Author of Chapters 1-14: XXXG-01D

Urahara sat down in the wooden chair, willing himself to get his frustration under control. He had been waiting and planning for this for over 100 years, and he was not going to let some immature Quincy cause him to lose his temper. No matter how irritating said Quincy was being. Yoruichi sat on the table, having returned to her cat form. He had noticed that she liked to take that form whenever a really serious discussion was on the agenda. He wasn't sure why, but he suspected it had something to do with her deeper voice in the smaller form.

He brought his attention back to the reason for said really serious discussion, pushing his theories about Yoruichi's reasons for preferring her cat form to the back of his mind.

The Quincy that had demanded the discussion that they were about to have was obviously working hard to keep his cool, just like Urahara himself was. His lips were pressed into a thin line and his jaw was clenched as he waited for Urahara to make the first move. Chad was also there, but he was more surprised and curious than angry, one of the advantages of the giant being a much more easygoing person than Uryu. 'Or maybe it just hasn't really sunk in yet.' The more cynical part of Urahara's mind chimed in.

Well, if the Quincy wanted him to start, then start he would. "I suppose you want to know why I kept this from you." It wasn't a question.

Chad opened his mouth, but Uryu beat him to the reply. "It would certainly be nice." Uryu snapped. Chad glanced at him, not liking the hostility between his friend and his teachers. While he was upset as well, keeping this discussion civil and reasonably pleasant would be far more productive than turning it into a place to vent their frustrations. They could do that in the training area.

"I didn't tell you initially because I didn't want you distracted or upset at me while you were training for going to Soul Society. Either of those would have slowed down your training, and considering that you barely survived while you were there, I'd say that any slowing of your training would have been…fatal." The last word hung in the air.

"You could have told us after we got back from Soul Society." Uryu was not going to let this go. Even if Urahara did have a reason (a fairly flimsy reason, Uryu felt, but one that could be justified) for not telling them before they went to Soul Society, it had been six months since they'd returned, there was no way Urahara could justify not telling them in the meantime.

"You're right, I could have. Maybe I should have." Urahara sighed. "But I was hoping that he wouldn't become involved in this war, and I didn't want to burden you with the knowledge unless it became absolutely necessary."

"You mean you wanted to keep using us, and you wouldn't be able to if we knew about what happened." Uryu immediately shot back.

"It's not that black and white, Uryu." Yoruichi's voice rumbled from the small body. "It may not have been the best of decisions, but we are trying to save your hometown. We and the Shinigami are the only things standing between this town and Aizen sacrificing it." Uryu drew in a breath, preparing for a seething retort when she continued. "Yes, we didn't tell you the whole truth, and yes, we probably could have handled it better, but remember the larger picture here, Uryu. You're not in a position to be burning any bridges right now."

Chad intervened before Uryu could say anything else. He could tell that his friend was not in a rational state of mind, and that anything he said was likely to make things worse. "Could you tell us what actually happened?"

Urahara nodded. "I don't think it'll hurt anything now. The first part of his training went well, but the second part…"

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Chad sat in the training area, slowly going over what he'd learned. His best friend was a Hollow. Not just a Hollow, but one of the strongest warriors on Aizen's side. He would be attacking them. He would have to be beaten, probably killed, in order to protect his town. In order to protect his sisters, the ones Chad had promised to protect. Now, he'd be protecting them from the man he had sworn the promise to. He couldn't even imagine a more screwed up scenario.

He looked over at Uryu, the Quincy still obviously furious. The young archer's bow had recently begun to look like a silver spider web. Shots were flying off the bow so quickly that it looked more like a solid stream of blue energy than a large collection of individual arrows.

After he had finished explaining things, Urahara had invited them to use the training room to blow off some steam while he made a report on the nights events to Soul Society. Even as angry as he was at Urahara, Uryu was taking full advantage of that invitation, since there weren't very many other places that he could destroy things with impunity. "Uryu." He called, worried for the other boy.

Uryu looked over. "Yes?"

"Are you still upset?"

It was so obvious a question that Uryu didn't even dignify it with a response, but he knew what Chad was really asking. "He lied to us. He lied to us for over six months, and he only told the truth when it was staring him in the face. And then he has the nerve to get on my case for 'giving information to the enemy'." His last words were spoken with a venomous hiss. "I might not have been as shocked if he hadn't lied to me and led me to believe that Ichigo was gone for good, but then he goes and blames me for a mess that he caused."

"He explained the situation. He apologized for deceiving us." Chad pointed out.

Uryu gave him a hard stare. "Maybe you're content with his justifications and an apology, but I don't know if I'll ever trust him again." With that, Uryu used Hirenkyaku to move to the entrance, unwilling to stay any longer.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Rukia Kuchiki slowed to a stop in front of the small monument, smooth granite glittering under the pale moonlight. It was something she found herself doing more and more lately, coming to the monument when she couldn't sleep, talking to two of the names carved into its surface.

Jushiro Ukitake. Renji Abarai. Ikkaku Madarame. The three of them had been given a small monument for their part in the discovering of Aizen's treachery, mostly due to Captains Kyoraku, Kenpachi, Hitsugaya and Kuchiki campaigning for it. There were also rumors going around that the Captain Commander had wanted to have a memorial for his student.

Rukia knelt down in front of the monument, her head bowed for a moment before she began to speak. "Hello Captain Ukitake." She paused for a moment, almost as if expecting a response. "It's been a couple of days since the last time we talked. Lieutenant Sasakibe is doing a fine job of running Squad 13, Captain Ukitake. Even Kiyone and Sentaro are starting to get back to their old selves. I've moved up in rank again, I'm now at 4th Seat." She laughed sadly. "Ever since my brother let me become a seated office, I've moved up very quickly. Lieutenant Sasakibe says that once everything is settled and a new Captain is found for Squad 13, he's going to recommend me for a Lieutenant's position. He also said my growth lately has been remarkable. I've talked with Sode no Shirayuki a lot more lately, and I think I'm getting close to learning a Fourth Dance. Just the other day, I cast Gochutekkan (Quintet of Iron Pillars) for the first time. That's the second new Kido spell I've learned in the last six months, and I'm trying to learn Senju Koten Taiho (Thousand-Hand Bright Heaven Culling-Sear). I know it's a Level 91 spell, and I've got a long way to go, but my brother is helping me. He says that he knows the spell, but doesn't like using it."

She went silent for a moment to compose herself. She was starting to ramble, something she found herself doing quite often at the memorial. It was like Captain Ukitake was there, the kind, gentle man that everyone in the Squad had loved, but without the sickness or the duties that had made him seem so inaccessible to her before. While he would never have turned her away had she wanted to talk, it had always seemed wrong to ask a man who already shouldered so much to listen to her problems too. But now she imagined his spirit there, as kind as ever, but with no responsibilities, and now she could talk to her hearts content. Now, intellectually she knew that her Captain was gone, reincarnated into the world of the living as a new soul, but sometimes it helped if she pretended that his spirit was there, ready to listen to anything she had to say.

"Hello, Renji." It was always harder for her to talk to Renji than it was to talk to Captain Ukitake, and she knew why. She still felt guilt, guilt over how she had treated him after they had left the academy, and guilt over how he had died to save her, even after how she'd treated him. More than once she had broken down at the memorial. "Brother still refuses to replace you. You left more of a mark on him than I thought anyone could." She was silent for a moment, wondering what else she could say. "Your friends at Squad Eleven haven't stopped howling for blood because of you and Ikkaku dying. Just last week they presented a petition to the Captain Commander, asking for Ca-Tosen's head when he's finally caught. They want it as some kind of trophy." Rukia laughed lightly. "At least they've stopped asking for Lieutenant Sasakibe's head. Lieutenant Kusajishi was leading the charge on that one, but even she seems to have given up lately."

Tears were starting to fall from her eyes, her feelings of guilt seeming to swallow her whole. "Kira's doing well." She whispered. "So is Yumichika. He's made 3rd Seat, now that Ikkaku's gone. I-"

Footsteps interrupted her, and her head whipped around to see who it was. A lone figure emerged from the darkness, medium height with short, dark red hair. He paused as he saw her. "I'm sorry." Came his voice. "I didn't realize that anyone else was here." He turned to leave. "I don't want to interrupt your time with them. I'll come back later." Rukia nodded her thanks as he disappeared back into the shadows.

In a way, she was almost glad for the interruption. It gave her a chance to calm down and collect her thoughts. She'd been getting close to just rambling, and that wasn't what she was here for. "I just want to know why, Renji. After everything, why did you give up your life to rescue me? What made you think that I was worth it?"

'Maybe he didn't think you were.' The thought chilled her. 'After all, you saw that he attained Bankai, maybe he didn't think that you were worth giving up his life for at all. Maybe he thought that he wouldn't die, and when he did he died cursing you for dragging him into that situation.'

That was a thought that she had been trying very hard to avoid confronting. Not only did it make a terrible amount of sense, it also wasn't like she could ask Renji whether it was true or not, since he was now dead. "I'm just so sorry. I wish that I had treated you better after we got into the Squads, and I wish that you were here so I could tell you how sorry I am."

She stayed like that, staring at the granite statue for the next several minutes, never having felt more alone.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

"Thank you for waiting while I spoke to my Captain." Rukia said as she bowed to the solemn man.

"Were you part of Captain Ukitake's squad as well?" He asked, seeming to brighten up. "I've been gone for three hundred years, so I don't know any of the newer people to the Seireitei."

"Yes. I'm the Fourth Seat, Rukia Kuchiki." She responded, inclining her head.

"The Fourth Seat? And a Kuchiki?" He paused for a moment. "I'm honored to meet you. I'm Ashido Kano. I was an unranked member of Squad 13 when my entire patrol got trapped when we pursued fleeing Hollows into Hueco Mundo. I just recently returned when Sosuke Aizen was leaving Soul Society. I've been kept under surveillance since I came back, and this is my first chance to really come out and about." He used his thumb to point over his shoulder. "I've still got a tail, they don't trust me. I don't blame them, really, my arriving right when Aizen left is more than a little suspicious. But I wanted to see the memorial for Captain Ukitake, to tell him how the members of that patrol died."

"He cared about every member of his Squad." Rukia said quietly, looking over her shoulder towards the monument.

Ashido smiled slightly. "Indeed he did. That's one of the reasons that I admired him as a Captain so much. A lot of the Captains, especially the Noble ones, are cold to the point you'd think they see their troops as little more than those Mod Souls I've heard people talk about, completely disposable." Rukia winced at the comparison, but couldn't find it in herself to actually deny it. Her brother was completely callous to the members of his squad. Even Aizen, Ichimaru and Tosen had been kinder to their Lieutenants than her brother had been to Renji. Before she could respond, he continued. "I've heard about you."

What he had said about the Captains who were Noble, and his implied insult towards her brother, vanished from her mind. "You have?"

"Yes. How could I not have? It was the effort to rescue you that nearly brought Soul Society into open civil war, and resulted in the deaths of a Captain and a Lieutenant." His eyes were almost completely blank, she could see nothing of what he was thinking, and that unnerved her more than almost anything else would have.

Rukia winced for the second time. "D-Do you blame me for his death?" She almost feared the answer. While no one had come out and said it, several members of her own Squad had taken to avoiding her. And in some ways, the ostracism hurt worse than people outright blaming her would have. At least then she'd be able to interact with other people, instead of being left alone with her guilt.

"No." Rukia's eyes widened. There was no doubt in his voice, no hesitation whatsoever. He genuinely did not blame her for the death of the beloved Captain. He continued to speak as he stared into the distance behind her, the famed 'thousand yard stare' that everyone who had seen a comrade die slipped into on occasion, herself included. "How could I? If Captain Ukitake believed that saving you was a cause worth giving up his life for, then I'm not going to be the one to say that he was wrong."

Rukia's lower lip trembled as she looked down at the ground. "Thank you." She said, so quietly she was sure he wouldn't be able to hear her. And for a moment, it appeared that he hadn't, as he continued to stare at the monument.

"After my patrol got stranded in Hueco Mundo, it was…brutal." He began, not looking away from the monument. "The Hollows were everywhere. It seemed there was no safe place we could run, and no matter how many we killed, more showed up to take their place." Rukia looked over at him, sensing that this would be something she wanted to hear. "I wasn't the strongest member of the patrol, I wasn't the fastest, I wasn't the best swordsman, and I wasn't the best Kido user. But as we began to be picked off, as the hours turned into days and we started to fall to the Hollows, three of my squad members gave up their lives to save me. Three different times I was about to die, and three different times a member of our patrol took the blow for me. After everyone else was dead, I managed to escape, hiding out in the caves that line a certain section of the Menos Forest." He focused on her face again, looking down at her with eyes that radiated wisdom just like Captain Ukitake's always had, the eyes of a man that had seen horrors, had suffered and lived to tell about it. "The forest was fierce. There was no place for the weak, they couldn't survive. So I fought and bled, barely escaping with my life on numerous occasions. Yet I always wondered why my comrades had chosen to save me. I couldn't understand why they gave up their lives for me, when there was no certainty that I would live even after their sacrifice. But as the years went by, I realized something. It didn't matter why they'd given up their lives for me. It didn't matter that I didn't think I was worthy of their sacrifice. What mattered was that they thought I was worth dying for, and that they had entrusted me with living as long and as well as I could in exchange for their sacrifice. So I stayed in the Menos Forest, I killed all the Hollows I could. I wanted to make a difference, to prevent the Hollows from hurting innocent people, so that their deaths would mean something important."

He reached his hand out to place it on her shoulder, hesitated for a moment, and then rested it on her shoulder. "I don't know why Captain Ukitake chose to give his life for you. But I'd like to think that he'd be happier if he knew you were living the best life you could live." He withdrew his hand and took a step back. "I'm sorry for being so forward, it's just that I didn't want you to have to suffer for one hundred years before starting to cope with what happened, the way I did." He turned toward the monument, doubtlessly eager to speak to Captain Ukitake, but he paused and turned his head to fix his eyes on hers again. "Remember, we all choose our own paths to follow. We can never know why someone else chose the path they did. We can only do our best to live our lives as well as we possibly can, and to not dishonor those who thought that we were worth protecting."

With that, the man walked into the darkness, Rukia staring wide-eyed at his back until he disappeared.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Sosuke Aizen sat in his quarters, pondering recent events. "I'm certain Soul Society has discovered what information I accessed in the library of the Central 46, and what I plan to do with it." They weren't all incompetent morons, just most of them. There was no doubt in his mind that they had managed to figure out at least the gist of his plan. "The Espada are fully assembled, and Szayel especially will tip the tide in my favor should it come to out and out war." While that was an option, it wasn't high on his list, especially anywhere near Karakura Town. It wouldn't do to kill most of the people that he would need for the sacrifice. A war in Soul Society would be a better choice, but outright wars were inherently chaotic, and something was bound to go wrong during one. Worst case scenario, he might even outright lose. But that was pretty far down the list of options, he had other more subtle, less risky options.

"That just leaves the Quincy." He formed a steeple with his fingers under his chin, letting his mind wander. "If he was as close to Kurosaki before he died as Ulqiuorra seems to believe, then Kurosaki could prove to be what draws him away from Soul Society. He is a Quincy, and thus I doubt that he has a very high opinion of Shinigami to begin with, but the combination of his seeming bond with Kurosaki and the revelation of Kurotsuchi's experiments on his ancestors should be enough to turn him fully against them." Not that the Quincy would be alone in hating Kurotsuchi. Tosen couldn't stand the man, and Aizen found it very difficult to be near the man for any length of time as well. 'Gin certainly finds him amusing, though.' Aizen thought. Then again, Gin found nearly everything amusing.

Anyway, back on track, the Quincy would be a valuable addition, not only as a warrior who fought Byakuya Kuchiki to a draw, but also as an agent on the other side, better for fermenting discord, providing intelligence for him and disseminating false information to his foes. After all, Aizen was a man who well understood the value of a well-placed backstab, both of his greatest successes having come from betrayals. "If he is able to be swayed to my side." Aizen murmured softly. That was the key condition, if he was able to be persuaded to join Aizen. "Perhaps he could even provide me with information about the nature of the other boy's powers, the one who fought Komamura. Even with as little as I was capable of seeing, it seemed to be a most intriguing power. Right now I don't have the luxury of pursuing it, but perhaps later."

Unfortunately, that all hinged on the cooperation of the Quincy, and after he had been in contact with Urahara for several months, the former 12th Squad Captain had doubtlessly filled the Quincy's head with stories about how evil of a man Aizen was. And that, unfortunately, meant that the Quincy would be predisposed to disbelieve anything that Aizen said, no matter how truthful he was or how easy it was to confirm what he said. But perhaps his bond with Kurosaki from when he was alive could be used to get him to at least listen to Aizen's point of view. After a few more moments of deliberation, staring at the blank wall in front of him, he settled on what he felt was most likely to succeed and nodded in satisfaction. "Kaname would be best. Kaname would be able to better connect to the boy, as a fellow victim of Shinigami. Use Kurosaki to lure him to a remote area where the Quincy and Tosen could converse without anyone interrupting, as well as show him that the Arrancar are capable of controlling their instincts, that they are no longer merely crazed monsters like most regular Hollows are. That would make him more sympathetic to my plan of converting all Hollows into Arrancars; certainly he would be able to see the benefits of such a system." There was the minor problem that Aizen was going to sacrifice the Quincy's hometown in order to create the King's Key, but he was relatively confident that Tosen could argue the Quincy around to their viewpoint, that it was a necessary sacrifice in order to change the deplorable way things worked.

However, the possibility that the Quincy might attempt to backstab him was not something to overlook. The Quincy would not be brought to Las Noches, he would not be privy to the details of Aizen's plans, and all communication after the initial probe with Tosen and Kurosaki, should the Quincy even be amenable to conversation, would be done by proxy, a low level Arrancar that was expendable. Some of Aizen's greatest successes had come from betrayals, he was not willing to expose himself, to render himself vulnerable to a betrayal. The Quincy would have to handled with care, both to make him more useful, and to minimize any chance of a successful and harmful betrayal.

Aizen stood up, mostly content with his plan. He was tempted to call Tosen and Ichigo in immediately, but it was very late, or rather, very early, and it would be better if Tosen wasn't fighting grogginess as he attempting to win the Quincy over to their side. Not to mention the small fact that sending in both of them would draw all the defenders to them like flies to honey, and would make it much more difficult to get the Quincy alone for the length of time needed for them to have a worthwhile debate. While he could send in numerous Arrancar, that would likely draw reinforcements, and he wasn't prepared to start sacrificing his troops this early. Suddenly, he recalled the memory of the night when Kisuke Urahara was banished from Soul Society. "That cloak. It hid its wearer's Reiatsu. I wonder is Szayel would be able to create something similar?" Deciding it was at least worth a shot, Aizen used Kyoka Suigetsu's hypnosis powers to send a message to Szayel, saying that he would like to see the scientist in the throne room immediately.

He strode towards the door to his room, hoping that Szayel would give him a positive response. "Soon, everything will fall into place." He murmured, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips.

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Mayuri Kurotsuchi was the last Captain to arrive, and silently taking his place beside Toshiro Hitsugaya, waiting for the meeting to begin. All nine remaining Captains were there, as were acting Captains Shuhei Hisagi of Squad Nine, Kira Izuru of Squad Three, Ise Nanao of Squad Five and Chojiro Sasakibe of Squad Thirteen.

Yamamoto thumped his cane on the floor once to make sure he had everyone's attention. "Last night, three Arrancar invaded the world of the living. Sosuke Aizen has begun to move." He paused for a moment to make sure that the gravity of the situation was not lost on anyone there, and resumed speaking when he was satisfied that it was not. "Kisuke Urahara was able to repel the assault, although he reports that it was a reconnaissance mission, as confirmed by one of the Arrancar when they retreated. He estimated two of the invaders as probable Vasto Lorde class Arrancar, and the third as most likely high Adjuchas class. He also reported that the two probably Vasto Lordes were introduced as the Third and Fourth Espada. He believes that these "Espada" are Aizen's strongest forces, and that they are ranked in order of decreasing strength, based upon the Reiatsu levels of the ones he encountered. If he is correct, then Aizen has a minimum of four Vasto Lorde Arrancar under his command, along with the three traitorous Captains and probably several powerful Adjuchas Arrancars."

Aside from Kenpachi, every face in the room was grim. "It looks like Aizen hasn't been just sitting around the last six months. This is going to be a lot harder than I'd hoped." Shunsui Kyoraku was the one to break the silence, reaching up to pull his straw hat down lower on his face.

"We have not been idle, either." Yamamoto continued where he had left off, sweeping his gaze across the assembled Captains, letting his eyes linger on the acting Captains. "Squad Ten Captain Toshiro Hitsugaya informed me several weeks ago that his Lieutenant had succeeded in attaining Bankai using Kisuke Urahara's training device. Have any of you" he looked at all those who did not possess a Captains Haori "or your subordinates" now his gaze turned to those that did possess the garment "succeeded in attaining Bankai?"

In the aftermath of Aizen's betrayal, several arrangements had been made with Kisuke Urahara. In return for his aid during the war and access to his inventions that might prove useful, his banishment had been lifted and he had been given full access to his successor Mayuri Kurotsuchi's research. Kurotsuchi had not been happy, but his protests had been overruled by Yamamoto, who was still the highest authority in the Gotei 13. Even though the Central 46 had been reformed, they were in a state of war against Aizen, and it wasn't wise to have a committee try to run a war, so anything dealing with the Squads was Yamamoto's domain until the end of Aizen's threat.. One of Urahara's inventions that Soul Society had received was his special Bankai training doll. It was essential that Soul Society get more Bankai capable people in their ranks as quickly as they could, so all of the Lieutenants and Third Seats had undergone harsh training, and when they felt that they were ready, had been allowed to use the doll in an attempt to reach Bankai. Thus far, only Rangiku Matsumoto had attempted it, and Yamamoto had been hoping for more than just one new Bankai user by the time they had to go to war against Aizen's forces.

None of the Captains responded positively, but both Shuhei Hisagi and Kira Izuru answered in the affirmative. "We've been practicing with them for the last week." Hisagi volunteered.

Yamamoto waited for a moment. "Very well. Now we must send reinforcements to Karakura Town. In a way, we have been fortunate that Aizen delayed the last six months, as it gave us a chance to build up our strength and stabilize our command structure, however Aizen's forces are powerful, and it is unlikely that Urahara will be able to repel a serious assault. At the same time, we cannot leave Soul Society undefended."

"If I may, Captain Commander." Sajin Komamura spoke up. "Perhaps it would be best to send those who have recently attained Bankai as the reinforcements? There are currently four fighters in Karakura Town capable of fighting the level of a Captain, and with them as backup, those who have recently attained Bankai could gain valuable experience in using their Bankai in a real combat situation without too great a danger of losing them while they're getting that experience. It would also allow us to keep the Captains here in case Aizen attempts anything."

Yamamoto nodded. "Kira Izuru and Shuhei Hisagi." Both of them straightened slightly. "Lieutenants Isane Kotetsu and Iba Tetsuzaimon will be handling your duties as temporary Captains while you are in the world of the living. Make certain that they are fully informed of everything they need to know before you leave." They were already stretched thin, but both Squad Four and Squad Seven still had a Captain and a Lieutenant, and could afford to be without their Lieutenants services if they were needed to run help run another Squad. Technically Squads Eleven and Twelve also had both a Captain and a Lieutenant, but Lieutenants Kurotsuchi and Kusajishi would not be permitted to run a Squad.

"I've never fought a Vasto Lorde before, but aren't they supposed to take two Captains to handle?" Surprisingly, Kenpachi Zaraki was the one who spoke up. "If that's the case, and Aizen's supposed to have four of them, then three Lieutenants who've only just achieved Bankai aren't going to be enough. I think you should send a Captain down there with them." Kenpachi grinned, and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he had brought it up specifically because he was hoping to be sent with them. After Yamamoto's summary of Urahara's report, he was practically salivating at the chance to be on the front lines when Aizen's forces attacked for real.

Yamamoto considered the bloodthirsty Captain's words. What he said was true, and sending three Lieutenants with no Captain to coordinate them was asking for trouble, since Lieutenants weren't in the habit of taking orders from each other. There was also the need for someone who could face Urahara as an equal. As helpful as the man was being, he was still a wild card.

The question was who to send? He would prefer to send a Captain who still had a Lieutenant with them, so they didn't have to do still more shuffling around, but with Isane Kotetsu and Iba Tetsuzaimon getting set to temporarily assume command of a Squad, the only Captain/Lieutenant pairs left intact were Kurotsuchi and his daughter, Zaraki and Kusajishi, and Soi Fon and Omaeda. Kurotsuchi was too deep in the projects that he had been assigned to be spared, not to mention he needed to be kept on a short leash. Zaraki needed to be kept on a short leash as well, setting him loose in Karakura Town would be a disaster. That just left Soi Fon.

'Yes, that will do.' Soi Fon was probably the best bet. She was easily capable of blending in, she knew how to minimize collateral damage during a fight, and she had previous experience with Urahara. "Very well. Soi Fon, you will leave with them." Zaraki's shoulders visibly slumped, the man clearly dejected at not having been chosen.

"Yes, sir." Her response was short.

There was just one more item to address. "Captain Kurotsuchi. How much progress have you made with Projects Daylight and Spearhead?"

Kurotsuchi glanced over at him. "Project Daylight has been going poorly. I have been unable to discover exactly how Aizen's Kyoka Suigetsu works, or come up with a counter for it." He cocked his head to the side. "Perhaps if the limits regarding how invasive my procedures are allowed to be were removed, I might be able to make more progress."

"We have been over this before, Captain Kurotsuchi." Yamamoto said, rejecting his proposal. "And the answer has not changed."

"If you are not willing to allow me optimum conditions for success, then do not be surprised when my research takes longer." Kurotsuchi let his opinion of Yamamoto's decision be well known.

"Enough. We are not here to engage in petty arguments." Yamamoto cut off that part of the conversation. "What about Project Spearhead. How has that been progressing?"

Mayuri gave one final glare before responding. "That, at least, has been going according to schedule. The Mod Souls have powers that are greatly improved from the original batch, and the special Gigai's that they will be using grant them superior performance to every artificial warrior ever created up to this point." Now there was a note of pride in Mayuri's voice, clearly pleased at having one-upped his predecessor, Kisuke Urahara. "Their performance will vary, but the strongest among them will be capable of easily fighting at the level of a Third Seat. The first batch is completed, and we are moving into full production, manufacturing five new Mod Souls and their accompanying Gigai's per week."

At least that was going according to plan. Yamamoto had hoped to have a counter for Aizen's Zanpakuto, several new Bankai users and the Mod Souls by the time that Aizen began to move, but it seemed that he'd only have about half of what he had wanted. "Does anyone else have any business they need to bring up?" After a moment, he continued. "Captain Hitsugaya, inform your Lieutenant of her new assignment. Those of you who are going to the world of the living, make your preparations and leave as quickly as possible. The rest of you, return to your duties. Dismissed."

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

Ichigo strode down the white halls of Las Noches, a scowl on his face as he wandered, not really thinking about where he was going. He'd gone to bed shortly after Aizen had dismissed him, but now he was awake again and naturally the person he would usually hang around with, Grimmjow, was still asleep. Normally he would have woken the other Arrancar up, but he hadn't wanted to deal with a grouchy Grimmjow on top of his already sour mood.

He descended down a flight of stairs, grumbling to himself as he strode through an open doorway. "I can't believe that Aizen postponed the attack. There were five people, one of which was too weak to even come out, and I think that just me, Ulqiorra and Nel could have taken the four that were out there. With all the rest of the Espada plus three Captains, it should have been a piece of cake for Aizen to waltz into that town, but no, he decides he'd rather play mind games with his enemies." He stalked down the dark corridor, wondering why Aizen insisted on making everything so complicated. "I'll never understand him. And if it wasn't for the fact that he kicked my ass so thoroughly I wouldn't even be here."

Ichigo stepped out into the moonlight, the sand shifting as his weight pressed down on it. He kicked at it as he looked up at the moon, longing for the days when he had been free to do whatever he wanted without restriction, where he had answered to nobody but himself.

"It's beautiful, isn't it?" The voice had him instinctively reaching for his Zanpakuto, before he stopped as he recognized the voice and the Reiatsu.

"Neliel." He greeted as he turned to face her. 'I must have been really caught up in my thoughts if I didn't sense her before she said something.' "What are you doing out here?" He asked.

"Looking at the moon, just like you were." She said softly, raising her eyes to look at it again. Ichigo shrugged, falling back into his own thoughts. Before he could get very far, her voice jolted him back into awareness. "Kurosaki, may I ask you a question?"

"Sure, go ahead." While Neliel wasn't his ideal choice for conversation, she was better than being by himself.

Her large hazel eyes gazed at him quietly for a moment before she finally spoke. When she did, it was a question which he had never expected to be asked. "Why do you fight?"