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To Be By Your Side

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It was time for another part of the plan I hated, starting with watching Toshiro vanish. Really, he planned his whole thing just to test me. First leaving him to be captured, cuffed, dragged like a common thief in front of judgmental assholes and that ridiculously scary old fossil. Now, even worse, being worlds away while he faced god knows what. We'd just kicked the hornet's nest, and I was the only one running away.

No more time to worry, Soi-fon and Shunsui were far enough away to be unsure if it was just me or both of us, and they were close enough now to pick up on the staggering amount of power this was going to take. District 5, far too close to Seireitei. It wasn't something I could practice ahead of time; it simply had to be done so I would do it.

I concentrated the vast majority of my reiatsu on the task at hand. The resistance was a solid wall until I managed to start opening a path, then the energy shifted to destroy any progress, like attempting to dig into sand that kept pouring in to fill every space just emptied. More power, more, my head feeling like it was going to split, the captains getting too close. Zangetsu growled and unleashed yet more, finally tearing the air.

Gritting my teeth with the effort to hold the garganta, I stepped through and fought to remain several seconds to be certain this was witnessed, leading to the conclusion, if only briefly, that we had gone exactly where they would expect. I lingered in the relative peace and quiet as I gradually let my reiatsu settle. It was a good thing my only task for the next hour or so would be to sit around doing nothing. Between 5 seconds face to face with that monster and his fire, and 5 seconds of holding a garganta so close to Seireitei, I actually needed recovery time. Suddenly, I felt quite mortal again.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


At the moment, I envied the way Ichigo's reiatsu became completely undetectable to the rest of us. After making myself vulnerable by playing along with the reiatsu suppression handcuffs, I had to force myself to bury my power again. I was not invisible, I had to use power to move and to do what I needed to do. But I kept my reiatsu as low as possible and relied on speed to make up for still being detectable. With any luck, Kyoraku and Soi-fon at least would be delayed, either trying to follow 'us' to Hueco Mundo or giving up the pursuit for now.

Stop one was fast. I had already set up the kido that would accomplish my goal at the Central Library. All that was needed was a flick of my reiatsu to set the spells off. That left plenty of time to grab Hyorinmaru, concealed with basic kido and left by Ichigo hidden on a roof near the library. No one had any reason to look, and there was no reason to suspect we would have anything to do with this public archive.

The next destination was very different, and I paused within the comfort of chaos to prepare. The power here was my ally, and made the stripping of the barriers surrounding the Hogyoku mere child's play. I contemplated the gem, recalling what I had learned from Urahara. I was not to be this thing's master. I could feel both hostility and a kind of seduction from it, as if tempting me to use its power and trying to swallow my own simultaneously. But I was strong enough to handle whatever it threw at me, and I could use it for several things. Between the amount of power it contained, and the nature of that power to make desires reality, it would make an impossible task quite easy. Once the kido I had designed was set within the Hogyoku, I made the next stop.

There were guards. Not just the normal guards, of course. Komamura and his lieutenant Iba. Zaraki, with Yachiru in tow and the two that trailed him like puppies, my former team members Madarame and Ayesegawa. Typical of Central 46, their pride and secrecy kept these guards outside of the compound, where they were no threat at all to me. However, they would be justified in entering if the facility was breached, which it was about to be. And what I had planned should keep them busy.

It was logical to expect me to go after the council members themselves. Within the compound, layers of protection and swarms of special guards and onmitsukido directly under the council's command would slow down any invader. It was all useless, but none of the guards knew that I could do what I was about to do. Barriers no longer stopped me, at least not the kind used in Soul Society. Had I been using shunpo, I would still have to move myself and my reiatsu through a barrier, or be stopped by it. Now, I could simply step out of this world and step back in on the other side of any barrier. No reiatsu used, nothing for the barrier to stop.

I could have just stepped in and set off every alarm by raising my reiatsu. But a lesson needed to be taught; a promise and a threat needed to be delivered. The council would be in session, and closely monitoring the events they had set into motion. Right about now they would be receiving reports that Ichigo and I had escaped. Perhaps they were already looking over their shoulders, panic starting to set in.

There had been shouting, and it took a few heartbeats for dead silence to surround me as I stood, sword in hand, in the center of the chamber. I had been there before. They had shouted at me before, shouted for my blood and the blood of my friend. I bared my teeth as I recalled that every single one of those men and women were dead, slaughtered by Aizen. These were new villains shouting for my blood and the blood of my beloved.

I raised Hyorinmaru. Guards lunged for me as old bastards started to flee. I brought the tip of my sword down. Ice exploded around me. There would be some fatalities, a few of the guards had been too close to retreat, a councilman trampled under the feet of his colleagues. The rest bolted as killing frost followed by eruptions of ice spread up, out, destroying and encasing all in its path. It would not stop any time soon. Within the hour, every level of the Council Chambers would be engulfed, annihilated, a massive glacier all that remained.

While alarms sounded and died, I moved on. The Great Spirit Library. I had seen it only once, very briefly, and lusted after it ever since. Had I been able to access this vast repository of knowledge, what might I have learned about the Heavenly Guardian, about Hyorinmaru before Ryu, long before Toshiro? Was the story here, the truth of the Soul King and the atrocities he had committed? Was Raiden still part of history, or had he been erased? And the chain of lives as my soul slowly and painfully healed over millennia, was there a record here of the wielders of Hyorinmaru and how they each met their end?

These and other, more practical questions I posed, pouring my intent into the Hogyoku as the kido I had created specifically for this moment spread tendrils of power into the infinite net of information. With my reiatsu, the power of the Hogyoku, and the power I easily siphoned by keeping a door open to chaos, the kido spread and multiplied, a virus taking over and using any useless data to replicate itself exponentially to seek out the answers I had asked for. Soon I would own the truth, or as much of it as existed. Not only that, Seireitei would own the truth.

Waiting, I stood on a wide platform over an abyss, miles deep walls of circuitry hosting my kido. The more time I could give it, the more I would retrieve. Then I would pull out all of the information I sought, leaving a subtle shadow of the kido to keep working until I could retrieve more results or it was discovered and destroyed. I allowed myself to feel pride in what I had done. It was elegant, effective, and mine.

Perhaps 20 minutes of solitude I had, protected from detection by the security layered around this place, Seireitei distracted by the destruction. I turned with a low growl, glad the door to chaos was open, very glad I had not sheathed Hyorinmaru. But he approached slowly, calmly, sword sheathed and reiatsu low.

"They say all human knowledge from the living and the dead, the mortal and the immortal can be found here. I have often found myself staring down, wondering how such a simple, despicable thing as a human could ever produce any knowledge at all, let alone enough to require such a repository."

"A rather cynical view, but I cannot find reason to disagree."

"What is it you seek from human knowledge? I should think there is nothing here for your kind."

Fan-fucking-tastic. Just how much did the snake know?

"Are you trying to antagonize me, Ichimaru?"

"Not in the least. Mild curiosity, it is a way to pass the time. You are wondering how much I might know about you. Not enough, I confess. Do not forget, I was a spy for Central 46."

I returned his grin with a baring of my teeth. It was not a surprise that he was the one that found me here. As I had noted before, we were quite similar in many respects, which only made me despise the sight of him even more.

"Forgive me for not satisfying your curiosity, but I find this conversation highly distasteful."

"You would prefer I had come to kill you?"

"I would prefer you were not here at all. But I admit I am curious, as well. Are you not going to attempt to arrest me?"

"Why would I do such a thing? I do not flatter myself that you did so for my benefit, yet you and your lover-boy have done nothing but assist me."

My chuckle was rather dark, expressing more disdain than humor.

"And it would assist you to bring me down. You might even have a few years shaved off your punishment."

He stepped closer and I was wary. Pale blue eyes showed as he looked up and then down, wide grin falling into something almost like a smile.

"I think you misunderstand my intentions. Normally, that would thrill me. That bit of kido, by the way, is quite beautiful. Not sure I care for that other trick of yours."

His eyes, back to unreadable slits, turned toward the barely visible crack in reality that I maintained a step away. I spared a sliver of attention, verifying that the Hogyoku had gathered volumes of information already, more trickling in. I sighed in exasperation.

"Enough. I've fallen even further than you, if you had not heard, and one of the many perks is that I no longer have to play these games. If you have a point, get to it."

"My, my. This is why I could never help myself. It is so much fun to push you around."

Just before I snapped, he held out his hand, a slender rectangle of plastic and metal between two manicured fingertips.

"Just ask your boyfriend how to use this."

I didn't bother telling him that I knew perfectly well how to use a computer and an SD card. Likely it was just another taunt, which for some reason I always fell for when it was coming from him. When I did not reach for the device, his smirk widened, and eventually he placed the little chip delicately on the nearby railing. I stared, annoyed but not willing to continue the conversation and open myself up for further ridicule from the likes of Ichimaru Gin.

"Okay, then, guess we're done. Good luck, Shiro-chan!"

Not hiding a snarl as he turned away, I snatched the SD card and cut off the kido. Any obscure bits of information still to be gathered would just have to wait for another time. I would not leave the spell active as planned, not when that damned snake was well aware of its existence. The other end of the kido would disappear after finishing its work, transcribing classified secrets into unassuming books in the Central Library.

"Ichimaru." He paused, half turning his head. "I am no longer bound to the rules of the Gotei. Hurt her again, and there is nothing to stop me from tearing out your heart."

Just once, he let me have the last word.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


It really was quite beautiful, once I let myself forget. It was unlike any desert of the living world, dunes of tarnished silver instead of tones of gold stretching smoothly to infinity under textured black. The desolation was peaceful, not even a breeze to disturb the fine sands, all was static and still as if I lounged within a painting of the empty landscape, alone in the comfort of sensory deprivation.

There was life out there, in the broadest sense of the word. Only the vastness granted the illusion of emptiness, and I would gladly have fallen into that semblance of solitude. I was not alone.

"Sneaking up on me was never a wise move."

"Can't blame a guy for trying."

"Yes, in fact I can. What do you want?"

I turned my head to look at him, keeping still and relaxed. I had mostly recovered from the power drain, but I was not looking to spend more time or power here. Of all the Espada, Starrk was the one I'd least want to fight, and also the least likely to attack me unprovoked. So, I stayed relaxed, arms wrapped around one drawn up knee, other leg stretched down the dune, as the tall, quiet man settled in a mirroring position a few feet to my right.

"What makes you think I want anything from you?"

"Thousands of miles of nothing in every direction."

"Which makes you stand out like a beacon in the night, Cero."

"Do not call me that," I hissed between clenched teeth.

From the corner of my eye I watched his face turn toward me, his expression . . . stoic? No, too disinterested even for that word. Starrk was in a class of his own, unreadable not because of some mask or persona, but because there seemed to genuinely be nothing at all behind his eyes. That could not be the case, but it was the only truth to me. I avoided his gaze, always, because looking into his eyes was looking out at the limitless void of this bleak desert.

"You were never ashamed of the title before."

"I was always ashamed of it. Are we going to discuss our feelings now, Primera?"

"Hmm. You're right. That is unpleasant."

"Where's Lilynette?"

"Off playing with a new friend. Where's Grimmjow?"

"The fuck is that supposed to mean?"

Turning to glare at him, I realized something had changed. He was still less expressive than Toshiro two hours into a captain's meeting, but there was just a hint of humor, a faint glint of enjoyment in teasing me of all people. It occurred to me then, who else could the man possibly tease? Tempting. Toshiro would be kicking me by now, yelling something about valuable allies.

"Ran into him not long ago, didn't you? He mentioned it when he sought me out, wanted to warn me about Las Noches."

"Hueco Mundo's one-man neighborhood watch."

"What?"

I chuckled. "Nothing. Any thoughts on the whole 'haunted castle' thing?"

"I had forgotten how frustrating it can be, conversing with you. Assuming that means what I think it means, then no, not really. I have not looked into it and have no interest."

"Same."

We sat in silence, contemplating the stillness of the wastelands.

"Well, this has been fun. I have someplace to be. Give my regards to your better half."

He said nothing, just watched me stand and move away with those inscrutable eyes. I hadn't expected ever to meet Starrk again, or any of them. But then, I had never wanted to return to Hueco Mundo. And I honestly had no idea what to make of him.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


Whew! All this mayhem and I barely had anything to do with it.

Back in Bankai, I wasn't terribly worried about being spotted. Seireitei was in an uproar. Ah, fond memories of running around in a panic with hundreds of Shinigami chasing me while I stumbled through with barely any plan, just a big sword and a whole lot of nerve. In the distance, I could see a concentration of scrambling figures, tiny as ants next to towering daggers of ice stabbing the sky at every angle.

Show off.

I could feel Toshiro everywhere, decoys, pulses of reiatsu to throw off the majority of pursuers who were not able to tell they were being deceived. There was no need to waste power trying to find him, I only needed to linger a bit at a series of meeting points until he was ready and we would find each other. So, I leaned back in the shadow of the high window and enjoyed the show.

The second rendezvous point I had to skip, most of an 8th Division squad just happened to be swarming around the area aimlessly. At the fourth point, he was waiting. Time was, I could have sneaked up on him, wound my arm around his waist and a hand over his eyes before he knew it. Thanks to his reiatsu infused in my neck, I could feel his presence even in Hueco Mundo. And thanks to my own power just there, between the sinister but seductive loops of white that beckoned kisses to his golden neck, he was the only man in Seireitei that I could not surprise.

He turned as I reached, looking me over once before stepping forward, his chin tucking over my shoulder with a sigh. Leaving him to face all Seireitei once had been hard to take, leading me to take risks with our time-sensitive plans until he had to punch me to free himself. Leaving him a second time, not just miles but worlds away, with all his former allies thirsting for his downfall, I might never let go of him again.

Giving in to temptation and the need to reassure myself, I tilted my head to kiss his neck and felt him chuckle.

"Inappropriate places, high risk of being caught, I'm starting to think you have thrill issues, beloved."

"Says the man who isn't pushing me back."

He cut off the sound, but not before I heard the start of a sweet groan as my lips trailed forward and up to his jaw. To my disappointment, he did push back, hands coming between us. My hands trailed from his back to his hips, reluctantly letting go as he backed up. Yet there was a luscious blush lighting his cheeks and such lecherous thoughts in his lovely eyes. I licked my lips, swiping up every lingering bit of the heat and the flavor of his skin.

"Good lord, do not do that."

I grinned. There was that bold, honest way he admitted weakness. I knew very well the effect I had on him in Bankai. I could push him just a bit and he would crumble, let me fuck him senseless on the floor of this dusty, nameless storage room while enemies surrounded us. That quick fantasy would have to do for now, and I drew a steadying breath as I took a step back.

"You're going to make it up to me later." A raised brow and a twitch of lips. "So. Where do things stand?"

"It could have gone better, but I got what I need. You?"

"Ukitake got one lucky shot in, but your kido worked perfectly. Byakuya was there, too. He looked me in the eye and let me knock him out."

He shook his head slowly, but didn't comment. He held out his hands. In one hand he held the Hogyoku; in the other, two smaller, smoother versions of the odd gem. Those would hold copies of the information he had gathered, I knew. Calling it proof of innocence would be a stretch. Considering the way Soul Society dealt with anything it couldn't firmly control, one might even call it proof of guilt. That didn't matter; Toshiro just wanted the record to be set straight and known rather than hidden.

He handed me most dangerous of the three, my fingers and palm tingling as they closed around it. Odd sensations distracted me, similar to when I reached into chaos and felt it reach back, only this was familiar, seductive, reaching slowly for my power in little surges like heartbeats. Yes, the damned thing was mine whether I wanted it or not. Carefully, not knowing if the thing could be offended, I pushed the feeling back and mentally asked it to remain quiet. Disturbing that it complied.

"Everything okay, beloved?"

I raised a brow, regarding the Hogyoku, then Toshiro. He was watching intently. In tune with the gem recently, he likely felt its response to me, and was waiting to see if I would give in to temptation. And if I did, if I decided to accept the power freely offered, I knew that he would not stand in my way.

"I'm rather glad we're not hanging on to this."

A flash of relief in his eyes.

"Then deliver it to Urahara. I'll give this to Kyoraku, and I'll see you soon."

"I thought it was going to Ukitake?"

"So did I. Today I was reminded that your instincts are often more trustworthy than my logic. It has to be Kyoraku."

"Alright. I think it's a wise move."

It took me a second to realize what he was doing as he slowly removed his haori, folding it neatly and setting it on an old storage chest that he took the time to wipe off with a sleeve. If anyone questioned his dedication, they would only need to see the trembling of his fingers as he ran his hand once over the insignia before turning his back. My heart ached for him, and suddenly I had no desire at all to stay in the Gotei fucking 13. In fact, I thought Zangetsu's proposal of continuing the destruction of Seireitei sounded quite appealing.

"Calm down, beloved. We're almost finished."

He flashed a smile before he vanished, but his eyes were as cold as I'd ever seen. My own haori I stripped and left lying on the filthy floor.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


I made a series of stops in both Soul Society and the living world. No one was following, but I would not put it past Kurotsuchi to find a way to target my reiatsu, off the charts or not. It was not over, just becoming increasingly unlikely that they would ever catch up with us. We had given them great motivation for continuing the pursuit; stealing the Hogyoku right out from under the old man's nose was the highlight of this whole mess, and I smirked as I imagined the rage he must feel.

There could be few places as remote as the small, crumbling temple buried in the jungle of Thailand. It was a forgotten place, not even the tourists had found it yet, but Urahara had. He was already waiting, but I took my time walking up the degraded steps and into the ruins, much more appealing now than they had likely been when painted and gilded for the gods or spirits or whatever humans chose to worship here.

"Ah, Kurosaki-san, alive and well I'm glad to see."

"Nice spot. Everything prepared?"

"Straight to business, then. I suppose I'll have to hear about the excitement second hand. Yes, everything is done to Hitsugaya's exact specifications. And you know how to contact me if you need anything, you'll have quite a lot of credit if the payment is as it should be."

Ignoring the crassness of the whole situation, what with me being a thief to earn payment from the shady shopkeeper, I slipped the Hogyoku out of my pocket and handed it to him. As its creator, he knew it well enough to identify it as authentic, I was guessing. Urahara's gleeful expression was not a comfort, but honestly, I'd rather have the thing in his hands than the old man's or mine. It had not been terribly difficult to steal. If we needed it again, I wasn't sure theft would even be necessary. More likely, Urahara would simply lend it to me just to see what happened.

"Toshiro left quite a lot of data within that thing. You may find some of it useful, or at least amusing."

"How kind of you. Is there anything else I can do for you, Kurosaki-san?"

"Only what we agreed on, particularly in protection for my family."

"You have my word."

I did not thank him, or bid him farewell. The price had been more than paid for all we had asked for. Just as I had arrived, I departed with several random steps in sonido, not out of distrust of Urahara, but just in case he had been followed. He knew my next destination, anyway.

A number of homes had been acquired and prepared by Toshiro over the past two decades, a serious violation of Soul Society law that proved he had never been the straight-laced loyalist many had assumed he was, including myself at one point. The first were just due to his over-cautious, perhaps paranoid nature. Then he began to suspect the truth, and redoubled his efforts to have secure locations for a retreat. And finally I joined him, and he learned the entire story, learned his paranoia was justified, received confirmation that his preparations would be needed sooner rather than later.

To hide two such as we, not just any location would serve. It had to be remote enough to not have several Shinigami assigned close by, no concentration of humans to draw Hollows. But there had to be a decent level of spiritual energy in the area, or else we would be forced to completely suppress our power to remain undetected. Without humans, that meant finding special places where the energy of the natural world was particularly strong. Life thrived in these places, but they were hostile enough to discourage heavy human habitation.

Even to Urahara we did not reveal these locations. Instead, we had asked him to arrange smaller versions of his training cavern, well protected and very well hidden spaces scattered around the globe. It was to one of these I sped, where some final supplies and two gigai waited, specially designed to help conceal reiatsu. I hated the idea of living in one of those creepy contraptions. But it would be best, at least until the furor died down and Toshiro was reasonably convinced we were safe.


oooooooOOOOOooooooo


It had been rather entertaining, watching the twists and turns, adjusting plans in response to their choices. After all, I had been building strategies for years, more intensely for the past few weeks. Seeing it all play out along one of many possible paths I had already predicted was gratifying, as if my ego needed any further stroking. There were a few surprises along the way, but nothing that threw off the endgame. Now, as the thrill of the challenge began to fade, the expected sorrow set in. It couldn't be helped, the weakness of letting myself get attached to this life.

Kyoraku had split from Soi-fon, but was now with the concentration of Shinigami surrounding Central 46, pointlessly. Waiting wasn't really an option, and a decoy would bring too many. I grinned as I summoned a Hell butterfly, completely insecure but my little insect would quickly be lost in the swarm of messengers flitting around that crowd. By the time anyone in the 12th monitored the message, it would be too late, even if they understood the contents.

In the forest under Sokyoku Hill I waited, close enough to Urahara's secure cave to have an option for a quick retreat if somehow I could not make an easy escape. He did not make me wait long and arrived with some courtesy, both swords drawn but alone and at a reasonable distance. He did not let down his guard at seeing me unarmed. After all, I had not even had a sword during our last encounter but that had not stopped me from fighting.

"Glad to see you were not too badly injured, Hitsugaya-san. Would you care to surrender?"

"And I am glad to see that your sense of humor is intact. May I ask, how is Ukitake?"

"He is rather annoyed with you and Ichigo. I'd go so far as to say he's pissed off. But unharmed."

"That's a relief. It was one of the riskiest parts of the plan, with many variables including who exactly you would send after Ichigo. I never wished to see Ukitake harmed, and I would have regretted it had it not gone so smoothly."

"You imply that you knew what would happen. I wouldn't put it past you, but permit me to doubt your omniscience."

I shrugged, what he chose to believe was not my foremost concern. He had come forward several steps while talking, and I had done nothing. But I couldn't stay long. His eyes narrowed and his stance shifted as I reached into a pocket and revealed one of the glowing marbles of energy. Calmly, but with eyes never leaving him, I set it on the ground in front of my feet and backed away.

"You obviously know part of the story. This contains all the information I have been able to gather."

"And you expect me to review this information and then what? Join your two-man rebellion? Or just stop chasing you out of sympathy for whatever sad tale you've concocted?"

"I could not care less what you think or do. My conscience will rest knowing I have made an effort to make the truth known."

He walked slowly forward, not sheathing a sword or taking his eyes off me as he knelt and scooped up the gem. He straightened, tensed as I took a step back, reiatsu flaring and I could feel the kido he had already prepared coming to life, a solid, highly powerful net.

"The charge is now treason, not only intent, of course. The murder of a member of Central 46 is nearly as serious. Your best option now is to surrender, let us review this information without causing further damage to your honor."

"Even you do not believe that. Especially you."

Beyond Kyoraku's attempt at a trap, there was a surge of reiatsu as strong as my beloved's. A bonfire, bright as the sunrise and twice as fierce.

Run. Run! Flee before it is too late.

Rend limb from limb. Tear, bite, shatter!

The plan, we must run!

Destroy the tyrant's weapon. Fight!

"And you dare speak to me of honor?" I hissed at Kyoraku as I drew my sword.

Kyoraku had half turned to face the oncoming firestorm.

"Hitsugaya, I swear to you I did not . . .."

We were both driven a step back as impossibly, the pressure increased and we both raised our power to counter.

"Retreat. One final word of advice, though on this I have no evidence. Be cautious. The old man may not be in full control of his own actions."

"What . . ."

'Do you mean' I assumed was the rest of that sentence. Let him wonder; I was already on the move.

There were many ways to use my own alternative method of travel to my advantage. Being able to step around Kyoraku's net of kido was a start, an undetectable approach was another, and a delay was a third. Shunpo and Sonido could be fast or faster depending on skill and use of reiatsu. But neither allowed one to simply vanish from Soul Society for seconds or longer between one step and the next. I paused within the narrow and infinitely wide stream of chaos, moving into Bankai and pulling every bit of energy I could into myself.

Cold logic had been overruled, perhaps willingly, by colder rage. I knew even as I steeled myself to attack that I was taking a risk I had already weighed and deemed unwise. But if I was right about him, Yamamoto would never stop coming after us. He would never allow us to live in relatively peaceful exile like the Visored and Urahara. No, he would keep coming, keep pursuing until his dying breath, because as he had said, what he wanted had nothing to do with it.

Rushing back into the confrontation was like jumping willingly into the fires of Hell. The moment of surprise gained me one solid cut to his left side, across chest and arm. It was an attempt at the heart, failing as he evaded and that horridly familiar blade of flames forced my retreat. I had seen the raw pink of a partly healed wound, dealt by my beloved, likely all the way through his gut judging by the size of the wound in the front.

He did not offer to accept my surrender, just came slowly and inexorably forward, flames gathering and concentrating. Hyorinmaru's ice would not be useful in attack, the inferno surrounding the old man instantly vaporizing any moisture, negating any ice attacks before they even began. Instead, scales of ice coated every inch of my skin, a constantly renewing and continuously destroyed layer of protection.

I was right. This was only his Shikai, he had not even attacked beyond one seemingly casual swing of his sword. I could not defeat him. Hyorinmaru disagreed, and the roaring in my head rivaled the crackling thunder of the wildfire. I had only an instant to curse at the dragon before both of us were concentrating all our attention and power on defense.

The explosion of reiatsu as our blades clashed bent the earth under our feet, a crater surrounded by flattened trees, half frozen and shattered, half scorched to ash. Aggressive instinct had me growling and pushing, though it took nearly everything just to hold with that tower of fire trying to envelope Hyorinmaru so that it could reach for me, devour me again. It was the contrasting instinct for self-preservation that caused the rift to open one step to my right, the blessed escape route.

Flames swirled, a sudden vortex brushing far too close, my own power rushing to combat the searing heat against my right arm, the right side of my face. With a grunt the old man brought his second hand to the hilt and I had no choice but to retreat, one flash step giving me space to breath. The escape route closed, but not before I realized what had happened. The fires drawn across my side had been sucked through the doorway, vanishing like water down a drain. An avalanche of self-satisfied laughter rang through my head, and a surge of confidence rang through my body.

Yamamoto had paused, to analyze what he had just seen, no doubt. He was still insanely strong, even if I could mitigate the force of the fire. Possibilities raced through my mind, open paths into chaos all around him, try to drain him as the constant need to repair my defenses was draining me? What would happen if I dragged him through an open door; would the fight simply continue, or would he lose at least the ability to use the techniques most dangerous to me?

I continued backing up as he moved forward, the pressure between us unlike anything I had experienced, suffocating, exhilarating. The bastard could hide his emotions, but reiatsu was honest and his intentions told me more truth than he would ever want to reveal. He did not wish to do this. The fact that he had not unleashed all of his power on me immediately was his choice, a resistance. I paid attention as suspicions became reality.

"When did it happen, you poor, pathetic creature? When did you sell your soul?"

For such an old, bulky man he moved with fearsome speed. Another eruption of power as I deflected a blow, dodging low, my counter-attack easily deflected. Around us, six rifts opened, drawing away the deadly flames. Quickly, I retreated again, needing a moment to think, to adjust to the changing dynamics of this fight. He pursued, another shock-wave of reiatsu as blades met between us.

"What was worth this price, sotaicho?" I growled in his face. "A share in stolen power? Or simply this position, an honored slave?"

Expected retorts did not come, only attacks. Faster. He had millennia of experience, but so did I. Close to him and his zanpakuto, the blaze still burned, flaring with every clash. Faster. The battle a flurry of movement, an effort to predict and defy prediction. I had heard stories of what he could accomplish with his bare hands, and when his grip shifted I made evading his fist the priority. Faster. Only one long scratch on his leg had been added to the first blow I had landed. Several hits had been negated by the ice protecting my skin.

And then, searing agony. It is not easy to avoid overreacting when injured, the impulses to lash out or to retreat can leave you more vulnerable than the injury itself. Letting myself feel the fiery sword bite into my side as I pivoted, a small part of my mind wondered if the wound was cauterized by the very sword that pierced through the lowest rib on the right, ripping its way out of my side, ice rushing to fill the unnatural gap and halt life-threatening blood loss.

Continuing to move toward instead of away was an act of will and fury. Watching Hyorinmaru's tip enter the old man's chest was satisfaction enough to compensate for the pain. It would not be a fatal blow, not with the gathering of captains nearby, just outside of the blast zone of our reiatsu. But I stepped into him anyway, twisting and pushing with everything I had to force the blade through as much flesh as possible, tearing from entry beside sternum to his left, just below the lighter wound created at the start of our battle, unfortunately not hitting the heart.

I heard him grunt. I hissed as we collided briefly, contact burning through ice, clothing and skin along my left arm, side and hip. The conflagration faltered as the old man stumbled, left arm clutching the wound as my momentum pulled Hyorinmaru clear. It was a colossal mistake, my blade passing through his arm above the elbow. The thrill, the hope for a second, more decisive blow to his neck was short lived.

Oppressive reiatsu concentrated, far too close, as he met the follow-up stroke that should have ended him. I could feel it, the intent building, and I suddenly recalled that this was only Shikai. In a heartbeat, it would be Bankai. I was badly injured, reiatsu at about a quarter of what it was at the start of this, and that only thanks to drawing on the wild energy through the open rifts. It had taken everything just to get one unsuccessful hit. If he called Bankai now, with me so close, I would be incinerated.

Failure. Growling in frustration, I took one step back, retreating where he and his power could not follow, shutting the door on the imminent threat. The sudden lack of pressure and heat was a relief so great I nearly collapsed. As I sagged, the pain brought me back to reality. It had been a mistake, an error caused by pride that could have cost me my life.

I was a Shinigami, a captain of the Gotei 13. The end of one spiritual life had never been a concern, rarely entering my thoughts. What would happen beyond this life? Would I be reborn thanks to the eternal curse I had inflicted upon myself, or would the completion of my memories make this the finale? And if reborn, would Ichigo accept my soul again, though Toshiro was no more? Would I remember my beloved this time, or lose him again?

Wincing as I straightened, I pushed the questions out of my mind. Through some skill and a lot of luck, I did not need to answer them today. My life was still my own. My Ichigo was still my own. Releasing Bankai, bringing my reiatsu down, internalizing it to aid with healing, I focused on where I needed to be, who I need to be with.