitei Communication has been in getting news out," she said, eyes sharp. I glanced at her desk; this morning's edition was resting on it, recognizable by the front-page headline Interview With Visored Family Members.

"I thought I explicitly ordered you not to get involved," she said after a moment's silence.

"I said I wouldn't look into who was responsible. I didn't say I'd stand back and do nothing," I said evenly. "They're my friends, taicho. I won't abandon them."

"I suppose I should have expected that," she sighed. Leaning forward in her chair, she eyed me seriously. "What you've done these past few days, as an Academy student…people are starting to take interest, Hisana. And in the Gotei 13, that's not always a good thing."

"I know." I looked down at my hands. "I never wanted influence or power or money, taicho. But now that I have it—why not use it to do something good?"

"Mm." She was quiet for a minute. "This proposal, if it passes…Niijima-san asked me if I had any healers I'd be willing to send to the world of the living. Due to the length of the mission and the shortage of captains in the Seireitei, I myself won't be permitted to leave."

I nodded, having expected as much. There was no way Yamamoto was going to send one of his few remaining captains, and Chief Medical Director, off on a mission of indeterminate length.

"Given the danger of it as well, I expect only high-ranking officers will be allowed to go," she said, leaning forward. "As an Academy student, there is no way that you'll be chosen."

I looked down, distracting myself by bringing my teacup to my lips. I'd expected that as well, but I'd hoped—

"I understand, taicho," I murmured.

"But as a lieutenant, you have a chance," she finished.

I bit through the teacup.

"Lieutenant?" I gaped, spitting out a chip of porcelain.

In answer, she reached into her desk and pulled out the 4th Division Lieutenant badge.

"It's yours, if you accept it," Unohana said, a slight smile on her lips.

"Taicho, I—" I bit my lip, looking down at the badge in my hands. "I don't think I deserve this. I mean, there are so many talented healers…I'm just a first-year student, I don't know if I can—"

"Handle it?" Unohana finished kindly. "You already have, Hisana. Look around you—ever since you came, interest in the Fourth Division has skyrocketed, recruitment has increased…and as for the healers already here, you've helped them find their pride. Just look at Ayame; she walks with her head held high again. You were able to reach them, connect with them in a way that I couldn't, and for that—" She shook her head.

"I just…are you sure?" I asked weakly.

Academy student to lieutenant? Was that even allowed? That was jumping, like, a million ranks right there.

"They already follow you, haven't you noticed? I doubt our division would even accept anyone else, at this point," Unohana smiled. "That badge was always going to be yours, Hisana. It was just a matter of when."

"In that case," I said in a small voice. It felt like my heart was beating too hard in my chest. "I would be honored to serve the Fourth Division as its lieutenant, Unohana-taicho."

"It's so shiny," I said admiringly, holding my badge up to the light. "Which is kind of surprising because it's made out of wood, but look at it!"

"Yes, Hisana, I know," Byakuya said, amused. "You've said so five times in the past ten minutes."

"And even better, I now officially outrank Ichimaru Gin," I said gleefully.

"Of course you'd focus on that," he sighed, although his eyes were fond. I pouted at him.

"You could act a little more excited, you know."

"Let me remind you that the first thing you did upon hearing that I'd been promoted was pity every shinigami under my command," he said, raising his eyebrows.

"Oh yeah. I did say that, didn't I?" I thought back. "But I also was very happy for you."

"As I am for you," he said. "I'm just not very surprised, that's all."

"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked, startled.

"What I mean, love, is that aside from yourself, every shinigami who'd encountered you in the Fourth Division for more than five minutes knew that it was only a matter of time before you'd make lieutenant," Byakuya informed me.

"You're just saying that," I accused.

"No, really. Shiba-fukutaicho even had a bet—" He cut himself off, but it was too late. I looked away.

"You're definitely going on that mission then?" Byakuya asked quietly, after a moment of awkward silence. "If Central 46 passes the proposal?"

"I don't think I have a choice," I replied, voice subdued.

"You always have a choice," he said, an edge in his voice.

Tilting my head to the side, I offered him a hopeful smile. "You could always come with me?"

"I wish I could, but…jii-sama, he's getting on in years, and he needs me here to help with—"

"The clan, I know," I finished for him, resting my head on his chest.

"I wish I could convince you to stay," he said, voice rough. "For me."

I swallowed, reaching up to cradle his face.

"They need me, Byakuya. Please, understand that," I said, voice barely audible. "I know it's difficult, but I'm begging you. On this matter, on this one thing, I need your support."

Byakuya looked at me for a long moment.

"I'll always support you," he said finally. "You only ever have to ask, Hisana."

I closed my eyes, feeling a wave of relief rush over me.

"Thank you," I breathed out. "And Byakuya, when this is over, I promise, I'll be all yours."

"Oh?" He asked, a hint of a smile tugging at his lips. I nodded.

"We…we'll attend Admiral Seaweed conventions, watch sunsets every night. We'll travel the world," I said fervently. "Whatever you want."

"Travel the world, hmm?" He chuckled, leaning forward to press a kiss to my forehead. "I'd like that."

(1 Day Before Central 46's Ruling)

"Tea?" Yoruichi offered, motioning to the teapot in front of her. I internally stifled a sigh—what was it with captains and tea?—but nodded, reaching out to accept a cup from her.

"Thank you for meeting with me on such short notice, Shihouin-taicho," I murmured.

"Yes, well, I could hardly refuse an appointment with the Fourth Division's newest lieutenant, could I?" Yoruichi smiled. "Congratulations, by the way. It's well deserved."

She paused.

"But I'm guessing you're not here to talk about that."

"No," I agreed.

"Hmm." She considered me, golden eyes narrowing. "You know, it's interesting. Everything that's happened in the past week, the way the entire Seireitei has mobilized in defense of the Visored—it's incredible, really."

"Is it really so surprising?" I asked softly. "That people show their support to their superior officers in their time of need?"

"Oh, that part's not surprising," Yoruichi waved me off. "What's surprising is how organized that support has been." Her gaze sharpened. "You know, mere hours after the head captain called a meeting to discuss what to do about the compromised officers, I paid a visit to Kukaku to tell her to do everything in her power to delay Central 46's ruling. As acting head of the Shiba Clan in Kaien's absence, she has that right. Imagine my surprise when she told me that you'd already beat me to it."

"Then, the very next morning, I wake up to find that someone had leaked the details all over the news. Details that should have been strictly confidential—and I should know, I was there when Yamamoto explicitly forbid all captains and lieutenants from sharing them with the public. Yamamoto was furious, of course, but the damage was already done. People were already talking, and by mid-afternoon, there wasn't a single person in the Seireitei who didn't know what had happened." She paused. "It didn't take me long to discover who was behind that little information leak. You see, there's a very limited number of people who are willing to stand up to the head of the Omnitsukido, and Hayakawa Mizuho isn't one of them."

I gripped my teacup tightly with both hands, and didn't answer.

"But even more surprising than the information leak was the response to it. Most people here…they don't believe they have a voice. Why would they, when all they do is follow orders their entire lives? The thought of speaking out wouldn't even occur to them. So when people started writing to the newspaper, sharing their stories, offering their support, and asking for answers…" Her voice trailed off. "And then, there was that interview with the families. I must say, getting Shiba Kaien's kid brother up on the front page and printing his tearful plea to Central 46 to spare sibling was a genius move. Which leads us to this morning, when I received a petition of 2,000 signatures from my own squad in support of the Kido Corps' proposal to rehabilitate the Visored. Did a little poking around, and found out that there's a similar petition going around each of the other divisions. And then there's the fact that paper visors—" There was a hint of irony in her voice. "—have apparently become the newest fashion statement in the city."

"…a public rally outside Central 46 would have been too risky," I said quietly, speaking up for the first time. "Too threatening, given that as you've said, nothing like this has ever happened before. Paper visors—" Origami visors, folded out of newspaper. Chiyo had really come through with that idea. "—are just as visible, and they're a much more peaceful way of making a statement." Less risk of mobs breaking out, anyway.

"Mm. And the Kido Corps?" Yoruichi asked, studying me closely.

"By a lucky coincidence, one of my fellow interns was already working on developing a permanent sort of barrier similar to the one currently enveloping the Seireitei. I just…extrapolated from there and pitched the idea to my teacher," I answered. Thank you Shirai for going along with my idea of recreating the Shakonmaku.

"And Central 46? You do realize that they don't exactly have a history of listening to the opinions of the ordinary public?" Yoruichi asked, raising her eyebrows.

"Of course," I said. "But they do have a history of listening to the Gotei 13, when all the captains are united, as well as the Greater Noble Clan Heads. Regarding the remaining captains, there's Yamamoto-soutaicho, you, Unohana-taicho, Kuchiki-taicho, Kyouraku-taicho, Shiba-taicho, Zaraki-taicho, and Ukitake-taicho. Of these, I knew that Unohana-taicho, Kyouraku-taicho, Shiba-taicho, and Ukitake-taicho could be counted on to cast their support in favor of their fallen comrades. Given that you knew what I was doing and didn't try to stop me, Shihouin-taicho, I'm guessing that I can count on your support too. I talked to Zaraki-taicho and he's willing to vote in favor of the Visored—" Since, as I so astutely pointed out to him, he still hadn't had a chance to spar with most of them and could hardly fight them if they were dead. "—and I spoke to Kuchiki-taicho yesterday. He's willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And Yamamoto-soutaicho…well, I did some research and he's never gone against the Gotei 13 when the Gotei 13 has been united in one opinion."

"Regarding the Greater Noble Clan Heads, Kukaku-san is obviously going to vote in favor of her brother. Given your longtime friendship, I figured it was safe to assume you would as well. The Kuchiki Clan…" I took a deep breath. "The Kuchiki Clan was a little more difficult, which was problematic since they have the most political power out of all five Greater Noble Clans; however as I've mentioned, Kuchiki-taicho has since come around. Now, the Minamoto Clan has never gone against the Kuchiki Clan when it comes to major decisions like this, and while the Fujiwara Clan is known for advocating a hard-handed approach, I doubt they'd be willing to go against the other four clans."

"And I'm sure it helps that the Fujiwara Clan is allied with the Murakami Clan, which happens to owe you two life debts," Yoruichi said, a strange smile on her face. "There's just one thing that confuses me about all of this."

"And that is?" I asked.

"In all this time, you've never once demanded that Kisuke and Tessai be brought to justice for their role the hollowfication incident," she said, gaze unwavering. "That seems…unlike you."

"Is it?" I asked, looking her in the eye. "The thing is, Shihouin-taicho, if Urahara-taicho and Tsukabishi-taicho were truly guilty of conducting unethical experiments on souls, then there's no way you wouldn't have known about it long before this all came to light. And I'd rather believe that's not true, if at all possible."

Left unsaid was the fact that if I was calling into question Urahara and Tsukabishi's guilt, then I was calling into question Aizen Sousuke's entire testimony. Judging by the sharp glance she threw my way, she'd caught that as well.

"Was I wrong to believe in them?" I continued, tilting my head to the side. Was I wrong to believe in you?

Yoruichi leaned back in her chair.

"I can't tell if you're truly that perceptive, or if you're the most reckless fool in the Seireitei," she murmured, which was an answer in itself.

"I'm only reckless with myself, I assure you," I told her. "It's why I'm here today."

"Oh?" She asked. I paused, taking a moment to gather up my courage.

"I know that, despite all that I've done, things may still go wrong tomorrow," I said slowly. "And so I'm asking, if it does…what's going to happen to the Visored?"

"What do you mean? Central 46 will vote to pass the exe—"

"I didn't ask what Central 46 was going to decide," I cut her off, looking at her meaningfully. "I asked, what's going to happen to the Visored?"

Yoruichi stiffened, a warning glint in her eyes.

"You're playing a very dangerous game, Hisana-chan," she murmured. "If I were anyone else…you realize you could be arrested for suspected treason, for betraying—"

"I can't betray something I was never loyal to, and my loyalty has never been to the Gotei 13 so much as the people in it, Shihouin-taicho," I said seriously. "I suspect you're the same way, or else I wouldn't be here. Now, I'm not asking for any details. I don't want them. What I want to know is if, gods forbid, Central 46 does pass an execution order tomorrow…will I have to watch my friends die?"

Yoruichi didn't talk for a very long time.

"No," she said finally, so quietly I almost missed it. "Regardless of how tomorrow goes, Hisana-chan, Kisuke and the others will make it out alive. I promise you that."

I slumped back into my chair, the surge of relief I felt almost crushing in its weight.

"Good," I whispered. "Good. I—thank you."

"You're not the only person who cares about them," she said, closing her eyes. I studied her for a moment.

She looked…tired, I realized. Stressed. It wasn't a good look on her.

"A Senkaimon is the only way to leave Soul Society," I began suddenly, ignoring her querying glance. "The official Senkaimon used for missions in the Living World is guarded by officers of the Kido Corps 24/7. An alarm will automatically sound if it's opened by anyone who's not a member of the Kido Corps, and the gate places a reiatsu-restraining seal on anyone of lieutenant level spiritual energy or above who passes through it."

"Where are you going with this?" Yoruichi asked, eyeing me closely. This was all knowledge we both knew, after all.

I took a deep breath.

"The Kuchiki Clan has its own private Senkaimon," I said, keeping my voice carefully blank. Understanding began to dawn in Yoruichi's eyes. "It's not common knowledge and only the clan head, clan heir, and the lady of the clan have access to it. It's located in the southwest corner of the Kuchiki grounds, just inside the woods bordering the property. As it requires a special seal to activate, it's also not guarded."

Pulling out the jade plaque Byakuya gave me, I handed it to her.

"I hope you won't need it," I said, swallowing heavily. "But just in case, it might give you a bit of a head start."

"Hisana, this is…" Yoruichi hesitated. "I can't accept this."

"Byakuya gave that to me as a gift. It's mine to do with as I choose, Shihouin-taicho," I said, looking down in a futile attempt to keep my voice from shaking. "Please, take good care of it for me."

She studied my face for a moment before nodding.

"Of course." Yoruichi's voice was soft.

"There is…one last thing I'd like to request." I brought my teacup to my lips, trying to keep my hands from trembling. "If anything—if anything should happen to me, please deliver this letter to Urahara-taicho." I handed her a sealed envelope, averting my gaze. "He'll know what it means."

"I will." Yoruichi promised. She looked at me, something like regret in her eyes. "Hisana—"

"Please don't, Shihouin-taicho." I blinked, forcing myself to smile. "It's been a long week and I'd like to spend the remainder of today with my sister, if at all possible. I feel like we haven't had the chance to spend much time together lately, and I'd like to rectify that."

With that, I turned to leave. I made it three steps before I heard her stand up.

"Hisana!" She called out. I paused, turning around.

"Yes, Shihouin-taicho?" I asked.

"From the beginning, you've never doubted them for an instant," Yoruichi said, an unreadable look on her face. "You've never wavered in your support of them. What I don't understand is, how do you know? How can you be so certain that…that they're still them, and they haven't—"

"Changed?" I interrupted. "Because they haven't, Shihouin-taicho, not really. Everyone says 'hollowfied' like they got some random hollow spliced onto them or something, but that hollow was already there, don't you see?"

"What do you mean, it was already there?" She asked slowly.

"We all have an ugly side to us, Shihouin-taicho." I closed my eyes, remembering incandescent flames eating away at flesh until all that was left was a screaming mouth; lambent green fire dissolving bone until only ashes remained, clogging my throat and airways with the smell of death. "A side that's selfish, concerned only with survival, that wants to see our enemies suffer. Shiba-fukutaicho, Hirako-taicho, and the others…they've always managed to control that part of themselves before. I don't see why that should change just because that side's got a face now."

"Okay, but what's the difference?" I asked, gesturing wildly at the display case. The adorably shaped cakes stared back at me mockingly and I scowled.

"One of them is modeled after Limited Edition Chappy #34. The other is modeled after Limited Edition Chappy #56," the storekeeper said in a bored tone.

"They look the same!" I protested. And theydid. Both of them were anatomically incorrect, with heads way too large for their body, shrunken feet (and seriously, how was a rabbit supposed to hop with legs like toothpicks?), and eyebrows. What kind of rabbit had eyebrows?

"Clearly, you are not a Chappy fan," he replied. I scowled harder. I mean he was right, but still.

"Whatever. Very well, I'll take one of each," I said with a sigh. I could have whichever one Rukia didn't want.

Then, because my luck sucked, it started to rain.

"Ah, fuck. I don't suppose you have a box or something I could put these in?" I asked, glancing at the shopkeeper. He didn't even bother to look up, having already gone back to reading his magazine.

"Nope, paper bags only."

"Figures," I muttered under my breath, shielding the bag under my clothes as much as I was able to before sprinting out into the rain. Which was why I didn't notice the figure in front of me until it was too late.

"I'm so sorry," I apologized profusely, extending a hand to help up the girl I'd just knocked over. "I wasn't looking where I was going; it's completely my fault."

"Don't worry about it," she said brightly. I didn't recognize her, although a quick glance at her uniform revealed that she was from the 9th Division. "I'm actually glad I ran into you, since Suzuki-san wanted to speak with you. Something to do with the newspaper?"

I stifled a groan.

"I—yes, I'll head right over," I said, after deliberating for a moment. "Would you do me a favor, though?"

"Of course, Yukimura-san," she said, smiling. I withdrew the now-slightly-wet paper bag from inside my shihakusho and handed it to her.

"Could you deliver this to my sister Rukia? You'll know it's her, she looks a lot like me," I said gratefully. "She should be at the Second at this time. Tell her there's something I need to take care of first, and then I'll be right over."

"I'll do that right away, Yukimura-san." She paused. "You should hurry over and get out of the rain, it's rather chilly out."

Well, she was definitely right about it being cold out, I thought, shivering to myself, as I hurried over to the Ninth. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a manhole.

Ah, what the hell. My clothes were ruined anyway and it was starting to rain harder now. Prying open the manhole cover, I dropped down inside.

I'd made it almost to the Ninth before instinct—or maybe it was months of playing a demented version of hide-and-seek—caused me to lurch to the side.

It still wasn't enough to completely avoid the impossibly long silver blade that sped past me, slicing through the muscles of my upper arm.

"Ya never could make things easy for yourself, could ya, Hisana-chan?" Gin asked, stepping out from the shadows. "I would've made it quick, you know. Almost painless."

"When have you ever known me to take the easy way out?" I retorted, trying my hardest to pretend that my heart wasn't racing like I'd just ran a marathon. "If you were going to kill me, Ichimaru-san, the least you could do is allow me to face my death head on."

Withdrawing my zanpakuto—a motion that hid the twitch of my left hand, the click of a button—I activated my shikai, inhaling sharply as the familiar wave of AdrenalineEcstasyTooMuchSensation rushed over me. For the first time since my coma, Tenshi no Tsubasa's welcoming presence enveloped me and I hated myself in that instant for pushing off reconciling with her.

Don't, she whispered. This is no time for regrets.

I'm sorry, I replied. It was all I could say.

As am I, little firebird. But now, we stand together, as we always have.

Gin studied me, his expression unreadable.

"You aren't surprised," he said finally.

"I always knew there was a possibility I might die for this," I admitted. Not that I'd allowed myself to think about it. Tilting my head to the side, I offered him a wry smile. "Give Aizen-fukutaicho my regards, will you?"

I watched as Gin's eyes opened in shock, his grip on Shinsou going slack for the briefest fraction of a second.

"Hadou #33: Soukatsui," I intoned, sending a wave of bright blue flames towards him. He vanished a millisecond before the flames hit and I whirled around, lifting Tenshi no Tsubasa up just in time to block Shinsou from slicing me in two.

"Do ya really think you can win against me, Hisana-chan?" Gin murmured, pressing forward. One side of his lips quirked up as I staggered backwards. The next instant, the weight on Tenshi no Tsubasa was gone and I couldn't help but cry out as unforgiving metal stabbed through my abdomen and out my back. Before I could react, he yanked Shinsou back out again, taking care to twist the blade as he did so.

"How long can ya keep this up, I wonder? Your shikai ability is powerful, I admit, but is it enough ta save you a third time?" I lurched forward with a choked gasp as a sharp pain sliced through neck, felt myself instinctively press against the wound to stop the blood flow, just before a hard blow to my ribs sent me sprawling to the floor. "How 'bout a fourth, hmm?"

For a moment, he simply watched as I lay on the ground, gasping for air, the taste of iron in my mouth.

"Why won't ya fight?" He asked finally, crouching down next to me. "I know you're capable of more. What ya did to those hollows…it goes far further than simple regeneration abilities. So why won't you? Is it because I haven't pushed you enough?"

I didn't answer, instead tilting my head to press my cheek against the damp sewer floor, each breath a sob. I could feel Tenshi's flames frantically working inside me, repairing tissue and mending bone.

I almost wanted to tell her to stop. What would be the point of it now?

"I tried to warn you," Gin said suddenly, his voice so soft I almost didn't hear him. From anyone else, I might have called it an apology.

I turned to look at him. He was studying me intently, an oddly disquieted expression on his face.

"I know," I breathed, my voice just as soft, a second before I took a deep breath and blew a stream of white-hot flames into his face.

Gin lurched backwards in surprise, hissing in pain, and I took the opportunity to leap up and inject him in the neck with the sedative I'd hidden in my left hand.

"That…that won't work," he said, swaying slightly. "The…the sedatives the Fourth uses aren't…aren't strong enough to—"

"The sedatives the average Fourth Division member uses aren't powerful enough to work on someone as strong as you, no," I agreed, my words coming out raspy and painful. I'd never tried exhaling such a large volume of flames before. "The Fourth Division lieutenant, however, has the authority to carry around a much higher grade of tranquilizers." Granted, I didn't think Unohana-taicho meant for me to carry them around in my pocket, but you didn't spend months around Kurotsuchi Mayuri without picking up a thing or two."

Gin laughed then, a wild, dangerous kind of laugh that had me wanting to sprint away if sprinting away didn't mean showing my back to him.

"Ya got me, Hisana-chan." He grinned, exposing his teeth. "So why don't ya end it, huh? Come on now." He tilted his head back even as he steadied himself against the wall, baring his throat. "I already cut yours, after all. You'd just be returnin' the favor."

He smirked at me, just daring me to come closer.

Yeah, I wasn't about to take that dare.

Keeping my eyes fixed on him, I started backing up as quickly as I was able to. The moment I rounded the corner, I turned around and started running for the nearest exit. I didn't make it far before I doubled over in a coughing fit, the lining of my throat raw and inflamed.

I'm sorry, Tenshi no Tsubasa whispered.

Don't be, I replied. Four fatal injuries in five minutes is a lot to heal.

Before I could say anything more, the sound of clapping caught my attention. I looked up to see Aizen leaning against the wall, a strange smile on his lips.

"Aizen-fukutaicho." I closed my eyes as a wave of resignation washed over me, gripping onto Tenshi tightly. "Of course."

"I'm impressed, Yukimura-san," Aizen greeted me genially. "Not many people can manage to catch Gin off guard."

"I would have thought a trip to the sewers to be beneath you, Aizen-fukutaicho," I said, a sardonic twist to my lips. He raised his eyebrows.

"You presume a lot about me, Yukimura-san." Aizen tilted his head to the side. "I'm glad to have gotten the chance to speak with you, though. Would you mind indulging me in one question?"

"Shoot," I said through gritted teeth.

"What gave me away?" He asked, genuinely curious. "You knew that I was the one to send Gin, I presume you know that I was the one behind the creation of the Visored…what caused you to start suspecting me? You had no reason to doubt me, after all. I made sure of it."

I pursed my lips, considering him for a moment.

"Your act is very good, Aizen-fukutaicho," I said slowly. "And…I could truly believe you were the kindhearted, compassionate man you set yourself up to be. But then you tried to convince me that Urahara-taicho turned on his own lieutenant, on those who believed in him." I paused. "Urahara Kisuke and I may have our differences, Aizen-fukutaicho, but on this…on how he treats those under his care, I trust him wholeheartedly."

Aizen stared at me for a moment. Then he let out a reluctant chuckle, shaking his head wryly.

"I never thought I'd see the day when Urahara Kisuke would manage to inspire such faith in his character, to the point that someone would take his word over mine," Aizen said, amused. "I'm almost offended."

Aizen tilted his head to the side, studying me.

"You must know that you're going to die, and yet you're still so very calm," he mused. "Most people at this point would be begging for mercy."

"And what good would that do me? You have none," I said sharply. "And even if you did, I wouldn't want it."

"So what do you want from me, if not my mercy?" He asked indulgently.

"Your honesty," I said without hesitating. "There is something I'd like to ask you, Aizen-fukutaicho."

"I suppose it's only fair, given that you answered my question," he said, smiling faintly. "Ask away, Yukimura-san."

I paused, clenching my fists.

"Was anything of you real?" I asked quietly, watching as Aizen stilled. There were better questions, perhaps, that I could have asked. Still, for the sake of everyone who had ever believed in Aizen Sousuke, I felt like I needed to ask.

"I haven't been me in a very long time, Yukimura-san," he said slowly. "But the most effective lies have bits of truth to them, the most believable illusions have pieces of reality tying them together. What you saw of me during our talks…I believe you saw more of those fragments than most."

Despite myself—maybe because he had no reason to lie, not now, not to a living corpse—I believed him.

"Was it worth it?" I asked softly. "You have to know there's no going back now. Whatever you're seeking—immortality, power, an ideal—was it worth losing everything you have?"

"That's the thing, Yukimura-san," he said, studying me closely. "It's easy to throw everything away when you have nothing worth keeping."

"I see." I was quiet for a moment. "Is this how I die, then? Alone in a sewer, with my friends and family forever wondering what happened to me?"

"Oh, most definitely not," Aizen said, eyes widening slightly. "You're worth far more than that, Yukimura-san."

I swallowed, feeling dread begin to pool in my gut.

"What do you mean by that?" I asked warily.

"What I mean, Yukimura-san, is that while you make a very good shinigami—a remarkably good one, in fact—you'll make a better tragedy. Poor little Yukimura Hisana, so good, so kind….who believed so strongly in the humanity of monsters, only to be slaughtered by the very people she sought to protect," he said, smile widening at the dawning comprehension on my face. "Can you imagine the headlines when it comes out that Yukimura Hisana, next lady of the Kuchiki Clan, newest lieutenant of the Fourth, most promising Academy student in decades, was murdered in cold blood by the Visored, who she fought day and night to save? I haven't quite decided on the details yet. I considered framing my old captain, Hirako-san, as the main perpetrator, but I think I'll have to go with Shiba Kaien. There's something deliciously ironic about it all, don't you think?"

"No…" I whispered numbly, feeling oddly cold. I felt bile rising up in my throat. "No, you can't…no one will believe…"

"That you would use your newly-earned lieutenant status to visit the Visored in their cells the day before the trial?" Aizen asked, raising his eyebrows. "Or that you'd enter those cells in order to offer medical care and reassurance? Of course, such a decision would be considered foolhardy, reckless, even downright stupid…but when has Yukimura Hisana ever listened to reason when her friends needed her?" He paused. "You needn't worry about me making your death convincing, Yukimura-san. People will believe anything their senses tell them, I've found. I won't even need your actual body to stage the scene."

I clenched my jaw, looking down at my feet.

"It won't work," I said lowly, forcing myself to believe it, needing to believe it.

"No?" Aizen asked softly. "You underestimate your own worth, my dear. People will rally under your name, fight for you, die for you, turn on past allies, all to bring you justice. It's quite touching when you think about it." He smiled. "I really must thank you, Yukimura-san. Between your actions this past week and Urahara Kisuke arriving at the opportune moment to take the fall for me, I couldn't have planned this better than if I'd tried."

"You won't win," I repeated myself. This time, my voice didn't shake.

"Won't I, though?" He asked, one side of his lips quirking up. "I believe this concludes our game together, Yukimura-san."

I swallowed, pressing my lips together tightly.

"Thank you," I said after a moment, clutching Tenshi no Tsubasa's hilt like a lifeline. "For explaining everything to me so clearly."

Tilting my head up, I looked at him. I wasn't sure what kind of expression was on my face; all I knew was that I didn't think I'd ever hated anyone so much as I hated Aizen Sousuke in that instant.

He didn't say anything; simply waited, patiently.

"And so I drown again," I whispered to myself. My left hand twitched, index finger tapping at my thigh in a motion that, to anyone else, would have seemed unconscious. "Burn, Tenshi no Tsu—"

The sword that pierced Yukimura Hisana through the heart came without any kind of warning—soundless, impossibly fast, and gone as quickly as it'd appeared. Sousuke caught her as she fell, her eyes wide and uncomprehending. She coughed once, lightly, blood splattering her lips.

"Sorry for the delay, Aizen-fukutaicho," Gin said lightly, his tone belying the slight unsteadiness to his steps.

"No need to apologize, Gin," Sousuke replied, looking down at the dying girl in his arms.

"You should feel honored," he informed her, although he doubted she heard him. Already, consciousness was fading from her eyes as her body struggled to keep alive. "You're the first person he's ever used his bankai on."

"I can take her off your hands, if ya like," Gin said, his voice deceptively casual. "Dispose of her body and all."

Her body, not the body. Sousuke had to hide a smile. It appeared that his protégé had developed a bit of an attachment.


"No need," Sousuke replied over the sound of Yukimura Hisana's labored breathing. She was still alive, remarkably enough. A quick glance at her chest revealed that her shikai's flames had condensed there, simultaneously working to repair her heart while pumping her blood throughout her body. "

It really was a fascinating ability, the way it evolved and adapted to keep her alive—to the point that it could temporarily replace a heart.

"It's almost a shame I won't get to study you further," Sousuke murmured, reaching up to brush Yukimura's hair from her face. "In fact…"

He considered her for another moment before turning to Gin.

"Experiment 96 is coming along quite nicely, is it not?" He asked. It had survived all of Sousuke's early tests and had fared well when pitted against other hollows of similar reiatsu.

It had such an interesting Resurreccion ability too: the ability to devour a Hollow and receive all of its abilities and spiritual energy. Sousuke hadn't had a chance to test this ability on a shinigami yet, but—

"I believe so," Gin said, confused at the non-sequitur.

"Good." Shifting Yukimura's body so that his left arm supported her back and his right rested under her knees, he straightened up. "It's been a while since I've fed it."

"Tenshi? Tenshi, is that you?"

Tenshi no Tsubasa shifted her gaze from the dying forest in front of her as Hisana stirred, calling out weakly.

"Shh. I'm here, little firebird. Go back to sleep," she said soothingly.

Beneath them, the ground rumbled, sending branches and leaves tumbling down on them. Tenshi no Tsubasa stiffened, shifting to shield Hisana with her wings.

It was too late though, as Hisana sat up, taking in their soul world with wide eyes.

"What's happening? I don't understand—" Hisana's voice trailed off, attention caught by the sword resting on the ground next to her. It was still glowing, dimly blue, but cracks were already spiderwebbing through the metal, the blade starting to disintegrate at a slow but steady pace. Her gaze then drifted over to Tenshi no Tsubasa, taking in her weakly flickering flames, the way her feathers were already beginning to fall out. Finally she looked down at her own body, enveloped in brilliant blue fire that burned brighter and brighter even as Tenshi no Tsubasa's own flames grew less noticeable with each passing second.

Her eyes widened, horror and realization setting in.

"No," she whispered. "No…no, Tenshi…stop it, whatever you're doing, stop it, please—!"

Tenshi no Tsubasa closed her eyes.

"It's okay, little firebird," she whispered. "You're going to be okay."

With her regenerative powers split between Tenshi no Tsubasa and herself, Hisana stood no chance of surviving in a hollow's soul. But if Tenshi no Tsubasa poured what remained of her power into Hisana...then maybe, just maybe-

"Kisuke," Yoruichi whispered urgently. "Kisuke, wake up." At her voice, Kisuke jerked awake instantly, eyes automatically focusing on her face.

He looked awful, Yoruichi thought, taking in the paleness of his skin, his limp, sweaty hair, and the dark circles under his eyes. But then, being a prisoner of the Gotei 13 did that to people.

"Yoruichi-san," he said, gaze questioning. "What—?"

"There's no time to explain. We need to go; I've already picked up the others," she interrupted. As they flash-stepped in the direction of the Kuchiki Compound, she forced herself not to think of the brutally violent footage she'd viewed not even twenty minutes ago—how, when she'd rushed over to where the Visored were contained, she'd found the floor slick with blood, bits of viscera scattered everywhere, and Yukimura Hisana's head discarded in the corner of Shiba Kaien's cell.

How the only proof—not even proof, really, more of a desperate hope—she had that the Visored weren't the ones responsible, was the piece of scrap paper she'd found on her desk that morning with an anonymous note scrawled onto it:

The cause of Yukimura Hisana's death is a lie. The Visored are innocent.

Not 'Yukimura Hisana's death was a lie,' but the cause of it was.

"Yoruichi-san?" Kisuke asked, glancing at her in concern as Yoruichi pushed down a sudden wave of grief. He'd always been able to pick up on her emotions, regardless of how hard she tried to hide them.

"I'll explain later," she said shortly. Explanations were for moments when they didn't have the entire Gotei 13 breathing down their backs, calling for blood.

In the distance, a cluster of trees crumbled to the ground and Hisana doubled over with a cry, clutching her head in sudden pain.

It was a deeply intimate kind of agony, Tenshi thought, more visceral than the loss of any limb. The feeling of someone reaching into your brain and scooping out chunks of identity—memories, personality, everything that made you who you were.

With an enormous effort, Tenshi no Tsubasa managed to compose herself long enough to push more of her flames Hisana's way. She didn't have much time, after all, and Hisana needed those flames or else…or else she wouldn't survive and if Hisana didn't survive, what was even the point—

Small hands gripped her on her wings tightly, causing her to open her eyes.

"No," Hisana was shaking her head wildly. "Stop it, Tenshi, we'll find another way—"

"There is no other way," Tenshi no Tsubasa said dazedly. Her feathers were starting to fall out at a faster rate now, leaving large, ugly bald spots behind. "I don't mind, Hisana."

"But I do!" Hisana had started crying at some point, great heaving sobs that shook her entire body. "I-I need you Tenshi, so please don't leave me, I c-can't—please don't give up on me Tenshi, I don't want to be alone—"

A giant crack splintered what remained of their mindscape's forest, causing Tenshi no Tsubasa to collapse to the ground. From it, smaller cracks splintered outwards, each one feeling like someone taking a sledgehammer to her sanity.

"No!" Hisana cried out, scrambling to her side, shaking her wildly. "No, please, stay with me—"

"You're going to be fine," Tenshi no Tsubasa assured her. "You survived without me once, little firebird. You will again."

"Kaien did what?" Juushiro asked in a hoarse whisper, feeling the blood drain from his face. Shunsui nodded, expression grim.

"I came over as soon as I heard," he said solemnly, no trace of his usual smile on his face. "As of right now, the eight Visored, Tsukabishi Tessai, Urahara Kisuke, and Shihouin Yoruichi are all missing in action. It…doesn't look good." Shunsui paused. "I'm sorry, Juu-chan."

"No," he said, shaking his head. "No, that can't be true. Kaien wouldn't…he would never…not to her—"

"Juushiro!" Shunsui cut him off sharply. "I realize your feelings but this isn't the time to start questioning things. You cannot affordto be seen as sympathetic to any of them, do you understand?"

Juushiro was quiet for a moment.

"I want to see that footage," he said finally. Shunsui hesitated.

"Juu-chan, I don't think that's a good idea—"

"There is video footage, correct?" Juushiro interrupted, a hint of steel in his voice. "The entire prison is under constant surveillance. I want to see it for myself, Shunsui."

Shunsui studied him for a moment.

"Very well, then," he said. "If that's what you truly wish."

Flash-stepping out of his office, Juushiro pretended he didn't see the hint of pity in Shunsui's eyes as he left.

"PLEASE!" Hisana screamed up at the fracturing sky—a child's scream, full of a kind of confused terror as her mind continued shattering to pieces, one memory at a time. When was the last time she had screamed like that? Not in this lifetime, surely. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry for what I did! Just please don't take her from me! I'm sorry!"

Tenshi no Tsubasa closed her eyes, wishing she could fade away quicker. Anything was better than this, Hisana's desperate cries ringing in her ears.

And without her there, Hisana's memories of Tenshi no Tsubasa would disappear along with all the others. Oblivion would be a mercy, at this point.

The scent of copper blanketed the room in a thick fog of rust. Byakuya breathed slowly, in and out, letting the taste of it settle on his tongue.

"Byakuya." His grandfather gripped his shoulder, unable to fully hide the note of worry in his voice. "Byakuya, that's enough. It's time to go."

"She died in this room," he said lowly. If his voice shook slightly, he couldn't bring himself to care. "She…she must have been in so much pain."

"I'm sorry, Byakuya," Ginrei said quietly.

"How could they?" Byakuya whispered, clenching his fists together so tightly he could feel his fingernails cutting into the palms of his hands. "I—they were her friends, jii-sama, and they…they painted the walls with her."

That was the worst thing about it all. He had seen firsthand how hard Hisana had worked to save them, and they had repaid that with her death.

Ginrei's hand tightened around his shoulder.

"We'll get justice for her, Byakuya," he said solemnly. "I promise you, even if it takes every ounce of influence and gold this clan has, they won't get away with this."

A brief commotion outside caught their attention before the door opened, revealing the face of Kuchiki Ryou.

"Kuchiki-sama, Kuchiki-dono." He bowed respectfully, although not before Byakuya saw his face pale at the sight of the room. "It's just been confirmed that the brief spike of spiritual energy noted by the South Border Patrol early this morning was due to the Senkaimon being opened."

"The Senkaimon?" Ginrei asked, frowning. "That's impossible, only Byakuya and I—"

Byakuya wasn't listening anymore though, instead rushing outside to where two Fourth Division members were sorting through what little of Hisana's possessions had been recovered at the scene.

"A plaque, she should have been carrying a jade plaque with the Kuchiki crest on it," he said urgently. "Where is it?"

"I-I apologize, Kuchiki-fukutaicho," the shorter of the two answered, looking up at him with red-rimmed eyes. "I'm afraid we didn't see anything like that."

For a long moment, Byakuya didn't move, couldn't move. Because if the Senkaimon was opened and the plaque was missing, then…then…

"What is it, Byakuya?" Ginrei asked, walking up to him.

"She took it," Byakuya whispered numbly. "When…when I asked Hisana to be my wife, I gave her mother's jade plaque. Yoruichi, she must have taken it when—"

"When she broke the Visored out of their cells," Ginrei finished, a kind of quiet fury on his face. Byakuya didn't think he'd ever seen his grandfather so angry. "That woman…to think she would stoop so low as to actually—!" He took a deep breath. "We'll get it back, Byakuya. You have my word."

"And Shihouin Yoruichi?" Byakuya asked, after a pause. "What about her, jii-sama?"

Ginrei's expression was like steel.

"This incident has proven that the Shihouin Yoruichi I knew is long dead. This imitation of her—" His voice hardened. "Her existence is an insult to both the Shihouin Clan and mine. I won't allow it to continue."

"Tenshi, it hurts," Hisana said brokenly. She was sitting against what remained of the willow tree, her arms wrapped around her knees. Most of their mindscape was gone now; only the island remained. "I want it to stop. Make it stop. It hurts."

"Hisana." Tenshi no Tsubasa took a deep breath. She couldn't move much anymore; she was little more than a breathing skeleton at this point. "Hisana, I need you to listen to me."

"Can you make it stop hurting?" Hisana asked, heartbreakingly hopeful.

"No." Tenshi no Tsubasa exhaled. "No, I…I wish that I could but—" She would suffer a thousand deaths if it meant saving Hisana from this pain. "Hisana, I need you to pay attention, okay?"

With the last of her strength, she lifted her head up to look Hisana in the eye.

"I know…I know that things seem hopeless right now and that you're in a lot of pain. But you're going to survive this and you're going to remember who you are," Tenshi no Tsubassa said fiercely. "You're going to find yourself again—and when you do, you're going to live. Do you understand me? Promise me you'll live, Hisana."

Hisana looked at her then, really looked at her, and for a moment Tenshi no Tsubasa could see a glimmer of awareness in those eyes.

"But you won't," she said. It wasn't a question.

"Please, Hisana," Tenshi no Tsubasa said softly. "It would make me very happy."

Hisana blinked, eyes returning to their childlike state.

"Okay then," she said simply. "If it would make you happy, then I promise."

Tenshi no Tsubasa let out a sigh of relief, resting her head back down.

She should have guessed that Hisana, even with her world falling apart around her, would still find it in her to prioritize another being's happiness over her own.

For a long moment, Rukia simply stared, uncomprehending.

"No," she said, shaking her head. "No, that can't be true. There must have been some kind of mistake."

"I'm afraid not, Rukia-chan," Aizen Sousuke said softly. "I'm so sorry."

"No," Rukia said louder. She glared furiously at him, wishing she could smack the sympathetic look off his face, hating the pity in his eyes because the pity meant it was true and it wasn't, it wasn't—!

"She's just…she just got caught up in work like she always does! Look, she just sent me these—" Rukia faltered as she thrust the paper bag from the bakery into Aizen's face, only now remembering that she'd already eaten both of the cakes.

She hadn't even been that hungry when she'd eaten them. She'd just wanted to spite Hisana for standing her up.

"She's not…she can't be…" Rukia bit her lip so hard it bled. "Hisana's strong, she wouldn't—I mean, she faced an entire forest of hollows, for god's sake! There's no way she—no way that she's—"

"I'm sorry. She's gone, Rukia-chan," Aizen said, his tone impossibly gentle. "Rest assured, we'll make sure to catch the ones responsible."

The ones responsible. Rukia swallowed, feeling bile rise up in her throat. The Visored. The ones Rukia had asked Hisana to save, the ones she'd suggested Hisana visit—

"Rukia-chan?" Aizen asked in sudden alarm as Rukia staggered forward. "Rukia-chan, are you alright? Rukia-chan!"

He caught her before she fell, supporting her in a half-embrace.

"I'm going to get you to the Fourth," he told her reassuringly. She let him pull her into his arms, her head rolling back to rest against his shoulder as he flash-stepped away.

Someone's screaming, she thought to herself distantly as black-robed people rushed her into a room, shouting words like 'emotional shock' and 'acute stress reaction'. She remembered the time she found a mangled rabbit in the woods, its body all bent and twisted. That rabbit had screamed too.

Hisana would fix it, though. Hisana always did.

In the end, being consumed was very much like drowning—the same feeling of weightlessness, the same slow fading into nothing. As she slipped into oblivion, Tenshi no Tsubasa's last thought was that she was glad Hisana had finally fallen unconscious a few minutes ago.

At least she'd saved Hisana the pain of watching her die.

"How are you holding up?" Yoruichi asked, sitting down next to him.

"Better than Shiba-san," Kisuke replied, which was the truth. He was quiet for a long moment, looking down at the newspaper in his lap—last week's edition of the Seireitei Communication Monthly.

"She didn't deserve this, you know," he said quietly. "She wasn't like us, she was innocent. She shouldn't…she shouldn't have been involved in any of this."

"You don't have to tell me that," Yoruichi said, closing her eyes. "I can't help but think…if I had just stepped in, stopped her when I first saw what she was doing—" She trailed off. "She made herself too tempting of a target."

She glanced at him, sliding a blank envelope over.

"She asked me to give you this, if anything…if anything happened to her. Said you would know what it meant."

Kisuke hesitated for a moment, fingers hovering over the envelope. Then he tore into it, pulling out a single page of paper. There was only one sentence on it, written in a familiar scrawl.

Look for my last message.


A/N: All of you people who thought things were going too well for her…you were right.

and on that happy note, this marks the end of the pre-canon arc!

(As much as you probably hate me right now, if I've succeeded in making you hate my Aizen more than canon!Aizen, then I will have considered this chapter a success. But also pls don't kill me.)