A/N: Well it seems I'm going on break for a little while. The new semester is starting up soon and I've got applications to doctoral programs to work on. Hopefully this tides you all over. Hopefully I can sneak some writing in here and there in the next couple of weeks.

Chapter 17

The arrancar known as Loly Aivirrne wasn't moving because she couldn't figure out what to do. She desperately wanted to lash out at the orange haired woman sitting in the hot-spring. But Lord Kotetsu had forbidden any unauthorized fighting and an assault on a guest would be viewed as intolerable. Kinji had a habit of carrying out punishments personally and making them particularly flashy. When Asguiaro Ebern had tried to assassinate him, Kinji had burned him to death over the course of 3 hours. Attendance was mandatory for everyone except the Research Division. During those 3 hours they had all learned something very important: Don't cross Kinji Kotetsu unless it was worth your life.

"Do you need anything else?" she ground out through clenched teeth. "No? Good!" she started to storm off but Orihime's words stopped her.

"I'm glad you're OK." Loly looked back, expecting to see a mocking expression but all she saw was honest kindness and concern. She walked away confused and angry.

In the Men's bath Menoly had just finished laying out the hot-spring rolls for Ichigo, Renji, and Kinji. "Please, let me know if you need anything else." Menoly bowed and left the room.

"Does it seem weird being so relaxed around all these arrancars? I mean, Nel is one thing. But most of these guys tried to kill us a couple years ago." Ichigo said.

"They're not hard to understand. Survive a few challenges, make an example of someone, treat them well, and things worked out fine." Kinji said.

"But you don't even have your sword with you right now. Aren't you worried?"

"Constantly. But at least I know where I stand with them. It's not by much, but I do prefer being stabbed in the face to being stabbed in the back." his hand subconsciously reached up to the scar on his chest. "Incidentally, I'm sorry about cracking your walnuts Renji. I should have given you fair warning before you started dating my sister. I can be a little protective."

"Walnuts? What's he talking about?" Ichigo asked.

"Nothing. And I think you mean "overprotective"." Renji picked up a roll and took a bite.

"You grabbed my little sister's ass. Both of my sisters, at the same time."

"It was an accident!" Renji insisted for the 50th time since Rangiku had snapped that picture.

"Yeah, and I'm sure Lin just happened to trip over a rock and shove her sword through my torso. Whether or not you set up a plan for it to happen, you took advantage. Admit it."

"Would you please just let it go!" Renji complained.

"Fine. Consider your record clean." Kinji said with a wave of his hand.

"Uh guys. Who're they?" Ichigo asked, pointing behind Kinji toward the entrance to the bath house. Sun-Sun, Mila Rose, and Apache were walking down the corridor toward the three men. Kinji was relieved to see that they were still wearing clothes. He'd taken great pains to explain that it wasn't proper for men and women to bathe together. And then he went to take a cold shower. For about half an hour.

"Oh dammit, what now?"

"Now? This isn't a new problem. You promised you'd help us find Master Halibel." Apache said. "Or are you going back on your word, like Aizen?" Kinji's eye twitched at the comparison.

"And I've turned Hueco Mundo upside down to look for her."

"But if you've looked everywhere, then why is it Grimmjow evaded you these past four months?" Sun-Sun reminded him. "And I don't need to remind you how much less comfortable your life would be if we stopped cooperating."

"You know, you're right. I'm going to go out into the desert right now, wearing nothing but this towel and search an entire world. Yeah, why don't you three just go have a nice relaxing bath downstairs while I single-handedly solve everyone's problems."



"Sounds good. Just don't take too long." The three of walked back out the door and toward the women's bath. Kinji walked them walk out then threw the empty plate from the rolls at the far wall.

"I was being sarcastic you evil, self-serving-!" Words failed him and he growled at the retreating forms.

"Uh, you OK?" Ichigo asked.

"No one who lives here is OK!" Kinji shouted before storming out of the bath himself with the towel wrapped tightly around his waist.. "We're all out of our damn minds and eventually we'll kill each other!" We stomped off cursing and shouting at anything that caught his attention.

"And you wanna marry into that family?" Ichigo asked Renji in amazement.

"Shut up."

"You really have to do stuff like that? It doesn't gross you out?"

"Well, it did at first. But after a hundred years you get used to the idea of handling someone's internal organs. But I try not to bring it up, especially with people I know. How do you think Renji would react if I told him I literally held his heart in my hands?"

"And he doesn't know?"

"He thinks Captain Unohana was the one who healed him after Captain Kuchiki nearly killed him during Rukia's execution." Isane shifted uncomfortably in the bath. "Please don't tell him."

"Oh don't worry. I can keep secrets. Like when Ichigo told me he was tricked by Mr. Urahara into shouting cheesy superhero lines."

I think I've made a horrible mistake. Isane thought to herself.

Keep it down. I'm trying to enjoy the quiet in here for once. Itegumo muttered sleepily. Isane jumped a little at his deep, booming voice. Her zanpakuto was mostly content to live and let live. He didn't typically talk to her of his own volition.

"-and then there was the time he saw Yoruichi naked-"

"That's...very interesting." Isane said to placate the orange haired woman. She rarely interacted with someone so bubbly and cheerful. Division 4 was typically a very serious place, unless Shunsui Kyoraku happened to stop by and started harassing the nurses. She didn't quite know how to talk with someone like that.

"Hey, scoot over Giraffe. The rest of us need a place to sit too." Apache said before slipping into the pool of steaming water between the human and soul reaper. Isane blinked at the boldness of the arrancar woman.

"Giraffe?" Isane repeated dejectedly and slipped a little further into the hot water.

"That's Apache for you, insults and name calling before she even knows who you are." Mila Rose half-apologized as she got into the water herself on Isane's left side.

"You're not much better Mila Rose. You should treat Lord Kotetsu's sister with more deference." Sun-Sun slid slowly into the water, taking the time to appreciate the soothing warmth. "It's a pleasure to meet you, my name is Sun-Sun." she gave a curt little nod to Isane.

"It's nice to meet you all." she said politely. After chewing over her next question she sat up a little straighter. "How are things going here?"

"It's a complete mess." Apache said immediately. "But... it's not bad I guess. Better than when Aizen was running the show. But it still pisses me off to have soul reapers telling me what to do."

"Is that really such a bad thing? I mean, aren't you all part soul reaper?" Isane pressed.

"We started out as hollows. And no matter what similarities we have with soul reapers that difference will never disappear. Arrancars should rule arrancars, and soul reapers should leave us be." Mila-Rose said bluntly. Sun-Sun made a huffing noise, loud enough for everyone's attention to shift to her.

"Oversimplifying things as usual I see. What we really want is Master Halibel to take the throne of Las Noches. As fair as your brother tries to be, he will never understand us. But we don't just want any arrancar on the throne either. If Grimmjow tried to declare himself king we would probably leave." Sun-Sun explained further. Orihime had picked up another roll and was nibbling at it, hoping the three arrancars didn't remember who she was.

"Leave? We'd kill his psychotic ass!" Apache said with complete confidence. Mila Rose shook her head in exhaustion.

"Apache, you idiot. Even though he can't compare to Master he could still kill us. He's still an Espada and we're not."


"As much as I hate to agree with either of you, she has a point. He is much stronger than us, today proved that. I'm surprised Lord Kotetsu beat him, if he hadn't weakened Grimmjow's armor then he probably would have lost."

"What the hell are you talking about? When did he do that?"

"He used the chains to heat the armor then used kido to rapidly cool it. He did that to make it brittle and created a smokescreen so he could use an attack suited to piercing a defense. He wasn't stronger than Grimmjow, he just used what he had better. But if he fought someone stronger than Grimmjow, like Ulquiorra or Master Halibel, the difference would be too great for him to deal with."

"You mean Tia Halibel, one of the Espadas who fought over the Fake Karakura Town?" Isane asked.

"Yeah. According to our current leader you never found her body." Isane shivered despite the warm water. Her Captain had told her about that formidable woman and warned her to avoid Halibel if she ever met the Espada. Unohana had saved the arrancar's life, arguably committing treason in the process, and allowed her to flee from the battlefield. She'd confided the fact to Isane along with a stern warning not to mention a word of it. To anyone. Ever.

"That's true. And if Captain Kurotsuchi had taken her then Kinji would have made sure to free her along with you."

"Because he's such an altruist." Sun-Sun scoffed. Isane sank lower into the water at the scorn in the other woman's voice. She figured that Kinji would have to do things, bad things, to keep a fortress full of arrancars in line, but she hadn't had to confront the reality of it until now.

"Hey, wait a second. Aren't you the princessa that Aizen brought her before the War?" Mila-Rose. Orihime, now the object of attention, sank down into the bath up to her nose and blew bubbles.

"Straight jackets. That has to work. And metal jaw restraints." Kinji muttered, still angry with the 3 former fracciones for interrupting a comfortable bath. He was fully clothed, he wasn't so cracked that he would walk into the desert of Hueco Mundo with nothing on him but a towel. Granted he was halfway out the door before he went back to get his zanpakuto.

You need a vacation Kitsunebi said with concern.


No, I'm very serious. You haven't seen the inside of your head recently. It isn't good.

You've done nothing but laugh yourself silly since we got here.

Heh, yeah. But like every night of blackout drunken revelry, eventually you have to deal with the property damage.

That seems really specific.

Nevermind. The point is you need time to recover from all of this. Find a quiet place, do a little meditation and training. Maybe bring a keg.

Stop teasing me. Who in God's name would I leave in charge of that rabies-infested asylum? I'd only have 1 arrancar left when I got back. If it wasn't for me they would blow the place up and beat each other to death with the rubble.

…..you're raving again. All Kitsunebi got in response was an audible growl. She growled right back at him.

Fine. I'll figure it out. Kinji gave in. He looked behind him and found that his anger had caused reiatsu to leak from him. Tiny glass crystals had formed in his footprints as a result of the heat encasing his body. He reigned the power back in and forced himself into a less tense state. The stress and pressure was all still there but it was no longer dominating his mind. His scouts had reported a set of crude dwellings and some old ruins to the west of Las Noches. He decided to go take a look at the place on his own, if only to buy himself some peace and quiet. It would normally be a 3 day walk but if he burned a hundred flash steps he could be there in a couple hours. It would burn up a good deal of stamina but he wasn't expecting a difficult fight when he got there so he decided it would be a good stretch of his legs.

As the desert flew past him he put more effort into the high-speed movement techniques than was strictly necessary. Sand puffed up where his feet touched the ground. A mingled blur of white and black skipped along the surface of the desert like a stone along the surface of a lake. The exertion felt good, felt cleansing in a way that a death-match never could. Some of the pressure eased and tension he hadn't even known he held eased from his neck and shoulders. A healthy sweat began to build on his skin and was evaporated by the cool air. Before too long the ruins showed on the horizon. It was a mess of old masonry construction that looked ancient and worn. It had the look of an old castle if some giant hand slammed into the top half and knocked it to one side. The stone was a dirty white and smoothed by decades of windblown sand. Kinji counted off his hundred and fifth flash step then stopped.

His breathing was deep and heavy but not hurried. There was a vague energy surrounding it that felt heavier and more dense than normal reiatsu. But instead of pressing down on him it surrounded everything like a kind of energized mist. It prickled his exposed skin and flowed slowly around him. The soul reaper reached his hand out to run his hand through the invisible current and he realized he had his zanpakuto in his hand. He didn't remember drawing it but when it made contact with the energy a pulse of power run up his arm and everything below his right shoulder went numb.

"What the hell is this place?" he said without thinking. A sudden shriek spun him around and he was just in time to slash at an insectoid maw that gaped in front of him. The sword sent a pair of hard shelled mandibles flying but didn't stop the head behind it. A blunt impact collapsed Kinji's chest and forced the air from his lungs. The lack of air robbed most of the strength from his offhand punch. The hard white carapace held against his fist but the creature gave another loud shriek and tossed him away. When Kinji hit the ground he managed to get a good look at the hollow. It was something like a mix of a spider and scorpion that had grown to the size of an elephant. It emitted no reiatsu at all, either that or Kinji couldn't feel it through the haze around the ruins.

"Leave!" the spider-thing screeched. Kinji blinked. It could talk?

"You can talk?" Instead of answering the question the creature began charging a cero. It was big. "Oh shit!" He dove behind a pile of rocks before everything behind him was reduced to smoking ash. Except for the white stones which seemed relatively unharmed. Curious. "Any chance we can talk this out?" he shouted from his covered position. Arrancars and most higher level hollows retained some semblance of intelligence and ego. And this creature had proven itself capable of speech. It only stood to reason that it could be reasoned with to some degree. Crimson energy washed over the pile of rocks he sheltered behind leaving him untouched. The two ceros it had fired were superior to that of an ordinary Menos. Not on the level of an Espada like Grimmjow, but certainly on the level of Cirruci. Was this thing a Vasto Lorde?

"Stay away! Leave this place!"

"I'd be happy to leave! Provided you don't try to kill me as soon as I come out." He flipped through his repertoire of kido spells and selected the one most likely to down the surprising creature. As powerful as it was he didn't think anything less than a 70's level hado could seriously hurt it. He only knew two kido that powerful, Hado 92 which was not practical for the situation, and Bakudo 87 which would cost him some blood.

There was a reason that most soul reapers learned the same kind of spells. The ones that they taught at the Soul Academy were the easiest to manage, didn't require any physical components, and were effective against most hollows. But to become an expert you had to have at least 20 different kido spells under your belt. To be a master you had to be capable of a 90's level kido and create your own variation of an existing kido spell. Kinji had 30 spells he could use and Bakudo 87 was his best binding spell. But if he used it without incantation it would only have a third of its normal power. Kinji peeked around his shelter to gauge his opponent more accurately.

"Could we please settle this like gentlemen?" he yelled toward the hollow.

"I'm a woman!" came the sibilant reply.

"Of course you are." Kinji said to himself. "Then can we settle this like honorable... beings?" instead of a verbal reply he heard the sound of another cero being charged. The red energy slammed against the rock pile a third time. A number of the rocks were tossed aside by the tide of power making Kinji's shield much smaller. He decided not to risk a fourth cero and started chanting the spell. "Claws of the beast, lines of the heart conjoin the stars, the Sanzu River runs uphill. Roads of iron, cages of flesh, waters of life. Shatter the walls and sink to the earth, rise from the grave and bind the moon." Kinji drew his sword and cut the back of his left hand and blood swelled along the injury, "Bakudo 87: Ketsueki Seigen!" He felt a brief flash of pain as more blood was drawn from his veins. It hovered above his arm in a ball and shone with a deep golden power. He heard a fifth cero begin charging so he broke cover and aimed the ball at the spider-thing. It shot forward so quickly that there was as pop as the sound barrier was broken. It scattered the energy of the half-formed cero then slammed into the hollow and vanished. The beast screeched and charged Kinji. It scuttled toward him at startling speed, the six legs moved through the debris and sand as if it were flat ground. Kinji held out his hand and waited until it was almost on top of him. It's tail rose to strike but it locked in place a few feet in front of Kinji's closed fist.

"What?" the creature gasped out. Kinji snapped his fingers and small lines of red-gold energy broke through the bony plates and anchored into the ground.

"Ketsueki Seigen, Blood Restriction. It's a spell that places some of my blood into your body then uses it to bind your limbs from the inside. Nasty spell." He tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and bound the cut on his hand. "Now, we're going to have a conversation. I'm going to ask questions and you're going to give me answers."

Isane was a natural manager. That natural ability had been honed to perfection by decades of overseeing medical procedures and running a Division almost single-handed. But when the arrancars demanded that she be the one to give orders while Kinji was out, she didn't take it well.

"I can't be in charge. I mean, I'm just a Lieutenant."

"Look, your psycho of a brother is the one running things. But he freaked out and ran off without putting someone in charge. So, you get to be head honcho until he gets back. Or until one of us kills you and takes the throne." Cirrucci said as she manhandled the soul reaper towards the throne room. Apache had Isane's other arm and helped Cirrcucci transport Isane.

"Kills me?" the Kotetsu noble asked in astonishment.

"Oh quit whining. None of us are going to kill you. If we did your brother would come back and spit-roast whoever did it." Apache said.

"Renji! A little help here!" She shouted back toward the changing rooms.

"Isane?" Renji burst out into the hallway with nothing but his zanpakuto and fudoshi. All three women turned around and saw Renji standing there in his underwear. Isane's face went beet red. Cirrcuci threw him a wink and Apache called him an idiot.

"I think it can wait until you have your pants on." Isane said, averting her eyes. The two arrancars went back to dragging Isane toward the throne of Las Noches. Renji watched the three of them go silently and several shades redder than he had been a few moments ago.

"Smooth." Ichigo said from back in the changing room.

"Shut up." the Captain grumbled before going back into the locker room and put his clothes on.

"So, you're the interrim boss?" Akon asked the woman sitting on the throne.

"They won't let me say no." Isane said to the head scientist. Apache and Cirrcuci had taken up posts on either side of the white marble throne and glared at everyone who requested an audience like Isane's personal enforcers. She'd been there for nearly eight hours and the two shorter women hadn't let her leave.

"Whatever. Could you tell Lord Kotetsu that Grimmjow is alive, healing, and under restraint?"

"Sure." Isane said and wrote it down on a notepad she kept in her med sachel.

"Is there anything I can do for you, Lieutenant?" the man asked, vaguely amused by Isane's predicament.

"Convince them I won't try to jump out the bathroom window." Isane said in all seriousness. She had been sitting there for quite some time. Renji had brought her tea and something to eat several hours before but neither of the arrancar women had allowed her to leave the throne and visit the … other throne.

"She can't leave Hueco Mundo on her own. We would have to open the Garganta in order for anyone to leave here. Unless one of you esteemed arrancars decide to open the way for her." Akon said.

"Fine. Can't stand much more whining anyway." Apache said with a yawn. It was getting late in the evening.

"Thanks Akon." Isane said as she was finally allowed to get up and stretch her legs. Her relief was short lived though. The intruder alarm went off, blaring noise and dim red light assailed everyone's senses.

"Another one? So soon?" Akon wondered aloud.

"Akon! Back to your post and get the med-team ready." Isane commanded. Akon was halfway back to the lab before he realized it was Isane who had ordered him to his post. "Apache, go wake Sun-Sun and Mila Rose, make sure they're ready for combat. Cirruci, tell Renji and Ichigo Kurosaki what's going on and have them meet me here." both arrancars jumped to obey Isane without completely understanding why they did so. It took maybe 3 minutes for everyone to be in position. But the excitement was short-lived. When the "intruder" came into view it became obvious that there was no immediate danger. Kinji was pulling some kind of improvised sled across the sands of Las Noches.

"Hey everyone! Please, for the love of everything good and holy, one of you get me some water!" Kinji shouted in between grunts of strained exertion. The sled was constructed primarily of kido, but what he was transporting possessed considerable weight. He'd exhausted himself to the point of collapse in order to get back to the domed fortress before it blew up. He was surprised, pleasantly so, to see it still in one piece. His head was pounding savagely and his vision seemed a little blurry. He was probably dehydrated.

"Go get some water." Isane said to Aoki. He had come out, along with many other soul reapers in order to see what was going on. Aoki instead went out to Kinji immediately carrying a canteen.

"Thanks." Kinji rasped before gulping down the offered water.

"We're living in a desert. I don't know why everyone else isn't carrying one." It wasn't quite an insult, but it made Kinji watch other other man more carefully. When his thirst felt less pressing he put the cap on and handed it back. "Brought back a souvenir?"

"More like an unwilling guest." Kinji snapped his finger to open a window to the laboratories. "Akon, I'm sending you a subject for testing. Nothing painful or invasive. Make sure you have at least 5 soul reapers who can bind powerful hollows. This one is a powerful Adjuchas."

"Understood." Akon said and began giving orders. Kinji closed the window and proceeded to drag the bound creature into the palace.

"So who got everyone into position when the alarm went off?" Kinji asked Aoki.

"Isane did. I don't know how but she got the arrancars to listen to her."

"Really..." The thoughtful look in Kinji's eyes made Aoki duck for cover as quickly as possible. The last time he'd seen that look he had been appointed leader of the patrol unit outside Las Noches.