Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or Bleach. I also do not own my own laptop, as mine was rendered a brick due to its dead hard drive. With that occurring, I lost all of my notes from all of my stories and what I'd already written of this chapter at that time, which is why it took so long to update.

…I'd already written this once and then lost it. Trying to remember this with no notes was a bitch, and it wasn't fun, hence the delay.

My apologies however.

Quick Recap: Equilibrium is hired by the Seireitei for a recon mission to find Las Noches and try to ascertain the enemy's strength from what they can find of the stronghold. There is no such thing as a secret mission in Bleach, therefore the heroes are set upon by powerful enemies in Aizen's army. Naruto winds up battling Harribel, and Gaara winds up taking on Ulquiorra.

Chapter 33: The Empty Glass


Try as he might, no matter how much time passed, Naruto found it hard to absolve himself of feeling empathy for those slated as his enemies. When push came to shove, he could be as merciless or business-up-front as he wanted to be when in battle. If he didn't have hatred in his heart for his foes, he found it damnably difficult to detach himself from their woes.

It was a bad habit to have when you were a supernatural warrior, but then again seeing someone as loyal as Harribel get betrayed by someone on her own side just so they could get a chance at catching him unawares and killing him sort of justified it.

He was still covered in her blood from when Gin stabbed through her to get to him for God's sake.

Setting Harribel down on the sand, Naruto tapped his foot trying to think of what he could do. Without any options that would actually fix the problem, he began slowly transferring his chakra to her. Maybe more power would help her body keep going long enough for something miraculous to happen.

Even if it didn't, he wasn't about to quit until he felt that heartbeat stop. He had always been stubborn like that.

Naruto wasn't a healer. He never had been, and even if he had eventually come around to being suited for it there had never wound up being anyone to even show him how to get started on healing. The consequences of being the last man standing of his entire culture and all…

Aside from that, all of his focus had been on his goal of peace, and then on what he could do to keep the Juubi back.

He could say that time got away from him, but that joke was too bad for him to make in such dire straits. He'd have to remember that one for later.

So set on thinking of some way to help Harribel survive, he barely noticed the arrival of Nelliel and Tatsuki to his exact location until he felt his female student jump on his back, "Sensei that was amazing! Are you seriously telling me I can be that strong?"

"There's always a chance," Naruto said, before Tatsuki realized that he was looking down at his gravelly wounded opponent.

Was he… sad? But he had won. She then realized that she'd never seen Naruto after he'd killed someone. Taking down bestial Hollows with only the instinct to kill was one thing, but taking down others with actual personalities, with goals, dreams, all of the above, he always regretted it.

Then again, as she looked down at Harribel, Tatsuki couldn't help but feel some remorse as well. Tatsuki had only killed Hollows. Even Grand Fisher as an Arrancar was more monster than any sort of humanoid creature. Harribel looked just like a normal woman. She bled red just like any human did.

"You can't fix her?" Tatsuki asked, "But you can do… well, anything, can't you?"

Naruto's lips quirked for a second, but there was no time for the ego to shine through today, "Well, I can bring back the dead… one time. It doesn't work on souls though, or Shinigami or Hollows. I don't think even if I had med supplies on me I could actually do anything to help her for much longer," A pronounced frown spread across his face, "I can't think of anything I've got that'd work."

Nelliel looked down pensively at the gravely injured Arrancar that had taken over her rank in Aizen's Army and then over to the man who actually seemed to be concerned with her condition, "You aren't thinking of simply killing her? To end her suffering and all?" She was met with a heated glare for her comment.

"Why? Because I'm supposed to think all Arrancars are evil or something?" Naruto asked rhetorically with a bite to his tone, "She was wrong. She followed someone who gave her a screwed up idea of sacrifice, and I'm pretty sure Kyoka Suigetsu might have been involved."

Oh did his hatred of illusions still ever exist, and Aizen's was absolutely awful from what he'd heard of it.

But either way, he'd done this for humans who had been his enemy. He'd have done this for a Shinigami who had been his enemy. Not doing so for Harribel because she was an Arrancar was simply racist. She wasn't evil, and she didn't deserve unconditional destruction just because she was an Arrancar.

"She's not a bad person, she just made a mistake. You can't learn anything from your mistakes when you're dead," Naruto said gravely, "…I should know. And it's such a waste to think about killing her. So I've got to find some way to stop this long enough for Gaara to finish what he's doing so we can go home and heal her."

A moment of hesitation, before a sigh came from Nel. She couldn't leave someone in cold blood like this, even if she wanted no part of the war on one side or the other, "Step back if you would. I can do this."

Naruto looked up at the green-haired Arrancar oddly. What exactly could she do? He didn't know the first thing about what she was capable of. She'd never fought. Never exhibited any of her abilities around him or any of Equilibrium.

Whatever he had been expecting, seeing Nelliel basically spew thick, clear liquid onto Harribel was certainly not it. Both he and Tatsuki could only stare dumbly as the two of them watched her gag herself to force the resulting reaction.

"What… the-…?"

"-Fuck?"

Naruto started, Tatsuki finished.

…That was gross, and to come from such a beautiful woman as well was more than a little shocking.

Nelliel simply turned back to them and shrugged at their expressions of surprise. It wasn't really that big of a deal, was it? Perhaps they were just confused? In that case, she felt the need to explain, "My saliva has powerful healing properties to it. She should be fine with rest. I can heal her wounds but I'm not able to restore her Reiryoku."

"No," Naruto declared outright and resolutely.

No? 'No' what? She'd told him what her powers did. He'd literally seen it happen. The wound that went right through Harribel's chest was closed. She still looked rather rough from the ordeal and it would take a short while for her to recover, but for the most part she would be fine.

"Uh-un," Naruto continued refusing with a wave of his arms, "No ma'am. I've been around for a long time. I know what drool looks like, and I know what you just did. That wasn't drool. That was puke. You threw up on her."

"Totally threw up on her," Tatsuki said in a follow-up. There was just no defending it. It didn't matter if it was clear-colored or not, "I mean, it's cool that it heals people and everything, but let's just call a spade a spade here. That was throw-up."

"Is it really that important?" Nelliel prompted, her usually present red markings on her face not to be mistaken for a blush of embarrassment, "It's saving her life. It doesn't matter what it is."

It was true enough, and both teacher and student weren't saying that it wasn't entirely worthwhile. That didn't make it any less strange however.

"You're right. It's not important how you're healing her," Naruto agreed with a more casual air emanating from him and Tatsuki, "I'm really glad you can do that actually. We're just saying… call it what it is," Normally Tatsuki would find any reason outside of training to contradict her teacher, but in this instance she agreed one-hundred percent.

"Ugh…" Nelliel groaned with a roll of her eyes. At least Harribel would survive the day.

XxX

(With Gaara – Elsewhere within Hueco Mundo)

The tumultuous hell of desert that had been Hueco Mundo's sands came to a standstill to reveal Gaara's form to Ulquiorra and Kensei once more. In the air, his wings flapping to allow him the maintenance of flight, the emotionless Arrancar stared down at his similar-race enemy.

As far as Resurreccións went, Gaara's was not the most visibly impressive. His form didn't dramatically change, and his Reiatsu didn't increase to smothering, oppressive levels. All in all it was… remarkably underwhelming and low-key. It was perfectly Gaara in another form of the term.

On Gaara's head sat a turban, while the rest of his clothing consisted of loose silver pants and a white sash as well as pointed shoes. Gaara's torso and arms were covered in blue markings that vaguely resembled veins. On his hands and forearms they were covered with yellow gauntlets that resembled five-fingered versions of the blade of his Zanpakutou's usual form.

As a result of drawing upon his Resurrección, Gaara's wounds had been healed entirely, something that irked Ulquiorra, but he had known what would happen. It had been half the reason he'd been trying so hard to kill Gaara before he could even access his trump card.

It didn't matter though. He would simply have to deal him his damage again. After all, he couldn't feel any change in Gaara's Reiatsu. He couldn't feel anything from Gaara at all. The strongest beings couldn't hide all of their energy the way Gaara was. That had to mean that he wasn't much stronger than he had been in the first place. Against Ulquiorra that simply wouldn't do, as the dark-haired, pale being had more tricks still that he could draw upon to obliterate the redhead.

"Is that all?" Ulquiorra asked expressionlessly as Gaara stared up at him impassively, "What have you really accomplished by releasing your Zanpakutou other than healing your wounds?"

Gaara didn't say a word, simply letting Ulquiorra get his soliloquy in once more. At first Gaara thought that the Espada was a lot like him, but then he realized that Ulquiorra really seemed to really like talking. A lot. Not in conversation, but just in spirit-breaking attempts to lecture people he deemed beneath him.

"Compared to mine, your power is so insignificant I can't even feel it."

Not even a twitch occurred on Gaara's face, despite Ulquiorra's slight at his Resurrección.

"I don't understand why you continue to fight me, knowing that nothing you will do will prevent me from ending your life."

Gaara closed his ringed eyes and let out a sigh. The kind of sigh a parent lets out when a child tries their patience, "…Do you remember what it was like to die? If you did, you wouldn't ask me that question. It's not a matter of resolve, or belief in one's abilities. Nothing of the sort. Sometimes it doesn't need any deeper explanation other than the instinct to survive."

With a flap of his wings, Ulquiorra's sheer Reiatsu was dispersed as he began to build speed for his next move. The wind was enough to seemingly blow Gaara's entire body away into grains of sand that rejoined the desert from whence they came.

Where would he reappear?

The desert began to quiver, and up rose dozens of mammoth sand giants, their heads resembling sand castles as they lumbered into existence, just born into the world.

"Runuganga," Ulquiorra said, recalling the name of the sandy Hollow that had been given to it during its time in life before its demise… back before Gaara's reawakening, "You can create Runuganga whenever you wish?"

"And as many as I wish," Gaara's voice echoed out from all of the sand beings, "Runuganga is an extension of my will. As long as there is enough sand around to create the bodies, and I have enough Reiryoku to animate them, I can do as I like."

"A worthless show of power," Ulquiorra assured him, forming black energy on the tip of his index finger, "Granted, one Runuganga is an imposing force to weaklings, but to those that are truly strong, even numbers such as these are simply worthless. Now taste despair. Cero Oscuras (Black Hollow Flash)."

The army of Runugangas were destroyed, their masks (their only visible weak point) going up into oblivion along with their bodies as Ulquiorra swept the sands with his attack.

Amid the sandstorm that Ulquorra's callously cold attack had created as a side-effect, Gaara's body formed right behind the winged Arrancar from the sand flying through the air. Ulquoirra would have never known that Gaara was there had he not felt the light from the Cero Gaara had the gall to charge right at his back.

Ulquiorra spun around and instantly flapped away one mighty time, covering himself with his wings as he moved away.

Gaara's yellow Cero lit up the darkened skies of Hueco Mundo as Kensei watched from down below. Every so often he would sputter and spit out sand as he watched the battle, "Peh, fucking sand…" But either way, Gaara was getting the job done, and he didn't know how, "I can't even sense how strong he's supposed to be."

Ulquiorra's Hierro left his body and white attire significantly burned, but with no loss of body parts other than the injuries suffered to his wings that were next to useless.

"This doesn't make any sense," The emotionless Arrancar said, watching his enemy with a pensive eye, "How do you have enough power to harm me when I can't even sense you?"

With smoke still rising from the hand that he shot Ulquiorra with, Gaara slowly lowered it, "The release of my Zanpakutou is powerful enough to turn my immediate surroundings into sand. After that point, anything my Reiatsu comes close enough to affect is slowly pieced apart as well, as if it were being battered by the force of a skin-tearing sandstorm. This is the reason why I cannot use my Resurrección in the Human World."

Ulquiorra remained silent, taking in what he was hearing.

"Barragan didn't take kindly to my existence," Gaara said, reminiscing as best as he could. Due to his slumber he remembered centuries and millennia past better than most other Hollows that lived for as long, "A Hollow that wouldn't bow to him and hated being a Hollow enough to turn himself into an Arrancar. His underlings were relentless."

Even now he could remember it. He couldn't forget it. It took up the better part of three centuries of his time to deal with, and the consequences of such, he and every Hollow had to look at every day.

"No matter how many I killed there were always more, willing to throw themselves at me in an effort to take my life for his approval," Gaara continued, the sandy wind howling and reflecting his mood even if his face did not, "Hueco Mundo was never beautiful, but it was closer in appearance to the Human World than you would think it could have been. There were trees, grass, water… but it was all made of Reishi, and it simply couldn't stand up to the presence of my Resurrección for the better part of a millennia."

Ulquiorra narrowed his eyes and felt something akin to anger swell inside of him, "And you honestly expect me to believe that all of this is because of you?" He said, referring to the entirety of Hueco Mundo

"The sand is unforgiving, and merciless. It doesn't care," Gaara said, holding up a hand and causing a whirlwind of sand to appear in it, corresponding with a massive cyclone that surrounded the immediate battlefield. Hopefully Kensei had the foresight to get away after he realized what was going on, because with all of this sand to work with, there was no way Gaara could hold back enough to ensure his safety, "I didn't have to do all of it myself. My sand ate down to the Reiryoku of Hueco Mundo's very atmosphere and changed what my raw energy hadn't touched itself. It warped the entire climate. Barragan's powers didn't help any. Between him and myself, this world died over the course of hundreds of years."

Ulquoirra couldn't even see the moon in the sky any longer. All he could see was sand. There was nowhere to fly, as there was no distance far enough. It seemed that any sand within Gaara's scope of vision was his to use, as it was partly his to begin with.

So it had come to this.

Not even trying to dodge, Ulquiorra closed his eyes as the furious sandstorm engulfed his body. Gaara felt no remorse or sorrow as he disappeared amid the furious grains of earth, "El Beso del Desierto (Kiss of the Desert). The sand will rend your flesh from your bones and drain the liquids from your body. Hierro or not, there is no escape."

"Resurrección: Segunda Etapa (Resurrection: Second Stage)."

Even Gaara visibly reacted in surprise when he felt the telltale signs of a second Resurrección from his enemy, as a sickly black and green glow fought off his angrily swarming sand with the Reiatsu it generated alone. That was impossible. An Arrancar only had one release. Their true power could only be set free once. You couldn't hide more of it and release it in stages.

So enraptured by his own thoughts on the limits of an Arrancar, Gaara didn't feel what had happened to him until he realized that he was missing his left arm and leg, and half of his torso. He didn't realize something had happened until he heard a deafening, city-smashing explosion behind him in the air.

Gaara's sandstorm ended as his body fell, and as it did, Ulquiorra's body rose.

His clothing was gone. His black wings were repaired and his Hollow hole seemed to be dripping black blood from it. On his arms and from the waist down he was covered in black fur, all the way down his claw-like fingers and talon-like feet. The tear-marks on his face became more pronounced than ever, and instead of his mask fragment on his head he had two bat ears.

"Lanza del Relámpago (Lance of Thunder and Lightning)," Ulquiorra said in explanation of his last attack that Gaara never even felt until it had already torn him apart, "My apologies. The power in it makes it quite difficult to aim. With a direct hit, there should have been nothing left of you. It's a shame you had to suffer for my lack of accuracy, but today you've seen something even Aizen-sama hasn't seen."

On the ground, Gaara's breaths came raggedly as he fought for every breath of air the remainder of his body took in, "I… see. So even you can keep a secret from your… master," He said in between coughs, "What a secret."

And he meant it.

Without saying another word, Ulquiorra's long, thin tail swished around as he aimed an unstable, black Cero at Gaara's body, "Cero Oscuras (Black Hollow Flash)."

The shot and the resulting blast carved straight through to the bedrock at the bottom of the ocean of sand. For a moment, the bottom of the desert could be seen before Hueco Mundo itself seemed to remember what it was and filled itself back in with even more sand.

Gaara's body was nowhere to be found.

"You're not a true Hollow," Ulquiorra said into the wind as the noise from his destructive attack finally settled, "You're a fool, grasping at something none of us have possessed since our deaths. Even if you're as thorough and brutal as a Hollow in combat, you show remorse, regret for the things you've done. How… human of you."

And now it was time to turn his attention to the Shinigami that had undergone the incomplete Hollowfication. Kensei could try to hide it, but Ulquiorra had already been told about the Visoreds by Aizen. Killing one of them now would be advantageous later.

He still had something that he hadn't completed however, and it was something that simply would not be ignored or set aside.

"You will find it quite difficult to end my life," Gaara's voice boomed out from throughout the desert as a massive amount of its sands were used to reform his body back to an unharmed state, "There is a way to defeat me in the desert, but I wonder, can you find the way?"

"You can regenerate in that form?" Ulquiorra asked, somewhat impressed by Gaara's reconstitution from a direct hit by the Cero Oscuras, "Odd. Most Arrancar have to give up the ability of regeneration for additional power."

His body quickly returned to normal, Gaara let a ghost of a smirk cross his face, "I've given up enough both in life and in death alike. It would be a shame if even my own abilities chose to take from me even now," Opening his arms wide, the smirk dropped swiftly from Gaara's face as he beckoned Ulquiorra, "Come Espada. If your power is as vast as the sky, mine is as vast as the earth. Let us see who stands superior."

XxX

Harribel thought she was dead. She felt that she had to have been. She had seen the sword stabbed through her heart from behind her. She was powerful, but a fatal attack was a fatal attack, and you didn't get back up from getting your heart pierced.

But if she was aware that she should have been dead, she wasn't dead. It didn't work like that.

Aside from being able to effortlessly feel the wickedly forceful battle raging on in the distant desert somewhere, she could hear conversation. That wasn't supposed to happen either when you were dead.

"…-a damn bust. Somebody's got to flush that S.O.B. out somehow," That was Uzumaki's voice. She'd heard enough of it to recognize the distinct timbre of it by now, "No matter what, they'll see us coming even if we leave and try again later, but there's too much that could go wrong if I kept us going."

He wasn't as insane as he appeared to be on the surface then. Good. He understood his position. The rest of the Espada still remained inside. They were fresh, and they knew more about the abilities of him and his allies than he knew of theirs.

Even if he sacrificed his underlings to fight his way in, it would be a mostly fruitless endeavor.

"I can tell you for sure that Aizen isn't going to come out and fight unless it's on his terms," Nelliel. Permanently back in her adult form from the sounds of things, "They won't be his terms if he thinks he has the slightest chance of defeat. Until he's assured of his victory no matter the extenuating circumstances, he won't fight you or anyone else himself."

"What a pussy," The human girl. The tomboy if she remembered the people correctly.

"Oi, watch your fucking mouth Tatsuki-chan," Harribel heard Naruto of all people admonish the young lady under his care, "Honestly… from the mouths of babes."

"He wouldn't have sent her out to fight against you if he didn't have something in mind," Nelliel said, clearly thinking on just what the major issue could be, "Showing mercy is fine, but you should be very careful. This could all just be a part of his plans."

From where he sat in the sands, Naruto frowned and turned his eyes Harribel's way. He was aware that she was awake, but didn't let on that he knew as much. Letting her feel somewhat safe, that she had that much of an edge over them would smooth things over for the time being and keep her from being hostile.

"I don't think so," Naruto said, "I know Aizen doesn't mind stepping on his soldiers to get ahead, but I don't think he likes it whenever someone else has one of his toys. Remember how hard he came after you? He sent three of the Espada to get to you, and you were just a kid that didn't remember you had actual power. You didn't matter to his plans."

A life meant nothing to Aizen other than a means to an end or an obstacle to rid himself of.

"He came after me for a reason," Nelliel let on, "Any Arrancar that he'd created over the last few decades with the help of the Hougyoku, he'd make sure that he got them back by any means necessary, either that or made sure that they were dead and couldn't be used for info on how he made us."

"This isn't the first time I've heard about that thing, the Hougyoku. I'm thinking that you know a bit about how he used it to make you guys into stronger Arrancar?" Tatsuki asked, scratching her head and getting a shake of the head in the negative from Nelliel, "Why not?"

Nelliel pointed to the mask fragment that sat atop her head, no longer broken as it had been, "Your friend fixed my wounds that led to my energy leaking free, but I still suffered an extremely severe head injury. She can repair my head as well as she likes. Some things up there will still be fuzzy for a short while still."

And Hidan was useless in that regard as well, because he hadn't been paying attention to anything involving the Hougyoku, even when it had made his transition into an Arrancar that much more successful. He had a tendency to ignore such things when they didn't involve outright bloodshed.

"Well some things are better off not being known," Naruto said, a grin slowly spreading across his face, "…Like knowing that Nel threw up on Harribel to fix her."

"It was saliva," Nelliel enunciated purposefully, everyone there noting that a shiver rolled through Hallibel's body after she'd heard as much. They were all so mean to let her think that they still thought she was unconscious, "You're welcome by the way."

"Yeah, we know you're awake," Tatsuki deadpanned with a grin, throwing a handful of sand over at Harribel. Stronger than her or not, still in her Resurrección or not, Tatsuki's sensei had already proven that he was the baddest human walking the face of the planet, sapping the fear from her when it came to the response of one Arrancar, "So if you're waiting for a chance to kill us, don't worry about it. Sensei and Nel together would blow you away if you tried- OW!"

"You aren't strong enough to run your mouth to people that can kill you in one move," Naruto chided, his eyes switching back from Rinnegan immediately after giving Tatsuki a Shinra Tensei fingerflick to the forehead, "You can mouth off to people on your level though. No apprentice of mine isn't going to be a smartmouthed shit. It's tradition."

"You're such a good role model," Tatsuki replied sarcastically, rubbing the new red mark on her forehead, "Really. When I turn 2000 years old or however old dirt is, like you are, I want to be just like you."

"Fuck you."

"Fuck you right back."

Naruto just glared at Tatsuki for several seconds before speaking up, "If you didn't already have living parents, I would have become your legal guardian by now," That being said, he turned to Harribel and jerked his thumb at his trainee, "Seriously, she's perfect."

Tatsuki rolled her eyes and spoke sardonically, "Would you jump ahead in my training and teach me a second element if I sat on your lap and called you 'daddy'?"

"That sounds so wrong… or so right. I haven't decided yet."

"-What's your game Uzumaki?" Harribel interjected sharply, interrupting the cheeky byplay of sensei and student. The dark-skinned Arrancar sat up from her back on the sand. She noticed that the released form of her Zanpakutou was right next to Naruto, far out of her reach, "You don't honestly believe that I owe you anything because of this, do you?"

"My game is; Ichimaru Gin ran his Shikai through your chest to try and take me out just because he saw the opening. And that's it," Naruto said before clapping his hands once, "Game over. Do you want to play again?"

"You're a dick Naruto-sensei," Tatsuki pointed out, laughing at how blunt and sarcastic he happened to sound right then, "You two were trying to kill each other an hour ago, what did you expect her to be like afterwards?"

"I'm just saying, I dumped tons of chakra trying to keep her alive long enough for Nel to do her thing, and do we get a 'thank you' or something?" Naruto asked rhetorically, "Nooooo, not from the mighty Tres Espada, who's too good to accept some goodwill from a handsome, sexy, true sage of the ages. I'm just a peaceful man with bad intentions. Why do I have to have an ulterior motive for something?"

Nelliel managed to ignore the banter between the two humans for the most part, in exchange ensuring that she had Harribel's full and undivided attention, "You're not going to go back to him are you?" She asked, "Aizen. After this?"

"Ichimaru stabbed me, not Aizen-sama."

"He wouldn't have done that if Aizen wouldn't have allowed it," Nelliel said, "…The same goes for what happened to me. Szayel Aporro and Nnoitra wouldn't have ever tried what they did against me and my Fracción had they known it would have put them on Aizen's bad side. If you're not all-useful to his plans, you're useless to him. Your use ended when Naruto proved he was head and shoulders better than you."

"I've always been loyal to him," Harribel reasoned, "Even when you were still within our ranks of Espada."

"And now that he knows you can be beaten after going all out, you're damaged goods," Nelliel responded without missing a beat, "He. Doesn't. Care."

"So I should just join the other side with my tail between my legs?" The dark-skinned blonde asked coolly, "Is that my next course of action? To side with the enemy and fight for them because of one show of kindness after I've spent years fighting for another cause?"

"Personally, you can do whatever the hell you want to."

That outright statement let the two women know that Naruto hadn't just been butting heads with his high school student of an apprentice. He'd been listening to their conversation from start to finish, and he'd finally chosen his moment to let his actions be clear.

"I didn't want to save you because I thought you'd join us," Naruto explained earnestly, with a shrug, "I saved you because you got the raw end of that deal. Ask Nel, ask anybody. You can walk away and never look at me again if you want to."

There was a touch of bitterness to his tone at the tail end of his statement that Tatsuki picked up on.

That Yoshino woman, the Bount, she was so bitter at Naruto that even after that whole Bount incident ended she was willing to simply leave without even trying to hash things out or see if anything still stood between them. She blamed him for everything that had happened to fracture their relationship centuries ago, and she wasn't willing to hang around and work around it despite literally having nowhere else to go.

Naruto could hide it with jokes and infuriating antics all he wanted. Having that happen the way that it did, along with everything else he'd learned during the encounter with the Bounts, it still stung at him. Things like that hurt him. Having people that he liked see him as the enemy, it killed him.

He forced Tatsuki to meditate intensely to a religious degree. At the start of every training session, for half an hour when she woke up in the morning, and for half an hour before she went to sleep at night. He wanted her hypersensitive to subtle things like energies of all sorts, or shifts of emotion, and she could feel the negative ones coming from her teacher.

"All you owe me is one thing," Naruto said, pointing straight at Harribel, "I want you to look at what's happened today and since you started fighting for Aizen, and I want you to look at it with a real sense of morality, not that Hollow 'you-do-whatever-you-want-because-you're-powerful' kind of crap. What good would really come from Aizen destroying reality if he killed the Spirit King?"

"What?" She couldn't believe what she was hearing, "You're just going to let me go?"

"You don't hurt innocents," Naruto said, pasting on a cheesy grin, "If being strong by itself is a crime I'd have gotten the noose, the axe, the chair, whatever execution of the era you want to use," Tatsuki slugged him in the arm to try and curb the outburst of ego, to little effect, "So do whatever you want to. You can do your own thing in the Human World like I think Nel is going to do after she pays off this little debt to me and Urahara she insists she has, hell, you can walk the two days it'll take you to get back to Las Noches and keep fighting for Aizen if you want to."

Nelliel stiffened, and even Tatsuki looked at Naruto as if he'd grown another head. He had the third strongest Arrancar underling in Aizen's army at his mercy, and he was going to let her go, just like that? He could have at least detained her back at Mother Base somehow, made her a live-in prisoner or something.

Harribel fixed Naruto with an unreadable glance behind her messy blonde locks, "…Why?"

"Because going back is your choice…" Naruto said cryptically. He tapped his own temple and left it at that.

Nelliel let a soft smile grace her features that went unseen by her replacement as the Tres Espada, 'Even if she goes back and continues on in Aizen's employ, the seed has been planted already. Both in her head and in Aizen's.'

After this betrayal, Harribel would never be able to have anything resembling full trust in Aizen Sousuke ever again.

Between Kyoka Suigetsu's abilities, what she already knew Aizen would have had done to Nelliel for refusing to rejoin, after having had Gin's Zanpakutou stab her through the back, and after everything Naruto had been saying to her during their various encounters she would never be as effective a soldier as she had been before this battle.

For Aizen, even though Naruto had literally done nothing to turn Harribel against him, the fact that he let her go would be enough to stick in his mind as well. At first because of the usual tactical actions of Uzumaki Naruto, Aizen would believe that it was some sort of foolish show of mercy, his allowing Harribel to leave, and it was. But he would quickly begin to overthink things after letting her back in.

He would never let it show, he would never let any crack permeate his perfect control of every situation, but allowing Harribel back would be a risk that would be inexcusable in his risk-free view of how every battle should be fought and every measure should be taken.

Naruto would have had to have done something before cutting her loose. This would permeate his every thought when it came to his Tres Espada.

It would eat at him until he did something rash, one way or another. If the something rash was done to Harribel, it would without a doubt weaken his army and cause dissension in the ranks. It might have been a bit of a cold dismissal of the woman's fate, but after giving her the choice, if Harribel went back to Aizen after everything that had happened there was really nothing else Naruto could do for her anyway.

Damn it… that was good.

Naruto had a tendency to come off as a quirk-filled spaz that had driven himself insane with his long-lasting life. It was times like these however; moments of stark realization that indoctrinated all newer people to the group such as Nelliel to the fact Uzumaki Naruto was a dangerous, dangerous entity for more reasons than just his power, and there was nothing insane about the things that he did.

She doubted he'd even tried to set the situation up the way that he had beforehand, but in a short matter of time to think with he'd gotten his ducks in a row to ensure that Harribel would soften Aizen's forces some way no matter what she did, even if she went back to join them.

It was true, she was being given a choice.

It was just that no matter which choice she made, there wouldn't be any negative fallout set on Equilibrium. How many go-arounds in life did he need to all of that out? How many people did you have to meet and interact with for something like that to become second nature to the degree that you didn't even notice you were doing it?

"Whatever you say. I'm not Criss Angel, here to mind-freak you for my own amusement."

For his own amusement? No. But that didn't mean he wasn't still screwing with the heads of others, and it didn't mean that he wasn't damn good at it.

XxX

(With Gaara)

Kensei was admittedly feeling very antsy, watching Gaara do battle with Ulquiorra. He wanted a piece of that fight like no one's business. It was times like this when he wondered just what the general human population would do, how they would react, if they ever learned that things like this ever occurred.

It then occurred to him that he hadn't cared for the last hundred years plus, so what the hell did it matter now?

A sharp crack filled the air, followed by a booming crash of air that blew what seemed like half of the desert right into Kensei's face. He merely spat out sand and brushed it free from his hair, grousing to himself, "I hate goddamn sand."

BOOM!

He was then met with another bountiful mouthful for his troubles.

In the air, Ulquiorra was at wit's end.

Every time he managed to get close enough to Gaara to strike him, he would disappear into nothing but sand. His body wasn't made of sand, this Ulquiorra knew. He'd made contact with him. He'd torn him apart with a distance attack. Gaara was still flesh and blood.

"Do you understand yet?" Gaara asked, the sand swirling around his body in a cataclysmic torrent, independent of his own movements and actions, "I won't say anything as cliché as 'you have no chance of winning', but until you look beyond what you can see, you will never find the correct way to defeat me."

"Always with understanding this or that," Ulquiorra said, forming a javelin from sickly green energy, "The concept of understanding anything beyond strength or what we can see and feel firsthand is worthless to you and I as Hollows. Lanza del Relámpago (Lance of Thunder and Lightning)."

Gaara's body fell apart to sand as he saw the familiar attack that tore him asunder form at the ends of Ulquiorra's hands, "You won't touch me with that attack again. I won't give you the space to throw it."

"I don't need to throw it to use it," Ulquiorra said, twisting the energy weapon around and swinging it at Gaara with ill intent, "I'm afraid I'm not so one-dimensional in my attack."

"Likewise," Gaara said with a ghost of a smile as his body was cut clean into gory segments. But as it occurred, he simply reformed. Seeing this coming, Ulquiorra, moved in a swift Sonido, directly above Gaara, stabbing down with his tail to the turban-covered crown of his adversary.

Gaara moved his head out of the way before reaching up and grabbing the Lanza del Relámpago with his own hands.

Ulquiorra's eyes went wide at what Gaara was attempting to do, feeling it when the already unstable power in the weapon grew even more after being introduced to Gaara's, "This will backfire on the both of us," This did not prompt Gaara to let go, despite the damage being done to his gauntlet-covered hands.

Going off of the experience of the battle thus far, Gaara cared little if his own body was damaged in some way, because it always seemed to reform, even when his head was severed. No Arrancar could boast that sort of regenerative ability. No Hollow could either.

On the other hand, Ulquiorra knew the limits of his own ability to heal, and he had no intentions on pushing them in order to prove some sort of point to his enemy.

Letting the Lanza fade, his tail wrapped around Gaara's arm as he aimed his hand right in Gaara's face, a Cero Oscuras pointed right at him, "The secret to defeating you wouldn't happen to be obliterating every trace of your existence in one blow would it?" -Because that seemed to solve most problems.

SQUICK!

Looking down, Ulquiorra saw a clawed, gauntleted hand easily pushing its way through his body, no resistance being given whatsoever. He hadn't been hit. The best word for it would have been poked, or nudged. But that was impossible. With his Hierro it would have taken something catastrophically powerful to do such a thing to him.

He doubted Gaara had put any power behind that attack at all to keep it concealed until it was too late.

The Gaara in front of him that he had been fighting vanished into sand, "Impossible. You barely *cough* pressed into me at all."

"My sand eats away at everything," Gaara said, arm buried past the elbow through Ulquiorra's chest, "Everything in Hueco Mundo is comprised of Reishi. I told you, my presence turned everything around my Resurrección to sand, and that sand, imbued with my Reiryoku, ate everything else to sand alike."

Ulquiorra choked through the arm through his chest to "Y-You're rambling," Cold until the end it seemed. No fear of death was present there.

"My apologies," Gaara said earnestly, "As briefly as possible then. Even if I don't use it to attack directly, even if my sand doesn't touch you, no matter how powerful you are, my Resurrección wears on your body itself. There is no defense. Even if you were stronger than me and could outlast me in a true battle of attrition, the fight lasted too long. Your Hierro is worthless, even with the level of Reiatsu you possess. Your body is as fragile as a newborn human baby's."

Which was why Gaara had been able to push his hand right through Ulquiorra's body as if it were made of pre-cut wet paper.

What a terrifying power. The ability to weaken any enemy's durability, no matter how much stronger than him they potentially could have been, simply by being around them in his Resurrección. Even if you defeated Gaara in his Resurrección, if the battle lasted too long, it would take nothing short of regeneration or expert healing to return your body to normal.

And Ulquiorra had never known what was happening. Gaara had never hit him to test his Hierro after releasing his Zanpakutou.

"I've learned the secret of your power…" Ulquiorra said, grunting as he felt Gaara run his other hand through the already present wound. He wasn't letting him regenerate, not that it mattered since his organs were toast, "…A bit too late I'm afraid."

"You were a worthy opponent," Gaara said to him before pulling his hands apart, tearing Ulquiorra in half in a bloody mess. The two parts and everything within fell down to the ground to be buried beneath the wildly shifting sands, "…But you didn't discover the actual secret to my power. If you had, you would have actually forced me to waste great amounts of my energy actively defending myself instead of just using it to wear you down."

If Ulquiorra had chosen to rely on more than his senses that allowed him to perceive concrete things, he might have had a chance to figure things out. But he didn't, because he simply didn't accept the concept of things beyond what his eye could perceive.

XxX

On the ground, Kensei walked over to Ulquiorra's upper half and stood over the downed Arrancar, simply staring down at the motionless being. There was still life in his eyes as he stared straight up at the sky.

"So," Kensei said, making conversation, "You're not regenerating?"

"Any regeneration would be for nothing more than show," Ulquiorra said, "I can't regenerate my organs, so while my body might be fixed, there would be nothing vital within," There was a dispassionate acceptance to his fate resting within his words, "I was killed by a Hollow who wishes to be human."

Kensei shook his head, "You fought like a fool. As long as you were in this desert you were never going to defeat him the way you were fighting. That would have only worked somewhere else with a set amount of sand. He even told you the only way he knew of to defeat himself in a place like this, and it went straight over your head."

Ulquiorra's eyes widened, but returned to normal size once he felt his body begin to turn to ash, "It seems that this revelation will go unheard."

In a matter of seconds he was gone, his remains spread out amongst the vast sands.

That was just the way it was sometimes, Kensei figured. Some people didn't learn their lessons until it was too late to do anything about them. For some reason it was kind of refreshing to know that it didn't happen only to Shinigami.

Looking up in the sky, he frowned to himself at the sight of nothing. Gaara had vanished, and along with him, the desert that had been reacting to his mere presence had settled once more to the calm, desolate wasteland it had been before.

"Tch," Kensei scoffed, turning to head back to where he remembered leaving Naruto and company, "I hate all of this anyway."

XxX

Something about Gaara's Reiatsu disappearing during a clash with such a strong opposing force was disconcerting. There was no way in hell someone with Gaara's strength could ever completely hide himself from someone that knew what they were looking for. Ichigo couldn't steer Bawabawa fast enough for his tastes.

Even though Gaara was an Arrancar, he was a mostly peaceful Arrancar. Even though he was Naruto's friend, by Ichigo's count he was far more tolerable than Naruto. He was the straight man to his over-the-top friend from a bygone era.

Thinking about him being killed in a fight pissed Ichigo off more than he cared to think about. He'd trained with Chad to make him strong. He was a good person and something of a friend.

When he got over there he was going to… do nothing, because Gaara appeared right in front of him, wearing nothing but the battle-damaged pants he'd been wearing before Ulquiorra forced him into his Resurrección. He didn't seem to care too much about his state of attire.

"Ichigo," Gaara droned before catching sight of the giant sand worm and the Bount sitting on its back as well, "Koga as well."

"Gaara!" Ichigo said in surprise before looking over in the direction where he'd felt Gaara's energy running rampant not too long ago, "Err, were you fighting?"

"Yes."

Waiting on Gaara to elaborate, but receiving nothing more in terms of information, Ichigo furrowed his brow at the red-haired Arrancar, "And?"

"It's over now," Gaara wasn't much of a dynamic storyteller when he didn't have a point to make. With a swing of his arm, he carved a Garganta into the sky and pointed to it, "Time to go home."

"But… what about taking down Aizen?" Ichigo asked with a blank stare.

"They intercepted us. It wouldn't be wise to attempt anything with what we currently have available to us."

"…And?"

Gaara stared at him until it became uncomfortable for Ichigo to bear, and for good reason. He could understand wanting to continue on. Well, not right then because he was tired as hell, but some other time he would have understood on an emotional level. Not on a pragmatic level though. There simply was no benefit to trying to sack a stronghold the size of Las Noches, still needing more than one day to get there, after they'd already been in big battles.

Equilibrium was meant for smaller incidents and smaller operations that could be handled with smaller numbers, quality over quantity, not for full-scale wars. Did he understand nothing about small-unit tactics? Actually, how much about tactics did Ichigo understand outside of what to do in an actual fight that he himself was involved in?

Once again, Gaara pointed up at the open Garganta with emphasis, leaving no room for argument. Somehow, even after having been run ragged, he was still imposing enough with his stoic demeanor to prompt Ichigo to accept. Not without audible griping as he hefted up Bawabawa to leave.

"If we're not doing something and the Seireitei isn't doing something, who will?"

Sometimes the young did have their moments of philosophical clarity.

Gaara sighed and closed his eyes as he watched Ichigo go up to fly through the portal. He had a very good point, something that the normally strong and silent Koga pointed out, "The people with the resources and manpower to make a difference in this war don't have the knowledge and freedom, and the people that have the knowledge and freedom don't have the resources or manpower."

Putting a hand on the Bount's shoulder, Gaara took him up into the air with his ability to fly, "It's strange how that oftentimes seems to be the case."

Not funny though. There was never anything funny to be taken from situations like war.

XxX

"…So what do you think?" Gin said in conclusion to his leader as he finished giving his firsthand report of everything that he'd seen, from Tousen's death at the hands of Ichigo, to Naruto's defeat of Harribel, "It's interesting, right?"

Tousen hadn't been much more than a powerful soldier who believed enough in his cause of justice to be easily swayed. All Aizen ever had to do was reason to him that any 'God' that would allow the things that happened to his Shinigami friend to occur was not a God that needed to exist.

The man had been simple despite his eloquence and single-minded to an absurd degree. Articulacy did not always translate into actual intelligence. He wasn't like Gin. Gin for the time being was invaluable and irreplaceable.

The loss of Tousen's power barely concerned Aizen. The power wasn't much of an issue. Aizen could easily deal with every captain of the Gotei 13, and the only one that he took pause at fighting against, he had a plan for.

No, his interest rested with something else, the most intriguing portion of Gin's report to him. A strange figure who seemed to be demanding more and more of Aizen's attention, as he was a factor that had not been planned for the way all the others had been.

A man that had come out of nowhere at the back-end of his plans coming to fruition. Uzumaki Naruto.

"With every use of that black energy, he comes closer to losing control of it entirely," Aizen said, a calm smile on his face, "What sheer force of will it must have taken for him to hold such a thing back for as long as he has. He's an interesting man."

Gin's smile stretched further across his face than it usually did as he caught on to his leader's line of thinking, "You seriously ain't thinking about makin' him have a little accident are you?"

Rest assured, it would be no accident.

"It would be quite the shame if he lost himself for even a moment," Aizen replied rhetorically, "His relationship with the Seireitei is precarious at best. Yamamoto would err on the side of caution and exterminate him should he seem to be a danger to either the Human World or to the Soul Society. It's simply the way he is to everything. No tolerance. No risks."

He knew just how cold the captain-commander could be. The old man could order Naruto killed if need be, and it would mean absolutely nothing to him. He'd done it time and time again. The Quincy race. The Visoreds. Over the last 2000 years Yamamoto had earned his title as the strongest, and it hadn't been maintained through acts of mercy and understanding.

It wouldn't take much at all to set him upon such a rogue element that he could not control, especially one that had successfully taken the fight to the doorstep of the Seireitei once already.

He had managed to grab the allegiance (for the most part) of not only the Substitute Shinigami whom they'd given such a title to in order to establish some sort of control over him, but also several exiled formerly high-ranking members of the Seireitei military system. He was protecting multiple Arrancar allies, all of whom would not have been seen as separate from Hollows, and a Bount, a race that had been slated to be exterminated long ago. He even had a Quincy who routinely expressed that he had an axe to grind against the Shinigami race.

It was no matter if he was the enemy of the Seireitei's enemy, he was stirring up trouble on the horizon all on his own.

If anything, Yamamoto was simply waiting for a half-decent reason to send in the cleanup crew and get rid of Naruto before he actually did become a problem.

"Far be it from me to cross the line of good taste," Aizen said calmly, "But I think it would be in our best interests to prompt such a butting of heads. Our enemies are presenting a unified front, but all it takes to break such a flimsy bond is the right leverage."

"Yammy's been dispatched already, but are you sure?" Gin asked concernedly, "Zommari won't be able to control him well enough for them to be subtle."

"It's not exactly a subtle task."

"So it's something he's perfect for."

"Exactly."

There was nothing tactical about this. The thing about strategy was that sometimes, being blunt and violent was the best course of action. Yammy was an idiot and was only good for blunt and violent courses of action.

Yes, sometimes when the chess game was getting too heated, it was for the best to flip the board.


Okay guys, so I can't apologize enough for how long it took to put this out, but I think my laptop dying, taking along with it most of the already written chapter AND every single note I had on the path of this story, is a pretty decent excuse. Even so, I had to keep going, because I remembered what I wanted to do with it and the gist of where I wanted it to go.

And I had to give you a taste of Gaara's Resurrección. Seriously, I really didn't mean to leave the story up in the air for so long right at that part. That was just bad luck.

So anyway, you got the basics of Gaara's true power with a hidden facet to it. I hope it was for the most part understandable. Next time, homefront character interaction is going down, other stuff involving Uryuu, and what is Yammy going to be used for?

Okay, I have a sweet Assistant Producer job to get trained for in the morning, so I'm going to leave it at this. For fans of this story I swear it's not going to be left alone this long again. It's just a bitch to rewrite something that you already wrote and then lost.

I hope you enjoyed. Happy New Year. Kenchi out.