Note: Just a little one-shot that popped into my head one night. I'm assuming here that the more senior captains (The ones with long sleeves on those spiffy white Captain's robes) are fairly close, having worked together for literally centuries. Also, I know that it's unknown which division Isshin was actually the Captain of, but honestly, the 11th division just seems to sort of fit him, at least to me.

Old Soldiers

Kisuke Urahara entered the bar, adjusting his hat as he did so and stopping to let his eyes adjust to the dim lighting. He scanned the room a few times, absolutely certain the others were already here. He was, after all, a solid twenty minutes late. Yet, as he looked around, he saw nobody that he recognized…

"BOO!" A feminine voice said from right next to his ear. Urahara jumped about a foot from surprise, but adapted quickly, rapidly spinning and ready to pull Benihime from her sheath if necessary… and stared right into the impishly grinning face of Retsu Unohana, or at least her Gigai.

"Retsu, my dear, exactly what were you thinking? You of all people know better than to sneak up on an armed, Captain-class Shinigami!" Urahara said, grinning just a little bit.

"Kisuke, honestly, we both know that had you actually attempted to hurt me, I would have put your head through the wall," the soft-spoken woman said warmly.

"Fair enough." Kisuke said, draping an arm around her shoulders. "I take it the others are already here?"

"Of course. The rest of us, you see, have learned how to tell time." Unohana said, still smiling that odd combination of warmth and mischief that only she could quite pull off. She led the new arrival to a secluded booth in the back of the bar, cut off from the rest of the establishment by a screen. The two moved the screen aside to reveal three men, also in Gigai (Expertly crafted and provided by none other than the Urahara shop! If there was one thing Kisuke recognized, it was his own work). The table was shaped like a semi-circle, and Jūshirō Ukitake, Shunsui Kyōraku, and Isshin Kurosaki were taking up about half of the available space in the booth. Retsu took a seat next to Isshin, leaving the end of the bench for Urahara.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the guest of honor has arrived!" Urahara proclaimed, taking his seat.

"Kisuke, just because you say you're the guest of honor doesn't mean you are." Ukitake stated.

"Particularly not when you're wearing the second ugliest outfit at the table." Isshin joked.

"Who's wearing the ugliest outfit?" Kyōraku asked.

All eyes turned to him.

Unlike the other three, who were dressed in fairly innocuous civilian garb, Kyōraku had chosen to dress his gigai in almost exactly the same pink robe and straw hat that he always wore when in Soul Society.

"Dammit all, I look good." Kyōraku protested.

"To be fair, your hat IS better than Kisuke's. But the rest of it just ruins you." Unohana teased.

"My hat is in no way uglier than that dog dish he wears on his head," Urahara said.

"Kisuke, if my hat is a dog dish, yours is a bedpan." Kyōraku said.

"It's the epitome of style!"

"It's a bucket."

"Well excuse me if I don't trust the fashion sense of a man wearing FLOWERS."

"Ladies LOVE the flowers."

"No, we don't," Unohana said serenely.

"My dear, sweet, Retsu-chan, you cut me to the core with your harsh words! What would cause you to speak so?" Kyōraku moaned, pantomiming being shot through the heart, even as his eyes glinted with amusement. "Could it be jealousy, perhaps? After all, once upon a time the devotion I now lavish upon my beloved Nanao-chan was directed your way…"

"And I thank all the gods there ever were that is has been redirected, even as I give my deepest sympathies to poor Vice-captain Ise," Unohana replied.

As Kyōraku once again made a motion indicating he had been stabbed through the heart, Isshin chuckled. "I realize that you all could live on witty barbs, but I have some children at home who are expecting me to come home drunk so THEY can berate me. I hate to dissappoint them, so how about someone go get the first round?" He said, glancing pointedly at Ukitake.

"What the-? Shunsui, why do I have to go? I'm ill!" Ukitake protested.

"You're on the end of the bench!"

"So is Urahara! Make him go!"

"Ah, but Jūshirō, you forget, you're the group bitch." Urahara proclaimed, grinning like a predator. "So when we need someone to be sent to get drinks, or someone to play a practical joke on, or something else undignified, you're elected."

Ukitake's eyes narrowed. "Just because I was the group bitch when we were in the academy, doesn't mean I have to fulfill this position all my life. I think that standing should be reconsidered,"

"On what grounds?" Urahara countered.

"My physical condition entitles me to more rest, the only reason we can't go drinking in Soul Society anymore is because you are now an exiled criminal, and the little fact that if it came to a fight, I could totally kick your ass." Ukitake said, ticking off the reasons on his fingers.

"He makes a compelling case, Kisuke," Kyōraku said.

"I agree. All in favor of making Kisuke the new group bitch?" Isshin said, raising his hand. Three other hands joined it in the air.

"I'll get the first round." Urahara sighed.

It was like this every year. Though two of them no longer carried that rank, they remained the five most senior captains in Soul Society, and once a year, on February 3rd, they all met and spent this one night together. Joking, drinking, bickering, drinking, just talking like the old friends they were, drinking, flirting with varying degrees of coherence with Unohana or any other pretty girl who happened to wander by, and drinking. It was a night for reminiscing and catching up with old friends who all-too-rarely got to meet and relax together these days. There had been some thought of cancelling the meeting this year, given the constant and ever-growing threat gathering in Hueco Mundo, but Kyōraku had made the argument that such dire times made the rare opportunity to simply meet and have some fun that much more precious. Nobody had wanted to gainsay him.

Unfortunately, while hardly the first crisis that their little meetings had weathered, this particular one had a slightly more personal effect on all of them.

"Alright everyone, the first round is here! I'm not in the mood for sake just yet, so I went with beer this time, and figured whiskey next, and maybe we could set up some sort of rotation…" Kisuke said cheerfully, coming back with the glasses.

The others fell silent, their smiles disappearing.

"What? What's wrong?" Urahara asked.

"Kisuke…" Unohana said gently. "You got six glasses."

"So? What's the… oh." Kisuke said somberly. It was just a habit, at this point. For over 150 years now, they'd been having these little get-togethers, and there had always, always been six drinks per round.

Now, though, they were one captain short.

Urahara sat back in his seat, putting one drink in front of each of the captains, and leaving the sixth in front of an empty space on the bench.

"I think, for purposes of the night's festivities," Urahara said grimly, "It would be best if we just considered that drink to be in honor of a fallen comrade."

"Bull." Isshin snapped. "He's not dead. Hell, it would be better if he WERE dead! He'll certainly wish he was if I ever run across him…"

Ukitake took a sip of his drink and sighed. "At the very least, the part of him that we knew died. Maybe it never existed. Maybe he was playing us from the very start."

"I don't know what would be more depressing, the thought that he was always like he is now, and he fooled us all… or the thought that maybe something happened to warp him, and we didn't notice the change." Unohana said sadly.

"Well, whatever the case, I say we dedicate the first round to the lost." Kyōraku said. He raised his glass and continued, "To Aizen. A damn good hand in a fight, and unfortunately also an amoral psychopath. Wherever you may be right now, know that whether or not you were ever truly our friend, we sincerely miss you being here to pick up a sixth of the tab."

"Even I can drink to that," Isshin said, slugging back his first drink of the night. "Now, I believe the man wearing the bitch hat has to get at least a few more rounds, until we're all too drunk to remember who he is?" the ex-captain said, grinning slightly at Urahara.

"I think he was." Urahara simply said.

"… … huh?" Isshin replied. "Kisuke, I'm still dangerously sober over here, and I have to go home to three kids. Think of poor Karin! If I don't come home drunk, she won't get to kick me in the face, and you know how she loves that…"

"I think that Aizen was always the heartless, power-hungry maniac he is now, deep down." Urahara said. "But I think he was also our friend. Maybe we're even what kept him in check for so long."

"Are we going to spend the whole night talking about Aizen? Because if we are, tell me so I can get drunk somewhere less gloomy." Isshin said petulantly. "Face it, the man played us for saps and we bought it, hook, line, and sinker. He is not, and never was, a friend to any of us. Or, hell, anyONE for that matter."

"I think Kisuke may be right, Isshin. At some point, he really was one of us, probably in spite of himself." Unohana said sadly, swirling her drink her glass.

"How can you be so damn sure?"

"Because he was there," Kyōraku said. "And you don't go through something like that without coming out the other side as friends."

And all five captains fell silent, as the memories came back unbidden…

February 3, 1857

"Dammit, Kisuke, the vice-captains can't take this much longer!" Isshin snapped.

"Well, given that we can't exactly run away, they haven't got much of a choice," Urahara replied, real fear evident in his voice. "Retsu…"

"It's Captain Unohana when we're in the field, and I'm doing the best that I can!" Unohana replied, an uncommon sharpness in her tone. "But this is hardly the best condition for medical treatment! These kids need a real hospital, and more than one doctor between the six of them!"

"Well, you're the best they're going to get in the immediate future," Aizen said, cool as ever. Normally, the man didn't seem too impressive, with his quiet, almost zen-like calmness; but what made Aizen so dangerous was that he was ALWAYS that calm, even in the most desperate of situations. "Tend to them as best you can, Unohana. We'll keep the Hollows off you as long as possible."

"Which may not be long," Ukitake said somberly. "I've never seen so many in one place! I can't even see the sun anymore…"

"Hey, Jūshirō. Betcha a week's pay I can take down more than you," Kyōraku said, grinning rogueishly.

"I was hardly planning to count, Shunsui…" Ukitake protested.

"Double or nothing says I get more than both of you put together." Isshin broke in. "Since, after all, the 11th division is TWICE as good any other, it only makes sense that her captain be at least as talented as two others combined…"

"Oh, you are going to pay for that little comment. I'm so in." Ukitake said.

It had begun a fairly normal day. Japan was a warlike nation, and was in fact currently in the midst of an upheaval following its first contact with foreigners. Since Hollows were naturally attracted to battlefields, the Shinigami were always more busy during wars and revolutions. And when reports of unusually large numbers of Hollows gathering, including a possible Menos Grande sighting, a task force of Vice-Captains was put together to neutralize the threat. Six vice-captains working together provided a powerful and adaptable force, and under these special circumstances they were even given permission to go into battle without dampers put on their powers. It should have been no problem.

An hour after their departure, the Hell Butterfly had arrived, desperately screaming for reinforcements. And no captain worth their rank allowed their second-in-command to be harmed if they could prevent it.

Isshin, Aizen, Ukitaki, Urahara, Kyōraku, and Unohana had arrived at the same landing site as their vices, and encountered several lower-level hollows right off the bat. No normal Hollow was a match for a captain-class Shinigami, of course, and those first few had fallen in seconds. As they followed the trail of their vice-captains's fading reiatsu, the intensity of the Hollow's numbers had gotten greater, but still no level that gave the Captains pause. And that was what worried them.

The quantity and quality of the Hollows present on this battlefield were abnormal, yes, but hardly anything their highly capable vice-captains couldn't have dealt with. Indeed, three in particular were actually above normal vice-captain level, on the verge of achieving their respective bankai. Despite their training and combat experience, however, it wasn't until the captains had actually found the six wounded Shinigami that they realized the truth of what was going on.

All six vice-captains were unconscious and badly wounded, but all were alive. And there was only one possible explanation for that: They were bait. Almost immediately after they found their subordinates, the skies had gone almost entirely black with portals opening to Hueco Mundo, and Hollows had begun to emerge in staggering numbers. As Unohana began to tend the wounded, the other five Captains circled around them and began desperately fending off the onslaught.

Unohana's captain's coat was soaked in blood as she desperately tended to the wounds of Ukitake's lieutenant, the worst out of the bunch. She had found the young man laying on top of Isane, her own lieutenant; judging by their positions, young Byakuya had actually shielded her with his own body after she'd fallen, taking grievous wounds in the process. Ukitake never missed an opportunity to brag about the young man, and it was an open question whether or not he was fonder of Byakuya or Shiba, his third seat. Apparently, he deserves his Captain's respect. Unohana thought as she struggled to stop his bleeding. Faintly, she remembered that Byakuya had recently married a young woman from Rukongai. Come on, Retsu. He made sure you wouldn't have to cry over your vice-captain's grave, now you damn well make sure that his wife doesn't have to cry over his.

"Unohana!" Ukitake shouted, cleaving a Hollow completely in half with one of his blades and deflecting a cero blast with the other. "I'm more worried about Byakuya than you are, but the others need to be looked after too! I'm not even sure if Ichimaru's arm is still attached over here!" A bolt of blue flame shot by his head to incinerate a third Hollow that had been priming to attack him.

"Don't worry about Gin. I trained him myself, he can survive worse than this." Aizen said confidently, his hand still extended from the kido he'd just cast. "You just let Unohana do her job and worry about yourself." Just then, a cero flashed down from straight above him… only to impact on a red barrier that formed in the air.

"Follow your own advice, Sosuke." Urahara chided him.

Aizen smiled slightly… and vanished. Reappearing above the Hollow that had attacked him, he decapitated it in a single stroke. "I always do." He replied cheerfully.

Urahara sighed. "That illusion thing you do is incredibly annoying, you know that? I can never tell if you're actually in trouble or not." he said, taking the time to launch one of his own energy blasts into the crowd of masked creatures that surrounded them.

"Well, I'm never in trouble, so there's no need to worry." Aizen said coolly. Then he smiled a little. "For what it's worth, it annoys Gin too. Blue Fire, Crash Down." he added, almost as an afterthought, vaporizing another creature.

"Well, speaking of vice-captains… Retsu? Is Mayuri alive?" Urahara shouted above the din.

"It's Captain Unohana, and yes! He's actually taken less damage than most of the others, so I'm taking care of them first!" Unohana said, having moved onto a dark-skinned young man she didn't know personally. She vaguely remembered he'd just transferred out of Aizen's squad to become Kyōraku's lieutenant, but couldn't place his name.

"Could you kill him for me?" Urahara asked.

Unohana sent him a death glare that could shake the most hardened Shinigami into quivering terror.

"What? We don't all like our Vice-Captains, you know! Frankly, Kurotsuchi creeps me right the hell out!" Urahara said honestly.

"Is this REALLY the time for this discussion?" Kyōraku said, pivoting on his ankle to spin his twin blades like a buzz-saw, tearing apart anything that came near him.

"Hey, you guys just keep chatting away while I rack up the most kills!" Isshin chimed in. He swung his his blade in a downward arc, releasing a blast of brilliant white light that sliced down the battlefield.

Unohana sighed, tying off the bandage on the vice-captain she couldn't name… Tōsen, that was it. Kaname Tōsen. "How exactly these people became captains is sometimes beyond me…" she muttered.

"Has anyone else noticed something is odd here?" Aizen asked suddenly.

"Yes. There's about six million Hollows swarming us." Isshin replied, his tone indicating that Aizen was just about the biggest moron of all time.

"Not that. These creatures set a trap for us, they arrived in far greater numbers than they should have, and the menos haven't made a move yet." Aizen said.

Urahara took the time to look to where Aizen was staring, and saw a number of gillian-class menos standing back and simply watching. "Oh my god, are they… waiting? They're waiting for the normal hollows to wear us down before they attack!" Urahara said in a slightly awed tone.

"Gillians have no self control. They don't just sit back when there's prey to be had, especially not prey as tempting as us. Something is directing them." Aizen said grimly.

"Adjuchas?" Urahara asked.

"I doubt an Adjuchas could control this many Hollows." Aizen said grimly.

"You can't mean…" Kyōraku began.

"Vasto Lorde."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa. A Vasto Lorde has never, in the history of the world, left Hueco Mundo. We don't even have definitive visual proof they exist." Isshin said.

"Nonetheless, I have felt something directing this battle. A dark reiatsu, just below the surface, hiding itself from us." Aizen replied.

"I know what you mean. I can just barely feel it, like… like when other people are whispering to each other. You know how you can tell they're saying something, but not what? It's like that; something IS there, but I can't tell what it is." Ukitake said.

"Okay, say it is a Vasto Lorde. That would mean we'd have to kill it to disperse all these Hollows; otherwise it will just keep summoning more until it finally gets us," Kyōraku pointed out. "But where is it? I'd assume a Vasto Lorde would be, well, vast. Even if it is supressing its reiatsu, we should be able to see it."

"Never assume." Kisuke said. "Just because it has a lot of power doesn't mean it's big. Let's think of this tactically. If you kill the enemy general, their army recieves no guidance and falls apart, so the General always goes into battle from the rear. Logically, then, the Vasto Lorde…"

"Would be behind the other menos," Aizen finished. "If we're going to get to it, we'll need to go through them."

"Okay then. Ukitake, we'll need you to clear out all those Gillians." Kyōraku said.

"WHAT?! Why ME?!" Ukitake protested.

"Because you're the group bitch." Urahara said.

"Oh for the love of… that was in the academy! Am I going to be called that all my life?!"

"Probably." Isshin said.

"In any case, didn't Kyōraku kill the most Hollows just now? That would mean he's the best fighter, so make HIM go do the hard part!"

"HEY! I killed the most Hollows!" Isshin protested.

"Fine, then you go." Urahara encouraged him.

"… … on second thought, Sosuke maybe got a few more than me. He can go." Isshin said.

"You know that Aizen is disqualfied from these contests." Kyōraku chided.

"I am? Why?" Aizen asked, eyes wide.

"Because it's too easy for you to cheat! For all we know, you just use your zanpakuto to make it LOOK like you're fighting!" Urahara said.

"Okay, fine, than I nominate that the person with the worst vice-captain has to distract the Gillians. Gin finished the shinigami academy at the top of his class. Go." Aizen said smugly.

"Byakuya is not only easily as talented as Gin, but he's rich, dignified, and popular with women. I win." Ukitake said even more smugly.

"Tōsen may be kind of a stick in the mud… okay, a huge stick in the mud… Hell, he may be an entire TREE in the mud… but his technical skills are unquestionable. And this is in spite of having NO GODDAMN EYES. Beat that!" Kyōraku crowed.

"Ugh, I may lose this one. I don't think Mayuri has any good qualities." Urahara groaned.

"Men are idiots." Unohana muttered. Amazingly, however, the Hollows seemed to be hovering back, apparently confused at why their targets didn't seem to be paying attention them anymore.

"Well, my Vice-captain could take all of yours with one hand behind his back!" Isshin proclaimed.

"Oh, really?" Urahara said mockingly. "What's his name?"

"… … … … Bob?"

"YOU DON'T KNOW YOUR OWN VICE-CAPTAIN'S NAME?!" Unohana shrieked in something akin to horror.

"Good lord, Kurosaki, you have GOT to be the laziest, dumbest…" Ukitake began.

"Hey, it's not my fault! Um… he's not a very memorable guy, and I'm not good with people's names…" Isshin said lamely.

"Oh, you SO lose this." Kyōraku gloated.

"Fine, fine, I'll get through the Gillians…" Isshin said, in the tone of a child who had just been sent into time-out.

"Ah, what the hell. I took second-to-last, I'll give you a hand." Urahara said cheerfully.

"Fine. You two punch us a hole, and we three will break through to the Vasto Lorde. Follow us through if you can and keep them off our backs; we'll be too busy getting all the normal Hollows off our fronts." Aizen said.

"And hoping we can actually kill this thing when we find it…" Kyōraku muttered.

"If three Captains together can't, nothing can," Ukitake said.

"It's the 'nothing can' part that worries me," Kyōraku countered.

"Retsu, please watch over the Vice-Captains. Most of the Hollows should be focused on the five of us, but if any of them get opportunistic…" Ukitake warned, pretending his best friend hadn't talked.

"Jushiro, just because my zanpakuto is designed for healing, doesn't mean I'm helpless. You'll be in more danger than we will." Unohana said gently.

"Okay, how come he gets to call you Retsu but I have to call you 'Captain Unohana'?" Kisuke complained.

"I like him more than I like you."

"… you didn't have to be so mean about it…"

"Can we focus, please?" Aizen said, apparently developing a headache judging from his expression.

"Let's do it, boys. Hold nothing back, show no mercy! Anything that gets between us and the smug, evil bastard running this show dies screaming!" Isshin said.

Five voices screamed in unison, "BANKAI!"

It had taken almost a full hour to reach the Vasto Lorde. All the captains had fought until their arms were numb and their swords were blunted, fighting with a wild abandon and brutal precision that left little doubt which side would triumph.

Only at two points did there seem any chance of the Hollows succeeding. At one point, Ukitake's illness had struck him down, leaving him vulnerable to the multitude surrounding him. It had been Unohana, shy, quiet healer Unohana, who had dragged him to safety; hacking her way through the enemy with a ferocity that none of them had ever seen in her and literally pulling Ukitake out of a Menos Grande's mouth.

The second had been when they had actually encountered the Vasto Lorde. The creature had been small, human-sized even, but it had unleashed powers that none of the captains had ever concieved of. Kyōraku had nearly been killed in the first few seconds of engaging it, his bankai shattered by a cero blast of greater magnitude than he'd ever seen before. Aizen to his credit, did a remarkable job, seemingly fighting the creature on its own level, utilizing his illusionary powers to their ultimate extent and firing advanced kido the other cpatains hadn't even realized he knew. But even he began to fall behind, the constant battling of the day finally catching up to him. It had only been when Isshin and Urahara managed to break the Gillian's line completely and come to his aid had victory been sealed.

All told, the battle had lasted nearly two hours. Between the six of them, over five-hundred Hollows had been purified, including the one and only known purification of a Vasto Lorde, a record which stood to this day. Even better, all six Vice-captains had survived, even Isshin's (Although there was still nobody certain what his name was). But all six Captains, although having well-earned a status that could only be described as 'legendary', had been haunted and exhausted by their trials. They had nearly lost their closest subordinates, and Jūshirō, Sosuke, and Shunsui were all closer to dead than alive when the battle ended. None of the six had ever been closer to death, and it affected them all deeply.

So, after they had all recovered from their physical injuries, Kyōraku had suggested they get drunk. Nobody argued.

The first time was a night of irreverent fun, intended entirely to avoid any sort of rational thought. They drank (WAY too much), joked, and, naturally, mocked each other. They mocked Unohana's division (wimpy), Ukitake's hair (girly), Kyōraku's clothing (ugly), Isshin's intellect (stupid), Aizen's glasses (dorky) and Urahara's sex life (Heeeeere, kitty kitty kitty!). Unohana actually recalled, with perfect clarity, the argument they'd had when deciding who was going to have to go first to fight the Menos; she recited it from the beginning, doing her very best imitation of each of their voices. By the time she was halfway through, all six of them were rolling on the floor in laughter (Well, Aizen was actually just chuckling a little bit) and the entire bar was looking at them as though they'd gone insane.

They'd all woken up the next morning intensely hung-over, still actually in the bar. Apparently the staff had decided that ordering six drunken captains to leave was a stupid idea, so they'd just keep funneling them alchohol until they'd passed out. They'd awoken (Unohana, who had fallen asleep using Ukitake as a pillow, blushing furiously), agreed that this had been a remarkably childish way for Captains to act, and that they all needed to return to their duties.

The next year, on the anniversary of the battle, they'd all done the exact same thing. And the next. Eventually, it had simply become tradition; every year on February 3rd, the six of them spent an evening talking, drinking, and generally making fools of themselves. It wasn't always just the six of them; on more than one occasion one of their Vice-Captains would come along, often unwillingly. On the year of Byakuya and Gin's promotions to Captaincy, they'd both been forced to attend. But every time, EVERY time, the night ended with just the six of them. Well, except for the time they'd been joined by a young 10th division officer named Matsumoto, who'd just sort of drifted in during the festivities and invited herself to the party. She was, impressively, the first one to ever keep pace with the six of them for the entire night. Shunsui was practically drooling over her.

The tradition had continued for over a century, surviving Urahara's exile and Isshin's resignation. It had to be moved to the material world, but it kept going on. And realistically, it would keep going on now, in spite of Aizen's defection. But it wasn't the same.

"It'll never be the same again." Unohana sighed.

"Nope. But that doesn't mean it has to be bad." Kyōraku agreed. "Aizen was one of us, but that wasn't enough for him. We should have stopped him, but we didn't. And now, all we can do is what we always have… move on, cope, and try to enjoy our lives as much as we can."

"We're still here. We're still alive. And as long as that's the case, there's hope." Ukitake said. "And as for Aizen… we mourn our lost comrade, and fight with everything we have against the creature he's become."

"Whoever kills him gets free drinks with us next year?" Urahara suggested.

"That, Kisuke, is horrible and callous." Isshin said. "Betcha a week's pay that Ichigo is the one who takes him down."

"I'll take that bet, and put down my money on Hitsugaya from 10th Division. Ichigo's got the talent, I'll grant you, but that boy has got some serious anger on his side." Ukitake put in, eyes glittering.

"I'm going to say Yami-jii. He's got the raw power, he's got the anger because he's… well, always angry. And you just KNOW that nobody takes betraying Soul Society as seriously as the old man." Kyōraku said.

"Okay, I'm betting on Gin Ichimaru." Urahara said.


"Hey, look me in the eyes and tell me that humanoid viper wouldn't kill his boss if he thought he could get away with it. I'm wagering that when Aizen's operation starts to fall apart, Ichimaru will stab him in the back. And then he'll get killed too, so I'll win the bet AND we won't have to buy him drinks." Urahara said triumphantly.

"Oh, that's a good one!" Kyōraku admitted.

"Maybe you can use your winnings to buy a new hat." Isshin suggested.

"Or buy your girlfriend a new scratching post." Unohana said.

"Renovate that dirt hole you call a shop?" Ukitake chimed in.

"Come on, you know Kisuke. Whenever he gets some money, the first thing he does is build a pointlessly huge underground training center." Kyōraku said.

"…Okay, I seriously need to see about getting someone else named the group bitch again." Urahara said glumly.

"Hey, I had to put up with it for 150 years. You can handle it for a night." Ukitake chuckled.

"What about you, Retsu? We can't have a pool unless we all put a name in." Shunsui said.

Unohana thought for a moment. "Rangiku Matsumoto," She said.

"Ooooh, bold choice! A vice-captain, taking down big bad Sosuke? What brought that out?"

"Have you ever seen that girl go at sake? I'll just tell her she could earn a night of free drinks, and she'll hack her way into Hueco Mundo and have his head on a pike by this weekend." Unohana said, smiling slightly. The others chuckled at that.

"So it's a bet. Now the only thing to do," Ukitake said cheerfully, "Is to get so drunk that we forget we made it! Another round, if you please, Kisuke! And I'll want a little umbrella in my drink this time."

"…Yeah, I definitely need to lose the 'bitch' title." Urahara grumbled, getting up again.

And the night rolled on.

"What," Ulquiorra asked, "Is he doing?"

"Hell if I know. But he took my last bottle of sake…" Grimmjow sulked.

"I've never seen Aizen-sama like this before. Is he ill?" the first Arrancar asked.

"He's not ill," Aizen said, sitting on his throne in Las Noches with a bottle in one hand a glass in the other. "He's THINKING. And if you two don't stop interrupting his thinking by whispering where you think he can't see or hear you, he is going to be very angry."

The two Arrancar took the hint.

Once again alone, Aizen sighed just the tiniest bit and poured another glass. This was idiotic. Intellectually, he realized that he had no real attachment to any aspect of his old life. He didn't miss his 'friends', in fact hadn't really cared about them when they were there. All that mattered was his overall goal of divinity; the personal connections he had lost pursuing it bothered him not at all. Right?

Aizen sighed again. Pouring himself another glass, he held it up to people who weren't there, and would never be again.

"Cheers." He said, and drank the entire glass in a single gulp.