Soi Fon stared at the paintings in Barragan's rooms, feeling more than a little awed.

They were finally done. The project he'd spent months on with the painters was complete. And it was marvelous and mysterious. A set of three paintings, they seemed to depict the life and death of a middle aged but powerful and handsome man. Soi Fon could easily recognize him from Barragan's released form.

The first panel showed the man on his throne. He wore a headdress of gold and feathers, his hands covered in heavy rings and his body painted in intricate patterns. The throne he sat on was carved stone, inlaid with hammered gold and precious stones. He overlooked a great throng of people with an indifferent expression on his face. Soi Fon could tell that he was at the height of his power, a great and mighty king.

The next panel showed the same man walking up the stairs of a great pyramid. There was an altar at the top, with a priest waiting. He was wearing an intricately woven robe and his face and body were heavily tattooed in patterns of mystical significance. He was holding an obsidian knife and speaking to the crowd beneath the pyramid. The king's face was caught and he showed no fear, only resolution and absolute certainty.

The next scene showed the king sitting on the bottom of the pyramid, his head in his hands in a gesture of despair. He wore nothing but a white loincloth, his gold and jewels lost and forgotten. There was a nearly rotted chain of fate on his chest and the hollow mask was just beginning to form. It was night in the jungle, and above him shone a crescent moon.

"Yes, that is how I became a hollow." She looked over her shoulder as Barragan entered the room. He paused to look at the paintings before making a small grunt. "For some reason, I wanted the reminder."

"What happened?" She asked softly. She had a very good idea just from the pictures but there was only so much three paintings could hold. Barragan gestured towards the dinner table and she nodded, taking her place. Supper tonight was chicken gizzards, hearts and livers, served with a delicious dipping sauce and rice. Barragan took a seat and sampled his saki before speaking again.

"When I was at the height of my power, a great and mighty king, the priests decreed that it was time for my nephew to succeed me." He said and Soi Fon felt deeply confused. Nephew? He read the confusion easily and laughed. "My people were matrilineal."

"Wait… you were ruled by women?" She said, stupefied. That made no sense. Barragan almost choked on his saki.

"Of course not! But we measured out line of descent through the women." He tried to explain but she still didn't understand. What he was saying was utterly foreign to Soul Society. "Our menfolk were often out raiding and bringing in prisoners, for the glory of the gods. So a man could not assume his woman would bear his seed. In fact, he often knew she did not if the timing was wrong." He explained as Soi Fon listened, fascinated. "So a man's line of descent was measured through his sister's spawn. After all, they would certainly carry his blood."

"I… see." If you were going to assume that women were inclined to be unfaithful, that did make some sense. Soi Fon was honest enough to admit that even in Soul Society, there would be some justification for that. "Is that why you were never interested in children?" This fascinating cultural oddity definitely might account for it. Yes, Barragan was gay but even gay men often had a desire for offspring. The old hollow nodded.

"That did have much to do with it." He allowed before continuing his story. "So I was called to the temple for the greatest of sacrifices… the death of a king." His tone was sardonic and Soi Fon swallowed, mildly shocked. "I had always known that day would come and considered it a great honor. I would go directly to the hands of the gods, their most faithful servant." She stared at him and he gave her a grim smile. "I believed, woman. I believed." He took a drink of his saki, then shrugged. "But the gods did not come for me. No shinigami came, either, which was a pity. Perhaps I would have accepted them as the messenger of the gods… but no, I rotted on those stone steps waiting for deities who never came. And when my faith gave out and despair took me, I became a hollow. And now I believe in nothing but what I can see." He rumbled and she nodded. It was a fascinating story and explained a bit about Barragan. "But enough of the past. We must plan our approach for tomorrow."

"Yes Barragan-sama. You have a plan?" She asked before taking a bit of the chicken and dipping it in the sauce. He nodded.

"It is difficult. To rouse his power so swiftly, I feel we must use a powerful emotion. So, I will inspire his rage." He said calmly but Soi Fon winced at the thought. Vandular was frightening in his first release. The command for it was terrifying as well, given what it implied. His second release with the power of rage behind it… "After that is done, you will have to calm him."

"I? How could I…?" She asked, surprised. She hardly knew Van at all really, although she was becoming acquainted with him. Barragan took a bit of the chicken before speaking again.

"It is his cultural background. Among my people women were nothing, the carriers of the bloodline at best." He explained and she nodded. "I have grown past that, probably because the circumstances of my death led me to doubt everything I once believed in. Van, however, died in a much different fashion. He still embraces the ways of his people and believes that women should be protected from all harm. He even has trouble bringing himself to feed on a female." Barragan sounded mystified by that particular problem. "If he is given a choice between a male and a female, he will always slay the male and let the female run free. I cannot say I understand it but we can use it. I will enrage him and when that is done you will need to intervene and catch his attention. Hopefully, he will hesitate long enough to regain his senses." He said and Soi Fon noted the word 'hopefully'. She didn't like that word when applied to her own hide and pointy objects. However, Barragan would be taking a huge risk as well. And it wasn't like she could stop him.

"Yes Barragan-sama. I will follow your instructions." She said obediently and he nodded. They finished the meal at a leisurely pace, discussing a few minor matters. Then she was free to depart to her own rooms. Barragan clearly intended to enjoy his fraccion tonight, a reminder that the whole business of procreating was almost as distasteful for him as it was for her. Soi Fon sighed to herself.

Neither of them had a choice, really. Aizen's word was law.

Shunsui was walking towards the grounds of the former Eleventh when it happened.

'It' was a tidal wave of reiatsu the likes of which he had not felt since the late, much lamented Soutaichou had left this world. Fortunately for all the shinigami in the area, the vast majority of it went straight up. Unfortunately for everyone, that wave of black and gold reiatsu hit the heavens and spread out, plunging them into darkness. For a brief moment the black looked like a blot of ink. But then clouds boiled across the sky and thunder rolled. Kyoraku swallowed as he gazed up at that churning mass, seeing the lightning bolts flashing within the clouds. The wind began to rise and he gripped his hat as his kimono went flying.

There was suddenly a flash of light and he had to shield his eyes as a lightning bolt hit the practice grounds. Then, suddenly, it was over. The reiatsu abruptly lowered and the clouds began to disperse. Shunsui hesitated before continuing. That burst of power had raised his hopes. Perhaps Barragan was right and this dragon could defeat Yammy.

He stepped into the practice ground in time to see everyone sorting themselves out. Barragan was in his second release and looking quite battered. Half the feathers in his headdress had been yanked out and there were nasty electrical burns on his skin. Van had his hands on his old friend and was imparting healing, helping him recover from the attack. The fraccion were on the sidelines, unconscious. They had been within the wards and the released reiatsu had flattened them before it had broken free and gone upwards. Shuuhei was also on the ground, injured and in pain but clearly not about to expire. The only one relatively unhurt was Soi Fon. She was a bit battered around the edges but still a going concern. After glancing them all over Shunsui turned his attention on the dragon's second release.

It was worth a second look. Instead of tiny little things, his wings had taken their full size. But they were no longer covered in bone. Instead, they were a molten bronze that seemed to glisten under the bright sunlight. His feet were lizard like and a long, whip like tail lashed behind him, aiding in balance. He wore only a tattered black loincloth and his skin was milky pale, decorated with intricate tattoos. His body was beautifully muscled, lean and strong. The truly unusual thing about him was his mask. It reminded Kyoraku strongly of Ichigo and the Visored. It was a white bone mask with curling horns and jagged black lines on the right hand side. The eyes that glittered from the mask were a shockingly familiar black and gold and Shunsui wondered what that meant. The dragon's hollow hole was in his chest now, surrounded by black lines. He vaguely wondered where it had been before. The man favored vests, from what he had heard, so it certainly wasn't there.

"You love to live dangerously, don't you?" He heard Vandular say in an annoyed tone as he stopped to watch. Barragan grunted as the dragon continued. "You know, there are less painful ways to commit suicide than enraging me. Like, oh, running yourself through a wood chipper."

"Tch. It worked, you have your second form. Shouldn't you be thanking me?" Barragan asked and black and gold eyes narrowed dangerously for a moment before the hollow laughed.

"Thank you and I'm sorry I didn't kill you when I could." Vandular said, but in a whimsical sort of tone. Barragan just huffed before standing and cracking his neck. Then he reached up, to Shunsui's surprise, and pushed his mask aside. The face revealed was identical to his sealed form, aside from the eyes. "Hisagi? Do you need healing?"

"…Yeah. Think my arm is broken." He said with gritted teeth and Van knelt down beside him, resting his hands carefully on the shinigami before imparting healing. Kyoraku noted that those hands were more animal than human and clawed with absolutely wicked looking, curving black talons.

"Your arm is definitely broken. I'll set it with my power but a real splint and wrapping would be preferable." The hollow said after a few moments of introspection and Shunsui suddenly frowned. He knew the arrancar had medics but he'd never seen one healing before. Trying to maintain his distance, he watched carefully as Vandular did his work. "There. I've numbed it too, and given a healing infusion, but go see a proper healer as soon as you can."

"You are a proper healer. You simply lack your usual materials." Barragan said and Hisagi gave Van a questioning glance. The ancient hollow sighed and rubbed his forehead.

"Can't I keep any secrets? Ah, fine, I'm an excellent healer. But I still don't have anything for a splint and I think this man would like my attention." He nodded towards Shunsui, who winced to himself but nodded. He certainly would appreciate a moment of the arrancar's time.

As Vandular stood there was a puff of black mist around him. His body shifted, turning into something covered in white bone. Kyoraku didn't have a chance to examine it before he lapsed back into his sealed form and sheathed his two swords. They were very simple things, he noted, almost large daggers. They fit neatly into leather sheaths. The hilts were quite different from a shinigami's weapons, wood wrapped with leather.

"Is there something I can do for you?" The arrancar asked him and Shunsui nodded. This was going to be difficult but he would do it for his Nanao-chan.

"Please. But perhaps in a more private location?" He said, glancing towards Barragan's fraccion. They were recovering, as was obvious from the complaints. Vandular glanced at them, amused, and nodded.

"This way." He led them off to a small sitting room. A servant quickly attended to the arrancar and he ordered tea for them both, but specified that he would like butter in his. Shunsui didn't comment but he thought the request was very odd. Vandular must have caught that in his expression because he smiled. "My people had a tea we made that way, although I think the plant we used was very different. It was actually a root." He explained and Kyoraku wondered what it would have tasted like. "Please, have a seat." He gestured towards the cushions. Shunsui took a seat before removing his hat and giving the arrancar a very serious look.

"I am Kyoraku Shunsui, taichou of the 1st Division." He said with gravity and the arrancar nodded as the servant delivered their tea. He waited until she was gone before speaking again. "My mansion and fukutaichou, Ise Nanao, have been given to Yammy Llargo, the Cero Espada."

"I've heard of him. Barragan doesn't seem to think much of his brain power. But then, Barragan might be smarter than me. He sets the bar rather high." Vandular commented before sipping his tea but there was a guarded look on his face. Kyoraku nodded, wondering if the arrancar had guessed where this conversation was going.

"Please, my Nanao-chan… he is hurting her so much." He threw dignity to the winds and put every ounce of his desperation, his need into his voice and face. "She is pregnant now and he still sometimes… please, I beg you to help us." He said and Vandular chewed on his lower lip for a moment. His brown eyes were thoughtful and troubled.

"This is really not my concern – " He started and Shunsui fixed him with a look similar to the one that had melted many ladies hearts. His good looks might work on this arrancar, too. He had been Barragan's companion, once. "I, um…" Vandular stuttered and blushed a little before looking away. "Please don't do that." He said faintly. "It's… disconcerting."

"Please, I am begging you. For the sake of my clan, my Nanao-chan, take your place as the Cero Espada. He will challenge you and you can remove him, claim us and help my poor Nanao-chan recover from what he has done to her." He pleaded and the hollow hesitated, clearly thinking about it. "Please!" Quickly standing he moved, kneeling beside the arrancar before lowering his forehead to the floor in a gesture of supplication. He would do anything to save his Nanao-chan. There was a hand on his shoulder then, pulling him up.

"Please, stop!" Vandular said sharply and grey eyes met distressed and almost angry brown and gold. "You are a power in your own right, equivalent to a great old one. You should not… ah, gods." Van let go of his shoulder to rub his eyes for a moment. "…This is wrong. Very well. I will challenge Yammy Llargo for the rank of Cero Espada." Shunsui felt a moment of hope and relief before the dragon fixed him with a sharp stare. "But if he declines to accept the challenge, I will do nothing more." He said firmly and Kyoraku nodded. He wasn't worried about that. Barragan was right, Yammy would never simply step aside for the dragon. "Please, let us finish our tea and you can tell me a bit about your clan and your fukutaichou." Vandular said, clearly trying to diffuse the tension in the air. Shunsui nodded again with a small smile.

"Of course." He took a seat in his cushion, noticing that the soon to be Espada really was a very handsome creature. And his hole was not in the centre of his chest. Where was it and why did it move when he used his second release? He was tempted to ask but held back.

He didn't know Vandular that well, yet.

"…And come just this way! I have plenty of samples ready." Szayel said happily as Vandular sighed to himself. He almost hated to disappoint the pink haired scientist but he knew none of the energies he'd synthesized would be necessary.

"I'm sorry, but there's no need. The power that I fought and that almost destroyed me is kin to the one standing right there." And he pointed at the young man accompanying the scientist. The boy with black hair looked startled as Szayel froze in something like shock.

"Quincy?!" Szayel's head turned to stare at the boy, who met his stare with equal confusion. "But – but Soul Society wiped them out! They're extinct!" Van laughed, a low, slow chuckle.

"A surprising robust people, then. I killed dozens of the weak ones before the strong came out to face me." He said dryly and saw Szayel adjust his glasses thoughtfully as the boy swallowed. "And the one who defeated me was a nightmare made flesh." Other old ones and lesser ranks had called him that, a time or two. Vandular was willing to take it and apply it to the power that had brought him down.

"Well, that was a waste of time… but this is fascinating! I must go through those files again. Wasn't there something about a prophecy? Uryu, come!" He gestured and Van caught the flash of hate in those calm eyes. He frowned to himself, surprised the scientist didn't see it. He seemed like a sharp one… but perhaps he knew and didn't care that his assistant despised him. Shrugging to himself, Vandular left the science buildings.

He hadn't anticipating the meeting being so short, so his next scheduled activity was not for some time. Vandular checked the sun thoughtfully. No, he had quite a bit of time left. He used it to wander the market. But he had no money, not even a chit from Barragan that could be used to buy things. So instead, he simply looked over the merchandise. And in one case, he made a trade.

A young mother was manning a fruit stand and Vandular could feel the distress of her tot. Although anyone with ears could hear it, since the child was constantly crying. The young woman looked frazzled and Van was instantly sympathetic. Also, he had a strong desire for apple. So, perhaps…?

"I'm afraid I have no money." He said as she greeted him with a smile. "But I am a healer. If you want, I will examine the little one for an apple." He proposed, certain that the fruits didn't cost much. She looked at him dubiously, however.

"You're an arrancar, aren't you?" She asked warily and Van nodded. "Have you ever healed shinigami?" She asked and he laughed, remembering.

"Oh yes." The time he'd mated a shinigami woman… he'd healed her of the minor wounds their bedroom activities left all the time. No to mention the greater wounds from her ambitions. Such an insane time. "And when I was alive, healing was part of my duties, although I mostly used herbs and other treatments." He said easily and the woman paused for a moment, clearly thinking about it. Then her child gave a particularly ear piercing wail and she winced before nodding. Vandular knelt beside the little one as the young mother gently took her into her arms.

"Hello there. I'm Van. What's your name?" He asked and she spoke, her voice raspy. Van noted that. Some kind of sore throat…

"Mia." The little girl said before coughing and crying. Vandular tried to judge her age and decided she was around three.

"Mia, that's a pretty name. Can you open your mouth for me Mia?" His voice worked magic, as it often had over the years. A very pleasant, soothing voice had always been among his gifts. Little Mia opened her mouth obediently and Vandular used his reiatsu to create a light, shining it down her throat.

What he saw worried him. Her tonsils were inflamed and he quickly diagnosed an abscess. But the treatment for such things varied. If the abscess was obvious, it was possible to very carefully open it with a heated rod and allow the pus to drain. However, that had to be done most carefully as a mistake could be fatal. And if the abscess was not obvious, it wasn't worth trying. Instead they had generally resorted to herbs in an attempt to draw the infection to the surface. In extreme cases, the tonsils might be removed, but that was very dangerous. He certainly wasn't going to attempt anything like that here!

"Her tonsils are inflamed. No doubt it is very painful… I cannot treat this and I would strongly suggest you take her to a proper healer." He said to the woman and she nodded, almost relieved. Probably because now she had an answer and glad that he clearly knew his limits. "But I can impart a healing infusion to lower the infection slightly and dull the pain, for a time. If you wish?" That might stop the child from crying. She nodded again, gratefully this time.

"If you could." He nodded and rested his hand on the child's shoulder, gently imparting the healing infusion. They could both see the pain easing as the child sniffed and rubbed her throat. "Thank you. Oh sweetie, why didn't you tell me your throat hurt? I kept asking what was wrong!" She said to the child as Vandular smiled to himself. He remembered the tedious business of trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with a crying child. Not all of his memories were so old, either. Vasto lorde pups rarely got sick but it did happen.

That thought made him flinch in pain as he abruptly remembered his Koneko. His last child, she had been such a little beauty… her hair as bright red as her mami, her black and gold eyes looking at him with absolute trust. He pushed the memory away before the sorrow could cripple him and managed a smile as he accepted an apple from the vendor. Pushing himself up he went on his way, trying to forget the past.

Fortunately, his next… activity… proved to be a wonderful distraction. It happened at the Shihoin manor, in one of the sitting rooms.

"This is the uniform?" Vandular regarded the black coat-like thing and sunglasses dubiously. There were rents in the back of the coat to accommodate his wings. "Alright." He could humor them. Taking a seat he carefully put on the coat and followed it with the glasses. Van had to squirm his shoulders a bit to get the coat sitting comfortably with his wings.

"Yes! The first meeting of the new Shinigami Men's Association is now in session!" Iba said happily as Shuuhei took a sip of his tea. He was wearing the same 'uniform' and looking quite comfortable in it. "We need funding! Does anyone have any ideas?" There was a pause as they both thought about it.

"We could design a cell phone case? Although that didn't go too well last time." Hisagi said and Iba shook his head.

"No, we don't have any money to invest. Do you have any ideas?" He turned his attention on the hollow who considered it for a moment. No money to invest… what could they do that required no money? Something occurred to him immediately although it would require a lot of work.

"We could hold a party." Van said thoughtfully. "And sell tickets for admittance. I have no idea where we could get alcohol in a reasonable time frame, though." That was the weakest part of his idea. He could take care of food gathering – a lot of work, but it could be done – but the methods he knew to ferment alcohol took months at the very least. Years if you wanted something beyond raw, vicious sludge. Hisagi was suddenly enthusiastic.

"Excellent! I could make my famous rice! …But where would we get the supplies?" He asked and Iba frowned, considering the problem. Vandular coughed into his hand and they both looked at him.

"Now that I've earned my Segunda Etapa, I should have a few days of spare time." That was to give him time to recover before he made his announcement and challenged Yammy. Tosen wasn't pleased by his decision but had admitted that he had the right. "I could easily hunt down something for you." He'd been a good hunter as a man, although there had been better. As a hollow he'd been outstanding. "And I'm sure I could find edible tubers and the like." As part of his training, he'd learned to recognize all kinds of medicinal herbs. It wasn't required but he'd also learned the woman's art of finding edible plants. After all, if he was going to find herbs why shouldn't he bring tubers home as well? Iba nodded, gradually becoming more enthusiastic.

"I like it! But what about the saki?" There was a great deal of talking but they finally came up with a scheme for pilfering the booze they needed, along with the rice. Vandular wasn't really enthusiastic about stealing from the Shihoin clan, but he had to admit that they likely wouldn't even miss it. And Iba was doing his part, planning to take some saki from his Division's storerooms. They likely wouldn't miss it either.

When the meeting came to a close Vandular gladly made an escape. He felt almost ashamed of himself, but he couldn't help but wish he'd never become involved in this. It was just… work… and he preferred to be lazy. In Hueco Mundo that would have meant lazing about under the moon, simply soaking in the ambient reishi of the land. In Soul Society he often sunned himself in the garden. Managing to extricate himself from his fraccion, he decided to go do that. The garden was looking terribly inviting at the moment and he was soon settled comfortably beside the koi pond, the sun warming his skin. Vandular closed his eyes, surrendering to his desire for lounging around.

He could hunt later. It would be easier at night, anyway.