Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto or Bleach. Tite Kubo apparently creates characters when he's bored. Well that certainly explains a whole fucking lot, doesn't it? So many things make sense now.

Chapter 34: Trust Fall

"Sensei, you SUCK!"

"Hush girl, this is a very important part of my training!"

"You stole this from an anime, but I can't remember which one!"

"Balance, woman!" Naruto barked, sitting in lotus position on the bottoms of Tatsuki's feet as she held herself upside down with one finger on a spike, using nothing more than the density of her chakra to keep from impaling the appendage and falling on her head, "Homestretch here!"

"I… hate you… soooo much," Tatsuki grunted out between her clenched teeth. She couldn't have been more covered in sweat if she'd been running on a treadmill in a sauna, while holding a bad hand during the finale of the World Series of Poker.

This exercise was the hardest thing he had made her do by far, which was saying quite a lot. It was absolutely awful; spiritually and physically draining. Before they had begun, she hadn't even known she could get so tired. The only reason she wasn't crying was because she'd run out of tears after the fourth hour. And this time the training was taking place inside of Naruto's office/living quarters, which meant none of her more sentimental friends like Ichigo or Orihime could get on his case about how hard he was pushing her.

"Stop talking! Talking breaks your concentration!" Naruto shouted at her before turning his attention to Yoruichi, "So yeah, anyway, you were the head of those Onmitsukidou guys 100 years ago weren't you? How would you get into Las Noches? Because unless I want to fight enough battles to wake up he-who-shall-not-be-named, we ain't going through the front door."

"-And it's not like Yamamoto likes you enough to dedicate a strong enough attack force of seated officers to fight our way in," Yoruichi said, shrugging in return to the question from her lover, "But if I knew how to sneak up on Aizen, we wouldn't be having this conversation. I would have nipped this in the bud back in the Seireitei. In this instance, I think your habit of picking up strays might have actually been the best thing you could have done for us."

"Okay, first of all, I resent you calling Harribel a stray. Second of all; with that logic, you, Tatsuki-chan and a bunch of others are all strays. And Tatsuki is most definitely NOT a stray. She's a unique, beautiful, hardworking snowflake who's gonna carry down the secrets of chak-," He ceased in his praise to outright threaten his student, "I swear to Kami, if you stop I'll make you start the whole twelve hours over again!"

"So you're implying that I'm a stray?" Yoruichi asked him in a tone of voice that told him that the wrong answer would result in Naruto not getting any for the foreseeable future.

Naruto would not admit that he was wrong, or take back anything that he ever said under any circumstances, and if there was anything reliable about his relationship with Yoruichi it was that any disagreements they had could be handled on the battlefield with no ill feelings.

Still, no lovin' from Yoruichi for any extended period of time did not a happy shinobi make.

"Uh, you're my stray," Naruto said, realizing he was digging himself a deeper hole than if he'd have just challenged her face-to-face, "By stray, I mean my sexy, talented, righteous, amazing Yoruichi. See? S.T.R.A.Y."

Hooray for makeshift acronyms. They could make anything seem less offensive than they really were. Or more so, depending on their use.

Yoruichi just stared long and hard at him in silence, the only sounds in the room being Tatsuki's quiet sounds of effort in keeping herself and Naruto up in the air, "…That was so awful, just the embarrassment you put yourself through saying that out loud was enough for me to let you off of the hook."

So… pity for a lame pick-up, "I'll take it," As long as he wasn't cut off from any action, "Where are Uryuu and Chad?"

The dark-skinned Shinigami woman grinned at the topic of the human and Quincy Equilibrium employees, "Why, working one of the assignments we had piling up in Soul Society of course. All of this fighting Aizen pro bono crap is for the birds."

"The business side is your thing, so you do whatever you think is good for us," Naruto said, effectively placing the day-to-day operation of the organization in her hands. Why not? She'd done a marvelous job so far, "By the way, twelve hours is up Tatsuki-chan."

"G-Good!" Tatsuki shouted, finding a sudden surge of energy as she kicked Naruto off of her feet and shot herself into the air with a burst of her chakra, "I've been waiting twelve hours to kick your ass!" She hurled herself through the air at him, and just as his feet touched the ground she landed the most satisfying punch she'd ever hit anyone with; because it was aimed at Naruto and it actually made contact.

Yoruichi raised an eyebrow at just how solid the punch had been. All Naruto had done to prepare was shut his eyes. Yoruichi herself was a Hakuda master, so if anyone knew about good hand-to-hand ability, it was Yoruichi.

'That would have really hurt someone,' Yoruichi thought. Tatsuki was getting strong.

But this was Naruto she was hitting. And other than his head turning from the force of the punch and his cheek bruising up underneath her fist, it didn't even register on his face that Tatsuki had slugged him, "There. You see how much power you still have when you're pissed?"

Tatsuki backed away and looked down at her fist. After her fist hand sunken into the skin of Naruto's cheek it had been like punching Wolverine's adamantine skeleton; no give whatsoever, "…Nothing? Really?"

"Oh, it hurt," Naruto admitted, grinning with his eyes closed, "But I'll be damned if I'll ever let you know how much. The fact that you think can't hurt me is a big chunk of the reason you listen to the crazy shit I say. Now hurry and hop your cute little ass in the tub to clean up," Naruto said, pointing to his attached bathroom, "I'll get you a change of clothes."

Tatsuki just glared at him in return, "Why a bath instead of a shower, and why in your bathroom?"

"Because you won't make it anywhere else before your legs figure out how tired you really are."

"Huh?" He was kidding wasn't he? Tatsuki felt great. Better than she'd ever felt in her entire life… and then she suddenly didn't. She really didn't. It took Yoruichi's quick actions in holding her up to keep her standing, "Whoa. What the hell?"

"Good job. You know what it feels like to force past what your brain and body says are your limits, so you can open at least Gate One of Eight from here on out," Naruto said with a golf clap, "Congratulations, you just learned a kinjutsu. Now don't ever do it again unless something's about to kill you."

And he couldn't have told her that this was all to teach her a new technique instead of being a sadistic taskmaster? He had cleared away an entire day of his schedule to make sure she either broke through or broke altogether.

It showed all over her face, leaving Naruto to explain. He figured that just doing the jutsu once and feeling what the results of it were after the fact would be enough, but apparently not.

"Okay, look. Eight Gates, they're like limiters for what your body is really capable of. They're in place to keep you from overworking your body and burning yourself out permanently, but you can push past them," Naruto counted them off as he tapped her in two places on her head and then down Tatsuki's body, eyes still closed, "They give you huge boosts of power for a few seconds until they close again, but the more you use at once, the worse you mess yourself up. Look at yourself. That was after opening one gate."

"So that was what that was," Yoruichi finally realized. She felt the sudden power of Tatsuki's shoot through even what her original reserves had been at the start of Naruto's exercise, "That's a brutal way of bringing up a second wind. I could feel something force open inside of her."

Nodding at Yoruichi's understanding, Naruto continued his explanation, "Depending on how strong you are when you actually open them all, there's a chance, an itty-bitty one, totally miniscule mind you, that you end up stronger than me," Tatsuki's eyes shone in consideration. If it was just damage she'd do to her own body to finally kick her sensei's ass the way he deserved, she could deal with that. She'd just have to open all of the stupid gates, "...Too bad you die right after you do it."

Yoruichi shook her head with a smile at Tatsuki's unsaid, but clearly evident teenage exuberance at sticking it to authority getting shut down, "You really thought a technique was out there that would magically boost you past someone like Naruto?"

"Ichigo's stupid Bankai and his Hollow mask make him stronger than those Espada, so yeah, I kind of did," Tatsuki said with a sigh, "This is one of those 'trust your judgment' things, isn't it?"

"No, it's a 'don't ever do it unless you're fighting somebody you know'll tear you limb-from-limb' thing," Naruto said, pinching Tatsuki's cheek, knowing that she couldn't hit him again as she was, "Seriously, don't play around with this crap. I don't even use these things myself. It was never worth it."

Mostly because he never had to in order to get a boost of power, but partially because even though his gates would stay open for longer than the first people who showed him the technique would, they would still leave him drained beyond use in the end. It wasn't worth it for him when he could generate more useful power without a kinjutsu.

Speaking of which, when Yoruichi helped Tatsuki slowly walk off to get herself washed up, Naruto sighed and opened his eyes to reveal toad-like irises just as orange pigment appeared around the edges of them. If Tatsuki had wailed on him with that punch when he hadn't had Sage Mode ready… well the experience of watching her learn about the Gates would have been way less pleasant.

Was it wrong that he wanted to see just how much she could take on before needing to take a step back chakra-wise? It didn't matter how big or unwieldy the ball that he'd hand off to her was. She'd take it, run with it, and slam dunk it right in his face, waving the middle finger at him the entire time, which was annoying. Naruto could see why people disliked it when he was young, but simultaneously he loved it.

Really, he hadn't had to teach Tatsuki how to fight. She'd already known how to on an extremely high level before he'd ever gotten a hold of her. It had only been a matter of having her adjust to fighting the supernatural, and with the abundance of different examples he had roaming the halls of Mother Base she had plenty of opponents to spar with for experience, so taijutsu was handled.

He didn't have to give her much on stealth. Tatsuki didn't take a shine to it in the first place, and Yoruichi handled it herself when she was bored. He found that out by trying to teach Tatsuki on his own and finding that she already knew the gist of what he was going to show her. It would never fail that when he did, Yoruichi would saunter past with a saucy grin on her face from fucking up his lesson plan.

And genjutsu? Pfft…

So it came down to making sure she knew what she was doing with what she was strongest at. The only way he knew how to do that was the same way he'd been taught, by being thrown into the fire firsthand.

This in mind, he brainlessly walked into the next room that he'd dispatched his student and his beau into. It seemed that they'd just settled themselves into the hot water of the tub when he'd come barging in. Yoruichi couldn't have cared less that he was looking at her naked, for obvious reasons. Tatsuki on the other hand was mortified.

"Naruto-sensei! Out!" One would think that locking the door would have been the first thing she'd thought of when using the bathroom in someone else's living quarters when she'd just had an issue with it barely five minutes prior. As if that would have actually stopped him.

Naruto simply stared at her nonplussed for several seconds, "You don't have anything I haven't seen a hundred-thousand times before," As if he hadn't been alive for the better part of two millennia. Still, even so… "…Good on you though."

Tatsuki's subsequent sliding down to her neck in the water didn't seem low enough for her tastes.

"Anyway," Naruto turned his attention to Yoruichi as she casually forced him to revise his internal definition on the merits of buoyancy, "How far along are Chad and Uryuu with their mission?"

"They just checked in at Kuukaku's house before I came," Yoruichi told him, relaxing herself in the hot water, "She moved again by the way."

Really? Well that was intriguing. The wheels were already turning inside of Naruto's head, "If I sent Tatsuki-chan first thing in the morning could she catch up with them?"

Yoruichi smiled, seeing where he was going without him needing to even tell her, "I don't see why not. I can send a Hell Butterfly tonight and tell her to hold them until she gets there."

"Wait," Tatsuki said with a grumble. They were speaking as if they were two adults talking about plans for their child. It was rather demeaning. Also, she was still naked in front of her teacher. This was also demeaning, "Are you actually sending me on a mission?"

"You killed Grand Fisher and I hear you fought against a lieutenant," Yoruichi said, kicking her leg to splash some water Tatsuki's way, "If you can do those things and we're not using you on missions by now we're either missing the boat, or someone's a little overprotective," She finished with a leer in Naruto's direction.

Naruto got onto his knees and leaned against the edge of the tub as he looked over at Tatsuki, "Well, in the end it's all up to you. I can't really make you take missions that I won't be there for."

"…So you won't be there? It'll just be a job?" Tatsuki asked carefully, getting a nod from Naruto, "…As in you won't turn it all into some horrifying exercise that they wouldn't make prisoners do on some kind of death march?" This time she received a shake of the head, "Oh yeah, I'm in."

"Aww… letting your baby bird leave the nest," Yoruichi cooed, stroking underneath Naruto's chin, "If you're skipping the overprotective father phase, I suppose I won't get to go through the enabling mother phase."

"Can we get to the 'kids are out of the house so we can have sex everywhere' phase, then?"

Tatsuki pretended that she wasn't present for this portion of the conversation.


(Soul Society – Seireitei - 1st Division Headquarters – Captains' Assembly Hall)

Once all of his captains had made themselves present, it was time to begin the meeting. With a great rumble from the back of his throat, Yamamoto rose from his seat in the great, empty hall and stood before his Shinigami, eyes roaming over the remaining leaders of the Gotei 13. They were still down three captains after the defection of Aizen, Ichimaru, and Tousen Kaname, the latter of whom now lay deceased at the hands of Karakura Town's Substitute Shinigami. But this wasn't exactly a gathering made with the intent to hash out the way to distribute their current forces.

It was hard to prepare for an eventual final encounter of a conflict when the circumstances surrounding it kept changing. Instead of dealing with a drawn-out war meant to last months, if not years, Yamamoto preferred dealing with things in one fell swoop.

A battle to end everything at once. Quick. No loose ends. But it wasn't looking to be likely to happen.

Yamamoto had been building his forces, having his top-seated officers prepare for such a fight. He was trying to anticipate Aizen's move on Karakura Town, the only place where he would bother making his move. But every time that other group did anything against Aizen, independent of the Seireitei's wishes for the way they handled their missions.

The veteran Shinigami captain knew that he couldn't control such a unit, but he figured he could guide them with compromise. Apparently not so. Uzumaki had gotten into more battles with the enemy than the Gotei 13 had. Reconnaissance missions turned into conflicts, despite the parameters set by

Aside from that, a part of him felt like Naruto was only humoring him by taking their requested assignments in the first place. As if he didn't need their money, and only agreed because he was going make some sort of move against the enemy regardless. He doubted the man really needed the money he was paid. From what they knew of him, his resources were vast, having been stockpiled in various forms throughout the eras.

Honestly, he was an ally, but only because there was someone out there who was an actual threat to existence as a whole. Had this not been the case, there was a fair chance that Naruto would have found himself at the top of the supernatural shit list.

"I've called you all here today to check on the status of our preparations for the coming battle with the Arrancar," Yamamoto said, his wizened old voice booming throughout the great hall he had gathered the remaining captains of the Gotei 13 in, "But also to inform you of the standing of an outside party. The man called Uzumaki. We may have to deal with him in the near future."

"Why would we have to deal with Uzumaki-san?" Ukitake asked, "He's actually doing damage to Aizen's Espada. He's made no hostile move against the Seireitei since the ruse that was engineered by Aizen. He's done nothing but fight this war on the front lines."

Yamamoto's stern eyes passed over his former student as he took in every word, "His actions are delaying Aizen's penultimate move. He is whittling away at our enemy and exposing more of their capabilities to us, yes, but he is ruining our approach to this war."

"Pssht, I like his style," Kenpachi said, his fingers drumming off the hilt of his sword, "He's actually fucking doing something instead of sitting on his ass at home while all the action is happening everywhere else."

Go to where the battle was, and fight it until one or none were left standing. Typical 11th Division attitude. Much more couldn't have been expected from their captain, who exemplified that outlook.

"Barbaric clod," Captain Komamura said from beneath the helmet that concealed his features, "Something like what you're implying takes preparation. Heading into Hueco Mundo half-cocked would get countless Shinigami killed."

He did not like that Naruto character. The fact that Yamamoto didn't necessarily consider him an ally that they could trust unconditionally, and the man's sway over the Substitute Shinigami Kurosaki Ichigo was enough of a reason for him. But he had run across Naruto once while he had been lingering in the Soul Society after the invasion of the Seireitei. He didn't rub him the right way.

His brazen methods which seemed to stir up the violent nature of Kenpachi, who was chomping at the bit to get himself a piece of the action, only seemed to further that mindset.

"What's there to prepare for? We go there, we cut off a few body parts," Kenpachi continued with his commonplace bloodthirsty grin on his scarred face, "There's your war," His simplified version of pitched combat actually got a snort out of Soi-Fon. Whether it was because of the arrogance behind such a statement, or the absolute travesty that would have passed for tactics in such a measure was unknown.

Hitsugaya rolled his eyes, his arms crossed as he sat and listened to everything being said by the berserk swordsman, "Asinine statement aside, I still don't see any reason to mistrust Uzumaki-san," Eccentricities aside, he wanted to put Aizen down, just like them. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and other than the initial odds that the Gotei 13 and Equilibrium had been at, they hadn't been a threat.

Kurotsuchi creeped Hitsugaya out more than Naruto ever had. The biggest problem was, the Equilibrium group was an outside entity that the Seireitei could not control. An ally one day could be an enemy the next. The examples were endless throughout recorded and unrecorded history. This was why it was so disconcerting to have such an organization exist, and during a time of war no less.

After all, no good could ever come from Ryoka.


(Human World – Karakura Town – Urahara Shop)

Naruto quite often visited Urahara Kisuke's place of business to powwow with the scientific mind. He was a highly important member of Equilibrium, and he was a pretty cool person to hang out with once you got past the fact that he absolutely lived for getting one over on everyone around him. Spending time around Urahara for any extended period of time was done at the risk of giving him some sort of advantage over you sometime in the future.

Thankfully, Naruto cared very little for that. When you lived for long enough, you learned to pick and choose the things that made you paranoid. All of that could be overlooked due to the fact that for some reason, the lot that Urahara's shop sat on got perhaps the best sun of any location in Karakura Town, and Naruto needed to keep his tan up, even if it was late fall.

That healthy coloring didn't just come from nowhere. Both of his parents were fair-skinned for goodness sake. Unfortunately, getting sun was boring, which was where Urahara came into play. He was always good for conversation.

"So, what's the haps with Old Man Yamamoto's stupid war? That still can't be happening," Naruto asked, tilting down his sunglasses to look at the shop's proprietor, sitting on the front porch of the shop out of the sun, fanning himself, "You know Aizen sees it coming from a mile away, right?"

"Not that I'm even doubting that as a possibility at all-," Urahara said with a grin, because he knew full well just how stubborn Yamamoto was. The old man believed so much in his own power that facing an enemy directly his wasn't just his first choice. It was his only choice. There was a reason Naruto had been able to run circles around the Onmitsukidou blindfolded after all. For a special ops squad, they didn't get much field work, "-But why do you think Aizen would necessarily have plans for it?"

Aside from the fact that Aizen Sousuke seemed to have plans for everything.

"I'm pretty sure if Aizen was in as deep as we think he was with all of his crap while he was still a captain, he knows the old guy would rather fight one battle instead of an actual war," Naruto said, and it made a measure of sense. A fight where Aizen would have to use all of his heavy-hitters to win. A battle where all of his cards would have to be lain out on the table for the Shinigami to see.

Such a course of action was not Naruto's cup of tea whatsoever. A fight like that would draw too many losses in too far short a time period. What actual winning strategy would go into that sort of fight? It would be nothing more than a battle royale. A fight where only the side with the absolute strongest would remain standing, and whoever wasn't would simply die on the battlefield.

If the Seireitei lost that battle, there wouldn't be anyone left to keep the Soul Society in one piece. Naruto had seen the results of such a battle before. One all-out, all-or-nothing showdown between two sides that weren't going to let the world last as it was any longer. A two-day battle that effectively ended his world as he knew it.

Sure, the Seireitei had thousands of unseated Shinigami in the multiple divisions of the Gotei 13, and more, but the previous invasion perpetrated by one former captain, a bunch of underprepared, albeit superpowered teenagers, and one immortal shinobi left them in enough of a wreck by itself, and they hadn't even been trying to do any lasting damage.

If even one or two of the Espada remained, it would have been a nigh insurmountable challenge for the lower-level Shinigami to face. Naruto wasn't the kind of person to say that someone could never defeat another, but he wouldn't have put any money on the entire Gotei 13, minus the actual power of that military, winning any sort of conflict with Aizen's forces.

If the Seireitei won, he wouldn't have put it past them to completely obliterate the losing side. They seemed to be good at that. Bounts, Mod Souls, Quincies, it looked to be their thing.

Let it be known that as the self-professed proprietor of balance, Naruto wasn't down with genocide in any way, shape, or form. Hollows existed for a reason, and all of them weren't mindless devourers of human souls. It was the primary reason he'd completely disassociated himself from the Soul Society altogether in quick fashion, because of what they had done to the Bounts, things that they had created, and what that had forced them to do as a last resort. Because of what they had done to the Quincies as well. How much of that was the fault of the other side as well, Naruto didn't know, but it was the worst kind of extreme.

The afterlife only seemed to deal in extremes. At least as far as he had seen of it thus far. It made him really not want to die… even more than he normally didn't want to, of course.

Urahara knew enough of Naruto's background to realize that the idea of settling it all at once in a 'let the chips fall where they may' manner wasn't an idea he supported. Maybe years ago he would have, but after seeing what he had seen, he had no taste for it, "You think Aizen is anticipating a battle like that?"

"I know he is," Naruto muttered miserly. If someone like him could break it down, Aizen had probably counted on such a thing long before he had even defected from the Seireitei, "He has to be. If I can see it, he definitely can. And he'll fight it," Naruto told the resident mad genius, "…He'll probably win if too, if it comes down to it…"

"Why would you say that?"

"Yamamoto would just try to flat out smoosh him," There wouldn't be a single tactic other than 'Shinigami smash', and Naruto knew it. The complete lack of any sort of plan or method of dealing with an invasion from six people proved that much, and they weren't the types to learn from past experience when it came to procedure, "Aizen would have an actual plan. He has an actual objective. His Espada and Arrancar are all pieces on a board, and he knows everything about both sides. That's why I've been trying to pick away at him. It's screwing up both sides so this bullshit doesn't happen."

Aizen couldn't feel comfortable with marching into Yamamoto's intended battle with every loss he wound up taking. He was down a few Espada now, so he had to keep planning, which was what Naruto wanted. It kept him from marching into Yamamoto's stupid, gigantic battle, which was also what Naruto wanted.

It wasn't that Naruto was against stupid, blunt action, it was his bread and butter after all. It was just that he wasn't for it when a LEADER was leading his entire command into that same stupid action and treating it like a real strategy. One could say what they wanted about Naruto, he had never dragged other people into his biggest idiot moments, of which he had many throughout recorded and unrecorded history.

If the world wanted to try and be diagonal, Naruto would affix himself as the balancing point, whether either side wanted it or not.

"I learned something from the infiltration to save Rukia that I'd already suspected when I left with the Visoreds. Something you had a part in teaching me actually," Urahara pointed out, "The Seireitei is awful at drawn out operations. If they can't pick a battleground and force a fight, they can't win. It's why they don't pursue fugitives very hard in the living world."

Yes. The Bounts, what was left of the Quincies, and more. If the Seireitei didn't take them down quickly, if the enemy went into deep hiding, they would leave them alone. Were it not for Naruto constantly sniping at him, all Aizen would really have had to do would have been absolutely nothing. Do nothing until the time came to start making his moves and then send his soldiers out in small parties to operate and get his affairs in order.

Sure, some of the ones like Grimmjow or Yammy would be positively awful at it, but that wasn't what one should have planned on using them for anyway. Instead, on several occasions, Aizen had used his Arrancar to test the waters, putting all of his enemies on constant alert instead of trying to go for the element of surprise. But why?

Thinking of a possible reason elicited a laugh from Urahara that he blocked behind his fan, "I think you forced his hand by showing that you had the ability to go back and forth to Hueco Mundo at will, and the stones to actually do it," His 'boss' was certainly an interesting factor in all of this, "He can't really plan to trap you because you, Gaara, and Hidan can leave whenever you feel the need to. As long as one of you are present on any mission and remain alive, there's nothing that can be done to stop the hit-and-runs."

"So he's scared of me?" Naruto asked, grinning at the thought of striking fear into an enemy. That was honestly a new feeling. No one was ever afraid of him in advance, "That's kind of cool."

"Not afraid," Urahara corrected, his eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat, "If nothing else, he's planning around you. And he's not happy about that. If you're right, and he was banking on making a move to counter Yamamoto's big battle for Karakura Town, you disrupted his work. He had to throw it out and make something new now."

His tone was grave, but none of this sounded particularly bad to Naruto. Still grinning he made a show of throwing his hands into the air before resting them behind his neck as he continued to lounge in the sun, "Yep. Just gonna lay here, and keep bein' awesome."

Normally, Urahara would have been all for breaking a tense moment with an attempt at humor, but not in this case, "You may have fended off one disaster, but set us on the path to another. I'm just saying, this one might be worse."

The former captain wasn't going to let him off the hook, and Naruto knew it. Sometimes circumstances around him really made him feel his age, and he really didn't feel like treating the world as though he were an old man.

"I know that Kisuke," Naruto said with a sigh, removing his sunglasses to stare directly into the sun, damage to his eyes be damned. At least he was still alive to feel the pain, unlike so many others, "But you can't think that way about these kinds of things."

Questioning your own course of action was the quickest way to finding oneself lost.

The unknown was more appealing than the alternative as far as Naruto was concerned, "You're right. We don't know what one of Aizen's alternatives will be," He conceded, "But I've got to hope that whatever it is will be a hell of a lot better than Yamamoto setting the table for the Shinigami and the Arrancar duke it out to the last man with every soul in Karakura Town as the grand prize. I've seen the way that fucking movie ends before, and personally, I'm not a goddamn fan of it."

An uncomfortable silence settled between the two before Naruto found things too awkward to remain as they were.

"Ugh. Too heavy," He said, shaking his head before sitting up in his lawn chair to turn and face Urahara, "Anyway, how's Harribel doing?"

"She wants to see her Fracción. Speak with them."

"She's going back to Aizen?"

"She won't say."

Naruto gave him a look, but he got nothing else out of Urahara than that. Realizing that his attempt to rest up to prepare for the next cluster of chaos was officially over, Naruto stood up and walked over to head inside to speak with Urahara's newest temporary guest, "Tch... where'd I put my clothes?"

"You know, between Nelliel and now Harribel, not that I don't love the caliber of the company you're bringing me these days, but I'm running out of room in my home," Urahara shouted to Naruto as the man disappeared inside of the shop, "This one doesn't seem as happy to stick around here as Nelliel was either."

"I'll talk to her!" Naruto hollered at him from where he was searching for his garments.


(Soul Society – South Rukongai – District #27 – Shiba Clan Home)

Traversing Soul Society for the first time by her lonesome was a little something of a task for Tatsuki to accomplish, seeing as how there was no public transportation and she was still getting adjusted to traveling on foot the way Naruto had taught her.

Naruto had given her a grey-colored flak vest made of the toughest material that could be fit between the fabric, an attempt to make sure that she was at the very least as protected as he could make her. She found that she couldn't stab through it with her trench knives, so the thought was appreciated. Instead of light, athletic shoes she decided to go in a pair of black all-terrain boots, and a pair of black shorts adorned her toned legs.

Being outfitted for trouble made her feel confident, even though she was traveling in the literal afterlife. And it lasted, right until she caught sight of the Shiba Clan home, in all of its flamboyance, and found herself confronted by the huge twin guards they kept in their employ.

Then the weird, out-of-place feeling that normally sat in the pit of her stomach on one of her supernatural excursions came right back, even as she was led through the house by the youngest of the Shibas.

Ganju didn't know exactly what to make of the girl. His sister's two guards let her right in, and it was up to him to show her around the place and find the people she had come to catch up with, "I've never seen you around before. I remember all of Ichigo's friends he came through here with when we hit up the Seireitei. You definitely weren't there."

The only women present back then had been Yoruichi, in cat form, and the cute one that healed things. Not this new one with the messy black hair and the poor mood hiding her nerves at being somewhere unfamiliar all alone. She wasn't hiding it particularly well.

"Uh, the first time my friends came here, I wasn't exactly in the loop," Tatsuki offered up as an excuse, rubbing her arm uncomfortably, "But Naruto-sensei signed off on me going with them on their mission, so it should be fine."

"Really now?" Kuukaku asked, the door to her office sliding open just as Ganju and Tatsuki walked past it. Sitting on the tatami mats inside, smoking her pipe, "Uzumaki's your sensei? Hah! I never figured that guy had enough brain cells to rub together to teach anyone."

Kuukaku did like Naruto. He was a friendly person, Yoruichi was taken with him, and he was a hell of a drinking buddy from the last few times he'd come around her neck of the woods. But she was an equal-opportunity chop-buster, and there were a ton of soft targets to aim at with Tatsuki's teacher.

Ganju snapped to attention at the suddenness of the door flying open, "Sis, this girl says she came to meet up with the two-."

"Ah, I heard it already Ganju," Kuukaku said, waving her brother's explanation off as she took to trying to size Tatsuki up, "...Tell you what. Go get the giant kid and the Quincy boy. Bring 'em here. They're supposed to be leaving today anyway."

Ganju nodded and hurried off, leaving Tatsuki alone with the one-armed woman. Kuukaku leered at Tatsuki with a smirk before lifting her hand and beckoning her to enter the room. Tatsuki clenched her jaw shut and walked up to her, the only thing separating the two of them being a low table.

Tatsuki had no idea how she was supposed to approach this. She hadn't planned on actually meeting this Shiba Kuukaku lady. She just figured she'd show up and then leave with Uryuu and Chad.

Kuukaku said nothing at first, just looking her over. A twirl of her finger indicating that she wanted Tatsuki to turn around got the young woman to do a short 360, where she was then subjected to more observation. Eventually, after taking another breath of her pipe, she spoke up, "So I'm assuming that you're pretty damn good. I don't see a butterfly-chaser like Uzumaki having the patience to teach anyone from scratch, even if you do have a cute ass," Tatsuki's growl did little more than to amuse her, "Can't take a compliment?"

"I don't need compliments about my ass," Tatsuki said, snark-mode engaged.

"Hm," Kuukaku hummed, taking a moment of thought after staring her down in the eyes. Apparently it was there that she found what she had been looking for, "Okay, yeah I can see it more now. You're his," Tatsuki had no idea how she'd determined that just from looking at her when she had been skeptical after first hearing about it, but there wasn't any time to dwell on any such thing.

Chad and Uryuu walked through the halls, dressed in their own respective battle outfits, both somewhat surprised to see Tatsuki there alone. They had been informed that she was coming along, but they hadn't expected her to come alone.

"Tatsuki," Uryuu said in greeting as Chad silently waved to her, "Are you ready to get going?"

Why not? It was her first mission without the safety net of Naruto being around, and she assumed that working on things like this would be similar to pulling off band-aids, the quicker the better. And she really wasn't a fan of being observed by one of Naruto's friends, "Yep, let's go."

Uryuu and Chad both bowed to Kuukaku in thanks for feeding them and allowing them to stay the night in her abode. It had been an appreciated break as they traveled across the Soul Society en route to their mission.

Kuukaku grinned at the trio, "Don't be strangers now. And girl, make sure to tell your sensei he's got a bottle waiting for him whenever he or Yoruichi comes through again."

"To break over his head, or to drink?"

"Well, just let him sweat overthinking it until I see him again."

Tatsuki cracked a smile and gestured to the direction of the exit with a sweeping gesture meant for Uryuu and Chad, "Lead the way," She said, following the two boys out, "I don't even know where we're supposed to be going or what we're doing."

Kuukaku watched them leave before thinking back to what she'd gotten out of watching Tatsuki when she'd been present. Naruto really had found someone that he could train, 'She wasn't anything like the others at all,' She observed, noting the strange combination of energies that she had until then only noticed from Naruto, 'She felt just like him. Or as much like him as any regular human could be.'

If she wound up being anything like him, she was going to be pretty dangerous. Kuukaku wished she could take a bet on just how long it would take before Tatsuki herself actually realized that much.


(Karakura Town – Kurosaki Clinic)

After his most recent excursion into the eternal desert that was Las Noches, Ichigo found it prudent to actually spend some time at home in his own body for once. A fight to the finish with an ex-Shinigami captain who had been given the powers of a Hollow had not exactly been an easy task.

But it had been his choice to go headlong into Hueco Mundo. Though Naruto hadn't ever forced any of them into the realm of the Hollows with the exception of Tatsuki for experience, Ichigo didn't really want to sit on the sidelines if there would have been a chance to reach the scumbag who was threatening his friends and all of Karakura Town.

He was a protector, and sometimes that meant trying to act before something horrible could happen. If nothing else, his involvement with Equilibrium, because he would not admit that he was employed by Naruto of all people, allowed him the opportunity to try and affect things.

With a sigh, he rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling of his room from his bed, getting a bit of a chill from the open window nearby. It had been uncharacteristically warmer and sunnier early, but now it was a cloudy, cool day outside. Appropriate for the fall. It was just as well. For once, all Ichigo wanted to do was kick back and relax for a bit.

Ichigo's vision was suddenly covered by orange fur. Damn it Kon, "You've got a day off, and this is all you're doing?" The obnoxious stuffed lion said, jumping on Ichigo's face repeatedly, "If I was in your body right now, I'd be doing way cooler stuff than just laying around!"

Ichigo reached up and plucked the Mod Soul-possessed doll off of his face before throwing him across the room into a crack in his closet, "Oh I'm sure you have your share of 'fun' whenever I'm gone. I don't even want to think of what you get up to when I'm not around."


Ichigo's eyes went wide as his father flew through his open window and dropped an elbow square in his chest. Isshin bounced off of his son, giving Ichigo enough space to move his legs underneath him and kick him across the room, sending him smack against the wall.

Completely unamused by the latest installment of his father's surprise attacks, Ichigo jumped off of his bed, shaking a fist at the elder Kurosaki, "Old man, I kid you not, I'll rub your face on the hardwood if you don't cut it out!"

Isshin coughed weakly, the wind knocked out of him, "Not a bad counteratttack my son. Perhaps you weren't as open as I thought. But I didn't come just to test you."

"Oh joy," Ichigo responded sarcastically, settling back down onto his bed to stare at the ceiling again, "Well, what's up?"

"It's about your part-time job."

A hardened glint shone in Ichigo's eyes for a second, recognizing what his father was speaking of. Discovering that Isshin used to be a Shinigami let Ichigo know that the man was aware of far more than Ichigo could have ever possibly figured. He owed Tatsuki a new pair of gloves or a new fighting game for dropping that particular dime.

"What do you want to talk about?"

With a sigh, Isshin leapt into the meat of the conversation, "Son, your boss is playing a dangerous game," He told him, "I'm not talking about the Arrancar, or Aizen. I mean the Seireitei. He's deliberately setting himself up to get on their bad side once all of that mess is over with."

Between constantly ignoring whatever authority the Seireitei thought they had over the affairs of the living world (and by extension, Naruto), the active enlistment of at least two Arrancar into Equilibrium's ranks, and the casual relationship he openly kept with several other renegade elements that the Soul Society would have been up in arms over if they had the full scope of the situation, it was just a matter of time. The moment he became a more prominent issue than handling Aizen, it would go down.

"Naruto? That guy is an idiot," He was a strong idiot, but he still did way too many dumb, eccentric things for Ichigo to really respect him as a dangerous element, "Most of the time he seems more dangerous to himself than he is to anyone else," But then, he started fighting, and all of that went out of the window, "He's not my damn boss either."

Isshin chuckled at Ichigo's perception of Naruto, and he wasn't completely wrong about it, but he was missing oh so much, "He's an idiot, just like how you thought Urahara was? The most dangerous people are the ones that can convince you that they're harmless. If he was an idiot, how would he have gotten himself where he is right now as quickly as he did?"

So he'd positioned himself smack-dab in the center of a struggle that would more than likely decide the fate of existence as a whole. The guy was 2000 years old with superpowers. He was going to wind up in the thick of it all eventually, "What does this have to do with Naruto and the Shinigami fighting?" Ichigo asked.

Isshin shook his head. He was going about trying to get his point across the wrong way.

The former Shinigami captain figured another approach, "Can you tell me off the top of your head the things you don't like about the Soul Society?" He asked, getting a deepening of Ichigo's frown, "But you still work with the Seireitei, because you're close with more than a few Shinigami there. I guarantee you, he can find more wrong than you can, and I can tell you one thing about the kind of person I figure Naruto to be. If he sees something wrong enough, he won't just sit back and accept it."

"He wouldn't fight the Gotei 13. He has friends there too," Ichigo insisted, having seen Naruto interact with and actually openly refer to some of the Seireitei's top warriors as friends of his, "Just as many as I do."

"You think he wouldn't fight them anyway if he thought he had to?"

Ichigo wanted to say no, but he remembered the way that Naruto had apparently been very close with at least two of the Bounts that had aspirations of destroying the Seireitei themselves. In the days after the deciding battles in that conflict, Naruto wasn't quite himself.

Yes. If he felt the reason was great enough to initiate it, or if they took it upon themselves to force whatever issue Isshin believed they would have with him, he would fight. He would fight, and he wouldn't be alone, even if Ichigo and all of his friends decided to cut ties.

"Just think about it," Isshin said, leaving him with that as he left through Ichigo's door.

He didn't know how to put it. Ichigo hadn't seen the kind of things and the kind of people that Isshin had seen. If it came down to it, and the Seireitei wouldn't change for the better, altering its hypocritical practices and injustices, Naruto would put it into motion himself. Especially if he was really immortal. He definitely didn't seem the type to let something he didn't like slide.

Isshin was afraid. Afraid that one day the two sides would butt heads. From what he knew of them both, Isshin was certain that they would. When they did, Ichigo and by extension the rest of his friends would be put into a position of either siding with Naruto, or siding with the Gotei 13. Ichigo would never let the side he felt had wronged the other get away with it, and the others would follow, because their ties to him were stronger than their ties to Equilibrium or the Seireitei.

His son was much too bullheaded to sit such a thing out, which was why for Ichigo's sake, Isshin hoped he was wrong. If push came to shove, he didn't think he could stop Ichigo from choosing one over the other, and he wouldn't have wanted him to go up against one side or the other in earnest.


(With Naruto – Urahara Shop)

Urahara was damn good at making Gigai, especially the ones that didn't leave energy signatures, the ones that Naruto paid him to give to Arrancar like Gaara, Hidan, Nelliel, and now Harribel. Naruto honestly had to search his whole store to find where the latter was, because he couldn't sense her.

Eventually he found her just sitting in the van that sat alongside the building, just leaning back in the driver's seat, looking at the clouds moving in the sky. Without saying a word, Naruto popped the passenger's door open and took a seat right next to her, just listening to the wind and watching the sky along with her.

After a while, he spared a glance to the side to take in her appearance as of then.

The well-endowed dark-skinned Arrancar wore a purple turtleneck and jeans, her hair remaining in its usual messy state with three braided locks. In her Gigai, there were no signs of the bones comprising the mask that normally covered the entire lower half of her face. This allowed her melancholy demeanor to make itself known in earnest.

"So," Naruto started to say, the weight of the silence bearing on him after a while, "How are you feeling? Did you heal up alright?" It was a dumb question, because Orihime had done the healing, and there was never anything left wrong with you after that girl was done with her work. He just wanted her to say something, anything.

But she didn't. Not a single word. She could have given him something Jeez, this woman was such a buzzkill, but then again she didn't exactly have a whole lot of reasons to be pleased with anything going at the moment in her life… afterlife… whatever.

"Okay, so I heard you want to talk to your Fracción," Naruto said to her, "But you don't need to let us know that. I told you, you can go and do what you want, even if it is joining back up with Aizen."

They hadn't even bothered giving Harribel a prisoner kind of Gigai, which they did have and had ample opportunity to place her into. She could leave hers of her own free will. She simply didn't have the will. Her entire reason for fighting had been proven worthless by one of the people she would have been prepared to sacrifice herself for.

Those same people still had the services of her underlings, who were far more loyal to her than they were to any real semblance of the Arrancar Army, status as Números notwithstanding. Even if they suffered no outright consequences from Aizen himself for her loss, they no longer had her protection. A sexist lunatic like Nnoitra was only one example of the other members of the Espada who would victimize them just because he could, to get her back for being a woman and having a position so much higher than him. Aaroniero would probably find an excuse and a way to eat them. Barragan would kill them off just to settle an old score.

Harribel turned her deep green eyes onto Naruto before finally choosing to grace his eardrums with the sound of her voice, "After what Gin did, and after being taken away, I know that I cannot go back," Things would never be the same again. She would be held at arm's length and easily expendable at best. it would be a complete death sentence in the worst case, "I want to make sure Mila-Rose, Apacchi, and Sung-Sun will be alright without me."

"And if they won't be?"

"...I will think of something," She responded, "We survived together, just us against every other living thing in Hueco Mundo once before all of this started. If it comes to a situation like that, I have no doubt we can do it again."

Fair enough. It was her own business. She was oversimplifying it to an absurd degree, but then again one had to be able to compartmentalize in the midst of a complex situation. This wasn't exactly cut-and-dry simple.

"Fine. Come on. You're staying with me until you leave then," Naruto said, "I'd let you stay here, but this is kind of Nel's turf. She said she wanted to leave after she paid us back for healing her, but for whatever reason she and her buddies still hang around."

Nelliel seemed to take a shine to Urahara for whatever reason, possibly something left over from him doing the bulk of taking care of her back when she'd been stuck in her child form. Whatever the reason, she liked him more than she liked anyone else in Equilibrium. She was pretty much indifferent to the rest of them for the most part. Never unpleasant, but she was hard to endear oneself to.

There was no reason to risk a Tres Espada-level catfight (rawr), unlikely as it may have been, when there was another perfectly good, much larger, possibly safer place for Harribel to stay that didn't encroach on Nelliel's Urahara Shop space.

Harribel leaned forward, setting her arms and chest on the steering wheel, "What about the Seireitei?" She asked.

Again with this? How many times did he have to have this conversation with everyone? He didn't work underneath anyone. There wasn't anyone that could really tell him what to do, "What about 'em? They don't control me. Their whole Central 46 government, or whatever it's called, is screwed up, but I don't want to get started on that. It doesn't matter. This does."


"Their idea of justice and my idea of justice-," Naruto punctuated, thunking his foot off of the dashboard of the van, "-Are two totally different things."

Here was the unbridgeable gap between the two that could probably never allow the two sides to join together for real.

Naruto's could never accept that 46 individuals sitting in a council were the ones who dictated what was right and wrong with what went on in the rest of the Soul Society and in the living world, with no real influence from anyone else actually living in the kind of hell those two planes of existence could be. And when their calls were notably corrupt and wrong, such as during the entire Rukia situation, no one questioned anything about it.

That meant that there was a precedent for b.s. calls made by them. The Visoreds and Urahara had borne witness to this firsthand, and that was just one other situation. They were infallible. When the Seireitei's government made stupid mistakes, the wronged parties didn't even get an, 'Oops, our bad,' out of it.

He had no idea how to even begin handling something like that. Not in the slightest. God, and he had wanted to be Hokage? That was just a village. This was literally a situation encompassing two entire planes of existence.

"I would have made the worst Hokage ever," Naruto said to himself with an honest laugh. Harribel didn't know what a Hokage was, or what was funny enough to laugh about at the moment, but when he opened the door to get out of the van, she went to follow him back to his base.

Whatever he was, whatever his group of individuals would wind up doing, for now they were the shelter over her head until she got to her Fracción. After all, any port in a storm.

Well, well, well. Fancy meeting you here. Small world.

Anyway, that's the situation. Three sides to a war. Nobody trusts anybody. Every side is trying to figure out how to handle the other after one of their enemies, common or otherwise, is vanquished. You know... how every multi-faceted military and political situation that has ever existed is.

It's slowly a-churning and a-building, and eventually stuff will boil over, and scorch the earth with its hotness.

Alright, that's it. Now if you'll excuse me, it's one in the morning and I have to go to work. Even with a real job, I'm still working all of the graveyard shifts.

Until the next time, Kenchi out.