Tite Kubo owns Bleach. I just borrowed the characters. I do own Atonomatsuri (the bird) and Piecrust (the jerk). I make no money from this work. However, writing it makes me laugh.

Warning/Spoiler: Character death in the following chapter.

Reasons for Guilt and Pride

"I think you may provide a modicum of entertainment," Raketsu said. Again, Zaraki marvelled at the change in the man. Now he seemed almost assured and in control; a distinct contrast to the snivelling spider/Hollow he'd encountered previously. Was it the venom or was it pretence to make him less on guard, but if that was so, why reveal so much information.

These 'Super Hollows' confused the hell out of him. Arguing, insulting each other, complaining, whining, accusing. Somehow, they reminded him of recent conversations he'd had but didn't want to think about. He was facing these creatures now and had to try to work out why they were acting this way. Perhaps any drugs given to them or their treatment at the hands of Kurotsuchi had twisted them beyond all recognition of the original Hollows they'd been. Or they were damaged psychologically, or, and the thought could not be denied, they were like that even before they had been subjected to experimentation. Unfortunately, there were some individuals in the world pretending to be one type of person in order to gain some sympathy or present as non-threatening only to change when they believed it was possible to exert their authority or power over anyone they judged as weaker or less intelligent. These pariahs were so practised at the art that it was often hard to detect them before they worked the situation around to their benefit. Zaraki had no doubt that Raketsu judged him as less intelligent. How intelligent Raketsu was remained to be seen.

Considering it further, they must have been weak Hollows to be caught in the first place so the so-called 'Super' had a low base against which to work. No one would desire to be caught by the enemy. It was a shameful thing to happen, even if they didn't feel like fighting.

Hollows with personality issues, whether prior to capture or developed after, but originally weak. Not so 'super'.

Zaraki began to grin at the joke, but his grin turned into a snarl. The fight wasn't going to be a challenge even with the two of them at full 'strength'. Admittedly it was a little challenging fighting Raketsu because of the number of legs and the over confidence annoyed him. It reminded him of Piecrust and Atonomatsuri.

Then he paused in thought for a moment. Atonomatsuri might have reason for pride. It was possible but until they actually found a way of working together, it seemed unlikely he would find out. The ill feeling between the sometimes grew less but she always managed to find a way to needle him and bring out all the anger he felt at being stuck with a decaying vulture who didn't know when to stop quoting adages at him or insulting him for his lack of intelligence. There was no chance he was going to accept their long-term communication difficulties as primarily his problem. She'd sulked for years, playing games in his mind while probably moaning about the sort of Shinigami with whom she'd been paired.

Thinking this way wasn't achieving anything. He had to focus on what was in front of him and how quickly he'd be able to defeat these Hollows. Was there any chance they'd show him a decent fight so he might be tempted to spare them so they might improve or was their conversation enough of an impediment so their death was one way of removing any possibility of a further conversation?

In the case of these two in front of him, it wasn't possible to tell if they had any reason for pride. Not that he cared. It was simply an idle thought while he was idle waiting for these two to decide to fight.

"I asked if you were done mouthing words," Zaraki said, supressing a heavy sigh. Why did people want to talk instead of fighting? Or the ones who wanted to chat while fighting. Most of them didn't have the ability to do two things at once. Even fighting at a reasonable level seemed beyond them, but to fight and converse taxed them too much.

"I was providing time for you to come to terms with your fate," Raketsu said. "Shinigami are mostly unobservant but most would have noticed my legs are now whole and Sasori had grown is size as well as his speed increasing."

Zaraki sighed and shrugged. The scorpion hadn't been much of a threat before and even if the spider's legs were fine, the only challenge they'd offered previously was trying to avoid their limbs more than anything else. He viewed Sasori. No point in trying to jump on his back as it would make him an easier target for the sting, but then again as they had both spent time exchanging venom, how much would be left? How quickly did spiders and scorpions replace the venom they'd used? It would have to take time otherwise spiders would try to kill anything which threatened them with a poisonous bite. It seemed that scorpions might replace their venom faster but what did he know? Whether they had venom or not, it didn't matter. He's been badly wounded before and didn't think a little venom in his system would be any worse than carrying the toxic properties of Atonomatsuri within him. Heck, he didn't know what sort of weapons she had and she'd threatened him in the past with some vague threat about poisoning him.

"You're still both insects," Zaraki said.

"We are not insects," Sasori said coldly. "We are Hollows with arachnid qualities. Count our legs."

A small grin pulled at Zaraki's mouth. "You scuttle around and hide in the dark most of the time. I don't care how many legs you have or what you choose to call yourselves. If you were any smaller, you'd be simply bugs to squash. Come to think of it, that is all you are and that is what I'll do."

Without any further words, his zanpakuto was in his hand and he crouched into an attack stance. His eyes flickered from one to the other, assessing their weak spots and the areas of greatest defence. It seemed the back of the spider was still its weakest spot but Sasori was a different proposition. He couldn't strike its back with the stinger so close to it, unless he removed the sting. He circled as they turned to face him. The sting was the only thing the scorpion had as protection while the Raketsu had legs and a bite and a web which might be used at any time. That made Raketsu the bigger threat, on the surface, which led to the next question. Convention indicated removing the weakest foe at the beginning of the fight in order to concentrate of defeating the larger one without the complication of fending off another. If he felt under threat from his enemies he might follow that strategy, but he wasn't certain if he felt under that sort of threat from the two 'Super' Hollows in front of him.

As he circled, he began to notice indications of their strategy. They were moving apart and it was pretty easy to see they were going to try to repeat their earlier move. One attacking from in front, the other from the rear, a strategy which meant he would need to be very much on the defensive, if he were anyone else.

Kenpachi Zaraki didn't care much about the defensive. It often cramped the ability of a good attack and he wanted this fight over. From what the Old Man had said, once these 'Super' Hollows were dispatched the whole business of the bloody challenges would be over and Kurotsuchi would be given sentence as there was no longer any doubt of his guilt. For that, Zaraki was prepared to cut corners. The fight wouldn't prove to be interesting enough to prolong and once it was over and the other Super Hollow was dealt with, they could return to the surface and he could go back to napping, fighting whoever would accept his challenges and doing his normal routine. It didn't matter that his life had changed to something he wouldn't have recognised before he tried to speak to Atonomatsuri. It was his life and better than sloping around sewers or playing stupid games or folding fiddly pieces of paper.

To counteract the move he jumped sideways. The Hollows simply followed still circling but not attacking.

"Are they waiting for something?" Atonomatsuri asked while he watched them. They had now achieved their goal of one in front and one behind but neither was moving, simply watching him, or each other. It was hard to tell with their armoured faces and unusual body language.

"What?"

"I don't know. I'm not them," Atonomatsuri said testily. "How am I supposed to know what a spider and a scorpion think?"

"You were the one who mentioned that stupid story about scorpions," Zaraki told her. "Doesn't that give you an insight into their thoughts?"

"You don't believe it has a true scorpion's nature and you also don't see it as much of a threat. Would it have any venom left? I know it can control the amount of venom it injects and it uses a lot of energy to produce the venom…"

"Maybe that's the answer," Zaraki exclaimed with a slight touch of interest. "Producing venom. That means I attack, now!"

He spun around and struck a glancing blow at the head of Sasori. It stood to reason the head was armour plated and protected even though it looked human. He struck it and felt the impact of bone. It seemed the Hollow had the bone protector around the face, but would that be true of the body. Ignoring the sluggish reaction of the scorpion to his attack, he struck at the torso that still seemed human in shape. He again encountered bone but it didn't seem quite as dense as the bone armour, which protected the head. He saw a flicker in the corner of his eye and dodged out of the way of the tail which, moving much slower than normal struck directly where he'd been standing. Sasori's aim appeared to have improved. Maybe there was more to this waiting than the act of producing venom. One of them had garbled on about their poisons providing some benefits. Was it true?

He could keep hitting the body to find the vulnerable areas but it wasn't much like fighting. Simply hacking at an opponent while they stood there was about as interesting as attending a Captain's meeting but requiring more physical labour.

The scuttling sound he was becoming too familiar with, alerted him to the movement of the spider. It was trying to be quiet but it was moving closer to him, trying to hem him between them. Sasori remained unmoving and he began to see the plan, or what might be the plan. They would allow him to attack the one with the most protection and while he was trying to break the armour, Raketsu would attack from behind possibly using his most effective moves to capture and then cripple Zaraki. As a plan it might have worked on some people, but it wouldn't work on him.

Aware of how close it was he simply vaulted backward, being forced to flip over to gain more elevation. He had to flip directly backward as there wasn't room to flip over either of the creatures. They were large and crowded too close for him to clear. A quick decision and once again he found himself in the middle of the spider's back, facing a scorpion. It wasn't the position he wished to find himself in again, but there was little he could do. Preventing them from putting their, probably devised, strategy into action against him meant he was again faced with a problem to which the best solution was a quick end. Thinking that through quickly he hefted his zanpakuto and prepared to stab the spider through the back before he had to experience the legs stabbing at him. In some respects he felt bored. He'd done this before and it hadn't worked. Then he'd been subjected to the tedium of hearing Raketsu and Sasori chatter on about stuff he didn't really care about. What he'd really like was a decent fight or a good nap and it didn't seem likely he was going to have either any time soon.

Stabbing down he found the back of the spider was slightly armoured and resisted the first hit. The blade shuddered in his hand.

"It's hard Kenny. There must be a weak spot," Atonomatsuri said, calmly for her.

"Or I could keep hitting the same area over and over until I break through," Zaraki replied.

There was a small silence before the bird replied. "It is light armour but it will take time. You will be under constant attack, once they work out what you are doing and even if they aren't the brightest Hollows we've ever encountered they can even work that out."

Quickly he kept hitting the same place on the spiders back repeatedly. He'd assumed it was light armour but the pounding of the blade didn't seem to be having any effect.

"It isn't armour," the bird said slowly. "It isn't like anything I've seen or felt before. One of them said something about the potency of the venom."

Zaraki cursed loudly. The advantage he thought he had did not exist. The toxins running through the bodies of his enemies might have any effect.

"We must think of a new plan. One that doesn't simply involve hitting your opponent until they give up," Atonomatsuri suggested.

"It worked in the past," Zaraki replied simply. It had. He'd hit with either his fists or his blade until his opponents gave up and he let them live so they could improve their fighting skills. This was a very different situation. He'd already decided both these creatures had to die as who knew if either Atonomatsuri or Yachiru wanted to take them home and make pets of them. However, come to think of it, the vulture seemed more interested in eating the scorpion's tail rather than keeping the creature alive.

Before he could plan further strategies two legs appeared over the spiders back, but this time they were moving differently. Instead of the sharp stabbing motions they'd previously made, they moved in ever decreasing circles as if trying to locate him. He easily avoided the two legs but when a third was added he tried cutting them off as he had previously. The legs appeared stronger and while they were withdrawn quickly, the damage appeared to be minimal.

As if waiting for the cue, Atonomatsuri commented, "At least we know one of the side effects of the toxins. I wonder if there are others."

Zaraki laughed without humour. "Of course there are and the effects last for an hour."

"Ken Ken, that doesn't sound like you. The tougher the opponent the better."

He knew she was right and had trouble working out why he wasn't enjoying this fight so far.

"Because it isn't a fight," the bird suggested.

She was right. So far facing these creatures hadn't been really fighting him. They had used tactics but presented very little in the way of offense or proper defence. They'd talked as if they were keen to fight but maybe they were more used to talking than fighting. Through the time they'd spent under the Seireitei they must have fought each other otherwise they wouldn't have worked out the effect their toxins had on each other, but aside from that every move they made was predictable. In fighting each other, they hadn't honed their abilities but simply become lazy. They knew the moves the other would make and possibly ceased to try.

He felt a stab of guilt. Until the invasion of the Seireitei he had been as complacent as they. Content to fight or, in most cases, sleep and occasionally battle others who didn't have the skill or experience to make him stretch himself. Events around him seemed to remind him of his own laziness and that he had as many faults as the ones he sought to defeat.

While they talked he'd tried hitting out at the legs again and again. The legs were withdrawn, undamaged but he kept hitting out at them. Until now the scorpion hadn't moved. He caught sight of something moving out of the corner of his eye and dodged quickly to one side. The whistling noise came a few seconds after the attack and Sasori hissed angrily.

Raketsu however shook. "That hurt. You know you're not meant to sting me now."

"I was trying to sting the Shinigami, fool. He moved out of the way."

"I'm supposed to stand here and let you kill me?" Zaraki felt stupid for asking.

"It would make it easier," Sasori agreed. "But I don't expect you will." As he finished speaking the tail with the sting extended lashed out again and this time Zaraki slid to one side, ending up standing on one leg and wavered slightly. It was unusual for him to feel off balance but the whole situation made him feel less than stable and he hoped Atonomatsuri wasn't listening in on his thoughts or she'd find some adage that cast a slur his mental stability.

This time he watched where the sting landed and noted it seemed less armoured than the rest of the back. Dodging the legs and the sting, which was wavering around, trying to track his movements, he rolled and then slammed his blade into the same area the stinger had been moments before. It gave a little but he hadn't managed to put full force behind it due to trying to evade the limbs attacking him. He breathed another curse and had to roll again almost falling off the back of Raketsu. It was his zanpakuto which prevented his fall, lodging partially against some of the stiff hairs that adorned the back of the spider. He clung precariously to the hilt of his blade with one hand and a sudden movement of the spider sent him dangling.

He tried to weigh up the best options. Let go and duck under the spider to discover if it was more vulnerable or remain on top and keeping hitting the same place over and over while both 'Super Hollows' attacked him. He reminded himself that if he was on top or underneath, he was at least out of reach of the spider's jaws and if he was under Raketsu, Sasori would have difficulty manoeuvring the stinger under the body of the spider.

The spider movements were jostling him and he tried hard to free the blade of his zanpakuto. Swinging from the handle made it difficult for him to dislodge it so he attempted by using the leverage of the blade to swing onto the spiders back. His attempts brought him no closer and in addition the movement was making him slightly dizzy. He tried pulling once more with all his considerable strength and felt it loosen, a little but at this moment he saw the approach of the stinging tail and Raketsu lurched away. Both movements combined to make his balance even more unstable. His grip began to slip and he had to make a decision.

The decision was made for him as despite all his efforts his hand slipped off the handle. Landing he was immediately attacked by the legs nearest him and swearing loudly he rolled out of their way, trying to get under the spider. He made it but found he'd underestimated the amount of room. he crouched to try to fit but found he couldn't be low enough. Also he didn't have his zanpakuto to stab upwards as he had planned.

Angry, he sat under the spider which seemed to be immobile for now. It seemed stupid to be sitting under a spider he was meant to be fighting simply because he no longer had his sword in his hand.

"Why the hell am I sitting here? Am I scared of the stupid spider and the moronic scorpion? Or did all their words have an effect on me? I don't want to sit here and wait for something to happen."

Immediately he got to his feet, pushing up with his arms trying to pick up the spider. For a short time it appeared it wouldn't work as the spider's legs were long and might be stretched so that his contact with the belly gave him less leverage. He pushed harder, acknowledging the spider's weight was heavier than he'd expected, but now he'd started he may as well continue. Pushing up, groaning slightly, he noticed the legs were moving further off the floor. Some scrabbled, trying to regain a foothold.

Not surprisingly, Raketsu seemed to notice his action and tried to move but at least half of the legs had now left the floor and his attempt almost unbalanced Zaraki. Feeling the shift in the centre of gravity he braced himself and put even more force into lifting the spider. The muscles in his arms and back complained as he strained but he ignored that and the sweat which dripped from his eyebrows and saturated his eye-patch.

"Dammit, I should have removed the thing. Why didn't I think about it? It's too late now," because he knew removing one hand even for an instant would cause him to lose the advantage.

Now the spider's legs were off the floor he hefted the form in his hands, trying to estimate what action he might take next. There weren't many choices he knew but there was one which might at least stun the spider for a moment while he retrieved his zanpakuto and then had the ability to at least have some defence.

Zaraki tried to judge where the scorpion had placed itself. He thought he heard movement and putting more strength into his back and arms he flung Raketsu slightly up and forward hoping it would hit the wall and the scorpion.

He missed the scorpion but the spider hit the wall and due to the force of the throw and the impact of the heavy body against the wall, it shuddered and collapsed, covering Raketsu with rubble and causing more dust to obscure his vision. Rushing forward to recover his zanpakuto he felt something move behind him and without thinking rolled to one side, coming back on his feet and closer to his goal.

"You won't defeat me with such a cheap trick, Shinigami," Sasori said. The scorpion was very close, but aside from the movements of its stinger was unmoving, appearing to watch him and anticipate his actions. Had he failed to take advantage of an opportunity or did he have another motivation?

Zaraki sighed in annoyance. "I don't plan on trying to get under you. Your body is much closer to the floor. Why do you say defeated? What's wrong with the spider?"

"You killed him and didn't even notice?" Sasori swung his tail at Zaraki who quickly moved closer to his fallen foe. As the dust cleared he noticed a large section of the wall had fallen on Raketsu's head, dislodging the Hollow mask and crushing part of the skull. Blood pooled under the head and the spider didn't move even when Zaraki reached out and took possession of his zanpakuto.

It was a shock. He'd killed before and couldn't estimate the number of lives he'd cut short but since meeting Yachiru he'd changed. Death seemed too final and a waste of his energy. He knew it was the responsibility of Shinigami to dispose of Hollows, especially those who threatened humanity and the Seireitei but even though he'd consciously decided these two 'Super' Hollows should die, it seemed wrong that one ended his life through an accident. By throwing Raketsu at the wall he'd meant to disable, not kill him.

It didn't seem the time to dwell on an accidental death. "He's dead. You were both trying to kill me," he said to Sasori trying to ignore the niggle of guilt that seemed to want his attention.

"All Shinigami must die," Sasori said and Zaraki could hear a mixture of rage and grief in his voice.

"I thought you hated him," he replied in astonishment.

"Hate/love, what does it mean? I knew him for years before we were captured and tormented by your fellow Captain. Yes, I know you are both Captains.' Sasori spat. "Superior Shinigami's who are worse than Hollows. We kill each other to survive and Shinigami kill us because we get hungry. Is it fair for them to judge us?"

"You eat souls of living creatures. Are you so dim..."

"We're different to the Shinigami. It is our way of life."

"You're saying others have to die so you can live," Zaraki said, amazed he was having this discussion after he'd killed a creature who he was meant to destroy.

"Don't you, Shinigami?" Sasori asked pointedly. "I know your history and that you were once one of us."


Author's Note

This chapter is many months later than anticipated as during the process Zaraki was written into a corner and seemed unwilling to take any action suggested. He grumbled something about being the Kenpachi and being stranded on a spider's back wasn't fun or even fighting.

For the delay, apologies. Zanpakuto is destined to end within another two chapters, with any luck, but then the estimations have been incorrect previously and there is no reason for them to change. The death of Raketsu came as a shock when this was written but as some of you may know the writer often doesn't control the events in the story.

Please review.

MS