Assuming the Mantle
Since his return to the Soul Society, Komamura had been hard at work settling back into the thick of things after his extended absence. For nine years he'd been embroiled in conflicts with powerful spiritual beings on a daily basis, and he was at last free to resume his duties as a Captain, and fulfill his vow to the man who'd seen past his appearance and allowed him to join the ranks of the Shinigami all those years ago.
He'd formally assumed captaincy over the Ninth Division, and his first order of business had been to personally meet up with each of his seated officers, so that he might know them better and establish a proper working relationship.
As the Captain of the Ninth Division, Sajin found himself in charge of the Seireitei Communication magazine. It was a different sort of work than what he was used to, but his work ethic had always been impeccable. Due to his appearance and the terrible treatment he'd suffered in the past because of it he still found himself struggling with the kind of low self-esteem that never truly goes away, it had been worse as of late.
What Sajin experienced as his failure to save Kaname, a man he'd loved deeply, loomed like a shadow at his back, ever eager to sink its cold talons into his psyche. He'd been too weak to defeat Bambietta without restorting the Humanization Technique, which had prevented him from serving Soul Society. When the Kido Corps revolted, he hadn't been there to uphold his oath, and many of Tousen's former subordinates had been killed in the initial attack. Indeed, Komamura's mind always seemed to find a way to twist tragedies and other painful occurences into his fault, whether they actually were so or otherwise.
Yet centuries of blaming himself for everything, and the vivid memories of physical and emotional abuse he'd suffered through in the past gave Komamura something else, a sense of compassion that his subordinates had always found reassuring. The current situation would turn out to be no different.'
Putting the pencil down, Sajin examined the man before him. He was sweaty, fidgeting, and nervous, fearful even.. the man was Toshinori, a seated officer in the Ninth Division, and a man that had just informed the Captain that someone had managed to ruin more than eight-hundred copies of the Seireitei Communication Magazine in print. He claimed not to know who that someone was, but he could not lie to Sajin, for his senses were acute enough that he could practically smell it.
"I am dissapointed in you Toshinori-san, we are all fallible beings capable of making mistakes, but true integrity involves admitting them."
Komamura's voice held no anger, but his disapproval was clear enough to get his point across regardless. Golden eyes met those of his subordinate, and the other man turned away in shame before he muttered, his voice trembling. "I screwed up, taichou.."
Sajin nodded solemnly before speaking. "Myself and Hisagi-fukutaichou will be attending an official meeting shortly and will be unavailable for some time. Explain the issue to Third Seat Hiroshi-san and I will join you when I return to help set this right."
Some time later Sajin Komamura found himself entering the large room in which most meetings were held. His eyes instinctively trailed to where Yamamoto used to stand, and he couldn't help the melancholy he always felt upon being reminded of his death.
With these concerns weighing heavily on his mind, Sajin Komamura assumed his position in the right row of Captains, as he looked towards the Captain-Commander.
Viridian eyes followed the hulking anthropomorph as he entered the room, watching him intently whilst he assumed his position within the same row that she stood in. Her eyes closed, withdrawing their gaze when Sajin's form began to obscure from her amongst the other Captains that stood between the pair. With that, she let out a stiff yawn, lazily raising a hand to stifle it only after most of it had passed already.
The lackadaisical mannerisms, the bags under her eyes, the messy unkempt hair, they were all things that detracted from that fact, or perhaps they were greater indicators of it, but this woman was none other than one of the first Captains of the Gotei 13 from the days of its very founding. She was Seia. Like the Captain of the Ninth, she had only recently returned to the Soul Society, back from a sojourn to the World of the Living, upon the formal request of her peers. She had long since retired from her role as a Shinigami, from fighting and killing, but the dire straits of the Seireitei's military forces had caused them to seek her out.
She looked upon each and every man and woman to enter the room, and each time a new face turned up, a pang of regret pulsed through her chest. She knew the feeling all too well, at times she wondered if putting down the blade was the right choice. Perhaps it was too selfish. Had she been there, for all the wars and conflicts of the past decade, perhaps many of the fresh-faced and wartorn Shinigami that filled the ranks of the Captains would not have had to do so. Perhaps many of the older guard, the likes of Ukitake, Unohana, and even the legendary Yamamoto would needn't have lost their lives.
Habitually she raised her hand to rest on her blade, only for her hand to fall short, as it hit air. Ah, right, she remembered. Perhaps an odd thing for a Captain to be missing the greatest symbol of her station, but nonetheless, her Zanpakutō was not on her person. It had been among many of the negotiations between herself and the Central 46 as they negotiated her return to Soul Society. For her, this was about seeing what was right. Whether truly she was as selfish as she believed. She was "on loan", as she saw it. Leaving her blade, sheathed up and locked away, in the faraway climbs of the Human World was a commitment to her retirement. For the transition of new Captains, and for the sake of ending the rebellion of the Kidō Corps is why she stood here today. Cask upon cask of spirits, straight from the breweries and cellars of the Noble Houses didn't hurt, of course.
Meanwhile, Third Division Captain Rōjūrō Ōtoribashi entered the hall gracefully, at a measured pace. Late enough that a few of his peers could behold his arrival, early enough so that he would not be scolded for laziness. After all, as a high-ranking officer of the elite Gotei 13 he ought to behave with proper solemnity. They were neither brute warriors nor down-to-earth mercenaries, but protectors of peace in the spiritual realms.
Of course, there were people among his colleagues who would disagree with that notion, perhaps strongly. Nevertheless, he was not one to bicker needlessly over a difference of opinions. Tolerance was a noble trait to display. He unhurriedly assumed his place at the beginning of the row that Komamura and Honoria shared with him and looked at the two.
"I'm glad to see some old and new faces, or both", he remarked with a faint but friendly smile. "I wish more Captain meetings were pleasant reunions like this. I'm afraid we are not gathering here in order to celebrate, however."
Lurking in his shadow was his young Lieutenant, Teruo Akui. Evidently, he attempted to draw as little attention to his person as possible. An endeavour rendered difficult by his unusual appearance: naturally possessed of dark complexion and hair, it seemed as if someone or something had haphazardly "drained" some of the colour from the left side of his body, leaving irregular pale patches on his skin and a grey streak in his hair. With a brooding face expression, he regarded the other officers; one of his eyes hazel, the other icy blue. Absent-mindedly, he scratched his exposed left arm.
Surprisingly enough, the Eleventh Division had already been present. Captain Yoshirou Yamakage had been awaiting the arrival of the rest of the captains. His back straight, arms were folded, and eyes closed tight, a very relaxed pose for him. The spiky portion of his hair coming down over his face, acting as a visor to protect his eyes from whatever was in front of him.
The ebony captain couldn't help but think about the last time the thirteen captains were gathered together; a discussion of the traitorous Kidō Corps, responsible for the death of his comrades. It was still a very unpleasant thought.
Rōjūrō's words had an impact on him. While he wasn't exactly a newer captain, Yoshirou certainly hadn't held the position for long. Even then, the Third Division captain was correct, these meetings were never something to celebrate about. He unfolded one of his arms and left the other across his chest, gripping the hilt of his Zanpakutō with his now free hand.
"Good, you're lively, Ōtoribashi." He released the grip of his blade and returned to his arm folding position.
Much like the other captain, Yoshirou's own lieutenant was not present, for his own reasons, but his third seated officer Kazuki Kawahiru was. He was much smaller than his captain and obviously much younger. His most distinct feature was his messy silver hair, completely opposite of his captain. Kazuki had earned the position of lieutenant just after the first meeting, per request of Yoshirou himself.
He was firm and completely focused. Noticing his captain's closed eyes, he looked around surveying the rest of the present Shinigami there. He never had the chance to meet any of them before, so they all were foreigners in his eyes. With his chest held high and mindset focused, he waited for the Captain-Commander's words.
Shūhei Hisagi, who at various times in his career had been the recognised authority of the 9th Division, stood slightly back and to the side of Captain Komamura, and he looked to be at his ease in the larger man's company. Hisagi had never been so pleased when Sajin Komamura returned to the Soul Society; the fact he assumed leadership of the 9th Division sat particularly well with Hisagi.
As was common amongst the members of the 9th Division's Commando Unit -- which had been recently restored under Komamura's leadership after having been defunct under Captains Tōsen and Kuchiki -- Hisagi wore a white-coloured haori not unlike that worn by a Captain, with his Lieutenant's badge on his left arm.
He looked serious as usual, though Captain's meetings where usually serious affairs anyway, and he stood with his arms crossed. Instead of responding to the Captain's currently present he remained silent, as he had during the previous meeting in the immediate wake of The Coven attack, and contented himself to wait for now.
Unfortunately, the "pleasant" reunion mentioned by Rose was about to come to an end.
With a sharp bang that echoed in the wood-floored meeting hall, the two main doors slammed against their frames as their were forcibly thrown open. There was a brief burst of spiritual pressure: raw, burning, and uncontrolled. Apparently, the owner of the reiatsu was uninformed that releasing spiritual pressure in the captain hall was not just bad manners: it was technically prohibited as a sign of open hostility. But then the reiatsu cut out, and an unfamiliar shadow fell across the floor, framed by the silhouette of the entryway.
Hein Ueda, captain of the Seventh Division, paused as he quickly took in the sight of the gathered captains and lieutenants in front of him. Despite being a seasoned gambler of the Rukongai, Hein quickly lost his poker face. His mouth curled into a characteristic smirk, and the disdain he held towards the other Shinigami practically spilled over into the room.
“Well then, ain’t this an exceptional pile of shit,” he muttered under his breath, although it was likely loud enough where a few of the other Shinigami standing nearby would have heard the tasteless statement.
Further disregarding any form of protocol or respect, Hein strolled into the middle of the room. He only wore half of his captain’s haori properly: the other half was draped over his waist, which allowed the tattoo of his former gang’s symbol on his shoulder to be prominently exposed. He had carelessly slung his Zanpakutou behind his back, and even though he was one of the latest (if not the latest) captains to arrive, he took his place among the captains unhurriedly, feeling their stares bore into his back as he passed by. It didn’t help that his wooden geta clacked loudly in the nearly silent hall, drawing even more attention to his entrance, but he could have cared less about making a scene. In fact, a part of him reveled in the attention.
“Damn stiff in here,” he pointed out, referring to the atmosphere, “Did someone up and kick the bucket?” When no one seemed to respond, Hein crossed his arms, unimpressed.
It was his first captain’s meeting, and only the second time that he had stood before the captain commander. Many of the Shinigami present were unknown to him, and as he hadn’t been around for very long, he only knew one or two of them by name. That was to be expected, seeing as he had only just joined the Gotei 13 the week before. Even now he could sense the tension coming from a certain lieutenant of the Ninth Division—Shuuhei Hisagi. Hein was keenly reminded of the insatisfaction he had felt at the conclusion of their earlier battle. There was unfinished business between them, and they would fight again one day, he knew.
Turning his attention away from Hisagi, Hein wondered if he was supposed to feel impressed, standing in front of the collective weight of all the captains and lieutenants who had been gathered in one place. But instead of cohesion and confidence, Hein sensed untested and uneasy potential along with, somewhat contradictorily, a settled weariness of war. It seemed clear to him that most dreaded conflict, at least a conflict against the powerful, as-of-yet-unseen enemy of whom he had only heard the briefest of rumors. Weak. Exceptionally weak. He thought to himself.
Only two captains truly caught his attention. The first was a tall woman who, curiously, carried no Zanpakutou. Hein could sense her energy as she fidgeted, and noted that it felt different from the other captains, almost electric. The second captain he noticed was Sajin Komomura, who stood in front of Hisagi. He could sense a pronounced feeling of... was it disgust? from the former captain of the Seventh, but he shrugged it off. Already rumors of how someone like Hein could have so abruptly taken the position of captain were circulating throughout the Seireitei: it was only natural that he should be hated.
“Well then, should I stick around? Cause if ya don’t got anything to talk about, I got better things to be doin’ with my time,” he drawled, his distinctive and unrefined accent immediately apparent.
Hisagi felt Hein's gaze settle elsewhere. The only indication that he was annoyed or angry was hidden by his crossed arms; his fists where tightly clenched, and he wore a firmly set jaw. But he did not rise to the occasion and simply exhaled as he relaxed his balled fists. He would not let his personal feelings spill out here, of all places.
To say that Komamura felt disgust for Hein would be innaccurate, as with most things, Sajin's first victim of his own disgust was himself. He'd abandoned his previous division out of a desire to atone for his inability to save his dearest friend, and to give hope and restore unity to a division that had been ravaged by much misfortune. It had seemed like a noble gesture, especially considering the time and effort he'd spent further grooming and preparing Hisagi to succeed him as the new Captain of the Seventh Division.
Sajin admired the inner strength of Hisagi, and he was certain his former division would've welcomed him as their Captain. Ultimately he'd wanted to establish a close-knit rapport between the Seventh and Ninth Division, just as it had been during Kaname's captaincy. It would've strengthened cohesion and Soul Society would be all the stronger for the effort, but somewhere it had all gone awry.
Komamura had misjudged the situation, and what was supposed to be an ordinary Captain proficiency test for Hisagi had suddenly turned into a competition, as a new presence entered the equation. He'd overseen the proficiency test multiple times in the past, and he was well-versed in the laws and history of Soul Society, so he knew that the captain proficiency examination wasn't merely there to test an applicants power, but also to judge their character.
According to that system, there should be no way for a known criminal and gang leader to become a Captain. This time however, this crucial provision had been ignored entirely, and that suggested to Komamura that someone with a great deal of political clout had pulled some strings, a member of one of the four noble houses, in all likelihood.
With these thoughts weighing heavily on his mind, Sajin closed his eyes and let out a drawn-out sigh. The Seireitei had enemies within as well as without.
Tea for Thought
"It's quite the lively atmosphere here~" the Captain-Commander mused, a subtle joyous choice of words masked by his usual sly and relaxed tone. Yet Kyōraku's face exhibited the faint trails of stress accumulated throughout these last couple years. Every step towards peace was met with a push-back towards despair, and after all this time, it was clearly wearing down the Captains and their divisions, bit by bit. It made sense; before the incident with Aizen, save for a scattered few situations there and inbetween, the Soul Society enjoyed what amounted to an undisturbed peace lasting nearly an entire millennia. And yet, since that time, it was difficult for them to go longer than a year or two without another evil rearing its head seeking to destroy what they had built for themselves.
Sōsuke Aizen. Xcution. Yhwach and the Wandenreich. The business with the Tsunayashiro family. And now the Kidō Corps.
Could anyone blame the Captains for simply being tired? It was an exhaustion that bore into their very souls.
Even the mirthful Kyōraku found it hard to enjoy the days of peace with all the problems that had befallen them. But throughout all of that, the Captain-Commander was not one to submit to such things; even in the midst of all this despair, he was resolved to keep their spirits up, as both a fellow Shinigami and as their leader.
"Nanao-chan~" Kyōraku called out, addressing his co-lieutenant. "Would you be so kind as to serve the Captains some sake? It should get everybody's spirits up."
"With all due respect, Captain-Commander..." Nanao shot back, her tone a merger between strictness and politeness, as she gently nudged the bridge of her glasses upwards; the glare on the lens shielding her eyes from view. "Given the severity of the topic of this meeting, serving alcohol would not be a sensible idea. Besides, it's still daytime."
"Ah, you're no fun..." Kyōraku responded before simply smiling warmly toward her. "Then perhaps some tea instead?"
With the assistance of one of the other officers present, said officer had briskly placed wooden folding tables near where the Captains all stood; one table being wide enough to account for two Captains a piece, making for three tables to be set up at either side of the Captains. This was followed by Nanao who begun the task of placing a cup at each of the tables and poured some of the tea that was prepared prior to the meeting's start. As that was carried out, Kyōraku, who had already tea served at his side, picked his cup up to slowly sip from the cup's edge before looking out toward the Captains.
"Well then..." the Captain-Commander spoke, returning to a serious demeanor. "As I'm sure you are all aware, we've received reports of strange activity occurring in the Human World. A place called... Ikeda, if I recall?" he stated, handing the floor over to the Captains.
At this point the door slid open, revealing a face framed with naval blue hair, and the expression of a deer illuminated by headlights. "It appears that I'm late..." Mizuko Hamada said in a slightly nervous tone. She quickly shuffled into the room towards her assigned spot. Her hair was held back in a severe pony-tail, still damp. "I lost track of the time and had to sprint over here, a thousand apologies everyone." She said with a deep bow, "So let's just put this behind us and on to strange activities. Those are bad, so bad things are happening in Ikeda."
She looked around the room, recognizing a few faces while also seeing a few ones she didn't recognize. She was aware a few of her fellow captains, some even from her days before she left on the expedition. Though even they were different from what they had been in the old days. Captain Komamura had come back, though the mask he once wore was long gone. She still had trouble thinking of him as he was now, though she chalked that up to nostalgia. Captain's Rose and Honoria were supposedly ancient, but she had never met either. Both were before her time. The 11th's captain she just simply hadn't interacted with before, so it was too early to reserve judgement. Then there was the the newest guy... but that was a thought for later. Back to the matters at hand.
Mizuko refocused her thoughts before leaning back slightly to whisper to her Lieutenant, "What's happening in Ikeda?"
"Come on, Captain, it's your job to know that kind of stuff", complained Asuka Shimizu as she pouted her lips and crossed her arms to emphasise her exasperation, her voice a bit too loud for a whisper.
Truth be told, she was an inexperienced officer as well. More than that, her rather diminutive and lean physique detracted from her attempts to appear otherwise during such a momentous event. Not to mention that she simply did not know either. Despite her talent and high-ranking position she was still a rookie, lost and confused in that big, complex, nigh-incomprehensible world. Of course, she would not admit that to anyone. She had her pride. Fragile, but she had it.
Mizuko was not the only individual who entered the large doors however. Hotaru Hiroshi, who was known to the members of the 9th Division as Yoshiro Shiba, entered under Kidō-wrought stealth; one of the many benefits of aligning himself with The Coven. He silently approached the far bottom right-hand side of the chamber and settled in to listen, all the while with a half-smile spread across his face.
"We're getting to that", remarked Seia from the other side of the room, catching the other Captain's words even as they were hushed. For the past while she had sat idle, listlessly watching each of the Captains as they entered just as she had been doing before, gently fidgeting away as the impulses of her body dictated. From the garish display of Ueda, to the tensing muscles of Sajin and Hisagi, she could spot the tension of these Captains a mile away. Ideologies, principles, personality, they were all different and unlike the men and women before them, and the men and women before those, they had yet to be tried and tested together. They couldn't see past their differences, whatever they intended to claim on the matter. The only way that would happen was through conflict, whether they butted heads against each other, or found a new opponent, that was for them to decide. For Seia, the idea simply made her tired, as evident by the yawn that followed her remark to Mizuko.
Deflating in the knowledge that there would be no alcohol at this venue, Seia took matters into her own hands. Slipping her hand into the sleeve of her haori, retrieving a small bottle of malt whisky and an appropriately sized glass. She filled it with the deftness of a career alcoholic, and not long after downed the shot. "Good stuff", she openly stated, knowing full well that she'd bemuse half the room.
Hein had to admit, tea being served did help to break the tense mood. The fact that a few members of the Gotei had straggled in after him also convinced him of the fact that the entire meeting was, in the end, a joke. He shook his head, but didn’t refuse when Shunsui’s lieutenant offered him tea. Still, he hadn’t entirely forgotten his hostility towards the Ninth Division. For a moment Hein thought about trying his hand at an insult aimed at the Ninth’s captain, which would be sure to rile up Hisagi as well, but ultimately discarded the idea. Despite the fact that he was literally standing right next to Sajin’s towering figure, it was too much effort to try and start anything at that point.
Besides, his attention had been drawn to one of the corner of the room, where he could sense the faintest disturbance among the shadows. It wasn’t a Reiatsu signature. It wasn’t any indicator that someone or something was there. But it was the slightest impression upon the atmosphere. Something that had been very-well concealed had moved. He could sense that much with his gyogan along with his kyoui-kan, two of the skills he had honed to a razor’s edge as a blindman. The sensation faded from his awareness as soon as it had appeared, however, and instead of probing into it further, Hein decided simply to ignore it.
One way or the other, it wasn’t as if he really cared about the well-being of the Gotei 13. Besides, if it was a threat someone else should have handled it.
It wasn’t his problem.
Making himself at home, Hein promptly sat down on the floor, cross-legged and with tea in hand. He was careful to first test it make sure it wasn’t poisoned by rolling a drop of the liquid around in his mouth to see if his tongue went numb. Occupied with this task, whatever Seia said about some backwater town called “Ikeda” was lost on him. However, his ears perked up the moment he heard her loosen the stop on the whisky flask. He could smell the Scotch from where he sat, and knew immediately that she had brought quality goods.
Forget about the tea. Might as well be drinking horse piss.
Without much regard for subtly, Hein gulped down the rest of the tea before leaning around Sajin and the captain of the Eleventh that stood between him and the captain of the Thirteenth.
“Hey there, obahan,” he said in a low voice as he extended his empty yunomi in her direction. “I know we ain’t been acquainted yet, but do me a solid will ya? I could use a real drink right ‘bout now, ya know?
"Hmm, I suppose a bit of high quality liquor is a solid choice for an icebreaker", remarked Rose when he finished his tea. "Don't you agree, Teruo?", he cast an aside glance at his Lieutenant.
The smile on his face widened slightly when he noticed that the young officer had been staring rather intently in the direction of Captain Honoria. It was rather easy to tell that the alcohol was not the thing that drew his attention.
"Ah, I see you've got good taste", commented Rōjūrō in a deliberately vague manner. "You know, if you were a Captain, you could drink like an equal with us, Teruo."
The aforementioned Lieutenant winced and glared at his Captain in barely subdued shock. A faint blush rapidly spread on his two-coloured face. The veiled intent behind Rose's words was not lost on him. Still, he was even more surprised on the inside than he did let on. He had already realised that the Captain suspected certain things about him despite his best attempts to remain inconspicuous, but to read him like an open book...
"I see...", he murmured in response.
Byakuya Kuchiki, the Captain of the Sixth Division, had been in the area for a while. Punctuality was the norm. However, Byakuya rarely raised his voice during this meetings, finding it completely unnecessary. Although, as of recently, Byakuya had grown more emblazoned, for the Soul Society was always teetering on the edge of chaos, and negligence to discuss and prevent this chaos would cause the Soul Society to rot. Clearing his throat, as to draw the attention of everyone present in the room, the Captain spoke, "Let us discuss the matter at hand." With that, he fell silent. Whether the others in the room would respond positively or negatively was up to them.
“I presume these charades are done with, then? I like a little fun as much as the next girl, but...” The young Captain of the Twelfth Division, Garland, vented her frustrations with a sigh, having observed the others whilst remaining firmly in her post, before reaching into her sleeve for a rectangular shard of glass. Standing in the center of the assembly, she lifted up the shard for all to see, the city Ikeda and its numerous transpirations both past and present reflected upon either side.
“This is Ikeda,” Garland intoned with integrity unbefitting of her usual character. “I’ve monitored the Human World closely with my powers, oftentimes from habit, other times for my own sense of security. Recently, by chance, I've stumbled upon something interesting.” As though Garland had wordlessly cast an influence, the shard of glass began to reflect an event more abstract: the beckoning of a Gillian by the hand—or rather, the invocation—of several figures clad in dark robes.
“It’s only one of many such events I’ve encountered. To say that the rogue affiliates of the Kidō Corps is involved could be a bit of a stretch—I wasn’t there back then, after all—but it does beg for some sort of investigation, does it not?”
"It seems like it," Mizuko will say from a seiza position. She had finished drinking her tea, and had calmed down a bit now they had gotten into the meeting itself. She refrained from actually drinking any alcohol, as she didn't feel it was appropriate for the meeting. "The question I have is just why Ikeda. Is there anything of importance there?"
Garland slid the glass shard back into her sleeve once everyone had gotten a sufficiently good look, then addressed Mizuko without looking at her. "Your guess is likely as good as mine, Greenie. Until we investigate, we can only speculate."
Aside the introspective glint between the two young Captains, Seia found herself more focused on the glass in her hand than the one projecting ethereal facsimiles of the Human World. Particularly with respect to the individual lurching over her looking to share in the spirits. She had no qualms, with a light shrug, she filled his glass with her liquor and took the time to refill her own. "More than welcome, good drink's meant for sharin', bud".
She raised the glass in Rōjūrō and Teruo's direction, smirking as she gently shook her glass invitingly. "And I'm always game for more drinking partners", she remarked innocuously, entirely mixing the subtext from the young Lieutenant, or the implications she was making herself. Not that they mattered next to the strong burn of whisky as it was consumed, she breathed out, satisfied.
On the other side of the room stood Iyori Hizakura, Lieutenant of the 4th, who had been largely quiet for the proceedings as he took in everything, with a subtle but chipper grin to his face. He stood comfortably, all dressed up in his shihakushō watching as Captain after Captain and Lieutenant after Lieutenant came to life in a rather successive fashion. It was bizarre but quaint, and the young weaver was happy to see so many colourful characters among the leadership of the Gotei. "Quite a sight, wouldn't you say, senpai?", he spoke, directing his voice to the woman slightly ahead of him, his own Captain, Hisaka Tsukada
"This is refreshing," Hisaka remarked, a faint smile worn upon her face. "The dreary air had become suffocating of late... even if I'm partly to blame for that!"
Seia's every movement had been observed closely from behind by a tall canine coated with silky white fur. It treated every tomfoolery tainting the room before its sapphire eyes with only a carefully veiled growl of discontent. As its lackadaisical superior proceeded to indulge in a bottle of whiskey—far be it from its comprehension to determine how she had smuggled that—it lay low with its eyes pointed wayward, repetitively smacking the ground with the hefty length of its tail.
But then, its salvation came in the form of another Captain, or so it initially thought, as Garland entered his sights and presented something reflected on a small glass pulled from her sleeve—something from a viewpoint much too small. The canine knew only from Garland's own words that Ikeda demanded their attention. His vision was not quite enough to determine why, only exacerbated by his comparatively feeble stature.
Finally, before another jape could stand in its way, the dog stood up, waltzing around its Captain to address Garland directly. "Might you have considered that, among us, some are indeed visually and vertically challenged?" it spoke calmly, betraying its annoyance. "I will not be asked to glean anything from such a puny receptacle."
Garland looked at Glacies, placing her hands on her hips. "Aww, I'm sorry, I'll be sure to bring along a high-definition television next time," she replied, sarcasm prevalent in her tone. "Bark off, bow-wow; just shut up and follow your damn orders."
With a threatening growl, Glacies quietly retreated to his post, lying beside Seia's leg. "Captain Garland... let me only say that I now have quite a medley of choice words for you. Be thankful of my restraint."
"Now come on Specs, why don't you throw him a bone." Mizuko teased in response to the recent developments in the meeting. The twelfth captain had given her a nickname, so she had given her one in return.
"Oh, I would throw him a bone if I were given a chance, Greenie," Garland murmured, giving Mizuko a sinister smirk. "About four of them, even; if you know what I mean." She folded her arms and looked elsewhere, grumbling to herself, "Damn mongrel, always barking insolent babble..."
"C-Captain...let's get back to the topic at hand, please?" A younger woman, robed in a Shihakusho underneath her lab coat spoke. She was wearing glasses, much like her own Captain, and appeared an almost mirror image, albeit a distinctive feature of hers being her traditional, circular eyebrows. She bowed to the other Captains in an apologetic manner. This was the Lieutenant of the 12th Division, Izumi Ōmura and their public representative.
"There are various mysteries surrounding Ikeda as a spiritual region. It was not a spiritual region of much activity like Karakura Town, but rather, a rather quiet place that a Shinigami was very arbitrarily assigned to. To see such unusual fluxes in spiritual power must mean the work of a Shinigami, Hollow, or other spiritual race would be at hand. As a member of the 12th Division I would like to be part of the task force sent to investigate the phenomenon. Detailed reports of the nature of the phenomenon must be taken by at least an experienced member of the S.R.D.I in order to concretely establish the nature of the threat and subsequently act upon it." The Lieutenant rambled away, before suddenly losing breath and puffing outwards. It was a terrible habit of Izumi's. Being overly excited often lead her to splurge out words, much to her chagrin.
"Ahem." Izumi got a hold of her tongue, "That is all from me. I apologize for interrupting." She spoke with her manners, knowing that she went out of hand in this meeting not asking for her opinion.
In response to her Lieutenant's first sentence, Garland cleared her throat before straightening her posture. "Fine, fine; so my behavior was a tad out-of-line. I apologize."
As Izumi proceeded to volunteer herself for the task force, Garland placed a palm over her face, silently lamenting the added weight of her already hefty responsibilities in her Lieutenant's absence, however temporary it would be. "I guess there's no helping it, then. I would suggest that Bow-wo—... rather, Lieutenant Fidus, over there, offer to go along with my own Lieutenant. He's at least comparable to a Captain in one regard—all of the power, none of the importance." She stifled a chuckle at her last words. "Pardon me..."
"Do not make me unwilling to do as I already was, termagant," Glacies spat before standing upright. "Should my power and intellect be required by this brigade, I, Glacies Fidus, will gladly lend it."
Kazuki inched closer to Yoshirou among all of the chatter and tugged on the man's haori. "Captain Yamakage," He whispered, ensuring that no one near the two could hear him. Not that they were paying attention anyway. "Is that, actually a dog?" The young Shinigami questioned, lifting his eyebrow as his gaze slowly drifted upon Glacies.
Yoshirou's eyes remained closed, but his nose had been sniffling ever since Glacies had entered the room. Somehow, some way, Sajin's own "dog-like" scent had no effect on him, but Glacies' did. "Yes, Ginken." Ginken was a nickname he'd given Kazuki.
"I see, Captain. Then, in this case, might I add I'd rather take Captain Komamura?" While it may have seemed a bit biased, it was true to a certain degree. An actual dog, that walked on all fours, seemed to have bothered the third seated officer. Especially given the animal's ranking at lieutenant. But, did Kazuki actually have any room to talk? His position could also be questioned.
With a whisper back, Yoshirou wiggled his nose holding back his sneeze. "Leave those things to yourself, Ginken. Well, only to us. Expressing them in an atmosphere such as here, won't get you anywhere."
Finally, the captain opened his eyes. "Sekigan, it's about time you break your silence and speak."
"Geez, Scruffles, you sure know how to turn a crowd", she was not this 'Sekigan', nor had she been silent, but nonetheless Seia was the next to chime in, remarking to her canine Lieutenant about his relative lack of popularity with the gathered officers in the room. Though she had a mind to continue with her personal amusement, she did feel the urge to present something of worth to this meeting. "I second that nomination, Scruffles here is a master babysitter".
"By the sounds a' things, you lot want to take this seriously, and to that end, I'd suggest polishing a team of the best, some few lieutenants and whatever heavy hitters you might suggest from your upper seats", when she began speaking of the pending investigation Seia's voice seemed louder than normal, not that she was shouting as such, but that her voice seemed to quell and quieten everything else so that she would be heard above all, like thunder taming the sky.
"If my Captain approves, I would also like to join this team, then", chimed in Iyori as he stepped forward, relaxed and yet serious in his own way. "The scientific expertise of the lovely ladies in the Twelfth aside, a medical expert should be present for any field medicine that might be required. After all, we're dealing with our own here, they'd know our tricks as we know theirs".
He had made his voice a little deeper than usual, trying to play himself up. His Captain saw through him no doubt, but there were ladies present and Iyori always aimed to impress. "If the Captains gathered are worried that a field medic might be an unnecessary risk, let me assure you that I come from a rather respectable line of Kidō users and it wouldn't do to be outdone."
Whilst her fellow Captains deliberated upon the Lieutenants who would be sent to the world of the living, Hisaka’s thoughts lingered upon past events, as though she had been carried back to the eve of the insurgence of her own whim, a mere spectator of the downpour and anarchy, burdened by many lives placed in her hands. But never once had she cowered in the face. She was long a God of Death in its purest gist, even before the moment she first set foot upon the grounds of the Fourth Division. Death was but an aspect of life unworthy of grievance, for without it, how could any accomplishment cling to its significance? Nevertheless, she was a healer—a wandering shaman before all else, spreading miracles so that others could see their dreams made true, that they could all have a chance to die with purpose.
As her Lieutenant offered to join the task force, Hisaka unhesitantly coiled her arm around his shoulder in support. “I agree with that,” she said of his words, her smile as prevalent as it was before. “Take proper care of everyone, kiddo.” She swallowed her concern for her closest pupil, knowing she could allow death to befall him for as long as he still had dreams and ambitions.
Striking the Iron
Kyōraku had observed the Captains and the others discussing the situation while he sipped his tea occasionally; holding the cup between both palms, a calm deadpan expression on the Captain-Commander's face while he listened, with his one good eye lazily scanning back and forth between whoever was speaking at the time. Contrary to the uncaring demeanor he exhibited, the quiet Kyōraku was equally attentive and observant; it was part of the man's unorthodox and shrewd methods. Always listening, even if he acted reserved and unconcerned. As the topic of the task force being sent to investigate the matter had come up, the Captain-Commander placed down his cup and prepared to address them.
"It would definitely be wise to send a group down to properly get an idea of the situation. However, given the circumstances, we can neither afford to send low-ranking officers down to the Human World, nor can we give up too many Captains, otherwise the Seireitei is left susceptible to attack again. This group should be centered on Lieutenant-class Shinigami, first and foremost." Kyōraku explained, before continuing. "That said, I'd feel safer placing a Captain at the head of the task force. This excludes Captains of the 4th and the 12th, and myself of course, for obvious reasons. Same for the 2nd's Captain, the Onmitsukidō should remain ready in case they will need to intervene should the Kidō Corps make a move out in the open. So, beyond that... Any takers?" the Captain-Commander added, opening the floor to a Captain to volunteer for the position of leading this task force.
"I am willing to go if you'll let me Captain Kyōraku," Mizuko spoke up in a cheery voice as she thought about the rest of the events, She took another sip of the tea before continuing. "It's been a few decades since I've last had the opportunity to enter the Human World. Either way, I'd like to volunteer my dear A-Suk-A. After all, she's been itching to get out of the barracks for oh so long. Not to mention that her sword is rather... bothersome to deal with for most... potential threats." She had confidence in her Lieutenant, after all she had worked the last few years to whip her entire division into shape, officers included. "Isn't that right, Lieutenant Shimizu?"
The aforementioned young woman, who had feigned disinterest in the conversation so far, immediately lightened up following Hamada's suggestion.
"Yes!", she exclaimed with a sprightly jump, throwing her arms into the air. "B-but! Don't call me like that, Captain!", she added shortly afterward, pointing her finger straight at Hamada's face. "Anyway, I'm sure my tactical acumen and versatile skillset shall be an invaluable asset to the team, Captain-Commander, sir!"
Similarly to her superior, she was a relatively recent addition to the officer ranks, young, inexperienced and eager to prove herself. Not to mention she enjoyed visiting the Human World.
"While I'm certain that Captain Hamada's assistance would prove invaluable, I think we should abstain from sending a Captain until we are more familiar with the threat we're facing. After all, our enemies might very well be the selfsame ones who killed my predecessor."
Sajin's deep voice reverbated across the room while he spoke. Gentle as always, but tinged with a certain something else, caution. He paused briefly before continuing, once he was sure he'd gotten everyones attention.
"Even so, I recognize the need for some additional security in the form of a captain-class combatant. I reccomend that we send Glacies-san in Captain Hamada's place, his strength is equal to the task and his abilities are quite unlike any of ours. This advantage might increase our chances of success, while also preserving the unity and strength of the Gotei 13 in his absence."
Having been occupied with the whisky in his hand, Hein had only been paying half-attention to all of what was being said in the meeting. But he nonetheless turned attentively to Sajiin as the latter spoke, and even though he was picking wax from his ear, he carefully listened to what the captain of the Ninth had to say.
Hein then drained the rest of the Scotch before setting the yunomi on the table, satisfied. He would have to ask the captain of the thirteenth where she had managed to get her hands on the alcohol: it was quality stuff, at least from his low-born perspective.
But at any rate, there were more important matters at hand.
Truth be told, there had been a burning question on Hein’s mind since, the moment he had received the summons to the captains meeting. He had come expecting to have said question resolved, but so far everyone had seemed to beat around the bush. While Hein had been content to allow the other captains to speak their minds, he had gradually come to the conclusion that they were either too oblivious or too spineless to address what he perceived as the obvious problem at hand.
“Well, finally someone had the guts to say somethin’ that ain’t just spewin’ shit,” he began, his tone lilting and sarcastic. “Ya’re all too damn excited to jump over this task force, or such-and-such. Do ya have something to prove here? Real exceptional, for a captain of the Gotei 13 to drain an ocean in order to drown a fly.” He laughed, cruelly. “No wonder ya couldn’t see the Coven comin’ at you—you were all too preoccupied with pickin’ up the straws of your own power.”
The irony of what he was saying was not lost upon Hein. That he of all people should talk about restraint... But he had learned his lesson. It had cost him, but he had come to see that it was unwise to become overly embroiled in one’s own affairs. The bigger picture must always be kept in focus. That said, he really only had one person’s interests in mind as he spoke: his own’s.
“Leastways,” he said, continued his monologue, “From what I can see there’s only been one of ya who’s said anything worthwhile so far. Hein jabbed his finger casually in Izumi’s direction. “That miss over there. Figure out what ya’re dealin’ with before sending out an entire detachment into enemy turf. Ya’ve got a stealth force don’t ya?” He shrugged, “But that really don’t matter none to me, at any rate. My real question here...” he said, fixing his blind gaze on Shuunsui himself, “Is it standard protocol to summon the entirety of your command force to put together one damn squad? That’s goin’ for nothing, if ya ask me. In fact this entire meeting has been a waste of time— Unless there’s something else goin’ on here, that is. I’ve got a hunch that that old bird knows more than he’s letting on, and he’s been lettin’ ya’ll speculate and run circles around this problem like idiots.” He paused, then finally reached the conclusion of his rhetorical interrogation:
“Ain’t that right otchan?”
Takashi Sakuma, who had remained silent throughout the duration of the captain’s meeting, stiffened as the captain from the Rukongai spoke. His hand drifted instinctively to where his Zanpakutou normally rested at his hip, finding instead empty and unquieting space. Even though the Gotei was technically still hostile towards the Coven, no open war had yet been declared, and as such Zanpakutou were not allowed within the meeting hall. Personally, however, Takashi believed that the ban had not been lifted simply to prevent insidious paranoia from growing since the rebellion seven years ago.
That said, what the captain of the Seventh division brought those hidden fears rising back to the surface.
What were they really dealing with here? Were they overreacting to an unconfirmed threat, as Hein had accused, or was something else truly underfoot?
Takashi subtly cast his gaze in his captain’s direction. Byakuya was as solemn and expressionless as always, but Takashi wish he would say something, anything, to quell the implications being made by new captain. Still, it was not Takashi’s place to speak up. He even felt affronted at the insubordination of his fellow lieutenants. To speak without first having been addressed in a captain’s council, of all things, and some had even been brazen enough to volunteer themselves for the task force. Takashi had clenched his jaw in consternation, but he had not let his frustration show. At least Hisagi had shown the requisite severity, and Takashi appreciated the veteran's adherence to protocol.
Now, however, uneasy suspicion stirred in the pit of his stomach. He too looked in Shuunsui’s direction, trying not to appear too eager as he waited for his answer. If Byakuya did not respond then perhaps the Captain Commander himself could justify the situation and allow him to put his doubts to rest.
Kyōraku took a moment to process Hein's words, even shutting his eye for a moment, before responding almost immediately afterwards. The tone remained his usual calm gentleness, yet the pure venom hidden underneath such pleaseantries could not be mistaken.
"Captain Ueda. I understand the intention behind those words, but would you kindly shut up?"
Such a thing would have easily warranted utter silence in the Captain's hall. The Captain-Commander saying such a thing was unheard of; even Nanao, who observed from the side found herself stunned. Kyōraku slowly opened his eye to a narrow slit as it centered itself on Hein during that moment. Shunsui Kyōraku was a polite and well-mannered individual, but even he had his moments where his blood would begin to boil.
"Yama-jii would often leave the Captains to do their own thing, and at times, for the simplest incidents, it may have worked. But all it did was allow for even greater evils to arise, ones that we were left at their mercy because we lacked the cooperation needed to foresee such a thing; to prevent such a thing." the Captain-Commander explained, cupping his hands together at his lap. "In the past, we were only the 'Divisions'. Just a group of self-interested warriors that only joined together so they wouldn't be fighting each other. It wasn't until we saw what we could do together, when we fought the Quincy over a thousand years ago and achieved a world of peace, that we stopped simply being the 'Divisions' and became the 'Gotei 13'. Alone, we're weak. But together, we might stand a chance. If we work together, peace might not be an illusion after all. That was the idea that the Gotei 13 was founded upon." Kyōraku added, softening his expression. "I do not consider our meeting to be a waste of time. We have to move together, as the shields of Soul Society, if we have any hope of preserving our world. So, Captain Ueda... I ask that you remember what it is a Captain of the Gotei 13 should be doing, rather than trying to incite discord among your fellow Shinigami."
As he finished the thought, Kyōraku went ahead to address the entire Captain's council now. "With those that have volunteered, we will be assigning a task force by tonight, and issue the names via jigokuchō. For now, the group will consist solely of lieutenants and lower-tier officers, but I ask that you all be ready to mobilize should Captain intervention be necessary. We shall coordinate our efforts with the 12th Division's monitoring of the human world, send the task force out to analyze the situation and report back, while preparing for Captains to mobilize if the matter escalates." Kyōraku ordered.
"With that, we're dismissed." the Captain-Commander concluded, slowly rising himself out of his chair.
From the Dark
The young boy writhed, screaming, his body wracked with pain. Hooked up to so many alien machines and apparatus, with no sense of where he was, no ability to ground himself and determine one iota of his surroundings. Gripped by torture, fear, and unknown sensations that tore through his body like a cancer, it was no wonder his cries and screaming filled the echoing halls of the grim looking fortress. A room of horrid architecture some halfway between biological organism and oddly formed stone. Cloaked figures scurried around, operating constructs and observing monitors of all manner of design and appearance. Before them was a translucent wall of light that separated them from the boy. Peering through that glass was a figure of middling stature, features obscured underneath black robes and any indication of who they were entirely lost in the face of the blank mask they wore. It bore no features, no identifying marks, not even spacings for eyes or a mouth. In that sublime sleekness was its only giveaway. Ostentatious golden adornments poked out from the robe, however, vambraces and sabatons of elaborate make that made it clear someone very powerful was present, though hiding their identity all the same.
"Another of these 'batteries' about to fail and yet we see no more hint of progress than with the last", spoke the entity, a woman, by the tone. The child before her was an ordinary human boy, kidnapped by the nascent and thrown into all manner of experiment to synthesize the creation of a Fullbringer. The process was hardly perfect, and the changes unstable. Those taken were forced to act as a sort of beacon, to lure Fullbringers to Osaka, but for all of the effort and all of those who had died so far, little had actually come of the effort, so much so that the figure watching couldn't help but question it. But, she was not in charge of this little project...
"No, no, no, this won't do at aaall", a rather deep, if still feminine voice could be heard in the room.
An atypically tall lady swooped in and stood beside the masked one with the grace of a crane. Her straight nose, somewhat elongated face and hair combed to the back further added to the image of an oversized bird. Nevertheless, she was an Aristoi of the Coven, Maiko Ueki, clad in her teal robes with eye-watering thin line adornments, staring at the test subject attentively from behind her glasses.
"It's about time they realise we can't be so shy anymore", she remarked cryptically. "We can't rely on poor little kids like this. We need genuine, mature specimens. Genuine, genuine, genuine!", she continued with an eerie grin outstretching on her face.
In the meantime, she lifted her right hand. Twirled her index finger until a barely visible, gleaming green thread manifested in the air, spinning in accordance with the motions of her digit. The thread extended toward the boy rapidly. And, in one fell swoop, stitched his lips shut.
"Hang in there, kid", said Maiko, baring her teeth in an unnerving grimace. "We'll find someone to replace you soon enough. I promise."
Fellowship of the Brings
In the early hours of the day, Sundown Ajito, a popular bar in the heart of Ikeda's business district found itself both closed and yet curiously abuzz with activity. The lights were off and the doors were locked, yet those passing by could hear all manner of activity from within, loud enough that one could hear them above the sounds of traffic bustling all around them. Within the fine wood doors of the late night establishment, the activity's source was none other than the myriad men of the Morimoto family, all dolled up in their black suits, making themselves busy re-arranging the furniture of the club. That night was to be a special occasion, a gathering of all the yakuza families affiliated with the Morimoto.
Men and women from the Shima, Kurogane, Motorijima, Iba, and Rokūjo families would all be present, even representatives from the greater part of the Sumiyoshi-kai would be in attendance. There they would all be as equals, as siblings, they would drink sake, talk business, and regale each other as family did. To that end the boys of the Morimoto worked with all haste to ensure the bar was properly prepared for their esteemed guests.
The back room of the establishment, a lavish office of suede, leather, marble and and sleek lighting had less activity than the main venue but was no less filled with the trappings of Yakuza workmen. Some few accountants and guards surrounded one singular individual who stood out with his pale complexion and mop of white hair. "Come on, guys, if we were all out there we'd be finished in no time!", Kōhaku complained, pleading to his colleagues.
"Y'know that ain't how it works, boss, just sit tight, they got this", replied one yakuza standing by the doorway. It had been the umpteenth time one of them had had to rebuke the young heir this morning, at this point some of them were sure all of them would have had to do so before he eventually let up. Nonetheless the white-haired boy sighed, and slumped into his chair for now, and that was enough.
"Oh, brother", he fussed, before casting his eyes over the table in front of him to stave off idle boredom. Ostensibly, he was the "overseer" of this little task, but everything had already been outlined specifically to his father's instructions, and no one disobeyed Shizumaru Morimoto without a death wish.
Resting on the table was a small briefcase, a gift from a friend from Nagoya. Undoing the clasps, and lifting the lid, he found himself face to face with an image that could not reconcile with itself. The case was elaborate, nothing super expensive, but nothing cheap either. The interior was laid with memory foam, accurately pressed and made to fit the items secured within. Those items on the other hand stood out immediately against the polish of the briefcase. Pagers. Old electronic pagers. No doubt furnished from an old medical school supply cupboard. Kōhaku could barely contain his amusement, letting out a gleeful chuckle at the sight. "Oh, Maya-chan, these are perfect", he remarked to himself. Several of the small devices were laid out within the case, and a note promised more to come. Smiling knowingly, he re-sealed the case and climbed from his seat.
"Alright if you guys don't need me, I'll step out for a bit", he spoke as if it was a split-second decision, but it had been a date in the works for days now. He lifted the briefcase and made his way to the door, only for the man there to stop him in his tracks.
"Be back in an hour, yeah?", he stated strictly before letting him go. "Of course!"
From there, it had been a not-so-long drive to the old Ikeda high school. Abandoned, and all but surely forgotten, it had been one step of many in a long planned idea that Kōhaku and Tetsuo had shared. Getting through the rusted old gate was an exercise in frustration, but with enough elbow grease, and a little Fullbring, Kōhaku soon found himself deep in the grounds of the old school, admiring its sheer scale. The building had been abandoned for some time now, and likely parts of it had become dilapidated if not outright threatening to collapse. That wasn't something the white-haired man worried about, though. That's what money was for. No, instead he was ecstatic at the potential such a large place could offer them. He drew out a phone from his pocket, pressing the limited number of keys to speed dial the only person he needed to share that with.
The moment the call connected, before Tetsuo even had a chance for greeting or inquisition, Kōhaku spoke. "Momo-chan, where are you?!"
On the other side of the line, Tetsuo held his garakei flip phone far enough away from his ear in order to avoid having his ear drum blown out. He growled in consternation. Clearly Kōhaku was not aware of the decibel he had been using, the excitement evident over the crackling static of the line.
Tetsuo always had problems establishing a clear connection when using electronics.
“I’m at the gym,” he told Kōhaku. Tetsuo held the phone in place with his shoulder as he set up the practice dummy he was panning to use for his drills. “Why?” He glanced behind him to make sure no one was too close to overhear his conversation. Fortunately, it was still too early for the Saturday-morning-aerobics-class-brunch-club to have arrived, and the spacious exercise studio was mostly empty. In fact, as a young, twenty-something karate-ka, Tetsuo was a bit of an oddity surrounded by wrist-band sporting septuagenarians in white sneakers.
“Momo-chan, I've found it," Kōhaku continued ecstatically. "The perfect place for Xstence!”
There was a pause, as Tetsuo first had to process what Kōhaku had said, slow it down a few seconds, and place it within its context before he realized what he was talking about.
“Where?” he asked. Although he feigned tiredness, he couldn’t help but feel his curiosity begin to peak.
“The old school, just outside of town, remember? Where we hunted that ‘ghost'?" Tetsuo flinched as he thought back to the time he had nearly broken his leg chasing down the Hollow that had ambushed them.
"And you probably want me to come check it out, huh?" He recalled the conversations he and Kōhaku had been having over the last few months, and realized that this must have been one of Kōhaku's latest attempts to help after Tetsuo had mentioned something about setting up a "base" for the Fullbringers.
"Oh come on, you'll love it!", replied Kōhaku emphatically, not letting Tetsuo's dour demeanour allow him to miss a beat.
Tetsuo glanced at the mat and the punching back he had just dragged out of the storage room, and sighed. All that effort for nothing, after all.
“How soon do you need me there?” he relented, knowing that he was likely giving up his day-off. He just hoped that whatever idea Kōhaku had would actually be feasible.
"10 minutes ago, buddy! You best Fullbring your butt here quick, or I'll come and drag you!", playful though his warning was, Tetsuo remembered the last time Kōhaku had dragged him somewhere with his 'unorthodox' mastery of Fullbring movement techniques, and knew that he could very easily make good on his threat. “Give me a few minutes. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Tetsuo promised before hanging up. While he had responded to Kouhaku with seemingly little enthusiasm, Tetsuo actually felt something akin to nervous excitement stir in the pit of his stomach. Could this be another step closer to achieving their dream?
A few months earlier, Tetsuo had brought up the idea of starting an association of Fullbringers during the New Year's Celebration held at Michiyo's place. It was a vision he had held since his early days in the university, but only now that he had found his feet in the world—and only now that Kōhaku had been given access to a sizable portion of his family's funds—did that vision seem to have become a possible reality. Emi had been behind the idea as well, and they had even told Otoya about it. Since then, he and Kouhaku, along with the other Fullbringers currently living in Ikeda, Osaka, had begun to cast their dream for a unified yet unstructured group of spiritually-powered humans who would help each other to “better integrate into normal society.” But the scope of their plan had continued to grow, taking on wings with the illusive promise of a solidarity that would allow them to, shoulder to shoulder, support and protect each other against Hollows and other supernatural threats: An extended family with bonds forged not in blood, but in their common experience and trauma. This group, they had decided, would be a place where they could share in their own, private knowledge of the spiritual world and express their truest fears and hopes. Where they could be themselves, Hollowfied powers and all.
It was to be a place where they could exist.
Less than fifteen minutes later, a veil of blue light splintered into a shimmering, translucent veil just in front of the large “road closed” sign that marked the edge of the city and the beginning of the forested mountainside outside of Ikeda. As soon as the light appeared, a sleek black Yamaha 2012 R6 roared through and onto the road and Tetsuo, seeing how close he was to the barrier, braked quickly.
The tires of the electric motorcycle screeched on the pavement, but fortunately he managed to stop before the end of the asphalt, lurching forward in the seat but somehow remaining behind the handlebars. He had even ended up parked just beside Kouhaku’s car, but when he thought about it he realized it was a wonder that he hadn’t rear-ended. Maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to use Fullbring on a moving vehicle after all but... it had been damn cool.
Tetsuo dismounted and removed his helmet before checking his watch. If Kōhaku complained about him being late he would use him as the practice dummy for the personal training session he was missing, he decided. Still, he set off at an easy jog to reach the school at a faster pace, glad in hindsight that he hadn't had time to change out of his t-shirt and sweats.
As he climbed over the mound of earth and broken concrete that blocked off the road, Tetsuo was struck by just how truly isolated the old school was from the rest of civilization. Most people in Ikeda knew of Hōnara high school, although the only ones who ever went there anymore were the mushroom collectors who hunted for their fungous treasures in the woods nearby. Maybe Kōhaku was right about it being the perfect place for a hideout, he thought. Then he corrected himself.
Headquarters. Not hideout.
At last, Tetsuo could see the main building through the gap in the trees at the top of the hill. Twenty years ago, someone had attempted to convert the 1960s post-war wood frame row buildings into a private boarding institution, and for that reason had constructed the road that lead to the main highway, although the pavement was now too buckled and cracked to reach the school by anything other than foot. When he arrived, Tetsuo found that the gate was already open. Kōhaku was waiting for him in the main courtyard.
“So this is it?” he asked. But then he noticed Kōhaku’s formal suit and tie and frowned. “You have a meeting today?”
Kōhaku had turned to his friend, eyes brimming with positivity, a wide grin on his face. "Nothing I haven't snuck out of before", he replied, making a note of removing his tie from his ensemble with a rather deft little motion.
"Come on! We have to check this out, it’s going to be perfect, I just know it!", with all the energy of a secretary on their sixth cup of coffee, Kōhaku was up and raring to feast his eyes on the interior of the school. He hadn't painted a graceful image, rather, he fully expected the building to be full of caved in ceilings and walls wrapped in overgrowth. But that's what made it exciting. They'd be traversing a jungle of weeds and concrete, and bit-by-bit they'd turn it into something worthy of calling home.
Rushing to the main doors, it was obvious it would take some work getting inside. The front doors, two large steel-looking things, were rusted within an inch of their frames, stiff, stuck, and surrounded by junk from trash left by hoodlums to old construction and school supplies from before the school was condemned. It'd take some work to get past it all. That was until a particular green glow began to shone on the disparate pieces of debris. Kōhaku commanded them to move with a flick of his wrist, and then he willed the door to perform its long forgotten function, to open.
The door did so, but in a manner less than orthodox. It collapsed off its rust-eaten hinges and fell backward, landing on the cold stone floor with a boom, followed by the whimpering collapse of metallic dust within the desiccated frame of the door. Kōhaku chuckled. "After you", he gestured to Tetsuo.
“Very smooth,” Tetsuo shook his head, but then chuckled. Kōhaku still seemed to hesitate to step into the unknown. They hadn’t really changed, in all those years. “If anything crashes down on my head you’d better pay the insurance.” He stepped inside, allowing his eyes to adjust to the dim interior.
“I’ll get you a nice bouquet, I promise”, Kouhaku mused jokingly, sure nothing would come of their adventure into the school.
Then Tetsuo did something odd. Crouching down, he brushed aside some of the dust on the floor and placed his hand on the smooth concrete. Concentrating, his eyes glowed briefly with a static blue light before thin spiderwebs of electricity spread out from his palm. The web coated the surface of the corridor, snapping against the ceiling and walls, and Tetsuo released the delicate ring of light. It continued down the length of the hall before quietly flickering out. The lights came on.
“Now we can see where we’re going,” he said as he stood up and brushed off his hands. “Although the charge won’t hold for too long.” There was a distant, hollow clang as a pipe fell somewhere and clattered on the tile, and Tetsuo winced. Maybe releasing a live charge hadn’t been the best idea in an apparently unsound structure. But he stubbornly rolled back his shoulders, as if challenging whatever mishap might befall them, and continued into the interior of the school, Kōhaku close behind him. Together they explored room after room in the old building, following Tetsuo’s illuminating prowess as a guide. The first room they looked into was an old staff-only break room, most of its amenities still strewn about the place if in absolutely horrendous conditions. Graffiti lined a couple of the walls, anything from gang signs to entire artistically laid out quotes and phrases. The room itself looked structurally sound, but both men got the feeling it was a trap. Perhaps the floor was weak, or the ceiling. They couldn’t put a finger on it, but they both decided the better option was to move on. Not without ideas for it in future of course. The halls echoed with their idle musings, about this installment of furniture or that new fangled security system. The pair pushed back and forth among a variety of topics, but it was clear from Kōhaku’s exuberance and Tetsuo’s growing reception that they were clearly immersed in their surroundings.
Something made no more clear than when they stepped into the next room. An old classroom not unlike those of Karakura High, hitting them both with a wave of nostalgia.
“See, I told you this would be perfect!”, Kōhaku beamed, looking over the room. For all the trash and dirty lining the corners, the room itself was almost immaculate compared to what they’d seen so far. The desks had been neatly piled atop another in the back of the room. Sure, some of them had began to rust and decay, but they had yet to topple into a pile of metal and wood. The windows were all intact and the walls had only the barest amount of graffiti lining them. A new coat of paint would sort that in a snap. Kōhaku cautiously entered, stepping into the centre with measured steps.
The floor didn’t creek, that was a good sign.
“This one definitely seems to be in better shape,” Tetsuo agreed. He fell silent as he crossed his arms, obviously contemplating something as he paced around the edge of the old classroom.
It was nothing like Xcution’s old headquarters. But maybe that was a good thing. Tetsuo recalled the mansion on the outskirts of Naruki city, and how he had fled in utter terror, following close on the heels of his father as they had tried to escape… It had been a terrible feeling, to realize the one he had always depended on to protect him was as powerless as he was. There was a pang of sadness as he remembered what had happened nearly twelve years before. While his grief had dulled over time, it had never truly gone away. But Tetsuo wouldn’t trade in the pain he had experienced, as it had forged something else within him in exchange: Resolve.
Tetsuo looked over at Kōhaku. “The renovations are going to take some time,” he said. “But at this point, I think we should reach out to the other Fullbringers.”
“They should already be on the way”, Kōhaku remarked with some sense of expectation. Tetsuo stopped, and at first he was confused.
“I mean others besides Michiyo and Emi,” he said. “I think it’s time to call all the Fullbringers we know of to come together. Not just everyone in Ikeda, but the ones in Osaka and Karakura too.”
Just then, Tetsuo sensed a reiatsu signature approaching their location, but its familiar, nearly-Hollow presence wasn’t cause for alarm, as it was clearly another Fullbringer. But while he hadn’t heard anyone approaching from the hall, he also hadn’t been paying attention, and was surprised when a figure suddenly appeared in the doorway. She strode inside the classroom with certain confidence and then stopped, placing her hand on one hip and shifting her weight as she sized up the two Fullbringers in front of her.
“It was a bit difficult to get here, Morimoto-kun,” she said as she held up her smartphone, “There’s no signal.”
Tetsuo didn’t realize it, but his jaw was gaping, and he seemed frozen in space.
“Ah, I suppose it has been a while.” She smiled, softly. “Hello Momohara-kun.”
Something unspoken passed between them. The stirrings of old memories. And for a moment, it was as if time itself had stopped.
“Amaya,” he started, too quickly before realizing that she had used his surname. It felt as though he had been stung, an old wound cut by glass, and his heart beat faster in his chest. “What are you doing here?”
“Oh?” she turned to Kouhaku. “You didn’t tell him then.”
“Tell me what?” Tetsuo asked, still lost.
“Haha, I guess in the excitement I forgot to mention it”, Kōhaku started, rubbing the back of his end, looking apologetic. “We called them. All of them. Every Fullbringer we know, right here”.
Tetsuo looked between Kōhaku and Amaya. He was dumbstruck as he struggled to process all that had just occurred. Part of him had swelled with pride, but he was partly tense with a new wave of nervous excitement. Another part of him felt somewhat betrayed that they had forgotten to include him in such an important stage of Xstence’s birth. But he decided to trust Kōhaku, and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Even if Kōhaku had purposefully chosen not to tell him beforehand, he must have had his reasons for doing so. As for Amaya…
He couldn’t afford to think about that, not at that moment when everyone was apparently about to arrive.
“They’re coming now?” he asked, incredulous.
“You don’t seem prepared,” Amaya pointed out, and for some reason Tetsuo got the impression that she was referring to his choice of outfit. He looked at his sweats, part of which had been stained with bleach, his loose t-shirt, and scuffed up tennis shoes. Kōhaku and Amaya, in contrast, were dressed as usual in business casual, and truly looked the part of being the leaders of a nascent organization.
“Well shit,” he mumbled. But there was no time to do anything about it, as just then the first Fullbringers began to arrive...
Garrett Sheppard had chosen a very different route for his morning run because it took him outside Osaka towards the old -- and somewhat dilapidated -- school. The place looked ready to collapse! It was as if the paint was the only thing holding it up, and it was starting to flake.
"This is our meeting place? Seriously? This'll be eventful."
He caught his reflection in a piece of broken glass and for the first time realised he may not be what one would call "dressed for the occasion". For Garrett wore a white-coloured track-suit and a pair of black running shoes, and his shoulder-length brown hair was slicked with sweat. He stopped a moment to run his fingers through his hair to slick it back but you couldn't remove the fact that he had just come from a run. He casually sniffed his armpit and sighed.
"Great. Just great. Not only do I turn up looking like I just left the gym, but I failed the smell-test for-by. I bet this place is packed out too."
By the time Garrett entered the room he saw only three people and, truth be told, he only recognised one of them: the woman, Amaya, though it was so many years ago now that he didn't see any flicker of recognition in her eyes. How many people recalled buying a nameless teen a sandwich after all? Besides he had a new problem: as the first to arrive he found himself bearing the singular gaze of all three inhabitants of the room alone.
He nervously scratched the side of his head.
"Hello!" He emphasised the greeting Mrs Doubtfire style. "I'm Garrett Sheppard, but you probably knew that already. And I thought there'd be more of us."
Otoya Kurogane looked up at his boss, the manager of the Ikeda Teddy Extravaganza was a kindly heavyset man by the name Shoji Tokugawa, he'd offered Otoya a job a while back after the young man had often been found loitering outside the shop, unsure whether or not to go in and scaring his customers with his intimidating appearance. Despite the way he looked, Kurogane always had a penchant for the cute and childish, particularly animals.
The Extravaganza was an unusual shop where customers put together their very own teddy bear through an assortment of accessories, clothing and shapes; and had therefore caught his eye immediately. At the present time, the young man was just finishing up stuffing and sewing shut the new Zebra-style model, his fingers working the needle and thread like he was practically born to do so. In fact, had Shoji possessed a whiff of spiritual awareness, he'd undoubtedly have noticed the telltale signs of bringer light around his hands. Otoya worked tirelessly at honing the power of Fullbring, employing it at any chance he got, always eager to improve upon it and tests its limits.
"Kurogane-san, your shift is over, you can go home now." Shoji smiled down at Otoya while he spoke, and the dilligent young man smiled and nodded. He'd gotten a message from his old friend a while back about some kind of new club, a coalition of Fullbringers, Kurogane felt like he was about to become a superhero.
Finishing up his work for the day, Kurogane headed out towards the abandoned school that his friend had directed him to, using Fullbring to cover short distances in the blink of an eye whenever he felt it was safe to do so. But on the way he saw a mewling kitten at the side of the road, looking all lost and forlorn, the scene was so adorable that his bottom lip began trembling, his eyes watered and he tried to look away, but it was impossible, he was caught, he was defeated, it was love at first sight! Had there ever been a greater love than that of a man and his pussycat, Kurogane could hardly imagine there had been and so it was that the lone wolf got company on his way to meet up with the other Fullbringers.
But just as he was about to head off, with his new furry friend cradled in his arms lovingly, he heard another mewl and his breath caught in his throat.
When Otoya finally arrived at his destination, he was hardly alone, as three lovable kittens crawled about on his person, one of them had fallen asleep on the top of his head while two were fast asleep in his arms, by using Fullbring on his own hair gel he'd been able to fashion something similar to a bed out of his pompadour, securing the kitten safely and providing comfort.
Upon coming face to face with the school, Otoya's jaw dropped and stars twinkled in his eyes, clearly the Fullbringer definitely shared his childhood friends excitement about the place, as dilapidated as it currently was.
Otoya ended up arriving in the main room mere moments after Garrett and when he saw his friend he smiled a radiant smile, before he put a hand to his pompadour and made a salute as he introduced himself to the rest of the Fullbringers, attempting to come off as tough and determined, but the kittens did very little to preserve that kind of illusion and with his underlying nervousness, his introduction came off as.. different.
"Right. Ahem, my name is Otoya Kurogane, and I am reporting from the line of Teddy Bears! Wait no, TEDDY BEAR DUTY! Yes, I came here directly from the teddy bear workshop, where I work. The kittens are named Molly, Polly and Olly, PLEASED TO MEET YOU! "
A week prior, in this very ring, Yasuke met a strange red headed girl. A fiery warrior whose might seemed to match his own. It brought life within his soul. A passion. He lived for the thrill of fighting. For the idea that at any second, he could lose his life. And of all people to give him that surge of life, it would be some random red haired broad. Never mind the white haired jerk from several nights prior...and that weird transformation...
He pulled out his new android phone. A single message with an address from her. He knew they had a moment but surely this would be moving way to fast. But when he opened it, he saw the message attached to the address. His eyes dimmed. Perhaps destiny had guided him to Osaka for a reason. In only two weeks, Yasuke had discovered the existence of Quincy's. Now, he received an invite to join a new family.
"Oi foreigner, your match is next." The sleazy voice of the club's promoter rang through the locker.
"So here's the thing. Some plans just came up." Yasuke stood up and gathered his belongings. He put his gloves and lucky shoes into his bag. "I'll come back tonight."
"The fuck you think you're going?! You're the main attraction. Everyone wants a piece of you!"
"And they'll get it at another time. Just tell them you're all out." Yasuke joked. He pushed passed the greasy manager and headed towards the door.
--- So this is where the new family would start. An old run down school in the middle of fucking nowhere. Yasuke sighed. It just seemed like he would run from one broken establishment to another. But he wasn't one for preconceived notions. He started towards the entrance, easily leaping over the gate without hesitation. Wearing only his shorts and a compression shirt with messy hair and glasses...yeah, he was ready for this meeting.
Was this a trap? Yasuke doubted it. His relationship with the redhead seemed genuine. And he rather enjoyed their time together. But he kept his guard up. Yasuke stepped over the fallen door and followed the hollow-like sensation radiating from above. Several minutes and he emerged through the doorway.
A ragtag bunch of weirdos.
Yasuke's first thought. Suits, tracksuits, and sweatpants. He placed his bag down and smiled. His eyes scanned the room for a familiar face. Any familiar face. "Oi, name's Yasuke." He addressed the rest of the room with his false name. No use giving out his real name and placing his loved one's in danger.
Earlier, Ulysse had gotten the chance to change into another outfit, a smart casual consisting of a plain and simple T-shirt, albeit outlined with a fancy jacket. He needed the change -- his associative memory needed it. No longer would he be wearing the outfit he had worn during the day's sad meeting wherein his ears had to get used to hearing unpleasant news regarding his work. They may sound like the glorious, orchestral sound of a victory celebration to other members of his company, but not to him -- they only meant more work.
His figure shuffled along in the darkness, his eyes landing upon the old, abandoned high school. Dear God, he thought to himself. If his theory proved correct, then the people he would meet tonight may not appreciate a man of his class at all. In fact, they may even hate a person such as himself. But, if his theory proved correct, then the people he would meet were people who needed a family; in other words, people like who he truly was on the inside. With his wealth and power, he would be able to provide such a thing, and that was good enough of a reason for him to join, no matter how much hate he would receive later on. He was ready.
Ulysse's left hand reached for the black ring around his right middle finger as he made his way through the courtyard. His footsteps were calm and determined. Strong, holding nothing back. Several figures were present, some turning to his direction, but he made no effort to discern them. He had taken into account the probability of this being an ambush planned by his rivals, but he had no fear of such things; they knew nothing of what he could do to them. He maintained his collected look, his right hand running along the length of his black and blond hair leaning against the right side of his face.
As he approached closer, green flashes of luminescent light made themselves present around his person, sparking every few seconds as the Tournier used his power to bounce off dust from hopping onto his clothing, preventing them from making his fine jacket their new home. In spite of how calm and collected he looked, he didn't notice his entrance was bordering on comical and silly.
At last, he made it inside, the green flashes of light around him prolonging. Scanning his surroundings, a smile creeped its way to his face. "Ulysse Tournier of the Tournier family," he said, his voice crisp and refined, echoing off the surrounding walls like the sweet hum of a master bassist. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."
It took Kyang-jae Maeno a few attempts before he was finally able to spark the lighter in his hand. But his fingers weren’t shaking from the nicotine, as Kyang-jae was actually incapable of developing a chemical addiction. Rather, it was on account of how nervous he was.
It was a known fact that the Yamaguchi-gumi and Sumiyoshi-kai did not get along, instead living in a hostile state of co-existence. And, while he wasn’t technically a member of the Yamaguchi anymore, having been disowned from the Maeno branch family some years prior, he wasn’t sure if he could take Kōhaku at his word. It was very possible that he was walking straight into an ambush despite—or perhaps on account of—the debt he now owed the Morimoto family.
“Sure! I’ll help you pay off your gambling debts,” Kōhaku had told him, “But there's just one condition...”
That “one condition” had involved something called “Xstence,” which Kyang-jae didn’t really give a flying fuck about. What was important was that he owed Kōhaku, and that Kōhaku apparently knew all about him; even the fact that he was a Fullbringer. As a result, the son of the Morimoto held all the cards in his hand, and Kyang-jae had been left with no options except to play to his terms.
Still, it had been a miracle when Kōhaku had contacted him. Drained of his funds and stranded in Hong Kong, Kyang-jae had been on the run from one of the many gambling outfits he had ripped off, while also trying his best to stay one or two steps ahead of the authorities, when the anonymous notice had arrived at his shabby hotel door one night. Lying stretched out on the urine-stained mattress (not his urine), Kyang-jae had read the letter and had nearly cried for relief, clutching the airplane ticket in his hand as if it were a lifeline. Of course, returning to Japan meant he would be re-entering the wolf’s den of the Yakuza, but as long as he was careful, kept on his toes and played the game right, he would be able to survive.
Unless, of course, this ‘Xstence’ were to spell the end of his own existence.
“Heh,” he chuckled at the irony.
Pinching the cigarette between his middle and ring finger, Kyang-jae drew on the acrid smoke to try and calm his nerves. Nonetheless, with one hand shoved casually into the pocket of his jacket and with a carefree, dangerous-looking saunter, Kyang-jae would have seemed the very picture of cool, composed, bad-gangster-assery for those who didn’t know him. In reality every muscle in his body was as tense as a steel wire, the hand in his pocket gripped the handle of his butterfly knife tightly, and his eyes darted shiftily from side to side as he approached the run-down school at the end of the mountain-side road, straining to catch any sight or sound of potential attack.
Upon reaching the main building, Kyang-jae didn’t directly step inside. Instead, with a mix of instinct and awareness, he sniffed out where the most reiatsu was concentrated and snuck around to the side of the school. It seemed Kōhaku had been telling the truth about there being a meeting of Fullbringers: there were a lot of them inside the classroom, at any rate.
Kyang-jae crouched down and ground out the cigarette in the dirt before he crept along the wall, careful to keep below the windows of the classroom. He stopped where he thought he would be able to eavesdrop on the conversation inside, for two reasons. First, to determine if the group of Fullbringers inside were actually on the level and, secondly, if he should even bother to enter.
"Enjoy the flowers!", said Emi with some degree of uncharacteristic pep. Her last customer of the day, given farewells with a smile. For a moment, Emi even looked cute, before she returned to her usual dour expression. She sighed, happy to be done with customers. She looked at her phone, just beneath the counter. A text flashing across the lock screen. Today was the day, Michiyo had opted to close early knowing it was coming, feeling so synchronised when that time came.
The redheaded fullbringer was quick to off her work clothes and the frilly apron Michiyo had made her wear in favour of her usual loose fitting and baggy clothes. Out the door without even a word, as she often did, and the old Tanaka lady just as often scolded her for. In her arms was a simple woven basket, a picnic that Michiyo had prepared. It was awfully light, Emi noted.
Considering she was on foot, she arrived at the school in good time, following the perimeter of the gate through the wooded overgrowth it wasn't long before she sound herself in the least useful location. A large fence stood in front of her, and beyond that the great stretches of asphalt and dirt that was the old pitch.
"Of course this is where I end up", Emi sighed. She could have walked back, looked for an actual entrance. Instead she tussled the bangs covering her face, then the air lit up around her. There was a thundering boom as her Fullbring manifested and simultaneously ignited its power. Catapulting herself through the air towards the school.
She flew right over the pitch, clearing it in one jump. She had little control over her momentum, unable to accurately utilise Fullbring on the air around herself as she moved. Instead, she manipulated her destination. The window right in front of her slid open, and as she careened into the building, the walls and floors became soft and malleable for a moment, allowing her to land without harm...
Well, in theory, anyway.
While the walls and floor had been made malleable enough, allowing Emi to make a landing without unnecessary injury, the window was not nearly so forgiving.
The glass exploded as she flew into the room, sending shards of crystal skittering across the floor and leaving those inside either ducking for cover or standing expressionless with shock... And Kyang-jae had seemingly born the brunt of the impact.
Having been in Emi’s direct flight path, she had inadvertently kicked into the center of his back as she had swooped in, pushing him face-first through the glass before crash-landing on top of him. Now, a sizable puddle of blood was pooling from where his face was planted on the floor. A few of his fingers twitched: signs of life, although it was now a given that his nose had probably seen better days.
“What the literal hell?” was the muffled exclamation as he slowly, weakly crawled forward and got to his knees. He cupped his hand over his nose, and grimaced when he realized how bad the injury really was. Kyang-jae wasn’t particularly resilient to pain, which was ironic considering the nature of his Fullbring, and he moaned pitifully to complain about his miserable state. But it was his just deserves for sneaking around outside the window anyway.
“Hey Emi! Hello Kyang!” Kouhaku greeted the two with an inappropriate level of enthusiasm, which helped to break the silence in the wake of the awkward entrance.
For his part, Tetsuo Ignored the injured man as he shot Emi a look of utmost exasperation. He didn’t really care about Kyang-jae’s nose, since he didn’t really care much for Kyang-jae, but he was angered by the fact that Emi had added yet another item to the long list of reparations to make to the school.
“Tenka—” he started.
“We need to stop that bleeding,” Amaya cut him off, and she moved to help Kyang-jae. But the latter held up his hand, as if to push him back.
“Stay back,” he warned. He had had enough close-contact for the day, and didn’t trust that the woman in front of him wouldn’t add to his injuries. “I’ll fix it myself,” he grumbled as he reached up to touch the piercing in his left ear, activating his Fullbring. While he might have had second thoughts about using his Fullbring in front of so many people, Kōhaku was there, and he had already shown his Fullbring to him, so it didn't matter much in the end. That, coupled with the fact that the other Fullbringer who had crashed into him had also been using Fullbring at the moment of impact, set him more at ease about using his own abilities.
Kyang-jae’s reiatsu shifted slightly, and it felt as though it were spiraling into himself as he lifted the blood from the floor, extracting it from the wood and his clothes in bright drops before pulling it back to himself in a thin, crimson line. “Ah,” Amaya stated as she realized that, from the description of everyone’s Fullbring Kouhaku had given her, he must have been Kyang-jae. “That’s fairly useful as a Fullbring, isn’t it?”
“Shut up,” Kyang-jae said sullenly, still applying pressure to his nose as his Fullbring worked to stop the bleeding.
Crossing his arms, Tetsuo returned to addressing Emi. “You’re going to be the one to clean all this up,” he stated sternly. Painfully aware of the Fullbringers who had begun to arrive, he turned towards them and gave them his characteristic, fake smile. “Don’t worry, when it comes to Tenka, things like this happen all the time. Please pull up a seat.” Tetsuo realized how odd that must have sounded a second after he said it, and while his expression did not change, he felt the tips of his ears grow hot. He was grateful for the fact that at least he wasn’t making a personal spectacle of himself like Emi, as he was now somewhat presentable, having quickly changed into the spare suit Kōhaku had miraculously brought along in the back of his car before the other Fullbringers had arrived. As to why Kōhaku had had one of his suits in his car, however, Tetsuo couldn’t say.
The other Fullbringers, who had already entered the room, seemed unimpressed by his offer. Well, everyone except for Otoya, but that was hardly surprising since Otoya was impressed by everything. But seeing a few less familiar faces—Garret, Yasuke, Ulysse, Tetsuo suddenly noted that they were missing the one person who could really help break the ice.
“Where’s Michiyo?” Tetsuo asked Emi. “It’s not like her to be this late.”
"I know she's old, but I'm hardly her keeper", said the redhead, huffing and dismissive.
Fortunately, the answer to his question provided itself, as a purplish energy begin to surround the picnic basket that Emi had brought with her. Soon, a perfect sphere of translucent light took shape, expanding until it was just pushing against the ceiling. There was a flicker of light, and Michiyo appeared, accompanied by a darker skinned, short boy who looked to be about 13 years old. He carried a basketball with him, and looked rather sheepish to be suddenly in front of so many people.
The picnic basket had been a sham—a sorry representation for the transfer she had just made via her Fullbring’s teleportation abilities. In its place she had brought a table filled with refreshments and lunch with her: neat rows of onigiri, and for those with less traditional tastes, egg salad and cucumber salads cut into pleasing triangles. She had also brought two thermoses of green tea and a bottle of sake; completing the ensemble with a carton of cherries and a modest yet exquisitely layered cake. It was obvious that she had come prepared for a celebration.
As the orb around her and the boy vanished, Michiyo stepped forward, but stopped as she crushed a piece of glass underfoot. Taking note of the broken window, her gaze immediately snapped to Emi. She raised an eyebrow, but decided not to say anything about the girl’s reckless use of high-speed movement for the time being. She then looked at Kyang-jae, who was still groaning, and shook her head, apparently having grasped what had happened simply by glancing at the situation.
“Tsk, please control yourself. You’re a grown man,” she said matter-of-factly. He shot her a withering glare, but the groaning at least subsided. “Hmph,” Michiyo exclaimed. She then sized up the other Fullbringers in the room.
“My, the atmosphere here seems to be a bit stiff,” she commented, placing her hands on her hips.
“I’ve already told everyone to sit down,” Tetsuo explained with a shrug.
“Well have you introduced anyone yet?” She asked. But without waiting for his answer, she turned to the Fullbringers she did not know but who had been brought to Xstence via various intermediaries and acknowledged them with a nod.
“I’m Michiyo. Michiyo Yamahana. I run the only ikebana shop and bed and breakfast in town. If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to let me know,” she said with a warm smile. Then she reached behind her and, with an uncanny sense of precision, grabbed the collar of the boy’s shirt and pulled him to the front. “And sorry I’m late, I had to track this fellow down. He can’t seem to resist the basketball court.” Then, in a softer tone, she urged: “Go on, say hello.”
“H-hello,” the boy started in faltering Japanese, “Pleased to meet you all.” It was a basic introduction, but he at least remembered to bow.
“This is Nano Santos, from the Philippines,” Michiyo explained. She cast a sideways glance in Kyang-jae’s direction, who nearly missed the hint.
“Name’s Kyang-jae,” he grumbled, “I’m only here ‘cause Kou—Morimoto-san forced me to…” he sensed the telepathic disapproval of Michiyo, and hesitated, “Invited me to come to this absolutely stunning location to meet with you all.” Sarcasm practically dripped from his tone, and he couldn’t help but add: “Since I didn’t have anything better aside from having my nose slammed through a fuckin’ wall.” He had been pointedly glaring at Emi for a significant amount of time by then.
“I suppose I should introduce myself as well,” Amaya said, completely ignoring Kyang-jae’s obvious hostility as she smoothed over the potentially tense situation. She could already see that Kyang-jae would be a problem element for the group, but from what Kouhaku had told her, she knew that he would be loyal enough, at least. She couldn’t say as much for the others just yet, but was quietly forming her own judgements of the other Fullbringers. Nonetheless, she kept those private thoughts to herself.
“My name is Amaya Isaka. I work as a pediatrician in Nagoya and I’ve been a long time acquaintance of Michiyo’s and her friends. As I’m sure he did for most of you, Morimoto-kun invited me here as well.”
Michiyo gave the slightest, most imperceptible nod, approving of Amaya’s conversational strategy. The two women were, at that moment, sharing the responsibility to keep the meeting flowing and on track—Something they apparently did not trust Tetsuo to do. Unfortunately for them, he noticed.
“Well then, now that all that is out of the way, should we sit down?” Michiyo suggested as she took a seat herself in one of the chairs that had been arranged in a semi-circle facing the blackboard. “I’ve prepared lunch for when we finish up here. Although if this takes too much longer, I suppose it would have been a good idea to bring dinner too!”
“I’m sure Momohara-kun won’t take that long,” Amaya commented wryly.
However, their back-and-forth banter only served to make Tetsuo even more uncomfortable, and his brow wrinkled in consternation. He was mainly frustrated that he hadn’t been given any time to prepare, as while he was somewhat impulsive, he preferred to have a plan for official events like this. He really didn’t know what they were expecting of him, but supposed he was the only one fit for the job. So he cleared his throat and began.
“First of all, welcome. I’m glad that you all could come. Uh... As you know, the reason we’re all here today is because we’re all Fullbringers.”
The statement fell flat, and he coughed. He could almost hear crickets in the background. Kicking himself for having opened with such an obvious cliché, and wishing he had a few index cards in hand to direct his speech, he forged on bravely nonetheless. One could only go up from there, he supposed.
“I’m Tetsuo Momohara. I know many of you might not care who I am, but whatever you might think of me from here on out, you should know that I understand what you’ve been through,” he paused, unaware of how his serious expression was affecting the weight of his message. He had inadvertently glanced in the direction of Yasuke and Garrett, and although he didn’t know them personally, he was sure they shared the same element of tragedy that he had experienced.
“What I mean to say,” he continued, “Is that most of us have an element of loss woven into our histories. As Fullbringers, we know what it’s like to struggle with being different than everyone else around us. Perhaps some of you have been ostracized. Maybe you’ve unwillingly hurt someone close to you. Maybe you felt as though you had lost your place in this world...” As he continued to speak he grew calmer, more sure of what he was saying, and soon the passion behind his words became evident as he began to paint an image of the vision he had for the other Fullbringers.
“In my case, I discovered my powers when I was fourteen years old. But even though I’ve been a Fullbringer for many years now, it hasn’t been easy. I had to struggle to define who I was, and who I wanted to become. More than anything, I felt the weight of my power and knew that I had an obligation—to both myself and others—but I didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t until I found support from a fellow Fullbringer that I discovered a path to follow.” He didn’t look at Kōhaku, but knew that the latter could sense the gratitude beneath his words. “And I wanted to give others the same opportunity—to build a place where we could support and protect each other: a place where we could grow together. After all, we Fullbringers are a tiny sliver of this world’s population. Who else is going to look out for us except ourselves?”
He then reached the crux of his message. “That’s why this group, Xstence, exists. I’m convinced that the best way to grow stronger is through mutual support. It may be difficult at first, there might not be very many of us, but together we can work to build a home here.” He paused once again, allowing them to consider what he had said before continuing. “But let me be clear: We’re not forcing anyone to join. Morimoto may have invited you, I may be the one to present the idea, but we function as a collaborative, not a hierarchy—Everyone’s opinion has equal weight here. However,” he emphasized, “Because of that, there will be certain expectations for those who decide to join. For this thing to work, we have to act like a family. That means commitment: that means you don’t betray the group. It also means treating each other with respect, being available to helping each other, and, most importantly, placing the interests of the other members above your own. That said, I don’t want you to take this decision lightly. Instead, you should consider it carefully, because life is about choices. Some we will regret, some we are proud of. And some will haunt us forever. For this reason choices must be calculated, and made carefully.”
There was a moment of silence as he finished speaking. Then, Tetsuo seemed to become aware of himself and faltered.
“And uh, unless Kouhaku has anything to add, I suppose I’ll answer any questions you have,” he offered a bit lamely.
While Tetsuo spoke, Otoya's eyes lit up in amazement. This man was something else, so official and proper, so full of interesting ideas and the sense of unity he fostered even amongst people who barely knew him, oh no, there was the bottom lip again, don't tremble, don't cry now Otoya. Yet his manly tears of joy were unstoppable and nothing could hinder this wet sincerity as Otoya suppressed a sniffle and wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve.
He had to be strong, had to make a good impression it wouldn't do if they thought him some overemotional weirdo, what would that do for first impressions. So the young man decided he would speak his mind, defying his quivering lips and reddening eyes as he announced with a start, back firm and head held high.
"I am Otoya Kurogane, and I have no further questions than this question: what will we do next, sir man SIR!" Otoya ended with a salute, apparently missing the hierarchy part or simply not caring.
Apart from his name, Ulysse had nothing more to add. He didn't expect immediate acceptance, though he also didn't expect the others to look at him with such confusion, not noticing they were all stalking how comical he appeared with all these green flashes of light surrounding him. With a simple smile and a wave of his hand, he set his gaze away from the crowd, unwilling to question anything.
Yasuke sat indian style in the corner of the room. He listened quietly to the commotion, seemingly taking silent notes on each person. Kyang-jae was rebellious. This Tetsuo person calm- Otoya...different. A colorful assortment of characters. He felt a certain connection to each person, which was strengthened by a shared gaze between Tetsuo and himself. However, Yasuke blushed at the idea that these people possessed their powers for so long. While he never truly felt like he belong to the world of humans, it'd only been several years since Yasuke unlocked his potential. He felt noobish. But seeing Emi turned that slight chocolate covered strawberry shade into a grin. He remembered the resonation between their fist. The vibration after each strike. Such a truly electrifying night as they struck the souls of one another.
"I'm down." His soft voice pierced the madness. "I've been looking to become stronger. A quincy kicked my ass just the other day." Those words seemed to burn. The spirit of a warrior, one could feel his fiery reiryoku exploding with vengeance. "I need to reach my pinnacle and I feel like we need each other to for that. So consider me your brother." His words were sincere with a hint of warmth.
Garrett had remained quiet for the most part. As the first to have arrived he had made a good head-start as far as introductions went and had instead opted to fade into the background and await the arrival of those who came after him. Now that the room was filled and people where talking he took his chance and kicked off from the far wall on which he had been casually leaning to approach the others.
"I'm Garrett Sheppard, and as you may have guessed from the name, I'm not a local. My goals are rather modest compared to some of you as well, because all I want is to be in the company of those who are like me." He made a point of using Fullbring to channel the contents of his water-bottle directly into his mouth without bringing the bottle anywhere near his lips. "That's it, I suppose. You'll learn more about me -- and I hope to learn more about all of you -- in the days to come."
With his piece said he returned to his earlier position against the wall.
Interjecting into the gathering by clearing his throat, the Morimoto heir finally stepped up to introduce himself. "Ah, as most of you already know, I'm Kōhaku, a Fullbringer like yourselves with a vested interest in creating a place for us all, as my friend explained rather... stoically", he said, remarking upon Tetsuo's speech. "To that end, my company will be lending a substantial amount of-", before he could finish, Emi butted in, in a way that only she would.
"Hey losers", she spoke, her voice louder than anything else going on, but not particularly energetic. "Name's Emi, and if you're all done giving each other a tug, there's something else you should be paying attention to". She rapped a finger on the side of her head, calling to attention the spiritual awareness each of them shared. Though the majority of their senses would have been focused on the group of other Fullbringers surrounding them each, there was an unmistakable presence elsewhere. Similar to the Fullbringers but more potent, a Hollow, it couldn't be anything else.
"Right... then", replied Kōhaku deflating, all his pep lost in an instant. But, he quickly picked his pieces back up, turning to Tetsuo. "Shall we?"
Tetsuo’s eyes narrowed slightly, and although his expression didn’t change, he betrayed his true concern by the subtle act of leaning forwards and unbuttoning his jacket. He had been so concerned about trying to read the reiatsu signatures of those around him that he hadn’t noticed the distant presence of a Hollow before Emi had called attention to it. Before saying anything, however, he closed his eyes to focus. Cutting through the dense cloud of spiritual pressure, he connected a nearly electric line of reikkaku from his location to the cell tower on the top of the mountain ridge above the school. From there, he was able to cast a piercing line of spiritual radar across the entire region of Ikeda. Sure enough, he could sense the Hollow, but there was something else there too… He frowned and, ultimately unable to identify what it was, decided to keep his doubts to himself. Better to hide his insecurities than to raise false suspicions.
A sharp, electronic beep interrupted his thoughts, and he opened his eyes, puzzled. The sound had come from the plastic case that Kouhaku had brought with him, and Amaya went over to the table, snapping open the lid and revealing a set of medical pagers. Tetsuo nearly scoffed when he saw them. The technology, at least externally, was ancient.
“Here,” Amaya said as she began to hand out the pagers to the other Fullbringers, “These are so we can keep in contact with each other without having to use our phones. For one, service seems to be patchy around Ikeda. Secondly, these can help us keep track of each other. Each one is the same, so once you’ve learned to pull on the essence of one of them, you can easily locate where everyone else is.” She handed one of the devices to Tetsuo, who turned it over in his hand before sliding open the back. He took a glance at the wiring, and then shot Kouhaku a withering glare.
“So that’s why you were bothering me about that diagram a month ago?” he accused. “But how did you know how to install it?”
“Radio Shack,” Amaya cut in, shutting him down. He seemed as though he were about to say something in reply, but instead slid the back of the pager closed and activated the screen. A small red dot appeared, apparently indicating that it was on and ready to receive a signal.
“I’m gonna have to make some alterations,” he muttered. He would never admit it, but he was secretly geeking out about the pagers. Amaya had obviously supplied the hardware. With some changes he could enhance the functionality. Maybe even turn the pagers into Hollow detectors themselves. But there was no time to worry about that now; Michiyo made that clear as she stood up and brushed off her skirt.
“More importantly,” she began, “Shouldn’t we do something about that Hollow? It feels like a big one to me. Another one of those rotten Menos Grande.”
“What? Another one?” Kyang-jae nearly moaned again, thinking back to a few days before in which he had fled far away from the forest battle he had sensed between the gigantic monster and two of the other members of Xstence. “Well hey, at least we aren’t all going after it right? I mean it’d be pretty stupid to throw all of us out there when we barely know each other. Someone should stay back and watch the fort, you know?” he chuckled nervously and glanced around at the others, but no one seemed to have heard him.
“Let’s split into two groups,” Tetsuo began. “Michiyo-san, if you take one front, Kouhaku and I can head up the other. You guys can circle around it from one side once we get there, and we’ll tackle it straight-on to create a diversion.” Michiyo nodded. “Sheppard and Tenka should go with you. Yasuke and Ulysse can come with us.”
“I’ll go with Michiyo,” Amaya offered.
“Hmph, Kurogane-san should go with you too, Tetsuo,” Michiyo reminded, “But Kouhaku would be better with us,” For a moment Tetsuo hesitated, he glanced at Kouhaku, but then nodded.
“Alright,” he conceded.
“So that means I get to stay here, right?” Kyang-jae put in.
“I wouldn’t get so cocky young man, it just means there’s no place for cowards on the battlefield, hmph.”
“Well at least he can stay back with Nano,” Amaya suggested.
At that moment, everyone fell silent, noting the obvious absence in their midst.
“Where’s the kid?” Kyang-jae asked.
It appeared that, while they had been busy discussing pagers and plans of attack, Nano had already made the decision to head out to meet the Hollow on his own.
“That boy!” Michiyo said with an emphatic hmph. “I can never keep track of him,”
“He’s in danger isn’t he? I didn’t think he had much control over his Fullbring yet…”
“Let’s go,” Tetsuo cut to the heart of the matter as he moved to the door, but Kouhaku had already jumped up and was heading in that direction. As Xstence mobilized, he caught the other Fullbringer by the back of the sleeve.
“Watch out for everyone,” Tetsuo told him in a low voice, “...And be careful.”
He was still unwilling to acknowledge the uneasy feeling twisted in the pit of his stomach—the feeling that something else was on the way.