Author's Notes: Hello there! Hope everyone's doing well. Life's been as busy as ever on my end, though I have been able to at least take a few small breaks here and there.

Anyway, I'm trying something a bit different here. I've decided to split this chapter into two parts, and this would be part one. If I did things in my usual manner, this chapter would be by far the largest in a fic that's already full of big ones. So, consider this something of a trial run. Depending on the reception, I might decide to implement this system going forward for the rest of the story. At the very least, it should allow me to post a bit more frequently. No action in part one here, but part two will make up for that.

One last bit before you dive in. Remember back in Chapter Twenty-Five when I included a bit of musical accompaniment? I said back then that I didn't intend to really make a habit of it in this fic, and did mean that, but during the writing of a particular sequence I had a piece of music playing in the background on loop that I felt really fit the mood. By the time I was finished, the sequence and the music pretty much became joined at the hip in my mind, and so I decided to include it in the release here. I won't name the piece in these notes, but you'll see the cue when the time comes, and I imagine it's iconic enough by now that it scarcely requires introduction in any case. It's not a Naruto or Bleach piece, though, so if that rubs you the wrong way, you don't have to play it if you don't want to.

Enjoy!

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Across The Sands Of Time

Part One: The Summons of the Desert Witch

Several months later…

Late summer, 132 years before Rukia Kuchiki's arrival in Karakura Town

The Sharingan blazed in Itachi's eyes as he focused on Kisuke and the white humanoid doll into which Squad Two's Third Seat had just plunged his sword. Carefully monitoring his comrade's energy, Itachi became increasingly concerned the longer that the test went on. Kisuke had pushed the envelope in previous sessions, but here it felt like he might actually go over the edge. The man was positively drenched in sweat, and his breathing was labored.

"Come on," Itachi heard Kisuke mutter under his breath, "I've… almost… got you… out here."

Shifting his focus to just the doll, Itachi sensed that Kisuke was right. The white object was surrounded in a faint red aura, and energy that was both Kisuke's and yet not radiated from it; at least part of the Zanpakutō's spirit did appear to have been drawn into the doll. Still, the effort to force the rest of the spirit into the doll and thus achieve full materialization was draining Kisuke rapidly, and Itachi doubted the man would be able to stand on his own two feet for much longer. After another minute or two with no further progress, Itachi decided to intervene.

"Enough for now," said the Eighth Seat as he stepped forward.

Kisuke shook his head even as he struggled to simply breathe. "No… I'm close! Don't… stop me… now."

"Unfortunately for you," Itachi replied as he put a firm hand on Kisuke's shoulder, "I wasn't asking."

With that, he forcefully pulled Kisuke back. The Third Seat's sword slid out of the doll, and the red glow faded from the curious construct as it clattered to the floor. Kisuke fell to his knees in exhaustion, kept from faceplanting only by Itachi supporting him.

Kisuke gave him a sharp look. "You know I outrank you, right?"

Itachi folded his arms. "You do, and Yoruichi outranks both of us. She ordered me to make sure you don't get yourself killed through these experiments, and I don't intend to let her down."

Kisuke sighed before letting a weary but grateful smile grace his face. "Of course. She's always tried to watch my back, even when I don't want her to."

Itachi smiled as well. "You're one of her oldest friends, Kisuke. She cares deeply for you, and I know that she'd be greatly saddened if anything bad were to happen to you. I would spare her that pain if I could."

Kisuke chuckled as he looked up at Itachi. "I know… and thanks. I mean that."

"What are friends for?" Itachi asked as he knelt down and slung one of Kisuke's arms over his shoulder.

The Eighth Seat helped his erstwhile superior officer over to a small nearby ledge, and the two Soul Reapers plopped down. Itachi watched as Kisuke's gaze focused on the prone and lifeless doll, his brow already furrowing in thought.

"I was close this time," Kisuke murmured, "I had part of her in there, but she was fighting so damn hard to keep me from forcing enough of her into the doll to compel her materialization. It's practically as bad as when I tried to materialize her without an artificial medium."

Itachi pondered what he'd seen earlier with his Sharingan. "We've already established that the doll needs to serve as an anchor for the Zanpakutō spirit, and I think the concept remains sound despite your current difficulties. The problem is overcoming the opposition of a Zanpakutō to forced materialization of this sort. We need a way to make it easier for the doll to absorb enough of the Zanpakutō spirit quickly so as to compel that materialization before they can put up a real fight."

Kisuke scratched his chin. "We might need to change the ratio of materials. A higher percentage of the absorption foam on the inside to speed up the transfer, maybe?"

"It's worth a shot," Itachi answered, "though we might risk the doll's overall structural integrity in the process. Without a sufficiently strong frame to contain the spirit, the doll will be worthless. We can't sacrifice too much rigidity here."

Kisuke nodded. "I'll fine-tune the mixture of materials tomorrow. We can take another stab at it then. I really do think that we're on the right track here."

Itachi was inclined to agree. "These past few iterations of the doll have shown a marked improvement in capturing at least a portion of the Zanpakutō spirit, even if it still comes with great effort on your part. It may be more incremental than we'd like, but we are making progress. Persistence is key when so much of our work revolves around trial and error."

Kisuke smiled. "That's the kind of attitude I like to see! You sure you weren't an amateur scientist in a past life? You've got the mentality of one."

Itachi chuckled. "Who can say? Perhaps I might've gone down that road had the circumstances of my upbringing been different. I always possessed a desire to understand the world around me, but that understanding came through the lenses of a Shinobi. The more I look back on it, the more I realize just how limited of a perspective that is to view the world through."

Kisuke shrugged. "Well, there's still time for you to broaden your horizons. You may be a Soul Reaper now, but that role doesn't have to completely define who you are in your new life. I mean, hell, look at me. I'm officially the head of the Stealth Force's Detention Unit, which means I should be just a glorified jailor, but I don't let that constrain me."

"No, you certainly don't," Itachi concurred.

Kisuke grinned as he reached inside a pouch at his hip and pulled out a small orb covered with green paper wrapping. "Here's some proof of that! Come on, give it a try!"

Itachi took the orb and unwrapped it, revealing a shiny emerald sphere. "You sure it's safe?"

Kisuke laughed. "Man, I've made you paranoid, haven't I? Relax, Itachi! I promise it's just a piece of candy, nothing more. Consider it a down payment for your contributions to science."

Itachi gave the orb one last skeptical look before plopping it in his mouth. Sucking on it for a few minutes, he eventually worked it down to a much smaller size and swallowed the remnant.

"Apple flavor," Squad Two's Eighth Seat murmured before nodding in approval, "Very sweet… not bad. If you ever went into the confectionery business full-time, you'd probably make a decent living off of it with your talents."

"You know, I was considering setting up a stall during next year's Blade Dancer Festival and seeing how these things sell," Kisuke remarked, "Think I should go for it?"

Itachi nodded. "Absolutely. I'd definitely swing by to make a purchase or two, and I imagine Yoruichi would as well. Mention it to her, and she'd probably start getting the word out. You couldn't ask for better advertising than an endorsement from your Captain."

Kisuke smiled. "Good point. I'll run it by her later. If nothing else, having the extra income would go a long way towards providing the funding needed to continue and expand upon my various experiments."

"Discretionary income will only go so far," Itachi pointed out, "What you really need are the resources that come with an independent command."

Kisuke's eyes narrowed slightly. "Is this another pitch for me shooting to become a Captain? You know, Yoruichi brought that up with me last week. Are you two coordinating here?"

"Perhaps a bit," Itachi confessed, "She's mentioned it to me more than once. Her respect for your abilities and ingenuity is sincere, Kisuke. She sees your potential, and so do I. Once we iron out the last kinks with this doll and you're able to achieve Bankai, you really should consider preparing for a Captaincy. A slot's going to open up sooner or later, and Yoruichi and I both believe that you could go far in a command position."

Kisuke sighed. "I appreciate the vote of confidence, I really do. Still… I'm not the kind of guy who radiates the sort of charisma and gravitas that's needed for a leadership role."

"That's a dodge, and you insult both of us by using it," Itachi countered, "Do you think Head Captain Yamamoto, Yoruichi or any of the other Captains care about those sorts of things? No. Their primary considerations are skill, power, and intelligence. Two out of three, you have in the bag. The third is power, and yours is growing with each passing year. We both know it."

Kisuke leaned back and looked up at the rocky ceiling of the concealed training ground. "I guess so. It just feels kind of weird for me to imagine myself taking on that role, no matter how much you and Yoruichi might think I'd be a good fit for it. All the administrative work, looking out for my subordinates, attending Captain meetings regularly and being stuck in the same room as the Head Captain… I can't exactly call all of that my idea of a good time."

Itachi shrugged. "No one is saying that it'd be pleasant; duty and responsibility seldom are. You're more prepared for it than you might think, though. You already carry significant responsibilities as the head of the Detention Unit, and you handle them quite well. The Nest of Maggots has been consistently secure under your watch, and you haven't lost a single subordinate to any of the inmates. That alone speaks of your ability to instill discipline, respect and trust. It's natural for you to feel nervous about taking on greater duties and having more subordinates to look after, but that apprehension also shows how seriously you'd take such a leadership position."

Kisuke chuckled. "I hardly take anything seriously these days. You ought to know that."

"Your commitment to your research and your record in overseeing the Nest of Maggots indicates otherwise," Itachi argued, "as does your consistent efforts to train yourself and improve your skills and knowledge base. You also have a solid track record in field operations. Soi-Fon might give you grief for your laid-back attitude, but she's more of the exception rather than the rule. Besides, a relaxed leader is one that subordinates feel that they can approach should they have concerns. Just look at how Yoruichi runs Squad Two. She's firm when she needs to be, but most of the time she's fairly relaxed. It's part of how she's managed to gather such a devoted group of subordinates around her. I believe you could do the same when you eventually become a Captain."

Kisuke appeared to ponder it for a moment. "Perhaps. Until I can achieve Bankai, though, the rest of it's a moot point."

"True," Itachi conceded, "but something tells me the day's coming when you'll no longer have that excuse to hide behind."

Kisuke laughed. "Calling me out, eh? Keep this up, and maybe I won't finish this little project of ours!"

Itachi smirked. "An empty threat, and we both know it. It's in your nature to see a project through once you've started it. Your curiosity won't be satisfied until you've exhausted every potential line of investigation. More to the point, you know that we're on the right track with this doll of yours. It simply needs some adjusting now. With the project this far along and showing such promise, there's no way you'll abandon it."

Kisuke stretched his arms and let out a long exhalation. "Ah, you've got me nailed there. I'm like that with every project, for good or ill…"

The way his voice trailed off at the end caught Itachi's attention. "Got something else besides the doll that you need my help with?"

Kisuke studied Itachi for a moment before shaking his head. "No, but I appreciate the offer. It's really just a vexing side project at the moment. Most of it's in the realm of theoretical rather than practical for the time being, so your Sharingan wouldn't be of much use."

Itachi considered pressing the matter for a few seconds before ultimately deciding against it; if whatever else Kisuke was working on became a serious concern, the Third Seat would doubtlessly bring it to his or Yoruichi's attention sooner or later. "Very well, then. If you change your mind, you know where to find me."

Kisuke nodded. "I sure do."

Itachi then stood up and stretched a bit. "Well, I should get going. Yoruichi and I are due over at the Kuchiki estate within the next hour, and you know how Captain Kuchiki is about punctuality."

Kisuke smiled deviously. "I'm sure Byakuya's looking forward to whatever fresh torture you and Yoruichi plan on putting him through today!"

Itachi rolled his eyes. "We're hardly that harsh of taskmasters to him."

"Maybe," said Kisuke, "but I know you two run him harder than his family tutors. Besides, you know Yoruichi; she just can't resist ruffling Byakuya's feathers."

Itachi chuckled. "Well, how can she resist when he proves so easy to rile up? Half of the time, I'm tempted to join in the fun."

Kisuke laughed. "Hah, I knew she was rubbing off on you! I approve."

"Glad you do," Itachi replied before turning to leave the training ground, "I'll see you later, Kisuke."

….

Someone's enjoying themselves, thought Yoruichi as she sipped tea on the sidelines with Ginrei Kuchiki while Itachi and Byakuya fought back and forth across the yard, Byakuya's really opened up with you, Itachi!

Ginrei had clearly caught it as well, at least if the small smile beneath his thick mustache was anything to go by. "My grandson never gets this enthusiastic about his training when he's practicing with the family instructors… your Eighth Seat's by far his favorite sparring partner."

"Oh, yeah? What's that make me, then?" asked Yoruichi with a sly smile.

Ginrei chuckled as he raised his cup. "A she-devil that exists solely to embarrass and torment him."

Yoruichi laughed as she tapped her cup against Ginrei's. "Works for me!"

In truth, Ginrei's words were an exaggeration, and they both knew it. While Yoruichi did find no end of fun in teasing the Kuchiki Clan's heir, she took his instruction just as seriously as Itachi did. Some of that was simply out of a desire to fulfill their end of the bargain struck with Ginrei years ago, but Itachi and Yoruichi did genuinely want to make sure that what Byakuya learned from them stuck with him when his family finally allowed him to attend Shin'ō Academy. The boy had a promising future ahead of him; even at this early stage, Yoruichi could tell that he'd go far once he joined the Thirteen Court Guard Squads.

It helped, of course, that both of Byakuya's teachers quite enjoyed tutoring him. For Yoruichi, that enjoyment was found simply in the fact that Byakuya was so easy to fluster, but she knew that it went deeper for Itachi. Neither of them had told Ginrei or Byakuya the truth, but Yoruichi knew that Itachi saw in Byakuya a chance to do for him what he felt that he should've done for Sasuke in his younger days. Itachi hadn't openly admitted as much to Yoruichi, yet she knew him well enough by now that reading between the lines wasn't all that difficult. It was evident simply in the way that her Eighth Seat looked upon Byakuya as their wooden practice swords clashed again and again. No matter how fiercely Byakuya might fight him in their sparring matches, Itachi always seemed to have a very small smile on his face. Part of it was no doubt pride in the progress that his pupil was making, but Yoruichi knew that there was much more to it than that. It was a sort of atonement by proxy, a means for which Itachi believed he could become a better person than who he had been in his past life.

He would think like that, Yoruichi mused as she watched her lover gracefully deflect a series of strikes from Byakuya, because he's always been by far his own harshest critic. Even after having all this time to reflect and understand that he was caught up in events that no one his age should ever have had to go through, to comprehend that he was forced to make horrific decisions that should never have been placed on his shoulders, that he was a victim of the Leaf Village's political squabbles… he would still place the blame upon himself. Given the weight of his actions, I suppose it's to his credit that he holds that sort of mentality, but even so… after all this time, he deserves the chance to forgive himself. Maybe, through teaching Byakuya, he's taking a small step in that direction. I hope that's the case. As long as it helps him find peace with himself, that's enough for me.

Perhaps she'd been staring too openly at Itachi, for Ginrei seemed to have a knowing look in his eyes as he studied her. "Your Eighth Seat is a credit to both Squad Two and the Thirteen Court Guard Squads as a whole. You must be very proud of him."

"I am," Yoruichi confirmed with a heartfelt smile.

"Few earn my grandson's respect so easily," Ginrei noted, "let alone his friendship. You should see the look that comes to his eyes whenever he realizes that the two of you will be coming over for another lesson soon. Of course, he'll quickly try to hide it, and he'll usually follow that by making some remark purporting to dread what you in particular will have in store for him in your lessons, but the earnestness in which he welcomes word of Itachi's impending visit is sincere. Don't get me wrong; he respects you, even if he'll only begrudgingly admit to it. It's just that Itachi is the one he's truly become fond of."

Yoruichi shrugged. "I don't mind being the villain in Byakuya's eyes as long as he's still willing to learn from me."

Ginrei shook his head. "I wouldn't go so far as to say he views you as an outright villain… more of a trickster goddess whose knowledge and wisdom are to be regarded warily."

Yoruichi couldn't help but giggle at that. "Trickster goddess, eh? I can live with that!"

A surprisingly melancholic came to Ginrei's face as he watched his grandson and Itachi continue their sparring match. "Byakuya… he never says as much openly, but I know he finds it difficult being an only child. His high social standing combined with how desperate the family is to safeguard him is dreadfully isolating for a boy of his age. I think that's a big part of why he becomes so happy whenever he realizes that another lesson with Itachi will soon be upon him. For Byakuya, Itachi has become more than just a teacher. He's a friend… although, now that I ponder it, I have to wonder if even 'friend' is the right word here. Oh, goodness… what's the term I'm looking for?"

Yoruichi was pretty confident that she had the answer. "How about the brother that he never realized he wanted?"

Ginrei's eyes widened slightly as he considered it. "A brother… you just might be onto something there, Captain Shihōin."

Yoruichi knew she was, but she kept that certainty private. Itachi certainly wouldn't appreciate her running her mouth off to anyone who would listen about his younger brother, even if it was only to explain to Ginrei why her Eighth Seat found it so easy to bond with Byakuya. She had sworn to keep Itachi's secrets to herself unless he requested otherwise, and Yoruichi had no intention of betraying his trust.

How could I, she thought as her mind drifted back to the very warm welcome she'd given Itachi upon his return from the north, after he demonstrated such loyalty to me while he was staying with the Order of the Valkyries? That sort of faith deserves to be rewarded.

She leaned forward slightly, her focus sharpening as the match between Byakuya and Itachi picked up in tempo. The Kuchiki Clan's heir was pressing hard, driving Itachi across the yard with a sequence of fluid slashes and thrusts. The boy's Zanjutsu skills had definitely improved over the past couple of years, and Yoruichi suspected that even many active-duty Soul Reapers would be jealous of Byakuya's swordsmanship now. His moves possessed a potent mix of speed, precision and power, and his footwork was top notch. He was still highly aggressive, a bit too eager to go on the offensive, but his attacks weren't nearly as hotheaded and reckless as they'd been during those early training rounds. Itachi had taught him the value of controlled aggression, of matching a strong offensive with keen observation and balance so as to avoid being drawn into a trap. Byakuya, in turn, had proven to be a quick learner.

Yet for all the eagerness with which Byakuya absorbed the lessons from his new teacher, Itachi had by no means taught the boy every trick at his disposal. Every match, he found a way to surprise his pupil, and Yoruichi knew that today would be no exception. Even as Byakuya continued to press the assault, Itachi remained utterly calm and centered. He kept his wooden practice sword in close, barely adjusting the angle of the blade to deflect incoming strikes while minimizing both exposure and energy expenditure. As he always did during these matches, Itachi aimed to give himself sufficient cover so as to observe his student's technique carefully, waiting for Byakuya to make a mistake so that he could turn it against the boy and then teach him now to avoid it in the future.

That mistake came soon enough, with Itachi baiting Byakuya into it. As he continued to fall back, the former Shinobi suddenly appeared to stumble, his form breaking as he tried to regain his balance. The disruption of his posture might have seemed like a genuine accident to a casual observer, but Yoruichi had fought Itachi so many times now that she knew his moves by heart, and he would never have lost his footing on terrain like the finely trimmed lawn of the Kuchiki estate unless it was by design. Itachi's pupil lacked Yoruichi's extensive experience, though, and as a result Byakuya seized on the supposed opportunity and lunged forward, bringing his wooden sword down hard. However, Itachi then immediately altered the angle of his weapon so that what initially had appeared to be a hasty and desperate block turned into a smooth redirection. As Byakuya's blade ran down Itachi's and went towards the ground, Squad Two's Eighth Seat then swung his right hand forward, smacking his pupil square in the face with the handle of his weapon. Caught completely flatfooted by the counterattack, Byakuya fell flat on his rear.

Blinking several times in shock, the boy's expression quickly became one of furious indignation. "Cheater! You swore that this match would only involve swords!"

"And it did," Itachi replied with a surprisingly devious smile, "The handle is just as much a part of the sword as the blade, Byakuya."

Byakuya's mouth opened and closed several times as his mind doubtlessly raced to come up with a suitable counter before he eventually turned to Captain Kuchiki in desperation. "Grandfather…"

Unfortunately for Byakuya, Ginrei offered no help, instead chuckling at his grandson's mishap. "I'm afraid he's completely correct, Byakuya. Itachi did not cheat; he simply exploited every aspect of the weapon at his disposal."

"A lesson that applies to words just as well as weapons," Itachi added as he held his hand out to Byakuya, "As the heir to a Great Noble House, every word you utter in a public setting will be scrutinized for every possible meaning. So many have multiple ways in which they might be interpreted, and so your mind must be open to every possibility."

Byakuya slowly nodded in comprehension as he allowed Itachi to pull him to his feet. "Open to every interpretation… of both words and weapons. The blade of the sword is simply the most obvious interpretation of it, the point that most will focus on… but it's not the entirety of the weapon. Not the entirety of what defines it…"

Itachi nodded. "Carefully consider that the next time we set terms for a sparring match. Scrutinize every word I say, for I will most certainly do the same with you… and I'll take full advantage of any openings you unwittingly offer me."

Byakuya let out an exasperated sigh before casting a wary look at Yoruichi. "You really are as fiendish as that witch…"

Yoruichi gave him an evil grin. "Who do you think he got it from?"

Itachi smirked as his gaze met hers. "I did learn from the best."

"That, you did," Yoruichi confirmed as she stood up, "Now, it's been fun watching you boys play, but I think it's my turn to get in on the action!"

Byakuya shuddered. "Can I at least get a break first?"

Yoruichi cracked her knuckles and gave the boy a wicked smile. "Nope. I'm going to run you today until you drop!"

….

"Ah, that was fun!" Yoruichi proclaimed in satisfaction as she and Itachi strode out of the Kuchiki Clan estate's front gate and set off down the gleaming pathways of the Seireitei back towards the Squad Two barracks.

Itachi couldn't suppress a chuckle as the image of Byakuya collapsing onto the lawn from exhaustion flashed through his mind's eye. "I'm not sure if 'fun' is how our young pupil might describe it. He probably thought of it more along the lines of torture."

Yoruichi waved her hand dismissively. "Hey, Captain Kuchiki never told us to go easy on the kid. I was making sure to uphold my end of the bargain, just like you did. I needed to see just how much Byakuya's endurance had improved, and those repeating Flash Step exercises were just the way to do it."

Itachi couldn't argue with her on that front. "He certainly lasted longer than the last time you put him through his paces like that. His stamina's come a long way from when we first started training him."

Yoruichi's smile took on hint of mischievousness. "Got that right. He's going to make some woman very happy in the future, if you know what I mean!"

"He might be a bit too young to appreciate that particular side benefit to his training," Itachi pointed out.

"Give it time," Yoruichi replied with a grin, "When it's his wedding night and he gives the bride the ride of her life, there's going to be a tiny voice in the back of his mind thanking you and me for making him so resilient!"

Itachi smirked. "I'll take your word for it."

A contented silence fell over the two Soul Reapers as they worked their way out of the noble sector and towards the section of the Seireitei that most Soul Reapers called home. The sky was already shifting from blue to dark purple and scarlet as the sun slowly descended in the west. A pleasant breeze helped blunt the worst of the summer heat, and quite a few aristocrats, attendants, and Soul Reapers alike were out enjoying the relatively cool evening.

I hope this keeps up, Itachi mused, The past few weeks have been far too hot for my liking. A cool stretch would do us all some good. Perhaps we'll finally get a bit of rain as well. We're certainly overdue for it.

Itachi had never imagined he might miss the frigid gales of the north, but the blistering heat that the Seireitei had endured this summer was causing him to reconsider. It wasn't the hottest that the heart of the Soul Society had ever been during Itachi's time there, but it had been rather uncomfortable at certain points. He wasn't the only one who'd found it draining; it hadn't been uncommon to see his fellow Soul Reapers fanning themselves in the shade, cutting their training short to get out of the sun's harsh glare. Soi-Fon or Lieutenant Ōmaeda would normally have responded to such shirking of responsibility quite sternly, yet even the two of them seemed worn out by the heat. As far as the lot of them were concerned, the transition over to fall couldn't come soon enough.

Even Yoruichi appeared to welcome the easing of the temperature. "Heat's finally starting to taper off, I see… that's good. Should help put some wind back in everyone's sails."

"I didn't think you'd be all that bothered by the heat," Itachi noted, "The Shihōin Clan Principality isn't exactly known for its mild temperatures, I recall you telling me."

"Yeah, but at least down there it's a dry heat," Yoruichi argued, "Bit more humidity up here. Might not be as bad as the kind that the Shiba Clan gets over in their homeland, but still… not exactly my idea of a good time."

Itachi nodded. "I suppose you have a point. My travels across the Shinobi World during my time with the Akatsuki gave me a sampling of all sorts of climate zones. Deserts, jungles, mountains, snow-whipped plains, you name it. I can tolerate whatever environment that I'm required to, but I'll admit that I found operating in areas with the combination of harsh heat and oppressive humidity to be amongst the least desirable. The excessive sweat and the accompanying smell can be a considerable detriment when one's trying to remain concealed, especially if your foe has sharpened olfactory senses. Among Shinobi, that's more common than you might think."

Yoruichi chuckled. "Probably doesn't help that the color black dominates our uniforms, plus my Captain's haori is unfortunately a heat trap. There's a reason why I prefer to ditch it when we're out in the field, after all. I only really wear it around here in case we run into the Head Captain; he's a stickler for us fellow Captains wearing the symbols of our ranks proudly. Me, I could do with a little less standing on ceremony."

Itachi smirked as his mind drifted back to the past. "Kisame and I once took a job in the Land of Waves on behalf of a wealthy merchant whose ships were being raided by a particularly nasty band of pirates. We tracked the raiders down to their home base on a tropical island. Dispatching the brigands was easy enough; the hard part of the job was operating in that humidity while wearing my Akatsuki jacket. A black and red overcoat doesn't do you any favors in the tropics."

Yoruichi laughed. "Hah, no kidding! You must've been miserable."

"It definitely wasn't a favorite job of mine, even if the targets we went after definitely deserved the ends we granted them," Itachi confessed, "Kisame and I only took the contract because the pay was good; we needed to refill our coffers before setting out for a future Jinchūriki hunt. Pain… no, Nagato… usually granted us considerable operational freedom, but he always wanted to make sure that we were wearing those jackets as a means of advertising the Akatsuki brand to our prospective employers. The coats had a lot of useful pouches on the inside, so most of the time I didn't really see it as an issue. For jobs in hot and humid climates, though, they were rather unpleasant. Our Soul Reaper robes don't do much better."

Yoruichi sighed. "I wish the Head Captain and Central Forty-Six would loosen up the regulations so we could customize our gear more. With my family's resources, I could have Squad Two outfitted with uniforms tailored to specific environments. Sure, the old man and those dogmatic councilors allow us some flexibility; cloaks for colder regions and stuff like that. Still, it's not nearly enough. They insist on us wearing black robes in deserts or sweltering jungles when there are far better options available. Hell, if they'd ease up on the rules a bit, I bet I could talk Mom into commissioning new camouflaged uniforms for the entire Thirteen Court Guard Squads! With my family's funds, the expense wouldn't even qualify as a drop in the bucket. Yet the hidebound council and Old Man Yama refuse to budge due to rules restricting how noble families interact with the Seireitei's forces. Strict adherence to orthodoxy like that is part of why my grandmother called it quits; she got sick of banging her head against these 'pillars of tradition' that seem to do nothing but impede how we do our jobs. I can't really say that I blame her."

"I'm sure part of the reason for such rules is the desire to avoid having the nobility exert even more influence over the Thirteen Court Guard Squads than they already do," Itachi pointed out, "That being said, the limits of strict adherence to such policies have unfortunately become quite clear. Reforms are needed, yet there seems to be little appetite for such measures."

Yoruichi nodded in resignation. "You're not wrong about that. Those that govern the Soul Society have always been wary of changes large or small. Their conservatism might originally have stemmed from a desire to maintain the balance of souls at all costs, but nowadays it feels like simply adherence to tradition for tradition's sake. Of course, there's also a darker side to it."

Itachi knew full well what that was. "Preserving the current structure as much as possible allows the Central Forty-Six to maintain their grip on power. In their eyes, any reform is to be regarded warily. If one thing can change, no matter how innocuous that item might be and regardless of what practical benefits might come with that evolution, then their minds inevitably begin considering what else people might call to change… and they immediately think of their own positions of authority."

Yoruichi gave Itachi an appraising look. "You know… you sounded a lot like my grandmother just now."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

Yoruichi smiled in reassurance. "Definitely a good thing."

The rest of the trip back to barracks passed quietly, with the sun working its way further down in the west all the while. When they eventually reached their destination and entered the main training yard, Itachi and Yoruichi found the more experienced and diligent amongst Squad Two's officers taking advantage of the early evening temperature drop to get in some sparring. Shisui and Visaelya danced back and forth as their blades flashed in the setting sun, both smiling even as sparks flew each time their swords clashed. Mikoto and Soi-Fon were likewise facing off, though theirs was a Hakuda match rather than a Zanjutsu duel. Amidst the various Soul Reapers and Stealth Force members running through their exercises, Itachi caught sight of Sixth Seat Katya quickly making her way towards him and Yoruichi. Her long brown-ponytail whipped behind her as she rushed across the yard, and her normally cool dark green eyes were alight with urgency.

"Captain Shihōin!" Katya gasped as she skidded to a halt before her comrades, "I've been looking all over for you!"

Yoruichi's eyes narrowed ever so slightly. "I've been at the Kuchiki Clan estate with Eighth Seat Uchiha. I made no secret of this, Sixth Seat Sokolova."

Katya groaned in a rare display of frustration and smacked her forehead. "That's right… I completely forgot! I'm sorry, Captain Shihōin."

Yoruichi held up a hand. "No need to apologize. I know your own schedule's been rather hectic these days. Just tell me what's got you so worked up."

Katya raised her left hand, revealing a black cylinder with a violet ribbon tied around it. "This. It arrived just a little while ago."

Yoruichi accepted the cylinder and rotated it in her hands. Itachi eyed it curiously, wondering what she was looking for. He got his answer a moment later when both his gaze and Yoruichi's settled upon a small circular seal stamped over the ribbon bearing the crest of the Shihōin Clan. It wasn't just the traditional crest, though. Beneath the hexagon housing the grid, four stars and the drop over a crescent moon that made up the crest was a much smaller symbol that Itachi had never seen before; a circle with two stars inside it, with a stylized katana laid diagonally over the top.

A small smile graced Yoruichi's face. "It's her."

"Your mother?" asked Itachi.

Yoruichi shook her head. "Off by one generation, Itachi. The emblem beneath the Shihōin Clan crest is the seal of my grandmother."

"I see," said Itachi, his gaze lingering on the cylinder, "I hope she's well."

"Oh, I'm sure she is," Yoruichi replied, "The last letter I got from her indicated as much, and that was only a month or so ago. In fact, if this one contains a reply to something I brought up with her in our previous correspondence, then I suspect she'll be doing very well in the near future."

There was an undercurrent of excitement in her tone that Itachi immediately picked up on. "What do you mean?"

Yoruichi's smile took on a hint of deviousness. "If my guess is right, then you'll find out after I read this. Thanks, Katya. I'll open this in my office. Consider both yourself and Itachi at leave for the rest of the evening. Itachi, you're on Seireitei patrol tomorrow, right?"

Itachi nodded, curious as to where this was going. "I am. Why?"

Yoruichi smirked. "Just checking. I want to make sure you'll be easy to find. Maybe trim your usual route so it'll be quicker for you to return to barracks. I've got a feeling that I'll want you close at hand tomorrow!"

….

The next day…

As it turned out, Itachi was able to complete his full patrol along with another session of secret tests with Kisuke regarding his Bankai training doll before Yoruichi had summoned him to her office. The timing had been fortuitous; he'd been on his way back to Squad Two's barracks when Soi-Fon had intercepted him to deliver Yoruichi's message. So, as he strode down the hall leading to his Captain's office, Itachi could not help but feel a sense of curious anticipation.

She seemed quite pleased with the message's arrival, he thought, I suppose that at least means it doesn't portend anything ominous. Just what was she anticipating finding in there? Well, I suppose I'll have the answer to that soon enough.

Coming up to the screen door, Itachi lightly rapped his knuckles against it. "It's me."

"Come on in!" Yoruichi called out.

Sliding open the door, Itachi found Yoruichi not at her desk, but sitting at the low-set table that was situated off to the side of her office. A small pot of tea was in the middle, along with two freshly filled cups with steam wafting up from them.

Yoruichi smiled as she waved him over. "Your timing's perfect. I just finished preparing this a few minutes ago."

"Glad to hear it," Itachi replied as he closed the door behind him, "I could use a good cup right now."

"I'll bet," said Yoruichi as he sat across the table from her, "How'd things go with Kisuke today?"

"Incremental progress, as ever," Itachi answered before taking a sip of his tea, "The greater effort was in keeping him from taking things too far and putting himself at risk."

Yoruichi's smile softened somewhat. "I'm sure. Thanks for that, by the way. I'd normally trust Kisuke with his projects, but he's putting a lot more of his energy into this Bankai scheme than others. I can't always keep an eye on him, so I really do appreciate you watching his back like this."

Itachi returned her smile with a gentle one of his own. "It's the least I can do."

"He's not trying to rope you into anything else, is he?" Yoruichi asked.

Itachi's mind flashed back to what Kisuke had mentioned the other day. "He made reference to another project, but he didn't seem to think he'd need my help with it. Not at present, anyway."

Yoruichi sighed, with a note of concern slipping into her voice. "I hope he's not biting off more than he can chew."

"Do you want me to tail him?" asked Itachi, "I could try to snoop around and figure out what else he's working on."

Yoruichi shook her head. "I appreciate the offer, but there's a line between simply looking after him and outright spying, and I think he'd be genuinely hurt if I went with the latter. We've always trusted each other, and I want to respect that. He might be my subordinate, but he's also a close friend, and he's always had faith in me. I want to return that faith. As much as I might worry about him, I also want him to have the freedom and space to make his own decisions and chart a path for himself. These experiments are part of that, even if some of them make me uneasy."

Itachi nodded. "I understand. Still, if you ever change your mind, my offer still stands."

"I'll keep that in mind," said Yoruichi.

The two of them indulged in their tea for a moment before Yoruichi smiled again. "But I didn't call you in here to talk about Kisuke's antics, no matter how interesting those might be. It turns out that letter I got from my grandmother yesterday contained exactly what I hoped it would!"

"And that would be?" asked Itachi.

"An invitation," Yoruichi replied with a grin, "How do you feel about some fun in the sun, Itachi?"

Itachi's eyes widened ever so slightly. "She wants us to come down to the Shihōin Clan Principality? Just like that? Don't get me wrong, I appreciate the invite, but would we even get clearance for it? I spent months up in the north with Jiraiya, and another trip like this would be a serious time commitment. Wouldn't it look strange if I got two such journeys back-to-back?"

Yoruichi shook her head. "Not really. The last one was classified as an extended mission, remember? Strictly speaking, you still haven't taken a vacation since joining the Thirteen Court Guard Squads. You're overdue. Frankly, we both are. Getting clearance for it from the Head Captain won't be a problem."

"You seem awfully confident of that," Itachi remarked.

Yoruichi shrugged. "I've known the Head Captain a lot longer than you, so I know when I can ask him for a favor. He's quite pleased with the work Squad Two's done over the past several years, and he's not shy about expressing it during the regular Captain meetings. Trust me, it won't be hard to get his approval. We've earned a break, and he knows it."

Trusting that her read on Yamamoto was correct, Itachi moved on to his next question. "In that case, who all would be going on this trip of ours?"

Yoruichi smiled sultrily as she batted her eyelashes at him. "Just the two of us!"

Itachi couldn't help but return her smile as pleasant thoughts of the sort of 'fun' the two of them could get up to in private flashed through his mind. "Now that sounds like it'll be a good time."

Yoruichi smirked as she took another sip of her tea. "You know it."

"Soi-Fon might have something to say about it, though," Itachi noted, "Have you thought about how you'll break the news to her?"

"Took care of that before you got back here," Yoruichi casually answered, "She wasn't exactly thrilled when I told her what I had planned, of course, but she knows she can't stop me. Actually, she took it remarkably better than I'd anticipated."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "Really?"

"Yeah," said Yoruichi, "I mean, she's definitely jealous that you're getting me all to yourself, but at the same time, I think she was also relieved when I said that I'd be taking you as my bodyguard for the duration of the trip. She might still be struggling to accept just how close you and I have gotten, but she does trust you, Itachi. She respects your skills and knows that you're as dedicated to me in your own fashion as she is. Also, I think Mikoto's been trying to nudge her more towards accepting… well, us."

Itachi was intrigued. "What makes you say that?"

"It was something that Soi-Fon said when I talked to her earlier," Yoruichi replied, "She said that she hoped the two of us would be able to unwind a bit, and that we deserved some extended time together. She also said that she hoped you would enjoy seeing my family's homeland, and that she and Mikoto would be expecting some fun stories from us when we got back. I know it doesn't sound like much, but for Soi-Fon such talk is actually a big deal. It's much more expressive and relaxed than she normally gets. I don't think she be able to act like that if it weren't for her friendship with your mother. Mikoto's really helping Soi-Fon to mellow out. Sure, she's still stiff as a board most of the time, but she's at least beginning to learn to bend and ease up a bit. That's something I've wanted for her for a very long time now."

Itachi nodded. "I see. Well, I'm glad that my mother's been able to help her out in that regard."

Yoruichi scratched her chin in thought for a moment. "Did Mikoto have any younger siblings… or did she ever mention wanting a daughter in addition to sons?"

The question caught Itachi off guard, and he needed a few seconds to properly consider it. "I believe my mother was an only child. As for wanting a daughter, I don't believe she ever voiced any preferences for what gender her children were. She was always proud of Sasuke and I, and I'm sure that, regardless of whether or not any future children she had with my father were boys or girls, she would've been perfectly happy with them. Why do you ask?"

Yoruichi smiled. "It's her relationship with Soi-Fon. Whenever I see those two together, Mikoto always seems to be looking out for her, even though Soi-Fon's supposed to be her superior officer. Sometimes it feels like Mikoto sees her as a little sister, and other times the vibe I get is that Mikoto almost looks at her like a surrogate daughter. Either way, I think it's cute… and that Soi-Fon really appreciates it. Come to think of it, I think Soi-Fon needed a figure like Mikoto more than she knows."

Itachi weighed his next words carefully. "I know Soi-Fon had siblings of her own, but they were all brothers, yes?"

Yoruichi nodded. "They were… and they all died in the line of duty. She doesn't talk about them much. Probably a coping mechanism."

"I figured as much," said Itachi, "What about her mother? Is she still alive?"

"Last I checked, yes," Yoruichi confirmed.

"How close are the two of them?" asked Itachi.

"Not very," Yoruichi answered regretfully, "and I'm pretty sure I know why. As you know, Soi-Fon's family is a vassal of mine. They take great pride in providing effective spies, assassins, scouts and bodyguards for us, and that in turn leads to their children having a rather austere and harsh upbringing. As soon as they're deemed old enough, they're tested and trained relentlessly. Whatever familial affection parents might have for their children takes a back seat to the need to toughen up their offspring and develop their skills. Thanks to that, Soi-Fon and her brothers didn't really get the kind and warm mother that so many of us take for granted. I'm sure her mother cared in her own way, but I don't think she ever really expressed it in the way that Mikoto does with you."

"Or in the way that my mother does with Soi-Fon," Itachi noted.

"That's right," Yoruichi confirmed with a bittersweet smile, "Perhaps it's a bit late, but it seems that, in Mikoto, Soi-Fon's finally found someone who can be that warm maternal figure she never really had. When I took her into my service, I wanted to play the role of teasing big sister to try to get her to come out of her shell while at the same time teaching her what I thought she would need to survive. Soi-Fon's always been a quick study when it comes to combat training or stealth techniques, and in that respect she's one of the finest proteges I could ask for. However, much as I might've tried, I've always had difficulty in getting her to see that there's so much more to life than duty and missions. I think Mikoto might be starting to reach her in a way I've struggled to for years."

"You almost sound jealous of my mother," Itachi remarked.

"I might be, just a little bit," Yoruichi conceded with a chuckle, "if only because she's proving to be so much more effective at what I've tried for years. I helped refine Soi-Fon's skills as a Soul Reaper and member of the Stealth Force, but I struggled to help her understand how to be a person rather than just another cog in the machine of the Soul Society. Mikoto's known her for a far shorter amount of time than I have, and she doesn't even have the advantage of being Soi-Fon's superior officer like I am, yet she's been able to start gently nudging her in the direction I've wanted her to take for a long time now. Your mother… she's a very special woman, Itachi."

"Why do you think my father married her?" Itachi rhetorically asked.

"Point taken," Yoruichi replied while leaning back and stretching her arms, "Well, hopefully she'll be able to keep Soi-Fon from going crazy with worry while we're gone. If nothing else, having Mikoto around to vent her concerns to while I'm away will be good for Soi-Fon. I just hope your mother doesn't mind it."

"She handled raising Sasuke and I just fine," said Itachi, "I think she'll continue to do well with Soi-Fon. She'll be in good hands, Yoruichi."

Yoruichi sighed. "I just hope I can say the same for Squad Two as a whole. Soi-Fon and Kisuke might not see eye-to-eye, but they're both level-headed enough to mind the fort while I'm away. The real problem's our unit's Lieutenant. His head's big enough even when I'm here to keep him in line. Whenever we're away from barracks for a long time, whether on a mission or otherwise, his position and the authority that comes with it seems to start getting the better of his senses."

"I'll admit that Lieutenant Ōmaeda can be something of a handful," Itachi concurred, "but he's always done a good job at handling the administrative functions of Squad Two while you and I have been out in the field on prolonged assignments. We always come back to a division that's still standing and functioning relatively well, though I know those who get left behind with him tend to moan a bit. Kisuke and Soi-Fon have plenty of experience in maneuvering around our Lieutenant when necessary by now, and they'll know what to do while you're away. Let's trust them, Yoruichi. They are our friends, after all."

Yoruichi slowly nodded. "You're right. They know what they're doing. As long as they keep Lieutenant Ōmaeda focused on the day-to-day administrative side of things while they run the field operations, everything should be fine."

She then smiled. "Besides, this is supposed to be a vacation; we're meant to leave our troubles behind, not let them nag at us in the back of our minds."

Itachi smiled as well. "Well spoken. How soon do you think we can be on the road?"

"By week's end," Yoruichi answered, "Shouldn't take me that long to clear things with the Head Captain. After that, it's just a matter of making sure we're properly packed."

Itachi's brow furrowed in thought. "Clothing might be an issue. I don't really have much available that's good for a prolonged trek through the desert."

"The Shihōin Clan Principality isn't all scorching heat and sun-blasted sand dunes as far as the eye can see," Yoruichi reminded him, "otherwise my family wouldn't be as filthy rich as it is. Still, I understand the issue. Don't worry; I'll reach out to Mom a bit later today. Our family always keeps plenty of travel clothes in the estate, especially for the trips we take back to our ancestral homeland. You'll have a wardrobe perfectly suited to the road ahead of us, Itachi, I promise you that."

Itachi nodded. "Thank you. I'll need see to it that my own duties are covered before we set off. I'll ask Katya and Mindiwo if they can handle my regular patrols in my absence. Between the two of them, the workload should be manageable."

"Not Visaelya, Shisui or your mother?" asked Yoruichi.

Itachi shook his head. "Between their own duties, the continued search for Shinobi and the ongoing investigation into Uchiha links to the Drakken Clan, Shisui and Visaelya have their hands full. As for my mother, remember that Jiraiya referred her to Captain Unohana for healing lessons on top of her own responsibilities. To my knowledge, Katya and Mindiwo haven't taken on anything beyond their own duties, and I've worked with them enough by now to know what they can handle. I'll simply owe them a favor when we return."

"Fair enough," said Yoruichi, "Of course, I could always send a hefty bonus their way to make up for their extra work."

"I appreciate the thought, and I'm sure they would, too," Itachi replied, "Nevertheless, I do want to pay them back on my own terms."

Yoruichi folded her arms. "Hey, we're both taking this vacation, not just you. Dealing with the repercussions of it isn't solely your responsibility. I thought you were trying to rely more on others than putting everything on your own shoulders like you did in the past."

Itachi took a deep breath as he considered her words. "That's true, I suppose. Still, I do feel bad about asking them to take on my work just so I can have some time off."

"Let's compromise here," Yoruichi suggested, "I'll pull them both aside tomorrow and work out a modest pay increase to account for some of the extra work they'll be pulling. You can take on some of their work for a time after we return. It'll be a reasonable amount, though, and for a reasonable time period; I won't have you burning yourself out just to repay a perceived debt."

Itachi could accept that. "Very well, then… and thank you."

Yoruichi smiled. "Anytime."

"Is there anything I can do to help out with travel preparations?" he asked.

Yoruichi shook her head. "You leave that to me. Since this is the first real vacation you've ever taken, I want to treat you this time. Leave the prep work to me and just focus on making sure you've got your own duties wrapped up and attended to before we set off. Trust me, you're in for a trip to remember!"

….

A little over three weeks later…

Stretching her arms over her head as the light of the campfire glittered in her golden eyes, Yoruichi looked up and smiled in greeting as Itachi drew near. "All clear out there?"

"Caught sight of a bison herd off in the east," her Eighth Seat and now official bodyguard for the purpose of their trip replied, his raven hair gleaming in the moonlight, "They look like they're settling in for the night. We should probably get up early tomorrow morning just in case their path takes them in this direction."

Yoruichi nodded before patting the ground beside her. "Sounds good. Now, come over here and take a load off! You're supposed to be on vacation now, remember?"

As he did so, Yoruichi eyed him up and down. With both of them having left their Soul Reaper robes behind in the Squad Two barracks, this trip represented a rare opportunity for Yoruichi and Itachi to shake up their usual fashion styles, and the Flash Goddess had taken full advantage of it when she'd asked her mother to help her set her bodyguard up with a new wardrobe. So, instead of the usual black ensemble that she was so used to seeing him in, Yoruichi could now feast her eyes on an Itachi who looked like he'd stepped out of one of the many paintings that her family kept at the Shihōin Clan estate in the Seireitei depicting images and people from their ancestral homeland. Comfortable dark brown boots protected his feet, while his legs were clad in a set of white pants that were only mildly marred with bits of dust and dirt from his earlier patrol. His Zanpakutō was tied to a black belt at his waist, along with a few pouches of throwing knives. Dominating his torso was a loose white shirt with a plunging collar, revealing a good portion of Itachi's toned chest. It was a look that Yoruichi could definitely get used to. Of course, it didn't take Itachi long to catch her eating the eye candy.

"Enjoying the view?" he asked with a smirk as he settled down next to her.

Yoruichi didn't even bother to deny it. "Why shouldn't I? My family paid for it, after all!"

"That, they did," Itachi conceded as his gaze swept over her, "I should thank your mother when we return… and not just for my new outfits."

Yoruichi batted her eyelashes as she leaned back, flaunting the ensemble that she wore now. It was one of several that she had packed in her bag, and it was definitely a favorite. Light brown sandals, each with their straps capped by a small turquoise stone, clad her feet. Dark green pants covered her legs, though only down to just below the knees, while a sleeveless buttoned light green shirt with dark green swirls embroidered on it dominated her torso. The lowest of the buttons deliberately ended just above her belly, allowing the shirt to open and display a tantalizing view of her midriff. A light brown belt capped off her outfit, with her sword and a few pouches secured to it just like with Itachi.

"You're not wrong," she replied as she leaned over to run her fingers down Itachi's exposed chest, "I'd say we both owe her for this."

The two of them were quiet for a moment before simultaneously breaking down in a fit of laughter at their respective flirtations. Itachi then reached over to grab a nearby blanket and throw it on the ground behind them. The pair of vacationing Soul Reapers then laid down together atop it, with Itachi wrapping his right arm around her to pull her close. Their gazes turned as one towards the clear night sky and the spectacular vista of stars sprawling out in all directions.

"This view's not half bad, either," Itachi remarked with a chuckle.

"That's an understatement," Yoruichi concurred with a blissful sigh, "You just can't get a sight like this in the Seireitei. Too many lanterns lighting the place up at night. It's one of the reasons why I like extended field operations; you actually get the chance to enjoy the night sky as it was meant to be seen. Of course, getting to see it when we're not working is even better."

Itachi nodded. "No matter how many nights we've seen it by now, it never gets old."

Yoruichi couldn't argue with him on that front. The two of them had been most fortunate on their journey so far, with clear skies almost every step of the way. The terrain they'd crossed had been most agreeable as well, with the road taking them along rolling hills and vast grassy plains stretching as far as the eye could see. The weather had been hot during the day, but not unbearably so, and the nights thus far had been pleasantly cool. As it was just the two of them, they'd been able to make quick and steady progress, and Yoruichi guessed that they were likely just a little more than a week or so out from the Shihōin Clan Principality's borders. Soon, she knew, the fields of tall grass that had surrounded them for much of their journey would begin to thin out. Vegetation would become sparser, with the expanses of green and yellow shifting to tan and brown as they drew closer and closer to the edge of the grand desert that dominated much of her family's ancestral homeland.

The road through the Bahr Alrimal is trying for even prepared and seasoned travelers, she thought, but we should only have to endure it for a couple of weeks at most. Once we reach the Mueti Alhayaa, the hardest part of our journey will be over. From there, it'll be smooth sailing down the river.

She couldn't suppress a nostalgic smile as memories of her last leisurely voyage on one of the grand river barges that plied up and down the Mueti Alhayaa played out in her mind. Oh, how long she had waited for such a journey again, to see the windswept dunes give way to the massive watery lifeline that had allowed her family and their vassals to turn swaths of desert into bountiful farmlands. To idly pass by the multitude of villages and towns that could only exist thanks to that vital river and considerable investments in irrigation and support infrastructure, to sit with her feet dangling over the edge of the barge while waving at the fishermen who worked the river in their small sail and rowboats. To gaze upon the idyllic palm trees that dotted the shores, to spy in the distance the silhouettes of ancient temples from a bygone age that were left to slowly succumb to erosion by the wind…

…and to experience all that and more with the most incredible man she'd ever had the fortune of meeting.

"Something on your mind?" asked Itachi.

Yoruichi giggled like a schoolgirl caught gazing at a crush before leaning over to give her beloved companion a quick peck on the cheek. "Just excited for what lies ahead. You're in for a treat, Itachi!"

He reached over to run his fingers through her hair. "I never doubted that for a moment. I remember, after you told me about your grandmother's response, that we'd be embarking on this journey… the days leading up to our departure seemed to pass so slowly it was almost painful. I think the last time I felt such anticipation… was the leadup to my first Blade Dancer Festival. All I could think about back then was enjoying a bout with you. When that night finally came… when we at last crossed blades in the ring, and what came afterwards… it was an experience beyond anything that I could've ever dared to imagine."

Yoruichi felt a surge of heat rush to her face as she recalled that wonderful night, though that didn't stop her from grinning. "You earned that experience. What can I say? You really rose to the occasion, and in more ways than one!"

Itachi smirked. "High praise, coming from you."

Yoruichi laughed as she messed with his hair. "Maybe I'm praising you a bit too much! I think it's starting to go to your head."

"How do you plan to rectify that?" Itachi asked with more than a hint of challenge.

Yoruichi licked her lips hungrily as she rolled on top of him, swiftly straddling his hips and pinning Itachi's hands over his head before leaning down to claim him with a fierce kiss. The former Shinobi eagerly responded, with both of their mouths opening and allowing their tongues to tangle in a wet and sloppy dance. When they eventually parted for breath, Yoruichi released Itachi's hands, but only so she could then pull his shirt off. Once she did so, Itachi wasted no time in undoing the buttons of her top.

The rest of their clothes followed shortly thereafter, and the cool late summer night soon became much warmer.

….

A little over a week later…

Summer should be starting to transition over to fall by now, Itachi mused as he wiped beads of sweat from his brow, though one would hardly know that down here…

The vast fields of long grass that had dominated the first leg of their journey had been left behind a few days ago, with the road Itachi and Yoruichi were on now passing through a much rougher land dotted with rocks, scattered short and dry shrubs, and the occasional stumpy cactus bristling with needles. Itachi was more thankful now than ever for the clothing Yoruichi's mother had prepared for him, with the light fabric of his shirt and pants breathing quite easily and doing wonders to help keep the heat from overwhelming him. With the temperature having steadily increased the further southwest that they'd progressed, Itachi had augmented his ensemble with a light grey head-cloth embroidered with silver threads forming wave-like patterns along the trim. That simple bit of fabric made a world of difference in helping him to keep the harsh sun out of his eyes, not to mention preventing his black hair from absorbing the sun's scorching rays and driving him delirious from the heat. Yoruichi had taken similar measures, donning a light-green shawl emblazoned with dark palm tree patterns.

The heat barely seemed to be bothering her at all, at least if the easy-going smile she gave Itachi was anything to go by. "You holding up okay?"

Itachi nodded, though he knew the fresh perspiration building up on his brow again might lend doubt to any assurances he could give. "Well enough, I suppose. The outpost you mentioned shouldn't be much too further ahead, right?"

"Just beyond the current horizon, if memory serves me right," Yoruichi confirmed, squinting as she focused her gaze forward, "It'll feel good to dip our faces in the oasis there before we hit the road again."

"Can't argue with that," Itachi replied before turning his gaze skyward to check the position of the sun, "Good thing we set off early this morning. Must be close to noon by now. We should ride out the worst of the afternoon heat at the outpost before setting off again."

"That's the plan," said Yoruichi, "By the time we've got our provisions restocked and our steeds acquired, the road should be a bit more hospitable to us. I'll need to check the charts they've got and compare them to mine, but I think I've got a good idea as to where the best rest spots are along the path ahead. Our new mounts should be able to cover the distance between each in good time."

Itachi looked at her curiously; this was the first mention she'd made of them using animals for their trip since they'd set out. "What sort of mounts will those be?"

Yoruichi gave him a playful wink. "You'll just have to wait and see!"

Part of Itachi wanted to press the issue, but he recognized that his companion clearly wanted to surprise him, so he decided to play along. "Well, my mother did teach me that patience was a virtue."

Yoruichi reached over and gave him an affectionate pat on the head. "She raised a good boy. You should thank her when we get back. I know I will!"

Itachi let slip a small laugh. "If I must!"

As they moved along, Itachi noticed that the scattered rocks, bushes and cacti that had been flanking the road for the past few days were starting to thin out even more. Every errant breeze kicked up more and more sand with seemingly each passing step. Even the road itself was becoming a bit more difficult to discern. Itachi had expected this; Yoruichi had told him that the region they were crossing now made up the border between lands of plenty and the wastes of the Bahr Alrimal, or the Sand Sea as it was known in the common tongue, and the increasingly desolate nature of their surroundings more than supported her words.

The Land of Wind held the most treacherous deserts of the Shinobi World, he recalled, I only made my way out there a couple of times for Akatsuki jobs. Deidara and Sasori made that region their turf. Given Sasori's background and familiarity with the terrain, it certainly makes sense that Nagato would want him to operate out there. I wish I'd spent more time in those lands, if only so I could become better accustomed to such an environment. It would certainly have made for useful training.

After several more minutes of walking, new shapes began materializing on what had previously been a relatively barren horizon. Itachi's eyes narrowed as he focused on making out what they were drawing close to, and soon some of the blurry shapes became distinct enough for him to recognize them as dwellings. Most were small, only a single story or two at the most in height, with a few dozen of them arrayed out in what seemed to be a broad arc. Palm trees poked out from behind several of the buildings, and Itachi also caught a glimpse of what looked like a long and curve fence with blurs running behind it further back in the settlement. Four watchtowers were arrayed, roughly lining up with the cardinal directions. The barest silhouettes of figures moving about were visible as well, and Itachi quickly realized that the 'outpost' he and Yoruichi were heading towards was in fact a sizeable and rather lively village.

"That it?" he asked.

Yoruichi nodded. "It's known as Alaitisal Alakhir. Means roughly 'Last Call' in our tongue."

"Like before the closing of a tavern?" Itachi ventured.

Yoruichi shrugged. "Pretty much. Considering it's the last place to get any kind of a drink before plunging into the Sand Sea, I'd say it's fitting."

"Hard to argue with that," Itachi conceded.

As Itachi and Yoruichi drew closer, two figures came out from the settlement. Both were dark-skinned men of roughly average height, each clad in light tan leggings and tunics. White cloths with black bands shielded their heads from the sun, and both had what appeared to be light javelins in their arms. Scimitars were tied to their hips, and Itachi caught sight of a dagger's hilt poking out from behind each man's back.

"Well armed for mere sentries," he noted.

"Only a fool takes chances with strangers out here," Yoruichi remarked, "Luckily for us, I've got a key that opens many doors."

She still seemed quite as ease in Itachi's eyes, so the chances of the coming encounter escalating into violence were likely nil. Even so, Itachi kept his right hand close to the handle of his sword. A lifetime as a rogue Shinobi imparted instincts that were not so easily cast aside, even in the afterlife.

When they got close enough the older of the two men, who had a rather sizeable beard to his name, addressed the pair of Soul Reapers. "I am Isam Khalid, a protector of this town. If you wish to shelter or trade here, you must identify yourselves."

Yoruichi pulled out a small black cylinder from one of the pouches at her belt and held it up, revealing the Shihōin Clan crest emblazoned in gold on one side. "How's this for identification?"

Both men's eyes practically bulged out of their sockets, and Isam rapidly changed his tone. "Forgive my impudence, Lady…"

"Yoruichi Shihōin," she supplied him with a smirk, "Daughter of Yoriko Shihōin, and granddaughter of Yoko Shihōin."

Itachi couldn't help but notice that the latter name had elicited a much stronger reaction than the former. Despite the fact that Yoruichi's mother was the current head of the Shihōin clan, the moment she'd spoken her grandmother's name both Isam and his companion traded decidedly nervous looks. The two men stiffened, with Isam appearing to break out in a sweat that Itachi suspected had nothing to do with the heat.

He's afraid of her grandmother, Itachi thought, I wonder why…

Isam sharply elbowed his companion, and the two men bowed deeply before he spoke again. "Welcome to Alaitisal Alakhir, Lady Yoruichi. What will you be requiring here?"

"Provisions for a journey across the Bahr Alrimal," Yoruichi replied, "Along with the most recent charts and your two strongest Sand Racers for my friend and I. Yasira Sala should still be running the stables, right?"

Isam nodded. "She is, along with the entirety of Alaitisal Alakhir since the previous matron retired from the post last year."

Yoruichi smiled. "So, Yasira's finally taken charge in full, eh? About damn time!"

"We will alert her to your arrival at once, Lady Yoruichi," Isam assured her, "If you'd like, we can escort you and your companion to her."

Yoruichi shook her head. "That won't be necessary. My friend and I would like to pay the oasis a visit first."

"Then my companion here can guide you while I inform Madame Yasira of your arrival," said Isam.

"No, your companion can go with you," Yoruichi countered firmly, "My friend and I can find our own way to the sole body of water in this town. I'm sure it hasn't moved since the last time I was here."

Isam looked like he wanted to protest but seemed to quickly think better of it. "If you insist, Lady Yoruichi. We will give the news of your arrival to Madame Yasira and let her know where you and your friend may be found."

"Thank you," Yoruichi replied as she stepped forward before looking over her shoulder at Itachi, "Well, what are you waiting for? You want to cool off just as much as I do, right?"

Itachi smiled as he moved to join her. "Of course."

"Thought so," she said while waving dismissively to the sentries, "Well, you boys have your job, so hop to it. If Yasira wants to come looking for us, we won't be hard to find."

Leaving the guards in their wake, Itachi and Yoruichi casually strode into the town. Now that the two of them could see it up close, Itachi realized that it was much livelier than the distant view had indicated. Market stalls covered by broad awnings to protect both vendors and customers from the scorching sun were set up, and quite a few people were wandering to and from the various stands as they searched for whatever goods they required for the day. Groups of children ran about, occasionally with exasperated parents chasing after them in vain attempts to exert a measure of control. A pair of camels laden with heavy sacks lumbered through the town square, with their masters guiding them towards what appeared to be a central storehouse for the settlement. The dwellings that made up the town were predominantly composed of what Itachi assumed were mud-brick houses, with domed roofs being quite common. Sentries similar to the two that Itachi and Yoruichi had encountered earlier milled about, seemingly more concerned with taking shelter from the heat rather than conducting any serious patrols. Passersby cast intrigued looks at Itachi and Yoruichi, with more than a few eyes widening in recognition at the former.

"Not much has changed since the last time I came through here," Yoruichi noted with a nostalgic smile, "I think the town's gotten a bit bigger, but that's about it."

"There are quite a few more people here than I'd expected from a settlement out here," Itachi remarked, "The oasis supporting this town must be substantial. Speaking of which, where is it?"

"Towards the back end of town," Yoruichi answered, nodding in the general direction, "Once we pass those building over there it should come into view. Look; you can see the palm trees poking up from behind the roofs."

"So I can," Itachi confirmed as he caught sight of them a moment later.

Another pair of sentries approached them warily, apparently not trusting that their colleagues had already vetted the two visitors. Yoruichi simply flashed the cylinder that she'd shown the previous guards, and that was enough to make the new ones bow their heads before backing off.

"What exactly is that thing?" Itachi asked as Yoruichi slipped the cylinder back into its pouch.

"A Noble Marker," Yoruichi replied, "All of the Soul Society's aristocratic families have them. They can only be carried by either direct bloodline members or their designated representatives. For anyone else to carry one is a capital offense."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "That strikes me as a bit extreme."

"A lot of power comes with these Noble Markers," Yoruichi explained, "and the potential for counterfeiting and abusing them is ripe. The aristocracy and the Central Forty-Six believes that the harshest possible punishment is the only suitable deterrent."

"Do you believe they're right in that assessment?" Itachi pressed.

Yoruichi shrugged. "I honestly never gave it much thought before. I suppose it's not hard to see the measure as overkill, but at the same time, I do get why the nobility's so dead-set on preventing the proliferation of counterfeit Markers. For what it's worth, there have been very few recorded instances of such counterfeits being uncovered. Either whoever makes them is very good at it, or very few people are willing to take the risks inherent in such an endeavor. Make of that what you will."

Itachi gestured at the pouch. "May I see it for a moment?"

Yoruichi nodded before pulling the Marker out and passing it over to him. Studying the cylinder closely, Itachi ran his fingers along the surface. He'd originally thought that the black exterior was merely paint, but the texture indicated otherwise.

"This material… I've never felt anything like this before," he remarked, "If I had to guess, I'd say some sort of stone, but I don't know of any that matches this sort of texture and color. Definitely not obsidian."

Yoruichi smiled. "Good catch. It is a stone, in this case a special kind that's found only in the Shihōin Clan Principality. Each noble family uses a different material for their Noble Markers, and the mines which supply those materials are all tightly controlled. In addition to our Noble Markers, the Shihōin Clan and its vassals use this material in some forms of jewelry and sculpture. It's incredibly durable, though also quite difficult for smiths to work with. As a result, it doesn't see much use beyond ceremonial objects like this."

"I see," said Itachi as he passed the cylinder back to her, "I might not have spent as much time around the nobility as you, but I've been to enough estates and parties by now to get acquainted with some of them, and I've never seen them flash tokens like these. Why might that be?"

"They're not used all that prominently within the Seireitei itself, with the exception of official business between noble families or their designated representatives," Yoruichi answered, "It's more common to see them employed by aristocrats or their messengers outside the Seireitei, especially when on the road; simply flashing one of these will get you through pretty much any checkpoint with very little fuss. They also guarantee safe passage within any of the Principalities, even those held by families with strong rivalries. No matter how petty the feuds might be, they all still respect the pride and power that comes from being part of a noble bloodline."

"So, they're honored in part as an unofficial gentlemen's agreement of sorts, if you will?" Itachi surmised.

Yoruichi nodded. "That's a good way to put it. Don't be surprised if you see more of those once we get close to my family's ancestral seat of power."

"I'll keep an eye out for them," said Itachi.

He saw Yoruichi's own eyes light up as she looked ahead. "I don't know about you, but I spy something much more valuable to you and me at the moment than a Noble Marker. Thirsty, Itachi?"

Following her gaze, Itachi beheld a long-awaited sight. Gleaming in the afternoon sunlight, the oasis was considerably larger than he had anticipated. It looked more like a modest lake in Itachi's eyes, and one that the locals quite clearly took good care of. A few small irrigation trenches had been dug to support the growing of local crops, but only enough for the settlement to subsist on. For the most part, the glistening body of water was pristine, surrounded by groves of brilliant blooming desert flowers, palm trees bending lazily to one side or the other, and patches of long grass. Several small groups of children were splashing about in the shallows, while their parents looked on in equal parts concern and contentment. It was an idyllic scene, one that almost seemed to have sprung to life from a master's painting.

Approaching one side of the oasis, Itachi and Yoruichi set down their travel packs, pouches and weapons before removing their head coverings. Both knelt on the shore and cupped their hands together, splashing their faces with blissfully cool water. Taking a sip from the lifegiving substance, Itachi savored the sensation of the liquid trickling down his dry throat.

Glancing to his right, he watched as Yoruichi leaned down to dip her head into the oasis. She then quickly righted herself and tossed her head back, sending droplets everywhere while her dark violet hair flew around her face. Itachi found the sight utterly entrancing, especially as trails of water dripped down her face and into her cleavage.

Of course, Yoruichi swiftly took notice and gave him a sultry smirk. "Enjoying the view?"

"I'd be a fool not to," Itachi readily confessed.

Yoruichi chuckled at his brazenness. "My, my, you have gotten bolder! Maybe I should charge a fee, eh?"

Itachi could only perceive the motion of her arms as barely more than a blur as they suddenly plunged into the oasis before they splashed his face. He blinked a couple times as he beheld his soaking reflection, but his bemusement didn't last long. Shooting her a wicked smirk of his own, Itachi swiftly retaliated.

Sweet and melodious laughter was Yoruichi's response as Itachi's attack drenched her face and hair. "Oh ho, you asked for it!"

She tackled him like the pouncing tigress he knew and loved, and the two Soul Reapers tumbled together into the oasis. They could've easily used their abilities and training to create a cushion of spirt energy particles so that they might simply 'land' upon the surface without plunging beneath, but where was the fun in that? Instead, they both rose from beneath the gleaming surface of the lake a few seconds later, shaking their heads and blowing water from their noses. Each checked first to make sure that the other was alright before devious smiles graced their faces. They then quickly thrust their hands into the water and recommenced 'hostilities' with gusto.

Arcs of water flew back and forth between them as they gave themselves over to the moment. With their great power as Soul Reapers, it would've been easy to hurl huge waves at each other, but they held themselves back enough to keep the contest contained. The oasis was, after all, first and foremost a critical source of drinking water for the locals, and the last thing Itachi and Yoruichi wanted to do was deplete it just for the sake of a little fun. So, what an outside observer who didn't know who they were would see was simply a young man and a young woman garbed in fine yet casual attire splashing each other with enthusiasm, much like any other couple might do at a place like this.

And Itachi was loving every second of it.

When was the last time that he'd ever been able to truly cut loose like this and just have fun? All of the worries that so frequently dominated his mind, from his duties as a Soul Reaper to concerns about the Uchiha Clan hiding amongst the Soul Society's nobility, had drifted further and further into the background from the moment that he and Yoruichi had set off on their journey southwest. Now, as the two of them clashed with water rather than Hakuda or Zanjutsu as they would in Yoruichi's secret training ground beneath Sōkyoku Hill, the serious matters that would still trouble Itachi even in the midst of those intense sparring matches were completely cast aside. Here, in a small town far beyond the heart of the Soul Society, Itachi didn't have to be a Soul Reaper, and the baggage that came with being a formerly infamous Shinobi didn't matter either.

He was free to just be himself.

And so was Yoruichi.

Her laughter rang out freely, her smile was broad and joyful, and her golden eyes radiated carefree exuberance. Although she'd always tried to present a relaxed image even as Squad Two's Captain, Itachi knew that her duties as both a Soul Reaper and head of the Stealth Force compelled her to act in a more formal manner than she might otherwise prefer. Compounding all that, of course, was her bloodline and the expectations that came with it. As the princess of the Shihōin Clan, she was forced to live and act in a manner that befitted and enhanced the family name, and while her accomplishments with both the Thirteen Court Guards and the Stealth Forces had indeed brought further renown to her Great Noble House, Itachi knew all too well how draining it could be to have to constantly be defined in part by one's ancestry. After all, what had the Uchiha Clan been if not a noble family of sorts within the Hidden Leaf Village, just like the Senju, Hyūga, or any of the other clans that called the place home and jockeyed for power and influence. As a prodigy of the Uchiha Clan, the expectations had been even higher for Itachi than they had for other prominent members, and the weight of that had been tiresome even before Itachi had been forced to wade into the dark political conflict between the clan and the village. Yoruichi might not have been placed in a position as dire as Itachi's had become in the waning days of the Uchiha Clan, but that didn't mean her own burdens weren't heavy. Just like him, she was forced to have no small part of herself be defined by the circumstances of her birth.

And, just like for Itachi, none of that mattered for Yoruichi in this moment. There was no need for ceremony or formality, no one that had to be flattered or impressed, and no threats that she had to protect her subordinates from. Apart from the earlier sentries and whoever this 'Yasira' she'd mentioned previously was, no one out here knew who she was. Just like Itachi, here and now, she was liberated from all the responsibilities and worries that she normally had to carry.

And, in Itachi's eyes, she was all the more beautiful for it.

Without thinking, he advanced on Yoruichi, trading splashes of water with her as he closed the distance. When he got within range, he swept her off her feet, scooping her up in his arms, supporting her legs with his left and her back with his right. She blinked a few times in surprise, and Itachi thought he caught a brief flash of red in her face, but that didn't stop Yoruichi from reaching up to wrap her arms around Itachi's neck, place her hands behind his head and pull him in for a kiss. It didn't matter that they were in full public view; no one here knew them. They didn't have to hide anything now.

Gazing at the woman cradled in his arms, Itachi wanted nothing less than to stay in this moment forever. Holding her close like this, seeing her drenched clothes clinging tightly to her body and leaving little to the imagination, watching water dripping down her face and neck while her fingers traced droplets that were trailing along Itachi's cheeks and chest, savoring their shared elation…

…if this wasn't paradise, then Itachi didn't know what was.

So enraptured was he in her that it caught Itachi by surprise when Yoruichi pulled his head down again while adjusting herself in his grip so that she could gently press her forehead to his. Her brilliant golden eyes sparkled with unadulterated affection and ebullience, and her breath washed over his face in hot and passionate gasps.

"Yoruichi…" Itachi murmured, completely at a loss for further words in his intense state of captivation.

"Itachi…" she silkily purred.

That was when a surprisingly deep female voice intruded on the moment. "You two need a room? I can give you lovebirds all the privacy you'd like for a price!"

Turning around, Itachi and Yoruichi found themselves facing a rather tall woman standing on the shoreline. Long and flowing dark brown hair framed a heavily tanned face with bright green eyes, while full and thick lips were pursed in a knowing smirk. Simple sandals, loose-fitting light brown leggings and a sleeveless tan blouse made up the deceptively plain outfit that clad her muscular build. Her exposed arms alone looked as though they possessed enough strength to lift a horse, and Itachi could only begin to guess at just how powerful her legs were. A scimitar within a white sheath hung at her hip, while a set of throwing knives gleamed in the afternoon sun from their slots on her belt.

Glancing down at the woman in his arms, Itachi saw Yoruichi grin. "If we were planning on staying the night, I'd take you up on that! Been a long time, Yasira."

Yasira smiled and spread her arms wide. "Far too long. Get over here, you hellcat!"

Itachi deftly lowered Yoruichi to her feet and watched as his Captain wasted no time in closing the distance to embrace Yasira. She then turned to Itachi and beckoned for him to join them.

"Itachi, I'd like you to meet a family friend," said Yoruichi before nodding at the woman, "This is Yasira Sala. Yasira, meet my Eighth Seat, Itachi Uchiha."

"A pleasure to make your acquaintance," said Itachi as he held out his hand.

"Likewise," Yasira replied as she shook his hand while looking him up and down before turning to Yoruichi and smirking, "Polite and handsome? My husband should take notes!"

"How's he doing, by the way?" Yoruichi asked, "I didn't see him when we were strolling through town earlier."

"He should be overseeing the restocking of feed in the stables right about now," Yasira answered, "I'd invite you two by the house for dinner later so we can all catch up, but I get the impression that you won't be staying very long."

"Afraid not," Yoruichi confirmed, "We'll be hitting the road again once we've got our mounts and fresh supplies. Hopefully the worst of the heat will have passed by then."

Yasira sighed. "That's a shame. When the guards told me you'd arrived, I was hoping you'd stick around for a while."

"Sorry, Yasira," said Yoruichi, "My grandmother was rather insistent that we make good time, and you know how she can get when she feels like she's overdue for a family visit."

Yasira chuckled. "Yeah, I do! Gotta make you come to her promptly, just so she can show that she still calls the shots. She really hasn't changed."

"You're not wrong there," Yoruichi confirmed, "and she wouldn't have it any other way."

"Don't we all know it," said Yasira, "Well, let's hop to business, then. Grab your things and come with me. I'll get you hooked up with some mounts along with supplies. Compile a list of what you need and give it to me along with the necessary funds, and I'll have you taken care of within the hour."

Retrieving their belongings, Itachi and Yoruichi fell into step alongside Yasira as she led them around the oasis and towards a long and broad two-story dwelling on the other side. Jutting out from the right was the long arc of fencing that Itachi had spotted earlier as he and Yoruichi had approached the settlement, and he spotted several horses and camels milling about within the enclosure. Servants hustled about the grounds surrounding the building, bringing in goods, washing clothes, and generally attending to the mundane upkeep duties that such a place required.

Itachi eyed Yasira in curiosity. "If you don't mind me asking, how long have you and Yoruichi known each other?"

"Since we were kids," Yasira answered with a wistful smile, "Whenever her family brought her through here on their trips to and from the Shihōin Clan Principality, they always stopped at my place. Ah, we raised all kinds of hell together in those days!"

Yoruichi laughed. "No kidding! Remember that time when we tried to race the horses and caused a stampede?"

Yasira smirked. "Kind of hard to forget that! Both our parents chewed us out something fierce afterwards. Then again, we did wind up taking out the fencing, so my dad was pretty pissed about having to go out and handle those repairs. Not to mention all the work that was needed to recover the animals. Still, we had fun before it all got out of hand, and that's what counts!"

"Sounds like you two really made the most of your visits," Itachi noted as his gaze turned towards Yoruichi.

"We had to," Yoruichi replied, "Family trips like that became less and less common as I got older and had to take on duties as a Soul Reaper and Stealth Force commander. The last time I came out here was several years before I met you. This has been long overdue."

"At least promise me that you two will stay here a day or two when you stop by on the return trip," Yasira pleaded, "Now that I'm the matron, I've been looking forward to hosting you properly. I want to go all out with it!"

Yoruichi smiled. "I think we can arrange that. If we make good time going back up the river and across the Bahr Alrimal, I don't think there'd be any issues with us sticking around here for a bit. The Head Captain will want us back in the Seireitei, of course, but he never set an exact date for our return. That gives us some wiggle room to work with."

"Then you'd better exploit that for all it's worth," said Yasira.

Yoruichi nodded. "I plan on it."

Yasira smiled. "I'll hold you to that."

She then turned to Itachi and swept her gaze up and down him in an approving manner. "So, where'd you find pretty boy here?"

"Ran into him while bumming around in the Rukon District," Yoruichi answered while winking at Itachi, "Let's just say I took a liking to him, and things went from there!"

Yasira smirked. "How far have 'things' gone?"

"You saw us back there," Yoruichi remarked with a mischievous smile. "I think you're smart enough to fill in the blanks."

Yasira laughed. "Good point! The fact that you brought him out here instead of Soi-Fon says all I need to know. By the way, how's she doing? Still got that giant stick up her ass?"

Yoruichi giggled as she rolled her eyes. "It's there, but I think it's slowly starting to come out!"

Yasira arched an eyebrow. "Really? You finally starting to get through to her?"

Yoruichi shrugged. "Partially. Can't take all the credit there; Itachi's mother has been a big help."

Yasira's eyes widened slightly. "You mean you got both handsome here and his mother in your unit?"

Yoruichi grinned. "That's right. It's made things a lot livelier around Squad Two than they used to be, that's for sure!"

Yasira chuckled. "I'll take your word for it."

The trio eventually came up to the fence, and Yasira whistled before calling out two names. "Alsayida! Jania!"

The neighing of horses echoed from the far end of the enclosure, and two of the creatures broke out into a trot as they heeded Yasira's call. As they got closer, Itachi could see that both were mares, and quite fine ones at that. One had a pelt as white as snow, while the other was a very light tan. Both seemed to be in superb shape as they gracefully traversed the corral, but their physical condition quickly took a back seat in Itachi's mind as he sensed something he hadn't been expecting to find in them; spirit energy.

Considerable spirit energy.

If he had not been actually able to see the approaching horses with his own two eyes, Itachi would've sworn that two Soul Reaper officers were coming towards him. Not particularly high-ranked ones, but still a cut above the average grunt. Studying the creatures with greater focus, Itachi's gaze went down to their hooves. Mixed in with the bits of dirt that the horses kicked up were tiny flecks of blue-white light, and Itachi immediately grasped what he was seeing.

They're able to concentrate their spirit energy in their feet and legs to enhance mobility, he realized, and they seem to do so on pure instinct. Right now, they're at a mere trot, but if they really wanted to get somewhere in a hurry…

He became aware of Yoruichi watching him intently, and a knowing smile graced her lovely face. "Already figured it out, have you?"

Itachi nodded as the two horses came to a stop at the fence. "These are the Sand Racers you spoke of earlier, aren't they? They've earned the moniker through more than just physical prowess in swiftly traversing the deserts of your homeland."

Yasira looked impressed. "Your friend here's got some sharp eyes on him, it seems."

Oh, if only she knew!, Jigoku no Joō chortled, If only…

Yoruichi seemed just as amused as the spirit of Itachi's Zanpakutō. "You're not wrong there."

"They're bred specifically for their spirit energy, correct?" Itachi surmised, "How they keep their footing amongst the dunes… they run along particle of spirit energy, just like Soul Reapers do when walking over bodies of water or thin air."

Yasira nodded. "That's right. They've got a natural gift for controlling their spirit energy in such a manner."

"Likely an evolutionary response to swift predators," Yoruichi elaborated, "Their ancestors hail from the plains that you and I passed through on the first leg of our trip. Their natural predators are a mix of wolves and big cats, the latter of which are very quick in a sprint. The only way for these horses to stand a chance against such enemies was to find a way to boost their own speed, and so they subconsciously began honing their spirit energy for that purpose. That's the accepted theory, anyway."

"How fast can they go?" asked Itachi.

Yoruichi smirked. "Let me put it this way; in order to build up my speed, my grandmother used to have me race against these babies on foot. She didn't consider me fast enough to earn my title of Flash Goddess until I could beat them, and that wasn't easy! That a good answer for you?"

Itachi inclined his head. "I would say so."

"Good," Yoruichi replied, "Yasira, mind saddling these two up? Itachi and I need to get some practice in before we hit the road."

Yasira grinned. "You got it!"

….

Start "Gerudo Valley"

Yoruichi's light tan cloak flapped around her as Alsayida, her white steed, galloped across the windswept sands of the Bahr Alrimal. To the right and slightly behind her was Itachi, effortlessly guiding the tan-coated Jania into keeping pace with Yoruichi while his own cloak likewise rippled and fluttered with each swift step of his horse. Despite the fact that both Sand Racers were carrying not just their riders but also packs of supplies and had been travelling at the same pace for hours since leaving Alaitisal Alakhir in the dust, neither horse showed any signs of tiring, a testament to their natural physical conditioning and the training Yasira and her servants had put them through.

I do wish that we could've stuck around for a bit longer, Yoruichi thought wistfully as the image of Yasira waving farewell flashed through her mind, but I'll make it up to her on the return trip. I owe her that much. Besides, I think Itachi will like it. One last bit of leisure on the road back to the Seireitei…

Of course, that was all quite some ways off. It wouldn't do well to get distracted by imaginings of the journey home when they had only just begun their trek across the Bahr Alrimal. The Sand Sea, despite having been crossed countless times over the millennia by travelers ranging from nobility to commoners, could never be considered truly 'tamed' even now. She remained as defiant and wild of a mistress as the clan that claimed to rule over her, fiercely resisting all efforts at control. To take her treacherous dunes, scorching heat and unpredictable winds lightly was to invite catastrophe. She resisted fiercely every measure taken to make her safer to cross, and as thus there was no single best path to traverse her. The most that the Shihōin Clan and their vassals had been able to do was erect a network of tall posts throughout the desert to act as markers. Each one had a long crimson cloth attached to it that would flap in the wind and serve as a reference point for travelers along the various paths. It had proven to be a fairly reliable system, but even it was not immune to the Bahr Alrimal's whims. The markers had to be regularly checked on and even reset as great sandstorms would commonly bury them in fresh dunes. Scouts and workers charged with such tasks were well paid for that dangerous work, but even the considerable compensation offered to them did not take away from the fact that the desert could claim any of them at any time she chose to.

Fortunately for Yoruichi and Itachi, the Bahr Alrimal seemed to be going easy on them today. Having ridden out the worst of the afternoon heat within the comfort of Alaitisal Alakhir, the two Soul Reapers were practically flying across the dunes. The speed of their mounts combined with a light breeze took much of the bite out of the sun's harsh gaze. That great and fiery orb was even now drifting further down into the west, taking on deeper hues of scarlet as day slowly began to fade. Soon night would be upon them, and it promised to be a clear one. The gentle light of the moon would be enough to illuminate the markers ahead, and Yoruichi's mind was already racing well beyond that.

According to Yasira's latest charts, we should reach the next oasis in about two days, she recalled, and it'll be roughly five days until the one after that. From then on, it'll be another four days until the next oasis, and then probably three or four more before we reach the river. Of course, that's assuming we don't hit a sandstorm. We'll need to be careful with how we ration food and water. At least we're making good time. Yasira really did work wonders with these two mares.

It certainly helped that Itachi had taken to riding Jania like a pro. Yoruichi had initially been worried that the limited time they had to practice back at Alaitisal Alakhir wouldn't be enough, but her companion had quickly put her concerns to rest. Itachi's calm demeanor seemed to have a way of setting his mount at ease, and he'd swiftly learned how to guide her. In fact, the two of them almost seemed to have struck up an instinctive connection of sorts, with only the slightest of nudges from Itachi being needed for Jania to either pick up the pace, slow down, or go in whatever direction her rider required.

Despite his bloody past, he remains a gentle soul at heart, Inazuma On'na noted, I wouldn't be surprised if a Sand Racer could pick up on that. You know as well as I do that their innate gifts with spirit energy extend to more than simply enhancing their speed.

That much was certainly true. Yoruichi had learned through her own experiences that the fleetfooted steeds were quite sensitive to the dispositions of their prospective riders, all the more so if said riders had potent spirit energy of their own. Itachi definitely fit the bill there, so perhaps it was simply a matter of his mount recognizing a master who could command obedience through his power if he wished to but didn't feel the need to be forceful about it. Regardless of the reasons, what mattered was that Jania seemed quite pleased with her current rider. Her steps were light despite the weight she carried, and she appeared almost restlessly playful.

Not just her either, by the look of things, Yoruichi mused with a smirk as her own Sand Racer tossed its head back and gave her rider a face-full of her mane, I suppose we can afford to let our girls here cut loose a bit…

She nodded at the next marker ahead, one that peeked out just over the crest of a rather tall dune. "Let's stop for a moment once we reach that marker, okay?"

Itachi followed her gaze for a second before turning to face her. "Not that I object to a little break, but any particular reason why now?"

Yoruichi gave him a mischievous smile. "Who said anything about a break? I want to have some fun!"

Itachi looked at her in curiosity for a moment before returning her smile with a small one of his own. "I see… this should be interesting."

Nudging Alsayida onward, Yoruichi led Itachi up the dune. The slope of sand would normally be extremely difficult for horses to find their footing in, but both steeds ascended the hill with ease. Glancing downward, Yoruichi saw that the hooves of her mount were shrouded in what appeared to be tongues of blue-white flame. Of course, it wasn't flames at all, but spirit energy. Regardless, it made for an entrancing sight.

When they reached the marker at the dune's crest a few moments later, Yoruichi carefully surveyed the landscape beyond. A veritable ocean of similar sandy mounds glistening in the setting sun lay sprawled out before them, with the occasional gust of wind sending small clouds of fine brown particulate matter airborne. On the distant horizon was a dune larger than those between it and the one Yoruichi and Itachi were atop of now, and at its crest was yet another marker.

"I think that'll do nicely," Yoruichi muttered under her breath.

"Do for what?" asked Itachi.

She flashed him an eager grin. "A finish line! Up for a race, Itachi?"

Yoruichi watched her companion study their prospective course before glancing down at his mare. "Would that be wise? I'd rather avoid tiring out our mounts."

"They'll be fine," she reassured him, "In fact, I think they need this. They're both starting to get a bit feisty. Blowing off some steam is in order, wouldn't you say?"

Beneath Itachi, Jania began to kick at the sand before looking back at him expectantly. Alsayida likewise signaled her anticipation and restlessness, stomping on the dune before tensing up. Both horses were like coiled springs, and Yoruichi knew that there was only so much longer they could contain their bound-up energy.

Seeming to sense as much, Itachi reached forward to scratch behind Jania's right ear. "You may be right. What say you, girl?"

A bout of excited neighing was her answered, and it was swiftly followed by similar sentiments from Alsayida. Both horses repeatedly began looking back and forth between their riders and the distant marker, clearly more than ready to get the show on the road.

Yoruichi confidently smirked. "That a good answer for you?"

Itachi inclined his head. "It is. Will you do the honors, or should I?"

"I will," she answered before gesturing at the marker next to them, "Let's step back a bit; that'll be our starting line. We go on 'three', okay?"

"Works for me," Itachi replied.

When they took up position next to the marker, Yoruichi briefly raised her right hand before immediately returning it to the reins and flattening herself against her steed while grinning deviously. "Three!"

Alsayida bolted hot out of the gate, perfectly in synch with her rider. Yoruichi glanced back, fully expecting to see Itachi's surprised face before he frantically got his own mount into motion. However, that wasn't the sight she got. Itachi and Jania weren't still at the marker; they'd broken right out into a run at the same moment Yoruichi and her steed had.

So it was that Yoruichi found Itachi to her right, him and Jania neck and neck with her and Alsayida. And rather than indignant shock, his expression was instead one of confident satisfaction. Yoruichi couldn't help but laugh before inclining her head in approval, accepting that her gambit had failed and that she'd have to earn her victory the hard way.

He saw right through you, Inazuma On'na teased, I think he's got you figured out now!

He knows me as well as I know him…

…and I wouldn't have him any other way!

….

She didn't seriously think we'd fall for that old trick, Jigoku no Joō noted with a smug chuckle, did she?

It's in her nature to try. I can hardly fault her for that.

In truth, Itachi would've been surprised if Yoruichi had actually conducted an honest countdown. Vacation or not, she was still the head of Squad Two and the Stealth Force; she wouldn't hesitate to play dirty if she thought she could get away with it, and Itachi expected nothing less from her. It was part of her charm, after all.

Charming or not, though, Itachi wasn't about to let her go unpunished for that little stunt. Taking his left hand off the reins, he aimed an open palm at the ground between him and Yoruichi.

"Hadō 20: Tenkū no Myaku!" he called out.

A wave of invisible energy flew forth. Slamming into the ground, it threw up a cloud of sand that descended upon Yoruichi and her steed. Itachi had the momentary satisfaction of seeing his companion's eyes widen in surprise before she flashed him a cocky smirk. Her horse suddenly bolted forwards, and the airborne sand fell harmlessly behind her. Itachi simply shrugged before urging Jania onwards, and he quickly drew up next to her again.

"Nice one!" she gleefully shouted, "You almost had me."

"I'll call us even now," Itachi replied with a smirk, "An honest race from here on out?"

Yoruichi grinned wickedly. "No promises!"

Don't let her have this one easily!

I don't intend to.

Keeping one eye on his competition in case Yoruichi tried to pull another fast one on him, Itachi nudged his steed into pouring on more speed. Jania was more than up to the task, with the light tan Sand Racer rushing across the dunes like a raging dust devil. Weaving amongst the mounds with effortless grace, both horses traded first place multiple times as they worked their way towards the goal. The dune where the marker stood drew closer with each passing second, with neither Soul Reaper able to gain a decisive edge over the other.

A wild thought flashed through Itachi's mind as they hit the home stretch, and he realized it was the only way for him to clinch the win. As the two horses rushed up the final dune, Itachi suddenly hoisted himself up so he was standing on the saddle. Quickly judging the distance, he then Flash Stepped off of Jania's back…

…only for Yoruichi to collide with him in midair as she attempted the exact same stunt.

The two of them tumbled to the ground in a heap as their respective steeds raced past them. Coming to a stop on his back, Itachi coughed up sand before belatedly realizing that Yoruichi was on top of him. Straddling his hips, she planted her hands firmly on his chest before leaning down to steal a kiss.

"Not bad," she said with a taunting smirk before shaking some sand loose from her hair, "but not quite good enough!"

Itachi chuckled. "I disagree. We're both down here, which means we're both short of the finish line."

"Our horses aren't," Yoruichi shot back before pointing behind him.

Looking back, Itachi saw that both Alsayida and Jania were prancing merrily in a circle around the marker. "Which one got there first? I didn't see the finish."

Yoruichi playfully winked. "Mine… just kidding! I couldn't see it either. Too busy rolling around in the sand with a certain someone."

Itachi reached up to brush some sand off of her face. "Call it a draw, then?"

Yoruichi smiled. "This time, Itachi."

She stood up before offering him her hand. Allowing her to pull him to his feet, Itachi kept his hand clasped with Yoruichi's as the two of them trekked the rest of the way up the dune on foot to join their steeds. Both horses had come to a stop and were looking down at the Soul Reapers, and they seemed to have a relaxed air about them.

"Looks like that was a sufficient thrill for them," Itachi noted, "For the moment, at least."

Yoruichi chuckled as the two of them crested the dune. "I imagine that they'll want to go another round soon enough. Yasira must've had them in that corral for too long. Creatures like these weren't meant to be confined. There's a wild spark in them that can never truly be tamed."

"Not just in them," Itachi remarked with a small smile, his gaze on Yoruichi rather than the Sand Racers.

Her eyes met his, and she gave him a fierce grin. "No, definitely not just in them. You can call it perhaps the single most defining trait of Shihōin Clan women, and I proudly count myself among them. We're stubbornly independent, and we refuse to ever be truly controlled."

"I know," Itachi replied as he released her hand before putting his arm around her shoulders and pulling her in close, "and I wouldn't have you any other way."

Yoruichi let out a soft sigh as she leaned against him, and the two of them spent a long moment gazing out across the sprawling dunes beyond. The sun had crept ever lower on the western horizon, yet it had one last gift to offer before its inevitable surrender to nightfall. Bathed in its crimson light, the very desert seemed transformed into a sea aflame, an ocean of sparkling dunes stretching out as far as the eye could see.

"For all of the desert's dangers," Itachi murmured, "I don't think there's a more beautiful place in all of the Soul Society than right here and now."

"Why do you think I've been wanting for so long to take you out here?" Yoruichi asked with a knowing smirk, "This is just the beginning, Itachi. My family's homeland has a harsh reputation, and not without good reason. Yet for those of us with the determination and strength to survive out here, our reward is a realm of unique beauty. I'm going to show you as much of it as I can before we have to head back to the Seireitei."

"I know," Itachi whispered before leaning down to plant a gentle kiss upon her brow, "and I'll be savoring every second of it."

End "Gerudo Valley"

….

One week later…

Looking up from the small kettle of tea over the cooking fire, Yoruichi smiled as Itachi drew near. "Are they finally settling in for the night?"

Glancing over his shoulder at their horses laying down in the sand, Itachi nodded. "I think those laps around the oasis did the trick. They should be well-rested come the dawn."

"Good," said Yoruichi before patting a spot on the blanket next to her, "You should take care of yourself, then. Come on, the tea's just about ready."

As if on cue, a sharp and high-pitched hissing noise came from the little travel kettle, prompting a small smile from Itachi as he sat beside her. "How fortuitous."

Since Itachi had taken it upon himself to care for the needs of the horses, Yoruichi had assigned herself the duties of setting up camp and preparing refreshment for the evening. A pair of tiny tea cups were already set out on the blanket, and she wasted no time in filling them both before passing one to Itachi.

"You got the water packs completely filled?" she asked as Itachi accepted the drink.

"Took care of that before running the horses for a bit," Itachi confirmed before taking a sip, "Those artificial bladders that Yasira gave us are quite remarkable. Transporting large quantities of water over a long distance and keeping it from leaking is no small feat, but those packs perform their task nicely."

Yoruichi glanced back at the set of dark brown water bladders that were lying in the sand next to the horses. Each horse had one that would be slung along one side while on the road, with a slender tube that the rider could raise to their steed's mouth so that they could drink while on the go.

"Being able to transport water through the desert without losing any of it is a matter of life and death for people out here," Yoruichi reminded him, "It was a challenge that we learned to overcome long ago out of necessity."

"And the fruits of overcoming that challenge serve us well now," Itachi remarked while taking another sip from his cup.

Yoruichi did the same before reaching over to grab a pair of small ovoid-shaped bundles. Unwrapping them to reveal some biscuits, she passed held out one for Itachi, which he readily accepted.

"Not exactly fine dining out here," Yoruichi noted with a slight smirk, "I promise I'll make up for it when we reach the river."

"I'm hardly picky when it comes to food on the road," Itachi pointed out before taking a bite, "Especially in an environment as unforgiving as this one."

Yoruichi's smirk turned into a small smile as she watched him eat. "I know."

They spent the next few minutes eating and drinking in contented silence. Once they'd completed their meals and checked the perimeter of their camp one last time, the two Soul Reapers laid down on the blanket, with Yoruichi resting her head on Itachi's right shoulder as the two of them turned their gazes to the sky. Just like every other night they'd spent in the desert thus far, the sky was perfectly clear, and the sea of stars sprawling out overhead was as dazzling now as it had been each time that they'd seen it before.

"What can we expect at the river?" Itachi asked after a moment, "For food, I mean."

"For starters, some of the best freshwater fish around," Yoruichi replied as she licked her lips in anticipation, "Plenty of produce and bread, too. After all, the agriculture in this Principality is all based around the Mueti Alhayaa, and the bounty only grows the further downstream you go. Don't let this desert fool you; my family's territory is one of the great breadbaskets of the Soul Society. The Kuchiki Clan's been our only real competition in that regard, and that's just because they're able to spread their farms out over a much greater range than we can."

Itachi nodded. "Mueti Alhayaa… you said it means 'Life Giver' in our tongue, right? A fitting name for such a river, though I suppose it's also a double-edged sword."

Yoruichi sighed. "Believe me, you're not the only one who feels that way. My family's always known that relying on the river for so much puts us in a precarious position, which is why we guard it so jealously. Its source is all the way out in the Máo Qiáng Mountains. You remember where those are located, right?"

She saw Itachi's brow furrow for a moment before he answered. "To the northwest… they're the primary dividing line between the Shihōin Clan Principality and the Kuchiki Clan's home territory. For the source of such a vital waterway to be located in a place like that… I imagine it's caused tensions in the past between your family and the Kuchikis."

"You're not wrong about that," Yoruichi confirmed, "It plays a big part in why we try to keep our relations with the Kuchiki Clan friendly, or at least cordial. By treaty, my family's allowed to keep a powerful garrison from our private forces out at the source of the river, with the Kuchiki Clan having pledged never to interfere with it. Although the Kuchikis have proven themselves to by and large be an honorable family, my clan has always lived by the notion of watching our backs even when among friends. Thankfully, the Kuchiki Clan has abided by the treaty since its inception. In fact, I think it's actually the oldest treaty in all of the Soul Society that's still in effect. It was signed between our families even before the founding of the old kingdom, if I recall my lessons correctly."

"Your family's quite fortunate in its neighbors," Itachi noted, "I can think of few other noble families who would commit to honoring such a treaty over all those millennia."

Yoruichi couldn't argue with him there. "We definitely lucked out, though we hardly leave our security to chance. My family's worked hard to establish strong trade and security ties with the Kuchiki Clan over the generations as a way of keeping both of our Great Noble Houses invested in continuing good relations. There are trade ports up and down the western coast of the continental Soul Society where you'll find people from both of our Principalities mixing and mingling freely, and where goods ranging from salt and grain harvested our lands are swapped for prized silks and rice from the Kuchiki Clan's territory. The partnership between our two Great Noble Houses is one of the most profitable in all of the Soul Society, and we very much intend to keep it that way. The fact that investing in those profits helps keep the peace between us is very much by design."

She saw Itachi sigh before smiling wistfully. "If only the nations of the Shinobi World had the foresight to adopt similar policies. Using commerce and mutual profit to forge lasting ties and therefore ensure a durable peace, one that would be unprofitable to break… I can only imagine how many lives might've been saved. My own may very well have been quite different had such wisdom carried the day."

"Would you still have become a Shinobi, or do you think you'd have tried something new?" Yoruichi asked in genuine curiosity.

Itachi was quiet for a very long moment. "I… I honestly don't know. Growing up in a Hidden Village and to a prominent Shinobi clan, one's life can feel predetermined. While I very much wanted to become a Shinobi so that I could grow strong enough to one day bring about peace in our world, looking back with the benefit of my new experiences here… it's quite clear that my perspective back then was incredibly limited. My upbringing was that of a Shinobi, and I'd seen a battlefield before even entering the Academy, so I could only see the world through the eyes of a Shinobi. In light of that… it's difficult to say what else I could've become had I been born into a more peaceful world, one where countless new possibilities would lie before me."

"There's got to be at least something you've considered at one point or another," Yoruichi pressed, "If not while you were officially serving the Leaf Village, then what about your years on the run? Seeing the world through the eyes of a fugitive had to have broadened your perspectives somewhat… although I suppose that probably wasn't the most ideal of circumstances for doing so."

Itachi chuckled. "You're not wrong. Still, even if I was an outlaw, being in exile and undercover within the Akatsuki did offer a strange sort of freedom that I'd never really experienced before. When he wasn't assigning us to missions or summoning us to extract a Tailed Beast from its Jinchūriki, Nagato was surprisingly hands-off when it came to managing us. If we weren't on the job, then we could do as we pleased as long as our actions didn't draw unwanted attention towards the Akatsuki. Most of us spent what free time we had further honing our skills, and I was certainly no exception to that, but even I managed to steal away every now and then. Mostly it was just to frequent whatever local teahouses were available or to find medication with which I could manage my deteriorating health, but there were times when I simply went out for a walk without any real clear path or defined destination. I wandered through woods and plains, across deserts and along beaches… and I realized something."

"What was it?" asked Yoruichi in a hushed tone, sincerely enraptured by her companion's recollections.

"That our world is incredibly beautiful," Itachi answered, "and that there's so much we could learn from it if only we would stop and take the time to actually study it in depth rather than simply analyze how to take advantage of it in combat. To thoroughly explore our oceans, mountains, forests, and deserts, or to examine and research the multitude of creatures that we share our planet with. I mean, the Shinobi World is one of the rare Realms of the Living with more than just humans as a sentient species that call it home; we have talking toads, dogs, cats, snakes and much more besides. Yet how do we treat them? As beasts to summon into battle or for use in tracking, or for sources of information. What could we learn if we treated them more like equals with wisdom of their own? How many other communities of talking animals are out there that we haven't found yet? How do they view our past, present and potential future? What histories have they recorded, and what lessons could we find in them? In fact, we do a pretty poor job of even comprehending our own history, let alone that of the other sentient creatures that we share our Realm of the Living with."

"Is studying those histories something that interests you?" Yoruichi inquired.

Itachi nodded. "It is. There's so much that we Shinobi could've learned from our past, and it's not difficult to find historical sites in our Realm of the Living that could reveal much with in-depth analysis. For example, take the Uchiha Clan hideout that Sasuke and I fought our final battle at before my first death; it's hardly the only one of its kind. Structures and ruins like that dot the Shinobi World, and the Uchiha Clan was far from the only family to have constructed them. During the Warring States Era, such fortresses served as vital redoubts for Shinobi Clans all over the world. Those hideouts were left behind after the establishment of the Hidden Village system, and they were allowed to fall into disrepair and decay. Yet they're still out there, and I doubt those ruins have surrendered all of their secrets by a long shot. What could we learn of the past if we took the time to thoroughly explore them rather than simply mark them on maps as potential shelters for Shinobi far from home?"

Yoruichi smiled. "You know, there's a parallel to be found within this very desert. Ruins from both the old kingdom and eras preceding it can be found poking out from the dunes, with even more swallowed outright by the sands of time. We've passed by a few of them already, though you can barely see them nowadays. It's dangerous to explore such places out here, of course, but that doesn't mean that they're not worth studying in depth. That's what my grandmother believes, at least. She's backed up that belief by funding archaeological expeditions, too. However, she's one of the few people I know with both the interest and the resources to make such studies a reality. By and large, most of the modern Soul Society seems to prefer leaving our past to slowly fade away without taking much more than surface-level lessons from it."

Itachi let out a long exhalation. "Perhaps it's simply human nature to let the past recede into the fog of time. Part of it probably comes from wanting to forget certain shameful chapters of history. I can understand the sentiment to an extent, but I find it to be incredibly shortsighted. Our darkest days can offer insight and wisdom into how we face the future, yet that potential is squandered if we lack the courage to face it with open eyes."

"You would understand the value of such lessons found in darkness better than most," Yoruichi remarked with more than a hint of sympathy in her tone.

Itachi inclined his head as a mournful look came to his face. "More than I would like to. Wisdom can come with a heavy price. All I can do with my own is try my best to make sure that the price paid wasn't in vain."

She reached over and tenderly caressed his cheek. "I'd say you're doing pretty well on that count."

The smile he gave her was a bittersweet one, equal parts appreciative and melancholic. "I hope so."

They laid there together in silence for a few minutes before Itachi spoke again. "I have to imagine that I'm hardly the only one in the Soul Society carrying such dearly bought wisdom. With the lifespans of souls being what they are, especially those with powerful spirit energy or descending from noble bloodlines, I'm sure that plenty of other Soul Reapers, presently serving or inactive, have their own bitterly earned lessons. Your grandmother… would she be among them?"

Yoruichi blinked a few times; she hadn't been expecting that question. "What makes you think that?"

"Her refusal to travel to the Seireitei, even to visit family," Itachi answered, "You and her correspond frequently it seems, and you always appear to be quite happy whenever you get a letter from her. She clearly makes an effort at keeping in touch with you, and I imagine she's very much looking forward to seeing you… yet she insists on having us come to her. As both a member of a Great Noble House and the former leader of both Squad Two and the Stealth Force, I have to imagine that she'd carry influence within the Seireitei, but she keeps herself at far more than mere arm's length from it. There must be reasons for that beyond simply wishing to ensure that she's not strong-armed into going back into active duty by the Head Captain and the Central Forty-Six."

Yoruichi closed her eyes for a moment as she pondered how best to word her response. "You're not wrong. I know the story well, but… I don't think it's my place to tell you. Don't get me wrong, it's not that I don't trust you with it or anything like that. It's just that…."

"It's something deeply personal for her?" Itachi ventured, "Much like the part that I played in the grisly affair between the Leaf Village and my clan?"

Yoruichi slowly nodded. "That's a good way to put it. Plus, I don't think that I'd really be able to do it justice. It's best if you hear it directly from her."

"Would she deign to reveal it to me?" Itachi asked, "You and I know each other well, which was why I became comfortable enough to reveal the secrets of my past to you, but your grandmother and I do not share that same familiarity. This will be our first meeting; she only knows of me through your letters to her."

"True, but trust me when I say that she is very interested in meeting you," Yoruichi replied, "I'm pretty sure that she'll tell you the tale once she's had a chance to evaluate you for herself. It'll only be fair, really. After all… it won't take her long to ferret out your dark past."

She saw Itachi's eyes narrow ever so slightly. "What do you mean?"

Yoruichi sighed heavily. "Itachi, I promise that I've told her nothing regarding what happened between you and your clan. That being said, she has certain… let's just call them abilities that make her very good at uncovering secrets. I'd prefer if she didn't use them on you, and even asked her not to in my last letter to her, but… I can only ask. No one can command her, and that includes me. From the moment she lays her eyes on you, Itachi, you're going to be tested."

"In what manner?" Itachi asked.

Yoruichi reluctantly shook her head. "I can't tell you. It would defeat the entire purpose, and promising that I wouldn't was one of her preconditions to hosting us. I… I don't like hiding something like this from you, Itachi, but I do understand why my grandmother wants to do this. Nothing I could say would stop her. The best path forward is for you to meet her challenge head-on and surpass her expectations. I know you're more than capable of doing that. Still… I'm sorry about this. I really am."

Itachi was silent for a few seconds, and Yoruichi momentarily feared that he'd push her away, but he did no such thing. Instead, he simply pulled her in closer and leaned over to lightly kiss her cheek.

"I understand," he said with a gentle smile, "You don't need to ask me for forgiveness, though if it can set you at ease then I will gladly grant it. If your grandmother wishes to test me, then it sounds like there's little that you or I can do to dissuade her. I'll simply have to show her that I'm not one to back down from a challenge."

Yoruichi breathed a deep sigh of relief. "For what it's worth, once you've discerned the truth of what she's doing, she'll then answer your questions freely. I know her well enough to guarantee that. She'll probably come across as cryptic and guarded at times, but I'm confident in your ability to read between the lines. If you need anything further cleared up once she's done with you, I'll be more than happy to help. I owe you that much."

"You don't owe me anything," Itachi reassured her, "but I do appreciate the thought."

Gazing deeply into his onyx eyes and admiring the starlight reflected within them, Yoruichi reached up to run a hand through his long black hair. "Itachi… thank you."

He reached over to caress her cheek. "Anytime."

The two of them turned their gazes together towards the starry sky above, content to hold each other close and bask in the tranquil beauty of the desert night before slowly drifting off into peaceful slumber.

….

One week later…

"Quite the contrast from the other day," Itachi remarked as he and Yoruichi rode along a road that was flanked on both sides by vast fields of wheat, "Almost enough to make me forget that we were just in the desert."

"In a way, we still are," Yoruichi argued as she gestured to the crops around them, "Remember that these fields are only fertile thanks to irrigation channels branching off from the Mueti Alhayaa. Were it not for that, we'd still be in the dunes."

Itachi surveyed the surrounding lands. "All this wheat must demand quite a bit of water... and there are farms up and down the river, right? Isn't there a risk of drawing too much from the Mueti Alhayaa and drying it out?"

"The farms are quite spaced out," Yoruichi replied as they passed a caravan of camels laden with heavy sacks, "and water usage is tightly regulated. Believe me, we know better than most the careful balance that has to be maintained here."

Itachi inclined his head. "Of course. I really shouldn't be second guessing your people when I'm a stranger in these lands."

Yoruichi flashed him a warm smile. "You won't be a stranger here by the time we leave. I'll make sure the door remains wide open for you, so to speak!"

Quite generous of her, Jigoku no Joō noted, I think we should take her up on that. It's quite lovely out here.

Weren't you complaining about all the sand just yesterday?

Hey, it's coarse and was getting everywhere, and I know it was starting to bug you! I was complaining for the both of us within the privacy of your mind so you wouldn't have to risk insulting your girlfriend's homeland. You're welcome.

So, your lamentations were you doing me a favor? I find that hard to believe.

Your skepticism is unwarranted, but not surprising. Regardless, now that we're out of the dunes, I can actually appreciate this land's beauty now. All these crops must make for an extravagant harvest. Oh, I can only imagine the feasts that are held once the fields have been reaped and their produce has been sold at market! That's not even getting in to the grand river… where is it, by the way? I still can't see it. It can't be much further…

Closing his eyes, Itachi stretched out with his other senses. They were definitely closer than a visual examination of the surrounding area might indicate. Up ahead, he could feel the combined spirit energy of what must've been a sizeable settlement. His ears picked up a very faint sound in the distance; the gentle murmur of slowly flowing water. New scents wafted up his nose, and while the smell of the surrounding wheat was dominant, he was able to discern the odor of freshly-caught fish as well.

"We're nearly there," he eventually said, as much to himself as to his companion, "Just beyond the horizon, if I'm not mistaken."

Yoruichi nodded. "That's right. Should be just a few more minutes now. Good thing, too; I think our horses could use some rest."

That much was certainly true. Jania had performed splendidly on the desert crossing, but her weariness was definitely starting to show now that they were on the home stretch. Her walking pace was slower than before, and her head hung low. Alsayida wasn't looking much better for that matter.

"The place where we'll be checking them in is owned by one of Yasira's cousins, right?" Itachi asked.

"Yup," Yoruichi confirmed, "They'll be well looked after while you and I continue on down the river. We'll have to pay fees for their upkeep when we swing back this way, but you don't need to worry; I'll take care of that."

"You mean your family's coffers will," Itachi noted with a smirk.

Yoruichi chuckled. "Hey, if my grandmother wants me to come all the way out to her rather than journey up to the Seireitei herself, then she can foot the bill! I'll shake a good chunk of change out of her before we start the return journey. Not that she'll mind. She's got more money than she could ever hope to spend in a hundred lifetimes."

"If you say so," Itachi remarked.

As they proceeded onwards, the golden wheat fields began to shift over to tall bushes and rows of palm trees. The few passersby on the road gradually increased in number, and Itachi could soon make out the silhouettes of dwellings up ahead. They were of a similar design as those that they'd found back in Alaitisal Alakhir, though many were significantly larger. Voices speaking both familiar languages and tongues that Itachi did not recognize began overtaking the peace and quiet that he and Yoruichi had enjoyed on the ride so far, and soon they found themselves riding into the heart of a bustling town.

"Ah, it's been far too long since I last came through here," Yoruichi declared with a smile as the two of them worked their way through a rather crowded open-air market, "It's a shame that we're just passing through today. River towns like this have quite a bit to recommend them. If nothing else, they make a nice little place to lay low for a while if you're looking to get away from a busy life."

"I can imagine so," said Itachi as he politely shook his head at a vendor who was trying quite hard to entice him towards his stall, "Where's our destination?"

"A bit further ahead," Yoruichi replied, "Just stick with me and we'll get there without trouble."

Itachi arched an eyebrow. "Going somewhere with you without attracting trouble? That'd be a rarity."

"Hey, our field missions don't count!" Yoruichi countered with a laugh, "We're supposed to be seeking out trouble then, remember?"

"True, but we tend to get a bit more than we bargained for," Itachi argued, "Our first wraith encounter comes to mind."

"Hey, in my defense, we had no way of knowing that something like that was hiding beneath the damn tower," Yoruichi pointed out.

Itachi inclined his head. "Fair enough."

Following the main road out of the market, Yoruichi eventually branched off and led Itachi down a winding side street. They passed through a relatively quiet residential area and began ascending a modest hill. Itachi could hear the neighing of horses up ahead, and their own mounts perked up a bit at the sound. Yoruichi came to a stop at the crest of the hill just a little bit later before looking over her shoulder and grinning.

"Check it out," she said before turning her gaze forward, "Hard to beat the view from here."

Drawing even with her, Itachi found it hard to disagree. The 'hill' turned out to actually be a wide plateau, and it was dominated by a central three-story tannish-brown building that Itachi immediately realized was the heart of a ranch. Broad enclosures sprawled out from both sides, with horses kept in one corral while camels called the other home. It was undoubtedly their immediate destination, but Itachi suspected that it wasn't what Yoruichi was really trying to draw his attention to. Rather, it was what lay beyond the western edge of the plateau. Beyond the gentle downslope were several farms and a channel, and as Itachi's eyes followed that channel, he found the real prize.

The next leg of their journey; the Mueti Alhayaa.

Although Yoruichi had regaled him with tales of the river over the course of the journey thus far, Itachi could only now realize why she'd kept insisting that her words alone could never do the Mueti Alhayaa justice. The body of water that he saw before him was massive in scope. With the town that Itachi and Yoruichi were in being on the eastern bank, Itachi was shocked to comprehend that he could just barely make out the western bank as little more than a faded shadow in the distance. In between was an enormous sheet of blue-green water gently flowing to the southeast, with the settlement feeling like barely more than a blip next to it. Dozens of tiny brown and white shapes were visible against the water, and it took a moment for it to click in Itachi's mind that he was seeing boats; they looked truly miniscule compared to the aquatic highway that they plied. Even the larger river barges appeared as little more than toys floating along the gigantic liquid snake that was the Mueti Alhayaa, and it made Itachi feel truly small indeed as he took it all in.

Yoruichi gave him a knowing smile. "Quite the sight, isn't it? No matter how many times I see it, I always forget how truly grand it is until I encounter it again."

Itachi slowly nodded. "You did warn me, but even so… I can't say that I was expecting something like this. The distance if one were to attempt a crossing here… it must be over four kilometers… possibly close to five. It can't be this wide all the way down, can it?"

Yoruichi shook her head. "The width varies up and down the river. Around three kilometers is the average, but there are other stretches like this one, while the narrowest it can get is usually about a kilometer or so. You should see the mountains and glaciers where it originates from. They're truly awe-inspiring to behold."

"I don't doubt that for a moment," Itachi replied, "It would be interesting to make a journey up that way, but I suppose that will have to wait for another time."

"It's pretty up there, but it's nowhere near as fun as where we're heading," Yoruichi commented with a smirk, "Come on, let's go get the horses checked in. We've got a barge to catch after this, and I have no intention of being late!"

….

Three days later…

I'd almost forgotten just how smooth a ride these barges can offer, Yoruichi thought as she sat on the edge of the craft's upper deck and allowed her legs to dangle over the starboard side, I can barely even feel the river beneath us. So calming and peaceful… makes me want to just kick back and take a nap right out here on the deck. Maybe I'll find Itachi in a bit and we can curl up together.

"Mind if I join you?" asked a familiar male voice from behind her.

Speak of the handsome devil…

She looked over her shoulder and smiled as she saw her shirtless companion. "Sure, though I think you're a bit early. Give up on the fishing already?"

"One of the sailors said that this part of the river's not particularly good for it," Itachi answered as he plopped down to her right, "and I'm inclined to believe them. Not so much as a bite."

Yoruichi shrugged. "Pity. I was looking forward to eating catch of the day again. The cook did a pretty job with what you caught yesterday."

Itachi chuckled. "Well, I'm merely an amateur angler, and not a particularly good one at that. Not with the rod and line, anyway. I considered jumping in and doing it the old-fashioned way, but I don't think the crew would be happy about a passenger throwing himself overboard, even if it was for the sake of snagging fresh fish for the cooks."

Yoruichi let out a soft laugh before leaning over and resting her head on his shoulder. "Probably for the best that you stayed on board! I'm sure we'll get by just fine on whatever they bring out for lunch later."

Given that the crew of the passenger barge Thalamegos had consistently served quality food regardless of whether or not the day's fishing went well, there was hardly a need to worry. The vessel, like many of its kind, had started life as a pleasure craft for members of the nobility before its prior owners had lost interest and allowed the barge to be purchased by enterprising merchants with big dreams and bigger purses. Now the bulky twin-hulled, two-story catamaran plied the Mueti Alhayaa carrying everyone from common farmers looking to sell goods at markets downriver to soldiers heading to a new posting and everything in between.

Having traded the grueling trek across the desert for the much more comfortable journey provided by the Thalamegos, both Itachi and Yoruichi had put their cloaks away. While Yoruichi remained clad in the same green top and pants, Itachi had done away with his shirt entirely in an effort to beat the heat. It was a choice that Yoruichi wholeheartedly approved of, and not just because it gave her plenty of opportunities to savor the sight of his lean yet athletic torso. His face and some of his chest had gained a noticeable tan during the overland portion of their trip, and she was quite keen for that to spread. So far, she was not disappointed in the progress that had been made on that front.

"Did I miss any sights of note over here while I was on the other side trying to catch you a treat?" Itachi asked.

Yoruichi shook her head. "Just farms, villages, palm trees and dunes. However, that should be changing once we round the next bend. If I remember right, we should be getting close to the ruins of an ancient tomb."

Itachi raised an eyebrow in interest. "Is that so? Something to look forward to, then. The ones we've seen so far have been quite intriguing."

That was certainly an understatement. The Mueti Alhayaa had been the cradle of life within the Shihōin Clan Principality since long before even the rise of the old kingdom, and Yoruichi's distant ancestors had spared no expense when it came to their burial sites. Crumbling mausoleums dotted both sides of the river in considerable numbers, relics of a bygone extravagant age.

Sure, they look pretty, but they're so wasteful, Yoruichi mused, So much else could've been done with the resources that were put into their construction. I'm glad that my family discontinued the practice. Still, can't deny that they make for lovely landmarks. If Itachi finds them fascinating, so much the better.

"Was there anything like that back in your Realm of the Living?" Yoruichi asked, "Over-the-top tombs, I mean."

Itachi shrugged. "They were mostly the pastime of feudal lords, and few had the resources required for indulging in such vanity projects. Shinobi didn't tend to construct them; simple grave markers were good enough, with perhaps a few more elaborate ones for particularly famous figures or Kages. Although… I suppose the two massive statues that were built in the Valley of the End might qualify as an exception. Not that they were 'tombs' per se, but it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to consider them as giant grave markers given that Madara Uchiha was believed to have died in his fight there with Hashirama Senju. Of course, the word 'believed' wound up doing quite a bit of work there."

"Given how common war was in your world, especially before the founding of the Hidden Village system, I guess it makes sense that elaborate tombs weren't nearly as prevalent as they are in lands like here," Yoruichi noted, "Resources that weren't directed towards supporting Shinobi or just basic survival would be a waste. Then again, they're just as wasted out here."

"Hard to argue with that," Itachi remarked with a slight smile, "though I can at least appreciate them for enlivening our journey down the river a bit. Your ancestors had fascinating architectural tastes."

"I'm sure they'll appreciate the compliment from beyond the grave," Yoruichi quipped with a chuckle before leaning forward to peer ahead, "Speaking of the grave, I think I can see it now."

Sure enough, as the barge slowly rounded a curve in the river, the steep and rocky incline that dominated the western bank of this part of the waterway was broken up by a colossal structure carved into its light brown edifice. Consisting of an ornate, though at this point badly eroded, central archway flanked by six broad columns on each side, it looked out over the river with the faded majesty of an era long relegated to dusty old tomes and the vivid imaginations of playwrights. Two chipped and worn yet still monumental statues bracketed the staircase leading up to the entrance, and despite the millennia of wind erosion they still possessed enough detail to identify the one on the right as a man and the one on the left as a woman. A handful of crocodiles lazed about on the lowest steps just shy of the river itself, basking in the late morning sun while eying the passing barge with what Yoruichi supposed passed for idle curiosity on their part.

"Impressive," Itachi murmured, "I wonder how far into the cliffs it goes."

"If it follows the pattern set by most of my ancestors' tombs, quite a way," said Yoruichi, "They never did anything half way, that's for sure. They'd bury far more than just themselves in places like these. Fancy statues, beloved pets, ornate weapons; they'd even have custom swords and spears made specifically to be entombed with them. The interior artwork would be nothing to sneeze at, either."

"I don't doubt that for a moment," Itachi replied, "Such a treasure trove would be a magnet for thieves, though. I can't imagine that much remains within places like these."

"You're not wrong," Yoruichi admitted, "Any tomb that hasn't been lost to the dunes was picked clean by grave robbers long ago. There were traps put in place to discourage such looters, of course, but there's only so much that spike pits or descending blades can do deter human greed. Now they exist more as tourist attractions for bored nobles or fun places for young lovers to sneak off to for a bit of privacy."

Itachi eyed her in amused curiosity. "Oh? Did you ever indulge in that?"

Yoruichi batted her eyelashes at him demurely. "The former or the latter?"

"Both," said Itachi.

She smiled before looping right arm with his left and taking hold of his hands. "Only the former… though I wouldn't mind indulging in the latter with you at some point!"

Itachi chuckled. "Neither would I, though I suppose it'd be rude to force the barge to come to a halt just so you and I can slip away for a tryst in some mausoleum!"

"We wouldn't have to," Yoruichi countered with a wink, "I know of a few dusty old tombs on the outskirts of our Principality's capital city. They'd be just a couple hours ride away by Sand Racer. Say the word, and I'll take us out to one of them!"

"Tempting," Itachi murmured before smiling, "but I'll wager that there are far more comfortable places within the city for us to have our fun."

"You don't know the half of it," Yoruichi confirmed, "You think my family's estate back in the Seireitei is luxurious? Just wait until you see the palace that's served as the Shihōin Clan's seat of power for millennia on end. You're in for a treat!"

"So you've been telling me since before we set out on this journey," Itachi noted while squeezing her hand, "and I've never doubted that for a moment."

Yoruichi sighed longingly as she imagined their destination. "You're going to love it, Itachi. Not just for the comfy room we'll be sharing, either. There's so much to see and do in that city. The grand lighthouse that illuminates the harbor, the races at the Atmeydani, the bull dances in the arena… I can't wait to show them all to you."

She saw Itachi perk up a bit at the last one. "I don't believe you've mentioned the bull dances before. Care to enlighten me?"

Yoruichi smiled deviously. "No, I don't! Consider them a surprise to look forward to. Who knows? Impress my grandparents enough, and they might just throw you in to compete yourself. I'd pay good money to see that!"

"Should I be worried or excited at the prospect?" Itachi asked cautiously.

Yoruichi smirked. "Both!"

A soft laugh slipped through Itachi's lips. "I should've expected as much. There's never a dull moment when I'm around you. You always find ways to keep my on my toes, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Yoruichi felt a rush of heat come to her face that had nothing to do with the blazing sun overhead, but that didn't stop her from leaning over to give him a light peck on the cheek. "You had all the wrong kinds of excitement back in your first life. I want to make sure you have the right kind in this one."

"You've more than succeeded on that front," Itachi reassured her, "I'm looking forward to seeing what fresh excitement you'll throw my way when we reach the capital. Speaking of which, about how much further would it be?"

"Since we're going with the flow of the river, we're probably only a week out at the most," Yoruichi replied, "The return trip will be slower because the barge will be fighting the current, of course."

"Naturally," said Itachi, "although, for the journey back, wouldn't it be faster to simply take Sand Racers and follow the river?"

"We could cover individual stretches quickly in that manner," Yoruichi confirmed, "but over long hauls the barge is superior. The horses need to rest, after all, while the barge has rotating shifts of oarsmen and sailors. It won't be a quick ride, but over a long haul it'll be better than taking horses. Much more comfortable, too."

Itachi smiled as he squeezed her hand again, with the two of them casting one last glance at the ancient tomb as the barge slowly left it behind. "I suppose I can't argue with that."

….

One week later…

My, my, Jigoku no Joō murmured as both she and Itachi marveled at the sight before them, I thought she might've been exaggerating somewhat for dramatic effect when she described this place… clearly, I was mistaken. If anything, she may have actually undersold it a bit.

Quite possibly.

Standing on the starboard deck of the barge towards the front alongside Yoruichi with his white shirt back on, Itachi could only look on in awe as the craft plodded down the last leg of its journey with its destination finally in view. Sprawling out from both banks of the Mueti Alhayaa, the capital city of the Shihōin Clan Principality was a wonder to behold. That was quite fitting, for according to Yoruichi the city's name of Alraayie roughly translated to 'The Wonderful' in the common tongue, and Itachi had to admit that it more than lived up to the moniker. As the barge was making for a dock on the western bank, Itachi's gaze focused there to start with, and he had plenty to feast his eyes upon.

The cityscape was dominated by multi-story buildings composes mostly of light tan bricks, with white or dusty brown domes topping many of them. Some were modest dwellings, but a good deal more stretched skyward by several levels, and they appeared to be mixed between communal housing and centers of commerce if the various banners hanging along the sides of several emblazoned with garish emblems were anything to go by. Much closer to the massive dock that the barge was heading towards was a vast open-air market, marked by a rainbow of awnings that hung over the various stalls and spreading out for multiple blocks at least. Rising up in the background were a series of massive structures, including what Itachi realized was a grand arena that must've been at least a dozen stories high and likely a good 200 meters in width. As if that weren't enough, several blocks to the north of that colosseum was another megastructure, and while this one couldn't match the arena for height it more than surpassed it in length, with Itachi judging the marble oblong ovoid it to be perhaps half a kilometer or so from end to end.

The former must be the place where those 'bull dances' Yoruichi spoke of before take place, Itachi thought, though why such a large structure is called for is beyond me. As for the latter, with its length… it's probably a race course. What did Yoruichi call it before? I believe it was the Atmeydani. Fascinating…

Seagulls flocked overhead, and Itachi could smell salt in the air. Though it was only barely visible past the thick traffic that dominated the river, Itachi was able to catch a glimpse of the sea beyond. It was only a glimpse, though, and Itachi sought to rectify that at the earliest opportunity. Despite all his travels across the Soul Society since coming to the afterlife, he'd yet to actually see the great ocean that surrounded the vast continent that the Seireitei, Rukon District, the Principalities and The Wild all called home. If nothing else, he was certain that Yoruichi would take him to its shores sooner rather than later.

The sea would have to wait a bit, though. In the meantime, he knew that she had a different and more immediate. destination. On a hill rising in the distance behind the arena and the Atmeydani was the Shihōin Clan's ancestral palace, and it more than surpassed the family's estate in the Seireitei. A long outer wall that Itachi guessed was about thirty meters in height ringed most of the hill, and rising beyond it were a series of marble towers capped with domes topped in golden leaf and banners emblazoned with the Shihōin Clan crest hanging from flagpoles and flapping in the breeze. The southwestern flank ended in an abrupt cliff overlooking the sea, and Itachi caught glimpses of vegetation up there; a giant hanging garden looking out upon the ocean had been constructed, and the former Shinobi could not wait for the chance to see it up close.

The palace and its gardens weren't the only object to catch Itachi's fancy. As his gaze drifted over to the portion of the city on the eastern bank of the river, a structure quite some ways off on the distant ocean shore poked out above an otherwise more modest skyline when compared to the western cityscape. It was a massive tower with a brilliant light blazing at its apex, and Itachi instantly realized that it was the lighthouse Yoruichi had spoken of earlier. Even from the considerable range that Itachi was viewing it from, the structure was quite imposing to say the least. A monolithic nine-sided spire stretching towards the heavens, Itachi guessed that it had to be at minimum 120 meters in height, and perhaps quite a bit more. Its white marble sides gleamed in the sun nearly as radiantly as the beacon at its peak. As for the beacon itself, Itachi had originally thought its source to be perhaps a massive bonfire with reflecting mirrors to focus the light, but as squinted to study it he came to comprehend that it wasn't what he'd first believed it to be. It seemed to be a floating gold and orange orb, and Itachi was floored when he realized that he could sense spirit energy emanating from it.

A substantial amount of spirit energy.

"Incredible…" he murmured as he took it all in.

"Isn't it?" Yoruichi asked with a knowing smile, "As impressive as the arena and the raceway may be, this city's real draw has always been the Flóga Aiónia; the Flame Eternal. Well, I suppose it's not really a 'flame' in the traditional sense of the word, but it conveys the sentiment just fine. Tourists come from all across the Soul Society to see it, artists will worship at its base for hours on end as they try to capture its majesty, and drunken sailors will sing about it long into the night at the local taverns."

"In profound gratitude, no doubt," Itachi remarked, "A beacon like that is a lifesaver for mariners. How long has it stood here?"

"Since the glory days of the old kingdom," Yoruichi answered, "Supposedly, there was a smaller one that once occupied that space, but with the uptick in seaborne trade it was decided that a much larger one was needed. That and the old kingdom wanted to make a grand statement regarding the royal family's relationship with my ancestors, and I'd say they definitely got the point across. The name it holds now isn't the original one; it had to be changed after the kingdom's fall to erase the association with the Soul Society's former overlords."

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "The Central Forty-Six's decree?"

"Yup," Yoruichi confirmed, "The old name's been lost to time. I suppose it might be buried in my family's archives, but I've never bothered to hunt it down. Got more exciting things to focus on these days, you know?"

"True enough," Itachi replied as he gave the grand lighthouse a final look before turning his attention back to their immediate destination.

His gaze swept the riverside docks on the western bank as the barge drew near. The whole area was bustling with activity as barges and smaller boats came and went. Fishermen pulled in to unload a fresh catch, massive shipments of grain from farms upriver were transferred to oxen-pulled carts that would take them to storage centers, members of the Shihōin Clan's military forces headed out in small sail craft to conduct customs inspections of vessels coming from both downriver and the sea, and port authorities bustled about the docks as they logged new arrivals and departures and collected fees. The whole atmosphere had a sort of organized chaos feel to it, with so much seemingly random activity from independent actors meshing together in a disjointed yet functional symphony.

Many eyes were on the grand passenger barge as it meandered towards its designated birth, and Itachi could hardly blame them for that. Yet he still felt a sense of unease as the craft began its final approach to dock. Itachi's instincts were suddenly on heightened alert; someone was watching him, not the barge. That was when he felt a strange pricking sensation in his head, as if someone had poked him with a sewing needle. There was hardly any pain, and the feeling faded so quickly that Itachi momentarily thought he might have imagined the entire thing.

And that was when he saw her.

Perhaps it was pure chance, or maybe fate was at work, but as he eyed the figures milling around the docks with keener interest Itachi's eyes fell upon a woman of average height in the background. It was difficult to make out much in the way of her features; she was clad in loose light brown robes, and a tan cloak was thrown over them for good measure with the hood up to obscure most of her face. What little Itachi could make out consisted of the lower half of her face which revealed dark and slightly wrinkled skin, long locks of silver hair with faint traces of purple falling along both sides of her face, and what looked like two rings on the inner fingers of her right hand. A plain brown belt was at her waist, and Itachi detected a slight but noticeable bulge under the folds of the cloak along her left hip; she was definitely armed. She raised her head slightly, and Itachi briefly caught a glimpse of two gleaming golden eyes peering out from the shadow of the cloak, but they then vanished in a blur along with the woman herself.

No… she didn't vanish… she Flash Stepped.

Quite proficiently at that, Jigoku no Joō added as Itachi tried and failed to find the woman again, I don't think I'm presuming too much when I say that we both have a pretty good idea as to who this might be.

'Is that what you believe? One would be wise to exercise caution in their presumptions… though yours would be right in this case. Consider that confirmation to be a welcoming gift.'

Itachi's eyes widened in shock; those last words had neither been his own thoughts or ones voiced by the spirit of his Zanpakutō. The tone was that of a woman, and an elderly one to boot, but there was just a hint of familiarity to it despite the fact that Itachi knew he'd never heard this voice before. It reinforced the presumptions of both him and his Zanpakutō, though, and Itachi turned towards Yoruichi.

Sure enough, her eyes were on him, and they had a very knowing look in them. "So, she's already reached out to you, then?"

Itachi gave voice to his suspicions. "Your grandmother?"

Yoruichi slowly nodded. "Yes. I heard her in my head just a few moments ago. Your test has already begun."

Itachi waited to see if she would offer any elaboration, but she did not. She merely inclined her head again, perhaps in apology this time, before picking her travel bag up off of the deck. Itachi did the same, and together the two of them proceeded back towards where many of the other passengers had gathered to wait for permission to disembark. As the barge was slowly brought to a halt alongside one of the docks and the crew worked quickly to lash it, Itachi surreptitiously monitored the surrounding area. Sure enough, he found the cloaked woman again, this time atop the roof of one of the buildings situated beyond the docks. She Flash Stepped almost as soon as Itachi saw her, but he was ready for it this time and was able to track her as she moved over to another roof. This repeated several more times while Itachi and Yoruichi descended the gangway that had been brought out for the barge's passengers to traverse down to the docks, a silent game of cat and mouse that only the two Soul Reapers were aware of.

'Impressive,' came the voice of the old woman in Itachi's mind once again, 'Most impressive. Your senses are even sharper than my granddaughter had led me to believe, and her praise for them was considerable. Very well, then. This round is over. The game will recommence in earnest when you arrive at the palace. I'm very much looking forward it.'

Itachi felt the same minute pricking sensation as before, and the feeling that he was being watched suddenly ceased. He cast his gaze vigilantly around the docks and beyond, but he could find no sign of the cloaked woman.

What was that?

Whatever it was, I don't like it one damn bit!

You heard her too, then.

More than that. I saw her, and I don't mean merely through your eyes. She was in here, Itachi!

A chill went down Itachi's spine as the full weight of that statement became clear. Jigoku no Joō had sounded quite shaken, which was a rarity for her. Then again, if Itachi's mind was going in the right direction, then he could hardly blame her for it.

When you say 'in here'… you mean in my inner world with you, don't you?

Yes.

How is that possible?

Believe me, I'd very much like to know the answer to that myself! Your Captain wasn't exaggerating when she said that her grandmother had 'certain abilities' that lent themselves well to uncovering secrets. I tried to fight her, driver her out, but neither my blade or flames could touch her. She's nearly as quick as Yoruichi, and that's no small feat. Be wary, Itachi. We're dealing with far more than your average former Captain here.

Although Yoruichi's grandmother's earlier words had indicated a pause in the test until he reached the palace, Itachi remained on guard as he and his companion worked their way along the bustling docks. At the same time, he tried to puzzle out what had just happened. Had the old woman managed to ensnare him in some kind of genjutsu? Then again, if that were the case, a test meant for him meant that he would've been the sole target, so why had Yoruichi also been contacted in that strange manner? More to the point, Itachi knew better than most the signs of an illusion being cast, and what he'd experienced earlier didn't quite fit the bill. The pricking sensation was the closest he could get to such telltale cues of genjutsu, but none of his senses had experienced any form of alteration or tampering that he could discern. There had simply been the voice in his head.

That and the intrusion into your inner world!

Believe me, I had not forgotten that. I still don't think that what we experienced was a genjutsu, or any sort of conventional illusion for that matter.

Then what was it?

I don't know yet. There's only one way for us to find out.

Pass this damnable test of hers, you mean.

Yes. What, are you suddenly not up for the challenge now that you've had your cage rattled?

Why, I ought to… no… nice try, but I won't let you goad me!

Itachi decided to soften his approach. Tempting as it was to continue teasing her, it was clear that the earlier episode had seriously disturbed the spirit of his Zanpakutō. She needed reassurance, not taunting.

Of course, you won't… and I shouldn't be doing so in the first place. Forgive me. It won't happen again while we're here. Are you going to be alright?

Well, I can't exactly say I'm thrilled with the idea of continuing onward, but we've come too far to back out now, haven't we? If this old witch poking around inside your mind will not deter you, then I suppose I'd best steel myself for the next round. I can hardly let you show me up, after all!

There's the spirit that I know.

She seemed to calm down considerably, though her apprehension was still noticeable. I'm with you, Itachi. If she wants to test us, then so be it. Let's show her that we're more than ready to win whatever game she thinks she's playing here!

We most certainly will.

….

Although Itachi had maintained his vigilance, the trip from the docks to the palace proved to be a rather mundane affair. A handful of soldiers from the Shihōin Clan's forces, clad discreetly tan tunics and leggings with cloaks that concealed their swords and daggers, met the two Soul Reapers shortly after they cleared the riverfront, and they quickly escorted Itachi and Yoruichi to the palace. Yoruichi seemed a bit miffed at the arrangement, with Itachi guessing that she'd probably hoped to guide him along a more scenic route to their destination, but her grandmother had apparently decided to hasten their arrival. She had tried to apologize to Itachi for the unwanted escort, but he had headed her off with a small and understanding smile. After all, he knew that she'd done what she could to dissuade her grandmother from this trial altogether; it was hardly her fault that her predecessor as Squad Two's Captain had insisted upon all of this.

We're in her realm now, Itachi thought as they approached the imposing front gate of the palace, so all we can do is play along. The sooner I pass this test, the sooner we can get back to enjoying our vacation.

Scanning the ramparts overhead, Itachi could not help but be impressed. Even if the palace was in the heart of the capital and well beyond potential front lines in a conflict, the Shihōin Clan had spared no expense when it came to protecting their family's ancestral seat of power. Archers roamed the battlements, protected from the harsh glare of the sun by a network of awnings that covered key portions of the wall surrounding the palace. Much larger implements of war including trebuchets and scorpion ballista dominated much of the upper works, and there were slits within the walls for archers to fire out of from protected positions. Itachi also caught sight of several strange amethyst spheres set on pedestals atop the ramparts, spread out to offer maximum coverage, and he could sense potent spirit energy contained within them.

Itachi gently nudged Yoruichi with his elbow and gestured at the unusual creations. "Those spherical devices… are they spell amplifiers, or do they fire off their own attacks?"

Yoruichi smiled. "Good eye, and the answer to that is both and more. Mages loyal to my family can use them to augment the power of their own spells, while weaker casters will instead direct the spirit energy contained in those orbs to fire upon targets beyond the walls. They can also act in concert with each other to cover the palace in a barrier."

"Quite the formidable tools," Itachi remarked, "Let me guess; relics of a bygone era? Leftover artifacts from the days of the old kingdom?"

Yoruichi nodded. "You got it. The knowledge of how to make them has unfortunately been lost… officially, at least."

Itachi eyed her in curiosity. "What about unofficially?"

Yoruichi offered a devious smirk. "Unofficially… let's just say that the archives beneath the palace are a treasure trove that my family guards quite jealously!"

Itachi chuckled. "I can imagine so. Knowledge is power, after all, and your family clearly appreciates that power more than most."

"You're too kind, Itachi Uchiha," came a familiar male voice from behind the palace gate, "Still making good use of that silver tongue of yours, I see!"

Yoruichi's gleaming golden eyes became positively radiant as the gate raised and revealed a most welcome face. "Grandfather!"

Kiemon Shihōin grinned as he strode forward to meet the two Soul Reapers. "Granddaughter, I've been waiting quite eagerly for this moment!"

Itachi smiled as he watched Yoruichi readily leap into her grandfather's open arms. Kiemon looked as well as when Itachi had last seen him, and the harsh heat of the Shihōin Clan's Principality seemed to have no impact whatsoever on him. He was clad as simply as ever, with his ensemble consisting of little more than a set of loose-fitting white and tan robes, sandals, and his sword secured at his hip.

"Sorry to keep you waiting," said Yoruichi when the two of them eventually released each other.

Kiemon brushed off her apology with a chuckle. "Don't worry about it. I know the challenges of the journey out here as well as you. Actually, you did well to arrive as quickly as you have. No trouble in the sands or on the river?"

"Smooth sailing the whole way," Yoruichi replied before winking at Itachi, "with maybe a bit of horseplay here and there!"

"Just a bit," Itachi confirmed with a smirk before inclining his head towards her grandfather, "Lord Kiemon, it's a pleasure to see you again."

Kiemon faux scowled before laughing and clapping a hand on Itachi's shoulder. "Lord Kiemon? Not from you, Itachi, regardless of the setting! The man who's given my granddaughter cause to write me so many happy letters these past years need not stand on ceremony. Dispense with formality for your stay here, Itachi; I insist on it."

"In that case, I hope you're well… Kiemon," Itachi said, it taking some effort to resist the instinct to use the old man's title.

"Well enough before," Kiemon answered, "but much better now that the two of you are here. I do hope you can liven things up a bit around here. I swear I'm starting to go stir crazy. Retirement just isn't in my blood!"

Yoruichi raised an eyebrow. "I thought you always had plenty to keep yourself occupied with. Don't you still head out with the troops from time to time, going after bandits and the like?"

Kiemon gestured dismissively. "If the brigands could actually offer a decent fight, I might be able to alleviate my boredom, but the raiders these days lack the skill and teeth of their forebears. They lack their guts, too; so many of them flee or surrender at the mere sight of me!"

Yoruichi rolled her eyes. "That's because you killed all of their skilled fighters and leaders a long time ago! Any outlaw with talent and brains knows to stay the hell away from the lands that you roam. You were too good at your job, grandfather."

Kiemon chuckled ruefully. "Ah, the price of success… and old age. Much as I might gripe, I know the truth; I'm not quite as cut out for long hunts in the desert as I once was. It's a younger warrior's game, and I can't indulge in it as frequently as I once did."

"You're still able to train, right?" asked Yoruichi with a hint of concern.

Kiemon laughed heartily. "Of course! Oh, granddaughter, it seems I've given you cause for worry where there isn't. Forgive me. I'm just lamenting my twilight years, no more than that. Trust me, I'm still healthier than most my age! Could probably give your Head Captain a good workout if he'd ever deign to spar with me. Maybe I should head back up to the Seireitei soon and see if he's looking for a training partner that can actually keep up with him?"

Yoruichi balked at the notion, though her relief that her grandfather remained in good health was palpable. "Probably not a good idea. You've got the moves, grandfather, but I think the Head Captain's a bit out of your reach now."

Kiemon huffed. "I'll be the judge of that."

"It might be a moot point," Itachi chimed in, "Lieutenant Sasakibe is a rather vigilant gatekeeper for the Head Captain, and I can't see him agreeing to setting aside time in Yamamoto's schedule for him to cross swords with you, regardless of whether or not our esteemed commander wishes to. He's a good officer, but perhaps too rigid to accommodate such requests."

"Yeah, that sounds like Sasakibe," Yoruichi concurred, "but enough about him and the Head Captain. We didn't come all the way out here to talk about those two stiffs, did we?"

Kiemon smiled before gesturing to two servants that had been waiting in the wings. "No, you most certainly did not. Here, let these fine gentlemen take your bags to the room we've prepared for you. I believe we owe your subordinate a tour! Don't you agree, granddaughter?"

"I do," Yoruichi replied while giving Itachi an excited smile, "I did tell him he was in for a treat, after all!"

Kiemon chuckled. "Well, then we'd best not disappoint him! Come along."

Itachi and Yoruichi passed their travel bags to the servants before allowing the old man to lead them down the central stone pathway through the gatehouse, and it opened up into an expansive courtyard. The place bustled with life as servants and guards went about their business, with some cleaning the marble statues of prominent Shihōin Clan women that flanked the central pathway while others set up targets for impending archery practice. Training for the guards appeared to be in full swing, for Itachi caught sight of men and women clad in mostly in loose-fitting tan leggings and tunics for both ease of mobility and breathing sparring with wooden spears and swords all over the place. They passed storehouses and stables, horses and camels being led on walks, barracks and forges, and much more besides. It seemed like a small city within the Principality's capital, and they'd yet to enter the actual palace yet.

That was about to change, though. The trio climbed a broad set of steps that led to a pair of thick and high-arched wooden doors, their dark facades polished and gleaming in the sun. Two quartets of guards armed with spears and short swords flanked them, and one of them whistled as their lord and his guests approached. The two heavy doors groaned as they opened up, revealing a spacious and ornately decorated entrance hall lined with thick columns and topped by a high vaulted ceiling that was cleaned so finely it shone in the sunlight that was allowed to enter through strategically placed windows near the apex. From there, Kiemon led them down corridors covered with intricately woven rugs and lined with works of art that ranged from domestic pieces, classic oil paintings from the Kuchiki Clan Principality, and even resplendent watercolor landscapes from the Drakken Clan Principality; rivalry with the dragon lords of the east apparently didn't get in the way of the Shihōin Clan appreciating their noble competitors' artistic endeavors.

They were shown a grand dining room, an extravagant ballroom, and sparring chambers reserved exclusively for members of the Great Noble House and their esteemed guests. They meandered through a well-stocked library that Yoruichi told Itachi represented only what her family was willing to make available to visitors and was merely the tip of a vast literary iceberg, leaving him to idly imagine what prized works were locked away in the Shihōin Clan's private archives. There was a resplendent bathhouse, cozy tea rooms, a lounge with a bar whose shelves were filled with hard liquor from all over the Soul Society, and much more besides. While Itachi had been suitable impressed by the luxurious interior of the Shihōin Clan's Seireitei estate, that mansion couldn't hope to compare to the majesty of the palace that he was being guided through.

That estate was constrained by the Seireitei itself, Itachi mused as Kiemon and Yoruichi led him towards the back of the palace, by the needs to maintain a sense of parity with the other Great Noble Houses while avoiding ruffling anyone's feathers, especially those of the Central Forty-Six. There are no such limitations out here, though. This is their family's seat of power, and the clan clearly was determined to make a permanent statement to that affect. I daresay they more than succeeded in that effort.

"Which room will we be staying in?" asked Itachi, "I can't help but notice that's been left off of the tour itinerary so far."

"I'll show you later," Yoruichi promised with a wink, "Trust me, you'll love it."

Itachi inclined his head. "I don't doubt that for a moment."

"I have something much more interesting to show you than a bedroom in any case," Kiemon chimed in as he guided the two Soul Reapers along a central corridor towards a high-arched doorway, with sunlight and a gentle breeze filtering through the open windows flanking it, "One of my granddaughter's letters led me to believe that you would enjoy something like this much more than mere luxury accommodations."

The old man pushed the back doors open, and Itachi's jaw nearly dropped when he saw what lay beyond. He'd suspected that they were going in the direction of the gardens that he'd caught a glimpse of from the river barge, but that distant glance had utterly failed to do them justice. What stretched out before Itachi now was nothing less than an artificial Eden. Marble steps led down to white stone footpaths that gridded patches of finely trimmed grass, a veritable rainbow of flowers in full bloom, artistically cut hedges and bushes, and creeping vines that had been deliberately planted so as to grow along the walls and let their own white and pink flowers blossom to form a lovely curtain over the bricks. Several upraised terraces punctuated the garden, and from them sprouted fan-like ferns and palm trees while streams of water trickled down. Itachi spotted at least four gazebos that had been set up in each corner of the grid, beneath which were large round tables surrounded by chairs, perfect places for guests to retreat from the sun and enjoy refreshments. In the center was a broad circular pool with lilies floating lazily on its surface while brightly colored fish darted about underneath, and an intricate network of small canals running either exposed or beneath the footpaths allowed water from that artificial pond to flow all across the garden. Benches were scattered along the paths for those who needed a momentary pause in their stroll, while at the far end of the garden the walls were kept clear and cut low to allow residents and guests alike to gaze out upon the sea beyond.

"Beautiful…" Itachi murmured in captivation.

Yoruichi flashed her grandfather a smug smile. "Told you he'd love it!"

Kiemon chuckled. "If he didn't, I'd say there was something wrong with him!"

Itachi gestured broadly at the paradise before him. "There'd be something wrong with anyone who didn't fall in love with this at first sight. The work that would've been required to construct it all… it's remarkable."

Kiemon smiled. "Glad you think so. These gardens are the crown jewel of the palace, as it were. Since this is your first time seeing them, I think it's only right that we give you the space to explore them and experience their majesty for yourself."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "Space to explore them? I'd be more than happy to do so in both of your company."

Yoruichi placed a hand on his shoulder. "You and I will have plenty of chances for a leisure stroll or two through them together during our stay here. What my grandfather's trying to say is that he wants to borrow me for a bit to catch up in private. You don't mind, do you?"

Itachi gave her a reassuring smile. "Of course not. I know you've been looking forward to seeing him as much as you have your grandmother."

Yoruichi let out a relieved exhalation before giving him a grateful and apologetic smile in return. "Thanks, Itachi. I promise that we won't be too long."

Itachi shook his head before nodding at the gardens. "No need to rush things on my account. Please, take your time. I'm sure I'll be able to keep myself occupied in the meanwhile."

Yoruichi leaned forward to give him a quick peck on the cheek before whispering in his ear. "Enjoy the gardens while you can, but stay sharp. My grandmother's test hasn't ended yet. There's a reason why she didn't greet us at the gate with my grandfather. Watch your back."

Itachi nodded. "I will."

Yoruichi and Kiemon bade him farewell before returning inside the palace. Left to his own devices, Itachi decided to take things slow and took the leftmost footpath to begin walking the garden's perimeter. He soon found out that he wasn't alone, though his company wasn't human. Bees and other insects floated about amongst the various flowers, as did hummingbirds. A few of the latter seemed to regard him as an intruder, for they flew right at his face in an effort to shoo him away. Itachi simply sidestepped the birds with nonchalant ease, more amused by their feisty demeanor than anything else. After a handful of futile attempts to peck away at him, they appeared convinced that he wasn't about to get in the way of their feeding and returned to the blossoms and their delectable nectar.

Don't forget what Yoruichi said, Jigoku no Joō chimed in as Itachi continued his stroll, I have no intention of being caught flatfooted by that witch this time.

That makes two of us.

Reaching the far end of the garden, Itachi leaned against the shorter back wall and gazed out beyond. The view was absolutely stunning, with the Soul Society's vast ocean stretching as far as the eye could see. Seagulls lazily drifted about in the air, occasionally diving down to pluck a hapless fish from the waves. Seals and porpoises periodically came up for air, with Itachi even seeing a couple of the latter completely breach the surface and go airborne before swiftly plunging back beneath the waves. Hundreds of ships were spread far and wide, ranging from humble fishing trawlers to caravels, galleons and full-rigged leviathans. Drawing his gaze towards the shore, Itachi's eyes widened in amazement as he beheld something he'd never dared imagine before.

What hadn't been visible from the river barge was now on full display in all its wonder. Situated along the shoreline both northwest and southeast of the mouth of the Mueti Alhayaa were a pair of enormous artificial harbors. Massive walls jutted up from the beneath the sea to form the outer barriers, with entryways at the far ends of each allowing ships of all sizes to take shelter behind the manmade breakwaters. The interior of those harbors was divided into two subsections, the first being a rectangular shaped mooring area lined with docks jutting out from both the breakwater and the shore, while the second was a vast circular complex at the innermost point. The latter was rimmed with a crescent of covered docks, and while it was difficult for Itachi to get an exact count from this distance, he was able to eventually make an estimated guess of between 150 to 200 in each. Banners bearing the Shihōin Clan crest flew proudly from flagstaffs along those inner sections, and Itachi realized that what he was actually seeing was the home base for the Great Noble House's navy.

Magnificent…

I think that might be an understatement.

Do you have a better word for what we're seeing here?

Hmm… I suppose not. It's beyond words, really. I never saw anything approaching this sort of scale back in the Shinobi World.

He wanted to marvel at it further, but that was when Itachi felt a certain pricking sensation in the back of his head. The Soul Reaper immediately whirled around and scanned the garden, knowing exactly what the sensation heralded. It turned out that there was no need for searching high and low, though; his target was out in the open, striding up the central walkway of the garden and heading right towards him.

So, she shows herself again, and in more ways than one.

She's in there with you, then?

Unfortunately, yes.

'Come, now, there's no need for such surliness. My granddaughter led me to believe that you were quite well-mannered. It seems that the spirit of your Zanpakutō doesn't share your politesse.'

I don't take kindly to guests within this realm that aren't Itachi.

'A pity, though your devotion is at least commendable.'

Paying only minimal attention to the conversation taking place within the confines of his own mind, Itachi focused on the woman heading his way. She'd ditched the cloak from before, and what Itachi saw as a result of that was quite striking. Despite her advancing years, Yoruichi's grandmother hardly appeared ready to shuffle off into senility just yet. Her long hair fell past her shoulders and had gone almost completely white save for a few faded streaks of purple, and her golden eyes were as keen and sharp as those of her granddaughter. What wrinkles Itachi saw in her dark brown skin weren't nearly as pronounced as he'd been expecting, and if nothing else presented proof that Yoruichi would age quite gracefully with time.

With her cloak removed, Itachi saw that the bulge he'd seen before had indeed resulted from the weapons tied at her hip. Well, at least one, anyway. There were two sheaths secured to her belt, one a black and slightly curved one, while the other was white and straight. Both were on the shorter side, roughly near the same length as Yoruichi's Zanpakutō in its sealed state. Curiously, only the white one was occupied, with the polished handle of a straight short sword poking out of it. The black one was completely empty, and Itachi wasn't sure what to make of it. Despite being a prominent member of a Great Noble House, her personal adornments were practically nonexistent. The only signs of wealth on her were the two rings she wore on her right hand. One was a golden band with diamonds set within it, while the other was silver and rimmed with strange runes that appeared to emanate a very faint blue light.

When the woman drew up next to him, she gestured at the wall and the sea beyond. Itachi expected her to properly introduce herself, but she didn't speak.

Well, not in the traditional manner, at least.

'Quite the lovely view, isn't it? I've spent many hours here over the years gazing out there. We may be people of the desert, but our family isn't immune to the call of the sea. Given our ancestry, for some of us it can be the call of home. Of course, that 'home' is nothing more than ruins now, and has been for millennia.'

She then met Itachi's gaze before she spoke within his mind again. 'I suppose I should offer an introduction as your host, but I've never been inclined to adhere to the traditional bounds of etiquette and ceremony. You already know my name in any case, so if you want to get a proper introduction out of me, you will have to earn it.'

Itachi was about to ask how he might do so, but he quickly realized that there was little point in articulating that question verbally. After all, it would be in his mind before his mouth, so why not save them both some time?

'Ah, you adapt quite quickly. Excellent. As for your question, the answer to that is simple; pass this challenge.'

What challenge would that be, though? She was not spying on him from afar and Flash Stepping the moment he caught a glimpse of her this time. No, she had approached him openly here, which meant it wasn't his senses that were being tested now.

So what are we being tested on now? Can we at least get a hint or two?

'And make it easy for you? Where's the fun in that?'

Witch…

'I've been called far worse.'

Mulling through the possibilities, Itachi swiftly comprehended that the answer was staring him right in the face. Despite her protests to the contrary, Yoruichi's grandmother had already given him a clue in the form of her refusal to communicate verbally, instead speaking only in his mind. The test, he realized, was to find out just how she was doing that.

'Well, now… interesting. To have come to that conclusion in so short a time… you really are a fascinating one. No wonder my granddaughter's so taken with you.'

Wait, I thought you weren't giving hints here!

'I'm not. I'm giving a well-earned confirmation. There's a rather notable distinction between the two.'

Now that he was certain of his latest challenge, Itachi regarded the woman next to him with a keen gaze as he tried to discern the true nature of what she was doing to him. He initially considered it as some form of thought projection, perhaps through a spell, but he quickly dismissed it; Jigoku no Joō had said that she was within his inner world, so there was something far more complex at play here. Besides, there had been no spike in spirit energy that would've accompanied the casting of a spell. Whatever power she was using on him had to have already been prepared before her approach, otherwise he would've detected more than just the pricking sensation in his mind.

So, if it wasn't a spell, then what did that leave him with? As his eyes swept up and down the robed woman, they soon came to focus on the weapons at her hip. That was when an alarm bell went off in his mind; where was her Zanpakutō? There were two sheaths, but only one had a blade within it, and it didn't match the typical look of a sealed Zanpakutō. There was energy coming from that blade, but it didn't synch up with hers like that of a Zanpakutō bonded with a longtime wielder.

The sword in the white sheath… it's a Spirit Weapon, not her Zanpakutō.

Then where is her Zanpakutō? Did she abandon it when she left the Thirteen Court Guard Squads?

You don't honestly believe that, do you?

I suppose it's highly unlikely for a former Captain to leave their most precious weapon behind.

My thoughts exactly.

If the Zanpakutō wasn't in the sheath, though, then what other options did that leave? Perhaps it was hidden somewhere in her robes, but as Itachi's eyes swept over the woman again, he didn't see any telltale signs of further concealed weapons, or at least none that would be the right size. Making a more comprehensive search was always an option, but Itachi suspected such a course of action would be resisted. Besides, it would be ill-form from him as a guest to conduct a physical search of his host.

'You're not wrong in that. Still, I would not be opposed to you searching by other means, including calling upon the power of your bloodline.'

An electric jolt seemed to flash through Itachi's entire body at that moment, and his focus on the woman took on a new sense of urgency. There was no doubt in his mind that she was referring to the Sharingan, but how had she even learned of it? He had kept it from his thoughts until now, and Itachi was certain that Yoruichi hadn't provided that information to her. She had sworn to keep it secret unless they both agreed that someone needed to know about it, and his faith in her honoring that promise was absolute.

'Your belief in my granddaughter is touching, and it is well placed. You may rest assured that I did not learn of your clan's eyes from her; I give you my word on that. I learned of it from you, just as I have learned everything else. Go on, then. Use the Sharingan, should you so please. Show me the eyes that became the bane of the Uchiha Clan on that bloody night all those years ago.'

How do you know about that, witch?

'Do you think that what you see in the inner world is a mere apparition, a proxy with only the means to cajole and taunt? Do you think that what you hear in your mind is only a voice, one with no eyes or ears behind it? The mind is a library, and yours is rich beyond measure.'

That sealed it, then. Itachi had a much better idea as to what he was dealing with now, and he did not like it. Still, he had to set aside his disquiet at learning that potentially every secret of his past was ripe for his host to pluck at her leisure and focus on the task at hand. The question remained the same; how was she doing this? Once again, his gaze fell to the empty black sheath at her hip and the occupied white one next to it, and an odd thought crossed his mind.

A sword is just a sword… but a Zanpakutō is a Zanpakutō.

What is that gibberish supposed to mean?

It's not gibberish. It's the answer.

The missing piece fell into place. If this wasn't a spell he was under, then it was an ability from another source. Given that he was dealing with the former Captain of Squad Two, the only other source that made sense was her Zanpakutō. Since Itachi couldn't see a sealed blade, that meant only one thing; her Zanpakutō wasn't sealed.

Her Shikai was activated.

Itachi looked over the woman one more time, and this time with more than just his eyes. He stretched out with his sense for spirit energy, and it didn't take him long to hone in on what he was searching for. His gaze fell to her right hand…

…and locked onto the silver ring with the glowing blue runes.

'Well done… and so quickly! You exceed my every expectation and then some, young man.'

Wait… seriously? The ring is her Shikai? That's absurd!

Why?

This is an ex-Captain we're talking about here! Her Shikai should be something grand and imposing. It should radiate power and be unmistakable in its might!

Where is there a rule mandating those requirements?

There… there isn't, I guess, but still…

It's important not to be governed by preconceptions. We have seen Shikais of Captains, yes, but we'd be making a mistake to narrow down what a Shikai must be based on those encounters. Besides, have you already forgotten what we're dealing with here? If you ask me, this particular Shikai is much more dangerous than those we've seen so far. After all, what is the ultimate source of power?

Knowledge… oh. Oh…

The old woman smiled as her golden eyes gleamed in the sun, and this time when she spoke it wasn't within Itachi's mind. "To have come to that answer and discern the nature of my power without having to resort to using the Sharingan… already you prove yourself to be superior to your kinsfolk. Small wonder that you could see what they could not when they began planning their coup. Then, as now, you could look past established conventions and recognize the truth. A pity that your father and his co-conspirators could not do the same."

Itachi pointedly ignored her remarks regarding his father; he hadn't come all this way to reopen old wounds within himself. "Do I pass your test, then?"

The woman respectfully inclined her head. "This one, yes, and with that you have earned the right to a proper introduction. I am Yoko Shihōin, and I have been looking forward to meeting you for quite some time now, Itachi Uchiha."

Itachi politely bowed. "Likewise. Yoruichi speaks highly of you."

Yoko gave a small laugh, though her subsequent smile held more than a hint of pride in it. "Does she, now? I had always hoped as much, though with the training I put her through in her youth whenever her mother let her near me, not to mention while I had her under my official command… well, let's just say that she would have valid cause to view me through mixed lenses. I did not go easy on her, to put it mildly. Given the role that she would eventually be taking on, I could not afford to. Fortunately, she possessed more than sufficient strength of will and intellect to pass my challenges. Her accomplishments since taking command of Squad Two and the Stealth Force appropriately reflect that."

"She has the full faith and trust of those who serve under her," Itachi remarked with a small smile, "She's earned it, and a great deal more."

Yoko's smile became somewhat softer as she regarded Itachi. "Including the undying devotion of a man like yourself… I had hoped as much when I read her letters, but it pleases me greatly to be able to confirm it with my own two eyes. With you by her side, perhaps I can rest a bit easier now. Us Shihōin women pride ourselves on possessing the determination and strength necessary to chart our own course, but with that pride may come blindness to potential threats. My granddaughter has always possessed keen eyes and sharp instincts, and I helped her hone them accordingly, yet I confess to still worrying about her from time to time. If she has such an exceptional being as yourself close to provide counsel and watch her back, then her future is brighter than ever."

This is all very touching, but it's awfully hard for me to enjoy the moment when you're still trespassing in our inner world!

Yoko chuckled, and her eyes glimmered with a devious aura. "Such a prickly woman, your Jigoku no Joō! For all her efforts to present an aloof and confident front, her fears are closer to the surface than she might like to admit."

Itachi gave her a stern look. "The abilities granted to you by your Shikai unnerve her, and I can sympathize. Seeing as we've passed the challenge you've set out regarding those abilities, I would ask that you seal and sheath your Zanpakutō."

Yoko smirked. "And if I do not?"

"Then the game of cat and mouse we played at the docks will resume, and this time I will respond in kind," Itachi answered as his right hand dropped to the hilt of his sword, "Since you've been delving into my mind this whole time, surely you know the ability of my Shikai. It won't be hard to break your line of sight once I activate it. You'll be out of my mind one way or the other."

Yoko laughed again, this time louder and with equal parts amusement and admiration. "So, you've already figured out one of my Shikai's weaknesses! Tell me, what gave it away?"

"Down at the docks, your intrusion into my mind only ceased when you'd retreated beyond what I could sense visually," Itachi replied, "It was enough to let me at least form an educated guess as to a possible limitation of your power. The confirmation's appreciated, though."

"Well, you've earned that much," said Yoko as she removed the silver ring from her finger.

There was a brief flash of light, and the ring transformed into a short sword about the same size as Yoruichi's, though the guard was silver and the hilt-wrapping light blue. The old woman sheathed her weapon a moment later.

"Satisfied?" she asked.

Itachi nodded. "I am."

Glad that's over with. I'll be quite happy if she keeps her Zanpakutō in its sheath for the rest of our stay here.

So will I. Still, we'd be wise to remain wary of her.

That goes without saying.

Yoko gestured at the walkway running along the garden's perimeter. "Come, walk with me. I find a stroll through these gardens to be conducive to intriguing conversation, and I've seen more than enough of your mind to know that you won't disappoint on that front."

"Yoruichi did warn me about your ability to ferret out secrets," Itachi remarked as the two of them set off at a leisurely pace, "though she held back on the details."

"Don't hold it against her," said Yoko, "I insisted upon it in our correspondences."

Itachi shook his head. "I don't. She said that she asked you not to do this, but made clear that she could not order you to do so and expect your obedience. I knew what I was getting myself into here, and she bears no blame for it."

Yoko studied him keenly. "You're far more forgiving than others might be in your situation. Then again, with what you've seen and done, I suppose that shouldn't be surprising."

"Your granddaughter's continued to accept me despite knowing all that I have done," Itachi replied, "The least that owe her is offering the same acceptance when it comes to the… eccentricities of her family."

Yoko chuckled. "Eccentric is putting it quite mildly! We're far from your typical aristocratic family, Great Noble House or otherwise. Of course, we wouldn't have it any other way. To be bound by convention and tradition is to invite ossification and stagnation. A pity that so few have learned that lesson."

"Yoruichi's certainly taken it to heart," said Itachi, "Squad Two under her command might just be amongst the most eclectic collection of individuals in the entirety of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, and that's saying quite a bit."

Yoko inclined her head. "Quite so. I imagine it makes a natural fit for someone of your background. My granddaughter has always possessed an eye for peculiarly gifted individuals; her friendship with the likes of Kisuke Urahara and Tessai Tsukabishi is proof enough of that. It's not surprising in the least that she would accept you and your fellow former Shinobi into the ranks of Squad Two or bring you into her inner circle. Frankly, I find the Drakken Clan heiress to be a far more curious addition to her collection of unique individuals than any of you Shinobi. No offense."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "None taken… though I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't intrigued as to your thoughts on that matter. Yoruichi doesn't take the rivalry between your family and the Drakken Clan all that seriously, but I have to assume that not everyone within the Shihōin Clan's as relaxed about the whole thing as her."

Yoko shrugged. "It's something of a mixed bag. I keep my own counsel regarding the dragon lords of the east, and my daughter is nearly as open minded as my granddaughter, but of course there are other members of the family with more rigidly defined views on the matter. I am impressed with the choice that your friend Visaelya made, though. It's not an easy one. I would know."

Itachi's curiosity was piqued. "How so?"

Rather than answer his question directly, Yoko offered one of her own instead. "Tell me, how is Captain Hikifune these days?"

Itachi was momentarily taken aback; that was hardly the response he'd expected. "Quite well. Squad Twelve's prospered under her command. Why do you ask?"

"I ask because I have a vested interest in knowing how one of my former subordinates is perceived by Soul Reapers outside of her unit," Yoko replied, "and because I've been admittedly negligent when it comes to keeping in touch with an old friend. I really do need to fix that. More relevant to your query, though, I ask because I have many fond memories of Squad Twelve. It was my first unit after graduating from the Academy, after all."

Itachi hadn't seen that one coming. "Squad Twelve was your first assignment? Not Squad Two? Why?"

"I had a rather peculiar path in mind for myself," Yoko answered, "One that would eventually take me to Squad Two and the Stealth Force, but not before I had the knowledge that I needed."

Itachi could not help but be intrigued. "And what knowledge did you seek?"

Yoko was quiet for several seconds before she spoke again, and when she did so it was with the voice of someone whose mind had journeyed many years back in time. "Like all prominent heirs of the Shihōin Clan, I was given lessons from the finest tutors one could ask for in the Soul Society. Instruction in the ways of the sword and hand-to-hand combat, lessons in the art of spells, training in moving swiftly while maintaining stealth, exercises in tracking and mock assassination, and much more. All had a certain appeal to me, but my true interests lay with the pursuit of information over all else. In particular, I delved deep into history, well beyond what lesson plans my tutors had set for me. I sought to learn the ancient mysteries of the Soul Society and the broader Web of Worlds. Always, there were more questions."

"With access to your family archives, your studies must've been fruitful ones," Itachi noted, "From what Yoruichi's told me, the collection of literary works and tomes within the Shihōin Clan's possession is rivaled only by those of your fellow Great Noble Houses."

"She's not wrong in that," Yoko confirmed, "but family archives have sources and texts that can be idiosyncratic and unique to the Great Noble House in question. For all their depth, even they do not give all the answers. To truly understand what I sought, I needed outside sources. I needed contrasts, new perspectives, not adherence to a single wellspring of knowledge, no matter how bountiful it might be. The other Great Noble Houses would never deign to open their private libraries to a member of a rival family out of fear of betraying their deepest and darkest secrets, but there was another set of archives that I could access with the right connections and position."

"Those under the care of Squad Twelve," Itachi surmised.

Yoko inclined her head. "Correct. It was by necessity that my road took me to Squad Twelve first, and it was hardly an easy one to walk. Oh, how my parents fumed when they learned of my decision. The arguments we had were bitter and fierce, and it was years before reconciliation became possible. In the end, though, they knew that they could not stop me. My compromise with them was the promise that I would eventually transfer to Squad Two and take up the family business, as it were. I had always intended to make my way there when the time was right; my route simply had detours that my family did not understand the need for."

"Was it worth the cost?" Itachi asked as she came to a momentary stop to study a cluster of bright orange blossoms, "Did you find the knowledge that you had to alienate your family to seek in the first place?"

Yoko peered at one flower in particular for a few silent seconds before speaking. "I suppose that depends on your perspective. My time with Squad Twelve was an invaluable learning experience, but their archives were a mixed blessing. They were most useful, yes, but they were also contaminated."

Itachi tilted his head slightly in puzzlement. "Contaminated?"

Yoko sighed before resuming her stroll, with Itachi seamlessly matching her pace. "The censors of the Central Forty-Six had their insidious tentacles within those documents. The wealth of knowledge was vast, but there were conspicuous gaps. Certain words redacted, key pages removed, or even entire volumes missing from extensive compendiums. It was a very rude wake-up call, but a much needed one. It made me realize that what I sought could not be found solely through honest academic study. To acquire the entirety of the knowledge that I desired, I would have to fully embrace the guile and subterfuge that are the hallmarks of my family. Suffice to say that my transfer over to Squad Two occurred shortly after that episode of disillusionment, and the reconciliation between myself and my parents followed suit. So, was it worth it, you ask? From my point of view, yes. I didn't find all of what I sought, but I still learned valuable lessons along the way, and the damaged bridges were mended in the end."

"How long did you spend with Squad Twelve before the transfer?" Itachi inquired.

"Several years," Yoko answered with a smile, "Long enough for Kirio Hikifune to go from being a child to an Academy student in the advanced track to a rising star of Squad Twelve. I was already well-established within the unit by the time she joined, and I couldn't help but take her under my wing for a time. Truth be told, there was a part of me that wanted to stay on longer for the sake of the friendship that had blossomed between us, but I couldn't let sentimentality get in the way of my goals."

Her smile became a wicked one as she altered their trajectory and began taking them towards the garden's central pond. "A lesson that you were forced to learn in a far more brutal manner than I. It was much more than mere sentimentality you had to overcome in the name of saving your brother's life and your precious village from civil war, after all."

Itachi forced himself to ignore those remarks, recognizing in them a test of his grip on his emotions. "What knowledge were you after in all of this?"

Yoko didn't answer him straightaway. As they came upon the central pond, she gestured towards a polished wooden bench off to one side shaded by a few palm trees. It was only when the two of them sat down that she spoke again, and even then, it wasn't to offer a direct acknowledgement of his question but to instead proffer a query of her own.

"Tell me something," she said, "have you ever given thought to the structure of the spells that you and your classmates were taught at the Academy? Their incantations, numbers, hand motions, and other such requirements for casting them?"

Itachi pondered it for a few seconds. "I had considered them to be somewhat analogous to the ninjutsu that us Shinobi used. Those have their own particular requirements in addition to merely being able to summon the necessary energy, such as hands signs."

He guessed that she'd spent more than enough time poking around in his mind to understand the comparison, and Yoko didn't disappoint him. "I suppose that's an apt analogy, but it's not really my point here. Hadn't you ever wondered why the structure seems so rigid and formulaic?"

"I believe the incantations and numbers were put in place to help Soul Reapers focus on the particular spell in question," Itachi replied, "That way, a Soul Reaper knows for sure which spell they're going to fire off. There's an established expectation."

Yoko nodded. "That's all well and good for initiates and rookies, but even veteran Soul Reapers are still expected to follow the formula. It's drilled into them from day one, like so much other orthodoxy, and it narrows their perspective."

"How so?" asked Itachi.

Yoko smirked. "Perhaps showing would be easier than telling here. Observe."

She raised her right hand and aimed the palm at the sky. There was a slight pulse of spirit energy, and the hand in question began to glow with azure-white light. Then a torrent of sapphire flames flew into the air, and Itachi immediately recognized the spell.

"Sōkatsui…" he muttered in hushed awe as his mind processed just what had been demonstrated.

Yoko flashed him a smug smile. "Not only was no incantation needed, but neither was the spell name or number. As you could no doubt sense, I was able to fire off that spell at a roughly equivalent level of strength to what a veteran Soul Reaper could muster by using just the spell name and number. Not even my fellow Captains could cast in that manner when I was still in the fold, and I doubt any of them can do it still. Yet, as I just proved, it is quite possible. Just not with the knowledge that's provided at the Academy."

Itachi had a strong suspicion as to where she had gleaned this knowledge from. "But with the writings of a bygone era, it is?"

Yoko inclined her head. "Quite so. Compared to the Mages of the old kingdom and their predecessors, the art of spell casting as practiced by the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, the Kidō Corps and Stealth Force is inflexible. Sure, creative minds can come up with various manners of unique and devious implementation that may take a foe by surprise, but there are only so many tricks one can pull with our current system. Our predecessors, by contrast, were not nearly so limited. Spells are not the only example of our modern limitations, either."

Itachi's brow furrowed. "What other examples would you cite?"

Yoko smirked. "The little under-the-table program that your mother and your friend Jiraiya are involved in with Captain Unohana aside, I assume all Soul Reapers trained in the healing arts are still concentrated in Squad Four, yes?"

Itachi nodded. "They are. Hasn't it always been that way?"

"For the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, yes," Yoko confirmed, "However, a study of history shows that this is a development that only came about after the formation of that organization. Before that, the armies that operated under the old kingdom all had their own medical personnel in addition to being supported by a dedicated order of healers. A much more practical system than the one currently used by the Soul Society, wouldn't you agree?"

"I would," said Itachi, his mind racing in an effort to figure out where she was going with all of this, "Squad Four's members are extremely proficient in what they do, but it is strange for them to be the only healers in all of the Thirteen Court Guard Squad. If they had dedicated teams operating in tandem with each of the other units, that would at least make a degree of sense, but even a system like that hasn't been implemented. Their Advanced Relief Teams sometimes operate in that manner, but it's more on an ad hoc basis rather than being assigned to work with specific units, and it's not on a dedicated basis. Squad Four's personnel are either summoned to the field by Hell Butterfly in the event of critical injuries or simply wait for frontline units to return and bring their wounded with them, assuming the injured haven't already expired. Sometimes teams from Squad Four are ordered to accompany other units for specific field operations, but this more an exception than the norm. Why it isn't the norm is something that I have a hard time understanding. Delays in treatment can make all the difference between life and death; any martial organization that cares for the health and survival of its soldiers should know this. An organization such as Squad Four should be proactive, not merely reactive."

Yoko smiled. "Your past experience as a Shinobi serves you well. From what I saw in your mind, it's clear that your Leaf Village had much better practices when it came to medical personnel than the Thirteen Court Guard Squads. Your medical Shinobi were not concentrated in a single unit, but spread out amongst the ranks and dispatched with individual teams as was dictated by operational necessity. Yet the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, an organization which has existed for longer than any of your Hidden Villages and should therefore have much greater practical and theoretical knowledge to draw upon, refuses to implement a similar system. Can you think of why that might be?"

Pondering the question, Itachi realized that he couldn't pinpoint any good reason for it. "No… but why? It doesn't make any sense. Leaving all the other units completely dependent on Squad Four for medical care while keeping that same division concentrated and confined within the Seireitei the vast majority of the time rather than allowing them to act in a more proactive manner is beyond reason…"

His voice trailed off as realization struck him. There was a reason, but if Itachi was right about it, then that invited some very uncomfortable questions.

He eyed Yoko keenly, both anxious and eager to see if her reaction would grant validation to his suspicions. "That dependency… it's an instrument of control, isn't it? Keeping their healers within the walls of the Seireitei binds Soul Reapers as a whole to the Seireitei… and those that rule it."

Yoko slowly nodded. "An astute observation. There is another 'instrument of control' as you so eloquently put it that I would draw your attention to. Given that Soul Reapers must safeguard not only the Soul Society itself but the Web of Worlds as a whole, one might expect that recruitment would be a high priority, yet this is not the case. Yes, the Academy entrance exams may be open to all, but efforts to actively seek out prospective trainees and make sure they make it safely to the Seireitei in time for those exams is practically nonexistent. You and your friend Jiraiya were quite fortunate that Yoruichi and Unohana found you when they did, and not just for them saving you from the Hollows; you would've continued to idle about in the Rukon District for possibly years or even decades to come before finally making your way to the heart of the Soul Society and taking the exams, if at all. This would've been an extraordinary loss to the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, as I'm sure my granddaughter would readily admit. You and your friend were two gems plucked from the rough… yet how many other such gems remain scattered across the Rukon District or beyond, remaining outside the ranks of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads for no other reason than the fact that the organization can't be bothered to properly organize and fund a recruitment program beyond seeing who survives the trip to the Academy and hoping for the best?"

Itachi took some time to mull it over. "Given the organization's extensive history, it's almost downright malpractice for it to still lack even a basic network of recruiting posts and personnel."

"Exactly," said Yoko, "Think of how much the organization would benefit from having such a system in place. Soul Reapers, members of the Kidō Corps and the Stealth Forces are always stretched thin no matter what the era. The three organizations combined can't even match one of the armies maintained by the Great Noble Houses within their Principalities for numbers. Numbers may not be everything, of course, especially where powerful Soul Reapers are concerned, but to not have number simply for lack of actually trying to bolster them is negligence bordering on criminality. Yet, the Thirteen Court Guard Squads are not actually to blame for this pathetic state of affairs. Well, not completely, at least. There is an outside factor at play, and it is the same one that both restricts Squad Four and limits the manner in which you and your comrades utilize spirit energy for spells. I don't need to spell out what that outside factor is, do I?

"The Central Forty-Six," Itachi murmured, more to himself than to Yoko as the grand tapestry began weaving itself together within his mind, "All in the name of keeping the Soul Society's military forces on a tight leash… but it's far too tight of one. To the point of being actively harmful to the Soul Society's broader interests. With spells being forces into such a rigid structure, there's no room for innovation. With healers restricted in their movements, casualties that might've been saved with timely treatment run a far greater risk of expiring. With the numbers of Soul Reapers, Stealth Force and Kidō Corps members limited through a poor recruitment infrastructure, manpower is stretched too thin and allows crises to develop in regions beyond what we can cover. It's all so obviously to our detriment, so why allow this state of affairs to continue?"

"For the same reason as to why my granddaughter wants you and your fellow Uchiha to keep your precious Sharingan hidden from the old fools at all costs," Yoko replied, "She and I both know what ultimately drives the petty geezers who make up the Central Forty-Six; fear. They have come to cherish their position at the top of the Soul Society's political food chain above all other concerns, and they guard their power quite jealously."

"Aren't those residing in the Royal Realm with the Soul King supposed to be superior to them?" asked Itachi, though he already had a pretty good idea as to what the reality of the situation was.

Sure enough, Yoko's next words gave confirmation to his thoughts. "Supposedly, but when was the last time they ever took an active role in the governance of the Soul Society? The Soul King exists in isolation in order to protect it as the lynchpin of the Web of Worlds, the anchor of reality. As for those who reside within the Royal Realm with that lynchpin, they exist solely to protect it. Therefore, the actual rule of the Soul Society falls to those who actually taken an active interest in governing it, chiefly the Central Forty-Six and the nobility. But then, you already knew all of this, didn't you?"

Itachi sighed. "I did, but even so… shouldn't there be a point where intervention from on high becomes impossible to avoid?"

Yoko laughed bitterly. "Oh, if only! I once thought as much, but careful study of the ossified husk that the contemporary Soul Society has become without so much as a hint of that intervention quite disabused me of that notion. How steep our decline from what we once were has been. Those in the Royal Realm have no interest in arresting the decay, and so the matter falls to us."

Itachi's brow furrowed as a fresh suspicion crossed his mind. "The knowledge you were seeking in your studies and within Squad Twelve's archives… was it how to reverse that decay? To reform the Soul Society?"

"In a roundabout fashion," Yoko confirmed, "I first wanted to understand what we had lost, how bad the decay had become and what we could aspire to become again. Only then could I turn my mind to the matter of how we might go about such a revitalization… or perhaps evolution would be a more appropriate term for what I sought. Once I'd learned all I could from Squad Twelve's archives, I understood that the rest of the knowledge I sought would be of a more practical sort, and I could find that with Squad Two and the Stealth Force. As you well know, the domain of those two groups involves far more than simply scouting for Hollows; the Seireitei is Squad Two and the Stealth Force's to police, and the targets within those walls are not Hollows."

Itachi nodded. "True enough. I've done my share of Seireitei patrols, though admittedly the worst I've come across is the occasional band of drunk and disorderly Soul Reapers. Usually, the culprits are from Squad Eleven, and they're easy enough to round up for discipline."

Yoko chuckled. "Nice to see that those rowdy hooligans are still up to their old shenanigans. Some Captains of that unit might try harder than others to instill discipline, but those who seek out Squad Eleven tend to be the most tempestuous and unrestrained Soul Reapers that one can find. I know Captain Torland Starmont's reputation as a firm commander, but even he realizes that there's only so much he can do to bring such riotous brutes into line, at least when they're not out in the field doing what they so dearly love. Of course, inebriated buffoons from Squad Eleven can be handled by any member of Squad Two or the Stealth Force in a routine sweep. The investigations within the Seireitei that I tended to involve myself in were those concerning much more serious misconduct, and not just from Soul Reapers. I wanted to know just how deeply the rot had spread, and that meant poking my nose where others very much wished I would not."

"The nobility and the Central Forty-Six," Itachi surmised, "You must've made quite a few enemies within the ruling elite."

Yoko smirked. "Oh, I most certainly did! Their ire quickly turned to fear and paranoia once they realized what the power of my Shikai was. After all, petty politicians and aristocrats thrive on honeyed words to mask their true intentions, and I could lay those intentions bare thanks to my weapon's unique abilities. As you might imagine, I quickly became their least favorite Soul Reaper, and that only increased the further I climbed the ranks. By the time I became both Captain of Squad Two and the head of the Stealth Force, I had earned the combined dread and hatred of the entire Central Forty-Six, and matters weren't much better with regards to the aristocracy."

"What about your fellow Captains?" Itachi asked, "I can't imagine that they would've been too thrilled with knowing that you could peer into their minds at any moment. Even the most upstanding of Soul Reapers will have sentiments that they wish to keep private."

And their Zanpakutōs would likewise frown upon her incursions into their inner worlds.

Understandably so.

"Some friction was unavoidable," Yoko confessed, "Suffice to say that they endeavored to lay down some ground rules about me using my Shikai around them. Of course, that didn't stop me from pushing the envelope where I thought that I could get away with it. Still, most could appreciate the unique utility that my powers brought to the table out in the field. In large engagements, I could pick out the Hollow leading the enemy and divine its chosen strategy in mere moments, assuming the beast in question had one. By finding a single stray Hollow, I could determine if it was truly acting alone or working to lead us back into an ambush just through reading its surface thoughts, and once that knowledge was passed along to my comrades clearing the field of our enemies became a simple matter. My abilities might've made many uneasy, but none could deny the massive advantage that they gave us during the course of our missions. The Head Captain in particular was most appreciative of my talents. A pity that his gratitude only went so far… and that he could not extend the open-mindedness he showed for my Shikai to far more important matters."

"Namely the need for reform within the Thirteen Court Guard Squads," Itachi ventured.

Yoko's shoulders sagged under a weary exhalation. "Yes. There was a time when I admired him. His power is truly extraordinary, but what really drew me to him was what had taken me down my particular path as a Soul Reaper; history. The Head Captain is more than just your commander. He is a living artifact, a sentient aspect of history that has seen firsthand devastating wars, golden and dark ages alike, and the inexorable march of time across several millennia. When I first looked upon him, I thought to myself, here is someone who truly understands the history of the Soul Society, who has witnessed with his own two eyes both the peaks of its glory and the depths of its decay. If anyone could understand the need to rethink and reform our current structures, it would be him. It should have been him. He, of all beings in the Soul Society, has no excuse for ignorance!"

Itachi could not help but notice the venom creeping into Yoko's voice, and it only intensified as she continued. "Of course, that belief on my part was hopelessly naïve. For all his might and experience, for all the wisdom that the ages should have granted him, he was as bound by dogma and law as the Central Forty-Six. Not out of the desire to defend his own position, mind you; petty power politics disgust him, and he holds his rank out of a sense of duty and obligation rather than ambition. Rather, it is out of something that he will never admit to; fear."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "Fear? Given his immense power and experience, it's hard to imagine the Head Captain fearing much outside of the mightiest of foes."

Yoko shook her head. "That is because the fear in question is not of a powerful enemy, at least not in the conventional sense. It is a fear of change, Itachi. The Head Captain might on some level understand that the current trajectory of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads cannot be sustained forever, but his very identity is bound up in the organization and the broader Soul Society's order as it exists now. He is hidebound and rigid in his adherence to the Central Forty-Six's decrees, embracing their conservatism out of a desire to preserve what he knows."

Itachi gazed at the central pond for a few seconds in contemplation. "Given that the ultimate responsibility of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads is to maintain the balance of souls, the Head Captain's desire for preservation of the current status quo is likely with that broader goal in mind. For all the faults of the current system, the Web of Worlds has at least remained relatively stable under it."

Yoko grimaced. "You're far more generous to the old man than he deserves. The weight of his responsibilities and the stakes involved are immense, yes, but fear of disruption is no excuse to reject needed evolution completely out of hand. There is a distinct difference between judiciousness and obstinacy, and the Head Captain leans decidedly in the wrong direction. Regardless if his rigidity is from justified caution or a simple lack of imagination, the end result is the same; the perpetuation of a system that has become bloated and corrupt. The rot runs far deeper than you know, Itachi."

"Then enlighten me," Itachi prodded, "While I do agree that change is needed, I would remind you that you're slandering a system that your granddaughter and I have risked our lives repeatedly to protect, as have countless others over the generations. You say that the Soul Society's governing bodies are bloated and corrupt, but so far, you've only provided examples of hindrances that come from narrow mindsets and paranoia. If you're going to make the leap from attacking an ossified and stagnant order to making accusations of corruption, I want to see what experience you would cite to back them up."

Yoko chuckled at that. "You've got some nerve, trying to put me on the spot like this! Few would dare these days… my granddaughter really did find a gem in you."

"Save the flattery," Itachi deadpanned.

Yoko took a deep breath, though she still looked somewhat amused. "If you insist. The Central Forty-Six does far more to hinder the Thirteen Court Guard Squads than merely force us to adhere to needlessly strict limitations. Funding for the organization's operations comes from that body in the form of taxes collected from the nobility and merchant class. Have you ever seen the budget of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads as a whole, Itachi?"

Itachi shook his head. "I've reviewed Squad Two and the Stealth Force's operating budgets a handful of times when helping Yoruichi and Soi-Fon with inventory and book balancing for the annual reports, but nothing beyond that. My understanding is that Squad One's the only unit with access to the complete picture due to them taking on so much of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads' administrative functions and being essentially the liaison between the rest of us Soul Reapers and the Central Forty-Six."

"I thought as much," said Yoko, "That's a structure which has been in place since well before my own tenure within the Thirteen Court Guard Squads. Have you ever noticed how the funding of your particular unit can sometimes fluctuate quite noticeably? That the available annual budget for Squad Two and the Stealth Force might take an occasional and quite precipitous drop on an odd year without any reasonable explanation?"

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "I have seen that before, actually. It was only once, but it was hard to miss. Yoruichi seemed to have some suspicion as to the cause, but she never enlightened Soi-Fon or I as to what those might be. Instead, she simply contacted her mother, who graciously made Shihōin Clan funds available to shore up the deficit. It helped that we were able to provide detailed accounts of our previous spending to prove that we were not the cause of the shortfall… though Soi-Fon and I never learned what was the cause of it. I take it you have an answer for that?"

"I do, indeed," Yoko confirmed, "For it happened while I was a Captain as well, and you'd better believe that I was determined to get to the heart of it. When official avenues of investigation yielded no results, I took it upon myself to explore unofficial lines of inquiries. Thanks to the power of my Shikai, I was soon able to find the answer… and it confirmed my worst suspicions. The Central Forty-Six had taken funds that were meant for Squad Two and the Stealth Force and instead used them to line their already bulging pockets."

Itachi blinked a couple times in incredulity. "The Central Forty-Six was stealing from the Thirteen Court Guard Squads?"

"Officially, no," Yoko replied in derision, "They provided the funds in the official budget, but they were the ones who had slashed the budge to that amount for that year in the first place. Rather than allocate the funds they'd denied us to another unit that might have greater need of them, they simply took the money for themselves. They legalized the theft. They stole from those who were charged with risking their lives to protect them, and they do so every year right on up to this day. Units with strong connections to a Great Noble House are the lucky ones; they can use family ties to make up for the expropriated funds. Those without such connections are forced to curtail certain operations or supporting activities in order to make do."

Itachi's mind reeled as he processed the implications. "Why hasn't the Head Captain done something about this? He's always stood firmly against the nobility interfering in the business of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, but this is so much worse. The Central Forty-Six is actively sabotaging us for nothing more than petty graft!"

"Because they do it legally," Yoko answered with contempt, "As that foolish old man has bound himself to uphold the laws and traditions of the Soul Society, he is ill-equipped to tangle with criminality that shields itself through those very laws that he's sworn to enforce. The Central Forty-Six knows this well, and they've refined this theft to a veritable artform. They have annual meetings that they like to call 'feedings', and the term is quite apt. In these feedings, they determine which unit's budget is to be sacrificed in the name of lining their own pockets. The bastards have quite a streamlined system in place for their corruption, basically rotating which unit will be stolen from so as not to concentrate on one in particular and cause so much of a stink that the Head Captain is forced to speak up. They refuse to subject Squad One's budget to this treatment precisely to avoid provoking the Head Captain's ire directly, but the rest are considered to be fair game. They know exactly how far they can push the envelope with regards to Yamamoto, and that discretion saves their necks from him. Unfortunately for them, I never considered myself bound by the same restrictions that the Head Captain subjects himself to."

Itachi could not resist a small smile; he had a strong suspicion as to where this was going, and he was fully on board with it. "You went after them, didn't you?"

Yoko flashed him a predatory grin. "I did."

Itachi clasped his hands together and leaned forward slightly, eager to hear more. "This should be interesting. How did you go about retaliating against those who are supposedly at the top of the Seireitei's political hierarchy?"

"I played the game that comes naturally to members of Squad Two and the Stealth Force," Yoko answered, "You should know as well as any Soul Reaper of our pedigree the value of subterfuge. I couldn't take my opposition head on, so I acted in the shadows. Simply being able to pull secrets directly from their minds wasn't enough; I had to find proof of the Central Forty-Six's underhanded dealings and make it public. Thankfully, that was not hard to do. The knowledge I gleaned from each member of the council that I could track and spy on included the whereabouts of secret ledgers that confirmed how they were dividing the spoils from their feedings. Every single judge and so-called 'wiseman' of the Central Forty-Six had their own 'off-the-books' accountants for keeping track of and accessing their funds, their loyalty bought with exorbitant amounts of cash. I was able to track down those accountants and seize their ledgers. From there, it was a simple matter of strategically leaking the contents. Through that, I thought I might damage the ruling body so badly that reforms would have to be undertaken. Surely even the Head Captain could not ignore such damning evidence, right? That was my belief… but it proved to be misguided."

Itachi's shoulders sagged in disappointment, though in hindsight he really should've expected such an outcome. "I suppose if you had succeeded, the Soul Society and Thirteen Court Guard Squads would be quite different from what they are now. Even so, how could the evidence you exposed fail to change the status quo?"

"Remember that the corruption in this case was, strictly speaking, legalized," Yoko pointed out bitterly, "It made a splash with the aristocracy and some of my fellow Captains, but in the end nothing more than gossip came from it. What I had hoped would be a groundbreaking scandal was simply swept under the rug. There is no outside mechanism for holding members of the Central Forty-Six accountable for crimes; the body judges its own members… when it sees fit to, at least. Suffice to say that here, they did not see fit to. In the end, all I really accomplished was making myself an obvious target to the Central Forty-Six. They had no proof that I was the culprit, of course; I covered my tracks well. Still, they knew my talents, just as they knew that I had more than a few bones to pick with them. The battlelines quick hardened between us, but while I had friends and comrades who privately sympathized with me, it was not enough to balance out a decidedly uneven playing field. Even my family ties were only of so much use, chiefly to balance out my units' books whenever the Central Forty-Six took a bite out of our funding. The disgusting status quo remained intact, regardless of my subsequent efforts to the contrary."

Itachi was quiet for several seconds as he carefully considered her words. "To challenge such corruption and provide blatant evidence of wrongdoing, only for it all to be discounted because the perpetrators had written their crimes into law… your disillusionment must've been severe. Was that what prompted you to withdraw from the Seireitei?"

"Partially," Yoko admitted, "I hadn't completely given up on my goal of forcing reform, but I had come to recognize that a longer game was required. I was prepared to wait patiently for my moment to come, but the Central Forty-Six had other ideas. My initial scheme may have failed, yet they were deeply shaken by it just the same. It should come as no surprise, then, that they sought a means of removing me from the playing field. How unfortunate for me that there is a very obvious recourse for sidelining problematic Captains."

Itachi immediately grasped what she was getting at. "They wanted to transfer you to the Royal Guard."

Yoko inclined her head. "Oh, how they infinitely would've preferred that to how events ultimately transpired. They couldn't do so right away, of course; they knew that I would refuse promotion if I did not have a successor in place, and that the Head Captain would back me until the appropriate arrangements were made. They had to wait for the right moment, and it came several years later. My granddaughter had entered Squad Two and risen swiftly through the ranks. Once she was revealed to have achieved Bankai, I knew it was only a matter of time before those scheming bastards would conspire to arrange the 'promotion' that would really just be a prison sentence in all but name. I could see it coming, of course, and I refused to go along with it. I could've just left the Seireitei right then and there; I knew that my granddaughter was more than capable of assuming command by that point. However, I wanted to make one final point to the Central Forty-Six and the Head Captain so as to guarantee myself an actual retirement, one where I could do as I pleased far from the prying eyes of the Seireitei and without fear of being recalled. Call it a warning shot, if you will."

A dark edge had come to her tone with those last words, and Itachi suspected that her 'warning shot' was far more than what she was letting on. "How did you secure your freedom?"

A sly smile graced Yoko's face. "With two letters, one for the Central Forty-Six and one for the Head Captain. To the former, a simple statement; that I was leaving the Seireitei, never to return, and they would do well to leave me be. To the latter, the means to enforce my self-imposed exile; a threat to the pillar of law and order that he had bound himself to. I promised Head Captain Yamamoto that if I was ever recalled to the Seireitei, I would indeed return… and my first act upon crossing its threshold would be to slaughter every last member of the Central Forty-Six. If he tried to stop me from leaving, then I would initiate my attack right then and there."

Of all the answers that she could've provided, that was the last one that Itachi had expected. "You straight up told the Head Captain that you would assassinate the entire Central Forty-Six… and he let you get away with making that threat?"

Yoko grinned wickedly. "He didn't have a choice. Sure, he could've come after me, and if it had come to a straight-up fight I most certainly would've lost. We both knew that, just as surely as he knew that I wouldn't be so stupid as to meet him in a head-to-head contest. He knew me well enough to understand that the moment I sensed his approach, I would go after the Central Forty-Six. I was faster than the Head Captain, after all, which meant that I could get to my target well before he could stop me. As for the security measures surrounding the council, those would be a joke to someone with my talents. Perhaps he would've made it in time to save some of the council, but realistically the best he could've hoped for would be to avenge their deaths. In order to preserve his precious pillar of law, old man Yamamoto knew that there was only one course of action he could take. And so, I slipped away into the night, and no one has dared to come after me since. All's well that ends well, wouldn't you agree?"

Itachi shook his head incredulously. "If by 'well' you mean successfully blackmailing the Head Captain… I didn't think that such a feat was possible."

"Everyone has weaknesses," Yoko reminded him, "Even such a bastion of power as the Head Captain is no exception. When one understands their target's very thoughts, finding and exploiting that weakness is not difficult. A threat only works if the one you threaten believes you to possess the means and will to follow through, and the Head Captain knew me well enough to understand that I was not bluffing. Had it come down to it, I would've happily traded my life for the chance to butcher as many of those useless old fools as possible before Yamamoto came for my head. I'd hardly consider the Central Forty-Six a target worth dying for, but if my demise was certain then I would want to make sure that I took them with me. The Head Captain understood this perfectly; I had expressed my disdain for the ruling body openly and repeatedly with him, so in his mind it would not be a stretch at all for me to act with murderous spite."

Itachi took a few moments to process it all. "So, you successfully severed yourself from the Thirteen Court Guard Squads in a manner that no prior Captain ever has… I suppose if it was to secure freedom from a body you'd come to despise, drastic steps would be understandable. Even so, there was a price to be paid with it. Your daughter and granddaughter both reside in the Seireitei, after all, so your exile leaves you few opportunities to see them. There's only so much that can be conveyed through letters, no matter how often you may write them. Was it worth it?"

Yoko sighed wearily. "I'll be the first to admit that the cost was high. I had grown accustomed to seeing my family regularly within the walls of the Seireitei, and the subsequent separation has been… difficult. My husband has remained by my side throughout it all, and I am eternally grateful to him for that, yet his presence and antics alone cannot fill the void completely. My daughter and granddaughter have both been understanding and try their best to come out here when possible, but they both have their own busy lives to lead, and I do not wish to dominate them unduly. After all, would it not be hypocritical for me to deny them the freedom to live as they wish after I fought so hard to secure my own liberty? I earned the right to follow my own path, and I will not interfere with their own. Is such freedom worth the isolation from some of the dearest members of my family? It is a question that I ask myself every day. Some days, the answer is yes. Others, it is no. In the end, though, the choice was made, and the consequences are mine to deal with. You can understand, can't you?"

Itachi slowly nodded. "I can. There are decisions that we can question afterwards for years on end, never fully certain if the call we made was the right one. In the end, all we can do is accept that the choice was made and cannot be altered. From that point forward, it is our task to follow the path that we've set out for ourselves… for good or ill."

"Spoken with the eloquence of one who made the hardest choice of all," Yoko remarked as she eyed him keenly, "and still does not know if it was the right one."

Her words hit far too close to home for Itachi's liking. "With all due respect, I can see why so many dislike your Shikai."

Yoko chuckled cruelly. "Oh, I'm sure! That's not even getting into my Bankai, which is a whole order of magnitude worse as far as my detractors are concerned."

"I'll take your word for it," Itachi quipped.

Yoko stood up and gestured for Itachi to follow her before resuming their stroll through the gardens, making a lazy loop around the central pond. "You'll have to, considering that I have no intentions of revealing how my Bankai works. You figured out for yourself the powers of my Shikai. Should we ever face off in battle, I would not wish to rob you of the challenge that comes with overcoming my Bankai. A struggle denied is a chance for growth lost, and I would not do you such a disservice."

"How generous of you," Itachi deadpanned.

Yoko paused to observe a handful of fish darting about just beneath the surface of the pond. "While my self-imposed exile has had its cost, there have also been undeniable benefits. My freedom of interference from the Thirteen Court Guard Squads or the Central Forty-Six combined with my wealth offers me the means to pursue my original interests. Even though studying the history of the Soul Society alone is not enough to furnish the means by which its current stagnation can be overthrown, there are still many useful lessons and secrets to be gleaned by sifting through the sands of time. Our Principality may be a desert, but it offers bounty if one knows where to look. Ancient fortresses and temples lying beneath the dunes can be exposed through knowledge and the proper application of force; Soul Reaper spells have utility outside of combat, after all. I have worked tirelessly to uncover sites such as these, as well as repositories of knowledge once thought lost to the sand. Through such efforts, I have uncovered much that I wish I had known before. However, there has recently been a case of an ancient secret coming to me of its own accord. Unfortunately, it did not offer knowledge or power."

Itachi was about to ask what this secret had offered when he suddenly felt a spike in spiritual pressure. He whipped around, his gaze locking onto the palace as he worked quickly to narrow down the exact location of said spike. He knew the source all too well; it was Yoruichi.

His right hand went to the handle of his Zanpakutō, but Yoko's then fell over it. "You will not need your weapon. Not today, at least. My granddaughter is not in immediate danger, and neither are you. I give you my word on that. That will change in several days' time, though."

Itachi's eyes narrowed. "And why is that?"

"Best if you hear it directly from the one who brought you here," Yoko replied with a bittersweet smile, "I had hoped it would be a little longer before the two of you learned the truth, but it seems my husband could not help himself. I should've expected as much… he was ill-at ease regarding my omission in those letters. He is far more straightforward than I… and I love him for it. Wait here with me. Knowing my granddaughter, it will not take long at all for the two of them to join us."

She wasn't wrong. It only took a minute for the doors to the garden to fly open, with Yoruichi storming through. Kiemon followed swiftly in her wake, keeping pace remarkably well despite his advancing years. Itachi didn't pay the old man more than a brief glance, though. His focus was on Yoruichi, and for good reason. Her fists were clenched, her golden eyes were narrowed in a fierce glare, and her spiritual pressure was just barely restrained.

She was pissed.

And the target of her ire was her grandmother.

For her part, Yoko simply smiled and regarded Yoruichi with a faux innocent look. "Ah, granddaughter, what a delight to see you after so long. Your disposition is not what I'd hoped for, though. Tell me, what troubles you?"

"Nothing," Yoruichi snarked before spiting her grandmother with a furious scowl, "apart from the fact that you were apparently attacked by a wraith and saw no need to inform me!"

Itachi's eyes widened in shock; he couldn't have heard her right. "Excuse me?"

Behind Yoruichi, Kiemon inclined his head. "I'm sorry, my dear, but I could not hide it from her any longer. You know me."

Yoko simply nodded. "I certainly do."

The former Captain of Squad Two then turned to Itachi. "You have passed the tests that I had planned solely for you, Itachi. There is one more that remains, though, and it is one that both you and my granddaughter will have to overcome together before you can enjoy your vacation."

Author's Notes: I decided to go with a blend of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cultural influences when writing the Shihōin Clan Principality. The arena in the Principality's capital is a dead ringer for the Roman Colosseum, while the racetrack is based off of the great Hippodrome of Constantinople; 'Atmeydani' is Turkish for 'Horse Square', which is what the space within modern Istanbul that once housed the Hippodrome sometimes goes by, although the official designation is Sultanahmet Meydani, or Sultanahmet Square. The two artificial harbors were modeled loosely off of the famous Cothon that housed Carthage's navy.

The river barge Thalamegos is actually named after the barge that was commissioned by Ptolemy IV Philopator of Egypt's Ptolemaic dynasty. Egypt also influences this chapter in the form of the riverside tomb passed by the barge, as well as the massive lighthouse providing illumination for ships approaching the capital. For the latter, I started with the Pharos Lighthouse of Alexandria and then modified it to my own needs, with the nine sides to emphasize its link to the old kingdom that placed such significance upon that number. I also drew a bit from Venus Lighthouse's lit elemental beacon from the game Golden Sun for the Gameboy Advanced. Ah, what a classic!

Well, that's a wrap on part one. Part two will deal with the final wraith and then give Itachi and Yoruichi a chance to really kick back and relax. Fun times ahead!

Hope you all liked the chapter! Feel free to review, stay safe, and I'll see you all next time!