Ichimaru Gin was afraid.

That was what it really boiled down to, if he thought about it long enough. Not that he often did. The brief moments he could pause for internal reflection had to be taken extremely carefully, and spent in consideration of far more important things than the source of his strength.

Everything he needed to know about fear, he did. He knew it as intimately as a soul could know an emotion, more deeply than Yamamoto knew wisdom or Byakuya knew loneliness. He had looked at and experienced it from all the angles his mind could grasp. He knew that a simple coiling of his reiatsu could paralyze a person, that his easy manner, very slightly altered by the tilt of his head, would seem threatening. He knew that his way of speech forced those around him to reconsider him at every turn, that his crinkled eyes and permanent smile kept him on the high ground of every intellectual battle he had ever engaged.

He knew it because he had been using it since he could remember.

Centuries had passed in that world, and he had known fear.

Some tiny particle of his soul thought he might find a change, here.

He supposed, all things considered, it had been hope. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't quite purge it from his soul. In teasing Kuchiki Rukia, he had at least found comfort that this seemed as difficult for them as it was for him. Without hope, he could simply make the next victory, and the one after that. Each sealed his safety until the next, and without hope, he would be reduced to merely concern for his safety.

Ichimaru Gin was afraid of death.

He, unlike some of the others, knew what it meant. Being born again. Without this power, this understanding.

Without fear.

Because he would be too stupid to be afraid.

But here in Hueco Mundo, would he really be born again?

One day, he was sure he would know.

And he already knew how he would learn.

Gin remained motionless on the landing, watching the stairwell and the hall below him. They hadn't noticed him yet; he had learned to mask his reiatsu long before being taken in by the Academy. He'd had to, to keep her from following him.

He supposed that part of his soul must have been love.

Love, like hope, was something he couldn't seem to part with. It was too scary. Others drew their strength from love, more strength than his. Ukitake came to mind. That was one shinigami he would prefer to arrange an Arrancar met on the battlefield. One shinigami that could hold his own, however temporarily, against Yamamoto.

Another shinigami that drew his strength from something Gin wasn't sure he would ever know.

He supposed, if he'd been less afraid, Rangiku would have taught him. She was more than willing. She'd been possibly the easiest mark he'd ever found, and instead of manipulating her like so many others, instead of fearing her, he'd . . . felt something else. Something terrifying. Something that weakened his resolve to the point of retreat, time and time again.

It wasn't walking away. It was retreating. She just didn't seem to understand the difference.

Like the others, she didn't seem to understand much. Until you looked at her eyes.

That was why he hid his. Not that this had prevented Zaraki Kenpachi from reading him like a bared scroll. But there was no one Kenpachi didn't know, down to their soul, like that hidden eye of his gave him some weird perspective on souls that no one else but Tousen could know. Zaraki knew Gin's eyes were stained with blood, so hiding them from the giant didn't matter so terribly. He'd kept up the illusion anyway, if only to keep the remainder of the 11th division as confused as the rest of Soul Society.

It was odd, that Kenpachi could so instantly and clearly see what even Aizen-sama could not.

And that he could see something Tousen refused to.

In the blind man's little world, so long as Aizen was right, his conscious was clear. With Aizen in total control, a man who would not slaughter millions for the pleasure of killing, but an intelligent man, an oddly consistent man, there would be peace. Aizen would enforce it with an iron hand. Aizen would crush rebellions before they could begin, and he would make keeping the peace of his kingdom the source of his happiness, the center of his focus.

Joining all three worlds into one, forcing all beings to exist in the same space, to exist and flourish and thrive and show him what powers he could create from them. It was the creating part that really had Aizen-sama's attention, though Gin wasn't sure Tousen saw it that way. All the blind man could see was a promised land where there was no fighting, no squabbling, no petty politics and careless remarks.

Aizen-sama would not permit it.

And so Tousen chose not to see that the Arrancars were no different than the shinigami, and the Espada quarreled and fought as often as the Gotei 13. Oh, the Grimmjow incident, he supposed, had forced Tousen's eyes a bit more open than the ebony man may have liked. But he hadn't realized he was being manipulated. Tousen had rationalized it as Aizen-sama's manner in order to get the Espada to do his bidding. Likely Tousen felt Aizen would sacrifice most of the Arrancar in the one, epic battle that could not be avoided. Likely Tousen had reasoned that this was Aizen's way of placating them, but that they had no role to play in the world that would follow.

It was likely Tousen was going to be sacrificed in that battle. And likely that he would be, as well.

But he would go into that battle with his eyes open.

Because once that one plan came to pass, he would not be reborn.

He could not die.

There was a chance, in Hueco Mundo, that if he died, his freed essence would return to the real world and be born again. If all three worlds were combined, if Aizen was able to strip away the barriers that protected the other worlds from Hueco Mundo, there would be no recycling. No rebirth. No death. For anyone. All souls would continue to exist for there would be nowhere for the essence, freed from the soul's body, to escape.

Gin allowed his smile to become a little more genuine, a little more amused. It was amusing. It was foolish to believe that Aizen-sama really couldn't see through his many deceits. It was probably why Aizen-sama had trusted him as far as he did. He could trust Gin to play all the sides until the very end. Aizen-sama knew that above all, Gin would not allow himself to be killed. And Aizen-sama knew that if he put Gin into a dangerous situation, that he would try with all his might to survive that situation at any cost. Those costs had been Hinomori-chan, Hitsugaya-chan. They'd been Unohana-taichou, Isane-fukataichou. They'd been Kuchikis Rukia and Byakuya.

They'd been all the people that he'd managed not to kill.

And for the life of him, he couldn't figure out why.

He'd sensed Byakuya, even if Aizen-sama had somehow not noticed. Nor had Aizen noticed the approach of that ryoka Ichigo. They were beneath his notice. He who could catch the attack of a bankai with a single finger. There wasn't a captain-class shinigami in all of Soul Society, at that point, that had not exhausted half or more of their strength in the other, pointless fights Aizen-sama had engineered. But Aizen-sama had shown his weakness by his failure with kidou.

Or perhaps Aizen-sama, like Gin himself, couldn't end them either.

Or perhaps that was part of the illusion as well.

Aizen had failed to kill Unohana-taichou when he'd had the chance. She was one of the few captains at that time that had been weakened, due to her healing all the injuries the first manipulations – and the ryoka - had produced. But perhaps Aizen had learned to trust Kenpachi as well. Despite his giant reiatsu, the taichou of the 11th division had never challenged Unohana. He'd gone out of his way to avoid any situation in which he could appear to be backing down, as well.

Then again, it could be argued Kenpachi had a soft spot for women, considering he'd inexplicably picked up an infant girl on his way to the Seireitei. His inability to control his spirit pressure had caused that poor infant to develop into the most frighteningly powerful child Gin had ever seen. Kenpachi's spirit pressure might also explain why so many of the top-seated 11th division had had huge increases in strength and ability since joining that division.

But it also gave the giant ridiculous power, and his own mind gave him a love of fighting. He would fight females if they gave him a reason or looked like they could take a little abuse. If Kenpachi actually put forth effort to avoid fighting Unohana . . . and really, her shikai was one of the most powerful in Soul Society.

Some might argue Minatsuki was almost as powerful as Kyouka Suigetsu.

And failure to kill her virtually guaranteed that few if any of the captains, even if significantly wounded, would be allowed to die. By sparing her, he had certainly increased the number of his enemy. She had also been the only shinigami that seemed to be aware of the hypnosis, or at least detect a flaw within it.

There were many reasons Aizen-sama might have spared Unohana, but only one rang true: fear. He was afraid that he would not be able to deceive her in battle, and that he would not be able to finish the fight, even with her weakened, without taking injury. An injury at that point would have made his taking of the Hougyoku and subsequent escape significantly less impressive.

And it was absolutely critical that Aizen-sama appear untouchable as he left. He really could not have planned it better.

Aizen-sama was not nearly as powerful as he had appeared in his last moments in Soul Society. He could never have withstood Komamura's bankai if the fox-headed captain had not already been weakened by his fight with Zaraki. Nor could he have repelled Abarai's Zabimaru as easily if the fukataichou had not already sustained significant injuries. And it was astonishing the son of Kurosaki Isshun had even been standing, let alone capable of forcing his Zangetsu into bankai, so it was no wonder that a fully rested captain-level shinigami could repel his attack, no matter how swiftly it came.

All Soul Society had seen was that Aizen-taichou was attacked by several captains, using zanpaktous in their final form, and had not even broken a sweat. It could be argued that he had allowed Yourichi and Soi Fon to apprehend him, though Gin knew better.

Aizen-sama had not sensed them coming. He hadn't sensed any of them coming.

His strike against Byakuya was just as lucky, and just as awe-inspiring. If Kurosaki Ichigo had not already exhausted the 6th division captain, he would have been able to snatch Rukia and dodge Shinsou without so much as a scratch to his haori.

And the menos arriving in just the nick of time . . . yes, it could not have been planned any better.

He could not have done a better job himself of instilling fear of Aizen-sama into the very heart of Soul Society. They witnessed unparalleled strength and unheard-of talent that day. Aizen-sama had borrowed his very own technique of relaxation and casual speech to explain away his failures with kidou, and there was no doubt it had been effective. Those that witnessed everything would say that Aizen hadn't even been fully engaged in combat, that it was sheer luck his lack of interest in the battle had resulted in no deaths.

No deaths. No elimination of the enemy.

Their spies had communicated that much. Hinamori-fukataichou and Hitsugaya-taichou lived. Byakuya-taichou and Renji-fukataichou lived. Even the ryoka Ichigo-kun had survived. People Aizen-sama himself had identified as dangerous.

So much went wrong, and yet the ending felt so complete.

They had what they wanted.

They had the Hougyoku. And all the shinigami lived.

He'd see her again.

But not according to the plan. Half the captains would have been dead, ideally. That would have forced Urahara Kisuke right back into Soul Society, even if Yamamoto had had to send Shunsui and Ukitake both to bring him. Doubtlessly he was working to end their plot and was in communication with Soul Society, but with him hiding in the real world, locating the ex-taichou without casualties was going to be a pain.

He was a problem. But he wasn't the biggest problem.

The biggest problem was Hitsugaya, whether Aizen-sama wanted to admit it or not.

Gin's smile widened at the idea that Hitsugaya-kun was a big problem. He was actually short even for his age, and he was barely more than Gin himself had been when he'd run into Matsumoto. But he was ridiculously powerful. Too powerful. He was still young enough to be earnest, but his resolve and wisdom were far too advanced for his age, no matter what experiences he'd had in the real world. It didn't help that he'd sworn so seriously to kill both Aizen-sama and Gin himself, for the same crime.

Maybe he was the guardian said to be sent, the one out of mythology. Mythology had a nasty habit of being based in fact. And depending on how true it was, there was no guarantee that the small captain would be affected by the same limitations of other shinigami. That young prodigy might very well have figured out a way to access exactly the same sorts of powers Aizen-sama was certain could not be obtained without Hougyoku.

It would be as though the boy had a Hollow inside of him.

And the weird darkness in the reiatsu the Kurosaki boy had flared off during his fight with Byakuya . . . it was almost the same darkness he felt when he looked at his end.

The one that would ultimately kill him.

The one that would ultimately make a move to stop Aizen-sama.

The one that had no chance of succeeding.

The one that stood so sadly at the foot of the stairs, his back to Gin, as he listened to the pointless rantings of one of his fellow Arrancar.

The one that was not afraid.

It was some other emotion that he knew well. He assumed fear and shyness instead of ease and smiles, he spoke formally and softly rather than familiarly, and he knew it as well as Gin knew fear. It wasn't love, it wasn't justice, it wasn't any emotion Gin could identify.

But knowing it so completely, Gin had seen that the instant he'd laid eyes on the Arrancar.

They were two of a kind.

That was also probably why Aizen-sama trusted the other man. Aizen-sama understood what drove this man, just as he understood what drove Gin.

That was why he would fail in his attempt to stop Aizen-sama.

That was why, eventually, Aizen-sama would pit them against each other.

And that was why, he knew with a certainty, that this soul was the one that would kill him. Not Hitsugaya, not Ichigo.

It would be Ulquiorra.

They understood one another too well.

He recognized the other Espada, Yami, as the one ranting. For some reason the two seemed to spend time together, more because Yami liked to be a dominate personality and didn't realize that Ulquiorra was manipulating him. The consistent, sad expression, the quiet demeanor, they all caused predictable reactions in all the menos. This period of waiting for Hougyoku's complete awakening was just giving the Arrancar time to learn everything he could about his fellows, before they had to get serious.

After their first encounter, Ulquiorra was giving him a lot of space. Perhaps he realized he'd been made.

Not that it mattered. They both had been made, and Aizen-sama had their number. If he was to survive to see the King destroyed, and the barriers broken, he needed to eliminate Ulquiorra, and he needed to do it soon. There were several ways to go about it, the most attractive of which would be to coax the other Espada into believing their shy compatriot had somehow betrayed them.

Leaking some information to Urahara Kisuke would probably do nicely, since it would be obvious Grimmjow hadn't done it, and they were two of only four of Aizen-sama's minions to have traveled to the real world after their retreat from Soul Society and survived.

Of course, it would mean leaking information to Urahara Kisuke. Who was resigned enough to his fate, and the fate of all of Soul Society, to properly accept the information without seriously fighting. If he knew where the shinigami was, he'd have already passed the information along.

It would even have to be true information. Just something that wouldn't damage Aizen-sama's chances. Possibly information about the ranking of the Arrancar, or information about their zanpaktou equivalents.

And he'd have to do it when Yoruichi was confirmed to be in Soul Society. She would be less likely to be gentle, seeking both the information and his capture. Kisuke would let him walk right out the door, so to speak.

Urahara Kisuke wasn't so different from Aizen-sama. He was just a little more afraid.

And Shihouin Yoruichi was not.

Kisuke would see right through the gesture, so he could count on little goodwill from the exchange. The only gain was Ulquiorra's death. Assuming he did not survive the encounter when his 'duplicity' was revealed. If he did, and Aizen-sama believed him to be innocent, there would be a considerable risk. But surely Aizen-sama had seen through Ulquiorra's actions enough to know the Arrancar had doubts?

And just as surely, he wouldn't mind that Gin had given relatively useless information to protect his own life? Wouldn't Aizen-sama be counting on it? Gin eliminating Ulquiorra before the Arrancar could actually act against him?

Gin's smile slipped a bit, and he started down the stairs. A door had opened, to one of the chambers he had not yet visited, and he knew who had entered the hallway. To dally would be to give himself away, and the last thing he wanted was to give the impression he'd been thinking.

It was very difficult to determine when Aizen-sama was using others, and when he was using him. He was trapped under the illusion of Kyouka Suigetsu the same as the Menos. He wanted Aizen-sama to succeed. That was no doubt truth. He would do everything he could to see that goal realized.

He just . . . seemed to want to do as little damage as possible on the way.

He didn't used to be that way.

And he didn't understand why.

"Yare, yare. So noisy."

Yami glared up the stairs, taking in exactly what Gin wanted him to. Relaxed stature. Crinkled eyes. Wide smile, even showing a little teeth. Fingers and wrist cocked every so slightly towards his zanpaktou. Forcing the Arrancar to wonder if he was inviting attack or not.

It was easy to see, the thoughts flitted across Yami's large, stupid eyes like someone had written them on his corneas. Ulquiorra was not so unguarded. He inclined his head, his eyes seeming to die a little before they were too downcast to read. Everything about him screamed submission.

Until Gin understood what drove Ulquiorra, he would not act against him. At least not until Urahara Kisuke had been found.

"So you crawled out of your hole, Whitey," Yami grunted, his shoulders unconsciously tensing and his chest swelling as he took a deep breath. Preparatory. "So sorry to have disturbed you, taichou. "

Gin allowed his grin to grow. "Now that's an odd spin y'put on my words. It ain't me y'need to be worried about annoyin'."

He allowed his face to tilt a bit more towards the end of the hallway, and eventually Yami got the idea and turned. He obviously hadn't sensed Aizen-sama's reiatsu.

But Ulquiorra had. Only his eyes moved; he kept his body facing equally between them. The angle of his arms at his side, even the horn adoring his Hollow mask, everything indicated deference to the approaching soul. Gin simply projected his smile at Aizen-sama, as though he were merely enjoying the fear and respect Aizen-sama commanded from his subordinates.

The large, brown eyes, free of the filter of glasses, narrowed slightly as his cheekbones rose in a small smile.

"It's alright, Gin. I was already finished."