Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach. That honor belongs to Tite Kubo.

Warnings: AUish, Spoilers, Speculation

AN: For the Bleach contest on LJ. Prompt was the Friedrich Nietzsche quote: "Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one."

"It's better to be good than evil, but one achieves goodness at a terrific cost."

- Stephen King


Ichigo once lived in a world of black and white. Where good was good and bad was bad. And that's all there was. No middle ground. No in between.

Then, his mother died; he killed her. And he was a murderer without meaning it, without intent but so much guilt. Ichigo was still a child when he realized the world for what it was. Grey with every shade in between. Black and white mixed together until he can't tell where one ends and the other begins. Evil and good twisted into a knot that is so complicated that it'd take a thousand years just to figure out where to start.

But then came the Shinigami. So righteous and certain. Fighting the good fight for longer than Ichigo had even existed and then some. Keeping Hollows from overrunning the living world and instilling order in Soul Society. A constant battle that will never be over. A war without end. Yet, they persevere time and time again.

Shinigami are good. Hollows are bad. Nice and simple. Easy enough for even the eleventh division to understand.

But Hollows hadn't tried to execute Rukia for a victimless crime. Aizen was once a captain. And the Quincy didn't just kill themselves off. That Kurotsuchi freak is one of the worst people he's ever met. Pesche and Dondochakka aren't half-bad. And Ichigo himself is a hybrid with liberal amounts of human thrown in.

So much grey that he's practically drowning in it. A world where the Shinigami can't see the trees for the giant monsters chasing them through the forest. Where there is only white and black. And anything else might upset their precious balancing act between actual hope and their utter corruption. Aizen Sousuke is a monster sprung from other monsters. Ones that take a human form more convincing than even the Arrancar. The Shinigami are no better than the creatures they fight, but Ichigo is nothing like them; he can still glimpse into the mirror and not see the abyss staring back.

And at the end of the day, Nel might be a Hollow. An Arrancar. A former Espada. But she's just a toddler. A girl. A little girl. With a broken mask and huge doe eyes. Soft green hair that brushes her forehead as she sleeps. Even though she can turn into a fully grown woman, Ichigo only sees a child. Can only see a kid when he looks at her. Despite the fact that she had once been the third Espada. That she had blasted away Nnoitra like he was a piece of tissue paper. That she had saved Ichigo's life. He still sees the little girl who drools and sucks her thumb in her sleep.

Yoruichi, of course, is the one to bring the news. "She's to be purified."

"But that'll kill her!" Ichigo is quick to point out. "Arrancar don't purify. Not ones like this. They die. Really die." Even with his shock he is still mindful enough to keep his voice down, not wanting to wake the dozing bundle in his lap.

"I know, but there's nothing we can do." Her voice is factual with an undertone of sorrow. "That's just the way it is, Ichigo. They've been fighting so long that they cannot understand anything different. A monster is a monster is a monster." She rises to her feet then. "Just be glad they don't know the truth about you."

Ichigo still stares long after she has departed. Nel is a warm weight on him, and he doesn't even think to scowl at the wet spot on his pants next to her open mouth. His hand simply rests on her back, rubbing circles like he does for his sisters whenever they have a nightmare or just feel the need for comfort. Goat-Face isn't exactly the best for this sort of thing or for much of anything to be perfectly honest, and Ichigo has long felt more like their dad than the real thing.

However, even as the plan is forming in his mind, he knows that he can't take them with him. Karin and Yuzu have so much to live for. He can't drag them into this mess any more than they already have been. And lousy father though he might be, Isshin does love them. He will protect them when need be.

But Nel has no one. Not anymore with her so-called brothers either dead or lost in Hueco Mundo. No one but Ichigo himself, and he has never been the type to lie down and let someone die. He was willing to risk death for Rukia and being consumed by his Hollow for Inoue. Possible exile and a life on the run aren't so much compared to that.

Chad and Inoue are the easiest to convince. Always so loyal and trusting of him.

Ishida's expression is clear, and he doesn't even have to say "I told you so." He simply looks at Ichigo for a long moment before nodding and walking away.

Urahara puts his hand on Ichigo's shoulder and squeezes so tightly his fingers turns white. "It's not easy doing the right thing," he whispers in a soft voice. "But at least, you can sleep at night."

Renji shakes his head. "I don't know, man. But ya gotta do what ya gotta do." He crosses his arms over his chest. "And I didn't sign up for this shit. Killin' kids."

Rukia doesn't say anything at all. She just knots her fingertips into his sleeve and gazes at him with tears in her eyes. Still, she does go with him as he steals away that very night, Urahara's concealing cloak flapping in the wind as they shunpo through the sleeping city. It doesn't take long for them to reach their destination, the meeting place the geta-boushi had promised they'd be at. Nel is still dead to the world, knocked out by whatever Urahara had given her, and Rukia looks as though she might stay. But Ichigo tells her to leave; he doesn't want to get her more involved. She's going to have a tough enough time explaining this as is. He only hopes that Ukitake-san is up to the challenge.

The last Ichigo sees of her are her teary eyes and shaky wave goodbye.

Then, he waits. It doesn't take long, however, until he feels a familiar reiatsu settle practically on top of him. He looks up to see someone looking back, and Ichigo's struck by a moment of indecision. By the thought of his sisters, who he'll probably never see again. By his friends, who will carry this secret to their graves. To the few decent Shinigami left, who will fight a war without him. To the little girl depending on him, who doesn't deserve to die.

And that cinches it.

Ichigo holds Nel tighter in his arms, staring at Shinji on the rooftop, and makes his decision.

Ever Hopeful,