Title: Five Years
Disclaimer: Bleach and all related characters, plots, etc. do not belong to me.
Warnings: AU/fix-it fic, time travel (sort of…), assumptions about pre-series events and timelines, no pairings, SWEARING (Grimmjow's language is not kid-friendly, folks. If you're easily offended by swear words, you should probably skip his parts.)

I WILL NOT be including anything from the current manga arc. I've already plotted this story and I'm not really staying up to date on the 'revelations' in the manga. Therefore, the information I use will be how things stood at the end of the arrancar arc.

Chapter 8: Stir

Memories surged as Grimmjow roared and he found himself consumed with images of battle – how he'd gone all out and still lost because that insufferable human brat had managed to take him by surprise. Him! The panther king! It wouldn't happen again. Now he knew what his nemesis was hiding and he'd be prepared.

His eyes snapped open and he stood up with every intention of running after the arrogant bastard and finishing what they'd started; ripping the cowardly shinigami's guts out through his lying mouth. In fact, Grimmjow's teeth were bared and his hand was reaching towards his hip for his zanpakuto when the smoke around him cleared enough to see the silhouettes of several indistinct figures. Most of them he ignored, but one caught his attention and instantly yanked his focus away from Ichigo, calling forth a different slough of rage-inducing memories.

It was a tall, spindly figure with long limbs, a spoon-shaped hood, and a huge glinting crescent blade protruding over its shoulders.

"You fucking bastard!" Grimmjow snarl-roared and flung himself at the Quinto espada, thoughts of Ichigo temporarily wiped from his mind by the memory of the last time he'd seen Nnoitra: grinning down at him with that stupid piano-key grin right after he'd cut Grimmjow down in a coward's sneak attack, robbing the cat of his chance to fight Kurosaki. Grimmjow's fury, barely banked by the realization, found a new target and he saw the world in a red haze as he lunged forward, teeth and claws bared.

He didn't notice the sudden chaos that followed his attack; all he saw was the subtle widening of Nnoitra's eyes and the surprised expression on his face as Grimmjow's hands found their way around the taller man's throat and the satisfying crunch as the force of his lunge slammed them into the unforgiving stone wall on the other side of the room. He got in three satisfying punches before Nnoitra recovered from his shock and let out a shrieking laugh, Cheshire grin splitting his face.

"Yer going to fight me, pussy-cat?" He mocked, easily throwing the new arrancar back. He was unharmed by the attack – there was a reason he took such pride in his hierro. "A weak, naked newbie without a sword?" He sneered and swung his giant zanpakuto from his back, managing the heavy weight with ease and bringing the opposing crescent blades to bear on Grimmjow, eyes glittering maliciously. "Come on, then! Fight me!"

"Grimmjow-sama!" A hand landed on his shoulder and he turned towards the interloper with a cero in his hand, ready to backhand them for interrupting…only to immediately freeze. At his side, Shawlong Koufang snatched his hand back and bowed deeply, obviously shaken by the murderous intent and lack of recognition in the eyes of his leader, but maintaining his calm demeanor. Arrayed behind him, the rest of Grimmjow's fraccion stood in a defensive half-circle with their backs to him, glaring and growling at the arrancar beyond. Only Shawlong and Di Roy had been shinigamified so far; Edrad, Nakeem, and Yylfordt were still massive adjuchas and their presence completely obscured Grimmjow and Nnoitra from the rest of the room.

"Is this truly what you want, Grimmjow-sama?" Shawlong's voice was tentative and his gaze remained on the floor, purposely submissive in the face of his boss's anger. He'd always been the voice of reason in their pack, and he saw no reason for his role to change now that they were arrancar. The panther stared at him in incomprehension, the fires of his anger slowly cooling in the face of confusion.

Because Shawlong was dead.

He'd died along with the rest of Grimmjow's pack during their first ill-conceived attack on the human world. If he was perfectly honest, it was a loss he'd never really recovered from. He hadn't missed his fraccion, per say, at least not that he would acknowledge – they had lost to weak opponents; they deserved what they'd gotten – and he'd been too occupied with his single minded pursuit of Kurosaki to mourn their loss (if that was even possible for a creature such as him)…but…he was…not unhappy to see them. It was an unfamiliar positive emotion, and it redirected his focus.

For the first time, he realized he was not out on the sand where he'd been left by Nnoitra and Kurosaki, but within the cold white stone of Las Noches. He was buck naked and his bare skin was devoid of any marks; scars and tattoos. Even his zanpakuto was gone. And now that he stopped to think, he realized he recognized this set up; he'd been kneeling in a cloud of smoke when the memories overcame him – exactly as he'd experienced when he became an arrancar – and the room was undoubtedly the one where Aizen performed shinigamifications. Now that he had a chance to take a second, more impartial look at his memories, he also realized he had two sets; on the one hand, the last thing he remembered was fighting Ichigo to a standstill and nearly dying while on the other hand, he definitely remembered crouching over a kill with his fraccion less than a day ago, hunting and killing as an adjuchas.

What the fuck was going on?

"Well? What're ya waiting for?" Nnoitra mocked at his back. "You a coward, pussy-cat?"

Grimmjow snarled and turned to face the praying mantis, ready to fight regardless of his lack of sword, but before he could speak, a new voice interjected. It was warm and inviting but authoritative, the type of voice that you could look to for guidance, that you could trust.

"That is enough, Nnoitra."

It immediately put Grimmjow's hackles up. His hands clenched and his head came up, remembering what had happened the last time he'd heard that voice.

"Grimmjow-sama…?" his fraccion had not moved and Shawlong was watching him expectantly. He huffed and turned on his heel away from Nnoitra to face the bigger threat, squaring his shoulders as if preparing for battle, heedless of the fact that he was still sword-less and naked. Nnoitra similarly dismissed him from notice; instead sinking back against the wall to comply with his boss's order.

"It's fine. Let him through." The panther growled.

His pack drew away on either side, leaving a straight line of sight between Grimmjow and the speaker; a friendly looking shinigami with loose brown hair, twinkling brown eyes, square glasses, and the black hakama and white haori of a captain. His warm and welcoming appearance was belied by the severe white stone surrounding them and the hollows milling uneasily in the background.

Aizen looked exactly as he had the first time Grimmjow evolved into an arrancar…and markedly different from the last time he'd seen him.

Grimmjow narrowed his eyes at the shinigami, but knew better than to demand answers. He vividly remembered having his arm cut off and being crushed to the floor by the force of Aizen's reiatsu. As much as it galled him, he remained silent as the captain sized him up. If the shinigami was going to tell him what was going on, he'd do it on his own time.

"Will you tell us your name, new comrade?" The tone was welcoming and Grimmjow answered automatically, even as his mind balked in confusion.

"Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez."

Aizen's smile dimmed at the defensive tone and the obviously non-submissive posture, expression hardening in the face of Grimmjow's perceived disrespect. The former sexta didn't notice; he was too busy comparing the shinigamification procedure he remembered to his current situation. He might not know what was going on, but he was able to make the connection that he was re-living a memory.

"Welcome, Jaegerjaquez-san." Aizen nodded politely. "And friends." His eyes flicked to the as-yet untransformed fraccion and Grimmjow abruptly blinked back to the present, hackles rising. Nothing about the statement could be construed as a threat, but he was suddenly aware of his vulnerability and the weakness of his allies. No doubt that was exactly what the shinigami had intended.

"Whatever." Grimmjow snorted and looked away, breaking eye-contact first. His fraccion watched him with surprise, uneasily noting the act of submission. But Aizen relaxed slightly and smiled, once again trying the carrot rather than the stick.

"As promised, I have gifted you with the strength you so desired. As one of my arrancar, you are truly a force to be feared."

The panther gritted his teeth, biting down on an instinctive growl and the assertion that he'd always been a force to be reckoned with and his abilities were not dependent on anyone, let alone a shinigami. But Aizen was watching him carefully and he was well aware of the consequences if he got this wrong. Still, he was unable to completely stifle the offended snarl that echoed in his throat as he replied.

"Yeah? I thought you picked me 'cause of my strength."

Aizen's eyes narrowed and the concentration of reiatsu began to rise in the air around them. The surrounding arrancar drew back, eyeing Grimmjow with fear and disbelief. No one dared to be so brazen and disrespectful to their master…especially not after the last rebellion was put down.

The panther gritted his teeth and set his legs, determined not to fall to his knees even as his fraccion wavered around him.

"Are you planning to renege on your word, Jaegerjaquez-san?" Aizen's voice was as smooth and unaffected as it had ever been during his tenure as Lord of Las Noches. Unlike his earlier comments, this was clearly a statement from the king of Hueco Mundo rather than the 'friendly shinigami' mask.

"No." The new arrancar gasped out through reiatsu-compressed lungs and a sudden push of reiatsu forced his knees to crumple. He bared his teeth in helpless anger, well aware of the silently watching spectators and the purpose of Aizen's actions – to assert his dominance and prove the inferiority of Grimmjow's powers. "I said I'd help you, didn't I?"

The pressure eased slightly, allowing him to raise his head and look up at his 'new master', meeting his eyes. Both of them were thinking about promises demanded and given on the open desert between a hunting adjuchas pack and an intruding shinigami; to fight, to follow, and to submit. After a moment of scrutiny, a coldly amused smile pushed up the corner of Aizen's mouth and the oppressive reiatsu dissipated entirely.

"Thank you Jaegerjaquez-san." The warm, polite mask was back. It would not completely fall until after he'd defected from Soul Society.

Refusing to be daunted by the show of power, Grimmjow levered himself back to his feet and snorted dismissively. "I said I would, so I will."

At a pointed gesture, his fraccion pulled away, leaving him bare for the room to see. He ignored their whispers and strode confidently across towards the site of his transformation where he'd left his zanpakuto.

"Perhaps you would like some clothes?" There was an indulgent note of amusement in Aizen's voice that made Grimmjow want to clench his fists and grit his teeth. With great effort, he overcame the urge and forced his muscles to loosen.

"After my guys are done." He nodded towards his untransformed fraccion who eagerly came forwards, anticipating the power that would come with being arrancar.

Aizen smiled, expression tolerant but eyes cold. "Of course."

Grimmjow leaned against the nearest wall as casually as possible, ignoring Shawlong and DiRoy as they fell into position on either side. His gaze remained fixed on Aizen. He didn't dare give the shinigami a weakness to exploit by revealing he was anything other than supremely confident in the situation. However, internally, he was scrambling desperately for an explanation.

He'd realized by now that he was re-experiencing his shinigamification, but he honestly didn't care how or why. He was more interested in whether Aizen shared his memories; in the previous timeline, Grimmjow had violated his orders to fight with Ichigo – an offense punishable by death. At the time, he'd been well aware that any future encounters with Aizen would probably end in his demise, but he'd done it anyway because (a) Las Noches was falling apart around their ears (b) Aizen didn't seem to give a damn about the human kids anymore– he was on his way to the world of the living (c) Grimmjow was pretty sure he'd already been labeled disposable (d) Aizen probably didn't care about what his 'expendable' arrancar were doing when he had so many other things to worry about (e) he had a chance to fight Kurosaki, and (f) proving himself the strongest was the only thing he had left, the only reason he had to live, and defeating the human brat was the only way to do that.

In other words, if this Aizen knew what Grimmjow had done then retribution (and probably death) was imminent. But if Aizen didn't know, then trying to leave would be a surefire way to get executed for desertion.

After brooding through the transformations of the rest of his fraccion, Grimmjow came to the realization that he didn't care one way or the other. The shinigami hadn't killed him yet, which meant he either didn't know what Grimmjow had done or was keeping the information secret (for now). Grimmjow had never cared about Aizen's plots and tricks…what he cared about was power and proving himself the strongest, which had long since come to mean defeating Ichigo in no-holds-barred combat. He hated Aizen, Nnoitra, and even Ulquiorra for their actions in keeping him from that goal his memories, but it was Ichigo who had been his nemesis, the 'white whale' whose defeat he thirsted for.

He ignored the questioning, worried looks of Shawlong and the garrulous sparring of his other fraccion as he mechanically went through the motions of getting his crew situated as unranked arrancar among the numeros. Tomorrow, they would fight their way through the ranks and he would become sexta.

But first, he had something much more important to take care of; the figure from his memory who was just begging to be killed, who Grimmjow needed to defeat in order to cement his strength in his own mind.

Today, Kurosaki would die.

The Living World was nothing like Starrk had ever experienced. It was loud, dirty, crowded, bright, and fast-paced. There was always something new to look at and everything could change between one blink and the next. It was overwhelming to the point of being intimidating, a sensation that Starrk, who had lived in the same familiar environment for over a thousand years, was unsure how to handle.

For the first year, he and Lilynette wandered (on her insistence), taking in the sights and sounds and familiarizing themselves with the Living World. Originally, this was a concern for the vizards and Urahara; they might not be shinigami anymore, but they had a vested interest in keeping hollows away from humans. But what could they do? Starrk was too powerful to be cleansed, too skilled to be returned to Hueco Mundo (permanently, anyway), and too peaceful to justify more intense actions. Reluctantly, they "allowed" him to slip though their fingers.

It turned out not to be an issue. Starrk's drive to escape loneliness kept him from wandering too far from the few people he could interact with. Every few months at least, he could be found frequenting some part of Karakura Town. Granted, sometimes it was difficult to find him because he automatically hid his reiatsu - his loneliness might drive him into close proximity but it did not force him to interact with them. Even if he wanted to, he would not have known how to approach them on friendly terms.

Once Starrk set up a lair during the second year ("defining his territory" was Urahara's excited description of primal hollow instincts), his wandering became even more restricted. However, the location of his home was kept carefully hidden; it was an unspoken agreement that so long as he did not invade the vizards' home, they would leave his alone. Urahara was not so reticent but without Shinji's group, he didn't have the hollow instincts and abilities necessary to track the primera. Supposedly. It was quite possible he'd figured out the location and pretended otherwise to keep from scaring Starrk away.

The lair wasn't really anything special – it was an abandoned, walled off attic room in the peaked roof of an apartment complex. There was no furniture, electricity, or amenities but the entire room was strewn with hundreds of pillows and cushions in all different shapes, sizes, and colors. One corner held the brightest and most colorful specimens, gathered by Lilynette and declared hers. Speaking of which, Lilynette's growing collection of shiny and fluffy trinkets was supposed to be confined to her part of the room but more often than not could be found strewn amongst the pillows all over the small space.

Starrk had found the forgotten room while looking for a rooftop to lie on. The ornamentally peaked roof of this apartment building had stood out amongst the more conventional flat tops around it and he found the sloped surface a more comfortable resting place. He'd found a smudged, dirty window into the attic under the peak at the back of the building which had been left so long that the lock and frame were rusty and fragile. It was inaccessible to humans (at least not without a very, very long ladder.) The interior had been dusty and vacant, without even an entrance into the living spaces below (it had been walled off and forgotten long ago). The pillows and trinkets were later additions which Starrk and Lilynette slowly acquired from various warehouses and discarded furniture. The room was typically dim but the window, now wedged open forever since Starrk had broken the catch, kept it from becoming truly dark and let in the scents and sounds of the city.

Even better, it was located right in the center of Karakura Town, so he could sense spiritual activity happening all over the city, whether or not he chose to get involved.

Once, in a sequence of events now erased from time, Ichigo Kurosaki had no interest in being a part of the spiritual world until a shinigami named Rukia Kuchiki forced him to take on her duties and become a substitute shinigami. She pushed him into a situation, a role, and a chance to be a part of something bigger than himself and his world. When confronted by an entire spiritual realm based around protecting the weak through martial arts and battling evil monsters and spirits, the teenager rose to the challenge and became a hero.

This time, Ichigo's first significant contact with a ghost was when he was ten years old, and it definitely was not with a shinigami. It was with a strange but kind male spirit who helped Ichigo without asking for anything in return. He knew Ichigo's name without asking and spoke strangely about the figures in the boy's nightmares – as if they held a deeper meaning.

After the ghost helped him, Ichigo's memories did not completely vanish; instead, they manifested as hazy dreams. For a long time, he thought they were nothing but figments of his imagination and, as a ten year old with an active imagination and an avid reader of comics, he happily embellished on the vague images and sensations, creating an imaginary world full of superpowers, heroes, sidekicks, monsters, bad guys, and damsels in distress – with himself as the most powerful hero of all. As the hero, it was his job to protect 'the civilians' (i.e. non-super-powered people) and he devoted all of his training and abilities to keeping them safe.

Since his mother's death, Ichigo had been transformed from a carefree toddler into a boy fixated on protecting the family he had left no matter the cost. His dedication made him seem sullen and defensive to his peers, marking him as a pariah just as obviously as his bright orange hair, which physically set him apart from the mostly brown and black haired children. In his dream-world, he was accepted as who he was and his friends often looked as strange (or stranger) than himself – they understood his reasons and his motives. He found himself turning to dreams more and more often, taking solace in the fact that, even if they weren't real, that world was more interesting and more suitable than his real life. He turned his back on reality, scorning the petty concerns of children who knew nothing of loss or pain.

However, as he grew and matured, he came to recognize the dream-world for what it truly was: a fantasy. It was a keen blow to realize that the people who knew and understood him so well, with whom he'd shared blood, pain, and a bond few humans could understand, did not exist. To cope, he fixated on the one aspect of his memories/dreams/nightmares that he knew was real: the ghost without a chain.

Ever since he could remember, Ichigo had been able to see spirits and he'd been learning to ignore them since he started primary school and figured out that other people did not react well if he started talking to what they saw as thin air (before that, having 'imaginary friends' was cute; after, his teachers started muttering about schizophrenia) . And since the ghost of a little girl had been involved in his mother's death (he wasn't sure how, but he'd seen her on the edge of the riverbank that night), he'd been well on his way to deciding he wanted nothing to do with spirits – until now.

For the past couple years, he'd mostly ignored the ghosts in favor of his life and his heroic fantasies. To his perspective, they were annoying, constantly getting in his way, and always doing weird adult things; ultimately, all they did was make his life more difficult. He wasn't cruel to them, but he would not have protested if they were not there. However, with the memory of 'his' ghost in mind, he reluctantly started looking into Karakura's spirit community, trying to find if anyone knew or had known him.

In a remarkably short amount of time, he stopped seeing them as annoyances and started seeing them as people; it was the kids that did it – child ghosts who wandered the streets, clutching their chains and looking constantly heartbroken and bewildered. Usually, they were the result of horrible accidents; car crashes, house fires, slippery steps...the young always seemed to be the ones that suffered most. Ichigo, who had come perilously close to dying himself (though he did not realize just how close) sympathized with them. From there, it was a short leap to the understanding that adult ghosts were also people; they were not trying to be annoying, they were clinging desperately to whatever small traces of normality they could find. Ghosts were no longer annoyances to be tolerated; they were brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers - people with families that could no longer see them, lives they would never experience, and homes they would never see again.

It was a very adult way of looking at the world; an instinctual understanding of mortality that in the original timeline, he would not have come to understand until his first major brush with death as a substitute shinigami. It was a perspective that once acquired, he could not be rid of, and it did not take him long to decide he wanted to help the deceased spirits that wandered Karakura Town. Unfortunately, there wasn't much he could do beyond talking with them and trying to make their remaining time in the world of the living as comfortable as possible. As for 'his' ghost, he kept an eye out, but didn't really expect to find him again; most spirits only stuck around for a week or so and it had been years since their encounter. (Oddly, he never found another ghost without a chain, though he did notice that their chains shrank gradually depending on how long they were in the world of the living.)

Besides, by the time his enthusiasm for the search began to diminish, there was something else on his mind: the death of Sora Inoue.

It was a tragic accident that no one could have predicted: the young man had been hit by a car when it suddenly swerved to avoid a rupture in the road and his wounds were fatal. Ichigo's dad did his best to stabilize him while Ichigo comforted the injured man's sister, but Sora was gone by the time the ambulance arrived. Later that day, Ichigo wandered the surrounding streets and parks looking for his ghost, but he never found it. Sadly, that wasn't surprising; ghosts rarely stayed where they'd died, preferring instead to stay where they had a strong spiritual connection.

That night, Ichigo's sleep was uneasy and plagued by dreams of a snake monster with Sora's face attacking his friends and falling to his sword. He woke up with a startled gasp and the internal certainty that he KNEW the Inoue siblings…even though he'd never met them before in his life. In fact…he thought he recognized the younger sister from his dreams, from BEFORE the accident. It didn't quite look like her; the girl he knew had long orange hair, a different build, and was much older and taller, but the similarities were uncanny.

For the first time, he remembered the words his ghost had spoken two years ago: "Kurosaki, I don't think these are dreams."

A shiver ran down his spine, and he began to wonder just what, exactly, had happened that night. For years, he hadn't even thought about the words the spirit had uttered that night, but now, framed in this context, the statement took on new meaning.

As if triggered by the realization, from that night on he noticed more and more similarities between the settings of his fantasies and those of the real world. Aside from Orihime Inoue, there was one other human he recognized: Yasutora Sado. Chad. The appearance of the larger boy stopped Ichigo in his tracks the first time they met; Chad was one of the starring characters from Ichigo's dream world and, unlike Orihime, he looked exactly like his dream-self. Ichigo stumbled through introductions and a couple awkward joint encounters with bullies, but somehow managed to get a good friend out of the deal. Afterwards, thanks to some clumsily worded queries that obviously made Chad worry for Ichigo's metal health, he figured out that his new friend did not remember a thing.

He discovered familiar places as well: the park where he met ghosts matched a park where he'd fought monsters…a candy shop he regularly passed on his way to a local grocery store matched the building where he'd held war councils with his allies…a deserted hospital across town matched the place where he'd saved a TV star's life and killed another monster…

However, by the time he was fourteen, Orihime and Chad were the only real people that matched faces from his dreams; he didn't know if it was because he knew his dream-friends primarily from their superhero costumes and basic features, or if the two of them were special in some way. Places were a different matter; within two years after Sora's death, Ichigo discovered over a dozen real places that matched scenes from his imaginary world. They were all very specific and recognizable, and he'd dreamed about every single one before seeing it in real life.

It was unnerving and confusing; his fantasies were not nearly as comforting when they linked back to reality – a world he thought he understood. How much had he actually imagined?

Ichigo had a lot of questions, but no real way to get any answers. Many times, he thought about the figures from his fantasies that had not shown up in real life and wondered what they would do (all the time wondering if he might find that out in person at some point), or remembered his chain-less ghost and wished he'd thought to ask more questions or paid more attention to what he said. All he really remembered was that one line, but he knew there had been more.

Even though he knew the ghost had probably long since moved on, Ichigo continued interacting with the spirits of Karakura Town, trying to figure out what had happened to the stranger while he helped them with their problems. It wasn't easy; by the age of fourteen, his schedule was already packed with school, homework, and chores. The only block of time he could spare for ghosts was on his walk home, if he took the longer route and did not enroll for any after school activities.

Still, it was important, so he re-routed his walk through multiple parks and deserted areas of town, places as far away from other humans as he could get (he didn't want to be labeled as crazy, after all) and spent as much time as he could with the ghosts. As the only human capable of interacting with them, they flocked to him, eager to talk and simply be seen by a human being. So far, none of them knew anything about 'his' ghost, or what a lack of chain meant (though it filled them with instinctual dread), but he kept asking, along with helping them settle whatever unfinished business they had left behind.

It was in the middle of one such walk on a warm, sunny October afternoon during his final semester in secondary school that everything he'd ever known about reality changed, at the hands of a monster he'd only ever seen in his nightmares.


"Kurosaki" The roar echoed through the park and he jumped, every instinct screaming at him to fight. The young woman ghost he'd been talking to paled (an impressive feat, considering she was already dead-white) and fled as fast as she could. Ichigo stepped in to cover her retreat, settling into a fighting stance. His hands came up in a defensive posture and he settled both feet flat on the ground shoulder width apart with the left foot slightly behind the right and the weight balanced evenly on the balls of his feet. But his attacker failed to appear. His eyes snapped back and forth across the landscape, now empty of all spirits and humans other than himself, until some hidden instinct prompted him to look up.

The strangest ghost he'd ever seen was levitating overhead. There were lots of features Ichigo could have focused on – from the bright blue hair, to the giant hole in his stomach (a hole, just like HIS ghost), to the bone decoration on his face, to the white clothes that inexplicably filled him with a sense of dread– but what caught and held his attention were the creature's eyes. They were dead cold, contemptuous, hostile…and familiar. When the spirit saw Ichigo swallow hard and take a step backwards, a fiendish grin spread across his face, revealing a set of teeth far too sharp to be human.

Some of the features were different (no ears or tail, different clothes) but this was undeniably the cat monster from Ichigo's childhood nightmares.

"What's the matter, Kurosaki? Scared?" it sneered.

When the boy didn't respond, too shocked that the monster knew his name, the smile turned into a smirk and those cold, hateful eyes hardened.

"Good." The creature vanished too fast for Ichigo's human sense to register. He had a bare millisecond of realization to think 'oh, shi-!' before a fist as hard and forceful as a hammer slammed into his solar plexus, jettisoning him backwards nearly ten feet.

Something snapped wetly deep inside and Ichigo let out a gurgling scream as a horrible piercing pain radiated from his abdomen. When he landed, his head hit the ground with a dull 'thud' and his vision whited out at the impact. He could feel blood in his throat and lungs and he had just enough presence of mind left to realize he was badly wounded, without even managing to fight back. Was he dying? He was definitely in shock.

Distantly, he was aware of more people arriving and driving off his attacker, and of the monster yelling and ranting as he was forced to leave. At some point, the human's eyes closed and he could not seem to reopen them.

"Shit shit shit shit…!" The new voice, now directly over him, hissed. "This is really bad. Hachi, is there anything you can do?"

Soothing warmth radiated through Ichigo's body accompanied by a yellow glow beyond his eyelids and he found himself instinctively relaxing.

"I cannot." A new person spoke, mellow voice grave. "I can use kido to heal his soul, but his human body is beyond my capabilities."

"Would Tessai…?"

"I'm afraid his abilities would be limited for the same reasons. Urahara's would as well."

"Shit!" For some reason, the first voice brought to mind the Cheshire cat's unnaturally wide grin, though the speaker was definitely not happy at the moment. Ichigo wondered why the stranger cared…"Then there's nothing for it. We'll have to take him to Isshin."

Gentle hands lifted him, but even that slight jostling was too much. Ichigo passed out.

On the day of Grimmjow's attack, Starrk was sleeping on the roof of his lair, sprawled out on his back on the pleasantly sun-warmed tiles, while Lilynette rummaged around in the room behind him looking for some trinket she'd lost amongst the pillows. He felt the new spirit energy appear, but his instincts did not register it as a threat – the interloper did not come in his direction, and even if he or she tried, the reiatsu was not powerful enough to hurt him – so he dozily dismissed it as no concern to him or Lilynette. It was vaguely familiar, but the plethora of strong spiritual beings that inhabited Karakura Town had dulled his normally hair-trigger responses; with over a dozen vizards and exiles in the vicinity, a slight surge of familiar reiatsu was a common occurrence that had long since stopped drawing a reaction.

His lapse didn't last long; ten minutes later, the vizards were suddenly shunpo-ing in the direction of the new reiatsu, alarm and anger broadcasting through their reiatsu. All of them- even Hachi, who usually stayed out of physical altercations.

Finally disturbed, Starrk stirred and opened one eye, lazily wondering what was going on. Casually, he felt out the various reiatsu signatures with pesquisa, taking a brief moment to puzzle over the presence of Ichigo Kurosaki's budding spirit energy before moving on to an area high above the city, out of sight over the clouds, where the vizards had forced the newcomer. Starrk took in his allies (well…his 'not enemies') first, absently noting that Shinji and Hachi were now absent, then moved on to their opponent.

Their very, very familiar opponent who should not for any reason be in the living word for at least another year.

Both of Starrk's eyes snapped open, immediately wide awake and he stared up at the clouds obscuring the confrontation from sight, brow furrowed. A part of him wanted to stay where he was and let the vizards handle the situation…but a bigger part realized that an arrancar in the living world would undoubtedly draw lots of attention (it was pure luck he'd hadn't used an arrancar-specific energy attack yet) and probably blow his cover to Aizen, the shinigami, or both. Plus, Grimmjow would undoubtedly die at the hands of the vizards. If the sexta espada faced them one on one, he might put up a good fight, but with all of them ganged up against him he didn't stand a chance. Despite the fact that he'd never been emotionally close to Grimmjow, Starrk didn't want to see his old comrade die. Hell, he'd mourned for Barragan, who was at least three times as insufferable as Grimmjow.

"Starrk?" Lilynette poked her head out of the window at the peak of the roof, obviously confused. She'd missed the initial surge in reiatsu, but felt the sudden shift in his emotions. "What's goin' on?"

Grimmjow's here." Starrk pushed himself to his feet, stretching and absentmindedly brushing down the scruffy clothes he'd stolen from Rukongai way back when he'd kidnapped Jushiro. (A habit he'd picked up from wearing white all the time and following a man who insisted his soldiers always look immaculate). It didn't make any difference; years of wear and tear had torn the hems ragged and faded the dark brown to a slightly lighter color. Were it not for the bare sword tied at his waist, he'd look like a homeless Rukongai bandit.

"Now?! Is that supposed to happen?" A brief sonido and she was at his side, ready for action. Unlike Starrk, she didn't keep her zanpakuto manifested – it was too heavy and unwieldy.

"No, it's not." Starrk grimaced and ran a hand through his hair, then sighed. "Stay behind me. I don't know what he's doing here, but it can't be good."

"I can fight!"

"Hopefully, we won't have to fight."

When reiatsu surged from the sight of the battle, he set off at a fast sonido with his fraccion half a step behind.

They arrived just in time to dodge the first cero – which was fired from the vizard side.

"Hey." His mild protest was not a yell – he didn't even raise his voice – but the power laced through the words got everyone's attention. As one, they turned to look at him, eyes wide and hands on sword hilts all around. Love, Lisa, and Hiyori were wearing their masks and the others looked seconds away from following suit. Starrk eyed the silent lot of them then sighed. "You woke me up."

"Starrk?" Grimmjow's snarl was equal parts enraged and confused. "What the fuck are you doing here?" He frowned as he noticed the changes in his appearance. "And what the hell happened to your uniform?"

"I don't have one." He muttered quietly, watching out of the corner of his eye as the vizards warily edged away. Back pressed against his back, Lilynette was grumbling under her breath, a low even sound that was nearly a growl and Starrk couldn't tell who it was aimed at.

"You don't -?" Grimmjow might prefer fighting to thinking, but he was not stupid. He understood the implications almost immediately and his fists actually lowered in shock. "Huh. Well, damn – I thought you were too loyal for something like that."

The primera shrugged. "I didn't defect; I was never recruited."

"That's what you're doing here? Hiding from the draft? Coward."

"Hm." Starrk didn't bother to take offense. They both knew it was an empty insult – he could easily crush Grimmjow if they fought. "What are you doing here?" He took in the white uniform with a frown. "Did Aizen send you?"

The blue-haired man snarled angrily, baring his teeth and bringing his fists back up, though it was more in automatic denial than challenge. "Like hell he did! I don't need Aizen-sama's permission to do what I want!" He spat the honorific like a curse.

"Hm." Stark put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "Then what are you doing here?"

"I came to kill the shinigami brat! The bastard cheated during our last fight – I'll show him who's stronger!"

Starrk was well aware of Grimmjow's intense desire to be considered 'the strongest'. It was the same urge that ALL adjuchas shared while trying to become vasto lordes. Considering Grimmjow's sheer bull-headed determination, it's possible he might have succeeded in a hundred years or so. But the ex-primera didn't much care about that – he simply quirked an eyebrow at the overused declaration, then sighed and scratched at the scruff on his chin.

"Shinigami brat?" He prompted, fixating on the part of Grimmjow's statement that he didn't understand.

"Ichigo Kurosaki." Lisa intoned from behind Starrk's left shoulder, voice crisp and toneless. "The hollow attempted to kill him."

Starrk frowned at her words – he didn't know the human boy very well, but he seemed nice enough as a child (not so much as a shinigami, though Starrk had been kidnapping Orhime at the time) and he did not wish him ill. However, it was Lisa's delivery that really put him on alert. Until now, she had been one of the most welcoming of the vizards, right up there alongside Shinji and Kensei (the former was obviously trying to weasel past Starrk's guard while the latter treated everyone with the same stern expectations regardless of species), but the way she referred to Grimmjow was downright frigid. A quick look around the vizards revealed that all of their expressions were equally pissed off.

They were arrayed in a loose circle with Grimmjow and Starrk at the center; a configuration that was not reassuring. It felt too much like he was being trapped with Grimmjow and if it came down to a fight, he was not confident the vizards would leave him out of it. Sure, they tolerated him in their territory (for the most part) but they didn't trust him, and his instinct to speak rather than attack Grimmjow might have been his undoing – it looked too much like sympathizing with the enemy in their eyes.

However, the presence of the other arrancar was not a good enough reason for the vizards to mobilize; they tended to remain in the background until something really bad happened. And the only thing he could think of that would incite this much anger was the death of one of their own. He remembered how Shinji had defended the mere mention of the boy when Starrk arrived in the Living World, and instantly realized what was going on.

…What had Grimmjow done?

"How's Kurosaki?" Starrk asked Lisa quietly, meeting her eyes over his shoulder. When her mouth tightened and turned down at the corners, he grimaced. "Did he survive?"

"We don't know. It's too early to tell."

Grimmjow snorted, interrupting and drawing the hostile glares back to himself.

"He's fine. I barely even tapped him before all of you showed up." He scowled. "It's my fight, assholes – stay out of it!"

Starrk frowned. "Kurosaki's human. What sort of fight were you expecting?"

"What rock have you been hiding under? The brat's a shinigami and a hollow! The little bastard pulled that trick in our last fight – I'll show him who's stronger when he's not hiding behind his secrets!"

The picture that was forming suggested some very important holes in Grimmjow's knowledge, and gave Starrk a few pieces of worrying information.

"So…you remember."

At that, Grimmjow's focus sharpened. He'd been completely occupied by the battle with Ichigo, but Starrk's words implied answers to the questions that had been gnawing at his mind since his transformation and he found his bloodthirsty train of thought de-railed.

"So do you." He growled, eyes narrow and suspicious.

"Mhm." Starrk waited patiently for the questions that would surely follow, but before Grimmjow could say anything, Shinji flash-stepped into sight. Unlike his comrades, he did not pause until he was next to Starrk and facing Grimmjow, a calculated show of solidarity that surprised Starrk, although his only physical response was a raised eyebrow and cocked head. Behind him, Lilynette jumped at the sudden appearance and let out a startled growl.

"The kid will be fine." The vizard leader announced to the group, tired but satisfied. "Isshin stabilized him at the clinic and called an ambulance; he said nothing too important was broken. Ichigo will be in a lot of pain for a few days, but he'll live. Hachi's with Isshin, doing what he can to help."

It felt like a great relieved sigh released from the circle; tension leaked away and the killing intent thickening the air decreased exponentially.

"Why wouldn't he live?" Grimmjow snapped, his confusion mounting to anger (not that it was ever very far away). "I barely even got to hit him! He didn't even pull out his zanpakuto!"

Shinji stared and then smirked, baring his teeth in a decidedly unfriendly gesture. "Well, there's a familiar face. Workin' for Aizen again, eh?" His tone was biting and scornful, but Grimmjow didn't get a chance to respond in kind. "Seein' as you're obviously not up to speed, let me tell ya a few things. First, yer in the past; second, yer in our territory; third, the kid ain't a shinigami or a vizard yet – he's human all the way through. And you almost killed him."

Grimmjow jerked back, expression falling to complete confusion rather than anger, and his eyes flicked to Starrk for confirmation. The older arrancar gave a half shrug and nodded.

"I don't know when the boy gets his powers, but it hasn't happened yet."

"Damn." Killing Ichigo wouldn't be nearly as satisfying if it wasn't his Ichigo. There was no challenge in fighting an unarmed human…Grimmjow wanted to prove his superiority over the version that could actually battle him on equal footing. That was the reason he'd brought Orihime to heal the boy before their last fight, after all…if both of them weren't at their peak, how would they know which was really the strongest? "When will he get his powers?"

Shinji snorted. "Are ya expecting us to answer, arrancar? You're not getting anywhere near the kid again." His tone hardened. "I'll promise you that." Around him, a murmur of approval rose from the assembled vizards.

"Like I said, it's my fight, assholes, not yours. When the kid is back to himself, then we'll fight."

Multiple pairs of eyes rolled at the bold declaration, but Grimmjow ignored them. To him, the vizards were no longer relevant. Instead, he turned to Starrk.

"So we're really in the past? What happened?"

"No one knows. They-" Starrk waved at the vizards. "think it was something to do with the Hogyoku."

"Makes sense. I only remembered after being shinigamified."

"Wait, wait…is that really what you call it? Shinigamified? Really?" The leader of the vizards sounded on the verge of dissolving into giggles.

The panther sneered at him. "Like it's any stupider than 'hollowfication'?"


Starrk sighed. "Yes, well, that supports their theory. What are you going to do now?"


"Are you gonna tell Aizen?" Lilynette's voice piped up for the first time. She was peering around Starrk's back defensively, but there was a thread of unease in her voice that not even her typical bravado could hide. They'd managed to avoid Aizen for over four years so far, but the time of their original recruitment was approaching fast and the next six months or so would be crucial to their participation or absence in the war. Her companion was equally reluctant to be brought to Aizen's attention, but he hid it better.

"Nah." Grimmjow waved a hand dismissively, as if it was a minor concern. "Fuckin' Aizen's not getting anything from me. I'll do what I promised, but this hasn't got anything to do with him."

"I think he would disagree." Starrk muttered.

"What did you promise?" It was Mashiro who asked, tone innocent and curious.

"Loyalty." It sounded physically painful for him to snarl the word out. "I promised I'd do what he said until he didn't need me anymore, if he did what he promised."

"What did he promise?"

"To make me an arrancar." The 'you idiot' was implied. Kensei bristled at the slight to his lieutenant, but Lisa stepped in front of him.

"What are your plans now? Will you stay with Aizen?"

"I promised, didn't I? Besides, my guys are still there. And I'm sure as hell not staying here." The following scornful sneer encompassed all of the vizards, though it dwindled before it reached the more powerful arrancar. "This was a giant waste of time." He raised a hand, ready to open a garganta.

"Grimmjow…" Starrk stopped him. "What will you tell Aizen?"

"Nothing. He doesn't know I'm gone. And if he doesn't know you're here, that's his problem, not mine. Far as I care, that bastard can go fuck himself."

He vanished through the garganta, not looking back to see the approving smirk from Shinji, nor the exasperated headshake from Starrk.

Grimmjow stormed back into Las Noches in a foul mood, angry at being gypped of his battle but grimly satisfied to finally have some answers from a source he considered reliable. He'd never been particularly close to the primera – the two were so far apart in power levels and personality that the thought of voluntarily spending time with each other was almost comical in its implausibility – but Grimmjow knew he was smart and fair, and he trusted him a great deal more than he trusted Aizen. After all, Starrk had never ripped his arm off for a minor reason or reiatsu-slammed him to the floor in a humiliating show of power. In fact, he never flaunted his status at all, and Grimmjow respected him for it (though he would never say so out loud).

While it chafed that he could not kill Ichigo (the little bastard had been this close to dying at his hands! He'd almost redeemed himself!), he reluctantly accepted Starrk's reasoning. No matter how satisfying it would have felt to murder the orange haired teenager, it would not have been the fight he was looking for. A true rematch would have to wait until the kid was once again powerful enough to face him in combat.

Exercising restraint was an unfamiliar experience for Grimmjow, and one he found he did not enjoy. He stalked the halls of Las Noches, hoping someone would try to pick a fight on the 'new numeros' (what a fucking joke. He'd be sexta again by tonight) so he could take out his anger on them. He was so wrapped up in his own violent musings that he didn't notice the two weak female arrancar before he banged into them. Rudely, he shoved between them with a snarled 'Get outta my way!' and continued down the corridor. They were too weak to be a challenge so he didn't give a damn who they were.

He didn't notice that the two women staggered away as if struck and stared at his receding form in mixed horror and realization. The one on the left – with short blonde hair, green eyes, and a ridged mask fragment obscuring her right eye - turned to her partner once the male arrancar was out of sight. The other woman had a matching mask over the left side of her face, leaving a single pink eye visible and two black pigtails framed her stunned expression.

"Was that Grimmjow?!" Menoly hissed, tone warring between horrified and accusing. "You said he was dead!"

"I did not!" Loly snarled back, fists balled and muscles tense with the instinctive urge to fight or run away. "I said I didn't know what was going on!"

"He didn't notice us…" Menoly nervously pulled back against the wall into the shadows, edging around a corner in the opposite direction from where Grimmjow had vanished. "Do you think…maybe he doesn't remember?"

"How should I know?" Loly followed reluctantly. She hated being weak – so much so that she'd aligned with Aizen in an attempt to gain authority by association, and stood up to Grimmjow when he overstepped his boundaries. However, that had ended badly, to say the least, and she preferred to stay alive.

"If he's here…" Menoly's voice was quieter, laced with dawning realization and fear. "Do you think the girl…?"

Loly bared her teeth at the mention of the human. She'd hated the girl even when all Orihime had done was unwillingly receive Aizen's favor over Loly and Menoly, and the arrancar had come to loath the human even more after her stoic response to their attack…and come to fear her after seeing her powers in action.

"Who knows? With powers like that, maybe she's the one responsible."

With a grimace and a reluctant nod, Menoly acknowledged the potential threat. "We need to tell Aizen-sama."

As the black line of Grimmjow's closing garganta gradually faded from the fabric of reality, Starrk watched it with a vague frown on his face. It was both worrying and reassuring that the other arrancar knew what was going on. On the one hand, Grimmjow had no intention of alerting Aizen to Starrk's presence and he had confirmed Urahara's hypothesis about the Hogyoku awakening memories in newly created arrancar. On the other hand, Grimmjow wasn't exactly discreet and he was still a member of Aizen's army. Not that Starrk blamed him, since trying to defect at this point would undoubtedly get him executed, but there was the potential for a major problem in that situation.

"So, what do you think?" Beside him, Shinji was similarly staring at the sealed garganta, expression uncharacteristically serious. "Can we trust him?"

It took a moment for Starrk to realize the vizard was talking to him. Typically, he sat back and listened while other people talked, and then obeyed the final decision (granted, Aizen wasn't all that tolerant of democratic thought; he didn't want other opinions stated if they didn't match his own). His unsolicited perspective informed his own actions and those of Lilynette; no one else.

"He's Grimmjow." Lilynette grumbled, stepping in front of Starrk for the first time to get a good look at the area, though she didn't move far away; two of the vizards were still wearing their masks and the circle, despite the absence of their target, had yet to break down. "It's not like he's gonna go running to Aizen or anything."

Her partner shrugged lightly and put his hands in his pockets. "He's more likely to keep trying to go after the boy, and draw Aizen's attention that way."

"We should have just killed him." Love grumbled irritably to Rose in the background, voice distorted by his mask.

"If you had tried, he would have gone into resureccion." Starrk pointed out. "And you would have drawn Aizen's attention regardless. Probably the shinigamis' too."

"Yeah…" The leader of the vizards sighed. "We'll have to stay on the down low for a while, just in case. Isshin's watching the kid, and Urahara's keepin' an eye on him, so they'll be fine."

Muted mumbles and grumbles greeted the statement, but overall they seemed relieved; even if they had to stay penned up in their warehouse for a while, at least Ichigo was safe. The tension dissipated entirely and Love and Hiyori allowed their masks to dissolve while the others sheathed their swords and slowly drifted off in groups, breaking the line. Love continued protesting leaving Grimmjow alive but only to Rose as they walked further away, while Mashiro attached herself to Kensei as he pointedly turned his back on the situation and set off for their home base. Hiyori stayed where she was, arms crossed, irritated glower fixed on Shinji who had yet to acknowledge the death glare digging into the back of his neck. Lisa also stayed put, thoughtful gaze trained on Starrk and Lilynette.

The male arrancar turned towards her and waited patiently, Shinji following the action curiously. Lilynette, uninterested, was finally feeling comfortable enough to range further and prowl around the area to investigate.

"Just how many of your kind are working for Aizen against their will?"

As one, the vizards stopped and turned back around at the sound of her calm question, startled by the implications.

"…What do you mean?"

"You and your girl came here to avoid meeting Aizen, and that one is only working for him because he can't leave. Is that common?"

"Well…" Starrk rocked back on his heels, considering.

"Pretty much." His fraccion contributed, voice indifferent. "Joining Aizen's not exactly a choice, ya know. He's the king."

It was common knowledge for hollows, and also common practice. If someone more powerful asked you to join them, then rejecting the offer would get you killed. Aizen was no different than a powerful vasto lorde in that respect – Barragan had used the tactic hundreds of times before the shinigami even arrived in Hueco Mundo.

Starrk shrugged and nodded. "Plenty of us willingly joined Aizen for a variety of reasons." Power for most, comradeship for some. Well…for Starrk. "But we didn't find out about the war until later."

"He didn't tell you?"

"No. The deals were pretty much whatever we wanted in return for loyalty."

"And, in your loyalty, you joined him in attacking the living world."

"No, we joined him in attacking shinigami. And when he betrayed us, the deals were broken."

"Is that why you don't feel any loyalty towards him anymore?" Shinji butted in between Starrk and Lisa.

"The bastard watched us die." Lilynette snarled and stalked over to stand between Shinji and Starrk, now much more invested in the conversation. "He's the one that broke the agreement, not us."

"Besides, at this point, we haven't made an agreement." The male arrancar added. "Hopefully, he doesn't even know we exist."

"In that case, won't other arrancar feel the same way?" Lisa brought them back to the point. "If their loyalty truly is based on Aizen's word and his actions, and if they find out that his final goal is to betray them?"

"Eh…" Starrk shrugged. "Depends. Some of them really do believe in him; they think he's going to bring a 'golden age' to hollows or something like that. Others will not feel free to rebel until the contract of loyalty is actually broken – which won't be until the end of the war. Regardless, most of them will be too scared to cross him no matter what they know, and they'll take his word over yours any day."

"Still, it's worth some thought." There was a light in Shinji's eyes and a curl to the edge of his smirk that Starrk didn't like. He was planning something, and the arrancar's instincts were telling him to stay far, far away.

"Whatever." He grumbled, allowing himself to sink a few feet away from them. Lilynette scowled for a moment, then looked beyond him and her eyes lit up. With a grin, she darted down and into the clouds, winding though the water vapor and playing in its cover.

"Seeya, arrancar." Was Shinji's absentminded farewell as he turned towards Hiyori.

"Starrk." Lisa's civil nod was less friendly, but more appreciated. She was one of very few of them who actually used his name on a regular basis. Starrk nodded back and then sank completely out of their sight, through the clouds and towards the ground. He wouldn't return to his lair with them so close; instead, he set off for another favorite napping spot: the park where he'd originally arrived in the world of the living.

He had a lot to think about.

Aizen was not a vain man, but he was, out of necessity, highly image conscious. Long before becoming a shinigami, he learned how much stock people put in the evidence of their own senses…and how powerful it was to be able to manipulate such things. A soft voice or a clipped word, kind eyes or a blank blink, the twitch of a smirk or an open grin, a cocked head or a furrowed brow, squared or rounded shoulders…everything left an impression. And every impression was a chance for control.

Control was a quality that Aizen valued above all others.

Every zanpakuto illusion and acted persona required careful crafting down to the tiniest details and expressions – not just to be convincing, but to initiate the response he was looking for. Sympathy? Amusement? Rejection? Acceptance? Love? Hate? He knew how to inspire them all, and if it suited his goals, he did not hesitate.

Once, when he was young, he'd worried about maintaining the various masks he used in Seireitei; there were many subtly different versions, manipulating the targets into the roles he needed them to play in his shinigami facade. One for subordinates like Hinamori to inspire love and devotion, another for the field officers of lower ranks looking for an authority figure, a third for the kido corp where academia was treasured, and a whole variety for the different captains. After all, a wily old captain like Kyoraku required far different handling than a brash hothead like Soifon. It had taken years to get the balance right, but the shinigami were none the wiser – he'd long since dealt with the few who doubted him.

He had manipulated Soul Society for over a century, taking care to seed his influence and plant his puppet strings in the precise locations necessary for the climax that would come as soon as he had the Hogyoku in hand. He reveled in the sense of control he gained from pulling the strings and watching the 'all powerful shinigami' unwittingly dance to his tune.

The thought of how they would react when he finally revealed his plans was absolutely delicious. They were so blindly stubborn in their 'supremacy' and their trust in Yamamoto and the Central 46 that they would never see him coming…truly, he was of a higher quality than such petty, easily deceived fools…and then he would show them the real meaning of power and control.

However, that was for the future. Today, Aizen was considering an entirely different mask, one newer than his 'captain' persona but far easier to maintain because his targets were simpler in mind and expectation. Hollows valued power, not politics, and they accepted his superiority at face value without any sort of 'laws' or 'morals' to get in the way. It was a refreshingly straightforward way to exercise his control, and he often took advantage of it, even when it was not completely necessary.

For now, the mask that Aizen wore in Hueco Mundo was a variation of the benevolent liberator – he had elevated the poor beasts form their petty, primal state into powerful reasoning creatures no longer driven by hunger. Most of them were grateful and in awe of him for his generosity and intimidating strength. His penchant for unceasing control over his followers and execution of insurgents was dismissed as irrelevant; he was far more benevolent than most hollows would be in his position. They would continue to see him that way until they were no longer useful; then their 'liberator' would move on to the royal realm and his minions, having outlived their purpose, would be disposed of as the useless tools they were.

With that in mind, he was designing his throne room. Dominance was, of course, the primary message he needed to convey; his subjects would only respect a strong leader; but he also needed to control their less conscious reactions and the human instincts buried deep in their primal minds. For maximum effect, he needed to be intimidating but gracious, demanding respect and fear but not hatred (once he left Soul Society, he could alter this tenet, but for now, while he was spending most of his time as a captain, he needed the arrancar to play nice in his absence), advertising his superiority in a way that was not so remote that his subjects thought they could sneak past his watchful gaze. He was deep in thought, and the only person permitted to accompany him was Gin, a fact he had made abundantly clear to his subjects. When the price of disobedience was painful punishment, they gladly left him alone.

Therefore, he was not expecting the door to creak open a mere thirty minutes after he sealed himself away, and the sight of his two self-proclaimed aids trying to sneak inside made his eyes narrow and his hand fall to the hilt of his sword. However, he was not rash. If he did not at least give them the opportunity to explain their actions before killing them, then he would be no better than the shinigami.

"Aivirrne-san, Mallia-san…what seems to be the problem?" He greeted them with a cool smile, out of place next to his messy brown hair and purposely endearing glasses (as of yet, it was necessary to maintain his shinigami appearance). The two women froze, expressions shifting between fear and satisfaction at seeing him standing in the middle of the room; more specifically, Loly lit up at his presence and Menoly hung back, eyeing him nervously.

"A-Aizen-sama…" both of them bowed deeply and knelt before him. One good thing about these two – they knew their place. That made it even stranger that they had disobeyed his orders not to disturb him, which lent credence to the possibility that they had something important to say. It would be foolish to punish them before listening to what it was.

"Is there something wrong?" Calm and sensible – the voice of someone they could trust…much like he would manipulate his lieutenant…

Loly looked up at him through her eye lashes, fearful but determined. "Grimmjow cannot be trusted, Aizen-sama."

Aizen did not show any surprise beyond a slightly raised eyebrow. Disputes between arrancar were a daily occurrence – though rarely did they bring their petty squabbles to him. "Has Jaegerjaquez -san wronged you in some way?"

"Not…exactly…" Her struggle to find the right words was obvious – arrancar were brutish, straight forward creatures (for the most part) without much of a capacity for hiding their emotions. Loly didn't even try. "The girl…Inoue…" The unfamiliar name was spat with a surprising amount of vitriol, even for Loly. "…He disobeyed you, and took her. He wanted to go after that orange-haired shinigami…"

"Kurosaki." Menoly piped up, shrinking back when Aizen's suddenly penetrating gaze pinned her. "I-I think his name was Kurosaki…that's what the girl said…"

Their master froze, barely breathing, and his expression blanked completely. No one knew about Ichigo Kurosaki – he had taken great care to conceal that little project from shinigami and arrancar alike. In fact, it could prove disastrous to his plans if anyone figured out his plans for the boy before the first phase came to fruition. The two informers fell silent as his reiatsu slowly rose in response to their words and he looked at them with cold eyes, searching for the slightest hint of blackmail or deception. There was none – only the loyalty and fear they always held.

He relaxed and sat on his throne, reclining regally as he restrained his reiatsu. "Please, continue."

Aizen listened patiently, more curious the longer they struggled to put their memories into words, and put up a vaguely interested front while his subjects knelt on the cold stone floor, held in place more by their own fear and intimidation than their master's expectations. The story emerged in fits and starts as the two of them decided that his restraint meant they were not going to be punished for their presumptuous behavior, and their confidence grew. While his physical expression never changed, Aizen's mind was working furiously to process the information as it emerged.

The mention of Ichigo Kurosaki was not a fluke but neither was it an important part of their story. In between bouts of shameless self-promotion (about how loyal, hardworking, and intelligent the two female arrancar were in their support of Aizen) and their bitter accusations against Jaegerjaquez and a female human, pieces of useful and worrying information slipped through.

…He learned that the two arrancar accepted this information as fact, as memories, even though they were currently reliving it.

…He learned about Orihime Inoue, a human girl whose power was so great that he had stolen her from the human world and accepted her as a member of his army.

…He learned that a band of humans and shinigami were deployed to rescue her – though, unfortunately, the only individual Loly and Menoly remembered was Kurosaki, and they only knew him by his last name.

…He learned that Jaegerjaquez was the sexta espada in their memories and he had an intense problem with authority – though it seemed he reserved his most traitorous deeds for when they were least damaging to Aizen.

…He learned that the final ranks of his espada included eight arrancar already in his forces; though currently in different positions; and two that were not.

…He learned that he took his most powerful espada to the Living World and that the chain of command broke down in his absence, as shinigami destroyed the inferior remnants left behind.

…And he learned that Loly and Menoly had been aware of this information for a long time and that they were not the only ones.

When their recount finally ended and they lapsed into anticipatory silence, Aizen finally stirred.

"I see. You have done well to bring me this information." Both of them sat a little taller, preening at the praise. "Is that all that you know? Even the most minor details? And have you any evidence that this is anything other than dreams?"

Menoly bit her lip before hesitantly speaking. She was the more timid of the two and deferred to Loly whenever possible, but she knew her responsibilities towards her master. "We tried to find anyone else who remembered but after Gantenbainne..."

Gantenbainne Mosqueda– the previous septima espada, then privaron espada, most well-known for his giant orange afro. Almost four years ago, the privaron had led a rebellion in an attempt to escape serving in the arrancar army, apparently without provocation. Obviously, such disloyalty could not be tolerated and Gantenbainne was killed along with his followers in a public execution performed by Gin. At the time, Aizen had wondered why so many low-ranked arrancar (almost two score, all gleaned from the ranks of numeros and privaron) were willing to band together to do something so stupid. Now, he wondered how many of them had known what Loly and Menoly did – and just what had happened to destroy their faith in him so completely.

"But we aren't like that, Aizen-sama! We're loyal!" Loly sent a furious warning glare at her companion as she frantically tried to pacify him, apparently taking his silence as an accusation.

"Of course not." He smiled and stood, walking forward until he was right in front of them. "Does Jaegerjaquez-san remember?"

"No." Loly shook her head forcefully, definite. "He didn't react when he saw us."

"And you truly have no other information?"

"That's everything, Aizen-sama." She was looking up at him intently, pure worship in her eyes, and Menoly nodded in agreement, less dedicated but just as trusting.

"Very well. You have been loyal and faithful subjects, and I thank you for your information and your service."

The illusion of his smile shattered as his zanpakuto stabbed Loly through the chest from three feet to the left, apparently out of thin air. Before she could even scream, it whipped sideways and up through her body in a spray of blood that splashed all over her partner… right before the swing ended by decapitating Menoly where she still knelt dumbly in shock. Her head hit the floor with a dull *thunk* and her body followed a second later.

Aizen rid his sword of blood with a practiced flick and sheathed it, paying no more mind to the dead arrancar as their blank eyes stared at him in frozen expressions of horrified confusion and betrayal and their bodies slowly dissolved. They were weak and unnecessary, and their knowledge of sensitive information made them more of a liability than a benefit.

"Boss?" Gin, silent and forgotten until now, stepped forth from the shadows where he'd been leaning.

"It is imperative that no one know of Ichigo Kurosaki until I have claimed the Hogyoku. Find anyone they, or Gantenbainne, spoke to on the matter and kill them. If any other arrancar independently remember, bring them to me. Discretely."


The silver-haired shinigami left, casually stepping over the remains of the arrancar on his way to the door, and Aizen turned his attention towards the information.

Checking his surveillance feed on Kurosaki was a top concern, and so was the girl they had spoken about with such hatred. He doubted Orihime Inoue was that remarkable; Loly's words and tone indicated more of a personal grudge than a reasonable fear; but it could not hurt to be careful. Besides, he did not yet know why or how the two arrancar knew such things, and it seemed the human might be a key pawn in figuring that out.

Another matter which required attention was his espada; of the ten names Loly listed as most powerful, he was acquainted with all save two: Tier Harribel and Coyote Starrk.

The female's name was familiar and ever since he'd observed her back-talking to Barragan before the creation of the very first arrancar, he'd planned to recruit her. However, he remembered how badly she'd reacted to previous 'god king' and knew he needed to be cautious in his attempt if he did not want to alienate her for good.

The male, however, he had never heard of.

Perhaps it was time to extend the scope of the recruitment drives…

Deep in the bowels of Soul Society, within a division that most shinigami preferred to pretend did not exist, a huge room full of panel upon panel of small blinking green lights hummed steadily, the only sound the motors of the computers as they processed data.

Then one of the machines registered a blip.

It was not a very big blip, from an outside perspective, just a small bump in the long, straight line measuring the amount of reiatsu in the living world.

It was enough.

One of the green lights flicked to red and an alarm sounded – a continuous loud beeping, jarring against the previous silence.

"Yeah, yeah…" a shinigami staggered through the doorway, yawning widely as he finger-combed sleep-mussed hair and wiped sleep from his eyes. He took his time walking over to the machine and squinting at the label next to the red light.

"Karakura Town…huh…"

"Problem, Kenji?" a female voice called through the door.

"…Nah." Kenji shrugged and turned off the alarm, returning the room to peaceful green and quiet. "The detector registered a surge in reiatsu, but it's right by Karakura Town – that place is always having problems. I think there's something wrong with the sensors… there's no way a cero was fired in the middle of a city and nobody heard about it…"

"Should we tell the captain?" A woman appeared in the doorway, fussing worriedly at the twelfth division badge affixed to her shoulder. Magnified behind coke bottle glasses, her eyes looked huge and mouse-like as they registered fear at the very thought of Kurotsuchi Mayuri.

"Nah." Kenji yawned and stretched. "I'll report it to the lieutenant tomorrow and she'll tell one of the other captains to send someone. Mayuri-taicho doesn't like to be disturbed by such insignificant things. I think it's Ukitake-taicho's turn to send someone to investigate…"

"Oh. I see…"

"Relax, rookie. It's nothing to worry about. The same sensor's gone off a bunch of times in the last decade and we've never found anything."

Three days later, in a deserted back ally at the very edge of Karakura Town, a bright white light appeared as if from nowhere, and resolved into the form of twin sliding doors – a shoji. They slid open silently, without prompting, and a small black insect flew slowly out of the opening, preceding the black-clad form of a shinigami.

She looked up at the sky, barely illuminated by a waning crescent moon, and the walls of the surrounding buildings, and then jumped onto the nearest, tallest roof to stare over the city. Standing rigidly at the peak, she looked down over the dark, silent town with an intent expression, violet eyes flicking left and right as she scanned for spiritual activity and anything amiss. The wind ruffled through her shoulder-length black hair and fluttered her loose black hakama, but she took no notice.

With a final determined nod, Rukia Kuchiki leapt from the rooftop to a telephone pole and vanished into shunpo.

Behind her, the senkaimon closed silently and vanished, leaving no sign of her passing.

Author's Notes:

Say 'hi' to a whole bunch of new characters, folks! Some we will be seeing again soon, others…well. I hope nobody was overly fond of Loly and Menoly.

(FYI: we are currently 5-6 months before the start of the Bleach anime timeline)

I think this chapter is the longest one I've ever written for a chaptered story…and I'm not sure if that's a good or bad thing. Still, it's been a while, so maybe the extra scenes will make up for lost time. (If you'd like an explanation for the delay, please refer to my profile. The basic summary is: lack of confidence, mean people, and a need for enhanced plot structure.)

This chapter had a lot of elements to it, and as such, I have a lot of comments and reactions. So many, that I didn't want to elaborate on them in separate paragraphs (the author's note is long enough as it is), so I condensed them into a (relatively sequential) list:

-In my opinion, there isn't nearly enough Starrk in this chapter.
-Descriptions on the shinigamification room brought to you by Wonderweiss' transformation!
-Christ, most arrancar names are absolutely ridiculous to spell.
-'White Whale' and 'the carrot rather than the stick' are references; the former to 'Moby Dick', the latter to…I honestly don't know because it's been used in so many things, but it refers to using a reward (the carrot) or a punishment (the stick) to motivate someone.
- I wonder about Grimmjow's pack sometimes...how would he have acted towards Ichigo if they had survived? Would he have been so hell bent on murder if he had a moderating influence at his back?
-I will admit, the bit with Starrk's lair was kind of self-indulgent. However, it was also necessary for later pars of the chapter and this seemed like the least jarring place to insert it.
-I was surprised to remember that Ichigo honestly wanted absolutely nothing to do with ghosts at the beginning of the series - Rukia had to force him to take up her duties after she was confined to a gigai. Normally, I would take up arms against the shinigami organization at this point (stabbing a fifteen year old human in the chest, when you didn't even try to go into shikai? Forcing him to perform a duty that he should not, by any rights, be able to perform?) but I think it was more of a sloppy plot hole than anything else.
-Yes, Grimmjow has a problem with swearing. I'm honestly not sure if this is fanon or canon by this point, but it's so ingrained that I figured I'd include it.
-Loly's so arrogant that she really would think she was important enough to remember, wouldn't she? However, to Grimmjow, she's insignificant and forgettable. If prompted, he might remember her. Maybe.
-I don't like Love very much...the way he treated Starrk during their battle was beyond the pale; taunting someone about their comrade's death just to be cruel really rubs me the wrong way.
-Yes, that execution that Starrk, Harribel, and Jushiro watched was the elimination of Gantenbainne's rebellion. Poor orange-afro-guy...

And that's it! For now.

See ya next time!

PS: please don't think I've forgotten you if you haven't gotten a review response yet; I haven't had a chance to even log onto ffnet in a while, so I haven't been reading or responding to anything. I'm planning to answer most of them tomorrow, but I might be able to get a few out tonight. Each and every one of you is awesome for reviewing, and I will respond to everything in my inbox as soon as I can. (Except Souls Without stuff, but that's because it will accompany the next chapter of that fic.)

Please Review & let me know what you think!

Reviews are a great source of encouragement and inspiration so more reviews = more (& faster) updates (longer ones too, apparently).

And a big 'Thank You' to those of you who reviewed last chapter! Isame Kuroda, CelestialxXxAngel, mist shadow, FatesShadow83, Jarjaxle, MerryKitten, Waywardneko, Antex-The Legendary Zoroark, six samurai of dragon order, 10th Squad 3rd Seat, Scarease, Guest, VoidDrag, Elise, Illuviar, lilyoftheval5, Nonnie, ThatOneFan, alicat54, herp, Santara55, tryal-leaf, ResolutionFlames, lilyrose225, MeLikesROFL, xXxWolvesInTheNightxXx, anon, dragon77888, Annie Camp aka Obi-quiet, Greatazuredragon, Aria6, LiteSadistofElements, and sing-to-the-moon; You guys are awesome!

Currently Relevant Time Line Information:

-Surprisingly, Loly and Menoly both survived the attack on Hueco Mundo. At least, according to recently ret-conned information.
-There is no record of when Grimmjow was recruited by Aizen, but considering his attitude and the fact that he has not been either beaten into submission or killed by Aizen for insubordination by the time of the series, leads me to believe he wasn't in the army for very long.
-Grimmjow's pack was killed during his first major incursion on Karakura Town when they came up against Toshiro's group, Ichigo's friends, and Urahara's team
-Gantenbainne survived the attack on Hueco Mundo because he displayed honor in his confrontations with Unohana and Chad.
-Sora Inoue died when Orihime was twelve years old, three years before Bleach starts
-The first time Aizen saw Harribel, she was standing up to Barragan as he tried to force her to work for him. This was a scene in the anime, but was not included in the manga. The first time Harribel saw Aizen, Hammerhead was about to kill her and Aizen saved her life and tricked her into believing he was (a) her best option for survival and (b) a man worthy of her loyalty.

In order to make the 'Five Years' timeline work, I will be taking creative liberty with some info and making assumptions about certain events (that Kubo never clarified, one way or the other), so please don't nitpick at me. All canon timeline information and dates are taken from the Bleach wiki – BEFORE the advent of the current arc (Quincy War/Blood War/Thousand Year War/ Whatever the hell it's being called now).