Eleventh Division had been the wall that the Arrancar assault broke against, and Zaraki Kenpachi had been the breakwater on that wall. The swirling throng of Hollows had parted before him. He had held the gate. He and his Division had pressed back the forces of Aizen Sousuke and left the battlefield strewn with corpses. Mostly Hollows and Arrancars, but some of their own as well. Which was fair enough. It was the Eleventh Division thing. You killed, you got killed. It happened.
His sword dripped with slime. Sweat and dust streaked his face. He was fucking pissed off.
There had not been a single worthy opponent in the whole damned lot. Oh, cannon-fodder, sure, even stuff that could challenge Ikkaku or Yumichika, even a few that gave Yachiru a bit of a workout -- now where had she got to?
-- oh yes, over there, chasing something which was screaming and flailing around as it retreated. Fucking wimp.
He flicked his sword round and back, spattering the mud with fluids, then lifted his head with interest as something in the distance tingled on the edge of his perception. Something approaching fast.
Oh, he wasn't going to get his hopes up, but this felt good.
It was one of those guys in white who seemed to be Aizen's particular minions. He was coming in like an express train, cutting through his own people when they didn't get out of the way fast enough -- yes, yes, that was the way to do it -- and the air stood back around him, driven back by the force of his presence. He had an arrogant strut as he came to a halt, punk blue hair even wilder than the Kurosaki kid, and a half-mask of bone stuck to the side of his face. And a sword. Oh yes, a sword.
Zaraki could feel wild laughter welling up in him, feel the faint tremble of eagerness in his own
zanpakutou hilt. Yes. This was what he had been waiting for. "Who are you?" he growled.
The blue-haired stranger sneered at him. "Guess I should be asking you that first. I don't want to waste my time on inferior crap."
"Zaraki Kenpachi. Captain of Eleventh Division of the Gotei 13. And I guess you're one of the pieces of crap that Aizen's dragged out of the gutters?"
The blue-haired man arrogantly propped his fists on his hips. "Grimmjow Jagger Jack. Sixth Espada. That means, for people like you who are a bit slow, I'm one of Aizen-sama's ten best. And I'm going to put my fist through your fucking guts."
"Bring it," Zaraki snarled. He wondered if the fragment of bone that clung to Grimmjow's face was like his own eyepatch. All the better if it was.
Grimmjow snorted. "You mean you're worth my bothering with? All you shinigami are trash."
Zaraki's rising anger became amusement. "Guess you really are undereducated. The Eleventh is the strongest Division, and I'm the Captain of the Eleventh. I defeated the previous Captain and took his title over his dead body. We didn't get put here. We asked for it. And so far we've wiped out your troops and kicked them back to Hueco Mundo. You figure you're going to change things?"
The rising mob of Hollows and Arrancars behind Grimmjow stirred like stormclouds. Grimmjow himself paid no attention to them. "Yeah. I figure that once I've taken you down, we're going to go through this place like a hot knife through flesh. But I guess you might be worth my time."
"And I suppose you might be worth mine," Zaraki allowed. "Prove it."
The next few minutes were crowded, but stretched out with the sheer golden delight that came only when Zaraki found himself being stretched -- the sweet pleasure of muscles having to strain themselves, of an actual challenge, the joy that only came when he was risking something (and how long had that been? Not since the Kurosaki boy) and genuinely might lose it, the thrill of a blade cutting into his flesh.
The other wasn't bad. Not bad at all.
"You'll do," he complimented Grimmjow.
Grimmjow turned his head and spat into the mud. "If you're the best Seireitai has, then you'll all be dead by sunset."
That wild laughter came bubbling up through Zaraki again. With a roar he tore away his eyepatch. "Come on, then," he growled, raising his zanpakutou. (And still it did not speak to him. Why did it not speak to him? He gave it all that he himself wanted. Blood. Havoc. War.) "Try me."
Grimmjow licked his lips, eyes suddenly startled and avid. "Oh yes. Oh yes, that's more like it."
Zaraki brought his blade round in a sweep that cleft the ground and left a great hissing canyon behind it, and the sheer force took Grimmjow and shook him and threw him backwards. "Yeah? Well, try this."
Grimmjow hadn't gone down, even if he had been knocked back. He was still standing, knees braced. For the first time his hand fell to the hilt of his sword. "Right. Grind --"
"Captain!" It was Ikkaku, yelling like a moron, interrupting this fight now just when it was
hitting the high note, just when Zaraki couldn't (and wouldn't) take his eyes off his opponent. "Captain, they're breaking through round to the east, we're needed there --"
"See to it," Zaraki snapped, not looking away from the smirking Grimmjow. "Get Yachiru."
"She's already there. We need you, Captain."
"I'm needed here." That grin on Grimmjow's face was infuriating. It somehow suggested that Zaraki was a coward who'd take any excuse to get out of the battle. "This is my fight."
"Captain," Ikkaku said, and the word was both a plea and a reminder.
Yeah. He was their Captain. But he was Zaraki Kenpachi too, the undefeated, the strongest, the watcher by night. And that meant something, didn't it. Of course it fucking did. He'd chosen that before he'd become a Captain, before he'd even dreamed of having a zanpakutou or being a shinigami.
This was his fight. It was all his. He wasn't giving it up for anything.
"I'll be along," he said, and felt his reiatsu rising with the words, with the decision. "Get out of here."
Ikkaku wasn't the sort to waste time arguing with him. He was gone in a swirl of wind, and with the weight of his gaze gone, so was the last shred of Zaraki's restraint. He howled, and charged.
They traced great arcs in the bloody mud, kicking aside or incinerating bodies in great waves of force as they clashed and parted and clashed again. Plates of bony armor slid across Grimmjow's body, sheathing him like a beetle's wings, and when Zaraki's blade trailed across them, the metal screamed against the armor and the armor hissed and steamed like acid.
Zaraki wasn't just fighting to protect Seireitai now, or even fighting to defend himself, necessary though that was -- a blow cut a long line down his side, that was going to scar, oh, the sweet pain of torn muscle and the smell of his own blood -- but just fighting for the sake of fighting, for the sensation of it, for everything from knowing that the other man was trying to kill him and that he was trying to kill them to the thrill of risking everything to proving himself the strongest. Even Kurosaki hadn't given him this. Sure, they'd played, but only for a little while, only just enough to whet Zaraki's appetite before the single deciding blow.
This was the only thing that mattered.
In the distance, the earth shook and lightnings ran from ground to sky. It wasn't important. It was
backdrop. It was something other than the fight, and at the moment, nothing except the fight was important.
Grimmjow sliced across Zaraki's chest. Zaraki thrust his blade into Grimmjow's guts. They grinned at each other across their bared blades, lips drawn back from their teeth, and disengaged again. Blood spattered and was stamped into the mud.
They paused and stared at each other. Murderous reiatsu hissed and crackled in the air. Corpses nearby began to char and combust from the sheer force of their presence. The level of their killing intent turned the wind and divided it as it came near the pair, made it blow to either side of them and flap the remainder of their clothing like bloodstained pennants.
Zaraki wondered, dizzily, if it could go on like this forever; harder and faster, more and more vicious, higher and higher, rising in a never-ending climb till every stroke of a sword would destroy cities, would shatter worlds.
Something changed in Grimmjow's regard, and Zaraki knew this coming blow would be the last for one of them.
They moved towards each other in a great humming wave of power, in a stillness large enough to shake Seireitai, and he saw the grin on the other's face --
-- so like the grin on his own face, the twin to it, the mirror to it --
-- and a blade came between them like the end of the world and knocked them apart.
Zaraki shook his head to slow the ringing in his ears. His hand was still firm on the hilt of his zanpakutou. Wasn't like anything could separate them. Grimmjow hung in the air, ringed by a halo of light that restrained him as he swore and struggled, and Aizen stood beside him, smiling.
Grimmjow was screaming. "Let me go! Let me go, you bastard! I want to kill him! He's mine! Mine!"
Zaraki pointed his sword at Aizen. "You. What the fuck do you think you're doing."
"Stopping this." Aizen shrugged. His robes were sterile and spotless, and he himself seemed to be lit from within, flesh pale as chalk, eyes dark as blood. "It is no longer necessary."
Zaraki's rage howled like a wolf in him, brought his reiatsu up again in waves that rippled the air and scorched his hands. "You don't give me orders. First I'll finish him. Then I'll finish you."
Aizen raised one hand and pointed behind Zaraki, towards Seireitai. Unwillingly Zaraki turned to look, and saw the towers in flames.
"It's too late," Aizen said. "You're irrelevant now."
Grimmjow's screaming had died away to a whimpering. Foam ran from the corners of his mouth, and he clawed at the bonds of light that held him suspended, his fingers broken-nailed and bloody.
"I may still have some use for my Espada." Aizen gestured to Grimmjow. "But as for you, Zaraki Kenpachi -- crawl away and die in whatever hole suits you."
Zaraki struck, but the blow passed through emptiness where Aizen had been, and his sword cut a deep wound in the bloodied earth.
"Goodbye," Aizen said. Shadows vortexed around him and Grimmjow, then faded and were gone, leaving only the echo of Grimmjow's voice screaming, "No! Let me! Let me fight him! He's mine --"
The air was dreadfully, horribly quiet. In the distance, Zaraki could hear the sound of flames, the falling of masonry, and tiny, tiny screams, so far away, so unimportant.
Far louder was the sound of each drop of his blood that fell; far louder was the silence of his zanpakutou as it hung heavy in his hand.