Solitude

Summary: Recruitment drives were a chore, especially when paired with Nnoitra. But even the darkest clouds can have silver linings. [Naruto Bleach Xover] [NaruNel]


Chapter 1

Nelliel Tu Odelschwanck was not a happy camper. Seated on a small, flat rock facing a small establishment of Hollows that grouped together for protection, she sighed audibly as the sounds of screams echoed down the massive sand dune that the rudimentary shelter was set upon. The screams weren’t all derived from pain and suffering; some, interspersed between drawn out howls of agony, were those of maniacal pleasure. The massacre had gone on for quite a while, given that Nel Tu estimated there to be no more than fifty Hollows residing in the squatter that her partner was rampaging in.

She hated fighting. Violence was a means to an end, a better end; not the end itself. Her partner could never seem to grasp that concept; living for battle, for blood and gore, for guts and glory. It was barbaric, and completely unbefitting of their status as evolved Hollows. They had progressed from their bestial forms; why couldn’t he rein in his instincts?

Nel Tu sighed again, thinking about her dear Fracción, Pesche Guatiche and Dondochakka Birstanne. They were probably fretting about her as was their norm, and she couldn’t wait to go back to Las Noches and enjoy their comforting company. They were the greatest friends and partners she could ever have, ones that understood her motivations and supported them wholeheartedly. It was a complete opposite to her current partner, Nnoitra Gilga, who currently stalked out of the Hollow hideout, blood drenching his white tunic. A bloodthirsty smile stretched across his gaunt features, splitting his face in half. His massive crescent blade was leaned casually on his shoulder, crimson rivulets snaking down the long shaft.

“Again, you interpret Aizen-sama’s orders in your own twisted manner,” Nel Tu chided, standing gracefully from her position. “Is it so difficult to attain some form of maturity?”

“Shut up!” Nnoitra yelled indignantly, his good mood from the slaughter evaporating instantly. “Why are ya constantly nagging? You’re not my fuckin’ mother!”

“But as it stands, I am your superior, and it behoves me to ensure your survival, even if it means I have to lecture you time and again about your elevated status and the responsibilities that come with your power,” Nelliel replied collectedly. “We have another set of orders to complete.”

“Another area to scour for recruits?” Nnoitra scoffed. “We haven’t found a Vasto Lorde for the past few years, what makes Aizen think he’s going to find another any time soon?”

“No, this is slightly different,” Nel Tu answered calmly, ignoring the jibe at their commander. She was used to Nnoitra’s antics by now, and they never fazed her from the beginning anyway. “Aizen-sama has detected a certain reiatsu in the human world that is highly condensed. New technologies recently invented by shinigami have detected this anomaly, which had so far been overlooked due to some form of primitive reiatsu shielding. We are to investigate this occurrence, and judge if the source of the reiatsu is a potential recruit.”

“Otherwise?” Nnoitra asked eagerly, his insatiable desire for battle rising to the fore once more.

Nelliel sighed, nodding almost miserably. “We will destroy it. Aizen-sama does not want a potential enemy of its potential magnitude.”

“Wonderful,” Nnoitra cackled in delight.

His hands waved across the air in front of him to rip open a Garganta, the bloodthirsty Arrancar practically dashing through the dimensional tear to the other side. Nelliel privately wished the Octava would grow up some more so she wouldn’t have to babysit the Espada for Aizen, as she too stepped into the Garganta, her pace far more sedate.

After all, there was no rush.

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The coordinates of the mysterious reiatsu’s location were not difficult to read, but nevertheless, both Espada had a torrid time trudging through the dense, humid jungles of Southeast Asia. The forest was enormous, with thick vegetation impeding their paths every step of the way. The canopy blocked out most of the light that the sun merrily provided, and what remained of the sunlight that filtered down from the skies was barely enough to see in front of them, let alone stumble upon a being intent on hiding itself.

Nnoitra was highly tempted to cut down everything around him, but his crescent moon blade was too unwieldy for such a task, given its rather unique design. Nelliel, on the other hand, refused to draw her blade for such a trivial matter, and so the Espada duo had to make do with brushing aside foliage every two steps they took. It was enough to frustrate even the cool Tres Espada, who was ready to murder either her partner or the person they were searching for if they so much as looked at her the wrong way.

It was a good half a day before they came anywhere close to the coordinates pinpointed by Aizen, and it was with great caution that Nelliel approached the small clearing that was obviously carved out of the forest by someone. Nnoitra was far too pissed about the situation to give any damn about danger, as he burst forward into the clearing, intent on ripping the reiatsu source to pieces. All that accomplished was his crashing into an invisible barrier that rippled upon contact, revealing its presence for a mere moment before fading into obscurity once more. Puzzled but undeterred, Nnoitra roared angrily as he swung his massive crescent blade down on the barrier, only to be repelled violently, sent flying into a nearby tree. The tree, sturdy as they come, won out as Nnoitra crumpled at its base, dazed.

Alarmed at the defensive properties of the barrier, Nelliel decided that discretion was the better part of valour. Given that it’s such a strong barrier, then maintaining it must be quite the task. The optimum shape for it would be a sphere, for all round protection equidistantly. To test her theory, she carefully aimed her palm, condensing a small ball of pink energy. Firing the Bala at an angle to the barrier, she watched as the ball of reiatsu bounced off the barrier, deflected away to smash a middling tree to pieces. Frowning, Nelliel approached the barrier, pressing her hand against it. It was cool to the touch, rippling from the point of contact. She shut her eyes, focusing on the flow of reiatsu.

This barrier…it blocks out all reiatsu that could have appeared within its area of protection. Its formed by a very thin layer of reiatsu, mixed in with something else that I cannot identify. The mix…is uneven, which results in spikes of reiatsu levels that must have been the reason why it was even detected in the first place. But such an advanced technique…the creator must be extremely well versed with reiatsu manipulation. Such a level of barrier formation is easily beyond a regular shinigami captain to even comprehend!

“It seems I have been discovered,” a wry voice sounded from behind, a person whose suppressed presence went completely unnoticed by Nelliel until now.

Her hand leaping to the hilt of her blade, she spun around in a blink of an eye, her zanpakutō drawn and ready to meet any threat to her person. Her hazel eyes swiveled to the source of the voice, a man perched upon a large bough. He was dressed simply, in a dark long-sleeved shirt and pants. Black boots and gloves adorned his feet and hands respectively. It was a dull getup for someone with vivid looks as his, Nelliel mused, the man’s long ponytail of unkempt golden hair swaying lightly. Two locks of hair framed his masculine face; a sharp jaw and what appeared to be whisker-like birthmarks upon his tanned cheeks gave him a roguish appearance. Bright cerulean eyes scrutinized her form with impunity, the intensity of his gaze leaving her uncomfortable, as if being stripped down to be analysed piece by piece.

“What do you want with me?” the man demanded, casually seating himself on the thick branch.

The man’s attitude seemed jovial, but it was clear he was not to be trifled with. His aura was increasingly oppressive, something Nel Tu quickly noted, given how breathing was slowly becoming a chore. A quick mental scan of his reiatsu levels blew her mind away. It’s already at Aizen-sama’s level, but it’s still increasing! Nelliel thought in fear. Just who is this man?

The man sighed audibly, leaning his back against the rough bark of the tree trunk. His reiatsu levels dimmed quickly, allowing Nelliel to breathe far easier than before. “It seems you can’t handle a fraction of my power. How disappointing. Your master is a fool for sending people as weak as you to try and recruit me.”

“How do you know of our purpose?” Nel Tu questioned curiously. If he has an information network as advanced as to know our motives, he is truly a man to be feared.

“Don’t look so scared, Aoi-chan,” the man chuckled, referencing Nel’s green hair. “I won’t bite you know. I’m living alone in the forest. I think that tells you just how much I care about the outside world, and how much I care about your master’s plans.”

Before Nel could grill him about what he knew of Aizen’s plans, she was interrupted by a war cry and a leaping Nnoitra; intent on crushing the blond man with his massive zanpakutō. The Octava Espada was not even spared a second glance, as the man grabbed the crescent moon blade with contemptuous ease, before tossing Nnoitra away like garbage. The warrior tumbled, landing far harder than Nelliel would have expected, before she realised that she had underestimated the force behind the man’s throw. Her awe and fear of the man rose several degrees with that realization, and she quickly pressed a hand against a recovered Nnoitra’s chest to prevent her fellow Espada from charging recklessly to his death.

“At least one of you seem to have their wits about with them,” the blond mocked derisively. “Best keep that attack dog leashed, or I’ll dismember him in a flash. These sort of people are stains on the human race that ought to be wiped out.”

“What did you say, bastard?” Nnoitra hissed, waving his large weapon threateningly. The blue-eyed man just laughed, clearly amused at Nnoitra’s attempt at intimidation. “I’ve seen scarier. Your stance is worse than mine when I was twelve. It’s so unrefined, I don’t think there’s even a word to describe how bad it is. You’re about a thousand years too young to even scratch me.”

Nnoitra seethed, but before he could do something hotheaded, Nelliel spoke up. “You still haven’t answered my questions. How do you know what we’re here for?”

“I’m not stupid. I can observe and infer you know,” the man snorted, his pride seemingly ruffled. “Both of you are wearing similar clothing. Most likely, it’s some form of uniform that you are able to customize to your own liking. Given that you have uniforms, it isn’t that far off to conclude that both of you work for someone. And for you to find me here, in the middle of nowhere, requires quite an amazing amount of resources. For someone to devote that kind of resources, and to send members of his group that are allowed to customize uniforms and are thus likely to be high up on his command chain, well, if that doesn’t sound like an attempt to impress or force me into becoming one of you guys, I don’t know what is.”

“If you know our purpose, then why do you not kill us?” Nel Tu asked matter-of-factly. “You seem intent on hiding yourself quite thoroughly. Killing us will be a breeze for a man of your caliber, and it appears that our deaths will not weigh on your conscience that much.”

“I’m fascinated by how calm you are in the face of obliteration,” the man shrugged, an easy smile plastered on his face. “I want to see how you’re going to negotiate your way out of this. I’m also curious about your powers and how they relate to mine. Evidently, there’s some connection between the energies you use and the one I utilise. Finally…well, I haven’t had such nice female company in a while, and it’s great to see that attractive women still exist in this world.”

Nelliel tried not to blush; she really did. But the man sounded so utterly sincere, with his teasing smile accentuating his devil-may-care appearance, it made for quite the charming line. Thankfully, the pink line that stretched across her features helped mask her flushed cheeks from Nnoitra. It didn’t keep the blond from noting it however, and his smile widened fractionally. “So, convince me. Show me that it’s worthwhile to work with your master. Show me that you deserve to live. Indulge my curiosity.”

“Let’s just kill this son of a bitch,” Nnoitra snarled, his ego dented by the derisive gaze of the blond man. “He pisses me off something bad.”

“Enough!” Nel ordered, her reiatsu climbing to crush Nnoitra under its suffocating grasp. “This is no time for your silly antics and petty grudges. He is far stronger than us combined, and perhaps even stronger than Aizen-sama. Challenge him, and you’ll be dead before you know it.”

“Talking more sense, I see. It’s a rare ability, that,” the azure-eyed man complimented. “So, what do you have to offer?”

“Companionship,” Nel promptly supplied, causing the blond man to raise an eyebrow skeptically. “You are afraid of relationships, because you are ageless. Your longevity is your curse. You hide from people because you fear their deaths. You fear age. You hate the feeling of loss whenever someone precious dies, and you are powerless to stop it. You live in self-isolation, in solitude, to escape from that pain. But we are ageless creatures like you, fearing only death at the hands of another. Age is no consequence for souls.”

“Souls?” the man echoed, the smile never leaving his sun-kissed features. “No wonder you two only possess spiritual energy. So you are dead then, yet living in another dimension parallel to this world. It seems you have managed to maintain my intrigue in your world. Very well. I will meet this master of yours.”

Nelliel heaved a sigh of relief, and had to order a sulking Nnoitra to stand down once more. Both Espada never noticed the slight crease at the edge of the man’s eyes, a world-weariness that was momentarily revealed before it was masked by a face-splitting grin. Companionship huh? This girl is quite the perceptive one.

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Uzumaki Naruto never thought of himself as a very smart person. He was slow to grasp concepts, and learnt better with his hands. But being alive for more than a thousand years gave a man plenty of time to learn, to study and to understand the world around him. He had believed himself to have had known all the wonders of the world, but he was proven wrong when a hole in the dimensional fabric of the world was ripped open with a swing of the green-haired woman’s hand. It was pure spiritual energy manipulation, he realised, his grasp of chakra and its components unparalleled due to years of study and experimentation.

His possession of physical energy put him at a different level from souls, he concluded, as he absentmindedly stepped upon the platform that the recruiters had formed with their spiritual energy. Souls were previously people with high spiritual energy, but unable to use it or chakra due to their lack of training and low levels of physical energy respectively. When they died, they left their physical bodies, thus being composed entirely of spiritual energy, which they can then learn to manipulate. He could see them courtesy of their high spiritual energy, higher than he had ever encountered in another ninja. He supposed that to see lower-leveled souls, he would have to leave his body as a spirit. It planted a seed in his mind, one regarding the destruction of his home, but he shoved that question to the recesses of his mind for the moment.

The reason why they could even come into contact with him was not anything special, he mused, just their ability to only interact with spiritual energy. His energy levels were high enough for them to treat as another soul, even though he was in fact composed of living and breathing tissue. They didn’t seem to notice that little factoid, even as Naruto modified his body homeostasis to cope with the changing conditions of moving through a dimensional tear. He was glad that when they finally stepped foot upon the bleached sands of the world they called Hueco Mundo, the air was thin but breathable.

“How dreary,” the ninja remarked wryly, as the recruiters took off for the home of their organization.

The journey was short and unfulfilling, given the barrenness of the sand dunes that covered the entirety of Hueco Mundo. There was nothing but a few crystallized trees that dotted the landscape sporadically, and the crescent moon never changed in the dark skies above. The headquarters of their group was quite well blended with the surroundings, despite its massive size. Naruto almost missed it as they approached, the white walls of the veritable palace practically a part of the landscape. At the entrances stood two massive beasts, snarling and frothing at the mouths. They had white, broken masks that adorned their faces, obscuring their features from sight. Noting the presence of a stylized antelope skull atop the hazel-eyed woman’s head, he supposed it was either an organizational thing, or there was something more that he was unaware of.

Passing through the gigantic marble archway that formed the main entrance, Naruto was treated to blinding blue skies, a sharp juxtaposition to the outside world. His eyes saw through the barrier layer quite easily, shaking his head at the grandness of the palace, despite its emptiness. It was more sand that had greeted them within the castle, although various white buildings and red towers were spread out across the massive interior of the palace. The two souls led Naruto to a large, central lair, the darkness that enveloped the inside somewhat comforting for the ninja, used to skulking around in the shadows.

Brought into a central chamber, the two recruiters fell to a knee to greet their leader. Seated upon a bare throne was a plain-looking brunette, with scholarly spectacles perched on his nose. He wore a black kimono and a white haori, but otherwise was completely nondescript. There was not a single defining feature that would clearly differentiate him from the masses. An easygoing smile was plastered on his face, though Naruto could see through the façade with little trouble. “Welcome back, my dear Espada. How was your trip?”

“Eventful,” the green-haired one deadpanned, which seemed to amuse their leader.

“I see you brought back a guest,” the man commented airily. “You must be curious about us, am I right?”

“I have a few questions if that’s what you’re implying,” Naruto riposted coolly. “But if you think you can manipulate me like you do with your pawns, then think again. I am far from the naïve and innocent kid I was a thousand odd years ago.”

“Very well, it seems I would have to satiate your thirst for knowledge first, before I can attempt to convince you to my great cause,” the brunette smiled genially. “Ask away.”

“A thousand years ago, there was a massive spiritual disruption in my homeland. It sucked all the spiritual energy out of a hundred thousand people,” Naruto recounted, narrowing his eyes. “What do you know of this incident?”

“An easy question to answer, stranger-san,” the brunette smirked. “You see, the spiritual world is divided into two. On one side are the shinigami like myself; charged with maintaining the balance of the world and purifying souls, sending them to Soul Society where they can live their inane lives out. The other side comprises the Hollows, such as Nelliel and Nnoitra standing beside you. Hollows are wretched creatures, souls with no hearts that consume and feed on other souls. Of course, there are other details beyond that, but they can wait as I answer your question.”

“The shinigami are run by, and essentially guarding an entity known only as the Spirit King. It does not involve himself in the affairs of lower beings, and leaves the running of the world to the self-righteous shinigami. He lives in a separate dimension within the walls of Seireitei, the home of the shinigami, and to enter the dimension, one requires an Ōken, a special key that is guarded protectively. However, more than a thousand years ago, there came to be a need to forge another key. The reasons are lost in time,” the bespectacled man explained, his smirk widening as Naruto’s aura darkened considerably. “To forge the key, a hundred thousand spiritually active souls, along with a reiatsu-enriched land were required. I believe that your home was the unlucky location to be selected for such an ‘honour’.”

“I see,” Naruto murmured, suppressing his volatile anger. No need to kill everyone from his chakra presence. “Why are you plotting against your own side?”

“Because they have grown arrogant and weak in their ways,” the shinigami replied viciously. “The Spirit King does nothing as the shinigami squander their powers and waste their potential. I intend to lead an army into the Spirit King’s dimension, usurp him and bring this spirit world into a new age of prosperity.”

“And your army? One of Hollows I presume. How do you intend to control these wretched creatures as you term them?” Naruto questioned, casting a sideways glance at a subdued Nelliel.

The brunette adjusted his glasses as he began his explanation. “Hollows are wretched creatures, yes, and they devour human souls with impunity. However, they will also cannibalise, and that allowed them to absorb each other. As more and more Hollows are consumed, the Hollows will evolve into a greater being, one formed from a thousand individual souls. These Menos Grande are termed Gillians, mindless, towering beings that consume each other in feeding frenzies. But some souls will fight for dominance, and emerge from the myriad souls within the Gillian to take control. When that happens, it evolves once more into the Adjuchas. Smaller, more powerful, they form the backbone for my army. And finally, when the Adjuchas has consumed enough souls, it evolves into a Vasto Lorde, the final form for Hollows. They are humanoid in shape and size, yet are far more powerful than any Hollow you can pit against them. So few in number, I have sent my lieutenants in searches for them, only to return empty handed for years.”

“Humanoid, you say?” Naruto pointed his thumb at Nelliel. “Like her?”

“No. They are humanoid, but evidently Hollows and monsters. Some Menos Grande, however, learn how to break their white masks, the masks that are manifestations of their lost hearts. This breaking of the masks grants them immeasurable power compared to their previous forms, and they are termed as Arrancar,” the shinigami answered. “It is a rare Hollow that does that, however, and I have invented a device that can artificially transform them into Arrancar, giving them power and a true identity. I return their humanity to them, and they serve me out of gratitude.”

“I suppose she is one of your top lieutenants then, given how important the search for me must have been,” Naruto remarked. “To have put in so much effort to track me, that you could even detect my barrier at all…”

“Yes, she is, although you are mistaken about how much personal resources I have dedicated to your search,” the man smiled friendlily. “After all, I only knew of your existence after the shinigami detected you.”

“I suppose you’re undercover then, to be able to utilise shinigami resources,” Naruto inferred quickly, his respect for the man rising a few notches. Ambition was one thing, but to plan something as big as the bespectacled brunette had done while pretending to be loyal, it was quite a marvel. “So, what do you want with me?”

“Simple intrigue, my friend,” the shinigami replied nonchalantly. “How did a man of your strength escape detection for so long? What abilities do you have? What are your motivations? You, my friend, stand at a higher level of evolution that we do. If not for that uneven mix of energies within you, we would not be able to sense your presence. I wish to understand you, and perhaps help you along your destined path.”

“You mean you wish to ascend to my level of evolution,” the blond man retorted dryly. “Stop sugar-coating your words. I’ve heard better. If you don’t want your subordinates to hear, then dismiss them. Don’t patronize me, kid. I’m not someone to be trifled with.”

“Very well then,” the man turned serious. “My initial explanation of your plight seems to have invoked your ire. How about an alliance then? You help me attain my goals, and you can wring the answers you want out of the shinigami that were involved in the fiasco, hmm? Does that sound satisfactory?”

“Don’t expect me to fight for you,” the Uzumaki spoke coolly. “I only came because your subordinate promised me something worthwhile for me here. You may request for my help, and I will consider if I will aid you on that particular matter. I have no need for you, and you have little need for me. This is a marriage of convenience, and only of little benefit to either party. We’ll see how it progresses, but do not expect me to divulge my secrets to you. Your thirst for power is not something I wish to indulge.”

“Very well,” Aizen nodded, a little miffed at the blatant rejection. “I suppose Nelliel can show you around. I trust you will not cause trouble for me then?”

“No more than you would for me,” Naruto smiled, his long canines bared. A smile could be construed a declaration of threat in the animal kingdom, and Naruto was intent on delivering his message in the most instinctual way: don’t mess with me. “Oh, by the way, I’m Uzumaki Naruto.”

Aizen nodded quietly, and as the trio left the throne room, the man slumped into his seat, exhausted from keeping up the pretense of authority. Unknown to Nel and Nnoitra, Naruto had been cranking up his reiatsu levels, raising the pressure solely for Aizen. It was the blond man’s mischievous idea for a test, and the brown-haired shinigami was glad he seemed to have passed, given Naruto’s consent to an alliance. This man…his reiatsu levels are beyond even mine! This is ridiculous! I had thought I was near the pinnacle of shinigami growth, and there was no one else on my level. Yet, someone from the ancient past is on another plane of evolution, and far more powerful than I would be if I ascended now! I must watch this man carefully, lest he jeopardizes my grand plans purposely or inadvertently.

Uzumaki Naruto…just what in the world are you?

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As Nnoitra trudged off to bully a few Números, Nelliel was left with the thankless job of escorting their newest ally around Las Noches. She was well aware of the long, intense stare from the blond man, and it was a hugely unnerving experience for the green-haired Arrancar. Finally, not even her renowned patience could take it any longer, as she whirled around on her heels, startling Naruto following behind her. “May I know why you are glaring at me so intently, Uzumaki-sama?”

Naruto’s surprise melted away almost instantly, replaced with an expression of curiosity. “I’m intrigued by your offer of companionship, and positively giddy from being able to discover all the nuances of spiritual energy manipulation. I have never attempted it, given that my natural inclination is to manipulate chakra. The experience will be highly enlightening for me, someone who had assumed himself to have learnt all there is to learn about his own abilities.”

“Masking your greater interest in my offer with your claims of interest in your powers is quite the poor attempt to distract me from your true purpose here,” Nel smiled, the Uzumaki’s lack of killing intent, oppressing reiatsu or holier-than-thou attitude allowing her to converse with him in far friendlier manner. “I am not blind to the feelings of others. It is a gift of my ascension to Arrancar form, being able to experience and perceive human emotions once again. You are desperate for a friend, any conscious being that can survive the ages with you.”

“You have read me like a book,” Naruto admitted with a grimace. “But that won’t gain you any leverage against me.”

Nel Tu’s smile didn’t leave her face, having already established an advantage over the blond. She knew of his weakness; she could easily exploit it if there was ever a need be. She hoped that that day would never come though; she had a taste of his immense power back in the forest, and she had no wish to get into a fight with one of the most powerful beings on the planet at present moment. She wasn’t even sure if she could endure being in the same vicinity as him if he unleashed his full power. Her relief from the discovery that the blond’s real, rather innocuous, reason for staring at the back of her head was only a desire for friendship was palpable, and it showed in her relaxed posture and the skip in her step from finally arriving home

It didn’t escape notice, which had Naruto frowning from his failure at deflecting his very real issues from the limelight. He knew, as well as anyone, that it was practically a disease, the way he kept away from civilization so fervently. He was quite amazed by his own ability to remain at the very edge of sanity, retaining his communicative skills and ability to do other basic human actions that went unused in his self-imposed exile. He wasn’t sure if the Tres Espada would manipulate him with his manic desire for some companionship after centuries of solitude, or if she would end up a real friend. Naruto, for the first time in over a thousand years, was genuinely terrified of a woman who was but a speck in comparison to his overflowing power.

Oh well, nothing I can do except to march on. Everyone told me I was an obstinate knucklehead who didn’t understand the word ‘caution’ anyway, Naruto mused, his thoughts unable to keep him from staring at Nel Tu’s emerald tresses…or admiring her derriere. The blond shinobi chuckled lightly as his mind dredged up memories of his godfather, memories he had to thank his special constitution for retaining despite his age. I wonder if this would be considered pedophilia…

“And what might be so funny, Uzumaki-sama?” Nel enquired, swiveling her head back to address Naruto without breaking pace.

The man grinned widely, his sharp canines flashing in the artificial sunlight of Las Noches. “Nothing that is to your benefit, Aoi-chan. It would be in your best interests to not know what my devious, thousand year old mind is plotting.”

Before Nelliel could grill and pester the immortal further, she was interrupted by a loud bawl. Before she could escape, she was scooped into the large arms of her Fracción, smothering her in his bear-like embrace. Her muffled sigh was far from exasperated, given her own feelings for her Fracción, as she returned the hug, patting the giant awkwardly. Behind the giant man was another smaller man, far thinner and less noticeable. The smaller man glared at Naruto suspiciously, his fingers dancing lightly on the hilt of his zanpakutō. Naruto, in turn, scrutinized him thoroughly. He had shoulder-length blond hair of a lighter shade than Naruto’s, and a white mask that covered his forehead and surrounded his left eye, the glowing yellow orb taking attention off the rest of his nondescript features. Two horns, reminiscent of stag beetles, protruded from the top of his mask. Dressed in the white uniform of Aizen’s Arrancar army, he looked the more dangerous of the two.

The one hugging Nelliel was a huge Arrancar, the towering man reminding Naruto once more of his deceased godfather. Naruto didn’t think Jiraiya would appreciate being associated with the sobbing wreck that the Fracción was, however. The man was dressed in the same uniform as his counterpart, and his face was obscured with a mask as well. But this mask was significantly more flamboyant than the ones Naruto had seen so far. It was a massive tiki mask, decorated with plenty of colour in contrast with the drab white that filled most of Las Noches. The mask was broken at the top, covering the face from eyebrows downward. Completely bald, the man didn’t look the part of a fierce Arrancar warrior. Still, Naruto was careful not to underestimate any of them. He might be overwhelmingly more powerful than Nel, who was in turn far stronger than her subordinates, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t find a way to hurt him.

Once the large Fracción had ended his wails and reluctantly let go of a breathless Nelliel, the jade-haired Espada dived headlong into introductions. “Uzumaki-sama, this is Dondochakka Birstanne and Pesche Guatiche, my Fracción, subordinates I have chosen from the rank and file. Dondochakka, Pesche, this is Uzumaki Naruto-sama, an…ally of Aizen-sama’s. He is outside our command structure, and is an equal of Aizen-sama, so show him the proper respect.”

As the words tumbled from Nel’s mouth, Pesche relaxed, his hand falling off his sword hilt. He extended it for a firm handshake with Naruto, whose hand was then engulfed by Dondochakka’s massive mitts. The friendly Arrancar then dragged Naruto into Nelliel’s quarters, the blond man befuddled but unresisting. Nel Tu smiled at the helpless look on a flummoxed Naruto. Who knows? Maybe he’ll end up being a friend of ours. For all the false fronts he puts up, he’s just a desperately lonely man on the inside. To have to wield so much power responsibly, to shoulder such a burden alone…it must be a terrible ordeal. His eyes reflect his weariness far more than he shows with his words and actions. For the sake of him and everyone else, I guess I have the responsibility to keep him sane and in control of that massive reiatsu of his.

As Dondochakka suddenly grabbed Naruto in a bear hug, crying about how glad he was that Nelliel was finally getting married to someone worthy, the hazel-eyed woman couldn’t help but giggle.

Well, relatively sane.

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