Wash the sorrow from off my skin

Show me how to be whole again

ShiKai CH.99 Going Home

Hikifune had paced angrily through her quarters in the hours after the meeting. She felt like her hands were tied. Despite their position as Squad Zero, even Ichibe, a man she respected more than Ginrei, had counseled patience. They knew less than they liked about the situation. The only thing clear to them was the awakening of the Earth Element in the body of Ichigo Kurosaki.

Fate had an unpleasant way of biting them when they least expected it.

Now with Soul Society destroyed in a single chaotic night, Hikifune was damned sure they could expect Kurosaki to arrive anytime. So why wouldn't Ichibe act while there was still time?

Hikifune ground her teeth, her heavy bosom swaying. If anything was to be done, it had to be done by her. Briefly closing her eyes, she checked the whereabouts of her comrades, sensing them occupied in various places around the sprawling city.

In recent days, the eyes of the king had opened. Lower ranked retainers had looked in on the vast elegant room where his sealed form was kept, wondering at the change in his state. For her, it was a sure sign that their peaceful idyll was ending. She nodded once to the king's attendants, dismissing them. Once their footfalls had receded into the distance, she turned her eyes to the deep shadows pooling in the curtained room. She didn't dare look at him directly, approaching on quiet feet. Hikifune counted the number of steps it took to reach the dais where she might make her case heard.

"I come to you, my Lord, with a heavy heart. Soul Society has fallen. Keiki has rallied the remaining Shinigami into the fourth world of Assiah." Hikifune sighed heavily. "The hour grows long and their need is great. I ask for one who is not present, my Lord." She kept her face tilted toward the floor. "The Elemental of Earth has awakened. Doubtless you know this already, but I ask...I beseech you, release the seal on the Elemental of Fire's true body! Keiki is the only being who can defeat him."

In the hush of silence that met her hurried request, Hikifune sensed something shift in the atmosphere. Her heartbeat quickened with hope only for it to be dashed by the single word from the god of death.


Her eyes filled and she bowed deeply.

I must do something.

Hikifune said nothing more leaving the antechamber. She knew what she had to do. Maybe it was the only thing she could do for those who were left. Rolling up her sleeves, she returned to Gatoden to prepare her best feast.

A little earth.

Setsuka watched Hokuto kneel at the lowest level of the sunken gardens. Tsukikage stood on the hill casting a large pool of shadow around them. The Juppongatana had excavated part of the ruined gardens and rebuilt in black granite a resting place for their fallen. Beside the elemental a pitcher of soil sat.

She had never seen soil look like that before. Ashen gray mixed with white bits that resembled bone. Without a sign from the elemental, the hebi of Genbu appeared. Setsuka noticed the hiss sent her way, glowering at the snake spirit. The hebi had retained its child-like appearance, but its clothes had changed into a blue floral patterned jinbei.

"Despite your youth, you're no less foul, Genbu."

"Watch your mouth, Setsuka no Usayami. Because of us, you still have form.

Her nose wrinkled in disgust. She could hear the kame and the hebi in that voice. "Ugh, I thought we were leaving?"

"Calm yourself, Setsuka. We will."

It was raining. The sky poured buckets of water down on the fortress carved from volcanic rock. Inside, water streamed down the walls, Takara hissed and ran around trying to move her electric equipment away from the dampness.

Unseen, Hiyori slipped out. Shinji had told her to say her goodbyes now. He wasn't unaffected by their story, but he didn't know what to do either, except survive.

She stared down at the mess of puddles dotting the expanse of sand and turf, remembering a distant day long ago when she had loved to splash in rainwater.

From the corner of her eye, she saw movement. It was on the tip of her tongue to say pervert, but somehow she wasn't in the mood. "What're you staring at?" Hiyori asked viciously. He was there first after all, crouching down by the pillar. She hadn't seen him.

Kagami didn't say a word, he didn't have to. He was under her skin figuratively, his element sliding in fat droplets down her cheek. Hiyori had never thought about ways of dying until she had heard of him drawing every ounce of fluid out of the Septima Espada. He horrified her without saying a word.

I used to splash in rain puddles because it felt like I could touch you that little bit, she would never say that. She would never speak aloud those things her younger self felt. He probably knew them with his damned ability. Hiyori hated him a lot for making her think of his original self stretched out on the ground, screaming in agony.

She hated thinking there was a reason for everything he had done afterward.

...allying briefly with Aizen

...ruining lives.

...fixing lives.

"I never asked to be a Shinigami again." She blurted out before she could think about it. Rain dripped down the ends of his blond hair, he stared out at the wild tossed ocean.

"Would you rather be a Vizard again?"

...hear the voice of her inner Hollow again?

...wear the hideous mask and always be at risk for losing control?

"No." The word slipped out of her mouth, harsh, rejecting. She never wanted to go back to being afraid of herself. "But I ain't gonna thank you, neither!"

Mai knocked on the inside of the door. Kanzaki had been speaking with Kei. Both Captains looked up. Kei gestured for her to come in.

"All reports show...the anomaly we know as the Elemental of Earth, is gone." She announced. "He's been gone since early morning."

"I felt it too." Kei said, her arms crossed. "He was gone yesterday too, but he came back shortly. What do you think it means?"

"Could be anything." Kanzaki admitted, rubbing his glass lens free of moisture. The fortress walls were uncomfortably sticky from the rainfall. "If we head back to Tsukikage, he could show up all of a sudden. We'd be sitting ducks then."

"It's not much different than being here." Kei argued, not adding they were less than comfortable in the ancient drafty stone keep. "The only advantage we have here is being close to Kagami's element. Tsukikage represents home to him, but also the place where his defeat began. If we take possession of it now, then he might not challenge us there."

"Those are a lot of assumptions you're making."

"True," she admitted, "but someone has to make the difficult choices."

He shrugged, "well, we're going up against our worst enemy yet that most of us have no real experience with. Your story last night was enough to cause some to leave."

...Aizen's defeated Arrancars.

"He might go after them."

She wouldn't admit it pained her to realize Ulquiorra had left. The only ones who stayed were the Primera duo. "As I told Komamura when he left, they were on their own."

"So are we once we go back to Tsukikage."

Kei found Kagami on the balcony. He leaned forward, hands braced against the wet railing. The sea frothed a cold, torpid blue, churning with his emotions. Weak, hazy sunshine filtered through pewter cloud cover.

"So they're gone too."

"They left about an hour ago." He stared out over the ocean, tone brusque. "If you left now you could say goodbye to another pervert."

"Well, I'm glad you're back to being your old grouchy self." Kei nearly stuck her tongue out for good measure, but that was childish. They couldn't be wasting precious time on petty squabbles.

"I want to go back to Tsukikage." She hesitated, reaching up a hand to push back loose strands of hair that skittered across her nose. She had phrased that wrong. "It's not just me, everyone is suffering a lack of morale. We need to regroup, restore our base. The sooner they feel safe, the better they'll fight to protect it."

"Is that what you think?"

"Yes, it is."

"When you caused all of this?"

She stalked away from him, the rebuke stinging. "I did what I thought best."

"-and you left out the most incriminating part of the story."

"I don't know what you're talking about." She turned swiftly about, averting her face before he could see the dull flush of anger.

"You could've killed him and we both damn well know it." She started to walk toward the archway.

"I'm going to address the Shinigami now. Come inside when you're feeling less pissy."

"What happened in Soul Society, Kei? Why didn't you kill him when you had the chance?"

She felt like he had physically slapped her. The accusation stung, taking some of the confidence from her step. Kei kept her head held high, calling the necessary officers together. Once they'd all assembled in the large hall, she gathered her courage together to address them. "A majority of the remaining leadership has decided that we'll advance to Tsukikage Castle to reorient ourselves."

Predictably, there were several outliers.

"What if he attacks us? The castle's indefensible against him!"

She rested her hand on the hilt of her zanpakuto slung through her sash. From the corner of her eye, she saw Kanzaki clear his throat, shuffling his feet.

"The castle has wards that we can activate once we're there. They were put in place over a hundred years ago against the Hollow invasion."

Kei saw Mai taking notes. She had been recording everything down for the official records, everything that happened, had been kept for posterity. As if they were going to survive. She chastised her brutal thoughts, almost smiling. Kazeatari was the realist, not her. Her confidence was shaken in an easy win against Earth, but that didn't mean she was ready to lose hope. "At the very least, they'll warn us against his return. I doubt he'll be so bold as to move against us once we're there."

"Why?" Rukia Kuchiki asked suspiciously.

"Because," and she made sure to lock eyes onto the front row. The strongest of Soul Society's remaining warriors were gathered together. "Tsukikage was the beginning of his defeat. He would not want to linger there where old memories are the strongest."

"If you're gonna keep lookin' back, then why're you still here?" Shinji pointed out sarcastically for the umpteenth time Hiyori looked back at the road leading from Calcaria. He had borrowed an atlas of Assiah the night before, making a rough map of their destination.

"Dumb ass!" Hiyori snapped because it felt good to get angry at something. Her stupid heart (the one she thought she'd lost) was aching something fierce the farther they put tracks between them and fucking Kagami Nanatsu.

"It's obvious," Lisa said, adjusting her glasses. She was peering at a marketstall that sold unusual looking fruits with a thick leathery peel. "She's having second thoughts."

"I say go for it." Rose said, shrugging. His long blonde hair looked incongruous without his long sleeve button down shirt and jeans. Love was studying a hoverboard shop across from them. "Look man, I'm not one to get into it, but Nanatsu-san doesn't have a big boobs preference. I think he's into you."

Hiyori went red-faced at this, covering her chest with her skinny arms, embarrassed she had been thinking (hoping) the same thing. "Go fuck yourself, really."

"Strong language," Hachi warned, nodding to Shinji.

"Come off it, Sarugaki. We all know you're in love with one of the most powerful Shinigami alive." Kensei scoffed, scowling up at the bright sunshine. "I say, if you want to screw him, good for you."

"Cute." Mashiro chimed in, leaning around Kensei. She formed a heart with her interlocked hands.

Hiyori stamped her sandaled foot irritatedly. Young ladies certainly didn't need idiots like them to tell her how to feel or what to do. Was I so obvious?

"We always knew." Hachi said simply as if that settled matters in his mind.

She was steaming mad and didn't know what to do about it. Hiyori settled for flipping them off which didn't impress anyone in the slightest.

"Hiyori," Shinji was looking at her as seriously as he possibly could. He was one of her oldest pain in the ass friends. He saw through her bullshit with ease and sometimes she hated him for it. "Can you honestly say that you won't regret never seeing him again?"


Hokuto sat on the edge of his former human self's bed. He had slipped a T-shirt on over tight fitting jeans. In his strong hands, the body of the guitar rested. The room was much the same as when Ichigo had left it a lifetime ago. He heard footsteps on the stairwell, waiting for the woman to appear.

"What are we doing here?"

"Waiting." His long fingers skated spider-like over the strings, producing a long chord of sound.

"Waiting for what?"

He said nothing as a breeze wafted in through the open window.

The sword spirit caught the scent of decaying flesh.

"Must you always be so impatient?"

"You have the power to destroy them. Why not simply execute them and be done with it?" She crossed her bandaged arms over her chest.

"Where would be the fun in that?"

"Do you know what would happen if I rid the world of the Shinigami?"

"Chaos?" She smiled at the thought.

"The Soul King would destroy me. Right now, at this very moment, he has chosen not to act. He is waiting for them, his darling children, to take care of themselves." Hokuto sneered, resting the guitar against his shoulder. "One of them has the oken. The thing I require to enter the Seireitou."

"Then what are we waiting for? We'll simply kill them and -"

"No, I've left them a small gift." He strummed a few chords. "Let them regain their hope, then I'll pick them off a little bit at a time. Their souls are ripest when they're consumed with despair."

Kei took point. She outpaced the slower Shinigami, sensing the tension surrounding the group. Behind her, Kanzaki ran beside Byakuya. Guarding the right flank was Rizu Sakurai running in step with her own third seat, Aki. The left was watched by Kazeatari and the former Primera Espada. Kagami had the back with his Lieutenant Kimiko. She felt more than a few stares fixated on her. Not all had agreed the move to Tsukikage was the best. They had been correct in assuming it was her decision with very little input from Kanzaki that led to their return to the castle. Kei hadn't been lying about the memories. She was certain Hokuto remembered his defeat that led to his long imprisonment.

It was true that they had once been close, they knew each other's minds. Since it was also at the forefront of her mind, she assumed he would be thinking of it too. That time..., Kei determinedly pushed it out of her thoughts. They were reaching Firethorn Valley and needed to be extra vigilant. The surrounding rock faces of the canyon concealed spiritual pressure. Kei breathed freer when they were past the valley. Someone was coming up behind her. Accordingly, she dropped speed to let him catch up. It was Hitsugaya, who had rarely been seen outside of Hinamori's company.

"I've been meaning to ask you something since we came back." His youthful face was solemn when she glanced at him. "Go ahead."

"How did you know what was going to happen...his last attack...the one that destroyed Soul Society, I guess what I'm asking is," his brow furrowed, increasing the lines of care that shouldn't have been present in one so young. "How did you know what it was? He couldn't have used that attack before."

"No, not in the same way. We spoke of it last night." Kei said, wanting to hold back. From his probing look, he knew she was deliberately not saying something. "There were several mass extinctions of almost all life forms in existence. In human history, the worst is referred to as the Great Dying. He caused it many eons ago." She looked the Taichou full in the face as the thick swirling mists where her Lieutenant had died, surrounded them. "His attack didn't have the same result as it should have, had there been life around us. If he unleashed it at full power on the surface of the living world, all life will gradually die off until nothing is left. Whether from increased volcanism all over the surface of the planet or through anoxic shock in the oceans. Nothing would survive."

"The Permian-Triassic event?" He was familiar with it from his studies. The Shinigami academy had always concerned itself with events centered around large fluctuations of souls. "I wouldn't believe you if I hadn't seen it myself." They all came to a stop as agreed on the plain overlooking the castle. Hitsugaya sounded full of doubt, frowning at her calm fa├žade. "If he's capable of murdering all life, and you could've stopped it...damn you for letting him get away."

Kei absorbed his censure. She deserved that much. It was tolerable from a Shinigami who didn't know what it was like to face him on a blood soaked field. "Hitsugaya," she called before he had returned to the fold. "The four of us are capable of triggering mass extinction events, but only he would do it now."

The young boy's eyes studied her accusatively. "If victory was at the cost of everyone and everything, can you honestly say you wouldn't take it?"

Kei's lips thinned in displeasure, but she said nothing else to him, letting him go. This was her plan...her decision. She was going ahead to see if it was safe. She felt her heartbeat quicken approaching the gates in a burst of speed. They stood open, blasted into wreckage of twisted metal. She stopped herself from touching them. What good would it do? He had done it. She needed no confirmation of the destruction he created.

Kagami waited with the others for what felt like an interminable amount of time. If the situation hadn't been so serious, he might've thought Kei had drawn a bath for herself and gone looking for something to eat in the kitchens. Kimiko shifted uneasily beside him, her eyes wide in the pale gloom of the field. The Assiahian sun was setting and the remaining light pierced the grey haze with a sickly yellow tint. "It's taking a long time."

"Tsukikage's a big place." He murmured so the rest wouldn't hear. He tried to smile reassuringly to his Lieutenant, but she just looked up at him, her face somber and cold.

"Is it alright to be scared?" Kimiko asked, her voice a soft quaver.

"I'm scared too." He said trying levity to lighten the tension. Kimiko observed him steadily for a few minutes, "if you are, then what about the rest of us?"

Kagami cursed his thoughtlessness. Of course she wouldn't take comfort in knowing her superior was putting up a brave front. They'd be scared too after knowing some of what Hokuto was capable of. Some - he reminded himself, but not all. Reluctantly, Kagami was searching his oldest memories for anything that might help them. He was drawing a number of blanks partly because it had been so long.

"Kimiko, I know what you're thinking and how it looks. But you're going to survive this. You're going to look back at the times you were scared and look at it in a different light. This is a time when we come together and face a threat worse than any other. But I have faith," he looked into her eyes, smiling gently. "I know we'll come out stronger for it."

"I wish I could believe like you." Kimiko said quietly. "All I keep thinking about is poor Lieutenant Elbe and Kurosaki's family." She shut her eyes tightly. "I was born in the Soul Society. I can still remember what it was like - and to know it's all gone-!"

He could feel her distress. The anguish she felt over losing whatever estranged family members she had left. "But we're still here." He said finally, "and so are you. One day when this is long over, you might even have a family and a partner who will come first over your plants."

She smiled tremulously. "That isn't going to happen, I can promise you that much."

"Don't be so sure," he glanced around in meaning. Kimiko was young and pretty. She had caught the eye of more than one Shinigami from the surviving lower ranked officers. They had the good sense not to approach her now in the midst of their return to Tsukikage. One blue-haired kid with a shy smile was looking their way.

"Don't worry, Kimiko. Everything's going to be fine." He said glancing to see Kei had returned to the gates and was giving the all clear sign.

"I'm not sure if I'll ever feel safe here." Kanzaki said to Rizu. She had drifted over into the cluster of First Division officers who were organizing the limited space available for the Shinigami crowding onto the lawn of the castle. "Same," she muttered, joining the conversation with his Lieutenant.

"We can offer the back storage area of our barracks to house some if there's overflow." Rizu said, having been sent by Kazeatari. Hisrio looked down his long hawk like nose at her. "If we double up in the spare rooms, there won't be a need."

"What about the castle wing where First Division's office is?" Hitsugaya-taichou joined them. "Wherever you can put us is fine, but there's a general preference for staying close together in case of an attack."

Kanzaki cleared his throat in the sudden silence. "We don't use those rooms. We never have." His Lieutenant seconded it with a slight discomforted nod and Rizu looked away.

"Why?" Hitsugaya asked, confused with their reticence. Mai had ceased her note-taking and was skimming through a tablet showing the occupied quarters of the castle. "It's part of the old wing of the castle. One of the original areas that was standing when we took possession of it. Those rooms have always been closed off."

Kei walked up then, detaching from a unit of officers who were discussing rations. "Go ahead and use them. The rooms are musty from disuse, but they're serviceable." She nodded to Hitsugaya and Hisrio began making the preparations. Rizu shrugged, volunteering some of Fifth's officers to tidy up the unused spaces. Kanzaki hurried after Kei. "Are you sure about this? You were adamant about us not incorporating those rooms into our usage."

She slowed down her brisk pace, signaling a negative to a few squad members attempting to pitch a tent on the lawn. "I thought it was time to stop living in the past. Kagami was right when he said you needed to know the truth. It's not just our story any longer, but theirs too." They reached the steps rising to the castle proper. All around them the hustle and bustle of activity continued. Shinigami traipsed in and out of the castle doors while stanchions were being lit to ward off the coming night.

"I've never seen you so serious." He paused at the bottom step, looking at her in a new light. "You've always been a practical joker, full of brevity and lightheartedness. In the space of a few days, you've become someone else."

She laid her hand on the curved stone rail. Flakes of greyish rock came off on her palm. "Do you know why we never used those rooms?" In her mind's eye, she was reliving stepping over the threshold into a large central chamber. The room was almost completely devoid of furniture except for a simple bed that had been reconstructed through time magic. Her eyes had filled then she swung her sword across it, splitting cleanly through wood, igniting the ancient timber. She had stood back and watched as a heatless fire consumed the remains. "They were our quarters. There was a long hallway that connected them to the heart of the castle. What's left of it ends at a solid wall."


"Then, I thought, it's just right angles and stone walls. The only thing left is memory and that can't hurt us any longer." She turned to face him, "memories can't hurt me any longer, not if I don't let them. So please, Karasu, don't question me on this. It needs to be done."

"And this is your room." Rizu had a pounding headache from the last two hours of getting everyone situated. She had finally gotten around to showing Stark and Lilynette the room she marked off as theirs. The mismatched Arrancar pair entered the room built into the older part of the castle. Moonlight pooled on the floor, casting dusty light on the oak frame bed. She made a face when the mattress sagged beneath Lilynette's prodding. Spare furniture from over a hundred years of living in the castle had been moved into the old rooms along with whatever linens could be found.

"Sorry, we never got around to fixing it up in here. You know with a lack of visitors and all..." She trailed off, anxiously waiting for the Primera's reaction. "It's fine," Stark said, glancing over the dark blue quilt over the sheets. A carving of a sailboat rested on the mantle across from the room.

"I'm sure it's nothing like Las Noches." She could've kicked herself for reminding the duo about Hueco Mundo. Truth be told, she had become rather fond of the pair in the short time she had come to know them. If asked, she wouldn't have known how to explain it. He was important to her, they both were.

"B-Birds?" Lilynette stumbled over the word, throwing open the window. A pair of nightingales sang from the old ash tree within sight of their window.

"We have most of the species found in the living world." She said quickly, adjusting her glasses. "There's a few like the Firetail sparrow found only in the Firethorn canyons, that are um...rare."

"The only birds I ever saw were Hollow birds." Lilynette said quietly. "They used to disintegrate in my hand when I would catch them."

"Las Noches had more pillows." Stark said blandly, going to the window.

"I might be able to get more pillows...? Maybe." She tacked on the maybe awkwardly. With so many Shinigami crowding into the castle there was a shortage on everything not related to space now that they'd opened up the unused wing.


She stopped at the door.

"Thank you."

Once the door had closed, Lilynette looked up at her other half. "Do you think we shoulda left?" Stark felt the breeze, he opened his right palm out, enjoying the feeling of the cool night air on his skin. "The Espada is no more. We had nothing with them except a defeated cause."

"But they were our comrades." Lilynette pouted.

Stark sighed and went to sit on the edge of the bed. He said nothing for a time, thinking back to the fortress on the sea coast. The handful of remaining Espada had slipped away during the night. Halibel and her two fracciones, Grimmjow with a sneer for the Shinigami. Ulquiorra, hands in pockets, apathetic to the last. Even the surviving members of Barragan's fracciones sans Vega melted away into the dark.

If Nanatsu's story had been meant to unite them, it had done the opposite. In the hazy wet morning light, Sakurai had gone to look for him. "I'm glad you chose to stay." She had shyly pushed strands of hair back behind her ear, smiling a little bit in relief. In the common room, Sakurai's Captain had glanced from her small smile to him, speculatively, but said nothing.

"They were only our comrades so long as Aizen made it so." He said disgusted suddenly with himself. Turning over onto his side, his lifted his long legs onto the bed, pillowing his head with his folded arm, he growled in frustration feeling his other half jump on the bed behind him. Lilynette planted her foot in his backside, kicking him repeatedly. "B-But, Staaaaaaaark!"

"Go to sleep." He groused, needing time to think. So many Shinigami around put him on edge, yet she was there too, and she hadn't let anything happen to Lilynette.

Rangiku had said goodnight to her taichou and her friends. She retreated to the relative quiet of the room she had stayed in during their visit to build ties. She thought of those innocent days, when she had believed all they had to do was train and win the war. Those days were long gone. Rangiku glanced around the room and found a set of clean uniforms and footwear in the wardrobe beside the window. A low seat curved out from the wall, offering a vantage point overlooking the southern side of the castle. Rangiku unstrapped her zanpakuto, leaving it within reach. She was weary from the day's travel, tense and ready for battle every step of the way. Had it come to that, she didn't know how she would've fared. Rangiku shook off her sobering thoughts, relieved they'd arrived without incident. She had four walls around her and wards that offered some measure of protection.

She had been going over it in her mind; the day of the battle. The way Ichigo had turned from ally to enemy in the space of a few minutes. She remembered the Second Division taichou's charges, her smugness while the elemental of Fire had floundered in shock. Rangiku had been close enough to hear her reply to Ukitake, near enough to see the pain in her smile. Rangiku had never seen her so close to breaking as that moment. She didn't look like the elemental of Fire, the rival of Orihime-chan's happiness. She didn't look like one of the most powerful beings on earth. No. She was just a broken woman demonized by the very same Shinigami she had saved.

And so Matsumoto Rangiku had stood rooted to the spot, dropping her hand from her zanpakuto. Something had been wrong with Ichigo. She had seen it then. His screaming fit that died to silence. His hands that trembled violently as he drew in big gulps of air like he couldn't breathe. This was not Orihime's prince or knight in shining armor. This was someone entirely. Someone who was teetering on the edge of sanity from horror and grief.

"You didn't give me a choice! Look at what you've done!" Ichigo had grabbed her in the midst of the Riteitai swarm. She had her sword poised at his throat, only the steady aim of her arm kept it from ending his human life. Rangiku had almost drawn her zanpakuto for Orihime's sake. Her sweet friend had no clue that her love was about to be skewered on the day of their victory. But Hitsugaya had shook his head minutely, indicating no. He wouldn't step in. Kei the victor, the slayer of the traitorous ex taichou, had the right to defend herself. Haineko whispered she did. Rangiku struggled with the part of herself that wanted to be loyal to a friend and the other who followed the law.

But Kei had not killed him.

Rangiku had tried and failed to imagine a scenario when the unthinkable had happened. Ichigo dead. Soul Society unforgiving of the slaying of their greatest defender, beginning a new war over the afterlife. No one would've known they had been saved from a worse fate. She imagined drying Orihime's tears and promising revenge on the elemental. She imagined the storm of swords drawn against the pair and the Soutaichou pronouncing them guilty. The cycle continuing -

And she felt sick and repentant because they had lost everything. Something had stopped the elemental's hand and in return she paid blood for mercy. Someone knocked at the door. "Come in," she called, sensing the spirit pressure was a familar one. The door opened and Rukia stood there, uncertain. They'd never been close in any real capacity. They had their fun in the SWA, but rarely spoken one on one.

Rangiku thought they all needed a measure of comfort from familar faces. "It's okay, Rukia. I wasn't turning in for bed just yet."

The girl nodded, her small face looked pinched with worry. "Thank you, Matsumoto-san."

"Rangiku please." She gestured for the girl to take a seat on the foot of the bed. Rukia did so gratefully, finding a tiny smile that lightened her face considerably. "I... I've been thinking about it and I can't seem to wrap my head around why this happened."

"So have I." Rangiku admitted seeing the girl's reserve cracking. Rukia twisted her hands into the fabric of her shihakusho, scrunching it up.

"I saw myself reflected in his eyes." Rukia said, shivering. "They were so clear and calm, so unlike Ichigo's eyes. But there was nothing in them. I keep asking myself, this whole time, was that thing slumbering in his soul? Was it preparing to emerge only now at the height of our victory?"

"From the way they talked, there was a seal on his power. Something that kept his true persona at bay until the seal wouldn't hold anymore." Rangiku cast her memory back, recalling snippets of conversations she'd overheard around the Juppongatana elite. "He never told you anything?"

"No...wait...he began to have dreams of Keiko Yamamoto. He saw her with her officers before they ever crossed over into the human world." Rukia frowned, thinking back. "I didn't know who she was at the time, but we suspected she had ties to the known rebel group, Juppongatana, but we didn't know anything concrete about them. When Ichigo described her to Urahara, he knew who she was."

"Maybe that was the beginning." Rangiku said knowingly. "The elemental of Earth appears to have an unwholesome fascination with her."

That was one way of putting it.

"He called her beautiful. I'd never heard him say that about anyone." Rukia caught the distant tone of something close to envy in her own voice. "I disliked her surety, her overt confidence when we first met. She made fighting the Arrancar invasion look like it was nothing."

She made us look weak.

She made us look like fools.

"They say she's the most powerful of them all."

Rangiku was lost in her own thoughts. Maybe Orihime never had a chance in this lifetime.

"When things have settled here in a day or two, we'll broach the subject of rescuing Orihime-chan."

Rukia brightened, "agreed. If we present our case together, then they can't deny us."

"Hey, Toshiro, why were you being so hard on Ms. Kei earlier?" Momo had walked into the room he was allotted. The ceiling was sloped under the castle's eave, the window overlooked a wild copse of strangely blooming flowers. The room itself was tidy and neat.

"They were her pawns." He wore a clean set of pajamas. They were western styled except the fluted high collar. Momo wore a dressing gown over a similar pair. "She orchestrated the entire alliance...the invasion of Hueco Mundo...I wouldn't even be shocked to discover she had no intention of stopping once Aizen was gone."

Momo covered her mouth with her hand. "'Shiro... they've taken us in. Ms. Kei along with the rest haven't denied us anything! How can you say such mean things about her?"

The young taichou sent her a veiled look of meaning. "All I'm saying is, whatever she says goes. Nothing happens without her pulling the strings." He jerked his head to the door. "You saw earlier...how she overrode Captain Kanzaki's refusal to use these rooms. No one knows her true intentions."

"This is the oldest part of the castle." Momo intoned, her gaze drifting to the thickly paneled window. The glass was a warped smudge of darkness from the night beyond. "I heard some of the Soul Reapers talking about it in the great hall. They seem to think these rooms are haunted."

"That's ridiculous." He said loftily, crossing his arms over his chest. "We are the embodiment of death. Ghosts are just spirits who haven't had konso."

"I don't think it was ghosts, per se." She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "They seem to think it's haunted by memory."

Kei stood in the shadows within earshot of the dormitories assigned to the officers of Seireitei. Her arms were crossed over her breast as she listened to the discussions going on within. She glanced up when Kazeatari appeared.

"They still don't trust me."

"Since when has that ever bothered you?" She indicated they should walk. Under Wind's knowing look, Kei's arms dropped to her sides. "It doesn't."

"Then what?" They left the corridor, returning the better lit area of the castle. A few night sentries saluted them which was returned by both women out of habit. Kei waited until they were out of sight before she answered.

"He wasn't wrong. Why do you follow me? Because I'm older than you? Because I should know better?"

The paper fan in her companion's hand tapped against the thin, narrow chin. "The Juppongatana was Kanzaki's wish. He wanted a place for everyone and we followed through with it. We kept our promises and built something out of nothing. But that doesn't really answer your question."

Kei frowned at her. "Then, what?"

"I don't know about Mizuna's reasoning, but I don't follow you because of Keiki." They had reached the narrow flight of stone stairs that opened up into the crenellated rampart of the high castle wall. Kazeatari walked ahead of her, slowly climbing the stairs as if spiritual age had caught up to her. "You've always been Keiko to me. Your other self is a separate part. The same soul, but not the same body." They stepped out into the cool night air, steps ringing on the hard stone floor. "Through all our reincarnations, Hokuto never saw you. He was always looking past you to Keiki."

Kei remembered a time when they were watched by the people of the fourth world through the dim haze of early morning.

It seemed like it had been another lifetime when she was laying out their grand plan for revenge. She smiled a little, remembering the three of them watching the sunrise. "We were happy, weren't we?" Kei asked suddenly, wanting to make sure someone else shared her feelings.

"It doesn't mean as much if you have to ask."

Kei looked at her a moment longer. "No, I guess you're right." To her surprise, Kazeatari laid her hand on her shoulder. The brief touch was more comforting than any words could be.


AN: I've been listening to Linkin Park's Castle of Glass lately. It hits differently now and if anything makes me sadder because of the current state of affairs in Afghanistan. Thanks for reading! Even though school started already, I'm going to keep working on my stories.

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