Shunsui frowned as he walked towards one particular room in his Division.

His life was very busy at the moment. Tosen had briefed all them on the dragon's story. The identity of the enemy was still unknown, but Szayel was gathering samples of all kinds of powers for Vandular to evaluate. Given that he'd detected the same power in Hisagi when no one else could, they were confident they would know the truth soon. But for now it was his duty to get his Division in order and also absorb a good portion of the former Eleventh. That was not going entirely smoothly and there was so much work. Shunsui sighed, fishing out his sake bottle and taking only a tiny sip. Cirucci had threatened to force him to stop drinking on the job entirely if he wasn't more careful. His performance reflected on her, as his Mistress.

Now, just to make his day even better, Barragan had come to see him. He couldn't imagine what the Segunda Espada wanted with him and wasn't sure he wanted to know. With Soi Fon under his control, the old monster was fearsome. He hadn't done anything wrong but Kyoraku knew that wasn't always a protection from the Onmitsukido.

When he arrived in the visitor room he was slightly surprised to see that Barragan was alone. The old hollow was regarding the sliced fruit tray on the table with mild curiosity. Someone had taken the trouble to arrange everything in an intricate, flowing pattern.

"It is almost too pretty to eat." Barragan said as Shunsui seated himself on the cushion across from him. The hollow picked out a slice of strawberry, turning it over in his fingers. "But if we do not it will just rot, as everything does." He said before popping the fruit in his mouth and Shunsui nodded.

"True enough, but I doubt you came here to speak to me about philosophy. I fear I'm not very good at it." He said with a charming smile. That was certainly true, philosophy had been more Juushiro's thing. Kyoraku felt a moment of pain at the memory of his fellow taichou, but pushed it aside. He needed all his wits to spar with Barragan. "What can I do for you?" The Espada swallowed the strawberry before answering.

"It is more what I can do for you." He replied and Shunsui frowned, wondering what the arrancar meant. "You have heard of my student, I am sure?"

"Of course." He said, slightly surprised. Everyone knew a powerful hollow had been broken recently, although only the taichou and Espada knew the truth of the circumstances surrounding it. Given what had happened with Hisagi, they had to assume there might be spies in their ranks. Unwilling, unwitting spies to boot, which made the Onmitsukido's job more difficult.

"We are pushing him hard. He will have his Segunda Etapa soon." Barragan said and Kyoraku nodded, taking his word for it. He wondered what this had to do with him but kept any impatience to himself. The elderly hollow clearly had something in mind and would get there eventually. "As it stands now, he will be ranked as the Primera."

"He isn't as strong as Yammy?" Shunsui asked idly, still not seeing what this had to do with him. The smile Barragan gave him, though, was predatory.

"He is stronger. Believe me, I have seen him do his worst." He said and Kyoraku blinked. "But he is also modest and not inclined to displays of dominance. Aside from some youthful enthusiasm and the necessary battles for territory, he rarely engages in combat. When he kills, he kills to feed, not for pleasure or the joy of battle. And he kills cleanly, refusing to play with his prey. I have only seen cruelty from him a few times, and in every case there was great provocation."

"I… see. That sounds admirable." He said. For a hollow, it did sound almost virtuous. "But why wouldn't Tosen put him above Yammy?" If Vandular was clearly more powerful… but Barragan snorted.

"Yammy is a thick headed idiot. If Tosen made that announcement he would challenge Vandular and force the dragon to slay him." He said and Shunsui frowned. Barragan sounded quite certain that that would be the outcome. "So Tosen will put him as the Primera. Starrk will not care, so no one beneath will dare protest. Vandular will accept it and hide his true power, as is his way. Unless he is given a reason to do otherwise." Barragan paused and Shunsui leaned forward, resting a hand on the table. He suddenly saw where the hollow was going with this.

"What kind of reason might convince him?" He asked. The thought of Yammy dying was incredibly attractive. No matter who Aizen put over him, it would have to be better than the Espada of Rage. Likely Nanao would be given to this dragon but from Barragan's description that would be a huge step upwards. And Barragan's stake in this was clear. The Segunda Espada utterly detested Yammy's brand of idiocy. "And why have you not approached him?" That was an interesting question. From all accounts, Barragan and Vandular were old friends. The Espada made a small expression of distaste.

"If I were to do so, he would tell me to do my own dirty work." He said and Shunsui nodded. That sounded right for the brief description he'd received of the hollow in question. "However, you could give him the incentive… a truly passionate, heartfelt plea for his aid." Barragan sounded amused and Shunsui bit his lip. He could humble himself and would, for his Nanao-chan. "Or your fukutaichou could, if she could get away from Yammy. That would be even more effective. Vandular has a great weakness for women in need."

"A sucker for damsels in distress?" He murmured but shook his head. "No, I will have to do it." Nanao was confined to the estates now. Yammy wasn't even letting her go to the Shinigami Women's Association meetings. Cirucci had offered to fill in for her but she'd declined. "Thank you Barragan-sama. I appreciate the information." He said, truly meaning it. The elderly Espada chuckled before taking a final piece of fruit and standing.

"Then I bid you good day." He said before picking up his axe. Without any fraccion to bring the rack, he'd kept it by his side. The ancient hollow slung it over his back before leaving and Kyoraku noticed how big and awkward that weapon truly was. Even Zaraki's sword had been easier… but that wasn't his concern. What he needed to think about was how to approach this dragon. Perhaps after a training session. Barragan and his fraccion had taken over the old training grounds of the Eleventh. The kido wards there had been designed with Kenpachi in mind and they did a reasonable job of containing an Espada in full release. They'd come close to breaking on Barragan's second release, but they had held. Shunsui suddenly frowned. If Vandular was stronger than Yammy, would the wards survive his Segunda Etapa?

They would just have to see.

"God dammit Yachiru we are really late!" Grimmjow snarled as he sprinted through the streets, the pink haired shinigami hanging off his shoulder.

"You should have listened to me! I told you to go the other way!" She said and he was honestly tempted to tear her head off. Not that he'd ever do it, of course, but it was an awfully tempting thought.

"I went the way you said! That's the mistake I made!" He snarled back. Grimmjow had a feeling he knew now why Ken-chan had always been lost. If this was the person he usually took directions from, it was a miracle he hadn't ended up on the ocean floor. Yachiru laughed, enjoying the speed.

Technically, they weren't late yet. But they would be if he couldn't find his way. Grimmjow swore as he dodged around a group of shinigami wearing the insignia for the Sixth Division. But then Yachiru yanked on his hair.

"STOP!" She yelled and he did, shocked. "Weirdo! It's you! You're okay!" She was waving frantically and Grimmjow looked over, annoyed but curious about what had grabbed her attention. It was a very pretty man wearing… feathers by his eyes?

"Yachiru? You're alive!" He sounded overjoyed and Grimmjow grimaced as Yachiru laughed. "After what happened to Kenpachi I thought… but you're here!"

"I've been staying with Bya-kun and Grimm-chan!" She chirped. "Where's the cue ball?" She asked and he looked down, sadness passing over his face.

"Ikkaku died in the battle." He said sadly and Yachiru also looked sad. Grimmjow really wished he could let them catch up but time was passing.

"Look, this is great and all but we are REALLY late! He's in Byakuya's Division, catch up later." He said rudely and the shinigami frowned at him. But then he got an idea. "HEY! Catch up while we run! Do you know the way to the Academy? I listened to pinky here and I have no idea where the hell I am." He said and the stranger smiled slightly.

"Kenpachi often had that problem. Follow me." He said and they began to run. "I'm Yumichika, by the way."

"Glad to meet ya." Grimmjow said, which was actually true. He was glad to meet anyone who could get him out of this jam.

"What's been happening? I heard the Shinigami Women's Society had restarted but I thought Soi-fon was probably running it." Yumichika said and Yachiru began catching him up on the news as they ran. Grimmjow ignored it, focusing on where he was going. If he could see something he recognized…

"Shit yes!" He knew this street. "You might want to move away, shinigami! And hold on tight Yachiru!" He drew his sword with a tight, feral grin. "Grind Pantera!" Power surrounded him and his speed suddenly increased. Gripping the ground with padded feet, he used the energy to launch himself into an all-out sprint.

The gates to the academy were closed but he didn't let that slow him down for a moment. Instead of waiting for them to open, he launched himself into a flying leap. He cleared the gate easily and then he skidded to a halt in the courtyard, vaguely aware that everyone was staring at him.

"Fuck yeah! I made it!" Right on time from the look of the assembled graduates. Yachiru cheered from his shoulder.

"That was great! Even Ken-chan couldn't jump like that!" She said and Grimmjow grinned as he sealed up his zanpakuto, shoving the blade back into his sash. Then he adjusted the fabric before taking his place in the line of instructors, as if he was completely unaware of the stares and whispers. His entrance had been dramatic, no doubt about it. The headmaster of the academy cleared his throat and began to speak. "I think we should recruit that one, he looks strong!" She pointed at the Ryo kid, who gave them a petrified look. Grimmjow laughed.

"I'm not Ken-chan, remember? I'm not recruiting. Maybe we could mention him to Bya-kun though, right?" Yachiru nodded with a bright smile. "Hey, want some pocky?" His hakama had pockets and he'd taken to bringing sweet s around for her. Yachiru could get a bit cranky when she didn't have her sweets.

"Oh please!" Grimmjow grinned as he handed her a box of pocky. She immediately broke into it and started snacking on the chocolate covered sticks, which had the benefit of keeping her quiet during the speeches. Each of the new shinigami were called up individually, receiving the badges for their new units. He was amused to note that Ryo was going to be in the Sixth. He really would have to mention the kid to Byakuya, that one might go far.

When the ceremonies were over he got to congratulate the kids. That was a lot of fun and he enjoyed it. He vaguely wondered if Tosen would get him to train the next years' class and decided he likely would. Why mess with something that was working?

"Hey Grimm-chan, why don't we go for lunch and you can train me some more?" Yachiru asked and Grimmjow frowned, checking the time.

"After we go back home and feed the kids." Ichigo was doing a great job at his infusions now and actually showing some promise with healing kido. But he was still needed for Hisana, unless Byakuya was home. And this was completely the wrong time of day for him to be at the manor. "And we should see if Ichigo and Rukia want to come." The great thing about having helpers was the ability to leave his kids with them when he wanted to do something. And Chiyo and Miyaki had been with the kids practically from birth, Tigre and Hisana were completely happy with them.

"Oh yes, we should ask! Let's go!" Yachiru pointed in completely the wrong direction. "That way!" Grimmjow laughed and ignored her, heading back towards the Kuchiki manor. He knew the way even if she didn't. And today, he'd learned a very important lesson.

Don't ask Yachiru for directions.

Booted feet crunched on the sands as the owner walked slowly through the endless twilight.

He was not happy with how things were going. The worst part of it was, there was really no one to blame except himself. Or perhaps, just circumstances and fate.

His plans had started to go wrong with Ichigo. He'd counted on the boy disposing of Aizen for him. He'd even given him a bit of his power, in the form of 'Zangetsu'. Ichigo still didn't realize that his so-called zanpakuto was Quincy power, but it really didn't matter. Somehow, that wretched half-hollow zanpakuto had locked him out of Ichigo's mind. He'd thought it didn't matter. All their prognostications had said that Ichigo would prevail.

But random chance had intervened. Orihime had begged Ulquiorra to spare her best friend and in a moment of absurd weakness, he had humored the girl. He didn't know that in doing so he had saved his own life and assured Aizen's victory. The events they had foretold, the death of Ulquiorra and everything that had followed, simply hadn't happened. He'd put several of the seers to death for their mistake, but foretelling the future was always a chancy business. They had been so certain, though.

Pausing, he looked at the tattered stone and the massive craters that littered this side of Hueco Mundo. That had been his next mistake. But how was he to know that the true power of Hueco Mundo, a force comparable to his own, lived in a cave without nothing but a woman and a small child?

Grimacing, he acknowledged that he should have anticipated the differences between Hueco Mundo and the other realms. He'd been sure, though, that Barragan would have been the strongest of the Vasto Lorde. True, Starrk was stronger but he was quite lazy. And Yammy Llargo was a freak, an adjuchas before his mask was broken. So he'd thought that the vasto lorde living in these mountains must be lower than Barragan in strength.

But he'd been wrong. Apparently, the true power of Hueco Mundo did not sit on a throne. No, it lived in a well-carved cave, leading an almost monk-like existence. A peaceful one, too, before his men had rashly disturbed the slumbering monster. Fortunately he had defeated the thing, but they had lost Bambietta in the process.

Her death was a blow, but not a terrible one. He had many soldiers of her calibre. The manner of her death, however, had been terrifying. Somehow the hollow had subverted her Vollstandig. Given that that was the Quincy's ultimate weapon it was imperative that they understand what had happened. Unfortunately, it was not going well. He hoped that the power used had been peculiar to that one monster. If not, their conquest of Soul Society was going to be a nightmare.

It was already bad. They could take the shinigami bankai, but hollow powers were not similarly vulnerable. Their spies had reported that Barragan had achieved a second form, and there was some new hollow climbing the ranks. On top of that, he would eventually have to face Aizen. In many ways the old Soul King had been a much softer target. Complacent had been a good word for him. And the Gotei 13 had become weaker over the long peace. The Espada, on the other hand, were still lean and hungry. He rubbed his head, feeling a headache coming on. All of these hollows should have been dead, fallen at the hands of the Gotei 13. How had things gone so wrong?

Worst of all, he was on a timer. No one knew the truth of the prophecy but himself and a few other, selected minions. They were all grimly aware of how little time they truly had left.

After nine years and nine days, he will rule the world.

Or the power will fade.

He had less than a year left to take over Soul Society. If he did not do it by then, the power he had robbed from the impure Quincy would fade from him, leaving him with only his not-inconsiderable might. But he needed that extra power if he was to face Aizen. He had the hogyoku at his disposal as well as the power of the throne. When it came to self-defense, the throne was not really that special – it hadn't done the previous Soul King much good – but the hogyoku was fearsome.

With all that in mind, Yhwach began to walk back to his camp. They would have to step up their recruitment efforts. It was unfortunate that even a blind bat could have felt his fight with that hollow. The vasto lorde seemed to have fled in terror. No surprise, really.

There couldn't be two creatures of such power in all of Hueco Mundo.

"…And join the Shinigami Men's Association!" Iba stabbed his finger in the air, finishing his spirited harangue. And then he noticed that no one was listening. "…" A tumbleweed drifted past, with a perfect sense of timing. And he sat down on the steps behind him and began to quietly sob.

"Are you well?" A quiet voice asked and he looked up to see a stranger kneeling beside him. Warm brown eyes looked at him with concern. The other man was wearing brown pants and a brown vest, with a white bandanna around his forehead. There were curling horns peeking out above it, an interesting oddity. But Iba was really in no condition to notice such things.

"Everything is terrible! Just terrible!" The stranger looked mildly alarmed as the shinigami grabbed his sleeve and began to sob into the fabric. "All my friends… the way of man is almost dead! Jushiro, Kira, Shuhei… all my friends, lost! Even my taichou! And no one is interested in taking up the way of man!" He sobbed again and the stranger patted his shoulder gingerly. Then he blinked.

"Wait, did you say Shuhei? As in Hisagi Shuhei?" He asked and Iba looked up, surprised. "He's alive. He's staying with Barragan at the moment."

"Barragan?!" That was not welcome news. "Oh no! What have they done to him? He's in the hands of the Onmitsukido!" That could be a fate even worse than death. But the stranger hastened to reassure him.

"He's fine! I mean he has a room at the manor. He's been assigned to one of the arrancar as a fraccion." He said reassuringly but unfortunately it didn't work at all. Iba was quickly heading towards hysterical.

"No! My poor friend, forced to sleep with an arrancar woman! …Although I don't know why they left me out… but Hisagi!" He said and the stranger blinked.

"Um, the arrancar is a male actually – " He started before getting interrupted.

"Oh no! Even worse! Barragan is… my poor friend! The things he will have to endure, in the hands of those arrancar!" Iba burst into tears and the stranger grimaced before reaching up to pinch the bridge of his nose.

"This is starting to get offensive." He muttered but Iba didn't hear, too locked up in his own misery. "I thought you said you into the 'way of man'? I can't imagine so much crying is involved." He said, clearly starting to lose sympathy with his chance met companion. "Ah, why don't I bring you to him? You can talk to him, see what's been happening." He glanced up at the sun. "It's about time I got back anyway, for my evening torture session." Iba looked confused as he cracked his neck. "Practice I mean, practice."

"Oh. Yes please! Take me to him! I must see what this arrancar has done to him." He said and the stranger huffed a laugh before standing. "Oh, I am sorry. I am Iba Tetsuzaemon."

"I am Vandular Sturmdraggan. But you can call me Van." He introduced himself, then hesitated. "Ah, do I call you Iba or Tetsu… Tetsuzaemon?" He managed to say the name with only minimal mispronunciation. The shinigami laughed.

"Iba is fine! You know, your name almost sounds like an arrancar's!" Iba said cheerfully, oblivious to Van's mental sweatdrop. "But you are far too nice to be one!"

"Uh… thank you?" Vandular honestly wasn't sure what to say to that. Fortunately he was spared from trying to explain by their arrival at the Shihoin manor. They had estates outside the city, but the true seat of the Shihoin family was within the Seireitei. It made it easier to spy on everyone else. It wasn't hard to find Shuhei at all, with the collar to lead him. He was just hanging around the practice grounds, probably waiting for Van and the others.

"SHUHEI!" He was absolutely shocked, though, as he got hugged very roughly by an overenthusiastic Iba. "You're alive! You're really alive! I can't believe it, I was sure you were dead…" Then Hisagi laughed and hugged his friend back.

"Iba! I'm sorry, I've been meaning to look you up. But it's been hard to get away." He said as Van just watched with a small smile. "How did you find out I was here?" He asked, a bit confused. Iba pointed to his brand new friend.

"He told me!" Shuhei followed his gesture and stared for a moment before swallowing. Iba was completely oblivious to how taken aback his friend was. "We need to restart the Shinigami Men's Association! We can start with the three of us! Will you join? You would be a perfect devotee to the way of man!" He said to Van, who blinked.

"Unh… would that be appropriate – hey!" He stared as the shinigami threw an arm over his shoulders. He just barely missed hitting the little wings.

"Of course! Why wouldn't it?" He asked and Vandular could think of several reasons offhand. He went with the first one.

"Well, I'm not a shinigami?" He said and Iba hesitated a moment.

"Oh, you're a civilian?" He hazarded and Vandular stared as Shuhei choked a little. "Well, not to worry! You can still participate. Right Shuhei? …Shuhei?" Hisagi was starting to see the hilarity in this and was making a small choking sound.

"He… he really doesn't…?" He said breathlessly as Van grimaced and squirmed, trying to get free.

"Apparently not. I'm guessing he's taken plenty of blows to the head over the years." He said sourly and Iba let go of him, slightly offended. Then he noticed the wings.

"Oh… that's strange. What are you?" He asked, confused. "I thought he horns were like Akon's…?" It had taken a while but Iba was starting to realize there was more to his companion than met the eye. Van sighed, rubbing his temple.

"I'm an arrancar." He said briefly as Iba goggled. "And I'm the one Shuhei is assigned to, so please stop casting aspersions on my sexual preferences." He said firmly and Shuhei choked again before laughing. Iba looked quite embarrassed but rallied manfully.

"But how can you be an arrancar? Those horns… mask fragments… but where is your hole?" He asked and Van stepped back with a scowl.

"None of your business!" He said sharply and the defensiveness of it caught Hisagi's attention. No one had seen Vandular's hollow hole yet. Was it somewhere embarrassing? That one hollow, Szayel, was reputed to have a hole in his penis or something. But then Iba seemed to think of something.

"It doesn't matter! The Shinigami Women's Association has Grimmjow! You can be our arrancar!" He said happily and Van had another mental sweatdrop moment. "It'll be great! We can have our first meeting next week in the men's urinals!"

"What? I… you… we have a whole house here…?" Van said, trying to keep up. Men's urinals? That made Iba clap his hands in delight.

"Will Barragan let us? That would be amazing! A real meeting place! Do you think he would?" He asked and Van scratched under his bandanna, glancing at Shuhei. The soul reaper just shrugged.

"I can't see why he would care." He said cautiously. Barragan liked to keep suspicious activities where he could see them. "But I don't think – " He started before getting interrupted again.

"Excellent! I'll check my schedule and let you know! Oh… I really have to get home, my mother is making chicken and dumplings! I'll come by tomorrow." He said with a wave before vanishing in a burst of shunpo. Vandular just stared after him and Hisagi grinned, slapping a hand down on his shoulder.

"Welcome to the Shinigami Men's Association!" He said cheerfully. Van hadn't really said yes to any of this, but he wasn't going to let him back out. They needed something to get themselves back on track and it was funny as heck, anyway.

He wanted to see where this would go.