Shattered Realms

Written by Eduard Kassel and MJLCoyoteStarrk

"He wears a mask and his face grows to fit it."

-George Orwell, Shooting an Elephant

Prologue: End of the Beginning

Aizen had fallen.

The time of war was over and the time for negotiations had begun.

The sun beat down on those assembling for the negotiations that would officially end the Winter War. A dry wind blew into the valley, stirring the fabric of the tent being established slightly.

Two figures looked down from one of the rocky cliffs lining the valley. The taller figure ran a hand through his brown hair and sighed. The smaller figure next to him placed a hand on the single-horned helmet on her head. Her visible pink eye narrowed as she gazed at the figures in the valley below.

"It's strange, Lilynette. If it wasn't for this sun or heat, this place could be home," the taller figure said.

"I don't like this, Starrk. What if they try something?" Lilynette asked.

"That would be annoying," Starrk said and sighed. "But, I don't think they will. They suffered losses of their own and most of their commanders are still recovering from their wounds."

Coyote Starrk closed his eyes and lifted his face to the sun. While humans would find the heat unbearable, Starrk enjoyed it. Neither the moon of Hueco Mundo nor the false sun of Las Noches could offer the same sensation as pure sunlight. He felt a strong desire to just lie on the rocks and allow the sun's heat to beat on him while he took a nap.

Lilynette saw Starrk starting to doze and kicked him hard in the knee.

"Hey! No sleeping!"

"Ow, Lilynette, did you really have to kick that hard?"

"Yeah, otherwise you would just go to sleep again. We have a job to do."

"Fine. Let's just get this over with that way I can take a nap," Starrk said.

"Is that all you care about?"

There was a burst of static as the two went into Sonído to reach the valley below.

Once in the valley, Starrk was able to get a better look at the situation. He was not surprised to see that a Garganta was opening across from one of the Soul Society's Senkaimon Gates. In the center of the valley between the two gates an open-air tent was being set up. Two Soul Reapers were carrying a simple, wooden table. The two paused and looked at Starrk and Lilynette uneasily. Starrk's eyes narrowed slightly and the two Soul Reapers picked up their pace.

Starrk sighed and shook his head. It was obvious that the Soul Reapers suspected that the Arrancars would betray the ceasefire.

He turned towards the Garganta and watched the group of Arrancars stepping from the darkness that would lead back to Hueco Mundo. He was surprised to see that some of the Arrancars were members of Szayel Aporro's fracción.

What are they doing here?

Starrk sighed and shook his head. He had an idea of why they were there, and he didn't much care for it.

Starrk and Lilynette made their way to the open-air tent just as a Soul Reaper Lieutenant with silver hair and a thin black mustache finished setting the table. Chōjirō Sasakibe placed two smooth river stones on top of the two stacks of paper to weigh them down before bowing to the two Arrancars. Starrk returned the greeting and looked at the arrangement. The only other things on the table were writing brushes and ink along with a bottle of sake and drinking saucers decorated with cherry blossoms. Two chairs were placed to where one was directly in front of the Senkaimon and the other in front of the Garganta.

Starrk looked up and stared at the old man walking out of the Senkaimon. When the old man reached the table he stopped and stared at Starrk. The air rippled with intensity as the two leaders stared at each other.

So this is one of the most powerful and dangerous beings in all of existence, Starrk thought, Genryūsai Shigekuni Yamamoto.

"What is that child doing here?" Yamamoto asked, looking at Lilynette.

"I'm here to keep this lazy-ass awake," Lilynette said. "You don't want him falling asleep on you, right?"

"Lilynette," Starrk whispered. "Don't talk out of turn."

Yamamoto looked at Starrk and Lilynette. He could feel the similarity of their Spirit Energy and knew that it was more than just keeping the Primera Espada awake.

"I see," Yamamoto whispered. "You trust me as much as I trust you."

Starrk didn't say anything. There was only silence as the two men stood and stared at each other.

"Well now, this is a pleasant sight."

Starrk looked out of the corner of his eye to see a man wearing clogs and a green-and-white striped hat walk in. He held up a fan with the world "LOVE" on one side and "PEACE" on the other. Starrk saw that the blond leader of the Visoreds was accompanying him as well as a tall and muscular man with a thick black mustache and glasses who was carrying two chairs.

The tall muscular man set the chairs down and both men sat down.

"It's good to see that representatives from both sides could be present. Now, enough of this moody silence and let's get down to making history. I, Kisuke Urahara, shall be your mediator today. With me is Hirako Shinji to represent the surviving Visoreds."

Shinji looked slightly annoyed with the proceedings. Starrk was surprised at how little hostility he could feel radiating from the Visored leader, even though he killed one of his comrades.

Does he blame the deaths this war brought on Aizen like Harribel does?

Starrk shrugged it off. The Visoreds were not the biggest threat that the Arrancars faced. He returned his attention to Yamamoto. The real danger would always be the Gotei. He could feel the rage coming from most of the Soul Reapers present.

Most of them would rather just kill us all right now and be done with it, Starrk thought.

"Well," Starrk said and sighed and sat down. "Let's get this over with so that we can go back to hating each other in peace." He looked at Yamamoto in the bored and tired manner that he mastered long ago. "We need this war to end. Neither of us can afford to continue this war and we both know it. This all started with Aizen. Let's just let it end with him."

"Aizen was the catalyst for the Winter War," Yamamoto said as he sat down. "He stands as the most notorious traitor in the entirety of the Gotei's prestigious history. However, the Arrancar Army carried out his will. You killed one of our most powerful Captains, Espada, and several of our Lieutenants were lost."

"Hey!" Lilynetted cried out. "Who are you to act so high-and-mighty? You Soul Reapers invaded our home and tried to trash it and kill us all! Stop being so self-righteous, Captain Wrinkles."

Yamamoto glared at the Arrancar child. Lilynette gulped and then slipped behind Starrk who only sighed and shook his head at his other part's behavior. Lilynette peeked over Starrk's shoulder and her eye narrowed.

Shinji watched this and a slight smile came on his face at Lilynette's dig at Yamamoto. Urahara covered his own slight smile with his fan but kept an uneasy eye on the Captain-Commander.

"That's enough, Lilynette," Starrk said, a warning tone came into his voice. "I thought you agreed to behave yourself. However," he said and turned his attention back to Yamamoto, "she does have a point. You invaded our home and killed several of our comrades. One of your Captains pillaged Szayel Aporro's lab, taking whatever he pleased. Yet we never touched the Soul Society."

Lilynette pulled herself further up Starrk's back and stuck her tongue out at Yamamoto.

Kisuke had to suppress a chuckle at that.

"That…is…irrelevant," Yamamoto said in a slow and dangerous manner. "You and the other Espada elite invaded the World of the Living to assist Aizen in an act of mass soul destruction. You have no moral high ground. If you seek to the place the blame on the Gotei then this meeting has no real purpose."

"I'm not blaming you for this war. As far as I'm concerned, Aizen started this war. But now that Aizen is finished, his war is also over. I have authority over the Arrancar Army and I have no intention of returning to war. However, if there is to be another war, it will be your war. Now, are we going to settle on at least some kind of peace proposal or will it be a new war?" Starrk asked.

He ran a hand through his brown hair while the other fondled the pommel of his Zanpakuto. He had no real intention of going to war again, but he had to make it sound that he was ready if it was required. He was pleased that Yamamoto was still in his seat. The two leaders stared at each other, eye-to-eye.

"You speak as though the matter at hand was settled. However, there were many who advised me against coming to these talks. The slaying of Hollows is a sacred duty for the Gotei. Making peace with them would be deemed heresy in many circles of our society."

"Hey, Asshole!" Lilynette shouted. "Arrancars aren't Hollows!"

"Behave yourself, Lilynette," Starrk said, not taking his eyes off Yamamoto.

"Despite my subordinate's uncouth manner, she does have a point. I find that you even considering Arrancars the same as an ordinary Hollow as insulting and shows just how foolish the Soul Society is. We Arrancars have evolved into something that your ancient and out-of-date laws never even considered.

"I think that we all know what that means. We are all aware of how the Soul Society deals with any species that don't figure in to your status-quo. We can just ask the Bounts if they weren't all dead. Perhaps we can bring in that Quincy to testify to the atrocities their people suffered at your hands. I wonder how many other beings you've butchered over the millennia."

"A new species of Hollow that could do nothing more than bow to a traitor has no place condemning the actions of the Soul Society," Yamamoto snarled.

"Great," Shinji moaned, "they're getting on their high horses, although it might take the Primera a year just to get on it."

"Now, now," Urahara interrupted, waving his hand. "This is a peace conference, gentlemen." He grabbed the bottle from the center of the table and, with expert ease, popped the cork with one hand. He poured some of the sake into three of the saucers. "Let's try to be civil and place the blame solely on Aizen's well-deserving shoulders and then move on to the bargaining. Shall we?"

"Well, Aizen was a traitor," the Captain-Commander said as he picked up his saucer.

"And he was a liar who only made us to cast us aside later," Starrk said as he picked up his own saucer.

"Wonderful!" Urahara shouted as he raised his own sake cup. "Isn't it great when we find something we can all agree on? Now let's get…"

He stopped when an Arrancar with an afro of orange hair entered the tent. His uniform made him look as though he was getting ready to go to a disco club, probably Studio 54, in the 1970s His mask fragment was like a visor with a blue star in the center.

"What is it, Gantenbainne?" Starrk asked.

"I'm sorry for interrupting," Gantenbainne Mosqueda said, "but Szayel Aporro's fracción want in on the discussions."

"Well, they can't all come in," Starrk moaned and rubbed his eyes. "Just have one of the smaller onese come in, and not the one that keeps bouncing around as if he…or she…or whatever was some kind of beach ball."

"Very well, sir," Gantenbainne said and left the tent.

"What a pain," Starrk muttered. "I was hoping this would get over quickly so that I could take a nap."

Gantenbainne returned with an Arrancar who was a little over four feet tall. The Arrancar's mask fragment covered the top of his head and somewhat resembled a fish. The Arrancar was somewhat nervous and looked up at Gantenbainne and then to Starrk and then to Yamamoto. He swallowed hard and bowed his head.

"What do you want?" Yamamoto asked.

He doesn't sound angry, Starrk thought somewhat relieved. Is he genuinely puzzled? Nah, I bet he just has a very good poker face.

"I…I…I…" the Arrancar muttered as he fidgeted with his hands.

"I think he's a little shy," Gantenbainne said.

"That's alright," Kisuke said. He leaned closer to the Arrancar. "We'll listen to whatever you have to say."

The Arrancar gave a little jump. He continued to fidget with his hands as he looked at Kisuke and then to Yamamoto. He gave a slight bow.

"I…I'm sorry," he muttered. "It's just that…that we…we want our Master back."

"Who was your master?" Yamamoto asked.

"Our Master," the Arrancar said, gaining confidence. "Our Master is the Light of Perfection in our existence. He is our Creator and the true Divinity in our meager lives."

"Absolutely not!" Yamamoto shouted.

"I…I don't understand," the Arrancar whispered. "Why would you deny us our Master?"

"I refuse to release Aizen from our custody," Yamamoto snarled.

The Arrancar looked confused and then a look of rage came onto his face.

"You…you think that…that unenlightened, pompous fool is our Master?" the Arrancar asked. His voice was filled with the indignation he felt. "Then again, you yourself are nothing more than an unenlightened fool as well. You dare to confuse that…that usurper with the only one worthy of being our Master."

"I thought so," Starrk moaned.

"What is it?" Yamamoto asked. He didn't know whether to be confused, shocked, or infuriated with the Arrancar's indiscretion.

"We wish for Master Szayel Aporro Granz to be restored to us."

"I see," Yamamoto said. "Unfortunately, your former…Master…has been given over to Captain Kurotsuchi for his own personal research."

"I…I understand, but we…we who serve Lord Granz are willing to do anything so that he may be returned to us. We are lost without him to shine his glorious radiance on the path he wishes for us to take in order to achieve greater learning and a higher level of perfection."

"It would most likely only lead to his belly," Lilynette muttered.

At that moment Captain Mayuri Kurotsuchi rushed into the tent. The group looked at the insane Captain whose grin was larger than usual, displaying his bruised gums as well as his yellow teeth.

"I'm sorry for interrupting," he said, not sounding sorry at all. "I couldn't help but overhear."

"I bet you could," Shinji muttered.

"I'll be more than happy to handle the negotiations with this Arrancar," he purred. "From one scientist to another if you could comprehend such things."

Yamamoto was about to refuse and then thought better of it. He never trusted Mayuri the way he trusted some of the other Captains, but he knew what Mayuri wanted: more subjects for his twisted experiments. He realized that this would be an excellent opportunity to use Mayuri's selfishness to their advantage. In the end, it didn't really matter whether or not the Arrancars got Szayel Aporro back. Captain Kurotsuchi was certain that the drug used on the Octava Espada would continue to hold him no matter how long or how hard his fracción tried to revive him.

"Very well," Yamamoto said. "You can handle that part of the negotiations, Captain Kurotsuchi." He leaned closer to Mayuri. "I trust that you can make sure that any arrangements you make will work in our favor," he whispered.

"Thank you, sir," Mayuri said and looked at the Arrancar. "I'm sure we can come to some kind of…arrangement."

The Arrancar nodded eagerly and Starrk knew that it would do no good to try to get Szayel Aporro's fracción to think clearly in their negotiations. They were too eager and would do anything to get Szayel Aporro back, and both of the Gotei Captains knew it. Starrk knew that indiscrete eagerness could be as dangerous as being too arrogant and stubborn in any negotiation.

"Shall we talk outside?" Mayuri asked the Arrancar who nodded in agreement.

As the two walked out of the tent Mayuri noticed Lilynette and paused.

"Why is a child here?" he asked.

"Why wouldn't she?" Shinji said as he scratched his nose with his pinky. "She's this Espada's actual Zanpakuto."

"Really?" Mayuri purred. His eyes narrowed and his grin widened as he looked at Lilynette with interest. Starrk noticed this and glared at Mayuri like a wolf protecting its young. Mayuri flinched and his smile faltered. He knew that he would not be getting his hands on the young Arrancar. He sniffed and led Szayel Aporro's fracción out of the tent.

"Now that we got that bit of business taken care of, let's move onto more important matters," Yamamoto said.

"Good," Starrk said. "Let's bring in our Secondary Witnesses." He turned to Shinji. "Visored, do you have a Secondary?"

"Nope," Shinji said. "None of the other remaining Visoreds who weren't too injured wanted to come. Since I'm their leader I didn't have much of a choice. I need to make sure that nothing agreed upon here would endanger my remaining comrades."

"I can understand that," Starrk said. "Gantenbainne, send them in."

"As you wish," Gantenbainne said and walked to where the Arrancars were lingering.

"Lieutenant Sasakibe," Yamamoto said to the Squad One Lieutenant who was standing next to him, "send for Captain Retsu Unohana."

"As you wish, sir," Sasakibe said and left the tent.

Kisuke nodded his head and gave a wave of his fan. Tessai brought in tow more chairs and set them next to each other across from where Kisuke was sitting. He placed two of the remaining drinking saucers in front of them and poured some Sake into each one.

"Set one more place," Starrk said. "Harribel wanted me to make sure that the Fraccións had their own representative here."

"Oh," Tessai said and set another place to Starrk's right just as Captain Unohana walked in.

Unohana gave a polite nod to Yamamoto and Starrk before sitting down. Yamamoto turned his attention to who Starrk had come in. His eyes went wide in surprise when he saw Starrk's choice for a secondary.

He was certain that Starrk would choose the female Espada, Harribel. However, she was not the one who walked in. The Arrancar who sat next to Unohana was the blue-haired Espada whom Kurosaki encountered three times: twice in Karakura Time and once in Las Noches. Yamamoto was tempted to ask Starrk about his choice, but decided not to.

"What's up, Gramps?" Grimmjow asked and gave his signature smirk. Yamamoto glared at Grimmjow for the insult. "Ooh, I'm so scared," Grimmjow said, his voice oozing with sarcasm.

"Be polite," the next Arrancar, a man with long blonde hair, said as he came in. He bowed to Yamamoto.

"Forgive us for this last minute addition. I'm Findor Carias, official representative for the Fraccións."

"It's quite alright," Unohana said. "I'm sure that the Fracción have their own insights to provide into these proceedings."

"Why would they?" Grimmjow asked. "They're about as useful as a dull blade or an army with some old geezer in charge." He looked at Yamamoto with that comment as though daring him to react.

"Now, now, there's no insulting each other here," Urahara said. "We don't want to cause any more fights."

"I agree," Unohana said. "However, the fact that we are here indicates that we are more than willing to make peace. Isn't that right, Mister Jaegerjaquez?"

She gave the smile she reserved for members of Squad 11 who misbehaved when they were in her domain. Grimmjow gave a slight snort and crossed his arms over his chest.

"Whatever," he said, as though dismissing her. However, he would glance at her from time-to-time as though making sure she wasn't getting ready to bite his head off.

Yamamoto nodded in agreement. Even though many of the Soul Reapers present felt deep hatred and fear against the Arrancars, none of them were part of the Vanguard, an organization that was gaining traction in the Soul Society and advocated the complete annihilation of the Arrancars and all Hollows in Hueco Mundo. Yamamoto was not surprised that many of the Vanguard leaders were declaring him a traitor to the Soul King and the Sacred Laws just for being here. He most likely would have been one of them if someone else was sitting in this chair, but it was his duty as the Captain-Commander to be present at any negotiations that the Gotei took part in.

"Oh, why is this young lady present?" Unohana asked as she noticed Lilynette.

Lilynette looked at her in surprise. Unohana smiled at her gently. Lilynette jumped a little and smiled back as she pressed herself closer to Starrk for protection. Starrk sighed and put a hand on her head.

"She's here to keep me awake," Starrk said before Shinji could say anything.

"Before we begin," he continued, "I need to make certain of something. Captain-Commander Yamamoto, Aizen told us that Central Forty-Six was the true authority in the Soul Society. I must know whether or not you have the authority to make any sort of treaty. If you do, will it hold when your Central Forty-Six is re-established?"

"The Laws declare that whenever the Soul Society in a State of Emergency, absolute authority is to be given to the Gotei's Captain-Commander. The murder of Central Forty-Six, Aizen's betrayal, and the Winter War most certainly demand that the Soul Society be put in such a state. Therefore, my seal is binding in matters of law and war as long as it is for the protection of the Soul Society. Now, I must return the question to you. Do you have the proper authority to make any sort of treaty since you were once under Aizen's command?"

Starrk sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

"I expected you to ask me that. We don't exactly have any kind of law to turn to, but I suppose the closest thing we have is: 'Obey the Powerful.' With Aizen defeated and Baraggan dead, that applies to me as the Primera Espada. Since Harribel stands by my side in this there is no one on the horizon to challenge my authority.

"Even though I may have authority over the Arrancar Army, I don't have control over the lesser Hollows. So they'll still be your problem."

"Alrighty!" Kisuke shouted. "Now that we've established credentials, how about we get to the drinking and whatever diplomatic stuff needs to be done?"

At that Yamamoto rose to his feet. He glared down at Starrk.

"I want to make something very clear, Espada," he said. "The Arrancars are a potential threat to the Soul Society as long as they have any standing force. My absolute requirement to continue these negotiations is that the Arrancar Army be disbanded, here and now, and that no force of Arrancars is to be re-established. That includes any kind of police force for a police force borders a military force and can be put to such use at a moment's notice. What do you say, Espada?"

Before Starrk could answer, Findor spoke up.

"It seems that, before we even truly begin, you want the treaty to fail," Findor said.

"What?" Yamamoto demanded. "Are you saying that I would purposefully make a treaty not have any teeth?"

"Exacta. It's a well-known fact that, in order for any treaty to be maintained, then it must have a group to enforce it. A security force of some kind is the teeth and claws that gives a treaty true power. How about we disband the Arrancar Army as an offensive force, but maintain it as a defensive force?"

"In other words, the Arrancars can maintain a police force to uphold any system of law that you develop as well as this treaty, but not a force with the purpose to launch an assault against the Soul Society or the World of the Living," Unohana said.

"Exacta. If the Arrancars are to succeed in establishing any existence outside of Aizen then we must maintain law and order in some way or be reduced to beasts. The remaining Privaron Espada can provide the leadership necessary to maintain this security force as well as train the Números to keep the force at such a level to maintain law and order as the Arrancar population grows."

Yamamoto thought about it. The Arrancar had a point that he could not ignore.

"Very well," Yamamoto said. "I agree that the Arrancars can maintain some kind force to keep the laws and enforce the treaty, but not for an offense of any kind. If you want to kill each other then that's your business."

"I suppose I can agree to that," Starrk said. "In that case, I'll start with something that I know all of the Arrancars and Hollows want. The Soul Society and their allies are forbidden from stepping foot in Hueco Mundo without our permission. However, Las Noches will remain opened so long as it is to maintain peaceful relations."

"I can agree to that," Yamamoto said.

"I want to add something," Shinji said. "The Visoreds are not to be hunted down anymore. We had to stay in a filthy warehouse because Central Forty-Six was still sending out parties of their…hunting dogs to find and eliminate us. Their justification was that we achieved Hollowfication by insidious methods. However, Aizen essentially confessed to his crimes by his actions. Our actions should be enough to repeal the search-and-destroy order against us."

Damn, Yamamoto thought. A peace treaty with the Arrancars is one thing, but allowing the Visoreds to return from exile will cause a riot. The Gotei's too weak right now to deal with the populace.

"That may be difficult," Yamamoto said. "Guilt or innocence does not change the fact that you now have Hollow abilities and there will always be those who will want to destroy you. Therefore, you will still be exiled from the Soul Society."

"I don't remember asking for our exile to be reversed," Shinji said.

Starrk noticed that Shinji's voice could not completely hide the hurt that was in his heart. The Visoreds were forced from their homes and reviled by those they once thought of as their comrades. For over a hundred years they were hunted and sentenced to death by the very society and laws they swore to protect. The Winter War gave them a chance at being able to return home. Instead, they found that they would always remain Exiles.

"Then I agree to repeal the search-and-destroy orders placed on you and will give you absolution of the crimes placed on you. I will order that the Visoreds are never to be hunted again since your actions saved us from certain defeat."

It pained Yamamoto to say it, but it was the truth. If the Visoreds had not interfered then Aizen would have been victorious in creating the Ōken.

"Well, we're off to a great start," Kisuke said as he brought out a pen and dragged a sheet of paper close to him. He began writing, but paused and looked up. "Uh…do you think you can repeat those demands for me?"

Seireitei: Shortly after the Signing of the Gobi Treaty

The Captain's meeting Hall was designed to be grand in scale and humble in décor, and it held an imposing air even at the best of times. Legends among the lower-ranking Shinigami attributed the uneasiness in the Hall to the Reiatsu of the many past Captains that still lingered even after most of those Captains had since departed to either the Royal Guard or the grave.

However, it was never meant to be a place of ease. Only the Captain-Commander was permitted to sit while the other Captains were made to stand vigil in this place that was devoted to never-ending war. Today there was not even an illusion of serenity.

"This…is an insult," Su-Feng stated calmly after Yamamoto finished reading the Gobi Treaty. "It's an insult to those who lost their lives fighting against these Hollows. And that's what these Arrancars are and we all know it: nothing but Hollows."

Despite standing flawlessly at attention, the Captain Assassin seemed to quiver with restrained emotions. She was clutching her copy of the treaty in a tight fist; a gesture that, in the normally controlled Captain, was unsettling.

Captains Komamura and Hitsugaya regarded her with evident concern. Kenpachi grinned, but chose not to lick his teeth, in glee at the lethal intent radiating from Sui-Feng. Instead, he held up his copy of the treaty and waved it around.

"Yeah!" he shouted. "And where's my idea of opening Hueco Mundo to Squad Eleven for 'Training Exercises'? We can get their numbers down and cull a few of the rookies from my ranks in style at the same time."

"Silence!" Yamamoto roared. Silence fell and the grin on Kenpachi's face faded slightly. "This treaty has been sealed by both sides already. This meeting is to inform you, not to debate policy. We have the advantage here, as you should be able to see."

"How do we have the advantage?" Sui-Feng asked.

The slight tremor was gone along with her rigid posture as she clutched the stump where her left arm had been. Most of the Captains didn't look at her, except for Mayuri who gave a slight shrug.

"I got the specimens I wanted," he said as though that was answer enough.

Even the smile on Mayuri's face was much more subdued than Kenpachi's signature slasher grin, the face paint seemed to make it more unnerving. Kyoraku looked from Kenpachi to Mayuri and shuddered as he pushed his hat down over his eyes a little bit more.

"Of course you did," Sui-Feng said, clearly getting agitated. "You got them in exchange for returning Szayel Aporro Granz to them." Her eyes narrowed. "What if the Arrancars find a way to revive him? Did you ever think about that possibility? Tch…a thousand Arrancars like the ones who gave themselves over to you are not a fair exchange for one Espada, even if it was the Eighth."

"Ah, but it is more than a fair exchange," Mayuri said, his voice sounded as if he was chiding a child. "After all, they obviously have some healing capabilities and modifications since Szayel Aporro only had to devour one of them in order to reverse the damage that the Quincy dealt him. That could be very useful for us in the future.

"Besides," he continued with a dismissive wave of his hand, "they won't be able to find a way to reverse the drug. My chemicals are designed to be irreversible without the proper antidote, which only I know how to make. Their interrogations also made integrating the plunder from Las Noches into my database as smooth as can be expected."

"You are hardly unbiased where your creations are concerned, Captain," Sui-Feng said. "Have you ever thought that they might stumble upon the antidote by accident? Restoring their top scientific researcher is sure to be a top priority for the Primera."

The left corner of Kyoraku's lips twitched upward in a slight smirk and he gave a slight shake of his head.

"Tch…they're Arrancars. They lack the proper level of intelligence to even come up with the correct antidote if it was staring them in the face. Besides, he is an inferior intellect, not even worthy of calling himself a 'scientist.' His restoration would present no more difficulty than having to squash a bug a second time.

"And with all due respect, Captain Sui-Feng, but you are not qualified to question the potency of my toxins."

Sui-Feng gritted her teeth. She turned to Kyoraku who was still hiding his eyes, but she could tell that he was looking at her.

"Kyoraku, you're not going to stand for this, are you? Those Arrancars killed Captain Ukitake, your best friend, and this treaty allows his killers to live on in peace."

Shunsui Kyorkau sighed and shook his head.

"If you're looking for me to agree with you, Captain Sui-Feng, I'm sorry to disappoint you," he said. "You may be right in saying that Arrancars are nothing more than Hollows that are merely more evolved than what we've battled for ages. But evolution changes things. Arrancars may be to Hollows the way that humans are to apes. For all of their similarities there are still vital differences that distinguish the two.

"If the world has changed then the only sensible course is to change with it. If we don't then we risk either our own destruction or becoming the worst of what others accuse us of being. After all, 'Beware when you fight monsters lest you become one.'

"Ukitake would not want the fighting to continue if he saw peace as a valid option. He was, like you said, my best friend. As his friend, I must honor his memory and to do that then I must accept this treaty."

Sui-Feng looked at Kyorkaku, obviously hurt by his words. Kyoraku could only sigh again and look away. She turned her attention to Komamura. If any of the other Captains could understand what she was going through, then he most certainly would.

"Komamura," she said. "We both lost our Lieutenants in battle at the hands of the Arrancars. Are you going to let this treaty insult their bravery?"

"I…just want this war to be over," Komamura said as he closed his eyes. "There have been too many deaths and vengeance will not bring any of them back. I think that Tōsen may have realized that towards the end and he made me promise to do whatever I could to bring about peace before he died. I am not like you; yet here we are, standing side-by-side. Perhaps we can have the same camaraderie with the Arrancars someday. We can take those first steps by sheathing our swords today.

"If this treaty is what will bring about peace then I will accept it."

Sui-Feng could swear that she could not only feel her arm rotting away again, but it also felt as though her heart was crumbling to dust as well. The Gotei had been her life after Yoruichi left. The honor of the Squads and her place dictated in its laws had become her very identity.

Peace with Hollows, in any form, would undermine the very foundations of the Gotei and, through it, the Soul Society itself. Why couldn't they understand that the immediate consequences of this treaty would bring everything crashing down?

She knew that Captains Kyoraku and Komamura would not waver from the stances they took. She looked at Unohana and saw that she would not gain any support from her. The senior Captain was easily the most opposed to continuing the war. To make matters worse, it seemed to be born out of idealism rather than the corrupted sense of honor being invoked by Kyoraku and Komamura. It was infuriating and disheartening to see a senior officer behave in such a manner.

Captain Kuchiki only looked as stoic as ever, but she had a feeling that he would not go against Captain-Commander Yamamoto in this regard. She was inclined to blame Ichigo Kurosaki for that. While she had no spite towards the mortal himself, his talent for spreading his immature ideas was hazardous to the Soul Society. It was as though he thought that he, who had not even lived one lifetime, knew better than generations of souls that had existed for ages.

She understood that Mayuri Kurotsuchi had no true support of the peace treaty. Instead he had been sufficiently bribed to agree to it.

The only Captain who showed any sign of being willing to agree with her was Kenpachi. The only reason, she knew, was that he wanted to have a shot at fighting the Third and Primera Espadas. She supposed that it was better than standing alone, but not by much.

She just couldn't believe that this was actually happening. Her fellow Captains were willing to set aside their sacred calling for the sake of the insult she clutched in her remaining hand. She fought back the tears that were threatening to break free with practiced ease. She knew that she had treated Omaeda badly, but in the end he sacrificed himself so that she could live. Now they were just going to let his death as well as the deaths of the others who died in the Winter War be in vain.

"Why?" she whispered. "Why are you…are you just going to let their deaths amount to nothing?"

At first no one answered; then Toshiro Hitsugaya sighed and stepped forward. He looked at Sui-Feng and their eyes locked.

"This argument is pointless. Aizen has been defeated. That was the objective from the start, not exterminating the Arrancars," he said. Sui-Feng felt the words hit her like a barrage of ice. "The treaty has been signed by both parties and the Captain-Commander has placed his seal on it. This treaty is binding in accordance with the Laws.

"Right now we need to focus on rebuilding our forces, because the Arrancars will most likely be doing the same.

"How do we know that they will keep to the treaty? We need to be prepared in case they decide to turn against us.

"However, we should not rush into another war so soon after we came out of this one. Lieutenant Matsumoto would most likely be dead if Miss Inoue had not intervened and she has sworn to restore your arm, Captain Sui-Feng, once a resolution for this war has been reached. We are short four Captains and too many Lieutenants are either dead or still recovering from their wounds. We had only recently recovered from the loss of those known as the 'Visoreds' before that.

"Squad Five…" he stopped and bit his lower lip before composing himself. "Squad Five has no one to lead them. And you, Captain Sui-Feng, dare to think that we are fit to invade Las Noches when its mightiest warriors could be ready for us?

"I did not think you a fool, Sui-Feng, it goes against the character of your squad and the Stealth Force. This treaty is not, as you maintain, an insult to those who lost their lives. It is honoring them. If you want to honor your subordinate's sacrifice, then take this opportunity of peace we have to strengthen your squad to where it can effectively protect the Soul Society."

Sui-Feng looked away and nodded. Omaeda wouldn't have wanted her to just charge off on her own in some fool's errand at vengeance. That was Kenpachi's area of expertise. No, Omaeda would have wanted her to become a stronger Captain.

"So, what do you suggest?" Kenpachi asked. He sounded bored since it was apparent that peace would be the direction the Soul Society would go.

The other Captains could tell that Kenpachi had not paid any attention to what Hitsugaya said. He was too excited at the prospect of a bloody and chaotic invasion of Las Noches. All that he cared about was seeing the white sands stained red with the blood of Shinigami and Arrancar alike. Anything was just a waste of time to him.

"We wait," Hitsugaya said. "We remain vigilant and we strengthen our forces. Now is the time to recover and rebuild our might."

"Captain Hitsugaya's assessment in this matter is correct," Yamamoto said. "Not since the Quincy Wars has the Soul Society been forced to face foes with coordination and discipline in such numbers. We had little time to adapt our doctrines and training from facing Hollows to the likes of Aizen's forces.

"This treaty works to our advantage since it will give the Soul Society and the Gotei Thirteen time to rebuild. Aizen's betrayal cost us three Captains. The Winter War caused us to lose one of our best Captains as well as several Lieutenants. Even though I believe that the Arrancar Army suffered greater losses, I believe that continuing the war at this point would be futile."

Murmurs rose at that and the Captain-Commander struck the floor with his cane to silence them. The other Captains fell silent and, except for Mayuri and Unohana, looked at him with varying degrees of confusion. Kenpachi looked irritated since he belived that no battle was fruitless, unless he was unable to find a good fight.

"Sir," Captain Kuchiki said, "even though I respect your will in this, I am rather puzzled by what you mean."

"In all likelihood, the Sould Society would be able to wipe out the Arrancar Army and seize Las Noches to begin hunting any surviving Arrancars. However, we would have to fight the battle alone. Even though Kurosaki is recovering from his injuries, he has made it clear that he supports peace and has already sent his allies back to living their own lives.

"The Visoreds see their part in this war finished with Aizen's defeat. For them the threat to Karakura Town is over and they owe us nothing further. I hate to admit this, but without their aid we would have been defeated and Aizen would have made the Ōken and become the most powerful entity in all existence.

"If continue this war then none of those who have rendered us vital aid would not get involve and our losses would be too great."

"A pyrrhic victory against the Arrancars will only cripple the Soul Society with losses we cannot afford," Unohana said, speaking for the first time during the meeting. Her tone was stern, making it clear she was not going to debate the matter of acceptable losses.

"While that may be true," Mayuri said, "it does not need to be. The projections, while currently accurate, could be altered with new factors. If certain restrictions on my Squad and the Institute were lifted then the equation could be radically altered in our favor," he trailed off and looked at the Captain-Commander.

"What of the Balance of Souls?" Sui-Feng asked, playing her final card. "We fought the Quincy Wars because of the Quincy's reckless use of Oblivion threated the Balance. The Arrancars plan to feed on Hollows rather than humans. If they are not purified, what shall become of the souls that composed those Hollows?"

"That would require further research. The Arrancars have many traits unique to their class of Hollow, and the affect their presence will have on the Balance can only be speculated on until my research has time to study both the Arrancars and any shifts in the Balance that might occur.

"In either case, a congestion of souls is hardly comparable to the Oblivion imbalance faced in the past," Mayuri said shrugging.

It was as close to a desperate gamble that Sui-Feng had. She appealed to their most basic duty: to watch over the flow of souls in the cycle of existence. She knew that the others, except for Kenpachi, must have already considered it. Now, Mayuri gave them the justification required to turn their eyes from that for the moment.

"The Soul Society shall have peace," Yamamoto said. "That peace shall be used to restore the Gotei's military might. The Arrancars are little more than evolved Hollows. It is in their nature to fight among themselves. Since the Gobi Treaty will confine them to Hueco Mundo, over the course of time they might do the work for us.

"However, if they return as a threat in the future, or prove a threat to the Balance by simply existence as a race, then the Gotei shall stand stronger than we do today. We will be prepared to wipe their race from the face of existence in any and all worlds.

"This meeting is adjourned. You will inform your officers of the declassified portions of the treaty immediately. The Seireitei, as a whole, will be informed shortly through official proclamation.

"I officially declare the Winter War at an end," Yamamoto declared.

His words echoed in the Hall with the note of finality.

Central 46, After the Second Aizen War

"Captain-Commander, do you truly believe your proposal wise?"

Yamamoto looked back at the wise man, controlling his features to hide his annoyance.

"If I believed it was foolish then I would not waste the valuable time of the Central Forty-Six with this proposal," he answered.

"Forgive our fellow counselor for asking such a pointless question, but his sentiment is understandable," another of the wise men said. "Why should we even consider admitting a renegade like Ichigo Kurosaki into the Gotei, much less allowing him to assume of the rank of Captain without taking the proper course of training at the Acadmey that you yourself established and climbing through the ranks? I dare say that some would find it nothing more than favoritism."

"I agree," another wise man said. "You know full well that power is not all that is required for a capable leader. We cannot afford another renegade like Kenpachi Zaraki in our midst."

There were murmurs of agreement.

"My proposal is not meant to reflect my confidence in his abilities," Yamamoto said. The room fell silent.

"Explain," one of the six judges ordered.

"Even though Kurosaki possesses such tremendous power and has achieved so much at a young age, these things could only adversely affect his development. However, Aizen's wrath has not only thinned our ranks again, but it has also torn open potentially greater wounds.

"Aizen may have only escaped his bonds with the aid of his followers who were still in our midst, but that does not change the fact that he escaped. This time, the Soul Society and the true Karakura Town felt his wrath. Just having a defeated foe rise from the ashes is humiliating. However, this latest war proved to be more devastating than the first. It has caused us to lose much of our reputation from the Rukongai slums to the estates of the nobility.

"In worlds such as these one must be respected and feared to maintain order. To do nothing is to invite disaster."

"What do you mean?" another of the wise men asked. "Are you saying that more threats may arise against us? Aizen is gone. The head of the serpent is destroyed and the rest will die with him."

"Aizen may be gone, and for good this time. However, his legacy lives on not only in his Arrancar creations, but also the possible survival of the cult that freed him. Such fanatics will not be deterred by the death of their god. They have left reason behind."

"What does this have to do with Kurosaki?" one of the judges asked.

"It's simple," Yamamoto said. "Kurosaki destroyed Aizen. If we make him a Captain we can claim to possess the power that destroyed our greatest adversary. It will give hope to those who scorn our order that we are willing to change it. Change must occur for any organization to remain relevant and we must be the ones who enable it to be set into motion."

There were murmurs amongst the forty-six men in their lofty seats. The more conservative members sounded angry while the more liberal sounded excited. The more moderate were somewhat hesitant and needed more persuasion.

"Impossible," one of the judges said and stood. He struck the table with his palms and leaned forward. "That boy is an abomination. He's a Visored. Precedent has been established that, while we work with such creatures under certain circumstances, they have no place in the Soul Society. The Law states that, 'It is forbidden for a Shinigami to acquire or attempt to gain Hollow-like powers.'"

There were mutters of assent and some of the wise men and judges nodded their heads in approval.

"I know what the Law says," Yamamoto said. "However, there is a way around that. The wording of the execution orders and revised sentencing claimed that the Visoreds betrayed the Soul Society by acquiring Hollow powers.

"However, the Law does not apply in Kurosaki's case for two reasons. The first is that when Ichigo gained his Hollow powers he was not a true Shinigami, but rather a half-breed. The second is that Ichigo Kurosaki would enter the Soul Society as a true Shinigami with Hollow abilities."

"A loophole," one of the Judges said and nodded. "I see. I should remind my fellow judges and wise men that barely within the Law is still within the Law. As such, then the case of Ichigo Kurosaki still falls within the Law."

"Regardless of what he is," the judge who brought up Ichigo being a Visored as grounds for denial said, "Kurosaki has proven to be a dissident. Can he be trusted to use his rank for the good of the Soul Society or would he simply use it to further his own radical agenda?"

"Kurosaki does lack the discipline required to act for the greater good. However, his one shining virtue is loyalty. His Banki indicates that he would tear the heavens asunder to fulfill the oaths he takes.

"In the past, his loyalty to his mortal friends and Karakura Town has swayed him to impulsive action that proved beneficial to the Soul Society. However, Aizen severed those bonds.

"Karakura Town has been reduced to ashes and piles of rubble, his family is dead seemingly beyond recovery along with most of his friends. Those who remain, the Last Quincy, Yasutora Sado, and Orihime Inoue, seem to have already begun to drift away from him.

"Kurosaki takes no glory from his achievement. Like a true protector he laments the death and destruction he failed to avert. He is not a man who can exist adrift for long. He requires purpose.

"We can provide that purpose. He already has ties to many of our elites, especially the Kuchikis. If we permit him to join our ranks then we permit him a place and a purpose. It will be salvation for his wounded soul.

"While I have little doubt that he would chose his comrades over our Laws, once he vows to uphold them then he will be far less likely to break them. Nor do I believe that he would forsake such a responsibility as being a Captain so easily for to do so would be breaking his word and severing a bond. Finally, many of the Shinigami he has forged bonds with are loyal to the Soul Society and his loyalty to them will bind him to us.

"Our agents have already secured one of his deceased friends, Tatsuki Arisawa. She has been enrolled in the Academy and already shows signs of great potential. Thus, she will be another binding tie in our hands.

"This is a rare opportunity.

"However, know this: he will find a cause. If it's not ours then it will be someone else's," the Captain-Commander finished. He would let them reach their own conclusion as to what enemy, real or imagined, might recruit the brash boy.

"Thank you, Captain-Commander, for your arguments," one of the judges said. "We have much to deliberate on this matter and you have many duties to perform. We will send a messenger to you once we have reached a decision."

Yamamoto bowed and left the room. He was pleased that no one, not even the most conservative of the members of Central 46, suggested that they try and eliminate Kurosaki. It seemed that the so-called "wise men" were at least wise enough not to provoke a mourning monster needlessly.

Yamamoto felt uneasy about using sacred rank and responsibility to manipulate a boy like Ichigo Kurosaki. However, it was for the greater good of Ichigo and the Soul Society. Freedom sounded pretty, but he had seen the all-too-often destructive and cruel chaos that erupted when order was neglected. Kurosaki was too powerful to be left to his own devices.

For the good of all, Yamamoto thought as he made his way out of the Central 46 Compound, Kurosaki must hold a place in the post-Aizen order by any means necessary.

200 Years after the Winter War

Lieutenant Rukia Kuchiki made her way down the corridor to the Captain's Meeting Hall. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, bathing the hall with light. The only sound was her footsteps on the wooden floors.

She tried to think of why she had been summoned to the Captain's Assembly. Even though Lieutenants were more likely to be summoned to important meetings than most it didn't happen that often. If there was one thing she learned from her childhood on the streets, where each day was a struggle to survive, to being in the ranks of the nobility and the military it was that any irregularity could be a bad thing.

The meeting itself was an irregularity since the Captain's Assembly had met only a few days before. The Assembly wouldn't be called twice in such a short period of time unless something important was going on.

Perhaps they summoned me to discuss something they decided on, she thought. Damn, one would think that having friends and family wearing the White would help me have a better idea of what's going on. Instead, they keep me in the dark.

When she reached the large double doors that led into the Meeting Hall she sighed and leaned against the wall until she was permitted entrance. She felt that this was the part of life that she hated most: wasting time in the name of duty as both an officer and a noblewoman waiting to be summoned. She wished that she could get away with doing some drawing. She found that drawing Chappy the Rabbit or her friends' faces helped her to relax and pass the time.

She thought that, compared to her drawings 200 years before, her drawing abilities had improved immensely. She knew that she would never become a Rembrandt or a Van Gogh, but now her people looked like people instead of rabbits and bears. Her room was filled with her drawings. Each one seemed to mark a milestone in her development as an artist.

However, her favorite piece was not one of her own. It was a drawing her brother did for her of his Seaweed Ambassador wishing her a happy birthday that he gave her after the Winter War. It was the first thing that he ever gave her that seemed to verify that he loved her as his little sister.

Shouts coming from the other side of the door brought her back to reality. She sighed in frustration. The last thing she wanted was to hear the Captains spend hours arguing again. The shouting didn't intimidate her as much as they used to, but there were some who she wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of, especially among the newer Captains. The shouting became even louder and Rukia rolled her eyes in annoyance. Bickering was annoying to listen to, period.

She heard some of the rumors that other members in the Gotei were spreading about the quarrels amongst the members of Central 46. She wasn't surprised by those rumors. When you got a bunch of politicians together in the same room then arguments were sure to multiply like weeds in a garden. The thing that truly unnerved her was the growing gap between the Gotei and Central 46. She understood that if they weren't careful then these two rising factions could tear the Soul Society apart.

At that moment the door opened and a group of five people walked out. Rukia immediately stood at attention before she registered who they were. Four of the people were wearing uniforms of a more Western design that were a grey so dark that they were nearly black. The thin-legged trousers were tucked into a pair of black boots. They wore purple sashes around their waists with their Zanpakuto tucked under the wrapping with a golden cord wrapped horizontally around the sheath and vertically around the sash with the ends tied together in an ornate knot. The four each wore a purple tagelmust that covered their head and most of their faces, leaving only their eyes exposed, which led to many in the Gotei calling the members of the Judicial Guards "the Faceless."

She tried to keep calm, but the sight of the Judicial Guard always made her feel uneasy. A small gasp escaped from her lips.

Oh sweet Chappy, she thought. What are the Faceless doing here?

In the middle of the group was a man with a small, pointed goatee. He was leaning on a gold-headed cane and walked with a pronounced limp. She saw the purple and gold armband and knew that he was one of Central 46's errand boys. She took one look of his face and saw that he was angry about something.

"That damn fool," the man said as he limped out of the Meeting Hall. His entourage of Judicial Guards kept pace with him. "Doesn't he understand who he's…?" He stopped when he noticed Rukia. "Lieutenant Kuchiki," he said and gave a slight bow.

"What brings an esteemed representative from Central Forty-Six here?" she asked. She focused her attention towards the guards surrounding him. "And why would you need so many of the honorable Judicial Guards with you?"

Not even Sui-Feng would stoop so low as to invite even one of the so-called "Judicial Guard" into the hallowed halls of Squad One's Barracks. Sui-Feng may be a leader in the Vanguard, but she was still a member of the Gotei and the Gotei viewed the Faceless as an insult from Central 46.

Yet this errand boy dares to bring four of them with him, Rukia thought.

The representative gave a slight smirk.

"That's Central Forty-Six's concern, not yours," he said. "I would suggest that you keep that in mind."

That bastard's dodging, Rukia thought. I bet he just brought them to mock us.

"Now hold on…" Rukia began. She wanted to tell him that he didn't need to be so rude.

She was about to make a move when one of the Faceless held out a hand to her. She looked at the hand and saw the barest amount of space between it and her modest chest. It was as though he was saying that even though he respected protocol when it came to the nobles, he was not afraid to break it if the situation demanded it. She then looked into the man's eyes. They both glared at each other, the air between them seemed to spark with the intensity coming from both.

"That's enough," the representative said. "We have no time to get into arguments with these…Gotei," he said in a derisive tone. "Central Forty-Six will want to hear of his decision as soon as possible."

The Faceless nodded and lowered his hand before turning away from Rukia. Rukia sighed in relief as the five men returned to the Central 46 Compound where they belonged.

"Lieutenant Kuchiki, you may enter," the door keeper said from behind her, causing her to jump a little.

She looked at the bowing man and all thoughts of her encounter with the entourage from Central 46 flew from her mind. She wondered where the bowing man came from. Each time she was summoned here she noticed that the door keepers would seem to pop out of nowhere. Her theory was that Squad Two assigned the rookies to this position to train them on proper stealth techniques as well as the art of surprise.

Like cute little ninja bunnies with cute little carrot nunchaku, she thought, making sure to resist laughing at the image.

"Thank you," Rukia said and entered the chamber beyond.

The Captain's Meeting Hall had not changed in all of the centuries that the Gotei used it. She saw that the Captains were standing in the traditional double-line, facing each other. She looked straight ahead to where the Captain-Commander sat. She bowed in respect to those assembled.

"Captain-Commander Kuchiki, you summoned me?"

"I have, Lieutenant Kuchiki," Captain-Commander Byakuya Kuchiki said. "Please step forward."

Rukia knew that she should be used to facing the Captain's Assembly, but it did not stop her feeling nervous. She took a deep breath to relax and caused her mind to let go of any worries she had. She knew that she was not without friends in the Assembly.

She looked to where Ichigo Kurosaki stood and noticed that he wore a grim expression on his face. That troubled her. She only saw him have that expression if something was wrong. However, when Ichigo saw her looking at him his face softened and he gave her the comforting smile he always gave.

He wears the White well, she thought. If only his old school detractors could see him now.

She recalled how several high ranking nobles and officials challenged Yamamoto giving Ichigo Aizen's old position. It was unheard of for someone so young to be made a Captain in such a short amount of time, but she understood that it mostly had to do with Ichigo being technically a Visored, despite that he always identified himself as a Soul Reaper. She suspected that Yamamoto gave Ichigo the position in order to help wash Squad Five clean of Aizen's legacy by having a hero lead them.

There were other new faces among the Captains, but she only glanced over them. The face that she focused on now was her brother's. She still felt proud when she saw him in his role as Captain-Commander. However, Byakuya had not wanted the role that was practically forced on him.

It was hard for anyone to believe that Genryusai Yamamoto could die. However, only one year before he died he had said that he was not a god. Some thought that it was sad for a great warrior like Yamamoto to succumb to disease. However, Rukia thought that the old warrior would be pleased that his long, violent life had a peaceful end.

The search for a replacement had soon become a purely political matter. Central 46 wanted someone with Yamamoto's power and yet also someone who they could most likely manipulate to fit their agenda. The upper-level Officers in the Gotei 13, however, wanted one of the two senior Captains to succeed him, as Yamamoto made clear to them. However, since both the Gotei and Central 46 had to agree by a majority vote on who was going to be named Captain-Commander, the matter became deadlocked.

Central 46 feared another great leader who would set them aside if they chose, and the ideals that Captains Unohana and Kyoraku went against their agenda. In the same manner, the Gotei Captains did not want someone who was going to allow Central 46 the same influence in the military that they had in the legislative and executive sections of society. As a result, all of Central 46's early nominations were unacceptable. Thus, they had to compromise.

Byakuya's nomination was something that both parties could agree on. He was powerful, but not too powerful. Many in Central 46 admired him for fighting against Rukia's rescue since they believed that it meant that he would obey their decisions.

And how you've disappointed them since, Rukia thought fondly. You refused to be their lapdog.

She remained bowing to him, and by extension the other assembled Captains, until Byakuya told her she could rise.

"You may rise, Lieutenant Kuchiki," Byakuya said.

Rukia straightened and looked at the assembled Captains. She could tell that everyone was on edge. Even her brother looked troubled, which was unusual for him. The only one who seemed to be enjoying the tension was Kenpachi and that was never a good sign.

"I am at your service," Rukia said.

"Lieutenant, we summoned you here for an assignment. It is a long-term and highly classified," Byakuya said. And highly dangerous, his voice seemed to say.

"If she agrees," Ichigo broke in.

Rukia didn't bother resisting an exasperated sigh. He would never learn to follow protocol as his influence on his Squad indicated. If it wasn't for Squad 11, then Squad Five would be seen as the largest group of delinquents in the Gotei.

"Kurosaki," Sui-Feng said, glaring at the orange-haired Captain. "You're more than willing to support any decision that we make so long as it doesn't make you uncomfortable. You should really be more willing to make some compromises. Besides, the matter is decided." Ichigo glared at her but held his tongue.

"As such you are not permitted to discuss the things said in this meeting outside of this hallowed place," Byakuya continued. "If you do so then your rank will be stripped from you and you will be kept under guard indefinitely. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir," Rukia said, feeling more uneasy.

"Good," Sui-Feng said. "Now, Lieutenant Kuchiki, what do you know about Las Noches?" Rukia was not expecting the question. How long had it been since anyone talked about Las Noches?

"Well, it's a massive structure in Hueco Mundo. It covers an area roughly the same size as the entire Seireitei. We believe that it was constructed by Aizen during his years conspiring against the Soul Society, but we can't be sure on that matter. Its dome has a high-level of Kido to imitate the daylight sky in the World of the…"

"And what do you know about the Arrancar?" Sui-Feng interrupted.

"Uh…they're Hollows who removed most of their masks and regained a mostly human form. They use their Zanpakuto to seal their Hollow powers rather than Familiars. They possess Hierro as natural armor and use a speed technique called 'Sonído.'

"They were created by the traitor, Aizen, to serve as soldiers for the Winter War. While Aizen was defeated, his army was still powerful enough to withdraw from the field. As far as I know, they have remained in Hueco Mundo since the Gobi Treaty was signed."

"Then you know as much as the Assembly does, Lieutenant," the Captain-Commander said.

Rukia didn't know what to make of the statement. She was still uncertain why she was asked about Las Noches and the Arrancars.

"Haven't you ever heard the one about fixing things that aren't broken?" Ichigo asked.

"And haven't you heard, 'Always prepare for the worst'?" one of the newer Captains asked. "This expedition is a necessity. For all we know the Arrancars could be preparing for war. If they are then we need to know so that we can gather our full strength and strike them before they have a chance to strike against us."

"I…I'm sorry, but did you say 'expedition', Captain Nakamura?" Rukia asked.

Captain Nakamura turned his frown on her. The new Captain of Squad Nine was only slightly taller than Rukia with a broad, powerful build and closely cropped black hair. His hard grey eyes glared at her from behind his glasses. In many ways Rukia thought he looked like a teacher scolding one of his more troublesome students.

"That is correct," Byakuya said. "We have decided, after much deliberation, to send an expedition to Hueco Mundo to look into the state of affairs in Las Noches and with the Arrancars."

Rukia was too stunned to say anything, which was probably a good thing. When Byakuya noticed that Rukia was able to comprehend what he told her he nodded for her to speak, thus avoiding a breach in protocol.

"But…Nee—I mean Captain-Commander, wouldn't the Arrancars see this as a violation of the Gobi Treaty?" Rukia asked with only a slight tremor in her voice.

She knew that, regardless of how you looked at it, the expedition was a violation of the Gobi Treaty. She wasn't afraid of the prospect of battle, but she did remember the horrors the Winter War and the Second Aizen War and the lives lost. She thought that another war against the Arrancars could be just as bad, if not worse.

"That is why we will be cautious," Byakuya said. "Captain Kurotsuchi, please explain what you and your team in the Department of Research and Development have come up with."

"Of course," Mayuri said, his sinister grin widened.

"We are currently developing a new type of Gigai that will allow the members of the expedition to have many of the same properties of an Arrancar. These pseudo-Arrancar Gigai will indeed be a new milestone in the Gigai development process.

"Thanks to the data and samples gathered from the specimens I acquired during the Winter War, I have been able to recreate the Hierro skin they have as well as having a chance to study their Reiatsu. The tests and theories recorded by the Octava Espada have also extended our knowledge of Arrancar anatomy immensely, thus making this project possible.

"Once the Soul Reaper is in the Gigai, they will be completely registered as an Arrancar by any observer not properly equipped. Of course, even as we speak, tests are being run to ensure that should any undesirable side-effects show themselves, we can easily deal with them.

"Barring unforeseen developments we should be able to equip the expedition a relatively short period of time and begin the interrogation process," Mayuri practically cackled as he ranted about his new favorite subject: the Arrancar Gigais.

He may be insane, but he loves his job, Rukia mused.

Sui-Feng muttered something under her breath that Rukia couldn't quite make out. The one-armed Captain stood rigid as usual. Her short hair and lower face were covered in the black mask of her Execution Force. Her resemblance to the Faceless was a little too much, but, in Sui-Feng's defense, her unit had worn such uniforms long before the Faceless existed. Plus, she still wore the traditional uniform and not the newer European-style uniforms that the Faceless wore. However, her eyes went to the crimson hawk that was sewn on the right breast of her white haori.

Rukia took her attention away from Sui-Feng and found that she wanted to know more about the "undesirable side-effects" that Mayuri mentioned. She wanted to ask about them, especially if one of the leading Vanguard leaders was skeptical about this plan. However, she knew that any seated officer who was summoned before the Captain's Assembly was never permitted to ask any questions except when given permission by the Captain-Commander.

"Thank you, Captain Kurotsuchi," Byakuya said and turned his attention back to his sister. "We are currently reviewing applicants to see if they are physically and mentally fit to take part in this expedition."

"And my squad is getting the lion's share," Kenpachi said. His grin became even wider.

Wait, Rukia thought. If this is supposed to be an expedition then why is Squad 11 getting the majority of the positions? Are we trying to gather intelligence or are we provoking the Arrancars?

"Central Forty-Six granted me the authority to determine who will lead this expedition since I argued for this expedition's necessity," Byakuya said.

That would explain the arguments in Central 46, Rukia thought. I bet that some of them just wanted to go to war while others wanted us to stay out of Hueco Mundo altogether.

"However, none of the Soul Reapers suggested by Central Forty-Six met with my approval," Byakuya continued. "There were certain attributes that I want for the expedition's leader to possess."

"I'm sure there are," Ichigo muttered, failing to hide any hint of anger.

Rukia realized what her brother wanted her to do.

"Lieutenant Kuchiki, I want you to lead the expedition to Hueco Mundo."

Memorial Hill

Rukia ran a hand over the monument's smooth stone surface. It felt cool to the touch, almost reassuring. The stone monolith had long since replaced the Sokyoku that Ichigo destroyed in order to rescue her in what seemed at times like only yesterday and at others an eternity ago. The younger generation called the place "Memorial Hill" after the monument, but Rukia would always remember it as Sokyoku Hill.

The petite Lieutenant looked up at the rows of names engraved in black on the white stone. They were a reminder of those who died in Aizen's conspiracy, the Winter War, and finally the brief and tragic Second Aizen War. There had been so much death in that time of crisis and not all of those who died were even acknowledged here. She wondered at times if it could all truly be laid at Aizen's feet, regardless of how much she hated him.

Rukia searched among the names until she found the one that she was looking for. She traced the engraved black letters with her fingers and sighed, pleased and saddened to recall the face and voice so clearly.

It was like her memories of this place where she had been sentenced to oblivion: at once unnervingly close and impossibly distant. She wondered if humans, despite their brief lives, could truly experience feelings like this. She had a feeling that maybe they did.

The sound of footsteps brought her out of her thoughts and she turned to see Byakuya approaching. She also saw that a few of the trusted Kuchiki Clan guardsmen and Byakuya's Lieutenant, Chōjirō Sasakibe, were forming a perimeter to ensure some privacy for them. He stepped up beside her and looked at the name her fingers rested on.

She pulled her hand back from the stone to let him see it clearly, though he already knew whose name it was. Rukia knew that he had not come for the dead, but she let him have his moment to pay his respects in his own way.

"If he had survived he would have become a Captain," Byakuya said.

"He died a death that he would have been proud of. He died fighting to defend his friends and those he had sworn to protect," Rukia said. She turned her attention away from the name and looked at her brother. "Will there be more names? Will there be another monument for another war?"

"The expedition is necessary. We need to know if the Arrancars pose a threat or not. Whether or not I agree with the motives behind the proposal doesn't matter. What matters is that I agree with the proposal itself."

"But Nelliel was Ichigo's friend and was permitted to visit him as an ambassador before Central Forty-Six revoked her status. Chad supposedly goes to-and-from Hueco Mundo as much as he wants. Why should we resort to espionage instead of renewing the diplomacy that we let wither?" Rukia asked. "Couldn't we…?"

"They are not sources that we can rely on," Byakuya said. "One of them is a high ranking member of a potential enemy. The other, while your friend, has no allegiance to the Soul Society. He also remains tight-lipped on the state of Hueco Mundo. Besides, his Hollow-like powers and his visits to Hueco Mundo make him suspect in the eyes of too many powerful figures.

"Right now, the only sources that the Gotei and Central Forty-Six will accept any data concerning the Arrancars and Hueco Mundo are from Soul Reapers and no one else. Even then those Soul Reapers must be able to present their findings as ones uncompromised by the Arrancar authorities. If any official channel was involved then they would declare any information was falsified to hide something."

Rukia thought about it and knew that her brother was right. She didn't exactly distrust Nel, but as a woman and a Soul Reaper, she did have some doubts about her. Nel was a powerful, and beautiful, Arrancar woman who had spent a lot of time with Ichigo. Rukia was afraid that something might have happened between the two ambassadors that would be deemed taboo by the two sides.

She trusted Chad. However, she felt that he had conflicting loyalties. She took his ability to change his arms into weapon and shield as simply a matter of course, but there was the matter of his unnaturally long life to consider. It seemed as though the longer he lived the more his ties to humanity were taken away. The man had somehow managed to become an even bigger enigma than ever before. It wasn't fair to expect others to share in her trust of him.

As for the accusations against any open inquiry. While she didn't hate the Arrancars she knew all-too well the depths that pluses and humans could and did sink to. It was not hard to believe that even a man who seemed honorable, like the Primera, might not either desire a return to war or be undermined by his people to make it happen. She didn't like it, but she had learned that her desires meant nothing to reality the night she had been forced to kill a comrade.

Reality didn't care about your wishes or your hopes and dreams. It shattered them. All that you could do was do the best you could with what you gained and be thankful for the good times you were allowed.

"We are the Shinigami, the Soul Reapers," Byakuya said. "We watch over the flow of souls by guiding the Pluses and purifying Hollows. Many see the Arrancars as nothing more than Hollows, no different from a Menos Grande or a newborn Hollow, and their destruction as nothing less than our divine mandate.

"Rukia, we need this expedition. We need it to remain unknown to the Arrancars. If the Arrancars are preparing for war then we need to know so that we can be ready to triumph once again. If they're keeping their word then we have to know that as well. I will not have the Soul Society be the one to shatter the peace that we gave our word to uphold and thus sully its honor."

"Then who in their right mind would want me to lead it?" Rukia asked. "This mission is too vital and I…I've never handled anything like this before. And don't bring up my times with Ichigo and the others. Those times don't count since I wasn't exactly acting on behalf of the Soul Society. And it's not like I was in charge then either."

Silence fell between them. Byakuya looked at her and then looked back at the monument.

"I was the one who requested you to lead it," he said. Rukia looked at him, shocked by his admission. "I have my reasons for it, but Captain Kurosaki was right, you do have a choice."

Rukia watched her brother as he walked away. She saw the weight that he was carrying on his shoulders, and now she felt the same weight pressing down on her. Her brother was a great a man, but he was not his predecessor. Central 46 and even some of the other Captains and nobles had become bold in ways that they never would have dared to become while Yamamoto was still in command.

At the moment it seemed as though her brother's main adversary was Central 46 itself. They showed that when, after Byakuya was officially declared Captain-Commander, they formed the Judicial Guards, all but declaring a lack of confidence in the Gotei 13.

I'm the only one you feel you can trust, Rukia realized.

She turned back to the name and looked it along with the other names. She knew what her answer would be. Ichigo would not be happy about it, but rank didn't mean that he was exempt from a few well-deserved kicks to the head.

Even though he had grown into a man in so many ways, he still needed to be reminded that his duty was not the only one that mattered. And she was still happy to get physical to remind him.

She reached out one more time and traced her fingers over the name immortalized in stone: RENJI ABARAI.

"Goodbye, Renji," she whispered and tapped the name twice, a small gesture of appreciation for the friendship they once had.

She turned her back on the cherished and painful memories of the past to face the road ahead.

Department of Research and Development

15 Days before Departure

Rukia stood in the brightly-lit Gigai lab trying to keep from shivering. She wished that this could be done in the Squad 4 Barracks where it felt warm. The Squad 12 Barracks, however, was the opposite. It didn't matter if it was plunged in shadow or invaded by light, Captain Kurotsuchi's domain always felt cold.

The fact that she was standing naked with two other people in the room, looking at her, only made the coldness more powerful.

"Okay, now just relax," Unohana said.

Her warm voice and soothing presence made it easier for Rukia not to shiver. However, that didn't keep her hands from trying to maintain some modesty. Unohana led her to one of the metal tables and Rukia laid down on the table, trying to ignore the blotches that must be dried blood stained into the shining metal.

She tried to make herself comfortable, but found that she couldn't. It wasn't just because the metal felt like ice against her bare skin. It was because it was difficult with having Mayuri Kurotsuchi overseeing her examination. Mayuri wanted to make sure that everything was down right and for him that meant that everything had to be done by his standards. She was relieved that he was permitting Unohana to handle the far more invasive moments.

"Captain Unohana," Mayuri said, "you need to make sure to get a proper reading of her Reiatsu levels. I would advise that you start at her feet and work your way up.

"As for you, Lieutenant Kuchiki, you are far too tense. And stop your fidgeting at once before I decide the restraints are necessary. Honestly, how can I get a proper reading if you're just going to agitate your Reiatsu with your senseless agitation?"

Rukia wanted to scream at Kurotsuchi. He didn't know what it felt like to have to lay on a cold metal table with nothing on while having people poke and prod you in places you didn't want them to. She resisted the urge. She knew that if she started yelling and screaming at him then he could dismiss her from the expedition, despite her brother's orders.

"Just ignore him," Unohana said, smiling at her. "I'll make sure that he doesn't come back until we're done. In the meantime, just think nice and soothing thoughts."

"Humph, if she's worried about some kind of sexual attraction to her on my part, then she shouldn't flatter herself. I am far above being influenced by such bestial impulses."

Unohana turned one of her notorious smiles on her fellow Captain. Mayuri fell silent. Even though Rukia couldn't see him, she thought that he must be quivering with fear. She had yet to meet someone who could withstand one of those smiles and not be afraid. She knew that even the great and fearless Kenpachi Zaraki secretly feared Unohana.

Unohana left the table-side to escort Mayuri out of the lab. Rukia remained lying on the steel table, looking up at the Reiatsu Detector that hung above her like some large spider. She sighed as she tried to make herself comfortable. She closed her eyes and tried to focus on something other than this place. She closed her eyes and felt herself drifting away. It was as though she was floating from her body. She looked down to see that she was still lying on the table and then there was nothing but darkness.

As she sank deeper into the darkness she felt her mind easing. The darkness around her was beginning to lighten and she felt something. At first she didn't know what it was and yet she knew it. Her mind reached out to embrace the sensation and then…

…she felt sunlight on her face. She opened her eyes and saw the light shining through the tree tops creating a kaleidoscope of green and gold. The cool wind rustled through the branches and caressed her face. She could faintly smell the scents of distant places on the wind's unseen currents.

She felt the cool and damp grass under her feet. She smiled and began to run. She didn't understand why the urge to run came over her nor did she stop. She just gave into the desire to run. She laughed with the wind. Her eyes sparkled with the sun's light. Her body moved with the grass. She closed her eyes, putting her trust in her other senses. She felt whole. She felt alive.

She continued to run until she came to a cliff. Her body knew the cliff was there and she stopped with only the tips of her toes hanging over the edge. She opened her eyes and was startled at what she saw.

"This can't be right," she whispered. "I don't remember anything like this in the Seireitei."

She stared at the endless sea of white sand before her. The land before her glittered like silver dust under the crescent moon that hung in the empty sky like a pendant on black silk.

Rukia looked behind her and saw the sun and trees and grass just as it had been. However, when she looked ahead, it was nothing but sand and endless night. Then she heard something coming towards her. Fear froze her, but the desire to see, to know, what was coming rose as well. She started to turn, but before she could see what was approaching…

"Rukia," a soft voice said.

Rukia felt something touching her. Then whatever touched her seized her and she felt herself falling through emptiness.

"No!" she cried out. "I want to see! I want to know!"

But she only continued to fall and darkness surrounded her. Her eyes could not penetrate the darkness to that place where grass and sand, day and night, ego and id, met.

"Rukia," the soft voice said again. "Rukia, Rukia, Rukia…"

"Rukia, wake up," Unohana said, stroking Rukia's brow with a finger. "We're done."

Rukia opened her eyes. She looked around and saw that she was still in the lab. She looked at Unohana who stood over her. Unohana noticed Rukia's confusion and smiled gently.

"What happened?"

"You fell asleep," Unohana replied. "I finished the scan and then let you sleep for a few minutes before waking you. After all, there's still much to do, but a little rest might put you at ease for that."

Rukia didn't know how many more tests she endured the rest of the day. When it was over she was too exhausted to even care. She made her way down the corridor that led to her assigned room. She wished that it was either the Lieutenant's Quarters at the Squad 13 Barracks or her personal chambers at the Kuchiki estate.

She saw that some of the other candidates for the mission were making their way back to their rooms as well. Some stopped and stood at her attention, which she returned as best she could. Others, however, only looked at her. Even though they didn't say anything and remained expressionless, Rukia could tell that they were sizing her up and most likely wondering why she was put in charge over them. She could only sense real hostility from a couple of them.

Most likely sent over by Central 46, she thought in disgust as she opened the door.

When she first saw her room about 10 days before, she had been surprised that it wasn't as Spartan as she imagined. However, it was the sort of place where she would never feel at home. Even Ichigo's closet felt more like home than this place. She smiled at the memory of the three weeks she spent with Ichigo, practically living in that long-gone closet. She wondered how he was handling the situation and let out a soft chuckle as she remembered him falling out of his chair when she told him of her decision.

She sighed as she plopped onto the bed. She was glad that the days of testing were over. Tomorrow, she would be shown her Arrancar Gigai and would try it on. The remaining time would be for training so that they could adapt to performing tasks, maneuvers, and combat in the Gigai. Then, they would be heading to Hueco Mundo.

She turned on her back and stared at the grey ceiling. She thought about the strange dream she had in the lab.

Maybe I should have told someone, she thought.

But who could she tell? Kurotsuchi would only go on one of his rants about her wasting his time with such trivialities. Unohana would offer some kind of reassurance, but then Rukia would only feel like a scared little girl. As for the other recruits, forget it. In the end she decided that it was best not to tell anyone.

Maybe it was just nerves, she thought before drifting into a dreamless sleep.

As Rukia slept, Unohana and Mayuri were examining the results from the tests that were conducted over the past ten days. Thick folders for each of the candidates for the mission were arranged in neat lines on the long metal table.

"It would appear as though you were right," Unohana said as she placed the last file on the table.

"Of course I'm right," Mayuri said from the far side of the room. As far as we can tell the bits of Reiatsu that I put into the Gigai is helping them to adjust. Have you noticed that the levels of Spiritual Energy increased slightly as a result?"

Unohana nodded. So far only three of the candidates had shown either a loss of Spiritual Energy or no change at all when a portion of their Spiritual Energy was fused with the Arrancar Reiatsu in the Gigai that would help to disguise the expedition's Reiatsu. According to Mayuri that indicated that the Gigai would not adjust to them. As a result, those three were dismissed from the Project immediately.

"Then we'll show them their Gigai and see if they work," Unohana said. "That way we can begin the next phase of Operation Izanagi."

"Precisely, and I shall explain the principals to them," Mayuri said and glared at Unohana.

She did not respond. Instead, her eyes looked over the data laid out before her. Various factors based on the limited knowledge about Hollowfication they had were taken into account. Kurotsuchi kept insisting that the Gigais would be perfectly sustainable to where the members of the expedition did not run the risk of becoming the mask. But she couldn't help but feel that they were missing something.

She wished that Kisuke Urahara was in the room with him. His research on Hollowfication may have gotten him exiled from the Soul Society, but it was also what they needed the most given the present situation.

14 Days before Departure

The next morning Unohana arrived to find Rukia already dressed in the drab gray lab coat reserved for the subjects. She gave Rukia a warm smile and beckoned for the younger woman to follow. There was nothing to be said. The master medic knew her bedside manner well enough to know the times when silence was more useful than any words of comfort and reassurance.

Today, Rukia would be introduced to, and inserted into, her new Gigai.

The two stepped into the lab and saw Mayuri going over the files on a cluttered table. Rukia had hoped that he wouldn't be here. Unfortunately her hope had been futile at best and delusional at worst. This was his domain and he loved to be in control over everything that occurred in it.

She resigned herself to the sociopath's involvement and turned her attention to the Arrancar Gigai. She took a few steps back at the sight awaiting her. Even though she knew it was coming, Rukia could never have truly been prepared for the shock she got from the sight.

In the middle of the room was a table. She recognized it as the same one she had been scanned on the day before by the blotches stained into the metal. Today, however, an Arrancar-like being that was about her height was strapped down to it. It had milky skin and shoulder-length black hair with a streak of white running along the top side. Its mask began above the eyes and descended over the nose before covering it in a hook making it resemble a falcon's beak. Its eyes were closed. It looked dead, and yet somehow seemed alive at the same time. Rukia looked at the Hollow hole just below the breasts and suppressed a gasp.

"Is this…?"

"It's fin craftsmanship, if I do say so myself," Mayuri said, still attending to his files.

"Yes," Unohana said, "this is your Gigai."

"Does it…have a name?"

"PHG7495," Unohana replied. "At least, that's what Captain Kurotsuchi labeled it. The Gigai itself is relatively straight-forward. It shares the physical attributes of an Arrancar while resembling you for better integration. However, some differences had to be made in order to better disguise you."

Rukia nodded. She turned and saw Mayuri glaring at them. It was obvious that he had wanted to be the one to explain the Gigai to her. He stalked over to them and was about to open his mouth to say something when Unohana looked at him. He closed his mouth and made his way back to the table. It was clear that he was already unhappy about the way things were unfolding.

"As I was saying, Lieutenant," Unohana continued. "Each Gigai is specifically designed to accommodate the user's Spiritual Energy. By putting a small portion of a Soul Reaper's Spiritual Energy into the Gigai and allowing it to interact with the Hollow Spiritual Energy that serves as the base ingredient, we could see what kind of effects it would have. If the Gigai rejected the Soul Reaper's Spiritual Energy, then we cut the applicant from the Program since it meant that their Spiritual levels were not acceptable to handle being a pseudo-Arrancar. We'll use the results from your tests in order to formulate a rehabilitation program. But as far as we can tell the Giga shows no signs that it will affect the user's personal identity or logic and reasoning capabilities."

"In other words," Rukia whispered, "I probably won't go native."

"There's nothing to indicate otherwise," Unohana said. "Would you like to test it out now?"

Rukia turned her face from the Captain and looked at the Gigai. It was strange seeing an Arrancar like this. She had only seen them as the enemy, except for Nel and her Fracción. Either way, they seemed a passionate race above all else. They were dangerous in that they fought with their all and seemed inclined towards extreme behavior and personalities. However, Ichigo spoke of his nemesis, the Fourth Espada, as being a Nihilist. She supposed that she didn't really have any insight on them.

Now, she would be operation one, pretending to be one of them. Maybe then she could claim some insightful knowledge on them. Didn't the old saying go, "Walk a mile in a man's shoes and you come to truly understand them"? She supposed that the same could be said about another being's body. Still, the thought was not truly comforting.

She looked at Unohana and smiled with what she hoped was confidence.

"Sure," Rukia said.

"Alright, I'll show you how it works," Unohana said. "Captain Kurotsuchi, please get it ready."

"Who are you to give me orders?!" Mayuri shouted. Rukia flinched at the outburst. She almost forgot that the scientist was there.

"Captain Kurotsuchi, please…get it ready." Unohana gave her other smile.

Mayuri snarled as he turned to the control panel. He typed in a command and pressed EXECUTE. The table that the Gigai was on rose and tilted forward until it was completely vertical. Rukia swallowed as she now looked at the Gigai standing in front of her. It reminded her of sculptures from Ancient Greece or Rome that she saw in the World of the Living. Unohana gestured for her to stand in front of it. She did as instructed and heard Unohana removing the restraints.

"Physical contact is required to activate entry," Unohana said. "Please, disrobe and then hold its hand."

Rukia untied the sash that held her robe in place and allowed it to drop to the floor. She allowed herself a small grin when she saw Mayuri turn his head away, grumbling about something under his breath. She turned her attention back to the Gigai, feeling a chill run up her spine at the sight of her doppelgänger. She reached out with her right hand. Her fingertips touched the Gigai's lifeless fingers. She entwined her own warm fingers around the cold digits.

Then something began to happen. She felt something cold and slimy crawl around her hand. It wasn't like using the regular Gigais, which was more akin to putting on a glove. This was more like skin merging with skin to heal an open wound. She looked down and saw that the Gigai was beginning to mold itself around her. Its hand overlapped her hand. It was strange seeing two wrists attached to the same pale hand.

Her eyes widened as theGiga took a small step forward. The slimy substance from the Gigai moved up her hand, becoming solid once it molded to her.

"What's…happening?" Rukia moaned. She hated the tone of her voice, but the sensation…

"There's nothing to worry about," Unohana said. "It just means that the Gigai recognizes your Spiritual Energy and is being drawn towards you. It will become your new skin and you will be the core. It's the same thing as with any other Gigai. Relax and let the process unfold."

Rukia nodded, but she still shivered as the pale arm overlapped her own.

I must not fear, she thought. Fear is the mind killer. I must face it and let it pass through me. My fear will only destroy me if I allow it. I must master my fear.

"Keep still!" Mayuri roared. "Any discomfort you feel will pass when the insertion process is completed."

Rukia almost yelled back at him. However, she positioned herself to where she could better line up with the Gigai. She focused on Unohana as she felt the Gigai step into her, holding in the gasp.

No, she thought, it's stepping over me.

Her vision went black. For a long, weightless moment she was left in a state of senseless confusion. She couldn't remember how to breathe and felt her lungs burning for a lack of oxygen. Panic rose inside her. She was blind. She couldn't breathe. She felt helpless like a man drowning in the midst of a storm. She didn't know what to do. Then, instinct took control. She took frantic breaths of air and felt herself lying on the lab's cold tile floor. She remembered that the Gigai's eyes had been closed and so she focused on the muscles around the eyelids. She could only open them a crack, but the lights were too bright and so she shut her eyes again.

You need to get used to light again, she thought. You were reborn. You need to get used to this. Now, open them bit-by-bit.

She opened her eyes again, focusing on the cold gray and dull floor. Even though it was still too bright, it wasn't as bad as before. She opened her eyes and blinked. She pushed herself up on her new arms and was relieved to find that they were strong enough to support her.

Unohana reached down, silently offering to help her up. Rukia looked at the hand and shook her head. She had to do this by herself. She had to get used to this new body by any means necessary. She found that once she got started it got easier. She got to her feet and fell to her knees as the legs gave out from under her. She winced, expecting to feel pain race through her body; that was when she noticed it.

I…I didn't feel that, she thought. Is that because of the Hierro?

She got up again and this time was able to stand despite her legs trembling from having to support her weight. After some time passed, and after a couple of times where she thought her legs would give out again, her legs became steadier.

"How do you feel?" Unohana asked.

"I feel…" Rukia began and paused. She didn't know how to describe how she felt. So, she said the first word that came to her mind. "…warm."

"That's because of the Hierro," Mayuri said. "It traps heat more efficiently. It's a reasonable adaptation to Hueco Mundo's endless nights."

He stood up from the table and began to pace around her. Rukia could feel him inspecting her. Even though she was sure that certain perverted thoughts were the farthest things from the Captain's mind, she was still a woman. She could feel Mayuri frowning at her as she moved to cover herself with her hands.

Of course, she thought as she felt the small breasts, I wasn't given better assets. It's not fair that people like Orihime and Rangiku are running around and I still don't get average-sized breasts.

She realized how absurd the thought was. She was in an Arrancar Gigai, getting ready to go back to Hueco Mundo, and her first worry was the size of her breasts. The very thought made her mouth twist in a smile. She could feel the laughter building up inside her. She raised a hand to her mouth to try to suppress it, but as she did so her fingers absently brushed against the Hollow hole.

She frowned at the sensation of the touch. She didn't realize that she now had both Captains' undivided attention. Instead, she was focused on trying to look at the gaping hole below her modest-sized bust. Rukia tenderly inspected the area around it with the tips of her fingers. She swallowed as she allowed her fingers to enter the empty space. She didn't feel any pain, but it still felt wrong.

She was used to flesh and bone being in that area, but there was nothing. There was no experience in her life to account for the feeling of a part of her just missing. She didn't think that a missing limb was the same. A missing limb was more natural than having a space of empty air going right through her chest.

She tapped the inside rim of the hole. Unbelievable pain shot through her body and she jerked her hand away. She held her hand gingerly in an effort to hide it.

"Does it hurt?" Mayuri asked. There was no concern in his voice.

"Yes," Rukia answered bitterly. She quickly realized that he might want to probe it and pressed her hands over the hole as closely as she dared. Rukia could still feel the throbbing pain in her.

Mayuri frowned at his inquiry being met with such hostility. Unohana, however, stepped towards Rukia and gently removed her hands from over the Hollow hole. If she found the pseudo-Arrancar flesh unnerving she gave no sign.

"That's to be expected," she said gently. "Now, let's get you dressed. It's perfectly natural to be on edge, even if it's not your body on display."

Rukia nodded. As the Captain turned her back, Rukia began to inspect the mask fragment on her face. She expected some sensation, but only could only feel mask's hard surface through her fingertips. She supposed that it didn't have any nerves like a strange skull protrusion.

"I anticipated something like this," Mayuri said.

He opened one of the lab's closet doors and pulled out a set of white clothes. Rukia's heart fell further at the sight.

"Couldn't I…?"

"No!" Mayuri shouted as he dumped the bundle into her arms. "The sooner you've become accustomed to your new body and new attire, the better your cover will be. It's quite possible that the uniform has changed over there so something plain seemed to be the best option."

Mayuri turned to leave the lab. Unohana sighed. Even though Mayuri had a valid point, he was always and completely unnecessarily rude when making it. As Rukia changed, Unohana made notes in Rukia's file on how the new Gigai was working out. The notes in the file would help her know what kind of rehabilitation program the young woman should be put on, so that way she could use her new Gigai to its fullest potential. She knew that it would be difficult at first, but she would be there to help Rukia get through it.

Rukia finished tying the black sash to secure her new somewhat baggy trousers. The top was long-sleeved and fairly normal, expect for the deep v that went to below her navel and left her Hollow hole exposed. She wasn't quite sure that she felt comfortable exposing so much skin.

She sighed as she walked to a mirror hanging in the closet door that Mayuri left open. She braced herself before lifting her eyes to see what she now looked like.

What she saw, looking back, startled her.

She knew that she shouldn't have been startled. It was the logical thing to expect, but it still didn't dull the impact of actually seeing it.

The figure in the mirror looked very much like her. It had the same height and build. Her hair was a bit different. It was limper than her normal hair and had that white streak. Still, in a way it was what she would have expected from a Gigai.

Despite the regular appearance, the hole and the mask fragment were completely foreign. The mere sight of them bothered her. All of the times she had used any Gigai before, they had never been a true disguise for her. But then again, she did use a Gigai to impersonate a living human. But that was in the past and this was now.

However, even though the hole and mask fragment bothered her, they weren't the things that truly frightened her. What truly frightened her were the eyes. They were her own eyes; yet somehow things didn't seem to be lining up as they should have. She felt as though the rest of her body was nothing more than a suit that she put on. It didn't feel real to her.

My skin is not my own, she thought. But the eyes are my own and no one else's.

"Are you ready?" Unohana asked. Rukia was startled out of her thoughts and turned to face Unohana who was standing by the lab door.

"Oh…uh…yes Captain Unohana," Rukia said.

Unohana nodded and opened the door. Mayuri walked in almost immediately. Rukia had a good idea that he had been standing directly behind the door to be let back in. He grinned at the sight of her.

"I trust that the clothes fit you. Oh what am I saying? Of course they fit you. I took the measurements myself and I must say that I'm quite pleased. The overall look is very…Arrancar," he purred.

"They fit," Rukia said. "But I…I don't like this," she said and gestured to the exposed hole. "I don't like the idea of showing it off like this."

"I don't really care what you like," Mayuri sneered. "If you wish to find some other garments to wear so that way you can cover it, then be my guest. Of course, your little discomfort over something so trivial as a hole in your chest could very well lead to failure."

Mayuri shook his head. Unohana frowned and looked at Rukia. She could see that the Lieutenant was trying to stay strong but failing quickly. Mayuri's words had cut deep, but it was only aggravating the anxiety of this whole procedure.

"If I recall," Unohana said, hoping that she could provide some comfort to Rukia. "Not all of the Espada displayed their Hollow holes. For all we know concealing the Hollow hole could be just as normal as displaying it among the Arrancars. Then there's the matter of her Zanpakuto."

"Yes, yes," Mayuri said, waving his hand in dismissal. "That will be ready soon."

"You mean "Sode no Shirayuki?" Rukia asked. Her voiced betrayed the concern she felt.

"Of course not, you imbecile," Mayuri said. "Soul Reaper and Arrancar Zanpakuto operate on completely different principals. A Soul Reaper's Zanpakuto houses a spirit coexisting with the Soul Reaper. An Arrancar's Zanpakuto, on the other hand, are physical manifestations of their power in a sealed state. Surely even someone with such a low level of intelligence as you would understand that if a Soul Reaper carried their Zanpakuto with them on this mission then it would completely defeat the Hollow Gigai's purpose.

"You will be issued a specially made sword. You will infuse it with finite amounts of your Reiatsu to be stored in the blade. Sadly, even after extensive study, I'm unable to offer anything more than vague theories on replicating the Arrancar's Resurrección ability. However, it should be sufficient to fool casual inspection."

"What if we find ourselves in a situation where we have to use Shikai or even Bankai?" Rukia asked before she could stop herself.

"Then you're expected to die before blowing your cover," Mayuri said, grinning.

"You really shouldn't find yourselves in such a situation," Unohana interrupted. "Your task is merely to infiltrate and observe. You are not to fight opponents that require you to use your Soul Reaper abilities like Shikai and Kido. We are taking every precaution to make sure you will be able to do just that."

Rukia was not comforted by Unohana's words. She felt that the Soul Society could only think of so many things that could go wrong and yet still miss something. Hueco Mundo was not a lab and the unknown variables were the reason the expedition was being sent.

This was new ground. In all of the Soul Society's History they had never tried anything like this. That scale of time was frightening for Rukia despite living for centuries. The Captains' boasts and reassurances did not change the fact that this was new territory. She couldn't help but think that very few trailblazers met with kind fates.

She knew that this mission would either end in success or failure. There was no middle ground.

Her brother's future as Captain-Commander depended on the outcome. She knew that it was vital that Byakuya, and not someone who Central 46 could manipulate, be Captain-Commander. The Captain-Commander would determine if war came and, if it came, how it would be fought.

"At any rate," Unohana continued. "I'm sure that there will be nothing to worry about. Your brother wouldn't have asked you to lead this expedition if he thought that you couldn't handle it."

Rukia looked down at her Arrancar body and brushed the area around the Hollow hole with her fingers. She looked into the mirror again. Her focus went to that spot in her chest. She decided that she didn't mind the mask so much. But that empty void…

I hate it, she thought. I don't want anyone to see something like this.

When she got a chance she would look through the Arrancar uniforms and find one that didn't show off that hole. If she couldn't find a uniform like that then she would wrap bandages around her chest to cover it up.

One way or another, she would not bare that emptiness to the world.

Memorial Hill

Day of Departure

Rukia stood off to the side of where the 12th Division had set up their Garganta generator. The Department of Research and Development already tested it the night before and made sure that it would select a seemingly deserted site in Hueco Mundo for the team's arrival.

After days spent developing and training her Gigai's reflexes, movements, and strength in the training rooms simulated to mimic conditions in Hueco Mundo the sun was a bit harsh on her. How quickly her body, no the Gigai, was to flinch from the daylight troubled her more than she cared to admit, even to herself. For a moment she was reminded of the monster that wore Kaien's face and how he hated the false sun that Aizen made.

A chill ran down her spine at the memory of the trident skewering her body as though it was nothing more than a chunk of meat. She remembered feeling her life's blood seeping from the wounds, like wine from a pierced wineskin. She remembered feeling the second death reaching out to her, to claim her soul so that it may be reborn in the World of the Living as a new creature.

No, she thought. I can't think of that right now. I have to focus on the mission. I can't let Niisan down.

She saw that Mayuri was looming over a small, mouse-like man who had a rodent-like mask fragment. She knew that the mouse-like man was part of the Squad 12 team on the mission and was in charge of their equipment and studying the Arrancars. Her heart went out to the poor man when she saw that Mayuri was on the verge of having a screaming fit as he grilled him.

She looked to where the Squad 11 members were gathered. It looked as though Kenpachi was giving them some kind of pep talk, but she couldn't be sure. Knowing Captain Zaraki, she figured that the main point was that they don't start the slaughter without him and that he would be disappointed if they all came back alive and intact. She was disturbed to see that the Squad 11 members were overcoming their discomfort in the sun and were lapping up their Captain's words.

"That's the kind of attitude that will let them pass more easily as monsters," Byakuya said from behind her.

Rukia squeaked in surprise and blushed. She hated it when she showed any kind of surprise. She was a Lieutenant and a member of the Kuchiki clan for Chappy's sake. She composed herself and turned to Byakuya.

"Captain-Commander," she said, bowing. "I am deeply honored that you gave me command of this vital mission. I will not fail you."

She straightened and did not notice her hand drifting to cover the already concealed Hollow hole. Byakuya already knew her feelings towards her new body, especially the Hollow hole and the mask fragment. He had reviewed the Gigai and had read Unohana's reports. However, Rukia did not let any of her discomfort really show.

He knew that it was a cruel thing to ask of her. Rukia suffered during the Winter War. She had almost been killed by one of the Espada and she lost one of her best friends to another. He knew that, even though she would never really forget, she was ready. If he needed any evidence of that, he was looking at it.

"Rukia, you're a true Kuchiki," he said.

Rukia started at that. She looked at her brother, but saw that his attention was now on Mayuri who looked as though he was about to strangle the poor technician. He shook his head and walked towards them in order to prevent Captain Kurotsuchi from killing his subordinate.

She smiled at his back. Any thought about the Hollow hole was forgotten. She felt proud that she was now doing something that was worthy of the Kuchiki name. She felt as though nothing could frighten her anymore.

Then she jumped as a calloused hand slapped the back of her shoulder. Fear was replaced with rage and she turned to face whoever had the nerve to surprise her like that.

"Who the hell do you think…?" she shouted before realizing who she was face-to-chest with.

"Hey Rukia," Ichigo said. "Uh…do you need to lie down? You don't look so good," he said, smiling.

"Don't be rude!" she shouted.

Ichigo sighed dramatically at his Lieutenant who was glaring at him. He slapped a palm to his face before looking at the sky.

"What did I do to deserve an afterlife full of high-strung midgets?" he asked.

Rukia did her best to stifle the laugh that threatened to come out. Ichigo could be a bit rude with his comments, but she had to admit that he tended to say some of the funniest things. It was one of the things that she liked about him. It was also one of the things about him that annoyed her.

She sighed as she looked at her Zanpakuto, Sode no Shirayuki. She knew that the others had already surrendered their Zanpakuto in exchange for the specially modified swords made specifically for the mission. However, she did not trust anyone from Squad 12 to take care of Sode no Shirayuki. She wanted it to remain with someone she could trust and there were only two people in the Soul Society she would entrust it to.

A pulse of high level Reiatsu cut off all conversation. Everyone's attention turned towards the center of the open area. The Captain-Commander stood in front of the Garganta Generator. The monument rose into the heavens behind him. As usual, he did not need elevation to command attention, even from among the crowd that had gathered.

She could feel Ichigo become tense. His knees began to tremble slightly and Rukia could tell that he was trying to fight the aversion to a sudden increase in Spiritual Pressure that he gained during the Second Aizen War. Fortunately, Rukia knew a method or two that would help him to relax. She touched the back of his hand with her own and Ichigo seemed to relax a little.

Kiyone noticed and gave her friend a wink. Rukia turned her face away from the short Lieutenant. She knew that she shouldn't be embarrassed, but still… It was a pity that she would have to wait three years to hear Ichigo's answer to the question she posed to him only the night before as they lay naked in each other's arms. But such was the duty that came with being a Soul Reaper.

It would only later occur to Rukia that Ichigo did not react differently to her touch. The only other person who didn't have a change of reaction to her Gigai's skin was Unohana. He didn't seem to notice that her hand was more like that of an Arrancar. He merely looked annoyed and impatient, as usual, as her brother addressed those assembled.

"You are about to embark on a mission of the greatest importance to the Soul Society," Byakuya began. "As you know, two hundred years ago, the traitor, Souske Aizen, waged war against the Soul Society and was defeated in the Winter War. Before he openly rebelled against the Soul Society and its laws he acquired the Hogyoku and used it create the Arrancars to serve as his personal army against his former comrades.

"The remnants of his army returned to Hueco Mundo and forged the Gobi Treaty with the Soul Society and hae not troubled the World of the Living since. However, Central Forty-Six is concerned with the lack of contact with Hueco Mundo except through dubious and infrequent diplomatic contact. They fear that this could indicate that the Arrancars are building up their armies again. Your duty will be to gather information on the situation in Hueco Mundo to determine if these fears are warranted.

"Remember, this is an intelligence-gathering mission only. The members of Squad Eleven will not engage in combat unless it is absolutely necessary. You are to determine if war is coming; not start one."

No one was really surprised to hear grumblings coming from the members of Squad 11 at the announcement. Byakuya released another burst of Reiatsu to get their attention again. The members of the expedition returned their full attention to the Captain-Commander and he continued.

"Lieutenant Rukia Kuchiki has been given the command of the mission. As Captain-Commander, I have given her absolute authority to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the mission is a success. That includes the immediate execution of any expedition personnel who either puts the mission or the lives of their comrades in danger. Make no mistake. This mission cannot afford to fail.

"The mission is planned to last for three years. There will be no communication or returning to the Soul Society except in the event of failure or if Lieutenant Kuchiki has confirmed that the threat of war is imminent.

"During those three years, it is the Research Team's duty to gather as much information on the Arrancars as they can. This includes, but not limited to, their numbers and how they organize themselves as well as any and all data that could be useful to the Gotei. The information must be thorough.

"You will be given time to say your 'Goodbyes' before the Garganta is opened. However, when the Garganta is opened, you must be ready to depart.

"Remember, you are members of the Gotei Thirteen. It does not matter what your squad is or what your background is. You are the pride of the Soul Society. I expect each of you to behave as such. Good luck and may you be equal to the burden placed on your shoulders," Byakuya said.

Byakuya walked away from the generator. Rukia felt sorrow that he was not looking for her, but she understood. His role right now was as the Captain-Commander of the Gotei, not her brother. She could tell that he was tense and that he would rather not send the expedition in the first place.

However, the new Central 46 was bolder in their demands to the Gotei than the one that Aizen wiped out. The fates of their predecessors and the way that Yamamoto forced their hand with his wartime powers made the higher-ups uneasy in ways not seen in over a thousand years. She remembered how even Yamamoto had a difficult time with the radical conservatives who were appointed to Central 46. When Byakuya took his place as Captain-Commander, Central 46 believed that they could control him. But he proved them wrong and so they decided to form their own personal army to insult the entire Gotei.

And they permit the Faceless to run around just to rub our faces in it, Rukia thought. She scowled when she saw the small cluster of Central 46 Representatives surrounded by members of the Judicial Guard.

She thought her brother had done well with standing up against their demands for a full-scale assault against Hueco Mundo. Even she wasn't sure about how Byakuya felt about the Arrancars, but he made no secret about how he felt that provoking war was dishonorable and he stood firm in his resolve. Now, Central 46 said that they would be satisfied, at least for the time being, with this expedition. They forced her brother into taking action by actually being reasonable in their demands.

She hoped that they wouldn't try the same technique to force the Soul Society into an unnecessary war.

"Rukia," Ichigo whispered.

"Captain Kurosaki," Rukia said as she gave a playful salute.

"You know you don't have to do that. Look, I want to say…uh…I just want to wish you 'Good luck.'"

Rukia saw that his attention was drawn to the other members of the expedition.

No, she thought, it's my expedition.

She saw that the members from Squad 11 were standing by the generator. She could tell that they were eager to get going. If they had any "Goodbyes" to say, they were already said. The rat-like Squad 12 member was huddled over the Portable Garganta Generator that they would take with them. It was obvious that he was checking to make sure that everything was in working order and nothing was missing. The other members of the Research Team were huddled in their area. Rukia could tell that they were making sure that the essential supplies, such as food and water, would last for the duration of the mission. She had to admit that it was an odd bunch to place your hopes in and then she looked over to the group of Central 46 Representatives and frowned.

She saw that one of her expedition members, a tall man with a mask fragment shaped like a pair of bull's horns, was talking with an all-too familiar Representative. She watched as the man with the gold-headed cane and small pointed Van Dyke beard whispered something to the member and then noticed that Rukia was watching. His eyes darkened and he whispered something to the Soul Reaper who only nodded.

Damn, so at least one of my team is in Central 46's pocket, she thought. I'll have to keep an eye on that one.

She sighed and looked at Sode no Shirayuki. She began to wonder if she should tell Ichigo about what she just saw, but decided not to. There was no going back.

"I'm sure that Maki-Maki will keep an eye on you for me. I mean, he helped out before and…"

"Ichigo," Rukia said and turned to him. Ichigo looked down at her.

"What is it?"

"I want you to have this," she said and held out her Zanpakuto.

"W-wait a minute," Ichigo said, sounding as if he was the verge of panic. "Won't you need your Zanpakuto?"

Great, he's sounding just like his father, Rukia thought. The image of the young Captain imitating his father's escapades almost made her laugh out loud. But time was short and he looked worried.

"It's fine. I'll be using one of the modified Zanpakuto instead. I already have it charged up just in case," she said, trying to brush off his concern.

"But, this is a part of you. You and Sode no Shirayuki have a bond," Ichigo said.

He held out the sword back out to her. She thought about telling him that she wasn't allowed to take her Zanpakuto because it would broadcast her as a Soul Reaper. However, she wouldn't put it past Ichigo to try to argue the matter with Niisan, even now.

"I know," she said. "It's just my way of saying that I'll come back. I want you to take of it for me."

It was the truth, just not the whole truth. She had to make sure that Ichigo was re-assured so that way he and her brother wouldn't get into an argument.

Oh the things I have to do to preserve the peace with the freaks I keep company with, Rukia thought.

Ichigo didn't know what to say. He looked down at Rukia's sword. He remembered how she used it to awaken his inner Soul Reaper abilities more than two centuries ago. The night that a "burglar" came into his room through the wall, talking to herself, and who set his life on a path that he could never have imagined. He didn't know how to respond and so he only looked at her and smiled.

"Yeah…well…just take care of yourself, Pigeon," he said after a moment's silence.

"What did you call me?" Rukia snarled in his face.

Great, just great, she thought. Here we are, having a wonderful moment, and he just throws a brick through it! Captain or not, before I leave I'm gonna…

"I called you 'Pigeon', because of the…you know…the…uh…"

He shrugged and gestured to the area on his face where her mask fragment was. He reached out and poked the hard bone lightly. The contact seemed to turn off her berserk mode and she went still. Rukia looked at him in surprise and began to chuckle. He and Byakuya were the only ones who could defuse her so easily.

"Well, at least you didn't call me 'Midget'," she said, smiling as he withdrew his hand.

"Alright, we're ready," the rat-faced man said.

"Well, I better get to my station. It's Go-Time," she said and gave a wink.

"I know," Ichigo said and looked down.

"In case I don't get another chance," Rukia said and kissed Ichigo on the cheek before taking a step back.

"I'll be waiting!" he called out as the Garganta opened with a massive ripping sound.

"I know!" Rukia called back before joining the rest of her team.

Ichigo watched as the Garganta opened before them. The team made their way forward with Rukia bringing up the rear. The team members ahead of her stepped through the Garganta and seemed to vanish into the darkness beyond. Before she stepped through, Rukia turned around and smiled at Ichigo. He thought that she was a beautiful angel standing before the dark void of the Abyss.

"Before I forget!" she yelled. "My answer's 'Yes'!"

Ichigo looked at her in surprise. She smiled at him before she turned away and stepped into the Void. He watched as the darkness swallowed her and smiled. He watched as the Garganta closed and the sky became whole once again, but it wasn't the closing mouth of darkness that he saw. He saw Rukia looking at him, smiling as she gave her answer.

Ichigo felt an all-too familiar Spiritual Energy approach him. He turned and saw Byakuya Kuchiki walking towards him serenely. However, the Captain-Commander's face had a rare intensity and the Spiritual Energy seem to spark with anxiety that made Ichigo wonder what he did this time.

"What did she mean by that, Captain Kurosaki?" Byakuya asked.

Even though his voice was as stoic as ever, there was a menace around the edges. Byakuya the Big Brother could be far scarier to Ichigo than Byakuya the Boss.

"I'm sorry, Captain-Commander, but that's private," he said, rallying his courage under the glare.

"I see that you're as insolent as ever."

"You know me. I was never one who liked being told what to do. My time at school and in the military is nothing but a laundry list of offenses. If you need to, blame my crazy goat of a Dad," Ichigo said shrugging.

"I don't understand what she sees in you. Even after all this time it confuses me as much as it makes sense. But I can't keep an eye on her all of the time, and despite what het Elders want, it is still her choice."

"I'm sure she'll be fine," Ichigo said, missing the point that Byakuya was trying to make. "She's a Kuchiki, right?"

Four Years Later…

…the expedition to Hueco Mundo had still not returned.

End of Prologue

A.N.: This is the first time that I've written something with another writer. I would like to thank Eduard Kassel for sharing his vision with me and bringing me on board to help bring it to life. I hope that I did it justice.

Character death does not equal character bashing. They are a result of the realistic fact that people on both sides die in wars.

It should be noted that many characters will not fall into clear-cut "good and evil" allegiances and actions as a result of the AU situation. Like in the real world, all sides can be right and wrong because no side is absolutely right or absolutely wrong.

In this AU, the Vandenreich and the Fullbringers do not appear. Aspects such as the nature of Hollowfication are based on information provided prior to the Fullbringer and Vandenreich arcs in the manga.

Also, not everything will be explained in the story's early parts, but details will be revealed as the story unfolds.

The theme songs for this story are: "Into Dust" by Mazzy Star and "Radioactive" by Imagine Dragons.

Thank you for reading and please review.