Rangiku stood on the sidewalk of the busy Tokyo street and looked way up at the ten-story hotel building. Around her gathered the other thirty-one contestants. Eyes wide, she looked down at Momo.
"This looks like the place," the strawberry-blonde said with a sigh.
Momo nodded, trying to keep out of Kuukaku's way as the busty dark-haired woman leaned closer, squinting through the brass and glass double doors.
"I, I guess. It looks --"
"Let's go in." Kuukaku heaved her travel bag up on her shoulder better.
"I just want to say, before we all go in," Retsu said from behind the large group of women and girls, "good luck to all of you. I think you're all beautiful!"
"Oh, thank you!" Yoruichi said, nudging Soifon, grinning.
"You bet!" Yachiru chirped. "You, too!" She tugged on Nanao's robe sleeve. "Aren't we?"
"Oh, yes. Everyone has a chance," Nanao agreed.
"Except them." Hiyori said it.
Nine black-robed figures turned to look at the eighteen white-clad group of assorted female Arrancar standing nearby.
"Hey, we've got just a good a chance at becoming The Next Top Model as any shinigami!" Halibel hooted, putting her hands on her hips and standing straighter to see over Nell and Milarose.
"Even better!" Apache added.
"I think they've got a chance." A small timid voice from among the black-robed group.
They all turned to look at Orihime, dressed in her school uniform.
"You're outnumbered," Yachiru said to the Living Girl. "Better watch it, chubby-chest."
Rangiku, Yoruichi, and Retsu looked to the small girl.
"Oops," Yachiru said. Orihime's cheeks colored.
Kuukaku pushed the door open. "Let's go!"
Shinigami, Arrancar, and a few Living females flooded the hotel lobby, mumbling and jostling, shoving and grouching at each other. Across the lobby Jay Manuel and Miss Jay Alexander stood speechless in their white-black piping lined tuxedoes.
Jay turned to Miss Jay. "Holy meard, we're in trouble, Miss Jay. Where did Tyra find these contestants?"
"Don't look at me, sista," the ambiguous runway trainer mumbled, shaking his double afro until the glitter sprinkled out. "Some of 'em are stack-ed."
Jay put on his best plastic smile. "Showtime." He raised his hands as the thirty-two contestants swarmed the lobby, congregating before them.
"Hallo! I see you've all got the memo about the black and white dress. Perfect. Love it. Sheik and somehow ..." he frowned over the shinigami robes and tailored white Arrancar outfits "... redundant. Well. Hey," he pointed to Milarose, "love the bustier. Tawdry but tough. Makes a statement."
Milarose cocked her head to one side. "You haven't seen anything yet."
Miss Jay did a double take at the Arrancar's hole below her top. "Is that a hole?"
Jay shook his head. "Just a lighting trick. Just a gimmick to make her stand out."
Miss Jay shrugged. "It's working."
Jay waved a hand over to another direction where Orihime, Tatsuki, and Chizuru were standing. "Are you girls lost? This is a closed set."
Orihime frowned. "Oh, well..."
Tatsuki glared at him. "What's that supposed to mean? You don't think we're pretty enough to be The Next Top Model?"
"Ooh, attitude. Spunky."
Miss Jay nodded, more glitter fell. "You say it, honey!"
"Okay, stay, stay." Jay looked out over the pack of shinigami, Arrancar, and a few other contestants. "Welcome! You're the final thirty-two finalists from the four thousand entrants to The Next Top Model! I'm Jay Manuel. I'll be your photo shoot director. To my right, as you all know, is Miss Jay, runway trainer and member of the judging panel. Today you're going to be narrowed down to twenty, and from there to the final fourteen that will go on to compete for the grand prize."
"Where's Tyra?" Hiyori yelled.
"Tyra will be along a little later," Miss Jay said, batting his thick eyelashes. "You just wait, honey."
"I'm not honey," Hiyori mumbled.
"You're all going into the conference room," Jay said, "and from there you'll go in one at a time before the judges to show us a little about yourself. So head on in there now, and we'll see how you walk and learn a little about you."
The contestants invaded the conference room where two long tables were set up with catered finger food and drinks, separating into groups of black and white, with Orihime and Tatsuki tagging along after the shinigami.
"Oh, my favorite!" Orihime said, grabbing a plate.
Tatsuki surveyed the tables decked with platters of food. "What is?"
"All of it."
A third school uniform joined them, and Tatsuki intervened before Chizuru could glomp on Orihime.
"Back off, tart!" Tatsuki said, keeping the bespectacled classmate at a distance.
"Ooh, we get to room together," Chizuru said gleefully to Orihime, ignoring Tatsuki. "Like a big slumber party!"
"You won't make it," Tatsuki growled.
Across the table Rukia was loading her own plate, trying to ignore Yachiru's pink head that kept bumping into her plate. She wove around the hyperactive girl to the next table.
"No sweets?" the girl asked. "What kind of a lame buffet is this?" She turned to the figure behind her now. "Did you bring any candy from the barracks?" Before she got an answer she looked to Ururu moving along the opposite side of the table. "Got any candy on you?"
The side door broke open and twenty-two of the contestants reached for their swords before they remembered they were unarmed. Jay entered and waved his hands to get their attention.
"Ladies, ladies, can I get your attention, please," he said, smile in place. "We have a few preliminaries to get out of the way before we begin the judges interviews." A look of confusion crossed his face. "I'm not sure what this means, we've never had these stipulations before, but," he pulled a paper from his tuxedo pocket and looked at it, "here goes, ladies. For this competition there will be no going bankai. There will be no kidou spells allowed. All reiatsu must be kept under control at all times."
He frowned. "Reiatsu. I don't know what that means, ladies, but I like the sound of the word. Oh, and shinigami and Arrancar will set aside their differences in the interest of fair play." He looked up from the paper at them. "I hope you ladies know what that means, because I have no idea."
"Get on with it," Nell called to him.
"Right. Okay then. We'll call you all in one at a time to meet with the judges," he said. "You'll be telling us a little about yourself, and giving us a walk. After that the judges will be deciding on the twenty contestants that will move on to the photo shoot." He flashes a big smile. "Let's see what you got!"
"Ooh, it's so exciting!" Apache squealed, shooting a belittling glare over the shinigami at the other table.
"First up," Jay said, looking at his list, "is Retsu." Looks out over the room. "Let's go!"
Retsu gave the other contestants a glimmer of a smile, and exited the room with Jay.
Orihime turned to Tatsuki. "Oh, I hope we do good."
Tatsuki watched her friend add another rice ball to her plate. "I don't want to be here."
"Thanks for coming with me. I never could do it by myself."
Chizuru leaned closer to them. "You have me, Orihime."
Tatsuki maneuvered between them. "Break it up, Chizuru."
In the next room over, a narrow red carpet runner was unrolled to end at a long table draped with white material, behind which sat Miss Jay, Tyra Banks -- a size svelte -- in all her shimmery chiffon pink finery, and Nigel Barker. The door opened and Retsu stepped in warily.
"The bearded lady," Miss Jay said out of the corner of his mouth.
Tyra waved Retsu in enthusiastically. "Come on in, girl. Don't be shy!"
Retsu smiled and approached the table, stopped at the end of the red carpet and smiled bigger. "I'm Retsu, Captain of the Fourth, skilled in -- well, you don't need to know that."
Tyra made a pout and lifted an eyebrow. "Okay, Retsu, you've got that classic look, oval face, excellent complexion, but I have to say you're one of the more..." Tyra pursed her lips "mature contestants we've had."
Retsu fixed her glare on the super model. "Is that a problem?"
Tyra shook her head vigorously. "No, no. Not a problem. Let's see your walk."
Retsu turned on her heel, walked briskly back down the carpet and back to them, robes swishing, one hip angling out as she rested her hand on it, flashing a smile.
"Hmm, the hair," Nigel said, "can you take out the braid and let us see what you have?"
Retsu frowned, and then unplaited the braid and swung her dark hair over her shoulder. "Better?"
"Oh, much," Tyra said. "Okay, thank you, Retsu. Can you please send in Nell?"
"I'll send her in." Retsu turned and exited the room.
Miss Jay looked to Nigel. "Much better without the beard."
They looked up as Nell appeared in the doorway wearing a form fitting fern green satin dress and proceeded to trounce and bounce down the carpeted runaway. She stopped before the table, cocked her head to one side, and gave them a daring smile.
"I'm Nell, the most talented one in this competition," she said smoothly, her smile turning crooked at Nigel's look of appreciation. "I'm formerly from Hueco Mundo, but have been getting along just fine without that pack lately. What do you want to see?"
Tyra's eyes narrowed at the woman.
Nigel cleared his throat. "I think we've seen your walk. Give us a turn."
Nell turned, whipping her green hair around as she did, eyes glinting at the judges. "What else?"
"Well, uh..." Nigel looked to Miss Jay, who was staring dumbfounded at the contestant. "Miss Jay?"
"You've got the goods, girl," Miss Jay said. "Maybe even extra goods."
Tyra forced a smile. "That's all, Nell. Can you send in Yachiru?"
Nell gave them a parting smile and strode out of the room.
Tyra looked sharply at Nigel. "Recovered yet, Nigel?"
Nigel nodded numbly. "I'm getting there. That's quite some package she's got there."
Bang, bang, bang!
They all looked to where Yachiru was eye level with the table, her small fist pounding on it for attention.
Tyra smiled at her. "Well, hello, there. Are you Yachiru?"
"Yes. I'm Kenny's lieutenant." She stood akimbo, both hands balled into fists, pink hair bobbing as she nodded. "Am I in? Do I win?"
Tyra studied the girl, and then looked through her stack of papers. "Are you sure you're old enough for this competition, young lady?"
"Kenny checked the 'yes' box," Yachiru said, hopping onto the table and pointing at the form before Tyra. "See. There."
Tyra nodded, sitting back in her chair. "Okay. Well, I guess you're done here. Send Milarose in, will you, sweetie?"
"Hmph." Yachiru jumped off the table. "I guess so."
Tyra looked to Miss Jay as the pink-haired girl left. "I've never seen contestants like this before, Miss Jay."
He nodded. "We could be in trouble."
They looked up as Milarose strode purposefully down the red carpet. She reached the end of it, did a side step and set one hand on her hip. "I'm Milarose, a fra -- Espada Number One, Aizen's favorite. I enjoy cosplay, sword fights, and long walks in the sand."
Nigel frowned. "You mean beach."
"What's a beach?"
He shook his head. "You have a hole in your torso."
"Oh, well, Aizen likes it, so it stays."
The judges stare at her.
"I applaud your courage for not letting it keep you from..." Tyra frowned, and then asked gently, "Would it get in the way of the competition?"
Milarose shook her head. "Why would it?"
Miss Jay squinted at the hole. "Can you shoot around that, Nigel?"
Tyra sighed. "Thank you, Milarose. Please send in Yumichika."
Milarose frowned at them and left the room.
In the conference room, where the contestants were happily munching on the food, Milarose grabbed the nearest chair and banged it on the floor until everyone looked her way.
"Yumichika! You're next!"
Rangiku looked to the man across the table from her. "Hey! You can't be here!"
He frowned at her. "Why not? It's all about beauty; not gender."
She leaned over the table, nearly making him dump his plate of food. "Does your captain know you're here?"
A flicker of trepidation passed over Yumichika's face. "I was told to escort Yachiru to the competition."
Rangiku stood straighter and crossed her arms, making her bosom expand. "Were you told to stay?"
Yumichika scowled. "My turn before the judges."
Two minutes later the three judges were still assessing Yumichika's assets. They each looked at him carefully. Miss Jay nodded, Tyra wore her best all-encompassing-acceptance look, and Nigel looked pained.
"I think it's brave of you to embrace your true self, Yumichika," Tyra said breathily. "You've got a strong sense of purpose, commitment to your inner beauty, and I love the feather!"
Yumichika beamed. "Why, thank you, Miss Banks."
"Oh, call me Tyra!" She giggled.
"Don't let those other girls give you a hard time. Crossing over is one of the most thrilling, frightening times of your life," Miss Jay said, flipping a hand at him and winking. "You'll do fine.
"Crossing ... over..." Yumichika looked confused. "Oh, I've been here before, but --"
"Don't let anyone tell you no, girl," Miss Jay said. "You look fab-u-lous!"
Yumichika nodded, smiling.
"Love your style," Tyra told him. "Send in Nemu, please."
When Yumichika had left the room, Tyra turned to Miss Jay. "Now that girl will add drama to the show! Not much of a walk, but the flair she has about her -- mm, mm, mm!"
Nemu came in next and approached the table, waiting silently when she reached the end of the red carpet.
Tyra looked at her. "You're Nemu, honey?"
Nigel studied her closely. "She's got the short-skirt-long-jacket look down to a tee. Can you open up that top button, Nemu?"
Nemu undid the top button of her black fitted shihakusho.
"Can you give us a walk?" Nigel asked.
"What would you like?"
"Just walk back the way you came, and then turn around and come back."
Nemu pivoted and walked away.
"A little more bounce, Nemu," Nigel called after her.
Neum's hips swished from side to side as she walked. She turned on her heel and walked back to them.
"Can you make it more forceful?" Nigel asked when she was halfway.
Nemu put a snap in her step, halting abruptly before them.
Nigel blinked with surprise.
"Very well done," Tyra said. "Can you give us a piercing look, as if you were going to shoot daggers from your eyes?"
Nemu looked to her. "Do you want actual daggers?"
Tyra laughed. "No...no."
Nemu struck a stabbing expression, making Miss Jay sit back.
"Very good," Nigel said, nodding. "You take direction well, Nemu. Very strong. Thank you."
Tyra smiled at her. "Thank you, Nemu. Can you please send in Rangiku?"
A moment later Rangiku filled the doorway. She smiled at the judges, and did a quick walk down the red carpet, hips swishing, pausing at the end of the runner. She did her turn, hair flipping as she moved, and settled a disarming smile on the judges.
"I'm Rangiku, from Tenth Division. Nice to meet you."
"Well, yes..." Nigel said.
Tyra lifted one eyebrow. "Very powerful walk you've got there, Rangiku." She looked to Miss Jay. "Doesn't she, Miss Jay?"
"Hmm? Lord, honey, I think I just went straight." The flaccidness dropped from his slack face and Miss Jay smiled widely at Rangiku. "What's on the pendant?"
Rangiku tugged on the chain at her throat, but the pendant remained lodged -- as always. She bobbed her head. "Secrets."
"Okay, well..." Nigel looked at Tyra's notes on the table. "Very good, Rangiku. Tyra?"
"Oh. Good walk. Can you send in Halibel?" Tyra smiled, one eye twitching.
"Sure." Rangiku threw them a flirty smile and turned, hips swaying like a pendulum as she exited the room.
Nigel nearly drooled, but remembered himself.
Tyra drummed her fingers on the table. "Some of these contestants are waaay beyond statuesque."
"Like amazons," Miss Jay said, nodding.
The door broke open as Halibel nearly threw it off its hinges. She stormed down the red carpet, stopped before the table, her belittling stare on the three judges.
"I'm Halibel, Espada Number One, Aizen's favorite," she said briskly. "And I'm going to win this competition."
Tyra looked through her papers. "We've already seen the Espada Number One."
Halibel glared at them. "Who? Who?!"
"Uh ... well..." Tyra didn't try too hard to find Milarose's form.
"You're nearly dressed, girl," Miss Jay said, waving a limp wrist. "I think the censors would eat us for lunch."
Nigel pointed at Halibel. "Let's see a turn."
Halibel did a perfectly executed turn, peeking at them from above her collar. "Am I in?"
Nigel nodded, but Tyra answered. "We're still narrowing down the twenty contestants for the photo shoot. Can you please send in Rukia?"
Halibel rolled her eyes. "I guess."
Twenty minutes later the judges' interviews were over and Jay Manuel appeared in the conference room doorway where the thirty-two contestant hopefuls were still eating at the catered tables.
"Ladies, ladies!" he said, waving his hands, grinning. "We've got our twenty contestants! I'll call out the names of the girls who will be moving on to the photo shoot. From there we'll be deciding on the final fourteen contestants who will remain in the running for The Next Top Model!"
Apache looked to Sunsun. "We're all in."
Sunsun nodded. Ururu didn't look very confident.
Jay looked at the list in his hand. "Nemu! Apache! Yachiru! Orihime! Rukia --"
Milarose sent a dark look across the room at the shinigami at the other table. "No way!"
"-- Tatsuki! Kuukaku!" Jay continued. "Nanao! Milarose! Yoruichi! Soifon --"
"Me next!" Mashiro yelled.
"-- Momo! Retsu! Mashiro! Rangiku!" Jay said, smiling out over the angry and happy faces in the room. "Nell! Yumichika!"
"This is rigged!" Halibel bellowed at him.
"-- Sunsun! Halibel and Hiyori!"
Jay pushed his smile back into place. "If I've called your name, please go through those doors," he said, pointing to a set of doors at one end of the room. "There you'll have your photo shoot, and we'll decide on the final fourteen contestants. The rest of you ladies can find your bags and take your leave."
Orihime jumped up and down, waving her hands at Tatsuki. "We're in! We're in!"
Chizuru looked at them, eyes brimming with tears behind her glasses. "I don't want to leave you, Orihime!"
"Ha! Catch ya later," Tatsuki said. She turned to Orihime. "Let's go."
After the photo shoot, Tyra, Miss Jay, and Jay Manuel congregated at a table in the smaller of the conference rooms to judge the photos of the remaining twenty contestants.
Tyra held up a photo of Rangiku. "We have no idea what some of these girls' legs look like."
Miss Jay made a circling motion with his finger at the photo. "Honey, with a stack like that no one's going to notice if she has legs or not."
Jay held up photos of Momo and Rukia. "And then we have these."
Tyra shrugged, batting her eyes. "Girl next door. I've seen it a million times, Jay. Dark, somber look gets the job done."
Miss Jay held up a photo of Nemu. "Perfect symmetry. Takes direction better than any of them."
Tyra spread the other photos out on the table before them. She tapped the one of Kuukaku. "One arm. She gets our physically-challenged-I-am-not-a-victim vote."
Jay nodded and pointed at the photo of Hiyori. "Perky Pippi Longstocking meets Orphan Annie."
Miss Jay nodded to Yumichika's photo. "She's in. Cultural clash meets self-realization."
Tyra held up the photo of Nanao. "The photographer said she is to leave her glasses on at all times. Just a precaution."
Jay pointed to the photo of Soifon. "Ethnic."
Miss Jay pointed to the photo of Yoruichi. "Exotic. Absolutely feline. Did you see her walk?"
Tyra nodded, pushing a few of the photos away. "How can we have five Number One Espadas?"
Miss Jay arched an eyebrow. "And they're all Aizen's favorite? Something wrong there, honey."
Tyra put her hands carefully on the pile of photos, a wistful expression on her face. "Have we come to our decisions?"
Both Jays nodded.
"You are sooo out of here," Milarose grumbled to Yumichika across the table in the conference room.
Yumichika shrugged. "It's a beauty contest, and I am beautiful."
Apache wrinkled up her nose at him. "Prissy."
"Sand maggot!" Yachiru added with a giggle at Apache.
Apache's eyes narrowed at the girl. "You little --"
"Ladies! Can I have your attention?" Jay Manuel said as he appeared at the doorway, waving and smiling at them. "We're going to announce the fourteen contestants that will be moving on to the final rounds!"
A chorus of squeals went through the twenty contestants.
Jay waved down the noise. "If you'll look to the wall over there," he pointed to the large white wall that had two rows of seven squares measuring two feet by one foot, "you'll see photos of our finalists!"
The contestants all looked to what appeared to be a puzzle wall out of Wheel of Fortune.
"If you don't see your photo," Jay said, still wearing his smile, "you're to leave the room and find the bus home. Okay? Let's see the first photo!"
One by one the photos appeared on the squares.
Momo, Retsu, Nemu, Yachiru, Orihime, Rukia, Tatsuki, Kuukaku, Nanao, Yoruichi, Soifon, Rangiku, Yumichika, and Hiyori all squealed. Well, actually Nemu just smiled really big.
Apache, Milarose, Sunsun, Halibel, Nell, and Mashiro all glared at Jay. Feeling his safety slipping, Jay pointed to the door quickly.
"Aizen is outside!"
The six contestants not in the finals herded out the doors, with Mashiro being caught up in the crowd. Suddenly Tyra burst through the door behind Jay and threw her hands into the air, squealing.
"Where are my finalists?!"
The contestants all squealed in response.
Tyra jumped up and down, her tight pink chiffon dress making her look like a mermaid. "Oh, you're all the best! This is going to be the most fabulous season yet! I picked you all because you're all so very special -- each and every one of you!"
The finalists cheer, congratulating one another.
"Now," Tyra said, smiling over them, "on to the house!"