Disclaimer: Creator Tite Kubo owns the manga and anime Bleach and its characters. No offense or infringement is intended.

Author's Note: Sorry for the tardiness in posting any new stuff, but as we all know in the working world you write when you can. Then there's also the matter of being inspired- this story was supposed to be a small chapter in what will now probably be the sequel. It sort of took on a life of its own, so I rolled with it. Here's hoping you guys like it!

This one is set roughly after Orihime's return to the human world following her rescue from Hueco Mundo- and since I'm not familiar with the actual story line there it's probably diverging in a major way. And don't be fooled- the story is heavily centered on the relationship between Tatsuki and Ichigo. So without further ado- on with the first chapter!


Chapter 1

Karakura High School, 2:45pm


The final bell of the day sounded. Amidst the rush of fleeing students, two teenaged boys hung back in an inconspicuous corner, waiting. Once they spotted their target, they bee-lined down the emptying hallway over to a set of lockers, warily eyeing any lingering stragglers. Closing in like sentinels, the two surrounded a young girl still stowing her books. Sensing their presence, she turned to face them, uncertainty in her eyes.

"What?" Tatsuki demanded with more than a hint of annoyance in her voice.

Keigo and Mizuiro eyed each other knowingly, fighting the urge to retreat at the gruff greeting. The louder of the two decided to break the silence, "So… any news? Did they, you know… say anything?"

They guessed the answer when her expression soured. "What do you think?" She huffed audibly then raised an eyebrow at them, "What about you guys? Anything?"

Two pairs of eyes instantly sought their owner's shoes. Tatsuki just sighed. "Whatever…" She went back to shoving books in her locker.

Mizuiro piped up, "You know, they've only been back for a couple of weeks. M-maybe they're just waiting for the right time…"

Keigo winced as Tatsuki's shoulders stiffen. Suddenly she slung her last book into the locker and slammed the door with a resounding crash. She circled on the startled pair, "And just when would that be, huh?! When those things start showing up again?! When they start snacking on us like bonbons?!! When we're all good and dead?!?"

Mizuiro snapped his mouth shut while Keigo raised his hands in surrender, "Hey, we're on the same side here. It's just that the shop-keeper said-"

She interrupted him, her glare hard, "-Patience. I know. I've tried… but in case you haven't noticed, I don't really do patience."

The quieter boy nodded his agreement, "We understand your frustration, Tatsuki, but… we all promised…"

Tatsuki simply nodded, averting her eyes, "Yeah, yeah. I know. Don't worry." Mizuiro breathed a silent sigh of relief as Tatsuki hefted her backpack onto her shoulder. As she trudged down the now-vacant hallway, the two boys fell in step behind her.


From a dark doorway down the other end of the hall, a tall figure silently watched the group as they departed, his eyes honed on the retreating form of the girl. He'd been too far to hear much more than the slam of the locker and her yelling, but he could guess at least part of their conversation. He fought the urge to follow them.

A voice over his shoulder startled him a little, "You can't tell them. It would put them in too much danger."

The brooding teen turned to face the visitor, "I know, Rukia. But you don't understand- they're my friends. And I have a hunch they know something anyway… It just… it feels like a betrayal."

The petite Shinigami fixed hard eyes on the teen, "Their safety lies in your silence. It's not worth the risk."

Ichigo scowled but nodded once. The two left without another word.


Elsewhere, at around the same time- Las Noches, Hueco Mundo


In a dark laboratory beneath the castle, a lone figure stood hunched over a clear crystal pedestal filled with an eerie glowing liquid. Floating deep within the shimmering pool was a large lidless eye, its blood vessels and large optic nerve connecting the organ to the bowl's base. From its brilliant red iris, rays of light projected up to the underside of the pool's smooth fluid surface, creating images and scenes from a world beyond.

The loud echo of approaching footsteps and a massive flux in the energy of the air around him caused the flawless clone of Szayel Aporro Granz to stand from his perch, only to bow low to his approaching master so that only the crown of his pale pink coif showed, "Lord Aizen, I was just about to send word of my progress-"

The former Gotei 13 Captain smiled easily, interrupting, "Szayel, with your industriousness I assumed it was only a matter of time before you would achieve the tasks set before you- I believe I anticipated your readiness." Aizen waited for the sinister scientist to raise his head before continuing, "This most recent battle has thinned our numbers far greater than anticipated; admittedly those humans and their Soul Society allies took quite a toll on our numbers…" His voice trailed off, the names of his numerous fallen soldiers pointedly remaining unspoken.

Making his way casually over to the crystal vessel, the robed lord continued in a new breath, "Despite such unfortunate setbacks our ultimate goals remain unchanged. We have now been afforded opportunities to explore newer, more creative options…" Aizen peered down into the swirling images cast upon the surface, "I trust your explorations have been… productive."

From behind his master the analytical Espada nodded, white gloved fingertips unconsciously finding the rim of his bony spectacles, "Indeed, Lord Aizen. I was just preparing to inform you of several potential prospects." Touching the edge of the pedestal, Szayel tapped out a pattern onto the side of the crystal, changing the scenes displayed across the liquid's surface, "I have recorded the images here- three subjects in total. After applying my own calculations to the initial specifications and predictions you expressed, it was ultimately quite easy to locate and isolate each one…"

Aizen watched the glowing images take shape within the reflective pool, his curiosity piqued; the corner of his lip tightened in a tell-tale curl of appreciation. Still his tone remained distant, even a touch doubtful, "And you are sure?"

At that the cloned Szayel allowed himself an amused smile before responding, "The readings and calculations are indisputable, sir. You are looking at only those with the highest recorded values aside from those previously identified; there would be very little time left before any of them manifested- only months, perhaps weeks."

Breaking his gaze, Aizen turned to give the scientist his full eye contact. "Good work, Szayel. I knew I could count on your genius and ingenuity."

"Thank you, my lord," the Espada replied, inclining his head. When his master's attention returned to the glowing pool, he inquired, "And which would you like for me to have retrieved, then? Personally, I believe the female appears to be the most promising prospe-"

Never taking his eyes off the images, Aizen interrupted again, "-Let's have all of them, shall we? Maximize the fruits of your diligent research…"

"Of course, Lord Aizen. The fraccion will be dispatched within the hour."

The man nodded, "Keep the party small. And instruct them to make it quick and clean; no sense in rousing suspicions from the local Shinigami…"

"Yes, my lord." Szayel noted that his master lingered for a conspicuously long amount of time watching the projections; he seemed to be paying particularly close attention to the dark-haired female subject in question.

Contemplating the implications of this, the clone was startled by Aizen's quiet inquiry, "Something wrong, Szayel?"

"I… No, my lord. Of course not…"

As he spoke, Aizen never took his eyes from the bowl, "Then why have you not left to carry out your latest task?"

"I…" Szayel bowed low a final time, "Forgive me, Lord Aizen. It shall be done." Without another word the Espada turned on his heel, leaving the former Captain alone in the lab still watching the images of the young human subjects. The corner of his lips curled into a calculating smirk.


A/N: Well this should be interesting. Feedback is always appreciated- please let me know what you think so far. Guessing this story should work out to about five or six chapters- expect the next one within the week! Thanks so much for reading!

Mira ^_^