Author's Notes: Hello there! Decided to make this one into a two-parter once I got into it, there's going to be more material than I'd originally planned. I know, I said a proper Chapter 30 in the last chapter's notes, but things didn't pan out that way. Turns out writing the build-up to a civil war's outbreak is harder than the actual fighting. Political intrigue and covert investigations are complicated, who knew? If I did all that I had planned in one chapter, it'd be much bigger than what I'm currently posting. Two-parter's better here, trust me. Don't worry, the bloody fighting's coming, I just need to put a bit more work into properly setting the stage than I first thought.

On the bright side, Part One's short compared to my usual work. Definitely made the editing easier here.

Enjoy!

Chapter 30: In The Gathering Dark

Part One: Looming Dread, Dim Hope

One year later…

Early spring, 129 years before Rukia Kuchiki's arrival in Karakura Town

Standing on a thick tree branch overlooking a clearing not too far from the one that Jiraiya had claimed as a perch, Lisa gripped her sword tightly as she eyed the Legendary Sannin skeptically. "You're sure we can trust him to do this?"

His gaze focused firmly ahead towards the growing sounds of very large creatures crashing through the forest and heading their way, Jiraiya simply shrugged. "Look at it this way; either Manda catches and eats all the Hollows and saves us the trouble, or he drives them right into our little trap and we kill them. Either way, we win."

"You're conveniently leaving out the third potential scenario," Lisa countered sharply, "The one where he decides that we look more appetizing than the Hollows. You even admitted that you still don't have complete control over him."

"That's why we're working together here," Jiraiya reminded the Lieutenant, "If he gets any ideas, then we smack them out of his thick skull."

"And if the Hollows decide to attack while we're distracted by him?" Lisa asked.

"They're on track to hit the Paper Bomb mines I set up earlier," Jiraiya pointed out, "Those should keep them preoccupied for a bit."

Lisa sighed and shook her head. "You are way too casual about all this. From what I've seen, Manda's easily powerful enough to take on most Menos Grande. There are no guarantees on the outcome if we're forced to fight him."

Jiraiya smiled. "You're forgetting that I've dealt with him before. He was much more dangerous when Orochimaru was commanding him. It'll be tough if he turns on us, but we can take him."

"You'd better be right," Lisa grumbled as she raised her sword, "If you're wrong and we're lucky enough to survive it, I'll send you over to Squad Four to help them with sewer maintenance for a month."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Please, you'd miss me after a week."

Lisa looked at him for a moment before cracking a small smile. "After two, maybe."

A not-too-distant explosion sounded, immediately followed by familiar shrieks; the first of Jiraiya's Paper Bomb mines had been hit. The former Shinobi took that as his cue to begin gathering spirit energy for his part of the spell combo that Lisa had planned out earlier.

"Wait for it…" Jiraiya murmured.

Tremors began coursing through the ground and the trees Jiraiya and Lisa were perched in as the survivors of the Hollow pack drew ever-closer. Behind their thundering footsteps, Jiraiya could hear the hungry hissing of Manda. This was Jiraiya's first-time using Manda on a mission in a Realm of the Living, and he had initially been worried that he might not be able to summon the snake outside the Soul Society. After all, he was a dead man summoning another dead being to where the true living resided; there were serious concerns about a potential soul fracture in Manda being the result.

As a precaution for just this type of scenario, Jiraiya had performed a trial run several weeks ago. With permission from Captain Kyōraku, Jiraiya had gone alone to Terra, the same Realm of the Living that his and Lisa's current mission was taking place in, in the dead of night. Back in the Soul Society, Captain Unohana had quietly slipped out of the Seireitei and into one of the forests along the perimeter of outermost Rukon. There, Manda had been waiting per Jiraiya's instructions. The plan was simple; Jiraiya would attempt to summon Manda to the Realm of the Living, with Unohana observing the snake back in the Soul Society and watching for any signs of the cranky old serpent suffering a soul fracture. While he had been a bit worried about how Manda might react to being under the supervision of someone that he did not consider to be a worthy master, it had only taken one of Unohana's special 'looks' to convince the snake that he was better off not picking a fight with her.

Fortunately, the test had gone off without incident. Jiraiya's current working theory was that the scroll carried on his back for the summoning acted as a sort of 'anchor point' for Manda's soul, essentially pulling the snake into whatever plane of reality Jiraiya occupied at the time of summoning. Since it was a dead being summoning another dead being rather than the living trying to bring the dead back to life, Manda's soul did not fracture; the snake remained as 'dead' as the Soul Reaper that now commanded him, and that lack of a fundamental shift in his nature regardless of what plane of reality he was being called to made all the difference.

As distant thunder rumbled in the overcast sky, dark clouds concealing the late morning sun, that 'dead' snake continued to drive the Hollows towards Jiraiya and Lisa. The beasts, led by a large primate-like Adjuchas with a purple hide and black markings, crashed through the trees and into the clearing, triggering Jiraiya's largest Paper Bomb mine. Several of the lesser Hollows were outright vaporized by the ensuing blast, but the Adjuchas himself and a few of his minions remained very much alive, albeit bloodied and screaming.

Jiraiya wasted no time with his incantation. "Walls of iron sand, a priestly pagoda, glowing ironclad fireflies. Standing upright, silent to the end. Bakudō 75: Gochūtekkan!"

He clasped his hands together, and five small yellow orbs with slender tails slipped out from between his fingers. Those orbs then flew over Jiraiya's head and formed a circle. Quickly raising his hands overhead, Jiraiya then immediately slammed them downward. The five orbs zipped towards the Adjuchas and the other wounded Hollows, hitting the ground at their feet. A brilliant flash of light appeared in the sky, and out of it descended five tall and thick grey pillars, all of them chained together. These fell upon the stricken Hollows and pinned them to the ground, eliciting a fresh chorus of furious and pained howls.

At the same time, Lisa released her Zanpakutō. "Smash, Haguro Tonbo!"

She leapt down from the tree as her sword transformed into the long ball-weighted spear that Jiraiya had gotten to know so well over the years. He had his own weapon at the ready, but did not activate his Shikai, instead simply waiting in reserve. Jiraiya looked on in satisfaction as Lisa twirled her heavy polearm, the spaded-blade at its business end carving into the Hollows like a blender. A few agonized shrieks later, and all that remained was black ash soon to be taken by the wind.

Manda came barreling through the tree-line a second later, a squirming Hollow impaled on his fangs. The massive purple serpent snapped his jaws, crushing and devouring the hapless creature before turning his malevolent green eyes towards Lisa.

"You didn't leave me enough to feast on, girl," he growled.

Lisa didn't so much as flinch, instead flipping her polearm around so the blade was mere centimeters away from Manda's right eye. "You're a predator, and you just got to hunt. You've had your fill. Get greedy, and I'll gouge your eye out."

Manda's tongue flickered in the air as the serpent hissed menacingly. "I'd like to see you try, wench."

"Alright, that's enough," Jiraiya interjected, jumping down to impose himself between Manda and Lisa, "Manda, this isn't a fight you want, and you know it."

The snake glowered at the two Soul Reapers for a tense moment before huffing and turning away. "You two aren't worth the effort."

Lisa arched an eyebrow as she glanced at Jiraiya, and the former Shinobi simply shrugged. "Keep telling yourself that, old pal."

Manda raised his head and sampled the air with his tongue. "I don't smell any more of the vermin. Are we done here?"

"We are," Jiraiya confirmed as he unfurled the scroll on his back, "You can go back to terrifying whatever you've been hunting out in The Wild."

Jiraiya's hands rapidly weaved the appropriate signs, and Manda vanished in a puff of smoke. Rolling the scroll back up and stowing it away, he then turned to Lisa.

"Ready to head on home?" he asked.

Lisa nodded as she sealed her Zanpakutō. "That went a lot smoother than I was expecting. I guess the Captain was right when he said the two of us would be enough for this hunt."

Jiraiya eyed her curiously. "You had doubts?"

"Not in our ability to kill these Hollows," Lisa clarified, "I was just concerned about how we'd track them all down, seeing as it was just the two of us. I'll give Manda his due; he made that part easy. His senses are scarily keen."

Jiraiya grinned. "I told you he'd earn his keep."

"He did this time," Lisa grumbled, "I still think he's trouble."

Jiraiya snorted. "He always will be."

Another rumble of thunder, louder this time, drew their gazes towards the sky, and Lisa shook her head. "Speaking of trouble, we should get going before those storm clouds get over our heads. They're too close for my tastes already."

As the Lieutenant used her Zanpakutō to open the Senkaimon, Jiraiya continued to stare out at the approaching storm. Flashes of lightning followed by new roars of thunder brought to mind a different sort of storm, one that was brewing back in the Soul Society.

Will that one remain as rumbling thunder on the horizon, Jiraiya thought, or will it open up right on top of us?

The Legendary Sannin had no answer…

…or perhaps he did, and was simply too afraid to give voice to it.

….

Down in the training ground beneath the North Rukon safehouse, Itachi had his arms raised to block a flurry of punches and kicks from an enthusiastic Rangiku. The girl had come a long way over the course of a year; her attacks were disciplined yet unpredictable, she paced herself well, and she had become quite acrobatic. High jumps and flips more than made up for the height disparity between them, and a good deal of her flying kicks were aimed at his head.

"Got you on the run now!" Rangiku declared through a confident grin as Itachi fell back under her barrage.

Itachi smiled but said nothing. Her bravado was a comforting sign; it meant she was not letting a certain silver-haired youth's absence distract her from the sparring match.

"He's been gone for two weeks now?" Itachi had remarked when Rangiku had informed him that Gin was missing, "Want me to go look for him?"

"No, this is normal for him," Rangiku had reassured him.

The girl hadn't seemed bothered on the surface, but she was far easier to read than Gin; Itachi knew that, despite her outward acceptance of it, the boy's absence had Rangiku worried. Still, his habit of running off for stretches of time only to eventually return like nothing had happened was well-established by now. Itachi mentally drew the line at a month; if Gin wasn't back by then, he and Jiraiya would start a search.

At least the boy made sure all his chores were done before he took off, Jigoku no Joō noted as Itachi continued to block Rangiku's attacks, Awfully considerate of him.

I think he wanted to avoid overburdening Rangiku.

I know. If it weren't for him taking off on her without saying anything about where he was going, I'd call him a sweetheart. It's so inconsiderate of him to do this to her. Doesn't he know how much she worries about him?

Itachi was willing to bet that Gin did; the boy was far sharper than his youthful appearance suggested. Gin was not without a heart, and it seemed clear to Itachi that he did care for the feelings of others, at least those closest to him, but he was incredibly adept at masking his sentiments. What drove these periodic absences? Was he simply inquisitive and sought to explore the Rukon District, or was there a specific objective in mind? Even after a year of assisting Jiraiya in training and looking after the silver-haired youth, Itachi felt like he was little closer to truly understanding Gin as a person. The only certainty he had about the boy was that he genuinely cared for Rangiku, even if he did not always show it.

Not unlike you and your little brother… or perhaps Izumi.

Itachi almost winced at the name. For all the fondness that he had held for her when she was alive, thinking of Izumi inevitably brought back very painful memories. He forced her name into the back of his mind; he did not need Rangiku to pick up on any distress coming from him. The girl had enough on her mind right now, and Itachi wanted to keep Rangiku's focus on the sparring match.

"Very good," Itachi remarked as he blocked a particularly hard kick from the girl on his right arm, "You've built up some real muscle."

"Because you and Jiraiya have been training me so much!" Rangiku cheerfully pointed out in-between punches.

"Mostly Jiraiya," Itachi corrected while continuing to fall back and protect himself, "Give credit where it's due."

"You come by and help when you can, though," Rangiku pushed back, "You're doing your best, and that's what counts."

Itachi inclined his head while sidestepping a high kick. "That's kind of you to say."

They'd been going for a while now, and while Itachi did enjoy the part he had to play in Rangiku's progress, he couldn't stick around for much longer; this might've been a day off for him, but it was a rather full one. He waited for Rangiku to make another high kick, and this time he didn't block it. Instead, he grabbed her leg and threw her to the ground, ensuring that she landed on her back as gently as circumstance and skill permitted.

Even so, the rocky ground of Kisuke's training chamber was hardly pleasant to fall on, as Rangiku's yelp made clear. "Ow!"

"Are you alright?" Itachi asked as he knelt next to her.

Rangiku sat up and winced as she rubbed her back. "I'll be okay. Guess I should've known I couldn't beat you yet."

"You did well," Itachi reassured her as he helped Rangiku to her feet, "Let's head upstairs. We can share some tea before I go."

Rangiku looked up at him in dismay. "You have to leave already? But you just got here!"

"We've been training down here for a few hours, actually," Itachi pointed out, "You know what they say; time flies when you're having fun."

Rangiku looked down at the ground and pouted. "I don't want you to go."

"I can't stay here indefinitely," Itachi said in a gentle tone, "You've always known that, just as you know that I'll come back eventually. Like Gin."

Rangiku sighed. "You'll probably come back before Gin, at least."

"Perhaps," Itachi conceded, "It can be difficult to tell with him. If it makes you feel any better, I'll have more than just tea with you before I go; I brought some dried persimmon with me today."

Rangiku immediately perked up at the mention of her favorite food. "Really? Then let's go!"

Itachi chuckled as the girl tugged at the left sleeve of his robes, and he let her take the lead as they went upstairs. While Rangiku settled into her cushion seat at the table, Itachi prepared the tea while pulling out the bag of dried persimmon he'd tucked away in a nearby cabinet earlier. Once everything was ready, he served drinks and snacks for the two of them and sat down opposite Rangiku.

"Thank you!" Rangiku giddily chirped, wasting no time in chowing down on the dried persimmon.

Itachi smiled as he sipped his tea. "You really love those."

"They're my favorite," Rangiku declared, "Ever since Gin gave me one back when we first met."

"Is that part of why you like them so much?" Itachi asked as she munched on her snack, "They remind you of him?"

"I guess so," Rangiku confessed, grinning as she swallowed the first one before swiftly grabbing a second, "If you keep giving them to me after training, then they'll remind me of you, too. Then I'll like them even more!"

Itachi picked up one of the dried fruit snacks and eyed it for a moment. "Never thought I'd be associated with persimmon in someone's mind… though I suppose that's not a bad thing."

A few minutes passed in silence as they enjoyed their tea and snacks before Rangiku spoke again, her voice softer this time. "You and Gin… you have more in common than dried persimmon."

Itachi had not been expecting that. "What do you mean?"

Rangiku looked up at him for a long moment. "You're both nice around me. I like spending time with both of you, but when I look at you… it feels like you both aren't completely here. Like you're both thinking of something far away… things you want to keep away from me."

"Everyone has things that they don't want to talk about around people," Itachi pointed it out, "Things that they don't want others to worry about."

"I know that," said Rangiku as she held his gaze, "but it's… it's different with you two."

Itachi leaned forward slightly. "In what way?"

He watched Rangiku's brow furrow in thought. "Well… when Jiraiya's here with us, he really feels here. Like, he's completely with us in the moment. With you, it's like you're here, but part of you isn't. Part of you is somewhere else, and that somewhere else is a place that bothers you. You try to hide it so I'll be happy, like Gin, but I can still see it."

Itachi bowed his head. "I'm sorry if I make you feel that way. When I'm here, I really do focus on your training. I promise."

"I know you do," Rangiku reassured him with a smile, "You don't have to apologize, Itachi. I just… I'm worried about you. You and Gin. Itachi… are you okay?"

It would have been so easy to just smile and say that he was. It would not even be a lie. Not on the surface, at least. His life, or afterlife, was going well. He was in a relationship with a wonderful woman who accepted him in his entirety, he had found and reconnected with both his mother and his best friend, he had a fulfilling job that let him put his talents to use in protecting souls and the balance of the world, he was surrounded by colleagues who also counted as friends, and was a part-time teacher for not only Gin and Rangiku, but also Byakuya Kuchiki. When compared to his time in the Shinobi Realm of the Living, Itachi's afterlife was a heaven that he had never dared to imagine himself worthy of.

That was all his personal life, though. The problem for Itachi was that someone like him had a difficult time confining himself to just a personal life. When he looked beyond his happy individual circumstance and observed the wider world, that was where the darkness loomed. Concerns about other Akatsuki members at large in the afterlife, the matter of the Uchiha Clan lurking within the shadows of the Draken Clan estate, the situation between the house of the dragons and their rivals for power within the Soul Society; all that and more had Itachi deeply worried.

Perhaps Gin senses it, too, Itachi mused, I wonder… are his periodic absences related to the growing unrest? No, that's too much a leap; Rangiku said he's been wandering off on his own since she met him, and that was years ago. Then again, maybe he senses a different threat than the ones Yoruichi and I are concerned with…

"I'm… content," Itachi eventually answered, "There are things that I'm worried about, but I'm doing alright."

"Are they things that you can talk to me about?" she asked, "I know I'm young, so I might not understand everything, but… if I can help you, I want to."

Now Itachi allowed himself to smile, a small and gentle one for her sake. "That means a lot to me, Rangiku. Really, it does. What I'm worried about, though, isn't something that you would really be able to help with. Besides, I don't want you or Gin getting mixed up in it. Jiraiya's helping me, as are my other friends. All Jiraiya and I want for you and Gin right now is to learn, be safe, and be happy. Do that for me, Rangiku, and I will be happy."

Rangiku slowly nodded, but when she looked up at him again the worry was still clear in her warm blue eyes. "I will… just as long as you take care of yourself. I don't want anything bad to happen to your or Gin. If things get bad and you need help… come back here. I can't do much, but I'll help however I can. So will Gin. He likes you."

Itachi raised an eyebrow. "He does?"

Rangiku smiled. "Yeah. He likes learning from you as much as Jiraiya. I think he likes you a bit more than Jiraiya, actually. You're more like him, remember?"

"I suppose so," Itachi replied before reaching across the table and tenderly patting her atop the head, "You're a very kind soul, Rangiku. No matter what happens, don't lose that. In a harsh world, simple kindness is priceless."

"Aw, you're sweet," she cooed through flushed cheeks.

The two of them continued enjoying their snacks and tea in silence, and Itachi cast his gaze towards the wood block cards hanging on the wall. Two cards, his and Rangiku's, had the red side showing, while Gin and Jiraiya's displayed the goofy frogs symbolizing their absence. Rangiku had taken it upon herself to add a bit of character to them, having scribbled rough approximations of Gin and Jiraiya's hairstyles atop their respective frogs.

Jiraiya's mission to the Terran Realm of the Living should be wrapping up soon, he thought, and as for Gin… well, he'll either come back soon, or I'll might have to start looking for him. I just hope they're both okay.

When they finished up, Rangiku helped Itachi clean their plates and cups before flipping his card over and heading towards the front door. Pausing at the entrance, he braced himself for what had become routine in his visits; Rangiku barreling into and hugging him from behind.

"Do you really have to go?" she mumbled.

Itachi reached around his back to pat her head again. "I'm afraid I do. You're not the only pupil I have to teach today, and my Captain will be worried if I leave the job just to her."

"Come back soon!" Rangiku begged, "You can even bring that boy you're teaching and your Captain."

Itachi smiled as he imagined introducing Byakuya to Rangiku and Gin, perhaps even holding lessons for all three with the help of Yoruichi and Jiraiya. It was a very pleasant thought, one that Itachi realized he'd very much like to make reality.

"Perhaps I will bring them over here someday," he said, more to himself than his present pupil, "We'll see."

"As long as you come back, that's all I care about," Rangiku insisted, "Well, you and Gin… and Jiraiya."

"And I will," he reassured her while extricating himself from her grip, "In the meantime, I expect you to behave while I'm gone. Keep up your practice, do your chores, and don't go wandering as far as Gin. Stay in North 1 where it's safe, alright?"

Rangiku looked up at him and smiled. "I will. Promise!"

"Then I'll see you next time, Rangiku," Itachi replied before heading out the door.

After having gone down the main road about a block, Itachi was struck by the dark grey clouds dominating the sky, especially over the Seireitei. It was unusually gloomy for a Soul Society spring, yet it was somehow fitting given the present circumstances.

If storm clouds must gather, he thought while casting a glance back in the direction of the safehouse, then let them do so only over the Seireitei. Rangiku, Gin, the people of the Rukon… none of them deserve to suffer for the strife in the halls of power.

A fine sentiment, but do you think those prideful nobles will share it?

Some do. Yoruichi and her family, for starters.

Perhaps, but they're not the ones who will ultimately decide how this ends. They're not the ones driving events now.

That much was true. Itachi had to wonder, though; was it truly the Drakken and Starmont Clans pushing things forward? They certainly seemed to be the instigators, even if nothing concrete regarding their connection to the Nalatarin affair had been uncovered. Was the outcome in their grasp…

…or was another party at play here?

….

Leaning against the balcony's railing, Yoruichi smiled as she watched Byakuya engage Itachi in an enthusiastic sparring match. "Surprised he still has that kind of energy left, considering just how hard I ran him in the Shunpo exercises earlier."

Soft footsteps echoed on the finely polished wooden floor behind her, and she turned to see Ginrei approaching. Her fellow Captain joined her at the railing to observe Itachi's latest Zanjutsu lesson for Byakuya, and Yoruichi caught just a hint of a smile beneath that thick grey mustache of his.

"You can run Byakuya until he drops," Ginrei remarked, "but he'll get right back up the moment Itachi offers him the practice sword. He endures and respects your training, however much he might complain, but it's Itachi's training that he enjoys."

Yoruichi let out a soft laugh. "Yeah, I know. As long as he learns, I don't mind if I'm not his favorite."

"Oh, he has learned quite a bit," Ginrei replied, "He's starting to make the family Zanjutsu tutor sweat. I think he could easily pass the advanced track Academy swordsmanship curriculum. The same can be said for the Hohō courses, thanks to your efforts."

Yoruichi looked back and forth between Ginrei and Byakuya. "You thinking of putting him up for the entrance exams soon?"

Ginrei shook his head. "Not yet, though I don't doubt his ability to pass them."

"He'd do more than pass them," said Yoruichi, "He'd probably finish first for each one."

Ginrei nodded. "Quite likely."

Yoruichi eyed him in curiosity. "It's not my place to judge any decisions you make for your clan. Even so, I have to ask; don't you think that you're being a bit too cautious here? Itachi and I have been tutoring Byakuya in Zanjutsu and Hohō for years now, and I know you have his other instructors working even harder with him."

"The future of the Kuchiki Clan rests on his shoulders," Ginrei firmly countered, "We will leave nothing to chance."

"He has to leave the nest at some point," Yoruichi argued, "There's a line between prudent preparation and sheltering. You sure you're not on the wrong side of it here?"

Ginrei let out a quiet sigh. "That's a question I've asked myself more than once as of late. In truth, part of me thinks it's well past time for him to enter the Academy. Then I look at my son and his wife, and I remember the potential peril. Remember, Captain Shihōin, that you are fortunate in having a younger sibling. Should something unthinkable befall you, your family's main line remains secure. The Kuchiki Clan does not have that luxury. Besides, despite me being the Kuchiki Clan's current head, the decision to have Byakuya take the entrance exams is not wholly mine to make."

"Is his father worried?" Yoruichi asked, "His mother? Can't say I blame either of them. We know the risks better than most, after all."

"Both are worried, naturally," Ginrei answered, "I do think that Sōjun, if the choice were his alone, would have Byakuya enter the Academy soon, despite his concerns. His wife is far more open with her worries, though, so he is trying to strike a balance. It's something of a minor debate running through the clan as a whole right now. Hardly the most pressing one at the moment, considering present circumstances, but it is buzzing in the background nonetheless."

Yoruichi waited to see if he would elaborate further, but Ginrei did not. Frankly, she was amazed he'd revealed as much as he had; heads of Great Noble Houses didn't typically relay details about internal family arguments to another aristocratic clan, even one that they were on friendly terms with.

"I assume you're not looking for me to break the deadlock here," she eventually surmised, "Why'd you really ask me to come up here, Captain Kuchiki?"

Ginrei's brow furrowed for a moment as his gaze went down towards his son before he turned around and headed inside, beckoning for Yoruichi to follow. Stepping into his office, he gestured for Yoruichi to take one of the cushioned seats behind a low-set table off to one side. He spent a few minutes preparing a fresh pot of tea before bringing it over and filling cups for both of them.

"Have you heard anything about this week's clan head assembly?" he eventually asked as he slid a cup towards her.

Yoruichi arched an eyebrow as she accepted the cup. "Only that it was rather contentious, according to Mother… and she doesn't usually comment on them to me unless something out of the ordinary happens."

While the Central Forty-Six was considered the official arena where the Great Noble Houses vied for influence through their proxies on the council, it had been recognized since the organization's founding that the body needed to govern the Soul Society, and that regular spats between the judges and wisemen on behalf of their aristocratic benefactors had the potential to grind administration, legislation, and legal cases to a halt. In order to avoid paralyzing the Soul Society's leadership, the Great Noble Houses had come up with an alternative venue to settle matters deemed to be purely between the clans. Thus, the informal institution of the clan head assembly was born, where leaders or representatives of the aristocratic families would convene twice a month to air grievances and iron out compromises. While dominated by the five Great Noble Houses, all the Soul Society's aristocratic families were invited to attend, down to the lowliest vassal clan. Agreements reached behind those closed doors were meant to keep the worst of the petty noble politics contained, though they were often considered to be more along the lines of gentlemen and women's arrangements than legally binding contracts. Even so, the clan head assembly had proven its worth over the centuries as a forum for settling disputes in at least a somewhat amicable manner. Nobody ever left a meeting getting everything they wanted, but grumbling scions could swiftly retreat to their estates and drown their discontentment in whatever vice they saw fit. Thus, the peace was kept…

…though it was an increasingly frayed peace as of late.

"As befits a woman with such a fine sense for discretion," Ginrei remarked after taking a long sip of tea, "Unfortunately, what was once 'out of the ordinary' is increasingly becoming par for the course."

"I know arguments in the clan head assembly can get heated," Yoruichi replied, "but it's usually contained to petty bickering. Doesn't seem like that's the case these days, though."

Ginrei exhaled in resignation. "The bickering has long been a necessary evil, no matter how irksome I personally find it. Now, though, it feels more and more as if we're talking at each other instead of with each other. Some of the clan heads now listen only to themselves. Endlessly, and without purpose."

"Things haven't completely broken down, though," Yoruichi pushed back, "The forum's more fractious than before, but it's still viable for resolving disputes, right?"

Ginrei was quiet for a few seconds while he sipped his tea. "Lady Yoriko and I are among those trying to preserve it as such. For how much longer our efforts in that are successful, though, is another matter."

"Are the Shiba Clan still cooperating?" Yoruichi asked.

Ginrei nodded. "They recognize the forum's value and align with us in maintaining both it and the wider stability of the Soul Society. The Drakken and Starmont Clans, though, increasingly appear to view the established order with contempt. I fear that they may have revisionist ambitions."

Yoruichi took a drink and set her cup down. "That's not too surprising. Everything's been hinting at that for a while now. In a way, I can understand it. When our ancestors brought the Five Great Noble Houses into the old kingdom, and then when we reorganized after the kingdom's fall, each family made concessions for the sake of establishing a new equilibrium. Internal peace and stability were achieved; the only major threat after that wound up being external in the form of the Quincies, and they've been put down. However, of all the concessions that were made, the Drakken and Starmont Clans had to pay more than most."

Ginrei grunted in concurrence. "The dragons and the Valkyries gave their respective masters a massive unconventional power advantage over the rest of us, and they played that advantage for all it was worth in the ancient era. By signing the founding treaties, they were forced to restrain their greatest sources of might. The past leadership of both clans understood the necessity of it; their families and Principalities prospered greatly thanks to cooperation and new trade agreements that arose from those treaties. At the time, their diminished power and prestige was seen as a noble sacrifice, and since they still enjoyed considerable influence within the Soul Society's governing structure, it wasn't seen as an insurmountable setback. However… old grudges die hard, and not just on the part of dragons and wolves."

Yoruichi grimaced as she recognized the uncomfortable truth. "Kuchiki, Shiba, Shihōin… we all had to tread carefully around the Drakken and Starmont Clans when they were at the height of their power. When the new order was established, we took advantage of it to put our old rivals in check. Their growing dissatisfaction with the status quo is a reaction to that."

Ginrei inclined his head. "Our three families created an informal power bloc within the new order. From the southeast to the west, we solidified our own alliances and worked together for mutual prosperity… and to fortify ourselves against a possible resurgence from the east and north. We can tell ourselves that our actions stemmed from a desire to preserve stability within the Soul Society, and there's plenty of truth to that, but let's not ignore the unspoken motive."

Yoruichi readily gave voice to it. "We were afraid. We wanted to keep the dragons and Valkyries contained because we feared their power. That's been the underlying dynamic of Soul Society politics ever since. Hollows, Quincies, and even preserving the balance of souls have all been sideshows to preserving the new balance of power because it favors us over our old rivals. Of course, the Drakken and Starmont Clans would chafe under this system. The growing tensions… it's hard not see them as anything other than our fears and suspicions coming back to bite us in the ass."

Not unlike the Leaf Village and Uchiha Clan, she recalled, Itachi… just how much of your world's old script are we following here?

"We reap what we sow," Ginrei sagely remarked, "That is one perspective, at least. Let us not absolve the disruptors of the peace of their responsibility, though. They still have agency in this matter, after all."

"How far do you think they'll go?" Yoruichi asked, almost dreading the answer.

Ginrei eyed her across the table. "How far have they already gone?"

Yoruichi's brow furrowed. "What are you getting at, Captain Kuchiki?"

"Your investigation into the artifact theft at Squad Twelve," Ginrei answered, "I understand the case has been cold for some time now."

Yoruichi winced, though she would not deny the truth. "It is."

Ginrei nodded, a rare look of what seemed like sympathy on his face. "A regrettable setback. Still, do not let yourself be discouraged, Captain Shihōin. Squad Two and the Stealth Force have enjoyed an impeccable record of success under your leadership. No unit's record remains perfect, and yours has done better than many these past several years."

Yoruichi bowed. "That's very kind of you to say, Captain Kuchiki. Still, if there was any task for me to fail on, I wish it wasn't this one."

That failure had not resulted from lack of trying, of course. As soon as Captain Unohana had deemed Anica Matei fit for interview, Yoruichi, Soi-Fon and Itachi had questioned her together. Yoruichi and Soi-Fon had taken the lead, both asking questions and serving as a front while Itachi had used his Sharingan in the background without Anica noticing, using the same illusory tricks as he had to make Michio Takai forget the change in his eye color before studying his target for unspoken clues. Unfortunately, their combined efforts proved to be in vain; the poor girl had been so traumatized and caught off guard by her attacker that she could remember precious little about them. In the end, all they had gotten out of her was that the attacker might have been a man, and that they could move quickly and quietly.

Yoruichi had held out hope for another line of investigation; Takai's Zanpakutō. The blade had been brought to Squad Four following its retrieval from the cleansing chamber, and Yoruichi had been banking on Unohana discovering some form of evidence on the weapon that would lead back to the identify of whoever had stolen it. Unfortunately, Unohana had come up blank. Apart from the specks of Anica's blood, Takai's Zanpakutō was clean. That meant whoever had used it was careful enough to make sure they had left no traces of themselves on the weapon, yet they had apparently been just sloppyenough to miss cleaning all their victim's blood off it.

It was awfully difficult for Yoruichi to make sense of that. In fact, it was just one more contradiction in a crime chock full of them. The suspect was sneaky enough to get into Squad Twelve's vault undetected and fast enough to strike an unsuspecting guard, but apparently also careless enough to not make sure that their victim was dead. Sure, Anica hadn't been able to provide much of real value in interrogation beyond possibly her attacker's gender, but the suspect couldn't have known what their victim would or wouldn't remember, so why chance her survival in the first place? At the same time, the perpetrator had been smart enough to keep any of their spirit energy from lingering in either the crime scene or the weapon they'd used, knowledgeable enough in spellcraft to get through not only Squad Twelve's detection spells but also those used by the Kidō Corps members charged with the Zanpakutō cleansing chamber and their seals on the blade itself, yet just reckless enough to not thoroughly clean the weapon.

One of the first rules that Yoruichi had learned from her grandmother was to never underestimate an enemy. The contradictions in the suspect's behavior might point to carelessness, but Yoruichi was unwilling to assume that, especially considering the incredibly difficult heist they had pulled off. What did that leave, then? For Yoruichi, there was only one answer that made sense. The apparent sloppiness of the suspect had left clues which pointed towards Squad Ten and, by extension, the Drakken Clan. Not solid enough evidence to seal the case, but enough to plant suspicion… which might very well have been the point.

There was a certain logic to it, too. After all, what was the point in a strike that was meant as retaliation for perceived wrongs if the other party couldn't at least suspect and fear the one responsible? If the heist was meant as much to send a message as it was to seize a very valuable and potentially useful artifact, then leaving a tenuous link made sense. It was incredibly bold and daring… which fit the Drakken Clan quite well in Yoruichi's mind. It wasn't brazen enough to seal the case, though, which meant the investigation had stalled.

"It's hardly ideal," Ginrei was saying as Yoruichi replayed the details of the case in her mind, "but it cannot be helped. At the very least, we can take some comfort in knowing that lessons have been learned from this incident. I understand that Squad Two's input helped Squad Twelve enhance their security measures. It sounds as though a repeat of last year's break-in would be much more difficult to pull off. You may not have found the culprit, but you've helped shore up the Soul Society's defenses and left it better prepared for a future incident. Take some solace in that, Captain Shihōin."

"For all the good that it does," Yoruichi grumbled before taking another sip of her tea, "We have no confirmed culprit, which means our fellow nobles are still eyeing each other warily. Actually, it'd be an improvement if they were only eyeing each other."

Ginrei inclined his head. "A year of suspicions and accusations has done the nobility no favors. I've never seen my counterparts so wary of each other. Regarding one's fellow aristocrats with caution and distrust is prudent in most circumstances, but sentiments have gone to a darker place now. Full-on paranoia now rules the minds of many, and its effects are not healthy."

Yoruichi blew out a long breath. "If you're looking to me for solutions, I've got nothing. Mother's the diplomat anyway, not me."

Ginrei's gaze was intently focused. "No information whatsoever that might help soothe the present tensions?"

Yoruichi shook her head. "Nothing. Even if I broke our protocols for speaking about an investigation that's not officially concluded, I wouldn't be able to make things any better here. Sorry, Captain Kuchiki."

Not to mention my last solution is off the books, she privately added, Ginrei, you're a good guy, but you're also a bit too stiff sometimes. If you knew what I was having Visaelya getting up to with Squad Ten, you wouldn't like it, even if it gave you the answers you're after.

Not that she had those answers to give. Visaelya had been with Squad Ten for close to a year now as the unit's new Ninth Seat, but while she'd already established herself as a capable and intelligent officer for her family's division, she had precious little to offer when it came to the real reason that she'd transferred in the first place. Joining Squad Ten had resulted in celebration from her family, with even Rhaegon warmly welcoming her once he'd recovered from his 'illness', and she'd been subsequently invited to a host of Drakken Clan events and gatherings that she'd previously been left out of, but none of it had given her the evidence and information that she was after. True, she was still only a year into her cover; it was possible that her family still had lingering reservations, and that they would bring her into the inner circle eventually. That could take further time, though, and Yoruichi was beginning to suspect that time was not on their side.

Ginrei's forehead briefly wrinkled in disappointment, but it passed soon enough. "I see. Well, I suppose it can't be helped. It's a pity, though. At the rate matters are deteriorating, it won't be long before I'll have to pass new orders to the clan and our Principality."

Yoruichi's eyes narrowed. "What would those orders be?"

"To increase the readiness level of our clan's forces," Ginrei answered with a somber stare, "Do not feign surprise, Captain Shihōin; you must surely know that I'm not the only clan head considering such a move."

Yoruichi sighed heavily. "Can't say I didn't see it coming. Not with the moves being made in the east and north."

Ginrei stroked his mustache. "Dragons and lesser drakes being nested along the Drakken Clan Principality's borders, Valkyries starting to patrol further south… and the leader of their Order staying in the Seireitei for nearly a year now, to boot. Disturbing developments to say the least."

"Will you fully mobilize?" asked Yoruichi.

Ginrei was quiet for a long moment. "It may become necessary in the future. The private discussions I've had with your mother and the head of the Shiba Clan have been moving slowly in that direction."

Yoruichi thought carefully about her next words. "I can understand your concern. However, if our clans mobilize first, it could be seen as an act of aggression."

"And the moves of the Black Queen and Lady Sigrún are not?" Ginrei pointedly countered.

"They're unusual," Yoruichi cautiously replied, "but there's a difference between what they're doing and preparing actual armies."

"With the power they possess, they are the equivalent of armies," Ginrei noted, his voice dropping an octave, "You know that just as well as I do, Captain Shihōin."

Yoruichi took a deep breath. "I do. Still, the moves we're discussing here, Captain Kuchiki… any one of them could spark a conflict that none of us want."

"Tell that to the Drakken and Starmont Clans," Ginrei huffed, "seeing as their grievances are driving this unrest."

"Grievances that aren't entirely without merit," Yoruichi reminded him.

Ginrei studied her for a few seconds. "Do you sympathize with them?"

Yoruichi shot him a firm glare. "Let me make something clear, Captain Kuchiki; if it comes down to open conflict, the entire Shihōin Clan, myself included, will protect the Soul Society. We'll remain loyal to the Seireitei and the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, and we'll play our part in defending them. It'd be far better to avoid outright combat altogether, though, and understanding where the other side is coming from can provide valuable insight for future negotiations. Whatever grievances the Drakken and Starmont Clans may have, those do not justify violent action of any sort. However, if we ignore those grievances and the root causes of them, then we won't learn from them, and we'll just set ourselves up to repeat the mess all over again."

Ginrei made a slight bow in respectful concession. "Well spoken."

The spent the next few minutes finishing their tea in dour silence. When they were done, Ginrei stood up and headed back for the balcony, with Yoruichi right behind him. Reaching the railing, the two of them looked down upon Itachi and Byakuya. The youthful, hotheaded heir to the Kuchiki Clan was going at Itachi with great vigor, and Yoruichi saw that the former's excited smile was matched by a very small yet undoubtedly proud one from the latter.

"None of us desire conflict," Ginrei began as they watched the sparring match play out, "Even those we consider our rivals would echo that sentiment in their heart of hearts, I think. We all want peace, because we understand the horrific price of war. What is our task as Soul Reapers if not to forever campaign against Hollows? We are always at war, even if we might not call it such. To then add a new war, one with our fellow souls, atop the one we're already fighting is the height of madness. The question of what kind of peace we want, though, is where contention springs forth from."

Yoruichi slowly nodded. "For us, that peace is the status quo. For other clans, it's revising the current order to fit their view of the world."

"It all comes down to a simple question; who is willing to pay the higher price for their peace?" Ginrei continued, his gaze shifting from the training bout below to the gloomy clouds above, "It's a question that I find rarely gets the full breadth of consideration that it deserves. Those who see conflict as the only means left through which to achieve their desired peace might think they've asked and answered that question, but once the fighting actually starts, they find that they didn't truly appreciate the costs. A storm unleashed may water lands desperately in need of it, yet it can also drown those who might have prayed for it. An errant bolt of lightning can spark a wildfire, and while the ashes may nourish new growth in the end, the ignited flames will still burn without control or mercy."

"It doesn't matter what the intent behind the storm or blaze was," Yoruichi murmured softly, "Not to those who are drowned or burned by it."

Ginrei nodded sagely. "If cooler heads do not prevail soon in this crisis, then a storm that very few, if anyone, truly wants will be unleashed. From there, the question becomes this; how many will drown or burn before it's over?"

Too many, Yoruichi thought grimly as her gaze lingered on Itachi, I still want to believe that we can find the key to resolving this crisis before that storm breaks out. If we can't, though…

how many will be consumed by our failure?

….

"You were awfully busy considering that this is supposed to be your day off," Mikoto remarked with concern from across the table as Itachi munched on a rice ball, "I distinctly recall you promising me that you'd take a little more time for yourself."

Itachi gave his mother what he hoped was a reassuring smile. "And I have been. Between training Rangiku, tutoring Byakuya with Yoruichi, and our dinner now, everything I've done today is something that I want to do."

Mikoto sighed. "I suppose so, but still, don't forget to take a breather. I'm glad your off-duty life is so fulfilling, but you should still spend a bit of time relaxing and recharging. With how much has been on your plate lately, you need it."

"I did just that before meeting you," Itachi gently pushed back, "After we finished up at the Kuchiki Clan estate, Yoruichi and I indulged ourselves a little."

His mother's eyes widened slightly. "Really? How so?"

"We went over to her private training ground," Itachi answered, "After a little light sparring, we had a pleasant soak in the hot springs."

Mikoto was quiet for a moment before she leaned forward, a knowing and teasing smile on her face. "Just a soak?"

Itachi chuckled as some decidedly steamy images from their 'soak' drifted through his mind. "Well… maybe a bit more than that."

Mikoto laughed softly. "Oh, I'm sure of that! It must run in the family."

Itachi wasn't sure what to make of that. "What do you mean?"

Mikoto winked. "Let's just say that your father and I made the most of any occasion we had to enjoy a good 'soak.'"

Itachi buried his face in his teacup. "I did not need to know that."

Mikoto smirked mischievously. "Then you shouldn't have asked."

"My mistake," Itachi muttered.

With both their days off lining up perfectly, Itachi and Mikoto had arranged to meet up for dinner at his favorite Seireitei teahouse. The evening meal rush was in full swing, the establishment brought to life with the hustle of staff and multitude of conversing and unwinding customers.

"How is she doing?" Mikoto asked after a moment, "Yoruichi, I mean? Soi-Fon's been a bit more concerned about her than usual lately."

"She's holding up well," Itachi answered, "but I know she's worried. With the Great Noble Houses at each other's throats, she's feeling the tension more than most. What's worse is that she thinks she is partially responsible for it, and she's most certainly not."

"Because of that case, right?" Mikoto surmised, "I know you can't say much about it, especially in a place like this."

Itachi slowly nodded. "Yes. We've done all we can legally, and I've made sure she knows that. Even so, I can understand her sentiments."

Mikoto smiled gently. "As long as you remain by her side and show her that she'll always have your support, that'll keep her buoyed. I'm sure it means the world to her. To have someone close to you who can empathize so deeply with your situation is a precious gift. As much as I wish you didn't have that experience, you can at least use it here to help the woman you love."

Itachi closed his eyes for a few seconds. "I hope I am. There's so much weight on her shoulders… weight I know all too well."

He felt a soft and smooth hand take his, and when he opened his eyes, Itachi saw his mother reaching across the table. "Neither of you should have to know it. Be there for her, Itachi. Do that, and you'll both get through this together. I just wish that I could do more to help you two."

Itachi shook his head will giving his mother a grateful smile. "You're doing more than enough already."

They spent the next few minutes enjoying their food and drink before Itachi spoke again, with a note of hesitation. "You mentioned Father earlier… there's something I've been meaning to ask you about him. It concerns the clan's coup plot."

Mikoto looked at him with fresh concern. "That's a topic you never bring up lightly."

"It's one I'd still rather avoid bringing up at all," Itachi confessed, "but given recent events, it's unfortunately necessary."

Mikoto let out a heavy exhalation. "I guess you're right. Well, what do you want to know?"

Itachi paused for a moment as he struggled to put his thoughts in order. "I know that the coup plot wasn't Father's idea. Yashiro, Inabi, and Tekka were the main advocates for it… though even they couldn't claim themselves as the originators for that scheme. Madara… or rather, Obito, from what Sasuke told me when we last spoke… planted that seed in their heads. Still, the three of them acting as firebrands were enough to bring most of the clan on board… and created so much pressure that Father eventually felt like he had no choice but to along with it."

Mikoto's gaze fell. "Yes… your Father hated the coup plot and despaired that so much of the clan had embraced it, but as the clan head he felt duty-bound to carry it out. He tried to hold out it against it for a long time… until things got so bad that the rest of the clan might have tried to overthrow him as leader if he continued to stall. At that point, he felt that the best he could do was act as a guide, steering the plan so it could be carried out with minimal violence. He understood the potential consequences far better than the radicals stoking the flames, and he wanted to mitigate the worst of it."

Itachi slowly nodded. "The clan dealt him a bad hand, and so he played it as best as he believed he could. Even if I disagree with his decision… I can at least understand why he made it. Still, there's something I've always wondered about."

"What is it?" asked Mikoto.

Itachi looked at his mother while nightmarish memories played out in his head. "If he was fully dedicated to the coup plot, then he would've fought me that night. That he stood down… and that you waited in that room with him… that's the clearest sign he didn't really want to go through with it. However, there's always been a question at the back of my mind; was there at least a part of him that might've believed in it? His surrender to the firebrands… was it purely out of duty to the clan, or was the Uchiha Clan's Curse of Hatred at work within him, too?"

Mikoto was quiet for several seconds. "I'd like to say for certain that it was only for the clan. Whenever he spoke of it with me, serving the Uchiha Clan and securing our future were always his stated goals. Keeping things from getting out of hand, organizing a bloodless coup and then instituting reforms that would calm tensions… even if he didn't want to go along with it, when he felt as though he had no choice, he told me that he at least wanted to make sure that it was done 'right', and that it wouldn't immediately drive the other clans into open war with us. He said it was for the clan, and I believe him. I wanted to…"

The way her voice trailed off was all the clue Itachi needed. "You sensed something else, didn't you?"

Mikoto took a deep breath, a haunted look in her eyes. "There was one moment… I can remember it so vividly. It was late at night… he must've thought I was asleep, otherwise I'm sure he never would've let it slip. He had a candle lit, and when I cracked my eyes open, I saw he was reading something. It must've been some note from one of the coup plotters. For just a brief moment… there was something dark in his eyes, Itachi. Something I'd never seen in him before. It was like reading that note, whatever was written on it… it gave him permission to let it out. Him thinking I was asleep probably didn't help. What he said…"

She paused and swallowed, as if gathering her courage. "He said… 'It'll be mine. Hokage and the village… they'll be mine.' It was just a whisper, but even now… I can still hear it as though he's sitting right here with us."

Itachi's heart sank in his chest. "I always suspected, but… I wanted to be wrong. I told myself that he did it only for the clan, that he wasn't seeking power for himself. Even so, the suspicion remained… and for good reason, it seems."

"Itachi, I know what I just said sounds bad, and it is, but please… believe me when I say that it wasn't who your father was," Mikoto pleaded, "He was frustrated and stressed when he whispered that. He let it out in a moment of weakness. He was a better man than the likes of Yashiro and Inabi. You know that."

Itachi inclined his head. "I do. If he was truly like them, then… well, that night might've been even worse that it already was. Still, what you said… it means that the temptation of power was in his thoughts, even if it wasn't his primary motivation. For all that you or I know, it might still be there, even in death."

His mother's eyes widened slightly. "Where you're going with this… it's related to the investigation, isn't it?"

Itachi surreptitiously scanned the crowded teahouse, checking for potential eavesdroppers. "We know that Yashiro and Inabi are with the Drakken Clan. Shisui detected others the last time he visited with Visaelya, but he couldn't identify them. We have no way of knowing if Father is or is not among them."

Mikoto shook her head. "I can't believe that he is. If he's been in the Seireitei all this time, then he must know that you and I are here by now. You, at the very least; your name's getting around much more than my mine. He would've reached out to us by now, I'm sure of it."

Itachi pondered it for a moment. "I… I would like to believe that. I really would. However… what if we're wrong?"

Mikoto reached across the table again to take his hands. "Itachi… please, give him a chance. For me."

"I want to," Itachi insisted, "I really, really do, Mother. I want to be believe that he's used his afterlife like I've used mine; to try and learn from past mistakes. If I can do it, why not him? That's the way I want to see it. I want us to find him somewhere out in the Rukon or wider Soul Society. I want us all to be together again, without the darkness of the clan hanging over us. I want us to rebuild here, to have the lives here that we were denied in our old Realm of the Living. You and I have, so far, and I want nothing more than for Father to join us. I want him to have that chance."

Mikoto squeezed his hands. "Then give him it. Even if we find him with the Drakken Clan, it won't be too late. If we find him there, then we can find a way to reach him. If he knows we're waiting for him, I'm sure he'd abandon any scheme that the Drakken Clan might have him wrapped up in."

Itachi looked down at his tea, daring to dream. "I'd like to think that. Of course, we don't know that he is with them. He could out in the furthest reaches of the Rukon for all we know. It might be better that way. He can survive out there, and he'd be clear of any Seireitei intrigue… and we could find him. Someday."

"If you find him before I do, promise that you'll tell me before you do anything," Mikoto pressed, "I want us to make contact with him together."

Itachi nodded. "I think that would be for the best."

Mikoto smiled. "It would. Itachi… your father was always proud of you. Even when you wound up on opposite sides, he never lost that. I'm sure he'd carry that pride into the Soul Society. When he sees how you've grown, what kind of man you've become, that pride will only grow further."

Itachi imagined such a day… and who he wanted to have by his side should that day come. "What would he think of Yoruichi?"

Mikoto's smile grew. "He would love her, Itachi, just as much as I do. He'd be overjoyed to see that you found someone like her to be with."

Itachi allowed himself a small smile. "I hope so. I… I really want him to meet her."

"We'll make that happen," Mikoto vowed, "Somehow, somewhere, someday, we'll find your father, and we'll bring him to our new home. We'll introduce him to Yoruichi, he'll see how happy you two are together, and we'll all be together as a family."

Itachi wanted that just as much as his mother did. Even so, circumstances beyond their control could render his mother's vow void. For all that he and her wanted to reunited with his father and bring him into the fold, it was a two-way street, and none of them knew where Fugaku stood on it.

Father, Itachi thought desperately, please... be anywhere but with the Drakken Clan. Please…

…I don't want us to be on opposite sides again.

….

One week later…

While Soul Reapers of the Thirteen Court Guard Squads were first and foremost committed to defending the soul society and hunting Hollows, even as stern a disciplinarian as Head Captain Yamamoto recognized the need for his subordinates to have down-time. The Seireitei might have been the home fortress of Soul Reapers and the bastion of the Soul Society's ruling elite, but there was more to the central governing and military district than barracks, administrative offices, and aristocratic mansions. An entire cottage industry based around catering to the leisurely pursuits of Soul Reapers had long been in place, and it had continued to evolve as new recruits with new ideas and pastimes made their way into the ranks.

Some were facilities meant to serve the general Seireitei public, not just Soul Reapers. These included establishments such as teahouses, taverns, bathhouses, and more. Others were housed within the grounds of specific units. For example, none other than Head Captain Yamamoto himself had a room set aside in the Squad One barracks for a free calligraphy class that he taught once a week. Squad Nine, while widely known as the home of Seireitei News Magazine, also housed a library and reading lounge that Soul Reapers from any unit were free to use. Other locations outside barracks or public establishments had been set aside for Soul Reapers to enjoy, such as traditional rock gardens and small parks.

It was on a simple stone-carved bench in one of the rock gardens that Jiraiya found himself waiting for a friend. A small rectangular area consisting of a few cobblestone pathways flanked by old-fashioned lanterns, scattered stones jutting up from wide swaths of fine gravel, a small pond atop which floated lily pads, and patches of soil from which grew assorted plants and little trees, it was quite modest, but Jiraiya had grown rather fond of it over the years. It never seemed to draw too much of a crowd, and the Soul Reapers who did frequent it tended to be those who liked to pass the time in quiet contemplation. Today, Jiraiya was the sole occupant, though he would not be for long.

Quite conveniently, the rock garden was almost perfectly at the halfway point between the barracks of Squads Eight and Ten. The location combined with the limited foot traffic it got made the place ideal for a meetup. It wouldn't seem out of place for members of either Squads Eight or Ten to be sighed there, whether it be alone or in the company of colleagues and friends. Likewise, it wouldn't look unusual in the least for members of both units to encounter each other there.

"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," said a familiar female voice, "I hope I'm not late."

Jiraiya smiled as he stood up to greet Visaelya, now Ninth Seat of Squad Ten. "Not at all. Punctual as ever. Still that prim and proper student I met all those years ago at heart, eh?"

Visaelya let out a weary laugh as she approached. "And you're still the same carefree old pervert, going by your continued writings."

Jiraiya grinned. "Does that mean you're reading them?"

"My brother and sister kept pestering me, so I finally gave in," she confessed with a shake of her head before smiling, "I was… pleasantly surprised. Your work's as salacious as I expected, but I won't deny that there's substance to it as well."

Jiraiya winked. "What can I say? I like to surprise the ladies!"

Visaelya chuckled. "That is your reputation these days."

Jiraiya tilted his head. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're known for more than just your skills and writing," Visaelya explained, "Very few Soul Reapers make trips to the north, let alone get hosted by the Order of the Valkyries."

"Well, my last visit was years ago," Jiraiya replied with a shrug, though he could not help but glance towards the north with a fond smile.

"Perhaps, but people still take notice," Visaelya remarked as she followed his gaze, "You must've made quite the impression."

Jiraiya sighed wistfully as pleasant memories of a winged warrior goddess drifted through his mind. "I'd like to hope so."

The two of them sat down on the bench, and Jiraiya looked her over. She'd changed her style somewhat since transferring to Squad Ten, tying her long silver-blonde hair up in a bun and holding it in place with lacquered chopsticks. What really had Jiraiya's attention, though, were the shadows beneath her violet eyes; they had been gradually growing over the past year.

"I'd say you're looking well," he began with concern, "but that would be a lie. You should consider taking some leave."

Visaelya shook her head. "As much as I'd like to, I can't right now."

"You've been with your new unit for roughly a year now," Jiraiya pointed out, "That's more than enough time to build up a reputation for reliability. I'm sure your Captain would let you take a week or so off even if he wasn't your uncle."

"It's not about how much time I've put in," Visaelya pushed back, "The timing's not good. I can't afford to be away right now."

"Heavy mission load?" Jiraiya surmised.

"That depends on how you define a mission," Visaelya answered cryptically.

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed; it wasn't hard to guess what she meant by that. "I take it things are heating up, then?"

"Both at home and in barracks," Visaelya confirmed as her voice lowered a notch, "As much as I didn't want my old comrades to be right… my family's not doing itself any favors."

"How so?" asked Jiraiya.

Visaelya's fingers tapped on the stone arm of the bench for a few seconds. "There's been an uptick in visitors to our estate these past several months. Visitors from our homeland… and not the sort that are prone to long-distance social calls."

"Uninvited?" Jiraiya prodded.

Visaelya shook her head. "The opposite. Uncle and grandfather eagerly received them… they've been like children waiting for their birthday presents."

"What about your father and mother?" Jiraiya asked.

Visaelya lowered her head slightly. "Polite, but no more than the occasions have called for. Whatever their business is, my parents seem to be only begrudgingly in favor of it."

Jiraiya pondered that information. "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

Visaelya let slip a tired exhalation. "Good, I think… I don't know. So much I don't know anymore…"

Jiraiya reached over to gingerly place a steadying hand on her back. "It's alright. You never asked for any of this. You're doing everything you can."

Visaelya looked over at him and smiled, albeit weakly. "I hope so."

They stayed like that for a moment before Visaelya continued. "These visitors… they're cadet branch envoys."

"With how long your clan's been around, there's probably a lot of them," Jiraiya ventured.

Visaelya nodded. "We're not quite as prolific as the Kuchiki, Shiba, or Shihōin Clans, but we've built up our share of branch-off lines over the millennia. It's not just cadet branches for our clan that are sending envoys; the lesser houses have sent representatives, too. I've recognized quite a few of them. Many are renowned drake fliers. They're the sort you would invite if you were looking to gain martial support in our homeland."

Jiraiya clenched his jaw. "That's… concerning."

"Very," Visaelya concurred, "I hope that I'm overreacting, just being paranoid. Maybe the others will see something in the big picture that I've missed."

"Have you sent word of this yet?" Jiraiya asked.

"I made the letter drop while on my way to meet you," Visaelya answered, "One of our mutual friends should have it by now."

To help with Visaelya's role as a spy within the Drakken Clan, Yoruichi and Soi-Fon had arranged a dead drop system so she could pass along messages without anyone else picking up on it. Yoruichi had curtailed some of Soi-Fon's field operations and assigned her to more Seireitei-focused taskings, ostensibly with the goal of tightening up internal security but with the unspoken objective of having her on-hand to monitor the dead drop locations. Only she and two operatives within the Stealth Force's Patrol Corps that Soi-Fon and Yoruichi trusted were involved, and those aides were explicitly prohibited from opening and reading the messages; they could only retrieve the letters and deliver them to Yoruichi or Soi-Fon.

Jiraiya nodded. "Well, if they discover something you didn't, I'm sure they'll find a way to let you know."

"I hope so," Visaelya said softly, her eyes drifting down towards the cobblestone walkway, "If they do, though… what'll it mean? Where will things go from there?"

The exhaustion in her tone was impossible for Jiraiya to miss. "Hey, don't take what I'm about to say to mean that I don't believe in you. I gotta ask… are you going to be able to stick this out? You're only a year in, and…"

"And I look like I've run from the far east of the Soul Society to the far west and back again?" Visaelya finished for him with a rueful smirk.

Jiraiya inclined his head. "Something along those lines, yeah."

"The running would be easier," Visaelya muttered under her breath before turning her tired gaze back to Jiraiya, "I appreciate your concern, Jiraiya, I really do. You don't need to worry about me, though."

"I'm your friend," he reminder her, "I'm going to worry about you no matter what you say. That's what friends do."

She smiled at him, the gratitude clear as day in her violet eyes. "I suppose they do. I'll be alright, Jiraiya. I promise. This whole affair is just… well, it's nothing that the Academy ever prepared me for."

"Itachi and Shisui could relate there," Jiraiya remarked, "Having to suspect those close to you and watch them like a hawk is exhausting in a way that battle and patrol could never be."

"There's more truth to that than I could've ever imagined," Visaelya confirmed, "Back in my student days, I remember thinking that the Stealth Force had it easy. Sure, I knew that they had dangerous missions of their own, but they also got a lot of Seireitei-centered duties, which I always figured would be a cakewalk compared to field missions. Boy, I had that wrong."

"Both have their ups and downs," said Jiraiya, his mind drifting back to Shinobi days long gone, "The field work can be the most conventionally dangerous, but the stuff that goes on in the shadows… it's a whole different kind of struggle."

Visaelya hesitated for a moment. "Do you… think I'm cut out for it? I thought I was, but now that I'm stuck in… I don't know."

"Do you want out?" Jiraiya asked, "If you do, tell me and I'll bring it up with our mutual friends."

Visaelya shook her head. "Tempting… very tempting, but no. This is too important for me to back out of. With the way things have deteriorated over the past year, it's more vital now than before that I am where I am. Besides, I'm getting close; backing out now would ruin that hard work."

Jiraiya was intrigued. "What do you mean by 'getting close?'"

"I'm getting a lot more invites to family events and gatherings than before," Visaelya explained, "It's natural since I'm 'back in the fold' with the clan now, but there was a limit at first when I transferred. Think of it as a probationary period. They never really outlined it as such, of course, but that's basically what it was. I think they determined that I passed it a few months ago, because my family's been asking me to come to some fairly high-level clan meetings lately. They're disguised as dinner and garden parties, but it'd be more accurate to call them business and political strategy sessions."

Jiraiya scratched his chin. "That's interesting. What have they been talking about?"

"So far, nothing related directly to what I'm after," Visaelya admitted, "Still, I think there's an indirect connection. A lot of it's been about increasing diplomatic and trade ties directly with the north's rulers."

"And the Starmont Clan's star Soul Reaper has demonstrated political support for your uncle," Jiraiya noted.

Visaelya nodded. "Exactly. Both, of course, distinctly came down 'ill' after the incident at Squad Twelve. Like I said, an indirect connection. Not much to really go off."

Jiraiya pondered it for a moment. "Are they asking anything of you specifically during these meetings?"

"Not yet," Visaelya answered, "I think my uncle and grandfather are just wanting me to observe for now and learn more about our family's dealings. They've been watching me closely during the sessions; it wouldn't surprise me if this is another test. Studying my conduct and reactions to see if I can be trusted with higher-level contacts and information in the future, maybe."

"Might open the doors to the clan's inner workings," Jiraiya mused aloud.

"That's my hope," Visaelya committed, "If I continue to make a good impression at these meetings, they may eventually invite me to the more clandestine gatherings that have been happening."

Jiraiya eyed her. "If they're clandestine, how do you know that they're happening at all?"

Visaelya snorted. "Please, Jiraiya; it's not hard. Whenever I get a chance to go home, there's almost always nobles and enjoys gathering in the hallways leading towards the mansion's sublevels nowadays. Plenty of rooms down there for them to talk in without worrying about eavesdroppers."

"They wouldn't be the first to have underground meetings," Jiraiya murmured, recalling what Itachi had told him about the Uchiha Clan coup plotting sessions beneath the Nakano Shrine.

Yet another bit of history being unwittingly repeated, Jinsei no Kenja grumbled.

Let's hope this one ends better than its predecessor.

You still hold out hope that it will?

What else can I do?

Visaelya drew him back to the present conversation. "I'm sure something's brewing down there. I just need to worm my way in there. The sooner, the better."

"Play it carefully," Jiraiya cautioned, "Come off as too eager, and they'll suspect something."

Visaelya let out a tired exhalation. "I know, I know. It's just… it's been nearly a year already, and I feel like I've barely gotten anywhere. The official investigation's gone cold, so I'm all we have now. Every day that goes by without me making progress is one where I'm letting my friends down."

"Trust me, none of your friends believe that," Jiraiya reassured her, "We all know the risks you're taking here, and none of us want you to rush things and get hurt. Take your time. Cunning and patience are what you need here, not haste and recklessness."

Visaelya's head dropped. "Time… what 'time' do you think we have, Jiraiya?"

"We're still at peace," he reminded her.

"And I'd very much like us to stay at peace," Visaelya shot back, her tone rising a notch in clear frustration, "but that won't happen if I can't solve this mess!"

The look she then gave him was crestfallen and remorseful. "Jiraiya… I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you like that. I… I know you're trying to help. I just… I just…"

Jiraiya put his arm around her. "It's alright. Don't worry about it."

Visaelya closed her eyes and leaned against his shoulder. "Can I… stay like this for a bit? Please?"

Jiraiya smiled softly. "As long as you need to."

Her eyelids briefly fluttered open as she looked up at him. "Jiraiya… you're a good friend. Thank you."

"Don't mention it," he replied.

Her eyes shut again, and she dozed off within minutes. Jiraiya could only look upon her with trepidation. If she was at this point, then the unofficial 'mission' was really getting to her. Still, she had made her position clear; Visaelya was determined to see it through. Jiraiya had to respect her decision.

He would do what he could to keep her afloat.

He could only hope that it would be enough.

….

A few months later…

Late spring…

Sitting across from Itachi at the low-set table in her office, Yoruichi took a sip from her teacup as she listed to him outline his proposal. With progress still slow on Visaelya's end, Yoruichi had kept her mind open to any potential alternatives that her closest subordinates might come up with, and Itachi was no exception. Even so, the proposition he was laying out for her now gave her pause.

Setting her cup down as he finished, Yoruichi tapped her fingers on the table. "It could work, but… we'd be taking an awful risk. He still doesn't trust you, right?"

Itachi shook his head. "No, and that's understandable. He still doesn't know the truth behind my crimes, after all. He doesn't need to trust me in order to do this, though."

Yoruichi blew out a weary breath. "Maybe not, but we need to trust him. There's too much at stake with this. If he decides that you're the bigger threat, he could spill the beans on you. On what we're doing."

"Then he would go down with us," Itachi countered, "since we could retaliate by releasing information about his precious secret. If the Central Forty-Six would consider the Sharingan to be a potential threat, the same would hold true for the Byakugan."

Yoruichi had to concede the point there. "Different abilities, but ones that they would equally find disturbing… I suppose it works for mutual blackmail. I've already threatened him once before, though that's because we know he's acting as a spy for the Rukon's Leaf Village. Piling on knowledge of the Byakugan adds weight to it. I'd rather not resort to it if possible, though. Winning his loyalty would be preferable."

"I hinted at the true motives for my actions in a conversation with him a few years back," Itachi explained, "I don't think he was quite able to read between the lines, though. Still, it may be enough to simply convince him of just how grave a threat we're dealing with here. He's a very intelligent man; I think he'd be able to see the big picture just as well as we can."

"If he can put aside his distrust for you," Yoruichi pointed out, "Even if he can, there's no guarantee he'll be under your command when the time comes. We still need to get him into Squad Two."

"How fortunate for us that his class is graduating this year," Itachi replied, "and that you and Kisuke are known for putting on an impressive display at the Academy's recruitment exhibition."

Yoruichi smirked. "How kind of you to notice."

Itachi chuckled. "Well, it worked on me."

Yoruichi reached across the table and playfully scratched her fingers beneath his chin. "Please; I had you enticed well before then."

Itachi smiled before he took her hand, raised it, and planted a soft kiss on her knuckles. "You did."

The two of them enjoyed their tea in contented silence for a few minutes before Itachi spoke again. "This might not be an option we have to employ. Visaelya's only been working within Squad 10 and her clan for about a year; I know it's premature to expect results so soon, and I want to give her more time. Still, I'd feel a lot better knowing we had a contingency plan in place."

Yoruichi inclined her head. "So would I, and yours isn't a bad one. Still, it's a gamble. Given his animosity towards you, we can't consider him completely reliable like the others."

"We wouldn't have to bring him fully in," Itachi suggested, "It might be enough to just get him close and have him look at the mansion. I could use Seireitei patrol duty as a pretext. Since he'd be a new member, that's one of his starting responsibilities, and I could play the role of senior officer helping a junior settle into his new role."

Yoruichi's brow furrowed. "That would give you an excuse to be near the estate. However, without him knowing what he's supposed to be looking for, I don't know how much good it would do."

Itachi was quiet for a very long moment. "The way I see it, there are two options. First one; we make several 'practice runs' as part of his orientation, and eventually I have him use the Byakugan to peer into the estate grounds and hope for the best. Option two…"

Yoruichi leaned forward in concern as Itachi's voice trailed off. "What's the matter?"

Itachi took a deep breath. "Option two would be to win his trust first. It'd be too much of a risk to lead with telling him about what we're really doing, but a good faith gesture could go a long way. The best one I can think of would be to inform him of the real reason for my actions back in our old Realm of the Living. His reaction to that would indicate whether or not he can be trusted with knowledge of our 'unofficial' operation."

Yoruichi reached across the table again, this time to take his hand. "Itachi… you don't have to do that. We can find another way."

"Time is of the essence," Itachi pointed out, "With how the political situation between the Great Noble Houses is escalating, there's the ever-growing risk that inflamed tensions could spark outright fighting. Any sort of internecine combat can quickly spiral out of control into a war that engulfs the Soul Society. Having Visaelya infiltrate Squad Ten and the Drakken Clan was one option we had for finding the Nalatarin and closing this matter for good, but we can't limit ourselves to just her. Coming at this from multiple angles will increase our chances of success. The Byakugan could be just the right tool for this job."

Yoruichi bit her lip, the recent conversation with Ginrei Kuchiki bubbling up in her thoughts. If any of the Great Noble Houses issued a mobilization order, even just a partial one, the others were all but guaranteed to respond in kind. The closer they moved to war footing, the closer they got to an actual war breaking out. It would not even have to be intentional; the wrong gesture or words at the wrong time, a misinterpretation of intent, could be all that was needed. Itachi was offering her a potential solution to the crisis, and by rights, she should have jumped at it.

Even so, she knew what it would mean for him, just as she knew that he would not have made this offer lightly. "If you do this, can you be certain that Neji wouldn't spread the word back in the Rukon Leaf Village?"

"There are no guarantees in something like this," Itachi reminded her, "Still, I think it'd be a calculated gamble. Remember, someone in that village already knows the truth; Shikaku Nara, courtesy of Jiraiya. Jiraiya trusted him to keep that knowledge private, and Shikaku's also Neji's point of contact for the information that he's been gathering on the Seireitei and Soul Reapers."

Yoruichi slowly nodded. "Whenever we had him tailed, he would only make contact with Shikaku. You've visually confirmed it yourself more than once. If we go by that, then the truth behind the Uchiha Clan purge should remain secure. Still, it's not certain."

"Nothing in this operation's certain," Itachi remarked, "It all comes down to how much risk we can stomach."

Yoruichi let out a heavy exhalation. "You're right. Here's how we'll play it, then. If Neji agrees to join Squad Two, I'll be placing him under your command for his orientation period. Take him through the basics, help him settle into his new duties, and oversee his patrols. After a few weeks, you can make the call on whether or not you'll tell him about your past. If you do and his reaction points to him being trustworthy, or at least reasonable, we'll bring him in. He'll be briefed and told exactly what to look for. Otherwise, we'll continue counting on Visaelya, and you'll just have Neji eyeball the estate grounds with his Byakugan as a test without telling him the real reason. We'll just have to hope for the best under those circumstances."

Itachi seemed a bit taken aback. "You're leaving it up to me?"

Yoruichi smiled. "It's your past you'd be revealing, Itachi. I know how difficult that is for you, so I won't order you to do it. This will be your choice. No matter what option you decide to take, I'll support you."

….

The following evening…

"They're both asleep?" asked Itachi as Jiraiya came back into the training ground beneath the Rukon safehouse.

Jiraiya smiled. "Out like lights. We really wore them out today. Thanks for stopping by and helping. I know you had patrol duty before this. You must be beat."

"I'm fine," Itachi replied while Jiraiya took a seat next to him on the stone ledge, "It was just the middle northern districts today, and those have been quiet lately. Didn't encounter a single Hollow. Besides, you know I can pace myself, right?"

Jiraiya chuckled. "Yeah, I do."

Jiraiya honestly had not been expecting Itachi to come to the safehouse at all today. His lesson plan for Gin and Rangiku had been a straightforward series of running drills; he wanted to build up their stamina before beginning proper Hohō instruction. Itachi's surprise appearance had been fortuitous, for the Legendary Sannin and former Akatsuki member had put on a practical demonstration for their pupils showing just how Hohō could be applied in a fight. The two Soul Reapers had zipped back and forth across the training ground, trading punches and kicks while their students struggled to keep track of them. At least, Rangiku seemed to have struggled; Jiraiya suspected that Gin had been able to follow their every step.

That boy's eyes are incredibly sharp, Jiraiya mused, especially considering how he keeps them almost completely shut most of the time.

He did not have to worry about Gin right now, though. Itachi was the one who had Jiraiya concerned, and for good reason. While Itachi had readily assisted with today's training, Jiraiya had the sense that his fellow former Shinobi had come here for more than just to help with instruction. His fellow Soul Reaper looked like he had a lot on his mind, though that was not exactly unusual when it came to Itachi.

Jiraiya did not feel like beating around the bush tonight. "So, what's eating you? Since you're still here after we put the kids to bed, I take it you have business other than training?"

Itachi nodded. "I wanted to run something by you. It concerns our off-the-books investigation into the Drakken Clan… and a potential solution. If nothing else, it offers a contingency."

Jiraiya's eyes narrowed. "Really? Well, lay it on me."

Itachi did just that, outlining the proposal he had made to Yoruichi regarding another former Shinobi who would soon be graduating from the Academy. When he was done, Jiraiya took a moment to weigh it in his mind.

"Hmm… it's not a bad idea," the old Toad Sage eventually remarked, "About earning Neji's trust, though… you sure telling him about the Uchiha coup plot is the way to go?"

"That's why I came here," Itachi replied, "If you think something else would work, I'm open to suggestions."

Jiraiya pondered it for a minute or two. "Well… it might help if you have someone he's already inclined to trust with you."

"The only one I can think of who fits that bill is you," said Itachi, "If you want to act as a character witness, I won't turn you down."

Jiraiya raised a finger. "Bit more to it than that. I won't say that he distrusts me, but he doesn't know me like Naruto or other Shinobi did. My reputation probably helps, but it might not be enough. We need a gesture of good faith."

"Me telling him the truth about the clan purge doesn't qualify?" Itachi asked.

"No, it does," Jiraiya answered, "I mean, a gesture from me. Remember, he knows I'm associating with you now, which means he has cause to question my motives. Like it or not, I could be suspect in his eyes. Not as much as you, perhaps, but it's still a factor."

Itachi inclined his head. "You might be right. What do you have in mind?"

Jiraiya smiled and gestured at the training ground. "Simple; we bring him here. Offer this safehouse as a meeting ground, and as a place he can use as a shelter if he ever needs it."

"What about Gin and Rangiku?" Itachi pointed out, "He'll have questions about them. Also, we don't want to drag them into this affair. I though you would appreciate that danger far more than me."

"Who said anything about involving them in this mess?" Jiraiya pushed back, "We'd have them stay upstairs while we talk to Neji down here. If he has questions about them, we tell him the truth; we saved them and decided to look after and train them. It'd probably be the last thing he'd expect someone like you to do. Might help change his opinion of you, at least a bit. Couldn't hurt, right?"

Itachi's brow furrowed. "Maybe. Still… can we trust him with knowledge of them?"

Jiraiya chuckled. "Man, you're really jumping at shadows these days, aren't you? You can relax, Itachi. Neji's a good guy. Granted, I didn't know him very well back when I was alive, but Naruto seemed to have had an impact on him during the Chūnin Exams. Literally; he knocked some sense into him when he won the fight!"

Itachi still seemed wary, so Jiraiya grinned as he reached over and patted him on the back. "Look, I appreciate that you're just trying to look out for Gin and Rangiku, but you're going overboard here. Neji's not going to be a danger to them. I promise. If anything, Rangiku might be a danger to him; she's got a thing for you dark, handsome and brooding types! I can see her trying to get him to teach her alongside you. Poor guy would never have any free time."

He was relieved to see Itachi relax somewhat. "Well, if you're vouching for him, then I can give him the benefit of the doubt. It's up in the air, anyway. Yoruichi still has to convince him that joining Squad Two's the right call. If she can't, then this is all moot."

Jiraiya sighed as his gaze darkened. "If she can't, then everything really will be on Visaelya's shoulders. As far as she's concerned, it already is."

Itachi nodded. "That's part of why I want to do this. If we can bring Neji in and use his Byakugan, we can take some of the pressure off her."

"I doubt she'd complain about that," Jiraiya noted as he scratched his chin in thought, "Still, it might not be that simple."

"What do you mean?" Itachi asked.

"Neji's in the same boat as you, your mother and Shisui," Jiraiya reminded him, "Byakugan might not be the Sharingan, but it's still a very special set of eyes. If the Soul Society higher-ups found out about it, they'd probably have questions. The uncomfortable kind."

"Good point," Itachi conceded, "Even if Neji was able to see the Nalatarin, we couldn't use him as a witness without outing the Byakugan. The Central Forty-Six's suspicion of any power they don't understand or control would come into play, and we'd have a whole new mess on our hands. He could help us pinpoint the target, assuming the Drakken Clan has it, but we'd have to find another way to build a case for the Head Captain."

"It's a dicey situation," Jiraiya concurred, "and that's assuming the Byakugan would be able to find it in the first place. My understanding's that it excels at locating people thanks to seeing their chakra pathways, or in this case the equivalent with spirit energy. Here, you'd be asking him to track down an object. An object with spirit energy, sure, but not the same as a living being."

"I don't think that's going to be a problem," Itachi stated.

Jiraiya was intrigued. "You sound pretty confident about that. You know something about the artifact?"

"Not me; Shisui," Itachi replied, "He mentioned this after the mission where we found the first wraith; when he assessed the Nalatarin with the Sharingan back in Menar Issilaya, he said that it seemed to respond to him. Not as an automatic response such as a defensive mechanism, either, but like it was reaching out to him. Almost as if the Nalatarin was curious about him."

It took a moment for Jiraiya to fully appreciate the implications. "Wait a second… you mean the artifact's alive?"

"I'm not one-hundred percent certain on that," Itachi admitted, "but that's the impression Shisui gave. I'm inclined to trust his assessment."

Jiraiya did not like what that suggested. "If the Nalatarin's somehow sentient… what's that say about how it was created?"

"I'd imagine nothing good," Itachi grimly remarked, "It may well be for the best that knowledge regarding their creation has been lost to time."

"I think you're right," Jiraiya muttered, "It sounds like the sort of nasty business that Orochimaru would be drooling over."

The two of them sat in uncomfortable silence for a few seconds before Jiraiya spoke again. "Leaving all that ethical unpleasantness aside, you still have your problem of case building. Assuming the artifact's in the Drakken Clan's hands and Neji's able to spot it with the Byakugan, what then? You can't use him as a witness without burning him and potentially the Rukon Leaf Village in the process."

"It may be enough for us to have him simply pinpoint its location," Itachi said, "If he can narrow down where it's at in relation to the estate grounds, we can tell Visaelya. She knows the mansion well; from there, she could potentially figure out the exact room it's in."

"She'd still have to come up with a convincing cover story for how she found it," Jiraiya pointed out, "It'd look suspicious if she just 'stumbled' upon the artifact."

"That's something Visaelya will have to figure out," Itachi replied, "It's her home; she understands it far better than you or I, so she must come up with justifications for entering whatever room the artifact is in. Assuming it's there, of course."

Jiraiya sighed. "Of course. What if our assumptions are wrong?"

"Then we explore new ideas," Itachi answered with resigned resolve, "until we find the one that's correct. We have no other choice."

I guess that's true, Jiraiya silently concurred, because if we can't find one, and the situation continues to deteriorate…

…who knows how many will suffer for that failure.

….

A few weeks later…

The first full moon of summer…

Between the fireworks exploding overhead, the cheers of the crowd, and the song of clashing blades in the rings surrounding the one they had just stepped out of, Shisui nearly had to yell so Visaelya could hear him despite her standing at his side. "That was great! You're even better than the last time we did this."

Visaelya shook her head, though Shisui was relieved to see her smile. "Still not good enough to beat you, though. You whacked my sword right out of my hand."

Shisui put his arm around her as they carefully started working their way through the crowd. "Hey, you made me work for it. You came close to doing the same to me a few times that round!"

"You're just being nice," Visaelya pushed back before leaning over to kiss his cheek, "as you always do."

Shisui chuckled as he felt his face warm. "Hey, I'm being honest here!"

"I know," Visaelya replied as she slipped free of his arm, only to then reach down and take his hand in hers, "You want to go find Urahara's stall? Yoruichi said he's selling some new flavors of his candies tonight, and I want to try them out."

Shisui grinned; he had been hoping she would make such a suggestion. "Works for me."

The two of them set off, acknowledging the occasional friendly face along the way. Idly looking around, Shisui saw Itachi and Yoruichi engaged in what was just the latest in a series of lightning-fast bouts between them, both looking as though they wanted the dance of blades to go on forever. He spotted Soi-Fon and Mikoto both watching the contest, the former sporting the black and yellow ribbons in her hair that the latter had gifted her several Blade Dancer Festivals ago. In another ring, Shisui caught sight of Jiraiya and Captain Unohana partaking in a friendly bout, with Squad Four's commander looking downright excited as her elegant swordplay clashed with Jiraiya's more rough-and-tumble style. He could see Squad Eight's Captain Kyōraku looking on as his subordinate faced off with the renowned master healer, appearing rather amused with the match.

Can't say I blame him, Shisui mused, I've only seen him and Jiraiya enter the ring with Captain Unohana. I guess they're like-minded in more ways than one…

Next to him, Visaelya was bouncing up and down on her heels as she tried to find their destination. "Where… oh, there he is! Looks he set up shop near the southwestern corner this time."

Following her gaze as he stood on his tiptoes, Shisui spotted both Kisuke and Kidō Corps Commander and Grand Chief Tessai Tsukabishi. It was rather jarring to see the latter in full regalia manning a humble candy stall, but the tall, muscular, and bespectacled man seemed to be enjoying himself.

"Well then, let's go say hello," said Shisui.

There was quite a crowd surrounding the stall, and it took several minutes of waiting in line before Shisui and Visaelya finally reached the front. As soon as he had handed off a bag of candy to a customer, Kisuke turned to the two of them.

"Hey, there!" Squad Two's Third Seat greeted with a friendly smile, "Nice of you to come by, Shisui. And Visaelya! Been a while. How are you?"

It was something of a loaded question, given that Kisuke was one of those within Squad Two that knew of Visaelya's unofficial undercover mission within Squad Ten and the Drakken Clan, but his intent here was innocent enough, and Visaelya responded in kind with a warm smile. "Well enough. I think I needed tonight to blow off some steam."

"The Blade Dancer Festival is a very healthy environment for stress relief," Tessai acknowledged as he bowed his head, "and we here will do whatever we can to enhance that effect for you."

Shisui studied Tessai for a moment. To his knowledge, the Kidō Corps Commander was not supposed to be in the loop regarding Visaelya's off-the-books mission… but the man was close friends with Kisuke and Yoruichi. Was it possible that they had clued him in?

If they did, he mused, they kept it from the rest of us, which means I don't need to know. The Captain and Third Seat both trust him, and that's enough. Best to play things safe tonight and not hint at it.

"We have plenty of goodies here to help take your mind off any troubles," Kisuke announced as he gestured at the see-through bags and the scrumptious orbs within, "You're in luck; I've got a whole new lineup on sale tonight. New flavors include sour grape, watermelon, lemon-lime, persimmon, mango, and a few other tasty goodies."

"I'll try all of them," said Visaelya.

Shisui nodded. "Same."

"Good, because the bags have the whole set," Kisuke replied.

Shisui reached for his Kan purse, only for Visaelya to place a hand over his. "Let me."

He turned to her. "You sure?"

Visaelya nodded and smiled. "I insist. I want to treat you tonight, Shisui."

Tessai chuckled as he glanced at Shisui. "One of the Drakken Clan's heiresses treating you? You're a lucky man, Seventh Seat Uchiha!"

Shisui grinned as he watched Visaelya hand Kisuke the money and take two bags of candy. "Yeah, I am."

He had the pleasure of seeing Visaelya's face flush red. "Let's be off, then. Thank for the candy, Third Seat Urahara."

"Come on back anytime!" Kisuke cheered as she and Shisui began walking away.

"Enjoy the festival," Tessai added.

"Lucky man, indeed," Visaelya murmured as she passed one bag of candy to Shisui before slipping an arm through his.

"Luckiest guy in the afterlife," he said with a smirk before leaning over to steal a kiss.

Her blush deepened, but so did her smile. "What's got you in such a bold mood tonight?"

"It's a party," Shisui reminded her as he gestured with his free arm at the surrounding festivities, "and, more importantly, I get to spend it with you! Been too long since we got to unwind together."

"Far too long," Visaelya concurred.

Shisui felt her lean heavily against him, and he saw her eyelids flutter. Her weariness, he suspected, was from more than just their recent match.

Looking around, Shisui found and gestured at a nearby bench. "Want to kick back a bit and enjoy our snacks?"

Following his gaze, Visaelya nodded. "That sounds lovely."

Heading over to the bench and sitting down, they proceeded to open their respective bags. Shisui eyed the contents before grabbing an orange orb while Visaelya picked out a pinkish red one.

"They're just candy, right?" Visaelya asked with a hint of apprehension as she studied the small sphere.

Shisui chuckled. "I know Urahara's got a few screws loose, but I don't think he's the type to use festival-goers as lab rats. We're probably safe."

Visaelya arched an eyebrow. "Probably?"

Shisui shrugged. "Nothing's ever certain with him."

Visaelya rolled her eyes. "Right. Well, only one way to find out."

They popped the spheres into their mouths, with Shisui savoring the flavor. "Oh, that one's definitely persimmon. Man, that's good."

"Mmm," Visaelya moaned in satisfaction, "Watermelon…"

They enjoyed their treats together while watching the festival, with Shisui putting an arm over Visaelya's shoulder and pulling her in close to him. "Worth the risk?"

"I'd say so," Visaelya concurred as she rested her head on his shoulder, "but if anything weird happens to me because of these, I'm blaming you."

"Blame Urahara," Shisui shot back, "He made them."

"And you convinced me to eat them," Visaelya countered with a wink before leaning up and kissing him on the cheek, "so it'll be your fault."

Shisui let loose a soft laugh. "Fine, be that way."

As they munched on their candies, Shisui took a moment to survey the packed plaza. "Is it just me, or is this Blade Dancer Festival a bit more crowded than the usual?"

Visaelya sighed, and Shisui became concerned by her sudden dour expression. "No, it's definitely not just you. The vendors will be happy to have more customer, but this isn't a good thing for the rest of us."

Shisui eyed her in curiosity. "What do you mean? A portion of vendor proceeds here get taxed to help fund next year's festival. Higher-than-average attendance means the subsequent event should be even more extravagant. That'll draw even more people, which means more earnings, which means more tax revenue; it's a virtuous cycle. Sure, the larger crowds make it a bit harder to move around and watch the bouts, not to mention they mean longer lines at the food stalls, but that's just a minor inconvenience. Overall, everyone wins."

Visaelya shook her head. "I'm not talking about business and economics here. It's politics, Shisui. Take another look at the crowd. Focus on outfits and physical appearance of the guests. You'll see what I mean."

Shisui was puzzled but did as she instructed. As an event dedicated to showing off Zanjutsu prowess and whose bouts could only be participated in by Soul Reapers, much of the crowd was naturally decked out in black robes much like those worn by Shisui and Visaelya. Since there was no charge to attend the Blade Dancer Festival itself, it also tended to draw in the various workers who kept the Seireitei's assorted establishments and support facilities running. Servants of the various aristocratic families were often given the night off as a treat, so it was not uncommon to see them milling around in the crowd.

All of them are par for the course, Shisui mused, which means they're not the ones Visaelya wants me to concentrate on. That leaves the higher-class attendees.

A fresh green and gold salvo of Kūkaku's fireworks illuminated the crowd as Shisui's attention fell on the various aristocrats and their retainers. Many, chiefly those from the Kuchiki, Shiba, and Shihōin families, tended to go with traditional Seireitei attire; kimonos, yukatas, or various robes sporting embroidery patterns that focused on themes like flora, water or weather phenomena like snow or wind. The Drakken and Starmont Clans offered a bit more variety, the former favoring more loose-fitting and garishly colored robes that were often emblazoned with gold or silver flame-patterns, while the latter tended towards tunics and leggings for the men and long, flowing dresses with decorative over-cloaks or shawls for the women.

That was when Shisui began connecting the dots. The Five Great Noble Houses were out in force tonight. All the core family members of the respective clans were present, along with what Shisui assumed were those of various cadet branches and distaff lines. He then realized that many of the guests must have been from outside the Seireitei, in fact likely from beyond even the Rukon District, for they were sporting a variety of uniforms that were distinctly martial in nature.

Light tans and browns with protective cloaks were favored by the Shihōin Clan officers, reflecting the desert environment that they were accustomed to. Those of the Kuchiki Clan tended towards heavier gear, a mix of curved plates and lacquer that reminded Shisui of the Samurai found in both the Land of Iron and an island nation in the Terran Realm of the Living, along with mail and lamellar skirts that were reminiscent of protective equipment he had seen during missions to a great continental empire just across the sea from the previously mentioned island nation. A mixture of lighter leather and scale mail seemed to be the armor of choice for soldiers from the Drakken and Shiba Clan Principalities, while those of the Starmont Clan favored heavier plate and chain mail. The latter would most likely have additional layers over or under it to protect from the north's frigid cold, but as the officers in question were down in the Seireitei during summer it made sense for them to forgo those measures.

"The aristocrats are posturing for each other," he eventually surmised, "They invited military officials from their Principalities to beef up their retinues. The bigshots are sizing each other up."

"That's right," Visaelya confirmed somberly, "Never heard of anything like this happening at a Blade Dancer Festival. What's that tell you?"

"That things are getting worse," Shisui replied with a heavy sigh, "Damn it."

"Not necessarily," a new male voice replied, this one deep and gravelly, "It's natural for rivals to puff themselves up before reaching a compromise. You could see this as the families simply putting on the required performance."

Shisui did not recognize the voice, but it seemed that Visaelya did if the way her face paled was anything to go by. She turned to the right, and Shisui followed her gaze to find a rather unusual sight. Approaching them, and apparently having gotten this close without either Soul Reaper detecting him, was a man clad in head-to-toe black robes and cloak with silver serpent-like dragons embroidered upon them. He appeared somewhat elderly, with a slight stoop to his posture and several wrinkles in his face, and what had probably once been flowing silver-blond hair was now a thin sheet of white. What really caught Shisui's attention, though, was the black band that covered the man's eyes. Woven into it in white strands were simple eye patterns over where the wearer's actual eyes should be, which made it rather unnerving to look at.

Visaelya quickly rose, greeting the man with a somewhat guarded tone as Shisui scrambled to his feet. "Lord Gaelnaeros. I didn't realize you were attending tonight's event."

The man spread his fingers and smiled, revealing teeth that looked like they had been filed down to unusual sharpness. "It has been many years since I last had the privilege of visiting the Seireitei during the Blade Dancer Festival. I would be a fool to pass up this chance. Your companion is the man you shared the previous bout with, yes?"

Visaelya turned to Shisui and gestured at the newcomer. "He is. Shisui, allow me to present Lord Aegagor Gaelnaeros, head of one of our vassal clans from the Principality. Lord Gaelnaeros, this is Seventh Seat Shisui Uchiha of Squad Two, a close friend of mine."

Shisui bowed deeply. "It's an honor to meet you, Lord Gaelnaeros."

The noble inclined his head. "Likewise, Seventh Seat Uchiha. I understand that you are among several of Squad Two who looked out for Lady Visaelya while she was with your unit. For her to maintain friendship with you even after she's left your unit speaks highly of you. You have my thanks for keeping her safe."

Shisui smiled. "Visaelya's more than capable of looking after herself. I watched her back when she was with us, and she watched mine. As it should be."

"Quite so," Aegagor concurred.

Shisui studied the old man carefully, focusing on the band over his eyes. Was Aegagor really blind, or did the band serve a similar purpose as the one worn by Neji, masking eyes that were beyond the normal? He did not have a cane or any other sort of walking aid on him, but it could simply have been a case of his hearing being sharpened to the point that such assisting implements were unnecessary.

"If I may, Lord Gaelnaeros," Visaelya inquired, "do you really believe that the Great Noble Houses showing off military officers at tonight's Blade Dancer Festival is actually a sign of an impending thaw in tensions? Forgive me, but that's not the impression that I have."

"And that sentiment's quite reasonable," Aegagor conceded, "After all, these gestures can be construed as barring weapons to make a threat. That's what these fine assembled officers are, after all; representations of military might."

"Which would point in the opposite direction of reducing tension," Shisui chimed in.

Aegagor spread his hands in an open, placating gesture. "At first glance, perhaps, but they can also serve another purpose; to remind the assembled parties of the potential costs inherent in future escalation. When all the principal players are displaying their marshals and enforcers, they are both strengthening their position and providing cover for quieter diplomatic endeavors. If all the Great Noble Houses can be seen as posturing with strength in public, then agreements and concessions can more readily be reached behind the scenes without loss of face."

"Is that what's really happening here?" Visaelya pressed, and Shisui sensed she was working hard to keep her tone neutral, "This is all nothing more than elaborate political theater acting as prelude for a negotiated compromise?"

"It is the most logical explanation," Aegagor claimed, "Open conflict may decisively resolve an issue, but even the victorious side would most likely be gravely weakened by triumph's grisly expenses. Putting on a display of might so one can then graciously step back from the brink is a time-honored diplomatic practice."

Shisui's eyes narrowed. "That assumes everyone involved is on the same page. The tough part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch, Lord Gaelnaeros. If you ask me, the aristocracy is now threatening to play that game with entire armies. That can end in a very messy collision if things go wrong."

Aegagor chuckled. "Playing chicken, you say? What a charming little expression to sum up this current state of affairs."

"A standoff that could result in war isn't my idea of charming," Shisui quipped.

Aegagor inclined his head in concession. "True enough, Seventh Seat Uchiha."

"It is in all our interests that tensions be lowered amicably," Visaelya chimed in, "If a bit of posturing is needed to ultimately bring about détente, then I suppose it is acceptable. I only hope that there are no miscalculations."

"As do I, Lady Visaelya," Aegagor concurred with a nod, "Now, if you'll excuse me, I've been meaning to try out that candy stall Squad Two's Third Seat is running. Enjoy the rest of the Blade Dancer Festival, Lady Visaelya. You as well, Seventh Seat Uchiha."

As the man headed off, Visaelya suddenly took Shisui's hand and began pulling him in the opposite direction, with the Shinobi immediately growing concerned by her swift pace. "Visaelya?"

"Not yet," she hissed as she glanced over her shoulder, "Not until we're far away from him. Don't underestimate his clan's hearing."

She did not stop until they had gone far enough to be in nearly the opposite corner of the plaza. Shisui watched her look around until she found a bench almost right where the walls met; a spot where they could be certain that no one would be able to sneak up on them.

"You want to tell me what's going on now?" he asked as they sat down.

"He's lying," Visaelya answered, "though directly or by omission is hard to say. Then again, it's just splitting hairs."

Shisui leaned forward slightly. "What are you talking about?"

Visaelya took a deep breath to center herself. "First thing's first; you need a little history lesson. I've never spoken to you of the Gaelnaeros family before, and that's for good reason. They're known as the Blind Dragons in our Principality, but they also go by another moniker; the Disgraced Dragons."

"Not exactly a flattering nickname," Shisui remarked.

"It's not meant as one," Visaelya replied, "Long ago, before even the old kingdom came together, the Gaelnaeros Clan was a prominent line of dragon riders within our ancestral homeland. In fact, they were second only to us. Their family pledged fealty to mine in exchange for the considerable wealth and power our alliance granted them. Unfortunately, they wanted more. I'll let you guess how they tried to fulfill their ambitions."

A pit formed in Shisui's gut. "They attempted a coup, didn't they?"

Visaelya inclined her head. "They did, and they lost. The coup plot's ringleaders were executed along with their dragons, but dealing with the clan as a whole was an issue. If my family completely purged or dispossessed another, especially one previously as prominent as the Gaelnaeros Clan, it could have prompted unrest among our vassals. At the same time, the Gaelnaeros Clan possessed a wealth of knowledge regarding dragons that nearly rivaled our own, and it was feared that the surviving members might employ that knowledge to sabotage us if we went too far. In the end, the rest of the family was spared… but not without punishment."

Shisui watched as she took a deep breath. "That band you saw Lord Aegagor wearing is not decorative; he really is blind. By decree, every member of the Gaelnaeros Clan born since the coup plot millennia ago is ritually blinded upon birth."

Shisui's face paled in horror. "You… you can't be serious."

Visaelya sighed as she looked away in clear discomfort. "Unfortunately, I am. Sins of the fathers, passed to their offspring… for thousands of years now. It's an aspect of my family's history that I'm not proud of. The decree should've been rescinded long ago. No… it never should've been enacted to begin with. There were surely other means, ones that weren't nearly barbaric and cruel. At least the implementation has become more… merciful over the centuries."

Shisui shook his head, his mind reeling. "How could any means of blinding be called merciful?"

"I'll spare you the details on how it was originally done," Visaelya replied, "Instead of the… crude methods of the past, it's now accomplished through a specialized sealing spell that binds the victim's eyes shut. The band that Lord Aegagor and his kin wear is part of the spell. It maintains the seal, and if the wearer or their kin attempts to remove it, they're consumed by a failsafe death spell. As the wearer grows, their original band must be replaced by mages employed by the Drakken Clan who deactivate the prior band's seal before applying a new one. Once a member of the Gaelnaeros Clan reaches full maturity, they receive one last band that is worn for the rest of their lives. The same was done to their surviving dragons."

Shisui needed a moment to process that. "Wait… their clan still has dragons even after they were disgraced?"

"They do," Visaelya confirmed, "However, when the clan was punished for its treachery, part of that punishment included relocation to a specialized residence constructed beneath an extinct volcano. Their dragons were relocated there as well, confined, and strictly monitored, only let out under heavily armed observation. As a result of the conditions where they've grown up, the Gaelnaeros Clan's line of dragons has since gone through a different line of evolution. They take on longer, more slender forms than those used by my family. Think Rayala, but more snake-like, if that makes sense. Also, they no longer fly. They're raised underground, and so they've become incredibly adept at rapid tunneling. Make no mistake, though; their flames still burn hot, their teeth and fangs remain sharp, and their hides are just as tough as those of my family's dragons."

Shisui grimaced. "Dragons are dangerous enough, but blind ones… I bet their sense of hearing and smell is sharper to compensate. More importantly, them being blind means they'd be immune to Sharingan genjutsu. Same with their riders. I don't know if your family realizes it or not, but they just found the worst possible potential foes for people like me and Itachi to fight."

"I very much hope it doesn't come to that," Visaelya remarked, a dark look in her eyes, "but the very fact that Lord Gaelnaeros is here does not bode well."

"Does this have to do with the 'lie' you're accusing him of telling?" Shisui asked.

Visaelya nodded. "The lie in question is his claim that this gesture is meant as diplomatic posturing before a negotiated settlement. If that were the case, he or any member of his family would not have been summoned to the Seireitei. Their line's disgraced status is well-known amongst the Soul Society's wider nobility."

Shisui's brow furrowed. "If that's the case, then why is he here?"

"As a threat," Visaelya answered, "The real message his presence sends is this; that the Drakken Clan is so determined to achieve its ends that it will call upon even a disgraced vassal family. It's not so much posturing to save face as it is an ultimatum."

"Give us what we want, or we'll unleash the worst of the worst upon you," Shisui surmised.

Visaelya let out a weary exhalation. "Yes."

"Then the other clans summoning military officers from their respective Principalities is their response," Shisui concluded, "The message; try it if you dare."

"Also, yes," Visaelya dourly concurred.

Shisui ran a hand through his hair in frustration. "If you're right about this, then it means that negotiations are doomed. At this point, it almost looks like everyone involved wants a fight."

"Believe me, I don't want to be right about this," Visaelya replied, "I'd much rather believe that there's another plan in motion here, another message that my family's trying to send. Knowing what I do about our history, though… I'm not seeing it."

Shisui took a deep breath. "Is there any chance left for us here?"

"It all comes down to the spark behind these tensions," Visaelya argued, "Finding the damn artifact and proving who was responsible for the theft. If it's members of my family, then it becomes a matter of determining how many were involved so they can face punishment while the rest of the clan regroups and makes amends. It wouldn't be a pleasant process, but it would at least bring closure to this affair. If my family isn't involved, then we're still on the hunt for a mystery suspect. Conclusive evidence towards one verdict or another is what we need, and we're no closer to finding it."

Her shoulders slumped as her gaze fell towards the ground. "I'm no closer to finding it."

Shisui put his arm around her and pulled her in close. "It's not your fault. I know you're doing the best you can. We all do."

Visaelya leaned her head against his shoulder. "Maybe, but… that doesn't change the fact that I'm failing. If I can't get the answers we need to defuse the situation, the clans will eventually mobilize for real. When that happens, one wrong move's all it'll take to light the powder keg."

Shisui shook his head. "We're not at that point yet. We still have time."

He saw Visaelya lift her head towards the sky as a series of orange and red pyrotechnic blossoms bloomed overhead. "Not much. At this rate… not enough."

Shisui wanted to tell her that she was wrong. He would've meant it, too, but it still would've been a lie of sorts; after all, who could say for certain how much time they really had? Visaelya was doing her best, but Shisui knew from bitter experience that one's best sometimes just wasn't good enough.

Come on, Itachi, Shisui thought as he recalled a recent conversation with his friend, I know it's a long shot, but we could really use that game changer.

….

A few weeks later…

I've lost track of how many times he's made me run this route now, Neji thought as he followed Itachi along the wall-tops of the Seireitei's aristocratic quarter, I get that it's important to become efficient at running assigned patrol patterns, but this seems excessive.

Upon graduation, Neji had not hesitated to join Squad Two. It did not matter that Captain Shihōin had made a generous recruitment offer, though Neji certainly appreciated that he was made Seventeenth Seat right out of the gate. The unit's areas of specialization were the closest to that which a former Shinobi like him was familiar with, which would make growing accustomed to his new duties significantly easier. More importantly, it allowed him access to Itachi, and by extension a chance to solve the riddle which had been gnawing at him for years now.

He still did not trust the murderer and former Akatsuki member, but Neji would begrudgingly concede that there may be more to the infamous kin slayer than his history and reputation suggested. The simple fact that Itachi was in the Soul Society instead of Hell was enough to suggest all was not as Neji had been led to believe, and that was further emphasized by what he had seen over the past several years. The mission to the Shinobi Realm of the Living had shown not only that the criminal still cared deeply for the Leaf Village, but surprisingly also the very clan that he had slaughtered. Hell, Itachi was still on friendly terms with his mother, who had very much been included among his victims, and the reception Neji had seen him get from Sasuke and Sakura following the slaying of Hollow-Deidara had been downright jarring.

Solving the mystery of Itachi aside, there was another, more practical reason Neji had for joining Squad Two; learning more about the Soul Society and the Thirteen Court Guard Squads so he could then pass that knowledge along to the Rukon Leaf Village. Yes, Squad Two's Captain was fully aware that Neji was a spy, and he fully expected to be excluded from any highly sensitive briefings, but simply being in the unit charged with scouting, patrol, and high-value target elimination would be a boon to his assignment. It was already paying off just in the form of his Seireitei patrols, allowing him to get a comprehensive understanding of the layout and create a map he could then smuggle back to Shikaku.

Is that why Captain Shihōin put me under Itachi's command, Neji thought, to keep an eye on a known spy? Then again, she could assign any of her Soul Reapers or Stealth Force operatives to that task. Is it because Itachi understands the power of a Kekkei Genkai like mine, or is there something else going on here?

Up ahead, Itachi suddenly came to a stop, forcing Neji to do the same. "What is it?"

Itachi gestured at their surroundings. "What do you think of this vantage point?"

Neji looked around. The two former Shinobi were currently standing atop the slightly elevated point where multiple walls met, which did indeed lend itself well to observing the area. In particular, it offered a good view inside the grounds of a few aristocratic estates, most notably that of the Drakken Clan. Of course, it was hardly a hidden vantage point; the pair was out in the open, and Neji could already see a few groundskeepers within the Drakken Clan estate giving them odd looks.

"It is if you want to take a quick peek and move on," Neji eventually said, "Less so if you want to do that while remaining hidden, though. Especially in broad daylight."

Itachi nodded. "Good catch. Where would you go if you wanted to conduct a more covert observation of this region?"

If this was test, Neji was determined to pass with flying colors. Carefully surveying the area, he eventually found a suitable perch closer to the Seireitei's center.

"That tower along the inner ring wall," he said, pointing at the place in question, "Even crouching or lying prone, you could still get a good view while being unobserved by the people down here. The downside is you'd be visible to anyone atop the final wall or Sōkyoku Hill."

"Both are places that don't get as much foot traffic as you might expect," Itachi replied, "Let's head over there."

Neji followed his lead, and the two Soul Reapers reached the tower in question quickly. Both crouched on the roof, and Neji saw Itachi's eyes focus on the Drakken Clan estate in the distance.

"I recall you saying that the range of your Byakugan was 800 meters," Itachi noted, "though that was several years ago. Would I be wrong in assuming that you've continued training your eyes in addition to developing your skills as a Soul Reaper?"

Neji looked at him warily. "You wouldn't be."

"What's your current range?" Itachi asked.

Neji's brow furrowed. "Why should I tell you?"

"That knowledge would be useful in the event of future missions together," Itachi answered, "though that's a simple answer, and I suspect it's not the one you're really looking for here."

"I'd be a fool for revealing my full capabilities to a known traitor," Neji growled.

Itachi was quiet for a long moment, and Neji saw his gaze shift away from the Drakken Clan estate. Instead, the former Akatsuki member looked to the north, though for what purpose, Neji could not say.

"Did you ever wonder why?" Itachi eventually asked.

Neji blinked in confusion. "Why what?"

"I'm the Leaf Village's most renowned criminal and traitor," Itachi elaborated, turning to lock eyes with Neji, "Did you ever wonder why I committed those acts? After years of serving the Leaf Village, what might cause me to suddenly slaughter my clan and abandon my home?"

"You did it because you were selfish," Neji blurted out, "You killed your best friend so you could awaken the Mangekyou Sharingan, and then killed your family just to test your new abilities. Everyone in the village knew that."

"Then tell me something," Itachi replied, his tone so casual it was downright disconcerting, "If I murdered my best friend and my family for such petty reasons, why do Shisui and my mother still deign to associate with me? Why did Sasuke, my sister-in-law and niece all greet me as long-lost family during our trip to the Shinobi Realm of the Living years ago instead of as the worst piece of scum in all the Web of Worlds?"

Neji tried to answer, but his brain fumbled for words, so Itachi continued. "Let me put it another way; after committing my massacre, I joined up with the Akatsuki, an organization that was dedicated to hunting down Tailed Beasts and their hosts. Jiraiya's final student was a Jinchūriki, and I personally came to the Leaf Village with Kisame searching for Naruto. I was identified as a threat to Naruto, and yet Jiraiya now associates with me in our shared afterlife. We're even friends. Why do you think he accepted me as such after his experience with me in our old world?"

Again, Neji had no answer. Instead, Itach's question recalled a conversation Neji had shared with Jiraiya the night that the Legendary Sannin had introduced him to the Soul Reaper who had healed Asuma Sarutobi's soul fracture.

"I don't understand… why are you vouching for him like this? What context am I missing here? This 'complicated' situation, as Commander Nara put it… was the Uchiha Clan massacre not what it seemed?"

"You experienced the horrors of war. You died on the battlefield of the Fourth Shinobi World War, and you saw plenty of death and suffering before your turn came, right?"

"I did. What of it?"

"If you could have spared your friends, family and all the others the nightmare of war, would you?"

"Of course, I would! If there was a way to stop that horrific conflict before it began, then I absolutely would have seized it! Anyone would!"

"Anyone would… in theory. Tell me this, though; what if the price for preventing conflict was paid in blood? Not the blood of Shinobi from rival nations or dastardly criminals, but the blood of those closest to you. If stopping a war before it started meant murdering those you hold dearest in your heart, could you do it? Would you be willing to pay such a high price for peace?"

Neji looked at Itachi as if he was seeing him with fresh eyes. "What… what really happened?"

Itachi's gaze darkened. "Do you really want to know?"

"I have to know!" Neji demanded, "It's the only way that any of this will make sense!"

Itachi's eyes momentarily drifted towards the Drakken Clan estate again before shifting back to Neji. "If you learn it… nothing remains the same afterwards. How you'll view our old homeland, even the new one out in the Rukon… there won't be any going back. You'll have new questions afterwards, and they'll be the sort you're not sure that you want the answers to."

"I'll be the judge of that," Neji declared, "If I'm going to work with you, then I need to know the truth. All of it."

Itachi nodded. "How fortunate. I need to know if you can handle that truth… because if you can, then perhaps you can be trusted with another, one with equally grave and more immediate consequences."

"What truth would that be?" asked Neji.

Itachi did not answer his question directly. "You don't have evening duties, correct?"

Neji did not like the dodge but decided to play along. "I don't. Seireitei patrol with you is my order for today. I was planning on training tonight before turning in."

"You'll have to reschedule," said Itachi, "When sundown comes, meet me at Black Ridge Gate."

"We're going out into the Rukon?" Neji questioned.

"Not very far," Itachi elaborated, "Only into North Rukon 1. There's a safehouse that Jiraiya and I have been making use of this past year. You and I will be meeting him there tonight."

Neji's brow furrowed. "Why does Jiraiya need to be involved here?"

"You trust him, don't you?" Itachi asked.

"I do," Neji cautiously confirmed.

"That's why," Itachi answered, "Partially, at least. You can consider him a character witness. He's also involved because there's something precious that he and I are protecting at that safehouse. Us taking you there means that we're trusting you with that. You'll see what I mean when we arrive. Consider it a good faith gesture."

Neji could not shake the feeling that something was amiss. "What exactly are you hoping to get out of this?"

"If all works out, an invaluable ally," said Itachi, "I won't go into details until Jiraiya and I have both made our decision. For now, suffice to say that your powers might hold the key to cracking a mystery that's been vexing the Soul Society for some time now… and could spiral out of control if not handled properly."

….

North Rukon 1 was a district that Neji at least had passing familiarity with. After all, he regularly transited it whenever he headed out for one of his meetings with Shikaku. It was quite pleasant and peaceful as far as Rukon went, but Neji had never really lingered there long enough to understand it beyond what the quickest route through it was.

Strolling down the main street behind Itachi, Neji could appreciate the district's charm. The streets and buildings were well-maintained, the inhabitants cheerful and lively. The sun may have gone down, but the place was still bustling with activity. Shops and street stalls were open, bright lanterns illuminating their signs and wares. Neji's nose perked up to a variety of appetizing smells, and he felt his mouth begin to water despite the dinner he had consumed earlier.

I'll have to come back out here and sample the local food sometime, he told himself, I just hope it's reasonably priced.

They came to a stop in front of a simple two-story house, and Neji waited as Itachi reached out to knock. Muffled footsteps grew steadily louder, and the door slid open a moment later to reveal Jiraiya.

The Legendary Sannin-turned-Soul Reaper smiled in greeting. "Hey, you're early!"

"That's not a problem, is it?" asked Itachi.

Jiraiya waved a hand dismissively. "Nah, don't worry about it. I'm making tea right now; I was hoping to have it ready before you arrive. It'll need a bit more time, but at least you'll get it fresh."

It was then that Neji heard a distinctly high-pitched, almost child-like voice come from behind Jiraiya. "Is that Itachi? It is!"

A strawberry blonde cannonball came shooting past Jiraiya, slamming into Itachi as Neji tensed up. The former Akatsuki member seemed prepared for the enthusiastic greeting, for he had already caught the young girl who charged him in a friendly hug and was affectionately patting the top of her head.

"Good to see you again, Rangiku," Itachi said with a warm smile that Neji found almost jarring considering the criminal who wore it, "Did you work hard in today's training?"

The girl eagerly nodded. "Yup! You want to see how fast I can run now?"

"Another time," Itachi answered as he rose and let go of the youth, "I'm afraid that I haven't come to evaluate your progress today."

"Aw," Rangiku pouted, "I wanted to impress you."

Itachi reached down and gently poked the girl on her forehead. "Next time, Rangiku."

"Oh, it's you," said a new voice, this one also young but male, "You're over a bit late today."

Neji saw a silver-haired boy with suspiciously slitted eyes step around Jiraiya. The youth immediately turned to Neji, and the newly-minted Soul Reaper was surprised to find the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. Neji did not know why, but something about this kid's gaze was not right; it was far too sharp for someone who looked so young.

Appearance can be deceptive, he reminded himself, as can age. You knew plenty of young and very gifted Shinobi in your old life. Make no assumptions here.

Itachi turned to the boy and smiled. "I suppose I am, Gin. How are you?"

"I'm alright," the youth replied, his focus still on Neji, "Who's he?"

The young girl belatedly seemed to realize Neji's presence. "Oh, you're new! Are you a friend of Itachi and Jiraiya's?"

"He's a colleague," Itachi explained, "Gin, Rangiku, this is Neji Hyūga, Seventeenth Seat of Squad Two. Neji, this is Gin Ichimaru and Rangiku Matsumoto. Jiraiya and I have been watching over and training them for the past year or so."

Neji inclined his head. "It's nice to meet you."

Rangiku looked him up and down before smiling warmly. "Nice to meet you, too! Uhm, why are you wearing a blindfold?"

"Are you going to be training us as well?" Gin inquired, "If you're blind, I don't know how good of a teacher you'd be."

Itachi answered for him. "Neji's actually here to discuss something important with Jiraiya and I. Also, you shouldn't underestimate someone just because they lack a sense that you would take for granted, Gin. They can often surprise you."

Gin studied Neji intently. "We'll see."

"Do you need a guide getting inside? I can help," Rangiku offered.

Neji could not help but give a small smile; the girl's friendliness towards someone she'd just met, not to mention her ready offer of aid despite him not needing it, was rather endearing. "Thank you, but I'll manage."

Rangiku immediately switched gears. "So, what do you need to talk about with Itachi and Jiraiya? Soul Reaper business?"

"Yup," Jiraiya confirmed as his hands fell on the youths' shoulders, beginning to pull them both inside, "and you two aren't Soul Reapers, which means it's time for bed."

"But it's early!" Rangiku protested, "I want to have snacks and get to know Neji!"

Jiraiya chuckled. "You and Gin had a hearty dinner earlier. I think you two can wait until breakfast to eat again."

"Is something dangerous going on?" Gin pressed, "Is that why you don't want us around while you talk?"

Given what Itachi said earlier, Neji recalled, whatever he and Jiraiya want to speak with me about after they determine if they can trust me probably is something dangerous. This Gin… he's definitely a sharp one.

"It's nothing that you two need to worry about," Jiraiya insisted as he nudged them back inside before looking over his shoulder, "Itachi, you can take Neji downstairs. I'll join you both with the tea shortly."

"Downstairs?" Neji remarked as the two men stepped through the doorway, "We're already on the ground floor."

"There's more to this place than meets the eye," Itachi cryptically answered as he led Neji into what looked like a dining and living room.

Neji watched as Itachi went over to the back left corner and pressed his palm against a tile. There was a low rumbling sound before a section of the floor slid away, revealing a dark stairway.

"This way," Itachi said, "Quickly."

Neji did as instructed, and not a moment too soon; mere seconds after he and Itachi had gotten into the stairway, the tile then slid shut overhead. Crystals on both sides of the staircase flared to life, banishing what would have been total darkness.

"Did you and Jiraiya make this?" Negi asked as the two of them made their descent.

"A mutual friend of ours did the work," Itachi replied, "You've met him; Third Seat Kisuke Urahara."

Neji had not been expecting that. "The prison warden?"

"Underestimate him at your peril," Itachi cautioned, "Urahara's official role might be running the Nest of Maggots, but his gifts extend far beyond being the Soul Society's chief jailer. If anything, I'd say his talents are wasted running the prison, though he certainly does a good job in keeping the inmates where they belong."

Neji was not sure what to think. He had become familiar with Kisuke Urahara during his orientation, and Neji's excellent proficiency in hand-to-hand combat meant that the Third Seat had him marked for taking up his first prison guard shift much sooner than most new recruits might be, but the man honestly had not left much of an impression. If anything, he struck Neji as being far too laid back given the nature of his work.

"Is engineering secret underground chambers a hobby of his?" Neji asked, half-serious.

"That's only one facet of his abilities," Itachi said, "As far as the others go, I'll leave those up to your imagination."

When they eventually reached the training ground beneath the mansion, Itachi gestured towards a nearby ledge. "Make yourself comfortable. Jiraiya should be down soon. After that, we'll have quite a bit to talk about."

As it turned out, Jiraiya showed up just a few minutes later, a tray laden with cups and a small, steaming teapot in hand. "Sorry for the wait. The kids weren't exactly thrilled about being tucked in when we have a guest tonight."

"Will they try to sneak down here and eavesdrop?" asked Neji.

Jiraiya smirked as he set the tray down. "I wouldn't put it past them to take a shot at it. That's why I'll be taking a precaution here."

Jiraiya sat down, and Neji felt a pulse of spirit energy just a second later. "Barrier: Canopy Method Formation."

The air around the Legendary Sannin shimmered as a translucent field expanded outward. Neji judged the range to be ten meters in any direction, which explained why Itachi had picked a spot so close to the staircase for them to sit; it meant Jiraiya's field would cover the entrance and pick up the kids should they try to spy on them.

"Clever," Neji remarked.

"I like to think so," Jiraiya replied as he poured tea for everyone.

When everyone had their drinks, Jiraiya turned to Itachi. "Well, this was your idea."

"Yes," Itachi murmured, eyes closed as he sipped from his cup.

Neji then saw Jiraiya smile understandingly. "Take the lead when you're ready. We're not going anywhere."

"Speak for yourself," Neji quipped, "I don't exactly have all night, here. My duties for tomorrow start early."

"I'll have you back at barracks with plenty of time to rest," Itachi reassured him, eyes still shut, "I just need a moment. When I'm done, I imagine you will, too."

Neji folded his arms. "I doubt that. If this is where you'll try to justify your crimes… well, I don't see how you can. Kin slaying alone is as low as you can go."

"So it is," Itachi replied, finally opening his eyes, and giving Neji a piercing look, "Tell me this, then; which is worse? The act itself, or ordering it to be carried out by someone who never wanted to do it?"

It took Neji a moment to register the key word there. "Wait… ordering it? What are you talking about?"

"Sometimes a heinous crime is more than just an act of unforgiveable violence," Itachi answered, his gaze dark and tone low, "Sometimes… it's a mission."

….

Moment of truth, Jiraiya thought as he watched Neji while Itachi wrapped up his revelation, Neji… which way will you go?

Jiraiya still recalled as if it were yesterday the night Itachi had told him the truth about the Uchiha Clan massacre and his actions with the Akatsuki. It had been one hell of a gut-punch to take, and Jiraiya back then had the benefit of Itachi using one of those special pens from the entrance exams which used fluctuations in the user's spiritual pressure to catch lies; the Soul Reapers were at the point now where their control over their spiritual pressure made that tool useless. Given his experience with the Akatsuki, Neji would not likely take Itachi at his word. It would be Jiraiya's job to convince him that what he had just heard was indeed the truth.

So much resting on your shoulders, Jinsei no Kenja grumbled, Neji's eyes are crucial to Itachi's plan, and you're the one that must secure them now. No pressure.

If you're trying to give me a pep talk, it's not working.

He studied Neji intently, noting the new Soul Reaper's deep breathing, the subtle tension in his body. The young man was calm on the surface, but Jiraiya suspected that his mind was anything but.

Sure enough, Neji turned to Jiraiya a few seconds later, his face almost as pale as the eyes beneath the blindfold. "Jiraiya… is what he just said true?"

Jiraiya slowly nodded, hoping his grim expression conveyed just how serious this was. "It is. I had a hard time accepting it the first time, but it is the truth… whether we like it or not."

Neji was silent for what felt like forever but was probably a minute or two. "The annihilation of a prominent clan, retroactively sanctioned by the Third Hokage… I knew the Leaf Village had its dark secrets… and I've seen firsthand some of the practices they would tolerate when it came to Shinobi clans. This…"

Jiraiya knew he had to tread extremely carefully here. "The Village tolerating the main Hyūga branch putting those seals on your branch was always a bitter pill to swallow. I'd never want to make light of what you, your father, and your ancestors went through. If the Village leadership would allow something like that to be done to Shinobi with a potent Kekkei Genkai, though…"

"Then what, if anything, would ever be off the table?" Neji finished for him, his voice barely more than a low, haunted murmur.

Jiraiya let out a weary exhalation. "Nothing ever was off the table when it came to Danzō."

Neji nodded. "I heard rumors about him and his Root organization. They were supposed to be extreme, a level of dark beyond even ANBU. The shadow beneath the tree that was the Leaf Village… the name was fitting."

"Does that mean you believe me, then?" Itachi asked.

Neji looked at him for a moment before turning to Jiraiya. "Who else knows about this?"

"Here in the Soul Society? Shisui, for starters," Jiraiya replied, "He was trying to help Itachi stop their clan before Danzō intervened. The Third Hokage and the councilors at the time know, but I have no idea where in the Soul Society old man Sarutobi is now. Then there's Danzō, though I'm pretty sure he's in Hell, and you probably don't want to go there. Itachi's mother, of course; she was just unfortunate enough to be on the other side, with Fugaku and the rest. I told Shikaku about it when he took me to your Rukon Leaf Village."

"And I told Yoruichi years ago," Itachi added.

Jiraiya watched as Neji returned his focus to Itachi. "That conversation we had… after you tailed me to my meeting with Shikaku… you mentioned parallels and differences between the Uchiha and Hyūga clans. I didn't get the point back then, but now… you were pretty much telling me to my face what really happened."

"Indirectly," Itachi admitted, "I wanted to see if you could put it together. You came close, but couldn't quite cross the finish line."

Neji lowered his head. "Looking back, I should've been able to read between the lines, but… I let my preconceptions cloud my judgement. I wasn't looking for any deeper meaning because I had already made up my mind about you. I saw what was on surface and nothing more… when Shinobi are supposed to see through deception."

Itachi shook his head. "For what it's worth, the surface impression was meant to be what you and everyone else in the Shinobi world believed. My mission included becoming the Leaf Village's worst criminal, and that notoriety made hiding the Village's involvement with the massacre easier. It also aided my infiltration of the Akatsuki; as far as they were concerned, I'd already proven how far I was willing to go, and that my crimes had severed the connections with my homeland. Only one of them knew the truth, and he kept quiet until after my deathmatch with Sasuke."

Neji clasped his hands together beneath his chin. "It explains why Sasuke turned against the Leaf Village after your death and attacked the Five Kage summit. Before, he was still considered a rogue Shinobi, but we all understood his goal to be vengeance against you. There was a hope that after he'd killed you, he might see reason and return without Naruto finding and dragging him back. Instead, Sasuke joined the Akatsuki, attacked the Hidden Cloud's Jinchūriki, and then went after the Five Kages in the Land of Iron. That radical escalation didn't completely make sense before. Now, though… it all fits."

Itachi nodded. "That wasn't the path I wanted my brother go down. My plan was for Sasuke to kill me and then return home to the Leaf Village as the hero who had slain its worst traitor. Obviously, that didn't work out, and I greatly miscalculated how events would unfold after my death."

"You could obscure the past and manipulate the present," Neji observed, "You crafted an illusion that convinced not just Sasuke, but everyone in the Leaf Village outside that select few who knew the truth from the start. That illusion couldn't survive your death, though. Not for Sasuke."

"No, it couldn't," Itachi concurred, "and I was beyond arrogant to believe that it would."

"It worked for almost everyone else, though," Neji pointed out, "Even in the afterlife, whenever your name came up in our new Leaf Village, it wasn't in a flattering context. Shikaku simply wouldn't say anything after he spoke to Jiraiya… and now, I know why."

"What will you do with that knowledge?" Itachi asked.

Jiraiya tensed. Now came the real test. Neji's reaction had thus far given Jiraiya cause for cautious optimism, but they were not out of the woods yet.

A long silence fell before Neji finally spoke. "I… don't think I need to do anything. Nothing will change what's already been done… and it's clear to me that the Leaf Village, both in the Shinobi world and Soul Society, has built no small part of its stability upon keeping such dirty secrets in the dark. The whole affair is vile… but bringing it into the public light now won't accomplish anything good. The Rukon Leaf Village is a haven for Shinobi who want to stay clear of the Soul Society's government; I don't think I'd be doing them any favors by spilling news that would disrupt its peace. Maybe the information wouldn't cause trouble after all this time, but even so… one clan's elimination under the village's orders would lead to a lot of uncomfortable questions for the others."

Jiraiya nodded sagely. "For better or worse, clan dynamics seem to dominate both the Rukon Leaf Village and our old one. If the Leaf Village could determine that one clan was a threat and used a member of that clan to destroy it, then the other influential clans would have good reason to wonder if the same fate could befall them. Doubt and suspicion would fester, causing cracks in the Village's foundations. That could have grave repercussions down the line."

"Not so different from the Soul Society," Neji pointed out, "The Head Captain may command the Thirteen Court Guard Squads, and the Central Forty-Six governs more broadly, but the Great Noble Houses and lesser aristocratic clans hold great influence."

"They do," Itachi concurred, "to the point that their power games are causing cracks in the Soul Society's foundations."

Jiraiya could see Neji's brow furrow beneath the black band. "Is that why you've been taking our patrol routes through the aristocratic quarter?"

Itachi didn't answer directly. "I've given you my gesture of good faith. Before we go further, I now require one from you. The current maximum range of your Byakugan; what is it?"

Neji bristled. "What's that have to do with this?"

"More than you know," Itachi replied as he fixed Neji with a piercing look, "The range, Neji."

Neji was quiet again, and Jiraiya feared an imminent refusal, but the former Shinobi blew out a resigned breath seconds later. "If I'm focusing in a single direction, then I'd say right now it's a little over three kilometers. I've been training every day to stretch it further, but it's not easy."

Jiraiya saw Itachi let out a small but noticeable sigh of relief. "Three kilometers is good. It should work for this."

"Work for what?" Neji pressed.

"The Soul Society is unaware of the fact that it's current trajectory mirrors that of the Uchiha Clan and the Leaf Village years ago," Itachi explained, "Tensions between the governing body and a faction of the nobility have been rising steadily the past few years, to the point where one of those aristocratic clans is suspected to have taken drastic action. We need to confirm if that's the case, and your eyes may be the key to that."

Despite the band over Neji's eyes, Jiraiya could instantly perceive one of the puzzle pieces sliding into piece for the young man. "The clan in question… it's the Drakken family. That's why you were looking for a good vantage point earlier; you wanted one that would let me observer their estate."

"Correct," Itachi confirmed, "We need your eyes to determine if the Drakken Clan's in possession of a powerful artifact that was stolen from Squad Twelve last year."

"If you suspect them, why not go through the Head Captain and the Central Forty-Six to get authorization for searching the estate?" Neji asked, "Isn't that how the process is supposed to work?"

Itachi nodded. "Normally, it is. However, given the sensitivity of the matter, we couldn't risk tipping off our suspects. Had we gone through proper protocol, the Drakken Clan's proxies in the Central Forty-Six would've given them advance warning."

"So, you're playing outside the rulebook," Neji surmised, "Why go that far? What exactly did they supposedly steal?"

"A relic from a bygone age with observational powers that put the Byakugan and Sharingan to shame," Itachi answered, "We don't think that they've been able to use it yet, but it's only a matter of time before they figure out how. The very notion of it possibly being in their hands has already caused great disruption within Soul Society's elite, and the aristocrats are now taking it to the next level. If the pall of suspicion remains over the Drakken Clan regarding this artifact, escalation will continue. We need to conclusively prove that they have the artifact or not; it's our only hope of pulling everyone back from the brink."

"And the consequences if you can't?" Neji inquired.

Jiraiya nearly shivered at the harrowing darkness in Itachi's gaze. "Fire and bloodshed the likes of which the Soul Society has not seen in ages, a conflagration that won't be confined to the Seireitei. War, Neji Hyūga, will be the price of failure."

Author's Notes: Nice to have this one posted, I was afraid it'd be further into the new year than this before I got this story updated. Been a bit distracted; wound up purchasing Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon with some gift cards my younger brother gave me, and I've been having a lot of fun with it! On the last mission of Chapter 4 in my first run-through, been going slow and taking time to practice and build tweak. Great game, fun characters and story, and awesome mechs! Probably been spending a bit too much time in the Arena, beat all the fights there and have been using as a practice ring now, I tend to favor light-weight frames which means you really have to get good at evasion if you want to play them right. Love me some speedy mecha action!

Part two of this chapter will give our main cast the long-awaited and inevitable discovery as to who was behind the artifact theft. After that, next chapter should be the one where shit hits the fan and war finally ignites.

Hope you all enjoyed the chapter. Feel free to review, stay safe, and see you all next time!