Author's Note: I'd like to start off by thanking all of you for your patience and for not giving up on this story. This past year has been crazy, what with starting medical school, so I haven't had much time or energy to write. A lot of you have sent me inquiries asking if I've discontinued this story—as of right now, the answer is no. Unfortunately, I can't predict what will happen in the next year/years and so I can't promise to finish it. Fanfiction is, and has always been, simply a pastime for me and as far as priorities go, my personal life and future career will always come first. Studying to become a good doctor is my top priority right now and even under the best of circumstances, I don't see myself updating more than once or twice a year. What I can promise however, is that should I ever choose to discontinue WTL, I will let all of you know. Until then, even if it's been a year or 5 years, you can safely assume I'm still working on it.

If after reading this, you decide an update a year/every few years is too long a wait, I completely understand and I thank you for sticking with this story as long as you have. To everyone else, thank you again for your patience and I hope you continue to enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoy writing it.

Touch is the first sense that returns to her, in the form of a constant, suffocating pressure on her chest. She tries to inhale and feels the sensation of pressure magnify a thousand-fold when she realizes she is unable to—she cannot inhale, she cannot breathe, and she instinctually reaches out, clawing at everything and nothing as she is crushed from the outside and panic wells up inside her, choking her, until—

She breaks free, shuddering as she pushes herself out of a pile of rubble and dead tree branches, and takes her first look at the world around her. It is empty, silent save for her own panting breaths. A desert, maybe—except that even deserts had life.

A flash of blue catches her eye and she looks down to find herself covered in vibrant green and blue feathers. She frowns, brushing them off before walking off to explore. An empty, gnawing feeling tugs at her and she absentmindedly rubs at the hole in her chest.

Maybe find something to eat too.

"You said you would protect her," Kazuki said quietly, a tremor in his voice. Behind him, Miwa's quiet sobs filled in the space between his words. "It's barely been a year since she left, since she was forced to leave, and you're telling me—!"

"Kazuki," Mitsuo interrupted, and Kazuki slammed his fist on the table in a sudden bout of fury.

"They took her from us, Mitsuo! They never deserved her but they took her from us and they killed her! They killed our sister, Mitsuo! How can you just stand there and—"

"Come on, Kazuki," Kaori cut in suddenly, speaking up for the first time. Her eyes were dry—but then, she's never been one to cry in front of outsiders. "Let's get you a drink. Mitsuo can handle this." She hesitated. "You as well, Miwa-chan. Let's give them some privacy."

Mitsuo waited until they left the room before he turned to the man that he, in time, could have considered a brother of sorts, had things turned out differently. Kuchiki Byakuya stood in front of him avoiding his gaze, stony faced, tight-lipped.

"Rukia and Renji?" He asked.

"Safe. They'll be here in a day or two. Rukia elected to travel…separately," Kuchiki said tersely. The they didn't want to come with me remained unsaid.

Mitsuo nodded, face facing the table. When he looked up again, his expression was all business.

"Her remains will be returned to us," Mitsuo stated, and his tone left no room for argument. "She belongs here, with her family."

Kuchiki's head jerked up. "We would have been husband and wife one day. It is my duty to make arrangements—"

"And you may make arrangements to send her back here," Mitsuo said coolly, his voice still strictly professional. "I believe you and your people have taken quite enough from us."

Kuchiki flinched before he could stop himself and Mitsuo sighed, softening his expression a little.

"For what it's worth, I don't blame you," he said quietly. "I meant what I said to you before. It was never your job to ensure her safety. It was simply your job to try."

Kuchiki looked away again but not before Mitsuo caught a glimpse of something devastatingly vulnerable in his expression. He looked like a man shattered and Mitsuo…Mitsuo couldn't help but pity him. He still had Kazuki and Kaori and Miwa, and he would grieve with them later once it was just the four of them remaining. Kuchiki, though…Kuchiki didn't look like he had anyone.

"It wasn't enough," Kuchiki said.

"No," Mitsuo agreed. "But then, it rarely is."

Kuchiki was silent for a long moment. Then—

"I'll deliver her ashes here, as requested. You're right. She—she should be with family," he said finally. "And besides, she was safer here with you than she ever was with me."

"Thank you," Mitsuo said gently. "I mean that. I know how much you loved her." He hesitated. "I know it's not much but if you're ever in Inuzuri…if you ever want to visit her, you'll always have a place in our home."

"I don't think your brother would welcome me," Kuchiki said wryly. Mitsuo shrugged.

"He'll get over it," he said simply. "It's what Hisana would have wanted, and he never could win an argument against her."

Kuchiki laughed, a raw, wounded sound that made Mitsuo turn away. He wondered if it was the first time since Hisana's death that the other man managed to laugh.

"Thank you," Kuchiki said, calming down. "It means a lot to me. Truly."

"Don't mention it." Mitsuo motioned towards the kitchen. "A drink?"

Kuchiki hesitated.

"Come on. It looks like you could use one." Mitsuo attempted a smile. Judging by the look on Kuchiki's face, he didn't think he succeeded. "And besides, it's an Inuzuri ritual. After losing someone, you toast to all the good memories you had together with that person until you forget to be sad."

Kuchiki cleared his throat. "You're going to need a lot of alcohol."

"Luckily for us, Kazuki owns a bar." His smile softened into something a little more genuine. "Now follow me and get ready, because I have a lot of stories to share."

This world, she quickly learns, is not as empty as she first thought. Life comes in the form of strange masked creatures with high pitched cries and similar holes in their chests. Most of them are grotesquely disfigured— some of them are missing limbs; others look as though they've been half dissolved in acid. The more complete they are, the stronger they are…although even the strongest, she soon finds, aren't too much of a match for her. Any injuries they manage to inflict quickly vanish in bursts of blue flame, wounds sealing instantaneously and leaving only the faint echo of pain behind.

She likes the relatively intact ones best. The others, the ones missing half their limbs and organs, barely clinging to solid form—they taste like anger and pain and loneliness. With the relatively complete ones though, she'll sometimes get random flashes of memory. The sensation of a soft blanket against her cheek, the cold bite of winter air stinging her nose…the embrace of a child. The memories don't fit quite right in her head, as if something inside her knows they don't belong, but they're better than nothing and it isn't long before she starts seeking them out.

A persistent itch begins to form at the side of her head, but it's easy to ignore. It's nothing compared to the hunger, anyway.

"I know you said you didn't want to eat, but have a little dinner at least. You haven't eaten all day," said Yoruichi. When Kaien still didn't respond, she bit back a sigh. While Kisuke and Tessai had managed to stabilize the Visored and prevent the hollowfication from progressing any further—no easy feat, given that they'd been on the run the entire time from a Gotei 13 that was out for blood—it had been a rough couple of months for all of them. Kisuke had spent nearly every waking moment in his makeshift lab, feverishly working on a way to reverse the hollowfication. She knew him well enough to know he hated himself for not yet succeeding. Kensei and Hiyori…well, it was nearly impossible to get through twenty seconds of conversation without them lashing out, bone creeping over their faces. Rose had holed himself up in his room and hadn't spoken to anyone in days. Kaien…well, Kaien—

"Look, I know Tessai can't match the Shiba Clan chefs but if you keep this up, you're going to make him feel bad. At least eat a little," she cajoled halfheartedly.

"I'll eat when I'm hungry," Kaien replied tersely.

"And when will that be? In another month? Six?" Yoruichi asked sharply before forcibly calming herself down. Damn it, she never had been good at the whole comforting-people thing. That was always more Tessai's area of expertise. And Hachigen's.

Must be a Kido Corps thing. It certainly wasn't an Omnitsukido thing.

"It's been months, Kaien. We're all worried about you," she said softly, channeling her best Hachigen impression.

"Well, don't be," he snapped, turning around to glare at her. "Given what happened the last time someone worried about me, I think it'd be for the best if—"

Evidently Hachigen's manner of comforting only worked when it was Hachigen doing the comforting.

"You think she'd be happy with the way you are right now?" Yoruichi asked coolly. "Wallowing in guilt, refusing to eat, refusing to sleep?"

At that, Kaien laughed bitterly, expression harsh.

"A bit difficult to ask her what she wants right now, isn't it?"

"You know you weren't the one to—" She began.

"Kill her?" Kaien's expression twisted, an ugly sneer marring his face. "That's the thing though. I don't know and you don't either, Yoruichi-san! What I do know is that after blacking out for who knows how long, I woke up in that cell with her blood on my hands and her head at my feet. I can still taste her blood, Yoruichi-san, every time I go to sleep, did you know that? And sometimes in the middle of the night, I wake up wanting more. I know she believed in me, believed in us when no one else did, and I know she died for it."

His voice cracked in the middle but he pushed on, glaring at her through red-rimmed eyes. "I know that the only piece of evidence that I wasn't the one to kill her is an anonymous note someone left on your desk, claiming our innocence. Now, I've known you for…how long, Yoruichi-san? At least two centuries? I know what the Omnitsukido considers credible evidence, and that isn't it. You say you know I'm innocent but the truth of the matter is, the only reason you're so determined to believe that is because otherwise, it means you rescued eight murderers."

"If I had doubted, even for a moment, your innocence in regards to Yukimura Hisana's death, I would have left you all to rot in that cell," Yoruichi said sharply.

"What makes you so sure we weren't the ones to kill her?" Kaien asked. She pursed her lips.

"I trusted Hisana's judgment. I trust it still."

"Even now?" Kaien asked in a way that was probably meant to sound sarcastic but just came out tired instead. Yoruich didn't say anything for a moment.

"You know, Hisana said something interesting the last time I spoke to her. She said…she said hollowfication was nothing more than bringing out the darker side in us and making it more visible, giving it a face and a voice. That fundamentally, nothing in you has changed—that it's simply more difficult to control those darker impulses now," Yoruichi said distantly. She thought back to that last conversation she had with Hisana, and how her eyes were so confident, so knowing, almost as if she could see the future laid out in front of her in that exact moment.

She turned her attention back to Kaien. "But you've always managed to control those impulses before. You can learn to control them again."

Kaien looked away.

"She always did have a gift for making the most complicated, difficult problems sound simple," he said, voice wavering slightly.

"That she did," Yoruichi agreed. She tilted her head, studying him carefully. "Tell me something, Kaien. In all the time you've known Hisana, have you ever wanted to hurt her?"

"What? Of course not!" He protested, recoiling. "What the hell kind of question is that?!"

"You can be honest; I've never really been the judgmental type. And I knew her too, I remember what she could be like," she said, waving him off. "Come on, you can't tell me that she's never touched a nerve? Never made you uncomfortable in the way she questioned the system you grew up in? You've never felt tempted to silence her, just so she would stop talking about things you didn't want to think about? You've never viewed her as a threat—"

"Never," Kaien cut her off coldly, expression darkening, and for a moment, just a moment, there's a hint of something not quite human in his face. Yoruichi fell silent, eyeing him warily. "I would never…I have never—" He took a deep breath. "I would have sooner cut off my own arm than ever lay a hand on her."

Yoruichi stayed quiet for a moment. Then she smiled.

"And that's why I believe you had nothing to do with her death," Yoruichi said softly. "I don't believe the hollowfication brings out anything that wasn't already there, and no part of you, however small, has ever been capable of hurting that girl." Kaien turned away, avoiding her gaze.

"I would like to believe that," he murmured. Yoruichi clasped him on the shoulder.

"Try. Because after all I've sacrificed to keep you and your fellow masked idiots alive, after what Hisana sacrificed, you're not allowed to give up on yourself, do you hear me?" She shoved a bento box at him. "Now eat and don't forget to thank Tessai afterwards. Neither of us may technically be clan heads anymore, but that doesn't mean we should forget our manners."

"You know, you almost sounded like her for a moment there," Kaien called out as she turned to leave. For the first time since this whole fiasco started, she could hear a hint of what almost sounded like a smile in his voice. "Hisana, I mean."

"Good," she replied without turning back. "There are far worse people to sound like."

It is in a rare moment of satiety that she notices a flash of green by her feet. At first, she thinks it is another feather—the damnable things seem to follow her around, no matter how hard she tries to get rid of them—but then she looks closer and realizes it is a tiny sapling. It is the first hint of plant life she has seen, the only form of life here aside from herself that is not disfigured and deformed and it seems oddly out of place. She reaches out, cradling it in her hands. An image— flashes through her mind.

/You're a big sister now, Hisana!" A dark-haired man with warm brown eyes and stubble on his chin grins at her. There's a sleeping infant in his arms and she finds herself unable to look away. "Would you like to hold her?"/

She stumbles, breathing hard, still feeling the warmth of a baby against her chest. It's the first memory she's acquired that felt like it belonged.

Her name is Hisana. She has a little sister.

It's a start.

"I guess I should say congrats. Ain't no easy feat, graduating the Academy in three years and then getting a seated officer position straight out of it."

Rukia turned at the sound of the familiar voice.

"Renji. I suppose I should say the same," she said lightly. Renji shrugged.

"Eh. The Eleventh is a lot less picky about who they accept than the Second. Those ninjas are hardcore."

"Still, I'm happy for you," Rukia murmured. She eyed the black markings on his face. "Those are new."

"What, these?" He pointed to the black tattoos above his eyebrows. "Oh yeah, Madarame-san took me out to get them after I officially joined the Eleventh," he said proudly. "Thinking of getting some more on my chest and arms too, but I wanted to wait until I won a couple big battles first. Thought it'd more meaningful that way."

Rukia snorted.

"Well, I see being in the Eleventh hasn't dented your ego any," she said.

"Nothin' wrong with a healthy dose of confidence," he replied.

"Hey, I'm not complaining. In fact, go ahead—build that confidence right up. It'll make kicking your ass more fun afterwards," Rukia grinned.

"Now who's the one with the ego?" He retorted and Rukia had to bite her lip to keep from smiling. She'd missed this.

"It's been a while, hasn't it?" Renji asked after a pause, verbalizing what she was thinking.

"It has," she agreed. "I guess we've both been busy. Training, applications…you somehow managing to get your hair to look even more like a pineapple—"

"And I swear you've gotten shorter," he retorted, instinctually jumping back to avoid the kick aimed at his shins. "No, no, that's just me getting taller, my mistake. Like most people do upon reaching puberty. Anyway—" He added hastily upon noticing the murderous glance directed his way. "I was thinking about heading down to Inuzuri next week. Care to join?"

She stilled. Inuzuri. The last time she'd been back was, well—

"That'd be nice," she said quietly.

There are many more of the saplings now. Once she begins digging, gently rooting through the soil, she finds more—vibrant green sprouts peeking through dark loam. She looks after them, nurtures them, feeds them healing blue fire and in return they offer up fruits of memories, disjointed and jumbled but growing more complete with each passing day.

It helps that the plants appear to be connected by a single root system. It makes finding them much easier.

She digs a little deeper than usual one day and notices that the soil is damp. So she keeps going and going, clawing at the earth with fingernails just a little too hard to be human—and were they always that sharp?—until eventually she hits water. She dips her hands inside-

/-an entire orchestra tuning itself to the sound of a single violin note, clear and bright and piercing—

"Honestly Christina, relax a little, will you? Take a break, get out there, have some fun. You can't spend your entire life in books."

"Takami, I don't have time for this, I have a test tomorrow…fine, just fifteen minutes then. What'd you say this show was called again? Detergent? With the donut-monsters? Yeah, yeah, I know they're not actually called—"

"NYU Medical School? That's amazing! You're going to be such a good doctor!"

"Miss. Dalton, I'm so sorry. I—perhaps it would be better if you—" "Oh for fuck's sake, I'm a doctor too, so do us both a favor and quit with the platitudes. Just tell me, how…how long do I have?"

- it's not such a bad sound to die to, she thinks, and finds herself fading into nothingness/

She wrenches her hands out, breathing hard.

"Hello, Christina," she whispers, throat too tight to speak any louder, as she feels the fragments of Hisana slide just a little more into place. "It's very nice to meet you."

"Taicho! Ukitake-taicho is here for his monthly checkup," Isane called out. "Is it alright if I initiate his plasmapheresis?"

"Yes, go ahead Isane. Tell him I'll be there shortly to check on him myself, I just need to finish up some paperwork first." Retsu replied.

Isane nodded before exiting briskly.

She was quite a smart girl, really, Retsu mused to herself. Very competent. Retsu imagined she would make 3rd seat alongside Iemura in a decade or so.

Taking one last look at last month's budget reports, Retsu carefully stacked them before filing them away for later.

"—now you let me know if you experience any new side effects, Ukitake-taicho. I know Akon-san is very competent but with any new medication, you really ought to be extra vigilant," Isane was saying as she entered. "I'm serious, any lightheadedness, unusual fatigue, fever, and you come straight here—"

"Isane," Retsu interrupted. "I'll take over from here, thank you."

"Of course, taicho," Isane said immediately, before exiting. Retsu gave Ukitake a preliminary look over before taking a seat at his side.

"The new medication treating you well?" She asked. "You've been on it for about a week now, correct?"

"Yes," Ukitake confirmed. "So far, so good."

"If you don't mind me saying, you don't look like you've been sleeping well," she said gently.

"Ah." Ukitake looked down at his hands. "Rest assured, that has nothing to do with the medication."

"Mm. If I recall correctly, your third seat was in here recently," Retsu said, lowering her voice.

"Yes. She had a run in with the Visored." Ukitake was silent for a moment. "It was…unexpected, on both ends, I think. She froze up. It's lucky that Lisa was there, otherwise…."

"It is an understandable reaction, given her prior relationship with Shiba Kaien," Retsu said, after a pause.

"Still, Miyako blames herself for them getting away." Ukitake looked down at his hands. "To be frank, I didn't want to assign her to any of the teams responsible for bringing the Visored in in the first place. Too…personal, I think. Still, she insisted. I believe she feels obligated, in a way."

"It is personal for all of us," Retsu said, the edge in her voice faint but unmistakable.

Ukitake's lips curved up in a smile that didn't reach his eyes.

"You needn't worry about my loyalties, if that's what you're concerned about, Unohana-taicho. If there had been any hint of Kaien remaining in that monster, then Hisanawould still be with us today." There was something hard and brittle in his eyes, like glass ground back into sand. "The Kaien I knew would never forgive me if I didn't get justice for her. Rest assured, when the day comes that I see any of the Visored again, I won't hesitate."

She doesn't sleep anymore. She doesn't need to, not really, not in this place. There are moments though, where she feels like she's dreaming. She has visions of being strapped to a table, skin parting before a scalpel blade…of burning, being buried alive, drowning, dissolving in acid, being torn apart, dying in a thousand different ways as a man with cold brown eyes and a gentle smile looks on, before she's revived again in a burst of familiar blue flame.

She comes back to herself just in time to avoid being bisected in two by a claw twice her size (not that it would have killed her—these days, she isn't sure what can). She looks up at what Christina would have called a donut-monster, what Hisana would have called a hollow, and what she now knows as her next meal and smiles grimly. It's been a while since she last ate, anyway.

She has to be more careful, though. The monsters been showing up in increasing numbers lately, each one more dangerous than the last, and she cannot afford to be distracted.

On the bright side, the ever-persistent itch on the side of her head has begun to fade slightly. She scratches just above her ear and her fingers come into contact with something hard and smooth, like bone.

"You wanted to see me, Aizen-taicho?" Gin asked, a casual smile on his lips that didn't quite hide the tension in his voice.

Sousuke's lips twitched. Smart boy.

"I suppose I need to ask a favor." He motioned for Gin to take a seat and poured out a cup of tea before sliding it across the table to him. "It's nothing big, rest assured. Simply a little aid with a project of mine."

"Oh?" Gin asked curiously. "Which project?"

"This one should actually be familiar to you. Well, maybe it's easier to explain if I just show you." Raising his voice, he called out. "You may come in now."

He didn't turn around as the door creaked open– instead, he kept his gaze fixed unerringly on Gin's face, which was the only reason he didn't miss the subtle widening of his former student's eyes…how his face paled by a fraction of a shade as the door slid open fully and Yukimura Hisana stepped into the room.

Or, well, a very good approximation of her.

"Yes, Aizen-sama?" She asked breathlessly, adoring gaze fixed unerringly onto his face. "How may I serve you?"

"You remember Gin, I presume," he said. She glanced at Gin just barely before nodding, turning her attention back to Sousuke. "You'll be working with him for a while."

She nodded, smiling guilelessly. "Yes, Aizen-sama."

"How—" Gin began before realization dawned. "The hollow?"

"I call them Khimaira, for their ability to assume just about any form," Sousuke said, letting a hint of pride seep into his voice. Behind Gin, Khimaira beamed at the praise. "Incredible, isn't it?"

"Any form?" Gin asked sharply. Sousuke smiled at the question, pleased.

"There are limitations, of course. They require a sample of the desired form's DNA first and the more DNA they have, the more accurate the impression. They're most talented at assuming the shape of their meals, which I assume has something to do with the memory assimilation component when they swallow their victims whole." He paused. "You know that I was quite interested by Yukimura Hisana's shikai ability."

"I admit, Aizen-taicho, I never thought it was anything special. Especially by hollow standards—healing and regeneration powers are hardly rare," Gin said slowly, still staring at the hollow. He seemed transfixed by it, almost.

"True. What she had went beyond simple healing, though. No, what she had…that was her will to live given form." He was quiet for a moment. "I'd never seen a shikai that didn't require its user's consciousness to work before. Especially a shikai that dealt with something as intricate as cellular manipulation. And I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if I combined that ability with an ability to shapeshift." Sousuke smiled. "It's been very interesting watching them evolve. I've fed them countless creatures…not just hollows, but ordinary animals as well. Of course, I had to add some pressure; Yukimura's ability works best when the fear of dying is present."

"And the end result?" Gin asked, glancing at where Khimaira—formerly Aaroniero Arruruerie, formerly Experiment 96—waited obediently.

"A hollow with a vast genomic library that, when faced with danger, automatically manifests whatever traits that would best enable it to survive. Whether that be developing gills, or fire resistance, or a thick exoskeleton," Sousuke said, satisfaction evident in his voice. "With twenty different amino acids, the human body can make all the proteins it needs to function. Imagine how many forms a being with tens of thousands of different genomes at its disposal could take? The possibilities are near infinite."

"Is that wise, Aizen-taicho? To create a creature so…versatile?" Gin asked carefully.

"You needn't worry about that, Gin. They were created to obey," Sousuke smiled.

"What do ya need me for then?" Gin asked.

"As of right now, I've mainly been feeding them hollows and animals. A few plus souls here and there, but no shinigami. Well, aside from one. I'd like to change that." Sousuke paused. "As you know, the Fifth Division is primarily occupied with tracking down the Visored. As far as hunting down hollows in the Rukongai goes, the Third does far more of that than my division or Kaname's. Casualties are common; no one would find it strange if an officer or two went missing every now and then."

""Ya know I'd do anythin' ya asked of me, Aizen-taicho, but if all ya need is a few random shinigami to feed to it, I doubt ya need my help with that." Gin pointed out.

"True. But it'll be good for them to get some practice learning how to blend in among shinigami. I think a place in the Third Division will do nicely," Sousuke smiled. "I'll leave you two to get acquainted then."

As the door closed behind Aizen, Gin looked at Yukimura Hisana's face. She—it—ducked its head, respectfully lowering its gaze.

Gin doubted Hisana had ever respectfully averted her gaze in her life. She'd had an annoying habit of looking everyone in the eye, no matter who it was.

"He said you could turn into any one of your victims. Shift, then," he ordered coolly.

The thing that was wearing Yukimura Hisana's face smiled brightly, simpering, eager to please.

It reminded Gin of a well-trained puppy. He felt the sudden urge to kick it.

"As you wish, Ichimaru-sama," it said. Gin watched as its face morphed, certain features stretching while others seemed to almost melt—like a piece of taffy on a hot day. Then he blinked and he opened his eyes to a teenage boy with light brown hair and dull grey eyes.

A creature that could assume an unlimited number of forms, Gin thought to himself. The perfect spy. One that could replace almost anyone in the Seireitei—all it had to do was consume their selected victim and it'd absorb their memories, powers, and body. It could then take on its victim's form and assume their place with no one the wiser.

As if that wasn't enough, thanks in large part to having absorbed Hisana's abilities, it would be nearly impossible to kill.

Nearly, but not impossible. His fingers twitched towards his zanpakuto.

Hisana would have hated what her abilities were being used for.

"You," he spoke up abruptly. "Go to the Third Division headquarters and wait for me in the lounge."

"I don't know where—"

"It's the one with the giant three on it," Gin said before striding out.

That evening, Gin found himself standing outside a small café near the Academy. Hisana had mentioned it once and had suggested he try it out—you know, if you're ever in the mood to repay the food you stole from me, she'd added sardonically.

"Ichimaru-taicho! What a surprise—right this way, sir," the manager, a middle-aged man with a receding hairline, said nervously, motioning towards a brightly lit table near the windows.

"Not there," he said, watching as beads of sweat started forming on the manager's forehead. He stared at the manager until those beads became full-blown drops. "Somewhere more private, I think."

Normally, he would have felt some sort of amusement at watching the staff flutter around like terrified chickens. Today, he just felt irritated.

"Of course, of course. Follow me, sir." He hastily showed Gin to his table and then backed up so quickly he nearly stumbled. "Your waitress will be with you shortly."

Gin sat down, drumming his fingers on the tabletop. It was quite a nice table—situated in the corner, away from any prying eyes or ears, and with two easy exits in sight. The waitress—a young girl who couldn't have been more than a century or so—took his order, hands trembling the entire time. To her credit though, she managed to get through it without stuttering.

It took barely three minutes before the waitress reappeared with his food. Nothing got you fast service quite like a good dose of intimidation mixed in with a healthy dash of terror.

"A stick of dango, a serving of mochi, three cookies, and a bottle of sake," the waitress listed off as she placed each item in front of him. "Will that be all, sir?"

For a moment, Gin didn't speak, studying the plethora of food in front of him. The dango smelled wonderful, steam wafted off the still-hot cookies, the mochi was expertly made, and the chair in front of him seemed very empty all of a sudden. He stood up abruptly, having lost his appetite.

"Yes," he said quietly, throwing down a handful of kan onto the table. "That'll be all."

"But sir, your food!" The waitress called out after him, confused. He paused, then turned back around.

"You ever get hungry, girl?" He asked conversationally. She looked at him, startled, then shook her head.

"No, sir," she said, biting her lip.

"You know anyone that does gets hungry? A sibling? Child? Anyone?" Gin questioned.

She hesitated before nodding.

"I—yes. My little brother does," she said meekly.

"Give it to him then. Consider it a gift," he said as he walked out of the cafe, ignoring the girl's wide-eyed look of surprise. He should probably go make sure Aizen's new pet hadn't eaten anyone yet.

She digs and she digs and she digs until a lake begins to form.

/"This is a joke, right? Please tell me this is a joke." A stocky, dark-haired man shakes his head in disbelief. "This whole thing has got to be a joke. I don't…do you even know how rare your cancer is? It's got to be at least one in a million.'

"Believe me, I know." She leans back in her bed, attempting a smile. It comes out wan and tired, like everything she tries to do these days. "Well, I was always one to beat the odds."

She's quiet for a moment and when she speaks again, her voice is so low the man has to lean forward to hear her.

"I don't think I'm winning this one, Dave."

"Don't. Don't say that," he says, shaking his head. "You're going to be fine, the doctors don't know anything-"

"I'm fighting a war against my own body. Only it turns out, my body is better at surviving than I am." She smiles, bitterly. "That's what cancer is, right? When your cells get too goddamn good at living."

"So what, you're just giving up? You promised Henry-"

"You think I don't know that?" She shouts suddenly before taking in a deep breath. "Of course I'm not giving up. I just…I just don't want him to be surprised if- if the worst happens." She squeezes her eyes tightly shut.

"I might never get to see him grow up. Never see him go off to college or fall in love or get married—hell, I might never get to see myself do half those things," she whispers hoarsely. "God, there's so much I missed out on…so many things that I haven't done, and because of what? Because 'there's always going to be time later'? Ha! That's a laugh." Her voice cracks. "How many birthday parties have I skipped, how many social events, how many family functions…I missed Christmas last year because I was on-call. And now—"

"Now nothing," Dave says firmly. "Next few months we're going to have Christmas. And New Years and Halloween and Thanksgiving and St. Patrick's Day and…and every holiday you can think of, Tiny. I don't give a damn if it's not the right time of year."

"Again with that stupid nickname," she lets out a choked laugh. "I'm five-six, Dave, that hardly qualifies as 'tiny.'"

"You're still shorter than me, so yes, the nickname fits." He pauses. "I'll bring Henry around tomorrow? He's been asking after you."

"I—yes, I'd like that." She hesitates. "And Dave? Thank you."

He reaches out to ruffle her hair.

"What are big brothers for?"/

"Do you ever regret it?" Rangiku asked him late one night.

"Regret what?" Byakuya asked, perusing through his paperwork.

"Loving her." Her words were slightly slurred, the scent of alcohol lingering on her breath.

He stilled, the hand holding his pen freezing in mid-air. There's no need to ask who she was referring to.

"Remember your place, Matsumoto-san," he said, voice going dangerously smooth.

"She was my best friend, you know," Rangiku said, ignoring him in the way only a handful of people could these days. "I only knew her for a few months, but it was enough for me to love her. That was just the type of person she was– easy to love. But then, I suppose you'd know all about that."

She paused for a moment, as if waiting for Byakuya to speak. When he remained silent, she let out a resigned sigh.

"It might help to talk about her, you know," she said quietly. "I miss her too."

"You are clearly inebriated, Matsumoto-san," Byakuya said icily. "Go home and when you come back tomorrow morning, I don't want to hear any more of this nonsense."

She was quiet for a moment, just staring at him.

"It's coming up, isn't it? The anniversary of her death," Rangiku said, almost inaudibly. "That's why you've been working so late these past few days. I guess I don't blame you. I dream of her sometimes, you know. I—I could never bring myself to watch the footage, to see her in her final moments…maybe that makes me a coward, I don't know, but I didn't…I didn't want to see her like that, I couldn't-"

There was a snap as Byakuya's pen shattered in his grip. Rangiku didn't notice and he silently reached for another one.

"Sometimes I wonder if I could have stopped it," she whispered, eyes glassy. "If I had only stepped in and told her to stop, to slow down and think about what she was doing, instead of just encouraging her-!" She swallowed. "But she was so certain she was right and she so rarely asked for my help…how could I have known? How could I have refused her, when-?"

"No," Byakuya interrupted, dipping his pen in ink.

"What?" Rangiku asked, brow furrowing.

"You asked if I regretted loving her, Matsumoto-san. My answer is no," he said, tone flat.

"I thought as much," Rangiku said after a moment. He pretended not to notice her wiping discretely at her eyes. "Something we have in common, then."

"You shouldn't blame yourself for what happened to her," he said after a moment's pause. "It wouldn't have helped. Warning her, that is."

Hisana had been the type of person who'd listen to your advice very seriously, consider it carefully, and then promptly ignore it as she did whatever the hell she thought was right, advice be damned. It had been one of the reasons why he'd respected her so much—one of the reasons why he'd loved her so much.

"Perhaps you're right. Still doesn't stop me from wishing I'd done something," Rangiku sighed. She eyed him for another second. "It's already two in the morning. Are you planning on staying here all night?"

"I was planning on getting some work done, yes," Byakuya answered evenly.

A slight movement caught his attention and he looked up just in time to catch the pillow Rangiku threw at him.

"Well if we're going to be staying here all night, might as well make ourselves comfortable," Rangiku yawned, adjusting her own pillow on her seat.

"We?" Byakuya asks, raising an eyebrow.

"Sure. You do the paperwork, I'll provide the entertainment," Rangiku smirked.

"There's no need–" Byakuya began.

"Nonsense. We're a team now, taicho, have been since you made the decision to promote me to lieutenant. My place, as you so kindly reminded me earlier, is at your side. Haven't you learned that yet?"

There are trees everywhere now—no longer scattered saplings but rather the beginnings of a forest. She sits at the banks of a silver lake, observing the island in the distance. There is only one part of this world she has yet to explore and she knows, instinctively, that it contains the memory of the event that brought her here.

She dips one foot in the lake, preparing to swim across, then stops. She swallows, frozen by a sudden visceral, paralyzing dread, then takes a step back.

No, not yet. She is not ready yet.

"Stop wriggling around!" Hiyori snapped. Her fingers were twitching, which was never a good sign. Shinji glanced quickly at her feet—good, no flip flops—and suppressed a sigh of relief.

"I told ya, I'm fine," he said annoyed, shooing her off. "Go bother Kensei or something. He got the worst of it."

"Poor guy," Rose murmured. "Man, frostbite is no joke."

"Who would've thought little Rukia would grow up to be such a vicious little thing?" Yoruichi sighed. Hiyori's expression darkened.

"Gee, I wonder who she learned it from," she glowered. She still hadn't forgiven Yoruichi for their little run in with the Omnitsukido's captain. Shinji could understand why—that butterfly marking had taken weeks to wear off.

"Yes, Soi Fon has turned into quite the mentor, hasn't she?" Yoruichi said proudly, which was the exact opposite of the response Hiyori was looking for.

Shinji winced as a vein throbbed on Hiyori's forehead. The next second, a slipper hit the ground where Yoruichi just was, leaving a small crater behind (he and Love had a bet going on regarding where, exactly, Hiyori was getting her endless supply of slippers. His theory was that this was Hiyori's second, lesser-known shikai ability: the power to manifest Flip Flops of Doom out of thin air from the sheer force of her rage).

He sighed, flash-stepping away before the fireworks really started. The problem with Yoruichi being the fastest person in the world, he decided, was that it had enabled her to run from the consequences of her actions for so long she sometimes forgot those consequences existed.

"Looks like Hiyori-san's back to normal," Kisuke remarked from beside him.

"Eh. She's always had a way of bouncing back from things," Shinji shrugged, glancing at the scientist. The other man looked like he hadn't slept for days, dark circles under his eyes. Kisuke noticed him looking and promptly pulled a hand mirror out from his sleeve.

"Damn, my eyeliner's running again," he remarked, leaning in for a closer look. "And to think I paid 50 yen for that. Discount products aren't what they used to be, I tell you."

"Kisuke," Shinji said softly.

"I can handle it. You should've seen me when I was in the Academy," he snorted. "Trust me, this is nothing."

"I did see you in the Academy and if I recall correctly, I called ya an idiot then too," Shinji said mildly. "Just as I'm callin' you one now." He paused. "You know we're relying on you to keep us alive, right? I can't have you falling apart on us now."

"You don't have to worry about that, Shinji-san. I won't let that happen," Kisuke said lightly. "Can you imagine the gloating I'd have to endure from Kurotsuchi?"

"Ah, good ol' Clown-face," Shinji grimaced. "Nasty piece of work, that. Still can't believe ya hired him as your third seat, and this is coming from someone who hired both Aizen and Gin."

"Mm. I admit, when I hired him, I didn't foresee him hunting me down some day," Kisuke admitted, looking into the distance. Shinji followed his gaze to where the newest generations of Jinta and Ururu (6 and 8 respectively) were having a mock spar.

There had been a lot more close calls, lately. Too close. In fact, the only reason they'd escaped with relatively few injuries the last time was due to the untimely sacrifices of the then Jinta 5 and Ururu 7. And this wasn't even counting the times before that.

Love had lost his right eye, thanks to a run-in with Kuchiki Ginrei. Kensei would never regain full use of his right arm, courtesy of Kurotsuchi Mayuri. Hiyori still had scars from fighting Kuchiki Byakuya, although if you listened to her tell the story, she would insist the younger Kuchiki got the worse end of the deal.

"We can't keep this up forever," Kisuke said quietly. Shinji stayed silent.

Between Kisuke and Yoruichi, the two of them had had a surprising number of hiding places scattered throughout the world of the living—safehouses, secret allies, small pocket dimensions where they could hide out and recover. And it had seemed enough, in the beginning. Still, six captains and four lieutenants was an awful lot of spiritual energy to hide; even with Tessai, Kisuke, and Hachigen's combined skill and kido knowhow, there were always traces left behind. And each time they were found, well—

Kisuke had never said it, had never even hinted at it, but Shinji could tell that they were running out of places to go.

It didn't help that the people hell-bent on killing them were former friends and allies who had a perfectly legitimate reason for wanting their deaths. Sometimes, Shinji wondered just what it was that drove him to fight so hard to survive in the first place. Habit, maybe. You didn't get to captain rank by baring your neck every time someone wanted to kill you, no matter how legitimate their reason or how easy it would be to let them. A desire to learn the truth, perhaps. He'd be damned if he'd let someone determine his guilt for him when he didn't even know for sure what had happened that night. Revenge and spite were certainly powerful motivators as well; he'd never forgive himself if he died before taking his former lieutenant down first.

And maybe it was because a girl he'd barely known—fresh out of the Academy, an innocent—had spent the last few days of her life fighting fiercely for each and every one of them and had paid the ultimate price for it. Giving up before he learned the truth, before he brought the person who started all of this to justice…he couldn't imagine a greater insult.

Still, even with all the reasons in the world, the fact of the matter was that they were getting tired. Tired of hiding, of running, of constantly looking over their shoulders—

"Maybe it's better if we split up," Kisuke said, voice low. Shinji looked up, startled.

"What?" He asked, uncomprehending.

"If we split up, they'll have a harder time sensing us, tracking us down. This many high-level shinigami in one place…it's a giant flashing bullseye, no matter how many wards you use to try and cover it up. It's only logical—"

"That we stay together," Shinji cut him off, voice hard.

"If we stay together, they'll find us that much sooner—" Kisuke protested.

"And if we split up, they'll pick us off one by one, what's your point?" he snapped. "The only reason we've survived this long is because it's nearly impossible for the Gotei 13 to mobilize a force strong enough to take on six captains and four lieutenants. They won't have nearly as difficult a time picking off oh, say, two captains and a lieutenant. And besides, if you think I'm going to let you, or Kaien, or Hiyori out of my sight, you're not nearly as smart as you think you are. Suicidal idiots, the lot of you, probably get killed off within a month, if the lack of sleep doesn't do it first—" Shinji stopped when he noticed Kisuke staring at him.

"What?" He asked.

"Nothing," Kisuke replied. "You just reminded me of Yoruichi-san's mother for a second. She was particularly good at lecturing too."

Shinji remembered the previous Lady of the Shihouin Clan quite well. Miserable old hag. Always nagged on about his hair and how it was 'unbefitting' of a captain.

Suddenly highly offended, he turned around to inform Kisuke in no uncertain terms just how mistaken he was, only to find that his audience had vanished without a trace.

He scowled. Between him and Yoruichi, Shinji gave it another decade before his hair started to go gray.

/a young woman rocks a child to sleep, her husband's arm around her waist. She watches, feeling a strange mixture of happiness and grief. Rukia, her mother says, and in her sister's name she hears a confirmation that this is not a nightmare, that all the strange occurrences over the past few years were not coincidences, and her own future death sentence-/

/ she digs through the trash for something, anything edible. She had thought that cancer was a horrible way to die but starvation, starvation is far worse if only in its preventability. She goes from door to door, begging for scraps of food, something, anything, and as door after door slams in her face, she makes a vow that she will never turn away anyone in need of aid, not if she can help it/

/"You can fix it, can't you Nee-chan?" A little girl asks, holding up a mangled rabbit for her to inspect. "You can make him better?"/

/she doubles over, laughing so hard her sides hurt as a man with black hair and bright blue eyes spits out a mouthful of snow.

"Oh, you are so dead," he growls, eyes narrowing. The hint of a grin playing at the corners of his mouth erases any threat from his voice and she shrieks with laughter, sprinting away away.

"Mitsuo! Kaori! Help me!" She cries out just as he tackles her into a pile of snow-/

She blinks as the memory fades and reaches up to brush her cheek, tingling from a phantom cold.

If her hand comes away wet, there's no one around to notice.

"I don't understand what's the point of holding elections every year," Nanao muttered under her breath, fidgeting with her notebook.

"I don't see why you're so nervous," Rangiku said lazily, lounging on a purple beanbag decorated with pink polka dots. She wasn't sure whose idea it was to make beanbags the official furniture of the Shinigami Women's Association, but she approved wholeheartedly.

It had probably been Yachiru's doing, come to think of it.

"You're running for treasurer unopposed," she continued. "You could walk up there and make a speech about flying koi fish and you'd still win, so relax."

"That's my point!" Nanao exclaimed, pushing the bridge of her glasses up agitatedly. "Most of the people are running unopposed, for the same positions they've had for years. Ayame's running for president, you for vice-president, Yachiru for event coordinator, Isane as secretary. The only difference is that Lisa and Miyako are swapping the roles of PR coordinator and chief recruitment officer this year. So what's the point of going to all this trouble and having to prepare a speech and—"

"Hey, hey," Rangiku said, watching the other girl closely. "What's going on? I know you're not the biggest fan of public speaking, but we're all friends here. No one's going to judge you even if you mess up. If anything, Yachiru will probably just offer you a cupcake afterwards."

"Sorry," Nanao muttered before sighing. "I suppose I'm just stressed about…well, about being promoted to lieutenant so suddenly. I mean, Hitsugaya-taicho's great but we're both fairly new to the Tenth and with Shiba-taicho being MIA, things have been pretty chaotic lately." She paused, eyeing Rangiku. "Hey, didn't you used to be part of the Tenth? Maybe you could give me a few tips?"

"Ah." Rangiku's smile faded a little. "That was a very long time ago, Nanao-chan. I'm afraid I won't be of much help."

"I—" Nanao hesitated. "I apologize if this is a sensitive question but what made you decide to leave the Tenth? You don't have to answer if you don't want to," she added hastily.

"I guess I just disagreed with Shiba Isshin's policies," Rangiku said, after a pause. Or rather, his allegiances. In the end, Isshin had remained loyal to his cousin and she had never quite forgiven him for that. "I found the Sixth Division's goals aligned much more closely with mine."

The slightly awkward silence was broken by Ayame's arrival.

"Hello, Rangiku-san, Nanao-san," she greeted them warmly.

"Madame President," Nanao said, offering her a slight smile. "I understand congratulations are in order. You were recently promoted to fourth seat, correct?"

"I should be congratulating you, fukutaicho," Ayame laughed, before lowering her voice. "I was actually hoping you two would help me with a favor, after the elections. I wanted to surprise Isane with a nice picnic tomorrow, but I'm having trouble deciding on which foods I should pack. I mean, I know she hates fish sticks, but-"

"A picnic? How romantic!" Rangiku squealed, clapping her hands together. "How's it going between the two of you, anyway? It's been, what, six months? Oh, this is so exciting. I wonder if I can annoy taicho into letting you borrow one of the Kuchiki gardens for it. I don't see why he should mind; he has like twenty of them."

"Um, there's no need," Ayame said, looking more than a little alarmed. "I mean, I wouldn't want you to bother Kuchiki-taicho-"

"Nonsense," Rangiku said, waving her off. "You're my friend and besides, it's in my job description to bother him. Now, what are you planning on wearing? Not that it matters, I've seen the way that girl looks at you—you could be wearing a potato sack and she still wouldn't be able to take her eyes off you—but it's always good to look nice."

"Something with spring colors, I should think. Pastels- pinks, yellows, that kind of thing," Nanao said, eyeing a blushing Ayame critically. At their twin looks of surprise, she scowled, cheeks turning pink. "What? I grew up with Lisa, I picked up a thing or two."

"Ise Nanao, fashion expert. Who'd have thought?" Rangiku asked, smirking, before perking up. "Oh! Nanao and I, we can be waitresses! That always adds a classy feel-"

"You've been spending too much time with Kuchiki-taicho, Rangiku-san. It's a picnic, it doesn't need to be classy-"

"It's a date, classy never hurts! Besides, I've never been a waitress before, I think it'll be fun-"

/"A moonlit night, flower petals raining down…" Her voice trails off. "You're quite good at this seduction thing, Kuchiki Byakuya. Honestly, it's probably a good thing you ended up being the one to propose. I don't think anything I came up with could have measured up to this."

"I was quite worried, you know," he murmurs, tracing patterns along her arms. She glances up at him, surprised.

"What did you have to be worried about? You can't have thought I'd say no?" She questions. "I thought I'd made my utter adoration for you embarrassingly obvious."

"You're embarrassed? Half the time, I'm worried I'll forget how to speak when I'm around you." He laughs, voice strained. "You're…I don't even know. I lack the vocabulary to describe you. All I know is that you're the best thing that's ever happened to me, and I hope you keep happening to me for a long, long time."

She swallows, throat dry, and leans forward so that her face is pressed against his chest.

"I'm not going anywhere," she whispers, and tilts her head up to press a kiss against his throat./

Gin watched, expression blank, as his tenth seat broke down (what was his name again? Saito? Saita? Something like that, although he supposed it didn't matter now), falling to his knees.

"I—I tried t-to save them," he choked out, shoulders shaking with the force of his sobs. Tears and snot dripped down his face, his features twisted with grief and shame.

It was a disgusting display.

"T-the ambush came out of nowhere, I—there was nothing I could have done!" he continued. "I barely escaped myself…oh god, and Kobayashi-kun—I know his parents, he was barely out of the Academy, how am I supposed to explain—?"

"Taicho," Izuru whispered, fidgeting anxiously. "We should really get him to the Fourth—"

"Let him finish," Gin said softly. "It's the least he could do."

Izuru swallowed, but fell silent.

Soft, Gin couldn't help thinking. Too soft, like a marshmallow left sitting by the fire. He still had no idea how the blond-haired man ended up as his lieutenant.

After another minute of watching Sato (right, that was his name) blubber on endlessly, Izuru spoke up again.

"Sir, we really should fetch a medic—"

"I suppose you're right, Izuru. If someone doesn't clean that blood off the floor, it'll stain," Gin sighed. "Do be a dear and send someone from the Fourth over?"

"I—" Izuru hesitated before seeming to think better of it. "Right away, taicho."

Gin smiled, reaching out to pat him on the cheek.

"There's a good boy," he crooned, smile widening at the way Izuru's breathing quickened. He might not know how the blond ended up as his second-in-command, but he had to admit, he rather enjoyed it. His reactions were always so fun to watch.

"I—I'll be fetching that medic now," Izuru stuttered, pupils dilated in something that might have been desire or might have been fear. Gin doubted even Izuru himself knew.

"Or perhaps you could stay for a bit," Gin purred, leaning closer. "I could always send someone else over—"

"I'll do it!" Izuru blurted out, all but stumbling over himself in his haste to get away. Gin watched him go, laughing softly under his breath.

"Was that acceptable, Ichimaru-sama?" Gin turned around to see Sato pulling himself to his feet, his injuries, now glowing a faint blue, stitching together before his eyes. "I know you said my last attempt seemed a little robotic, so I really tried to bring out the emotion this time. Did I do well?" Khimaira asked anxiously, desperate to please.

"Better," Gin said, and watched as Khimaira's features lit up like the sun. He could chop off one of its arms and it'd probably just offer up the other one, to make him happy. It was nauseating. Gin wondered how Aizen didn't get sick of it.

But then, given the way he had that Hinamori girl following him around like a lovesick teenager, maybe he shouldn't be surprised.

"Ya won't be with me any longer, anyway," Gin added, perhaps feeling a bit too pleased at the thought. "Aizen-taicho wants ya back in Hueco Mundo. Somethin' about sniffin' out traitors in his army."

"Aizen-sama wants me back?" Khimaira breathed, eyes shining. Without further ado, it began to shrink, eyes becoming faceted—four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on—and wings sprouting from its back. Gin watched as it buzzed out of the room and made a mental note to tell Izuru to order some fly strips.

The forest is fully grown now. If she concentrates, she can sense every root, every branch and leaf and stone. She's aware of every trapped soul inside this world, every half-digested hollow, can feel them as they walk on the ground or fly through the trees.

She faces the lake and at her request, an icy path forms across it, connecting her to the island. The first thing she notices, when she steps onto the island, is that it is covered with feathers.

In the center of the island is a giant willow tree, burnt and blackened and twisted beyond recognition. Her head throbs as she looks at it, a dull pain that throbs behind her eyes and seems to bounce off the insides of her skull. She strides up to it and, forcing herself not to hesitate, extends one hand and places it firmly on the rough bark. Blinding blue fire pours from her palm, the tree pulling at it greedily to revive itself, and as the first leaves turn green again, she remembers.

/a gaping black maw, opening to swallow her whole. The sky above her cracks open like an egg as her mind is pried apart, broken into pieces, and crushed while she struggles to remain herself, to remain Hisana as her world shatters around her. She watches horrified, a helpless spectator as Tenshi no Tsubasa (her zanpakuto spirit, her soul, and how could she have forgotten this?) tries in vain to shield her from the falling debris, begs her to live ("You're going to survive this and you're going to remember who you are. 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") …and then her perspective shifts until she's looking down at herself through Tenshi's eyes.

Tenshi no Tsubasa settles down next to her past self, tucking her under her wings.

"Don't blame yourself for my death, Hisana. It was an honor to serve as your zanpakuto. I'm sorry I couldn't do more," Tenshi whispers, voice almost gone. "I know it'll take time to heal but you will. You've always been good at that, with or without my help." She lets out a deep sigh and closes her eyes for the last time. "You're going to be alright, little firebird."/

The memory fades and she slumps to the ground numbly, eyes unseeing. She isn't sure how long she spends there, kneeling under the shade of the willow tree, replaying Tenshi no Tsubasa's death over and over in her head. At some point, she reaches up to brush the edges of the hole in her chest, for the first time aware of what it signifies, what she is missing, and it aches all the more for it.

When she looks up again, her eyes are dry, empty of any grief, anger, sadness…of anything but a gray dullness that might be worse. As she stands up, the ever-present faint blue glow around her skin begins to fade, to be replaced by a sickly green light. The trees follow her example obediently, leaves starting to smolder. In the distance, she hears a hollow begin to scream. It isn't long before it's joined by others.

She thinks it's about time she met the other occupant of this mind.

"You're sure about this?" Kisuke asked quietly, eyeing the man next to him. Shiba Isshin stood over his son's unconscious body, arms folded across his chest, face pale with grief.

"Yes," he said, voice low but resolute. "Do it."

Kisuke hesitated.

"This has never been done before," he warned. "There's no telling what long term effects the implantation will have on a human soul."

"But it will get rid of his powers, correct?" Isshin asked sharply.

"Sealing the Hogyoku inside his soul will take away his spiritual energy, yes," Kisuke confirmed. Over the next ten years, the seal he'd designed would slowly siphon away Kurosaki Ichigo's spiritual energy and use it to deactivate the Hogyoku, permanently.

"Then it's worth the risks," Isshin said. He reached out, running his fingers through his son's hair.

"All I want," he whispered, words barely audible, "is for my kids to live a normal life. The twins will be okay; they don't have enough spiritual energy to attract much trouble. Ichigo, though…" His voice trailed off. "He's only nine and he's already so—he's a danger like this, to himself and to others. What happened this afternoon was only the start. Like it or not, he'll start attracting hollows or…or worse." He was quiet for a moment. "I can't afford another incident like this one, Urahara. I've already lost Masaki, I can't lose Ichigo and the twins too."

"There are other options. We can train him to control his powers—" Kisuke began.

"And then what?" Isshin snapped, whirling around. "You can't hide him forever; hell, you can't even hide yourselves properly. I found you guys and I wasn't even fucking looking for you! And the moment the Gotei 13 catches wind of him and his sisters, of the children of a shinigami and a Quincy, it's over. You think the Gotei 13 is going to show mercy? With their parentage? Hah! Best case scenario, they kill them quickly; worst case, that bastard Kurotsuchi gets his hands on them."

"You'll leave him defenseless," Kisuke said quietly.

"I am giving him a chance," Isshin snarled. "At least as a normal human boy, there's a chance the Gotei 13 will overlook him. Because if they find him…I watched them tear my family apart, Kisuke. It wasn't even just Kaien they were after! The Shiba Clan lost its influence practically overnight and any allies that stood by us suffered the same fate. And do you think it's coincidence that the clan is down to…what, Kukaku and Ganju? Two members, Urahara! Two out of nearly a hundred! Dozens of mysterious disappearances, unexplained accidents on missions, all brushed under the rug and simply forgotten about." His lips thinned. "But then, look who I'm talking to. You of all people should know just how much mercy the Gotei 13 has. So tell me…and I'm asking you this as an old friend, as someone who never believed the rumors about you…just what is the best choice for my son?"

Kisuke was quiet for a long moment.

"I'll need to keep him here under observation for a day or two, to make sure the seal is functioning correctly," he said finally. Isshin exhaled, shoulders slumping.

"I—thank you, Urahara. Really," he said, visibly relieved.

"Of course." He looked over at Isshin critically. "You know, it's been almost a decade and I still haven't gotten used to that gigai. Red hair doesn't suit you at all."

"Well, Masa—well, my wife liked it," Isshin said, attempting a smile. Kisuke pretended not to notice the way his voice cracked on Masaki's name. "Besides, I could say the same thing about you. Seriously, the long white beard with the matching eyebrows looks ridiculous. You look like an uglier version of Yamamoto. Or a demented shopkeeper."

"Shopkeeper, hmm?" Kisuke mused thoughtfully, ignoring the part about Yamamoto (seriously the gall, he looked much more handsome than Yamamoto). "Now there's an idea."

In the end, it's almost too easy.

She watches, perched on one of the upper branches of the willow tree (it shouldn't be able to support her weight but then, this is her world. Here, the laws of physics work how she wants them to work), as the being—Khimaira, she recalls from her visions—stumbles, adjusting to their sudden change in environment.

"Up here," she calls out softly. Khimaira turns to face her, fear and confusion evident in their eyes.

"Who are you?" They're unsettled, that much is clear from the way their features are constantly shifting from one to another, unable to decide which face to settle on.

"You don't recognize me? I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. I imagine after how many souls you've eaten, they tend to blur together after a while," she muses, hopping down so they're only a few feet apart. She gestures to the forest around them. "Do you recognize this place at least?"

For the first time, Khimaira takes a good look at their surroundings. Something like recognition crosses their face.

"There's…there's too many trees," they mumble, swallowing. "There shouldn't be any trees here. Or a lake. There—there shouldn't be—"

"Yes, a lot has changed since the last time you've been here," she answers. "It's been a while since you've visited, hasn't it? At least a hundred years. Not that I blame you; it's not a very pleasant place to be in. Can't get two minutes of peace without someone trying to eat you." She smiles and Khimaira shudders, feeling a chill go down their spine at the blankness behind it. "You must forgive me for talking so much. It's been a…very long time since I've talked to another soul. I admit, I've missed it."

Another thought strikes Khimaira.

"It's too quiet," they say out loud. It…it shouldn't be this quiet, they know that much. A hollow's mind should never be quiet.

"You should have been here an hour ago. It was anything but quiet then," she laughs, the sound void of any warmth. It sounds like abandoned warehouses and decaying graveyards, reminds them of the surprising heaviness of a corpse and the whistling of wind through the trees during winter. "But it was much more crowded then. We're the only ones left now." There's a distinctly hungry glint in her eyes now. It's a look any hollow would recognize. It's a look they've seen thousands of times, reflected back at them in their opponents' eyes.

Khimaira closes their eyes, trying desperately to wake up, to leave only to find that they can't.

"W-What did you do?" They ask, trying to ignore how it feels like they're stalling. "Why can't I wake up?"

"Haven't you realized yet?" She says, tilting her head to the side. "This is no longer your mind. You're not in control here anymore."

Khimaira's eyes widen as recognition finally hits. She's the first shinigami Aizen-sama had ever given them, back when they'd still been new, unnamed, the girl whose powers had allowed them to gain Aizen-sama's favor, whose memories had been an incomprehensible, jumbled, incomplete mess—

They stumble back, panic rising inside them, only to bump into rough bark. They've backed up against the giant willow tree, only that doesn't make sense, just a minute ago the willow was in front of them, and now he can feel it moving, bark shifting against their skin like squirming maggots, branches reaching down to trap their limbs against the tree trunk—

"This isn't to say you haven't been useful," she adds. "Without you, Aizen would have found out about me a long time ago. But I'll be taking over now. This body is really only big enough for one soul, don't you agree?"

"You think you've won?" They snarl, a bone-deep terror suffusing every inch of their being as they struggle futilely at their bonds. "I was created by Aizen-sama! You can't kill me! Even if you control this world, you can't—" They cough, the words breaking off.

"Can't I?" She asks quietly, and tilts her gaze upwards until she's no longer looking at them but rather the branches of the willow tree. Perhaps it's the lighting but in that moment, her eyes seem to gleam a bright, inhuman gold. "This one's for you, Tenshi."

The scent of decaying flesh reaches their nostrils and they look down to see that their entire body is immersed in lambent green flames, watches as their skin turns purple then black and starts sloughing off in sheets, as healthy flesh goes necrotic in seconds, liquifying before their eyes—

The worst part though, is the fact that they couldn't feel any of it, just a rapidly encroaching numbness. How strange to think that the only thing more horrifying than excruciating pain would be the utter lack of it.

"The thing about my shikai ability, Khimaira-san, is that it has two parts to it," she explains calmly, patiently, like she has all the time in the world. "The first part, the healing part, you're familiar with. The second part, those green flames—well, they do quite the opposite. It's the same fire though, just…infused with a different intent, you could say. If you don't deactivate the healing flames inside your body before activating their offensive capabilities though, they'll eat you alive." She tilts her head to the side, considering. "And you, you've had my flames coursing through your every cell for decades now, haven't you?"

She takes a seat in front of them, legs crisscrossed, watching them scream and writhe with that same blank smile on her face.

"I think I'll wait until there's almost nothing of you left, before doing to you what you did to me," she murmurs, almost inaudibly. The flames, reflected in the dark emptiness of her irises—dancing, flickering, never still— are the only hint of life on her face. It's unclear whether she looks more like a hollow or a shinigami in that moment, more a creature devoid of conscience or a death god.

"Aizen-sama," they choke out, gasping for breath. "Aizen-sama, please—"

Their eyes are gone, their lungs are gone, their arms, legs, hands, and feet. As they succumb to the fire, only silence answers them.

She closes her eyes as she feels the weight of countless souls settle inside her, feels their genes integrate with her own, remembers not only being Khimaira but also their innumerable victims—a new husband, an eager child, a grieving wife, a protective brother—and struggles not to get swept away, fights to remain herself while at the same time becoming a hundred-thousand others.

She grounds herself in her past, in her family, her friends, all her past failures and victories—she has moved on from death, not once but twice, she has been ripped away from all that she cares about, she has lost her body, her mind, her future, part of her soul; surviving this, in comparison, is nothing—until slowly, gradually, the storm inside her mind calms.

Then, for the first time in a century, she wakes up.

"You're sure about this?" Soi Fon asked. "It's been almost two decades since we've gotten any leads."

"Positive, taicho," Saido Eikichiro said, sliding a photograph onto Soi Fon's desk.

Rukia stood up so she could get a better look at it. The first thing that caught her eye was the orange. The person in the picture had hair that was a ridiculously bright shade of orange, so much so that it almost distracted her from his face.

His face. She stiffened. Even after a century, she'd recognize that face anywhere.

It was different than the one she knew. Far younger, for one thing, untouched by war or age. Still, that didn't change the fact that the boy in the picture bore far too much of a resemblance to Shiba Kaien for it to be a coincidence.

"It's not him. We checked, the boy is one-hundred percent human," Saido said, observing her expression.

"That doesn't mean his parents are," she replied. "What do you know about him?"

"From what our operatives have seen, the boy lives alone with his younger sisters. Their father's a traveling medic, sends ample funds to them every week and their maternal uncle checks in on them every so often, but for the most part, they seem to live independently. The mother died in an accident about six years prior, which was about the time their father started traveling abroad a lot more, if the neighbors are to be believed." Saido hesitated. "The boy and his sisters appear to be ignorant of anything regarding our world, Yukimura-fukutaicho. In fact, although his sisters appear to possess a moderate spiritual energy level, the boy's reiatsu is almost undetectable."

"We'll see about that," Rukia said quietly. "Does the father visit at all?"

"From what I could gather, he comes around once every few months and stays for a few days," Saido said. "Of course, we can set up surveillance team immediately—"

"Not necessary. I'll go myself," Rukia said tersely.

Soi Fon gave her a sharp look.

"Saito, excuse us for a moment," she said. Saito nodded, immediately flash-stepping away. The moment he was gone, Rukia spoke up.

"I apologize, taicho," she said, averting her gaze. "I forgot my place."

"Clearly," Soi Fon said coolly.

"Permission to explain my reasoning, taicho?" Rukia asked. Soi Fon paused before nodding.

"Very well. Make your case," she said.

"The problem with setting up a surveillance team is that Shihouin Yoruichi will see it coming from a mile away. A single-person covert mission, on the other hand, is much more unconventional and therefore more likely to succeed. I could enter the boy's class under a false name and a different appearance, gain his trust, and see if I can obtain any information regarding Shiba Kaien and any of the other Visored that way. If that fails, if Saido is to be believed, we can expect a visit from the boy's father in a few months. If I am close to the boy, that puts me in a prime position to immediately send word for backup at any sight of Shiba Kaien. Of course, we could always bring the boy and his sisters in for questioning, but if the Visored are keeping tabs on them, such a tactic would be a guaranteed way of tipping them off," Rukia said formally, back straight.

"All very good points," Soi Fon murmured. "You still didn't explain why I should send you, someone who is obviously emotionally compromised to do the job rather than an operative who has no personal stake in the matter."

"Because I won't fail," Rukia said simply. Soi Fon eyed her for a moment, considering.

"You have six months," she said finally. "Don't let me down."

"So," Renji said. "A mission to the living world. Huh."

"I thought I should let you know, given that I'll be gone for the next sixth months," Rukia said, poking at a piece of chicken with her chopsticks.

"I can't imagine why, given that we've barely spoken for the last six decades and you didn't give me any notice then," he said sarcastically.

"Don't go blaming me for that. We've both been busy," Rukia snapped. "At least I've been busy doing my damned best to bring the Visored to justice, instead of fooling around in the Eleventh."

"Fooling around, huh? Is that what they call 'protecting civilians in the Rukongai from hollows' these days?" Renji asked bitingly, viciously spearing a piece of beef. "You've changed, Rukia."

"I've changed?" Rukia asked, outraged. "Hisana took you in and you've all but forgotten about—"

Renji slammed his fist down on the table.

"Don't you dare say I've forgotten about her," he said lowly. "She was family to me, she was a sister to me, which is how I know she'd be disgusted by what you're doing now. What happened to you, Rukia? You're, what, spying on children now?"

Rukia refused to flinch.

"My battle is not with them. They have nothing to fear from me; I have no intention of harming them," she said, averting her eyes.

"Other than you murdering their father, that is," Renji said.

"They would be better off without him!" Rukia snapped. "Safer, without that monster in their lives."

"And then what happens to them afterwards? What happens to the children of a hollowfied shinigami and a human?" He asked. Rukia looked away. They both knew the answer to that question.

"That is not my concern," she said stiffly.

"Yeah, you've only had one concern for a while now, haven't you?" The words came out more sad than accusatory and Renji set his chopsticks down, suddenly not hungry anymore.

"And what would you have me do?" Rukia asked defensively. "Believe me, I don't like this plan much either but the Visored have been one step ahead of us for the past century and I don't see that changing anytime soon. At least this is something different—at least this has a chance of working." She glared at him. "You can judge me all you like, but I remember what Hisana taught me. If someone hurts your family, you pay them back a thousand-fold, no matter the cost. I still remember Hisana's lessons, even if you've forgotten."

"Hisana never involved innocents," Renji said quietly. "Tell me honestly, Rukia. Do you think Hisana would be happy with what you're doing right now?"

"Hisana's not here," Rukia snarled and to her utter mortification, she felt tears prickling at her eyes. Without another word, she turned, stormed out of the restaurant, and tried very hard to tell herself that she wasn't running away.

At the sight of Aizen's pet hollow (instantly recognizable by its vacant expression) standing outside the door to Aizen's office, Gin couldn't quite suppress a twinge of disgust.

It was looking even more hopelessly lost than usual today as it gazed at the walls, an expression of stupid fascination on its face.

He strode forward before stopping in front of it, glancing at it expectantly. It looked at him blankly in return and he felt his irritation rise.

"I suggest ya move before I make ya. Trust me, ya won't like the latter option," he drawled. It stared at him for another moment, some unreadable emotion flickering through its eyes for the briefest second. Then it blinked and its expression returned to its usual deference.

"So sorry Ichimaru-san, I must have gotten lost in my own head for a moment there. Of course I'll move," it said, a guileless smile on its face, before it began walking away.

"What do ya think you're doing?" He called out sharply.

"Moving, Ichimaru-san," it replied without looking back. Gin watched its departing figure, tilting his head in thought. Granted, it was certainly possible—verging on likely—that it really was stupid enough to misinterpret his words in that way. Still, there was something…different about it today. He just couldn't put his finger on it.

It was only later that he realized it had addressed him by -san instead of -sama.

A/N: Imagine that you're a being whose diet consists solely of, say, mushrooms. You've eaten thousands of mushrooms and you've never had a problem—even the poisonous ones never gave you any issue because you are designed to eat mushrooms. One day you eat a particularly tasty mushroom—it stands out because of its deliciousness but eventually you forget about it. Only instead of being properly digested, that mushroom chills out in your stomach, subsisting on the scraps of other mushrooms you eat. As it grows stronger, it instigates a hostile takeover of your brain, only it does so in such a subtle and insidious manner that you don't even notice until the mushroom drags you into a nightmare, all 'surprise bitch, I bet you thought you'd seen the last of me' and promptly consumes your consciousness. You've just gotten an idea of what it's like to be the hollow unlucky enough to have chosen Yukimura Hisana as a meal.

On a more serious note, a few things I'd like to address for this chapter. First of all, the POV shift—I'll be switching to third person POV from now on, because I feel like that'll better enable me to tell the story.

Yes, Aizen included the Visored in his 'Hisana got murdered by the Visored' illusion, so not even the Visored are sure of their innocence. He'd tell you he did it to cover his bases but really he was just being a dick.

Yes, the hollow that ate Hisana was Aaroniero in canon. In WTL, Aizen named them Khimaira (Chimera) instead because he felt the name fit better. Consuming Hisana and by default gaining access to her shikai ability (which find a way for its user to survive by manipulating its user's cells) basically expanded their's existing shapeshifting/regeneration powers, to the point that they don't even have a true form anymore. Note: they also don't necessarily need to eat their victims to mimic them physically, although it is necessary if they want to absorb their memories/powers (ex: if they just wanted to look like random shinigami 97, all they would need is a sample of random shinigami 97's DNA. If they wanted random shinigami 97's memories/shikai/mannerisms, they would need to eat random shinigami 97).

Yes, I know that in canon, Aaroniero couldn't stand sunlight. The reason Khimaira can will be expanded on later (I mean they kind of needed to figure out how to maintain their powers in sunlight, because a spy that can't be out in the daytime would be utterly useless to Aizen and useless things don't tend to survive long in AIzen's presence).

Btw, I hate writing time skips. Especially time skips that take place over a hundred years and in which a shit ton of stuff happens—it's impossible to get a smooth flow going. As far as changes in squad placements go, I'll summarize here: Rukia never joined the 13th; instead, she joined the 2nd where she eventually became lieutenant. Rangiku left the 10th shortly after the events of last chapter, when Isshin refused to denounce Kaien. She joined the 6th and became Byakuya's lieutenant roughly 50 years prior to the start of canon. Renji never left the 11th; he stayed there and became 4th seat (he ain't dumb enough to challenge either Ikkaku or Yachiru for their seats). With Lisa having never become a Visored, obviously she's still lieutenant of the 8th. Both she and Kyouraku wanted Nanao to become more independent, which is how she ended up joining the 10th (where she then became Hitsugaya's lieutenant). The lieutenant seats for the 4th and the 13th remain empty (Miyako could never quite bring herself to take over Kaien's spot and Unohana decided she wasn't quite ready to take on another lieutenant). Everything else is more or less the same.

Also yes, Shinji has, rather unwittingly, ended up the Mom Friend of the Visored. He's quite upset about it.