Chapter 11 – Come the Reckoning

Hitsugaya hissed as a bolt of green light burned through his wing, slamming into his side and taking him to his knees. Beside him, Karin's blue fire had finally ceased to fall, but the Shinigami hadn't recovered, granting him a reprieve from the steady flow of kidou. Soifon lunged, forcing him off balance as he tried to regain his feet, slipping past his defenses with her insane speed. He brought up his arm and felt her tear through flesh, painting a vivid tattoo to match the one she'd been aiming for. She was trying to kill him, he realized distantly, and he wondered if she'd truly gone over the edge.

His wings were his advantage in this particular fight, shielding him from kidou and her deadly, stinging attack. Unfortunately, they'd suffered badly deflecting her initial blast and the steady influx of spells was starting to wear them thin. He gritted his teeth, drawing on the elements, strengthening his defenses as he lashed out again.

Karin screamed from somewhere behind him, the sound jarring his nerves and costing him his edge. He had to get her out of there, for everybody's sake. He could feel Ichigo's panicked rage pulsing through the battlefield as he struggled to reach her. She was a deadly distraction for everyone involved and it was turning the tide against them to cover her position. She screamed again, different this time; a darker, ugly edge tinting its wavering depths.

He lashed out hard, driving Soifon back, overusing his power in the height of his fear. He turned in time to see the blade pull free, spilling Karin's blood vivid across the ground. The sword raised again—a graceful soundless arc—and something inside of him snapped.

He was on the Shinigami before he even knew he'd move, watching the head spin away as the body fell before him. Another wave was coming and he pivoted to face them, cutting them down with shards of ice. They were endless, faceless; coming from all directions with a singular fury.

There was trouble brewing, he could feel it fluttering in his bones on the tide of the battle. Karin's bloody fingers curled slick against his coat and he pulled her to her feet, pressing her behind him, moving to shield Kon in the crimson-splashed grass. Ichigo's tortured scream cut sharp across the chaos, the pull of his reiatsu suddenly writhing in the air. His head snapped around and he saw the man fall, clawing at his throat with Byakuya looming near. A thrill of electric fear ignited in his chest and he felt Urahara responding, though the damage was already done. It was over—the final move—and he realized with sudden clarity that they were all going to die.

Seemingly in response he registered Renji's shout, calling out to Soifon with an edge of panicked horror. Hitsugaya turned, as if in a dream, and saw her sickening sneer; saw the glow forming in her bankai as it trained on Karin's form. He spun without thinking, pulling her body close; turning his back to the inevitable though he knew it would do no good. He didn't have the strength to withstand that kind of blow, not even to shield the others with his final, useless act. He felt her open fire. Heard the scream of Urahara's blast. And in that last, brilliant second, felt something dark crash into the clearing.

The world exploded into light and heat, a vortex of destruction that bathed the hill in ash. Hitsugaya tensed for the inevitable pain, fingers threaded through Karin's tangled hair, but it never came. The world had stilled in the heart of the chaos.

Power rang in his ears, a brief, fleeting vertigo, and he gritted his teeth as he tried to clear his head. Something shifted behind him in the space that had been empty, moving so close that it brushed against his wings. He spun, releasing the girl in his arms, readying himself for whatever came next.

Pale, blond hair drifted on the dying wind, caressing Hitsugaya's cheek as he stared dumbfounded. The figure swayed heavily, dropping to one knee, long hair spilling onto the grass around him. Hitsugaya moved on instinct, catching a white-clad shoulder, holding him in place when he swayed again. The man turned slowly, staring briefly at the hand before seeking out the captain's wide-eyed gaze.

"Oh, gods…" Hitsugaya gasped, stumbling in his haste to pull away.

Slender fingers lifted, trembling slightly under the strain, dark blood dripping from his already healing wounds. Hitsugaya's gaze flicked from the hand to his face, familiar and yet foreign in his shock-addled brain. Pale, flawless skin seemed to glow from within, brushed with a flush of exertion and pain. A thin, crimson stripe ran from the peak of his hairline, branching into twin strokes to paint vivid over his eyelids. The markings dipped lower, following the curve of his cheekbones, trailing down his neck to meet a fir-trimmed collar.

Hitsugaya had only seen him a handful of times, but the memory was scarred into the back of his mind.

"Shiro," he breathed, unaware he was even speaking, fear and apprehension warring with relief in his chest.

"Hello, Little Dragon." Golden eyes shifted up, meeting the wary gaze with a faintly curling smirk. He rose slowly, snow white daito trailing soundless through the grass.

The smoke that had shrouded them was already beginning to fade and beyond it they could hear the Shinigami closing in. Karin slid into view, clutching Hitsugaya's sleeve, hand pressed to her side to stem the flow of blood. She stared up with pain-filled eyes at the man who wasn't a man, the brother who wasn't her brother.

"I'm sorry," she choked, fingers tightening on Hitsugaya's arm. "He told me to stay away, but I didn't listen."

Shiro remained silent, his gaze dropping to her side, frowning at the blood rolling thick over her fingers. He turned his head, seeking out Kon, reading the agony in his labored, hitching breath. He swore softly, glancing over his shoulder into the waning smoke.

A cry rang out in the clearing; a sharp, panicked sound as the first Shinigami spotted him. He unwound his reiatsu, sending it out through the ranks and the cry was echoed a hundredfold as the pulse of fear spiked. Renji was struggling with a livid Soifon, thrashing violently as he tried to hold her in place. Their eyes snapped up as Shiro brushed against them and he met Soifon's gaze, lips pulling back on a feral grin. Soon—only moments until he could play.

They were coming faster now—the swarm of Shinigami—fear and surprise making them reckless in their haste. Shiro turned on Hitsugaya, boxing Kon between them, glancing down briefly with a calculating frown. His hand shot out, tangling in snowy hair, pulling the young captain flush against his chest.

"Are you afraid yet, Little Dragon?" He murmured softly, his daito slipping behind them as his arm encircled Karin.

The noise swelled louder, the ground shaking with the thunder of feet. The sky above them was thick with the glow of incoming kidou.

"Yes," Hitsugaya whispered, meeting that taunting gaze, shifting his stance to better shelter Kon.

Pale lashes fell over golden eyes as Shiro leaned in close, a dark chuckle stirring the inch between them. The whine of a zanpakuto hissed through the air and the gold went bright, glowing like twin suns under the release of the hollow's power.

"Kuro Enkou," he breathed over the young captain's mouth, inhaling the gasp that was torn in reply.

Hitsugaya felt his knees give out, his bankai shattering as Shiro's Dark Halo crashed through the clearing. The Shinigami fell, lost in the chaos, swept off their feet in a wave of black fire. Even as it spread Shiro released his hold, letting the captain fall and lowering Karin into the grass. He dropped to Kon's side, driving his daito rough into the ground, tearing hands away to assess the damage.

"I can't have you in there," he said distractedly, ignoring the confused look he got in reply.

Kon didn't have time to ask as the hollow swooped down, catching bloodied lips in a rough, demanding kiss. Kon struggled weakly, trying to turn his head, but the hollow growled to hold him in place, fingers gripping his jaw to pry his mouth open. Shiro breathed in with a spike of dark reiatsu and Kon's resistance ceased as his body fell limp. Karin made a sound of distress but the hollow didn't stop, pulling back to stare at the husk, a green orb caught firmly between his teeth.

Pale fingers punched through ragged flesh, tearing into the chest wound without the slightest hesitation. Karin stifled a scream as she tried to lunge forward, but Hitsugaya caught her arm, pulling her back. The hollow's reiatsu spiked, rough with haste but still tightly controlled. There was silence for a moment—a few, agonizing seconds—and all around they could feel the Shinigami beginning to recover. Shiro's fingers tore free with brutal disregard and he leaned in swiftly to recapture parted lips.

Kon coughed roughly, back arching off the ground, clawing at his chest as the flesh began to knit. Shiro spared him a brief, clinical look before turning on Karin, pulling away the hand that was pressed to her side. He grabbed the hem of her shirt and tore it up the seam, exposing her flesh to get a better look.

"Be careful," Hitsugaya hissed, but it fell on deaf ears. There was no time for careful even if he'd cared.

Karin choked on a cry as his fingers probed the wound, trying not to move as he pressed in deeper.

"Are you going to kiss me, too?" She gritted through her teeth, and it was hard to tell if she was serious or trying to make a joke.

He finally saw fit to address her, "Sucking out your soul would be counterproductive."

The words were harsh, but there was a faint softening to his features and to the fingers on her skin. She hissed again and Shiro finally relented, his hands dropping from her aching side.

"I can't fix you," he said flatly, seeking out her gaze. "I don't know your body and I don't have time to learn it."

His eyes shifted, sweeping over Kon before landing on Hitsugaya, who had risen to stand.

"She needs attention soon, and someone will have to carry her. You're going to need to run and she can't keep up."

The captain nodded curtly, re-summoning his bankai, scooping her off the ground as carefully as he could. Shiro stood smoothly with a glance over his shoulder to gauge the Shinigami. He turned to Kon, who was struggling to his feet, black and gold meeting chocolate brown.

"Take care of it," the hollow said, nodding toward his body; eyes skimming his chest where the wound still shown raw. "I won't always be there to patch up the hardware."

Kon's fingers rose, touching the metal at Shiro's throat, sliding fast along its curve in search of any weakness. "You won't be able to use his power."

"It won't matter," Shiro replied, allowing the intrusion with surprising ease.

"It will," Kon insisted, frowning as he worked, "The disruption of his power is echoing in yours, and you're already showing strain."

Kon had been built to assess an opponent's threat, to gauge their abilities and the level of their power. He was also incredibly sensitive to Ichigo's reiatsu and, by default, to the being that lay within. Shiro's fingers curled over his wrist, stilling his hand and drawing his gaze.

"It doesn't matter," the hollow repeated softly, and a dawning understanding passed through the mod soul's eyes.

Shiro tilted his head, listening to the approaching roar, stepping closer to Hitsugaya and drawing Kon with him.

"Try to brace yourself better, Dragon." His voice dipped lower as his eyes started to shine.

Hitsugaya's lips parted on some retort, but Shiro's second Dark Halo tore the air from his lungs. The wave broke loose and the captain's eyes rolled, but he managed to keep his balance, shielding Karin the best he could. Shiro stepped back, watching it rip through the Shinigami, speaking to the captain without bothering to turn.

"Go now, before they know what's happening."

"Wait," Karin gasped, reaching out to grab the hollow's sleeve. "Where are you going?"

He turned to meet her gaze, an odd smile lingering on his lips. "If I leave now, whoever will play with all of my new toys?"

"No," she shouted, voice tight with rising panic. "You have to come with us. We can't leave you here."

He stepped forward suddenly, fingers rising to graze her forehead, smearing it with the blood still fresh on his skin. "You're going to be beautiful someday, little princess. Don't let this break you."

His eyes flicked to Hitsugaya, giving a sharp nod, and the captain pivoted around, cutting off Karin's cry as he stepped into shunpo. Kon lingered for a second, staring out into the battlefield, torn with indecision before he finally turned to follow. Shiro watched him go, hopping along the ruins of the forest before finally disappearing behind the tree line.

It was over. He was free.

Shiro turned, lips pulling back on a sharp grin as he blasted a kidou unit with a pitch black cero. They screamed and he laughed, streaking into the clearing with a speed they couldn't match. The whine of kidou tore through the air, dotting the sky like a thousand flaming arrows, beautiful and useless. He danced between the volleys, firing off waves of merciless destruction, pale hair whipping in the tempest of his reiatsu.

Through the smoke and the chaos Demon was burning, reiatsu licking his body as he drove Kira back. Hisagi lay prone amidst the smoldering grass, his body twitching faintly as though trying to rise. Three Shinigami darted forward, dragging him toward the trees, keeping out of reach of the furiously engaged fighters. Kira's skill was no match for Urahara's, but his bankai had a range that make up for his shortcoming. Urahaha shot forward, slipping beneath an attack, slamming his palm to the ground with an unintelligible shout. The grass exploded, throwing Kira back and choking him with a cloud of burning debris.

Seemingly in response Shiro felt a spike of reiatsu, leaping away on instinct from the unknown assault. A burst of high level kidou tore the ground beneath him, knocking him through the air on the edge if it's massive shockwave. He jerked his body around, managing to land on his feet, spotting Soifon already moving to attack. His manic grin pulled wider as he darted forward, but Urahara slammed into her before he ever got close. Black and gold met wary red, the hollow tilting his head at the closed-off look. Demon was unhappy, the fury and agitation rolling off him in waves. No time for worries, though, because he was already gone, clashing with Soifon and robbing Shiro of his prey. The hollow growled but turned away, plenty of toys without having to share.

Renji was approaching fast, having dismissed his bankai in favor of speed. His attention was still fixed on Soifon, which wasn't the wisest choice. Shiro's grin slipped, a frown knotting his brows, but his body was already angling to intercept. The redhead saw him coming, Zabimaru rising between them, but his weakened resolve was blatant, screaming sick across the air. Shiro dodged to the right, lips curling in disgust before blasting him with a cero that took the captain off his feet. Renji fell hard, crashing through the trees, driven deeper into the forest as the blast refused to die.

Kira was closing in, trying to catch the hollow from behind until Shiro's third Dark Halo shattered the world around them. A pain was starting to thrum, spreading out from the hole in his chest, a warning against his displays of power which he blatantly ignored. He pulled his reiatsu in, winding it tight around his body, making him harder to track as he shot into the forest.

Renji was just regaining his feet as Shiro fell on him, the clash of steel on steel ringing sharp through the air. The hollow dodged a blow, cutting deep into Renji's shoulder, white daito ducking the whipping counter to slice across his chest.

"Is this all you have left, you broken monkey bitch?" Shiro's voice rolled thick with disgust.

"It's all your fault," Renji growled in reply, Zabimaru splintering a tree as the hollow leapt aside. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you!"

The redhead's rage was rising, overwhelming his better judgment, his moves turning erratic as he continued to lash out wildly. Shiro snarled at him, angry and bitter.

"You should have died in your bitch's place," the hollow bit out harshly, catching him in the thigh as the captain stumbled at the words. "At least she knew what loyalty meant."

The barb hit its mark, and hit it hard. Renji screamed—a horrible, broken sound of rage—Zabimaru swinging wide as he lunged for the hollow.

"Fuck you, Shiro," he shouted, barely avoiding decapitation at the edge of a blood-washed blade. "You don't know anything, you shitty fucking hollow!"

Shiro landed softly, feeling the tingle of approaching reiatsu. The Shinigami were closing around them, spreading like a virus through the smoke and trees. They were hunting him as best they could, but he didn't feel like being caught.

He darted forward in a blur of motion, once again sliding easily under Renji's guard. Pale fingers closed rough around the Shinigami's throat, sweeping him off his feet and dragging him further from their aid. The larger man slammed into a tree, his head snapping back as sparks danced through his vision. A white daito flashed cruelly, sliding sharp through Renji's flesh, pinning his shoulder to the wood and dragging a cry from his lips. A hand caught Renji's free arm as he tried to swing, twisting it mercilessly until Zabimaru fell away. Shiro released his blade, trailing his hand up Renji's throat, pressing into the bruises that were already starting to form.

"I know more than you think, you useless, traitorous fuck." Shiro's breath was hot against Renji's face, his fingers squeezing tighter as the man tried to reply. "I know you're a broken shell of a child, still screaming that life's not fair."

Renji's eyes flashed with tortured rage, blood splattering the ground as he tried to pull free. Shiro leaned closer, trapping him with his body, lips pulling back on a vicious snarl.

"I know if your precious love was here, she'd be bleeding in the grass. They'd have cut her down with the rest of us, because that's where she'd be: Fighting against all of you." Renji look like he'd been struck, but Shiro didn't care, his whisper sharp as glass as he drove the knife deeper. "She'd have drawn her line on that hill, standing between the Shinigami and the girl she died to protect."

Something broke behind Renji's gaze, a shiver running through his captive frame.

"I didn't know it would be like that…" he choked out, drawing a painful breath when the pale fingers eased.

"You knew," the hollow breathed, looking at him like he was a pitiful, disgusting thing. "You knew and you just let it happen because you're nothing but a coward."

"I didn't think she'd get hurt," Renji pleaded, the fight seeping out of him as cold settled in. This wasn't how it was supposed to end. This wasn't the vision he'd seen for himself.

"A pathetic excuse from a pathetic Shinigami, Abari-taichou."

Shiro's fingers slid from his throat, curling around the daito still buried in his flesh. The Shinigami were closing in, but their fear was making them cautious, granting him time to torment his victim.

"You know what else I know?" Shiro growled viciously, twisting the blade when the captain remained silent. He leaned in close, drinking in his pain, pale lips twitching against wild, red hair. "She would have been ashamed of you."

Renji's tortured gasp became a choked off cry as the daito pulled free, sending him staggering. Shiro pivoted gracefully, giving him no time to react, blade whistling softly to splash crimson through the air. Renji's eyes went wide, meeting impassive gold and black, lips parting soundlessly as he fell to his knees. Shiro turned away, staring out between the trees, anger simmering deep at the edge of his fractured composure.

"Why?" Renji choked, confusion heavy in his tone.

He looked up at the hollow, kneeling in the ruins of his scattered hair, his anguish half-hidden by the tendrils falling in his eyes.

"You want to die, and I'm not feeling generous." Shiro spared him a cold look, but there was something lurking deep, just out of reach. He lingered for a second before he seemed to shake it off; disappearing wordlessly as the first Shinigami arrived.

A frown knotted pale brows as the trees sped by, the pulse of reiatsu surging all around him. He shook his head to loosen the shadows, letting his feet carry him swiftly toward the clearing. Something tickled against his wrist and he glanced down at the long strands of red still caught between his fingers. They reeked of weakness, both Renji's and his own. He growled, flinging them away, letting the manic smile drift almost believably to his lips.

He tore from the treeline, dodging jets of kidou with a lazy grace, the Shinigami fast on his trail. He spun, hair dancing on the air around him, and blasted a wave of energy back into their midst. Across the field Urahara was fighting, still baiting Kira but keeping his blood-shield engaged. Something shimmered to the left of the battle and the crimson barrier splintered under some unknown attack. Shiro growled, scanning the trees for Soifon, knowing only a captain would warrant such a defense. A short burst of reiatsu found her quickly enough, sprawled against ground in a spreading pool of blood. A group of officers were working over her frantically and by their harrowed expressions it seemed Demon's teeth were starting to show. Shiro's pointed grin died in its infancy, because with the bitch out of play there was only one suspect.

He started to dart forward but drew up short, taking to the air as spikes of kidou slammed into the earth. He spun to the right, his daito flashing up, catching Kazeshini against its gore-splashed edge. Hisagi jumped back but Shiro stayed on him, clipping him in the thigh and knocking him to the ground. He drew back as the support kidou fell, throwing out a pair of ceros and reassessing his position.

Hisagi shouldn't be there, he should be writhing on the ground; hidden amongst the trees as his team worked to save him. Golden eyes narrowed as Shiro pivoted sharply, seeking out Soifon in her blood-washed bed. She was still where he'd left her, under the care of her frantic saviors, but the faint glow of gold brought a growl to his lips. Fourth division. Combat medic units.

Shiro leapt away, driving deeper into the clrearing, raining dark fire into the enemy ranks. There were more of them than there should be, considering those he knew had fallen; more even than could be accounted for with the fourth's intervention. It seemed reinforcements had arrived while his attention had been on Renji. He swore sharply, dodging a fresh wave of kidou, sweeping the fresh units for a clue of the stakes.

It wasn't hard once he knew where to look, with each of the squads brandishing its own unique style. The whole of fourth division seemed to be spread across the field, raising the fallen like a necromantic swarm. If that were the end of it, he wouldn't have given pause, but he caught a hint of madness in the rolling current of battle. Intermixed with the others were flickers of manic excitement, wisps of darker longing in the unstable bursts of power. Twelvth division had taken to the field, forming broken ranks and pressing the assault. This was trouble of a very real sort. Twelveth division meant Mayuri, and Mayuri meant…

Shiro's head whipped around in time to catch the explosion, Demon barely holding against a surge of violet fire. This was bad. Mayuri was dangerous at the best of times, and his unbridled hatred of Urahara was bordering on obsession. Shiro's lips pulled back in a feral snarl, his feet already moving as something caught his attention.

Byakuya was running along the edge of the trees, closing in on the hollow or possibly looking for Renji. All thoughts of Mayuri fled, rage narrowing his focus to a single, hateful point. He lunged forward with a singular fury, his gore-streaked blade cutting sharp through the air. Byakuya pivoted elegantly, bringing up Senbonzakura, deflecting the blow easily as he slid to one side. Too easily. There was too much history there, too many battles fought side by side. Of all the people in existence, only a handful could boast knowing the hollow so well. He growled, a vicious, scathing sound as he bore down on one of the only creatures he'd ever considered an ally.

"Stop this madness," Byakuya shouted, scattering Senbonzakura to combat the hollow's speed.

"Fuck your madness." Shiro snarled, "You can burn for all I care."

Byakuya's eyes narrowed as he unleashed his bankai, hands rising through the air to direct the deadly flow.

"It didn't have to end this way," the captain bit out, a flicker of true regret whispering over his face.

"You, of all people, would know that," the hollow hissed, driving him back with sheer, raw power.

They flew together, speed on speed, Senbonzakura glittering on the air around them. Byakuya was fast, but Shiro was faster, forcing the captain to struggle to keep the hollow at bay. They raced along the treeline as the kidou started to thin, the lesser Shinigami unable to distinguish friend from foe. Shiro feigned right, slipping beneath the arching flow, blade sliding sharp over Byakuya's flesh.

The hollow danced away, his blade rising through the air, running his fingers over the fresh wash of blood. He raised the fingers to his mouth, smearing a vivid trail over his lips, holding the other man's gaze through the swirl of metal between them. His teeth slid out, dragging over the surface, his lashes falling slightly to mask his rolling fury.

"You taste like cowardice and betrayal, Kuchiki."

Byakuya's eyes flickered but he didn't miss a beat, tightening his defenses as the hollow lunged again. Shiro's rage was screaming, choking the cooling air, laced with the threads of a deeper hurt. A wave of kidou licked across the ground and Shiro caught it against his palm, heedless of the damage. The burn in his chest was thrumming now and he knew he was being reckless but he couldn't bring himself to care.

"This isn't the answer," Byakuya snapped, his reiatsu spinning around him as he readied his next assault. "I know you don't want this."

"What would you know about what I want?" Shiro snarled, sliding through the flurry like a vengeful wraith. "I want to feel your blood dripping down my hands."

His diato flashed dully, opening a gash along Byakuya's side but Senbonzakura tore through his leg and robbed him of his prize. He leapt back angrily, moving further into the clearing, drawing on his powers to heal as Byakuya shifted to follow.

"I want to tear your whole world down around me," Shiro growled, blasting a volley of vicious ceros at the units who'd come within range.

He launched himself at the captain, lips pulling back on a snarl of rage.

"I want to eat your souls and burn your families and scream to the sky like a fucking animal because that's all I am, right? Just a mindless, fucking hollow?"

"You're breaking his mind, Shiro," Byakuya bit out, voice tight with a hundred writhing emotions. "You're out of control and it has to stop."

Shiro deflected Senbonzakura against his arm, blood spattering dark along the length of his side. He stabbed through the opening to clip the captain in the chest, but slid off his ribs when the man hardened his reiatsu. The captain fell back, weaving the glittering shards around him, far more familiar with his methods of attack than Shiro ever should have allowed.

"I DON'T NEED TO BE CONTROLED!" Shiro screamed, rage twisting hard with bitter despair. "I surrendered that fight years ago, or have you already forgotten? Two years, four months and thirteen fucking days, to be exact. If anyone's breaking him, it's you."

Shiro withdrew to calm the rising tempest, trying to stamp down the anger burning heavy in his throat. He couldn't give in to the screaming fury. He missed the flash of green streaking in from behind, the support forces moving during his momentary slip. Senbonzakura shifted, arching brilliant through the air, catching the blast on its glittering flow. Their eyes sought each other, Byakuya's flaring in surprise. He'd done it on instinct—an unconscious move—an ingrained response to seeing Shiro in danger. It was the epitome of why the whole thing was fucked; an affront to everything they had ever believed. It made Shiro hate him that much more.

"We cannot risk that you've changed your mind," Byakuya countered, sounding like he hated himself for the words. "That you've taken the easy opening when the path became rough."

"Not all of us are that weak, Kuchiki," Shiro spat, already streaking forward to re-enter the fray.

They rolled together, fighting for dominance, but Shiro's anger dulled his speed and allowed the captain to hold his ground. Skirting the clearing, Urahara was still burning but his movements were slowing as his reiatsu started to wane. It was a game of time now, of numbers and patience. The Shinigami were hanging back, leery of the enemy, trying to conserve their strength for when they were needed. They were relying on their captains to handle the fight from here.

Shiro spun to the right, firing off a cero, trying to clear an opening for the still-outnumbered blond. He knew Demon wouldn't leave, and there was little to be done, but he might well be the only ally the hollow still had left. That alone was worth whatever he had to offer. He turned back to Byakuya, to the anger and betrayal, feeling the bloodlust starting to rise.

"You fucking hypocritical shit," he snarled, lashing out hard and fast. "Where's that bullshit honor you were always bitching about? Where's the self-righteous asshole I trusted with my life?"

Byakuya didn't respond, focusing his efforts on dodging the blows. As the hollow's rage burned colder his manic speed increased.

"Was this the future you saw in your dreams?" The pale blade whispered as it cut through the air. "Is this what you bought with all of that blood?"

Byakuya grunted as the blade nicked his thigh, shifting Senbonzakura too slowly to catch the hollow.

"What's a little more blood, right, Kuchiki?" There was a deeper weariness settling in his chest, eclipsing the pain of his shivering reiatsu. "Just one more loose end to toss out with the trash."

Byakuya turned, following his path, a flutter in his bankai matching the tremor within.

"I never wanted this," the captain confessed, "but you're tearing my world apart and I cannot allow it."

"It's my world, too," Shiro bit out, the cold throbbing deeper in the pit of his being. "Or is even that too good for me now?"

Byakuya flinched, a barely there movement, but it was more than enough for the hollow to use. He slid beneath the defenses, drawing in close, bringing them face to face as the blades danced around them.

"Should I die for you, Bya?" he murmured softly, an infinite pain tangled deep in the anger. "Is that what it takes for the world to make sense?"

Byakuya hesitated, attack stilling mid-air, Senbonzakura answering the conflict within. His lips parted soundlessly, dark brows pulling together, but he seemed to lose whatever words had drifted to his tongue. Shiro's face snapped closed, reading the answer in the silence, a numb sort of emptiness dulling the pain.

He twitched so fast that he blurred to invisible, and Byakuya's eyes went wide as the blade sunk through his chest. Pale fingers twisted against the hilt of the paler daito, pushing it further, piercing though Byakuya's back. It was strangely fitting—an echo of the wound the captain had once given Ichigo. A laughing twist of fate. Shiro leaned forward, bringing them inches apart, watching the pain dance in Byakuya's eyes.

"Fuck you, Bya," he whispered over his skin. "I don't owe you anything."

Urahara was closing the distance fast, throwing himself between the legion and their unmoving target. There was a flash of crimson from somewhere behind Shiro, and distantly he heard the Shinigami screaming but he didn't even look. Byakuya's lashes fluttered, lips parting on a gasp as a tremor ran through him.

A silence seemed to have fallen over the remaining Shinigami, a collective gasp of shock and horror. Shiro didn't spare them a thought, unleashing his Dark Halo into the battered world. It pulled a strained gasp from his own pale lips. The ache was burning deep, but it no longer mattered. Nothing had ever mattered, except for this.

He leaned forward again, closing the space between them, licking a trail of blood splashed dark over parted lips. A frown pulled at pale brows, molten gold and black coiling with warring emotion.

"I thought it would feel different," he confessed quietly, speaking more to himself than to the dying man. "There should be vindication and triumph, all the things your blood owes me, but it's just…empty."

Byakuya choked again, blood running down his chin, eyes rolling slightly as the darkness tried to take him. His lips parted and then closed again, parting once more as through trying to form words. Shiro's fingers pressed against them, stilling the attempt.

"You don't get to speak," the hollow whispered faintly, the words laced with a deadly calm. "The time for talk has long since passed, and you just watched it go."

Shiro moved so fast that Byakuya couldn't react, slamming his daito home with a brutal thrust. The guard pressed flush against his blood-soaked robes and the captain choked out a gurgling cry. His body shivered, going momentarily stiff, before he slumped against the hollow as his strength gave out. Shiro growled low in his throat, eyes raking the other's face, searching for something he couldn't even define. His frown deepened, teeth clenching hard against a howl of rage.

"Am I not even worthy of this?" He screamed at the dying captain, bitterness and despair thick in his voice. "Even now, in the final moment, it's all just…meaningless."

The blade ripped free with a horrible, wet sound, his eyes still locked on the captain as the man fell to his knees. A pale hand shot out, tangling in midnight strands, holding him up as his body tried to give out. He shook him hard, as though trying to wring some truth from silent lips, but none came. It was as it had always been, and it tore a broken sound of rage and grief from the hollow's throat.

The Shinigami had faltered, frozen in uncertainty, but they were finally starting to stir as the shock set in. The flicker of kidou burned through the air, painting the world in kaleidoscope color, and Shiro watched the shadows dance over the captain's face.

There was sudden burst of reiatsu and Urahara was at his back, dropping his bankai as he caught the hollow around the waist. The world tilted sharply as he stepped into shunpo, dragging Shiro and his bloody prize from the wash of destruction. He stepped twice more as the Shinigami moved to follow, scorching the world in their wind-blurred wake. A sharp spike of reiatsu drew them up short, Mayuri's psychotic resonance closing in fast. Urahara swore sharply and Shiro twisted against him, firing off a cero toward the approaching captain.

"We have to go," Urahara hissed, sweeping the area for immediate threats.

"Then go," Shiro snarled, shoving the man away. "No one is keeping you here, least of all me."

A blast of golden lightning missed the hollow by inches and his lips pulled back on a vicious growl. He released a wave of shapeless black fire, a surge of pure hatred in physical form. He could feel the madness pulling at his mind, begging for the release of his berserker rage. He wished he could comply but he'd exhausted too much power; he was unable to make the transition to his second release form. His fingers twisted in the hair still caught between them, and he glanced down for a moment, his focus faltering.

"I won't leave you here," Urahara was close again. "Not like this. Not alone."

"Then you'll die, Demon," Shiro said softly, finally tearing his eyes from the man at his feet.

The former captain met his gaze without flinching, a dozen different emotions dancing beneath the surface. "So be it."

Something flickered in Shiro's chest and he started to reply but drew up short, teeth pulling back as he fired a Cero over the other man's shoulder. Urahara was moving as well, lashing out with Benihime, throwing up a shield between Shiro and an incoming blast. The explosion rocked the clearing, spiderweb cracks tracing the barrier as Urahara called on his reserves. They were in a bad position and it was only getting worse, but even as Urahara opened his mouth to speak the hollow threw back his head and screamed.

"Kuro Kajiarashi!"

The air around them tore under the weight of his power, the world dissolving into armageddon as his Dark Firestorm raged to life. The earth seemed to shift, twisting against the sky, the screams of the Shinigami lost to power spinning dark around them. Shiro swayed in the eye of the storm, groaning in pain as Urahara steadied him from behind.

"Don't do this," the former captain hissed, fingers curling into the hole in the hollow's chest as he fought to keep him upright.

"It's already done," the hollow spat back, shuddering as a spasm rolled up his spine.

"Ichigo wouldn't want this," Urahara growled, sounding like he was struggling to contain his frustration. "You don't want this!"

"Fuck all of you." Shiro bit out, wishing he could shove him away again, but his reiatsu was fading and the ache was throbbing deep. "He asked me for this." A twisting of the truth. "He begged me to do the things that he couldn't."

Urahara scoffed, but he didn't refute the claim; they both knew Ichigo well enough to read the truth.

"You should be running," Shiro sighed, the anger started to fade with nowhere left to focus. A creeping sense of finality was starting to spread through his being. He leaned into the man behind him, the weariness settling into his bones.

"Not without you," Urahara said softly, and for a moment the hollow could almost believe the words were meant for him. "We have to go before they close the net entirely."

"Go where, Demon?" Shiro asked quietly, a cold sort of loneliness stirring through his voice. "Where will we run that they won't follow?"

"We've faced worse than this," Urahara replied, but there was a forced quality to the words that made the hollow sneer.

"Are your lies supposed to comfort me, or are you really starting to believe them?" He chided, trying for distain but coming up short. "There's only one way we can end this little party."

Shiro felt Urahara turn his head, staring out into the screaming fire; felt his jaw clench as his thoughts began to spin. There was no escaping this. The Shinigami would tear the world apart to find them, and Tessai, the children, even Ichigo's neglected friends would likely be caught in the resulting storm. It had been his final promise—to save the others—and he'd intended to keep it from the very beginning. It was the end of the road, time to cut the line before everyone got pulled in with them. Urahara had been a captain, he knew how it worked. He'd seen it too many times to ignore, even if he wanted to.

"We surrender," the blond said quietly, still watching the dancing flames. "If we let them take us now it might calm their rage, allow the others more time to go to ground."

"We won't make it off the field alive, the Shinigami will see to that." Shiro turned against him, shifting to watch his face as the blond's arm tightened around him. "And even if we did, what would be the alternative? A public execution in front of his former friends?"

"There is always another way," Urahara said softly, the lie tasting bitter on the back of his tongue.

"We both know how this ends," Shiro sounded tired, resting his forehead against Urahara's cheek as his power started to dwindle. "Would you condemn him to die alone for your own selfishness?"

Urahara turned his head, the rough scrape of stubble sliding over pale skin. Shiro drew back, watching the pain dance in his eyes, the agony so close he could almost taste it in the air.

"If it comes down to it, he won't die alone," Urahara promised, and Shiro felt something flicker in the pit of his soul.

He paused for a heartbeat—the fire around them starting to thin—and then he sighed, an ancient, weary sound.

"You're a fool, Demon, but for all the right reasons," he murmured, hitched breath matching the flicker of dark power. "Everything you do is so elegantly hopeless."

Pale fingers rose slowly to brush aside filthy, blond hair, tracing the curve of a gore-splattered ear. It had been so long since he'd touched someone gently, and the movements felt foreign to his trembling limb. He followed the line of a gash marring a high cheekbone, and Urahara allowed it, never breaking his gaze. Breath ghosted hot over the tips of his fingers as he mapped the contours of slightly chapped lips. It was all so familiar, even as it was all so wrong, and he wished for a moment that he could pretend it didn't matter. This was what it should have been, staring at him with such brutal intensity. But those eyes didn't see him and he'd never wanted them to. They were all wrong, and it did matter, even though he hated it. His hand fell away.

"I'll give you your chance, but you know you can't save him, you'll follow him to his death and it'll hurt him that much more. You'll tell him the truth, if you can bring yourself to admit it, and then watch him die because it's the only choice you'll have."

Shiro swayed again and gritted his teeth, meeting the grey-green gaze shot through with confusion.

"Lying to yourself doesn't make the truth less true. It just means that you weren't strong enough to face it," he continued cryptically, gaze dropping to the captain kneeling limp at his side. "Truth is your only freedom."

The burn in his chest had started to run cold, sparks shooting through his vision he struggled for breath.

"Will you be my priest, Kisuke?" He whispered softly, staring down at Byakuya as the blood seeped through his robes. "Witness my final, pathetic confession?"

He slid to his knees in the matted grass, fingers twisting in dark hair to keep Byakuya in place. Hazy grey met gold and black as the captain struggled to hold the threads of his life.

"I loved you, you coward," Shiro murmured over his skin, pale brows pulling on the flow of pained regret. "You made me weak and I wish I could hate you for it, but I just can't. Even now."

He released his hold on the inky locks, fingers jamming into his wound to keep him from falling. Byakuya gasped—a nearly silent sound—the pain just enough to bring his gaze back sharp. Shiro leaned in so their lips slid together, smearing cooling blood slick across his skin.

"I still love you," he breathed into his mouth, a shudder running through him as his reiatsu went erratic.

His power fell silent and his body went limp, tangling with the captain as they slumped against each other. They fell together at Urahara's feet and all around the clearing the fire began to fade, burning into oblivion in the nearly dark sky.

"See," Shiro whispered, cheek pressed to the broken earth. "It's not that hard. You're all just cowards."

Urahara felt wooden, watching as the hollow's long hair started to dissolve into nothing, his power too depleted to continue holding the form. A flicker of movement finally caught his eye and he turned, staring out into the Shinigami through the battle hazed air. They were coming again, a writhing mass of endless reiatsu and though his fingers twitched on Benihime's hilt he let the tip fall to rest against the ground.

He shifted sideways, trying to shield the fallen men, blade falling away as he raised his hands in a show of surrender.

The first blast grazed his side, taking him to his knee with a grunt of pain. They weren't going to stop; he'd known Shiro was right, their anger and battlelust burning too bright. Before the shock of the first spell faded a bolt of electric fire hit him in the chest, bowing his spine sharp as his mouth opened on a silent scream. He fell, shoulder jamming hard into the ground, unable to move as spasms wracked his frame.

Focusing past his twitching fingers he saw that Ichigo's eyes were open, lashes swept low over hazy, chocolate brown. He was watching him die, unable to move, and even through the pain Urahara could see his helpless torment. It wasn't right that he had to watch; the final horror in his broken life. Urahara gritted his teeth, forcing his arm to rise, reaching out to shield him from his last few moments of life. A rod of light slammed through his wrist, pinning it between them, and his vision swam as another pierced his thigh. The sky was alight with brilliant spikes, hurtling ruthlessly toward them in a strangely beautiful arch. A single tear slid over Ichigo's nose, glittering in the chaos as it dropped to the earth below. Shiro was right. This was a thousand times worse, an ending steeped in agony over a final, selfish wish.

The air seemed to shimmer, glittering faintly against the sky, and an explosion shattered the clearing as Senbonzakura took the blow. Byakuya stirred slowly, rising up on shaking arms, head dipped low under the crush of another blast. Blood flowed sluggishly from his slowly healing wound, but his body was exhausted and he couldn't support his weight. He slumped to the ground, Senbonzakura falling around them, too little too late to stop the incoming volley. The Shinigami were yelling, having realized he was alive, but there was no way to call back what had already been released.

Urahara felt detached, his spinning worries finally swept clean. He realized, distantly, that Shiro had missed his mark; a hair's breadth away from severing the captain's reiatsu. He realized, also, that the hollow had healed the man, and that it spoke of a deeper connection than he ever would have guessed. The glow of incoming kidou lit Byakuya's pale face, revealing his trembling fingers as they curled over Ichigo's hand. No, Shiro's hand. The black was trying to creep back across one of Ichigo's eyes, but there was no reiatsu left, and it slipped away to nothing.

A shadow passed overhead and Urahara felt his consciousness slip, his lips curling faintly on his final thought as Zabimaru settled around them.

Through the bitter cynicism, Shiro still had hope.




A/N: First off, I want to thank everyone who reviewed my last chapter. Your continued support, even after all this time, has really helped me get this far.

I can't even begin to explain my trials with this chapter. Between some very major life changes, and some extremely moody muses, it was a long journey. Sometimes a painful journey. Hopefully you think it was worth it! I want to especially thank my beta, Shiz, for her endless supply of patience. She can be hard on me sometimes, but it's all for the best, and hopefully her dedication shines though in the final product.

Anyway, I hope everyone enjoyed the chapter. This is not the end, in case anyone was wondering. I'm hoping to get the next chapter out in a much timelier manner. I'd also love to hear from anyone who has the time. Reviews really do brighten my day!

Okay, I'm off. Until next time…