Dear God above she has updated.

Yeah, I stalled for time on Grown Ups because I wanted to work on this. Then decidedly failed on working at this. Oops. Well at least there is some activity here. I think the folks over at DA are lighting their torches as we speak.

But until then, on with the show!

Don't own Bleach, unless at some stage I figure out a plan to seduce KT and persuade him to put Rukia back in again. Anyone else excited about the manga, actually? Shit is finally going down! I am a little ashamed to say that I screamed when the big reveal happened XD I have been waiting for that moment now for about a year! And then Ichigo consciously imitated Rukia by not asking about it which was a bit of an 'aww' moment.

I just read back over that and if you haven't read the manga recently, it's going to mean bugger all to you ;)

Oh and if you're a reader who's already reviewed a previous chapter, review again! I like your input, you shape the fic!

Edit: Yeah, I re-uploaded :) But I found one typo that was really really annoying me. And I'm not telling you where or what because you'll think I'm silly. Anyway, I'm hoping and praying that the reviews don't get deleted because its different, but I know you can't review a replaced chapter twice so hopefully not.

When Ichigo woke up he was very aware of a small, warm arm over his body. It was cosy in the cottage because of the fire embers. The bath was still sat in the hearth where it had been last night.

Last night.

Oh Gods.

Ichigo sat up, Rukia's arm flying off him and pressed himself to the wall, but Rukia-who was turning out to be a remarkably heavy sleeper-only snuffled and tucked her hand under her pillow. She looked more childish like this. He reminded her of Ururu a little-but of course she was tougher than his adopted sister and more beautiful, and most definitely not related to him. Well no one was related to him really. This thought made Ichigo feel sad and thoughts of Rukia began to slip even as he stared down at her. She could be a beautiful and kind and wonderful as she was, and still be millennia away from him because no one could be any closer than she was right now.

He watched her nose twitch, then her arm slowly slid towards him, seeking her lost warmth. Ichigo shuffled away, nervously. But she only moved closer as he tried to press himself against the wall. The inch by inch game of cat and mouse continued Ichigo felt his eyebrows crease and he started becoming slightly annoyed. She was getting too close for comfort. He didn't want to be touched. It was like when Miss Yoruichi came and draped herself all over him which gave him uncomfortable feelings. Whenever she had done that he had always shrunk away from her while she teased him but that was because she was Urahara's guest and he always promised to 'punish her, severely' for scaring Ichigo in such a way.

Although, Ichigo recalled, Yoruichi never seemed too worried, in fact she used to smile, with a grin that made her look nothing if a little feline.

It had led Ichigo to believe that Urahara never had punished her in any way and that had always annoyed him because if he did something wrong he was told off. Rukia's hand grasped his trousers on his thigh and shunted quickly towards him, snuggling her face against the fabric. Ichigo had had enough, he grasped her by the shoulders and pushed her back.

But of course a seven foot, seven month old assembly of body parts rarely knows his own strength.

Rukia's small body rolled away. Ichigo didn't see until he heard the thump and the cry of surprise. Then he saw a pair of milk white legs still on the bed while the rest of Rukia lay on the floor. He peeked over the mattress and saw her, with wild hair and a disgruntled look on her face, staring up at him.

"Ichigo!" she cried as he leaned over her.

"I didn't do it!" he snapped back indignantly.

"Like hell, you didn't." She returned furiously, then blushed and shoved her nightdress down her legs from where it had pooled around her thighs.

"I didn't, you fell out!" he shouted and turned around, to cross his arms and throw himself down on the bed. He didn't want her to know he had accidentally pushed her off. Hearing her rise, muttering furiously he curled up and scowled violently at the wall, embarrassment and blame boiled in his head, making his ears ring.

Stupid midget. He thought and shut his eyes.

Rukia looked back over her shoulder as she opened the window shutters; Ichigo was curled up in a sulk. She hadn't exactly felt him push her she just had a feeling that he had done it. And she knew she wasn't wrong. There was something in his eyes as he peered at her from the bed, slightly surprised and guilty. From that she knew he probably hadn't intended to do what he had but he had done it anyway and his first instinct had been to deny it.

The stagnant water in the bath tub was giving off a weird smell and she glanced at the cloudy water with a grimace. It was that unpleasant metallic smell of an old pond and she suddenly regretted leaving it the night before. She glanced back at Ichigo. Well, he had to pull his weight.

She walked over to him and rubbed his shoulder, whispering his name. His eyes were closed so she bent down and kissed his neck pressing her lips to the curve of muscle that ran up from his shoulders to just below his ear. He stirred and she took the opportunity to whisper in his ear.

"Ichigo, time to get up now, I don't care about the-" she checked herself, "about falling out of bed."

She moved away and picked up her shawl from the back of the chair wrapping it around her shoulders, against the morning chill.

Ichigo had frozen in bed, he wasn't cold, instead he was heating up from the inside. He had a kiss! She didn't mind, and she had given him a kiss. He sat up and looked at her. She was unwrapping some cheese. The smell drifted across, strong even from the table but she didn't even wrinkle her nose. She was so calm all the time, he had pushed her and she didn't care one jot.

Ichigo felt something spark in his chest as what could almost be described as pain shot through his chest and a steady drumming filled his ears.

Lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub.

He tossed the covers back off his legs and stood up. He had the inexplicable urge to walk over to her and pull her into his lap or just run in circles, laughing like an idiot, but he doubted she would like that and so instead he simply passed her by, picking up the bucket, and opened the door to go outside to the pump.

Rukia heard the door go and smiled.

Ichigo had underestimated the outside temperature and shivered as he walked towards the pump. The first birds were singing in the half-light while the sounds of animals just going to sleep, their night calls to each other still rang through the trees.

Ichigo heard a screeching sound and followed it closely while he put the bucket by the pump. It came again while he was watching the tree line, twice in quick succession and he laughed.

Cupping hand to mouth he screeched through them and imitated the call, there was a moment's silence, then the creature replied with a conciliatory cry. Ichigo laughed again and sent two back, his call quick becoming an almost perfect imitation. Finally the shouts from his new friend stopped and he was left with his bucket.

Rukia watched from the window as Ichigo called to the woods and felt a creeping feeling in her stomach; she smiled and crossed her arm across her chest, palm over her heart to feel it beating.

May God have struck her down, if she wasn't actually feeling...hopeful.

Rukia shivered in her shift and glanced down at her body. She needed clothes; it was far too cold that morning to be walking around in bare feet and linen. But as she glanced out the window she saw Ichigo making his way back, water sloshing over the rim of the bucket and sighed.

They sort of skirted each other that morning. Comfortable silence pervaded her home as she tidied, something that Rukia enjoyed greatly, it made such a nice change from the cold solitary silence she usually had. You're supposed to be able to hear all the sounds of the forest, animals, the wind, sometimes just the sound of the trees breathing, that's what they used to say back home,but more often than not, Rukia heard nothing but the sounds of her ailing cottage and her own movements. It had been quite lonely and she wondered how she had never been able to label it as that before. She supposed, 'familiarity breeds comfort' so if she was used to being alone that made it more noticeable when she...wasn't.

Ichigo's body was massive. That much was certain, but his presence was small like a little boy, a petulant one at times, but still a child. Because of his huge size she had to keep reminding herself of what he was. It was getting easier at least.

He was just a little boy.

Ichigo was sat in front of the fire, staring carefully at the chimney. If he had moved in the last six minutes then Rukia had missed it. With his chin in his hand, supporting elbow at his knee he gazed languidly at the fire. It must have been hurting his eyes. Rukia never had got on well with fire.

Ukitake used to say that it just 'wasn't her element'.

There was a light hiss as a twig split and tumbled to its fate.

"Rukia?" said a voice.

Rukia looked at the curved back, hunched over, blocking the fire.


"Should there be bits of wood and stone falling down the chimney?"

Rukia turned fully to look at him.

"No there shouldn't."


"Is there?"


"Are there bits of wood and stone falling down the chimney?"



She rose and made her way outside, looking up at the roof she huffed, realising that she was going to have to climb up there. It had been tricky enough getting Ichigo down yesterday, the footholds were not as new as they used to be.

She felt him before he spoke and turned around, almost smacking nose-first, into his bare chest. He was also staring up enquiringly.

"There must be something stuck in your chimney pot." He said knowledgably and Rukia smirked.

"That's what I thought. I need to get up there."

Ichigo looked down at her.

"Do you need me to-"

"Oh Gods, Ichigo, no. I can do it myself."

Her tone was exasperated but her eyes were kind, and Ichigo found he didn't mind getting things wrong this time around. But she had turned back around and was swinging around on those jutting blocks, and he was sure that she was going to fall so he decided to do something about it.

If you can help, you ought to.

Rukia felt a pair of hands on her waist and found herself winded as the arms they were attached to, easily lifted her away from the wall. They then slung her over a shoulder and she was immediately eye to eye with the base of Ichigo's spine.

"Ichigo!" she shouted but he hadn't heard or wasn't listening, but scaling the side of the house. When they were up, he lifted her off his shoulder and smiled at her. She gazed at him dumbly, then found she could do nothing but roll her eyes.

Instead of scolding him, a waste of time, she gathered her skirts and picked her way around the chimney stack. Immediately she spied the problem, nestled inside the round top of the chimney pot, it was a feathered one.

"Oh damn."

Of course this had to be more difficult than necessary. The stupid bird. If it had been in the nest at the time then Rukia would have done something unpleasant to it. Fortunately for the creature, all that remained of it was a few brown feathers and a single blue speckled egg.

"What's that?" asked Ichigo, coming up behind her and leaning over her head.

"A bird's nest."

She felt the intake of breath.

"Don't touch it, or the mother might not come back."

Rukia sighed, so it was going to be much more difficult than it really needed to be.

"I need to Ichigo, its damaging the chimney and by the looks, the mother hasn't been here for a while."

"You can't know that."

Rukia knew it didn't really matter one way or the other, the nest had to go, but she knew as well she would try hard to make him understand this first.

"Ichigo. I know its sad, but we need to move it."

His eyes fell.

"But the egg."

"We could keep it. I'll show you how to blow the shell."

Ichigo's eyes bounced back up to hers, a strong scowl overtook his face and for a moment Rukia saw that the look he wore was of repugnance.

"No? Alright then, I'll just get rid of it."

But Ichigo grabbed her wrist.

"I'll move it." he snapped and stepping past her with a lightness of foot, a creature like him should not possess, he scooped the nest out in one hand and cradled the whole thing against his chest as he crossed to the roof edge and descended. Rukia watched him, open mouthed as he walked towards the woods, over mulchy leaves.

The snap of a twig had her head spin around so fast that she could have sworn a second crack came from her neck.

"Oh no."

On the other side of the clearing, on the opposite side to the one Ichigo had left from-was the very same man from yesterday. Rukia looked back over her shoulder but Ichigo was out of sight. Her stomach lurched nervously but with a measure of relief. They were walking a knife edge here. It was a miracle that he hadn't seen Ichigo yesterday. Quickly she picked her way towards the end of the thatch, and waved madly, first order was to make sure that he didn't round the house.

"Go on inside, I'll come down."

He looked up, a mildly surprised look on his face, to see her on the roof but he didn't argue.

As the man walked for the door he glanced up again, but she was staring towards the woods and didn't see. He followed her gaze but could only see a couple of long tall birch trees, before the woods closed over the sky and man gave way to nature. He supposed that the witch could venture in there. Perhaps she had a familiar to guide her, an animal spirit, her soul manifesting in carnal form.

Involuntarily, he shivered. He needed to do this. If he could just do this, then his wife would be happy, and his children provided for. Or so he had been promised. Just confirmation of who she was, perhaps a description or a relic from her home. Quickly he walked around the house and looked from shelf to shelf, a stone anything like the ones he had been shown and that was it; that was all the deception that need take place. If he couldn't he would just have to figure out a way to get her to the village for a while, so that someone else could confirm just who she was.


He turned on the spot to see her standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the noonday sun, bright and gold in contrast with the gloomy-by-comparison cottage. He stared guiltily at her, wondering if he looked, as he suspected, just like a rabbit caught in the crosshairs of a gun. But she was looking at him benignly so perhaps she hadn't seen him. He swallowed the tight fear in his throat and made his face polite and to an extent, friendly.

"Hello, what were you doing on the roof?"

"Bird's nest in the chimney."

"Oh, I could get it out for you if you like."

"Oh no, don't worry, it's taken care of."

He nodded, watching as she glanced worriedly over her shoulder out of the nearest window. It actually had glass, that he was surprised about, his wife badgered him for the finer things he couldn't provide but this little girl, witch he reminded himself hastily, had it, without so much as a single trip to the coast in as long as he could remember. She was biting her lip still ignoring him so he coughed lightly to regain her eye and she leapt to attention, staring at him like she had forgotten her invitation to her home. She looked nervous to have him there.

"Is something wrong?"

"No!" she said, too quickly. In her slightly yellowing apron, her hands had balled into fists. "Um, you needed more of the same, right?" she eyed him with a mixture of concern and forced concentration, "How did she take the last lot?"

He jumped himself this time, remembering his ill daughter, an intense fever gained by going out in a storm blown inland from the ocean.

"Quite well, she's improving."

The witch relaxed a little and she smiled very quickly, suddenly he felt his heart lighten and flutter, she was a beautiful thing, if he wasn't married...

But as she brushed past him he felt the excitement turn to nausea, like his stomach was twisting over on itself. There, that must be why they said she was a witch. She tripped a little on her way to the shelves, but regained her balance with ease before reaching up and picking a small bottle, containing something the same colour as the remedy she had given him yesterday and one speckled feather.

"Here," she said, with a sigh like sound, "There should be enough there for a while, and a charm for a faster recovery. You can have that for free, just hang it around her neck, it should protect her from sickness for a while, but tell her not to go out in the rain without a cape again." From her lips it sounded like a duty but she pressed the feather on him anyway.

His mouth opened but he couldn't think of anything to say,

"I, um-thank you."

"Don't worry about it."

She turned around and untied her apron laying it over the back of the chair.

"Um, I'm sorry ma'am."

"Kuchiki," she supplied, "and why?"

"I-I don't have the money to pay you now."

Her eyebrows creased and he felt his stomach lurch again, although he wondered if that was just because he was telling himself he should be nervous. She didn't look that scary. Not really.

"But I can give you something else!" he filled in quickly as she made to move towards him. Or so he assumed by the way she squared her stance.

"Like what?" she asked, looking through narrowed eyes.

"Um, anything, if you would come to my home tomorrow or another day, I could give you some root vegetables or some cured meat. Perhaps I could have my wife make you a dress."

Something in her eyes sparked and she took a step towards him.

"If you could, then I need something made especially the right size."

She turned back to her shelves again, skirt swinging along the well swept floor, and pulled down a small leather bound notebook on the end, leaning against a jug. There was a small pencil stuck between the spine and the papers which she pulled out and pushed behind her ear while she flicked through, looking for a page that was free of scribbles and burn-marks or stains.

"I need something specific. If I could get measurements to you, do you think that your wife could make something for me? That can be your payment, no extra charge."

The man was astounded. She hadn't declined. In fact she was willing to come in to the village on her own and see him, considering the animosity towards her in general this was a wonderful turn of events. He didn't have to steal anything. She was scratching out a note in the book, before she tucked the pencil back in place and snapped it closed.

She looked back up at him and he caught his breath because she was suddenly smiling kindly and he was positive now that he didn't want to lie to her, but he had caught her favour, intentionally or not and he didn't want to lose it. If only he hadn't already agreed to what he was doing.

She had replaced her notebook on the shelf now, and turned around with a smile. As he brushed past her he felt his stomach get caught in that unpleasant grip again, but it was only one tenth of what it had been before. He noticed too, he could look down on the top of her head as she passed and realised that unless she had some magic then he would be able to overpower her easily, and he wasn't sure she even had that kind of spell in her arsenal. He felt at once, both smug about this and a little silly for being so nervous, but it didn't matter either way, if they were on pleasant terms.

A witch as an ally, no one in the village would dare cheat him at a price now.

She was standing the doorway now, arms crossed, waiting for him to leave and he hurried towards her quickly. She seemed to draw in on herself and he slowed down, but only for a moment before he decided he had imagined it. He stood before her, clutching his charm and remedy in one hand.

"It's a paste, rub it on her chest at night and put some in her tea to drink, but not too much."

He looked down at her, she looked very unintimidating now, and she was just too tiny to be dangerous. Moving his feather to the other hand, he held out a hand to shake. For a moment, her face was blank as a piece of paper, uncomprehending, but then, realising her mistake, she shook out her dark hair with a smile and took his hand. There was only the slightest turn of his stomach this time as her small, cool, white fingers slid into his. How odd, he thought, that she shouldn't even have any calluses.


It took only a second, but the young woman's face turned ghastly white, physically bloodless as she looked at a point beyond his left shoulder. Her grip became like a clamp on his hand and he actually gasped at it's strength, strength he had assumed she wouldn't possess, and therefore written off. He began to turn and see the originator of the voice but she grasped his shoulder and pulled him back. She did not meet his eyes as she spoke to the person behind him but had her gaze fixed on a point a good foot or so about his head.

"Ichi-" she stopped herself, "Please go out around the back." And she shot whoever 'Ichi' was a look that clearly said, 'do not argue'.

Silence, no sound of footsteps.

"Ichi...go." She ground out through a clenched jaw her fine eyes, flashing. She still had a hardy grip on her customer's hand seconded by her hold on his arm.

A beat. Then footsteps moving around the back of the house.

Another moment passed, and her eyes closed briefly and her grip lessened enough for him to wiggle her fingers. When her eyes did reopen, she fixed him with a charming smile, but one that didn't reach her opalescent eyes. It was a fixed smile, the sort he saw on the 'better off' daughters of the village but somehow far more refined than theirs. While they would appear flirtatious, she was cool and collected.

"Thank you for your custom. I will come to your home the day after tomorrow and deliver your wife the measurements."

"The day after tomorrow?"

"Yes, it is most convenient for me."

He waited but she didn't elaborate, just stood there blinking at him, cool, somewhat unnerving smile, still in place, when did her eyes get that icy quality? He glanced behind him but there was no one there. The owner of the voice had gone. Quite suddenly, a breeze picked up around them and tugged on a few errant strands of her hair, especially that long one between her eyes. It sent such a chill through him that he quickly detached his hand from hers; stretching out his fingers like he had an itch he couldn't scratch.

"Did you have something else that you needed?"

And her speech had become unsettlingly formal. Not the easy tone she had greeted him with.

"Er, no."

"Good, day after tomorrow then?"


She smiled and stepped back. He took this as his cue to leave, and he took a few sideways steps before he got up the courage to turn his back completely. The only thing that stopped him from running was the feather he grasped in one fist, was the feather he was naive enough to believe would protect him from the wrath of a witch.

Rukia watched him go, she stayed tight in her place and did not move, even though her legs felt like they were straining to run and run to Ichigo and hold him tight.

She waited until he had gone beyond the tree line then let out a shuddering breath the one she had been holding since that last 'yes'. It was all going perfectly, of course until Ichigo had come around the corner. The three of them in such close quarters and she was sure in that moment her heart had stopped. If he had turned...

She didn't want to think about it.

Deception or ill-will.

When she had brushed past him in the house she had felt her wards flare. It had knocked her off balance for a moment, like she had suddenly been blasted by a hot wind and punched in the head at the same time, not hard, but still, punched. She recovered quickly though, in time, she hoped that he hadn't noticed her trip. She had felt sick for the few seconds it took for the magic to settle but after that...

The only thing was, as he kept touching her, brushes and finally the hand shake, the flares had lessened. Like he was changing his mind. And he had been normal yesterday, just a worried father.

She felt herself begin to shake and bend over slightly, breathing hard. Great, a panic attack, of course she gets it when the danger has passed, that's just typical. But it was better than letting her composure slip when he was still there. Actually she was quite proud that she had stayed so calm. It just goes to show, her old lessons hadn't been knocked out of her. Composure and control.

Suddenly a bright orange head peeked around the edge of the house and looked at her.

"Ichigo," she sighed, her chest still hurting a little as she straightened up. "I'm sorry that I had to-"

"It's alright," he said, with a sad smile, he stared at the dead leaves under his feet kicking at them lightly, "I need to hide quite a lot."

He looked a little sheepish.

"I shouldn't have come around the corner."

In that moment Rukia felt her mask break, her vision swam a little and she forced the tears back down.

"You didn't know, it's okay," she said hoarsely, hoping he wouldn't hear her voice crack, "Did you find somewhere to put the egg?"

He smiled at that and Rukia found it hard not to smile with him.

"Yeah, I found another nest."

"Really?" She was surprised, "How did you do that?"

A dark look overtook him then. "I've spent a lot of time in the woods."

"Oh of course," there was a moment, where the pause was almost awkward, he continued to stare at the floor while she had her arms crossed, but then he looked up, excited about something.

"I found something!" he cried, "I forgot! I need to show you!" And he seized her hand, pulling her away in the woods. Then he was yanking her towards the tree line. "Come on!"

He turned and ran faster, almost dragging her behind him, she had to seize her skirts in one hand to keep them above her ankles and stumbled once or twice before she began relying on his hand and settling to the rhythm of his strides. She began to feel more and more like a child with every step running for the hell of it. They passed the bleached bones of trees, countless, the dark stripes marking their trunks look like they had been wrapped in ribbons.

Early in the year the forest always looked so dead; it comprised of three colours, white, brown (in varying shades) and black. They passed masses of them, all repeating their pattern over and over until Rukia felt quite dizzy, then Ichigo leapt over a log and landed with a shake of the ground around him, in a deep patch of mulched up leaves, they buried him up to his ankles. Rukia declined stepping down, it probably would have consumed her shins and that meant bugs getting up her skirt, instead she balanced on the fallen log. They weren't even in a clearing. Around them the trees stood like pillars, their long spidery limbs reaching for the grey sky, bare of leaves, like a web, tangling and weaving together in places, parting in others. The sun light streamed through the mass of branches, cold and white, a winter's day.

"Look," urged Ichigo, tugging on her hand. Rukia looked and saw; a new colour. Purple. The tremulous little bells of snow drop flowers.

They ringed the base of the biggest tree in the vicinity, amassed at the base like children playing ring-a-roses. They were the children in the forest world of adult trees, because they were new. They were in the spring.

He didn't know why he had stopped. He didn't need to. It was so unnecessary, he had all he needed. She was coming to the village and she had said her name was Kuchiki. That was all, there was nothing else required of him.

Yet here he was crouching behind a ridge topped by a few wild tangles of shrubbery, watching the house he had just left, while the witch stood outside, staring at the spot he had disappeared from. Luckily for him he had moved a good twenty or so feet to the right of where he had sunk into the trees, he wasn't the best poacher in town for nothing. He knew how to hide.

She leaned over slightly, like she was about to vomit, and clutched a hand to the front of her dress. Then something appeared around the side of the house. A movement, a sound, then...

Lord in heaven.

Ichigo sat at the table with his head on his arms. He stared at the two snow drops in a tiny little bottle at its centre and sighed.

So this was the start of spring.

It was the same colour as her eyes.

He had objected when she had picked one of the flowers but she had pointed out the many more that were left to bloom and cut one away from its fellows with a little silver knife, she had paused, and then chosen another.

"There," she said, "now it won't be lonely." And she had turned and begun the walk home.

Ichigo listened to her bustling around behind him, making dinner. He had offered to help and she had let him peel some long green, strong smelling vegetables and carrots she had in the store under the floor. But he was finished now and she had bid him just sit down, because she needed to move easily. For a while he had been a little miffed but then had become preoccupied with the flowers and was sat only in quiet study.

Finally his eyes drifted out of the window, to the large clearing around the house. He could imagine now, where the pump was from here, to the left of the front door, not far from the corner of the house, but out a little. Its stone trough waiting for water that he would bring forth. On the opposite side, on the right were the brambles he had hidden behind when he had first seen the light from the house. Their little house of grey stone with a thatched roof, Ichigo smiled as his eyes fluttered closed. Their home. It was sunken into the ground and discoloured from age, it needed a fire going at all times, the door creaked or stuck and Rukia had to kick it a few times to make sure it moved. There was an odd smell emitting from the store hole, Rukia wasn't sure what, and these chairs by all accounts looked far too delicate to hold him up for a long time.

But Ichigo was in love with this place, and he proved it by drifting off to sleep at the table as Rukia made their dinner.

The man in front of him was swigging at the ale he had been bought.

By comparison to his fellow he was a pale thing with a haunted hollow look, he put down the tankard only to wipe his mouth with his sleeve then picked it right back up again. When he was finally done he slammed it down on the table top, others able to see that his cheeks were a little too pink and eyes too bright, but so long as he was still conscious his companion didn't care.

The drinker's mysterious counterpart had kept his hood up in the bar, the only part of him visible were his hands, which were clasped on the table. He had good reason; his appearance in these parts was memorable. Already his hands had garnered a few curious looks.

"Did you do as was asked?" he asked from beneath the hood, quite deep so that no one could eavesdrop. It was better than whispering, which was no better than glorified hissing; but, of course, that was exactly what his informant did, leaning forward conspicuously even in the rowdy warmth of the bar. His breath reeked of alcohol, but the man did not lean away. Still the informant glanced around as he cupped a hand to his mouth.

"I saw her yeah, her name is Kutch-k-ki," he hiccupped, "Tiny thing, black hair, big blue eyes, or purple. Depends which way you look."

"Yes, you said that yesterday," said the hooded man, only a hint of annoyance in his voice, "But the name is enough."

"Oh but she's coming to my home day after yesterday-tomorrow!" he said with indignance, "Do you know what my wife will do when I tell her that? Don't say it was for nothing."

His fellow shifted under the hood.

"It doesn't matter. All we required was a name, description and confirmation of location."

He looked disheartened at the words but then his face turned triumphant and yet frightened.

"I have something else for you!"

It didn't faze him when he was ignored, instead he hissed drunkenly, "She's not alone out there," his voice went up in pitch and he shuddered, "God above, I don't know what it is. It's not a man, it can't be,"

He could hear the tremor in the man's voice and hoped he wouldn't have to knock him out if he made a scene.

"Oh it's eyes," he wailed, suddenly banging his head, quite hard, on the pitted table top, his tone changing as he spoke, "they were yellow; horrible, watery, yellow eyes. And its face was white like its body! It looked like something that had slithered out of the grave with these deep scars all over it, red and puckered, I'm sure it was holding it together. And it moved all ungainly!" he did a violent impression, twitching in his chair, before he reached out and seized the edge of the man's cloak, "Like it was unbalanced, like it hadn't walked until then."

He cried out, fisting his other hand in his hair. "I pray I never lay my eyes on that thing again."

The hooded companion carefully removed the unwelcome grip from the edge of the cloak with one dark skinned hand, and then brushed the patch off before reaching into his pocket and pulling out a money bag. He threw it on the table and it landed with a clink.

For a moment the pale man came out of his self induced torrent of self-pity and grabbed at the bag. He weighed it and frowned.

"Hey you promised me more than this!"

But the dark man was standing up and pulling at his cloak to straighten it. Then the man made a grave mistake and made a clumsy grab at the retreater's arm, an arm that he soon found pinned to the table while another hand clamped around his throat. It squeezed with surprising strength considering the fine quality he had thought he saw in the fingers. That was the second time he had been caught out like that today.

"You drank the rest of it," came a sharp voice from under the cloak, anger showing through for the first time, then his fingers met the cord around the other's throat and ran down until he felt something soft tied to it.

"What is that?"

The pale man grinned stupidly, "A charm, the witch gave it to me for my daughter, but when I got in she looked at it and gave it right back. Love that she is, said, 'You have it Dad, you look like you need it more than me.' Clever girl, mine." He lapsed into happy silence, apparently forgetting the hand around his throat, maybe under the delusion that that feather was protecting him.

Under his cloak the man's lip curled and he sneered openly before shoving the man back by the neck into the seat of the booth. He fell back and hit the wall with a thump, but didn't even seem to jar him, perhaps he was too far gone. Either way it mattered not. He knew he would never come across the man again.

Walking away from the booth across the floor towards the door, he wove amongst the tables, nodding towards keeper. The man behind it narrowed his eyes a little but let him go. Not that he could have stopped him. It amused the hooded man a little that the aging, sallow thing had been fingering the unwieldy gun he kept under the counter, when he would have been dead before he could even reach for it. With one last sweep of the bar, he breathed his last lungful of the noxious scents before stepping out into the cool night and heading down the street, his purse lighter but with the information he needed.

The Master will be pleased, he thought as he went sweeping into the night.

Meanwhile, inside the bar another cloaked figure stood up at his corner booth and began to pick his way through the tables, he nodded too, at the man behind the bar, who rolled his eyes-really was his place just a honey-trap for freaks tonight?-and sat down opposite the man slumped in his seat, staring forlornly into an empty tankard.

"What do you want now? I already told you everything," he moaned clutching the money he had been given close to his chest.

The other chuckled, "Oh, you mistake me friend. I just thought you could use the company."

This time the rumpled man eyed his compatriot and saw, to his surprise that the man was in fact a different one. He was larger, much larger, for he could see muscles bulging from his shoulders through the cloak he wore and the parts he could see of his jaw were also square, unlike the pointed chin he had glimpsed before. That and his voice was kind.

"I watched you get er... short changed."

The man laughed wearily at that, "Yeah, s'what I get for being dishonest, cheaters get cheated."

The man said nothing, but reached inside his cloak instead and produced a bag about half full of money, more or less exactly like the one that had been exchanged minutes before.

"Now I can top you up," began the hooded one, "On two conditions, the first is you drink no more, and when we are done then you go home to your family," he waited until he got a nod, "the second is you tell me everything that you just told my friend that left, including what he asked of you in the first place and not omitting something I heard about a monster. How about that?"

"I say that's just fine," said the fellow suddenly sitting up with a lopsided grin and looking altogether more alert, "And the name is Asano. Where do you want me to start?"

Yeah, sort of failed to mention that it was monstrously long, didn't I? It was nearly 7,000 words at the last count. I will need to go and nurse my repetative strain injury now.

Who guessed that Keigo was Keigo? I must admit I didn't turn him into Keigo until the final scene began and even then I wasn't sure. But yes, that is Keigo and yes some woman was crazy enough to marry him and bare his children *shudders*

Question no.2: Who wants to take a guess at who the two hooded wonders are? The first is fairly obvious but I will be interested to see who gets the second right.

Hopefully it won't take me so long next time, touch wood, *strokes desk, then does it once more for good measure*

Remember to review, the more reviews the quicker I update. We've had roughly 20 per chapter so far, shall we make that the aim again? I think so.