Behind the Collar
Naruto watched with a bored expression as Nnoitra Jiruga once again charged his boss, and was mercilessly put down with minimal effort. The male Espada flew back several meters, landing hard on the white sands and skidding to a halt. Nelliel looked at the rising cloud of dust which signified the eighths passage with a face of stone, her sword, still sheathed held idly in her right hand.
The whiskered blonde was only half interested in the skirmish, it would end like all the others before them had. Nnoitra would strut and boast his superiority, and then he would get his ass handed to him by his master. The Arrancar would whine and roar and threaten as he was driven to the ground time and time again, and through all this Nel would stand with a face of stone and a relaxed posture.
Yugito groaned as she sat beside him, the two Vizard were relaxing on a rock outcropping, and like her friend she was only watching the battle with a passing interest. "This is embarrassing. Why doesn't she just kill him know and be done with it?"
Naruto shrugged, and then smiled. "You know how Nel-sama is. She doesn't kill unless it's absolutely necessary."
Yugito thought about it, before nodding her head. "I know, doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Yeah," Naruto replied, lying on his back to look up at the fake sky of Las Noches. There was an explosion, followed by a smash, followed by a stream of curses. The blonde knew what happened even if he didn't see it. Nnoitra charged, Nel hit him, the lesser Espada flew through the air and collided with one of the cylindrical pillars which were scattered across the desert.
They were in Nel-sama's corner if she needed them. He knew she didn't, but he liked to think she would call them if she needed them. In Nnoitra's corner was his singular Fracción, Tesla, who stood a good distance away from the duelling Espada, himself sitting on the top of a pillar and watching the battle intently. He didn't know Nnoitra's lieutenant all that well, and had no interest in getting to know him while he remained under the Octava's banner.
He also saw the tall, lithe form of the seventh Espada also watching the battle. Like with Rafaela he had a feeling that he knew this man from somewhere, but unlike with his fellow Fracción whom he felt protective off he felt an ominous air every time he saw him. Everything about the man just made the whiskered blonde want to smash his face in.
Another explosion rocked the very ground, and he looked back at the battle to see Nelliel standing tall, not a single piece of her form was dishevelled, while her opponent was lying on the ground, burned, bruised and bloodied. His master sighed, turned around and began walking towards them, slipping her still sheathed Zanpakuto into her sash, with a couple of Sonido's her two Vizard guards blurred into existence, flanking her as she walked.
"Where do you think you're going, Nelliel!" All three turned to see Nnoitra slowly rising to a knee, panting and shaking. "This isn't over yet!"
Nel sighed, "Yes it is. I grow tired of this."
"Don't you dare turn your back on me!" The Octava roared as he tried to stand, but fell back onto a knee when his legs buckled under him. "You think you're so special don't you? Just because Aizen gave you those two Vizard toys you think you're so much better than me."
Both Naruto and Yugito bristled on being referred to as toys, and it was Naruto who turned to Nelliel. "Can I please kill him?"
The Tres Espada looked at him for a moment, and her look immediately told him the answer to his question. She turned again, looking Nnoitra in the eyes as she spoke. "We were born as Hollows, little more than beasts. As Arrancar we have been given back a piece of our humanity, and yet you are so infatuated with the idea of combat and blood that I am ashamed to be of the same species as you."
The Octave scoffed, "Heh, you still believe that 'holier than thou' bullshit. We are still Hollows Nelliel, and we are still monsters!"
"That is your opinion." She replied.
His dismissal only served to anger the Octava more, and with a roar of hatred he screamed at her. "One day you won't have your Vizard pets to protect you Nelliel!"
"With you I don't require their protection," Nel, replied with a sigh, not even turning around when she spoke. "I can take you on by myself."
She vanished in a Sonido a few moments later, her two guardians following suit, leaving an irate Octava and his allies behind.
A light chuckle made the enraged Espada glare up to see his ally of necessity standing over him, looking down upon him with those mirth filled yellow eyes. He hated this man just as much as he hated Nelliel, but Orochimaru also hated her and the enemy of thy enemy. "She is quite powerful. We would be hard pressed to defeat her if we fought her together."
Rafaela was waiting for them as Nelliel and her two Vizard bodyguards appeared on the main balcony of her palace. Nelliel sighed as she stepped from the railing to the marble floor in a smooth gliding step, cracking her shoulder and neck muscles. Naruto and Yugito remained at her side until they were safely within the palace.
"You shouldn't have to put up with him day-in, day-out Nel-chan." Naruto said at last, casting a glare out the balcony.
"I agree," Yugito added with a frown, "All he does is harass you whenever he sees you. It makes me want to rip his head off."
The Tres Espada sighed at her two bodyguards. In the three years since she had taken them in they had only become more and more overprotective of her and her Fracción. "Remain calm, both of you. You know he lacks the power to defeat me. He is little more than an annoyance."
Both Vizard frowned, but nodded their understanding. She knew it wouldn't be the end of it, but for now they would hold their tongues. Nelliel didn't admit it openly, but she was beginning to tire of Nnoitra's antics. It was obvious that he would never back down no matter how many times she defeated him. "Naruto, go and call upon Tia-chan. I require her presence for a moment."
The whiskered blonde nodded his head before turning on his heel and stalked from the room. He marched down the corridors. Mind a mass of twisting emotions. Why did Nel-chan continuously put up with Nnoitra and his challenges? Why did she put up with his taunts? It was glaringly obvious that he couldn't stand her, and he didn't care how strong Nel-chan thought she was. One day Nnoitra would get lucky. He would get a lucky slash and hurt her, and the day he did he would kill him.
Before he knew it he found himself standing before Harribel-san's door and after clearing his throat he brought up his hand and knocked. There was no answer. Naruto waited for a minute or two before knocking again. Again there was no answer. The blonde frowned before pushing the door, surprised when he found it unlocked.
It was dark within, with just the smallest rays of sunlight escaping the drawn blinds. Naruto knew that Harribel had a small assortment of rooms to herself, including a large relaxation chamber along with a handful of personal training and meditation rooms. If she was here then she would be in one of the smaller rooms, and he didn't want to keep Nel-chan waiting long.
He walked into the large chamber of her room, a sparse chamber with nothing more than a couple of opulent white sitting chairs and couches in the centre. The blonde walked slowly into the centre, looking around nervously. Naruto knew that Tia Harribel was a very reserved person who liked her privacy. He never dared enter her chamber before without her expressed permission.
Naruto didn't know why he was entering his sensei's quarters. Well maybe he did. Truth be told Harribel was a person he respected for her ability and strength. However beside all of this he knew very little about her. She mainly kept to herself, and only ever really opened up to Nel-chan, and usually only when they were alone.
"Harribel-san," Naruto spoke up, hoping to get her attention if she was in her chambers. "Nelliel-sama has asked for your presence!"
There was no response, and with a sigh the blonde continued to search for her. Where else would she be instead of her quarters? The main training chambers, perhaps Nel-chan had already found her.
"Harribel-san, are you here!"
He opened a door and stopped, becoming rigid and straight as he found his quarry. Harribel sat cross-legged in the centre of the small meditation chamber, eyes closed and body relaxed. He stood there, eyes wide and mouth gapping open in pure, unadulterated shock.
The zipper of her cut jacket was open, revealing something that Naruto thought he would never see, her face and upper chest. Tia Harribel's lower face was completely covered by the white porcelain like substance of a Hollow mask, two rows of predatory teeth running along the jaw. It continued on down her neck and stretched down to partially cover her considerable chest, ending in two oval shaped plates covering where her nipples would be.
Suddenly her eyes snapped open, pure green orbs starring at him for a moment before widening in shock. Naruto knew he should have run. He should jump out the door, utter apologies and run for his life. But he didn't. He stood there, a dry gulp just audible from his throat.
In a flash she was on her feet, hand shooting up to zip up her jacket and cover her mask. She spoke, her voice was the same stony calm as ever, yet he felt a slight flicker in her spiritual pressure. "Yes, Naruto-san, what do you want?"
He bowed low and spoke in a hurried voice, the words spilling from his mouth. "I apologise for barging in like that Harribel-san, but Nelliel-sama has asked for your presence and you didn't answer the door and the door was open and I-"
He stopped when he saw Harribel walk past him and out of the chamber at a brisk pace, threatening to leave the blonde behind. Quickly Naruto rose and went after her, a single word going off over and over again in his mind, berating himself for his stupidity.
Stupid, stupid, stupid
Naruto hit the ground hard, grimacing as he struck the unforgiving bedrock. Slowly he rose to his knees, taking in huge gulps of air. "Come on Naruto, we're not done yet."
"Yeah, yeah," the blonde growled as he rose to his feet and fell into a basic sword fighting stance, waiting for his Zanpakuto to come at him. Kazerasshu did so without hesitation, his face of stone and his eyes cold as ice as he began with a horizontal slash. The blonde was just able to parry, and counter with a handful of stabs of his own, all expertly intercepted.
A foot collided with his stomach, forcing the wind from his lungs and sending him flying through the air, landing harshly on the desert sands. Naruto slowly rose, taking in another huge gulp before glaring at his Zanpakuto. That glare turned to surprise, "Oh crap."
"Hado Sanjuusan; Sokatsui (Way of Destruction 33; Blue Fire, Crash Down)"
He had no time to perform a counter, and so the blonde blurred away, reappearing with a grateful sigh just out of the spells range. Naruto broke out into a run, speeding towards his opponent at blurring speeds, "Ten no Kaze."
He fired two low powered wind blades at his opponent to keep him off balance, and jumping into the air brought the huge blade down on him with everything he had. The resultant explosion created a small crater in the dune, kicking up sand in such density that it created a mist. Kazerasshu blocked him, one handed, a smile on his face. "You are improving, Ten no Arashi."
He blurred away just as a small tornado encircled his Zanpakuto, sending even more sand into the air. Naruto landed several meters away, skidding to a halt and waited for the defensive technique to end. Kazerasshu didn't give it time and exploded from the dying winds, blade glowing a soft blue as he prepared a mid level Ten no Kaze.
Naruto countered with his own wind blade, and the two met in the centre, causing an explosion of lashing wind and flying sand. His Zanpakuto exploded from the dust right before him, and ignoring his wielders shocked expression lashed out with another Ten no Kaze, this time at point blank range. The blonde flew from the sand plume, landing hard on his back and rolling uncontrollably down the steep dune. He regained his footing, skidding a hundred and eighty degrees so he was facing Kazerasshu again.
He knew that his Zanpakuto was going to up the tempo of their training sessions. Kazerasshu had explained to Naruto that he believed the blonde was ready to begin training in the second and final release stage. He had heard of Bankai, and knew deep down that it was the ultimate power of a Shinigami. It had taken several more sessions before he was able to pull his spirit to the material plain, and he was only physically able to keep him here for an hour a day.
The moment he had completed his task Kazerasshu had come at him, again and again. These were not like the ones in his inner world. These were gruelling, physically exhausting matches of skill and power. More than once he had found himself on the receiving end of an attack which was more than capable of killing him.
Suddenly his Zanpakuto stopped in midstride, eyes turning to scan the dunes beyond. "What is it?"
"We appear to have company."
Naruto followed Kazerasshu's gaze, and saw her walking down the dune towards them. Tia Harribel descended the dune with a gliding step in her movements that spoke volumes of her grace and experience. The blonde frowned as she approached, stopped a few meters from the two of them and eyed Kazerasshu curiously for a moment, "The spirit of your Zanpakuto?"
"Yea," Naruto replied, noticing the sword in Kazerasshu's hand vanish from his hand.
"We will continue this same time tomorrow, Naruto," his Zankakuto said, turning to him, "It appears she wishes to discuss something of importance with you."
"Gee, ya think?" Naruto replied chidingly, but frowned when he saw his sword disappear like a ghost in the night. Great, not even his Zanpakuto was willing to help him out of trouble, the traitor. He looked over at Harribel, who stood tall and imposing with her arms folded under her impressive bust. "Look, um, sorry for barging into your quarters like that earlier. But I did knock."
She said nothing, didn't even move an inch. This continued for a handful of seconds, and it was just the tiniest flicker of movement, but Naruto saw it, indecision in her usual stoic gaze. Finally after what seemed like an eternity of internal struggle she reached up with her gloved white hand, and pulled down the zipper on her jacket. Naruto was unable to tear his eyes away as she bared the remnants of her Hollow mask to him.
She hesitated for a moment, before she spoke, "this is the reason why I wear the high collar. This is the remnants of my Hollow mask. Does it scare you?"
"Are you kidding?" his words caught her off guard and she looked up into her fellow blondes brilliant azure eyes, he was grinning sheepishly as he spoke, "I've always respected you because you were my sensei, and a powerful warrior in your own right. I think it looks awesome."
"Awesome," she replied slowly, eyes slightly wide as she spoke. Harribel had been called many things in her long life, but awesome was not one of them.
"Yeah, it looks so cool," Naruto exclaimed with a smile. He suddenly looked thoughtful, "Besides I like your mask, gives you a more mysterious beauty about you."
Harribel was an Arrancar who had trained herself to never let her emotions become noticeably visible, only a select few people could see her without her public mask, so she settled for a small nod, "Thank you, Naruto."
"Ah don't thank me," Naruto replied with a sweep of his hand, grin firmly in place, "Don't thank me, just keep looking drop dead gorgeous and I'll call it even. Hehehe…um, I was just kidding Harribel-sama, honest."
Harribel let the slight release of killer intent ease. She had not taken offense to his flirting; in fact she found it very flattering. "Of course you were."
Yugito appeared in a blur, looking around for a few moments before settling her gaze on them. Her eyes widened when she took in Harribel's open jacket and she tilted her head to the side in curiosity. The Arrancar caught on when she looked down, and in a quick motion zipped her jacket back up to the collar.
"So that's why you wear the collar," the female Vizard said, mainly to herself, "It looks really cool."
Naruto sighed as he walked forward, gaining his friend and confidantes attention, "Can't you just let me know when you approach instead of suppressing your spirit energy like that."
Yugito smiled triumphantly, "So you couldn't sense me coming huh? Nel-chan was right. My control is second to none."
"Only in your head Yu-chan," Naruto replied teasingly, earning him a raspberry, "So what's the word?"
"Aizen-sama has called for us."
Both looked up at the high backed white throne, watching as Aizen looked down upon them with a slightly mirth filled gaze. The Vizard were completely focused on him, azure and almond orbs giving him their complete and undivided attention. The Shinigami rose from his throne and walked down the steps in gliding strides, his eyes not leaving theirs.
Naruto spoke first, his voice completely serious, "Where?"
"In the canyon of the Crescent moon, some ten thousand kilometres from the fortress," Aizen replied without hesitation, his steps echoing through the chamber as he descended to their level, "This information came at a fairly high price, he killed the entire search team, the last survivor was just able to send the distress signal before his head was separated from his shoulders. Its power is great, and by its spiritual signature it can only be a Jinchuriki."
"You want us to go, confront him, or her and see if this Jinchuriki can be recruited." Yugito said, her face that of stone and her voice crisp and clear.
"That is correct," Aizen replied with a mirth filled gaze, "It was as you said Naruto-kun, only a Jinchuriki can hope to understand another Jinchuriki."
Both looked at each other, before settling their gazes back to the Shinigami, "When do you want us to leave?"
"Immediately," their commander replied, now standing three steps up from them, "Assemble whoever you wish."
"I would like to volunteer, Aizen-sama," Harribel spoke up from her spot, leaning against the wall at the far side of the throne room.
"As would I," Rafaela added.
"They will need an Espada for backup, so I will accompany them," Nelliel said.
Aizen looked at the three Arrancar in turn, before returning his gaze to the Vizard, "Well?"
"We trust no one else," Naruto answered with a shrug.
"Very well then,"
The Canyon of the Crescent Moon was not an uncommon creation, a rip in the eternal desert which gave access to the underground Forest of Menos. Huge deadened trunks reached up from the base, ending in flattened stumps which roughly ended at the ridges of the gorge. Down below was a world of nightmares, but where the cries of various Hollow were a common occurrence now there was nothing but an eerie silence.
There was nothing within the canyon, not a single Hollow could be felt or heard in its enshrouded depths. The silence was broken by a monumental chorus of roars strong enough to shake the very ground. Loose rock was jarred free from the ridges and canyon walls, falling with a series of near deafening crashes.
"There's definitely something down there."
Naruto looked at his fellow Vizard with a nod, before peering over the ridge once again. They had made good time in reaching this place, only taking a few hours to traverse the full ten thousand kilometres between the fortress and the canyon. Nelliel, Harribel and Rafaela were directly behind them, allowing the two to converse. "I sense two presences down there, definitely high up on the strength scale."
Yugito nodded, "That's what I sense too."
"It would appear that our intel wasn't quite as reliable as we thought." Nelliel spoke up at last, coming beside the two and kneeling down, eyes keenly observing the enshrouded darkness below them. "Our scout confirmed one."
"Well now we have two."
Harribel turned to Rafaela, "You have better sensory abilities than anyone, what do you see?"
The younger Arrancar closed her eyes, and Naruto could feel her rietsu expand around her, becoming long tendrils of spiritual pressure which stretched out. After a moment she opened her eyes, "Two of them. Their power is definitely in line with high level Menos, and they have the feel of Jinchuriki about them."
Naruto and Yugito nodded, before the two of them moved. In unison they raised their right hands and ghosted them across their faces, allowing their Hollow masks to appear in a mesh of shard like spirit particles, giving them the appearances of a cat and a fox. The new appearances seemed more like the actual animals than the demonic visages that Nelliel remembered, and she idly wondered if this was proof that they now had complete control over their Hollow forms.
The two looked at each other one last time, before stepping over the ledge and falling towards the darkness below. They fell the full three hundred feet, landed and began walking as if they had just stepped down a single step. In a flash Nelliel, Harribel and Rafaela were behind them, easily keeping step with the Vizard as they walked through the eerie silence of the forest.
Finally they came to the centre of the canyon, and looked on at the sight. It was a small mountain of bodies and carcases, blood oozing at the base, staining the usually drab gray ground vermillion. There were hundreds upon hundreds of dead Hollows, along with the mutilated remains of the twenty Arrancar that consisted of the scouting team.
Together both Naruto and Yugito drew their Zanpakuto, followed by the members of their little expeditionary force. They formed into a circle, back to back, waiting for the inevitable appearance of their targets. They didn't have to wait long.
A single clawed fist, three fingers ending in wicked black claws landed on the top of the pile, and pulled, dragging smears of blood and skin. The creature reared its head, a nightmarish visage which seemed like a cross between a bear and a dog. Naruto took in a breath. He had seen this creature before. He knew this creature. Its body may be slimmer, its skin may now be white carapace with dark blue markings, but he knew this creature.
"Ichibi no Shukaku," he whispered, before frowning. How could he possibly know something like that?
The huge head of the sand beast lifted to face him, and slowly opened its mouth, revealing an eternal dark abyss within. A crimson orb appeared just a few inches in front of its jaws, pulsing and spraying rays of deadly light. The Shukaku glared at the invaders, before firing with a great roar.
Author's Note 1: Sorry this took so long guys, I had a lot of stuff to do between the last update and this one. I've just started my final year of university, which means a hell of a lot of extra work, but I should still be able to continue on with my hobby. The main problem is too many stories to write, I've overstretched myself a little.
Author's Note 2: This chapter was mainly a character building piece, something that I felt would be important for the future of this story, so for those of you who are getting bored don't worry I'm about to get back to the main story.
Hope you all enjoyed the chapter, and sorry again that it took so long.