Volume Seven: Vestiges of the Vizard
Chapter Four

While a squadron of medics rushed to collect Kira from the arena, the Tokinada loge was dealing with an unwelcome invasion: a trio of aristocratic sisters had arrived to woo Tenrai-chō Tokinada. Captain Komamura barred the entryway, shielding the silk curtains with his massive frame.

"Madam, madam and madam, please return to your seats," he commanded. "Now isn't the time – "

"Please, we just need a moment!" pleaded Nariyoshi Ryōdoji, her petite figure trying to squeeze past him. "I've brought Tokinada-sama a gift!"

"If he can only receive one of us, let it be me!" chimed in her more statuesque sister, Shudani. She gave a rather lewd shimmy of her kimono. "I've brought him the greatest gift of all."

"A sensitive soul like Tokinada-sama wants an intellectual match, not a playground of flesh!" jeered the third sister, Ainyō. "Tell Tokinada-sama that I've come to stimulate his mind with talk of literature and music!"

Komamura frowned with exasperation. "Please, this is a matter of security. You should all make your entreaties to the Tenrai-chō outside of tournament hours."

"Oh, but this is the closest we've ever gotten to Tokinada-sama!" Shudani harrumphed. "He never leaves that castle of his..."

"And I've been sending invitations to him for years, but with no response!" Nariyoshi added, looking close to tears.

Ainyō, recognizing that Komamura wouldn't budge, linked arms with her sisters and dragged them back a pace. "Fine, we'll retreat for today, but please pass along this message to Tokinada-sama: the Tsunayashiro line hangs by a single fragile thread. If he wishes to perpetuate his dynasty, he must remarry and sire an heir. The Ryōdoji have been a proud vassal of the Tsunayashiro Clan for many millennia; any of us would be a fitting match for the Tenrai-chō. Can you relay that message for us, monster?"

Komamura's snout twitched at the aristocrat's casual bigotry, but his composure was otherwise perfectly poised. You are a captain of the Gotei 13, he remembered as he nodded and replied "I swear it, madam."

His promise was enough to finally ward the three Ryōdoji sisters away. He sighed with relief and returned to the balcony to share their message.

"I'm surprised to hear those three are still available," Tokinada mused before taking a sip of sake. "Truly pitiful that they've been saving themselves for me. I find each of them putrid in their own special way."

"There was some wisdom in Lady Ainyō's words," Komamura ventured. "The Tsunayashiro Clan is imperiled until you bear an heir. You are but one man embodying an entire Shisonka lineage. Surely you have a responsibility to remarry?"

His words drew stares from Tokinada's two Shikōtai Guards, Baiyori Magōnyo and Sobura Kisada. While their expressions were hidden behind ornamental masks, they were undoubtedly stunned by the captain's temerity.

Death had followed Tokinada Tsunayashiro his whole life. When he was still only an heir, his first and only wife took her own life after a prolonged bout of melancholy. Tokinada never remarried and became something of a recluse, rarely venturing outside of his family estate at Seidahatsume. That tragedy would pale in comparison to when a mass assassination attempt was made on the entire Tsunayashiro Clan. The whole family, all 49 members save for Tokinada himself, was butchered. The Tenrai-chō was gravely injured but miraculously survived, making him the very last living Tsunayashiro.

These misfortunes had made Tokinada a figure of immense sympathy in Soul Society. His lack of a defined public profile allowed the masses to project onto him the visage of a tragic hero shouldering unbearable grief. He was also the most sought-after bachelor in the Seireitei, fielding literally hundreds of marriage offers at a given time while being subject to constant romantic speculation. He routinely turned down any proposals and dismissed all rumors, insisting that he would only love again "if my darling Kakyō was resurrected and returned to me."

Komamura knew all of this when he dared suggest that the Tenrai-chō remarry.

Tokinada didn't look displeased, however. Quite the opposite: he was delighted that the wolf had offered himself up so he could swatted back down.

"If I'm to remarry, perhaps we ought to find a suitor for you as well?" the nobleman simpered. "Shall we rummage around in the zoo and find a bitch for you to mount?"

Komamura merely shrugged with indifference. "I am wedded only to the Gotei 13, Your Highness."

Tokinada's cat-like eyes narrowed. The dog wasn't as fun to kick around today. With a bored sigh, the Tenrai-chō took another sip of sake and returned his attention to the arena.

It was 7:20 a.m. in Karakura Town; twenty minutes after Ichigo rejoined Shinji at their rendezvous point on Yūjō Bridge. Shinji tore the blindfold off of his eyes back at the Visored hideout, expecting him to dry heave again after having had his senses inverted.

To Shinji's surprise, Ichigo looked much steadier than the night before. He was blue in the face and trembling from vertigo, but his brow was scrunched with concentration as he willed his cognitive functions to steel themselves. After swaying slightly, Ichigo planted his feet firmly onto the ground and exhaled, his nausea quelled.

He's only been exposed twice and he's already adapting? Shinji realized. This kid's really something else. It's friggin' annoying...

He gave Ichigo a hearty backslap. "Welcome back to our crib, Kurosaki! We begin your Hollow-taming training immediately."

Ichigo winced at the backslap and shot Shinji and annoyed look before turning his attention to their surroundings. To his surprise, the other Visoreds were all sitting in a circle around them, plopped down on the concrete and spaced out about six feet apiece to form a ring 36 feet in diameter.

"What's going on?"

"Have a seat and do what Hachi says," Shinji commanded before dropping into a crosslegged perch.

Ichigo looked profoundly confused but complied, awkwardly kneeling down into a crouch before resting back onto his butt and staring skeptically at the gathered faces. "So are you going to tell me what's happening, or... ?"

"This is your orientation, Mr. Kurosaki," Hachigen announced.

The rotund fellow was massive beyond the limitations of a normal person, 260 centimeters in height and shaped like a swollen pear. He had an erudite face with a well-manicured mustache and short-cropped hair, both bubblegum pink. His beady golden eyes matched the color of the bowtie cinched around his collar while his humongous frame was clad in an olive green tuxedo. The slight bow in his head revealed a black crossbones dyed atop his rosy pate.

The giant raised up his two meaty palms, a spark of electric aura zapping between them. A pink sphere the shape of a dodgeball puffed into existence, printed with the same black crossbones that matched Hachi's scalp. He bounced the ball several times to prove it had physical mass and weight before holding it aloft.

"This is my Kandaideshiberu, a Kidō technique I developed back when I was a teacher once upon a time," he explained, his voice suddenly amplified to such crystalline fidelity that Ichigo could swear he was hearing him through headphones. "It was designed to help my students learn the value of listening and sharing. Whoever holds this ball will be heard clearly while the voices of anyone else within 50 feet will be lowered into a mere whisper. Now, my compatriots here can be bullish and are prone to speaking over each other. Within this circle, we'll take turns passing this ball, and whoever is holding it will be heard clearly while those who aren't will have the roar of a mouse.

寛大デシベルKandaideshiberu (Magnanimous Decibel)

"To ensure that nobody becomes greedy with the proverbial microphone, the ball will become hotter the longer you hold onto it," Hachi continued. "However, it will instantly cool when passed over to new hands. Now, I'd like for us to take turns introducing ourselves and sharing one of our favorite things before asking Mr. Kurosaki a question. To begin: my name is Ushōda Hachigen, the Kidō specialist amongst the Visoreds, and... hmm, well I absolutely love kittens! Wonderful creatures. They require a bit of patience, but their earned affection is immensely gratifying. Now, Mr. Kurosaki, how about you start by sharing your basic information with the group? Your age, where you attend school, and for how long have you been a Shinigami?"

He planted the ball onto the ground and gently rolled it over to Ichigo, who watched the sphere approach in dumbstruck awe.

Are you... are you... are you... ?!

"Are you kidding me?!" Ichigo roared. "My life is on the line, and we're playing hot potato?! What is this, kindergarten?!"

He realized at the end of his outburst that his shout was only just a squeak when it escaped his lips, making him sound like an angry ant. Hachi wasn't kidding about the Kandaideshiberu's power; a person would need to hold the ball if they wanted to be audible. Ichigo blushed and surveyed the Visoreds, spotting Hiyori looking very amused at his expense. Grumbling, he plucked up the sphere.

"Alright, fine," he said, his voice suddenly cranked up to an omnipresent volume. "Name's Kurosaki Ichigo. I'm 16-years-old and just started the second semester of my first year at Karakura High School. I'm 180 centimeters tall on a good day, my blood type's A, and I've been a Shinigami for a little over three months. Alright, who's next?"

As he spoke, he could feel a prickling along his palm; the ball was getting progressively warmer in his grasp. He looked around and saw Love holding up a hand. Happy to relinquish his hot potato, he tossed the ball over.

"Name's Aikawa Love, pleasure to meet cha," the Visored announced, his rumbling voice booming in Ichigo's ears. He was a tall and broad-shouldered Shinigami clad in a green jumpsuit, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses that conjoined at a slant over his strong nose while a pair of cream-colored headphones were fitted snugly around his neck. He had curious hair, a spiky afro that reminded Ichigo of a starfish, with elongated sideburns running down his temples. His skin was dusky but his ethnic makeup hard to place.

"I guess I'm not really a specialist in this operation, unless you consider being the best fighter a specialty," Love continued, drawing incredulous glares from Lisa, Kensei, and Shinji. "I'm 387-years-old and I don't know my blood type. Don't much care to learn, either. If I had to pick an interest, I'd say my first love is manga. How 'bout you, Kurosaki? Do you like manga?"

He threw the Kandaideshiberu to Ichigo, who caught it reflexively.

"I dabble; not a hardcore fan or anything, but I read a couple," Ichigo answered before tossing the ball right back.

"I've read just about everything," Love continued. "Now, I respect the classics like Golgo 13 or Hajime no Ippo, but I've gotten a real taste for the new generation. Titles like Shaman King, Berserk, Angel Densetsu, Slam Dunk, Dragon Head. Now here's a question, Kurosaki: what's your One Piece?"

Ichigo caught the ball and frowned with puzzlement. "My one piece? What're you talking about?"

"You've never heard of the Monkey D. Luffy?" Love guffawed, the ball back in his court. "Little stretchy guy who wants to be the pirate king? He's out there searching for the One Piece, which is really just a McGuffin that justifies the whole adventure. Now don't play dumb: You're a 16-year-old kid who fell ass backwards into super powers. You've got 'Shōnen protagonist' written all over you. So what's your animating goal? Do you wanna become a captain in the Gotei 13? Wanna catch all the Pocket Monsters and become number one? Or do you just like pushing yourself past your previous limits? It's gotta be something."

Ichigo was visibly irked when he caught the ball again.

"Life isn't a comic book," he sulked. "I'm not chasing after something specific, and I don't really want for anything. I guess I'd like to walk around without getting hassled for the color of my hair. That'd be nice. But I just need to keep my family and friends out've harm's way. That's it."

He threw the Kandaideshiberu back to Love, who looked crestfallen.

"Well damn, that's no fun. I thought we had a Gon Freecss in our presence when really we're saddled with a Shinji."

Shinji shot him a confused look.

"Not you," Love clarified. "I'm talking Ikari Shinji from Eva. A moody kid who finds himself at the center of events only because the universe has conspired to put him on a pedestal. They call that a passive protagonist, which means you belong in a totally different genre, Kurosaki. You better find a goal to dedicate yourself towards or else your life story is gonna be boring as shit. Be more like Luffy... "

Everyone watched with mortification as steam sizzled up from Love's hands. He was so content to hog the mic that he was completely unbothered by the Kandaideshiberu's heating penalty.

Is this guy for real?! Ichigo frowned, shooting his own steam out from his ears.

The other Visoreds were looking just as impatient, with Hiyori growing red in the face. I swear, those rags are totally rotting his brain.

Ichigo felt a profound relief when Love finally passed the ball over to Lisa. She looked comparatively normal, with her turquoise eyes shimmering behind a pair of red oval glasses and dark hair braided into a ponytail. She was garbed in a sailor outfit, her short navy blue skirt draped over a long pair of legs. She adjusted her glasses and cleared her throat before plucking up the Kandaideshiberu.

"My name's Yadōmaru Lisa. My age is nobody's business, and I enjoy reading erotica. Lots of it. How about you, boy? What porn do you like?"

She tossed the ball Ichigo's way, only for it to bounce off of his scarlet face. He needed a moment to collect himself before scooping up the sphere.

"What kind of perverted question is that?!" he barked. "I thought you were going to be the normal one, but instead you're a sex maniac!"

He threw the ball back to her; she caught it by the tip of her index finger and let it spin around on the axis of her digit.

"I'm ace, actually. Never had a crush on a person, but I've yearned for many a sensual stanza. The only thing that brings me pleasure is the written word. Got a problem with that?"

Ichigo blushed while accepting the ball back. "No, of course not. That's well within your rights. But I object to talking about my own business. That's private."

"You're young," Lisa observed when she regained the Kandaideshiberu. "If you lived for a couple more centuries, you'd understand that life is too short to hide away any part of yourself."

Shinji sat back and watched, feeling mildly mortified. The group had been isolated for so long that he had stopped recognizing everyone's eccentricities. With an outsider finally in the mix, their collective weirdness was becoming painfully clear to him.

Except for me, of course, he reassured himself. Anybody who thinks I'm weird just doesn't know what real style is...

The crowd went wild when Tetsuzaemon Iba and Rangiku Matsumoto took to the stage. Two of the longest-serving lieutenants in the Gotei 13, they were both well-regarded and had barely demonstrated their full capabilities during their first round matches against the Kotetsu sisters, respectively.

Rangiku smirked at him from across the arena, recalling the wager he offered over breakfast the previous morning.

"So whoever loses has to pose for a portrait?" she recalled. "That's a funny bet, come to think of it."

Tetsuzaemon adjusted his sunglasses and spat out a pouch of snuff tobacco before miming a shush. "Don't talk about gambling here. You'll get us both busted, Matsumoto."

Chiwa Kikazu, lingering between them, merely cocked an eyebrow in amusement while dangling his microphone lackadaisically by its cord. He was content to merely eavesdrop on the two contestants' conversation while pretending not to hear anything incriminating about their extracurricular choices.

"It's just... since when do you paint?" Rangiku chirped. "Is your intention to beat a fetching young lady and then force her to model for you? I didn't take you for a dirty dog, Zaemon."

He chuckled and shook his head. "Come what may, I'll promise to explain myself after our match. So do you agree to the terms?"

Rangiku shot a cheeky glance at Chiwa before nodding. "You've got yourself a bet."

From the stands, Rukia scrunched her brow while scrutinizing the two opponents. They're evenly matched, as last looks go. This could go either way...

"Your next champions: the gregarious and iron-willed Iba Tetsuzaemon versus the exquisite Matsumoto Rangiku!" Chiwa announced to the crowd. "The two eldest lieutenants competing in the Tenth Jūsankentaikai. Who will prevail?"

Rangiku turned beet red, her temple pulsing with irritation. The eldest?! I'm certainly younger than Ikkaku. The semantic nuance that Ikkaku was a Third Seat wasn't lost on her, but she nevertheless perceived the comment as a slight. This taikomochi chooses his words carefully and knows exactly what he's doing. He's a catty one.

"Let the eighth match begin!" Chiwa cried with a pirouette bow before skipping off to safety.

Right on cue, Rangiku and Tetsuzaemon unsheathed their blades and leapt forth. They met at the center of the ring, steel ringing against steel as they traded a series of swipes. Each swing was met with a parry, each parry turning into a counterstrike. Each counterstrike was artfully dodged, begetting another swing.

It was just as Rukia had observed from the outset: a perfectly even matchup. Both Rangiku and Tetsuzaemon were highly adept at Zanjutsu and possessed more physical strength than most of their peers.

Without an obvious superior or inferior, this battle can't be predicted at this stage, Rukia thought while watching their standstill sword dance. The victor... will be decided by Shikai.

Tetsuzaemon brought his katana down for an overhead swipe, only for Rangiku to hoist her blade up horizontally and catch his edge. The katanas raked against each other while both opponents trembled, trying to force the other to budge.

"So does the loser have to model in the nude?" Rangiku wondered through clenched teeth.

"You'll dress to your own level of comfort!" Tetsuzaemon jeered back before using the opportunity to begin a Kidō incantation: "Awash and scrub rungs of the ribcage clean. Moisten the planks for uprooting, and dive down into your own doom!" He ripped his blade away and leapt up into the air, jutting his left hand to the side. "Sunekawa!"

拗川 Sunekawa (Hadō #40, Twisted Stream)

A bulb of blue Reiatsu bloomed from his palm and transformed into a propulsive water beam, firing to his left before looping like a bow and curving down to strike Rangiku. She caught the winding Hadō with her katana and tried to bat it away, only to instead be shoved back, her sandals dragging along the arena tile. The winding stream continued to twist and turn, snaking its way across the stage with Rangiku pinned by its jaws.

"She's going to get pushed off!" Kiyone cried, squeezing Rukia's hand with equal parts dread and excitement.

Tetsuzaemon landed back onto the ground, his hand still outstretched and generating the surging Hadō. He was visibly tense, unable to move lest he break his concentration. Sunekawa needed a constant supply of Reiatsu to sustain its looping trajectory, making it a particularly taxing Kidō technique. However, it was devastatingly effective at pushing an opponent out of bounds.

Rangiku strained every muscle in her body, pressing her blade forward to shield her from the Hadō's surging waves. She focused all of her strength into her sword-wielding arm, feeling the sinew and veins close to bursting while she chanced easing up her secondary hand's grip on the hilt, shoving her freed palm up to point at the sky.

At this velocity, and with our current distance... it should be about... this many degrees!

She positioned her arm at a precise angle and cried out a chant: "Belch into the fire of the dressmaker's rage, play your steady rhythm and call out the pattern! Tensekihōgan!"

転石砲丸 Tensekihōgan (Hadō #38, Boulder Cannon)

A gigantic orb of silver Reiatsu, 40 inches in diameter, fired from her palm as if slung by a catapult. The audience watched in gobsmacked awe as Rangiku's Hadō whistled over the Sunekawa and sailed through the air before bearing down on Tetsuzaemon.

He gawped up at the incoming missile, disbelieving that Rangiku could lob a Tensekihōgan at him while under so much duress and while in the thrall of such an erratic trajectory. Her Hadō was a blunt cannon ball composed of spiritual energy, dense and heavy. Brutally destructive, but its lumbering speed made it woefully inefficient against moving targets. However, Rangiku knew that Tetsuzaemon had to remain in place if he wanted to maintain his own Hadō. Even while tussling with a winding pillar of water, she had somehow approximated the exact degree she needed to calibrate her missile so it could reach his exact location.

Damn it, Matsumoto. You're amazing!

The cannon ball landed and erupted with a sundering boom, kicking up a smoldering plume that obscured the entire arena. Rangiku, feeling the Sunekawa finally ease up, clapped her secondary hand back onto the hilt of her sword. With both arms, she roared and effortfully swung the waterspout away. The Hadō swerved out of bounds and twisted towards the audience only to unwind into a fine mist and dissipate, its fuel cut off.

Rangiku sighed with relief. Her whole body trembling with fatigue, she looked over her shoulder and saw that she only had eight more feet to spare before she'd have toppled off the stage. That was close. She returned her attention to the center of the ring, which was now pocked with a smoking crater. Well drat. I sure hope I didn't kill Tetsuzaemon...

She peered through the smoke and finally spotted his silhouette. The fumes parted and dissipated, revealing the lieutenant in sturdy condition. His Shihakushō was smoldering and tattered, and the lenses of his sunglasses cracked apart to reveal his icy blue eyes. He looked raggedy, but aside from some superficial scratches he was unharmed.

"So you shut off your Sunekawa's valve and dodged in the nick of time?" Rangiku surmised.

"I avoided a direct hit, but the shockwave got me good," Tetsuzaemon admitted, taking off his ruined sunglasses and tossing them aside. "Looks like Zanjutsu and Kidō won't get us anywhere. How's about we let our Zanpakutō have a word with each other?"

Rangiku smiled softly, her fingers subtly trembling around Haineko's hilt. She wasn't shaking with fear or fatigue, but with excitement. It had been ages since she'd had a challenging fight under such amicable terms.

"You really know how to show a lady a good time, Zaemon."