Notes: You know what's annoying? Me going through all the trouble to power up the Espada, when it turns out one is already so strong he can just shrug off Bankai attacks. And I thought I was the one doing the cheating...

Warning: I always end up in odd places when I do IchiRuki, so, yeah. If you read "Ichigo and the Beanstalk," you know EXACTLY what I mean...

The Humane Hollow

A Bleach Fanfic by

Nate Grey (xman0123-at-aol-dot-com)

Part 8: Rumblings of War

One of the things that Rangiku had always found annoying about Gin was that he had horrible timing.

No, that was wrong. Gin had a way of showing up or wanting to see her at the worst possible times. Sometimes, she thought he spent his days waiting in the shadows, looking to insert himself back into her life when she was at her lowest point. In that respect, he had excellent timing.

It would've been one thing if Gin were there to lift her up at those times. But more often, he only offered sarcasm, teasing, or hurtful words mixed in with playful banter. He seemed to know exactly how best to hurt her.

Sometimes, Rangiku could resist his invitations for months at a time. And sometimes, though she would never admit it to anyone, she couldn't go a day without at least seeing him or hearing his voice.

But all of that had been before the Espada, and before people Rangiku had known for years started dying all around her. Gin was the least of her concerns, and she'd nearly lost it when Kira handed her one of Gin's usual "love notes," which was little more than a time and place.

Rangiku intended to go, but only so she could make it clear to Gin that they both had bigger things to worry about. Actually, she was planning to be done with him for good, though that plan had fallen apart every other time she'd tried it. Rangiku felt that she had the proper motivation this time, though.

On top of everything else, Orihime had come down with a prolonged case of fatigue. Thankfully, Kiyone and Sentaro were more than happy to relieve Orihime of her duties, but Orihime insisted on staying in her Division. She claimed that Captain Unohana was busy enough, and that a little bed rest would cure her weariness in no time. Rangiku had already dumped most of her duties on a subordinate, and intended to make sure that Orihime was getting the rest that she obviously needed.

Gin's desired meeting place was a new addition to the 1st Division: a small, bare room that only contained a ratty-looking bed. Just looking at the bed made Rangiku furious, as it was obvious what Gin intended to happen here, no matter how she felt about it.

She had only been in the room for a few seconds when the door closed behind her.

"I've missed you, Rangiku," Gin said with that same unreadable smile on his face.

"Well, get used to it, Gin," Rangiku snapped. "It's over. The next time you see me, do us both a favor and pretend you don't know me."

"I was actually hoping we could-"

"I KNOW what you were hoping!" she spat. "It's NOT happening!"

"Are you sure?" Gin asked as he slowly moved towards her.

Rangiku was only a second from planting her foot in his crotch when she heard a familiar voice in her head.

"Stranger," it whispered. "Danger..."

Her blood froze in her veins. Rangiku would know Haineko's voice anywhere, and there was no way that Haineko wouldn't be used to Gin's presence by now. Her hand flew to the sword's hilt, but Gin's was already there.

"Now, why would you do that?" Gin asked as he came even closer, until their noses were almost touching.

"Y-You're not Gin!" she gasped.

"Really? I can show you my sword, if-"

"Aizen-sama has requested your presence," said a cool voice from the doorway.

They both looked back to see Halibel standing there, staring at them expectantly.

"I'll be there as soon as I'm done-" Gin began.

"Now, Aaroniero."

Rangiku was unable to keep herself from trembling as the Espada wearing Gin's body stepped away from her.

"Must you always ruin my fun, Halibel?" he sighed.

Halibel glared at him as he moved past her. "Nothing is more important than Aizen-sama's desires. Especially not your... fun." Instead of following him, though, she lingered in the doorway, gazing at Rangiku.

"Thank you," Rangiku whispered, unable to meet her eyes.

"You should be thanking him," Halibel replied. "I did not know Ichimaru for long, but I suspect that whatever Aaroniero intended for you here, he would've appreciated it far more than that man." With that, she turned away and left.

Rangiku sank to her knees, drawing her sword with unsteady hands. "Please, Haineko," she whispered. "Whatever problems we have with each other, we need to put them aside. I'm so afraid... that unless we get much stronger, we won't survive..."

When there was no response after several moments, Rangiku's heart sank. That is, until two furry arms wrapped lightly around her neck.

"You really are a useless cow, and I guess I have no choice but to depend on your sour milk for a little longer. But if you try to order me around again, you'll be the first one I use my claws on."

Rangiku whipped her head around, but only saw a blur as her sword clattered to the floor.

"Be alert, child. The lunatic is coming."

Karin opened her eyes as Acidwire's voice faded from her mind. She nearly thanked him for the warning, but was interrupted as the door flew open.

"Karintou! I brought you breakfast!" Mashiro announced loudly, grinning at her.

Karin blinked and looked at the tray in Mashiro's hands, hardly suppressing the urge to sigh. The tray was loaded down with apple jelly, apple butter, applesauce, apple pancakes, apple turnovers, and of course, apple juice. Just looking at it was enough to make Karin wish she'd never heard of apples, Vizards in general, and Mashiro in particular.

But, this was supposedly part of her training, so Karin accepted the heavy tray with a false smile and a rumbling stomach that had nothing to do with hunger. She started with the pancakes, but mostly pushed the apples to the side.

"How's your training going so far?" Mashiro asked, plopping down in front of her. "Has Hiyori-chan been hard on you?"

Karin wasn't sure how to answer that. There were days when Hiyori's idea of training consisted of bench pressing Hachi, and others when it was composed solely of eating every food that Mashiro offered her. Each was a new experience in physical torture for Karin, but she attempted them with her ultimate goal in mind: to become strong enough that Ichigo and Yuzu wouldn't have to worry about her. And she'd practically have to surpass Chad before that happened.

"Well, I'm not dead yet, Mashi nee-chan," Karin finally answered. "And she did say I could have the day off."

Mashiro smiled sadly. "Um, actually, what she said was that you had the day off from HER training. But I'm supposed to give you your lessons today."

Karin could practically taste the pancakes turning to ash in her mouth. "What?!"

"Don't worry, you don't have to do anything super tough!" Mashiro assured her. "You can just stand there while I kick you, okay?"

"I guess. But you won't be wearing your mask, right?" When there was no immediate response, Karin frowned. "No mask, right, Mashi nee-chan? Right?!"

"Have some more!" Mashiro said brightly, shoving a heaping spoonful of apple jelly into Karin's mouth.

Karin forced herself to swallow, even as Acidwire's voice returned. "At this rate, I almost hope the food will kill us."

Shun'o was not used to being out on her own, but she had adjusted quickly. After all, Orihime was counting on her, and from what Shun'o had seen that first night, Kurosaki Yuzu had the makings of a fine shinigami. She needed an equally talented guide to help her bring those gifts out in the way that was best.

It was not really her first time teaching: she'd been the main one to instruct Orihime in the proper use of the Shun Shun Rikka. Beyond that, Yuzu was so similar to Orihime at times that it was impossible not to grow fond of her quickly. But being like Orihime was double-edged sword, and seemed to come with most of the same dangers.

As with Orihime, Yuzu's zanpakuto was not used to attack directly. Instead, she used it to summon others to fight for her. So far, everyone she'd been able to call had been both dead and quite close to her while they'd been alive. Although because Yuzu had died fairly young, this list was limited to her parents and a stray kitten called Raku. This by itself did not sound very impressive, but each one held an impressive amount of strength to begin with, and they only grew stronger the longer they stayed with Yuzu.

The reason for this was not entirely unexpected, but still extremely dangerous: they all needed Yuzu's power to maintain their connection to the living world, and the more power they drew on, the more difficult it became for Yuzu to keep up the connection. If Yuzu had simply always been mindful of how much power she was using at any given moment, and could be depended upon to break the connection as was necessary, there would never be a problem. But Yuzu was not a battle-hardened shinigami. She was a girl that had lost her parents and her life all too soon, and now suddenly had a way to bring them all back.

Shun'o had allowed Yuzu the first day to get reacquainted with her parents. It had been good for her, and Isshin had offered some helpful suggestions for Yuzu's training. The first and foremost had been that the Vizard's base, while useful, was not an appropriate location, at least not for Yuzu. So Shun'o had relocated them to Urahara's shop, or rather the expansive room beneath it. Urahara had been very accommodating, even offering to let Ururu assist Shun'o with anything she might need for Yuzu's training. And as it turned out, Ururu provided the one thing that Yuzu needed most at the moment: a friend among the living, to remind her that there was a reason to keep living.

Even so, Yuzu was always reluctant to part with her parents, and that was something that Shun'o could not hope to change too soon, if ever. Worse than that, Yuzu's first instinct had been to run and show her siblings, but Urahara had explained that it would only distract Ichigo and Karin from their training. And that, he made sure to tell Yuzu in grave tones, would have them joining her parents far sooner than any of them had planned.

Oddly enough, Raku made the process far easier than anyone would've expected. Compared to Yuzu's parents, his drain on her was far less. Where Yuzu had trouble keeping her parents out for more than a few hours (and that was assuming they did nothing more strenuous than sitting and talking), Raku could remain by her side for nearly an entire day. Shun'o assumed it was because of Raku's smaller body mass, but Isshin proposed another reason.

"It's because he's closer to her than we are," he explained. "Yuzu doesn't have to reach as far to call him. And if I'm right about him, soon she won't have to call him at all."

Shun'o wanted to ask Isshin exactly where he and his wife were, and for that matter, where Raku was. But she got the answer to one of those questions about a month into their training, when a lion with a flaming mane and red battle gear appeared in Urahara's backyard. Shun'o knew at once who he was: his spiritual pressure was the same as Raku's, only heavier and more abundant.

Yuzu knew him on sight, but was shocked when she noticed that her zanpakuto was not active at the moment. "Raku, how did you get out?" she asked as the lion nuzzled her neck. "I didn't call you..."

"It's because he came on his own," Ururu said, gently stroking Raku's side. "I can tell he's come a long way, because his cape is dirty. He must have really wanted to be by your side, Yuzu-chan."

Yuzu's eyes teared up at once, and she kissed Raku on his nose. "I love you, too." She giggled as Raku licked her cheek.

Although she was not aware of it, Hinamori had been trained to need Aizen. Any accomplishment was immediately brought to his attention for his approval, any questionable issue subjected to his analysis first. Without his input, Hinamori simply could not function for very long at her usual level of efficiency. This did not change with the arrival of the Espada. In fact, they only made this more apparent: Aizen was spending more time on his own or with Espada, and Hinamori found herself constantly waiting for him to reappear.

Naturally, this made staying on top of 1st Division matters rather difficult for her. Hinamori understood that Aizen was busy with certain things (though she had no idea what they were), but the sudden distance between them made it nearly impossible for her to do her own job. Unless, that is, she suddenly decided to take matters into her own hands, and stopped worrying about how Aizen would view her actions.

But she didn't do that. She couldn't. Aizen had trained her not only to desire his input, but to crave it on a certain level.

Perhaps he even had such a situation in mind, when he first accepted Hinamori into his care, and perhaps not.

Either way, it was a given that Hinamori would eventually have to go searching for Aizen. With all of the rapid changes in the Seireitei, she needed to obtain approval for several projects that simply could not be put on hold any longer. Approaching the Espada was useless: only Halibel and Nel would even listen to her, and while Halibel never responded at all, Nel always said far too much (to the point where Hinamori knew even Aizen's famed patience would be wearing thin).

Aizen and the Espada usually met in the same place, so far as Hinamori knew: in Aizen's office in the 1st Division. Usually, Hinamori would wait outside the door until they were done. There was no harm in this: even with an ear pressed to the door, it was impossible to clearly hear what was being said on the other side.

Usually, however, the door was not open a crack, as it was this day.

Hinamori noticed at once, and almost took it as an invitation to enter. But then she heard Aaroniero's laughter.

"Things are proceeding rather quickly this time, aren't they, Aizen-sama? I guess all those practice runs really did help!"

"As I knew they would," Aizen replied. "It is a shame, though. And just think: none of this would be possible, if I hadn't trapped the Aizen from this world back in our own."

"I can't get over how surprised he looked! You'd think he'd know better than to trust you!"

"Yes," Aizen agreed, and it was easy to hear the smile in his words, "you'd think."

Hinamori very nearly had a nervous breakdown right there. Instead, she managed to hold in her conflicting emotions until she'd reached the relative safely of her quarters. Then she simply collapsed on her bed and let the tears come.

"Oh, Captain Aizen," she whispered, "what have they done to you?"

Ichigo hadn't known Rukia all that long, but from what he did know, she'd been acting weird ever since the group (minus Karin and Yuzu, of course) returned to the Kurosaki home. He couldn't decide whether that was good or not. Rukia had first struck him as being impulsive, loud, and rude. Now, she was polite, attentive, and even cheerful.

But only with him.

She cooked his meals, washed his clothes, and had even offered to wash HIM a few times.

Ichigo had no idea how to react to any of this, but as he was still somewhat upset about being separated from his sisters, it never really occurred to him to enjoy this attention. Besides, getting it from Rukia was just odd. It was the kind of thing he might've expected from Orihime, but Rukia offering such service just made it seem like she wanted something from him.

And she did, although almost a week passed before Ichigo found out what.

As unpleasant surprises went, this one was very unpleasant.

Rukia had made lunch for him again, and while she was not the best cook, she had eagerly learned from Uryu, who had been preparing his own meals for years. Ichigo didn't mind eating her food, since he couldn't cook, and asking Tatsuki to do it always resulted in a punch to the gut and an hour-long lecture on how women could do more than cook and look pretty (although Ichigo always insisted that "pretty" was never a word he'd use to describe her).

As had become her habit, Rukia sat there and watched Ichigo eat, like it was the most interesting thing she'd ever seen. Ichigo was not so hungry that he could ignore that.

"Um, Rukia, isn't there something else you could be doing?" he asked.

She frowned at him. "Why?"

"Well, Uryu said that you could-"

"Why isn't it working?"

Ichigo paused. "Why isn't what working?"

"When our blood mixed, I saw your Hollow in my head. So why haven't you seen mine in yours?"

"No idea," Ichigo replied, not the least bit concerned.

"Maybe it needs to mix in larger amounts?" Rukia murmured, a thoughtful look on her face.

"Larger than what?"

"Than the trace amounts I've been putting in your food all week."

Ichigo immediately spat out a mouthful of rice. "WHAT THE HELL?! YOU SPIKED MY FOOD WITH YOUR DAMN BLOOD?!"

"Well, I had a good reason!" Rukia snapped. "It's not like I just go around putting my blood in people's food!"


She rolled her eyes. "You can relax now. I won't do it again, since it isn't working."

"So what the hell am I supposed to do about lunch?!"

"Why are you asking me? There's no reason for me to cook for you anymore."

Ichigo's jaw dropped. "You mean the ONLY reason you've been so nice, is because you wanted your damn blood in me?!"

"Why did you THINK I was doing it?"

"I don't know! Maybe I thought you were grateful to me for saving you!"

Rukia frowned. "You mean SPARING me from when you almost killed me, right?"

"That was my Hollow! And you said he saved you later, so we're even!"

"I guess," Rukia muttered reluctantly. "But it just doesn't make sense. You should've seen my Hollow by now..."

"Why would I need to? The version I can see is nuts enough," Ichigo grumbled, glaring at her.

Rukia started to answer, paused, and stared at his arm, then hers. Without warning, she grabbed a knife and quickly drew it across her arm, grinning madly as the blood quickly began to flow.

Ichigo leaped out of his chair. "RUKIA! What are you-?!"

She turned on him with a slightly sadistic gleam in her eyes, and jammed the knife into his arm as well.


Rukia tossed the knife away, grabbed his bleeding arm, and mashed it against hers, rubbing the open wounds together furiously.

Ichigo was extremely tempted to punch her in the head, but before he could, the world went black.

Hueco Mundo had always been a world of death. But now, that world itself was dying.

When Uryu had first suggested the idea of the three of them returning, Tatsuki and Chad had assumed he just wanted to use something in it for target practice. Neither one of them was good at reading Uryu, as he had an excellent poker face, and never revealed his thoughts until he was ready.

That turned out to be a good thing, because if Uryu had told them his plan beforehand, they probably wouldn't have gone with him.

"I've been thinking about what Chad told us," Uryu said once they'd arrived. "About how his Hollows told him to come here, and how he thought Soul Society was behind it. But there's a problem with that line of thinking. Whatever absorbed all those Hollows is incredibly powerful. If the shinigami had those kinds of resources, they wouldn't have waited to take action. We'd have been hunted down immediately. So it's safe to assume that they weren't responsible for this."

"But that means we have to worry about someone else with that kind of power, right?" Tatsuki asked.

"Correct. And we have to assume that it's someone prepared to destroy the Soul Society. There's only so many reasons to go such extreme measures, after all. I, for one, intend to be ready. That means that our usual methods won't be enough. We need to get stronger, fast."

Chad nodded. "What did you have in mind, Uryu? And what does it have to do with being here?"

"You're both aware that a Quincy can manipulate and absorb spirit particles at an extremely high rate, and in massive quantities. I'm going to break down what remains of Hueco Mundo, and fuse the particles into three arrows."

"Could you even shoot them?" Tatsuki wondered aloud.

"Yes, though not without some difficulty. My calculations indicate that you should be first, Tatsuki."

"Um... first to what?"

"Wasn't I clear on that point? I'm going to fire the arrows at us."

Tatsuki stared at him in disbelief. "Um, NO, you're NOT!"

Uryu sighed. "I realize the idea is not appealing, but-"

"Why wouldn't I be first?" Chad interrupted.

"Because taking in that much power is dangerous at best. Suppose I shot you, and it worked, but you went mad and attacked the first things you saw: us. There would be no chance of stopping you. If it were Tatsuki, you could at least slow her down long enough for me to think of a strategy. And if I went first, there wouldn't be anyone to even make the arrows, much less shoot them. It has to be Tatsuki."

"Don't I get a say in this?!" Tatsuki demanded.

"There isn't much choice. This is the only way we'll be in any position to help Ichigo. And chances are that he'll still be stronger than us when we're done here. That's how fast he grows."

At the mention of Ichigo, Tatsuki fell silent. She had been worrying about how she'd keep helping, considering how strong Ichigo was getting. If this was the only way to keep up with him, it wasn't something she could afford to refuse.

"What do I have to do?" Tatsuki finally asked.

Uryu smiled slightly. "Just stand there, and try not to dodge."

In Ichigo's mind, Hollows mainly existed to do two things: eat and fight. There wasn't much deviation from this, although the more beast-like the Hollow was, the more it ate. The more humanoid Hollows tended to fight more than they ate, and this was even true of Ichigo's Hollow and the Vizards (although in the case of the later, Ichigo felt that they actually read manga and threw sandals more than they fought).

He had never questioned this: most Hollows were violent by both nature and necessity, and could no more be blamed for devouring souls than a dog could be blamed for shaking out its fur when wet. Ichigo figured that the only reason his own Hollow didn't attempt to hunt down human souls was because most of the time, he and/or they were human enough where such a practice would seem disgusting, unnecessary, or at the very least, odd.

Ichigo felt he understood most, if not all there was to know about his Hollow. They had been partners since he was a child, and had certainly fought enough (with enemies and each other) to predict each other's actions. Even Yuzu and Karin thought of Ichigo's partner as more of a second brother than anything else, no matter how scary he might appear at times. If Ichigo ever hesitated to hand over control to his Hollow these days, it wasn't due to a lack of trust. Rather, he worried that his partner might take things a little too far, or accomplish the goal with little or no restraint along the way.

But when Ichigo opened his eyes and found himself within his mindscape once again, standing beside Zangetsu's coffin, he could tell at once that his Hollow was not responsible for the destruction around him.

Not all of it, anyway.

The entire roof seemed to be one huge, misty, frost-covered crater. Zangetsu's coffin was curiously undamaged, though. As such, it made an excellent seat for the small, dark-haired girl sitting on top of it, watching the battle with wide eyes. Ichigo wouldn't have recognized her at all, if he hadn't caught sight of Hollow Rukia piercing through the mist with her Cero Blanco, which his own Hollow just barely dodged.

"Rukia!" he shouted, drawing the girl's attention. "Don't just sit there! Help me stop them!"

"Why?" Rukia countered with a frown. "They're happy. Leave them alone."

"Happy?! They're trying to kill each other!"

"Exactly." Rukia turned her attention back to the fight. "Just watch."

Ichigo's Hollow emerged from the mist again, his white robes stained almost entirely black with his own blood. There was a maniacal grin on his face, though, and it only grew wider as he stabbed himself with the tip of his sword, and then whipped the blade upward, releasing a dark wave of energy that was clearly meant to slice Hollow Rukia in half. Instead, her midsection simply exploded into snowflakes, allowing her to completely evade the killing strike with little effort. Consequently, she was almost completely unmarked, save for a few scratches on her face. Her expression was blank, as usual, and Ichigo was fairly certain that he was just imagining the twinkle of amusement in her eyes.

At any rate, it was clear that they weren't going to stop until one of them was dead (and even then, the violence could continue for some time). Ichigo was about to intervene when Rukia threw a loose chunk of the roof at him. He caught it, barely, not because she'd thrown too hard, but because his arm was much shorter than he recalled it being.

"Is it sinking in now, Ichigo?" Rukia asked. "We're stuck in these younger forms, for the moment. Our Hollows are drawing on most of our power for this fight. So the only thing we can do is wait until they're done."

"Maybe not," Ichigo murmured, staring at Zangetsu's coffin.

"Don't bother, I tried it earlier," Rukia said, noticing the direction of his gaze. "The lid won't budge at all."

"Maybe you're weak."

"And maybe you're a jerk!"

"You should be weak, if you've been leaking blood all week so you could poison my food!"

"My blood is NOT poison!"

"No way it's natural to be that tiny!"

"It is if you aren't a freak!"

They were so busy with the name-calling that neither noticed when their Hollows paused to watch.

"This is just pathetic," Ichigo's Hollow sighed. "I can't believe we're related."

Hollow Rukia nodded in agreement, then turned her head to stare up at his face.

"What?" he asked, frowning.

Without a word, she stretched out her hand, as if to grab his face. Instead, she halted her palm a few inches from his skin, her eyes focused on the blood that still ran from a gash on his forehead.

Ichigo's Hollow blinked slowly and mimicked the pose, his gaze drawn to the few drops of sweat that dotted her cheeks. His eyes widened as the temperature around her hand plummeted, and, expecting an attack, he began to charge a Cero in his own hand. Even at this range, she could probably do her shifting trick and cause him to miss, but with any luck, he'd manage to at least scorch her eyebrows this time.

But it wasn't an attack. The blood from his face was drawn into the spiraling white energy in her palm, and her spiritual pressure skyrocketed for an instant before falling well past what she'd been fighting with. The ease with which she was able to manipulate it was not lost on him; that had always been an issue with he and Ichigo. But that was nothing compared to her next trick: Hollow Rukia's newly compressed power took on a physical form of the left half of a Hollow mask. The moment the mask was complete, she pressed it onto his face with no warning (although if he had seen that there was a black snowflake around the eye, he certainly would've objected).

His scream was lost amongst overwhelming pain as two great powers were ripped from his chest: one that was purely Ichigo, and one that was something else entirely. In the space of a second, both powers were forced back into him. But instead of returning to the space they had originally occupied as lesser powers, they were shoved into the lead position along with the Hollow's own. Fortunately, neither he nor Ichigo were strangers to insane amounts of power, so it only took a moment or two to regain their bearings.

"I know that's you, Ichigo," the Hollow muttered through the mask, "but who's the other guy?"

Oddly enough, Ichigo was able to answer through the unmasked half of his mouth. "You can't tell? It's Zangetsu. There's no one else it could be."

Their eyes went to Hollow Rukia, who was staring at them blankly, her face bathed in red light as the Cero continued to charge in front of her. "How did she...?"

"It must be because her power comes from a shinigami. She woke up Zangetsu by forming this mask. I'd say we owe her."

"Yeah, well, compressing my power isn't exactly my expertise. I'm better than you, obviously, but I could still blow her head off."

"If you could do that, you would've done it already," Ichigo pointed out smugly.

The Hollow scowled, and was about to reply when he suddenly felt Hollow Rukia's cold hand close around his wrist. The crimson Cero flickered for a moment, its core becoming a brilliant white. With her free hand, she raised her sword and made a deep cut across her right cheek. The blood she drew was quickly pulled into the Cero's core, and her grip on his wrist tightened as she poured more of her power into him.

Although only Zangetsu knew it, neither the Hollow nor Ichigo could form a mask on their own. The Hollow had greater control over his power, but was unfamiliar with using it in a way that did not directly cause harm. Ichigo had trouble using his power efficiently, but only he could look at Hollow Rukia and feel sympathy, not only for her, but for Rukia as well.

"Don't think of it as attacking her," Ichigo suggested. "Think of it as just... touching her."

That idea only confused the Hollow more, but the choice was taken out of his control when Ichigo simply moved their hand forward, as if he intended to caress the cut on Hollow Rukia's cheek. The Cero thickened and hardened an inch from her skin, forming into another half mask. Without really knowing why, Ichigo placed three fingers at the top of the mask and drew them all the way down. Instantly, three long, red slash marks bled through the white, as if a set of claws had struck it.

She willingly moved into the mask, and her spiritual pressure did not so much rise as it changed. Black snowflakes appeared on her robes, and the eye that was not covered by the mask closed briefly, before opening to reveal what Ichigo knew to be Rukia's eye.

"Welcome back," he said quietly.

She did not respond, and they both turned at once to see that the children, and the coffin that had held Zangetsu, were gone, as if they had never been there at all.

"You know you're never cooking in my house again, right?" he asked absently.

"As if I'd want to," she snorted. "Does shaved ice count?"

"Shut up." As an afterthought, he added, "Only if it's not red."

There were really only two things that Yachiru treasured: candy and friends. Candy, of course, was only a temporary pleasure (no matter how sweet, gooey, or sour it might be), but friends were forever. That had always been her policy.

But even candy could not make Yachiru blind to the fact that things were wrong in the Seireitei. There were not many Captains she considered herself close to, but Ukitake had been one of them. He had always been full of smiles and unnecessary presents (which were the best kind), and the thought of him having been killed bothered Yachiru a great deal.

Captain Kyoraku, on the other hand, had always seemed a little strange, but funny. But that didn't matter. What did matter is that Ukitake had liked him, and that was reason enough for Yachiru to miss him, too.

But of more immediate concern to Yachiru was the change in her new friend. Nel was basically a cheerful person, but much of that cheer was missing now, replaced by long periods of reflection and regret. In other words, she was no fun at all.

Yachiru didn't stop spending time with Nel, as that would've conflicted with the policy. A friend was always a friend, even if they suddenly became horribly boring. It wasn't really Nel's fault, anyway. She was just seeing more and more that the Espada were not what she'd hoped they would be. Yachiru kept hoping that Nel would come around and accept the invitation to join the 11th Division. She was even willing to let Nel be Assistant Lieutenant.

It was Nel who decided to change things first, though. She came to Yachiru one day and asked a very odd question.

"Yachiru, would you still be my friend if I was older than you? You know, a lot older?"

Yachiru wasn't sure why that was important, but was perfectly honest with her answer. "Sure! But, um, are you going to get all gray and wrinkly? Because if you are, I need to tell Ken-chan, so he doesn't think you're a stranger and kill you accidentally. Plus I'll need to think up some games that old people can play."

She could see no reason why Nel's eyes suddenly teared up, nor could she explain the way that Nel abruptly gave her a huge hug. "Nel-chan, what's wrong?"

"Thank you, Yachiru," Nel whispered. "You're a really good friend."

"Of course!" Yachiru instantly agreed, though she would wonder about this incident for some time afterwards.

"Fascinating," Captain Kurotsuchi murmured as he examined a sample of Aaroniero's genetic material.

"Isn't it, though?" Aaroniero agreed. He was still wearing Gin's face, as he found the smile to his liking. Kurotsuchi either hadn't noticed or simply hadn't cared.

It was on Aizen's orders that Aaroniero had been sent to Kurotsuchi's lab, in order to provide the mad scientist with information on all things Espada. Predictably, Kurotsuchi had only been interested in the information that could be extracted through science, not words. It really was a shame, as Aaroniero had actually prepared a little speech.

"So, can you tell me anything I don't already know about myself?" the Espada asked, sounding rather curious. "Any ideas for improvement?"

Kurotsuchi frowned. Aizen had already sent him a detailed report on the Espada. There were some obvious gaps, and he hadn't really believed everything in the report, but the analysis of Aaroniero had confirmed it all. The Espada were all uniquely impressive, but Aaroniero was exceptional even among them. Kurotsuchi had never seen a case quite like this one. Aaroniero had assimilated thousands of different entities, and it was difficult to determine what his DNA had originally looked like. Given more time, Kurotsuchi was sure he could've unlocked mysteries that most scientists only dared to dream about.

Instead, he'd been given a matter of hours, and then Aaroniero was expected back in the 1st Division.

"There simply wasn't enough time!" Kurotsuchi complained. "Why, with my resources, if given the proper-"

"So, nothing new, then?" Aaroniero sighed.

"Well, not yet, but-"

"Pity." Aaroniero's face darkened as he murmured, "Die."

Kurotsuchi was not at all startled when the blade at Aaroniero's side rapidly elongated in a perfect mimic of Ichimaru's Shikai. If anything, he'd been expecting it sooner. He barely even reacted when the blade drove itself into his chest, directly through his heart.

"Are you done?" Kurotsuchi asked calmly. "All that power you have, and yet no imagination whatsoever. How your sword must weep."

"Ah," Aaroniero said with a smile. "You want something more creative. Say, for example, if I had combined his Shikai with another Captain's that you may be familiar with?"

Kurotsuchi's confidence turned to shock as he felt an unfamiliar numbness rapidly consuming his body. "You... what did you...?"

"You wouldn't recognize it," Aaroniero chuckled. "No, of course not. You took great pleasure in boasting how you modified your poison after each battle. And the last time we fought, your poison was far more advanced. Version 517, if I recall correctly. Given the current time restraints on this world, you probably would've only reached Version, what? 382? So I doubt your body would be equipped with the necessary defenses against it. It really is a pity."

There was no way that Kurotsuchi could respond: he was already dead, and the only thing keeping him upright was Aaroniero's sword.

"I suppose it wasn't absolutely necessary to add Suzumebachi's venom, but I do love to be thorough." The Espada slowly retracted his sword, grinning as he caught sight of the blade's serrated tip. It was a new design, added on Ulquiorra's suggestion, that practically guaranteed death via Suzumebachi's venom with what was technically only one hit. Knowing Kurotsuchi, he might even be immune to the present Suzumebachi's venom, but there was no way he could account for that venom being mixed with a heavily diluted form of Barragan's Respira (which Ulquiorra had full access to). They had yet to encounter anything that proved entirely immune to the rotting effect, and by the time the Espada had returned his sword to its sheath, there was only a gaping, spreading hole where Kurotsuchi's chest had once been.

"It may have been kinder to simply eat you," Aaroniero admitted as he turned to leave, "but I don't bother with inferior food. I'm sure you can understand that."

"This is late, even for Kurotsuchi," Hitsugaya growled. "If he's doing this on purpose-"

"He's dead."

The four Captains present turned as Soifon walked in, shut the door, and sealed it with several different spells before taking her own seat.

"You've confirmed this?" Unohana asked.

"No," Soifon admitted, "but it's the safest assumption, isn't it? Kurotsuchi has been late before, but never by more than thirty minutes. I stressed that this emergency meeting was both mandatory and key to the survival of not only the Seireitei, but Soul Society itself."

"So it's just the five of us left, not counting the old man," Zaraki muttered.

Hitsugaya blinked, and before he could stop himself, asked, "Your lieutenant isn't with you?" Frankly, Zaraki looked positively naked without Yachiru hanging off of him.

Zaraki's frown deepened. "I made her stay put. She didn't even throw a tantrum." He paused and added, "She's never not done that before."

"It's a sign of the times, I'm sure," Yoruichi stated. "You have a plan, Soifon. You wouldn't have called us here otherwise."

"I had no choice but to request assistance," Soifon admitted, sounding ashamed. "Soul Society won't survive without it."

"Called my brothers, did you?" Zaraki asked with a feral grin. "Sounds like a party now."

"There are more of him?" Hitsugaya asked, sounding slightly concerned.

"Of course not," Unohana answered. "He's referring to the previous Kenpachi."

Hitsugaya sat a little straighter in his seat. "They're coming? Here?"

Yoruichi smirked. "I wouldn't hold my breath on that one. They've never done it before. So they must be doing the next best thing short of them actually being here."

Soifon nodded. "They've agreed to send representation."

Hitsugaya gaped at her. "You can't be serious! We're being annihilated, and they're going to send... STAND-INS?!"

"That's just the term they prefer," Unohana explained, touching his shoulder. "The actual process is far more effective than you imagine."

"Then what are they planning to do? Exactly," Hitsugaya demanded.

"Simply put, we will each be transmitted a portion of a previous Kenpachi's power. Assuming that the Seireitei itself is not destroyed in the resulting battle, that should be enough to assure our victory. So there is no need to-"

"They killed Ukitake like he was nothing," Hitsugaya snapped, his shoulders trembling slightly. "Don't tell me that we're assured of anything. And if this method is such a great idea, why is it that none of you suggested it when the first Captain was murdered?"

"Because this method can't even be suggested unless there are less than six Captains to actively defend the Seireitei," Soifon said quietly. "It is thought that more than six Kenpachi, releasing their power against enemies of comparable power, in the same area, would cause a level of devastation so complete that no land could ever recover from it. We are not yet at the point where Soul Society's destruction is preferable to its current condition. However, if we continue to take losses, even with the power of the Kenpachi, then..."

"It'll be time to bring the house down on the bastards' heads, plain and simple," Kenpachi chuckled with a sinister grin.

Hitsugaya did not share Zaraki's humor, but part of him desperately hoped it would come to that. He could see no other way to defeat the Espada for sure, and he would rather see his home destroyed than in the hands of Aizen's monsters for another day.

Urahara had not been to the Kurosaki home in some time, and figured he would look in on Ichigo and Rukia. He also figured that by now, they would've given into the obvious sexual tension between them, and, if he was extremely lucky, they'd be going at it like rabbits when he arrived.

It should be noted at this point that Urahara's mind worked a bit differently from nearly everyone else's.

But what Urahara walked into was less like a love scene and more like a crime scene.

Both Ichigo and Rukia were facedown on the kitchen floor in a huge puddle of dried blood. Neither one was moving, though both were still alive, somehow.

With a sigh, Urahara pulled out two rental gigai he'd brought along, just in case, and quickly extracted the souls of the two teens, shoving them rather carelessly into the gigai.

Ichigo woke up first, and immediately began to scream. Rukia soon joined him.

Urahara just smiled. It was impossible to say whether he'd meant to put Ichigo in the short, female gigai or not. But Rukia looked even more ridiculous, because her gigai's head kept trying to fall off, since her actual head was somewhere in the region of the gigai's shoulders.

"Okay, enough fooling around, you two. Get this mess cleaned up."

"Why should we do anything that you say?!" Ichigo demanded angrily.

"Ichigo," Rukia said crisply, "I am NOT eating in this kitchen until it's clean. And if you would freak out over a few drops of blood in your food, I can't imagine that you could eat here, either."

"You're supposed to be on MY side."

"I will be," Rukia promised with a small smile. "AFTER the kitchen is clean. Then we can throw him out on the front lawn."

Urahara coughed loudly. "I'd suggest patching up the holes in your original bodies before you do anything else. I understand that leaking blood isn't exactly considered healthy."

"It's not like we did it to each other," Ichigo grumbled. "That was all Miss Hack and Slash over here."

Rukia glared at him. "Why would you say that, while I'm in the room, when you JUST saw how good I am at stabbing you?"

"You just caught me off guard! I wouldn't let you do it again!"

Urahara could see that Rukia was eyeing the drawer where the knives were presumably kept, so he decided to intervene before things got any worse. "You know, I could offer you two some artificial souls for half price. Then you could just have them clean up the mess."

"Yeah, fine," Ichigo grumbled, shoving some money at Urahara and snatching the two offered dispensers. He didn't like that they both looked like rabbits, but quickly picked out two candies.

"How do you know how to use them?" Rukia asked as Ichigo turned his body over and opened the mouth.

"Ririn was babbling about them once. I heard most of it, I guess."

"I'm guessing you didn't hear that there were different kinds," Rukia murmured with a smug smile.

"What does that have to do with-"

"Ichigo-sama!" his body shouted, leaping to its feet with a strangely bright smile. "Chappy is here to serve you! Pyon!"

Ichigo just stared at it in horror, so Rukia took the remaining candy from his limp hand and inserted it into her own body. Her body reacted in much the same way, but Rukia was far more prepared for the way that her Chappy glomped onto her at once.

"Chappy-chan, I need you and your friend to clean up this mess," Rukia instructed.

"Hai, Rukia-sama!" both of them sang and ran out of the room, causing Ichigo to sputter indignantly.

"W-What the hell is up with these pills, Creepy Bucket Hat Guy?!" Ichigo shouted, whirling on Urahara.

"They're working exactly the way they're supposed to," Rukia explained, smiling sweetly as their bodies returned carrying mops and buckets of water. Then her hand shot out and grabbed Urahara by the throat. "Now, PUT US IN THE RIGHT GIGAI OR YOU'LL BE EATING ALL YOUR MEALS THROUGH A STRAW!!!"

Urahara quickly made the switch and exited, muttering about ungrateful customers and how there was no respect for a proper salesman these days.

"You see? You just have to know how to talk to him!" Rukia said, smiling a smile that even made Chappy's seem dim by comparison.

Ichigo slowly took a step away from her, being sure to block the drawer with the knives in it from her view.

Upon finding her father dead in one of his labs, Nemu did not panic.

First, she checked his vitals thirty-seven times, as his protocol demanded. Then, she cremated the body (three times with Hado 54: Haien, just to be safe). Next, she pulled one of her father's clones out of cold storage, implanted an artificial soul that was reasonably similar to his own, and had it make his rounds throughout the Division, just to keep up appearances.

Then, she sat down, and pondered what she was meant to do without Mayuri to guide her.

Naturally, Mayuri had assumed he wouldn't die any time soon, so there were only so many instructions left in place. There was a standing order to destroy his killer, but Nemu knew that was impossible for the moment. Not just because the killer had to be stronger than Mayuri, but because she couldn't depend on her own body in a fight. Her first appointment with Captain Unohana wasn't for a few more hours, and there was no telling what condition she would be in after the treatment.

But no matter what condition she was in, Nemu decided that she would fulfill her father's wish, if not for him, then at least for Soul Society. It was her home, and it was in terrible danger of either no longer being her home, or no longer being, period.

She needed power, plain and simple. And though it was ill-advised, of all the powerful people who might be convinced to teach her, Nemu could think of only one who might do so purely because of her current circumstances. So no matter what Captain Unohana's treatment was, Nemu had made up her mind.

As soon as the opportunity presented itself, she was going to find Kurosaki Ichigo and learn the secrets of how he drew out his Hollow powers, one way or another. And then, just as he did, she was going to make her own Hollow work for her interests.

Under normal circumstances, Nemu might have been concerned about being able to suppress the Hollow. But that was no longer an issue. After disposing of her father's body, she had noticed that his zanpakuto remained, refusing to burn even after three doses of Haien's all-consuming flames. She knew for a fact that Mayuri had recently rigged the sword to spew poison if anyone else touched it. She also knew that she was immune (mostly) to the poison, and therefore did not hesitate to pick up the sword. Amazingly enough, Ashisogi Jizo had not attacked. Instead, it let out a contented gurgle, and then returned to its slumber.

Mayuri had often complained that despite possessing the best of his traits, he considered Nemu to be a poor subordinate on even her best days. It was only now that she began to understand what he was implying.

"My soul," Nemu murmured, "artificial though it is, is patterned after Mayuri-sama's own soul. I will use this soul, and this zanpakuto that still responds to it, to avenge Mayuri-sama's death. I am certain that is Ashisogi Jizo's wish, for it carries his will."

That was why Nemu was so certain her Hollow would pose no further threat to her. If nothing else, her father's will had always been more than capable when it came to keeping her in line.

Ichigo knew nothing of subtlety. He wasn't that type of person, and never would be. So he tended to make grand gestures that were easily misunderstood, but also the only way he knew to express himself. Each of his friends had been surprised when he told them to move in with him (Tatsuki especially, though she calmed down once she realized that Ichigo was just lonely). But that was just Ichigo's way of saying that he didn't mind having them around all of the time. It was really very flattering, if looked at the right way.

He'd skipped all of that with Rukia, solely because Karin had told him to. Ichigo didn't always do what Karin told him, but he always listened to her, and in this case, she had a point. Rukia was his responsibility, since he'd gotten her into this mess. Naturally, he didn't tell her that. He only said, "You can stay with me until Orihime comes to get you." Ichigo had no idea if Orihime was coming at all, but he hoped she would. He had no idea what to do with a girl that he wasn't related to, or wasn't Tatsuki.

Rukia wasn't stupid, and at the least, she was definitely smarter than Ichigo. Despite her first encounter with him, based on what Orihime had told her, and what she'd seen of his treatment of Tatsuki and his sisters, he was ultimately a gentleman. A loud, awkward one that lacked manners or any sort of refinement, but he meant well. Actually, he was strangely like Renji, and Rukia found herself amused by him in much the same way she was by the redhead. They certainly had a tendency to pick fights with her the same way.

Once they got past the 'bloody kitchen' incident, Ichigo was a little uneasy. He felt like their Hollows had brought them closer together, and wasn't sure how that made him feel. He knew he could trust his, but Rukia's had tried to kill Karin (he had only overlooked that because he knew Rukia had no control over it then, plus Karin had told him to).

"You really need to stop avoiding me, Ichigo," Rukia told him once she noticed his behavior. "I'm not going to bite or stab anymore. You're supposed to be helping me control my Hollow, and she doesn't like it when you're not close by."

Ichigo had stared at her in disbelief. "You're joking, right?"

"No, dummy, I'm not. Something about your presence soothes her. I can tell, because it's the only time when she's not grumpy or complaining."

"So I have to be around you? All of the time?" he asked, frowning.

She rolled her eyes. "Don't worry, it's not as if I LIVE with you or anything," Rukia snorted. "You're lucky. You should be honored that a pretty girl wants to be near you."

"Yeah, well, let me know when one gets here," Ichigo muttered. He knew he deserved the slap that followed, so he didn't try to avoid it, much.

Rangiku had wisely decided that she didn't much feel like being alone after her narrow escape from Aaroniero. She'd spent the rest of the day at Orihime's bedside, thinking of ways to entertain them both. Orihime's condition didn't seem to be improving much, nor was it getting any worse. Fortunately, it wasn't contagious, and Orihime wasn't the type of person to question it when Rangiku asked to stay overnight with her.

Rangiku hadn't told anyone about what had nearly happened to her earlier. She didn't want to worry Orihime, and she also didn't want to be caught out in the open by another Espada (or the same one, for that matter). She knew it was best to report that Gin was dead, but suspected that such news wasn't really considered big or surprising anymore. Also, she didn't think that Aaroniero would bother to take over all of Gin's duties, so surely Kira would notice and assume the worst.

It was well after midnight when someone knocked twice on Orihime's door, and then, after a long pause, knocked once more.

Rangiku instantly reached for her sword, but Orihime stopped her.

"Don't, Ran-chan. It's Nemu."

Rangiku stared at her. "How do you know, Hime?"

"I recognize her spiritual pressure. It isn't quite like anyone else's."

That actually made sense, as Nemu herself was not quite like anyone else. Rangiku was still wary as she opened the door, because she'd never been able to get more than two words out of Nemu, and those were usually "Excuse me," while she was walking away.

Nemu looked the same as she always did, with two glaring exceptions: the zanpakuto she wore on her hip, and the one strapped to her back, which was obviously her father's. "I'm sorry to call on you both so late, but you-"

"How did you know I would be here?" Rangiku demanded, instantly suspicious.

Nemu blinked slowly. "President Kusajishi mentioned that you were close. I assumed you would be here caring for Inoue-san. It is no longer safe to be alone in the Seireitei."

"But you're alone, Nemu-san," Orihime pointed out, sounding worried. "What if something had happened to you?"

"I am not alone," Nemu replied. "I have my father's will."

"Why do you have his zanpakuto? I've never seen him without it," Rangiku noted.

"The Espada killed him."

Rangiku's eyes widened. "Him, too?!"

"Yes. May I come in now?" Nemu asked.

"Of course!" Rangiku quickly pulled her inside and shut the door. "So did you come here just because you wanted company?"

"No. I am on my way to see Captain Unohana. I thought it would be better if you two came along."

Rangiku and Orihime exchanged looks. "But... Orihime can't go anywhere," Rangiku explained. "She needs to rest."

"I will carry her myself," Nemu offered. "She will be safer with us."

"But I just told you that she needs to rest! She's sick!"

"I highly doubt that will matter to the Espada. I must insist that you both come with me, if for no other reason than your own safety."

Rangiku frowned. "And if we do run into the Espada? What then?"

"Then you two will run while I provide a distraction."

"NO!" Orihime shouted, tears in her eyes. "We won't leave you to die, too!"

Nemu just looked at her. "I have no intention of dying. I must avenge my father."

Rangiku shook her head. "But if he couldn't beat the Espada, how can you?"

"I'll find a way. I must."

End of Part 8.

Next Chapter: Do the Fusion Dance!

Nemu has an odd idea about how to use her zanpakuto (both of them). Team IchiRuki does some training. Yuzu gets a sparring partner. Nel and Grimmjow do some growing up. Chad and Hinamori each discover some important info on the Espada. Aizen (both of them) plots more evil.


Hado 54: Haien (Abolishing Flames; Waste Flame in the manga): Fires a blast of purple spiritual energy that will incinerate a target completely when it makes contact. (This is what Tosen uses to destroy Grimmjow's arm after he cuts it off)

Karin is the Japanese word for quince, an Asian fruit related to apples and pears. Karintou is a fried dough cake, sometimes topped with sugar or sesame seeds. It has virtually nothing to do with a quince. Whether Mashiro actually knows that and is being annoying on purpose, or simply thinks it's cute, is open for debate.

As if you couldn't tell, Haineko's appearance is heavily influenced by her most recent appearance in GASP! yet more dreaded filler episodes. Though I have to admit these seem pretty neat so far. I especially love how Ichigo typically tries to help a wounded Rukia by yelling at her. Classic IchiRuki moment!

Yeah, I finally broke down and gave Ichigo a mask. Well, half of one. Even worse, they're a his and hers set, and his has a snowflake on it. Hope you're happy.

So now you have some idea of why the Espada have so many instant overkills when pitted against Captains: they're stupid strong, (in Aaroniero's case) hopped up on shinigami souls, and on top of that, they've done this at least once before. In fact, the only real difference between this case and the manga that I can see is that I chose different top Espada. But if you're thinking that, based on the latest manga chapters, my Espada are WAY too strong... good.

Nemu probably only refers to Yachiru as "Madame President" while on Shinigami Women's Association business, but she seems to take her tasks there so seriously, she might even do so at other times.

Oh, and a quick thanks to Marching Madly Onward for giving me the idea for the first scene!

Rant Time: I will admit that Barragan has the best attacks, like, ever. But beyond that, I can't stand the guy. It figures that the only thing that can do him in, is himself. But it also makes the Captains look really, REALLY bad for keeping their Bankais hidden for so long, only to have them do virtually nothing against the last of the Espada. Heck, even the Vizards are starting to look bad, and that's just not cool, man.