What's this? A new chapter coming out in more than a month or two, but less than around half a year? I guess we found the ominous third possible time gap!
. . .No, but seriously. I blame the holiday season.
The private chambers of First Division, where Yamamoto had called the private meeting, were a far cry from the oppressive, gaudy, gloomy aura projected by the hall where he usually held his meetings. The latter projected majesty, dignity, invoked a sense of reverence and self-importance, while the former was, to any newcomer, surprisingly spartan. An unassuming desk, simple bookshelves filled with vital paperwork, and simple chairs for any guests called to the head-captain's office.
It was nothing new to Unohana Retsu, Ukitake Jushirou and Kyouraku Shunsui, though. The three of them had been summoned at dawn, and not even Shunsui had dared come in late. This was- or had been- a common practice in times of unrest, when the commander needed the counsel of his eldest, most trusted captains, to process information before deciding to go ahead with whatever course he chose. Rather than the bombastic, imposing presence of the regular meeting hall, this was where the old man let the pretences of command go and allowed those closest to him to speak more freely. Here, in this chamber, he was Yamamoto Shigekuni Genryuusai first, and head-captain second.
"What do you make of this?" he demanded, from behind his desk, and his three advisors looked up from the thick file they had all been given upon entering. They had only been given a few minutes to scroll through it; the old man did not seem to be patient this day.
"This happened just yesterday?" said Shunsui, giving a whistle and nonchalantly flicking the file around, fanning himself with the pages, "I'd say that's a surprisingly thick report for something that happened just over twelve hours ago."
"Soifon-taichou takes her work seriously," Jushirou said.
"I'll say," Shunsui retorted.
A stern glare from Yamamoto warned them both this was no time to banter.
"Look," said Shunsui, "I'm not going to pretend I got all of this..." he quickly flicked through the file, "...what looks like a thirty-page report down to memory, but the basic outline is simple. Aizen made his first move, and the forces he commands, judging by what we can tell, are just as terrifying as we could expect. There's a lot of writing in here, but besides technical details, we don't seem to know a whole lot, do we?"
"I concur," said Unohana, "there is a lot of useful data about their newfound abilities, but we'll need to run that past the science division first. I'll personally contribute. But in terms of intelligence... all we know is that Aizen attacked Karakura town by way of a small force of elite Arrancar."
"Repelled by Shiba-taichou and his team, without any losses on our side," Jushirou said.
"I ask your opinion, and that is all you can offer? The basest of facts?" Yamamoto grumbled.
The old man had always been demanding, always asked more of you than you thought possible, and while it had made fine warriors out of Shunsui and Jushiro, it could be... difficult sometimes.
"Let's speculate, then," said Shunsui, "because speculation is all we can do at the moment."
"That is why I called you," said Yamamoto.
"Aizen," said Unohana, "is a calculating, supremely arrogant man who had the mental fortitude to hide his true intentions for well over a century, perhaps several. I think it's safe to assume he would not do this at random. A man such as he must be moving with purpose."
"Agreed. This attack had a purpose."
"But what?" said Ukitake, "Surely not to kill our expeditionary force. If that had been his goal, then he would have failed miserably. We lost nobody, and they lost numerous powerful fighters. Would a calculating mastermind make such a mistake?"
"No, he wouldn't," Shunsui said, shaking his head, "let's say I'm Aizen. My goal is to overthrow the Gotei, using an army of Arrancar of my making. But Arrancar are Hollows, and Hollows are difficult to control, and the number of them that are strong enough to challenge a captain might not be very high."
"For all we know, he could have dozens, or even hundreds," said Yamamoto pessimistically, "but go on."
"Throwing away fighters is nevertheless an unwise move, even for an arrogant man," Shunsui said, "so if I am mounting an army, why would I send out a small force that might get destroyed?"
"Faulty intelligence, perhaps?" Jushirou offered.
Shunsui shook his head.
"Maybe, but I doubt it. I think I'm testing the waters. I think I want to know not just how strong of a resistance my enemy is mounting, but how strong my own forces are. I think I'm sending somebody strong, but not too strong, not so strong that I'm revealing my hand early. If they kill some people, fair enough; if not, then I'll have gained valuable insight to the limits of my new soldiers. That's what I think his aim is."
"I do not disagree. At this stage, based on the knowledge we shared with Urahara Kisuke, he is still likely amassing forces, and he will likely continue to do so for a while yet. In the meantime... he tests us. We are being challenged."
"So, what do we do, if anything?" said Jushirou, "more forces?"
Yamamoto shook his head.
"We will not escalate this conflict, not yet. Let Aizen send his skirmishers. What he learns about them, so will we. Right now, time is precious, and I will do nothing to rob us of it."
"And if he launches a full-scale invasion?" said Unohana.
"Then we will respond. Our captains will be on full alert at all times." said Yamamoto firmly.
"I wonder..." said Shunsui, "do you think it is an accident he picked Karakura, the site where those substitutes first popped up? That area is rich with spiritual essence, and it would seem unlikely it was random."
"True enough," Yamamoto said with a nod, "we cannot be sure yet, but it is quite possible Karakura has particular significance to Aizen. And if it is of significance to him, then it is of significance to us."
"Where he goes, so do we? Sounds like we're being led by the nose," said Shunsui sardonically.
"Mind your tongue," said Yamamoto, but not nearly as firmly as he otherwise would.
"Perhaps we should get Twelfth on that," Unohana wondered aloud, "just to make sure..."
Yamamoto nodded. "Will do. For now... for now, we wait."
Not the most thrilling conclusion for a clandestine meeting, but that was the thing- something being clandestine didn't mean it had to be interesting.
With Grimmjow's battle report concluded, and Szayel's evaluation of their enemies' battle prowess and strength finished, the Espada were dismissed at last, allowing them to leave and go after their own business. Neliel was all too thankful for it. While Grimmjow's battle report had been informative enough (his admittedly understandable outrage aside), all that Szayel had to say was just a series of conjectures, worded in the vaguest terms possible. That the Shinigami of the Gotei would present a huge obstacle that they had to overcome had always been clear to her, and Szayel had neither dissuaded nor lessened these concerns.
Eventually, Lord Aizen had just declared that even though they had lost the battle, they would win the war, and gave yet another speech about how they would be the storm that would blow the Gotei away. In other words, nothing that he had not already said several times. And just as before, Lord Aizen had left them with the parting words of remaining ready for the next orders or next meeting at any time.
Thinking back on it all, Neliel sighed. Life had been like that ever since she had been turned into an Arrancar by Lord Aizen. Planning. Meetings. Being told to be ready for orders at any time. And just… waiting for something to happen. While she was, of course, glad and eternally thankful to be broken out of the monotonous and deadly life of a regular Hollow... somehow, Neliel could not help but to feel like there was something missing from this new life.
Back when she was an Adjuchas, every day had been about simple survival in a world where seemingly everyone (save for her and her friends) was trying to kill each other. But now? Now, for the first time in her memory, she was living a relatively peaceful life, war preparations notwithstanding. She could spend each day without having to worry about being attacked at any given time and could even sleep without being on alert.
Which meant that she needed something else to occupy her time with.
What exactly this should be, she still wasn't entirely sure about.
Shaking her head lightly, Neliel pushed the thought aside. She had already dwelt on it often enough, without finding any solution, so there was no use in dwelling on it any further now. And more importantly, there was something else that required her attention: Tier Harribel was standing in her way, obviously wanting to talk to her.
"Is anything I can help you with, Harribel-san?" Neliel inquired. She wasn't too tense at the prospect of Harribel wanting something of her, as in her experiences, she was one of the more reasonable Espada.
"Nothing much," Harribel said, leaning against a nearby wall. "I just wanted to have a bit of a chat with you. We haven't really talked in a while."
"Just engaging in small talk for no reason is not like you, Harribel-san. There is something on your mind, isn't there?"
Harribel's expression changed. Since remnants of her Hollow mask were obscuring her mouth it was impossible to be certain, but Neliel was certain that she was smiling.
"I am hardly subtle, am I?" She paused, and then added, "I suppose I am troubled."
"The disrespect that brute Jaegerjaquez shows… irks me. Not because I care too much about him, but I cannot understand why Aizen-sama would tolerate it. Such insolence is a challenge to his rule. A tantrum like this should have been punished."
"I feel like his reaction was understandable enough," Neliel responded. "All of his Fraccion were killed in that battle, so it is only a given that he would be upset. The way he talked to Aizen-sama, though, that was… certainly overstepping his boundaries."
"'Overstepping his boundaries' is understating it," Harribel said, disdain clear in her voice. "Losing his Fraccion is quite a blow, but it seems that he has forgotten just how much he owes to Aizen-sama. If it weren't for him, all of us would still be Hollows out in Hueco Mundo, fighting every day for our survival. He would do well to remember the fact."
"I'm certain that he will come around once he regains his composure. I'll admit that he can be quite a foolish brute, but he is the Septima Espada for a reason. Aizen-sama would not have chosen him if he was not suited for the rank."
Harribel sighed. "I suppose you're right. We'll just have to trust Aizen-sama's judgment on the matter. Even if this outburst was an outright disgrace…"
"Sorry that I couldn't quite agree with your view of things," Neliel said, smiling. "Perhaps Rosst Frencer would have been more in line with your opinion?"
"Perhaps. But I didn't want to talk to the Noveno Espada, I wanted to talk to you. So… thank you for that."
And with that, she turned around and left. For a moment, Neliel looked after her, before she walked down the hallway in the opposite direction, where her own Fraccion were already waiting for her.
"Is everything alright, Neliel-sama?" one of them asked as she got closer. "Did Harribel threaten you?"
Neliel giggled, amused by their concern. "I know that she looks intimidating, but I assure you that she just wanted to talk. There's no need to worry, Yasutora."
Tatsuki had tried not to ignore Isane's recommendation of rest, but the failure from before had eaten at her. Failing to win would have been bad- what with the possibility of imminent, brutal death and all- but the dead couldn't feel bitter or frustrated, so in a way, this was worse. She hadn't failed to win, but she had failed to control herself, and that was every bit as frustrating. Near death, from her own overconfidence and arrogance!
She had made excuses in her mind a million times. She couldn't have known. She wasn't experienced. She had won, after all.
But at the end of the day, excuses were just that- excuses. She had inserted herself into this grim and ghastly world of death, of Shinigami and Hollows, and she had no plans on exiting it, and that meant facing reality like an adult. Her death wouldn't care about excuses. Her death wouldn't care how close she came, or how well she would have done if only she had been a little faster, or if only she had got a little bit more training. Her death would find her one day, and there would be no excuses then.
She could just quit, she knew that. She could leave it to the others. It was just like she had agreed with Ichigo- leave it to the professionals. But she could walk away from it altogether, too. Sure, her body was essentially a gigai, and one day she would be part of the afterlife, like it or not- but she could stay away from it for decades. If she took care of herself, it could be over eighty years until she had to deal with it.
But she didn't want to. This strange, other, alternative world was too fascinating, too powerful, too intoxicating. It was a place where she had power, where she was something else- something much bigger than a mere human.
So, she had decided, as common-sense as it was not to get in over your head, she would still keep her training up. Without bothering to ask, she had let herself into the wide space of Urahara's basement after school, and had started up a training set, running through some familiar karate practices for a warm-up. However, not five minutes after entering her Shinigami state and starting practice, she had started to feel light-headed. She had cursed inwardly, and her reason winning out, she had quit early. Doctor's advice it was, then. Rest and recovery... damn it all.
But her day was about to get a lot better. As she sat down, reluctantly having crawled back into her human body, she sensed a tremor. At first she thought it was nothing; she turned her attention inward and closed her eyes to meditate, to shake off a sense of sluggishness that had come upon her after the exertion. But then it happened again, and again, and again, and Tatsuki opened her eyes. Curiously looking around her, she made her way toward the source of the vibrations. Her eyes widened a little, and a smile formed as she saw it. Soifon and Yoruichi were sparring a fair distance away, the two of them moving in a blur. Her sluggishness shrugged off, Tatsuki hastened her step toward them, stopping a respectable distance away, close enough that she could see properly, but not so close that she would intrude.
It was brilliant to watch. They were both dressed in the slim, black fatigues of that stealth force, or whatever it was called, showing quite a bit of skin. Tatsuki had seen the little captain's excellent form back in the Soul Society, but now, after having watched it in action, it took on a whole new meaning. In quick, fluid movements, she threw punches and kicks at her old mentor, who evaded and blocked with ease. It seemed a casual spar, Yoruichi not even bothering to attack, and Tatsuki recalled that Soifon had, after all, been injured.
But even casually, the both of them moved like masters, with a speed that, to Tatsuki's human eyes, was hardly even perceptible. Without the learned intuition of somebody versed in spiritual principle, Tatsuki doubted she could have followed it at all. It made her stomach tingle. This- this was the kind of skill that she as a martial artist herself could only dream about. She would watch pro matches on TV, but even world champions didn't come close to this. It was so fast, so graceful, so well-practiced... well, come to think of it, Soifon had to be pretty old, right? She looked to be somewhere in the region of twenty at most, but Tatsuki doubted that was it. The realisation was stunning, in the best way possible. If you lived virtually forever, just imagine how good you could get, she thought to herself. Just imagine not having to worry about physical peaks, about your body slowly degrading after the age of twenty-five; just imagine having the freedom to train as hard as you could for as long as you wanted, getting as good as only time and dedication allowed you, free of the restraints of a mortal body...
And that was what she was looking at right now. Tatsuki didn't even notice it, but a wide grin crept across her face as she watched, and she lost track of time entirely.
Some twenty minutes later- or it could have been an hour, or two, for all she knew- the two Shinigami decided they had enough. After exchanging a few words Tatsuki didn't quite catch, and stretching a little, Yoruichi took off in a flash, leaving Soifon standing by herself. She stretched out her arms a bit, flexing an arm as if to test it. Then she stood still as if resting, staring out into space.
"Are you going to stand there gaping all day," said the captain, her voice surprisingly loud, "or are you going to tell me why you're here?"
Tatsuki jerked; she hadn't expected the captain to address her directly. Of course she hadn't assumed she was unnoticed; even putting aside that both women were onmitsukidou professionals, she hadn't exactly been hidden, but somehow she hadn't expected to be called out.
"Well?" Soifon demanded, and Tatsuki realised that she had, in fact, been gaping. Hastily, she scrambled forward.
"I, uh," she stuttered, not sure what to say, "I mean, um..."
"Speak up," said Soifon, turning around to face her. She didn't exactly look the picture of a gentle, understanding figure, but her voice was not unkind. Tatsuki decided that was a good sign.
"Well uh... I didn't want anything as such, really," she murmured, "I mean, if I wanted something, I already got it."
Tatsuki felt herself sweating a little. How would you describe it?
"It's um... imagine that you're into boxing, and you get to see Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali practice, right?" Tatsuki said, scrambling to think of a way to describe it, "That's like... its own reward, right?"
"I'm not sure I understand," said Soifon, her eyebrows narrowing.
"Of... course," Tatsuki mumbled, her face reddening, "because... you don't know who those people are. Because you're not from this world. Right."
"An astute observation," Soifon said dryly, and Tatsuki felt like she wanted to sink through the earth until she hit the planet's core.
"Look," Tatsuki continued, flustered, "like... I just thought you two looked really cool sparring together. That's it. I didn't want anything, just... watching, that's all."
"That I think I understand," said Soifon.
"You look much the same as the wide-eyed recruits who just get into the corps. One look at what a senior operative can do, and they gape like goldfish."
"...I guess I am a goldfish then," said Tatsuki, smiling awkwardly.
"I remember you," said Soifon, "yes, you have a tendency toward hakuda as well. It is natural then, I suppose."
"I do!" Tatsuki said eagerly. Then, without thinking, she said, "Actually, I was wondering..."
And then she stopped herself. Of course she couldn't ask that! The captain was a busy woman. She wouldn't have the time.
"I am very firm in my operations," Soifon said sternly, "that the people who speak to me make themselves clear. If you cannot finish a statement, you should not speak at all."
"Well... I was thinking, I guess, that uh... maybe... you could... teach me?" Tatsuki said, her voice going higher in pitch between each pause. She was going to say no. Why wouldn't she? But then again, you had to try, didn't you?
"Why do you ask?"
Out of all answers, Tatsuki hadn't expected that.
"Um..." she said, desperately trying to vocalise the obvious, "well, because... I mean..."
"Because you're brilliant!" Tatsuki burst out, "I don't think I'll ever meet anyone that skilled, and... I mean, why wouldn't I want to learn from that?"
"I am not the most skilled," Soifon said dismissively, "Yoruichi-sama is better than me by far."
"Then again, I doubt she would make a good mentor."
"Uhm," said Tatsuki, not sure what to make of that back-and-forth.
"I think I can empathise with your position," said Soifon, her voice quite neutral, "possessed with skill, unrefined but there, and in awe of something much greater. I know that feeling well enough. I never considered taking on an apprentice of my own, though."
"So...?" Tatsuki said hopefully.
"Maybe," Soifon said, "we'll see. I am still in recovery from that last battle, technically speaking. Perhaps I'll find the time and interest. Perhaps I will not. I will make no promises."
"I'll- I'll take a 'maybe'!" Tatsuki said quickly.
"If you'll excuse me," she said, and begun walking away.
Soifon was not very personable or charismatic, Tatsuki decided, but she was nevertheless a little awestruck. She resisted the urge to punch the air with cheer. Maybe. Maybe she'd be trained by that virtuoso of martial arts. The thought was staggering. For a good while, Tatsuki was lost to the fantasy of herself, one day a great paragon of the arts...
By the time that Uryu finally showed up, it was already well over their appointed time. Accordingly, Orihime was quite impatient, and gave him an appropriately displeased look. Sure, the place that she had picked for their training – a remote corner in Karakura Park – was rather comfortable, and today's weather was still surprisingly warm and sunny for the time of the year. But this was a matter of principle.
"You're late!" She chided, taking great care to put just the right amount of dissatisfaction into her tone to convey that she was not amused, but ultimately didn't mind too much. It was fine balance that was not easy to achieve, but she already had years of experience with it.
"Sorry, still had a couple of things to take care of at home," Uryu said apologetically, "and I had... some difficulty actually finding this place. I mean, you do know that I barely even go into this park unless I'm hunting a Hollow?"
Orihime waved her hand dismissively and then gestured him to sit down in front of her. "Oh, fine. The actual important thing is that you're finally here, which means that we can get started!"
"...With your training. Right," said Uryu slowly, "So what did you even have in mind? When you asked me to do this with you, you pretty much rushed me into agreeing to this before I even had a chance to ask what exactly you wanted."
"I thought that was obvious? I want to get better at using my powers!"
"Well, yes, I know that. But how did you want to do this? I know about as much about these Fullbring powers as either Arisawa or Kurosaki," He paused for a moment, looked at Orihime as if he wanted to give her the opportunity to say something, and then added, "which is to say, nothing at all. If anything, I'd say that that shopkeeper could help you better with that..."
Orihime rolled her eyes. For someone so smart, Uryu could at times be remarkably daft when talking to her.
"But you have actually helped me understand my powers before, remember? And I think that time went quite well. Not to mention that I'd rather not spend any more time at Urahara's place than necessary. He's… odd."
She realized that her calling Urahara 'odd' could, depending on the perspective either be very telling or not very helpful at all. At the same time however, it was still the best word she could think of to get her point across without devolving into a long exposition on her thoughts and feelings on plenty of things.
"I suppose I can understand that..." Uryu said, nodding. "Really though, this all would be so much easier if one of these Xcution people was still around to help-" He interrupted himself when he noticed Orihime lowering her gaze. "Sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned it."
Orihime raised her head again and shook it. "No, it's alright. I- we barely even knew these people. I mean… it's a weird feeling to know that people you just met got killed, yeah. I just don't really… feel for them. The way they were killed, though... it still doesn't seem right to me."
She paused for a moment, and then said, "What about you, though? I mean, I know you said that you expected that to happen, but don't you feel anything else about this?"
He hesitated a bit before answering. "I… don't really have any strong feelings about this. On the one hand, it's like you said, it's weird to know that these people just got killed. Though on the other hand, as a Quincy I pretty much grew up with tales of the Gotei committing all kinds of atrocities –this is really just another one on a long list. Them being overthrown might just be not a bad thing… who knows, maybe Aizen would make a better leader than Yamamoto? As far as I'm concerned, it's not difficult to do better, though I'm still not exactly feeling sympathy for him."
"Mh. Kinda hard to sympathise with a guy who ordered an attack on our town, isn't it?"
Uryu smiled. "That about sums it up."
"Well then, either way... let's leave that aside for now. It's not important right now. My point is, I want your help to help me figure out my powers, Uryu-kun, and not that of anyone else. Besides, the way I understand it, the powers of a Quincy are kinda similar to the ones of a Fullbringer, right?"
"If you want to overly simplify two complex disciplines that still have a lot of fundamental differences between them, then sure, you can say that," Uryu noted dryly. "But alright. You obviously have a bit more experience with how your powers work than I do, so why don't you tell me what you already know you can do, and how you do it, and we'll go from there?"
Orihime beamed at him. "Alright! So, hmm... I think the first time I actually used my powers was when we were fighting that captain together. And back then it just somehow... came to me in the moment. I realized- no, I think I just suddenly knew that I could do these things. Make shields and explosions, heal people, tear this guy's arm off-"
"You did WHAT?!" Uryu exclaimed incredulously.
"Don't you remember?" Orihime asked, confused. "I think that's what caused him to use his Bankai against us to begin with, come to think of it..."
"My memories of that fight are generally a bit fuzzy, actually. That stone was... messing with my head at the time." Uryu said.
"That... figures, to be honest. Anyway, to get back on track: Whenever I use my powers, it feels like I... reject reality, or at least some aspect of it. Like, when I tore off that captain's arm, it was really more like destroyed what held it together at the point where I was touching it. I really don't know how else to describe it..."
"That might already be enough information for me," Uryu said, cupping his chin with his hand. "To me, this sounds like you're somehow... reshaping reishi particles in your surroundings as you see fit – which, when used in a place that entirely consists of them, is incredibly potent. This is all just conjecture, of course. But if it's true, then it's really no surprise that you were able to tear of the arm of someone as powerful as a captain. Though on the other hand-"
"Could you hold that thought for a moment, Uryu-san?" Orihime interrupted him before he could continue. "I just had a thought... I want to try something out."
Uryu silently gestured her to go ahead. Orihime held out her hands in front of her, and for a moment looked sceptically at her palms. Then, she clapped her hands together, and placed them on the ground in front of her. A sparking sound could be heard, and then, accompanied by a blue light, the ground in front of her began to change shape... the earth began to rearrange itself, forming a little earthen figure of a rabbit in a small pit.
"Ohhhhhhh, this is so awesome!" Orihime squeed excitedly. "This thing- my powers- they're essentially alchemy!"
"Alchemy?" asked Uryu, confused. "Why would you call it that?"
"Well – it's like in that one series! You know, the one about the Elric brothers and how they want to get their bodies back after they failed to bring their mother back! Or like Josuke's Crazy Diamond! This is- it's just- so cool!"
Unable to resist the urge, Orihime struck a suitably exaggerated pose, which undoubtedly looked cool at least in her own mind.
Uryu smiled weakly. "I'm just glad that you could figure this out."
"Don't sell yourself short, Uryu-san! If it weren't for your way of describing this, I probably wouldn't have made the connection! And you know what this means?"
"What is that?"
"That I can finally properly train my powers – and you're gonna continue helping me with that as well!"
Eventually, Grimmjow reached his quarters. He was still every bit as infuriated as he had been when he had stormed out of the throne room, a rage that was not lessened in the slightest by him having purposefully taken a longer way back to try- and fail- to calm down. With enough force to kill a person, he slammed the door shut behind him, causing cracks to appear around its frame. Grimmjow did not care. His mission had been a failure, all of his Fraccion were dead, he had been openly humiliated by Aizen, mocked by the other Espada, and now-
Grimmjow paused and looked around. Normally, whenever he spent some time in his quarters, he either slept, or messed around- i.e., fought- with his Fraccion. They had been his pack ever since he was an Adjuchas, so it had only been natural that they would stick together as Arrancar.
But now the quarters were empty. Grimmjow was the last one left. For the first time, he noticed just how big and empty these rooms were, when there was nobody else besides him. Somehow... it felt wrong. Hueco Mundo was very much a place where it was either eat, or be eaten, so the thought that one of his pack might die at any given point had always been completely normal to him. Hell, more often than not, he had been close enough to kill one of the fuckers himself.
Now that they were gone, and it didn't feel normal at all. Now Grimmjow didn't know what to feel, and the thought just pissed him off even more. I need something to take out his anger on, he thought to himself, that would surely get my mind back on track...
Suddenly, he felt someone approach the door to his quarters. Grinning maniacally, he whirled around. The reiatsu he felt definitely didn't belong to any of the other Espada. This could only mean that word had gotten around that he had fallen from Lord Aizen's grace, and that others could challenge him to take the spot of Septima Espada.
The Espada got into a battle stance, ready for whoever was coming for him to just bust through the door. Oh, how he would enjoy ripping this bastard apart...!
So Grimmjow waited, ready to be attacked at any moment.
And he waited.
As time went on, Grimmjow was getting just about ready to take the initiative, and charge through the door to deliver the first strike – when finally, something happened.
Someone knocked at the door.
Confused, Grimmjow eased up the tension in his body a bit, but not enough to not react to an incoming attack. This was Las Noches – who in their right mind knocked on a door?!
Slowly and cautiously, he went over to the door, waited for a moment, and then tore it open. Standing at the other side was the Shinigami girl that had also come to summon him to Lord Aizen for this damn mission to begin with. Aizen's lapdog – Grimmjow still, for the life of him, could not remember her name.
"The hell d'ya want, huh?", he snarled before she even had the chance to say anything. She seemed to be a lot more uncertain than the last time she had been here. "Ya here to tell me to go lick Aizen's boots again?!"
The girl visibly shuddered. The Espada still remembered that the last time she had been here, she had been able to keep her composure a lot more easily, so whatever it was that she was supposed to tell him now, she was afraid of his reaction. "N-no! I'm not here for that!", she eventually stuttered. "Aizen-sama didn't order me to come here at all!"
"Then what the fuck are ya here for, ya whelp?!", Grimmjow roared. "What, do ya wanna get down with me, or something?! Well sorry, whelp, us Arrancar got no need for that, period!"
"That's not it at all!", the girl shouted back, distraught. Then she paused, took a deep a breath to calm herself, and then continued, "I just- I saw how upset you are because you lost all of your men. And I... I wanted to offer you to talk, because I can imagine just how much it hurts you."
Grimmjow glared at the girl incredulously. The nerve of that little bitch! What kind of Shinigami bullshit was she even on about? Missing somebody?! He was half in mind of just tearing her apart right here, and right now... but, no. If he were to kill Aizen's personal lapdog, he would surely find a fate worse than death for him.
Instead, he simply slammed the down shut, yelling, "Piss off!"
Then he walked over to the corner he usually slept in. He'd need to sit down for a while...
Outside, Momo meanwhile stared at the door. Just what had gotten into her that she had attempted to do this? Talk to an Arrancar about his feelings? Arrancar were ultimately just Hollows in the form of Shinigami. If not for some sheer dumb luck, Grimmjow might've killed her, she was certain.
But still... there had been something in his expression when she had offered her help... some kind of pain that gave her the feeling that she had not been entirely wrong.
Momo sighed. She would come back later to offer her help to Grimmjow again, whether she'd like it or not. Of that, she was certain.
Aizen sat alone in a room he had designated as a workspace; not private, but not easily accessible either. It seemed strange, odd even, that so little had actually changed after his official defection. He was his own now, the first enemy of the Gotei, the dreaded villain and antagonist to defeat, the devil himself…
He was his own now, in charge of a great and powerful army, with plans to overthrow the old order and remake the Gotei according to his vision. And yet, he still needed an office. You wouldn't have guessed it, not at first glance, but running an organisation, even one as anarchic and loosely held together as his Espada, still required considerable time put into administration. Out of all things to follow him from the Gotei to here was paperwork, of all things. Reports on necessary resources for Szayel's science department. Updates on Las Noches, a castle massive and still yet to be fully explored. Complaints and requests from his Espada, who in the absence of solving their problems the usual way- with violence, which he had banned; it wouldn't do to lose useful pawns ahead of time- had taken to formal complaints. He resisted the urge to sigh. Hollows considered themselves a kin apart from human, but from behind his desk and the ever-familiar stack of papers, they seemed eerily similar to the creatures they had once been.
Lazily lounging at the entrance of his office, leaned against the doorway, was Ichimaru Gin. Demonstratively, he knocked on the already opened door. Aizen found his small gesture of disrespect annoying, but had no intention of showing it.
"I have shed that title, Gin," he said calmly, staring down at the papers in front of him, making sure to emphasize that they were more important than his second-in-command.
"'Course, 'course," Gin said, and sauntered into the room, "silly me. This ol' place is makin' me forgetful, what with all the doom and gloom."
Aizen did not respond, instead turning his attention to the report in front of him, appearing fascinated with Szayel's request for an expedition into the world of the living.
"There was jus' one thing I was wonderin', Aizen-sama?"
"And what would that be?" Aizen said, sounding just distracted enough to irk the psychopath in front of him.
"Well, see, there's a thing I ain't makin' heads or tails of."
Aizen did not respond, and Gin, after a pause, was forced to continue.
"All three of us got the Gotei memorised like th' back of our own hand. We knows exactly how strong the remainin' captains are, how many soldiers they got left, where to strike to hurt 'em the most…"
"So we do."
"So what I ain't so sure of, an' correct me if I'm makin' some silly mistake here, is why we bother attackin' their lil' expedition in the world of the livin'. It's resources, ain't it?"
Aizen finally turned up from his papers, and looked Gin in the eye.
"You are correct," he said, his tone conveying a perfect sense of casual authority, friendly yet intimidating- to most people, at least, "we do indeed know."
Gin shrugged, and Aizen decided to indulge him.
"Yes, why do I continue to prod them? What you must understand, Gin, is that the Gotei has gone untested for a long time. I know well their strengths individually, but with my ascension, things changed. Just as a rat can become terrifying if it has nowhere left to run, so might the Gotei change with its back against the wall. My Espada, likewise, are powerful but untested. I control the hougyoku, but science is all about continued experimentation. So I prod and poke, while mustering my forces. It's about information, about perfecting a craft."
"The way I sees it, we're givin' out free information about enemies they know jack about," Gin said, his voice dangerously close to an open challenge.
"It's a trade-off," Aizen said calmly, "they learn some things, and I learn more. Of course, you may have noticed that my most powerful warriors have been kept back."
"Shoulda known. Good ol' Aizen, always got an answer fer everythin'. We're in good hands, we are."
Aizen took the compliment without a reply. Both of them knew it was not sincere.
"See, one might just wonder, if one ain't so enlightened, why we don't just get our forces together and smash 'em all."
"In due time. There are things of import that must be readied."
Like Karakura. But its true significance was not known to Gin, nor did Aizen think it necessary to share it.
Gin shrugged. "While we're waitin', they're fortifyin' themselves in Karakura. Not t' mention the Gotei itself."
"Believe me," said Aizen confidently, "no amount of preparation will save them."
He leaned back, looking thoughtful.
"Of course, there is no reason not to subvert their efforts. Perhaps… an attack on their budding little intelligence network, just to remind them we're still here."
"Lookin' for a bit of killin'?" said Gin hopefully.
"Your abilities are well known to me, Gin. As the back of my hand, you might say. It is my new Arrancar that need to be tested."
"'Course, 'course," Gin said with a nod, and Aizen resisted the urge to smile. The psychopath was, at heart, a murderer, and being deprived a bit of violence was sure to irritate him further.
"Does that satisfy your curiosity, Gin?"
"Absolutely, sir. I can always rely on ya t' clear things up."
Aizen nodded dismissively, and Gin, finally taking a hint, turned around and walked away.
One day, he knew, they'd try to kill each other, and only one would survive then. It would be a shame. Gin was such a capable lieutenant, sadism and murder aside. Tousen would have to pick up quite a bit of slack.
Two things to note here. One, Ichigo's absence in this chapter is deliberate - not because he has anything mayor that he's doing off-screen, but because his importance will only lessen as time goes on, so the concept of a chapter that does not feature him directly should not be too alien of a concept. Two, the new Noveno Espada is indeed an OC - my co-writer and I did discuss the various other candidates that came into the question for the role, such as the Privaron Espada (out of which Cirucci came the closest to being picked) and Rudbornn. However, we simply could not agree on any of them, so an OC it was. For those curious, Rosst Frencer is female.