I really hate it when I take a really long time to write something. One of the main reasons I write is so I can read the finished product, since "I wish there was a story like that" is usually the first inspiration for fanfiction I get. Whenever I take a really long time to write something, it means that I deprive everyone of the story, including myself.

So it especially sucks when I try to figure out when I updated last, only to find that it's been over a year. About a year and five months, to be exact. Yeesh. I'm really sorry, guys.

I really have been writing all this time, off and on. There have been a lot of changes in my life, including getting three new jobs (only two of which I still have, as one was seasonal) (and I still don't make enough money to pay all my bills) and continuing to try new ways of dealing with my medical problems. But mostly, I just write very slowly.

Also, the latest Bleach manga has been very disappointing lately. Sorry if you don't like spoilers, but I really hate the new Quincy bad guy. And not just hate him as a person, but hate him as a character. He seems really shallow and blah. And I don't care for several other things about the new manga too, but I won't spend time ranting about it here. At least this new arc with Isshin's backstory is somewhat interesting, but even it is mostly just leaving me with more questions than it's answering.

The point is, it seems like lately (especially with the anime going on hiatus) there just isn't much good Bleach stuff around. The fandom seems to be kind of winding down, which makes me a bit sad.

So I've actually been doing more and more writing on my original novel, or writing random pointless scenes from stories that I never did anything with. But I've also been working on this, because I like the story and really hope to finish it someday.

It's been long enough, though, that I think I need at least a bit of a summary here again before we start:

Aizen destroyed the world. Ichigo was sent back in time by Urahara. He tried to rescue Rukia early, only to wind up making everything worse and getting himself kidnapped by Aizen. Several boring chapters were then spent watching Ichigo mope around Hueco Mundo because he couldn't get away without getting himself killed. Meanwhile, Rukia and others planned a rescue mission and Tatsuki and others started training with Urahara to try to gain powers of their own so they could come with. Kon was mentioned at one point, but who knows where the poor guy is now.

During that time, Ichigo started trying to work with his hollow, but it didn't work because he refused to trust his hollow and he was slowly losing hope. Eventually the hollow got fed up with him, put a sword through him and took over. Which is about when Rukia's rescue group showed up. Ichigo's hollow kicked them back to the living world to get them out of his way, and then took out Zomarri to become Espada number seven.

I believe that about catches us all up. Now, on to the story.

Tatsuki ducked around the blade coming straight at her face, her footwork precise as she dodged and came around for a blow of her own, gripping the hilt of her sword tightly. The angle of her attack was wrong, though, and her opponent merely brushed her sword aside with his bare hand, lunging toward her with another swipe.

Instinctively, she let go of the hilt of her sword with one hand and jabbed upward at his ribcage. She regretted the move instantly when he blurred out of her sight and something impacted her side, hard. The next thing she knew, she'd slid a good three meters across the hard-packed dirt and rocks on her back, and flashes of pain obscured her view of the fake, painted sky above her.

"I told ya not to let go of that sword!" the voice of her new "instructor" snapped at her from beyond her range of vision. "Both hands stay on that hilt! No more of this trying to use karate in the middle of a sword fight!"

Pushing herself back up to a standing position, Tatsuki shot him a glare, grumbling to herself as she stumbled slightly. "Karate is what I'm used to. It's what I'm good at."

Somehow, Ikkaku heard her anyway. "And that's exactly why I'm taking it away from you. How do you expect to get new powers if you're able to simply keep relying on what you've already got? Now, don't make me tie your hands to the hilt."

Tatsuki frowned at him. "So you're making me learn to use a sword instead. But what use is that? Then I'll just keep relying on the sword skills I have, and I still won't get new powers."

"That's why I ain't teaching you how to use a sword." A wicked grin spread across his face. "I ain't teaching you nothin'. I'm just attacking. If you don't dodge, I'll kill ya, and that's all there is to it."

Tatsuki could hear the ice-cold edge in his voice as he stated that, and she realized grimly that he wasn't kidding. A certain amount of fear crept in on her, but she pushed it away, trying to find a good grip on her sword's hilt again while keeping her eyes on his face.

Apparently, she took too long doing this, because Ikkaku suddenly stood by her side, scowling down at her arms with a look of distaste. "And what, exactly, are those?" She would not let herself flinch at his speed.

Glancing down for only the split second required to determine what he meant, Tatsuki met his gaze calmly. "They're called sweatbands," she said dryly. "I always wear them when I fight. They help-"

"You know what I call them?" he interrupted her harshly. "I call them 'handholds'."

Just like that, he'd slipped his fingers underneath the one on her right hand, turning and using his brute strength to toss her sideways. Tatsuki barely retained her footing in time to avoid a tumble, both feet sliding across the ground several inches.

Quickly regaining her composure, Tatsuki glared. "These are handholds?! Then what do you call that?" She pointed blatantly at Ikkaku's companion, Yumichika, who stood on the top of a boulder a ways back, examining his fingernails.

The black-haired Shinigami seemed to sense her finger aimed in his direction, because he glanced up at her, the feathers attached to his eyebrow and eyelashes bobbing up and down as he moved. His entire outfit looked ridiculous, but in particular, the thing that had her attention now was a thick, woven cord that clipped onto the bottom of his orange, turtleneck, scarf-like collar and stretched down to attach to a knitted, disconnected sleeve of the same material on his right hand.

He apparently knew what she was talking about, because he scoffed at her, flipping his long hair backward with the hand that had the orange sleeve as though to show it off. "This," he informed her airily, "is beautifully fashionable."

"That," Tatsuki informed him back, "is a giant handhold. So don't even try telling me I can't wear my sweatbands. I won my first big fight while wearing these; they mean a lot to me, and unlike that giant orange thing, they're actually useful for something."

The man's face scrunched up slightly, his eyes narrowing. "Are you implying that my beauty is useless?"

Ikkaku smirked. "Uh oh, you insulted the outfit. Better run."

Tatsuki wasn't at all afraid of the rather feminine-looking man. "Why is she even hanging around watching us, anyway? She your girlfriend or something?"

Ikkaku merely let out a laugh. Yumichika's fingers clenched, both hands rising up slowly into the air as his entire expression twisted into horrified rage. He looked as though he were about to try to strangle her—or possibly himself. "You... you... you... dare?!"


Tatsuki turned as Keigo came suddenly dashing across the training grounds towards her, a huge grin plastered across his face and his arms waving wildly. The black cat, Yoruichi, followed after him at a more languid pace, looking somewhat amused.

Deliberately facing away from the still-seething Yumichika, just to annoy him further, Tatsuki raised an eyebrow at Ichigo's over-enthusiastic friend as she planted her sword tip-first a few inches into the ground so that she wouldn't have to hang onto it for the moment. "Did what?" she asked him.

Coming to a dead stop, Keigo threw both arms up in front of him as though he were about to fire off some sort of hadoken blast, an overly proud expression on his face as a wordless yell tore itself from his lips. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then...

PIFF! A crack rang through the air along with a burst of bright light, which faded away quickly.

"See!" Keigo cheered for himself with a squeal of happiness, doing a little jig in place. "I can do it at will, now! Now tell me, am I awesome, or am I awesome?!"

Tatsuki blinked, ignoring his antics for now as she glanced around, trying to figure out exactly what damage Keigo's attack had done. Her eyes narrowed in confusion as she noted that absolutely nothing had changed. Not the rocks around her, not any of the people, and not even Keigo himself.

The cat decided to explain. "It's apparently a flash-bang," Yoruichi noted with a deep chuckle. "Lots of noise and a blinding light; good for a distraction, but ultimately useless as a weapon in a fight."

That quickly, Keigo's joy vanished, and thick tears streamed down his face. "Why! Why do you have no confidence in me?" he exclaimed exuberantly.

Tatsuki let out a sigh, but clapped a hand reassuringly on Keigo's shoulder. "Don't worry," she comforted him. "You can show it to Mizuiro later. Then he can insult you, too." The black haired boy was currently somewhere on the other side of the training grounds with Urahara, trying to unlock his own powers.

"Brilliant idea!" Keigo immediately cheered up, for the minute it took for her last words to finally register. "He'll at least think it's—Heeeey."

Yumichika sniffed loudly, drawing their attention. "How ugly," he commented, looking down his nose at Tatsuki. "Insulting one who is stronger than yourself. You have just as little honor as I would expect from someone so unattractive."

Tatsuki stared at him incredulously for a moment before turning to regard Keigo. "Stronger? You're joking, right? I could easily kick him into next-"

"I'm not talking about purely fighting prowess. Which of the two of you has developed any powers at all?" he pointed out calmly, looking altogether far too smug. "The boy has more reiatsu than you do, too."

As Keigo looked more and more puffed up by Yumichika's comments, Tatsuki's teeth ground together. She knew the feathery man was simply trying to make her angry in revenge for her earlier comments about his outfit, but the fact was that she couldn't deny his statements, and that stung deeply.

"Right!" the exuberant, brown-haired boy called out, turning expectantly to Yoruichi. "So! When are we going to go rescue Ichigo? I'm totally ready to go kick some hollow butt!"

Immediately, Tatsuki froze, unable to even bring herself to look over her shoulder to stare at Keigo with horror. Yoruichi started to comment, but stopped as he noted everyone else's reaction. Silence fell over the area, and the air grew thick with sudden tension.

After a long pause, the obviously confused boy meekly spoke up again. "What?"

"You... didn't hear about it yet?" Tatsuki's voice was soft, but strained.

"Hear about what?" Keigo's voice cracked with a slight edge of panic. "Hear about what?" he repeated more frantically when nobody answered.

Tatsuki couldn't say it. She still didn't want to believe it herself.

Ikkaku let out a scoff. "Fine. Leave me to be the bearer of bad news again." He turned to face Keigo and Yoruichi with an uncharacteristically serious expression. "Kurosaki Ichigo—or at least the Kurosaki Ichigo you once knew—is dead. He was turned into a hollow by the man who kidnapped him, Aizen Sousuke."

Keigo's mouth fell open in disbelief, and he slowly turned from one member of the group to the next, desperately searching for some clue from one of them that the bald man was lying. "Dead?" the word came out in a whisper.

Yoruichi was visibly distressed, even for a cat. "I take it that Kisuke knows already?"

Ikkaku nodded. "The Kuchiki girl yelled at him a bit when we first got back here. He took the news pretty hard."

"I can imagine," the feline murmured. "Did he-"

"HA! HAHA!" Everyone jumped slightly as Keigo suddenly burst into laughter, swaggering over and throwing an arm around Tatsuki's shoulder with a huge grin plastered on his face. "Good one, guys! Seriously! But don't think you can fool me!"

Tatsuki stared at Keigo as he snickered, tightening his arm around the back of her neck and reaching up to ruffle her hair with his other hand. "C'mon, really? You can't act so unconvincingly and expect me to fall for it! I'm not that gullible, am I?"

Roughly, Tatsuki threw the other boy off of her. "You idiot! We're not-"

Keigo let out an overdramatic wail. "That is what you're saying, isn't it?!" he demanded. "You're calling me gullible! I thought we were friends, Arisawa-san!"

"This isn't about you!" Tatsuki burst out angrily, throwing a punch at his face without thinking.

The brown-haired boy yelped, throwing his hands up, and a burst of light flashed in Tatsuki's face, causing her to flinch involuntarily. This gave Keigo time enough to escape, and he skittered back several feet, looking slightly relieved. "Ha! See? It's totally useful in a real fight! You can't keep me from going with you on this rescue mission! It'll take more than that to keep me home!"

With a growl, Tatsuki stepped forward and grabbed the front of Keigo's shirt, lifting him up off the ground slightly. She wished she had a wall or a rock nearby to shove him into for good measure, but this would have to do. "It's not a joke, you idiot. Orihime, Sado, and these other guys got back from Hueco Mundo yesterday, and they saw it for themselves."

Keigo laughed, but now it was obviously a forced laugh, and he looked away, not meeting her eyes. "Come on, Arisawa. It's Ichigo. He and Chad are both like tanks. There's just no way-"

"Get it into your thick head!" Tatsuki yelled at him, shaking him slightly as she forced back the sting of tears. "He's gone, Asano. He's really gone, and he's never coming back!"

For a long moment, Keigo searched her face, stunned beyond words for once in his life. Then, finally, he slumped in her grasp. "That's... impossible," he got out, his voice thick.

Tatsuki dropped him, turning away and taking a deep breath so that she could properly school her expression. Behind her, Keigo's knees buckled beneath him and he fell to the rocky ground, gazing down at his hands.

"But then... What were we training for? All this work, all these powers, was so that we could go protect Ichigo!" His cheeks were visibly wet now, and his voice cracked. "And we didn't even get the chance to try?"

Tatsuki's fingers clenched as she grit her teeth.

"And why are you still training? What..." he took a shaky breath. "What's the point, Arisawa?"

"The point is to protect people!" she shouted at him angrily, whirling to face him and planting her feet firmly.

In surprise, he stared up at her with large, tear-filled eyes. "What?"

Tatsuki set her jaw. "We couldn't save Ichigo. But this Aizen guy is trying to take over the world or something, and there are other people we care about who are going to be in danger because of that. And that's not even counting the danger they could be in just from normal hollows that show up around here." The fuzzy memory she had of Orihime saving her from that missile-launching hollow still haunted her dreams at night. If her friend hadn't managed to gain powers of her own right then, both of them would have been...

Something inside her seemed to flare up, as though her sheer determination were causing her tired muscles to strengthen and her mind to clear.

"We couldn't save Ichigo," she repeated, glaring at Keigo again. "But I refuse to let anyone else get hurt because I was too weak to save them."

"Pretty words!" Ikkaku called to Tatsuki suddenly, his voice at once excited and dangerous. As she jerked to face him, he flared his reiatsu high, nearly sending her to her knees. "Now back them up with action! Prove you're strong enough!" He jumped high into the air, seeming to move in slow motion, his sword ready to crash down on her head.

The fact that she'd dropped the sword he'd given her a long time ago didn't even cross her mind. The fact that the killing intent behind his attack was so thick in the air that she could nearly taste it didn't seem to matter. Her eyes narrowed as he neared her, a burning intensity glowing within them, and she fell into a relaxed fighting stance, pulling back to deliver her strongest punch.

The fire within her seemed to travel down her arm, collecting in her fist, and at the last moment, she stepped into the punch with all her might, aiming it right at his chest. As she did so, her wristband on her right hand let out a burst of light and she felt all the accumulated energy release all at once.

Next thing she knew, Ikkaku was flying backwards through the air, a large, smoldering hole ripped in the fabric of his black robes. With a grunt of surprise, he hit a nearby rock and smashed right through it, shards of stone raining across the area.

For a long moment, nobody moved. Ikkaku coughed, too stunned to pull himself from the rubble just yet. Tatsuki stood still, pulling in long, labored breaths, staring in awe and satisfaction at what she had just accomplished. Keigo, Yumichika, and Yoruichi watched with varying degrees of shock on their faces, though the cat at least seemed proud of what it saw.

Then, Keigo began to wail. "Not faaaaaiiiirr!" he whined, dancing around with both hands thrown up in the air. "So totally not fair! I get a piddly little flash bang, and she gets a rocket launcher?! Tell me, in what world is this considered even the tiniest bit fair?!"

"Shut up, Asano," Tatsuki growled at him, though she wasn't really paying any mind to his increasingly loud, pitifully fake sobbing. Instead, her attention had turned to the device now strapped to her right hand, which did, in fact, look a lot like a tiny rocket launcher. Though, she'd never before heard of a rocket launcher made out of a karate sweatband and five golden launcher tubes. One of the tubes had been emptied, wisps of smoke escaping slowly from both ends.

Ikkaku apparently caught his breath, because he jumped to his feet, scattering rubble as he did. A huge, terrifying grin had spread across his face, and he snatched up his sword, ignoring the fact that a bloody burn marred his whole chest. "Alright! Now that's what I'm talking about! Let's see what that little thing can really do!"

Tatsuki would have been perfectly happy to do just that, but black spots had begun to dance across her vision. She'd been training at this all day (or possibly for several days? It was hard to tell in this underground place) and now she'd just literally thrown everything she had left at him.

She could see Keigo's pitiful look become concerned as she didn't answer, and she started to lift up her hand to give him a thumbs up. "I'm okay," she tried to assure him, but it really only came out as a mumble as the world faded away.

Ichigo's eyes opened to a dizzying swirl of red and grey, and after a moment he forced himself to close them again while he reoriented himself. What had happened? He hadn't felt this terrible and weak since the time Byakuya had taken Rukia's powers away from him so many months ago. He could feel his hands trembling by his sides, and his chest hurt with a dull ache. Why did he feel so bad?

Finally, he felt stabilized enough to try opening his eyes again, this time more slowly. The landscape around him, while one of the more bizarre things he'd ever seen, was strangely familiar. Dark, rectangular blocks loomed huge in random configurations in the air around him, which swirled with an ominous red hue.

It was the place he'd seen during his battle with his inner hollow—when he'd been training with the Vaizard. The place he'd thought he'd hallucinated through the pain of having a sword through his stomach.

Vaguely, he remembered being accosted by Kenpachi the last time he'd been in here, but somehow, he couldn't quite bring himself to care. If he was attacked again, he'd defend himself, of course, but for now, it just didn't seem to matter that much.

Slowly, his memories of the present trickled back to him. Time travel. Kidnapping by Aizen. His hollow's abrupt takeover.

He let out a sigh. Was nothing in his life ever destined to go right?

Eventually, feeling slightly restless, he raised his head, glancing around him to see if there really was anyone around. Nothing. The place was empty save for the floating cubes and himself.

He pulled himself into a sitting position, for lack of anything better to do, and he languidly watched the blocks hover in the air around him as his headache slowly cleared.

Still, nothing continued to happen. Nobody appeared, nothing moved even the slightest bit. After what seemed like an eternity, Ichigo felt his eyes drooping shut.

The moment he noticed this, he shook himself awake. He knew he'd read somewhere that you weren't supposed to go to sleep if you had certain injuries, but he couldn't remember if a giant sword stabbed through the chest counted as one of those. His teeth ground together at the thought. Stupid hollow.

Still, if he wasn't dead yet, he certainly didn't want to die from something as stupid as sleeping when he shouldn't. He pushed himself slowly to his feet.

He still felt a little wobbly, but after a few shaky seconds, things seemed a little more stable. With a scowl, he called out, "Hello? Is anyone here?"

No answer. Not that he'd expected one at this point.

The silence almost seemed to ring in his ears. He gave a half-hearted shrug and took a few small steps forward. Part of him was bored enough to want to explore this strange place, but he found he was having a hard time caring enough to bother moving faster than a shuffle. It didn't really matter where he was; it wasn't like he would ever be able to get himself out of here at this point, so he had plenty of time to get used to the place.

He made his way to the nearest edge of the block he stood upon, peering downward. Nothing down there but the same floating blocks and red space. Walking around the block's perimeter showed the same thing. The blocks nearest him were too far away to try jumping to—though there were some directly below him—and when he tried to solidify the air beneath his feet, nothing happened.

Ichigo frowned down at a block below him, trying to decide if he'd survive the fall it would take to jump down to it. He got the feeling, though, that even if he did, it would just be a block identical to the one he was already on.

What was this place, anyway? An inner world within an inner world? He vaguely remembered watching his own body dissolve earlier, after his hollow had stabbed him.

Thinking about the huge cleaver piercing his chest seemed to bring the ache back, and he rested his hand gingerly on the nonexistent wound, only half surprised to find that it seemed to have healed already, or perhaps simply disappeared. But it wasn't just the stabbing that caused him pain. In the end, when the hollow had finally lost patience with him and attacked him, Zangetsu had betrayed him, and nothing stung sharper than that.

Ichigo's shoulders drooped, and any anger he might have felt toward his long-time partner immediately dissipated. No, Zangetsu hadn't betrayed him. If anything, he was the one who had betrayed Zangetsu by not continuing to look forward. The old man had merely finally given up on him.

He hung his head with another sharp sigh as he mentally berated himself for having lost the zanpakutou's trust in him so easily. But what more could he have done? Even if he had tried harder to put their plan into action, it wasn't as though it ever would have worked. But then, that was the problem: he hadn't let himself believe, and he had lost so much hope in life that even his will to fight had left him.

And when that happens to a person… No, there really wasn't anything more he could have done.

"Stubborn idiot!" The sudden voice directly behind him was accompanied by something hard colliding with the back of his head, sending him toppling right over the edge of the block and into open air.

With a startled cry, Ichigo twisted, righting himself in mid-air. He landed hard on the block below and stumbled awkwardly for several steps before losing his footing completely and crumpling to the ground. With a gasp of pain, he flipped himself over, looking up at the diminutive girl who'd kicked him. "W-what was that for?" he exclaimed, one hand going up to rub the back of his head.

Rukia glared back at him before jumping lightly down to his level. "How could you have let yourself fall so far?" she demanded, starting to stalk towards him.

At first, Ichigo thought she meant the long drop she'd just sent him on, and he started to retort angrily, but he stopped as his current situation came back to him. Slowly, he frowned at her.

This wasn't actually Rukia, he realized. Like Kenpachi had been before, this was some sort of projection of his subconscious or something.

He came to the conclusion that his subconscious was seriously messed up.

Rukia reached his side and grabbed the front of his shihakusho, hauling him up to a kneeling position. He almost laughed at the fact that even like this the midget was still only barely taller than eye-level with him, but then she yelled in his face. "This is pathetic, Ichigo! I've come to expect so much more from you!"

All levity disappeared as shame took over. He knew what she was talking about. His flooded inner world. His loss of hope. And the fact that he'd let his hollow take control.

Projection or not, he couldn't bring himself to meet her eyes. He took a long time to respond, and when he finally did, his voice was dull. "I've been through a lot, Rukia. Can you blame me for not being able to take any more? I just... don't have anything left."

Her eyes narrowed as she regarded him calmly. "I don't believe you."

Thoroughly surprised at that, Ichigo raised an eyebrow at her. "Don't believe me? About what? That I've been broken for a long time now?"

"What have you always done, Ichigo? If you're weak, you become stronger," Rukia directed, still giving him a harsh look. "If you're broken, you put yourself back together!"

"Look, it's not that simple," Ichigo argued, starting to become angry himself. "I've taken Health classes; I know what PTSD is. Symptom number one: horrible flashbacks at inopportune moments. Symptom two-"

Rukia interrupted him with a yell, shoving him away from her roughly. "Think, you idiot! All of your friends are alive! Your family is alive! And they're all waiting for you to get your act together and come home! How dare you say that you have nothing left to fight for! What right do you have to lose hope in yourself!?"

"It doesn't matter how much hope I have!" Ichigo retorted indignantly, scrambling to his feet. "I can hope all I want, but I can't win! No matter what I do, no matter how hard I struggle, there are just some opponents who can't be beaten! There's no point in trying!"

Strangely, Rukia's voice turned very soft as she frowned at him. "That's not what you said while you were fighting Ulquiorra."

Ichigo froze as the words he'd spoken came back to him. "I'm not fighting you because I think I can win," he'd informed the Arrancar after the other had released his Segunda Etapa. "I'm fighting... because I have to win!"

"You've overcome many hopeless situations in the past, Ichigo. This should not be enough to make you lose hope now!"

Slowly, Ichigo grit his teeth, looking away from her again. He'd forgotten that, as a projection of his subconscious and not actually Rukia, she'd know things like that. "This..." he started roughly, swallowing hard. "This is different."

"How?" she challenged. "You won that battle, Ichigo. Maybe not the way you wanted to, but you won. And you can win again. You are winning again!"

Ichigo let out a light scoff that was almost a laugh as he threw his arms up, indicating the bizarre surroundings. "Yes, because this is totally what it looks like when I'm winning," he said sarcastically. "Trapped in my own subconscious, or whatever this place is, while the people counting on me wait in vain for a return that'll never happen. Yeah, definitely winning."

Rukia's eyes narrowed at him once more. "Haven't you even bothered to try looking outside, Ichigo?"

"Looking..." Ichigo stared at her, his hands falling back to his sides slowly as the words sunk in. "I can do that?"

She didn't bother to answer him, instead merely giving him a "Duh" expression.

His hands clenched in slight irritation, but he decided to ignore her, instead closing his eyes and taking in a deep breath, trying to concentrate. Normally, bringing himself out of his inner world felt as though he were physically pulling himself up out of it. Now, he felt almost the same way, except that the process had become extremely slow, as though he pulled himself through thick syrup.

He wasn't sure if he really wanted to see what his hollow was doing with his body in the first place. He could just imagine the havoc and destruction that was probably going on out there...

Gradually, images started fading into his sight, and he focused in on them, trying to make them clearer.

He stood in the desert of Hueco Mundo. Las Noches' huge form was nowhere to be seen. Grimmjow walked just in front of him, hands jammed into pockets, looking bored out of his mind as he stalked forward. No swords were drawn. No signs of blood or even hostility. It seemed almost tranquil.

Ichigo frowned, trying to turn his head to change the view, to no avail. He had no control; he watched the proceedings as he would a recording.

A very bad recording. The image jumped from one frame to the next unsteadily, and the muted sounds of footfalls on the sand didn't seem to match up with the actual movements they made. Concentrating a little harder, he could make what he saw move a little more smoothly, but it took a huge amount of effort, and far too soon, he found himself tiring.

Still, neither Grimmjow nor his hollow seemed to be doing anything other than simply walking, looking around as they went. Tracking something, perhaps? He doubted they were just taking a pleasant stroll. "What are they doing?" he muttered, still trying to make the images he saw come into greater focus.

"Patrolling," Rukia answered unexpectedly. Ichigo opened his eyes to give her a questioning glance, and she examined her fingernails disinterestedly. "Your friends came to rescue you a few days ago, so the Arrancar are on higher alert for Shinigami activity."

A stab of panic flashed through Ichigo's chest. "My friends broke into Hueco Mundo? What happened? Are they...?"

"Alive," Rukia informed him in a gentler tone. "Alive and, for the most part, unharmed. Your hollow sent them back to the living world through a Garganta."

Letting his eyes fall shut again, Ichigo swallowed hard, both relieved and confused to hear that. Somehow, he couldn't fathom why the hollow wouldn't have simply killed them. Didn't hollows usually attack the ones they were close to?

"Is it too hard to believe that your hollow might actually want to follow through on his original plan to deceive and defeat Aizen?"

Ichigo scowled, whirling on her. "Hey, that doesn't sound like something Rukia would..." he trailed off, stunned to find that she was gone. Glancing around, no trace of her remained. She'd simply disappeared.

Grumpily, Ichigo let out a huff. This was exactly why he could never manage lucid dreaming: the moment he realized something didn't make sense, the thing that didn't make sense vanished.

Her words still seemed to echo in the empty space around him. His hollow might still want to take Aizen down? Well, that would be nice, unlikely though it was. But why had she said that? Was she implying that his hollow had left his friends alive as part of that plan?

Still, he'd believe that these really were his hollow's intentions when he saw his sword in Aizen's heart, and not before. He refused to let himself get too optimistic where his hollow was concerned.

"Hey, Shichi!"

It took Ichigo several seconds to figure out where Grimmjow's voice was coming from before he squeezed his eyes shut, focusing again on the images of what was going on outside. It took him—and his hollow—even longer to realize that the Arrancar was using the name 'Shichi' to refer to him. Or, rather, to his hollow.

The hollow merely raised an eyebrow at Grimmjow in question. "Shichi?" he wondered, his echoing dual-voice sounding even stranger than usual due to the bad quality of the link Ichigo had to the outside. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Grimmjow smirked. "You, obviously. You're the seventh Espada now. Shichi means Seven. I don't care if you don't want a name, I ain't calling you 'hey, you.' So unless you'd like me to call you 'that crazy sissy with the candy cane mask'..."

Ichigo couldn't help but to snort at the description. He'd never thought of the mask stripes in quite that fashion before.

The hollow snickered. "Candy cane? Really?"

"Yeah, you know, I think I like that better." Grimmjow's grin widened. "Now get over here, Candy Cane."

"Yeah, no." The hollow's own grin matched his companion's. "Unless you'd like me to call you Kitty."

Grimmjow's smile morphed instantaneously to a glower. "Do and you will not live to see another day."

"You say that like you'd actually be able to take me, Kitty," the hollow teased.

Grimmjow growled at him, but strangely, he didn't immediately attack. "Why did you choose to challenge number seven instead of me, anyway?" he asked out of the blue. "You and your other self both seem to have no problem barging in here and riling me up, trying to get me to fight with you, and then when it came down to the wire, you chickened out and called out someone else. Why?"

The hollow gave him a sidelong glance before continuing to walk up the side of a white sand dune, his usual smirk never leaving his face. "Because I don't want to kill you."

Grimmjow snorted. "First time I've heard someone tell me that."

"Sucks to have a bunch of hollows for friends, huh?" the hollow snickered. "Everyone always wants to eat one another."

"Except for you." It wasn't a question. Grimmjow gave his companion a gauging look. "You don't want to kill me, you spared your other self's friends-"

The hollow interrupted with a snort. "I have my reasons."

Grimmjow shook his head. "Your reasons suck," he declared. "Potential allies, you say? Right. And why would you want to do that when you're already untouchable as part of Aizen's army? Do you really think he's not going to see right through your pale excuses to your plans to betray him?"

Immediately, the hollow froze, turning to frown at Grimmjow with a strange half-smile on his face. "Ah, so this is why you waited until we were out in the middle of nowhere—away from the security cameras—before you asked me about this. And why you told your fraccion not to come with us."

Ichigo found himself stunned as well. Grimmjow, of all people, had managed to figure out their plans?

The Arrancar gave the hollow a nonchalant shrug before breezing past him, continuing along their patrol route. "Look, I don't care. I want Aizen dead as much as the next guy around here. But you do 'subtle' like a parade of noisy elephants, and he's not stupid. The moment you and any allies you have make your move, he'll kill you, with absolutely no regrets."

"Well, aren't you just full of sagely wisdom these days?" the hollow chuckled, following after him. "First about joining Aizen, now about plotting against him? Then what is your advice, O wise one?"

Grimmjow growled at him again. "Shut up. I didn't say I've got a plan. Just that you need one before I'll help you."

The hollow went silent as he thought, and Ichigo found himself feeling frustrated that he couldn't figure out what his other self was actually thinking about. The idea that Aizen could be anticipating a betrayal of some sort from them already was depressing enough, but not knowing what his hollow planned to do about it was almost nerve-wracking.

For a long time, nobody spoke as they walked up and down Hueco Mundo's many sand dunes.

Then, eventually, the hollow posed a question. "You've been around Aizen longer than I have. If we could get any number of people to attack Aizen simultaneously, how many do you think it would take to match his power?"

Ichigo frowned, remembering a time when several Captains and Vaizard had attacked Aizen simultaneously. He'd cut all of them down without even flinching. He'd barely even needed to use the illusion abilities of his sword.

"That would depend on how strong each of the people attacking him were," Grimmjow finally decided. "If they were all about my level, then maybe ten? Fifteen? If they were Ulquiorra-level, on the other hand... Pisses me off to admit it, but the guy is a total powerhouse. Unfortunately, he's very much on Aizen's side."

The hollow nodded thoughtfully. "So we have two out of fifteen of your level so far."

"Don't think we'll be able to find much more than that," Grimmjow warned. "Out of the entire rest of the Espada, only Barragan and maybe Nnoitra would be willing to help us. The rest feel like they owe the guy too much, or some crap like that."

"You've sounded them out on this already?" The hollow seemed a bit surprised by this.

Grimmjow snorted. "My first week here, yeah. It's no secret around here that I hate Aizen's guts."

Slowly, the hollow nodded again. "So if we want to try the direct attack approach, we'd have to get the Shinigami's support somehow. Attack him at the same time that the Captains do."

That made Grimmjow laugh outright. "Good luck with that. And good luck trying to convince them not to kill us when they're done with Aizen."

Ichigo couldn't help but to sigh. Grimmjow was right: Very few Shinigami would want to work with the hollows, and vice versa. That was the same problem they'd had in his own time. It was why he and the other Vaizard had bounties on their heads.

Judging by the grin on his hollow's face, though, he wasn't too worried about it. "There are some among them who would be willing to work with us if it meant taking down Aizen. And there's also a group of powerful ex-captains who were exiled from Soul Society due to Aizen's plotting who would be willing to help."

"Even assuming you could get more help," Grimmjow said dryly, "there's still the problem of his illusions. All of us have seen his release."

The hollow shrugged. "I haven't seen it yet," he reminded him smugly. Ichigo felt a mild wave of relief at that confirmation. They still had one ace in the hole, anyway. "But you have a point; he'll show it to me sooner rather than later. Any other ideas besides a direct assault?"

Grimmjow rolled his eyes. "I do subtle worse than you do. You really think that-"

His sarcastic comment was suddenly cut off by a shrill scream close by, and both turned in mild surprise to see three figures barreling towards them at high speeds, two of them chasing the last. The one being chased—a small figure in a hooded cloak—wasn't watching where she was going, instead focusing on the angry-looking pursuers as she screeched in fear.

Ichigo recognized them in an instant and his hopes soared. It was Nell, Pesche, and Dondochakka.

Ichigo's hollow side-stepped at the last moment before the lead figure ran him over, then he reached down and snatched her up by the scruff of her neck, lifting her up to face level to inspect her. For a moment, her feet kept running in mid-air before she finally realized that she'd stopped moving and looked up at the hollow with surprise.

"ACK!" she squealed, flailing around pathetically. "Help! Help! Pleathe don't eat me!"

Dondochakka and Pesche both screeched to a halt, staring at them with horror. "Nell-sama!"

"Well, well, what do we have here?" the hollow snickered. Ichigo could tell by the amusement in his voice that he recognized her as well, from his earlier descriptions of her. "I didn't expect to run into such a measly Arrancar way out here in the middle of nowhere."

Nell, meanwhile, had apparently spotted something that brought a look of sheer terror on her face, and she went totally limp, nothing but stammers coming out of her mouth. The hollow glanced down for a moment to see what she was staring at and a wicked grin crossed his face. Ichigo felt a brief moment of dismay to realize that his shoulder now had a tattoo on it: a highly stylized 7, just peeking out from beneath the sleeveless white uniform he wore.

Pesche ran forward and fell to his knees at the hollow's feet, bowing his head down to the sand and yelling out a hasty apology. "Please let her go, Espada-dono! We didn't mean to almost run into you! We meant no harm!"

Grimmjow let out a snort of amusement. "What, you want us to give you your prey back?" he taunted.

All three looked horrified by this notion. "I'th their brother, not their prey!" Nell clarified with a strangled noise, trying to wiggle out of his grasp. "We'th jutht playin' games! Pleathe don't hurt uth!"

The hollow laughed eerily, crouching down and setting Nell gently on her feet in front of him. "We ain't gunna hurt ya. Now, who the heck are you guys?"

Nell's eyes were still wide, but she gave him an awkward curtsy-turned-falling-flat-on-her-face. "I'm Nell tu!"

"And I'm Pesche!" the thin hollow announced from behind her.

"And I'm Dondochakka, don'cha know!" the last of their group finished off.

Pesche jumped up into the air. "And together, we are...!"

At that, all shyness vanished and the three of them leapt into a familiar joint pose, each of them screaming out a different name. There was a moment of silence, and then they broke out into an argument with each other. The hollow snickered at them. Grimmjow just rolled his eyes.

"The name's Grimmjow," he said lazily, ignoring how loud they were being. Then he jerked a thumb at Ichigo's hollow. "And this is Candy Cane."

Nell looked fascinated by this, enough so that she stopped her squabbling with the others. "That'th really your name?"

The hollow glared at his fellow Espada. "No, it isn't. Shut up, Kitty," he growled. He focused back in on Nell. "Just use Shichi if you want to call me something."

"But Candy Cane is thuch a pretty name!" Nell insisted.

Ichigo let out a laugh as his hollow nearly gagged. Grimmjow sniggered to himself despite the hollow's continued glaring. Nell simply blinked up at them both innocently.

Finally, the hollow simply fixed Nell and the rest of her group with a large grin, the expression dangerous-looking despite the smile. "Tell you what," he said almost sweetly. "You can call me whatever you like. However, every time I hear that name, I'm giving this guy a black eye. Got it?"

The threat might have been more effective if the "this guy" he'd been referring to wasn't Grimmjow. Nell gave him a happy giggle. "Okay, Candy Cane!"

Grimmjow scowled. "Hey, wait a-" He was unable to say anything more, because the hollow had suddenly leapt on him, his fist connecting solidly with Grimmjow's face, sending him flying. The blue-haired Arrancar lay there stunned for a moment, before sitting up with a growl. "Why you..."

With that, he jumped up and attacked the hollow. The two tussled in the sand for several minutes as Nell, Pesche, and Dondochakka all cheered them on loudly.

It had been such a long time since Ichigo had laughed, he hadn't thought that he could anymore, but it felt good to let himself relax a bit as he did. It didn't solve any of his many problems. Not really. And yet, being able to laugh felt like getting a good night's sleep. Like maybe he could solve them eventually.

And that was a thought that hadn't crossed his mind since... he couldn't even remember when.

Eventually, the two Espada stopped their fight, each of them bearing new bumps and scrapes (and Grimmjow's black eye) despite only going at it bare-handed. As with most of their battles, no clear winner had been decided, but both had started to become annoyed enough with the yelling and random poses of the "Great Desert Brothers" to stop and bop the larger two hollows upside the head.

As Dondochakka and Pesche nursed their new wounds, tended by a flailing Nell, Ichigo's hollow settled into a sitting position on the sand, giving the strange trio a thoughtful look.

"You know of Urahara Kisuke, right?" he asked suddenly, obviously directing his question to Grimmjow, though his gaze never left the small girl.

Grimmjow shrugged. "Aizen told us to avoid him if we met him. Other than that? Nah. Why?"

"He and Aizen have some thing going, yeah," the hollow acknowledged with a smirk. "He's also the one who made me like this. Don't know much more about him than that either, but if there'd be anyone willing to help take down Aizen, it'd be him."

Abruptly, Dondochakka and Pesche fell completely silent, though Nell obliviously continued fussing over them.

The blue-haired Arrancar glared at him suspiciously, glancing over at the other three hollows briefly. "Why do I get the feeling that you've just come up with some crazy plan involving these losers?"

An enormous grin spread across the hollow's face.

It had been a nice, normal day at the Urahara Shouten. Only one or two people had showed up in search of candy that morning, which was actually pretty good business considering the shop's terrible location in the back alleys of Karakura. Ichigo's friends were still at work down in the underground training area, and Kuchiki Rukia had showed up to inform Ikkaku and Yumichika that their captain had given them permission to stay in town to continue Tatsuki's training now that she'd unlocked her powers (with the condition that he got a chance to test her fighting prowess once they were done).

The day turned bizarre right as Rukia was about to leave. With one hand on the door, she paused to give Urahara a curt farewell, and then gave it a push.

Abruptly, it exploded inward, knocking the small girl to the floor as several projectiles smashed their way through. Urahara jumped to his feet, hands ready to draw Benihime from his cane, bracing himself as the debris thrown up began to settle.

"He throwed uth!" a sobbing wail pierced through the dust as a tiny figure burst from the broken boards of what used to be his front door. "Why did he throwed uth? We wath gunna go through!"

Two more creatures also pulled themselves from the wreckage, and the larger of them started coughing. The other called, "Nell-sama! Are you alright?"

"No!" the first voice exclaimed pitifully. "He throwed uth, Pesche!"

Urahara relaxed, realizing that whoever these people were, they were just as much victims here as his poor shop door. Quickly, he moved to help dig through the wreckage. "Kuchiki-san, are you okay?"

A faint moan answered his inquiry, and from that he was able to locate her, lying with several thin boards and a small child on top of her.

"Excuse me, miss," Urahara tipped his hat at the sobbing girl briefly before lifting her up and placing her gently onto a nearby counter. That done, he reached down and—after first ascertaining that the Kuchiki girl had no serious injuries—helped his favorite customer to her feet.

"Who ith you?" the girl asked with a watery voice, staring at the two of them with a look of fear mixed with curiosity.

Rukia started to retort angrily, but Urahara stepped in gracefully, bowing respectfully to the small child. "I am Urahara Kisuke, owner of this humble establishment. And this is Kuchiki Rukia."

Abruptly, her fear vanished. "You ith Urahara-than?" she asked excitedly. "Pesche, Dondochakka, we found him!"

"Well, that was easier than I thought it'd be," one of the other two figures said, dusting himself off.

The other large creature nodded quickly. "The Candy Cane guy said that he'd open the gate close to Urahara-san, Don'cha know," he remarked enthusiastically. "But I didn't think he'd be able to open it this close!"

Urahara might have asked who "Candy Cane" was if he weren't too busy blinking in surprise as he realized that the girl's companions were both hollows. Neither seemed inclined to attack anyone, instead remaining focused on fawning over the little girl. And now that he got a better look at her as well, he found that she also had a mask, though hers was cracked and resting on the top of her head.

"You are Arrancar?" he inquired curiously, opening his fan and peering at them over the top of it.

"Of course we'th Arrancar," the girl responded matter-of-factly, putting her hands on her hips. "What elthe would we be?"

Urahara decided not to answer that. He inspected them silently, curious. He'd never heard of an Arrancar with such a distinctly human form that had low enough power levels to appear so young. Something was wrong there.

Rukia, meanwhile, had tensed again, glancing uneasily at Urahara. "Arrancar?" she asked tightly. "What's an Arrancar? More importantly, why are there hollows in here?" Her hand was already on the hilt of her sword, but the shopkeeper gave her a meaningful look, hoping that this odd encounter would remain peaceful enough for him to get some answers.

Ignoring her questions, Urahara spoke up again before the small child or her companions could begin to answer them. "Might I inquire as to who you are, and how you came to be here in such an… extraordinary fashion?" he asked her politely.

The girl beamed as she announced, "I'm Nell tu! Candy Cane and Kitty thent uth here to bring Urahara-than a methage!" Then her face darkened a bit as she added, "But then we wath jutht athking him quethtionth, and mean ol' Kitty throwed uth. And then we wath here!"

"Such a mean guy, Don'tcha know!" the larger of her companions put in, looking distressed. "So rude! So impatient!"

"But a really good arm," the skinny one noted, obviously impressed despite himself. "Real obvious why a guy like that was made an Espada."

That piqued Urahara's interest even further. "You're bringing a message from an Espada?" he asked with surprise.

Rukia gave him a blank look. "A what?" she demanded, refusing to be left in the dark any longer.

"A general, of sorts, in Aizen's army," he explained quickly. As Rukia's eyes widened at that implication, he turned back to Nell. "What is the message?"

"Uuuhh…" For a moment, the girl seemed slightly lost. Then, she whirled on her companions, pointing dramatically at the skinny one. "Oh, yeah! Pesche hath it!" she exclaimed excitedly. "He'th the only one with pocketth to carry thtuff in, tho he hath it!"

Urahara raised an eyebrow skeptically at the hollow she called Pesche. He barely had any real "clothes" on at all, much less something that could have...

"Yes! The message!" Pesche dramatically raised a hand up above his head, giving his fingers a twirling flourish for a moment before plunging them deep into his loincloth, eyes squinting as he rummaged around. Urahara managed to keep his composure, mostly because he had a convenient fan to hide his expression behind, but Rukia paled in obvious disgust as the hollow triumphantly pulled out a (somewhat soiled-looking) sheet of something that resembled paper.

He held it out in Urahara's direction. Automatically, the shopkeeper reached for it, but he stopped himself, jerking his hand behind his back and giving the hollow a wide smile as he snapped his fan shut. "How about you read it to me," he suggested a bit too sweetly. "So that you can be sure I'm reading it correctly."

Pesche waved it at him. "No can do, kind sir! Mr. Candy Cane made me promise I would deliver this to you personally and to none other, including ourselves." He gave Rukia a meaningful look.

"You gotta look at it anyway," Nell added importantly. "It'th got a picture drawn on it."

Urahara's face fell. "Oh, it does, does it?" he asked despairingly. He glanced around furtively, hoping to spot a pair of tongs or something that he could use. Unfortunately, there seemed to be nothing of the sort in the immediate vicinity. Or rather, if there was, it was currently buried under the remains of his front door. Getting anyone else to hold it for him was apparently out of the question.

"Where exactly did you get paper from, anyway?" Rukia asked suspiciously, still rather disgruntled from everything that had occurred in the past few minutes. "From what I've been told, Hueco Mundo is a desert. And why would you be carrying paper, anyway?"

Pesche shrugged. "It's a rare commodity," he admitted. "But it's good to have around. I mean, when you gotta go, you gotta go, and the crystal trees don't exactly provide real leaves for-"

Urahara cleared his throat. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to take that paper over to a table for me, would you? After all, I'm just a humble old man, and my arms would get ever so tired holding it up for that long..."

Rukia glared at him, opening her mouth to protest this, but he swiftly turned her around and gave her a gentle push toward the back rooms. "Kuchiki-dono! Could you please go fetch Tessai for me? Please let him know that we would like some tea in the dining room as soon as he can."

Nell's eyes went wide. "Tea?" she asked softly. "You hath tea?"

Urahara gave her a low bow. "Indeed I do, Miss Nell. Please, follow me, and we'll get this message thing sorted out."

The glare of the black-haired Shinigami never left the back of his head as she exited the room, but thankfully, she apparently opted not to call him out on it. He decided that he definitely owed her several items-worth of store credit.

Soon, he had the three Arrancar settled around the low table in his dining area, Pesche laying the paper gently on the table in front of him and Nell bouncing with anticipation as Tessai poured her a steaming cup of tea. Rukia, apparently not particularly wanting to sit around the table with the hollows, had leaned up against the doorway, arms folded as she watched.

Urahara leaned forward solemnly, carefully reading the message that they had been roped into bringing to him.

"Urahara Kisuke. Aizen is a jerk. We're sick of letting him control us but he's so powerful there's not much we can do about it. Rumor has it that you hate Aizen's guts too. How about a partnership? Meet us at this place. I know you know where it is."

Below those words was a crudely drawn picture. Urahara narrowed his eyes as he tried to figure out what the strange group of cylinders was supposed to be. There were three of them, positioned around a circle and dotted with squares of different sizes. Despite the simplicity of the drawing, it did look strangely familiar. Almost like…

With a frown, he glanced down at the signatures at the bottom of the message. It was signed, "Sexta Espada, Grimmjow" and "Septima Espada, Shichi." Neither name sounded familiar to him, so both were apparently fairly recent additions to Aizen's army.

"What can you tell me about the Espada who sent this?" Urahara asked curiously, keeping his eyes on the drawing.

Nell was in the process of trying not to burn her tongue on her tea, but she tried to answer anyway. "They wath both real tall," she informed him before taking a careful sip. "Candy Cane hath red thtripeth on hith mathk, tho that'th why he'th Candy Cane. I dunno why Kitty'th called Kitty, but he'th got a temper, tho maybe that'th why." With a grin, she added, "Candy Cane ith thilly. I like him."

Urahara nodded thoughtfully. "And how long have you known them?"

"We just met them today!" Pesche said helpfully. "We were playing a game of endless tag and Nell-sama almost ran into them by accident."

Which meant that the message hadn't been planned in advance. Not with such an impromptu messenger. The reason for the messenger, rather than simply visiting him in person, was obvious: Aizen obviously kept track of when his Espada came and went from Hueco Mundo, and they didn't want to raise any suspicion. These together meant that it wasn't likely to be a plot of any sort from Aizen. The message was probably sincere.

But it also raised the question of how they had been able to locate him so easily. He had no doubt that Aizen knew at least approximately where in the human world his little shop was, but it wasn't something he was likely to tell his henchmen unless there was a real reason for it. The question was, then, had these Espada figured out where it was on their own? Or perhaps… they known its location already, even before having met Aizen?

A niggling suspicion grew in Urahara's brain and his eyes narrowed. "What… hair color did these two Espada have?"

Nell smiled. "Kitty hath blue hair, but darker than mine. Candy Cane'th hair ith bright orange."

Rukia let out a near-silent gasp from the doorway, taking a step back. Urahara nodded, looking down to let his hat shade his expression. "Kurosaki-san," he breathed. "What are you up to?"

The teal-haired Arrancar looked confused. "Kuro…thaki?" she repeated unsurely.

"A friend," Urahara explained distractedly. His eyes were drawn to the picture scrawled on the bottom half of the dark paper. Wherever this place was—whatever thing was depicted there—had to be important to this somehow. With a dark frown, he nudged the paper to one side, tilting his head so that he could see it from a different angle. Then he tried the other direction.

It had to be important. It was the key behind this. What was…?

Abruptly, the mysterious columns made sense. Three tall cylindrical pillars covered in lights, positioned around a low platform which held a raised panel designed for inputting reiatsu. Urahara's eyes widened. He did, in fact, know what it was. He had been the one to build it, after all.

Urahara snatched up the drawing and jolted to his feet so fast that he nearly tipped the whole table over, causing Nell and her guests to spill their tea. "It's the time machine!" he blurted in surprise. "It worked!"

Ohmigoodness, it's finally finished. o.o I've only been working on this chapter for FOREVER now.

Once again, I am very, very sorry for taking so long with my writing. I'm not going to make any promises about the length of time until the next chapter, but I sincerely hope that I'm able to finish it faster than I was able to finish this one. A big thank you to all of you who wait for me, and who have been willing to stick with me on this for so long. And a huge thank you to those who continued to send me reviews and PMs asking me to update this, even when over a year had gone by since the last update. Thanks for not giving up on me.

And finally, a big thanks to Obi-Quiet, for beta reading for me.

Hope you enjoyed! Feel free to share comments and concerns in your review!