Rukia and Renji found an empty apartment not long afterwards, and within moments Rukia was asleep facedown on the bed, still in her sandals and everything. He couldn't help but smile as he removed her shoes and tabi – she looked so childish asleep like that.

Shame he didn't get to see her more often, really.

He turned from that train of thought fairly quickly, scowling as he remembered why exactly she was with him right now instead of with the kid.

He couldn't say he was particularly thrilled that she was going to risk her life for Ichigo. Actually, it made him fucking pissed. Of course, he would have done the same in her situation. And he could only imagine if it had been her stuck in that place, dragged there while he tried to stop it.

He couldn't help but think that if that had been the case, he might not have let go.

--

Yoruichi was surprised by how easy it was for her to sneak through Sereitei – the Shinigami she traveled with had no problem with letting her go, and she suspected Hitsugaya and Yumichika, at least, knew her purpose.

She smiled as she realized that that must have been why they declined to go on that rescue mission.

That was excellent, because she couldn't convince them all by herself.

Her first stop, of course, would be to see Soi Fong, who actually had installed a cat door specifically for this purpose. She knew the girl would be pleased, and it would take little to no convincing to have her former subordinate nodding blankly in agreement to whatever she said.

The fact that she transformed back naked would definitely help, too.

--

Hitsugaya had gone straight to the lake that housed the thirteenth division headquarters as soon as he stepped out of the portal, his vice-captain not far behind him as he ran. He suspected that Ukitake-taichou would be there – the older man slept at his desk, often as not; a bad habit, it seemed, but none of Toshirou's business.

Matsumoto looked slightly confused, but didn't ask, confident that she'd be let in on his purpose in due time. For one of the first times, he was really glad he had gotten Matsumoto as his vice-captain rather than someone like Renji.

When they arrived at the door of the office and knocked, there were sleepy shuffling noises (as he suspected there would be) from not far away – within moments, a tired-looking Ukitake had appeared at the door, scratching his head lazily and squinting at the new arrivals.

"Shirou-chan, Matsumoto-san. I had been under the impression that you were in the human world on some duty or another. What brings you back at this time of night?"

Toshirou twitched at the nickname but said nothing, hoping that he could keep the man's goodwill. Matsumoto couldn't help but smirk, and looked away just in time to avoid her captain's childishly petulant glare.

"Sorry about the time, Ukitake-taichou. This couldn't wait." A pause. "May I come in?"

Ukitake stood to the side of the door to allow his guests in, then sat crosslegged on a pillow in the corner of the room, motioning for them to do likewise.

"I won't waste time, then," Hitsugaya said as he knelt. "Kurosaki Ichigo has been trapped in hell. We'll need your help to get him out."

He heard Matsumoto shift beside him, and supposed she must be confused. Ukitake seemed to be taking this surprisingly well, however – and Toshirou took that as a compliment; Ukitake knew that Hitsugaya knew what he was talking about even when it didn't precisely make sense.

"We need Soul Society to make a full-out assault on Hueco Mundo."

This time the shock was evident on Ukitake's face.

"What?"

"We need to get back the Hougyoku. We need it to bring back Kurosaki. And we can't afford to be absent his help when the real war comes.

Think of it as killing two birds with one stone. We regain Kurosaki's power, and Aizen loses the Hougyoku. Whatever kind of damage we can inflict on his forces is just a bonus."

There was a pause that slowly turned into a long silence.

"You realize how crazy that sounds don't you, Taichou?" Matsumoto asked him skeptically.

"It's better than waiting for them to come to us, isn't it?" Toshirou replied.

There was another silence. Ukitake's eyes shifted from one to the other, as if gauging their intentions.

"I understand. You want me to argue this in front of the Council, and the rest of the captains of the Gotei 13, don't you?" He unsuccessfully tried to prevent himself from coughing before continuing.

"So… in order for the captains to overrule the council, who probably won't vote with us, we have to have a three-quarters majority… right now that's eight out of ten captains. If we don't convince enough, then you will be unable to save Kurosaki-kun. Am I right?"

Matsumoto blanched slightly at the thought – with Ukitake and Hitsugaya, there were two. She suspected Soi Fong would be in if Yoruichi-san was (her vaguely creepy obsession with the woman was no secret) and probably Kyouraku-taichou because of his friendly – very friendly – connections with Ukitake-taichou.

But that was four. Half of what they needed.

She really, really hoped that Ukitake-taichou's persuasive skills were goddamn amazing.

--

Orihime stayed with Ishida that night, unwilling to let go. She didn't want to be alone that evening. And for the first time in what would become a longstanding practice, he let her.

He never would be able to refuse her anything, he thought, resigned, as he watched her make tea in the small kitchen of his apartment. She asked him if he wanted any – yes, please, herbal – before pouring herself a cup of sugar with black tea in it somewhere, and huddling down by the end of his kitchen table.

He thought that this might be the appropriate time for a hug, but long years of solitary living had rendered him unsure as to how one went about giving them.

He settled for a pat on her shoulder instead, and the smile she gave him made him want to do it again.

--

As expected, Soi Fong hadn't been much trouble at all. After regaining her senses, she was off to talk to Genryuusai-soutaichou, to convince him to hold a council to decide on this matter. So now, Yoruichi planned on convincing Byakuya-bo.

The defenses on the Kuchiki household hadn't changed in decades, for which the God of Flash was immensely grateful. Kuya very likely wouldn't let her in, so it was her job to sneak in like she had when the Kuchiki heir was a boy, just to give him a scare or two.

Of course, because of those exploits she knew where everything was.

She deftly made her way through a small heat vent (they had furnaces burning constantly during the winter) that would lead directly to the young captain's bedroom – just above his bed, actually – and silently opened the grate that covered it. Byakuya was sleeping quietly below her, and without further ado, she pounced.

The startled look on his face as he awoke to a hundred and ten pounds of female dropping on his lap was absolutely priceless. She did an effortless backflip away from his retaliatory attack, landing in the corner of the room with one hand on her hip.

"How nice to see you too, Byakuya-bo."

"Shihouin Yoruichi," he said quietly, like he wasn't entirely sure whether he ought to say "welcome back" or "get out."

She smirked slightly, amused at his ambivalence.

"Let's skip the small talk. I need your help."

--

Yumichika had come prepared for the occasion, giving his taichou his best convincing smile as he walked into the office the next morning.

"Taichou," he said sweetly, "Some things have happened and several of us think we need to initiate a frontal assault on Hueco Mundo."

Kenpachi stared blankly, and Yumi sighed, resigned to his fate.

"We're going to attack them. We want you to lead."

Slowly the grin spread across Kenpachi's face that sometimes made Yumichika wonder whether his captain was brilliant or insane. Not that it mattered either way.

"Fuck yeah."

Well, that was easy.

--

Urahara called together the rescue group the next day, each one pallid and distant and looking like they had gotten far too little sleep. Except, of course, for Urahara, who seemed immune to that kind of paltry discomfort.

"So, ladies and gentlemen, I have a few things to say. Firstly, my congratulations to Ishida-san for recovering his abilities." He gave a quick nod. "Secondly… you all know why we're here. But, there are several things you don't know."

Renji would bet a crapload of money that Urahara's "several" actually meant somewhere closer to "a dozen."

"The portal to Hell will most likely be excruciatingly painful. Are you prepared for that?" He took their silence for affirmation. "Once in hell, you will have to be prepared to face everything you have ever feared, every childhood terror or horrible secret you ever had. That is hell. I can render these phantasms unable to touch you, but that is as far as my power extends.

Hell feeds on spirit energy, on soul energy – a soul can only be broken down by a complete loss of willpower, and that technique is the most efficient way to go about breaking a person's will. Now that you understand what this will entail, are you still prepared to go?" Urahara's face was hidden behind his hat and fan, making him impossible to read.

It seemed to hit everyone at once – if that was what they would have to go through, then that would be what Ichigo would experience every second, every day, until his soul tore apart.

There was no reply.