Well, another few months have passed, and you finally have a new chapter! Yay!

Seriously, sorry for the delay between chapters. I wish I could defeat writer's block with a flick of my wrist, but avast, she be a hardy enemy.

So, for all of you still on board, please enjoy!

It's so hard to forget pain,

But it's even harder to remember sweetness.

We have no scar to show for happiness.

We learn so little from peace.

-Chuck Palahniuk, Diary

For awhile now, reader, this story has pushed on and forsaken the in depth conversations in order to move the plot along. Together, we have been through a journey of heartbreak and despair, past the chasm of darkness, and right now fingernails dig into the rocks in search of light.

And perhaps you are eager to reach the finale, but allow this story a few moments of reflection, just some words to be able to describe the previously untouched. At the beginning of this story, so long ago, some rules were mentioned, rules that needed to be remembered when considering where our protagonists fit in the cosmic land of light and shadow.

See, if you remember correctly, light and shadow play parts fundamental to your understanding, However, it never meant to be about the two concepts. Instead, this story had been written for the ultimate purpose of relaying a tale which needed to be told.

To be frank, the main point of this discussion is to remind you that light and shadow, as inherit opposites, then inherently have pieces of each other within themselves. This, reader, is where the story crosses from the literal to the figurative, meaning that as much as light and shadow interact in the physical world, the balance and trigger between the two, and the real interest, lies in the way light and shadow react and conflict within a person, within their hearts.

Don't turn away and blanch just yet, reader. Clichés don't always have to be a bad thing. Whether you prefer mind, soul, heart, whether they are the same to you or different, let's just imagine this story speaks about whatever driving force moves the body forward, and causes a person to act the way they do.

Light in shadow, and shadow in light. Opposite completion. Every person has them both inside (although don't mistake, reader, that light automatically means good, and shadow evil), and every person has these two forces in constant conflict, within their heart/brain/soul, whichever you prefer.

Don't be misled by stereotypes, reader. Remember that while shadow tends to harbor darkness, so does light, and darkness which hides in light tends to be especially evil, due to the brightness that blinds people to light's darkness. This, reader, is the shadow that resides within light.

And while shadow scares people, and harbors both evil and darkness, shadow knows more, remembers more, and sees more than light does. It can be selective over its memories, but overall, shadow is terribly fair, and in its eyes, everything is equal. That is the light that harbors within shadow.

However, no one ever said that for any amount of shadow, the amount of light has to match it. Sometimes, light overtakes the soul, with only small parts of shadow to reside. Sometimes shadow takes over, and sometimes they intertwine quite well. Other times, the balance shifts dramatically, and in this event, the person is often left in a sort of shock.

In this case, that person would be a person you should know by now, reader, even if not well. Her name is Hinamori Momo, and as far as Soul Reapers go, she has endured quite a lot of shocks throughout her life.

Meeting Aizen, being betrayed by Aizen, being cut up by Aizen, many of her most decisive moments revolved around that man. To be honest, Aizen, with his sort of power, took Momo under his wing in the most brutal way possible. He wrapped her around his finger, made himself her whole world, and when he finally decided to reveal himself, he cut his losses by doing his best to slice her neck.

Understandably, this shocked Momo a lot.

By nature, Momo wasn't a bad person. In fact, she cared far more than what she really should. She loved her friends, and hated when circumstances left them in danger. She didn't like to fight, she liked people to get along.

But like any other person, she had weaknesses. And Aizen, being the snake he could be, found a rather easy way to squirm himself into her blind sight, practically taking her soul in the process.

The reason this story discusses the past, reader, is because this fine day should have just been another normal one, in Momo's book. Sure, she woke up in the hospital with soreness and atrophied muscles, but she could feel herself growing stronger. Everyday, she asked Unohana with eager eyes, "have you heard anything about Captain Aizen? Is he back yet?"

She always chirped the same line, and always the strange look would pass over Retsu's face, one Momo didn't exactly understand, but chalked it up to internal worries. The healer always shook her head softly at Momo's eager gaze, and it never failed to send her eyes downcast in a sad sort of way. "Oh," she would sigh. "Well, I'm sure he'll be back soon!"

To Unohana, her blind devotion would be admirable, if it weren't so disturbed.

What probably bothered Unohana most, though, was that Aizen seemed to be the only person Momo ever asked about. Sometimes she asked for Renji or Kira, and more often Toshiro, but those moments were few and far between. Unohana knew she couldn't talk about Renji's death without bringing up all the months Momo's brain couldn't remember.

Toshiro hadn't been around in awhile – due to recent missions, but Unohana had seen him recently. He looked much healthier. He had been in a hurry, so he only asked for an update on Rangiku, not his childhood friend.

Not that Unohana could tell him much that wouldn't disturb him. With as much as Momo worried and talked about Aizen, Kira's visits seemed to assuage her of any need to seek the tenth captain out.

And on this day, reader, mistakes were made. Suppose they started out with Hinamori, who, despite her orders to remain in bed and rest, decided she wanted to go outside, and maybe have a look for Aizen herself. She trusted and adored him so much – she just knew he had to be innocent.

So when no squad members were nearby, and the infirmary looked and sounded quiet, she pulled on her robes and slipped outside as quietly as she could. It took her a moment to find her way to an exit, but being small had its advantages, and she left unseen.

Once outside, the sun hit her skin and she stretched her arms, welcoming the heat warmly. It felt like forever since she had ventured outside, and she knew it probably showed in the pale sallow texture of her skin. She barely walked a hundred feet, and her legs already began to feel like jell-o. She still wasn't sure of how much time she spent in a coma, but it must have been awhile to cause her muscle to atrophy like this.

With a weary sigh, she ventured to a tree to lean herself against the trunk, smiling at the cool of the shade as she lifted her chin to look at the clear blue of the sky. So deep, so ethereally beautiful, she thought to herself. She loved to sit on a grassy hilltop and watch the clouds go by, imagining stories within their shapes.

While she collected her strength and daydreamed, two fourth squad members ambled by, talking loudly amongst themselves as they took their breaks, strolling calmly beneath the trees.

Perhaps this could be fate, reader, and perhaps it was coincidence. Either way, when they passed by, their conversation reached Momo's ears, and although she heard their words for only a moment, a moment is all it takes for worlds to be destroyed.

"…doesn't look like she's getting any better, does she?" asked one of them – a short, spunky girl with spiked, artificial blue hair and a compassionate smile. "The Captain said she'll probably die pretty soon."

The other one, a taller girl with a much more platonic demeanor nodded. "She probably doesn't even want to wake up," she sighed. "She hasn't been the same, ever since Captain Ichimaru died."

The shorter girl nodded, a sad, sympathetic look in her eyes. "The Winter War cost us all dearly," she said softly. "Who'd of thought Aizen could have caused us that much grief? We're lucky we had as few casualties as we did."

The taller girl agreed, saying something else, but Momo couldn't hear, because her mind suddenly flashed into overdrive. Those words… that casual conversation… and suddenly her world had been turned upside down. Light and shadow flared within her, fighting for dominance.

Sometimes, reader, light and shadow don't signify good and bad, respectively. Because here, the light sought her compassionate side – the side which trusted Aizen in the first place.

But the shadow knows and remembers a lot more than light ever could. And shadow demanded for her to face the truth.

Underneath the sheen of the clear blue sky, Hinamori let out a screaming sob of confused terror, lifting her hands to her head and tearing out her own hair. She couldn't stand, she couldn't breathe. She couldn't feel when the two squad members came running back, with reinforcements following, and they grabbed her hands to keep them from scratching at her skin, and tried to tell her to stay calm! Stay calm! Everything's fine!

but she didn't listen, because she couldn't hear them.

All she could hear was the sound of shadow snarling its way passed light, and forcing her to remember, to listen and to know.

All she could hear was the sound of her world turning to dust, all over again.

"I talked to her today."




"Lieutenant Kuchiki."

"I got it," Kira sighed, handing his friend the bottle of sake. Hisagi had practically blown down his door at nearly three in the morning, blubbering about Rangiku and Momo and Kuchiki as well. In his sleepy daze, Kira first thought he was telling him about his love conquests.

And then reality hit.

With a cold, tired glare, he set out two cups, but they forwent them to drink straight from the bottle. Kira always preferred the taste more – stronger than sipping it from those tiny glasses. Hisagi, of course, agreed, although not for completely admirable reasons.

"What did you say?" Kira asked as Hisagi hiccupped and lent his palm to support his chin. He looked horrible, Izuru noted, with sagging bags under his eyes and a decrepit frown that would not leave his face. He'd been spending more and more nights at the hospital. Kira only knew this because he visited Momo frequently as well.

At least he tried to. This morning he went to have morning tea with her, but he was stopped outside her door by a couple of squad members who explained that, while trying to sneak out of the infirmary, Momo heard some things.

'What kind of things?' Kira asked, and the miserable feeling squad member answered that she heard the things she wasn't supposed to hear. And once she heard some of it, she demanded to hear the rest.

'The rest sent her into a shock,' the squad member added. Isane, overhearing this discussion, then pointed out that Momo's 'shock' was more like an all-out rampage as she demanded to see the Captain Commander and have this mess straightened out. Eventually, they had to sedate her.

As far as Kira knew, Momo still floated in blissful dreamland. He wondered what it would be like for her when she finally woke up.

He shook his head of these thoughts, knowing that while Momo had issues, Hisagi stood right before him, and needed his help the most. Within him, Kira saw the same things Rukia had. A begrudging acceptance began to linger in Hisagi's thoughts, the battle raging inside of light and shadow beginning to fade as shadow demanded him to face the truth. He couldn't run anymore. He had to face his denial.

Yet as horrible as Hisagi looked, Kira felt more hopeful for him than he had in many months. Hisagi, while constantly conflicted, was a strong man. For now, he would drown his sorrows in sake and sympathetic company. Tomorrow, he would stand with clear eyes and a straight back, because he could shoulder those burdens.

"She's different," Hisagi slurred, throwing back another gulp. "She looks brighter… you know? That doesn't sound right. She looks more alive, I guess."

Then Hisagi wanted to drop the subject, and Kira let him. He didn't have to hear about the whole exchange to know that somewhere along the line, things had changed. Both Hisagi and Rukia were finding a way to cope. Hisagi acknowledged his transference of guilt. Rukia, apparently, was beginning to realize that her overwhelming guilt helped nobody, especially not herself.

Guilt never really went away, and Kira knew that from experience. But, reader, when you decide you need to heal, that's where light comes in. The brightness of light both dulls and softens the hard edges of guilt, until, one day, the hand remembers how to fight.

"I was just wondering if you wanted to go somewhere with me."

Toshiro hadn't really meant to surprise her, so when he told her where he wanted to go, and she agreed, she first made him stop off at a spot for lunch where she could fill a pack for snacks and water. He watched this with raised eyebrows, and she said rather without guilt, "we should have a picnic."

"A picnic?" he echoed with a snort. "Isn't that something people in the world of the living do?"

"No, it's something we're going to do," she retorted, packing rice cakes and a strawberry treat. "I'm ready, how about you?"

He didn't dignify that with a response. Instead, he set off walking down the street, only pausing for a moment so she could catch up. He wouldn't say it, but he felt faintly surprised that she seemed so cheerful (well, cheerful for Rukia), with her impending engagement.

He didn't voice his wonder, but she must have sensed it. The whole time they walked, she told him about her brother, and how he promised to protect her from the elders' decisions. In truth, that didn't strike Toshiro as too strange. Byakuya was a strong-minded fellow, not easily swayed by rash decisions.

When he voiced this to Rukia, he glanced over to see a soft, subtle smile on her lips, a reaction of fond admiration. He remembered the distant time where Byakuya once fought to keep Rukia on death row. Those adventures seemed like a whole other lifetime ago.

"He's all I could ask for in a brother," she murmured, violet eyes cast to the sky. "Even if he's a bit hard to read."

Maybe an understatement, but, hey, who was Hitsugaya to talk? His subordinates always (secretly) criticized him for being so hard to approach.

"We're here," Rukia said softly, although the captain could already see that. He stared out at the vast green field, littered with crosses and gravestones. He couldn't see anybody else present. Here the dead are, he mused, and here the dead stay.

Her expression looked hesitant, no matter how much she tried to hide it. Her hands fisted at her side, and she clutched the picnic tighter to her ribs. Here she had a bid for freedom, a bid for the future, but only if she could dare face her past, as painful as it might be.

And Toshiro knew that pain, felt that pain. He struggled hard with the battle of light and shadow, reader, and in the end he did what everyone has to do – accepted that both existed within him, both lived in his soul, and he'd never be rid of that fact. The more he grew, the more he understood that he didn't want to be rid of it either.

He took the first step, but she didn't follow. She stared up the paths and trembled, as if caught in a wild wind no one else could feel. Her violet eyes stayed round and daunted. Hitsugaya sighed. Moving on has never been easy.

But moving on is much easier with a friend.

So he stepped back, and this time he took her hand with his own. By now, he was beginning to learn her hand well – the way it tightened when anxious, or loosened when calm. The curvature of her fingers, and the wrinkly warmth of her palms. She gave him a look of surprise, but he merely stared back at her. He wanted his expression to be meaningful, but he could feel his cheeks pink lightly in a blush.

Luckily, she also looked a little red at their contact, and he ignored both the quickened palpitations of his heart and the sweat on his hands to chalk it up to the lack of regular physical contact with other people. Sure, he might feel shaky, but he suspected that was because he normally did his best to avoid holding hands with girls.

Women, his mind corrected him, and he begrudgingly admitted his mistake. No one who lived through what Rukia had could be called anything but a woman.

Whether it was his strength or weakness, or apparent blend of both, she tightened her hand around his, and stepped forward as well. "We can't be too long," she panted as they climbed steadily upwards. "I have a lot of new responsibilities, you know."

"And I don't?" he scoffed in return, making her chuckle slightly. She had a beautiful laugh – the type of laugh that came directly from the belly, and resounded in an infectious way. He wondered, as innocently as he could, if he could make her laugh like that more.

Not today, though. They stopped at the top, and stared at the row of graves. In life, so much separated her friends. In death, they lay buried side by side, save for Tatsuki and Ichigo, both having been buried in the world of the living.

They didn't bring any flowers, he thought with regret, but Rukia didn't seem to mind. She set down her pack of food beneath the shade of a tree, far enough away from the graves to avoid sitting on any bodies. "I'll be back," she said, and while his hand missed hers, he knew he shouldn't follow.

Instead, she gave him the privacy he knew he needed. Sure, he hadn't ever really been close with Ichigo's gang, but that didn't mean he couldn't care for them. One by one, he knelt at each grave, reading the etchings and closing his eyes as he sent small prayers.

Renji Abarai, the first read. Uryu Ishida, Orihime Inoue, Yasutora Sado. In death, Chad wanted his birth name engraved, not his nickname. Under each name was a short message, detailing standing, such as Lieutenant, Quincy, Ryoka, and 'Chad' Fullbringer. The last one had been a bit of a joke. The large man always had a quiet sense of humor.

And while Hitsugaya didn't really know any of them personally, he sent them prayers to watch over Rukia, watch over Ichigo's family, and watch over the rest of the living who had been left behind. When he finished, he stood up and brushed the grass and dirt from his knees, turning to see Rukia staring at him.

She looked a bit surprised as she met his gaze. "I didn't mean to intrude," she whispered, her eyes wide. Toshiro shrugged – it wasn't as if he'd been telling the graves all about his deepest secrets.

"It's fine," he assured her, looking at her hands where she held an armful of flowers. They were nothing special – normal wildflowers that grew naturally, but the variations of color struck him as simply pretty. "I'll give you a bit of privacy."

"You don't have to," she said automatically, but he knew better. Although he didn't feel too hungry, he scooped up one of the rice balls from her pack and set off down one of the paths, until he couldn't see her anymore. He found a tree to rest against, and sat with his back pressed against the bark, sniffing and eating the onigiri.

He didn't know when exactly the thought to bring her to her friends' graves struck him. He supposed he sort of got the idea from her – after all, she ran away from her brother and her duty so she could see Ichigo one last time. While she would definitely be back at that grave, and at these ones too, it felt important, as if she could finally let go of the past somehow.

The past liked to hold onto people. It was a fine line – one where he had to figure out what part of it would help him up, would teach him to grow stronger, and which part would break him. Sometimes, one had to look to the past in order to define a future. Sometimes, one had to let it go. And slowly, Hitsugaya was learning how to do that.

After this, he decided he would go see Rangiku again. Last time, he had barely been able to look at her sleeping face. Now, he felt that he could look at her again. He could hold her hand, however clammy and limp, and tell her just how much he appreciated her, how much he still owed her. Without her, he might not have even become a Soul Reaper. She changed his life, and although he would always (fondly) remember the moments she drove him crazy, she always had his back. He didn't think he'd ever find a better lieutenant.

He owed her one last visit, at least, where he could tell her this, and maybe she would hear him. Even if she didn't wake up, he didn't want her to die not knowing how much he really cared.

As he mused on this, the rice ball he'd taken only a single bite from lay forgotten in his lap. He stared up at the sky, practically jumping when he noticed another being coming towards him. He looked up to see Rukia, standing just beside him. Her cheeks looked red and puffy, stained with tear tracks. But she smiled anyways, so he smiled back.

"Let's eat," Rukia said, but instead of taking him back to the other graves, she sat down next to him with her pack. Silently, she took away the onigiri he had started, and replaced it with a fresh one. "This one has dirt on it," she pointed out when he protested. "Didn't you notice?"

Well, no. He didn't. But he wasn't about to tell her that, so he simply grumbled and took the one she offered him, mumbling meanly under his breath. When he glanced at her hotly from the sides of his eyes, he saw her practically grinning, a soft chuckle escaping her lips.

She looked… not happy, but almost. In a bid for a change of subject, he asked, "what's your favorite memory of Renji?"

She froze, and he didn't have to look at her to see her expression in his mind. The widening of her eyes, and the slight parting of her lips. Tears sprang silently forward, and he caught them with his fingers. The past – the one trying to break her – still followed her. But he wanted her to know, wanted her to understand, that things didn't have to be this way.

"I remember walking in once after he'd been drinking with Rangiku," he started off instead, leaning his head back against the trunk. "Rangiku had always been a heavy drinker, but this time Renji beat her, and he was able to do something to her, as part of their bet."

He said those words in such a straight-laced, deadpanned expression, Rukia nearly dissolved into giggles, a strange sensation as she just couldn't seem to keep those tears from dripping down her face. She wiped them off obstinately, asking, "what did he do?"

Hitsugaya turned to look at her, his face a mixture of amusement and disgust. "He drew on her," he said, smiling as Rukia started to laugh. "First he drew Hisagi's 69 tattoo, then a bunch of doodles-"

"-which were probably inappropriate-"

"-and then he started drawing cartoons of me and Ichimaru and Hisagi and Kira, and probably a lot more," Hitsugaya grimaced. "When she woke up, she was still pretty drunk. No one told her what was on her face, and she walked all the way to my office looking like that."

He finished his story, having to raise his voice to be heard over Rukia's laugh. He was right – she had a deep laugh, a belly laugh that sounded so rich and deep. Then he laughed too, because hers was infectious, and because he could still remember staring at Rangiku with absolute horror when she came tumbling in through his door, red-faced and drunk and absolutely covered with black drawings. Moreover, she seemed too drunk to care, and although he yelled at her to go take a damn bath, she shoved him aside with her odor and fell fast asleep on his couch.

The memory made him ache. The more he thought about it, the more he joined in with Rukia's laughter. But at the same time, a piece of him said, you'll never see Rangiku be drunk again. You'll never yell at her for not doing paperwork again. You'll never turn to ask her if she has your back again. Then he started to cry.

It surprised him. For a few blind moments, he had thought he could have put this past behind him, that he was already moving on. Now, he realized that had been foolish of him to believe – just as naïve as all his other actions. Everything still hung over him – a black veil of pain and agony. Here he thought he could be strong enough to help Kuchiki along, and now he realized, with a bitter laugh, he was in the exact same boat as her, and maybe he always had been.

She must have seen his tears, but she didn't comment. Instead, she threaded his hand with his, and this time he took no time to be embarrassed. He held it back, because he felt it belonged there, with him. He could no longer place himself on a pedestal, he could no longer deny what exactly had become of him.

He was Toshiro Hitsugaya, Captain of the Tenth, wielder of Hyorinmaru, proud, icy and dignified. But life had broken him down, so he would spend his time rebuilding, holding hands with a raven-haired street noble while laughing and crying and remembering every single thing he would ever miss.

Just for the sake of moving on.

Stay relaxed, reader, and allow for this story to switch its focus, if only for a short while. As focused as this story is on Rukia and Toshiro, and as hard as it can be to hear, the rest of the world turns while they grieve. People live, love, laugh and die with no knowledge of this pain.

And even those with knowledge continue to thrive. In the pits of synthetic darkness, reader, you'll find the dark, eerie labs of the Twelfth Division, absolutely famous for their progress in research and development. Founded by Kisuke Urahara, now control falls directly into the hands of Captain Kurotsuchi – someone who perhaps created the stigma for the phrase 'mad scientist'.

Yet for all his insanity, Kurotsuchi is not captain of this division for nothing. He has intelligence and creativity which, although sometimes elaborated on in sadistic ways, have proved invaluable to the Soul Society.

Even he fell under the command of Captain Yamamoto, but sometimes, he liked to pass on his more inane tasks to his seated officers, who always looked eager for a challenge. Akon, in particular, for all his strange looks and brutally scientific point of view, had all the promise a captain of the twelfth needed, but none of the power. Therefore, Kurotsuchi felt no reservation whatsoever in assigning Akon the task of figuring out the mystery of the parasite plaguing Soul Society.

See, reader, before Hitsugaya had encountered Rukia, he spent his morning finishing paperwork, and making a very specific report to the Twelfth Division, relaying his encounter with the hollow, especially the strange feeling of encountering Ichigo's spiritual pressure. Personally, he had no idea what this could mean, but he knew if anyone would know what to do with that information, it would be the scientists of the twelfth.

Akon, to his credit, had been more than willing to comply, happy, even, to receive orders from Kurotsuchi to continue. The parasite, the hollow, had been a puzzle Akon oversaw for months. He looked at it from every angle, trying to find the missing piece, wondering why it had to be so dangerous.

And with Captain Hitsugaya's report, Akon finally found it.

For nearly six hours straight, he had been working non-stop, doing tests, configuring numbers, and generally researching in ways this story can't exactly explain, because this story doesn't understand that science all too well. In fact, this story sat a bit in the background, along with a few other squad members, as Akon rushed to and fro, each new discovery bringing with it a new light in his eyes.

He worked until one could practically see steam coming from his ears in excitement. And when he found it, he didn't waste time with a hell butterfly. He left immediately to seek the Captain Commander, his findings held tight within his arms.

Luckily for him, Captain Commander could be found eating lunch this time of day. Akon managed to see him, after stressing the importance of his message and (subtly) threatening a few stubborn guards of Kurotsuchi's wrath. That always worked. The only captain who could intimidate a man faster would be Kenpachi Zaraki. Or maybe Unohana, but only in her infirmary.

"Akon," Captain Commander greeted in his gruff voice, setting aside a cup of tea. His lieutenant was absent, Akon noted dully as he nodded. He'd spent so long in the dark in front of beeping computers, the light had him discombobulated.

But courtesy had its place, and he bowed deeply, taking a seat when Yamamoto gestured for him to do so. "What is this about?" he asked, never one to miss a beat.

Akon dived immediately into his story, relaying the basic information of Hitsugaya's second encounter with the hollow, as well as the strange feeling of Ichigo's spiritual pressure. The Captain Commander followed his words with slow confidence, stroking his beard and nodding and humming along with his words.

"So what does it mean?" he asked, ever patient even in the face of Akon's winded explanations and long, scientific words.

"The way the parasite works, it imbeds itself in a host's body and begins to sap the host of his spiritual pressure and strength," Akon explained excitedly. To him, being able to solve this mystery felt like getting a puppy on Christmas. "It can't send it back to the hollow, instead it stores the power in its own body until the host dies. Once the host dies, it signals the parasite that it's time to leave the host, and seek out the hollow again.

"After it finds the hollow, the parasite than fuses with it, giving the hollow the strength and pressure that other hollows normally eat themselves to obtain. At first, we thought that the hollow's spiritual pressure dominates whatever reiatsu it gets, like when a normal hollow eats souls." Akon paused, letting his words sink in, hoping that the Commander would understand.

Of course, the meaning was beginning to dawn on him. "Are you saying that the hollow doesn't absorb souls the way normal ones do?" he gruffed.

Akon nodded excitedly, placing papers on the table. "Exactly," he glowed. "The way the hollow absorbs the energy the parasite brings it allows that spiritual pressure to stay separate from its own. It probably does this so it can lure others into a trap, by unleashing familiar reiatsu."

Captain Commander stared at him expectantly, so Akon gulped down any lengthy explanations and said, "with this information, the hollow's no longer a ghost.

"With this information, we can trace it."

And while Captain Commander always claimed to trust the abilities of his subordinates completely, Akon knew by the change in his expression that his own prowess had caught him quite off guard. Yamamoto's expression was subtle at best, but Akon spent enough time deciphering the strange facial cues of Captain Kurotsuchi, he could tell by the length of his jaw and the twitch in his cheeks. In all sense of the word, Yamamoto gawked.

Perhaps the occasion called for a more mature personality, but Akon couldn't help feeling a little bit smug.

Yamamoto stood from his table, his gnarled cane held firmly in his bony hand. "Have you put your information to any good use yet?" he growled, and Akon blinked, all sense of accomplishment wiped away.

"Er – not yet, Captain Commander," Akon acquiesced. "By all rights, this is a mere theory for now. We'll have to run some tests, and collect data for analysis, but if I am right about this…"

"Get to the point," Captain Commander scowled, not really understanding what Akon was rambling on about. He kept his quarry as a leader of fighters, not as a scientist.

Akon nodded. "Of course, Captain," he responded. "And if my preliminary hypothesis is correct, we should be able to locate the hollow within the next three days, possibly sooner."

"Three days?" Yamamoto said sharply, never one to enjoy delays. Still, even in his impatience he could see through Akon's excitement to the pure exhaustion plaguing the man. He could be as ecstatic as he wanted, but something about the mussed hair and rather wild look in his eyes said he most likely hadn't rested in days.

Akon nodded, launching himself into a rather long explanation including the technical obstacles he needed to overcome in order to isolate the small samples of leftover reiatsu. "We only have so much to work with," he explained. "We have to get it right the first time, so it's a delicate process."

Aggravating, Yamamoto nodded, but also strangely hopeful. "Take the time you need to perfect it," Yamamoto ordered him. "Report back to me when you're ready, and I'll alert Captain Hitsugaya and his team."

"I understand," Akon answered, standing up to leave.

He bowed to the Captain Commander, wasting no time to practically sprint back to his lab. The weariness in his muscles reminded him of how much work he had left, and how little he'd been taking care of himself.

The twelfth squad is a very unique squad, reader. Everyone knows it, but only those who live and breathe the atmosphere understand just how unique, how under the radar they perform. More so than the fourth squad, and even the second squad's corps. They worked tirelessly, studying everything, with every discovery seeming so light and insignificant, most others pass over their work as if it's worthless.

This, however, couldn't be any farther from the truth. In fact, those tiny discoveries, the little pieces of fact that fit together better and better over time are what have shaped Soul Society. And although it goes mostly unnoticed, the members hardly ever care. In fact, one could argue Kurotsuchi enjoyed the promiscuity. Constant inattention allowed him much more leeway than if he stayed as centripetal as Kenpachi and his squad.

In response, all members of his squad experienced the same amount of desire to stay on the outskirts. Akon, for one, knew this better than most. While subordinates might gripe about the way other squads treated them, Akon reveled in his position. In his hands, he held stacks of paper – so slight in nature. Yet he, by himself, possessed the single answer which would allow them to kill a hollow which has caused so much grief.

That type of power could drive him as mad as Kurotsuchi. People have lost their minds over a lot less.

Instead, he returned to his bunker – pitch black save for the bright clicking lights of the computer screens. His subordinates welcomed him back, all a little disappointed their breaks had ended. But then again, Akon always enameled a certain type of radiance, and the moment he stepped into his home, he felt infused with the purpose that woke him up everyday.

"We have a lot to do, and not a lot of time," he told the others in the lab. While some groaned, most felt themselves grow rigid with tension. Something heavy hung on Akon, and they could all sense it. They were nearing an end of a chapter, and the last quarter of the race always requires the most effort.

"Let's get moving," Akon instructed, and they heeded, the room growing solid with the sounds of computers typing and tests being run. Akon ventured to the case in which they held the squirming, ugly parasite. Even though it had been locked up for weeks, it still constantly tried to worm itself through the impenetrable cage. Unable to disguise his glee, Akon pulled on his gloves and set his papers aside. "Alright," he whispered to the parasite, "let's see what makes you tic."

The sunset unleashed tidal waves of color, what Rukia truly considered a magnificent display of oranges and reds and various hues of fire tinting the clouds. Beyond its magnificence blared a flagrant warning of impending night, so she stooped to her feet, brushing grass and dirt from her clothes.

Toshiro had left her nearly an hour ago, citing that he had important business to attend to. She didn't doubt him, but something had seemed off. His skin, usually fair with a healthy tan, looked pale, and his hands shook when he carried the basket. Concerned, she wanted to accompany him back to the city, but he refused.

'I'm visiting Matsumoto,' he finally confessed when she pressed the issue. So although he was practically wheezing by the time he reached the top of the hill, she let him go off alone. Even if he were sick, at least he would be heading towards the infirmary anyways. Besides, his tone of voice held a sort of finality, and even she had a hard time defying him when he pressed his lips to thin lines and his eyes narrowed, in the sort of expression she knew he used on the more wayward subordinates.

Not to say it didn't irritate her, but she had no intention of coming between him and his fading lieutenant. She hadn't been to the infirmary recently, but she heard the whispers that she wasn't doing well.

After the Captain had dismissed her, she decided to stay, for a little while longer. Before, she came to the graves to ask for forgiveness. Now, she wanted to confide in them, like she always used to. Sure, she never really liked to come forward about her feelings on a regular basis, but they knew her. She had given them permission to know her, and in response they could read every smile, every frown. In the past months, she forgotten what it felt like to have someone know you.

For an hour she stayed and talked. Not out loud – that wasn't her thing. But she silently whispered all the secrets she'd been harboring, all her doubts and fear and guilt. And although she was talking to graves, by the time she stood up again, she felt lighter.

Happiness is a strange emotion, reader. Why is it so easy to remember the times we were depressed, or fearful, but when someone asks for our best memory, we draw a blank? You would think we would cherish our best moments, the times when we laughed until our guts ached, or felt so peaceful that death didn't even scare us.

Instead, we dwell on our mistakes, on our hurts. Those times we cried, those times we hurt the people close to us or ourselves. And it continues to hurt, with only the salve of time and reconciliation able to dull it. But those scars always stay. Why is it, reader, that happiness can't scar us in the way sadness does?

Then again reader, maybe it does. Maybe happiness doesn't leave a scar. Maybe it heals the ones we already have.

With a backdrop of fire, Rukia bent her head in one last prayer. She had no idea where her friend's souls disappeared to after death. By all accounts, Soul Society was the afterlife, so she had no reason to consider they went anywhere.

"That doesn't matter though, does it?" she muttered out loud, pressing her fists to her chest. "Because your hearts are here, with me. Aren't they?"

She supposed it was dumb of her to expect a reply, but she couldn't help feel disappointed all the same. The wind whipped the scattered tears from her face, and she sighed into the air. It felt so different now, she realized. For months, she'd been too buried by guilt to understand that the hole in her stomach, the terror in her mind, was grief. Soul-shattering grief. The type of grief that could drive her to tear out her hair and wail and scream and cry until her voice vanished and her cheeks bled from the acidity of her tears.

She could do just that, but this time, she refused. Swallowing her tears, she forced a smile for her fallen friends. "Stop worrying," she choked out, her voice hoarse. "I might be sad, but I'm still here, aren't I? I will survive. And I won't die alone. I'll protect your hearts, now and always."

No one responded. Alone on the hilltop and surrounded by graves, she bade her friends goodbye, promising to visit soon, and turned to head home. She had work to do tomorrow, and tonight she needed rest.

Night descended, reader, in the way night always does. Gradual at first, and then swift in the way it swallowed the sky and wrapped the world and its creatures in shadow.

"Are you sure you don't want to stay?" Isane asked the far too stubborn captain of the tenth. She trailed him from the moment he stepped in the door – not for lucrative reasons, but because he looked sick. Not just sick, but very, very ill, and she wished Unohana was around. The woman could command even Kenpachi into a sick bed, but Isane hadn't quite learned how to carry that same shield of dominance.

Therefore, she felt helpless when Hitsugaya turned her down for the sixth time. He came to see Rangiku, and he sat with her until the sun fell. He had been pale when he arrived, but by now Isane could tell something really was wrong. His hands shook, his skin perspired, and he coughed raggedly every few minutes.

Yet for all his symptoms, he still managed to capture a domineering essence when Isane tried to convince him to stay. "I'm fine, Lieutenant," he told her briskly, his eyes narrowing. "I'm just tired. I'll go home to rest."

To his annoyance, Isane insisted on escorting him to the front, but when he left, she had no choice to let him go. As much as she hated to see him walk home in such condition, she had patients to see to here, and Retsu wasn't anywhere nearby. Reluctantly, she wished him good luck, and returned to the fluorescently lit halls.

Night changed the infirmary walls in slight, fractured ways. Sure, for all the myths of shadow, Isane had come to learn that people were just as likely to die in the daytime as they were at night, and the fourth squad hospital always carried a full staff. Still, night always brought with it the sense of foreboding, for reasons she couldn't really explain.

The feeling wasn't new, though, so she carried on her rounds as usual. While dealing with her subordinates checking in, new complaints of pain and admonishing her staff for working until they passed out, she found enough time to check in on Momo Hinamori personally.

The girl's condition hadn't really improved ever since finding out about Aizen. Unohana had no choice – after the sedative wore off, she woke up asking questions. The grief and disbelief on her face looked nearly physically painful when Unohana gently informed her of Aizen's death.

To be honest, Isane expected a whole new rampage of screaming and anger, but instead Momo fell silent, which felt even worse. For the past day, she left all her food untouched, and hardly reacted when the healers came in to assess her condition. For all intents and purposes, she had pulled off a miraculous recovery. Isane could only ascribe her lethargy to depression, as if Aizen's death took away her will to live.

'Don't worry so much, Isane," Unohana had said quietly to her after they checked Momo's condition. 'She was able to cope once, so it's possible for her to cope twice, ne? I think she's stronger than she looks.'

Isane had to agree there – Momo always proved them wrong, one way or another. It was easy to misjudge her, to label her weak. But for all her pandering around Captain Aizen, no one could deny that she earned her seat, and she fought as hard as everyone else in the Winter War. They had no choice but to give her time.

While Isane half expected to see her awake, just sitting there in bed, she found with relief that at some point, the brunette had nodded off. She snuggled herself amongst the blankets, with a look of peaceful confidence on her face which reminded Isane of the old Momo – before the entire Aizen fiasco happened.

Then again, she pondered, maybe it would be better off this way. Momo may have been happier before, but she'd also been Aizen's blind, faithful sheep. While Isane could wish for hours that Aizen never stepped foot in Sereitei, she had to believe some good came from his deeds.

Thinking quietly, she glanced up in a start when she heard footsteps clattering towards her, accompanied by the startled shouts of voices. Alarmed, she forgot every thought about Momo and met the running squad members as they almost bashed into her in their haste.

"Lieutenant," breathed out one of the subordinates. Despite the fact his voice sounded ragged from his run, he spoke clearly, in the profession way most healers have. "It's Rangiku Matsumoto. Her heart's stopped."

The sun rose, like it did every day, like it will always do, until the day it ceases to exist.

The world has always turned so carelessly. Life and death, as monumental as they can be personally, are tiny blips of fractal importance when compared to the rest of the Earth. People are born, people die, and the sun continues to rise and set as it always has; carelessly. In response, the rest of the world's creatures remain ignorant to heartbreak and hatred, simply because the sun can't be bothered to care.

On this day, the sun should have shattered in the sky. The world should have stopped turning, and all of residing beings should have looked up to the clouds when it began to rain, and mourned along with everyone else over the loss of a lieutenant.

But the sun didn't shatter, and the clouds didn't rain. Instead, they highlighted a spectacular sunrise, and the world shone just as bright and heedless as it always has. Therefore, when its citizens awoke, they awoke none the wiser.

Rukia, who had spent her night tossing and turning, nonetheless felt… not quite excited, but nearly, to start her day. It felt like her first real day as a lieutenant, and the emotion struck her as alien when she strapped the identifying badge to her arm. It would weigh her down, but lift her up at the same time. It didn't make much sense, but it felt right.

Miles away, Hisagi and Kira woke up after a long night they spent drinking and laughing and remembering good times. They didn't sleep much, and Hisagi still felt slightly drunk, but in some small way, his soul felt a little more healed.

Already in his office, Toshiro sighed and pressed his palms to his head. He ached all over, and he didn't know why. It wasn't a sickness he ever felt before. He felt… drained. Exhausted, even though he fell asleep as soon as he hit his mattress last night, and slept solidly until just before dawn. He had forcibly dragged himself out of bed, only motivated by his own intense desire to serve. Yet by the time he reached his office, he felt nearly too tired to stand. Not to mention his head ached, and he couldn't stop shaking. Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to get up and walk, figuring a cup of tea could serve him well.

"Time?" Captain Unohana asked her stricken lieutenant. Isane didn't respond, couldn't respond, and continued to stare in shock at the bed. Unshed tears threatened to leak, and Unohana pressed a warm, comforting hand against her shoulder. "The time, Isane. We need to record it."

Forced out of her reverie, Isane slowly raised her eyes to meet the captain's. "Four fifty three," she choked out, her voice ragged. She spent hours, hours, attempting to pump life back into Matsumoto, but to no avail. Eventually, a subordinate managed to reach Unohana, and she had stepped up to pull Isane away.

'I'm sorry,' she said softly, so softly Isane's heart ached. 'She's gone, Isane.'

Numbly, Isane forced her fingers to move as she set to fill out the death paperwork, attempting to keep her eyes from moving back to the lieutenant. In death, she looked so small and pale, hardly a shell of a woman she had been. Already the warmth began to seep from her body, leaving a frozen doll behind.

Behind her, several somber faced squad members covered Rangiku's body, obscuring her pale, gaunt face from view. Maybe they didn't all know her personally, but the death of the lieutenant hit them all hard.

"I will take care of this, Isane," Unohana said. "You report to the Captain Commander."

Anything, Isane thought as she left the room. Anything to get away from that room.

The message broadcast later that day.

Non-suspecting people went along their paths, traversing streets, arguing with adversaries and laughing with friends. Caught up with their own duties, until the hell butterflies began to fly.

Of course, not enough butterflies existed to send out a single message to each member of the Soul Society. Instead, one was sent out to each of the seated officers, relaying the bald, scalding message.

Lieutenant Rangiku Matsumoto died at four fifty three this morning as a result of her injuries on the battlefield.

The message went on, with words of her passing and notes about a memorial service, but the trivial details fell upon deaf ears. All across Seretei, people stopped and noticed as whispers became loud murmurs, turning into words and then shouts of sadness and shock. Sure, the woman had hung on the precipice for months now, but no one had really been prepared to let her go.

Rukia received her own hell butterfly. It landed delicately on her finger, and, while she didn't know it, she was one of the few to listen to the whole message. Maybe she had been prepared, or maybe by now she came close to soulless, but the news didn't leave her breaking down into tears. In fact, she couldn't help her surprise when she walked in on Ukitake crying softly.

Her captain always wore his emotions bare, but he did his best to disguise his shock and sadness. "Lieutenant Kuchiki," he greeted her, somehow mustering a normal level of warmth that usually cheered her up with ease. Today, it just made her feel worse.

"Hey Captain," she replied softly, noticing that his two most loyal were nowhere to be found. Ukitake smiled at her tiredly.

"Those two ran off, saying something about medicinal tea," he told her, and despite it all, she couldn't help but crack a smile. Kiyone and Sentaro had been obnoxious, boisterous, and all out wacky from the day she joined, but she knew they always had his back. And hers, too.

Today was meant to be her first day of duties, but as Kiyone and Sentaro returned, he invited them all to sit down for a cup of tea. There, the captain and lieutenant mourned while the two goons alternated between arguing loudly and weeping uncontrollably.

Ironically, Toshiro, Kira, and Hisagi all happened along the same tea shop at the same time – when the hell butterflies flew.

Lieutenant Rangiku Matsumoto died at four fifty three this morning as a result of her injuries on the battlefield.

None of them heard the rest.

Hisagi gasped, while Kira exhaled slowly, closing his eyes. Hitsugaya stood there on the street, wavering slightly, looking up at the sky.

And while in Hisagi the seeds of despair and betrayal already began to take root, Toshiro could dimly hear his name being called. His world spun, spun, spun, and he could hardly focus on Kira, but somehow his mind managed to connect the words being said with the man's voice. Captain Hitsugaya? Are you alright?

Somewhere along the line, his balance dropped from his feet, and he let out a sharp sound which fell just short of a laugh. "No," he muttered, "I don't think so."

Then he collapsed.

Usually this is the point where I ask you to forgive me for any OOC/writing errors/characterization mistakes I've made, but at this point, I'm just stoked I have only two more chapters to write.

Oh well, it's a mile marker for me, and we're coming down the home stretch!

A heartfelt thanks to my small but dedicated fan base who consistently badger me to finish. Seriously, if it weren't for you guys, I'd probably have given up a long time ago.

Speaking of people badgering me, I regret to say it'll probably be a month or two before the next update. I'm in summer school, and working, and vacationing, so I won't have much time for philosophical dribble, however much I'll miss it.

Until next time!