Chapter 9: Back in action

The underground lab didn't seem quite as spacious anymore now that there were so many people present.

The group had seated themselves in something resembling a circle, with Ichigo, Urahara and Tessai sitting on normal chairs; Yoruichi, Orihime and Chad on one of the lab tables; and Uryu and Nel on a movable metal slab that looked like it was normally used for dissections. There had turned out to be a surprising lack of chairs that weren't bolted to the floor.

"Sounds like you had quite the adventure," Urahara commented after hearing the details of what had occurred in Hueco Mundo, perhaps understating the situation just a teensy bit. The people who had been involved in said adventure all made faces at him. Uryu, still a little woozy from the strong Hakufuku spell he had been hit with, almost fell asleep with his head on Nel's shoulder before snapping back upright.

Any injuries the second 'rescue group' had sustained had already been taken care of by Orihime and Yoruichi while they were talking. Of course, Yoruichi could have healed her own injuries when she was trapped in Hueco Mundo, but using any form of Kido would have risked giving away her position.

"I'm just glad I happened to be the one on watch tonight," Nel said. "If it had been any of the others' turn to keep an eye on that man, I doubt they would have intervened, I'm sorry to say."

It was only to be expected. After being forced to abandon Las Noches due to Takahashi's attack, it was no surprise that the other Arrancar currently hiding out at the tentatively named 'Haven' would not be all that eager to risk their lives for a bunch of people they didn't know, let alone those they recognized as former enemies.

"Out of curiosity, miss Nelliel," Urahara interrupted, "how did you manage to free Tessai from that modified Kurohitsugi? Even he couldn't dispel it, though I assume that was due to his inability to move at the time."

"Oh, that black box you mean? I ate it!" she cheerily replied, not noticing the looks of shock that statement got her. "That Kido you Shinigami use is rather similar to a Cero, though it's a lot harder to break down."

The scientist blinked at her. "Well... that's not what I expected, but whatever works, I suppose," he chuckled, quickly recovering from his surprise.

"I've been wondering though, who is that man exactly?" Nel frowned. Her eyes clouded over with emotion as she thought back to what had happened during the assault on Las Noches. "The way he attacked without warning and killed anyone who got close, like he was some wild animal..."

"Well," Urahara began, bringing Nel back to the present, "we're still in the process of gathering information, so I hope you'll forgive me for giving you the abridged version for now."

He cleared his throat. "The man in question is named Katsumi Takahashi. Up until 112 years ago, he held the position of Squad Three's Captain in the Gotei 13. When Soul Society's government learned that he possessed Hollow powers, they ordered him to be executed. However, much like what we assume happened at Las Noches, his Hollow powers caused him to go berserk when the other Captains attempted to enact his sentence, and it was decided that sealing him away would result in far less collateral damage than continuing to attempt killing him outright."

Nel didn't say anything as she listened to the story. Her expression however clearly showed that she had her doubts about the righteousness of Soul Society's leaders, who had sentenced one of their own to be executed for the sole reason of acquiring the powers of a Hollow. Being a Hollow-Shinigami hybrid herself, she was frankly offended that it was even considered a crime in the first place.

"Obviously," Urahara continued, "he escaped. He somehow managed to break out of a specialized, very high-level sealing array, specifically designed to restrain powerful Shinigami, leading us to believe he had outside help." That caught Ichigo's attention. He shared a look with his friends, who all wore similar expressions of confusion.

"Excuse me," Uryu interrupted the shopkeeper, "but you believe he had an accomplice? Why is this the first time we're hearing about this?"

"Because until we find some proof, it is only conjecture at best," Urahara answered offhandedly. "The physical location of the Seal of Izanagi was extremely well-guarded. I can't imagine anyone getting near it undetected. Even so, unless we are missing some third option, that is what must have happened."

There was a somewhat cold glint in Nel's eyes by the time Urahara finished his explanation. Ichigo had only ever seen her with such a serious expression back when she fought Nnoitra. "Despite whatever hardships he may have gone through, you'll forgive me if I don't feel any sympathy for that monster." She absently rubbed her upper arm, where there was a faded, barely noticeable scar. "Many people died because of him. Even my brothers were nearly among the casualties."

Suddenly Ichigo realized why she had returned to her adult form. He and Orihime shared a regretful look. "It took both myself and lady Harribel to hold him off while the others evacuated Las Noches. There's still some people unaccounted for even now... although it's not that unusual for him to stay away for longer periods..." she trailed off absently.

"Wait," Ichigo cut in, "You're not talking about Grimmjow, are you?" Her astonished, yet very much hopeful expression told him all he needed to know. "He's right upstairs! He got attacked as well, and he was in pretty bad shape, but he managed to make it here before passing out."

Nel let out a breath of relief. "I was so worried about him! To think Grimm-kun was here all along..."

Ichigo almost choked on his own spit when he heard the nickname. Knowing Nel, she probably called him that to his face too... and was strong enough to beat him up in case Grimmjow wasn't happy about it.

"Inoue-san managed to save his life, but we believed it was too risky to simply allow him to leave, considering Jaegerjaquez-san's temperament," Urahara explained. "Frankly, we've been unsure of what to do with him."

Nel's exasperated smile told them she understood his concerns very well. "I'll talk to miss Harribel about this. While Grimm-kun is a little rough around the edges, he's still one of our strongest fighters. It would be a relief to have him with us again, considering the circumstances." Adopting a more serious look, she shifted the conversation back to the more urgent problem: "As for the rogue Soul Reaper, he may not have been in control of himself during the attack on Las Noches, but he seemed perfectly lucid while we fought him earlier. If anything, that makes him even more dangerous. One way or another, he needs to be dealt with."

They went on to discuss a possible, temporary alliance between Urahara's group, the Seireitei and the remaining Arrancar in Haven, as well as many different ways to combat Takahashi, including but not limited to traps, Kido, many different battle tactics as well as gadgets of Urahara's own design that might prove useful in future confrontations.

Almost everyone had something to contribute to the conversation. Even the normally quiet Chad came up with some good, unexpected tactics while Orihime had quite a few outlandish ideas that were so borderline insane that they might have actually had a chance of working. Nel especially seemed supportive of Orihime's strategies. Uryu probably would have liked to add his own two cents, if it weren't for the fact that he was currently slumped against Nel's side and snoring softly.

The only one who had nothing to add was Ichigo. Hearing everyone talk about what they could do to help only served to depress him. He wasn't of any use right now, after all. He looked at the faces of the people sitting around the table. No less than five of them had been in mortal danger and he hadn't been able to do a thing to help. If Nel hadn't shown up when she did, just how many of them would have made it back here?

Ichigo excused himself under the pretense of needing some fresh air, not willing to listen to the rest of the conversation.

"Are you alright, Kurosaki-kun?" Orihime was clearly worried about him, but what he really needed right now was some time alone. He forced himself to slap on a fake smile and act like nothing was wrong. Ichigo doubted she was convinced by his poor acting skills, but frankly couldn't bring himself to care. He swept out of the laboratory and managed to make it all the way up to ground level before he finally snapped.

"Dammit!" he spit out from between clenched teeth, pounding his fist against the wall. He had never imagined that going back to being a regular human could be so frustrating. To think that just a few days ago he'd been checking out colleges online, fully intent on moving on with his life...

"Oi! What the hell's wrong with you?!" Grimmjow's gruff voice sounded through the hallway. Ichigo flinched, quickly looking in the direction of the voice. Grimmjow was leaning out of a door frame further down the hall, looking very annoyed with the noise Ichigo was making. "Get lost, Grimmjow." He scowled at the approaching man. "I'm not in the mood."

Grimmjow lifted his eyebrows at him. "Yeah? Well tough shit, Kurosaki, 'cause I do happen to be in the mood." He leaned his shoulder against the wall and crossed his arms, smirking like the annoying, cocky bastard he was. Ichigo wanted to punch his teeth in. "So, what's got you throwing a bitch fit?" Ichigo sent him one of the nastiest glares in his arsenal, and was annoyed to see it having absolutely no effect on Grimmjow.

"You've been down there for a while now," Grimmjow remarked when Ichigo stayed silent, nodding his head at the door that led down to the lab. "Is that shopkeeper holding a tea party in there or something?"

In spite of himself, Ichigo snorted at Grimmjow's rudeness. "Sort of. They're talking about Takahashi again." Clearly, that had caught his attention. "Yeah? Do they know where he is?" Grimmjow asked with obvious excitement. He didn't even try to hide his eagerness to fight the powerful Vizard again. Bruised ego, Ichigo supposed.

"Actually, he almost managed to break into the lab through the Garganta a little while back, but Urahara shut the portal in his face. That probably wasn't enough to kill him though, so I'm sure he'll return to Hueco Mundo soon enough." Clearly, Grimmjow wasn't satisfied with that answer. He clicked his teeth in annoyance, making Ichigo frown at him. "Do you really want to fight him again that badly?" he asked disbelievingly.

Even if he'd still had his powers, Ichigo sure as hell wouldn't be that eager to go a second round with the man. Not after what happened to him last time. Of course, he still would if the Soul Society or the World of the Living were in danger. He was no coward. It just wouldn't be with the same... enthusiasm that Grimmjow was displaying.

Said Arrancar looked at him like he'd gone mad. "Are you fucking kidding me? Of course I want to fight that asshole again!" Grimmjow pushed off against the wall and started pacing through the hallway. "Do you have any idea how fucking annoying it is being locked up here all day?" He kept walking around restlessly as he complained, looking like a caged animal. "I'd give anything to go out and fight! I'd go to Hueco Mundo right fucking now if I could!"

"At least you can fight." The words had slipped past Ichigo's lips before he could stop himself. Grimmjow stopped pacing. Slowly, he turned to look at Ichigo, looking like he couldn't believe what he had just heard. "Wait. That's what this is about?" Grimmjow said incredulously. He slowly closed in on Ichigo. "You lost your powers, so now you're just gonna sit on your ass and bitch about it?" They stared at each other. "I can't fucking believe this! That's pathetic, Kurosaki!"

Ichigo could feel his face redden. "Who are you calling pathetic, jackass?" he yelled at Grimmjow. "You think I enjoy sitting on the sidelines while my friends put themselves in danger? I hate it! It's driving me insane, but it's not like I can do anything about it!" Ichigo didn't think it was possible for him to get any angrier at this point, but Grimmjow quickly proved him wrong by laughing in his face.

"'Can't do anything about it?' Don't give me that crap. You're just taking the easy way out," he mocked. "If you wanna help your little posse that badly, stop being a whiny bitch and find a way to get your powers back already." Ichigo clenched his jaw. He was five seconds away from grabbing Grimmjow's head and smashing it into a wall. "I already told you," he almost growled, "it's not that sim-"

"WHO CARES?!" Grimmjow suddenly roared, making Ichigo flinch. "If you want your powers back that badly, then FIND A WAY!" He roughly shoved Ichigo, pushing him up against the wall. "Don't give me that 'it's impossible' bullshit," Grimmjow hissed. His eyes were fuming. The concept of personal space obviously wasn't something Grimmjow cared about very much: he was so up in Ichigo's face that if anyone saw them right now, it would probably look like they were making out... albeit in a rather violent manner. "If you say that, it just means you've already given up." Apparently having said what he wanted to say, Grimmjow gave Ichigo another harsh shove and stalked off back to his room.

Gingerly rubbing his chest where Grimmjow had hit him, Ichigo watched him leave. He wanted to run after him, scream at him and beat his face to a bloody pulp, but his anger had reached a level where his brain no longer seemed capable of handling basic motor functions. By the time Ichigo could think somewhat coherently again, Grimmjow was already gone, and he was left alone in the hallway, shaking with rage. What Grimmjow said had certainly hit a nerve. He wanted nothing more than to walk right into that bastard's room and force him to eat those words, but Ichigo knew that would be counterproductive. Instead, he took some deep breaths to calm himself down.

'Screw him,' Ichigo decided. Grimmjow just wasn't worth it.

He started walking, but in the opposite direction, away from Grimmjow's room. Seeing as he would only be getting in the way if he stayed here, Ichigo decided to go home. The others probably wouldn't even notice he was gone, being too absorbed in their strategy meeting. Heading straight for the front door, he grabbed his bag, put his shoes back on and walked right out. He quickly typed out a text message letting Chad know he was leaving before promptly switching the phone off. What he needed right now was some alone time. He stubbornly refused to look behind him as he went.

Urahara meanwhile, was watching Ichigo's retreating back. The older man sighed wearily. It wasn't hard for him to imagine how Ichigo was feeling right now. He had heard the entire conversation between him and Grimmjow while standing in the stairway. He honestly hadn't meant to eavesdrop, but they had been pretty loud and he didn't want to intrude on them by suddenly walking out into the hallway either.

While Jaegerjaquez-san's words had been harsh, perhaps that was just what Ichigo needed to get out of his rut. But even if Ichigo did decide to look for a way to regain his powers, would he succeed? Most likely not. Urahara had already looked for a way to do it, but had come up with nothing so far. The logical part of his mind said that he should just leave things the way they are, and not take any unnecessary risks just to help out one person.

His heart on the other hand, did not want to leave things as they were. He wanted to help Ichigo. The boy had already done so much, both for him personally and for the rest of the world as well.

"Impossible, huh?" Urahara muttered to himself. "Maybe not..." There was one option that might work. He just never seriously considered using it before now. There were no guarantees of success. In fact, things could go very, very wrong. Not just that, but he would need the approval of Central 46, which in itself would already be nothing less than a miracle...

Urahara blinked, halting his train of thought. Was he seriously thinking about this? The risks far outweighed any potential benefits this course of action might bring them. Logic dictated that he should abandon this plan, and banish these thoughts to the furthest recesses of his mind. Then again, experience had taught him that logic never really applied where Ichigo was involved. Besides, if his initial assumption was correct, there would hardly be any risk at all... he hoped.

Urahara walked back toward the laboratory entrance. After the strategy meeting was finished, he'd need to make some calls.

Grimmjow's words kept on bothering Ichigo throughout the week. He tried to act like it didn't didn't bother him, but his friends could tell he was acting more withdrawn than usual. Every now and then someone would tentatively ask him what was wrong, but Ichigo would just brush them off and end the conversation right then and there.

Both Chad and Uryu quickly learned not to press the issue, but Orihime proved to be more persistent, and kept trying despite repeated failures. On Wednesday Tatsuki had held him up in the hallway after class, giving him some verbal abuse for making Orihime worry. Even so, he kept on sulking by himself and refused to talk to anyone about the topic.

By Thursday however, Ichigo was forced to admit that perhaps there had been a grain of truth to what Grimmjow had said.

Ichigo had known that he would lose his powers. He had accepted that once it happened, that chapter of his life would be over and done with and he wouldn't get involved with Soul Reapers or Hollows again for what he hoped would be a very long time. Back then, he had been perfectly alright with that. The war was over, so he had believed his friends in Soul Society would have been safe from then on.

But the situation was different now, and lacking the abilities he'd had as a Soul Reaper was proving to be far more of an inconvenience than he had expected it to be. The fact that he had already gone through the entire emotional roller-coaster that accompanied the whole ordeal and had put it all behind him, was now acting as a mental roadblock for Ichigo. He had been fully prepared to settle back into his old, relatively peaceful lifestyle. Which is why it was so damn hard for him to admit that he really wanted to be a Shinigami again.

Over the last few days, Ichigo had gotten a taste of what it was like to sit on the sidelines, and it clearly didn't suit him one bit. He was sick of being useless, of having to wait anxiously for his friends to return from whatever dangerous situation they had gotten themselves into while he was forced to stay behind and do nothing.

He'd been stewing over his internal dilemma for three days, but now, he could say with absolute certainty that he truly wanted, or rather needed to rejoin the fight. He would go mad if he had to stay behind in Urahara's lab again while his friends went out to fight. While Ichigo didn't know how he was going to do it yet, he would be getting his powers back, no ifs, and or buts about it. Ichigo was by nature not someone who let others do the fighting while he sat on his ass.

And as much as he didn't want to admit it, he had Grimmjow to thank for coming to that realization. Still, he was sure he would have gotten his thoughts lined up without that asshole's help too, if given some time. Probably. Grimmjow just sped the process up a little. Ichigo wasn't willing to give him any more credit than that.

Sighing deeply, as he'd been doing rather often lately, he ran a hand through his hair (he could really use a trim) and looked at the clock above the blackboard. Just twenty minutes to go until the final bell rang. He'd be making a short detour before he went home tonight.

Urahara was absently scratching the stubble on his chin, still looking a little caught off guard. His reaction was understandable, given that Ichigo had shown up at his doorstep completely out of the blue and asked, rather bluntly, for a way to regain his powers. The teen had never been the type to mince words, but still; some tact was expected with matters like these.

They were in the small communal room again, which Urahara often utilized when he had guests. Ichigo was impatiently tapping his fingers against his teacup as the silence dragged on. Urahara hadn't said anything for a long time after Ichigo had finished explaining his motivation for returning to the life of a Shinigami.

"You're absolutely certain?" he finally said, after what felt like an eternity of waiting.

"I'm sick of being useless," Ichigo replied without missing a beat. "I want to fight."

Urahara nodded somewhat absently. Then, he smiled, so briefly that Ichigo could have sworn he had imagined it. "I will admit, I have already given the matter some thought. You're not the type to sit on the sidelines, Kurosaki-san," he grinned. Ichigo didn't do a very good job of hiding his surprise. Not only had Urahara accepted his change of heart almost right away, he'd even been looking for solutions by himself already!

The man's expression quickly turned serious again. "There is... there is one way that has a fairly high chance of success..." he began cautiously, seemingly unsure of whether he should even be telling him this in the first place.

Ichigo eagerly leaned forward, spurring Urahara on. "But it's dangerous. The stakes are very high. Too high, even."

"Well, are there any other options?" Ichigo interrupted him. Urahara's silence told him enough. "Then I'll do it. I don't care what the risks are, I'll-"


The unusually harsh tone Urahara had addressed him with was enough to make Ichigo flinch. "You're being too reckless, Ichigo. There are many people who would be very upset if they knew how just little concern you have for your own well-being." Ichigo looked away, feeling the weight of his mentor's gaze. They say disappointment hurts more than anger, but a combination of the two certainly did a bang up job of making him feel like crap.

Urahara wasn't done yet, though: "Also, you would not be the only one in danger if the situation took a turn for the worse. Many lives could potentially be lost." Believing it was safe to make eye contact again, Ichigo asked: "Just what is this idea of yours to get my powers back? You've gotten me and my friends involved in plenty of dangerous schemes where people could have gotten killed. How is this time any different?"

Urahara shook his head. "Please, just... forget what I said, Kurosaki-san. I shouldn't have brought it up in the first place." Seeing that Ichigo wanted to protest, he raised his hand to bid for silence. "Even if we choose to ignore the massive risks, this path simply isn't open to us at this point in time. Maybe in the future it will be, but I honestly hope it never comes to that."

Ichigo had no idea what Urahara was talking about, but he could sense that this particular subject was closed and he wasn't planning on forcing the issue. If there was even the slightest chance of innocent people being hurt, Ichigo felt it was far too irresponsible to try and pursue this path.

"I'll look for another way, Kurosaki-san. I know there has to be something I can do. Until then, I recommend you ask Ishida-san to help you with some basic Reishi-controlling exercises. As a Quincy, he has excellent control over the flow of Spirit Particles. That alone could already help you regain some of your Spirit Power."

"Alright." While Ichigo wasn't exactly looking forward to asking for Uryu's help, he would just have to swallow his pride this time. Getting strong enough to rejoin the fight was far more important than that.

"Well then," Urahara said, preparing to stand up, "I still have much to do, so-"

"KISUKE!" Yoruichi's voice reverberated throughout the house. "Uh-oh," was all Urahara said as the sound of Yoruichi's footsteps got louder and louder as she closed in on them. She burst into the room and went straight for Urahara, not even noticing Ichigo.

"So this is where you've been hiding!" She pointed her finger at Urahara accusingly. The poor man had just managed to get back to his feet, but Yoruichi promptly pushed him right back on his ass. "I'm sick of your excuses, Kisuke! Open the damn portal right now!"

"But Yoruichiii," he complained childishly while rubbing his pained backside, "It's too dangerous for you to go to Hueco Mundo by yourself again!"

"Then it's a good thing I won't be going alone, isn't it?" she bit back. "Nelliel will be joining me," she elaborated rather haughtily, crossing her arms. The pair continued to argue loudly, either not realizing or simply not caring that Ichigo was there.

"Dammit, Kisuke! I know he's hiding something, and I want to know what it is! Uryu said so too; thanks to him I even have a good idea of where to look!"

"Stop trying to change my mind, Yoruichi. It won't work," Urahara stubbornly maintained. "Besides, miss Nelliel said so herself," he pressed on when he saw Yoruichi about to yell at him again. "If she expends too much energy, she risks reverting to her child-form. She's not suited for combat right now."

"There's not going to be any combat, because he's not going to catch us!" Yoruichi snapped back at him, but it was clear Urahara wasn't about to be convinced by any of her arguments. "Pull your head out of your ass and stop be so goddamn stubborn, Kisuke!" she screamed in frustration.

Ichigo cringed. It was the first time he'd seen Urahara and Yoruichi disagreeing with each other to the point where they actually started yelling. It reminded Ichigo of the very few times he'd witnessed his parents fighting when he was little. Even so, from the scraps of information he'd heard so far in between the yelling and name-calling, he managed to get a general idea of what the problem was here:

Takahashi had hidden something in Hueco Mundo. During the rescue mission, Uryu had apparently gotten quite close to whatever it was and told Yoruichi of its location, which meant that they already knew where to look. They had also gotten an idea of what traps he used and how to evade them, which meant that the only thing they still lacked was some decent firepower in the unlikely case it came to blows.

In other words: they needed someone who was both fast and able to remain undetected, but could also pack a punch in a direct confrontation. It just so happened that Ichigo knew someone who fit that description to the letter, and would be all too eager to participate in a mission involving Takahashi. The only problem here was that there was no guarantee he wouldn't turn against them, but he was sure Urahara would be able to remedy that.

"Oi, guys!" he called out, temporarily making them halt their verbal shit-flinging. "I think I may know someone who could back you up, Yoruichi." Neither of them noticed the tiny smirk that was starting to form on Ichigo's face.

Just as Ichigo had expected, getting Grimmjow to agree hadn't been the least bit difficult, much to the surprise of Urahara and Yoruichi. There had been the issue of Grimmjow potentially backstabbing them during the mission, but thanks to Urahara's newest gadget, that risk had already been minimized.

"There, that should do it," the resident mad scientist piped up, taking a few steps away from Grimmjow to admire his handiwork from a distance. Admittedly, an explosive collar was a rather crude form of insurance, but it would just have to do for now. "You're good to go, Jaegerjaquez-san." Urahara removed the Reiryoku-draining shackles and placed them on a stool, with Grimmjow's discarded Gigai sitting down on the floor next to it. The second those handcuffs stopped making contact with Grimmjow's skin, the weight of his Reiatsu immediately crashed into Ichigo, giving him a short bout of vertigo. Without his own Reiatsu to act as a buffer, Ichigo had something of a hard time resisting the power Grimmjow was subconsciously emitting. It was almost as frustrating as it was embarrassing.

Now that his hands were free, Grimmjow carefully prodded the thick black collar around his neck. Clearly, he was none too happy with it. He glared at Urahara, who cheerily grinned back at him, but refrained from complaining about it. It was just something he was going to have put up with in exchange for getting involved in the action. Compared to slowly going mad while locked up in his room, he figured this was a small price to pay.

"I've just contacted Nelliel," Yoruichi announced as she walked up to the three men. "She said she'll meet up with us near the Southernmost point of Las Noches' outer wall."

"Alright. Then I'll run the final system checks and you'll be good to go." Urahara sat down behind his console and began typing in commands. He'd been spending a lot of time at that computer lately. "In the meantime Kurosaki-san, could you hand Jaegerjaquez-san his Zanpakuto? He's probably going to need it."

Ichigo didn't even have to look to know that he had just become the focus of Grimmjow's attention. He could almost literally feel the other man's eager gaze burning holes into his back as he moved to open the heavy, reinforced box Urahara had set on the table behind him. It was clear Urahara had been very careful with Grimmjow's sword; it was even wrapped in cloth to prevent any scratches from getting on it. Ichigo carefully took the blade out of the chest and brought it over to Grimmjow, who was clearly doing his best not to jump Ichigo and rip it right out of his hands.

As soon as Ichigo was within reach, Grimmjow snatched the sword away from him before he even had time to blink. He ripped off the cloth and carelessly tossed it to the floor, meticulously inspecting every square inch of his Zanpakuto, as if he was sure Urahara had done something to it.

Ichigo didn't blame him one bit.

"Well then, ready to go, Jaegerjaquez-san?" Urahara interrupted him, apparently finished with the preparations. Behind him, the enormous device was already busy tearing a hole in space to open a passageway to Hueco Mundo. Honestly, Ichigo thought it was somewhat pointless to use the device when Grimmjow could have accomplished the same result just by snapping his fingers. In fact, Ichigo wasn't entirely sure why Urahara had even bothered to build the thing in the first place when he was perfectly capable of opening a Garganta himself. He made a mental note to ask about it sometime.

Grimmjow took one last look at Pantera and, finding nothing out of the ordinary with it, slid the blade back into its scabbard. He gave Urahara a curt nod to show that he was ready, and walked over to the stabilizing Garganta. Yoruichi quickly joined him, playfully smiling at Grimmjow, but she was ignored completely.

Ichigo walked up behind them, feeling more than a little discomforted about not being able to join them. "Good luck," he said hesitantly. While he had meant to address both of them, only Yoruichi responded by turning around and giving a thumbs-up, while Grimmjow, unsurprisingly, didn't seem to care.

With a final, decisive tap, Urahara finished inputting the required commands. "All done on my end. Now let's get this show on the road, shall we?"

Grimmjow inhaled deeply, taking in the familiar scent. While he felt no real attachment to this empty desert, it was still technically his home and he was far more familiar with this environment than he was with the chaotic World of the Living. The high concentration of Reishi in the air also did him a lot of good.

The portal had taken them to an area that was approximately two kilometers away from where they would rendezvous with Nel. While this was somewhat inconvenient, opening it any closer than that would no doubt give away their location to the enemy. The trip from here to Las Noches would also give them a chance to look around and see if anything was out of the ordinary.

"You must be happy to be back," his companion asked casually. He noticed that in spite of how aloof she acted, she was actually being pretty vigilant, and was already scanning their surroundings for the slightest hint of danger.

"Not particularly," Grimmjow grunted offhandedly, hoping that she would just keep her trap shut for the rest of the mission. He hated the talkative types, especially when any physical abuse on his part would leave him without a head on his shoulders thanks to the collar they had put on him. And he personally preferred it firmly attached, thank you very much.

Yoruichi frowned somewhat. "Not much of a conversationalist, are you?" Grimmjow didn't even bother to answer this time, and Yoruichi clearly hadn't expected him to. Without another word, she took of in the direction of the abandoned fortress, with Grimmjow being forced to follow. He wasn't giving that shopkeeper any excuses to flip the switch that would make his head go 'pop'.

Even so, annoyed as he was with the collar around his neck, it felt pretty damn good to be out in the field again. And while he disliked the woman, he had to admit she was skilled. She was barely putting in any effort, and he was already straining to keep up with her. It was clear she was an expert at Stealth operations too: the vast open desert didn't leave them much spaces to hide, so they were for the most part completely exposed, but she made damn good use of the cover they did come across.

They would stop every now and then to scan the area for any traps that could impede their progress, and start moving again immediately after confirming it was safe. Another thing that had impressed Grimmjow was how she would seemingly pick out the best routes purely by instinct: choosing routes that would be both easy for them to navigate, and provide them with natural protection in the form of dunes or trenches in the sand.

But no matter how good she was, Grimmjow had the home field advantage here. While Yoruichi took the lead for the most part, she knew well enough to listen to Grimmjow's advice when he signaled her to take a different route. The desert hid many dangers that only someone completely familiar with it knew how to evade. All in all, despite the lack of verbal communication, they made a surprisingly good team.

As such they reached the rendezvous point near Las Noches much quicker than anticipated, all the while being relatively certain that they hadn't been detected yet. On the other hand, they hadn't managed to spot Takahashi either, so they had no idea what he was up to at the moment.

"You got here sooner than I thought you would." Grimmjow reflexively reached for Pantera when he heard the voice, thinking it was an enemy, but was quickly proven wrong. Nelliel's head suddenly popped out of the ground in front of them, soon followed by the rest of her body as she emerged from an underground tunnel. To his shame, Grimmjow had never even known of the existence of said tunnel, despite having lived in the fortress for quite a while.

"It seems you found a good hiding place," Yoruichi said approvingly as they politely shook hands in greeting. Nelliel eagerly nodded in agreement. "There's many underground passageways like this one. Not just under Las Noches either, some of them go on for miles further into the desert. They're really useful for smuggling supplies to our encampment."

Grimmjow had stalked off to the side somewhat, hoping that Nelliel would just leave him alone, but that was clearly too much to hope for. "And Grimm-kun! I'm really happy to see you're alright." He refused to look at her. If he did, he didn't think he would be able to hold back the murderous rage that had welled up the second that godawful nickname had come out of her mouth. Fortunately for him and Nelliel both, Yoruichi had realized what was going through Grimmjow's head and warningly placed a hand on his shoulder. "Play nice, now."

Literally bristling with annoyance, Grimmjow stopped reaching for his sword and turned in Nelliel's direction. He still refused to look directly at her, though. "Hey," he finally grunted, and that was about all they would be getting out of him for the rest of their time together.

It seemed to be good enough for Yoruichi. She let go of him and started speaking again: "Alright, the plan's simple: if we see him, we hide. If he sees us, we run for the portal and don't look back. Any questions? No? Then let's go."

Once again, they took off at a high speed. When it came to using Sonido, Nel seemed to be on par with Grimmjow, though he was rather pleased to see that he might have had the edge in endurance: Yoruichi didn't slow down in the least as they curved around Las Noches' massive dome, and fatigue got to her much quicker than it did for himself and Yoruichi. Ever since Nnoitra had cracked her head open, the amount of energy she could store in her body had decreased dramatically. He hadn't even been Espada-rank yet when that had happened, but he remembered just how strong Nelliel Tu Odelschwank had been back in the day.

They eventually slowed down once they got closer to their destination. He could already see the giant 'Zen-garden' the shopkeeper had briefed him on in the distance. He was familiar with the area, but had never taken the time to inspect it more closely. From this point onward, they would most likely be dealing with Takahashi's traps. Even though the man himself was nowhere to be seen so far.

"It looks like the coast is clear, but you never know with that guy," Yoruichi whispered. "He could be hiding just about anywhere. Do either of you see anything?"

Nel closed her eyes as she concentrated on the Reiatsu in the air around them. "He's definitely been here not too long ago," she said. "But I'm quite certain he's nowhere near at the moment."

"Same here," Grimmjow spoke up. "Can't see him, smell him, or sense his Reiatsu, apart from some residual energy. Don't hear anything out of the ordinary either. He's not here, though I doubt he went very far." Even if he had somehow managed to hide himself so well even a skilled tracker like Grimmjow couldn't find him, they were in a relatively open area. The crystal trees didn't make the best hiding spots, and sufficiently large rocks were far and few between. If he was hiding, they'd spot him the second he made a move.

"It would certainly make things easier on us if he's not home. We'll move in closer, but at a slower pace this time. Remember, there will most likely be traps, and you won't be able to spot them easily. Be careful." Yoruichi started running again, but she didn't dare use Shunpo anymore. That was simply too risky at this point.

While the mission was going well, Grimmjow was seriously disappointed. He'd actually been hoping to run into the bastard again. While victory may admittedly be a bit too much to hope for, he should at least be able to get a few solid hits in now that he was somewhat prepared for a confrontation.

Well, that's what he told himself, at least.

As Yoruichi had predicted, they came across plenty of traps as they zeroed in on their goal. The cloaked Kido webs had been expected, but the Kido minefields? Now those could have been dangerous had Yoruichi not detected them in time. The webs were annoying simply because there were so goddamn many of them, but at least Grimmjow could spot those and alter his route in time.

With the mines on the other hand, he had no way to tell where they were. He just wasn't good enough at detecting and differentiating the many Reiatsu sources. Even using Pesquisa proved fruitless. Nelliel was having slightly more luck than him in that department (to his unending frustration) but Yoruichi was the only one who could make truly reliable predictions of their locations. She saved his ass more than once by warning him in the nick of time that he was mere inches removed from setting off one of the infernal things.

The worst part was that they couldn't risk blowing them up prematurely either, since that would most likely alert Takahashi and let him know where they were. Grimmjow was a little surprised that the enemy would use such a method to defend his territory. While they were fighting, he certainly hadn't gotten the impression that he was a rational person who planned ahead. Yet from what he'd found out about him in the last few days, the guy was apparently some sort of freaking wizard that used mostly Soul Reaper magic to fight. Appearances could be deceiving, he supposed.

He was snapped out of his reveries when Yoruichi gave them the signal to stop moving. "It should be around here," she said, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. Grimmjow could guess what had her feeling uneasy: getting here had been far too easy. They were smack dab in the middle of the area they were supposed to scout, and yet Takahashi was nowhere to be found. There was simply no way he would leave this place so defenseless if it was indeed as important as Yoruichi and the shopkeeper seemed to believe. It was true that all these traps would keep out most unwanted visitors, but they were clearly lacking in the case of an intruder who specialized in stealth. What's more, he should have already known that Yoruichi might have been coming. All this added up to 'danger' in Grimmjow's mind.

"Yoruichi-san," Nelliel spoke up. She'd wandered off in another direction when they arrived, apparently having found something. "What is it?" The other two members of the party went to join her, expertly evading another mine they came across as they walked.

"There's something here. I can't get through." To demonstrate, she picked up a handful of sand and threw it at the seemingly empty space in front of her. Instead of simply falling to the ground, the sand made contact with something solid and slid down its surface, revealing something that was rather large and spherical in shape.

"It's a cloaking field!" Yoruichi exclaimed. "I've never even seen one this big. This has to be it!"

They all stared at where the barrier was. For a while, nobody said anything.

"You uh... You don't think he's in there... do you?" Grimmjow asked cautiously, still closely monitoring the area in front.

"I really, really hope not," Yoruichi replied, not very reassuringly.

"So how about we just shoot first and ask questions later then, because standing here like a bunch of pussies isn't going to do us much good," Grimmjow stated matter-of-factly.

Yoruichi frowned, clearly not liking the idea, but surprisingly enough Nel backed him up on this one. "I agree with Grimm-kun, Yoruichi-san. We've already made it this far, and in a worst-case scenario it's still three-to-one. At the very least, we should be able to escape if he does show up. He's powerful, but all three of us are faster than he is."

The only reason Grimmjow hadn't violently murdered her yet for using that bloody annoying nickname again was that he might get to blow something up thanks to her input. While murder would definitely be much more gratifying than just blowing up the barrier, it would also result in his head being torn from his body by means of a violent explosion. It was probably for the best if he held off on killing her, at least until he got rid of the collar.

"You do have a point," Yoruichi finally admitted to Grimmjow's elation. She sighed, accepting that this was really the only thing they could do aside from giving up, and held out her arm toward the invisible dome. "Let's do this, then." Blue flames appeared in her open palm.

Grimmjow couldn't help but grin ferociously as he mirrored her gesture and gathered up energy for a Cero blast. Nelliel followed suit, the only difference being that she fired her own, violet Cero from her mouth instead of her palm. The three of them unleashed their attacks at the same time; two powerful Cero combined with the blue, fiery explosion caused by Yoruichi's Soren Sokatsui were more than enough to rip the barrier to shreds. Space seemed to warp as the illusion disappeared, revealing what had been inside of the dome.

"There's... Nothing inside," Yoruichi said disbelievingly. "I'll admit it is rather anticlimactic," Nelliel added. Grimmjow summed the situation up most accurately, though: "Well, this bites."

Not ready to give up just yet, Yoruichi jogged over to where the dome had been, searching for anything else that may have been cloaked. She was quickly forced to admit that there really wasn't anything there. "Yoruichi-san. We should move," Nelliel urged. "After that explosion, he has to know that we're here now... This whole thing may have been a trap from the very beginning."

She shook her head. "No. He wouldn't go through all this trouble just to lure us here. I think he was hiding something in that dome. We just waited too long to come here. He must have already moved it."

"How the fuck does any of that matter right now?" Grimmjow rudely interrupted their conversation. "I don't know about you two, but I'd rather not get caught in an ambush."

"He's right, Yoruichi-san. We have to go now." She looked around nervously, obviously expecting something to happen. "There's no point in taking the long way back to the portal. I'll open a Garganta from here and-" They didn't find out what else Nelliel was going to do, because at that very moment, something rather large fell from the sky and landed right in front of her feet, instinctively making her leap backwards.

"'Tall, beautiful young woman, green hair, cracked mask with horns'... You must be Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck. You wouldn't happen to know that guy, would you?" Takahashi serenely sauntered over to them, looking like a total savage. The top of his Shinigami uniform was simply gone, his Hakama were in tatters, he was barefoot and his hair was so greasy and messy it looked like he had a bird's nest on his head. The fact that he had partially-dried blood splattered all over him didn't do his image any good either.

Grimmjow looked at what Takahashi had thrown toward them. Upon closer inspection, it wasn't so much of a 'what' as a 'who'. The poor bastard wasn't looking too healthy.

"I found him wandering around Las Noches, looking for supplies. He told me lots of interesting things." Takahashi slowly came closer. His calm demeanor was in stark contrast to his current appearance. To be fair though, anyone who wasn't a Hollow would probably look like that after spending half a week in the wilderness of Hueco Mundo. Even Grimmjow hadn't looked too respectable after wandering around the desert by himself for a few days.

"Though he wasn't very talkative at first," Takahashi went on. "I had to spur him on a little."

Nelliel dropped to her knees beside the injured male Arrancar and gently helped him sit up. Grimmjow didn't recognize him, but that didn't mean much. Apart from his Fraccion, he never cared about any of the other Arrancar in the slightest. "I'm so sorry, Nelliel-sama," the injured Arrancar sputtered. "I... I told him about the encampment. And about you and miss Harribel." He took some shallow breaths. "The pain was... was simply too much."

"It's alright. Don't try to talk too much." Nelliel quickly looked him over. He had multiple lacerations all over his body, a broken arm, and burn marks on his chest from what Grimmjow could see. Painful, but not deadly. He would be alright after getting proper treatment.

She turned to Takahashi, sending him a glare so nasty even Grimmjow was involuntarily shocked. "Why did you do this?"

"Because I needed information. I've been out of the loop for 112 years, you know." Say whatever you will about him, Takahashi was pretty straightforward at least. He stopped moving once there was only ten meters of sand separating him from Nelliel and the rest of the group. "According to what he told me, I missed out on quite a bit. Aizen taking command of the Hollows and trying to take over the world was pretty unexpected. Even more surprising was the fact that he almost succeeded. And while my informant wasn't entirely sure about this last piece of gossip, he said it was Ichigo Kurosaki who was finally able to stop him. It's a good thing I neutralized him when I had the chance."

"You bastard!" It was the first thing Yoruichi had said since Takahashi appeared. "Haven't you done enough damage already?! And for what, petty revenge? I never imagined you'd sink so low, Katsumi," she sneered at him. Now Grimmjow was far from an expert on this sort of thing, but it sure looked to him like there was a history there.

"Don't tell me you're getting upset over what I did to that Hollow," he scoffed. "I even kept my word and didn't kill him after I got the info I needed. Last time I checked, you were still a Shinigami. They're our natural enemies, remember? Speaking of which," he looked straight into Grimmjow's eyes, and Grimmjow involuntarily took a step back before he could stop himself. "I'm not sure I approve of the company you're keeping."

"Times have changed, Katsumi," she countered. "As I'm sure you've already noticed." Takahashi smiled at her thinly-veiled jab at him, but he kept staring at Grimmjow, and it was seriously starting to freak him out. Part of him just wanted to let loose and tear into that fucker, but another, more rational part told him he'd be facing certain death if he did. That first part was rapidly beating out the second though.

"We've already met, haven't we?" he finally addressed Grimmjow directly. To his own satisfaction, he didn't so much as flinch this time. "We sure did." Surprising even himself, Grimmjow sent the other man a bloodthirsty smirk. Any fear or hesitation he'd had earlier on was suddenly being replaced by the intense desire to tear the man in front of him into tiny, bloody pieces. "Not that long ago, actually. Having trouble remembering? 'Cause I'd be more than willing to jog your memory."

Takahashi seemed amused by his sudden shift in demeanor. "I'll admit, my memory is a bit fuzzy when it comes to the first few days I was in Hueco Mundo. It seems I went a little overboard back then. Congratulations on surviving, by the way."

Grimmjow cackled madly. "You son of a bitch," he chuckled, unsheathing Pantera as he closed the distance between the two of them. "I'm going to enjoy-" A blur suddenly passed him by and slammed into Takahashi, knocking him off his feet. "Get out of here!" Yoruichi screamed at her two allies. A white energy enveloped her entire body as she moved at speeds Grimmjow hadn't thought possible.

Nelliel suddenly grabbed his arm from behind, making him jerk back. "Grimm, we have to go!" she was carrying the injured Arrancar on her back, a Garganta already waiting behind her. When Grimmjow failed to respond, she pulled on his arm with what seemed like far too much strength for a woman of her slim posture.

"Let go, woman! I'm not running away again!" He forcibly pulled his arm free, intent on joining the fight. Takahashi had put on his Hollow Mask and was currently firing one Cero after the other at Yoruichi, accompanied by fireballs, massive golden chains that tried to ensnare her and god knows what else, but none of it was hitting her. She was just way too fast for him.

"Was smashing my face in not enough for you, Yoruichi?!" Takahashi screamed at her in between Kido incantations. If he still cared about Grimmjow and Nelliel being there, he sure wasn't showing it.

No way in Hell was Grimmjow just going to run with his tail between his legs. And he definitely wasn't letting some stupid woman he didn't even like put herself in danger for his benefit. He was already indebted to far too many people as it was. "Grimmjow, what are you doing?! Yoruichi-san can make it back to the other Garganta by herself! We would just get in her way!"

"Like I care!" Grimmjow screamed back at her. He put the razor sharp edge of his Zanpakutou against his palm and pulled the blade back, producing a sizable cut. A stream of blood quickly welled up from the wound and started dripping onto the sand. He held out his bleeding palm, aiming for Takahashi as he prepared another Cero. "Shihoin! Get away!" he screamed at the top of his lungs as the Cero in his hand turned electric blue and its power became too great to hold back. He just hoped she'd heard him; the shopkeeper probably wouldn't be too happy with him if he happened to hit the woman with a Gran Rey Cero.

Not being able to suppress the energy any longer, Grimmjow let it all go in one giant, cataclysmic blast that wiped away everything in its path. Ideally, that would include Takahashi, but he couldn't tell yet with the beam itself obscuring his vision.

Unable to aim properly with one hand, he planted Pantera in the sand and used his left hand to grab his wrist and steady the humongous death ray somewhat.

"ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FREAKING MIND!?" an obviously very pissed off Yoruichi screamed into his ear. Seeing how angry she was only served to amuse him, really. Plus, since Yoruichi was standing behind him now and was thus out of the danger zone, he really had no reason to hold back anymore, did he? Grinning like an utter psychopath, he pumped all the Spirit Power he had into the Gran Rey Cero, making the beam even wider than it already was. In exchange for using that much power, his accuracy and control were greatly reduced of course, but who really cared? He sure didn't.

The beam swayed erratically from left to right now that Grimmjow couldn't fully control it anymore. Anything it hit, be it crystal tree or solid rock, was instantaneously reduced to dust. After completely decimating the landscape and most likely attracting the attention of every Hollow in Hueco Mundo with the laser light show Grimmjow was providing, the beam finally lost power. Grimmjow fell to one knee, chuckling as he saw the devastation he had wrought.

At first, he didn't see Takahashi anywhere. Then, he noticed the massive trench in the sand that started in about the same place the man had been standing earlier, and kept going for easily a hundred meters. At the end of said trench, off into the distance, he could make out four separate, white shield-like objects partially buried in the sand.

The first crumbled into dust as he watched, revealing the second and third shields to each have a massive hole in the center, leaving only the fourth and last one in somewhat decent condition.

"Damn," Yoruichi said, her tone of voice holding the middle between 'impressed' and 'disappointed'. "You should have kept it up a little longer." The meaning behind her words quickly became clear: the three remaining shields all dislodged themselves from the sand and floated upward, revealing-

"Son of a bitch," Grimmjow breathed out. With some effort, Takahashi slowly climbed out of the trench he'd made while being pushed back by Grimmjow's attack. Grimmjow was rather satisfied to see him stumble and almost trip over something as he got to his feet. He did not look happy.

Nelliel cleared her throat, making him and Yoruichi look at her. "I believe it would be a good idea to leave right now," she said rather calmly. She honestly seemed far too composed considering what had just happened.

"Yeah," Yoruichi agreed. "We should do that." She took hold of Grimmjow's upper arm and pulled him along as she hurriedly entered the Garganta. Grimmjow didn't even bother to resist, being far too exhausted after the stunt he just pulled. He let her drag him into the portal, making sure to send Takahashi one last shit-eating grin before the rift sealed shut.