Disclaimer: I own nothing. If I did, I would have the money to buy all the bacon I wanted. But I don't. So, no bacon.

I find her sitting on the roof of First Division's central compund.

Her head craned up, watching my descent: Moonlit, naked to the waist, torso a crosswork of finger-thick scars and bandages, that's me, Kurosaki Ichigo.

I touch down to her right, sitting down with not so much as a word, simply taking in the spectacular view the roof affords us.

Damn me sideways, but she looks terrible.

And so we sit.

Neither of us speaks. I cannot bring myself to say what I shou-

Then my face craters the roof between where Rukia and I are sitting.

Ow. Someone kicked me. Who the fuck kicks a wounded man in the head with no advance wa-

Oh, yeah.

"Hiyori. What is wrong with you?"

I do not sputter. I merely try to dislodge the pieces of shattered shingles from my mouth.

Yeah, right. From their looks, they don't buy it.

"You two sittin' there, I'm telling you , it looks so pathetic. 'n I know you can take tap on the head like that. So what the hell is wrong with you two?"

Let me explain: Yes, this is indeed Sarugaki Hiyori, formerly of the Twelfth Division, formerly of the Karakura Vizards, currently Captain, Twelfth Division.

Face, meet roof, round two.

"Stop it already!"

Ah, sweet concern in Rukia's voice. But why? She knows this won't hurt me even if Hiyori really tried - and she isn't, or she would've kicked me straight down to the tower's foundation.

"You two're sitting here together in the moonlight, all mopey-mopey, soulful gazes into the starry sky and whatnot. Pathetic! Could you at least try to be less cliched in your sadness?"

Damn her. From the flush on Rukia's face - embarrassment mixed with anger, hard-earned experience with her tempers tells me - and the way I'm tensing up, Hiyori knows she's hit a point.

Unfortunately, the look on Hiyori's face promises nothing but pain and misery for us if we so much as try to arg... oh, there Rukia goes. In the worst way possible.

"Have you any idea? ANY idea what it is like? My brother is dead! My best friend died at his side! Eighty-five of every hundred of my colleagues are dead!"

The sound of palm meeting cheek is loud in the stillness of midnight.

"Rukia... no, Kuchiki Rukia-san, remember who you are talking to." There is steel in her voice, steel with a razor's edge.

Yeah. That gets through to her. And to me, too. No matter how much I lost - Oh Inoue, I would burn the world for a chance to save you if not for the fact that you would choose to save the world over saving your own life - it is so easy to forget the price Aizen's mad war demanded from Hiyori. A great career, flatlined. More than a century of exile. The agony of being the last woman standing of her group. The sole survivor of her generation of exiles.

At least in Rukia's case - and mine - some of our friends survived the Winter War. Toushiro even manages to make that eyepatch of his look good.

"I know it hurts, Rukia. It hurts so much. Aizen's great crime against the very core of what a Shinigami is... all those that died in its wake... It hurts. I've experienced that pain for eleven decades now. And no, it doesn't get easier, ever."

Damn. I lucked out, then. When we moved in to kill Aizen Sousuke, the Arch-Traitor, he ruined everything in one last moment of spite. And it seems Hiyori went along the same train of thought I did.

"We had a century, Rukia, to get to grips with what he did to us. You haven't even had a month. But listen to me. Seireitei is at the point where you and that damn fool there-"

I try to speak, to take offense, but it's face vs. roof, part three for me the moment my lips twitch.

"- where you and that damn fool there need to get to grips with things. The change Aizen wrought upon us is terrible, yes, as is the death-toll. You think I don't miss my friends? But we - no, Seireitei as a whole - needs you two."

Every time Hiyori says "we", every time she uses "us", Rukia flinches. I know she's imagining the skeletal bone-mask over Hiyori's face as the pint-sized captain speaks - I know I am.

I reach out towards Rukia, putting a hand on her shoulder. My other hand raises in warning to stop Hiyori from kicking me again. Kick me once, shame on me. Kick me twice, you're good at this. Kick me thrice, you're trying to drive a point home. Kick me more than that, and I kick back.

Hiyori understands.

So we settle down. Rukia between me and Hiyori, trembling hands gripping her uniform as she struggles with the literal demon within.

Hiyori and I share a glance. No, it doesn't ever get any easier. She knows it, I know it, and Rukia will have to learn. As will every other shinigami.

Aizen, whereever you are, I hope the toremnts inflicted upon you in that place are beyond the ability of a shinigami's undying mind to comprehend. Because you deserve every bit of agony that can be inflicted upon you for doing this.

Declaring war on Seireitei? Many of the things I've learned about the Gotei 13 and this place made me come close to fighting them for being such callous, inhuman bastards. But I didn't... mostly because we were fighting you, Arch-Traitor. So declaring war isn't why I hate you so much. No, you bespectacled wretch, it was your spitefulness that makes me curse you.

Breaking Inoue and using her powers to do... whatever you did with the Hougyoku, that is what I hate you for. Hueco Mundo is dead now, truly dead. You used your realm as the fuel for your last act of vengeance. You unleashed the demon within, the Hollow to every Shinigami, and in doing so broke Seireitei far more thoroughly than anything you did while we were actually fighting the Winter War.

You were dead, yes, and ninety-nine out of every hundred hollows in Hueco Mundo with you, but the shinigami were soon to follow.

Only the smallest percentage of them managed to defeat their Hollow on their own. Those that wrangled the beast within down found themselves facing the bestial caricatures of friends, comrades and loved ones.

For every hundred shinigami, we lost sixty to the hollowification. Bestial, mindless, gone. Of the forty that remained, we lost twenty-five in the fights against the Lost. From captains to the lowest sweepers, every shinigami was affected. Most of them are dead, now

Still is affected. Whatever you did, Aizen Sousuke, I curse you and I hope you suffer for it. Every new shinigami undergoes the process now, and it is all we can do to try and help them.

"Rukia."

My voice startles both women out of whatever thoughts went through their heads - probably the same vengefully morose ones I had.

"The half-pint is right. It doesn't get any easier. But you saw me before what happened at the Execution Hill. Trust me, Rukia. It doesn't get easier, but you get stronger despite... no, because of it.. You can control it... you will control it."

Hiyori nods at me, appreciating the comment. "Listen to him, Rukia. Everyone, and I mean absolutely everyone is looking up to you two right now. Other than me and the idiot, you've got the most experience with this stuff... yeah, only a few seconds more of actual transformation, but you were around him when he went under the mask. They desperately need you two to encourage them right now. Not the bull-headed fool alone, he's got no way with words -"

I try to protest, but Rukia's feather-light touch on my hand silences me more effectively than any of Hiyori's kicks. She notices, too, and gives me a strange look.

Finally, Rukia speaks again. "But how? How can I encourage them when I... when I am this!"

Her hand makes a grasping motion in front of her face, and her mask materializes.

Damn. She makes it look good.

The reiatsu released by her transformation will undoubtedly attract the attention of one of the patrols around the compound.

Ah. There they are. They see us sitting together - three of five captain-class survivors - and stop only to salute before they leave again.

Wise men.

"You can do it because that's what we all are, Rukia. Because you aren't alone. Because we all know what it is like... and because I'll help you."

All sound arguments from me. The last part might be sappy, but other than Hiyori, I am the number one expert on the agonizing process of beating your inner Hollow to a pulp and making it your bitch.

Come to think of it, even including Hiyori, I am THE expert on recalcitrant Hollows.

"They need guidance, Rukia. I'm a former exile, returned in Seireitei's hour of need. They like that, but they won't really trust me. He's a monster, a kid who grew in power at a rate that frightens even me, and I helped train him. They won't really trust him, either. But you. You are of the Kuchiki family, the best and the brightest of Seireitei. They will listen to you."

Hiyori makes a convincing argument. And I can't help but be proud even as she calls me a monster. Every bit of that power I earned with sweat, tears and blood. Lots of blood.

Her words ease Rukia's bleak look.

"I guess you are right, Hiyori. After all, if someone like Ichigo can do it..."

Women. Always poking fun at my expense. Whatever did I do to deserve this? Other than ignoring them when I have stuff like fighting to do and poking fun at them in turn?

But Rukia's hands finally stopped shaking. And she still has the mask on. Damn, Hiyori, you are smooth. But get your hands off my woman, just in case.

"Yeah... I guess you are right. Come on, you two, we've got a speech to prepare for tomorrow."

And then she flash-steps away.

"Race you there, slow-poke."

Damn you, Hiyori. Never, ever letting me get the last word in.

And then I step off to follow them.

To help them.

To have them help me... I guess.

Because right now, there are almost twenty-three hundred men and women frightened by their new powers and natures that need us.

And unless we share our experience, unless we show them that this is a struggle that can be won, we're all fucked.

And we can't have that, can we.

I'm not going to let you win from beyond the grave, Aizen.

I swear on the names of the fallen I won't let you win.

And if you had a grave, you miserable bespectacled bastard, I would take the time to dance on it to motivate everyone else.

AN: Aizen suicides himself by combining Orihime's Rejection Hax with the Hogyoku, forcing Hollowification on every shinigami.

The fallout is catastrophic: The battle turns from a decisive shinigami victory into a crushing defeat for both sides as the blood-mad half-hollow hybrids tear into everyone. Most captains and lieutenants are killed in action at the hands of a fully hollowfied Captain-Commander Yamamoto before they manage to take him down.

Two weeks later, the surviving captain and lieutenant-level shinigami begin the slow process of rebuilding. This is on the eve before that day of rebuilding.