Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach or any related characters or properties.

Hopeful Dread

Momo was shoved to the sandy dunes, impossible sunlight streaking down on her injured form. Her only hand was no longer bound to her chest, the other arm gone and still stinging lightly. She was surrounded by so many high-powered enemies that she may as well be forcefully bound, the reiatsu enough to make her think twice about moving. Temari stood before her, her hands holding the sheathed Tobiume.

She had no idea what was going on, or why they would dangle her sword in front of her, only yards away from where she was. There were at least twenty five Arrancar, nearly all of them with identical skull-like faces and seemingly lead by the one with a horned mask and a long snout.

"What are you doing?" she asked, not daring to make any sudden moves, but it felt as though freedom was within reach. She seemed to be outside of the palace, and basically any direction but where she was right then would prove to be out of her clutches.

The blonde shinigami who seemed to be her handler smiled. "This is merely a test." Temari turned to the leader of the identical Arrancar. "Introduce yourself."

"My name is Rudbornn Chelute, Arrancar Number Sixty-One," the male voice stated. "These are my Exequias, the execution force of Hueco Mundo and faithful servants to Lord Aizen."

Execution? Momo thought, trying to ignore the crippling pain in her side from Temari's rough handling.

"Aizen is a merciful man, Hinamori," Temari explained, only receiving a scoff in return. "If you prove yourself worthy of his mercy, Tobiume will be returned to you."

Escape was so close to her fingertips, she could taste it. All of her hope was seemingly returned as she stared at the zanpakutou, hoping beyond reason to get it back. If she could somehow find Ashido Kano, assuming he survived their encounter, she could team up with him to keep moving until someone found them.

"What's the catch?" she said, her skepticism winning out.

"There is no catch," Temari stated with a laugh. "If you pass the test, you'll win the right to carry your sword again."

She couldn't focus on the why or the how, but she still had no idea how any of this would work. But when three of the Exequias walked forward and grabbed her to hold her in place, Temari smirked and pulled something from her pocket. Momo struggled against her captors, but she didn't have the energy to break free or avoid whatever Temari was going to do.

The other shinigami forced her mouth open, and when she tried to bite down on the traitor's fingers, Temari shoved some kind of pill into her mouth. Immediately, Momo tried to throw it up, thinking it to be poison or worse, but when she felt a swell of energy within her body, she realized what had happened.

Pressing all the spiritual pressure she could muster around her body, she began to glow with a light pink outline, and the Exequias was shoved away. Even Temari stepped away, as Momo's energy reached its peak levels again.

Before anyone could make any movements, a bolt of fiery kido exploded at her feet, kicking up sand and eliminating their field of vision for just a few moments. She barely side-stepped one of the Arrancar's identical zanpakutou, trying to channel whatever training she could muster; she didn't want to even imagine what it would be like to lose another one of her limbs.

Hado and Bakudo lit up the air, combining into deadly explosions that kept the Exequias away from her. Her mind was only on her sword as she tried to continually weave spells in and out of existence, combining everything from Byakurai to Hainawa. When a cord of blue electricity lit up and managed to drive one of the Exequias to his knees, another took its place and managed to hit her in the chest with a cut that slashed a shallow cut across her collarbone.

She tried to ignore the pain, throwing caution to the wind as she unleashed a Tenran against the ground to create a veritable sandstorm that hurled three of the men away from her.

After a few minutes, she was starting to realize the folly of this game, of this test, when she wasn't doing any lasting damage against any of them. Temari only watched with a smirk, and the Exequias intercepted every opportunity she had to attack either her or their master.

Pouring everything into her chant, she leaped into the air to avoid a triple zanpakutou attack from nearly all sides. "Bakudo Number One: Sai!" Each member of the enemy except for Rudbornn and Temari was suddenly held back, their hands twisting behind them and forcing them to their knees. Momo braced herself in the air and took aim at the two in charge, preparing at any moment to change her plans. Neither of their expressions had changed, but the leader of the Exequias had his hand on his own zanpakutou.

The great tower was in range, situated above both of them. In the last second, she twisted her palm. "Hado Number Sixty-One: Raikoho!" An impossibly large blast of yellow lightning flickered through the air and collided with the building with enough force that some of it cracked apart, debris falling to the ground. Weaving another Kido in place, she passed seamlessly into the next as she thrust both of her hands outwards. "Hado Number Fifty-Seven: Daichi Tenyo!"

The debris suddenly locked onto Temari's position, the rocks outlined in white light. They crashed like they were guided into a crushing funnel, a huge crash of dust billowing out from their location.

She zipped across the dunes, arriving just in time to see the blonde lying dead on the ground, a shocked expression on her face half-crushed face. Rudbornn was barely conscious, and the soldiers she had held steady had seemingly reverted to skulls lying helpless on the ground.

She picked up Tobiume, relishing at the feeling of her blade in her hand, and didn't have time to attach it to her belt as she immediately ran from the area, unsheathed blade guiding her as she felt it hum with familiarity under her fingertips. It was resonating with her soul, glad to be back with its owner, and everything was perfect.

Someone cleared their throat, and when she turned around after recognizing that sound, she didn't even bother letting him say anything. She embraced the blonde, planting a desperate kiss on his lips, not even trying to guess how it was possible that he was here.

"I'm so glad to see you!" she said with glee, kissing him again with all the fervor she could muster. Her breath was ragged, and Naruto's usual grin was on his face.

"Me too. Let's get out of here. We can kill Aizen later; we need to get back to Karakura Town."

She nodded and grabbed his hand, squeezing it as calmly as she could in the incredibly relieved moment, and they crossed the dunes in zips of shunpo, practically giddy and laughing with glee. She was so happy to see him, it almost didn't seem real.

In that instant, everything collapsed into dread, her hopes dying. All the inconsistencies seemed to mesh together into doubt, and she practically dropped to her knees, dragging Naruto to a halt by his hand. She didn't want to let go, but her logical mind forced it to happen.

Naruto placed a hand on her shoulder. "Hey, what's wrong? We can't afford to stop. One of them will catch us."

She couldn't afford to listen to him. Everything was too perfect: the sound of his voice, the smell of his sweat, the jovial laughter, even the heart-pounding feeling in her chest she felt when around him. It was all real to her, and she knew it was fake.

The illusion shattered like glass, and furious tears formed around her eyes. The sunny desert had disappeared, replaced by the empty prison cell. The smell of fresh, dry air was removed, replaced by the smell of her urine. Rudbornn and Temari stood by the door, obviously unharmed and not even remotely upset; in fact, Temari seemed relatively happy and she had never wanted anything more than to shove her entire sword down that woman's throat.

And standing above her where the false Naruto had been was Captain Aizen, his hand where Naruto's hand had been. She was too emotionally drained to try to move it, and it took several seconds for to remember that touch was poison. That this man was responsible for everything bad that had ever happened to her.

Her seething rage returned, bubbling up at the surface, and whatever energy she could muster was expelled outward. Aizen didn't seem to recognize it, but she didn't care.

"You won't break me."

The man just smiled, his cool eyes staring down at her. "Silly girl. I broke you long ago. You live in my world. And soon, everyone else will as well."

The dark white room stretched before him once more, several others already assembled, probably just to watch them be reprimanded by the man sitting on the throne high above them. Grimmjow couldn't stop his observation that the man was a pretentious, elitist bastard; then again, how much of the palace's structure was actually contributed by him and not by Baraggan? It wouldn't surprise him at all if the self-proclaimed "God of Hueco Mundo" was the reason for the ridiculous architecture.

Even so, he kept the thoughts to himself, glad that no one could hear them. He buried the small amount of grief he felt for his Fraccion deep, until he had the time to properly discard them later. After all, that was the world they lived in. The humans deluded themselves into thinking they were above the rules of nature. Only the useful survived, and everyone else should disappear.

Yin and Yang, Kusaka's Arrancar subordinates, immediately bowed to Aizen, but no one else did. Grimmjow knew that Aizen had the power to make them all bow if he so wished, but until that point, the Sexta Espada would keep his pride intact. He heard someone in the small audience that had gathered snickering behind him, but he didn't care enough to try to realize who it was. If they were laughing at Yin and Yang's display, that was Kusaka's problem.

"Welcome back," Aizen began, a small smile on his face.

No one said anything, and if Tousen had working eyes, he was certain the man would have glared at them. "Why so quiet? Don't the two of you have something to say to Lord Aizen?"

"Not really," the blue-haired Arrancar said, and the blind shinigami swiveled to the sound of his voice.

"What impudence!"

Aizen cleared his throat. "It's all right, Kaname. The truth of the matter is I'm not really that upset."

"But Lord Aizen, they-"

"I believe their actions were rather tactical, at least from the onset," the man began, glancing from his perch at both Kusaka and Grimmjow's faces. "Sojiro, I take it that the portals were secured during the venture?"

The red-haired twin spoke up for her master. "Yes, Lord Aizen. While they distracted the enemy, Yin and I established the Novena Espada's portals at key locations, and hid them behind barriers only accessible to us."

Sojiro nodded. "I understand that you probably wanted that to be done under different circumstances, but I saw the opportunity to use Grimmjow's anger to secure one of our objectives."

The Arrancar in question snarled, making a mental note confront Kusaka about that.

There was a long moment where Aizen said nothing, and the silence was tangible. When the man opened his mouth to speak, a small relief flooded Grimmjow that the silence was gone.

"It was understandable, Kusaka, but that doesn't mean that it is excusable. There is a time and a place for your personal vendetta, and that was not the time."

The Sexta Espada snickered lightly, and Tousen scoffed. "Do not laugh. Kusaka was wrong, but he cost us no soldiers and advanced our plans without the enemy knowing. You have no grounds to feel morally superior, now that your Fraccion are dead. The shinigami have learned more of our capabilities, and our army is five fewer."

Grimmjow turned to the man, anger rising and filling his face, and prepared to draw his blade, but Aizen cleared his throat again loud enough for everyone in the room to freeze.

"While your actions were foolish, I understand them. After all, this effort was an attempt to please me, was it not, Grimmjow?"

The Arrancar stared at the man on his throne, unsure of how to respond. The attack happened because Grimmjow did not approve of the way Ulquiorra and Yammy handled their scouting mission. All potential enemies should have been destroyed, executed before they could become an nuisance to their plans.

"Yes, Lord Aizen."

When someone suddenly grabbed his jacket's collar, it took every amount of restraint he had not to rip Kaname Tousen's arm off right there, in front of everyone, with his teeth. "What the hell is your problem?"

Tousen turned to the large throne. "Lord Aizen, please allow me to execute this traitor!"

As Aizen glanced to his blind subordinate, Grimmjow suddenly shoved the arm away and took a defensive stance, his body turned to intercept any sudden movements the other shinigami made. "Nice try, Tousen. You've always hated me. That's what this fuss is about. Is this any way for a director-general to act?"

Tousen didn't follow his enraged voice. "I simply believe that anyone who disrupts the peace, the order, of our plans should have to pay for it. It's not personal."

What a load of horse shit. Grimmjow watched as Kusaka and his Arrancar stepped away, probably wisely, as the spiritual pressure seemed to rise in the room from both parties. It was just noticeable enough to be a warning, not a threat, but given enough time, it would escalate. "You would kill me for insubordination?"

"Yes, for the honor of Lord Aizen."

The Arrancar rolled his eyes, chuckling. "Why am I not surprised? All you ever think about is the cause."

"Of course," Tousen said simply. "It guides my actions." A hand was placed on the man's sword, and Grimmjow didn't noticeably flinch. "Something of which you have no knowledge. With no moral foundation behind it, killing is nothing more than murder." The sword slid partially out of the sheath, and Grimmjow watched with bated breath. "However, killing with purpose..."

Suddenly, Tousen's zanpakutou was slicing through the air, moving so quickly it was nothing but a flash. Metal clanged against metal, sparks flying as the sound reverberated throughout the huge room. The Arrancar looked up to see someone he knew very little about, a dark-skinned Arrancar whose mask fragment covered his eyes in the shape of human sunglasses. The Sexta Espada only knew the person by his name and his annoying habit.

"Bloodshed among comrades is never right," the tall man stated, holding his huge broadsword zanpakutou with an almost effortless moment. "Ya gotta get along or we'll never survive the fight. 'Out an order, ya shouldn't kill. Those are Lord Aizen's shoes to fill."

After a few shocked seconds, Tousen finally lowered his zanpakutou, but did not sheathe it. Probably out of principle.

"Kirabi is correct," Aizen stated. "If Grimmjow is to be punished, I will make the order, Kaname."

Begrudgingly, the blind shinigami nodded once. "Yes, Lord Aizen." When the sword was sheathed, Grimmjow breathed deeply, but had a sudden need for revenge. One more person to add to the list, because Ichigo Kurosaki was now on his radar. The scar on his chest proved it.

The morning light filtered in through the room, birds chirping right outside the window. Pleasant thoughts filled her head, thinking back on her dream involving robots riding on mechanical dinosaurs that breath fire for no apparent reason. A great smile ran across her mind before she could register where she was or what she was doing.

She peeked around the strange room, before remembering where she had seen it before. Weeks ago, she had woken up in this exact room next to Chad, after awakening her powers. The girl sat up carefully, her mind wandering to consider whether or not she had gained new powers. Maybe this time, it would be telekinesis. Or firebreathing, like her dream!

She frantically checked her knuckles to make sure that they didn't feel metallic. No, she wasn't a robot, thankfully. The thought brought a smile to her face, before she realized bandages were wrapped around her forehead, holding a cold washcloth in place. An IV was strapped to her arm, pumping some kind of glowing orange liquid into her bloodstream. It reminded her of the orange-yellow glow of Santen Kesshun.

The fight with the Arrancar flooded back to her mind, the explosive ability known as Cero being redirected by her pyramidal shield, causing a massive explosion. She hadn't had much time to think about the new ability, because she'd been in near constant recovery. On her first day back from school, she suddenly remembered collapsing, blood gushing from her nose.

Orihime lightly checked her nostrils, thankfully blood-free, although it was a little crusty. She laughed almost silently to herself, before realizing she needed to get up to figure out what was going on. Her eyes flickered to the hairpins lying next to the pillow, and she checked them for cracks. Apparently, they were as good as new, perhaps better even.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so glad you're safe!" Shuno yelled excitedly after she summoned the Rikka, the six fairies floating above her head like imaginary friends. Five out of six of them flew down to grasp her head, hugging with their tiny bodies. The feeling made her giggle, but stopped when she saw Tsubaki all by himself.

"We've been worried very much, Hime!" Baigon declared.

"The fat rosette saved you," Hinagiku said, before considering his statement. "Um, is 'rosette' a word?"

The girl smiled, glad to have them talking to her again. "You mean a woman with pink-hair, right?"

Shuno laughed, but a certain amount of mirth was missing, like something was wrong. She was perceptive enough to realize it, but the Rikka tried to turn jovial again. "Well, he was actually a man named Hachi. He healed your physical injuries, and repaired us."

"His powers were a lot like ours," added Lily. "He created a healing field under a barrier that stopped the damage."

She paused. "Damage? What happened to me? Why did my nose bleed?"

"Well, you see," Shuno began, before pausing awkwardly. The Rikka could not continue, and none of the other four seemed apt to speak. Finally Tsubaki flew forward and rolled his eyes.

"None of the others have the balls to say what needs to be said, so I'll do it," he said. "That new ability that you showed, we are calling it Shiten Koushun, was done completely by instinct, and far before you were ready to learn it. Deep within you lies the potential for other powers, and in that moment, you accidentally willed it to happen against someone far beyond your level. By blocking that Cero, you permanently damaged the source of your powers."

She took all of that in, trying to understand it. "Oh, like the hairpins! They were cracked, but Hachi must have fixed them."

Tsubaki shook his head. "No. He could repair them physically, but he could not repair them spiritually." The offensive Rikka took a deep breath. "Imagine it like a slow leak on an impossibly complex broken pipe; in a few days, there won't be any water left within the pipe."

Orihime just stared at him, her expression blank.

Shuno finally stepped in. "What he means to say is that you are... losing us, Orihime." A tear formed in the blonde's eye, and Orihime wished her fingers were small enough to wipe them away. "We don't know exactly how much time you have left with us, but all your spiritual power is slipping away."

"Hachi said it could be a week, it could be two," Tsubaki said. "He said that the leak shouldn't get bigger as long as we only used our original three powers, no matter how much we used them in the meantime. But eventually, it will all end."

She didn't know how to process this. Immediately, she thought of Soul Society. She thought of Karakura Town. She thought of Chad, of Uryu, of Rukia, of Sakura, of Ichigo. It pained her that she might not have the ability to help them one day, to help him one day.

She cried for herself, for her Rikka. She hated the idea of not being able to support her comrades in the fight against Aizen. She hated the idea of one day not being able to even see her shinigami friends. She hated everything about this.

As her tears flowed, even Tsubaki flew down to sit on her shoulder, a hand caressing her cheek. The touching gesture made her laugh, joy escaping for a fleeting moment before sinking under the torrent of sadness.

"At least you'll get to help for a few days," Ayame said in her meek voice. "If there's another Arrancar attack, you can still fight."

"She's right," Shuno said confidently. "You can still protect the others, heal them if they get hurt. You can still do something to stop anyone else from dying like Uryu, for a little while longer."

The small amount of hope flickered to life before her eyes, as a realization hit her. A brunette woman with a double front-braid came to mind. "You're right. And maybe it won't have to happen at all!"

The cloaked Arrancar stood inside the Caja Negacion, knowing where she was. She had carried out her orders, and the powerful Arrancar stood beside her in the pocket dimension. They had been disguised for seemingly hours, just waiting. Yugito wasn't shocked that Arturo was as silent as a statue, because he'd spent centuries sealed inside that Asauchi blade.

She considered what was on her mind, finally realizing that she needed to ask something that had been bugging her. "So could you see outside your prison?"

The green-haired hollow nodded, a smirk forming on his lips. "Yes, I was aware of the immediate vicinity around me. Couldn't see much of anything until that psychotic researcher pulled the blade from its hiding place. You'd be surprised at how dark total blackness can get after several hundred years."

Yugito raised an eyebrow at that, trying to think through her intelligence about the shinigami. "Mayuri Kurotsuchi?" At the affirmative nod from the natural Arrancar, Yugito considered where she had found the sword. The tunnel connecting Kurotsuchi's personal lab to a cavern underneath the Daireisho Archives. "Seems the captain was up to something if he sought you out."

Plateado laughed. "I suppose so, although I doubt he'd have gotten anything out of me. Couldn't begin to tell you anything about him, other than his quest for power and understanding. Oh, and the fact that a Quincy killed him and his lieutenant almost effortlessly." Arturo laughed again. "Serves him right, if you ask me. I know the feel of those arrows from a mile away."

The Nibi jinchuuriki couldn't believe what she was hearing. A captain and a lieutenant were dead, killed by a Quincy? The Quincy were supposed to be extinct. This seemed like something that Aizen should have told her, or that he would know about it. Apparently not.

"What are we waiting for?" asked Arturo, the question causing a chill to rise in her spine. He had not asked her that yet, despite the already long wait.

"We are waiting for the right time," she explained, earning an eyebrow raise from the other Arrancar. "I assure you that you'll get your chance. Aizen isn't making his move yet, but we are going to hide in this space until he calls on us."

Arturo scowled. "I'm not an impatient man, but can't I kill a few souls? Just to pass the time. I mean, it could be months..."

The female Arrancar shook her head. "No, it won't be. We aren't waiting on the Hogyoku to awaken like everyone else."

Plateado stared at her. "Then what?"

"There's something else we're waiting on." She gave him a bright grin. "At least you'll have pretty company in the meantime." The other Arrancar just laughed.

"You think you're pretty?"


The early morning light was entirely artificial, a new addition to Urahara's tastes, just added to match his whimsy. She eyed the hot-springs, already looking forward to its soothing effects. She missed them.

"Yes, Sensei," she cried out as she moved in and out of her katas, both from karate and the interesting scrappy-style that the blonde shinigami had been trying to drill into her. A clone of the man stood before her, and she was forced to match him with her inherent taijutsu skills, and nothing else.

She blocked a fist by diverting it with her forearm, twisting her hand out and latching onto the arm. Channeling chakra into her joints and muscles, she dipped down, bringing the arm with her, before spinning a half turn to the right. The Naruto clone was thrown several feet away, and she let a sense of elation hit her; she had finally dispelled him!

But the clone suddenly stuck out his hand, changing his horizontal velocity, and then somersaulted across the ground. Her sensei gave her a displeasing look, and that was all it took for her.

She vaulted forward, moving so fast she nearly leaped from step to step, and attempted to slam a hammer-kick to the clone's head. The chakra-enhanced move collided with the earth, as her opponent jumped to his feet and then aimed a kick of his own.

Tatsuki spun toward him a half turn and pressed outward with a palm-strike, and with her entire presence completely in Naruto's guard for a split-second, there wasn't enough time for him to do anything. The clone was impacted hard enough to go flying for several feet and then dispel in mid-air, and all she could do was widen in surprise.

"I did it!"

The real Naruto stepped forward. "Yeah, you got me. Sort of."

She could only roll her eyes, before adjusting her footwork. "You got another one for me?"

The teacher considered it a moment before shaking his head. "Not taijutsu, at least for now. Have I showed you how to dispel genjutsu?"

The girl nodded. "With good control, you can release them as long as you recognize you are in one. I could probably also prick my finger."

"You probably aren't going to run into any of those," he explained, laughing at the last bit, "considering our current enemies aren't shinobi. But it's important to have the skill just in case."

Tatsuki could only nod, remembering their trip through the Elemental Nations fighting Genisuke's forces. "What about ninjutsu? I mastered another Earth-Style Jutsu recently, but do you have any others?"

After a long moment, Naruto nodded. "Yeah, but we'll go for a demonstration." He held up his hands in a cross-shape, creating three clones with a burst of smoke. One of them was holding one of Urahara's collected scrolls, where they had been drawing most of the ninjutsu and taijutsu she had been learning from.

Tatsuki couldn't help but be surprised. "So you're teaching me this clone jutsu?"

Naruto shook his head. "No. They are going to show the actual jutsu's basics to you, while I have other obligations I need to attend to. I'll be back soon."

Tatsuki watched the three physical copies remain as Naruto exited his body, leaving behind an inhabited gigai, that seemed to look on the situation with distaste.

Ichigo stared at the crater that had destroyed the park, remembering the feeling of despair running through his heart. He swallowed them down, fingers running along the inside of his pockets. He tried to calm his breathing, but everything was about to change, like the winds blowing through his hair.

Flickers of the hollow within him came to mind, remembering the feeling of it taking over his body against Byakuya, against Yammy. Against Grimmjow. In all three situations, his Bankai, the supposed pinnacle of his powers, wasn't enough. It wasn't until the hollow reiatsu was expelled from his body that he was able to do any substantial damage. He owed his victory to the hollow.

He had to embrace it. He had to find the focus, the control necessary to embrace those abilities that came with the hollow, without allowing the hollow to take over. And no one else could help him do it but Shinji and the Visoreds. If he didn't go to them, he would fail.

"You coming?"

Ichigo twisted only slightly to the familiar voice, revealing the blonde exiled shinigami in a gigai. "Yeah."

Naruto clapped him on the shoulder, and Ichigo tried to relax. He was far too tense. "I probably should have sent a clone in my place and just met you there, but I figured it would be okay if we walked together."

Ichigo stared at him. "A clone?"

When the blonde made some kind of motion with his hands, fingers crossed together, a cloud of smoke erupted to reveal two more identical copies on his left and right. They both saluted before dissipating into another cloud of smoke.

Ichigo brushed the clouded air out of his face and smirked. "Pretty cool, but how does it work? You're in a gigai. Does it replicate more gigais?"

The shinigami stared at him before shrugging, and then starting the trek away from the park and towards the warehouse. "I don't know, really, but probably not. I'd have to ask someone. But I've got several doing several things."

Ichigo nodded, but a comfortable silence fell over them as they walked. The human couldn't quite place what any of Naruto's facial expressions meant, or why he seemed so distracted.

"Look, if you don't want to be here, I can go on my own. You're not a Visored, so I don't need your help." He meant that sincerely, without meaning to upset anyone. It was clear that Naruto didn't want this.

It was a long moment before the other spoke. "I made a deal and I intend to pay my end. So you've got to get control over this, or you'll make me owe someone something." He paused and tried to smile, but his heart wasn't in it. "I hate this."

Ichigo rolled his eyes. "Like I said-"

"No, it's not you. Well, not really," the blonde stated, confusing the human. "I just need to see her again, you know? Can you relate to that?"

Ichigo nodded, a little frustrated at the assumption but moved past that. It has to be hard knowing that Hinamori is so close and yet so far, with only a few words of a spell short. He took a moment and nearly stopped, remembering everything he went through before. Rukia...

"If you're going, I'm going."

Naruto peered at him as they rounded the street corner, the warehouse district only a few blocks away. "What?"

"If you're going to rescue Hinamori, then you'll have my sword at your side," the human stated. "I'm gonna help you rescue her, like you helped me rescue Rukia. Just gotta figure out this Visored stuff first, because I won't be much help to you otherwise."

Tatsuki breathed as deeply as she could, her chakra running haphazardly in her system. The ring nearly burned on her finger from the effort, and she forced herself to calm down and allow her body to rest. The three clones were gone, dispelling themselves as soon as it was clear that she understood the process.

She turned briefly, glad that Renji had agreed to help Chad even after everything was said and done. The two clashed, warming up with Renji's shikai colliding against Chad's shield-like arm. The endgame was to use Renji's bankai next, but she was itching to try against it. As she was now, she wouldn't stand a chance without going too far with the ring.

"You're doing well," Tessai said, watching from near the entrance to the shop. "I know you're worried about catching up to everyone else, but you'll get there."

"Thank you. You got any more of that tea?"

The man smiled as he lead her upstairs, and she turned briefly to watch. Renji's whip-like sword was difficult to manage, but Chad seemed particularly agile; the movements he made were almost too quick to see, green light bursting around every footstep. She knew she wanted to fight them both to test her strength, but that could wait.

As soon as she climbed the steps, Tatsuki's eyes met Rukia talking animatedly to Urahara, who seemed to be calmly sipping from his bowl of ramen. "...is Ichigo! He's missing and you're doing nothing to find him!?"

"Ichigo's missing?" asked Tatsuki, before her eyes widened. "Was he taken by the Arrancars!?"

Kisuke finally put down the empty bowl, while Tessai tried to keep a calming look on his face to sort the situation out. "No, if he had, we would have sensed their reiatsu, or the Garganta being opened."

"So where is he?" Rukia demanded.

"He's probably training." The shopkeeper looked toward her pointedly. "You know why."

Tatsuki furrowed her brow; she hated being left out of the loop, but if the man knew where he was, she was okay with that.


"Oh, Tatsuki, Rukia, she's awake," Tessai explained, immediately earning a wide-eyed look from both of the girls.

Tatsuki bounded down the hallway, Rukia following closely behind. Orihime was in her room, bandages still wrapped around her head. The Shun Shun Rikka spun around her, but when she turned to look at them, they returned to the hairpins lying on the bedside table. "Tatsuki! Rukia!" the girl shouted, trying to get up.

"No," the shinigami admonished, forcing her to stay seated on the makeshift bed. "You need to rest."

The girl embraced both of them, and Tatsuki was elated to finally have her conscious again. "I've been so worried about you! Don't ever make me do that again!"

Orihime laughed nervously. "I'll try not to. Has anything else happened while I was unconscious?"

Tatsuki and Rukia took turns explaining the situation to her, much to Orihime's horror. She seemed glad that Tatsuki had managed to defeat an enemy, but that was nothing compared to the despair she felt about her powers.

"I missed so much..." The girl looked so downcast, Tatsuki was afraid she was going to cry. She placed a comforting hand on the girl's back. "I don't know how much help I would have been if I had been able to fight, but now I don't even know what to do. I'm losing my powers now!"

Tatsuki frowned, eyeing the ring on her hand. She didn't want to face that outcome for herself, so she was sure that Orihime wouldn't want it either. Now that she was in this world and knew the stakes of the fight going on, she would use this power to make a difference. Orihime was losing that ability, and it hurt.

But the girl glanced up at Rukia like she was just remembering something. "Captain Unohana is in Squad Four, the medical division, right?"

Rukia nodded. "Where are you going with this?"

"Well, I was thinking that if anyone can help me heal from whatever damage was done to my powers, it's her."

The shinigami stared for a moment, but Tatsuki suddenly felt hope again. "It's possible, isn't it? Can you contact her?"

"I can contact her, but Squad Four is normally forbidden from leaving the Soul Society, especially its captain." Orihime remembered Sakura's explanation about that, but it seemed like so long ago now. "If she is to try to heal you, then you'll have to go to her."

"You know, this clone thing is really odd. You look like him, you think like him, but you aren't actually him. I'd have given just about anything to see the look on the Head Captain's face if you dispelled in front of him."

The clone of Naruto laughed. "Yeah, that wouldn't have gone over so well. I'm surprised he didn't find some way to blast me through the transmission screen for even trying to talk to him."

Toshiro knew the clone had a point, but he shook his head as they passed out of Orihime's bedroom, nearly running into the latest shopping bags filled with useless clothing that Rangiku had bought while in her gigai. "The Head Captain understands that this is a time of conflict, and you're as valuable an asset as anyone with a Bankai. Er, the real you."

The clone laughed. "Glad to hear it, I guess. What do you think about all this?"

Toshiro considered the details, trying to decipher them. The Soul King's murder was the goal, and Karakura Town was the target. Aizen had his eyes set on the lynchpin of the Soul Society, the king of the Seireitei. And he would sacrifice thousands of innocent souls to do it.

"He's a vile, disgusting man." Hitsugaya scowled at the thought of him. "We'll stop him. I know we will."

The two didn't say anything for nearly half a minute before the clone finally looked up. "So... are we going to discuss the elephant in the room?"

Toshiro paused and closed his eyes, wishing he did not have to deal with this. Especially talking with a falsehood like this clone.

"When are you going to submit your report that that was Sojiro Kusaka? You said you thought he was an Arrancar with ice-powers, but you and I both know that isn't true. Matsumoto will keep the secret for you, as will the real me. But you need to own up sometime."

The boyish captain closed his eyes, trying to shut out the discussion. "I know. I need time to actually think about what this means."

"What it means," the clone interrupted, "is that one of your friends from the Academy all those years ago is alive again. We don't know how or why, but it happened. Aizen is using him and your guilt against you."

Toshiro twisted to look at him, a prepared scowl on his face, but something occurred to him. "He does have Kyoka Suigetsu's ability on his side. I hadn't thought of that, but it makes so much more sense." The idea was so brilliant that Toshiro latched onto it, his anger at Aizen rising by the minute. "That bastard won't get into my head."

Naruto's replica stared at him while thinking. "Well, it sounds possible. But could he really fake Hyourinmaru to the degree that Kusaka supposedly used it?"

The captain paced back and forth in front of the sliding door, trying to understand it. "It's... possible, and if anyone is smart enough to pull it off, it's Sosuke Aizen." One train of thought faded into the next. "But he seemed to know me, to know the personal details of what happened, his personality... There's no way Aizen would know all that just from reading reports that he probably stole from the archives."

The captain and the clone faded into a ready silence, as they considered their options. Before he could say anything else, the duplicate frowned. "I'm about to run out of chakra. Sorry." Immediately, the clone burst into smoke, leaving behind a thoughtful shinigami.

The relay of memories erupted through Naruto's mind, telling him all about the shinigami discovering what Urahara knew a few days ago, and the conversation with Toshiro. Earlier, he got an update about Tatsuki's training, and she knew all the basics to perform the jutsu he had her learning now. He was still waiting on the trio of clones he had working on the Kido spell, but he supposed they too would run out of chakra soon.

Even so, he pressed his mind back to the present, surrounded by the Visored in their home turf. The warehouse did not appear to be very "lived in" so he suspected they moved around every few months; why they would live in this rundown warehouse for any period of time was questionable enough. It's possible they didn't even always live in Karakura Town; Naruto wondered if they traveled around the world, following the juureichi that could be used to create a Ouken. That might explain their eclectic clothing styles, all mismatched and definitely out of place. They definitely knew more than they let on.

"Thanks for bringing him here, Uzumaki." The blonde one with the crooked smile said from his perch, staring down at the two of them.

"Yeah, I held up my end," he shouted back, looking at both Hachi and Lisa, who seemed to look back at him. "But why are you all posturing mysteriously like this? You kind of look stupid."

The blonde girl who looked no older than Toshiro suddenly jumped down, anger on her face. "Stupid!? I'll show you 'stupid'!"

Naruto nearly didn't hold his ground until the one he suspected was Shinji Hirako jumped in, holding her back. "Come on, Hiyori, he did us a favor. I don't know why you wanted us to pose like that anyway, Rose."

The long-haired Visored with a hooked nose and a fancy suit scoffed. "Making a good impression is always a good idea."

Ichigo was clearly lost in what was going on, but the expression on his face definitely said to cut the crap.

"Whatever, none of this matters," Shinji said as he finally let go of the little girl who could only be Hiyori. "I guess this means that you've finally decided that you're ready to come over to our side. Am I right?"

Ichigo only smirked. "Bite me." Shinji gasped animatedly, and Naruto rolled his eyes; it really didn't make much sense for Shinji to assume that Ichigo would ever make any pledge of allegiance. He was a loose cannon who operated on the side of whatever it took to stop Aizen and protect Karakura Town. Nowadays, Naruto wondered if he fell into the same category.

"I have no intention of joining up with you people. I'm not that desperate, so don't kid yourself." Ichigo stared up at the hollowfied shinigami. "I'm here to use you, Shinji."

The blonde man raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Is that so?"

"I came here with one purpose in mind. Everyone keeps saying that you are the only people who can teach me to control the hollow inside me. I'm not leaving here until you do, and once that's done, I'm out of here." The human looked to Naruto. "There's a girl's life on the line, and I need to be in top condition to help him get her back."

Naruto beamed. Ichigo had so much optimistic arrogance that it was easy to believe that they would succeed. His attitude was contagious, and if he didn't already know he would save Momo, Ichigo's assured self-confidence made him believe it one hundred ten percent.

Sorry for the long wait for a relatively shorter update. I have been busy working on other things, and this one took a backburner, and I had a bit of writers' block while writing a few of the scenes. I hope everyone enjoyed it though, and if you would like, leave me a review and tell me what you think. I'd love to hear it, good or bad.