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Lone Flower

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This story is No. 1 in the series "Lone Flower". You may wish to read the series introduction first.

Summary: Research in the Archives can be painful, when it lands you in Sunnydale

Categories Author Rating Chapters Words Recs Reviews Hits Published Updated Complete
Multiple Crossings > General > Theme: Halloween
Anime > Bleach
Literature > Horror
VatharaFR15117,714311610,46316 Jul 0816 Jul 08Yes
Lone FlowerA/N: Based off Twisting the Hellmouth's challenge # 1112. I own nothing in BtVS, Bleach, or any of the other mentioned universes. Darn….



"Achoo!"

Breathing shallowly, Juushirou Ukitake waited for the urge to cough to fade. So much for security in the Great Archive, the captain of the Thirteenth Division thought ruefully, pushing long white hair back out of his face. We can keep out the custodial staff, but not traitors like Aizen.

Aizen. Juushirou frowned, uncharacteristically grim. The former captain of the Fifth had played them all for fools. If he truly meant to surpass all limits of the shinigami, and ascend to the very throne of God….

Calm, he reminded himself. One battle is not a war.

After all, they might not have won this last round - but they hadn't lost nearly as much as they could have. Aizen had tried to kill Toushirou, Hinamori, Komamura, Ichigo, and Rukia directly… and countless others indirectly, given he'd set up Juushirou, Shunsui, and Yamamoto-Genryuusai to try and destroy each other.

As if we would, Juushirou thought wryly, recalling those frantic minutes of flame and fury. He and Shunsui had been pressed to shikai, yes, but not bankai. Fortunately for all of Seireitei. And while the others were injured, they were healing.

Thanks to Unohana, and Orihime. Aizen never had thought the power to heal was anywhere near as vital as the power to destroy. Unfortunately.

At least knowing that narrows the field of what he might have been looking for in here. Juushirou sighed, and deliberately bent his mind away from thoughts of lightning-struck vengeance to the task at hand. A lifetime of illness had taught him patience. Even if he sometimes chafed at it.

If throwing furious reiatsu at the problem will solve it, we can call on Ichigo, Juushirou told himself firmly. But he doesn't have permission to be in the Archive, and I do, so this task is mine.

He refused to succumb to depression at how large the task actually was. The Great Archive had been gathering for more years than even he could remember - and they had to check every document and item for signs of Aizen's trail. No matter how innocuous, or obscure.

Or dusty, the Thirteenth's captain thought ruefully, stifling another sneeze. He thought he'd avoided all exposure to Aizen's illusion-casting shikai. And he thought he and Sougyo no Kotowari had found a way to shield their minds if the illusion should try to snare them. But better safe than sorry.

We will seize him. We will bind him. We will destroy him. His zanpakutou's double-voice was low as a thunder-flash in night shadows, angry as seas in a typhoon's grip.

We will, Juushirou agreed. One step at a time.

So. Next book. Thick with enough centuries' worth of dust that it might not have been moved since Shunsui was last chasing young ladies at the Academy. Title, where was the-

Observations on the Migration of Slayer-Souls.

Wonderful. Another dry treatise on some obscure aspect of- Wait a moment. Those weren't the kanji for zanpakutou, even two thousand years ago.

Shall we? Sougyo no Kotowari prompted, anger calming into curiosity, like moonlight on water. Aizen is obsessed with manipulating souls….

Indeed he was. Juushirou wiped off covers and pages, before carefully opening the old text. A quick skim first… hmm, something about young mortals, and a youkai spirit broken into shards, and-

"…Like calls to like, and so it seems obvious the shards should seek each other after mortal death. If so, this may be a violation of the Balance, as the Slayer's dependence on youkai powers means shard and enspelled spirits are deeply entwined. So entangled, the human soul could be drawn with it to the youkai's prison, only to be driven forth once more as the curse commands…."

The shinigami froze. And reread the last few paragraphs. If this were true… if a group of mortal souls were being born and reborn on Earth by way of an ancient curse, without ever passing through a cleansing existence in Soul Society….

Darkness. Confusion. A whirling, as if all the force of Shunsui's bankai had struck at once, compressing him into a space already too crowded-

A wash of bitter, nettle-prickling reiatsu over his skin, as if the very spirit of the world were bleeding, trying to cling before he raised his own reiatsu enough to force it off-

Distant heat, like a soul of hungry fire, brushing against his own pulse of power before it flinched, and vanished-

Juushirou blinked, and breathed, and balanced incredulously on wooden geta on a concrete sidewalk, as mini-youkai chased screaming children and adults through a too-warm suburban night. "What in the worlds?"

That wasn't his voice.It was, in fact, a distinctly feminine voice. As were the delicate, manicured hands he glanced down at, and the… obvious curves under a dark blue and white-embroidered silk festival kimono.

Faced with an utterly implausible, embarrassing, and aggravating situation, the Thirteenth's captain settled on the most likely responsible - in the loosest definition of the term - candidate.

"Some way, somehow, this has to be Kisuke's fault."



Somewhere in Karakura, an ex-shinigami captain turned shopkeeper sneezed.



If there was one thing two thousand years as the Thirteenth Division's captain had taught Juushirou, it was this: there are some times, situations, and places in which, no matter how tempting, you simply must not panic.

This was looking like one of those times.

Woman's physical body, check, Juushirou thought, determined to stay calm. Little youkai of kinds I've never seen wreaking havoc, check. Unnatural coppery reiatsu loose without any visible source, check. And something with the kind of fiery reiatsu I haven't felt since the last time Yamamoto-Genryuusai found a desolate plain to get bored in. A weapon would be very useful right now….

A quick pat-down of the body he'd been squeezed into revealed nothing, except a bag of candy, a taste for Rangiku-style mortal undergarments, some odd-looking paper money and coins stashed in the inrou tied to his obi, and… in one sleeve, a wooden stake?

An oddly familiar sleeve, even large as it was on this body's arms. It couldn't be.

Night-blue background. An embroidered five-tailed kitsune chasing its ball through fallen leaves in a forest of bare trees, under an icy full moon. A little more faded, a little more worn - but it was definitely the woman's kimono he'd worn… gods, it had to be at least two centuries ago now, playing yuki-onna to Shunsui's stalwart samurai.

At the Kyoto winter festival he dragged me down to, Juushirou thought, half-smiling at fond memories. Strange. But it didn't solve his problem. Concentrating, he reached for Sougyo no Kotowari. I doubt Ichigo knows this trick yet….

He'd probably learn it eventually, given the exiled Kisuke Urahara had to use it on a regular basis, stuck in the mortal world in an all-too-solid body. Though for once, Kisuke hadn't invented this technique. Shinigami had been using it ever since Toyotomi's cursed sword-hunt; you couldn't always count on there being a sword available when a gigai needed one to pass in Tokugawa society. Granted it took a level of fine control, but it didn't really use much power. You simply reached for your zanpakutou's spirit, and with its cooperation brought it forward-

Fire. Darkness. A cave, and chains, and endless rage at the men-of-shadows-

Sougyo no Kotowari surged to him, waves a shield against that ancient anger. We have not wronged you, Shadow Princess!

Fury paused, talons still raised to strike. Suspicion. Questioning.

There's something else in this body with me? "I mean no harm," Juushirou whispered; for once feeling small, and very, very young. Whatever it is, it's older than Yamamoto-Genryuusai. "I am not here of my own will. I only wish to protect myself, and so protect this form as well."

Suspicion. Reluctance. Pride in that-it-protected, the bright brave child-who-survived.

"I protect children, as well," Juushirou said softly. "Allow me to protect this one." And allow it quickly, if you would. I do not like the looks of that moving corpse coming this way. It looks hungry.

It looked, in fact, eerily like a ch'ing-shih that was for some reason not hopping. He'd thought his fellow shinigami had cleared those vermin out of Japan decades ago. Though the open, bloody wounds and saliva-dripping jaws also reminded him of - what were those American movie monsters again? Hungry dead driven to pursue the living, who were-

Infectious!

Juushirou dodged the zombie's quick lunge, hand shaping a binding kidou by pure reflex. If you were good enough, you could cast without an incantation. And as incantations required breathing, Juushirou had learned to be very, very good.

Arms and legs pinned, it crashed to the ground, thrashing. Trembled - and slumped.

Unconscious? But why?

More thumps, and shrieks. Juushirou glanced up to see ordinary humans crumpling for yards… and anything with a trace of spiritual power took off screaming.

Oops.

I'm in the mortal world, in someone else's body, without a limiter. Juushirou winced, and deliberately reined in his reiatsu, until it was just high enough to ward off the aura of this place. This cannot be good.

It couldn't be a dream, either. No matter how much he wanted it to be. Damn.

Amusement, from the shadow-spirit within. Reluctant approval. Withdrawal. Watching.

"Thank you, Kage-hime," Juushirou inclined his head. No longer threatened, his zanpakutou materialized; he thrust the sheathed blade under the first winding of his obi, and reached for spirit-ribbons. That creature had looked like one of the hungry dead, certainly. But it had reacted as if there were still a human soul that could be flattened by a captain's reiatsu.

And there is. Juushirou studied the white ribbon with narrowed eyes, feeling at the odd, sticky overlay of a kidou he'd never seen before. It didn't seem to be associated with the nettle-aura still prickling at his senses. Though that might have its own consequences; even where the kidou wasn't clinging, white seemed ever so slightly dulled, as if any spirit-sense its owner claimed had been deliberately muffled.

A kidou implies a caster. Doesn't have the feel of Kisuke's work, though. Which was worse news than he dared to admit around the Commander-General. While Kisuke had a knack for pushing past the bounds of acceptable study into world-threatening peril, the exiled shinigami scientist was at least ethical enough to try to minimize the damage to innocent bystanders.

Not that he'd consider me innocent. Warily, Juushirou snared his own spirit-ribbon. Red, as it should be - but wrapped around mortal white, and both ribbons touched with that same sticky shadow.

Not quite mortal. A closer look showed that white was shot through with a single strand of night. Not human. Not human at all.

The Shadow Princess, Sougyo no Kotowari affirmed.

An ancient dark creature, lending her power to a mortal girl. I wonder….

More presences glowed in his senses. Most hostile; one with a light, subtle flicker that reminded him of Yoruichi. He turned. "Hello."

"Wow!" A slender young man in a short navy jacket and long black jeans dropped out of the shadows, small brass bell tinkling at his throat as he grinned. "Most people don't hear me coming." He tipped his head toward the other presences, amber eyes gleaming with a cat's amusement, as if the gun holstered on his right thigh was just another ornament. "So I'm guessing you could probably handle what's heading this way-"

"We don't want to fight if we don't have to," Juushirou interrupted, heading down the street for someplace quieter. "These people are innocent. They're under a dark kidou; they likely have no idea what they're doing."

"Not fighting works for me," the gunman smiled, slinking along beside him. "Demon art, huh? Guess that's one way of looking at Tao."

Tao? Later. "We need to find the caster and end this." Juushirou stopped just long enough to bow to the young gunman. "Juushirou Ukitake."

"Train Heartnet," the young man said easily, with a rather American nod. "No offense, lady, but you don't look like a Juushirou."

"It's complicated…."

"Then maybe you can explain when we're not about to get mobbed by mini-monsters?" Small fangs glinted in Train's grin as he hopped onto a nearby fence. "Race you!"

A challenge. Not one he could match very long, but - it should only take a minute to lose their pursuers. And even stuck in a mortal girl's body, he could certainly manage a few minutes of flash-step.

Grinning, Juushirou blurred out of sight.



"I still can't believe you followed me up here in a kimono."

Hair blowing in the wind over the roof they stood on, Juushirou gave Train an innocent smile. The short dash had actually gone better than he'd expected, from sidewalk to fence to streetlight and up. Train was certainly more than human, but the Goddess of Flash would have left him gasping in the dust.

Though I'd be gasping there, too… my, I think I could pull off quite a few more minutes at that pace. It must be a good night. "A higher vantage point was an excellent idea," Juushirou nodded. "Do you see any center to the effect?"

"Eh, I'm just a sweeper. You want Sven for the planning side of things." Train looked over the town once more, the Roman thirteen tattooed under his collarbone dark in the streetlights' glow. "Don't suppose you've seen him? Tall, eye-patch, green hair; grumpy, usually has a short little blonde girl shadowing him to learn the ropes?"

"Not so far, I'm afraid. A moment." Juushirou reached out, and ribbons swarmed to his hands, shimmering white.

"Wow…."

"It looks more impressive than it is," Juushirou said modestly.

"Yeah?" Train cocked his head, kitten-eager. "What is it?"

"Emanations from the spirits nearby. If you can see the dark glaze, those are the ones that have been affected by the kidou." Juushirou frowned. Thick as it was, like poisoned mochi, the prickly reiatsu was still not coalescing into a spirit-ribbon.

So it's not a person. More of an area effect, perhaps? Like deathstone in reverse? It definitely wasn't absorbing spirit energy, but it did remind him of something….

Like the breath within the senkaimon. A… weakness in reality?

Troubling. As were the results of his attempts to locate that fiery reiatsu. It's definitely hiding. Yet there was something, if he could just draw the threads a little closer together….

Mortal white, glazed with that same kidou - and wrapped with another thread that glowed bright as a star.

"Umm..." Train shifted warily.

"Whatever it is, it's caused by the same kidou," Juushirou stated; acknowledging the growing depth of his own bad feeling, as younger shinigami might put it, before setting it aside. "That has to be our first concern. Those affected seem clumped in lesser or greater numbers, but so far I don't see a pattern-"

A woman's screams drew them both to the roof edge. Below, a dark-haired girl in a cat suit ran from- Juushirou blinked. Was that some sort of giant, tailless monkey?

"Sasquatch!" Train said gleefully. "Man, wait 'til Sven gets a load of this!" He jumped down, tossing an odd grenade with a smiling cat-face painted on it. It exploded into an odd black cloud, almost in the creature's face. Roaring, the monster charged - and stumbled, sneezing.

"Pepper spray!" Train chortled, snagging the woman's arm as the creature snorted and pawed its nose. "Gotta love Sven. Come on, lady-"

"Get your hands off me, Xander Harris!"

"Uh… who?" Train shook off her slap. "Miss, we've got to go-"

Force pulsed in Juushirou's senses, fast and angry. "Down!"

"Wha-"

Wind slammed into the sweeper, tearing him away from the cat-suited girl. Like a fiery meteor, a red-haired woman in white fur descended from the clouds, gold medallion gleaming at her throat. "She said begone, you uncouth curs!"

Train twisted free of the gale, coming up in a crouch with a large black pistol in hand. "Hey! I like to think I'm pretty couth. Most of the time."

"Oh great," the costumed girl grumbled. "All the school's social rejects in one weird night."

"You are too impertinent to be a Handmaiden," the redhead sniffed, a wave of her hand hurling wind at the recovering sasquatch. It howled, tumbling down the street. "Yet I will defend you from these unnatural enemies."

"Handmaiden?" the dark-haired girl sputtered. "As if!"

Unobtrusively, Juushirou dropped back to the ground. Approached, hands relaxed and empty. "We are not your enemies, great lady."

"And well for you that you are not!" The redhead stood imperiously on air, crimson strands waving in an alien breeze. "No mortal can hope to prevail against Armandra, Woman of the Winds!"

"Mortal?" The brunette crossed her arms with a haughty sniff. "Willow, what's your damage?" She waved a dismissive hand. "And knock off the floating gig. I don't know how you set this trick up, but color me not impressed."

"Trick?" Armandra said dangerously, green eyes starting to glow a dangerous crimson. Spirit pressure reached outward from her, commanding ordinary air to turn angry and lethal; though the humans likely noticed only a heaviness in the air.

If she puts a bit more power into that, no one undefended within three blocks will notice anything, ever again, Juushirou thought soberly. "Indeed, you are powerful, Armandra-hime," he said politely. "But you might be surprised, what mortals can do."

The Woman of the Winds regarded him coldly - then laughed, eyes green and clear once more. "So I have been, from time to time."

It's like dealing with Shunsui in a bad mood, Juushirou thought, relaxing slightly. With a hangover. He reached out with spirit-sense for a better gauge of her power-

And tensed all over again. She is not the fiery one I sensed. Only another innocent, caught in the same mystic trap.

This, as Ichigo's friends might put it, was not good.

"Okay, the three of you went mental when?" their rescuee demanded, tossing her hair back. "More so than usual, I mean."

Train headed back toward them, dusting himself off. "You think you know us, Miss?" He smiled at her, apparently no less cheerful after having been tossed almost a block away.

"And I can feel my social status sinking every time I acknowledge the three of you breathe the same air, Xander," she snapped back. "So?"

Xander and Willow. Those must be their human selves, under the kidou. "We're not quite who you think, at the moment," Juushirou said politely. "It might be some sort of temporary amnesia… it pains me to say this, for you seem a woman of genteel and noble class-" Or one raised such, with all the worst manners and arrogance of it. "-But I, for one, can't at the moment recall your name."

She stared at him. "It's Cordelia, Buffy. Cor-de-li-a." She sniffed again. "And what's with the samurai sword, anyway? Geisha not doing it for you? I could have told you it wasn't hot enough for Angel. Too meek and polite. He wants someone who knows what she wants. And goes for it."

Polite, perhaps, and demure - but meek? She must not know too many people in the flower-and-willow world. "I'm not dressed as a geisha," Juushirou said mildly. "Is there shelter near here? Or one knowledgeable in kidou… Tao?" At Cordelia's blank look, he added, "Mystic arts? Shamanism? Enchantment?"

"Safehouse first," Train put in, nodding down the street. "Here they come!"

Armandra scowled, winds whirling viciously about her hands. "I will deal with them!"

"They're innocents," Juushirou repeated. "Enchanted. Not acting of their own will. We shouldn't fight, unless we have no choice." He seized the back of Cordelia's collar-

And moved.



"Aaaaah-!"

"We've stopped," Juushirou pointed out, breathing deep as he halted in a quieter street. Still no coughing. I'm luckier than I deserve. Even if I haven't been pushing it.

Cordelia gulped. "You- that was- we-"

"Train's seen me move before. They'll catch up."

"This, is too weird." Cordelia stepped away from him, wide-eyed. "Though weird is what you fashion disasters do…. Why aren't you at the library already?"

"Library?" Juushirou raised a dark brow.

"You know. Creepy place, creepier books, hunk of a British librarian who keeps weapons locked up where Principal Snyder can't find them?" Cordelia tossed her hair, reclaiming her haughty air. "I do not believe you've forgotten about the library, Buffy."

Weapons? Sounds promising. "Pretend that I have," Juushirou said smoothly, sensing something very unsettling trying to sneak up on them. A mortal soul, and- How dare it! "Where is this library?" One step more… now!

He whirled, zanpakutou drawn, point a bare inch from an undead throat. "Do not fear," the shinigami said gently. "I will slay the Yomi-dweller within you, and free you from this unliving flesh to move on."

"Buffy?" The dark-haired undead stepped back - and back again, as Juushirou flowed smoothly after him. "Whoa, wait a minute!"

"Angel! Hi! She's totally lost it," Cordelia said brightly. "The whole spook patrol - they all think they're somebody else. It's total asylum time. Though everybody else turned into a monster, so maybe they got off lucky."

"Turned into a- Ah, Buffy, that sword looks real…."

"It should." Juushirou matched the bound soul, step for step. "The others we've met this night are only human, trapped in a foul kidou. You, I fear, contain within dead flesh a true creature of Yomi - and the oaths I hold do not look kindly on such monsters." He inclined his head. "I promise, it will only hurt for a moment. One who has suffered as your soul has suffered, held captive with a demon, will surely be granted swift passage to a better afterlife." One swift blow….

"Hey! You can't go all ginsu on him!" Cordelia tried to grab his sleeve. "Angel's a good vampire!"

Impossible. But Juushirou held his strike, though Sougyo no Kotowari keened disappointment. The soul deserved a chance to speak.

"I can't go yet!" the vampire - Angel? What sort of name was that for one of the undead? - yelped. "I have to help you!"

"Explain," the Captain of the Thirteenth Division ordered coldly.Angel tried to draw his gaze away from the killing edge.

"Look, if Cordelia's right… Buffy, you've got to remember! I was sent here to help you. To… try to make up for what Angelus did. All those years. All those people…."

"That," Juushirou said dryly, "has to be one of the most inane things I've heard in the past century." Considering the antics of his fellow captains, lieutenants, Kisuke, Goddess of Flash Yoruichi, Ichigo's ryoka, his entirely too competitive Third seats, and the whole Shiba clan (the beautiful and explosive Kuukaku had an entire oh gods category in his mental files herself), that was saying a lot.

"You are not the demon," Juushirou went on. "You cannot atone for what it did, or did not do. You can only exist - and while I may sympathize with your soul's feeling of misplaced guilt, that existence is an offense against Heaven, and the worlds of the living and the dead."

"…You're not Buffy."

Ah. Not quite as dense as he looked, then. "Not at the moment," Juushirou agreed.

"Juushirou!" Running feet; familiar mortal-and-not reiatsus.

"Xander!" Angel relaxed slightly. "Willow! Am I ever glad to see you…." His voice trailed off, as Train's hand dipped nearer to his gun.

"You know," the sweeper said lightly, "you're the second person to call me that. And while I feel sorry for the poor guy you're mixing me up with, Sven would have told me if we were working undercover."

Cordelia rolled her eyes. "Told you." Shrugged, as if she hadn't a care in the world. "If it'll make you people stop acting like insane losers, and just go back to being pathetic ones - the library's this way."

The very direction in which the disturbing sense of weakness in reality seemed to intensify, Juushirou noted. Why was he not surprised?

"Library?" Armandra scowled. "What have tomes of mortal lore to do with whatever manner of unnatural science has snatched me from my Champion's side on the icy world of Borea, away from my endless watch against my horrific father, Ithaqua? The People of the Plateau have need of me!" Her voice softened. "And I miss Hank."

"Libraries are good places to start looking for answers, Armandra-hime," Juushirou reassured her. Hopefully, better than the Archive was. He smiled at Cordelia. "Lead on."

"Buffy, smiling at me, and not sarcastic," Cordelia muttered under her breath, stalking off. "We have another apocalypse due I didn't know about?"

Another apocalypse? Juushirou glanced at Angel to judge his reaction; vampire hearing was supposedly better than most mortals'.

Not a flicker. Not so much as a twitch to say Cordelia was exaggerating. Just a sigh, and a worried expression to match any shinigami up against an older Hollow.

Combine that with the uncanny, hostile reiatsu in the air, the almost tangible sense of wrongness….

What kind of place is this?



"Good lord!"

Mortal, some slight degree of spirit perception, and… hmm. An oddness to his reiatsu, Juushirou judged. Not the same as the kidou affecting us, but there are hints of familiarity. "Good evening," he bowed, raising his own reiatsu just a hair more, to ward off the intensity of copper-prickle. "I am Juushirou Ukitake, though Cordelia-san and Angel claim that the one I am within is called Buffy. I hope that you can assist us?"

The librarian stared. Took off his glasses, polished them, and donned them once more to level an incredulous glance at Cordelia and the vampire.

"Weird, but true, Mr. Giles," Cordelia stated. "Xander thinks he's an Amtrak-"

"Train Heartnet," the sweeper introduced himself, smiling sheepishly - then perked up. "Hey! Is that milk over there?"

"Er, yes. Feel free-" Giles' jaw dropped as Train scampered off, clearing desks and the upper-level railing in easy jumps.

"And she thinks she's Armani." Cordelia sniffed. "Like poor Miss Softer-Side-of-Sears could even look at a real outfit."

"Armandra!" Crimson hair rose up in a sudden gust, and violet lightning crackled in her splayed fingertips.

"Armandra-hime." Juushirou stepped swiftly between them. "It is a mark of true nobility to let pass the slights of those beneath you, and instead show by the correctness of your words and deeds how they have fallen away from the true path. Those who own the sleeping wisdom to improve will be shamed, and mend their ways. Those who cannot, will eventually meet that which cannot forgive, and be destroyed."

Armandra frowned, but relaxed her fingers, sparks dying.

"What did you call me?" Cordelia snarled, advancing furiously on him.

"Sai!" Yes, he could have cast the kidou silently. But that wouldn't have made his point.

Thump.

Juushirou eyed the girl now invisibly bound on the floor with the same disappointed disapproval he'd turn on any spoiled noble in her first year at the Academy. "You are needlessly antagonizing someone who would be your ally. Perhaps your clan and your social equals reward this behavior. On the battlefield, however, this will kill you. And everyone around you." He gauged the fear and mulish stubbornness in her eyes, and sighed. "Unless you have something useful to add, be silent."

"Creep," Cordelia muttered, squirming around to glare at a tear on one dark stocking. "Partytown's never going to give back my deposit now."

Giles eyed her with a very peculiar look on his face. Glanced at Angel. "They became what they masqueraded as?"

"Looks like. It's chaos out there," the vampire shuddered. "I've seen cowboys shooting zombies. Demons I know couldn't have gotten into Sunnydale since last night being chased by mini Sailor Moons. And-"

The ground shook beneath them.

"-About five streets over, the Thing was slugging it out with the Incredible Hulk," Angel finished. "I'd be a little more worried, if they weren't both about four feet tall."

More trapped children, Juushirou thought. There had to be a way to stop this!

"Buffy has never evidenced any hint of mystical ability, and I doubt I've ever seen Xander willingly imbibe milk when he knows there are sodas stashed in my office," Giles said thoughtfully.

"Mmph?" Coming out of the librarian's office, Train blinked down at them from over a milk mustache.

"Yet your costume remained simply that?" Giles asked Cordelia.

"Hello? Don't you people know anything about this town by now? There are no bargains. I went to Partytown because it's expensive. El Cheapo over there-" Cordelia jerked her chin at Train, "probably dragged his loser friends someplace he could afford. Only anything cheap in this town? There's always a catch."

"Another costume shop?" Giles glanced at Angel.

"Could be," the vampire nodded. "I saw a lot of what looked like just regular people dressed up and running from the monsters."

"We are not costumes," Armandra sniffed. "My power, like that of my dread father Ithaqua, is very real."

"Armandra, daughter of Ithaqua-" Giles straightened, indignant. "I knew someone had rearranged my Lovecraftian stash! God, she found the Brian Lumley books…."

"You're a Watcher, and you read pulp horror?" Angel snickered.

If it'd had a shikai attached, Giles' glare would have incinerated him.

"I'm not certain if it makes a difference," Juushirou put in quickly. He'd been in more than enough captains' meetings to know when one was about to go right off the rails. "But some of the traces in the force affecting us bear a distinct resemblance to the arcane mark on your arm."

"What mark?" Angel said, confused.

"You can see that?" Giles asked warily.

Juushirou inclined his head. "I have a talent for sensing forces that affect the spirit."

"Chaos," the librarian said, half to himself, "indeed. Well." Giles sighed, gesturing to a small computer in an out of the way corner of the library. "Willow's usual contribution would be most welcome at the moment… I don't suppose any of you know how to use that infernal device?"

"Sure!" Train said brightly, before Juushirou could offer. A few swift taps, and the sweeper had it booting up, leaning back in his chair with a stray cat's insufferable smirk. "Sven's way better at the whole hacking bit, but - what do you need?"

"I need you to run a search," Giles said grimly, "for local costume shops."



"Ethan's," Juushirou mused as they all headed back into the panic-torn night. Train was a bright grin in the shadows, scouting ahead while Armandra soared over them. Angel was reluctantly bringing up the rear - which made neither vampire nor shinigami happy. But it seemed to reassure Cordelia, who had refused to be left behind. Given the situation, he couldn't blame her. "Sounds innocuous." He glanced up at Giles. "What are we likely to encounter?"

"I believe I can handle it, thank you."

Ominous. This man has secrets. Yet he seems to be helping these children protect themselves… from vampires and demons? Gods, why does he have to?

Ichigo is barely sixteen, Sougyo no Kotowari reminded him. As are his allies.

Except for Yoruichi, and one less than trustworthy shinigami scientist and shopkeeper. Damn.

"I must admit to some amount of curiosity," Giles said carefully as they walked, keeping an eye out for mini-youkai and innocent bystanders. "I wouldn't have thought Buffy would choose to portray a… Japanese enchantress?"

"Kabuki performer?" Juushirou offered in turn.

Giles gave him a skeptical look. "While Japanese culture is certainly not my area of expertise, I was under the impression that Kabuki actors are not usually mystically skilled. Not to mention-"

"Male?" Juushirou smiled ruefully. "I suppose - a half out of two, at the moment."

"She went as a guy?" Cordelia snorted. "Lame."

"Do you know Kabuki, Cordelia-san?" Juushirou said mildly.

"No!"

"How unfortunate. There are many books on it. And-" he cast in memory for the proper terms; while they used computers in Soul Society, he wasn't usually in the mortal world long enough to watch movies. "Videos. It is a cultured and refined entertainment, followed by artists, poets, and the highest levels of society." And by the lower, the bawdy, and no shortage of eccentrics - but a few encounters with those could only improve this girl.

And while she's still off balance…. "Whatever we may meet at Ethan's, Giles-san, there is something else loose in this night that worries me-" Darkness moved in his senses, and the shinigami bit back a curse.

"Well. Even dressed up like a foreign bint's boy-toy, y' haven't lost all your wits." A bleached blond vampire in a black longcoat smirked at them, surrounded by a horde of kidou-touched children - one of whom had a malformed, winged lizard perched on the shoulder of odd robes, and cradled blue lightning in one hand - and at least a dozen other Yomi-possessed corpses.

Too many for Train to render unconscious easily, especially given he can't tell which are innocent, Juushirou realized. Damn. It should have been me on point, or Angel. But Angel hadn't been about to leave "Buffy" alone and "helpless". Didn't he trust the woman he was supposed to help?

"Just as well," the blond shrugged. "Wouldn't feel right, killin' a Slayer who had no chance."

A Slayer. Juushirou felt the Shadow Princess shift within him; eager to hunt, to kill. So the tale was true.

"Spike," Angel growled. "I'll deal with this."

"Oh, 'magine you'll try, you bloody poof. But can you deal with them?" Spike stepped back. "Sic 'em!"

Innocents, Juushirou reminded himself, dropping the first few with swift binding incantations and moves of his little-used hakuda. Keep your reiatsu down-

The first vampire reached him, and Juushirou grinned. "I don't-"

Iai, rising through the throat.

"-Usually agree-"

Scarf cut, shoulder to hip through the heart.

"-With Eleventh Division-"

Left-side strike, ducking Armandra's wind.

"-That violence solves everything-"

Right-side strike, avoiding the whip of Train's tethered gun.

"-But sometimes-"

Straight overhead, as Cordelia screamed in pain.

"-They truly do have the right idea!"

Thrust, an explosion of dust, and the remaining vampires were fleeing like rats. Juushirou paused, holding Sougyo no Kotowari tilted down and resting against his right thigh, even though vampires left no blood to drip off. The pose itself was often intimidation enough; and so it proved now, as those kidou-touched and not already unconscious sought to flee.

"Not you," Juushirou bit out, flash-stepping in front of the robed teenager. "What did your pet do to Cordelia-san?" Giles had apparently crushed the vicious little reptile, but not before it had stung her on the throat. The welt was red, swelling, and pulsed with evil.

"Nothing but grant her a fitting fate, for one who would oppose a Beast Lord of Kham. One not even you can change, eladrin!" The dark-haired boy smirked cruelly. "Though no mere human should hold enough latent magic to suffer a familiar's fate- Augh!"

Wreathed in violet lightning, he crumpled.

"Um." Train scratched his head. "Not that interrogation's really my thing, Armandra, but it usually helps if the guy is conscious?"

"He was a minion of Evil," Armandra declared, arms crossed as she hovered above the ground, crimson hair fluttering in errant breezes. "You would have gained knowledge from him only at peril to your soul!"

"I'm rather more concerned with her physical survival," Giles said angrily, holding the brunette as she swayed. "That wretched creature seems to have had some sort of ovipositor."

"Not an infection, then, but an infestation." Frowning, Juushirou reached up to touch the moaning girl's shoulder, the better to read the spreading pattern of dark hunger in her body. "Evil little creatures… I'm not Unohana. Still, I believe I can handle this." He glanced at Giles. "But it will take my full concentration."

"If we end the foul sorcery-" Armandra began.

"We cannot assume all the spell's consequences will be undone." Giles unclenched his fists, and shot a dark look at Angel. "Go to the shop. Take them with you. Find Ethan Rayne, and get him to tell you how to break the spell. Use Angelus' methods if you must."

Angel grew even more pale. "You don't know what you're asking-"

"I've read your chronicles. I assure you, I do." Giles' tone was chill. "Get the answer however you must, but do not break the spell until we arrive." He eyed Juushirou. "Buffy may not find Cordelia's company enjoyable-"

"Hey," the brunette protested weakly.

"-But she would be heartbroken if we failed to save her."

"She would?" Cordelia stared up at them, feverish and lost, as Giles sat her down against a closed florist's wall. "Why?"

"One does not have to be innocent, to deserve protection from evil." Juushirou knelt down to focus on healing, hands glowing softly green. "Giles-san, please watch over us."

Distantly he felt the others leave, wending their way through the violent night. But it was faint and far-off knowledge, as he sought, and found, and destroyed, and sought again….

Their instincts are uncanny, Sougyo no Kotowari murmured, dark waves on the beach of his soul.

Uncannily bad, for Cordelia, Juushirou admitted grimly, as he had to stay his kidou from destroying a larva for the third time. She was not a shinigami, who could heal even a thrust through the heart, with aid. Most of the larva he had killed, yes, but the ones already in major vessels…. Gods, I wish Unohana were here.

Sometimes aid is best sought within, his zanpakutou observed.

Dark brow raised, Juushirou studied his patient's reiatsu under the dark aura of infestation. Mortal, certainly; but a strong, pure white, oddly undimmed by the local disturbance in the land. If her strength were just a little greater….

I cannot believe I'm even considering this. I'm going to be in so much trouble-

We already destroyed the Sougyoku, his zanpakutou observed; a merry crackle of sparks. And the Commander-General can't afford to lose any more captains.

You've been spending entirely too much time with Katen Kyoukotsu.

Moonlight-on-waves smiled at him.

"I take it there is a problem," Giles said neutrally.

"There is," Juushirou answered levelly. "Those I am used to healing are more… resilient than ordinary humans. And some of the larvae have found their way into precarious places." He met Cordelia's terrified eyes, giving her a reassuring smile. "But I believe it is possible for me to permit you to heal yourself."

"Yeah?" Dripping sweat, she brightened - before her face fell. "There's a catch, right? There's always a catch."

"Wise," Juushirou nodded. "Should I increase your reiatsu - your spirit pressure - enough to withstand my healing… a soul so marked, cannot return to what it was. You would - see things, that most do not." He paused. "And they would see you."

Dark eyes were wide. "Um…."

Giles coughed into his hand. "Much as I appreciate your effort to spare her future encounters with the supernatural… Sunnydale is a Hellmouth."

"A… what?" the shinigami captain asked, confused. He'd seen the Gates of Hell, of course. Many times, when Hollows whose mortal souls had committed unspeakable crimes were finally defeated. The lingering, bitter copper-prickle in the air didn't feel anything like those gates of awe and terrible judgment.

"A mystical nexus. A place of vastly increased supernatural energy. A cursed portal between our dimension and places… not nearly as hospitable to human life, or sanity. It attracts all manner of supernatural creatures to this town, and clouds the minds of most who dwell here, so they never have a chance to see the danger until it is feasting upon them." Giles' shoulders slumped, weary and sad. "I assure you, any touch of genuinely benevolent mystical influence can only increase her chances of survival."

Like Karakura, but evil? Gods. Juushirou raised a wary brow. "You seem a very cautious man…."

"Too cautious, to believe one who lied about being a Kabuki actor might still have no ill intent?" Giles' smile was wry. "Any librarian knows better than to judge a book by its cover."

"I am a Kabuki performer," Juushirou stated, wryly amused. "On an amateur basis. Occasionally."

Cordelia frowned. "So what are you most of the time?"

A faint crackle of fire, high and dense…. Incoming fireball! No time to incant, just- "Bakudo number 81! Splitting Void!"

"Dead," intoned a voice like an inferno; fire and rage and pulsing reiatsu that must have dropped every human for a mile in their tracks. "Or you should be."

Crouched behind the rectangular energy barrier with the other two, flinching from the flames eating away its edges even into the central seven-pointed star, Juushirou stared up at his worst nightmare given flesh.Kikou-ou, reformed and bent to execute the innocent once more….

But it was a woman in the heart of the flaming firebird; a redhead in scarlet and gold, golden sash fluttering in the fiery aura about her. The sheer power pouring from her was beyond any earthly creature… but the hate in glowing eyes was all too human.

"That, Giles-san," Juushirou said in a very small voice, "is what I was worried about."

"Dark Phoenix," Cordelia whispered. "We're dead."

"Surely, we've faced worse-" Giles began.

"Marcie was just see-through with a knife! The mini-monsters run when you scare them!" Cordelia's voice rose, almost hysterical. "Dark Phoenix eats star systems!"

"And why should I not? I am the spark of life; why should I not take it away? And I hunger…." Fiery orbs narrowed, echoing the woman's cold gaze. "Even so close, little defender, your mind remains sealed. But your allies, and even the enemies I sent against you, are gone. And if that is the extent of your power-" Dark Phoenix made a fist, and flames crumbled their protection like charred paper.

She's as powerful as the Commander-General, Juushirou thought numbly, turning his body to block his draw from her view. Though he doubted she cared. No; more powerful….

"I don't want to die," Cordelia whispered, bone-pale. "Oh God, I don't want to die-"

"Courage," Giles said grimly. "Never submit, and never compromise. Even in the face of Hell."

"What is human bravery, against the fire of the universe itself?" Flames crackled, burned brighter. "I waited, and watched… but you are nothing to fear. I will feast on this world, and venture forth into the stars."

Juushirou breathed; focussed on his grip, on the heft of Sougyo no Kotowari in his hand. Ignore the fear, crushing him like a lightless abyss. The fiery reiatsu that would sear away the sky, and burn all beneath them to lifeless ashes. The Shadow Princess screaming hate within him, defiant to the last breath of the world she protected. Ignore even the human soul he could still sense in the heart of the flames, trapped within a mad power no mortal could ever hope to control.

I'm so sorry….

Power gathered above them, great fiery wings. "Savor these last moments of-"

"Every wave, be my shield," Juushirou said softly, calling the lightning-struck oceans in his soul. "Every thunder, become my blade."

Shikai.

Sougyo no Kotowari split in two. In the instant before the fireball reached them, charms on the red cord connecting the blades flashed bright as moonlight, calling….

Fire vanished in a rush of steam, as storm-waves surged up to shield them. Lightning split the heavens, blasting the stunned Phoenix from the sky.

Juushirou moved through waves and thunder; striking, whirling, and striking again. His lightning-strikes stunned her. The water he controlled kept her fires at bay. But she'd gained the air again, and he could feel her power rising, angry, lethal-

Whoever you are… forgive me.

"Bankai."

Riding a tsunami, all night's thunderbolts crashed down.

Silence.

Breathing hard, Juushirou clutched his zanpakutou as its second blade faded back into nothingness. Flowers floated by his feet, fragments of glass sparkling like stars in their wake. The street - likely every street for blocks - was awash in seawater. Buildings were still standing… some of them, at least… but there probably wasn't an unbroken window left in town. And who knew how many souls he'd scarred, besides the two lives still fighting to exist behind him.

I am going to be in so much trouble….

Frail, almost transparent, fires flickered around a dying woman. "This… cannot be. I am… the flame of Life…!"

"Perhaps," Juushirou said softly, as she dissolved into ashes. "But I am one who guards the balance, between life and death." He shook his head. "And it was not our time."

Sheathing his blade, he yanked down his reiatsu, much as he would a kite caught in an autumn gale. Please, let me not have killed them!

No. Though both were soaked through, Giles staring wide-eyed through dripping, cracked lenses, and Cordelia gasping for breath, even as a silvery ermine-like creature with razor-sharp teeth plunged its jaws into her abdomen-

And pulled them out, a squirming larva clenched in white fangs, leaving unmarked skin behind.

Snap. Crunch, crunch, crunch. The creature wriggled happily against Cordelia's throat, chirping, nuzzling the wound until the last trace of evil had been caught and eaten.

Juushirou smiled, relieved. She's found her spirit. She'll be all right. "Please," he said, as they drew back, "don't be frightened."

"'Be not afraid,'" Giles quoted, visibly unsettled. "Juushirou… who are you? Truly?"

"You glowed," Cordelia accused him. "Like a star."

"I suppose I did." Juushirou bowed, as befit a proper introduction. "I am Juushirou Ukitake, Captain of the Thirteenth Division of the Court Guard, defenders of the Court of Pure Souls."

Dead silence. "…You're an angel?" Cordelia said numbly.

Juushirou blinked. And had to stifle a completely inappropriate chuckle. If Shunsui were here, he'd be laughing so hard…. "I don't think so. Soul Society isn't Heaven. Only a place for souls to rest and be healed, before being reborn. And if you knew my brother captains, those we serve, and who serve with us… let's just say, I doubt angels have to worry about their inkstones being booby-trapped." Smiling, he ruffled her wet hair, just as he would Toushirou's. "I'm only a soul born with more power than most, who chose to take up the task of upholding justice, and defending both the living and the dead."

"So you're merely a messenger for a higher power, who cares for the whole of creation," Giles mused, shakily getting to his feet. "Whatever you are, I am grateful you are here."

That had sounded oddly like an Urahara-answer. Which, perversely, made Juushirou feel as if they might survive this night after all. "Don't be too swift with your thanks," he warned, taking a ruffled and indignant Cordelia's hand to help her stand. The spirit-creature blinked, and chirped cheerfully at him, purring. "I had to release a great deal of spiritual power. It will not have left you unscathed."

"Scathed, perhaps, but alive." Giles gave him a creditable, if soggy, bow. "And for that, we do thank you."

"Um… yeah," Cordelia added reluctantly. "What he said."

Saddened, Juushirou looked where the last bits of ash were soaking in salt water. "When this kidou ends, please tell Buffy it was not her fault."

"I… yes. Of course." Giles glanced down. "You had no choice."

"I had a choice. Simply not one I could live with." Reaching out, Juushirou took Giles' hand as well. "We must end this. For everyone's sake. Which way did you say Ethan's was, again?"



"Phoenix," Cordelia murmured in restless nightmare, slung over Giles' shoulder in a fireman's carry. "Burning into your mind… like the world burns…."

The world blurred back into focus a few yards from the shop, and Giles tried to shift her to a more comfortable angle. "Is there nothing more you can do?"

Catching his breath, Juushirou shook his head. "Reiatsu exposure is like a burn to the soul. She's strong, and I've salved it as much as I can. But she is injured, and retreating into sleep is natural. We should let her sleep as long as possible, until she wakes on her own." He eyed the librarian. "You're only still standing because you've been thoroughly exposed to foreign reiatsu in the past. Or… youki, was it? A demonic possession?"

Giles stiffened. "That's a private matter."

Juushirou inclined his head. "Forgive me the intrusion. The fact remains, you have been exposed to spirit energy before. Rest would be wise, but it will not injure you to remain awake." He couldn't hide a wry smile. "At least, not permanently."

From the way Giles' eyes narrowed, he knew when he was being prodded. "But Cordelia?"

"Manifested part of her own spirit, Giles-san. It's very draining, the first time. Like… stretching unprepared muscles. Without rest, it can do great harm." Juushirou frowned, listening to the odd murmur from the shop ahead. "You should see to it that Buffy rests as well, when this is over…. What is that language?"

"Ia!" Armandra said sternly. "Janus m'nari ctha…."

Giles swallowed. "Good lord."

That didn't sound good. "What is it? I know most languages of the living, and many of the dead… what is she saying?"

"I don't know." Carefully, Giles laid Cordelia down on the sidewalk. "But if she's speaking as I believe she is, her words are those of the Great Old Ones, who neither die, nor live as we know life." He straightened. "Be prepared for anything."

Inside hung clothing racks and accessory bins, empty save for a clown suit, a bloody nightgown, and a few scattered plastic walkie-talkies. Angel paced uneasily beside the counter, while Train leaned almost casually against the wall where a stranger had been duct-taped upside-down.

And beyond curtains in the back of the store, a two-faced statue glowed green, as Armandra hovered in mid-air; arms crossed, crimson brow raised.

"Ripper!" the taped man announced heartily. "Never would have thought I'd be glad to see your ugly face, old mate. Get me down from here before we have a mini-apocalypse, would you?"

"Actually, I believe I trust you far more right there, Ethan." Giles' tone was cool, rather like Byakuya's before the Sixth Division captain ran someone through. "So it was you after all. Janus, then?"

"The Roman kami of beginnings and endings?" Juushirou frowned at the statue.

"More the division of self, in an invocation such as this," Giles corrected, still with the same glacial calm.

"Kami? You're-" Ethan craned his head as much as possible upward. "Not freezing everything in sight. Damn. I knew I should have held onto that useless noblewoman's dress until you came in…."

Juushirou nodded once, his own anger rising inexorable as storm tide. "You tried to make the Slayer a destructive yuki-onna."

"Such an oblivious, shallow little girl. Oh, I'll be so sweet and supportive of my little mouse of a friend, who wants to be a quiet little wind-spirit. How better than to go as a snow-spirit, hmm? Wave a story with some pretty silk under her nose, and she fell hook, line, and sinker." Ethan smirked. "Be careful what you wish for."

"Why, you-" Angel lunged.

And tripped over Train's foot. "Did anybody remember what I said about trying to question conscious people?" the sweeper lamented.

"How do we break the spell?" Giles said coolly.

Getting back to his feet, Angel threw a glare at Train, then dusted himself off. "She wouldn't let me touch him." He jerked his head toward Armandra. "She saw the statue and started talking to it."

Giles nodded. "Cordelia's outside. The two of you, look after her."

Train grinned, and skipped out the door.

"But-" Angel glanced at Juushirou.

Enough, Sougyo no Kotowari rumbled.

Indeed. The shinigami rolled his eyes. "I am not delicate, I am not helpless, and I am not in need of protection. Cordelia is. I have had as long a night as any of you, and at the moment, my blade's temper is even shorter than mine." He let his eyes narrow. "If you do wish to be disintegrated, by all means, stay."

"She's not joking?" Ethan's smirk, even upside-down, was honestly delighted. "What is she?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," Giles said honestly. "If you won't leave, Angel, get behind us. If Armandra truly is speaking to Janus-"

"Was speaking," the crimson-haired wind-woman declared, finally touching down on the floor. "Janus was pleased with your chaos, mage. He was quite amenable to a respectful approach by a relation, no matter how distant."

Juushirou saw her smile, and felt chilled to the bone.

"Lady Armandra," Giles said as warily, "what have you done?"

"Nothing that will affect any not native to this universe." She shrugged, a graceful flow of white fur. "You were right, librarian; in this universe, I am but a sylph of a writer's mind, rather than the reality of my own world. But my power exists here now, and Janus has decreed that chaos will be well-served if-" She cut herself off, still smiling. "Ah, but his amusement will be all the greater if you discover that for yourselves. And he deserves it all; he has been most generous, indeed."

"What did you do to them?" Angel growled, not quite daring to grab her.

"Ask Willow, when she returns," Armandra said coolly. "If she chooses to tell you."

Which seemed promising and unnerving at once. Juushirou reached out with his senses, looking for any sign of the dark kidou unraveling-

Something flared into sparks of life, where there should be only absence.

No! "Giles! Phoenix is-"

Black.



You. Kept your word.

"Kage-hime," Juushirou said respectfully, trying to peer into endless night. His feet found purchase on cool air, and he could feel Sougyo no Kotowari as wary, watchful presences behind him; wave and lightning-spirits, each resting a hand on his shoulder. Yet he could see nothing. This is a mindscape? Not mine; even in the night I would have stars….

Like frightened fireflies, stars flickered into view above, tracing the great River of Heaven. But part was washed out as if by full moon's light, part scintillating as if in the darkest new moon, and other swathes of sky shone and vanished as if clouds blew by in a hungry wind.

You. Protected her. She-who-lived.

She's fragmented, Juushirou recognized, chilled. Youkai were difficult enough to deal with when they were whole and amused. One whose mind had been sharded…. Oh, not good. "I promised that I would, Kage-hime. But if all has gone well, I am no longer intruding on your chosen one. And I am needed elsewhere."

You. Intrude. A swirl of night; perhaps a woman, perhaps a wolf, perhaps a roaring fall of bloody ice. I owe you….

I owe no one!

"Never would I claim obligation from one of such terrible majesty," Juushirou protested.

Majesty? A cold wind, like raised hackles. I. Was majesty. Was night. Was feared!

They snared. Caught. Fractured. Used.

I wait. Behind many eyes. Live. In one mortal. Only. Until her.

Night lost. Power lost. Freedom lost. Broken….

"It's wrong," Juushirou said fiercely. "No soul should suffer such a fate."

Even. The traitor?

The shinigami didn't need Sougyo no Kotowari's whispered warning to sense the danger here. "I would stop him. If there were no other way… I would kill him. But to break him, warp him, enslave him… no. Never. It is wrong."

Silence. Stars brightened and dimmed. The very constellations shifted; from patterns he knew today, to those he'd seen ages ago when he'd first donned a captain's haori, to shapes even more ancient.

The traitor. Wishes to reshape the world. To his order.

I. Would remain a slave. Or perish.

Death. Might be mercy.

"Is there no hope, then?" Juushirou said quietly. "No way we could help?"

You. Cannot even. Help yourselves. Shinigami. War. Comes.

And you will die.

"It's likely," Juushirou agreed bleakly. "But we have to try."

And if we fall, Shadow Princess, Sougyo no Kotowari said humbly, then we shall fall protecting our own, and this world you care for.

A longer silence. Janus. Thrives in chaos.

And I… owe you.

An elegant, taloned hand. A wolf's bright fangs. A spear of plunging ice.

There wasn't time to scream.



Endless shelves. Stacked tomes of hidden lore. Dust.Blood, dripping cherry-bright onto polished stone.

Move.

Blood meant someone needed help, needed healing - but this was the Archive. There was no help here. And healing kidou seemed to fall apart in his hands, scattered by a mind that could not quite-

Stabbing burning other get it out-

But his zanpakutou screamed at him when he would have pulled, and he had to - had to - let his hand fall away.

Sougyo no Kotowari was part of his own soul. Who did you trust, if not your own blade?

Move. Keep moving.

Red on white. Slippery.A familiar, cold-edged fury, seeping into his own blood.

Slayers. Live. When others. Die.

Are you. Strong enough?

Will you. Fight?

One foot in front of the other. One breath after another, even as the familiar copper taint filled his mouth.

Will. You. Fight?

Move. Keep moving, no matter than exhaustion dragged at every limb. To stop was to sleep, and to sleep was to die.

Fragments of rage coalesced, were Kage-hime and Sougyo no Kotowari and every soul he'd ever given oath to. Will you fight?

"Yes," Juushirou coughed. And fell.

Familiar reiatsu surged, and the arms that caught him smelled of sake and cherry blossoms.

I believe in miracles….

"Juushirou? 'Shirou! Retsu, get in here!"



Nightmares walked through his mind, binding him from waking.

"-Some kind of ice-spear-"

"-In the Archive? How-"

An elderly mentor, the first real teacher a teenage girl had known in an empty life, slain by an ancient vampire.

"-Kurotsuchi, under the circumstances-"

A demon, trapped in silicon and wires, luring the lonely to their doom.

"-Absolutely not! That man is not getting near one of my patients, no matter what reiatsu you think you-"

Wrapped in white, walking to a death foretold by prophecy, alone….

"-'Shirou-chan?"

Juushirou blinked, carefully closing his hand on familiar fingers just below a flowered pink kimono. "Shunsui?"

"Hey." Seated beside his infirmary bed, the brown-haired captain of the Eighth Division grinned at him, beard-stubble even more unruly than usual. "You've been out a while."

"You need to shave," Juushirou murmured. And put that together with Shunsui here, in this room; not his usual bed in Unohana's care, where his Third Seats could easily bring in paperwork, but one deep in the heart of Fourth Division's most fiercely protected territory. "Oh gods, someone really was going to hand me over to Kurotsuchi-"

"Easy. Easy! Unohana just got you patched up, don't you dare make her frown at you. Or me. Especially not me. That woman is scary." Hands on his shoulders, Shunsui kept him lying down. "Yeah, something pretty weird happened, and Yama-jii was a little… trigger-happy. Unohana glared him out of it."

Juushirou raised a skeptical brow.

"And Sougyo no Kotowari pretty much told all three of our zanpakutous she knew where enough bodies were buried to get Byakuya, Toushirou, and Kenpachi all working together to level Twelfth Division. And she'd yell it right to Benihime and Zangetsu, too."

Meaning it wouldn't matter if Yamamoto-Genryuusai did order his captains to stand down. Once Kisuke and Ichigo knew, Yoruichi would know - and Lady Shihouin had ways of destroying those she despised. "Oh," Juushirou managed, stunned.

We will not be touched by that man, his zanpakutou declared. Not now. Not ever!

Why? Juushirou countered. It took a great deal to rouse Sougyo no Kotowari's anger. And Kurotsuchi hadn't done anything. That he knew of. Lately.

...Look.

A patch of winter starlight curled deep within his mindscape, like an exhausted wolf cub.

What-

You know, Sougyo no Kotowari rebuked him gently. Moonlit water curled around the starlight, lapping waves soothing it back to sleep. Her shards fear the men-of-shadow above all. We cannot let Kurotsuchi near her. We promised.

Oh dear. "What happened?"

Shunsui gave him a sidelong look. You're stalling, and we both know it. "Nanao-chan got out of your two Thirds that they didn't know where you were, but they did know you were way overdue. So I headed for the Archive. I thought maybe the dust got to you, and you were just waiting out the fit so you didn't worry anybody. I was almost there when Katen Kyoukotsu screamed at me that you were in deep trouble, and we had to get you to Unohana now." For once, the Eighth's captain looked fully sober. "You had that book up your sleeve-" he nodded toward the ancient text "-and a spear of ice through your heart."

"Through…?" Juushirou swallowed, queasy.

"If Aizen really wanted to frame Toushirou for a murder, that's what he should have pulled off," Shunsui declared. And lost his grin all over again. "Damn it, 'Shirou, don't do that to me. I thought you were dead. I thought I was going to lose you right there in my arms, and I couldn't… gods. I have no idea how you pulled through that. Unohana doesn't know how you lived through that."

"I didn't then." The Fourth Division's captain walked in, reiatsu a wash of healing sunlight. "I think I might, now."

"Good!" Shunsui hesitated, as the head of Seireitei's healing division closed the screen behind her and stood just inside; hands folded, dark eyes grave. "Um… that is good, right?"

"Captain Ukitake." The braid below her neck slid over white cloth as Retsu Unohana inclined her head. "I have examined your reiatsu in detail, and the Commander-General's concern was unfounded. You are not a Vizard."

Juushirou swallowed dryly, as Shunsui blanched. Yamamoto-Genryuusai had suspected that? Gods, no wonder he'd almost ended up in Twelfth Division's labs.

"And given that your wound seems to have healed, I have no further reason to keep you here. Especially since, unlike some shinigami I know-" her glance slid to Shunsui, who gave her a who, me? smile "-you have good judgment, and will not overstress yourself."

It should have been reassuring. It wasn't. Why would Master Genryuusai think that-? "I thank you for your confidence," Juushirou said politely, sitting up carefully. His chest still ached, but when he opened his yukata to look, there was only a pale white scar. "I shouldn't take up any more of your time-"

"All right." Shunsui folded his arms, and gave them both stern looks. "What's really going on?"

Juushirou read the concern in Retsu's eyes, and forced back a swell of fear. "We've faced the world together for centuries. Whatever you would say to me, you can say to him."

Sighing, Unohana nodded. Traced kidou over screen and walls, invoking privacy and silence. Pulled up a chair beside Shunsui, raised her hand, and teased his spirit-ribbon from the air.

Even half expecting it, the thread of night in crimson struck like a blow.

Shunsui stared. "What is that?"

"A shard of a youkai, caught in an ancient snare," Juushirou answered. "She did not grant us her name. We called her Kage-hime…."



"Only you, 'Shirou-chan," Shunsui groaned, banging his head against the mattress. "Only you could almost get killed in a damn library."

"Two libraries," Juushirou pointed out cheerfully.

Forehead still resting on the sheets, Shunsui craned an eye upward. "'Shirou. You've got part of a demon inside you."

"As Buffy has had, for at least two years," Juushirou replied. "If not from birth, or even before. She seems well enough, if inclined to attract peril."

"If she's real, and not something that book made up," Shunsui pointed out, raising his head. "Or something from some… crazy parallel universe, like that Armandra said she was."

"If," Juushirou nodded. "But the reality of Slayers aside, I don't think Kage-hime meant any harm. Even if she did almost kill me," he added, before his friend could protest. "If what I recall from Buffy is accurate… Slayers die, Shunsui. They're called young, and they die young, and they are all Kage-hime has known of the world for thousands of years." He let out a slow breath. "She needed to know I wouldn't break."

The Eighth Division's captain snorted. "You? Break?"

"She didn't know that," Juushirou pointed out. "She didn't know me."

"Youkai have a difficult enough time understanding humans when they're not in pain," Unohana reluctantly agreed. "And given the nature of the wound, and how it healed… it was a means to an end, Captain Kyouraku. She needed him near death, not dead."

"Needed?" Shunsui said uneasily.

"To induce his reiatsu to accept her youki," Unohana said matter-of-factly. "He refused to die, so he was open to anything that might heal him. And youki is very good at regeneration. Good enough to be mistaken for the effects of a Hollow, even when it only makes up a small proportion of his energies."

Which explained Yamamoto-Genryuusai's swift leap to a very unpleasant conclusion. "I suppose the Commander-General is not very happy with this," Juushirou frowned.

"No, really?" Shunsui muttered.

"No," Unohana said serenely. "He doesn't know. And I have been instructed to tell you, you should consider yourself ordered not to inform him."

"Unohana-" Juushirou protested.

"We've already lost three captains."

Listen to her, Sougyo no Kotowari urged. Think!

Not something he usually needed to be reminded of. But-

"You're not a Vizard. You're not illegal," the healer said plainly. "So long as you can safely carry out your duties - we need you." Dark eyes fixed on Shunsui. "And so long as the Commander-General has no knowledge of any irregularity that would have to be reported to whoever succeeds the Council of 46…."

"Demon?" Shunsui said guilelessly. "What demon?"

"Shunsui!" Juushirou protested. "He's asking us to lie to him!"

"Not lie, exactly," his oldest friend said judiciously. "Just… not parade anything awkward around in public. Right?"

"Something like that," Unohana smiled sadly.

Juushirou closed his eyes, suddenly weary.

"'Shirou?"

"I'm all right," Juushirou answered that quick worry, sitting up again. Barely a twinge, this time. "It's just... I never thought I'd feel this much sympathy for Kisuke."

"Speaking of our errant exile…." Unohana looked thoughtfully into the distance. "While we do have some youkai in Soul Society, the majority of them, like Captain Komamura, are rather - tame, in comparison to your guest. And while as a responsible healer and fellow captain I would never advise you to do anything illegal…."

"Of course not," Shunsui agreed, eyes crinkled with laughter.

"…It would be lacking in ethics not to point out that you might want to consult with someone who had more expertise in dealing with such creatures," she finished.

"Ah! Dear, sweet, smart Retsu." Shunsui bowed grandly, and pressed a hand over his heart. "Why, in all the worlds, are you still single? It breaks my heart to think that all of my brother shinigami in Soul Society are so hopelessly blind-"

Thwack.

"…Ow."

Juushirou eyed Unohana's clipboard, and had to hide a grin. He wasn't sure where she'd pulled it out of, and he honestly didn't want to know. But at least this much of his world still made sense.

Still smiling, even as she rolled her eyes, Unohana poked his scar. Hmmed. Nodded to herself, and waved toward the screen. "You're healed. Take it easy for the next few days, and take this romantic idiot along with you."

"So cruel…."

The clipboard lifted, and Shunsui backed up.

"Come on." Getting out of bed, Juushirou took a tentative step - and then more, when neither legs nor lungs betrayed him. "I need to borrow your Nanao's research skills, anyway."

"To find youkai?" Unohana asked.

"To find Sunnydale." Juushirou shivered. "If it exists… Phoenix came back to life." He sought their eyes, not trying to hide the depth of his fear. "If she's real - what happens if Aizen finds her first?"



"Restricted access," Lieutenant Nanao Ise reported, shaking out lightning-struck fingers as her computer bleeped angrily at her.

"But it exists?" Juushirou asked intently, his own hair still crackling with static. With Sougyo no Kotowari at his side, lightning-based kidou couldn't hurt him as easily; still, the security measures on Sunnydale-related data were nothing to fool around with.

"There is a Sunnydale, California," Nanao nodded, glasses catching a red gleam of the Restricted glaring on the monitor. "I can give you a GPS location, an estimated population, and a census of the forty-three churches, but any information on the town's level of spiritual activity is restricted, by order of the Council of 46."

Who were conveniently dead, and so beyond questioning. Of course.

"Don't mind me," Shunsui groaned from the floor, still smoldering. "I'll just sizzle right here… though maybe a kiss from a beautiful lady could make it all better-"

"Theoretically, so might a sandal to the head, sir," Nanao said levelly. "If you'd like me to test theories…."

"No respect. Even from my own lieutenant." Shunsui sighed, getting up. "Forty-three churches? How big is this town?"

"Not that big." She nodded toward the grainy map.

"It's the Hellmouth," Juushirou stated, reaching for half-familiar memories. "It clouds their minds to the reality of their peril, but they still realize evil is preying on them."

Nanao gave him a very odd look.

Why do I have a bad feeling I'm going to have to get used to that?

"Hellmouth also comes up as restricted," Nanao said after a moment. "As did Buffy Summers, Rupert Giles, and any other resident of Sunnydale. I did manage to access the Sunnydale High School obituary page." She eyed her computer warily. "Sir, do high schools usually have an obituary page?"

"Not according to Rukia," Juushirou stated.

"America's supposed to be more violent?" Shunsui suggested.

"We've been to New York, Atlanta, and an odd little place called Santa Carla," Juushirou reminded him. "It's not that much more violent. Though they do seem to attract far more vampires."

"And if there are spots on the ground shinigami aren't even allowed, there'd be a lot more vampires," his friend said thoughtfully. "Not that I buy this whole Slayer setup, but between this and the book…."

"There's a book?" Nanao looked between them like a hound casting for game. "Sir?"

Shunsui brightened, then drooped, obviously caught between a rare moment when he really could make his "beloved Nanao-chan" happy, and the burning knowledge of what they couldn't say.

"It's classified," Juushirou stepped in. "We need to evaluate certain situations before we can determine if it would be wise to release the information we have."

Nanao nodded. "In that case, sir, if you need quiet to contemplate potential consequences, might I suggest-"

"Captain Ukitake!" two very familiar voices chimed as one, as his blonde and dark-haired Third Seats crashed into Nanao's screen door and each other.

"Someplace they can't find me?" Juushirou murmured ruefully. "Kiyone, Sentarou-" How did Kaien work with them without beating them unconscious… no, bad captain, no resorting to violence.

"Sir!" Kiyone was marginally quicker to her feet, short blonde hair bobbing as she bowed. "Captain Unohana said that you'd been injured-"

"-And she wouldn't let us in to help!" Sentarou protested, scrambling up.

"-And we had to head off Nemu, she'd cornered one of Fourth Division's unseated personnel and was looking so determined, with something that glowed, when my sister found us-"

"Lieutenant Kotetsu gave us some of Captain Komamura's fur, and told us to wave it around where Nemu wouldn't see us," Sentarou nodded. "Worked, too-"

"-She chased us all over Soul Society, and Isane won't even tell me why!" Kiyone Kotetsu said indignantly.

"Are you all right, sir?" they chorused.

"I asked him first!"

"But I meant it!"

"You think I didn't mean it?"

Shikai? Sougyo no Kotowari asked hopefully. Binding kidou? Even just enough reiatsu to make their hair stand on end?

Tempting, but no.

You might think differently when She wakes up….

Juushirou stilled. Why?

A moonlit chuckle of waves. She has a temper. Like us.

Ominous. But Shunsui and his lieutenant were exchanging intrigued looks, even as the Thirds' squabble went on.

"So… Kurotsuchi's hunting youkai, is he?" Shunsui’s smile was uncharacteristically toothy.

"It'd be highly inconsiderate of us not to assist him in finding some," Nanao agreed. "After all, we all know how he hates to waste time away from the laboratory."

"Why do I get the feeling my life has become endlessly more complicated?" Juushirou sighed.

"Tch. Complications. Without them we'd get old and bored," Shunsui teased. "Stiff and creaky and decrepit-"

Kiyone surfaced from under Sentarou's attempt to smother her. "-And without your seal, we can't cancel the demonstration for Eleventh Division!"

That froze the room. "Demonstration?" Nanao asked warily.

"Unarmed combat techniques," Juushirou supplied. "If Aizen created the Hollow that killed Kaien…."

A muffled sob escaped Kiyone, and her captain made a mental note to make sure he was always between the little blonde and the traitor. She'd do her best to kill him - and her best wouldn't be enough.

"We have to be prepared for situations in which we might lose our zanpakutou," Juushirou went on. "And as Kenpachi put it-" he cast back in memory for an approximation of Captain Zaraki's pithy phrasing, "Seein' how fast those lieutenants went down, we'd damn well better get people used to getting smacked with captain-level reiatsu."

"But he didn't see- Whoa, whoa, whoa. You're going to demonstrate?" Shunsui gave him a rare are you nuts? look. "You just got away from Unohana!"

Hardly got away, but…. "And today, I feel fine," Juushirou said firmly. Who knows if I'll be able to fight tomorrow? hung between them like a drawn blade. "Can you imagine Second Division trying to give them a refresher in hakuda?" Soi Fon's ninja might be effective warriors, but no self-respecting Eleventh Division thug would dare stoop to sneakiness. "They know Captain Zaraki respects me."

"Why do I not think this is what Unohana meant by good judgment?" Amused, Shunsui shook his head. "Come, my lovely Nanao-chan. Let's go minimize the damage."

"By which you mean lounge in the sun, drink, and cheer on the underdogs, sir?" Nanao smiled faintly.

"Well…."



Premonitions of disaster aside, the demonstration started well enough. As static still threatened to turn his hair from its usual elegant snowfall to a rather less dignified dandelion puff, Juushirou fell back on a hairstyle he'd abandoned decades ago; tying it back simply, like a wanderer's, at the nape of his neck. Couple that with having left his haori with Nanao (he knew Eleventh Division, someone was going to be bleeding before this was over), and half the assembled miscreants didn't recognize just who was doing the demonstrating.

Which suited Captain Zaraki's purposes perfectly. The point was, after all, to get his men used to captain-level strength from someone who didn't look like a captain.

Still, it's just as well Kiyone and Sentarou aren't here, Juushirou thought ruefully. They were more careful of his dignity than he'd ever been. Seeing their captain dressed like just another shinigami would have had them tearing each other's hair out. Again.

Good thing Kenpachi's keeping them busy with the rest of his victims- er, new recruits, Juushirou thought, carefully stretching to warm up. Not that his Third Seats would ever believe he'd been so sadistic as to suggest that to Kenpachi in the first place… but he knew the Eleventh's captain wouldn't hurt them too badly.

And they needed a kind of training he somehow hadn't managed to give them. Or at least, they needed something. Hearing their screams that day as Shunsui had pulled him away from the execution grounds, knowing that Soi Fon would only torture them so long before she simply executed them as traitors… if Yoruichi hadn't shown up, he didn't know what he would have done. Something not as forgivable as a brief - if deadly serious - spar with the Commander-General, he was sure.

If Kenpachi could help them become any stronger… he never wanted to hear those screams again.

Though I am not desperate enough to subject them to Urahara, Juushirou thought. I don't care how well it worked out for Ichigo. If he isn't a Shiba, he has that clan's own luck to survive against impossible odds. They don't.

And luck ran out. Even for Shibas.

"I wouldn't exactly say I don't like this idea, Captain…."

Juushirou canted a dark brow down at Rukia Kuchiki, who was currently wearing the same bland look her adoptive brother had perfected decades ago. "Yes?"

"I'd just like to point out that Captain Zaraki left his lieutenant here, instead of enlisting her assistance to terrorize- er, indoctrinate the Eleventh's new recruits."

He raised the other brow, and looked across the training ground to where a pink-haired bundle of reiatsu wearing a lieutenant's badge was bouncing up and down beside a resigned Ikkaku Madarame and nervous Yumichika Ayasegawa. Giggling. "It's certainly proper for a ranking officer to supervise training, Miss Kuchiki."

"Of course, Captain." Her poker face wasn't quite perfect. "Still, Captain Zaraki is known to prefer leaving Lieutenant Kusajishi in situations in which she will be… entertained."

And for all her tiny, cute appearance, Yachiru Kusajishi's idea of fun was to take on three Hollows at once. By herself. "I promise I won't let them put me back in Captain Unohana's tender care," Juushirou said mildly. "Have some faith that I know my own limits."

Her non-expression was shadowed by a flicker of exasperated resignation, obviously recalling a certain orange-haired young idiot of a shinigami substitute who hadn't yet found a limit he couldn't break. "Yes, sir."

"And have faith in yourself," he added. "No matter how worked up they are, they'd probably stop if you asked them to."

Rukia eyed him suspiciously.

"You were the cause for the best fight Captain Zaraki's had in decades," Juushirou elaborated. "If you weren't happy in my division, he'd take you in an instant." He winked. "You are happy in my division, aren't you?"

"Of- of course, Captain!"

Oh good. The shock of a Kuchiki possibly ending up in Eleventh Division had rattled her away from that depressed resignation. Juushirou followed up on his advantage with an impish smile. "You could at least have faith in Captain Kyouraku."

That worthy waved a jar of sake from the sidelines, grinning broadly as Nanao took notes, Juushirou's haori neatly folded beside her.

By dint of Herculean effort, Rukia kept a straight face. "…Yes, sir."

Ah well. One didn't learn the courage to call one's captain an idiot to his face in a day.

We'll have to work on that. She’s part of Ichigo's nakama, and he will be crossing paths with more captains.

Though hopefully not blades. No matter how much Zaraki wanted a rematch.

Captain Zaraki is unlikely to be Ichigo's worst problem, Sougyo no Kotowari observed.

No. Likely not. Aizen had noticed Ichigo, at least long enough to try to kill him.

And liar and traitor that he was, Aizen wasn't a fool. Every captain-level shinigami Soul Society had was more strength to their defenses. Every one they lost….

Train the boy well, Lady Yoruichi. For all our sakes.

Well. She to her task, and he to his. "Given that you've all lasted this long in Eleventh Division, I'll skip the usual blade-disarms," Juushirou stated, raising his voice just enough to cut through the restive mutter. "I've seen Captain Zaraki use them, and I'm very sure he's beaten you over the head with each and every one of them."

A scatter of laughter from those who knew who he was; confused murmurs from those who hadn't caught on yet.

"We'll start by assuming you have lost your zanpakutou, from whatever cause. Third Seat Madarame?" Best to start with someone he knew could handle captain-level reiatsu, after all. Ikkaku might not have admitted to attaining bankai, but he had his suspicions….

The bald shinigami walked up to him, giving a rough but serviceable bow. Juushirou returned it, and-

Dodged, as Ikkaku promptly tried to slug him. Sidestepped the follow-up, hopped over a kick, and seized another striking fist with a spin meant to end with the younger shinigami's arm twisted in a very painful way….

It was like a gust of winter, rattling through starlit leaves. The bounce of an unexpected day off, with nothing to do but run wild as rivers. The blazing heat of righteous anger, knowing that the next strike would stop his foe forever.

It wasn't words. But if it had been….

Ooo. A fight!

The world was so clear.

He tasted dust, rising from their footfalls. Felt bone crack under his fingers. Saw Ikkaku's abortive flailing, as the younger shinigami flew through the air, and sensed the Third Seat's hastily-raised reiatsu as he crashed through the barracks wall.

What the-?

Dead silence, broken by Yachiru's squeal of absolute joy. "You guys go get Baldy! Everybody else, keep Snowflake here; I gotta go get Ken-chan!"

Oh, hell no.

Say this much for Eleventh Division. They might be the most thuggish, bloodthirsty, disreputable band of brigands ever to get thrown out of polite society, but they knew discipline. When their tiny lieutenant asked them to jump a captain, they didn't argue. They jumped.

Juushirou put down the first one relatively gently. Knocked out the next three. Flattened the next ten with a momentary spike of reiatsu - not that that helped much, with shinigami who'd managed to survive this long around Zaraki….

After that, he was very busy.

And having auditory hallucinations, if the laughter was anything to go by. "Shunsui!" Duck, pivot, strike - and it wasn't like flash step. He'd promised not to use flash step, and he wasn't pressed quite hard enough to break that promise, not yet…. Flash step blurred the world, until you learned to speed up to match it. This - it was as if someone had repainted his foes' subtle movements in broad strokes, so intent and target were clear without even thinking. "A little help?"

"Looks like-" cackle "-you're doing-" an undignified snort "-just fine!" Gales of helpless laughter.

Wonderful. No help from that quarter. He could hear Rukia and Nanao wading in with non-lethal kidou, but there were only two of them, and so many of Eleventh….

"Time!" Zaraki roared.

The few division members still standing backed off, or simply dropped in their tracks as their captain's monstrous reiatsu rolled over them. Juushirou stood in the midst of fallen bodies, panting. Definitely wasn't… what Unohana meant… by good judgment….

And… why was Yumichika holding up a stopwatch, feathered brow arched up with a look of utter incredulity?

More worrisome, why were Zaraki and Yachiru - and even a dazed, bloodied Ikkaku - grinning?

A rush of displaced air, and Shunsui was standing casually beside him. "Need to fall down?" his friend murmured.

"I… no." Juushirou frowned, still breathing hard. "Though I wouldn't mind sitting down…."

"I'll bet." Shunsui placed hands on his shoulders, and they whisked away to the sidelines. Where Nanao had actually left her writing brush to dry still ink-soaked, and Rukia now handed over a jug of water with wide, stunned eyes.

Juushirou drank deep, letting the chill soothe that odd flare of impending battle. Dug into Shunsui's picnic basket for a few snacks, and never mind Nanao's frown. He was starving. "I'd planned for a somewhat more structured lesson, Captain Zaraki-"

"'Til you decided you hated my wall?" Zaraki's grin was all fangs. Peeking over his shoulder, Yachiru's almost matched it.

…Right. He'd been trying not to think about that, because it simply didn't make sense. Oh, certainly shinigami could exert what seemed like inhuman strength when they focused their reiatsu. Witness Yachiru herself, who was quite capable of hauling off her captain's unconscious body when she felt so inclined. But he hadn't been focused. If anything, he'd been trying to use less force than usual. It was only supposed to be a demonstration-

"Think fast."

He caught Zaraki's fist. Easily.

Given Kenpachi Zaraki was quite literally twice his size, this made no sense whatsoever.

Oh yes it does, Sougyo no Kotowari chuckled. Remember Buffy.

Well, yes, Buffy could have stopped that blow, but Buffy was a-

Yes. She is.

"Sir," Rukia managed, as Shunsui and Nanao stared and the conscious members of the Eleventh Division grinned like sharks. "You were out there almost three-quarters of an hour."

"But that's…." Impossible, Juushirou almost said. A few minutes of fighting, he could manage. A half-hour, all out, if he didn't intend to do anything but collapse, hacking, afterward. Most of an hour… and he was only tired….

"Everybody who can still walk, thank Captain Ukitake for the lesson!" Zaraki thundered. "Ikkaku, Yumichika - break 'em up into groups an' get 'em going over what they saw. Captain Ukitake-" his voice dropped, to a more companionable earthquake. "I think we need to talk."



"So. Youkai, huh?"

Taking tea with Nanao, Rukia, and Shunsui in Zaraki's office - tatami a bit bloodstained, but otherwise a surprisingly neat room - Juushirou froze.

Zaraki rolled his visible eye. "You want to keep it quiet, you better spar next to a mirror 'til you know how to hide that look. Light in your eyes, hungry joy when you've got 'em lined up just right to go down... can't mistake predator for anything else. Even when it's just play-fighting…. Right. I forgot. Not something nobles talk about in polite company." Zaraki shrugged, hair-bells chiming faintly. "Shame. Met an inu-youkai in the living world a few decades back. Cold bastard, but even with one arm we kicked each other's asses best I've had 'til Ichigo got here…." He smirked, and came back from what was obviously a very bloody and pleasant memory.

"Not something we can talk about at all," Shunsui said seriously. "Yama-jii does not want to know. That's an order."

"Which I've just violated in front of over a hundred officers." Juushirou closed his eyes, wincing.

"You think my guys're gonna talk?" Zaraki snorted. "All I gotta tell 'em is, we're coming up with a few nontraditional techniques to kick some traitor ass, and we're keeping it quiet 'til we get to smack Aizen with it."

"Are you sure? Everyone was deceived by his noble conduct. Even now, many won't want to believe he executed the Council of 46, even with the evidence," Rukia added heatedly. "Sir," she added belatedly.

"They'll keep their mouths shut," Zaraki stated. "Gin's a snake and Tousen's blind as a bat in more ways than one, but it's Aizen who tried to make poor little hero-worshiping Hinamori kill one of her best friends. That's sick. My guys'll sit on just about anything to pay him back for that one." A flash of fang. "'Course, they're kind of expecting Hitsugaya to take point on that payback. Shrimp may have a stick up his ass almost as big as your brother's, but damned if he can't fight." Zaraki leaned back a little. "Kind of wonder why you haven't pulled this trick before…."

"He didn't have it before," Nanao said evenly. "Or he would have called off today's demonstration. Or am I in error, sir?" Indigo eyes took their silence for assent; she nodded, troubled. "Captain Unohana knows?"

"She does," Shunsui said levelly. "She thought any effects would have worn off by now."

"Yeah?" Zaraki's grin had a definite sardonic edge. "Why'd she think that?"

"Are you all right, Captain?" Rukia asked quietly.

"I don't know," Juushirou said honestly. "Do you know youkai well, Captain Zaraki?"

"Outside of, some of 'em can patch up from getting a hole punched clear through 'em, and hit like Ichigo in a bad mood? Not much." Zaraki shrugged. "I asked around. Most of the tough ones don't come here after they die, worse luck. Move on to someplace called Makai, I think. Or maybe that's where they live most of the time, an' they only pop into the human world when they feel like it. I'm not sure. So- what, this just happened? How?"

"I inadvertently did a youkai a favor, and she decided to repay it," Juushirou said wryly. "We still don't know exactly what she did - and as you saw, we definitely don't know all of the effects. We need to find an expert. And as it seems I would be more likely to find one in the mortal world…." He bent a considering look on his young subordinate.

"Sir?" Rukia said warily.

"Nobody's going to ask you where Kisuke Urahara is, Miss Kuchiki," Shunsui mused. "After all, he's an exile. Almost got executed himself… with a little better cause than you got charged with. Though he managed to break out. With a little help. Yama-jii'd be very, very upset if we went looking for him." He raised a lazy brow.

Rukia gave him a wry look, violet eyes amused. "Well, if all you're looking for is one mere, perverted shopkeeper…."



"Urk!"

"Ah, 'Shirou, he still needs to breathe-"

"Much as I might appreciate the sentiment," Yoruichi's amused purr broke into the red haze that had overshadowed the world, "Ichigo will be very disappointed if you strangle his teacher before he gets to."

Letting go with an effort, Juushirou stepped back in the echoing vastness of the cavern training grounds under Kisuke's shop. "It was your fault!"

The blond sidestepped away himself, watching Juushirou like a previously-harmless beaker that had suddenly decided to spit sparks. "All I said," he croaked, "was yes, I've heard of this mage Ethan Rayne, and yes, I shipped him some items-"

"Including one Tokugawa-era yuki-onna Kabuki kimono?" Shunsui asked dryly.

"Um…."

"Five-tailed kitsune, winter forest theme?" Yanking down a black long-sleeved tunic over bare skin, Yoruichi raised a purple brow. "He did clear that out of inventory a few weeks back, didn't you, Kisuke? A special order, for costume items with a bit of spiritual charge, wasn't it?"

"Er…."

"No strangling," Shunsui said fervently, gripping Juushirou's shoulder.

"I was right. I can't believe I was right." Juushirou shook his head, stunned. "Of all the thoughtless, irresponsible, dangerous-"

"Deep breaths," Shunsui advised dryly. "It happened, it's done - and the one you really want to drop a lightning bolt on is Rayne, right?"

"…Right." Tensing and relaxing muscles in deliberate progression, Juushirou let out a slow breath. Haven't had this much trouble holding onto my temper in… gods. A very long time.

She has a temper, Sougyo no Kotowari reminded him, and it is part of us now. We have much to relearn.

In the middle of a war. Wonderful.

She never said her gift would be easy to carry.

No, Juushirou acknowledged. I didn't ask for this….

You asked to live.

So he had. And there were a great many other things he hadn't asked for over the long years of his existence. Kaien's death. Isshin's disappearance. Aizen's betrayal.

Buffy refuses to let the Slayer be all of her life. I will do no less.

"You want to drop a lightning bolt on someone?" Yoruichi studied him speculatively, golden eyes agleam with impish amusement. "What did this Rayne do?"

Shunsui cleared his throat. "Hypothetically speaking-"

Kisuke straightened, wariness dissolving into eager interest, which was as swiftly hidden behind his fan. "Oh, this is going to be good."

Juushirou sighed.

"-Maybe, just maybe, this Rayne character used what he got from you, along with various other weirdness, to set off some kind of kidou that let people take on the abilities, and apparently mind, of whatever they dressed up with." Shunsui paused. "Now, imagine a sixteen-year-old girl got Juushirou's kimono."

Under the shadow of a green-striped hat, gray-green eyes widened, delighted. "You possessed a living human being?"

"I wish that were the worst of it," Juushirou admitted.

"Really." Openly smirking now, the ex-captain made a sweeping gesture. "Right this way, gentlemen; right this way. I have gadgets waiting to meet you. Many, many lovely gadgets…."



"Hmm."

"Unohana did that," Juushirou felt compelled to point out. And I didn't like it then, either.

"No offense to Captain Unohana," Kisuke mused, contemplating his readouts, "but I doubt she had a polarizing energy-purification array coupled with a transmorphic ki-shifter and elemental youki lenses."

"Which means…?" Shunsui raised a brow with exaggerated patience.

"Congratulations." Kisuke shuffled his papers together. "It's a dai-youkai."

One of the great powers. Juushirou put his head down, feeling faint.

"And you're right, she's very old. I don't know how your men-of-shadow caught her-" Something beeped, and Kisuke’s brows shot up. "Well, well. Maybe we do know after all." He looked up, interest dancing under the shadows of his hat. "If I'm right - and I think I am - she's a Dire Wolf."

Juushirou and Shunsui traded equally blank looks, then turned them on the scientist. Yoruichi cleared her throat. "Details, Kisuke."

"If she were mortal, she'd be an endangered species," the scientist elaborated. "Or more likely, an extinct one. If there are any Dire Wolves left, they're probably hidden away in some Arctic realm of Makai. Someplace musk-ox still graze in the shadow of glaciers, and Northern Lights dance through every night, even in the height of summer." For once, he looked utterly serious. "She's a wolf-lord born when wolves themselves were still forming as a species. When humans as we know them didn't even exist. Hominids, sure, even ones that had fire and broken stone tools - but not humans. My best guess? She's over nine hundred thousand years old." A wry grin. "Makes Yamamoto-Genryuusai look like a mayfly."

Juushirou swallowed hard. "How could…?"

"Old and powerful doesn't mean invulnerable," Kisuke said with rare honesty. "Part of her is ice, but just as much of her is wolf and woman, and that's a double dose of curiosity right there. My guess is, these shadow-men set up something to pique her interest, and trapped her on earth that had never been touched by glaciers, sealing the air with fire. In the scenario you described, all she would have had left to fall back on was female hominid - and since hominid isn't human, she couldn't just possess the girl and break out of there." Shadowed eyes narrowed, considering that ancient trap. "Damn, that was smart. Make a predator to take out other predators, but make sure it's got just enough ties to being human that it doesn't turn on you. A wolf-spirit could even survive fracturing; she's supposed to be part of a pack."

"It was wrong," Juushirou insisted.

"You came for information, not ethics," Kisuke said, not unkindly.

True. Juushirou inclined his head. "So how is it she could breach the trap enough to affect me? I'm not a girl."

"As far as youkai energies are concerned, technically, you're not even a human," the scientist stated. "You were born in Soul Society. You're a new soul. Over two millennia old, yes - but to Kage-hime? You might as well be a foundling orphan spirit, born out of yesterday's thunderstorm. That, she could use."

"Now you're making me nervous," Yoruichi said candidly. "Use?"

"Sea and glacial ice have a long history of being related," Kisuke elaborated. "The relationship gets even closer when you consider blizzards, which carry lightning. As far as spiritual correspondence goes, it's close enough."

"So she could get another piece of herself out," Shunsui said thoughtfully. "A shard these shadow-men never planned on."

"Exactly." The scientist tipped his hat brim, considering the situation. "I don't know if it'll be enough to eventually shatter the trap, but it's set up a weak point." He scratched his head. "A lot could depend on whether or not Juushirou survives long enough for one of these Slayers to die. If he goes first, Kage-hime's shard is likely to draw him back to wherever she's trapped… and I seriously doubt that trap was meant to deal with a bankai. If he doesn't - think of a meteor, soaring through a solar system. It might be aimed at deep space, but if it gets caught in a planet's gravitational field, it's going down. Only now it's sailing past a planet and a moon. And it was aimed at the moon to start with."

"A human soul wants to pass on, after death," Juushirou said, feeling his way through Urahara's reasoning. "If it's not bound for Hell, and it doesn't go straight to Heaven-"

"Then it should end up in Soul Society," Kisuke agreed. "You've only got a piece of Kage-hime, so you've got less pull than the trap. But less is still some. And if that's enough, and even one Slayer gets into Soul Society…."

They waited.The scientist held up empty hands, for once not hiding behind his fan. "This is speculation. Very tentative speculation. But if a Slayer-soul could get into Soul Society and grow in power there, Kage-hime's fragment would grow in power as well. Which, technically, would mean that proportionally less of Kage-hime's youki would be confined to the trap, providing a proportionally greater pull on the next Slayer, toward Soul Society."

"Which gives greater odds of her crossing over-" Yoruichi realized.

"-Which means a bigger pull on a third Slayer, and so on." Shunsui looked equally intrigued and alarmed.

"Leading to, eventually there would be more of Kage-hime out of the trap than in it," Juushirou concluded.

"Aaaand… pop!" Kisuke grinned. "I wouldn't want to be one of those shadow-men if she pulls this off."

"Are you sure you're not?" Yoruichi said dryly.

Urahara blinked, for once speechless. Smiled, and turned pleading eyes on his best friend. "But I'll have you to protect me, oh mighty defender."

"Pfft. Of course you will." Yoruichi rolled her eyes. "Besides, my clan knows something about youkai and honor-debts. Help Juushirou out with this, and she'll likely consider your debt paid." She looked him up and down. "She might chew you a bit first, though."

Kisuke looked less than worried about the threat of impending doom as a wolf-youkai chew-toy. "So! Back to your original question of, why did Ikkaku go through the wall?" He rubbed his hands together. "The answer is amazingly simple. Shinigami produce reiatsu, based on our innate spiritual potential and how much experience we've gained-"

"And a few illegal tricks along the way," Yoruichi murmured.

"Details, details. Anyway. Youkai not only produce energy by existing, they channel even more youki based on their elemental and spiritual correspondences." A smug grin. "Essentially, you've got a two-for-one deal. As long as you're in an environment where Kage-hime has a mystical correspondence - where she has power - you're channeling youki along with your reiatsu. And since one of her correspondences seems to be bloody death… poor, poor Eleventh Division."

"Oh," Juushirou managed. Oh, no….

Kisuke sobered slightly. "Though there is a downside. If you run into a contrary power, you won't have her extra backup. And given how strongly ice-oriented she is - avoid the Commander-General, if you can. Odds are, fire is going to hurt."

Oh, kill me now.

Much to learn, Sougyou no Kotowari mused, indeed.

"What else should we watch out for?" Shunsui frowned.

"More importantly," Juushirou put in, "how is it you were able to have dealings with anyone in Sunnydale? The Council of 46 has restricted it, which means even an exile-"

"Can't get access to official Soul Society information on the Hellmouth," Kisuke cut across his words. "There are plenty of Earth-based sources, if you know where to look." He paused, deliberately. "And as a former captain of the Twelfth Division, I just happen to know that the senkaimon works on a strict GPS system, completely separate from any higher-level security on our information networks. As a safety precaution, specifically in case a Hollow fight resulted in a shinigami being somewhere Soul Society has deemed unsafe, and thus requiring rescue." The fan waved victory. "Aren't you so lucky, we just got in an interesting shipment of maps…."



"Shunsui?"

"Hmm?" Adding a few final flourishes, Shunsui stepped back past his duffel bag of just-in-case and smirked at the still-smoking sign on the school wall, watching letters cool back into shape.

"The Commander-General gave us permission to take an intelligence gathering trip to an unspecified location as long as we were subtle." Juushirou tugged at the collar of his green sweatshirt - modern clothes were so weird - and hoped his dark slacks weren't too out of place. Shunsui had tried to talk him into jeans, but one of them looking like the hooligans he'd seen trashing grave offerings in Japan was enough. "I don't think that qualifies as subtle."

"Hey, you read what it said," his friend shrugged, draping his dark jacket over the shoulder of his tie-dyed rainbow shirt.

"Formatia trans sicere educatorum?"

"Enter, all ye who seek knowledge," Shunsui nodded, picking up his duffel. "And just what did you say this town had an overabundance of?"

"Vamp- Oh." And he knew that at least some of the vampires in town were old enough to know Latin. Still…. Juushirou arched a brow. "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here?"

Shunsui winked. "Trust me. The kids'll love it."

Spoken by the oldest kid I know, Juushirou thought, smiling. And it really couldn't do any harm, so long as they weren't-

"Hey! You there!"

Caught, Juushirou thought ruefully, turning toward the oddly familiar voice. The man stalking toward them, all but vibrating with fury, was short and balding, in what Buffy’s memories labeled a very tacky brown suit. Angry eyes were narrowed, and the way his lip curled when he looked over Shunsui's denim, colors (rainbow, with an abundance of pink), and long hair- "Oh. So you're the troll."

"I don't put up with vandalism from these delinquent brats, I'm definitely not going to stand for it from a pair of- What did you call me?" Principal Snyder steamed.

Bamf!

"Usually you try to talk first," Shunsui mused, as Juushirou tried to drag him away from the unconscious school administrator.

"That's Snyder," Juushirou explained, tucking the kiokuchikan away in a pocket. Who knew what memory the man would wake up with, given his experience with the Hellmouth - but at least it shouldn't include them. "He's threatened Buffy with expulsion more than once, and he's actively covered up odd events at and around the school. Buffy's not quite sure he's human."

"Huh." Shunsui let himself be dragged now, one brow lifted. "Feels human. Maybe a little slimy. Bet he and Kurotsuchi would get along like a house on fire…. You know where we're going?"

"Everything looks shorter, but yes." Juushirou smiled sweetly at a teacher who poked her head out into the hall. She stared - and quickly looked away, disappearing behind a slammed door.

"Okay," Shunsui said in a low undertone, "that? Not normal."

Juushirou sighed, raising his reiatsu a bit more against the Hellmouth’s prickly bitterness. "I told you. They may not recognize dangerous creatures consciously-"

"But deep down, sometimes they still know." Shunsui nodded. Eyed the door they were closing in on. "So this is it?"

Mouth dry, Juushirou nodded. He could feel what waited inside - and if he could, Shunsui could as well.

"You made the best choice you could to keep people alive," his friend said gently. "If they're mad at you, we'll deal with it." Shunsui tilted his head, evidently missing his usual straw hat. "But it's not them you're worried about, is it?"

"She's so young." Juushirou looked down. "She's been through so much already, and she had no choice…."

"You did the best you could," Shunsui emphasized. "What, you think she can't understand that? I doubt anybody who had you in their head could be that small."

Juushirou glanced up at his friend. "But what are we going to do?"

"You always hate not having a plan," Shunsui mused. "Thing is, you're forgetting you did have a plan." A wink. "You brought me."

Because they had so little time, so very little time, to prepare Soul Society for whatever Aizen had planned. Juushirou knew that better than anyone. Every hour away from his division was another hour he couldn't help them….

But Sunnydale is real. The Slayer is real. Which means Phoenix-

They hadn't found her. Both of them had searched through Sunnydale's spirit-ribbons before ever coming near the high school; they'd found no trace of that star-hot reiatsu.

But I know what I felt.

Even if Phoenix were somehow no longer a threat, Buffy deserved the chance to face the one who had dealt death with her body. Put that together with what they could both sense inside that door.…

Shunsui guessed that this might have happened, Sougyo no Kotowari observed; the measured lap of waves in a rising tide. Katen Kyoukotsu says we are not unprepared.

Thus the duffel bag. Shunsui always did have a knack for seeing to the heart of a situation, and knowing what had to be done. Heartened, Juushirou nodded.

Silently, Shunsui opened the door.



Ch'ing-shih - "hopping vampire".
Inrou - compartmented box tied to the obi, used as a pocket.
Kiokuchikan - Memory-altering device used by shinigami to cover supernatural events.
Nakama - friends, companions.
Senkaimon - world penetration gate. Used by shinigami to pass in and out of Soul Society.

The End

You have reached the end of "Lone Flower". This story is complete.

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