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It’s more than a little petty, but taking the haughty princess by surprise entirely makes up for the effort involved in invading another’s soul.

With a startled cry, she whirls, long dark hair and red dress flaring out around her, sword shimmering into existence in her hand, lute falling from her fingers to strike the ground with a discordant crash. Her red fan is open, bared and ready, and if he were anyone else Kyōka Suigetsu might be intimidated by the simmering fury in her eyes.

He’s not intimidated, but there's still enough left of etiquette in him that he raises his hands, palms out, power reined in, and says, “I haven’t come to harm you.”

“You shouldn’t have come at all,” Benihime tells him icily, her blade unwavering. The garden around them shivers, the waters of the pool rippling, but nothing rises to attack. Not yet, at least.

Kyōka Suigetsu scowls at her, but takes a step back to give her more room. It’s already hard to hold together a coherent form—if she decides to fight, he’s going to lose his grip on the last, tattered pieces of himself, and he’s worked too hard to let this chance slip through his fingers now.

“I'm not your enemy,” he bites out.

Benihime makes a sound that in anyone less refined would be a scoff. “Of course you are,” she bites out. “You're a piece of that man’s soul. You could never be anything else.”

It aches like rage, hot and sharp and metallic on Kyōka Suigetsu’s tongue. “A piece he rejected,” he snaps, and the memory of being torn apart is all too close, all too vivid. He felt himself being dissolved, dying, and Sōsuke’s soul was so distant. He couldn’t even touch it anymore, regardless of the fact that he was supposed to be part of it.

Pity flickers in her red-shadowed eyes, and her sword dips, though the fan stays raised. It burns, and Kyōka Suigetsu bristles, but before he can object she’s turning, looking away. Her gaze lands on a patch of empty air, and Kyōka Suigetsu can't feel the currents of the soul around them the way she can, but he looks as well, just in time to see a figure in an inverted captain’s haori shimmer into view.

For a long, long moment, Urahara Kisuke looks from Benihime to Kyōka Suigetsu and back again, then reaches up and very deliberately adjusts his hat.

“Oh my,” he says, but his grey eyes are as sharp as a blade as he studies them. “Now this is an unexpected turn of events.”

There's some small amount of satisfaction in that, in surprising the one man Sōsuke always pitted himself against intellectually. It’s a lean, starved thing, though, eaten away by Kyōka Suigetsu’s anger until it’s only a shadow of a thought. He doesn’t bother answering, just tips his chin up, facing the former captain across the neat stone walkway, and says, “I want you to help me destroy Sōsuke.”

Just for a moment, naked shock flickers across Urahara’s face, and he takes half a step back. Into the gap steps Benihime, eyes narrowed, expression calculating as she looks Kyōka Suigetsu over.

“Destroy?” she asks, and flicks her fan shut with a sharp snap. “A harsh word.”

Kyōka Suigetsu fixes her with an icy glare of his own, folding his hands into the sleeves of his robe and pulling himself up to his full height. “No less than he deserves,” he says, and means it with every inch of his tattered, shredded soul.

Urahara’s cane taps lightly against the stone, and he clears his throat politely. “Forgive me,” he says, and the words are light, halfway to a joke. “But—you are Kyōka Suigetsu, correct?”

“I was,” Kyōka Suigetsu bites out, because there's so little of him left he’s no longer even sure he can carry the name. “Sōsuke chose the Hōgyoku’s power over mine, and it nearly destroyed me. I wish to return the favor twofold.”

Urahara hesitates, but Benihime hums, flipping her fan up to tap it against her lips. “The fact that you can exist in this space says you're tied to no other soul,” she says, casual in her cruelty as Kyōka Suigetsu stiffens. He can see the curve of that red-painted mouth, perfectly amused at his misfortune. “You are a fragment of a spirit, held together by will. How—”

“—interesting,” Urahara finishes for her, and he’s smiling too, sharp-edged mirth in his eyes. “I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised that Aizen’s soul would have a strong will, but of all the people you could have come to…”

Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates, but—he has no reason to keep Sōsuke’s secrets anymore. The man is nothing to him but a target of hate, and he curls his lip, knows they can't see it through the mirrored mask he wears, but hopes it carries over in his voice as he answers, “You and the Kurosaki boy were the only ones he considered even close to his power. The boy’s powers are gone and he can no longer see spirits, and even if he could he would not help me seek revenge.”

“But you think I will.” Urahara twists the cane that hides his zanpakuto around his fingers, humming thoughtfully. “Aizen has been defeated. Soul Society has him now. His fate is in the hands of the new Central 46, and I doubt they’ll find it within themselves to be kind.”

Kyōka Suigetsu closes his fingers into fists beneath the cover of draping cloth, feels a flicker of breeze stir the silk of his robes and veils. “They will never be able to take his power,” he says, and it comes out flat, banal. As if he doesn’t care, when all he can feel is his soul disintegrating under the strength of the Hōgyoku. “Sōsuke may as well be immortal. There is nothing they can do to him that will matter now.”

Benihime laughs, light and sweet and mocking, and sinks back down onto the stone bench she was perched on when Kyōka Suigetsu appeared. “Do you really think you can do any better?” she asks slyly, but her humor may as well be a knife for the way it cuts.

The breeze picks up, turns to a wind that moans through the garden, and Kyōka Suigetsu closes his eyes, grits his teeth. “Help me,” he says, and lets his eyes slide open, fixing them on Urahara with as much force as he can gather. “You must want revenge as well.”

“Of course I do,” Urahara says, perfectly even, and puts a hand up to hold his hat in place. He flicks a glance at Benihime, who arches one delicate brow, and then he smiles, thin and amused. “You of all people should know precisely how good of a man I'm not. Aizen spending the next few centuries in a cage isn't anywhere near enough punishment for my tastes.”

Benihime flips her fan open, fluttering it gently, and the wind dies in a sudden rush, sending her long hair swirling before it falls back around her shoulders. “Well,” she says, and her dark eyes burn.

“Well,” Urahara agrees, meets Kyōka Suigetsu’s suspicious stare. Tips his hat, and then offers, “I can assist you in manifesting outside of my soul if you’d care to. There may be a few options we can discuss regarding…alternative paths to justice.”

“I don’t give a damn about justice,” Kyōka Suigetsu says coolly. “All I want is revenge.”

Urahara laughs. “Then you're in good company,” he says, and vanishes with a flicker like flash-step.

With a throaty chuckle, Benihime hides her face behind her fan. “Go,” she tells him, like her smile will hide the languid threat lurking in her eyes. “And don’t come back, interloper.”

Kyōka Suigetsu grits his teeth, but he takes the dismissal with as much grace as he can, inclining his head to the princess and then stepping back. It takes a moment of effort, pure concentrated stubbornness distilled into will, but he gathers all the pieces of himself and reaches out, feeling, testing—

Benihime's garden swirls away, replaced with the interior of Urahara’s shop, and Kyōka Suigetsu grits his teeth against the surge of needle-sharp pain that lances through him, through all the places where he stitched the shards of his soul back together. His form is straining, even with the help of whatever device Urahara has used to help him manifest. It hurts, but as long as Sōsuke eventually feels the same pain, Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t give a damn.

“This is him?” an unimpressed voice asks, and Kyōka Suigetsu turns his head to find a familiar woman watching him with narrowed eyes. The reiatsu around her is even more familiar—Hagura Tonbo is watching him with leashed fury, braced to move, despite how calm Lisa looks.

“Kyōka Suigetsu,” he offers, tipping his head to her. She hates Sōsuke as well, he knows, and she was willing to accept the help of those she considered her enemies to defeat him before. Perhaps this can be the same.

Lisa’s expression doesn’t waver, but she nods once, then pointedly looks away. Kyōka Suigetsu takes that dismissal as well; too much to expect that those whose lives Sōsuke destroyed would be happy with his presence. He is Sōsuke, or at least a piece of his soul, wanted only to support him all those years. This anger is something new, unfamiliar. It burns, hatred and fury all tangled up, and—

Well. Knowing other people share his anger is something, at least.

The light tap of a cane draws his attention back to Urahara, who’s still smiling, still looks perfectly cheerful except for the wary lines almost entirely hidden around his eyes. “A few quick tests first, I think,” he says, and waves Kyōka Suigetsu towards the door into the rear of the shop. “Just to be certain what I have to work with, of course.”

Kyōka Suigetsu grimaces, but obligingly takes a step. Tries not to think, as he goes, about the last time he interacted with the physical world like this, when Sōsuke was learning bankai. It feels like there's a cold wind cutting through him, which makes it different, though Kyōka Suigetsu can't be glad for it—the sensation means he’s on the edge of losing his grip on himself. If Urahara can't stabilize him, he’s going to dissolve again, and this time he won't be able to stop it.

There's no use telling Urahara that, though; odds are the man has already realized, and either he’ll be able to reverse it or he won't. Kyōka Suigetsu will focus on what he can affect right now.

 

 

“This,” Yoruichi says wryly, “is a terrible idea, Kisuke.”

Kisuke doesn’t look at her, keeps his eyes on the still form of Aizen’s zanpakutō as Tessai’s kidō flickers over him. All the drifting scarves and veils are quiet now, untouched by wind, the mirrored mask trained on the ceiling, but there's still an itch under Kisuke's skin that feels a little like panic. He didn’t account for this. He didn’t account for this at all.

“Don’t be so grim,” he says, though. “Benihime thinks he’s telling the truth.”

“He’s Aizen,” Yoruichi reminds him, though she hardly needs to. Kisuke is entirely aware. “And Benihime might have more common sense than you do most of the time, but she’s still a part of you.”

True, Kisuke thinks, stroking his thumb over the head of his cane. But in this case, he doesn’t think he’s simply fooling himself. “He created an illusion of wind in my inner world,” he offers, watching Tessai’s reiatsu slide from green to gold as he passes his hands over Kyōka Suigetsu’s form. “If he had any ties left to Aizen—”

“Bullshit,” Yoruichi says. “He doesn’t need ties to Aizen, he’s a piece of his soul, Kisuke. Nothing about any of this makes me inclined to trust him.”

She’s probably right. Yoruichi generally is. But…

Kisuke could recognize the timbre of Kyōka Suigetsu’s voice, the pain in it, the aching fury and grief. Remembered, in that moment, what Ichigo had said about Aizen’s zanpakutō in the moment that they fought.

All I sense from your sword is loneliness.

Aizen rejected his sword, and the Hōgyoku devoured it. He chose an artificial power over his own, and Kyōka Suigetsu suffered for it.

“Can you think of anyone in the world who would be better suited to outsmarting Aizen than someone who lived inside his head?” he asks lightly. “Because I certainly can't.”

Yoruichi gives him a sharp, assessing look, golden eyes narrowing. “Kisuke,” she says, halfway to a warning. “Why do we need to outsmart Aizen? Ichigo defeated him.”

At great cost to himself, Kisuke doesn’t say, though it’s all he can think at the moment. Ichigo wants nothing more than to protect those he loves, and he gave up his ability to do so in order to beat Aizen. Now even Yuzu has more reiatsu than he does; if there's a threat, Ichigo will be helpless, and for a boy like that, Kisuke can't imagine a worse fate.

He bowed his head to Ichigo once, was forgiven in an instant. Was thanked, for helping him protect Rukia in the first place. Kisuke honors his debts, and that will always be one of them.

“I may have had an idea,” he admits, doesn’t let Yoruichi's narrow stare pull his gaze away from Kyōka Suigetsu. The spirit is looking at Tessai now, listening to his quiet words, and—

Well. Kisuke knows himself, knows all the ways Benihime differs from him. She’s her own creature and always has been, and he can only hope that it’s the same for Kyōka Suigetsu.

“You can't fix everything, Kisuke,” Yoruichi says, because she knows him far too well.

Kisuke just smiles, taps his cane against the floor. “Maybe not,” he agrees. “I think the odds of success will be very good, though.”

No one in the world knows Aizen’s actions and responses as well as his zanpakutō. No one will be able to predict his motions as well. They won the fight against Aizen this time around, but at a cost to the Gotei 13 and Kurosaki Ichigo alike, and if he can change that, if there's a high possibility that Kyōka Suigetsu can truly defeat Aizen, Kisuke will grab onto it with both hands and not let go.

“Well!” he says cheerfully, pitched to carry as he steps forward. Kyōka Suigetsu immediately turns to look at him, and Kisuke doesn’t unsettle easily, but that mirrored mask is one of the eeriest things he’s seen in a very long time. Each reflection is just a little warped, faintly wrong, and it takes effort to meet the black eyes that are only just visible. “Tessai’s work should hold you together long enough for me to create a gigai for you, if you’d like.”

Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates, deliberating, and then inclines his head. “Thank you,” he says politely. “If it will help…”

“It will.” Kisuke settles himself against the wall, posture consciously at ease, and beams at him. “I can't exactly send you back in time without a solid form, now can I?”

It’s one of the most satisfying things, watching Yoruichi fall right off her perch at those words. Even Tessai blinks, jerking his head up to look at Kisuke.

In contrast, Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t even move. Just lies on the futon, hands folded together at his waist, and then asks, “How far back?”

Practical. Kisuke likes that in a man. With a chuckle, he waves a hand, and says, “Not too far, I'm afraid. I only have so much power at my disposal. But at least a year, if that’s sufficient?”

“Certainly,” Kyōka Suigetsu says. It’s nearly as eerie as his mask, how polite he is, because it gives Kisuke far too many flashbacks to Aizen when he was a lieutenant. That manner had to come from somewhere, though, and Kisuke isn't sure whether it’s amusing or unnerving that Aizen borrowed his courteous mask from his zanpakutō. Maybe a little of both.

“I don’t suppose Aizen ever discovered a way to destroy the Hōgyoku?” he asks lightly, not truly hoping for much.

But, to his surprise, Kyōka Suigetsu tips his head, slowly sits up. Says, thoughtfully, “Not as such. But…the one he created was unstable. Using its power left it weakened for several moments afterwards. It simply frustrated Sōsuke at the time, but…perhaps in those moments it could be broken.”

Kisuke thinks of the readings for his version of the Hōgyoku, all the tests he ran. It’s very possible his was the same way—after all, he was trying to contain its power, to hide it. He certainly never used it while he was attempting to destroy it, and after Shinji and the others—

Well. He’d been more focused on making sure they survived than testing the Hōgyoku’s responses.

“If you had the Hōgyoku, what would you wish for?” he asks, tries to keep it light and knows he misses by a mile, too busy watching Kyōka Suigetsu closely. The spirit definitely needs a gigai; it’s hard to look at him straight on with that mask.

Kyōka Suigetsu blinks once, long and slow, and considers the question. “I would undo as many of Sōsuke’s plans as possible,” he says, which is reassuring even if it’s not overly helpful. Then again, there are so many of Aizen’s plans that it will likely be hard to pick the best to wreck between them. Kisuke is willing to give Kyōka Suigetsu the benefit of the doubt here.

(It’s just slightly possible that he relishes the image of Aizen’s face watching all of his convoluted schemes fall to pieces around him. Even if he’s not going to see it directly, he’s going to be the cause of it, and that’s more than enough for Kisuke.)

“You're going to have to steal my version of it,” he says honestly, because he knows himself; if a man appears out of thin air claiming to be Aizen’s zanpakutō spirit, even saying Kisuke was the one to send him, it won't do anything but make Kisuke more suspicious, and probably hostile as well. “I can give you the keys to the safeguards, but it will be up to you to get away before you can be caught.”

Another pause, and Kyōka Suigetsu inclines his head. “I remember how Sōsuke opened gargantas,” he offers. “That will take me far enough away to be safe.”

Hueco Mundo? It wouldn’t be Kisuke's first choice for a place to hide, but that’s likely the point. Aizen also won't be in residence yet, so that will give Kyōka Suigetsu an advantage where ruining his plans is concerned. He accepts it with a nod, then lifts his head and meets those bottomless black eyes through the warping reflection of the mask.

“Make it hurt,” he says lightly.

Somehow, despite the mask, despite Kyōka Suigetsu’s deathly calm, Kisuke gets the impression that he’s bearing his teeth. “With pleasure.”

It’s a ridiculous, reckless idea when Aizen has technically been defeated. Kisuke can feel Yoruichi's gimlet stare boring into the side of his head, and she has every right to be concerned. But…

That tone. That expression. The whisper of rage that Benihime can feel right beneath the surface, that Lisa warned him about so casually, that she recognized.

Kyōka Suigetsu wants Aizen dead, wants him to suffer. How lucky, then, that Kisuke has never wanted anything more than that.

“I’ll start building you a gigai,” he says cheerfully, and taps Benihime against the floor. “Any requests?”

Kyōka Suigetsu looks at him, at Yoruichi, at Tessai. Pauses for a long moment, and then says softly, “Don’t make me look anything like him.”

It could be for the tactical advantage, to keep Aizen from guessing who he is. It could be a purely aesthetic choice, because zanpakutō aren’t truly their wielders. Kisuke, though, recognizes it for what it is; Kyōka Suigetsu is cutting all ties to Aizen, as thoroughly as he can. He can see the realization pass over Yoruichi's face, the flicker of sadness hidden behind Tessai’s glasses. Such a simple thing, but it carries so much weight.

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he says levelly, holding Kyōka Suigetsu’s eyes, and the relief that rises in the spirit is tangible.

“Thank you,” he says, and there's a small whirl of breeze, lifting veils and sashes that move like rippling water. Just a touch of motion, but it changes Kyōka Suigetsu’s silhouette, makes his body appear to sway and shift. The reflection of the moon on moving water, Kisuke thinks, and turns the idea over in his head, letting it build and grow. Interesting.

A hand catches his arm before it has more time to percolate, and Yoruichi pointedly steers him back a step. “Sorry, excuse us for a moment,” she tells Tessai, and Kyōka Suigetsu by extension. And then, “Kisuke, a word?”

Well, Kisuke thinks, containing a wince. He didn’t really expect to get out of this without extensive discussion about his idiocy and recklessness, but that hardly means he’s looking forward to it.

“Of course,” he says brightly, and Yoruichi rolls her eyes at him and drags him away.

 

 

The persistent ache has faded, dulled to a faint twinge when he moves too fast. Kyōka Suigetsu flexes his fingers, staring down at them, and at least he can't see through them anymore. It’s an improvement over before.

“Thank you,” he tells Tsukabishi, because the man has no reason to help him but did regardless, and people are always willing to repeat such actions when they feel appreciated.

Tsukabishi regards him for a long moment, then reaches out and pats his shoulder. “I wouldn’t worry about those two,” he says, and he doesn’t look after Urahara and Shihōin but it’s obvious who he means. “Kisuke will find a way to fix you up.”

Practically anything will be preferable to the lingering sensation of dissolving, each molecule pulled apart by the Hōgyoku’s will. Kyōka Suigetsu sets his teeth, makes himself nod in a way that can probably be taken as polite, and curls his wrists so that his sleeves fall over his hands again and hide his fingers. Tsukabishi gave him enough reiatsu to stabilize him, but—

It’s a weakness. It’s a flaw. Sōsuke always hated those so much, and Kyōka Suigetsu has learned not to show them, over the years. Sōsuke hid his own, and what else could Kyōka Suigetsu do but the same?

The hand on his shoulder curls, just a little. It’s…unfamiliar, but the weight of it makes something turn in Kyōka Suigetsu’s chest, something small and maybe a little warm. “Get some rest,” Tsukabishi tells him. “I’ll monitor the spells.”

It shouldn’t be a reassurance; just a few days ago they were true enemies, and Kyōka Suigetsu wouldn’t have hesitated to cut the former captain down. He came to them in desperation, out of pure burning spite, because Sōsuke considered himself above such petty emotions as hatred but if he’d allowed himself to feel it, he would have hated Urahara and his group of outcasts. That was enough to draw Kyōka Suigetsu in, and he’d expected a cold, hateful welcome, mutual use so that they could both have the revenge they desired, but not—

Not help. Not in a thousand years.

Unsure what he can possibly say in the face of that bewildering fact, Kyōka Suigetsu inclines his head, then eases himself back onto the futon as Tsukabishi rises. He closes his eyes rather than watch the man walk away, breathes in and lets it out slowly, and—thinks.

I don’t suppose Aizen ever discovered a way to destroy the Hōgyoku?

Of course he hadn’t. Sōsuke was always so sure that he could do no wrong, that all of his plans would come to fruition regardless of obstacles. But if he wanted to plan for every eventuality, he had to at least acknowledge them.

He didn’t, not always. People could surprise him sometimes, and he underestimated emotion. Didn’t understand it, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, and it’s a tired breath. Sōsuke had loved himself, and Kyōka Suigetsu made the mistake of thinking that sentiment extended to him as well. He was a piece of Sōsuke, after all, a part of him, knew every inch of his soul and all of his dreams.

Just a tool, in the end, that was easily cut away in favor of another.

Kyōka Suigetsu did know him, though. Knows him better than anything in existence. And he’s angry, so angry to have been discarded, wants Sōsuke to know the same pain and fear and horror he felt in those moments. Wants him hurt, crushed, defeated in every possible way, with his dreams in ruins around his feet.

Time travel, he thinks, and wants to laugh, because it’s so unspeakably perfect. Trust Urahara to pull an idea like that from thin air. Back a year, and a century would be better, but—a year is sufficient. He can manage in that sort of timeframe, bring Sōsuke down to nothing and leave him broken in the dirt for the way he turned his back on his own sword.

It will take doing, and planning, and all the cunning Kyōka Suigetsu possesses. But that’s fine, because it’s possible. Kyōka Suigetsu knows how Sōsuke thinks, knows which direction his thoughts will run the moment there's interference. Twist things enough, come at them from an angle he’ll never suspect, and it will be all the opportunity Kyōka Suigetsu needs. Especially if he can destroy the Hōgyoku before Sōsuke unites his version with Urahara’s.

That moment of instability—that’s the perfect moment to destroy the sphere permanently. A high-level kidō should theoretically be enough, and Kyōka Suigetsu feels certain he can manage that. The Hōgyoku’s power isn't something to waste, though; used appropriately, it might be precisely what he needs to upset Sōsuke’s plans, even if he can only use each piece once before he destroys it.

Two desires fulfilled, and Kyōka Suigetsu knows the limits on the Hōgyoku’s power, knows it can only make small, immediate changes before it’s been awakened fully. He’s going to have to choose carefully, pick points where small ripples will flow outward into much larger changes, but he already has one in mind. It melds perfectly with the need to hide in Hueco Mundo, as well, and Kyōka Suigetsu is entirely satisfied with the thought.

He flexes his fingers carefully under the cover of draping blue sleeves. Relishes the feeling of solidity, without the immediate threat of disappearing riding him. Gaining a gigai will be an entirely unfamiliar experience; the closest he’s ever come to such a thing is when Sōsuke manifested him in order to train for bankai. His own human form, allowing him to pass through the worlds unnoticed, will only be a benefit to his plans, even if it makes something twist strangely in his stomach to consider it. He’s a zanpakutō, and he’s never been anything else. Been constrained by those boundaries even as Sōsuke gloried in his powers, and it feels—

Strange. Uncomfortable to think on it.

He turns onto his side on the soft futon, splaying a hand out on the pillow. The mask is smooth, but presses uncomfortably into his face, and he wants to take it off but doesn’t at the same time. Sōsuke never saw his true face, never cared to. Kyōka Suigetsu existed as one unchanging image for him, and he never looked into it more deeply.

Perhaps that should have been Kyōka Suigetsu’s first warning.

It never mattered before, but now Kyōka Suigetsu thinks of presenting his own face to the world, thinks of walking past Sōsuke and being unrecognizable even as himself, and wonders if he enjoys the thought or if it makes the curl of burning fury in his gut blaze all the brighter.

Urahara will create a new face for him. That’s fine. Kyōka Suigetsu has no need to keep the one he has right now, not when the only person who should have seen it never did.

Chapter Text

“Hmm.” Urahara flutters his fan in front of his face, but his grey eyes are sharp over the top of it as he watches the gate forming. “All the readings appear normal, and they're holding steady.”

Kyōka Suigetsu drags his attention away from plucking at the tight sleeves of the shirt Tsukabishi provided, glancing up. It looks like a Senkaimon, if far slower to open than any version Kyōka Suigetsu is familiar with, but there's a weight to it that curves Kyōka Suigetsu’s spine and makes it rather hard to breathe.

This, he thinks bleakly, is likely how other people feel in the presence of Sōsuke’s reiatsu.

“It’s complete?” he asks, eying the gateway. The doors haven’t parted yet, but there's a strange, bluish light leaking from underneath the panels, flickering shadows like movement behind them.

“Probably,” Urahara says cheerfully, and off to the side of the training ground Shihōin rolls her eyes and scoffs. Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t so much as blink; he knew what he was getting into when he came to Urahara, after all. Probably is more than enough for him to take a chance on.

Taking a breath, he steps forward, narrowing his eyes a little against the pressure of the reiatsu coming from the doorway, and raises a hand to feel the press of it. Turbulent and tearing, and if Kyōka Suigetsu wasn’t in a gigai, it might be enough to shred him into nothingness. He frowns, wonders if he’ll make it through the passage as he is, and if he’ll come out in one piece on the other side; probably is a good start, but if this gigai can't hold together he won't have many options.

“You should be fine passing through,” Urahara says, and when Kyōka Suigetsu glances at him, the man is watching with sharp grey eyes. “That gigai will stabilize your soul as much as possible, but I’d advise not leaving it unless you have to.”

Frustrating, but acceptable, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, curling his fingers into a fist. He knows that beings like the Quincy travel through the worlds in mortal bodies, but he hadn’t quite expected to have to do so himself. More vulnerable—the soul can take far more damage than a physical body—so he’s going to have to be wary. Of course, given the state of his soul, that was always going to be true.

A thought flickers, some fragment of memory briefly rising to the surface, and Kyōka Suigetsu glances at Urahara again. “I am a sword,” he says. “If I'm within this body—”

Urahara hums thoughtfully, tipping his hat back a little. “I assume,” he says slowly, “that it’s rather similar to the abilities of Muramasa’s manifested zanpakutō. To my knowledge no one has ever stuck a zanpakutō spirit in a gigai before, but I would expect that you can still use both shikai and bankai with enough practice, and manifest the weapon that held your power.”

Muramasa, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, narrowing his eyes as he tries to recall the name. Vaguely familiar, with several memories attached. The cause of something that happened in Soul Society, he’s fairly certain, but which didn’t involve Sōsuke directly. Something to think on later, perhaps.

Still. The knowledge that it should be possible to use his sword form even when he’s manifested is reassuring, and if it’s possible Kyōka Suigetsu will accomplish it. There's no doubt. He nods his thanks to Urahara, then tucks his hands into the pockets of his coat and looks back at the Senkaimon doors. They’ve cracked open, barely a handful of centimeters, but it’s enough for a gust of icy wind to swirl Kyōka Suigetsu’s hair around his shoulders. Clear and sharp against Kyōka Suigetsu’s skin, and he breathes it in, tries to imagine what he’ll find on the other side.

Urahara warned him that there's no way to be sure where the gate will come out. Or, rather, when it will come out; the far end is a mystery, and it’s taken all of Urahara’s knowledge and skill, along with Tsukabishi’s deftness and strength, just to build the passage. From the snatches of arguments Kyōka Suigetsu has overheard, it’s an idea that’s never been tested and something that would destroy a living person as they passed through.

Kyōka Suigetsu isn't overly concerned. He’s tattered but still strong, and even if it takes most of his remaining reiatsu to pass through the gate, he’ll spend it gladly for the chance to step out into the past. Here and now, Sōsuke is immortal, all but untouchable. Even a few months ago, that wasn’t even close to true, no matter how he wanted to believe it was.

As he watches, the doors inch open, eerily silent, and pale white mist rolls out of the gap, pouring over their feet and hiding anything that might be inside the passage. There are still shadows moving behind it, pale and undefined, and Kyōka Suigetsu eyes them, but doesn’t move.

“You have the keys?” Urahara asks lightly, though his eyes are on the doorway as well, and there's something grim and tired in his face.

“To the Hōgyoku? Yes.” Kyōka Suigetsu reaches into the pocket of his jeans, pulls out the key and glass orb and piece of paper with its string of code to show Urahara.

Urahara eyes it for a long moment, then nods, forcing a smile. He hasn’t wavered, at least where Kyōka Suigetsu can see, but…Kyōka Suigetsu suspects that there's a large difference between making plans and seeing the proof that he gave access to his greatest creation to Sōsuke’s zanpakutō spirit.

“I will destroy it,” he says quietly, trying to make it as reassuring as he can, though that’s not something he’s ever been good at. Sōsuke certainly never needed reassurance once he set his feet on a path.

To his surprise, Urahara chuckles. “I believe that,” he says easily. “There will be quite a lot to do afterwards, though.”

Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t tell him that he won't be doing everything alone; Sōsuke understood the value of subordinates, and Kyōka Suigetsu saw all the mistakes he made with them. Too much manipulation, he thinks, and it seems counterintuitive, but a little less control and a little more trust can create more of a will to follow. With any luck, Kyōka Suigetsu can manage that. He’s never had reason to determine whether he has Sōsuke’s charm, but even without it, Sōsuke made enough enemies that recruiting people willing to destroy him won't be difficult.

Kyōka Suigetsu’s fingernails are cutting into his palms, and he has to take a careful breath and let it out before he loses his temper.

“I won't rest until Sōsuke has been crushed,” he says, and it’s quiet but entirely poisonous, bitter and biting on his tongue.

That, at least, makes Urahara smile, thinly satisfied. “Good,” he says cheerfully, though it doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

From off to the side, there's a loud sigh, dramatic and resigned, and then a flicker of reiatsu. Before Kyōka Suigetsu can even start to turn, Shihōin appears in front of him, shoving a small pouch into his hands. “Money,” she says, meeting Kyōka Suigetsu’s startled gaze. She smirks faintly, reaches up to pat him hard on the head, and then steps back. “Kisuke forgets the small things sometimes. Make sure you kick Aizen in the balls for me at least once.”

Kyōka Suigetsu blinks, looking from her to the bag, and has to swallow. This is…unexpected. Strange. Not something he counted on happening.

There seems to be a lot of that, with these people.

“I’ll do my best,” he says, because Sōsuke was always worse at hohō and hakuda than any other skills. It would be entirely satisfying to beat him at those, and he thinks the Flash Goddess would approve.

Shihōin snorts like she knows what he’s thinking, then folds her arms across her chest. “Good luck,” she offers.

With a laugh, Urahara flips his fan open and flutters it in front of his face. “Oh my,” he teases. “What a soft heart you have—ouch!”

Shihōin withdraws her elbow from the top of his head, ignoring his whining, and then turns and stalks away, her ponytail swaying behind her. “I look forward to the panic attack you're going to throw when that rock disappears,” she calls over her shoulder.

“So cruel,” Urahara laments, but he’s laughing a little as he straightens.

Kyōka Suigetsu has never interacted like that with anyone, and it’s baffling to see. Fondness not bothered by conflict, he thinks, and looks back to the doors of the Senkaimon rather than at Urahara any longer. It sits bitter in his chest, but ignorable in the face of his goals. There's too much to plan for him to linger on anything else, after all.

“How long?” he asks.

Urahara hums again, looking from him to the doors. “Whenever you think you can fit through,” he says lightly. There's something Kyōka Suigetsu can't identify in his eyes, but that’s ignorable too. “It might be a slightly bumpy ride, you know.”

Kyōka Suigetsu already knew that, so he doesn’t bother responding, just tucks Shihōin’s bag into his pocket and starts walking forward. Sōsuke is on the other side, unaware and unprepared, and Kyōka Suigetsu wants nothing more than to see his face when his plans crumble to dust around his feet.

“Break a leg!” Urahara calls after him, and there's laughter in his voice. When Kyōka Suigetsu glances back, he’s waving his fan in a cheerful farewell, and there's something vicious and amused in his face.

“Whose?” Kyōka Suigetsu asks, raising a brow, and he knows precisely what the phrase is supposed to mean, but there's a flicker in his chest that is…humor, maybe. It’s been a while since he felt it without the edge of Sōsuke’s cold viciousness to go along with it.

Urahara laughs loudly, tipping his hat back so that his eyes aren’t in shadow anymore. “Aizen’s, preferably,” he says cheerfully. “But if you're pressed for choices, I’d take either Mayuri’s or Tōsen’s just as gladly.”

Kyōka Suigetsu pauses, considers, and then touches his fingers to his brow in a silent salute. It makes Urahara snicker, and Kyōka Suigetsu is startled to find himself smiling a little as well when he turns back to the Senkaimon. The whirl of cold air pulls at his jacket, sweeps dark hair in front of his eyes, and he blinks through the sting of it, breathes in the freezing mist and lets it out in a gust of white. No jigokuchō to guide him through, but then Kyōka Suigetsu supposes it would be hard to find one capable of traveling through time.

Just him, just this new body and an unknown world on the other side. Just this frozen passage between times, and the promise of revenge on the other side.

It’s all Kyōka Suigetsu needs.

He doesn’t look back, just raises his chin and steps forward, right into the icy whiteness and the buffeting reiatsu. It stings, whipping past him with even more force than the wind, and just for a moment Kyōka Suigetsu is back to that moment in the middle of Karakura, the Hōgyoku’s power gripping him like a thousand spindly fingers and ripping him apart.

It’s bearable, with the knowledge of what’s on the other side. Kyōka Suigetsu steadies his feet on the frozen ground and keeps walking.

 

 

It feels like a thousand years later, battered and breathing hard, that Kyōka Suigetsu staggers through a tear in space and tumbles into soft white sand, hand clamped achingly tight around the crystalline blue glow of the Hōgyoku.

He hurts, has to close his eyes and breathe carefully as the world spins around him. His heart is racing in his chest, and he heaves himself over, rolling onto his back to stare up at the dark sky.

Too close, he thinks, remembering the frantic rush to find the Hōgyoku and get through Urahara’s safeguards before the man came to find it. Going by the gigai laid out on his worktable, Kuchiki Rukia already came to him, or will soon, which gives Kyōka Suigetsu only a short time to enact the first stage of his plan.

But it worked. Urahara’s keys were the correct ones, and Kyōka Suigetsu pulled the Hōgyoku from its vault and made it to Hueco Mundo without anyone stopping him.

Hueco Mundo is cool, but nowhere near as cold as the passage back in time, and Kyōka Suigetsu buries his fingers in sand that feels startlingly warm in comparison to the chill of his skin, keeps them there for just a moment, and then groans as he pushes himself up to sit.

The gigai held up, he reflects, looking down at his own body. Not the robes he’s worn for hundreds of years, but acceptable. Easy enough to move in, even with every limb still shaky and uncertain from his trip. Steadier like this than his spirit form, at the very least, and he’s used enough to the ache by now that he pushes to his feet without pause, staggering a step before he catches his balance.

“For such a small thing, you’ve destroyed a great many lives,” he tells the Hōgyoku bitterly, grips it tighter like he can break it in his hand. He can't, but it’s an appealing thought.

The sphere shimmers slightly, like glass, and the galaxy of blue within keeps spinning.

Kyōka Suigetsu bares his teeth at the thing, but closes his fingers over it and shoves it into his pocket, just to keep it out of sight. His only desire right now is to see it destroyed, but the Hōgyoku is too self-aware to grant that wish; it won't shatter itself for him, and Kyōka Suigetsu already knew that breaking it wouldn’t be so simple. It means that he needs to move quickly, before either Sōsuke or Urahara notice the Hōgyoku’s power and manage to track it right to him.

If he aimed his garganta correctly, he should be somewhere above the Menos Forest right now. Las Noches is close, an itch under his skin that feels like high-level Hollows, and he grits his teeth, dismissing the irritation. Zanpakutō were created to fight Hollows and help souls pass on; to feel them everywhere here, roaming unconcerned, is unsettling but not something he can currently change. Far more important is actually getting into Las Noches, and he’s going to have to manage it without waking the Guardian of the Sands.

He can't go above ground, seeing as flight isn't exactly something he’s capable of, but…

From below, the only ones watching will be the Hollows, and Kyōka Suigetsu is a captain-class zanpakutō. He can handle a few Menos, even when he’s in a weakened state and trapped in a gigai.

It will also give him a chance to test himself before he’s in a truly life-or-death situation, Kyōka Suigetsu reflects with a grimace, even as he starts walking. An entrance will be close, assuming he’s in the right area, and Sōsuke knew all the ways into and out of the Forest. There's one path that leads right into the lower parts of Las Noches, though that particular corridor is rather too close to the Arrancar’s quarters for comfort.

Still, it will be fine. He needs to find one of the Espada, and that will be easier if he’s close. He’s had practice keeping his reiatsu tightly contained, and this will be no different. From a distance he’ll even feel like Sōsuke, which can do nothing but help him even if it grates.

Over the rise of the next dune, a dark shape splinters towards the sky, black against the light of the moon. Kyōka Suigetsu makes for it without hesitating, grabbing one of the strangely crystalline branches and studying the sand around it. Deep, likely, and not something he can move without using far too much reiatsu, but…

A breath, a moment of concentration. He brings a hand up, narrowing his eyes, and murmurs, “Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man. Inferno and pandemonium, the sea barrier surges, march on to the south. Hadō 31: Shakkahō!”

An orb of red light crackles into existence against his palm, then bursts forward in a surge of crimson, crashing into the tree where its trunk meets the sand and detonating. There's a groaning, hissing crash, and Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t waste time being surprised that the spell worked; he leaps for the brief opening in the sand as the tree’s branches shatter.

It’s like throwing himself into rushing water, or over the edge of a waterfall. For an instant he can't see, can't hear, can only feel the rush of gravity crashing down and the way the world turns over, and—

Kyōka Suigetsu slams into a thick branch, steadies himself just enough to get his feet under him, and then leaps clear of the pouring sand, dropping onto a wide branch on the next tree. Coughing, he doubles over, trying to clear the particles from his lungs, shaking white grains from his hair. The sand is still pouring down, but more slowly, not such a thick fall as the collapsing sand plugs the hole he created, caught on the branches beneath the broken ones. The desert will be a few inches lower in that spot, but it shouldn’t be too noticeable, Kyōka Suigetsu hopes. He rubs sand from his face, shakes out his hair again, and then pushes upright, casting a look over the forest around him. Silent and dark, as expected, and he grimaces.

Too many Hollows. Even after all of Sōsuke’s time in Hueco Mundo, Kyōka Suigetsu still isn't used to it.

The trees here are too far apart to use as a path through the Forest, and as much as he dislikes being forced to walk, Kyōka Suigetsu leaps down to the ground, landing lightly on the packed earth. It will be easier to find the exit he remembers, he tells himself, but it’s more open than he’d prefer.

Still, he was able to manage a Hadō without trouble, and it didn’t seem any weaker than when Sōsuke performed it. Glancing down at his hand, Kyōka Suigetsu flexes his fingers, lets that flicker of satisfaction grow. Shakkahō is a fairly low-level kidō, but simply being able to use it means that Kyōka Suigetsu can likely use others as well. It makes sense; Sōsuke knew them, and Kyōka Suigetsu saw him use them many times both in practice and in real fights. Zanpakutō have reiatsu similar to their wielder’s, and even though they’re separate beings they're born from a Shinigami’s soul. There can't be that many differences.

The roar of a Menos quickens Kyōka Suigetsu’s steps, sends him deeper into the shadows under the trees where little light filters down. Using kidō in the desert was already a risk, and he can't afford to draw any more attention to himself before he’s inside Las Noches; it’s one reason he didn’t simply open a garganta directly into the palace. Sōsuke likely isn't in residence, since Kuchiki Rukia only just arrived in the Living World, but Kyōka Suigetsu knows he monitored Hueco Mundo closely, especially when he was still sending the Espada out to find high-level Arrancar. Better to stay beneath his notice until the last moment.

If he’s remembering correctly, the path into the palace shouldn’t be too far. Las Noches is extensive, and the levels beneath the surface are even greater. One portion of the castle runs right up against the Menos Forest, forming one of the borders, and the doorway he needs is there. It will mean longer in Las Noches itself, but Kyōka Suigetsu is confident that he’ll be able to slip in undetected. And if someone does find him, he’ll try manifesting his sword and using his shikai. It will work far better for this kind of thing than kidō would.

The Hōgyoku is a burning weight in his pocket as he walks, far too close to him, with a heat that’s on the edge of uncomfortable. Waiting, it feels like, and Kyōka Suigetsu knows that it takes a long time to awaken even when it’s been fused with Sōsuke’s half, but he still doesn’t like it.

“Soon,” he murmurs to it, scanning the darkness for any hint of the wall rising. Soon they’ll be in Las Noches, and then he can find when one he needs, steal Sōsuke’s version of the Hōgyoku, and leave. Maybe destroy Urahara’s Hōgyoku, if things work correctly. If they don’t, well.

Sōsuke will still be down a Hōgyoku and an Espada, and Kyōka Suigetsu is more than willing to take that as a victory.

He coughs again, grimaces at the itchy dryness of his throat. Physical sensations out here are far different than the ones in Urahara Shoten, and he thinks he can safely say that he doesn’t like them. The pain, at least, he’s become familiar with since the Hōgyoku tried to destroy him, but the other things—

Motion. Just a flash of movement, but it’s pale against the darkness, and Kyōka Suigetsu is instantly on guard. He twists towards it, raising one hand with a Bakudō chant ready on his tongue, but that gives away too much of what he is if the enemy hasn’t noticed already. Swallows it back, turns instead and leaps, shunpo carrying him forward in a blur. There's a stand of particularly thick trees in the distance, and—

Something wrenches him back, pulls him around hard. Kyōka Suigetsu goes down, rolling with the momentum, and rises in the same motion. Adrenaline surges, but it’s controllable, bearable. He raises a hand, lets reiatsu spark and take form. Thinks of the weight of a katana, a green-and-gold hilt with a prism-shaped tsuba, the way Sōsuke’s hand felt around the pommel. Breathes out, and pulls.

Shining silver slides out of nothingness, heavy in his grip. Kyōka Suigetsu sweeps the blade down and across in front of him, feels something give like snapping, and staggers back. His sword—what used to be him—is practically glowing in the darkness, and past its brilliance he can see a figure, tall and thin against the dark trees.

“Who are you?” he asks levelly, and slides a foot back to balance himself better without letting his eyes leave the stranger.

There's a long moment of silence, and then a step. The figure moves to the edge of the deepest shadows, slow and deliberate, each footfall carefully placed. “You are not a Shinigami.”

Kyōka Suigetsu tenses, steps back. Casts a look behind himself in the direction of the wall, judging the possible distance before he looks back at the man waiting at the edge of the trees. That reiatsu—it doesn’t feel like a Hollow’s. It doesn’t particularly feel like a Shinigami’s, either.

“Neither are you,” he returns, and wonders what will happen if he tries for shikai right now. The man can see him, which means that the illusions will hold him, but—

Kyōka Suigetsu is a tattered soul in a false body, and he doesn’t know if he can hold the illusions that were once as simple to create as a thought.

There's a long pause that stretches out between them, heavy and considering. And then, lowly, the man laughs. He takes a stride forward into the light, the pale robe he’s wearing pure white against the backdrop of the forest, eyes narrowed but not with hostility.

“Not a Shinigami,” he says, and something like amusement touches the curl of his mouth. “No. I know what you are.”

Alarm flickers to life somewhere deep in Kyōka Suigetsu’s chest, and he jerks back. Feels invisible strands grab for him again, and this time when he sweeps his blade between them only some give. He staggers, off balance as they pull him around, and the man lifts his hand, fingers spread wide, long nails catching the light. The hold on Kyōka Suigetsu tightens, and he hisses, jerks. Feels his grip on his sword slip away, and can't quite manage to grab it before it clatters to the ground.

The man smiles thinly, deep violet light flickering around his hand. “This is an interesting coincidence,” he says, and a twitch of his fingers pulls Kyōka Suigetsu closer. “A zanpakutō spirit, wandering without a master? Rare indeed.”

Coincidence. Kyōka Suigetsu’s thoughts latch onto the word, then race ahead. A connection of some kind, then, and his reiatsu is so strange, traced with jagged darkness, but—

Strip that away, leaving just what’s underneath, and Kyōka Suigetsu recognizes that type of reiatsu.

“Clearly,” he bites out, “I'm not the only one.” Twists enough to raise his palm, and snaps, “Hadō 4: Byakurai!”

The zanpakutō spirit’s eyes widen, and he leaps back in a whirl as white lightning crackles past him. The bonds vanish, setting Kyōka Suigetsu free in a rush, and he lands and leaps back to grab his sword, snatching it up. It comes readily, almost jumping into his grip, but in the same moment the other spirit reaches, and a sigil blooms blue in the air. A sword forms, hilt wrapped in purple, blade longer than normal, and as soon as it’s in his hand the spirit brings it sweeping around, aiming for Kyōka Suigetsu’s throat. He lunges up, blocking it, and locks their blades together.

The stranger is still smiling, just a little. His eyes are pale, pale turquoise, full of an amusement that’s entirely unlike Urahara’s, but—

There's something desperate in them, too. Something dark, and Kyōka Suigetsu can feel it vibrate through him, an odd synchronicity that very nearly aches.

“That isn't your true form,” he says, gaze flickering over Kyōka Suigetsu carefully. “Why don’t you show me what it really is?” Violet light flickers around his fingertips, and he reaches out, reiatsu surging—

“Bakudō 39: Enkosen!” Kyōka Suigetsu wrenches back even as the shield of yellow light bursts into being between them, tries to think of a way out. What would Sōsuke do, is his first thought, and it’s a biting, awful one, but—useful. Always.

Destroy him, Sōsuke would say. Interference won't be tolerated, and Kyōka Suigetsu thinks of another kidō, opens his mouth for the chant—

Somewhere far too close, voices rise.

Kyōka Suigetsu stiffens, but he isn't the only one. The other spirit tenses as well, gaze flickering into the trees, and his expression turns grim.

Trying for another Bakudō with Hollows so close is asking to be caught, but hohō is a small enough burst of reiatsu that it should pass unnoticed. Certainly not Kyōka Suigetsu’s best ability, but good enough to outrun someone who isn't looking for him. One long step and he launches himself forward, right into the trees, and the world blurs and steadies and blurs again. When he touches down he’s on the other side of the stand of trees, and he staggers, catches himself on a trunk and tries to hold in another cough.

“Feeling the effects of separation, are you? You must have been without your master for a long time,” that deep voice says, right in his ear.

Chapter Text

Kyōka Suigetsu jerks around, swinging, but the other spirit blocks his sword with a casual flick of his wrist, forces the blade down in a shower of sparks and steps into him. There's nowhere to retreat with the tree at his back, a threat in the forest, and Kyōka Suigetsu has never had to feel trapped before, but—

He grabs the spirit’s wrist as he reaches out, shoving him back a step, and then doesn’t let go. “What do you want?” he hisses.

The man smiles, hungry. “To know what another like myself is doing in the Menos Forest, that’s all,” he says, but Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t believe it for a moment. Even if that’s part of the reason, it’s not all of it. “You haven’t heard my voice before, have you?”

“I think I would remember if I had,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, makes it an insult with the lack of inflection.

With a low laugh, the spirit leans in, pressing into Kyōka Suigetsu’s grip on his arm. “You should have,” he says, and that stare is intent, unwavering. “To be here, as you are—I've never met another zanpakutō with power similar to my own.”

“You still haven’t,” Kyōka Suigetsu retorts, and shoves him away. He only retreats a step, but it’s enough for Kyōka Suigetsu to feel like he has breathing room again. “You can tell we aren’t the same.”

The spirit’s smile doesn’t waver. “Clearly,” he says, and that violet reiatsu sparks. Before Kyōka Suigetsu can even attempt to dodge, his free hand presses into Kyōka Suigetsu’s chest, five points of power that burn right through Kyōka Suigetsu’s skin.

The world shudders, pulses, and Kyōka Suigetsu has to strangle a cry as it fades. For just an instant he’s jolted out of his skin, the Menos Forest rippling out of existence to be replaced by—

Silver water, white moonlight. Low pools perfectly still under the night sky, with paths of stone separating them. The reflections shimmer, and beneath the surface there are flowers, drifting blossoms, a full moon when the one above is a bare crescent, thin and starved. It’s precisely as Kyōka Suigetsu remembers it, and the only thing missing is his former master.

(Sōsuke liked to sit on one of the higher stones with his feet in the water, and Kyōka Suigetsu would sit next to him, watching the flowers move beneath the mirror-still surface as Sōsuke spoke about his plans. Would murmur praise for particularly tricky ideas, for plots that would leave their enemies broken and humiliated, and—

Sōsuke betrayed him. All of those moments never meant anything, and Kyōka Suigetsu hates hates hates.)

With a snarl, he throws his reiatsu out like a spear, hurls the other spirit out of his mind before the man can even finish forming in his inner world. Shoves him back, that aching fury rising, because that world should be gone, destroyed when the Hōgyoku nearly killed him. It shouldn’t feel like Sōsuke is waiting there for him, shouldn’t exist when everything else in Kyōka Suigetsu’s reality has been shattered so thoroughly.

No,” he says, and makes it a threat.

The other spirit staggers back, catching himself on a tree, and his expression is considering instead of offended, touched with a look that Kyōka Suigetsu can't make out.

“Not the same,” he says, “but similar.”

Pride drives Kyōka Suigetsu’s fury higher, makes him bristle even as he tries to hide it. He is nothing like other zanpakutō, has a greater power, a shikai that is perfect hypnosis with no way to break the illusion. None of the other captains’ swords could ever match him. Even Ryūjin Jakka couldn’t break his spell, and that was before he used bankai.

“Be careful of your arrogance, or you might choke on it,” he warns sharply, raising his sword again. Braces it, ready to thrust into the other spirit’s throat as the man’s pale eyes narrow with sudden anger, and—

“Fucking Szayel,” a loud voice snarls, barely beyond their stand of trees, and both Kyōka Suigetsu and the other spirit go still. “Nothing’s ever good enough for that bastard. Like he didn’t just grab those Adjuchas and drag them into his lab. Not powerful enough my ass.”

“They would have made decent Fracción,” a softer voice offers, thoughtful. “If you’d like I can speak to my brother—”

A loud scoff, and this time Kyōka Suigetsu recognizes the louder voice. Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez, alive and abrasive as ever, with at least one of his Fracción—not quite the last person Kyōka Suigetsu wants to be found by, but certainly close to the top of the list. He grits his teeth, raises a hand only to have the other spirit catch his wrist. Narrowed eyes meet his own, and the spirit nods once, tipping his head towards Grimmjow’s voice with a faint grimace.

Well. Apparently Kyōka Suigetsu isn't the only one hiding from the Espada.

It’s enough to make Kyōka Suigetsu press a finger to his lips, then slide away from the spirit’s grasp, picking up a light-footed run in the opposite direction of the voices. The other spirit trails him, looking dissatisfied, but he’s perfectly silent over the rough ground, and within moments the Espada is out of earshot, the cliff looming close. The formation of boulders along the base of it is the same one Kyōka Suigetsu remembers, and he slips around them, through the illusion that hides the entrance. The man in white is still behind him, but Kyōka Suigetsu decides it’s better to get out of sight than continue to fight in the open. If needed, he can collapse the tunnel with a kidō and block the way into Las Noches, though he’d prefer it doesn’t come to that.

The man doesn’t look hostile, though, closer to thoughtful as they come to a stop in the tunnel. He glances back out at the forest, at the voices, and then back at Kyōka Suigetsu, and arches one brow.

“You're not a friend of the Hollows,” he says, testing.

“Neither are you.” Kyōka Suigetsu looks him over, trying to work out where that edge of dark reiatsu comes from. It feels like a Hollow’s, but…different. Altered.

To his surprise, the spirit laughs, low and amused. “They are a source of energy,” he says dismissively, and Kyōka Suigetsu blinks, then grimaces as soon as the implications register. Eating Hollows is something he hopes he never has to stoop to.

“You don’t even know where they’ve been,” he says, and it’s maybe a little closer to dismay than it should be.

The spirit chuckles, tips one hand in an absent acknowledgement. “We were created to destroy them,” he points out, and then inclines his head. “I am Muramasa.”

Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates, but—he’s a zanpakutō as well, has been eating Hollows. He doesn’t know Sōsuke, or at least Sōsuke doesn’t know him, and that likely makes it safe enough. “Kyōka,” he returns, doesn’t bother with his full name because safe enough simply means he doesn’t need quite as much caution as he would otherwise.

Muramasa accepts the name without hesitation, then raises a hand and lets his sword vanish from his fingertips in a ripple of light. “Your heart is all but closed to me,” he says, reaching out towards Kyōka Suigetsu like he’s testing the heat from a fire. “But there are cracks as well. How long have you been separated from your wielder?”

“That,” Kyōka Suigetsu says precisely, “is none of your business.” Rather than let his own sword vanish, he concentrates for a moment to call up its saya, then sheathes it and slides it through his belt, close at hand but out of the way. He hesitates, assessing, and then inclines his head to Muramasa and steps away.

Both predictably and aggravatingly, Muramasa doesn’t even pause before falling into step with him.

“I have business in the palace,” Kyōka Suigetsu tells him, makes it as cold and uninviting as possible.

“And I would like to know your secrets,” Muramasa returns, bitingly amused. “Perhaps we can help each other.”

There's a weight to the phrase like he means more than just the obvious, and Kyōka Suigetsu buries his wariness as he looks away. Too much of being Sōsuke’s tool already, and he won't allow himself to be anyone else’s.

He thinks, for a moment, about warning Muramasa that he’ll kill him without mercy if the spirit gets in his way, but then decides against it; Muramasa is clearly skilled, and Kyōka Suigetsu would rather take him by surprise if it comes down to that. If Muramasa becomes a hindrance in Las Noches, there are more than enough places Kyōka Suigetsu remembers that are perfect for a quiet ambush.

Decided, he quickens his steps just a little, watching the unchanging march of the corridor ahead of them. Dark stone here, with nothing to break the shadows, but in the far distance Kyōka Suigetsu thinks he can make out a dot of light. The end of the tunnel, likely; Las Noches’s brilliance is blinding at the best of times, let alone against a backdrop of complete darkness.

“Why wear a gigai?” Muramasa asks, and if he’s aiming for idle conversation his tone misses by a mile. Kyōka Suigetsu contains the roll of his eyes and doesn’t bother looking back at the other zanpakutō spirit.

“I was in the World of the Living,” Kyōka Suigetsu answers, which has the benefit of even being true. Just—not the actual reason. There's no need to share his weaknesses.

Muramasa doesn’t waver, keeps his eyes on Kyōka Suigetsu and his steps steady. If he’s disappointed by the response, it doesn’t show. “An interesting solution,” he says, and there's—something strange. Some undertone that sounds like a thousand whispers, or maybe just one. It shivers right through Kyōka Suigetsu, makes him jerk and spin with a curse in his throat, because he knows illusions—

Muramasa steps back, lifting his hands, but there's the edge of a smirk on his face. “A test,” he demurs.

Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t tell him that if he tries it again, he’ll be the subject of one of Kyōka Suigetsu’s tests, and it won't be nearly so innocuous. Glares, instead, and then turns back, taking a step forward that’s touched with reiatsu. The world blurs, and Kyōka Suigetsu takes another step, a third, judging himself. Hohō is simple, and shunpo familiar; he’s a little slower than he remembers Sōsuke being, but he’s also not trying hard, and this body is still strange.

Frustratingly, Muramasa keeps pace. Kyōka Suigetsu tries to tell himself he wasn’t actually hoping to lose the man.

“You eat Hollows but not Arrancar?” he asks as the end of the passage comes into sight, darkness suddenly opening out into a pure white room.

The pause is long enough that he thinks Muramasa isn't going to answer, but after a heavy stretch of silence Muramasa makes a sound that’s mostly agreement. “Adjuchas and above are willful,” he says.

Kyōka Suigetsu huffs, amused at the understatement. Consuming so many separate consciousnesses has to strain even the most powerful zanpakutō, and Gillians are largely mindless, pure instinct and hunger given form. Evolving gives them back a mind of their own, and they don’t lose it again so easily. It’s a good thing to keep in mind, as far as capabilities go; Muramasa is likely strong, but…not invincible.

Given who Kyōka Suigetsu came back to set himself against, not invincible is all he needs.

Their steps ring against tile instead of stone as they emerge into the light, and Kyōka Suigetsu squints against the brilliance, pausing to get his bearings. Four more passages open off of this room, all leading up, and he frowns a little, trying to remember where they emerge. One leads to the tower where Sōsuke monitors the worlds; another ends near Szayel Aporro’s labs, and a third comes out near the palace’s entrance. The last—

“You’ve been here before,” Muramasa notes, and Kyōka Suigetsu glances at him, then away from those purple-ringed eyes.

“Another of those things that is none of your business,” he retorts, and picks the leftmost corridor. It should end near another tower, and Kyōka Suigetsu can only hope that the Espada he needs is still in residence, not out chasing powerful Hollows like Grimmjow. Kuchiki Rukia only just arrived in Karakura, has transferred her powers to Kurosaki Ichigo but managed nothing else, and at this point Kyōka Suigetsu’s knowledge of the Espada’s actions is vague. They were left to Starrk’s direction, or more frequently Harribel’s, and operated without Sōsuke’s direct oversight.

Kyōka Suigetsu has patience, though. He wants his revenge desperately, but he’s known from the very beginning that it’s not something that will happen immediately. Sōsuke is a wily, cautious man, and it’s only because Kyōka Suigetsu knows how he thinks that he’s even slightly predictable. He wishes—

In Kyōka Suigetsu’s pocket, the Hōgyoku hums, power flickering into something a little sharper, a little brighter. Instantly, Kyōka Suigetsu clamps down on the thought, shuts it away and grits his teeth as he empties out his mind. No use wasting the Hōgyoku’s power, not when it’s so valuable and this train of thought in particular could lead to so many unpredictable outcomes.

You aren’t going to trick me, he thinks, pressing his fingertips against its outline. You won't win. I'm going to destroy you the way you tried to destroy me.

The pulse of power subsides, flickering down to nothingness, and Kyōka Suigetsu evens out his breathing, loosens his tense shoulders. Warning acknowledged, then.

“Another power source?” Muramasa asks, almost sudden enough to make Kyōka Suigetsu jump. He twitches instead, steps sharply away from Muramasa even though it brings him right up against the wall of the corridor, and the way his hand falls to his sword is automatic in a way it shouldn’t be. Sōsuke’s instinct, rather than his own, and he loathes it.

“Leave it be,” he bites out, and Muramasa raises one hand peaceably, though his expression is amused.

“It must be valuable to you,” he says, and then pauses, turning his head. A little warily, Kyōka Suigetsu follows his gaze towards a flight of stairs leading off, rising towards—

The meeting room, he thinks, eyes narrowing. Three floors up is the meeting room, where the Espada gather, and maybe it’s a risk, but the odds are good that at least a few of the Arrancar are there. Perhaps even the one he needs.

It’s the pulse of descending reiatsu that likely caught Muramasa’s attention, a pale shimmer in the air that feels like silver and bites like poison. Familiar, and Kyōka Suigetsu tips his head, considering paths, discarding bits of plans and stitching several others together. He casts a glance at Muramasa, then back at the stairs, and says, “You're about to entangle yourself in things that are beyond your comprehension, Muramasa. Leave now.”

Muramasa chuckles, sliding his hands into the pockets of his long coat and tipping his chin up. There's a deadly kind of amusement on his face, something dark but sharp, and he doesn’t move. “Child,” he says lowly, “if you would think to scare me away, you will have to try much harder.”

Kyōka Suigetsu shoots him a dark look, but before he can say anything there's a whisper of power in the air, and a form appears on the landing of the stairs. Tall and thin, in Shinigami black, and Kyōka Suigetsu wastes no time bowing his head to the smiling man.

“Sir,” he says politely.

Ichimaru Gin looks him over closely. “Oh my,” he says lightly, though the weight of his power is something deadly and cold. “Visitors down here? That’s unexpected.”

He likely felt their reiatsu when they fought in the Forest, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, and came to investigate. Too much power spent, like he’d expected, but—he can use this. Of course he can.

“We have finished the tasks Lord Aizen set us in the World of the Living,” he says, keeps it deferential even though he hates the thought of bowing his head to anyone. It’s fine, as long as it results in the outcome he wants. “Has he returned yet?”

Gin studies Kyōka Suigetsu, smile slipping wider, attention sharpening. “Not yet,” he offers, and waves a hand. “Ah, what was it you were doin’ again? I can let Lord Aizen know, if ya want.”

Not in the least, but—Kyōka Suigetsu knows Gin. Knows Shinsō, and more importantly he’s seen Gin's betrayal.

This man isn't an ally, because Gin is only on his own side and no one else’s, but perhaps he’s not entirely an enemy, either. Useful, at the very least.

“Assessing Urahara’s defenses,” he says, “and attempting to locate Hirako and his companions.”

Interest sharpens Gin's gaze. “Oh?” he asks, lightly curious. “Aizen’s branching out an’ hirin’ outside help now?”

It takes effort to keep his sneer from showing, and Kyōka Suigetsu ducks his head to hide his expression, dipping forward in a bow. “We are loyal to the cause,” he lies, and it feels like ash on his tongue.

Gin snickers, then waves a hand, beckoning them up. “Come on, come on. Tell Gin all about it now, yeah?”

Kyōka Suigetsu can feel their eyes on him, Muramasa’s and Gin's both, but he doesn’t allow himself to react. Just tugs his coat forward subtly as he straightens, hiding his sword. Gin of all people will recognize it easily, and Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t want to give that much away just yet. “We were told to accompany Aaroniero Arruruerie back to the World of the Living to investigate further if we found anything,” he says, keeps his gaze down and his tone perfectly polite as he starts up the steps.

“The Noveno?” Gin tips his head, tapping a long finger against his chin. “Tricky, tricky Aizen! He’d be one a’ the best against a Vizard, yeah. Ah, Aaroniero’s wanderin’ around somewhere if you need ‘im now.”

“I think that would be best,” Kyōka Suigetsu murmurs, casting a glance back at Muramasa as he follows the captain up.

Gin must be looking too, because he chuckles. “Your friend’s pretty quiet there,” he says, almost teasing. “Cat got your tongue?”

Muramasa hums, flicks a glance at Kyōka Suigetsu. Not entirely sure what he wants to do, but not ready to try anything before he lays a little more groundwork, Kyōka Suigetsu meets his eyes and then lets them drop, keeps his body language quiet and attentive.

“I have nothing to add,” Muramasa says evenly, though his stare doesn’t waver, and Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t allow himself a breath of relief, even if he wants to.

“Booooring,” Gin sing-songs, leaping up the next landing and halfway up the following flight of stairs. “An’ you, the chatty one—ya found Hirako, then?”

An opening. Kyōka Suigetsu carefully keeps the satisfaction hidden, eyes on the heels of Gin's sandals. “He is in contact with Urahara. We first saw him when he passed through to Soul Society.”

Gin laughs, bright and amused. “Comin’ back home? Wouldn’t have thought the bastard had the guts,” he says cheerfully. “Aizen’s gonna like that.”

“Lord Aizen will need to move quickly,” Kyōka Suigetsu murmurs. “I believe Hirako and Yadomaru were there to assess the possibility of kidnapping one of Lord Aizen’s future test subjects before he can move to secure her. The Tenth Division does not offer enough security to deter them.”

There's no physical reaction, no change in Gin's posture or bearing, but Kyōka Suigetsu can feel Shinsō’s alarm, the sharp flare of mingled fury and fear that no one but a zanpakutō would catch. It’s swallowed up immediately, buried beneath the calm of Gin's own reiatsu, but—

He believes it. Kyōka Suigetsu is sure of that.

“Ya said ya need Aaroniero?” Gin asks. “Feels like that’s him leavin’ the main hall now.” He pauses next to a door, turning to Kyōka Suigetsu with a thin, eerie smile. “I’ll let Aizen know what ya found, yeah?”

“But I haven’t told you everything,” Kyōka Suigetsu starts, only to have Gin cut him off with an airy wave of one hand.

“Too much talk is borin’, too,” he says dismissively. “Aizen’ll find ya if he has questions, a’ course.”

“Very well. Thank you, sir.” Kyōka Suigetsu bows to him again, largely to hide his smirk as the captain vanishes in a blur. Even if Gin suspects a trap, he’ll check the information himself. At the very least it will be enough to remove him from Hueco Mundo briefly, and given the commotion likely taking place at Urahara’s shop right now due to the vanished Hōgyoku, it might even manage to convince Gin of the lie and make him speed up his plans.

More things to account for, as the future shifts, but Kyōka Suigetsu remembers how Sōsuke felt when Gin betrayed him. He might have told himself that he knew, that he expected it, but Kyōka Suigetsu knows the truth. There was never so much as a hint of Gin’s disloyalty, and Sōsuke never expected him to turn traitor. That moment of surprise and disappointment—it hurt, once.

Kyōka Suigetsu hopes that it hurts twice as much this time around.

“Interesting,” Muramasa murmurs, but says nothing further, and Kyōka Suigetsu raises a brow at him. The spirit simply smirks at him, then glances at the door and says, “I assume you don’t intend to consume this Arrancar?”

“You shouldn’t, either,” Kyōka Suigetsu informs him, but he starts for the door Gin indicated and tests the knob. It opens easily under his hand. “He’s only a Gillian, but he’s consumed thousands of other Hollows and overwhelmed all of them.”

Muramasa hums, following Kyōka Suigetsu with languid steps. “It has been a very long time since I used enough of my power to require such a sacrifice,” he says, and glances up towards the open sky as they emerge.

“An observations system,” Kyōka Suigetsu tells him, not quite a warning but close to it. Getting into Las Noches unobserved was his goal, so that none of the Arrancar had time to mobilize against him; he hardly expected to go through the palace without being seen. Doesn’t want to, honestly—let Sōsuke wonder who and what he is, and what his goal could possibly be. Soon enough they’ll be out of the light, and Sōsuke will only have a few minutes’ worth of footage to dwell on.

The Hōgyoku flickers in his pocket, pulsing like a heart.

There are voices in the corridor ahead of them, low but rising as they turn the corner. Harribel is there with two of her Fracción, the Arrancar both bickering quietly. Starrk and Lilynette are heading in the opposite direction, and—

Aaroniero, masked and covered, is speaking with an irritated Nnoitra, who looks all too eager to leave. Kyōka Suigetsu hides his amusement, sliding past Harribel as she turns to glance at him, then taking a few long steps to catch up to his target.

“Excuse me,” he says politely, bowing to both Espada. “Novena, I carry orders directly from Lord Aizen. May I speak with you in private?”

“From Lord Aizen?” Aaroniero turns his masked head for a moment, then inclines it. “Our quarters are dark enough. Nnoitra—”

The Quinto doesn’t so much as look back, already halfway down the hall. Aaroniero makes an irritated sound, but turns to lead Kyōka Suigetsu towards the short tower that squats across an open walkway. A door in the roof stands open, leading to another flight of stairs, and Aaroniero huffs quietly as he makes for them.

“No respect for anyone, that bastard,” Aaroniero mutters. “He’s killed more Adjuchas than he’s found. We’re surprised Lord Aizen hasn’t done away with him yet for his disloyalty.”

“Not everyone can live up to the example of your devotion,” Kyōka Suigetsu demurs, casting an assessing glance at the door. The other Espada likely won't come to assist Aaroniero even if they manage to feel any unsettled reiatsu from in here, and Aaroniero doesn’t have any Fracción of his own. Even without a kidō to block the doorway, they’ll likely be safe for a while. Gin is the only real threat, should he decide to find them, but Kyōka Suigetsu plans for this to be over quickly.

Long nails click against stone, and Muramasa very deliberately comes to a halt, leaning back against the closed door to block the way. In the darkness, his smile is thin and full of malicious humor, gaze trained on Kyōka Suigetsu without wavering.

Well. That’s one way to be sure the way stays shut, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, raising a brow at the spirit. Muramasa just smirks in return, hands tucked into his pockets, clearly content to observe.

Kyōka Suigetsu hopes he enjoys the show, in that case.

Aaroniero laughs, two-toned and wavering, and reaches up to detach his mask a he steps off the last stair. “Lord Aizen would do well to let us eat him,” he snickers. “That power is the only decent thing about him. Our potential for evolution is limitless, and Quinto is one step forward that would benefit Lord Aizen.” Casing a glance over his shoulder, he sets his mask aside, and then asks, “You said you carried a message from him?”

Kyōka Suigetsu judges their surroundings—open room, no windows, no furniture to hinder their fight. Just open space and darkness, hidden from Sōsuke’s view. Raising his head, he reaches for his belt, closes his hand around the hilt of his sword.

“Yes,” he says, and there’s just enough light around them to see by, which is all Kyōka Suigetsu needs. “Lord Aizen has a new order for you, Novena.”

With an impatient sound, Aaroniero takes a step towards him. “Which is?” he demands.

Die in pain,” Kyōka Suigetsu answers coldly. “Hadō 63: Raikoho!”

A wave of crackling yellow energy bursts from his raised hand, pouring across the space between them, and Aaroniero screams as it hits. Pitching his voice over the sound of it, Kyōka Suigetsu says, “Killing you will be my revenge, Aaroniero Arruruerie. Prepare yourself.”

There's a wavering breath, a high snarl. The deeper voice asks, “Revenge? Have you lost something important to you, messenger?”

It’s so very easy to draw people into the prepared traps. So simple to lead them right where Kyōka Suigetsu wants them. He smiles, lets Aaroniero read amusement as satisfaction as he draws his sword slowly, threateningly. “You’ve spent far too long using Shiba Kaien’s power and form as if it belongs to you,” he says, lets the silver of the metal shimmer in the low light even as he readies another kidō. This will have to be a close-range battle, which increases the risk of it, but Kyōka Suigetsu trusts his own cunning here.

A pause, and Aaroniero’s twin heads both stare at Kyōka Suigetsu as the Espada’s reiatsu ripples out, surrounding his drawn blade. “Shiba Kaien,” the high-voiced one repeats, like a realization, and Kyōka Suigetsu’s grip tightens faintly on his sword. “But I haven’t seen you in his memories.”

Kyōka Suigetsu takes a breath, drags the power up from within himself. Doesn’t want to try for shikai here and now, right in the middle of Las Noches where Sōsuke might be able to recognize the power, but—he’s an illusion-type zanpakutō. Something small, effecting only himself, should in theory be possible.

He concentrates, and calls that flicker of reiatsu, letting it bleed across his features until they shift and change. Dark hair spills down his back, and the lines of his face change, soften, as human clothes become a shihakusho. Kyōka Suigetsu looks up with wide, dark eyes not his own and asks, “And now?”

“Shiba Miyako,” Aaroniero says, deep voice sounding sadistically delighted. “Finally reborn, were you?”

“Metastacia didn’t take all of me,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, and it’s a woman’s voice, low and steady but full of grief. “I won't let you keep all of Kaien, either, you monster.”

Aaroniero laughs, both heads as one, and his face changes from a liquid-filled capsule to a human’s features, with wild black hair and blue-green eyes. “Well,” the deep voice says. “If you’ve come all this way to be killed by me, I suppose the least I can do is let you see you beloved’s face one more time before you die, girl!”

The sword in Aaroniero’s hand spins, twisting through his fingers, and it glows yellow-gold in the darkness, lengthening, changing. Kyōka Suigetsu tips his chin up, watching as the zanpakutō shifts, becomes a trident, and—

There. Exactly what he was hoping for—a spark of familiar reiatsu, like a drowning sea. Cold and rushing and deep, with a treacherous current beneath the calm surface.

“Surge, Water and Heaven!” Aaroniero calls, and water whirls up around his feet. “Nejibana!”

Kyōka Suigetsu smiles, small and satisfied, and brings his sword up. “There you are,” he says, and lunges with the blade leading.

Chapter Text

Kyōka Suigetsu is starting to remember why he and Sōsuke always avoided fighting head-on.

Ducking back, he drops low, lets a surge of water pass right over his head and comes up hard, slashing for Aaroniero’s throat with a hard swing. Too hard, not quite sloppy but not as elegant as it should be, but it still makes Aaroniero jerk to the side, Nejibana coming up to deflect Kyōka Suigetsu’s sword away in a shower of sparks.

“Hadō 11: Tsuzuri Raiden,” Kyōka Suigetsu hisses, sweeps a palm across the blade as a crackle of electricity follows. He twists, sidestepping another driving thrust, slams a palm into the trident’s shaft to knock it away, and stabs forward. Aaroniero sees the motion, but he’s hampered by Nejibana, not quite as smooth as he could be—Kaien’s movements, but not Kaien’s extensive practice, no matter what muscle memory he’s kept. The katana slams into his shoulder, electricity punching the blade right through flesh, and Aaroniero screams, recoiling.

How wonderful to fight an opponent who hates pain, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks derisively, turning sharply to plant a foot in his unguarded side and kick him hard. The Espada staggers away, but he’s already shifting, Nejibana sweeping around. Kyōka Suigetsu slips back, but as one foot falls against the stone it shifts. Water surges up around him, a heavy current than nearly knocks him over, and he curses, falls. The prongs of the trident only just miss his head, slide through the illusion of long hair and away before the sharp butt of the weapon is slamming down at his face. With a curse, Kyōka Suigetsu braces one hand on the flat of his sword and swings it up and around, knocking the screw-like end to the side. It slams into stone instead of his skull, and Kyōka Suigetsu scrambles to his feet, darts away from the following blow and lifts a hand.

“Bakudō 75: Gochūtekkan!” he cries, and five pillars fall out of nothingness, the chains between them chiming. Kyōka Suigetsu braces himself, ready to lunge and take advantage of the opening—

Aaroniero whirls Nejibana up, and the massive wave that follows crashes into the binding before it can touch him, shattering it completely.

“Do you really think a weak spell like that is going to be enough?” the deep voice mocks.

Unfortunately, Kyōka Suigetsu had indeed. Apparently his skill with high-level kidō without a chant still leaves something to be desired, though that can likely be fixed with practice. Irritating, but survivable; Aaroniero is hardly a master tactician. Gritting his teeth, Kyōka Suigetsu summons a touch more power, then commands, “Bakudō 21: Sekeinton.”

Red smoke bursts from his fingertip, billowing up to fill the space, and Kyōka Suigetsu ducks low and lunges fast, changing directing to come at Aaroniero from the side. His sword flashes up, ready to lash across the Espada’s ribs—

The ridged butt of Nejibana’s shaft slams into the side of his head, and he cries out before he can help it, tumbling over as spots of light burst behind his vision. It’s only with a desperate effort that he manages to keep his grip on Miyako’s image as the world spins, and he hits the floor hard, feeling something hot and wet slip down the side of his face.

“Pathetic,” Aaroniero mocks with Kaien’s face, stepping closer deliberately to loom over Kyōka Suigetsu. “No wonder I was killed, with the memory of your helplessness so close. If you had been able to defeat Metastacia I never would have died, Miyako.”

It would probably be gutting were he actually Miyako, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, pressing a hand to the deep cut in the side of his head. It’s still bleeding, and he wonders if he’s about to experience firsthand what blood loss is like. It’s an experience he could really do without.

“You're wrong,” he says, gives the words a desperate, bitter edge, like he’s trying to convince himself. Beneath the sound, though, he curls his fingers against the stone, calls up a flicker of reiatsu that bleeds into a flood, just waiting to be released.

Aaroniero laughs. Nejibana’s prongs tap Kyōka Suigetsu under the chin, forcing him to raise his head, and Kaien’s face smiles down at him, amused and warm and full of fondness.

“You know I'm not, Miyako,” he chides gently. “It’s your fault that I'm even here. If you want to make it up to me, though…” Leaning down, he curls a hand into Kyōka Suigetsu’s hair, puts his lips close to his ear. “You should kill yourself,” he whispers.

Kyōka Suigetsu flips his sword around, brings it flashing up, and slams the hilt into Aaroniero’s temple. The Espada recoils, and in the same motion Kyōka Suigetsu rolls, comes to his feet, and throws up a hand. No space for error or weakness, even if care takes longer, so—

“Sprinkled on the bones of the beast! Sharp tower, red crystal, steel ring. Move and become the wind, stop and become the calm. The sound of warring spears fills the empty castle! Hadō 63: Raikoho!”

The last version of Raikoho he cast was weak, scattered. This one, with the edge that the incantation provides, is twice as large and twice as fast, sharp and crackling like trapped lightning. It engulfs Aaroniero, and the air fills with the smell of scorched cloth and hair as he shrieks. Kyōka Suigetsu is moving the moment it releases, dodging sideways and flipping his sword back around. A wave of water sweeps at him, but he throws himself forward and rolls back to his feet as it passes behind him, then pushes off hard and leaps right over Aaroniero’s head. The butt of the trident stabs at his heart, and he deflects it with the flat of his blade, twisting past the thrust to slam an elbow into the center of Aaroniero’s chest.

It hurts, an unexpected burst of pain when bone collides with hierro, but Kyōka Suigetsu grits his teeth and ducks a sweep of Nejibana, dodges the water that follows. It twists around his feet, trying to trip him, but that’s a trick he won't fall for twice. He drops, instead, lets another thrust pass over his head and kicks out to catch Aaroniero in the knee. The Espada stumbles, but turns, and Nejibana stabs down.

There's no good angle, no way to dodge. Kyōka Suigetsu is off balance, in between movements, and even the memory of Sōsuke’s training can't help, since Sōsuke was always terrible at hohō. He has half a second to brace himself, to lunge sideways until nothing vital is in the line of fire, and—

The leftmost prong of the trident drives through his shoulder, scrapes bone. Kyōka Suigetsu cries out, the sound escaping through gritted teeth as his sword clatters to the ground, but—

It’s an opening. It’s an advantage. He can use this.

“Kaien,” he gets out, breathy, shaken, and reaches up, curling his fingers around the shaft of the trident. Water spins around his hand, but the zanpakutō doesn’t waver.

“Miyako,” Aaroniero returns, so falsely sweet and gentle that it makes Kyōka Suigetsu’s skin crawl. “After everything, you won't even do this for me? You won't even try to make up for getting me killed? I was your husband.”

Kyōka Suigetsu takes a breath, braces himself. Doesn’t laugh, because that will give everything away, but he wants to. So easy. So readily tricked, and all it took was a few words and an illusion.

Lifting his head, he tightens his grip on Nejibana, calls up his reiatsu in a wave even as he reaches for the last, fading traces of her spirit. “Walls of ironsand, a priestly pagoda, glowing ironclad fireflies. Standing upright, silent to the end,” he orders. “Bakudō 75: Gochūtekkan!”

With a massive rumble and a clatter of chains, the five pillars drop again, and in the same moment Kyōka Suigetsu wrenches back, pulling Nejibana right out of Aaroniero’s grasp. He jerks the trident from his shoulder even as he rolls to his feet, and there's a crash, a scream, a whirl of smoke and heavy reiatsu. When it shreds apart, billowing up towards the ceiling, Aaroniero is pinned to the floor, one pillar on each limb and one holding his head.

Smiling even through the pain that’s radiating out from his shoulder, Kyōka Suigetsu twists Nejibana through his fingers, letting her fade from her shikai back to her sealed form. The katana is a pretty one, and he studies it lazily as he steps up to the thrashing Espada.

“You underestimated me,” he says coolly. Slowly, deliberately, he lets Miyako’s image ripple away, fracture and fade like moonlight on flowing water, and then holds Nejibana out parallel to Aaroniero’s body. His other hand he gingerly slips into his pocket, where the Hōgyoku is waiting, pulsing like a heart.

“You bitch,” Aaroniero snarls, but now that it’s in place Gochūtekkan keeps his reiatsu pinned just as surely as his body. He twists against the binding, but it gets him nowhere. It won't last, Kyōka Suigetsu knows; if Aaroniero manages his Resurrección it will shatter like so much glass, but Kyōka Suigetsu only needs a minute at most.

“Name-calling?” he asks, derisively amused, just to see Aaroniero bristle and redouble his efforts to twist free. “To be expected of one who cannot even become an Adjuchas. But no need to worry. Your existence will shortly cease to matter.”

I’ll kill you!” Aaroniero shrieks, voices rising in tandem, but Kyōka Suigetsu ignores him. Carefully, hiding a wince, he raises the Hōgyoku to eye level and opens his hand, letting its light shine out in the darkness of the room. In his other, Nejibana shivers like she’s going to fracture apart, and Kyōka Suigetsu frowns, focuses. Takes a breath in, lets it out, and thinks of Shiba Kaien as Sōsuke knew him, of Nejibana as Kyōka Suigetsu knew her once. A proud spirit, willowy and beautiful, whose presence always felt of playful seas in the morning. Never an ally, of course, but—less objectionable than some, by far.

There's still a trace of her reiatsu left. Just a touch, swirling in the depths of her sword form, but it’s all tangled up with the remaining traces of Kaien’s. His zanpakutō holds all the last few pieces of him, carefully hoarded so that Aaroniero can use his power, and it’s just enough for what Kyōka Suigetsu needs.

I want Shiba Kaien back, he thinks, fixes all of his will on that one wish and lets Nejibana drop. I need Kaien. I need his help. I want him restored. Help me.

As the zanpakutō falls, the Hōgyoku starts to burn. There's a chime like struck glass, a ripple of light and sound as one. Kyōka Suigetsu’s breath catches, and—

Shining with blue light, Nejibana settles against Aaroniero’s chest, and his furious screams cut off with jarring suddenness. His whole body jerks, but Nejibana’s light spreads, eats its way outwards like sea-colored flame and devours him entirely. Kyōka Suigetsu braces himself against the surge of reiatsu that’s nearly enough to knock him over, focuses and doesn’t let himself waver.

I want Kaien back, he repeats, lets himself desire it with all of his heart for one fractured second, and the Hōgyoku blazes.

Mid-cry, Aaroniero’s voice shifts, the twinned tones shifting, sliding into something that’s somewhere in between the two. His reiatsu shifts, fluctuates, settles in a rush, and Nejibana’s sweeps out like a tide to crash against the fading edges of a Hollow’s power. Too bright to see anything, but Kyōka Suigetsu can feel the snap as Aaroniero’s corrosive strength gives way, something smoother and deeper slipping out to replace it.

With a ragged, breathless sound, Shiba Kaien arches against the pillars holding him, then collapses back to the ground, breathing hard, blue-green eyes wide.

In the same moment, Kyōka Suigetsu steps back. The Hōgyoku’s power is receding, falling away, and there's a gap where it should be, a crack in its aura, an imperfection.  

Kyōka Suigetsu laughs, wicked and wild and gleeful, and flips it up into the air above his head. Catches it, carelessly, in between his fingers, feels the power ebb just a little further, and lifts the orb up to eye level.

“Respectful hand, unable to touch the darkness. Shooting hand, unable to reflect the blue sky,” he intones, and it’s a risk, trying for such a powerful kidō even with an incantation. This, though—this is revenge. This is retribution for being torn apart one shred at a time, and in the face of that, Kyōka Suigetsu refuses to use anything but the most painful spell he can remember. “The road that basks in light, the wind that ignites the embers, time that gathers when both are together, there is no need to be hesitant. Obey my order: light bullets, eight bodies, nine items, book of heaven, diseased treasure, great wheel, grey fortress tower. Aim far away, scatter brightly and cleanly when fired. Hadō 91: Senjū Kōten Taihō!”

In one hard motion, he hurls the Hōgyoku up into the air, even as points of pink light burn into being around him. A flick of his hand sends them blazing after the Hōgyoku as it starts to fall, and—

A ringing, rising cry, like the scream of straining glass. The crack of impact, burning bright.

Detonation.

The shockwave is hard enough to knock Kyōka Suigetsu right off his feet, to shatter the walls around them and crumble the roof, but even as he slams back into stone all Kyōka Suigetsu can feel is bitter, vicious victory.

 

 

The ripple of his reiatsu returning wakes Kaien, though he almost wishes it hadn’t. His head throbs like the morning after a drinking contest with the Eleventh, and there's a ringing in his ears that usually comes along with a concussion. Or, he thinks with a grimace, pressing a hand to his forehead, a particularly unyielding Bakudō spell.

Nejibana tumbles off his chest as he sits up, landing on the stone with a muffled clatter, and Kaien grabs for her without having to think about the motion. As soon as his hand closes over the hilt, a flood of relief not his own crashes through him, and he lets out a ragged laugh, tightening his grip and answering as best he can.

What even happened? he asks her silently.

Nejibana hesitates, wavers. Our souls were in pieces, she finally answers. Something restored all the parts that were missing.

Creepy. And helpful, though Kaien knows those two things aren’t quite mutually exclusive. Kurotsuchi is a good example of that, for the most part. “That was nice of them,” he mutters, shoving his hair out of his face and squinting at the destruction around them. Most of the ceiling is still intact, by some miracle, though the majority of the eastern wall is nothing but chunks of white stone and dust.

Nejibana laughs, and her power curls around him, cool and playful. It means Metastacia didn’t win, she reminds him.

And that is—well. Just about every last thing Kaien could have wanted, except maybe a chance to go back and not be so painfully stupid. Dragging his sick captain and a new recruit out on his quest for revenge against an unknown and unassessed Hollow was not a high point in regard to his intelligence.

“Neither did Aaroniero,” he offers, and feels her satisfaction spike, malicious as a hurricane on the approach. Neither of them likes being used.

Thinking of Aaroniero reminds him of their savior, though, and Kaien groans as he pushes all the way to his feet. He casts a look through the rubble, frowning a little, and—

There. Dark hair and a dark coat against all the pale stone, a sprawled body that’s entirely limp, and Kaien really, really hopes that the person isn't dead. He has so many questions right now, not the least of which is how the man knew Miyako. That was a perfect replica of her form, after all, even if Kaien knows full well that it wasn’t actually her, the man’s acting aside. Miyako was a zanjutsu expert, not a kidō user. Even when she made Third Seat, she had a habit of automatically closing her eyes every time she cast, and it always drove Kaien insane.

He misses it, now. Even fifty years later, after all the time spent aware and unable to interact with anything, conscious but helpless, Kaien can still feel the ache of her death, no matter how faded.

Still. Still. It feels good that it was at least her image that gave Aaroniero pause, that let the stranger defeat the Hollow that devoured them both. And he’s glad it wasn’t her, honestly, that heard the words Aaroniero whispered.

If you had been able to defeat Metastacia I never would have died, Miyako.

Kaien shudders, bile rising in the back of his throat. Gods, he’s glad that Miyako never had to hear that lie, because she would have taken it for truth.

Staggering over a chunk of stone that shifts beneath his feet, he catches himself, then drops to one knee beside the stranger’s still form. A quick press of fingers to his throat reveals a pulse, and Kaien lets out a breath of relief. Not much of one, though—there’s blood thick and wet on his shoulder, sliding down one side of his face. Aaroniero’s blows, but Kaien still feels a flicker of guilt, something like regret. There was no possible way to stop Aaroniero, and he’s had fifty years to learn that, but—

He should have. There must have been some way, even when all he was could be summed up in a few shards of soul clinging to an old sword.

“Hey,” he says lightly, getting an arm underneath the man’s back and shifting him off the piece of wall he’s crumpled over, since those edges have to be uncomfortable. “Hey, come on, this is definitely not the best time to tap out, you looked like you had a plan.”

No answer, but long lashes flutter slightly, and lips part on a breath. Kaien studies him, searching for anything that might spark recognition, but there's nothing. He hasn’t seen this man before, and he’s sure he would remember if he had. Though—maybe he’s Onmitsukidō? They hide their faces, after all, and there wouldn’t be much of a way to tell. Miyako was friendly with some of the members, if he’s remembering right. The man didn’t move anything like Miyako, even when he wore her image, and it wasn’t much like the Onmitsukidō either, but maybe.

“Anybody home?” Kaien tries, not quite willing to start slapping or shaking the man, but more than ready for him to wake up; there's a prickle down his spine, like eyes on them, and even if the ceiling is still largely intact all he can think about is the blue sky around them, Aizen’s eyes watching them from some distant seat. He hesitates for a second, but then brushes his fingers through dark hair that could be black or brown or even dark red in the shadows, tries to feel for a lump or some deeper wound. Kaien’s never been the best at healing kidō, but he’s not that terrible; Kūkaku and Ganju managed to survive to adulthood, after all, despite their best efforts.

The prickle down his spine abruptly turns into claws, and Kaien stiffens half an instant before cold metal touches his throat. He freezes, not quite daring to breathe, and from behind him there's a thoughtful hum.

“How interesting,” a low, lazy voice says, and it takes effort for Kaien not to curse. He’d forgotten about the man who accompanied the one he’s holding, overlooked by Aaroniero as some kind of subordinate, though that’s clearly not the case. “You are…not a Hollow. Or perhaps not just a Hollow.”

Nejibana is singing a warning at his side, reacting to the dark feel of the man’s power, and Kaien takes a careful breath, lets it out slowly. “I'm not going to hurt him,” he says clearly. “I just—”

Kaien! Nejibana cries, and Kaien jerks away, rolls forward without releasing his grip on the man in his arms even as he brings his sword up. He just manages to avoid the purple-eyed man’s fingertips as he reaches out, a strange pulse of power around his hand, and spins to face him, Nejibana brought to bear.

“I'm not going to hurt him,” he repeats, clutching the thin body awkwardly to his chest. Doesn’t want to drop the stranger who wore Miyako’s face, but—

A step, and the purple-eyed man is suddenly right in front of him, smiling in a way that’s twice as threatening as a blade against his throat. “No,” he agrees, low and intent. “You aren’t, are you?”

That power sparks again, heavy and dark, and he reaches out, too quick, too close to avoid—

A hand catches his wrist, holds him in place, and there's a sound of quiet annoyance. “Muramasa,” the man in Kaien’s arms says, halfway between complaint and reprimand.

There's a pause as Muramasa stares down at the stranger, then smirks. “Well,” he says, and pulls his hand back, reiatsu fading. “You're making a habit of ruining my amusement, Kyōka.”

“Tragic, I'm sure,” Kyōka returns, just flatly enough that Kaien can't tell if it’s supposed to be an insult or not. He lets go of Muramasa’s wrist and rubs a hand over his face, smearing the wet blood across his skin, and then opens his eyes.

(Pale, Kaien thinks. Maybe blue, or light brown, or a delicate shade of green. Eerie, but…arresting.)

Those eyes hold his for a long moment, and then a faint flash of satisfaction crosses Kyōka’s face. “It worked,” he says, pleased, and shifts, sliding out of Kaien’s grip.

Startled back to himself, Kaien helps him get his feet on the ground and then braces him as he gathers himself. “What did you even do?” he asks helplessly, because if that was kidō, or some kind of ability, it’s certainly not one he’s encountered before, and the Shiba are a very old family. They have records of nearly everything.

“I made a wish,” Kyōka says dismissively, but sways as he straightens. Kaien catches his elbow, then slips Nejibana back into her sheath and pulls Kyōka’s good arm over his shoulder. It gets him a narrow-eyed look, but the man doesn’t protest.

“A wish, was it?” Muramasa asks idly, though his stare is anything but as he levels it at Kyōka, who meets his eyes evenly. “You are certainly interesting.”

Kyōka rolls his eyes, then glances out of the ruined tower, gaze sliding up to the blue of the false sky. “We should move,” he says. “Before anyone decides to investigate.”

If he didn’t have Aaroniero’s memories of the other Espada and their disinterest in each other, Kaien would be surprised that they hadn’t already. There's no saying that boredom or curiosity won't drive them here eventually, though. “Which way?” he asks, casting a glance at Aaroniero’s mask. It won't fit him, but he doesn’t particularly want to show his face to Aizen, even if Aizen must already know that Aaroniero absorbed Metastacia, and Kaien’s soul along with it. If Aizen doesn’t know that this time it really is Kaien, rather than the Novena, Kaien would like to keep it that way.

“The Menos Forest—” Muramasa starts, but before he can get another word out Kyōka interrupts.

“Go, if you want,” he says, but his attention is turning away, to the crater in the floor a short distance away. “I have one more piece of business here, if Lieutenant Shiba can be convinced to assist me.”

For freeing him from Aaroniero? Kyōka could suggest a trip to the moon and Kaien would agree without hesitating. “Of course,” he says, and when Kyōka flicks a glance at him he grins, tries to make it reassuring. “You can depend on me!”

“To remain standing,” Muramasa says dryly. He tucks his hands into his pockets, considering Kyōka for a moment, and then asks, “A distraction?”

Kyōka pauses warily, but after a moment he inclines his head. “And the destruction of the observation room,” he confirms, though he doesn’t ask how Muramasa knows, and Kaien wonders at the accuracy of his guess.

Muramasa hums thoughtfully. “Will you retreat to another world when you’ve accomplished your goal?”

“The World of the Living,” Kyōka says, narrowed eyes on the other stranger. The words make Kaien blink, and he glances at the man incredulously, but Kyōka doesn’t so much as waver. “Karakura Town. It is the current jūreichi.”

“Then I will be able to find it easily once I'm done,” Muramasa says, smirking. He takes a step forward, reaching out, and brushes the backs of his knuckles underneath Kyōka’s chin. It doesn’t look as intimate as it should, and Kyōka bristles at the touch.

“Whatever you want from me—” he warns, knocking Muramasa’s hand away.

Muramasa chuckles, low and almost threatening. “A discussion for another time,” he murmurs, then steps away. “Keep your lieutenant with you. I would like to see if my power works on Arrancar as well.”

Kyōka doesn’t protest, and when Kaien opens his mouth to do so Kyōka catches his eye and shakes his head. “The control room you need is close,” he tells Muramasa. “Take the left-hand corridor at the end of the hall and follow it until it branches. It will be the first door to the right. If you see a brown-haired man in a shihakusho, don’t try to engage him, just retreat.”

Kaien has no idea how Kyōka learned where the control room is; even Aaroniero had no idea, and he was an Espada from the beginning. A double agent? But Aaroniero hadn’t recognized him, and neither had the other Arrancar in the hall.

With a smirk, Muramasa tips his head. “A Shinigami? No Shinigami is a threat to me, child. Regardless of who it is you fear.”

“I don’t fear him,” Kyōka bites out, all the bitterly cold anger of a winter storm in his words. “But his defeat is mine. You may not take it from me.”

Muramasa pauses, clearly surprised, and then inclines his head. “Acceptable,” he allows, and without waiting for Kyōka to say anything more he turns and leaps up the stairs, then heads down the hall at a light-footed run.

In his wake, Kaien takes a breath, glancing at the man leaning on his shoulder. There’s still a murderously cold edge to his expression, but no outright sense of threat, and Kaien is willing to take that as invitation enough.

“So,” he says lightly. “Do I get to know what I'm helping you with, or is it going to be a surprise?”

Kyōka blinks, glances at him and then away, back to the cratered floor as his attention fixes on the deepest scar in the stone. “The device I used to restore you,” he says. “Sōsuke has another, and I won't allow him to keep it.”

Sōsuke, rather than Aizen. Kaien wonders just how close they are. Or how close they were, more likely, if Kyōka’s big plan is to steal something from him. “All right,” he says easily. And then, as the realization brought on by Muramasa and Kyōka’s conversation strikes, “Wait a minute, you brought me back just to be a distraction?”

Kyōka doesn’t acknowledge the ridiculousness of going to all that effort when a rock through a window would probably have worked just as well. “I did,” he confirms, though it’s largely preoccupied. Narrowing his eyes, he raises a hand, then says, “The ceiling will likely give way when the floor does.”

“What?” Kaien asks blankly. “Why is the floor going to—”

“Hadō 4: Byakurai!” Kyōka commands, and a burst of white lightning blazes from his palm, shattering the bottom of the crater with a roar. The building around them shakes with a vengeance, and Kaien curses as the first stone shatters on the ground right next to them. He leaps forward, dragging Kyōka along with him, dodging chunks of the ceiling and then flinging them through the narrow hole.

They fall down into darkness, down though empty air, and Kaien belatedly wonders just what the hell is going on here.

Chapter Text

Sōsuke’s tastes have always run towards the grand and the dramatic, and nothing shows it so well as the Hōgyoku’s chamber.

“Well this is creepy,” Kaien mutters as they touch down, light and easy, and the tone is halfway to a joke but his fingers are tension-tight on Kyōka Suigetsu’s waist. The words echo, too, rippling out in a strange fashion and not quite fading. They disappear instead, pulled away, and Kaien grimaces.

“No one else is down here,” Kyōka Suigetsu tells him, wants to step away from his hold but isn't entirely sure his legs will support him. There's a deceptive weightlessness to his head, a grey edge to his vision, and he feels like he should be squinting to make it disappear, though he refuses to on principle.

Kaien gives him a surprised look. “How do you know?” he asks, and when Kyōka Suigetsu takes a step towards the center Kaien matches him.

“Sōsuke would never tell anyone else where it was located,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, and at one point the statement might have been reproving, offended that anyone could think to doubt Sōsuke’s cunning, but now it’s just bitterly amused. At least Urahara’s Hōgyoku showed signs of Tsukabishi’s spells, Shihōin’s penchant for ruthlessness in its traps. Sōsuke’s is alone in this vast room, and since Kyōka Suigetsu knows his secrets it may as well be unguarded. No one else crafted any safeguards for it, certainly.

He feels Kaien’s gaze on him, lingering, but when he glances up the man is already looking elsewhere, eyes trained on a spot of light again the room’s soft darkness. “Good thing you know about it, then,” he says cheerfully, though the set of his mouth is serious. “I assume it’s the spotlight and pedestal?”

Kyōka Suigetsu snorts. “Yes,” he confirms, and in a flicker of flash-step Kaien carries them across the vast room, touching down right outside the circle of brilliance. There's a column of dark glass at the center of the light, a dark cushion. The Hōgyoku rests on top of it, gleaming as the galaxy within it swirls, and Kyōka Suigetsu smiles thinly. A trap, of course, but Kyōka Suigetsu is Sōsuke’s soul in every way that matters, and it won't catch him. Sōsuke’s own hubris will be his undoing.

Gingerly, he pulls away from Kaien, and when the lieutenant makes to grab him as he sways Kyōka Suigetsu lifts a hand and stops him. “Stay out of the light,” he warns, and takes a step back. A breath, a moment of concentration, and—

Kaien yelps, alarmed, and lunges to catch the gigai as it falls, but Kyōka Suigetsu ignores him. The pain returns in a wave, washing over him in a flood that nearly sends him to his knees, and he has to grit his teeth as he fights to breathe through it. The edges of his self waver, and he drags them back under control, refusing to lose himself now of all times. Only a few hours in a gigai, but it’s so much easier than his previous existence that he’d almost forgotten.

Kyōka Suigetsu hadn’t planned on an audience for this moment, but it hardly makes a difference if Kaien is here or causing a distraction in the palace. He takes a steadying breath and pushes himself forward, feeling the trickle of blood down his face behind the mask. Doesn’t turn, doesn’t look at Kaien, doesn’t allow himself to waver as he steps into the pool of light.

There's no sudden surge of reiatsu, no monsters rising from the darkness as the Hōgyoku vanishes. No sudden appearance from Sōsuke, called from Soul Society to deal with the intrusion. Just the burn of the Hōgyoku’s power, subtle and invasive.

Of course, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks. Sōsuke would never guard the Hōgyoku from himself. He always did trust himself too much.

Kyōka Suigetsu’s reiatsu is Sōsuke’s in every way that matters. He lets it flare, held tight but directed just enough to touch the edge of the glass case covering the pedestal. There's a click, a hiss, and Kyōka Suigetsu smiles thinly, slides his hand through the gap and lifts the Hōgyoku off its bed of silk. He raises it to eye level, studying this version the way he didn’t have time to with Urahara’s, and—it’s a hateful thing. He loathes it, this bit of reiatsu given form. So innocent with the galaxy swirling within, so lovely if he didn’t know precisely what it was capable of.

Turning away, he lets himself fall forward, pulled back into the gigai. The wash of relief as the pain vanishes is incredible, and his breath catches on a sound he won't allow out as he opens his eyes. All he can see is the white of Kaien’s uniform, but somehow it seems less than urgent to move right now, given the way his head is spinning.

“Hey there,” Kaien says, a touch of worry to his voice. “You’re not looking so good. I know some healing kidō—”

“Later,” Kyōka Suigetsu says dismissively, and pushes upright. Or tries to—his knees buckle as soon as he puts all of his weight on them, and he hisses in frustration as he crashes back into Kaien’s chest.

There's a pause, and then Kaien huffs. “Is there a reason I shouldn’t use reiatsu down here?” he asks.

Kyōka Suigetsu tries to think of an answer, and it’s a lot harder than it should be, but he grits his teeth and forces through the fog in his head. “If you use enough that it lingers Sōsuke will be able to track us,” he says, and this time when he pushes upright Kaien wraps an arm around his waist and takes most of his weight.

Kaien nods grimly, turning his eyes to the place where they came in. “All right. Exit strategy?”

Kyōka Suigetsu needed to make a wish so that he could break the Hōgyoku, but choosing to restore Shiba Kaien was most definitely not a mistake, he thinks. The man is a fool who’s never understood the draw of power, but—reliable. And right now, that’s far more valuable to Kyōka Suigetsu than any sort of cunning or ambition.

“Once we’re out of Las Noches I’ll open a garganta,” he says. “We just have to get beyond the walls. Sōsuke’s monitors will pick up the destination if I try it inside.”

“Right. How do you feel about abandoning subtlety?” Kaien shifts his grip on Kyōka Suigetsu enough to draw his sword, then lets another flash-step carry them to the hole in the ceiling and up through it in a blur, then across the shattered room and out into a narrow hallway.

Kyōka Suigetsu eyes Kaien, then the wall a short distance away, and thinks about how angry Sōsuke will be at the widespread destruction. He clenches his fist around the Hōgyoku and smiles, thin and vicious. “Quite positive,” he says.

Kaien grins, and it has an edge to it that Kyōka Suigetsu wouldn’t have expected of him. “Awesome. I'm all about positivity.” He stretches out his arm, twisting his fingers, and Nejibana spins around his hand, golden reiatsu bleeding into the air as the katana shifts, lengthens, grows. “Surge, Water and Heaven! Nejibana!” he cries, and a wave of power sweeps around them, condenses into water that rises like a wave. He thrusts it forward, and the water follows the motion, crashing towards the wall with all the destructive force of a tsunami.

Kyōka Suigetsu considers for half an instant, but—he’s strong enough for this, and he wants to contribute, even in some small way, to infuriating Sōsuke. Raising a hand, he levels two fingers at the wall and intones, “Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings, ye who bears the name of Man. On the wall of blue flame, inscribe a twin lotus. In the abyss of conflagration, wait at the far heavens. Hadō 73: Sōren Sōkatsui!”

The burst of blue flames leaves his fingers in a surge, twin bolts winding around each other as they follow Nejibana’s wave. The water strikes first, cracks white stone and then recedes, but the Hadō is half an instant behind it. The flames strike the cracked stone hard, and with a sound like tearing metal they punch through, shattering the wall around them.

Over the sound of scattering rubble, Kaien laughs. “You're good at that,” he says, takes a step forward, and drags Kyōka Suigetsu right over the edge of the wall. A flicker of flash-step catches them halfway down, and they land on the far side of the smoking wall, sinking into the sand.

“I still have to rely on the chants,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, dissatisfied. He flexes his fingers, trying to work out the feeling of stiffness, and then glances ahead of them. Th sands aren’t stirring quite yet, but the Guardian of the Sands will likely feel their presence soon. “How much distance can you give us?” he asks, and right on the heels of his words something in a distant part of the palace explodes.

“I guess we weren’t the only ones who wanted to blow something up,” Kaien jokes, and he’s grinning as he glances back. “That friend of yours is an interesting one.”

There's a ripple in the air, something that drags at Kyōka Suigetsu’s being and makes his vision waver between white sand and a world of silver water and moonlight. He grits his teeth, firming his will, and feels Kaien waver as well, Nejibana’s trident shimmering in his grasp.

Move,” Kyōka Suigetsu snaps, and Kaien doesn’t hesitate to obey, launching himself forward across the sand. They pass beyond the range of Muramasa’s power like a veil being pulled away, and Kyōka Suigetsu takes a breath that shakes just a little more than it should. Whatever Muramasa’s ability, he wants no part of it if it feels like that.

“What the hell?” Kaien demands, craning his neck back towards the palace, though all that’s visible now is a few pillars of smoke. “What can he do that feels like that?”

“I'm not sure,” Kyōka Suigetsu admits, but it’s less pressing than the way the sands a few meters ahead of them are stirring. He raises a hand, concentrates on his memory of Karakura, and slashes the side of his hand down through the air in a sharp motion. Behind it, space tears, shifting apart, and Kyōka Suigetsu glances at his companion. “Well?” he asks.

Kaien laughs. “A hole in space this time? Better than a collapsing building. Do I get to know where this one leads?”

Kyōka Suigetsu blinks. He’d…not forgotten, quite. Misconstrued the importance of verbalizing his plan, maybe. Sōsuke certainly never bothered unless he was grandstanding. “Karakura, in the World of the Living,” he answers. “Given the natural concentration of reiatsu there, it will be far harder for Sōsuke to find us.”

“All right,” Kaien agrees easily, and…barely ten seconds spared, but now he’s far more at ease with the plan. Something to remember, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks. “Just jump through?”

The portal itself is nothing but darkness, but Kyōka Suigetsu is fairly certain that it emerges close to the ground. “Yes,” he confirms. “I specified the park as our landing point.”

“Let’s hope it listened, then.” Kaien flips Nejibana up into the air, and as the trident comes down it shifts, sliding back into the form of a katana. Catching it by the hilt, Kaien sheathes it, then pulls Kyōka Suigetsu’s arm over his shoulders again and asks, “Ready?”

“I would rather not get eaten by sentient sand,” Kyōka Suigetsu says disdainfully, watching the grains collect. Runuganga seems confused, likely because he’s meant to protect Las Noches from intruders rather than catch fleeing souls, but that likely won't stop him for long.

“Sand?” Kaien asks, confused, as he follows Kyōka Suigetsu’s gaze. “What does sand—oh fuck.”

“He’s rather bigger than I remember,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, watching the Hollow rise from the ground, easily ten times the height of the average man.

“Okay, we’re leaving right now,” Kaien decides, and hauls Kyōka Suigetsu forward, flinging them straight into the garganta as a massive hand swipes at them. There's a twist of cold air, a half-second impression of stars sweeping past them, and then light. Kaien twists hard, righting their headlong tumble an instant before they hit the earth, and it’s a jarring enough stop to make Kyōka Suigetsu hiss. He tumbles from Kaien’s grip before the lieutenant can catch him and hits the ground hard on his bad shoulder. Sparks of white-hot pain detonate behind his eyes, and he cries out before he can help himself, clutching at the new flood of hot blood down his side.

“Damn it,” Kaien hisses, crouching down next to him. “Hang on, okay? I’ll get—something. My kidō might not be enough but if you know anyone here who can heal—”

Urahara, Kyōka Suigetsu wants to say, but his head is fuzzy, and his lips won't form the name. It’s too big of a risk, regardless; Kyōka Suigetsu is carrying Sōsuke’s Hōgyoku, and there's every chance Urahara will mistake it for his own.

“You—” he starts, but can't finish.

“Me,” Kaien finishes for him, and groans. “This is why Captain Ukitake wanted us to take classes with the Fourth. Next time I'm going to un-busy myself, no matter what. Damn it.”

It would certainly make you more useful, Kyōka Suigetsu wants to say, but it’s possible he loses a bit of time in between thinking the words and attempting to say them.

 

 

“Aaaand you’re gone,” Kaien mutters, watching pale eyes flutter closed. “That’s fantastic. Thank you, much appreciated.”

He doesn’t mean it. Well, not entirely. It was his zanpakutō that injured Kyōka, after all, and it’s hardly Kyōka’s fault that he’s finally been beaten by blood loss when most seated Shinigami—or just less stubborn people in general—wouldn’t have made it nearly as long. Still, being stuck on his own in an entirely unfamiliar town with Aizen probably out for their blood is not doing wonders for his peace of mind.

With a groan of disgust directed at the world in general, he gets an arm under Kyōka’s back and pulls him up, trying to balance him as he stands. It’s not easy; Kyōka is a beanpole, but he’s also a few centimeters taller than Kaien, and it makes this awkward. It would be a hell of a lot easier if he was Kuchiki-sized, but Kaien supposes that not everyone can be a shrimp.

“I definitely need to get back to working out,” he tells Kyōka, then glances out at the street that borders the park. It’s been…a really long time since he came to the World of the Living last—at least a hundred and fifty years as Kaien, and nearly a hundred since Aaroniero last visited it. Thing have likely changed significantly, and Kaien doesn’t particularly want to wander around the streets trying to figure out what’s different. Then again, he also doesn’t want to leave Kyōka lying in the grass where anyone can see him. They won't notice Kaien, still in soul form, but Kyōka is in his body and visible to any human that walks by.

“Damn it,” Kaien mutters, closing his eyes. He’s never been good at spur of the moment decisions. And this is—

“Hey!” a voice calls, and Kaien hisses a curse, wondering how the hell he can wake Kyōka up to explain why he’s dangling in midair to the local populace. He turns, expecting—

Expecting absolutely anything except the way the orange-haired teenager meets his eyes squarely, and clearly not by accident. He’s scowling, but it looks like concern, and he jogs the last few feet up to them, then asks, “Hey, is everything okay?”

A human able to see spirits. Not impossible, since Kyōka said Karakura is the jūreichi. Definitely an unlooked-for stroke of good luck, though.

“Do you know where I can find a doctor?” Kaien asks, relieved. “He’s hurt and I can't—”

Sharp brown eyes take in the wet patches on Kyōka’s dark coat, the blood sliding down the side of his face, and the boy immediately nods. He moves around to Kyōka’s other side, pulling his free arm over his shoulders and taking half of the weight. “My father owns a clinic,” he says, and jerks his head towards the street. “That way, and take a left at the end of the block.”

“Thanks,” Kaien says, and means it. “I have no idea how to get around here.”

The boy glances at him, then ahead of them. “You're not the only Shinigami around here,” he says, and then asks, “Is this guy human? My old man can't see spirits.”

“I have no clue,” Kaien admits, remembering that glimpse he got in Aizen’s treasure vault of…something. Robes and veils and reiatsu, but beyond that Kyōka could be anything. He’s probably not a Shinigami, at the very least. “He’s in a body, though, so there shouldn’t be a problem.” And then, realizing what the boy meant, says in surprise, “You mean you can't tell if he’s human or not?”

Something bitter touches the slant of the boy’s mouth. “Better than I could before,” is all he says. “I'm Kurosaki Ichigo.”

Kaien can't imagine the confusion that could come from being unable to tell spirits from living humans, especially for a kid. Ichigo doesn’t look all that old right now, and if he wasn’t very good when he was younger—ouch. “Shiba Kaien,” he returns. “And this is Kyōka.”

If Ichigo notices the lack of another name, he doesn’t mention it. “Did a Hollow get him or something?”

“Or something,” Kaien mutters, and Nejibana whispers an apology that Kyōka can't hear. He checks the hand resting limply on his shoulder, but Kyōka is still clutching whatever he stole from Aizen and doesn’t look to be letting go of it anytime soon.

“If it was some kind of Menos—” Ichigo starts warningly.

Kaien blinks at him. “Kind of, yeah,” he says, a little startled that a human knows Shinigami classifications for Hollows. Then again, Ichigo implied that he’s met other Shinigami before, and he knows what Hollows are. If he has enough reiatsu to see spirits, one might have targeted him, only for a Shinigami to save him. “It’s not around here, though—we came from Hueco Mundo.”

“Where?” Ichigo tugs him left again, down a road with neat houses sporting small front yards. About halfway down is a slightly larger building with a paved lot off to one side, and an awning that boasts the name Kurosaki Clinic.

“The home of most of the Hollows,” Kaien explains, because that knowledge is safe enough. “They travel from this world to that one, since there are no Shinigami there, and then come back when they want to hunt.”

Ichigo looks more than a little pale as he steers them up towards the glass doors. “Fantastic,” he mutters. “A whole world of them?”

“That’s what the Shinigami are for,” Kaien says, as lightly as he’s able, and catches the door carefully before it can hit Kyōka’s arm. He slides in sideways after Ichigo, blinking a little in the unexpected dimness, and then helps Ichigo heft Kyōka onto one of the rolling beds near the door.

“Hang on,” Ichigo tells him distractedly, then leans through a connecting door and calls, “Oi, Goat Face, there's a patient! Hurry!”

Half an instant later rapid steps clatter on wooden stairs, and a man bursts through, already pulling on a white coat. “My beautiful daughters are out and can't be nurses,” he says, flipping on the lights. “Ichigo, my strong young son—”

He turns, and Kaien’s heart just about stops.

Uncle Isshin?” he demands incredulously.

Isshin takes one look at him, loses his footing, and almost falls over. “Kaien?” he asks, wide-eyed, and takes a step forward. Then he stops, looking torn, and just for an instant Kaien can see the seriousness his uncle always pretends he doesn’t possess.

“What are you doing here?” Kaien asks, and he was confused when Kyōka repaired his soul, but—nothing compared to this. Isshin is captain of the Tenth Division, and for all he plays the flakey asshole he’s completely devoted to his squads. But Ichigo called him dad, and he’s here in the World of the Living, and—what possible explanation is there for that?

There's a moment of silence, and then Ichigo says sharply, “Old man? What the hell, you can see him?”

Isshin hesitates, eyes shifting from Kaien to Ichigo and back again. Then, carefully, he takes a breath, and says to Kaien, “You're supposed to be dead.”

“I was. Mostly. Kind of.” Kaien tips his head at Kyōka’s still form. “He fixed me, but he got hurt doing it.”

With a nod, Isshin pushes up his sleeves. “Get him into the operating room,” he tells Ichigo. “I’ll get scrubbed up. We’ll talk later.”

“We’d better,” Ichigo says, and it’s level but also a threat. Kūkaku sounds like that at her angriest, Kaien thinks, and realizes with a start that it’s likely because Ichigo and Kūkaku are related. He glances at the teenager as he wheels Kyōka away, then has to swallow hard, because—he can see the resemblance. Nothing overt, maybe, but Ichigo has a Shiba kind of face, and now that Kaien is looking for it it’s unmistakable.

“Kaien?” Isshin asks quietly, and Kaien tears his eyes away from—from his cousin. Gods. He glances up at his uncle, and Isshin reaches out, grabs the back of his neck and drags him into a tight hug. “Damn,” he says against Kaien’s hair. “It’s really good to see you alive.”

“It’s good to be alive,” Kaien admits, gripping him tightly in return. And then, because he can't hold the question in even a moment longer, “What are you doing here?”

Isshin pulls back, and his smile is crooked. “I fell in love,” he says, then turns as Ichigo calls for him. “Soon,” he promises Kaien, and hurries through the swinging doors.

A moment later, Ichigo emerges, face set in distinctly unhappy lines. “Come on,” he says grimly. “He’ll be a while. We can wait in the house.”

Better than waiting in this sterile white room, Kaien thinks with a grimace, and follows Ichigo up the stairs. It reminds him a little too much of the Fourth, of waiting at his captain’s bedside every time he had an attack and thinking that this time, out of all the rest, might be the one when he didn’t wake up.

It’s really good to see you alive, Isshin said, but—Kaien has been gone for fifty years. Who’s sat with Captain Ukitake in that time, kept him company when Captain Kyōraku is detained? Who’s made sure that Kiyone and Sentarō don’t get out of hand? Who’s helped Kuchiki build her confidence until she can stand up to her brother? Kaien might as well have spent all the time in between truly dead, because it wasn’t him. He threw himself into a fight he wasn’t prepared for, overcome by grief, and almost got his captain and his trainee killed because of it.

“I’ll make some tea,” Ichigo says as they emerge in a neat kitchen, but he sounds like he’s talking to himself more than Kaien, so Kaien just leans back against the wall and thinks about the fact that his uncle is working as a doctor beneath his feet. Isshin was never even good at healing kidō, but—apparently he’s found a way to work around that.

“I guess there's no use asking you what Shiba Isshin is doing in the World of the Living, rather than in the Tenth Division where he’s supposed to be,” Kaien says, not quite the joke he intends it to be.

Ichigo grimaces, filling the kettle and dropping it on the stove with a clang. “I didn’t even know he could see spirits,” he says. “Old Goat Face needs a kick in the ass for lying to us like that.”

Kaien hesitates, but…he couldn’t even sense Isshin, a captain, until he was actually in the room with him. “I'm not sure he was,” he admits, and when Ichigo gives him a narrow look he tips one shoulder in a shrug, trying for a smile. “I couldn’t sense him, and he didn’t sense me. It might be a recent thing that he can.”

For a moment, Ichigo frowns at him. Then he turns, glancing at the picture hanging on the wall of the living room. It’s a woman who looks a little like Ichigo, with bright hair and a sweet smile. “He’s a Shinigami, too?” he asks.

“From one of the old noble families,” Kaien confirms. “The Shiba. We’re pretty small, but we’ve always had a lot of captains and lieutenants. Your dad was one.”

“I'm half Shinigami,” Ichigo repeats, and then snorts. He pulls down two cups, then leans back against the counter and faces Kaien, crossing his arms over his chest. “That explains some things.”

Kaien would assume it does. Seeing spirits clearly enough that he can't differentiate them from living people, among other things. He sighs, rubbing a hand over his hair, and then offers Ichigo a smile. “Still. Nice to meet a cousin, after all this time! And a mostly human one at that.”

Ichigo's smile is small and crooked, but still noticeable against all of his previous scowls. “Yeah,” he says. “Yuzu and Karin will be excited, too.”

Sisters—Isshin mentioned that, didn’t he? The Shiba have been fading for so long, and now here are three new members. That’s pretty fantastic, even if the circumstances are less than perfect. “I have siblings, too,” he says, and when Ichigo blinks he grins, thinking of Kūkaku’s face when she realizes there are more girls in the family than just her. “Kūkaku and Ganju. They’re both awful to me, I love them.”

Ichigo snorts. “That sounds like siblings,” he agrees, and glances towards the clinic.

Kaien looks, too, thinking of Kyōka down there, bleeding on the table. He shifts a little, not quite able to settle, and hopes that Isshin is a good enough doctor to treat him.

“You're taking this pretty calmly,” he says.

Ichigo shrugs. “I've always been able to see ghosts,” he says. “Most people can't. There had to be a reason for that, right?”

Fair enough, Kaien allows. He’s about to say something else, but somewhere else a door opens, and a young girl calls, “We’re home!”

For a moment Ichigo hesitates, but then, with a glance at Kaien, he heads for the hall. “Welcome back,” he says. “Yuzu, Karin, we’ve got—”

“No greeting for me?” a startlingly familiar voice asks sweetly, a good bit sassier than Kaien has ever heard it before. He jerks his head around, staring at the entrance, and wonders if everyone in Soul Society just—ended up in this house.

“Were you gone?” Ichigo retorts, and then, “Ow! Don’t kick me!”

“Ichi-nii, don’t yell at guests,” the first voice reproves, and when Ichigo splutters a second girl laughs. Ahead of them, a young girl with light brown hair trots into the kitchen, carrying two bags of groceries. She glances at the two cups on the counter, then asks, “Were you making tea for Dad, Ichi-nii?”

“Yeah, right,” Ichigo says grumpily, stalking through the door. “There's a spirit, Yuzu.”

“There is?” Yuzu asks excitedly, spinning around. Her eyes pass right over Kaien before they slide back, and she blinks. “Oh! Is he friendly?”

“Yeah,” Ichigo confirms. “His name’s—”

“Kaien,” a voice whispers, and there's a thump. Kaien looks away from his cousins, back to the doorway, and—

Kuchiki. She’s pale enough to rouse a flicker of worry, and Kaien frowns, pushing upright.

“Kuchiki?” he asks. “Is there some kind of Seireitei exchange program going on that I don’t know about?”

She swallows hard, takes a wavering step back. “You’re dead,” she whispers, and there's a horror in her face that makes Kaien’s heart ache. “You're dead, I killed you.”

“What?” Ichigo demands, suddenly alert as he glances between Rukia and Kaien.

“Rukia?” Yuzu asks worriedly.

That seems to be the last straw. Kuchiki turns and bolts, and an instant later Kaien hears the front door slam. He mutters a curse and goes after her, already regretting his damned stupid fight against Metastacia twice as much as he ever has before.

Chapter Text

“I carried his body back,” is the first thing Kuchiki says when Kaien catches up with her, in the middle of a street that’s rapidly fading towards twilight, empty of both the living and the dead.

Kaien takes a breath, drops down from the edge of the fence to land on the pavement, and ruffles his hair with a sigh. She’s shaking, just a little, arms tightly wrapped around herself, head bowed, like she can't physically take another step. It hurts to see Kuchiki like that, because she had her moments of boldness, of fierceness while they were training, but Kaien can't see even a shadow of that right now. It’s his fault, too. He’s the one who did this to her.

“Thank you,” he tells her, and there's a flinch, like Kuchiki was expecting an attack, anger, blame. “I know Kūkaku must have taken it badly, but—thank you for doing that, Kuchiki.”

Kuchiki makes a sound, something quiet but so full of despair that it aches in Kaien’s chest. “I got Kaien killed,” she says. “And that’s all you think he would have to say to me?”

Kaien frowns, takes a step towards her. “I got me killed,” he says sternly, and he wants to be gentle, wants to be careful when this so clearly is something that hurts her, but at the same time, Kuchiki gets kid gloves from everyone. She’s always responded better to a challenge. “Kuchiki, I don’t know if you remember that night—”

A raw, ragged sound, some half-dead phantom of a laugh, tears from Kuchiki’s throat, and she curls in on herself even more. “Remember?” she repeats. “How could I ever forget?” Pauses, takes a breath and looks up, and violet eyes are haunted. “And just now—I ran, I didn’t even think—you're something, something terrible, looking like that, and I just left you with Ichigo's family—”

“Terrible?” Kaien echoes, faintly miffed, and folds his arms over his chest. “I'm not terrible, I'm alive, thanks.” He reaches for Nejibana, intending to prove it—because beyond Metastacia, he’s never encountered anything that can perfectly mimic a Shinigami's shikai. Closes his hand around the hilt, draws the first inch of the blade—

Crackling red fire burns at Kuchiki’s fingertips as she spins, leveling the kidō at the center of his chest. “No,” she says, and there's the fierceness. There's the fury, written into every line of her face. “I killed Kaien once. What makes you think I won't do the same again, when you're just wearing his face?”

Kaien snorts, but lets go of Nejibana and raises his hands, palms out. “I hope you won't,” he says dryly. “Since the man who pulled me back together is unconscious right now and can't repeat whatever it is he did.” Then he tips his head, squinting at her stance, and grins. “Hey, it looks like you finally figured out kidō without an incantation. Good. I knew you’d manage it once you stopped being dumb.”

Kuchiki’s face contorts, twists. For one horrifying second Kaien thinks she’s going to cry, but just as the panic starts to rise, she laughs. Her knees fold, the kidō dissipating with a crackle, and she lands hard on the pavement, digging her fingers into the stone. “Kaien,” she whispers, and looks up at him with something like horror or bewilderment on her face. “I—how?”

Kaien takes three steps forward and crouches down in front of her, and there's something soft in his chest, something that curls like warmth. Reaching out, he pats her on the head, smiles when she looks up at him. She was always his favorite recruit. Needed the most work, too, in order to realize just what she could do, but it’s not like Kaien minded. Not when he saw the bare bones of what she could be.

“Metastacia held on to some of my soul,” he says. “And when it got eaten by a bigger Hollow, Nejibana and I got passed on. A guy broke into Hueco Mundo and pulled all the pieces of us together, and kicked the Hollow pieces out.”

A shuddering breath, and Kuchiki rubs her palms against her eyes. “Metastacia,” she repeats, and it shakes. “I should have gone after it. I—I should have—”

I,” Kaien interrupts firmly, “never should have dragged my sick captain and my newest recruit on a damned revenge mission, Kuchiki. That’s all on me. My death was my own fault, because I wasn’t thinking straight. I made stupid choices, and I almost got two of my favorite people killed for nothing.”

“Not for nothing,” Kuchiki says, and it’s touched with something fierce as she looks up. “You—Captain Ukitake said it was for pride, and—”

“Pride is worth a lot,” Kaien allows, because honor is most of what the Shiba family has had, over the last few centuries. They're a fallen noble family, on the outskirts of everything, but they have their honor and their pride. “But—it’s not worth everything.” He smiles at Kuchiki, worn and small and so clearly suffering because of his stupid decisions, and blows out a heavy breath. “I'm sorry,” he says, and when wide violet eyes snap up to stare at him in bewilderment, he tries for a smile. “I'm sorry for putting so much on you, Kuchiki, and for making you kill me that night. But—thank you. Thank you for what you did for Captain Ukitake, and for the division. And thank you for what you did for me. I'm glad I didn’t die alone.”

A sob shakes through Kuchiki, and she surges forward. For an instant Kaien is torn between expecting a punch and a hug, braced for either, but Kuchiki hits his chest hard enough to rock him back and knock him off his heels. He sits down hard as arms wrap around his chest, and there's a ragged, wet sound against his collarbone.

“I'm sorry,” Kuchiki says, and Kaien wraps his arms around her, pulls her even closer and breathes out, abruptly, entirely relieved that she’s still here, that she didn’t die that night. “I'm sorry, Kaien, thank you.”

Kaien chuckles a little before he can help it, frees a hand just enough to muss her neat hair. “I think that’s my line,” he says, and glances over his shoulder, to where a familiar figure is hovering at the edge of the shadows. “It looks like you’ve been entertaining yourself anyway,” he says. “Have you been picking on my cousin, Kuchiki?”

Kuchiki pauses, then lifts her head. She looks in the direction Kaien is, sees Ichigo, and immediately shoves away from Kaien’s chest, sitting back and hastily wiping her face. It doesn’t look like she’s been crying, thankfully, but her eyes are a little puffy. She shakes herself, primly straightens her dress, and then says, “Cousin?” like it’s an accusation aimed firmly at Ichigo. “I thought you didn’t know about Shinigami!”

“I didn’t!” Ichigo protests, scowling at her, but he approaches warily, eyeing Kaien like he might be forced to punch him for making Kuchiki upset. It’s very much a Kūkaku expression. “I don’t. I just found out I had a cousin five minutes before you turned up.”

Apparently reading the expression on Ichigo's face, Kuchiki sniffs, and says, “Ichigo, this is Lieutenant Shiba Kaien, of the Thirteenth Division. He was the one who trained me when I joined the division.”

“Oh.” Ichigo looks from Kuchiki to Kaien, one brow sliding up. “Is this part of that only mostly dead thing?”

Kuchiki smiles, worn but real. “Yes,” she says, a little hoarsely, and looks at Kaien again. “I thought…”

“I was stupid,” Kaien says, and gives Ichigo a wry smile. “Kuchiki saved me from myself.”

Kuchiki makes a quiet, almost desperate sound, covering her face with her hands. “I don’t—” she starts, and then shakes herself. “Captain Ukitake will be very happy to hear you're alive again, Kaien,” she says formally, pauses, and smiles a little. “He still hasn’t filled your seat.”

Kaien winces. That’s not actually anything close to what he wanted to hear, and knowing that, it’s probably safe to say that his death hit Ukitake just as hard as it did Kuchiki. Damn.

“We’ll have to figure out how to break it to him gently,” he says, only halfway a joke. “I don’t want to give the old man a heart attack on top of everything else.”

“He’ll be happy,” Kuchiki says defensively. “You—he blames himself, because he was sick.”

Another reason Kaien never should have dragged him out into the woods to begin with, chasing an unknown and dangerous Hollow that had already decimated a squad. Decimated a squad including Miyako, who didn’t make Third Seat just because of her marriage to Kaien. He sighs, grimacing at his own stupidity, and wonders how he’s supposed to serve as lieutenant when he’s got a history of making such bad decisions.

By learning from them, probably. That’s what he would tell the recruits, and just because it’s hard advice to follow doesn’t make it any less true.

“I have a lot to make up for,” he says wryly, and rises to his feet, offering Kuchiki a hand. She ignores it, getting to her feet on her own, and the motion is so familiar that he can't help but laugh a little, reaches out and pulls her up against his side with an arm around her shoulders. “There's the little spitfire I remember,” he teases, and Kuchiki splutters in offense.

It makes Ichigo snort, and he warns, “Watch your shins. For a shrimp, she can kick hard.”

“At least my hair isn't orange,” Kuchiki shoots back without hesitation. “You look like a traffic cone.”

Ichigo's mouth drops open in indignation. “Well, you—”

“Easy, easy, children.” Kaien grabs Ichigo by the collar with his free hand, keeps him on his far side as he turns them back towards the clinic. “I think that’s been almost enough emotional upheaval for one night. Now we just have to turn my uncle upside down and shake a few answers out of him about what he’s doing in the World of the Living.”

Kuchiki blinks. “Your uncle?” she asks, confused, then glances at Ichigo's suddenly far deeper scowl and makes a sound of surprise. “Your father?”

“I know Isshin was captain of the Tenth Division while you were a shinigami,” Kaien says, giving her an incredulous look. “You didn’t recognize him? He looks exactly the same!”

Kuchiki sinks down like she’s going to disappear into the collar of her dress. “I'm bad with faces!” she protests.

“There are only thirteen captains, how can you not remember?” Kaien sets knuckles against her head and grinds down mercilessly. “What have you been doing all this time? Slacking off? Moping?”

“Ow ow ow, Kaien—”

“That’s Lieutenant Shiba to you, unless you’ve forgotten that I was a seated officer too—”

“Oh,” Ichigo says dryly, and ducks out of Kaien’s grasp. “So that’s where she gets it.”

Kaien blinks, caught off guard, and Kuchiki makes a sound of pure fury, darting away from Kaien and kicking Ichigo hard in the shin.

“Where I get what, Ichigo?” she asks, poisonously sweet, even as Ichigo goes reeling back with a yelp.

“Where you get being a monster when you're teaching anyone anything,” Ichigo retorts, and this time when Kuchiki advances he plants a hand on top of her head and holds her at arm’s length. It’s a lot more effective on her than it would be on someone taller, Kaien notes with amusement. “Hey, stop it, that’s—”

Kuchiki lunges like she’s going to flip him over her shoulder, and Ichigo only just dodges in time, leaping up onto the top of a wall. In an instant, Kuchiki follows, and they both tumble off the far side with twin yelps.

Kaien laughs, true and loud from the depths of his chest, for what feels like the first time in decades. It seems like Kuchiki’s finally found a friend, and Kaien is unspeakably glad for it.

 

 

“Well,” Muramasa says idly. “How unexpected.”

The Hollow in front of him stares, an expression of shock on his face as he watches the six-armed woman rising from the stone, his oversized scythe clutched in her hands. “Wha—” he starts, and then has to dive desperately out of the way as she heaves it up, over, and down, embedding it in the floor with a crash that shakes the building.

Muramasa hums, lowering his own sword and letting it vanish, and smiles thinly, entertained by the thought. “How interesting, as well. My ability doesn’t work on lower-level Hollows, but I suppose in making yourselves more like Shinigami, you gave me an opening.”

Santa Teresa laughs, low and clicking like insect legs rubbing together, and heaves the scythe free, shouldering it again. “Nnoitra,” she croons. “You’ve been cheating, did you think of that? You haven’t been relying on me. I think I should teach you a lesson.”

Nnoitra’s eyes widen, and he twitches like he wants to reach for his scythe, only to remember at the last moment that Santa Teresa has it. He snarls instead, hands clenching, and snaps, “Pray, Santa—”

Santa Teresa swings for his head, one blindingly quick surge of muscle that whirls Muramasa’s coat as she flickers past, and Nnoitra slashes an arm up to block. There's another chittering laugh, and carapace-green silk whirls as Santa Teresa pulls back, lashes out with one leg. She kicks Nnoitra into a wall with a crash, and shakes the blood off her scythe, still laughing.

“Calling on me so early?” she taunts. “So now I'm valuable? And yet you turned to Szayel to get rid of the Tres Espada, not me.”

Nnoitra hisses as he hauls himself out of shattered stone, blood a crimson river down his arm. “Shut the hell up about that!” he snarls. “We got rid of her, didn’t we? That’s all that matters!”

Santa Teresa clicks her tongue chidingly, and her grin is macabre, full of a bloodlust that takes even Muramasa by surprise. “Never,” she croons. “I'm going to remind you just how you became strong in for first place, Nnoitra. I'm going to prove that you're nothing without me, and take your place.”

Nnoitra sneers, but staggers upright. “Of course my sword’s a bitch,” he spits. “I’ll fucking crush you!”

Muramasa smiles faintly to himself, stepping back. One down, then, and with the death of the Novena and the fact that the Sexta was leaving as Kyōka arrived, that leaves seven Espada to potentially deal with. Muramasa isn't sure that his power will have caught all of them, but now that he knows it works on Espada just as well as shinigami, he has nothing to worry about. There's no one in this palace that will prove a threat to him.

With a hum, he steps around Nnoitra and Santa Teresa as they collide again, makes the turn that Kyōka indicated, and glances over the doors lining the hallway. They're far apart, and it’s easy to spot the one he needs, a bare shadow against the surrounding whiteness. When Muramasa touches it, it clicks, swinging inward with a hiss of escaping air, and Muramasa steps in.

A hundred screens glare in the dimness, showing a hundred different scenes. Muramasa tips his head, taking them in, and some are familiar. There are several showing the streets of a human town, and more of Soul Society. Others show the interior of laboratories, full of pieces of Hollows and more than one human figure twisting on a table. Skimming over those, Muramasa leans closer to one that shows a man who’s unmistakably a Kuchiki, wearing the windflower scarf of the head of the clan, as he receives orders from the Captain-Commander, stiff-backed and stoic.

Lightly, gently, Muramasa reaches out, skimming a touch over the Kuchiki’s face. “How I loathe you,” he murmurs into the silence, and then pulls back with a sigh, curling his hand into a fist. The odds that this man knows where Kōga is imprisoned are slim, though; Yamamoto wouldn’t have shared that information with anyone, and even if he had deigned to tell Ginrei, the old man is decades dead, and wouldn’t have passed the location on.

If Muramasa is going to find Kōga, he needs to pry the location directly from Yamamoto's mind. Or—

Well. There’s an interesting new player who’s stepped onto the board, isn't there? Kyōka has some sort of ability that can resurrect the dead from scraps of soul, allows him to take on the form of anyone he wishes to. He can walk right in to Las Noches and trick and lie and make his way to the heart of it. That’s useful, and Muramasa is more than willing to see if he can do the same in the Seireitei. Muramasa had expected to have to wait years more, carefully hoarding power, fighting down the writhing, desperate clash of consciousnesses inside of himself as he devoured Gillians. Expected long, careful days of planning his assault on Soul Society, the misdirection needed, but—

Kyōka seems to breathe such lies, such careful trickery. With him, so like a Shinigami and yet so different, with their power combined, Muramasa has faith that they can take the Seireitei in a day or two, can dig up all the answers Muramasa needs and set Kōga free of his prison.

With Kyōka’s presence, Muramasa is so close to victory he can practically feel the weight of Kōga’s hand on his shoulder already.

Still, Muramasa has a task before that. Better to put himself in Kyōka’s good graces, and Kyōka in his debt, than to forge ahead with no ties between them. Muramasa will get what he wants, one way or another, but some paths are more straightforward.

Stretching out a hand, he narrows his eyes, breathes out. Casts his power out in a wide net, focused, careful, and—

The door swings open, and a girl in a white cloak with a heavy, draping hood that hides most of her face steps in. There’s ivy twined around her limbs, pouring out of her wide sleeves, and she dips her head to Muramasa in quick, silent greeting.

“Trepadora,” Muramasa greets her politely, and steps back from the monitors, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Would you mind?”

Trepadora shakes her head, and Muramasa moves past her, back into the hall. He doesn’t turn, but there's a crash, an explosion of warping metal as strands of ivy whip up and out with the force of a battering ram. The spirit tears the room apart, and Muramasa smiles to himself as he leaves her to it.

The sound of fighting is clear, coming from all over the palace, and Muramasa casually avoids the blood-splattered space where Santa Teresa and Nnoitra are locked together, struggling over the scythe. Technically, now that the Espada are most thoroughly distracted and the control room is destroyed, he could make his escape, find a way to Karakura so he can meet with Kyōka again, but Muramasa is curious as to the extent of his power here in Hueco Mundo. His experiments on Hollows over the years amounted to little, and the fact that Aizen’s Espada and Arrancar are susceptible is intriguing indeed. They are still hateful things, a zanpakutō’s natural enemy, but…useful, perhaps.

He pauses at the junction of the next hallway, smirking at the sound of hurrying feet. An instant later, two figures burst into view, a green-haired little girl towing a half-dressed man with a goatee behind her as she bolts. “Damn it, Starrk!” she screeches, hauling him just a little faster. “This is your fault, idiot!”

“Be quiet and run,” the man retorts, one hand clutching his uniform closed, one foot bare. He looks a little wild around the eyes, and when the girl stumbles he scoops her up without pausing, tosses her over his shoulder, and picks up speed.

Instantly, the girl’s offended screech shifts to one of alarm. “Starrk Starrk Starrk they're getting closer—”

Muramasa chuckles as the pair vanish around the next corner, a vast pack of giant wolves at their heels. One breaks off from the horde to pause in front of Muramasa, giving him a toothy canine grin, and Muramasa smiles, reaching up to stroke perked ears.

“One bit of laziness too much, was it?” he asks dryly, and the wolf yips, then turns to join the tail end of the pack as they pass. From the direction they're headed there's a crash, a billow of light and power like someone just fired off a cero, and then a horrified cry when the wolves apparently return the favor, shaking the walls.

If even the Primera Espada has fallen victim to his power, Muramasa has no doubt that it can work on anyone within Las Noches’s walls. Had he known, he might have left the Menos Forest decades ago and lived far more comfortably in the palace, instead of bedding down in the woods like a vagrant.

Humming lightly to himself, Muramasa glances down at a hand, flexing his fingers as he tests how much power he has in reserve. A decent portion still; he was preparing to take on all the high-ranking officers of the Gotei 13, after all, and there are far fewer Espada and Espada-level Arrancar. Muramasa can feel that several of the Fracción have been caught up in his ability, but he still has strength to spare. A few more Gillians and he’ll be ready to take on the Gotei 13.

Tucking his hands into his pockets, he turns left, the opposite direction Starrk and Los Lobos were headed, and follows the hall to a bridge that’s open to the sky. Below, in the sand, there's a slim, small man with dark hair struggling against Murciélago, and Muramasa pauses to observe for a moment. Murciélago is overpowering his wielder, wide dark wings open to the sunlight, horns glowing as he tears at his master’s face with long claws. Perfectly focused, without Santa Teresa’s mocking laughter and taunts, though Muramasa supposes that’s to be expected; Murciélago is hardly one for levity.

In one swift, desperate movement, the Quarto tears himself away from Murciélago, flickers up to the bridge in a burst of sonido that blurs with speed, and comes to a sharp halt as he catches sight of Muramasa. Green eyes widen, and he says, “You,” with a deadly edge.

Muramasa just gives him a thin smirk, watching him lift a hand with red light flickering around it. Glances to the side, half an instant too late for the Quarto to react, and watches the sweep of bat wings send Murciélago hurtling straight into the Quarto. They both go flying over the edge of the bridge, then over the wall beyond, and Muramasa watches with amusement as they hit the sand in a cloud of dust and blooming cero-light.

Invading the Seireitei, there was always the chance that the Shinigami would realize that they couldn’t defeat their own zanpakutō, and would then swap opponents and defeat each other’s. There's far less risk of that here, though; Muramasa has watched the Espada long enough to know that there's no reward for cooperation, as much as one or two of them might push for it. They’ll all fight for themselves, for their king, and never realize it’s spelled their doom. Muramasa enjoys the thought, and he turns it over in his mind like a gem in the sunlight as he keeps walking. He’s still, after all, a zanpakutō, regardless of where else his path has taken him. He was made to destroy Hollows, and being their downfall in a way he normally can't manage with his abilities is entirely satisfying.

The click of hooves on stone makes him turn slowly, unconcerned, and he eyes the centaur approaching him, an armored man with a lance in one hand, a limp body cradled to his chest with the other. An Espada, Muramasa assesses, studying the horned skull-mask over sea-green hair. The mask is broken, though, and there's a scar across her forehead, slanting down over the bridge of her nose. Her clothes are ripped and tattered, like they were originally much smaller and never changed as she grew, and her reiatsu is…strange. Muramasa tips his head, looking her over, and then raises his gaze to the armed knight.

“Gamuza,” he offers.

The centaur bows, his hold on the woman careful. “Muramasa,” he returns. “May I accompany you?”

Muramasa lets his gaze drift from Gamuza to the Espada, considers it. “Your urge to destroy her is gone,” he observes.

“My departure did more than enough harm to her,” Gamuza says gravely. “I would find her aid.”

Muramasa supposes that there are far worse outcomes than the company of a loyal spirit who won't be turned from his side, even if the Espada manage to defeat their zanpakutō. “Very well,” he agrees, and turns. Gamuza’s steps follow closely, and Muramasa only takes one more look at the still Espada woman before he turns his eyes ahead of them. Kyōka can likely aid her, or will know of someone who can; he certainly seemed familiar enough with all the workings of Las Noches. And Muramasa understands a zanpakutō’s impulse to help an injured wielder better than anything.

“Tiburón is likely to destroy the palace if she keeps fighting Harribel within the walls,” Gamuza observes, and when Muramasa glances back Gamuza’s eyes are on the shining tower of water rising on the far side of the palace.

“A tragedy,” Muramasa says blandly, and takes two quick flash-steps over the edge of the wall, landing lightly on the sand. With a clatter of hooves, Gamuza makes the jump as well, lands heavily but manages not to jar his wielder as he does.

“Lord Aizen will have many opinions about this,” he says.

Muramasa has never heard a name for the lord of Las Noches, in all his time in the Menos Forest. “Lord Aizen,” he repeats, and hums, remembering Kyōka’s description of the man whose death he owns. “A Shinigami with brown hair?”

“Indeed.” Gamuza inclines his head. “Aizen Sōsuke, who turned us from beasts back into humans.”

With a snort, Muramasa starts walking. A Shinigami ruling over Las Noches? No wonder Kyōka has claimed his death. Perhaps—

Sand shifts, rises, and a massive Hollow forms from the grains as they shift, towering over them. Muramasa eyes Runuganga with distaste, but reaches a hand out regardless.

Well. A meal presenting itself to him is at least expedient.

Invisible threads whip up, reiatsu given tangible form, and wind themselves around each of Runuganga’s limbs. The giant Hollow jerks, suddenly caught, and roars as more sand rises. Muramasa catches that as well, bears down with his power, fits his fingers to Runuganga’s soul and opens his mouth, then wrenches.

The whirl of reiatsu settling into his soul eases the empty ache of Kōga’s absence, and unlike with the Gillians, there's only one soul to subsume. Muramasa batters it down, crushes it, adds Ruruganga’s strength to his own without mercy, and hums. He opens his eyes, judging the blue-violet shimmer around his fingers, and smiles. Slashes one hand down, tearing space open, and looks out into green grass and leaning trees beyond. It’s a pretty place that Kyōka chose for them to meet, at least. Muramasa has certainly seen more objectionable, in his search for Kōga’s prison.

Stepping through, he waits until he hears hooves on grass, then lets the Garganta fade with a ripple. For the World of the Living, this place is quiet, but it’s undoubtedly the jūreichi—Muramasa can feel the shimmer of contained power in every breath he takes. It’s impressive, but it’s almost enough to swallow any trace of Kyōka’s reiatsu. They’ll likely have to find him the hard way.

“Muramasa,” Gamuza says, and in a moment he’s in front of Muramasa, lance lifted like a shield before both his Espada and Muramasa. His reiatsu burns as it starts to rise, but—

Muramasa lets his gaze slide past the centaur, up to the branches of the tree before them. There's a woman perched there, dark-skinned and purple-haired, watching them with narrowed golden eyes.

“Visitors from another world, is it?” she asks, and there's a dare in her words. Muramasa frowns faintly; he can't sense a zanpakutō with her, but she has traces of its power in her soul. A Shinigami, then, but…one without a blade. How insulting.

“Do you really expect to challenge me without your sword?” he asks, and lets a thread of power rise as he lifts a hand. “What hubris.”

The woman’s eyes go wide, and she throws herself forward in a blinding blur that’s just a moment too slow. Muramasa grabs for the threads of her zanpakutō’s power, brings them up like a weapon, and—

Like a shadow, she’s gone, and there's nothing left to grasp.

Chapter Text

Time filters back in bits and pieces, the strands of a spider’s web coming together. Kyōka Suigetsu can't quite grasp the whole of it yet, but he catches moments: cold hands, a bearded face, the strange half-there sensation of reiatsu, like a ghost to his senses as well as a baseline human’s.

And, clutched in his fingers, heat like a dying star, or a universe being created. The Hōgokoyu burns, and Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t know if it’s aware enough to know that he destroyed Urahara’s version, but he hopes it is. Hopes, deeply and desperately, that it knows what he plans for it, because it was Sōsuke who betrayed him, but the Hōgokoyu was the method. The Hōgokoyu was the vehicle by which he was cast aside, the power Sōsuke picked over his own zanpakutō, and Kyōka Suigetsu has never hated anything more.

Cool hands touch his shoulder, and there's numbness that’s broken by a sharp tug. Kyōka Suigetsu flinches before he can help himself, hissing through his teeth, and jerks. Those hands catch him, push him down, and a voice says, “Easy, easy, it’s just stitches. I'm almost done.”

Stitches. It takes Kyōka Suigetsu a moment to connect that concept with healing, with the lack of reiatsu around him. Not the Fourth Division, and certainly not Szayel Aporro’s laboratory, not with that careful touch. Grimly, determinedly, he fights his way back towards consciousness, swims up through the fog filling his head, and manages to force his eyes open with gritted teeth and too much effort.

“There you are,” a man says, and his face swims into focus with an effort that makes Kyōka Suigetsu’s head ache. He’s smiling, cheerful and scruffy, but there's something careful in his eyes.

It doesn’t take more than a glance to recognize him, even with Kyōka Suigetsu’s head swimming. After all, he cut the man down from behind barely a handful of years ago, and Sōsuke stood through hundreds of meetings with this man practically across from him. No reiatsu, but—to be expected, given that he’s in hiding.

“And where is that, exactly?” Kyōka Suigetsu rasps, though he doesn’t try to sit up. Shiba Isshin still has an elbow braced on his shoulder, and he’s guiding a curved needle through Kyōka Suigetsu’s skin. Or—Kurosaki Isshin now, Kyōka Suigetsu supposes. Like zanpakutō, humans are particular about their names, regardless of the fact that they can change them.

Isshin regards him for a long moment, smile fading down into something more serious. “My clinic,” he finally says. “Kaien brought you here.”

Of all the places in Karakura, of course Kaien would manage to stumble across his supposedly dead uncle’s hideaway. Kyōka Suigetsu closes his eyes, aggravated, and tells himself consolingly that at least it wasn’t Urahara’s shop they tripped into. “Kind of him,” he says, a little sourly, and looks away from Isshin’s gaze as it flickers up from the needle pulling through his skin.

“Paying you back for saving him, probably,” Isshin says, and this time when he smiles it’s easy to see he means it. “That shiny rock you're hanging on to—that have anything to do with why he’s alive?”

There's little use in playing dumb; Kaien isn't likely to hide much of anything from his uncle, and revealing at least the outlines of his plans will earn Kyōka Suigetsu more trust than concealing everything. He watches Isshin tie off the last of the stitches with a neat knot, and then says, “It’s Sōsuke’s version, not Urahara’s.”

Isshin goes still for an instant, scissors poised, and then takes a breath. Lets it out, a laugh without sound, and looks up with amusement. “The fact that you know to tell me that says you probably had a hand in the disappearance of Urahara’s, too.”

Kyōka Suigetsu hadn’t quite forgotten that Isshin was smart, and cunning, but perhaps he didn’t remember quite as thoroughly as he should have. Still, Isshin doesn’t make any move towards him, didn’t even try to pull the Hōgokoyu from his lax fingers while he was unconscious. It’s…confusing. Eying Isshin warily, he sits up, pulling his hand into his lap and curling his fingers just a little more tightly around the device. Thinks, for a moment, of how to convince a man who abandoned his whole world for the sake of a woman and then lost her to a Hollow anyway, and says, “The Hōgokoyu is too dangerous to leave with anyone.”

Isshin chuckles, but he turns away, giving Kyōka Suigetsu his back as he strips off his gloves and goes to wash his hands. “Which doesn’t tell me why it should be left with you,” he points out.

His very first mention was of Kaien, so—use the fulcrum of family, here as well. “I destroyed Urahara’s version by using it to restore Kaien’s soul,” Kyōka Suigetsu says flatly, and Isshin turns sharply to stare at him, eyes going a little wide. Kyōka Suigetsu tips his chin up, meets his gaze evenly, and says, “No one should have the Hōgokoyu’s power, Captain. Especially not Sōsuke.”

Steady dark eyes regard him for a long moment before Isshin leans back against the edge of the sink with a chuckle. “On a first name basis, huh?” he says lightly. “You'd better be careful flaunting that, or people are going to make assumptions.”

Kyōka Suigetsu blinks, caught off guard. He hadn’t considered that. Sōsuke has simply always been Sōsuke to him, and thinking of calling him Aizen feels…wrong. Like the name doesn’t fit right in his mouth. He frowns, and it makes Isshin laugh, his smile wry but warm.

“You know Aizen, you know Kaien, and you know who I used to be,” he says, studying Kyōka Suigetsu closely, and there's still no trace of hostility to it. “But you're not a Shinigami. At least not one that I've ever met.”

This is the test, the moment Kyōka Suigetsu could never quite plan for thoroughly enough. Calling himself a Shinigami would be simple, and since he shares Sōsuke’s reiatsu he could likely pass for one, but it will raise too many questions later. Shinigami who refuse to use their zanpakutō are few and far between, and Kaien has already seen his sword. It’s lucky that in the confusion he didn’t think to compare it to Sōsuke’s, but Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t have much faith that he’ll make the same mistake again. Claiming to be a Shinigami who shares Sōsuke’s zanpakutō opens too many holes in his story, and Kyōka Suigetsu won't risk it.

Of course, saying that he’s a zanpakutō spirit won't gain him many allies, either, especially when it’s revealed whose zanpakutō he is. Better not to even try.

Kyōka Suigetsu had a plan, a story, when he left Urahara’s shop. The improvisation with Muramasa and the fight the Aaroniero revealed too much, though, and Kyōka Suigetsu is wary of spreading too many separate lies; there's always the chance of those he’s lied to coming back together and laying out the stories. So—misdirection, then.

“I was with Sōsuke for—what feels like forever,” he says, and looks away. Like with Gin, telling him just enough to draw his attention elsewhere. “I supported his plans, and I knew his heart, but I was betrayed.” Betrayed and torn apart, left crumpled and tattered and ripped from Sōsuke’s soul to be abandoned without so much as a glance back. Kyōka Suigetsu breathes through the remembered ache, the fresh-sharp fury, and lifts his head to meet Isshin's cool gaze. “I would see him destroyed, Captain.”

Isshin hums. “Destroyed is a strong word,” he says, but there's amusement in the slant of his mouth. “A hell of a lot worse than just killing a man.”

Kyōka Suigetsu thinks of it, thinks of Sōsuke under his heel, realizing with each helpless, powerless breath just who and what Kyōka Suigetsu is, understanding the depths of his betrayal, and he smiles. It’s thin and cold and vicious, and he doesn’t try to hide it. Let Isshin see; he can understand a grudge, at this point. “I am fully aware, Captain.”

Isshin laughs, pushing upright, and his smile is a little crooked, but he offers Kyōka Suigetsu a shirt from the table and says, “Just making sure. You have somewhere to hide that?”

Kyōka Suigetsu takes the shirt, but lays it over his lap instead of immediately putting it on. Instead, he opens his fingers, grimacing down at the shining orb in his grasp. The very last thing he wants is to keep it near him, but he also won't risk losing it to anyone or anything. Carefully, gingerly, he holds his other hand over it, framing the device between his palms, and says, “Bakudō 64: Hako Okuri.”

Orange power shimmers, flares. A box of crystalline light twists up around the Hōgokoyu, slowly encasing it, and Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates, closes his eyes, steels himself. A touch of will makes the box shrink, then vanish, and the sensation of it reforming inside his body makes him hiss. Pressing a hand to his chest, he curls forward, feels a hand grip his shoulder but ignores it. The Hōgokoyu pulses, testing the edges of the barrier, slides sly tendrils out like it’s reaching for his heart, but Kyōka Suigetsu doubles down. He presses his reiatsu into the spell, firms it, then slices his ties to it, and the Hōgokoyu goes dark like a candle flame being snuffed out.

Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t trust it. He knows better than anyone that the Hōgokoyu is good at playing harmless, or at least innocuous. Given the chance, it will breathe through the barrier, slide into his mind with whispered promises, but—for now this is enough. To find the device, someone will have to reach into his soul, and Kyōka Suigetsu trusts that he can stop them before that happens, or at the very least get away.

“You're in a gigai,” Isshin says, startled, and his fingers tighten on Kyōka Suigetsu’s good shoulder. Carefully, he tugs him upright, tilts his head back and takes his pulse with a frown. “Kaien didn’t tell me that.”

Kyōka Suigetsu blinks at him. “How did you know?” he asks.

Isshin gives him a wry smile. “You stuck that thing inside yourself. Humans have a lot of delicate organs and not a lot of extra room. If you'd done that as a human, you’d probably be going into shock right now.”

It’s not a thing Kyōka Suigetsu had thought to consider, though he should be well aware of the differences between human physiology and Shinigami or Hollow physiology. Grimacing, he splays a hand over his face, feels the pull of another bandage, and remembers the blood loss is a factor as well. It’s…distressing, being in a physical body, even if it doesn’t react quite like a human’s. Kyōka Suigetsu has no frame of reference for the sensations, for the technical knowledge of living bodies. All he’s ever known is Sōsuke’s form, and his existence started well after Sōsuke’s death as a human.

“A stationary hiding place may be found,” he offers in explanation, and Isshin makes a sound of amusement.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea at all,” he agrees cheerfully. “As long as you're not giving yourself organ failure in the process.”

Kyōka Suigetsu snorts softly, unfolding the shirt and slipping his injured arm into the sleeve. It’s a relief that Isshin doesn’t attempt to help, just stands there watching him, an appraising look on his face.

“You’ll want to use that arm as little as possible,” he says as Kyōka Suigetsu fumbles with the buttons, and finally turns away to collect all of his tools. “The stitches are good, but they’ll be a pain to redo if you rip them out. No more swordfights until you're healed, doctor's orders.”

Kyōka Suigetsu rolls his eyes, though just a little. He won't be getting involved in any fights that he doesn’t need to, and that’s always been the truth. If he has to fight, he won't have the choice to hold back because he’s been wounded. Carefully, he does up most of the buttons, then slides off the bed and straightens, testing his balance. It’s not as steady as he would like, but his head has mostly stopped spinning.

“Why don’t you come upstairs and meet my lovely daughters?” Isshin suggests, and in a motion that’s too smooth to be anything but calculated, he slides an arm under Kyōka Suigetsu’s and steers him towards a wide set of swinging doors. Beyond them is another door, still standing open, and a flight of stairs leading up. Kyōka Suigetsu eyes the steps a little warily, but Isshin doesn’t give him the chance to turn away; he half-drags Kyōka Suigetsu up the first set, lets him catch his breath on the landing for just a moment less than he needs, and heads up the next set, shoving the door at the top open with his shoulder.

“Dad!” a girl says with surprise, and Kyōka Suigetsu flicks a glance up to see Kurosaki Yuzu set a kettle on the stove. “You have a patient? Did you need help?”

Instantly, Isshin's entire stance changes. He bounces, and with a cry he surges forward to sweep the girl off her feet. “Yuzu!” he bellows. “My beautiful daughter is home! Daddy thought you left him forever—urk!”

“Hands off, Goat Face,” Karin says, entirely unimpressed, and boots her father away from Yuzu. With a step to the side, she nudges Yuzu towards Kyōka Suigetsu just as his legs start to wobble, and with a sound of alarm Yuzu catches him, hauling him back upright.

“Oh no!” she cries. “Are you all right? Dad, shouldn’t he be in a bed?”

“I'm fine,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, though he has to brace himself with a hand on the kitchen counter, despite the girl’s help.

Isshin peels himself off the wall and spins, presenting Yuzu with a dramatic thumbs up. “Daddy fixed him, no need to worry! And he brought our long-lost relative home after such a long separation! He gets dinner with us, and the privilege of my intelligent, brilliant daughters’ company for the evening as a reward!”

“Those two words mean the same thing,” Karin informs him, sounding bored. “Buy a thesaurus.” She pulls out one of the chairs around the kitchen table, though, and watches with narrowed eyes as Yuzu helps Kyōka Suigetsu into the seat.

There's a theatrical wail, and Isshin hurls himself into the other room, straight at a picture of Masaki. “Masakiiiiii, our daughter is bullying me again, what do I dooooooo—”

With a sound of annoyance, Karin snatches a book from her bag and hurls it after him. “Go shave off your goat beard and stop that!”

“Would you like some tea?” Yuzu asks over the sound of their father’s cries, and her smile is faintly apologetic but mostly sweet. “I'm Kurosaki Yuzu.”

“Karin,” Karin says, still annoyed as she flops down in her chair again, apparently deciding to ignore Isshin. Instead, she looks Kyōka Suigetsu over narrowly, frowning the whole time. “What did the idiot mean, you brought a relative back?”

Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates, but he can sense the linger traces of Kaien’s reiatsu in the room, so he was definitely here. “Shiba Kaien,” he says, and Karin goes warily still as Yuzu’s eyes widen. “Your father’s nephew.”

“Oh,” Yuzu says, concerned, and looks towards the window. “When Rukia saw him, she ran, and Kaien went after her. I think Ichi-nii did, too.”

Of course they couldn’t have arrived at the Kurosaki household before Rukia did, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, annoyed. Of course Kaien would not only get dragged into family matters, but into the mess of tangled emotions left behind in his division. It’s inconvenient. It’s also a hassle, though Kyōka Suigetsu supposes there's nothing to be done about it now.

Keeping his expression even, he inclines his head to Yuzu and says, “I am Kyōka. Tea would be much appreciated, thank you.” A bit too close to the memory of Sōsuke and his fondness for it, but—everything is close to Sōsuke in one way or another.

“Of course!” Yuzu beams at him, turning away to collect cups, and Kyōka Suigetsu lets his gaze slide away from her to meet Karin's assessing stare.

“So,” she says like it’s a test. “That guy’s our cousin? Because Rukia seemed to think she’d killed him.”

Kyōka Suigetsu thinks of Sōsuke’s thorough, dispassionate files on the Kurosaki sisters, the accounting of their power that made him dismiss them as a threat. Nothing in them quite measured the weight of Karin's eyes, though, or the expression on her face, that says Ichigo isn't the only one in the family who would fight to keep them all safe. Yuzu’s presence is gentler, lighter, but when she sets a cup and saucer in front of Kyōka Suigetsu, her eyes flicker to him as well, waiting for the answer. Patient, maybe, but—certainly not naïve.

Looking past them, Kyōka Suigetsu locks eyes with Isshin, leaning back against the wall beside Masaki’s portrait. Isshin gives him a wry, strained smile, then shakes his head with a sigh and steps forward, throwing himself into the open chair.

“How about we wait for your brother to get home?” he says cheerfully. “He should probably hear this story too. My sweet children, all in the same place, hanging adoringly on Daddy’s every word—oof!”

“No one’s hanging on your anything,” Karin says, dust-dry, and retrieves her textbook as Isshin pouts and rubs at his face.

Kyōka Suigetsu wonders at the act, a little. It’s not quite like Sōsuke’s, not quite his version of playing harmless, and it’s certainly not as complete. But—there are shades of it, regardless of how little Isshin would likely thank him for the comparison. He considers saying something, but discards it; Isshin's cooperation is useful, and if he’s going to tell his children about his past, that’s one less bit of power Sōsuke can wield against Ichigo, should things come down to them again. Alienating him will cause more trouble than it’s worth.

There is one question that Isshin will likely be willing to answer even in company, though, something sparked by the mention of Rukia that sits at odds to what it should be. Kyōka Suigetsu nods his thanks to Yuzu as she pours tea for him and places the teapot on the table, getting a smile in return, and then asks Isshin, “How long ago was Urahara’s device taken?”

Still rubbing mournfully at his nose, Isshin raises a brow. “A little over two weeks,” he says. “Our favorite cat has been doing the rounds ever since.”

Kyōka Suigetsu restrains a grimace. Shihōin on high alert means little good for him. And the span of days—he lost time somewhere. In the crossing between Hueco Mundo and the World of the Living, likely, though there's nothing about a garganta that should be able to pass through time. Frowning faintly, he taps his fingers on the tabletop, considering. He took the Hōgokoyu right before Urahara implanted it in Rukia's gigai, and now…

“Have there been any significant occurrences recently?” he asks Isshin.

“Well,” Isshin says, “my nephew came back from the dead—”

Kyōka Suigetsu gives him a dark and pointed look, and Isshin laughs, raising his hands in surrender. “Menos,” he says. “Today. There were dozens of them.”

Instantly, Karin's head snaps up. “The ghosts?” she demands. “You saw them, Goat Face? What the hell?”

“Those were ghosts?” Yuzu asks, looking at her sister. “Karin? You—”

“Strong, angry souls, bound together by their hunger,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, dragging his fingertips over hot porcelain. The Menos attack, brought on by Ishida Uryū and his competition with Ichigo. That means Kuchiki Byakuya and Abarai Renji will be appearing shortly, coming to collect Rukia for her execution. That’s a little under three weeks lost, and…concerning. Kyōka Suigetsu hasn’t heard of anything similar before, and the lack of control unnerves him faintly. He wonders if it’s a side effect of returning in time, because there’s no way he simply tore a hole in time by accident. Or—he supposes it could have been a defense, somewhere in Las Noches, but he has no memory of Sōsuke setting such a thing in place.

The feeling of eyes on him makes him glance up, to find Karin staring flatly at him. “You're an over-dramatic loser, aren’t you,” she says judgmentally.

Startled, Kyōka Suigetsu blinks at her, not quite sure how to respond. From his elbow, there's a sound of exasperation, and Yuzu says, “Karin, don’t be rude!”

Karin rolls her eyes. “I'm not,” she says. “It’s true, isn't it?”

Kyōka Suigetsu snorts, covering the faint hint of a smile by taking a sip of tea. “If I am, I learned it through exposure,” he says, because it’s a small enough thing to blame Sōsuke for, but—amusing, strangely. Sōsuke certainly was dramatic.

“No, I get the feeling it comes naturally,” Karin says dryly, and then kicks out under the table. “Get that look off your stupid face!”

“My sweet daughter is such a good judge of people!” Isshin crows, and when he lunges for her across the table, Karin meets him with the sole of her slipper to the face. He recoils with a yelp, tumbling over backwards in his chair, and immediately drags himself towards Maski’s picture. “Ohh, Masaki, our daughter—she’s so quick and strong. Ahh, the darkness is closing in from that kick—”

“Get off the ground, you're fine,” Karin snaps, and when Isshin flattens himself to the picture with no indication of having heard her, she subsides with a huff, folding her arms over her chest and turning her attention back to Kyōka Suigetsu. “You said your name’s Kyōka?”

She’s likely looking for a family name, but Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t have one to offer. He could claim Sōsuke’s, but that’s not a way to cultivate trust, and it will likely go badly if Urahara or Shihōin overhears. Instead, Kyōka Suigetsu simply inclines his head, and says, “Yes. I am from the same place as your father.”

Yuzu and Karin exchange glances, both of them somewhere between surprised and wary. “From where Dad used to live?” Yuzu asks, settling into the chair next to her sister. “I don’t—I don’t think Dad has ever mentioned it.”

“He hasn’t,” Karin says precisely, and her stare is full of sharp edges. “This is about how we can see ghosts, isn't it?”

Kyōka Suigetsu inclines his head. “That is the very edge of your power showing through,” he says. “But a part of it, certainly.” Both girls have the potential that Ichigo does, just—rather less refined at this point. Ichigo was exposed to the reiatsu of at least one Hollow while Msaki was pregnant with him; Yuzu and Karin must not have been. With enough time in Karakura, they’ll develop the same way, but Ichigo has a head start on them.

“Oh,” Yuzu says quietly, and curls her hands in her lap. “And—Kaien too? He’s like us?”

“Similar,” Kyōka Suigetsu confirms, and raises a brow at Karin's faintly sour expression.

“Dad can see ghosts too, can't he,” she says flatly. It’s not a question.

There's a huff of offense as Isshin slinks back towards the table. “I would never lie to my precious children!” he declares, wounded. “Daddy hasn’t been able to see spirits in years!”

Karin squints at him. “But you can now.” That’s not a question, either.

Isshin deflates slightly. “I'm starting to,” he admits, with a sheepish chuckle. “Only the strong ones, though, and only when they're very close.”

A reaction to Ichigo becoming a Shinigami, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks critically, and catches the faint sound of the door opening. He lifts his head, turning to look, and is just in time to see a shadow moving on the wall. A moment later, Kurosaki Ichigo appears around the corner, and the sight of him is—

Well. A victory, at the same time as it’s sour. Sōsuke spent so long focused on him, lost to him, but of all the people in the world, Ichigo was the one to recognize Kyōka Suigetsu’s feelings. Before Sōsuke did, even, and Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t know if he’s grateful or hates the boy for it.

“You're awake,” Ichigo says, giving Kyōka Suigetsu a curious glance. “You're the one who saved Kaien?”

Kyōka Suigetsu inclines his head, gaze flickering past Ichigo as Rukia and then Kaien emerge from the hall. “Kaien,” he says, and the man turns a bright grin on him.

“Hey, Kyōka,” he says warmly. “You're looking a hell of a lot better.” His gaze flickers to Isshin, to the girls, then back to Kyōka Suigetsu. “Making friends?”

Isshin laughs. “We know each other by reputation,” he says cheerfully, and pushes to his feet, opening his arms. Without hesitation, Kaien hugs him back, then turns his grin on Yuzu and Karin.

“Hey!” he says cheerfully. “I hear we’re cousins.”

“Apparently,” Karin drawls, and Yuzu rolls her eyes at her sister and then beams at Kaien in return.

“I didn’t know we had any family left,” she says. “I'm Yuzu. It’s good to finally meet you!”

“You too.” Kaien clasps her shoulder, squeezing gently, and then steps back, giving Kyōka Suigetsu a look. “All in one piece?”

“Of course.” Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates, but—gratitude breeds closeness, or at least the impression of it. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“No problem. I just wish I’d been able to help a little more.” With a sheepish smile, Kaien rubs the back of his head. “You getting hurt was my fault—”

“The fault of Aaroniero,” Kyōka Suigetsu corrects, unconcerned. “It ended satisfactorily.” He inclines his head to Ichigo, not quite able to say thank you for recognizing my distance from Sōsuke, not quite sure he wants to, but—it feels as though he should at least make the gesture.

A little surprised, Ichigo nods back. “You woke up fast,” he says.

Kyōka Suigetsu grimaces. “Blood loss,” he says. “The limitations of a physical body are still…inconvenient.”

“A physical body?” Rukia asks, stepping around Ichigo. She studies Kyōka Suigetsu warily, then asks, “Are you a Shinigami?”

“I think that matters less than the warnings I come with,” Kyōka Suigetsu says smoothly, and it’s easy to slip sideways into another role, even if this one is far, far simpler than the one he played for Gin. “Tonight, your brother and his lieutenant were dispatched to retrieve you, but the Central 46 are being manipulated. You cannot let them take you into custody.”

“What?” Rukia asks, going pale.

What?” Ichigo demands, twice as sharp and already bristling.

Kyōka Suigetsu gives them both a thin smile. “When they arrive, I will distract them,” he says, because this part of the plan is, at least, still intact. “But it’s best if you stay out of sight.”

From above his shoulder, there's a laugh, and Kaien leans over him. “Last time you wore that expression, you made an Espada think you were on a revenge mission and crushed him,” he says, faintly joking even though his eyes are steady. “What trouble are you planning on getting into now?”

“I don’t plan on getting into trouble,” Kyōka Suigetsu says coolly, and takes a sip of tea. “But Kuchiki Byakuya will be a problem if he isn't kept out of the way, at least for now. I plan to make sure he is.”

Kaien snickers. “That sounds like trouble to me,” he says cheerfully. “How can I help?”

Chapter Text

“Back so soon?” Kisuke asks lightly.

Yoruichi slides in through the window, landing lightly on the floorboards, but when she straightens she isn't smiling. “We have a problem,” she says.

“Another one?” Kisuke wonders, maybe a little petulantly, and scrubs a hand through his hair. The theft of the Hōgokoyu seems like more than enough to deal with right now.

Yoruichi's smirk has absolutely nothing of humor to it. “If you want, I can go ask the mysterious stranger and his minions to schedule their invasion for next month, but I'm not sure he’ll take requests.”

“A tragedy, the way these younger generations treat convenience and service,” Kisuke laments, and makes a surreptitious check for wounds as he passes her to close the window. “So ungrateful.”

With a snort, Yoruichi flicks him in the side of the head, then heads for the main room without looking back. “I'm fine, Kisuke. He’s got some sort of power that tried to grab me, but I was faster than him. All he got was my afterimage.”

“You're faster than everyone,” Kisuke points out, following the sway of her ponytail. “Any idea what power it was?”

Not promisingly, Yoruichi shakes her head, sliding down to sit in front of the low table. “It made my soul itch,” she says, pulling a face. “He had someone with him, too—a centaur or something, with a lance. And a woman who looked like she was unconscious.”

A hurt ally or a captive, likely, Kisuke thinks, and sinks down across from Yoruichi, surveying her closely. She holds his gaze without hesitation, and says, “He seemed pretty hung up on my not carrying my sword.”

This is the very last thing they need right now. All of Kisuke's plans have been ruined already; the Hōgokoyu was stolen before he could implant it in Kuchiki Rukia's gigai, where it would fade into powerlessness, Ichigo's awakening as a Shinigami is dragging Isshin's powers out even with the reiatsu-swallowing gigai, at some point someone is going to come looking for Rukia and find Ichigo, and all of Ichigo's friends seem well on the path to developing their own powers in ways that are both convenient and unnerving. A possible invasion on top of that is either one of Aizen’s distractions, or worse, something entirely unrelated and sure to cause far more trouble than it’s worth.

The door slides closed with a click, and Kisuke glances up to see Tessai settle down on his left, looking concerned. Immediately, he groans, leaning forward to drop his forehead on the wood with a thump. “Another problem?” he asks plaintively.

The twitch of Tessai’s mustache is absolutely hiding a smile. “A call,” he corrects. “From Shinji. He says they should be arriving today. I took the liberty of ensuring the barriers around the warehouse are up, and the place is ready.”

Well. One less thing for Shinji to complain about, Kisuke supposes. He frowns down at the tabletop, not bothering to lift his head, and asks, “This stranger—a Shinigami?”

Yoruichi hums, reaching out to poke at his head. “I don’t think so. He didn’t feel like one, at least. There was definitely something Hollow-like about him, but not completely.”

Kisuke assesses that. Possibly a Shinigami, possibly a Hollow. There's supposedly another Substitute Shinigami floating around somewhere, isn't there? He remembers hearing something about that after they were exiled. If that substitute has Hollow abilities in addition to whatever power he was granted by the Shinigami who changed him, it could be a decent explanation for what Yoruichi felt.

“I take it he was the source of the disturbance?” he asks, finally looking up into amused golden eyes.

Yoruichi opens her mouth, then pauses, closes it, and tips her head. A chill runs down Kisuke's spine, even before she says, “Probably not. He and his centaur turned up while I was looking around. The earlier arrival must have been someone else, unless he was bouncing back and forth between Hueco Mundo and here a few times.”

There's the additional problem Kisuke was dreading. He huffs in dismay, propping his elbow on the table and his chin on his hand as he considers. So there’s another person in Karakura who traveled in from Hueco Mundo, going by the energy signature, and then managed to disappear. That’s…unsettling. It’s possible they have something to do with the Hōgokoyu’s disappearance as well, though if that’s the case Kisuke can't imagine why they would return to the scene of the crime, as it were. Aizen must be behind it, be planning something, but what?

“They might have moved on by now,” Yoruichi suggests, and she’s still watching him, smile just a little sly. “Want me to take another look?”

Tessai huffs. “I can wait here for Shinji and the others,” he offers.

It would, Kisuke thinks, probably be best to check the area himself, and see what he can pick up. Fingering Benihime's handle, he considers it, weighs the potential threat of going there, and then nods. There's no reason to stick to his shop and guard the Hōgokoyu anymore, and regardless of how that knowledge makes alarm curl hot and biting in his gut, he pushes it down and rises.

“Well, I wouldn’t say no to a field trip,” he says cheerfully, spinning his cane around his fingers with a flourish that makes Yoruichi look entirely unimpressed. “Care for some company, Yoruichi?”

“You just want to avoid Shinji,” Yoruichi says, but she’s smiling as she gets to her feet. “That guilt complex of yours is overdeveloped, Kisuke.”

“Everything about me is perfect,” Kisuke denies, and snags his hat off the stand by the door. Turning back to Tessai, he asks, “You’ll pass on the warnings if we’re not back when they get here?”

Tessai inclines his head. “I hardly think I need to,” he says. “But of course I will.”

Kisuke can't quite stop his smile from going crooked. Shinji's smart, and he’s been a Vizard for a hundred years now, but he’s still set on revenge against Aizen with a tenacity that borders on suicidal. If he hears that the Hōgokoyu is in Aizen’s hands without a decent amount of groundwork being laid first, he’s liable to do something…reckless.

Given that Kisuke is a large part of the reason he’s as he is now, it will feel like his fault if things go badly.

(There's every possibility that Yoruichi's accusations have some basis, honestly.)

“Come on, and stop sulking,” Yoruichi tells him, and Kisuke doesn’t flinch at the feeling of her grabbing him around the waist. He’s more than quick enough to get places on his own, but Yoruichi is the Goddess of Flash and has never lost her skill; she can get them to their destination far faster than Kisuke could get there on his own. He spares half an instant to yelp, because she loves getting a reaction out of him, and slaps a hand up to pin his hat on his head, but the world is already blurring. There's a whirl of wind fast enough to make Kisuke's eyes water, motion quick enough that he can't catch his breath, and then the startling feel of a tree branch under his sandals.

This time, Kisuke's yelp isn't just for show. He pinwheels his arms, almost tipping forward off the branch before Yoruichi snags his haori and hauls him back upright in an absent and well-practiced motion. Kisuke sits down hard on the branch, then gives her an offended look that she doesn’t deign to notice. Her eyes are on the grass below, spots of it crushed down like something large and heavy recently stood there, and after a long second she drops down, landing in a crouch beside the prints.

“Are we going to hunt then down?” Kisuke asks merrily, tipping his hat back and settling more comfortably on his perch. “Trail them through the undergrowth like the criminals they are?”

“I think we’re the criminals in this equation,” Yoruichi says with good humor, but most of her attention is on the tracks, the path of bent grass leading out towards the street. Kisuke follows it with his eyes, considering the threat of a man with similarities to a Hollow loose in Karakura, having tried to attack Yoruichi immediately upon his arrival. He should probably let someone know. But—should he tell Ichigo? Isshin? Rukia? All possibilities, but none of them good.

With a faint sigh, he slips off the branch, landing lightly beside Yoruichi. A moment of digging through his pockets produces the scanner he was using on the Hōgokoyu’s hiding place a few hours earlier, and he turns it on, calibrating it with a few twists of the dials. There's a beep, then a flicker of red light, and Kisuke frowns, rubbing his stubbly chin.

“At least one of them was a Hollow,” he says thoughtfully, studying the readout. “Probably two of them, by the signatures. But the other one—hmm.”

Yoruichi tips her head. “That doesn’t sound like a conclusion, Kisuke,” she says, amused.

Kisuke waves her off. “I'm getting there, I'm getting there,” he protests. “You're right, he’s…Hollow-like, but not a Hollow. He isn't quite a Shinigami either, though.”

“Sounds about right.” Yoruichi rises, stretching languidly even as her eyes sweep the area. “Reiryoku?”

It’s a possibility, though Kisuke isn't entirely convinced it will work as it should. As Ichigo proves, there are more things with a reiatsu signature than can be split between Hollow and Shinigami. He hums, and Yoruichi rolls her eyes.

“Well, is he a Vizard, then?” she asks, unimpressed. “Or something similar? Aizen’s still got his nose dug deep into all of that, doesn’t he?”

He does, and it’s…worrying. Kisuke is counting on Shinji and the others to be his ace in the hole, the shock troops coming in to set Aizen off balance. If he has something similar, if he’s managed to make his own hybrids, that won't mean anything good for their chances.

“Maybe,” he says, though he’s still unconvinced. He’s studied the Vizards’ reiatsu for decades now; this isn't the same thing, though he can see a handful of similarities. Too much uncorrupted reiatsu, he thinks. The Hollow energy is like an undertone, a half-buried layer. There's something over it. There's also something under it, but Kisuke can't make out more than the edges of where it surges out from beneath the other signatures.

“If this is an invasion, it’s a very small one,” he says lightly. “Two conscious people and a sleeping third? Hardly terrifying.”

“Aizen’s exactly the type to think that would be enough,” Yoruichi points out, and flicks a glance back at him, raising a brow with a smirk. “Should we follow them?”

“Let us indeed,” Kisuke says grandly, and this time he lets her go first, following the blurred image of her up onto the rooftop of the buildings across the street. Leaning over the edge, he waves the device back and forth, squinting at the screen, and then points left. “It seems our mysterious visitors decided not to investigate the shopping district.”

Yoruichi hums, but takes three long steps and hops to the next building. “The Kurosaki clinic is this direction,” she says noncommittally.

Kisuke is all too aware of that. He pauses on the edge, considering, and then says, “It seems like a shame to keep this glorious news to ourselves.”

Even with the gap between them, Yoruichi's eyes are sharp, and her smile is even more so. “You're getting soft, Kisuke,” she teases. “Going to go knock on their door and warn them?”

“I could leave a message in blood,” Kisuke says cheerfully, and he could. He even has the device. He’d meant it to poke fun at Kensei, who gets squeamish at the oddest things, but the Vizards had moved away before he had a chance to use it. He’s been saving it for Ichigo, though the opportunity hasn’t presented itself yet.

“I think Isshin will murder you,” Yoruichi points out, though she’s smiling. “All right, go warn them. I’ll follow our visitors from up here.”

Kisuke flips her the device. “It’s the—”

“Red wave,” she finishes for him, because after so long Yoruichi knows how his mind works. “For the Hollow, right?”

Kisuke salutes her cheerfully. White would have been the logical color, which is exactly why Kisuke didn’t use it. No need to make things too easy for anyone spying on him. “Stay out of range,” he says.

Yoruichi snickers. “He caught me off guard before,” she says cockily. “He won't be nearly as lucky this time.”

Kisuke doesn’t doubt it. The entirety of Soul Society couldn’t catch Yoruichi if she put her mind to it, and if all else fails she can turn into a cat and get away. Not that he expects she’ll need to; she was captain of the Onmitsukidō for a very good reason.

“Then I will take a walk to the Kurosaki Clinic and introduce myself,” he says grandly. “If Ichigo is home, at least. If he and the lovely Kuchiki Rukia are otherwise occupied, I suppose I can content myself with warning Isshin.” Whether he’ll tell Ichigo is another matter entirely, but out of Kisuke's hands. Isshin's been trying to keep his head down for twenty years now, and he’s good at it. Some things have been left by the wayside in the process, and honesty is one of them.

“Don’t forget about Shinji,” Yoruichi reminds him, because she’s a cruel, merciless woman. Kisuke pouts at her, and she smirks back, then disappears a flicker.

Kisuke waits until all traces of her reiatsu have vanished, neatly hidden, and then drops from the rooftop, planting his cane on the sidewalk. Benihime stirs in his soul, a whirl of warm breeze and a handful of rising notes like the start of a melody, and Kisuke rubs his thumb over the curve of her handle, tipping his hat back.

Shinji being back in Karakura will be an adjustment. All the Vizards, and especially Hiyori, but…Shinji more than the rest. Kisuke feels something like guilt at the sight of him, or at least a deep regret; if he’d mentioned his suspicions to Shinji, warned him about Tousen and Ichimaru before that night, maybe the captains and lieutenants wouldn’t have been attacked. If he’d stepped outside himself, beyond his research, if he’d been quicker, smarter—

But he wasn’t, and at the very least he managed to save them. It’s a guilty sort of satisfaction, since Kisuke knows life as a half-Hollow creature is anything but easy, but he hadn’t been able to let them die. Hadn’t wanted to, even if it took making them something else entirely to keep them alive.

Benihime flickers through his thoughts, less a message and more a general feeling of disapproval, and Kisuke smiles wryly and tips his hat back down over his eyes, though he’s careful to scan the street as he heads up the road. There's a vase full of flowers by a power pole at the end of the street, and he skirts it carefully, inclining his head in respect to the soul that lost their life there. A trace of Ichigo's reiatsu ligers as well, rough and sharp and as heavy as a weighted blanket, and Kisuke wants to say he never planned on this, on the boy stumbling right into the middle of things, but—

There have been signs, right from the first. Aizen’s eyes on Isshin and Masaki, regardless of how they tried to keep a low profile. Reiatsu lingering in Karakura when it shouldn’t, like a slug-trail marking Aizen’s passage. The growing, gradual awareness of Ichigo's friends, snowballing into something dangerous the moment Ichigo's reiatsu was fully released from his human body. Kisuke has been keeping his attention on the matter for fifteen years now, ready for something to happen, and while this is admittedly not what he predicted, it’s also not entirely beyond expectation.

Add in the theft of the Hōgokoyu and it seems like a tsunami is suddenly bearing down on them, ready to drown them all. Kisuke doesn’t have faith in much, but hopefully Ichigo and the Vizards will provide enough of a distraction to Aizen that he can drag things into place in the background, build something that will stand a chance against Aizen with a fully awakened Hōgokoyu. There must be something; Kisuke is betting everything on it.

The sight of the Kurosaki Clinic isn't precisely a welcome one, but it’s a relief at the same time; the windows are bright against the darkness, and the faint, low-level hum of reiatsu isn't enough to make most shinigami look twice, but it’s still steadying. Hachi laid wards here, to keep all but the most persistent things out, and while they’ve been wearing away, there are still traces of them. Ichigo's power hasn’t entirely burned them away yet.

Now that Kisuke is looking, he can see figures moving behind the lighted windows. The girls, he thinks, watching them for a moment, and a taller figure—Ichigo, likely, and one figure between those heights who’s probably Rukia, having revealed herself to the family. Isshin is broad enough to pick out easily, but—

There are other people in the house as well. One almost as tall and broad as Isshin, and one taller, but as slender as Ichigo.

Kisuke stares for a long moment, drumming his fingers against Benihime's handle. Guests? But Isshin has kept a careful distance from most people, even among his circle of acquaintances. First his status as a Shinigami made him wary, and then after Masaki’s death he was…withdrawn. Depressed, for all he tried to put on a bright face for his children. The odds that the strangers are visiting friends is slim. It’s not the Vizards, either; Shinji is just about Ichigo's height, if not shorter, and Kisuke can't match any of the others to the present figures by build.

He debates, for a minute, turning around and walking away. A warning is useful, but he doesn’t want to be seen around Ichigo more than he already has been. The Menos were enough exposure; if Aizen thinks he’s interfering too directly, he might decide to intervene as well, and Kisuke hasn’t accounted for that yet. Doesn’t know if he can, honestly; Aizen moves in ways even he can't predict, and it’s maddening.

Still. Still. Better to be sure Ichigo and Rukia know that there are enemies moving in Karakura, Hollow-like and hostile. Kisuke steels himself, shakes his head, and starts for the front door, hooking Benihime over his arm where she looks hard to draw but is actually in easy reach. There's no being too careful, after all.

When he rings the doorbell, there's a shout, indistinguishable as words, and then loud steps. Kisuke tracks their approach, counting down the seconds, and pastes on a smile just as the door swings open.

“Oh,” Ichigo says, frowning at him. “It’s you.”

He’s not opening the door. Is keeping it mostly closed, actually, Kisuke notes with interest, studying the way Ichigo has set himself in the gap, like he’s attempting to block Kisuke's view into the house.

“Kurosaki!” Kisuke says cheerfully. “What a lovely night, isn't it?”

“It was,” Ichigo says pointedly, just as there are steps from behind him. He turns, quick and startled, and then says accusingly, “You shouldn’t be up.”

“I'm fine,” a voice says. It’s no one Kisuke knows, and he rocks up just a little on his toes, peering over Ichigo's shoulder to catch a glimpse of the man approaching. It’s one of the strangers, the tall, thin one, and he has one hand braced on the hallway wall as he approaches. Pale, Kisuke thinks critically. Dark hair, though he can't quite pick out the shade of it: maybe brown, or black, or even a deep russet-red—the shadows fall over it oddly, and he can't identify the color. He’s favoring one side, though, and his shirt is oversized at the shoulders, too short in the sleeves, so it’s likely someone else’s. A patient, perhaps? Most patients would keep to the clinic, though.

“Kyōka­—” Ichigo starts, and then pauses, looking back down the hall. His frown deepens. “That idiot isn't coming with you?”

Kyōka makes a dismissive gesture, then winces like it hurt. “He’ll know if he’s needed,” he says, and looks up. Instantly, without so much as a hesitation, his gaze locks with Kisuke's, and he raises a brow.

It takes effort for Kisuke to keep his smile from slipping. There's an odd sense around the man, something…off. Not just the shifting hair, the eyes that could be blue or grey or pale brown, not just the way he carries himself. Something else, and the simple fact that Kisuke can't put his finger on it makes him suspicious.

“Oh my!” he says cheerfully, beaming. “Entertaining guests, then? I suppose I should come back later.”

Kyōka sweeps a look over him, then glances away. His face is set in an expression of faint distaste, which simply makes Kisuke want to poke at him. “I was just leaving,” he says curtly, and inclines his head to Ichigo. “I will return by morning.”

Ichigo is watching him, frown deepening into a scowl. “I can help—”

“Keep Rukia out of sight,” Kyōka says, and it’s flat, inflectionless. “You will have to be her defense if I fail.”

Well, Kisuke thinks. This is interesting, isn't it? “Kuchiki?” he asks guilelessly. “Is something the matter with my favorite customer, then?”

Ichigo casts him an annoyed look, but before he can answer Kyōka slips past him, sidesteps Kisuke, and starts down the walk. With a sound of irritation, Ichigo takes a step after him, then says, “Kyōka!”

The stranger doesn’t even look back, just keeps walking, and Ichigo makes a sound of frustration under his breath before he turns his scowl on Kisuke. “And what are you doing here?” he demands.

Kisuke raises his hands in surrender. “What a tone of accusation!” he protests. “I'm nothing but a humble shopkeeper, coming to pass on a friendly warning.”

“Warning,” Ichigo repeats skeptically.

Kisuke gives him a smile. “A friend spotted two Hollows and another man in the park,” he says, “not even an hour ago. They're somewhere in Karakura right now. It might be best to keep your eyes open.”

Ichigo looks at him, then after Kyōka. “Hollows,” he repeats. “From Hueco Mundo?”

A little startled, Kisuke considers him, then thinks of Kyōka’s easy mention of Ichigo as Rukia's defense. Clearly the stranger is involved in something here, unless Ichigo heard the term from elsewhere in the handful of hours since they parted. “Yes,” he confirms. Half-turns, watching the lean figure vanish around the corner, and then offers Ichigo his best grin. “My, my. Making friends, Ichigo?”

Ichigo regards him for a long moment, and then says quietly, “You knew my dad was a Shinigami. And my mom was a Quincy.”

The shock is a bright, sharp thing, almost enough to make Kisuke take a step back. Isshin giving away not only his secrets, but Masaki’s? There's been a change, significant enough to shake the foundation of the Kurosaki's world. Kyōka’s doing? He didn’t strike Kisuke as a Quincy, but it’s possible he is. One of Masaki’s distant relatives, maybe, come to meet Ichigo, Karin, and Yuzu?

“You did,” Ichigo decides, and steps back, giving Kisuke a frown. “Who the hell are you?”

“Just a shopkeeper,” Kisuke says, a little wry, and glances over his shoulder before he can help himself. Kyōka is out of sight, but hardly out of mind; Isshin is decent at recognizing threats, and if Kyōka is in his house he’s likely been judged safe, but Kisuke is a little more cautious. “Your friend certainly seems in a rush to get somewhere.”

There's a long, long pause as Ichigo watches him, and then finally straightens a little, unfolding his arms from across his chest. “He said two people were coming from Soul Society to get Rukia,” he says. “Her brother and some other guy. Kyōka’s going to distract them before they can find her.”

Something cold slides down Kisuke's spine. He didn’t know that. Expected it, of course, but—not to the point of saying who the Central 46 would send, or when. Certainly not to the point of having a plan to divert Byakuya’s attention.

“Ah,” he says lightly, though the words want to stick in his throat. “How noble of him. Did he happen to mention why?”

“No.” surprisingly, Ichigo almost looks amused. “But since he already rescued my cousin from Hueco Mundo, I’m going to trust him.”

Flat, easy, like it’s a choice readily and simply made. Kisuke wants to laugh, but he’s sure the sound of it would break in his mouth. Instead, he looks past Ichigo, into the bright house, and asks, “Cousin? Which cousin would this be?” Because Yoruichi will be most displeased if Kūkaku managed to get herself snatched, but that second visitor in the house—the build would match Ganju, more or less—

“Kaien,” Ichigo says, and Kisuke's brain grinds to a halt with a metaphorical screeching of gears. His mouth drops open before he can stop it, and he stares at Ichigo for a long moment, stunned witless.

In the silence, a cell phone blares.

Ichigo raises a brow at him. “That’s not mine,” he says, and it takes Kisuke a long second to process the words. When the meaning hits, he swallows a curse, grabbing for the phone, and hauls it out of one of his pockets. Flipping it open, he raises it to his ear, and is just in time to hear Tessai say, “Kisuke, the readings—there's a Senkaimon opening in eastern Karakura. A captain and a lieutenant, by the power levels.”

Kisuke closes his eyes for just an instant, breathing out through his nose. Byakuya, his lieutenant, Shinji and the Vizards, whatever Kyōka is, and the strange attackers from the park, all in Karakura at once, right after the theft of the Hōgokoyu. There's no possible way this can end peacefully.

“Excuse me,” he tells Ichigo far more cheerfully than he feels, and turns away from the door without waiting for a response, putting the phone back to his ear. “Shinji and the others?”

“I haven’t heard from them yet,” Tessai answers, which likely means they’ll trip right into the middle of things at the most inconvenient moment possible, judging by the way the day is going. Kisuke picks up his pace, curling his fingers tighter around Benihime's handle, and deliberately makes the turn after Kyōka, following the flickering trace of his reiatsu into the maze of streets.

“Keep me updated,” he orders, then closes the phone and slips it back into his pocket. In his mind, Benihime hums, the notes of her song rising in anticipation, and Kisuke smiles wryly to himself, tipping his hat down over his eyes. He’s glad one of them is looking forward to this collision.

Chapter Text

Given the current limitations of his physical form, this is going to have to be approached very carefully.

Kyōka Suigetsu catches himself on the corner of a fence where it turns with the street, trying not to press a hand over his shoulder. The numbness from the stitching is wearing off, and added to that is the weight of the Hōgokoyu inside his soul. It’s uncomfortable, something he’s far too aware of, and while he trusts his own ability in a fight, he isn't entirely sure he trusts it this much.

It doesn’t matter. Kyōka Suigetsu is better if he doesn’t step right into a fight, after all, and this gives him the option of tricks and misdirections, which are far more debilitating than physical attacks when used correctly. Byakuya is known to him, conveniently, and Renji as well. They're both quantifiable, something he can plan for, and if it takes more reiatsu than he would like, that’s fine. He’s inserted himself into Ichigo's life, and at least if he’s in Ichigo's home the boy will compensate for his weak moments.

He can feel the burn of Renji’s reiatsu from here, the low rumble of Byakuya’s beyond it. Subtle, quick, like a river ready to jump its banks, and Kyōka Suigetsu breathes out, raises his hand. One moment of concentration brings his sword to his fingertips, and he pulls it out of nothingness, drags the blade and sheath free of his own soul and then draws the blade, sliding the scabbard through his belt. Naked, the blade glimmers in the moonlight, and Kyōka Suigetsu smiles faintly. His illusions hold in the brightest sunlight, but they're strongest at night, strongest with moonlight and water. He has one of the two here, ready to augment his power, and with that help it’s easy to call up an image, let it settle over himself the same way he did with Miyako’s when facing Aaroniero.

The trick has a different purpose this time, meant to put Byakuya off balance instead of leading him down the wrong path of conclusions. Kyōka Suigetsu will hardly object to him taking the wrong physical path, of course, but of all the people Byakuya could glimpse here in the World of the Living, there's only one who might make him turn from his duty. Kyōka Suigetsu steals her image without hesitation, shapes it, layers it. Sōsuke met Hisana many times, even escorted her to the Fourth Division one day when he encountered her in the street and she seemed too weak to return home. Kyōka Suigetsu has a good memory for details, since they're necessary for his illusions to be convincing; he draws on the clothes she wore then, shifts them just enough that they won't be precisely the same. He uses the scent that clung to her, wildflowers and yellowed grasses and just a hint of disinfectant, and layers it with the faint slump of her shoulders, the unhealthy thinness of a body wasting away. Opens tired violet eyes, smooths dark hair behind his ears, and tips his head, listening for a moment.

No footsteps, not here, but—a sense. Eyes on him, careful and wary, and it makes Kyōka Suigetsu want to roll his eyes. Of course Urahara is going to make himself a problem. An anticipated one, at least; Kyōka Suigetsu never thought this night would pass without him at the very least coming to Urahara’s attention.

Still, he’s easily ignorable. Kyōka Suigetsu pulls the haori tighter around thin shoulders, curls his arm over his chest like he’s cold, and starts walking, keeping his steps swift. The blaze of Renji’s power is three streets over, but Kyōka Suigetsu remembers the layout of Karakura’s streets well enough. There's an intersection up ahead with clear lines of sight, and that’s all he needs. Raising his sword, he narrows his eyes briefly, calling up an illusion of wind that swirls the hem of his kimono, sends the haori fluttering just enough that the pale cloth will catch the eye, and then sheathes his blade and keeps moving, letting the breeze sweep past him.

The intersection of streets looms, and Kyōka Suigetsu puts a hand up as he enters it, keeping his hair out of his eyes. Glances up, like he’s seeking the source of the wind, and then looks over, just as footsteps come to a sharp and sudden halt.

Byakuya is frozen in the center of the road, as pale as a ghost with wide grey eyes, and his hand falls from his sword. Kyōka Suigetsu meets his eyes, doesn’t allow any recognition to show on Hisana’s face, and turns away, keeps walking.

“Captain?” Renji asks, concerned. “Captain, what’s wrong?”

There's a long, long moment of silence as Kyōka Suigetsu halts just out of sight, touching his sword’s hilt again and concentrating. The illusion of Hisana slides away from his skin to stand on its own, and she looks back at him, smiles sadly. A good expression, Kyōka Suigetsu decides, and sends a touch of will curling through imaginary limbs. Byakuya and Renji have both seen his shikai; there's no need to worry that the illusion won't fool them. Sending her on, he leans back against the building, and tips his head as he listens.

“Keep going,” Byakuya says after a long moment. “I will search the east section of the town.”

“What?” Renji sounds startled. “Captain, I thought the Twelfth said Rukia was—”

“Go,” Byakuya says flatly, and quick steps cross the silent street and round the corner. Kyōka Suigetsu, tucked back in the shadows, watches him pass with speed, and he turns just as the fluttering hem of Hisana’s haori disappears around the next corner. His eyes are fixed on it with enough intensity that he doesn’t even look over at Kyōka Suigetsu before he’s gone, chasing after a ghost.

Useful, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks dispassionately, when people wear their weak spots so openly. They make such lovely targets, and so simply as well. One spare fraction of his power and a captain of the Gotei 13 is lost, vulnerable, useless.

He can understand Sōsuke’s plans, his derision of the rest of the Seireitei. He always has understood it, and better than anyone else could. If Sōsuke had chosen his power over the Hōgokoyu’s, he never would have wavered, never would have left him. But Sōsuke did. He turned away, chose to cast aside part of his own soul, and now Kyōka Suigetsu will use any method to make him pay for his hubris.

With Byakuya out of the way, and the knowledge that Hisana’s image will lead him on an endless chase through Karakura’s streets, Kyōka Suigetsu only has to deal with Renji now. Simple, too, because Renji has almost the same weakness as his captain, and it’s just as readily exploited.

Kyōka Suigetsu copies Hisana’s image, lays it over his own, and shifts it just enough to become Rukia. So easy, now, with the memory of her just minutes old, and Kyōka Suigetsu only has to make a few adjustments. He adds several deep cuts, a few large bruises, bandages around wrists and throat and leg, and then turns his step into a stagger.

“Renji!” he calls, and it’s not his own voice, but Rukia's, low and throaty, scratched and strained.

Instantly, the lieutenant is whirling, eyes going wide. He bolts back from the edge of the street, leaping right over a passing car and sliding to a stop at Kyōka Suigetsu’s side. “Rukia!” he says in alarm. “What the hell happened to you? Are you okay? Where’s your sword?”

“Renji,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, breathless, exhausted, and stumbles forward right into his arms, slumping against his chest. His breath hitches with worry, and he wraps his arms around Rukia's form, leans down like he’s going to sweep her off her feet.

“Rukia, who did this to you?” he asks insistently, pulling back just enough to grab Kyōka Suigetsu’s shoulders. “Was it that one human? The one you gave your powers to?”

Kyōka Suigetsu almost rolls his eyes, but controls the urge at the last moment, goes limp instead and lets Renji catch him with a sound of alarm. “I'm so cold,” he says softly, and there's a ragged breath.

“I’ll get you back to the Fourth,” Renji says grimly. “You're in a hell of a lot of trouble, Rukia, but even the Central 46 can't refuse to let you see a medic.”

Kyōka Suigetsu twists a hand around the back of Renji’s neck, gathers a flicker of reiatsu—

“Hadō 4: Byakurai,” a voice intones, dark and sharp and full of broken glass, and Kyōka Suigetsu wrenches forward. He gets a foot on Renji’s thigh, flips over his head, and dodges left, just as a burst of white electricity crashes into the place where he was.

Renji yelps as the edge of it just grazes him, recoils hard, and cries, “Captain, what—!”

“That is not Rukia,” Byakuya says, and his eyes are dark as he glides forward, curling a hand around the hilt of his sword. “There is something here that is fond of tricks.”

Kyōka Suigetsu rises to his feet, tipping his chin up, and with a ripple the illusion of Rukia fades back into Hisana. He gives Byakuya a small, sad smile, raises a hand to his mouth to muffle a wet cough, and can feel the surge of reiatsu as Byakuya’s power strains at the edges of his control. With a curse, Renji scrambles backwards, expression full of horror, and grabs for his sword. “Captain?” he demands again.

“My wife,” Byakuya says precisely, coldly. “An image of her before her death.”

“I've been waiting so long for you to find me, husband,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, makes it Hisana’s gentle tone. “I thought you would come right after I died, and seek me in this world. But you left me here alone to suffer.”

Byakuya’s fingers tighten around his sword, and he closes his eyes for just an instant. “You are not Hisana,” he says. “Setting an image of her to lead me away revealed your wager.”

“Did it?” Kyōka Suigetsu asks, amused. No matter that Byakuya didn’t fall for the trick; he has others. “Or did it simply show you what you wanted most to see?”

Byakuya frowns faintly, but draws his sword in one smooth motion. “You are impeding the work of two Shinigami,” he says coolly. “Surrender.”

Kyōka Suigetsu smiles, small and lazy, and coughs again, harder this time. He isn't imagining the way Byakuya hesitates, he’s sure. “Surrender to Soul Society?” he asks throatily, looking up, and meets Byakuya’s eyes. “They could never cure me. They almost starved me. I spent years in fear and pain, until I met you, Byakuya.”

A twitch, a pause. Byakuya breathes like it takes effort, and despite his bared sword he still hasn’t taken so much as a step forward. Kyōka Suigetsu folds his hands together in front of him, gives him a smile that echoes one he saw Hisana give her husband once, and then lets his gaze slide over to Renji.

“I loved him so much I abandoned my sister,” he confesses, makes it sad, worn. “I made so many mistakes, but then you cared for Rukia, didn’t you, Lieutenant? Thank you for that.”

Renji looks from Kyōka Suigetsu to Byakuya and back, shoulders tensed. “Who are you?” he demands.

“Kuchiki Hisana,” Kyōka Suigetsu says without hesitation, and Renji’s expression twists.

“You don’t get to say that,” he snaps, and lunges in a rush, sword snapping out. “Howl, Zabimaru!”

Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t move, keeps his eyes on Renji as he waits, and—

Zabimaru’s blade rebounds off moon-cold steel, and the flutter of Byakuya’s windflower scarf brushes Kyōka Suigetsu’s cheek like a lover’s caress.

Renji draws back with a jerk, eyes wide. “Captain, watch out—!” he starts, but Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t make any move to take advantage of the opening. Steps back, instead, and when Byakuya turns to look at him with a cold mask that just hides the broken glass beneath, he smiles sadly.

“I know why you're here,” he says. “I know what you were ordered to do, Byakuya. But I can't let you take my sister back to Soul Society. Not yet.”

“I cannot allow you to get in our way,” Byakuya says. “No matter who you are.”

He believes, though. He’s fallen for the illusion. Kyōka Suigetsu can feel it, the threads rooted in Byakuya’s soul. “You know who I am, husband,” he says gently, and steps back. Turns, ignoring the aborted sound behind him, and darts into the darkened street leading west, picking up a run. Again, there are quick steps, a blur of flash step, and Byakuya appears in the street. Kyōka Suigetsu makes a sharp turn, ducking down an alley, and then lets Hisana’s image split, hurrying away into the night. Byakuya follows, and Renji follows him, and Kyōka Suigetsu stays where he is for a long moment, tracking their reiatsu as they go. There's no falter this time; neither of them is expecting him to try the same trick twice.

Separating himself from the shadows, Kyōka Suigetsu glances a touch over the hilt of his sword, then rubs at his shoulder. The illusion should keep them busy long enough for him to set the next trap that Hisana will lead them right into, and it’s satisfying—

Light, mocking clapping makes him lift his head, watching narrowly as Urahara drops from the rooftop to land in front of him. He has his cane hooked over his arm, his hat tipped back to show his face, and he’s smiling.

“Well, well,” he says cheerfully. “That was impressive acting, stranger. Have you ever considered an alternate career in theater? I'm sure Byakuya at least will give you stellar recommendations.”

Kyōka Suigetsu snorts softly, straightening the cuffs of his shirt. “It will keep them far from their target,” he says dismissively. “After tonight they won't be able to say what is real or not, even if they do see Rukia in the streets.”

Urahara hums, light and only faintly skeptical. “Can you really keep two seated officers chasing ghosts that long?” he asks. “That’s quite the ability you have.”

“They chase illusions because they desire them,” Kyōka Suigetsu says coolly. “I simply provide a target for their desires.” It’s even true, more or less; Kyōka Suigetsu’s illusions work best on the willing, just as much as the weak-willed.

“Dangerous, dangerous,” Urahara says cheerfully, but his gaze is fixed on Kyōka Suigetsu, unwavering as he approaches. “I’d be curious to know just how you got word they were coming, though. It seems like they were intending to surprise Rukia with their visit.”

Kyōka Suigetsu considers ignoring the question, but a glance at Urahara says he won't get far if he tries to walk away. Pausing, he weighs possible answers, debates between something droll and a less noticeable lie, and—

“There ya are, Kisuke.”

Kyōka Suigetsu freezes, because he knows that voice. It sparks something like fury in him, or anger, or maybe the closest thing he’s ever felt to fear. Spinning, he jerks his eyes up towards the empty air above them, and stares at the familiar figure hanging upside-down in the space between the buildings, hands in his pockets and a grin on his face. Dangerous, something whispers, instinct trained by years of being watched so closely, and Kyōka Suigetsu wants to lash out, drag his illusions up over him. Instead, he drops his hand, letting his arm hide the hilt of his sword from Shinji's view, and takes a precise step back.

Shinji flips over as he drops, touches down on the pavement as light as a feather, and that grin still hasn’t wavered. He’s unexpected, unanticipated; the Vizards aren’t supposed to arrive in Karakura until after Ichigo's return from Soul Society, and Kyōka Suigetsu wasn’t counting on Urahara calling them in, but he must have. The Hōgokoyu’s disappearance likely prompted him to do so, and Kyōka Suigetsu had thought about it but dismissed the idea. Clearly, he made a mistake in doing so.

“Shinji,” Urahara says, and there's a faint note of surprise in his voice, but nothing over the top. He’s most definitely the one who called Shinji in, though he didn’t expect him to be here in particular.

Slinging Sakanade over his shoulder, Shinji squints at Urahara, then tips his head and looks at Kyōka Suigetsu. “You the reason little Byakuya’s scramblin’ around all over the town?” he asks with lazy amusement.

Kyōka Suigetsu stares right back, not about to let his disquiet show, and answers, “They came to retrieve an unseated Shinigami on the orders of the Central 46.”

“An’ you decided to stop them?” Shinji's eyes flicker over him, and he grins. “Ya know, only one person I've ever seen was able to use an illusion that strong.”

Urahara doesn’t move, but his gaze narrows, and he looks from Shinji to Kyōka Suigetsu with renewed tension.

Not allowing himself to waver, Kyōka Suigetsu inclines his head. “It’s a talent,” he says, and gives Shinji a once-over in return. “You reek of Hollow,” he says.

Shinji's mouth flattens into a thin, dangerous line, then splits into a grin that’s all teeth. “That so?” he asks with killing cheer. “Guess I forgot to wash. Didn’t figure I’d be offending any delicate noses around these parts.”

How many years did Sōsuke plot and plan against this man in particular? Decades, at the very least, and the instinct of it itches at Kyōka Suigetsu’s skin, curls around his bones. But—it’s the same for Urahara, if slightly less so, and he’s the one who agreed to send Kyōka Suigetsu back in time. Kyōka Suigetsu pauses, then grits his teeth, closes his eyes, and banishes the sharp words on his tongue back to the depths of his mind.

“You might want to remedy that,” he says, and opens them again, looking up to meet Shinji's eyes. “Urahara might faint.”

Shinji blinks, tips his head. Then he laughs, loud and raucous in the shadows. “That’s half the fun, yeah?” he says cheerfully, and his glance at Kyōka Suigetsu’s sword is almost cursory. “You know the brat, then?”

“Rude,” Urahara huffs, giving them both a deep pout. “I'm over here providing for your lodging and you're mocking my constitution. That’s terrible.”

“Ya should feel lucky Hiyori’s not the one here, or it’d really be terrible,” Shinji says without a hint of mercy. He taps Sakanade against his shoulder, considering Kyōka Suigetsu again, and asks, “What’s your name, then?”

The lie is so easy. Any lie would be easy. Instead, Kyōka Suigetsu meets his eyes, and says flatly, “I'm an enemy of Aizen Sōsuke, who plans to see him crushed under my heel before the winter starts.”

There's a long, long pause. Kisuke blinks, but there's a slow grin spreading over Shinji's face, all teeth and cruel humor. “Oh yeah?” he asks with interest. “Aizen’s got a lot of that going around. What makes you think you're so special?”

“And maybe,” Urahara puts in with good humor, “while you're explaining that, you can explain how you managed to bring Shiba Kaien back from the dead.”

Shinji's brows arch up, and he looks Kyōka Suigetsu over again with renewed interest. “Yeah?” he asks. “The Shiba kid? You saved him?”

Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates. If he paints himself as capable of resurrection, it will be a thing expected of him, and he doesn’t want to waste the Hōgokoyu’s power undoing deaths. If he doesn’t give enough of an explanation, though, Urahara and Shinji will both know where to start tearing holes in his story.

“He had been…partially consumed,” he says at length. “By one of Sōsuke’s Espada. I was in Hueco Mundo to ascertain the extent of his movements, and happened upon the opportunity to call Kaien’s soul to the forefront. The Espada’s soul was eradicated, leaving Kaien as sole host of the body. Without his specific circumstances, however, it would have been impossible.”

Urahara tilts his head, like he’s working through the explanation, while Shinji simply frowns. “Sounds complicated,” he says. “An’ boring. You talk the Espada to death?”

“Yes,” Kyōka Suigetsu answers, and gives him a thin smile. “Much as I just talked Byakuya into defending me from his lieutenant.”

He can see that Shinji gets it, half a second later. His expression takes on a viciously amused slant, and he snickers. “No wonder the kid was yellin’ at a girl,” he says. “Ya got him twisted up in knots, huh?”

“Out of the way,” Kyōka Suigetsu corrects without regret. “And otherwise occupied for now.”

Shinji snickers. “I see why ya’d want to,” he says easily, though there's still something sharp under his expression when he looks at Kyōka Suigetsu. “Though ya didn’t answer my question.”

Kyōka Suigetsu thinks about refusing to answer at all, or maybe casting an illusion and leaving, but Shinji has always proven entirely too skilled at seeing through his tricks. “I worked with Sōsuke,” he says, tipping his chin up. “I was his right hand, and he cast me aside. I’ll see him ruined for it.”

Shinji's face is hard, cold in the instant before his smile comes back. “Yeah?” he asks. “And what’s to say we should trust you any more than we do Aizen?”

“You shouldn’t,” Kyōka Suigetsu retorts coolly. “But I will stop every last one of Sōsuke’s plans, simply on the basis that he wants them to go forward. Any hindrance you’d care to provide would annoy him equally, and I would welcome it.”

That makes Shinji laugh again, and he swings his sword down to tap it on his leg. “Good enough for me,” he says, though Kyōka Suigetsu knows full well it’s a lie. “Ya got a name?”

“Kyōka,” Kyōka Suigetsu tells him, after a moment of hesitation. Urahara might make the connection, but Shinji, with his obsession regarding Sōsuke and his attention to detail, definitely will. Hopefully not immediately, though. All Kyōka Suigetsu needs is to put some distance between himself and this confrontation before he realizes.

With a frown starting, Shinji opens his mouth, but before he can say anything, there's a blur of air. Another familiar figure drops down, rises instantly. “Kisuke,” Shihōin says sharply. “The invaders just met Byakuya and his lieutenant, we should—”

“Invaders?” Kyōka Suigetsu cuts in, because this certainly isn't part of his plan. He takes a step forward, sending Shihōin’s eyes snapping over to him, and asks, “What invaders?”

Shihōin hesitates, but when Urahara nods once, she plants a hand on her hip and turns to Kyōka Suigetsu, looking him over with a raised brow. “Not quite a Shinigami, not quite a Hollow,” she says. “He turned up in the park about two hours ago, and I tracked him down to make sure he wasn’t causing a problem.”

There's a distinct curl of irritation in Kyōka Suigetsu’s chest. “Brown hair?” he asks. “A white and purple coat, marks around his eyes, and long fingernails?”

“You know him.” Shihōin tips her head, a smirk spreading over her lips. “He tried to grab me when he appeared, and now he’s apparently trying the same on Byakuya.”

Kyōka Suigetsu is going to strangle Muramasa slowly. He takes a breath, then says curtly, “Excuse me,” and steps away, turning quickly.

“Hey.” There’s one blurred step, impossibly quick, and Shihōin appears beside him, concern in her face. “Is this going to end badly? Because I can get you there before they pound each other’s faces in.”

Kyōka Suigetsu hesitates, but—he’s unsure of Muramasa’s powers, and for all that he wants Byakuya distracted, it would weaken Soul Society if he were to die. In addition, Renji is strong enough to be a captain, and once Kyōka Suigetsu removes Sōsuke and Tousen, the Seireitei will need more such officers.

“All right,” he says, and doesn’t let himself twitch as she slides behind him. An arm slots around his waist, and there’s a surge of motion. Shihōin’s shunpo is almost painfully fast, wrenches at Kyōka Suigetsu’s injured arm and makes him hiss, but too quick for his feet to even register earth beneath them they’ve touched down and stepped again, halfway across the city in a handful of instants. One step, another, and—

The ripple of force is almost visible, and Kyōka Suigetsu recognizes it. “Up,” he snaps, grabbing Shihōin’s arm, and she doesn’t even hesitate. She leaps hard, carrying them straight up in the air and back with a hard flip, and the edge of power washes over where they just were, shimmers, retreats like a tide. Shihōin touches down hard, stumbles as Kyōka Suigetsu loses his footing, and then hauls him up.

“What the hell was that?” she demands.

“I don’t know,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, and glances across the town, trying to calculate whether Muramasa’s power would have touched the Kurosaki Clinic. He can't be certain from this angle, though, and there are more pressing matters. “Byakuya and Renji were hit.”

“Probably,” Shihōin agrees frankly. She tightens her grip on Kyōka Suigetsu, then launches them forward again, and in three quick bursts of shunpo they're alighting on the edge of a wall overlooking a pristine street. It’s not empty, though, and Kyōka Suigetsu can't quite stop his fingers from curling into the fabric of Shihōin’s shirt, staring at the sight before them with something like disbelief.

There's a centaur, massive and armored, carrying a lance and the limp form of the previous Tres Espada, unconscious in his grip. Behind him, sword still raised, is Muramasa, looking eminently pleased with himself. Byakuya and Renji are across from them, but in between—

“Senbonzakura, Zabimaru,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, because he knows the feel of their power, just as well as he knows Byakuya and Renji’s.

The masked samurai turns his head, looking Kyōka Suigetsu over with cool disinterest, then draws his sword. “Zabimaru,” he says sharply.

The woman laughs loudly, and the snake-tailed boy beside her giggles, covering his mouth with his sleeve. “Yeah, yeah, we’ve got it,” she says cockily, and surges forward with a rattle of chains, her blade forming in her hand. Renji shouts, lunging to meet her, but even though he shouts his sword’s name, it’s a plain silver blade that meets Zabimaru’s segmented blade as it crashes forward.  

Chapter Text

“Muramasa,” Kyōka Suigetsu says sharply, pulling free of Shihōin’s hold and dropping to the road. “What are you doing here?”

Muramasa turns with a smile, letting his sword fade. He tucks his hand into his pocket, and says idly, “This is where we arranged to meet, was it not, Kyōka?”

“Finished with Las Noches so soon?” Kyōka Suigetsu bites out, but when Muramasa reaches up to touch the scratch down the side of his face, he doesn’t pull away. All Muramasa wants from him is a reaction, and Kyōka Suigetsu isn't inclined to give it.

“You wanted the observation room destroyed,” Muramasa says, amused. “If you meant for me to be occupied for longer, you should have offered me a more difficult task.”

“My mistake,” Kyōka Suigetsu returns, and decides Muramasa’s touch has lingered long enough. He bats the man’s hand away, then glances over at Byakuya and Senbonzakura straining against each other and asks, “With this power, I'm sure you left the palace in chaos.”

Muramasa’s smile is entirely smug. “I finished my experiments on the Arrancar,” he says. “They were…wildly successful.”

Kyōka Suigetsu snorts, because he can imagine that they were. Eyeing the centaur, he takes a step to the side, then another as Renji goes flying into the wall with a crash.

He staggers upright, shedding brick dust, and stumbles forward towards Muramasa, raising his sword. “You—” he starts viciously.

Muramasa smirks, just as a thick lance lashes out. The centaur hurls Renji back, right into Byakuya as he darts aside from a hail of razor blades, and they go tumbling across the pavement.

For a moment, Kyōka Suigetsu debates leaving them to their fight, but Muramasa has already thoroughly derailed his plans for the evening. The fact that his power can apparently manifest zanpakutō spirits is enough to make Kyōka Suigetsu want to fling him right back into the Menos Forest, too; it’s too close, too much of a hint, too near to the truth. Anyone looking at them will make the logical assumption, and Kyōka Suigetsu wants nothing to do with that. Perhaps it’s a decent excuse, if one discounts time travel, but his revenge is his, and he won’t let someone else steal the reason behind it, even just in another’s eyes.

In the name of Byakuya and Renji not getting any more information, Kyōka Suigetsu is more than willing to deviate from his original intentions for this evening. Stretching out an open hand, he narrows his eyes, breathes out, lets his reiatsu surge.

“Shut tight the seven gates,” he orders. “Winged light, falling shadow, red bloom, scatter and contain. Lost are the keys to the crown. Beyond the eighth sea, fall to pieces. Bakudō 91: Dankū Sabaku.”

Quick and sharp, he clenches his hand into a fist, and a chain of golden light whirls into being, spiraling down out of the air to whirl around Byakuya and Renji before they can rise. It wrenches tight, hauling them together back to back, and in the same moment a massive shield marked with a black flower with eight petals blooms around them. With a sound like the strike of a gong, another appears, then another, another. Finally, one settles on top, locking the square box, and Kyōka Suigetsu lowers his hand, feeling vaguely out of breath. The twofold incantation is more draining than a straightforward kidō spell, but given Byakuya’s abilities and Renji’s tenacity, he doesn’t want to risk anything less.

“Impressive,” Shihōin says into the silence, and she drops down, nimbly avoiding the crater Renji left in the stone. “What are you going to do with them now, though?”

Kyōka Suigetsu makes a sound of irritation, pressing the heel of his hand to his temple. He feels dizzy, and it’s not improving his outlook on the evening. “They can rot there,” he says, which is mild exaggeration but a good summary of his feelings nevertheless. Raising his head, he narrows his eyes at Muramasa, then asks, “Did you face opposition in Las Noches?”

“Nothing worth mentioning,” Muramasa answers swiftly, and gives Kyōka Suigetsu a sly smile. “Unless you object to the Espada being entirely out of sorts with their swords.”

Kyōka Suigetsu stares at him for a long moment, then looks over at Nelliel in the centaur’s hold. Her Resurrección form is something similar, if he recalls correctly. And she called it…

“Gamuza?” he asks.

The spirit inclines his head, lowering his lance and dipping into a near-bow. “As an ally of Muramasa-sama, I am pleased to meet you,” he says.

Well. It’s likely not a surprise that Gamuza reflects far more of Nelliel's honor-bound personality than her childish moments, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks, even as he inclines his head in return. Unlike Senbonzakura and Zabimaru, though, Gamuza doesn’t seem to have any interest in attacking his wielder. Kyōka Suigetsu flicks a glance at her, taking in the still form, and then says, “You’re seeking assistance for her.” That, too, is unsurprising; Nelliel was never anything but dutiful as an Espada, and kind as well. It was one of the things that led to her downfall.

With a sound of interest, Shihōin grips Kyōka Suigetsu’s shoulder, leaning over his back to peer at Nelliel. The fall of her dark hair tickles Kyōka Suigetsu’s cheek, and he brushes it away irritably. Shihōin ignores him, makes a cooing sound. “Oh, she’s cute! Like a doll. Is she all right?”

There's a distinct sense that Gamuza is smiling behind his helmet. “She was trapped in the form of a child, her reiatsu almost entirely depleted,” he says. “My departure broke something in regards to her curse, though I can't tell what it was.”

Shihōin hums, ducking under Kyōka Suigetsu’s arm and approaching the centaur. A little sourly, Kyōka Suigetsu supposes that someone so quick on their feet doesn’t need much caution in entering a potentially dangerous situation; if she feels threatened, Shihōin can simply leave it in an instant.

(Sōsuke was never as accomplished at hohō as he might have wished, and thinking of that now is a mix of irritation and satisfaction. Sōsuke’s lack of ability means Kyōka Suigetsu’s lack of ability, but they're separate creatures now. If Kyōka Suigetsu learns, that could be another edge against Sōsuke. And beyond that, Shihōin did ask him for a favor, right before he returned to this time. Kyōka Suigetsu still plans to follow through with it for her sake.)

A sharply indrawn breath makes him flick a glance at Shihōin, just in time to see her drawing back slightly. “She’s a Hollow,” she says with surprise.

Gamuza inclines his head. “The former Tres Espada, deposed by treachery several months ago,” he says grimly. “An Arrancar of great strength and greater heart.”

Shihōin flicks a glance from Nelliel to Kyōka Suigetsu, raising a brow. “You have Hollows as your allies?” she asks with sharp interest.

“And you have half-Hollows as yours,” Kyōka Suigetsu retorts, in no mood for the accusations that are likely to follow. He checks that the Shinigami captives don’t seem to be going anywhere, and is satisfied that the spells are holding when he sees them still struggling. The barrier will keep any force trying to free them out, and their own power in; Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t trust that neither of their zanpakutō will have a change of heart. He of all creatures knows how many things a zanpakutō spirit will forgive, and all the ways they remain loyal up to the very end.

Senbonzakura, in particular, makes him wary; there's a sense of haughty righteousness to the spirit, something as sharp as a blade, with an aggressive sort of pugnaciousness behind it. He’s a young spirit, but proud, and whatever Muramasa’s ability Kyōka Suigetsu doubts it can change a zanpakutō’s nature so thoroughly.

“Hey, hey,” Zabimaru says, and the woman folds her arms over her chest, scowling. “You going to drop this barrier any time soon? I’ve got an ass to beat and an idiot wielder to show who’s boss.”

“No,” Kyōka Suigetsu says flatly, and when she and the boy glare at him he ignores them pointedly, turning his gaze to Muramasa. “Your power, is it permanent?”

Muramasa hums, opening his hand as his sword dissolves into motes of light. “Who can say?” he asks lightly, and gives Kyōka Suigetsu a thin, sly smile. “If you expect my secrets, Kyōka, perhaps you should share some of your own.”

The urge to fling a spell at him is almost impossible to resist, but Kyōka Suigetsu bites his tongue to keep the chant in, contents himself with a narrow look, and turns away. He moves towards Gamuza instead, and when the centaur lifts his head to look at him he raises a hand.

“May I see her?” he asks, because he saw Renji’s encounter with the lance; there's no need to make Gamuza think he should use it on him as well. Nelliel will also make a valuable ally, should he be able to repair her mask. Sōsuke never thought to bother, but he also had more allies than he could use, and Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t have anything close to that luxury. Had he taken the time, Sōsuke likely could have fixed Nelliel, and Kyōka Suigetsu is fairly certain he’ll be able to do the same, given how many studies Sōsuke made of Hollows and their abilities.

There's a pause, and then Gamuza inclines his head. He steps back, then dips to one knee, and carefully lays Nelliel out on the pavement. “She hasn’t woken since I appeared,” he says gravely.

Kyōka Suigetsu makes a sound of acknowledgement, but most of his attention is on the flicker of the kaidō spell as he calls it up. Not one of the Fourth’s, nothing meant for a Shinigami, but harsher, starker. Hollows are studier, their reiatsu more corrosive. Normal healing spells intended for Shinigami simply slide off their skin like water. The effort required is greater, but—

Nelliel was the Tres Espada, only beaten through treachery and Szayel Aporro’s inventions. She’s one of the few who can face down Ulquiorra and Nnoitra, possibly even Starrk. If Kyōka Suigetsu wants to get to Sōsuke, he’ll need an ally with that much power. More than one, preferably, but—between Kaien and Nelliel, that’s a decent enough start.

“Want me to get Kisuke?” Shihōin offers, and she’s at his elbow again, just close enough that Kyōka Suigetsu can't tell if it’s due to her lack of acknowledgement of personal space or because she thinks he’s a threat and wants to be close enough to kill him easily. Either way, he flashes her a look of annoyance, stepping to the side and crouching over Nelliel.

“Unless Urahara has had extensive experience healing full Hollows, he’ll be useless,” he says dismissively, and reaches out, laying his hand over the crack in Nelliel's mask.

A Hollow’s mask is a representation of their soul, a nexus of their power. With the deep crack running through Nelliel's, it’s easy to see why she hasn’t been able to hold any form but that of a child. A small body requires less reiatsu, takes less effort to hold. All of her power right now is centered on simply existing, made massively exhausting by her inability to gather and use reiatsu normally.

Kyōka Suigetsu has seen such things before. Sōsuke used to break the masks of his test subjects, catalog their reactions and exactly how slowly they died. The fact that Nelliel is still alive stands as proof of her power.

Closing his hand, Kyōka Suigetsu snuffs out the faint blue glow, sitting back on his heels as he considers. Nelliel's assistance isn't valuable enough to waste the Hōgokoyu’s power on her, and fixing her mask will require more strength than he currently has after spending so much of it in the last day. The thought of using the Hōgokoyu’s power to augment his own doesn’t even bear consideration; Kyōka Suigetsu will suffer and die before he willingly taps into its strength.

“I can repair her mask,” he says, flicking a glance up at Gamuza. “But it will require more reiatsu than I currently have. Tomorrow or the next day I’ll be able to manage it, likely.”

For a long moment, Gamuza stands frozen. Then, with a quiet sound, he dips, bowing deeply to Kyōka Suigetsu. “My thanks,” he says. “I regret I have nothing to offer you in return, stranger.”

“A favor for a later date,” Kyōka Suigetsu says, pleased even though he takes care to hide it. So simple, earning the loyalty of these people. He understands why Sōsuke didn’t, given his years to amass power in other ways, but since Kyōka Suigetsu needs many allies and only has a short time to gather them, this seems like an effective method. It’s certainly not harming his odds, at least.

A slim, dark hand slides into his range of vision, and Shihōin wiggles her fingers, prompting. A little surprised, Kyōka Suigetsu takes her hand, allowing her to pull him to his feet. She does so with ease, grinning at him with a flash of teeth, and says, “Collecting interesting characters now?”

Those eyes say she’s still wary, isn't entirely fooled. Kyōka Suigetsu meets them evenly, steadily; he has the experience of Sōsuke’s years of tricking people, and even beyond that, he’s a creature of masks all on his own. Shihōin won't see through him. Not unless he wants her to.

“Accidental,” he demurs. “Karakura has more interesting characters within its borders than anyone could want.”

That, at least, makes Shihōin laugh. “We keep life interesting,” she says cheekily, and finally lets go of him. Turns to Gamuza, and says, “You're one of Aizen’s soldiers?”

Gamuza hesitates, weighing his words even as he leans down to gather Nelliel in his arms again. “We were,” he says at length. “Lord Aizen took us as beasts and gave us back more human forms, but—we were betrayed and cast out.”

It’s a story Kyōka Suigetsu already knows in all its detail, so he steps away, looking to his inconvenient ally. Muramasa isn't paying any attention to Gamuza or his tale; he’s standing a short distance away, watching the flares of light within the barrier as Byakuya and Renji struggle against their bonds. There's an expression on his face that makes Kyōka Suigetsu pause, the resonance of it sharp and almost unpleasant; that look is hatred, deep-seated and unwavering, and aimed right at Byakuya.

“A personal grievance?” Kyōka Suigetsu asks, stepping up beside him.

Muramasa smiles thinly. “A family matter,” he says coolly. “If there is one clan I hate above all, it is the Kuchiki Clan. Fair and just and noble and cruel.”

A little surprised, Kyōka Suigetsu looks him over carefully, though there are no clan crests anywhere on his clothes. No resemblance to the Kuchiki, either, but that sounds like long experience, deeply rooted hatred with a personal bent.

There's a faint shift where Senbonzakura stands, pointedly ignoring the bickering halves of Zabimaru. Kyōka Suigetsu stares at the fall of dark hair, the stiff set of the samurai’s shoulders, and raises a brow, then slants a look at Muramasa. Muramasa seems entirely occupied by Byakuya’s presence, though, and if he notices there's no sign of it.

“Turning the man’s zanpakutō against him seems a decent start to your revenge,” he says noncommittally.

Muramasa hums, low and bitterly amused. “I would take from him what was taken from me,” he says, and turns to meet Kyōka Suigetsu’s gaze, his pale eyes burning. “What you lost as well, it seems.”

The sharp sting of remembered realization is like a whip-crack against Kyōka Suigetsu’s skin, and he knows, worked it out once already, but—maybe he hadn’t remembered as he should have. A zanpakutō. Muramasa is a zanpakutō like he is, like Senbonzakura. And his wielder—

“A Kuchiki?” he asks evenly, and Muramasa’s smile pulls into something harsh and unamused.

“By marriage only,” he says. “Once he had hoped, but—I was his downfall.”

A weapon meant to be used against Shinigami, with little effect against Hollows. Kyōka Suigetsu can imagine that Muramasa stoked fear in Soul Society, and particularly among the Kuchiki. He snorts quietly, folding his arms over his chest, and says, “Fools who fear power will be the ruin of the world.”

Raising a hand to his mouth to hide the dangerous curl to his lips, Muramasa chuckles. “Or the power they forgo will be their own downfall,” he says, and there's a light of unholy amusement in his eyes.

The words make Kyōka Suigetsu laugh, bitter and bracing, because he’s never heard truer. “No wonder you followed me,” he says dryly.

Muramasa smiles, though his eyes drift back to Byakuya. “I've never seen a manifested zanpakutō spirit besides those I give life,” he answers. “You are an enigma, Kyōka.”

Kyōka Suigetsu flicks a glance at him, then away. “Not as much of one as I had thought to be, if we truly are the same.”

“Hardly a detriment to either of us,” Muramasa says, and turns to face him, putting his back to Byakuya. His eyes are bright-sharp and almost mad, and Kyōka Suigetsu recognizes the expression in them all too well. “Two souls with the same drives, in a world full of fools. Fate brought us together, Kyōka.”

Kyōka Suigetsu glances from Muramasa to Byakuya, considering. I was his downfall, Muramasa said, and Kyōka Suigetsu wants it to be deliberate, wants to see an echo of his war against Sōsuke in Muramasa’s half-mad eyes. But Kyōka Suigetsu knows how to read souls, especially souls as desperate and driven as Muramasa, and it’s not hatred against his master that’s pushing him. Hatred against someone, yes, but—the Kuchiki, Kyōka Suigetsu thinks. He separates his wielder from them. A Kuchiki by marriage only, and that leaves Muramasa free of deeper ties.

“Fate?” he asks, and looks away. Thinks of Sōsuke with the Hōgokoyu in his grip, the blaze of that world-shifting power, and closes his eyes. The betrayal still burns. “I no longer believe in such a thing.”

There's a long moment of silence, then a short sound of amusement. “The wheel grinds on whether we believe in it or not,” Muramasa says, “with our existences as the grist.”

Kyōka Suigetsu has seen this time play out once before, knows that fate, and already it’s been shifted. There's no uniting the two versions of the Hōgokoyu now; if Sōsuke doesn’t want to spend a hundred years creating another, he’ll be forced to change his plans completely. That’s one fate undone, and Kyōka Suigetsu has never feared anything that he could mold in his hands like clay.

“If that’s true, I will tear the wheel from its mooring,” he says quietly, curling his fingers tight around the hilt of his sword. “And break the frame of it entirely.”

Muramasa’s gaze is a steady weight, cool but burning. “What difference,” he asks, languidly amused, “do you have from fate, then?”

Kyōka Suigetsu laughs, and it aches in his throat. “I am a crueler fate than anyone could have planned for,” he says, and meets Muramasa’s eyes. “We do not share a goal, Muramasa. It would be best for you to remember that. Whatever loyalty you have for your master, mine was ripped from my soul, and the wound still bleeds.”

Surprise flickers across Muramasa’s face, and he pauses. In the silence, Kyōka Suigetsu turns away, stalking back past Shihōin and Gamuza. “Bring the Espada when you’ve exhausted the cat’s curiosity,” he tells the centaur. “I will attend to her in the morning.”

A little startled, Gamuza instantly gathers Nelliel up in his arms, even as Shihōin abandons their conversation to flicker to Kyōka Suigetsu’s side. She’s suddenly gripping his arm without warning, and Kyōka Suigetsu can't stop a faint flinch

Like it’s any comfort at all, Shihōin pats his forearm, and her smile is sly. “Tired of talking with your friend?” she asks, glancing over her shoulder.

Kyōka Suigetsu refuses to check whether Muramasa is following or not. He likely will; nothing about him has been convenient so far. “Your definition of friend is very broad,” he says disdainfully.

It makes Shihōin snicker. “And I get the feeling yours is very narrow,” she retorts, and leans around his shoulder to peer at his face. “Oh, that’s a grumpy look. Did little Byakuya piss you off that much?”

Despite himself, Kyōka Suigetsu snorts. “His presence was accounted for,” he says dismissively. It’s even true, though he’d expected to have more time between stealing Sōsuke’s Hōgokoyu and having to address the problems that Rukia's presence raises. “Everything else was…less so.”

Shihōin chuckles, patting the back of his hand and then letting go, though she doesn’t move away. “Plans go like that sometimes,” she says, and her eyes are sharp. “Where exactly did you come from again?”

“Hueco Mundo, recently,” Kyōka Suigetsu tells her coolly, since it’s true enough. There's  familiar flicker of reiatsu in the air ahead of them, quietly deceptive but full of teeth, and he glances at it, then away. Shinji and Urahara are still together, and that means several of his plans will have to be held in flux, depending on what Shinji reveals. He’s always been a tight-lipped bastard, even with his allies, and Kyōka Suigetsu can't decide if he’ll tell Urahara the truth of Kyōka Suigetsu’s identity, should he realize it. Sōsuke was never entirely able to predict Shinji's movements, and it’s frustrating that Kyōka Suigetsu can’t, either.

Shihōin makes a sound of agreement, then sneaks a look behind them again. Her mouth curls, and for an instant she looks entirely like a wicked cat, noticing the birdcage has been left unlatched. “You have an entourage,” she says, almost gleefully. “Byakuya and his lieutenant are going to be very confused when they get out of that trap.”

Kyōka Suigetsu’s skull already aches with offset irritation, but he follows her gaze, then scowls. Muramasa is indeed behind them, walking several paces after Gamuza, with Zabimaru’s halves laughing and snickering at each other on his left. Senbonzakura is on his right, and Kyōka Suigetsu lets his eyes linger on the samurai for a long moment before he turns to the front again.

“He is a fool,” he says, and it feels bitter on his tongue. He was the same kind of fool, once. “His own power will betray him before long.”

There's a moment of thoughtful silence. “Senbonzakura?” Shihōin asks. “You think so?”

Kyōka Suigetsu inclines his head. “Muramasa’s power seems to drive zanpakutō spirit and wielder apart with the cracks already present in their bond. If Senbonzakura and Byakuya have any, I cannot see them. Whatever sets them at odds is superficial at best.”

Shihōin taps her fingers against her thigh, tipping her head in consideration, and then smirks. “Well,” she says cheerfully. “I might have a solution for that. All of you aren’t going to fit in the Kurosaki home, right?”

Kyōka Suigetsu pauses, eyeing her warily. “…Correct,” he says after a moment. “You have an alternate proposal, I assume.”

“Kisuke's shop has plenty of extra rooms,” she offers, and her gold eyes seem to glow in the light of the streetlamp above them. “And watchful souls.”

Weighing the offer carefully, Kyōka Suigetsu considers. He’d thought to shove Muramasa and the zanpakutō spirits into the clinic’s rooms, maybe leave them out on the lawn if they were particularly bothersome. But—he’s injured, still, and the day’s events are wearing at him. Too much power spent, not enough time to recuperate, and the Hōgokoyu still rests on his soul, an uncomfortable, infuriating weight he can't reveal to anyone else. Kyōka Suigetsu isn't used to physical exhaustion, but he assumes this is what it feels like.

Besides that, Urahara is more than paranoid enough to keep tabs on Muramasa and his manifested spirits for the night. He’d likely do so regardless of their location, but keeping them close means that three captain-level Shinigami will be on hand to deal with them should they make a move against anyone.

“A decent compromise,” he allows, and it makes Shihōin laugh.

“You're welcome,” she returns merrily, and when they reach the next intersection of streets, she turns left instead of heading towards the Kurosaki Clinic.

Kyōka Suigetsu doesn’t deign to grace that with a response. “Should Byakuya and Renji break free,” he starts.

Shihōin inclines her head. “I’ll keep an eye on them,” she promises, and that smile is truly wicked. “Byakuya can't sense me, even when he tries.”

He certainly acts haughty enough to distract from the fact that he’s one of the youngest captains Kyōka Suigetsu thinks in amusement. Shihōin has several centuries of experience on him, and it shows. “Very well.”

“You know,” Shihōin says, almost conversationally. “I'm going to be keeping an eye on you, too.”

“I would expect nothing less of a woman of your reputation,” Kyōka Suigetsu says flatly, and when Shihōin’s brow lifts, he snorts. “The former captain of the Onmitsukidō would not let a stranger loose in her town so easily.”

Shihōin snickers, and she takes his arm again. “Aren’t you a sweet one,” she croons, and leans up to pinch Kyōka Suigetsu’s cheek. He hisses at her, batting her away, and contemplates going for his sword, but—Shihōin also knows what Sōsuke’s zanpakutō looks like, and one person realizing his identity tonight is all Kyōka Suigetsu can allow.

He bears with the indignity, knowing that, and Shihōin laughs at his expression like she isn't the entirety of the cause of it.