Happy New Year!

Many, many thanks to all you lovely people that left a review since the last chapter! You keep me going ❤

Nikkette, mikajaftha, MyKa-chan, Shu Ouma GC, SweetestChick, Recifying, Hbarrera98, cam169, Brenda Joyeux1, Gewura, Rukia Barbosa, Aria221, millayui, Natasha Sheikh, Crack-jouchan, Masayume91, Weddingdress, c, TheGhostRider56, lil Taku, Fanfic293, BearGlitch, fede00bey, Brenda Joyeux

So sorry for not replying yet, but I really wanted to post this chapter still in 2021, and only just finished it… But I promise I'll spend the beginning of New Year replying to you, and I'll also try to cover some of the new reviews, if you'll be so kind to drop me any :)

And I'm also sorry for taking this long with this update, but it's Winter War, so mainly fighting and lots of things going on all at once. I like watching/reading action scenes, I like imagining them… but I'm not sure if I like writing them… It can be a struggle. But I hope I'll manage to present them in an interesting and fun (and brutal, when needed) enough way. Mind you, I'm trying to write them more grounded in reality, without dragging them much. Hopefully they won't feel too rushed, either. I'm also trying to keep things relatively simple.

That being said, the Winter War will be split into 3 chapters, a bit shorter than usual. I plan to get the second and third part out next year (2022), so you won't need to wait for its conclusion too long. Keep your fingers crossed! And then… we'll see :)

In the meantime I managed to update chapter 13! Apart from cosmetic changes, I added more Grimmjow's shenanigans, a small Rukia's action scene, and even more Grimmjow's shenanigans in a new omake! So give it a reread in your free time :)

And now let's get on with the Winter War!

朝霧 -Asagiri-

The Frozen Whisper

Chapter 27
Winter War (Act I)

Nel stood with other Espadas in the Throne Room on top of one of Las Noches' towers. She and the top four were calm, not giving away any emotions, be it excitement or – in her case – apprehension. The other three, however, wore everything on their sleeves, unable to contain their thrill. Grimmjow was grinning like a madman, though he did wink at her playfully once he noticed her gaze, easing her worries a bit, and she couldn't help but smile back at him. Nnoitra was twitching with bloodlust, and Yammy was restless for havoc.

In front of them Aizen-sama sat in his throne, smiling gently with a calm expression on his face, but his suppressed reiatsu seemed to be on the verge of gushing out and swallowing everything and everyone. He was flanked by Ichimaru-sama and Tōsen-sama. Rudbornn and Wonderweiss were also present, the latter clutched the hakama of the blind ex-Shinigami.

With everyone gathered, Aizen-sama stood up and spoke, "Finally the day to reform the world and create new, far greater history has come. You all know your roles and our objective all too well, though there is a small last-minute alteration to our plan. Apparently, Kurotsuchi has already effected the world shifting, and so the real Karakura Town is currently hidden in Soul Society. I wonder if it was his hunch or Soul Society has informants, too… Not that it matters much at this point. But we shall split our attack to two locations now."

Nel doubted that anyone in this room was a traitor. The only person here that could want to help the Shinigamis – or just a few of them – was herself, and she wouldn't betray Aizen-sama. At least not this way.

Their master continued, "As you know, I wanted to destroy Soul Society after creating an Ōken, but we shall advance the inevitable… I do admit I have a soft spot for that place and that is why I want something special for it. It is not uncommon for the most fantastic creations to be born from the most horrifying destructions."

Aizen-sama smiled gently, and it was terrifying.

"Nnoitra, Grimmjow, Nelliel and Yammy," he said, and the four of them kneeled, waiting for their orders. "You shall go to Soul Society. You shall lead all those Gillians that have gathered around Las Noches, and destroy everything and everyone in your path, so it can become a material we can mould into something truly wonderful. Not to mention, the more they will be worried about their home, the less keen they will be to protect one Human Town, no matter its significance."

"Yes, Aizen-sama!"

Even though Nel accepted the order, she was full of doubts. She could fight and kill for a just cause, but a massacre and total destruction were something she was wholeheartedly averse to. Not only because she had friends amongst the Shinigamis and Humans. She simply didn't want to be a beast splattered with blood of other creatures, especially the weaker ones.

"Starrk, Baraggan, Harribel and Ulquiorra," their master turned to the top four. They, too, kneeled, except for the former king of Las Noches who remained seated and only bowed his head. "While Soul Society is distracted by destruction in their own backyard, you shall go to the fake Karakura Town. There are four pillars that stabilise the world-shifting. Locate and destroy them, and Karakura Town shall be restored to its original place. Then Ōken will be ours to take."

"Yes, Aizen-sama!"

"Raise, my Espadas," he said, and they obeyed. "Gin, Kaname, go open the Garganta gate for the Soul Society party. We shall need a huge one."

"Aye, aye, Capt'n Aizen," Ichimaru-sama saluted cheerfully, and without any delay he and Tōsen-sama went out on the adjacent terrace and then farther outside the castle.

Aizen-sama smiled. "Let's begin our march to the top."

Nel and her group followed after their two ex-Shinigami superiors. Once they were outside, all Gillians turned their heads and stared at them with their hollow eyes. They were shaking and rustling, moaning and grumbling; all sounds they were producing created a blood-curdling cacophony.

Suppressing a shudder, Nel watched as Ichimaru-sama and Tōsen-sama threw something in two almost opposite directions. Shortly, a huge rupture loudly tore the black sky apart. With awe she noted she had never seen a Garganta gate this size. If it was a mouth of a living creature, it would be able to swallow at least half of Las Noches in one bite!

Gillians immediately started swarming inside, led by animalistic urge and fear of Aizen-sama. That was all the motivation they needed.

Nnoitra, Grimmjow and Yammy didn't wait much longer and dashed into the rupture, eager to satisfy their bloodlust and compulsion to destroy.

Nel courteously nodded to the two ex-Shinigamis, and quickly followed after her group, her eyes trained on Nnoitra's back. Part of her wanted to jump on that back and wrap her arms around his neck, screaming sense into him, trying to stop him; while the other wanted to drive her sword through him, quickly and mercifully.

Her only happy thought was that perhaps in the upcoming chaos she would be able to see Ichigo again.

Grimmjow was exhilarated at the prospect of fighting Ichigo again. He didn't give a shit about Aizen's plan or Soul Society's destruction, though the latter did sound entertaining. All he wanted was to kick that idiot strawberry's arse. And after all those training sessions with Ulquiorra (as much as he hated to admit it he knew they helped him to grow stronger and improved his battle tactics) he felt pretty confident, and that added to his high spirits.

But there was that one thing that kept gnawing at his gut.

He slowed down and looked back. And there was Nel, again looking at that dumb motherfucker of Nnoitra with that sad but determined gaze of hers. What was the deal with her? What was she doing here attacking Soul Society with them, too?

Grimmjow fell in the same pace as she. "Are you up to it?"

"I'm here, am I not?" she replied after a pause.

He scoffed, and grabbing her arm, he brought her down on top of a head of some random Gillian, which didn't seem to notice two stowaways, too preoccupied with marching forward.

"Free ride," he said with a half-hearted grin, and quickly got serious. "Dammit, Nel, I don't get it. Why are you even here? You're different from us. We're just mindless killing machines and we fucking enjoy it. And you? You not only talk sense and kindness, and other goody-goody shit – you are it."

She raised her eyebrows, and shook her head. "You're not mindless, Grimmjow. You have your reason, your justice, your integrity; everything you do is your choice. No matter how strong your instincts are, you can overcome them with your mind."

Again she talked so un-Hollow-like. And even believed he was capable of the same, while inwardly he just couldn't wait to sink his claws into Ichigo. He would hate to disappoint her, so he only gave a gruff reply, "Those instincts are what made me survive for this long."

"They can be useful for that, sure," Nel agreed. "I don't deprecate them completely. But I don't want to be ruled by them, I want to be above them. I want to make my own choices."

He stared at her in disbelief. "And being a part of a fucking slaughter is your choice?"

She pursed her lips and looked away. Eventually she said quietly, "It's not… I…" Her gaze wandered forward – where that fuckstick was, or was it just a coincidence? "Even I can't always overcome my instincts."

Grimmjow didn't understand the connection between her instincts and Nnoitra, and he didn't dare guessing. Even his honed intuition was at a loss. But when she looked back at him, and in her eyes next to melancholy and determination he saw Hollow-like despair, he felt he grasped enough. And so he sniggered. Then, with full confidence he said, "You're a dumbass and a fraud, after all, huh, princess?"

She narrowed her eyes at him, offended.

He continued with a challenging smirk, "Like us all. But you'll be fine. You'll come out on top in the end. And one day, Nel, you're gonna tell me what's gnawing at you. Without biting my fucking head off this time. You're gonna treat me to a beer and gonna let it off your chest. And only then you can lecture me again about morals, reason and that other shit."

Nel stared at him for a moment, and then gave out a short chuckle. "You're not half bad, Grimmy. Keep it up. You might still grow into a decent person."

He snorted. "Fucking nah. I wouldn't fall this low."

At last the swarm of Gillians poured out of the Garganta and into Soul Society. It was still night, but the moon has long set. It was around two hours until the sunrise, but already the darkness was illuminated by red and gold fireworks of Yammy and Nnoitra's Ceros and Balas. Were they not bringing death, they would have been quite beautiful. They seemed oddly fitting for a New Year's Eve morning, too. Happy with their prelude, the two released their zanpakutōs and went on further rampage.

A distaste made its way to Nel's face and melancholy in her eyes became even deeper. "For wreaking havoc those two should be enough. I'll just wait for my turn."

Grimmjow nodded. "You do you, Nel." He extended his hand to pat her on her shoulder. "I'm off to find one idiot—"

"Ichigo!" she squealed happily and was gone from his side.

"That's the one," he grumbled under his nose and retracted his hanging hand, while watching Nel tackle Ichigo, pressing her breasts to his face, a bright smile on her face. Out of nowhere a pang of jealousy hit him. Why the fuck do I never get greeted like this?!

Pissed off by the scene being played before his eyes, he decided he was going to rely on his reason, all right. And he just got another reason to fucking kill this idiot strawberry.

Ichigo was both thrilled and embarrassed at Nel's greeting. He had heard from Rukia and Inoue that she had re-joined Aizen's Espada, still he was surprised to see her here. She hadn't changed in the least, however, and that was all that mattered. She was still this crazy and a bit childish, happy self. After a moment he managed to get her off himself, just in time to deflect a Cero coming his way. Someone sure was impatient.

"Grimmjow!" Nel scolded with her hands on her hips.

The 6th Espada scowled, and shooed her away with a wave of his hand. "No lecturing, princess, remember? So move your arse somewhere else, while I finish my business with that shithead."

"Don't tell me what to do!" she bristled, only to receive another scowl from Grimmjow in return.

Ichigo grinned at their exchange, taking it as a sign the two got along pretty well. Then, to put an end to their bickering, he chimed in, "He's right, Nel, it's between him and me. You better go somewhere else."

"You're both such idiots!" she huffed, and turned on her heel. Before she departed, though, she added gently, "Just… don't die. Either of you." Then, she was gone.

Grimmjow stared after Nel with uncharacteristically complicated expression. Between scowl, frown and surprise there was something else, too. Perhaps he himself wasn't sure what to feel, really. Only when Ichigo changed his stance and chain at the end of Zangetsu rattled, did he look back at him. His straightforward smirk returned to his face, and he, too, unsheathed his zanpakutō.

"Before we start this, tell me, what has happened to Rukia in Las Noches?" Ichigo asked. As much as fighting Grimmjow was going to be fun, he was sure he wasn't his real opponent. He needed to know who was behind Rukia's secreted sadness. They all needed to know, so they could bring back the real smile to her face.

Grimmjow frowned. "Happened? What's wrong with her?"

"After she came back she seems… haunted and distant, even though she acts as if everything's fine."

His eyes lit with understanding and his smirk became more roguish. "Oh, right… She'd be like this after all that happened." Then, quick as a lightning he lunged in an attack, and when they clashed their zanpakutōs, he said, "If you defeat me, I'll tell you what I know."

Ichigo pushed him away. "Then prepare yourself to lose!" he shouted and swung Zangetsu at Grimmjow, who easily parried it. The 6th Espada's reply confirmed what he already suspected, and also filled him with dark desire for vengeance for the ordeal his friend had been through. Who was his real opponent, though? Was it Ulquiorra? He had been responsible for Rukia's capture and then her well-being… Was he also responsible for hurting her?

He would make Grimmjow spit it all out. It was time to get serious and finish this fight quickly. "Bankai. Tensa Zangetsu."

Watching the blaze on the horizon, Rukia's first impulse was to find Ulquiorra. She scanned Soul Society as far as her senses reached, but couldn't find any traces of his reiatsu. A breath of relief escaped her lips – it meant he wasn't directly responsible for this destruction. Captain Ukitake was easier to find, and soon she stood in front of him at the 13th Division's Headquarters. Kiyone and Sentarō were also there, always eager to assist their Captain.

"Kuchiki. Good you're here." He smiled at the sight of her, but there was frown of worry between his brows.

"Captain, what are your orders?"

"Take this." He handed her the badge of 13th Division's lieutenant. "I wish we could have some ceremony and a party, but there's no time. Maybe once this nightmare is over we can celebrate properly…"

Rukia stared at the badge. Once it had belonged to Kaien-dono, and since his death it was locked somewhere safe in Captain Ukitake's office, waiting for suitable successor. Was it her? She hesitantly took it, and looked up at her superior, seeking confirmation. "Captain?"

Nodding his head encouragingly, he put his hand on her shoulder. "You proved yourself worthy a long time ago, so it's just a formality. Wear it proudly."

Her eyes clouded with tears of joy, but she quickly blinked them away, knowing it was no time for them. Then she put the badge around her left arm and saluted, "Yes, sir!"

Kiyone and Sentarō showered her back with enthusiastic pats, accompanied with shouts of congratulations. Unsurprisingly, soon enough it all turned into their typical banter.

"I'm so proud of you, Kuchiki!"

"And I'm even prouder of you, Kuchiki! Always have been and always will!"

"Shut up, you ape! Stop copying me!"

"Who're you calling an ape?!"

They settled down, however, when Captain Ukitake cleared his throat. They had far more pressing matters to deal with first. War barged past their doorstep, invading their home. Celebrations and silly quarrels would have to wait for better times.

"I'll be brief," their Captain began. "There are currently four Espadas in Soul Society, and with them countless Gillians. Most of the North and East Rukongai is razed to the ground, but we have to do what we can to save as many Souls as possible. You, Kuchiki, alongside a few other lieutenants will lead your Divisions, and your mission is to protect Soul Society. Your direct superior is Captain Hitsugaya. Seek directions from him."

"Yes, sir," Rukia saluted. "What about you, Captain?"

"Neither the top four Espadas nor Aizen have shown themselves, yet."

Hearing this, her heart began racing and she was unable to stop a frown of worry from forming on her face. Ulquiorra!

Captain Ukitake continued, unaware of inner agitation of his newly-appointed lieutenant, "But it's anticipated their target is the fake Karakura Town. I, alongside Captain Kyōraku, will be leading 2nd, 6th and 7th Divisions to defend it. Urahara-san, Yoruichi-san and the Visored, too, are supposed to go there. Hopefully we'll be able to stop them from reaching the real town."

"Can I come with you?" The question escaped Rukia's lips before she could think better of it. The perspective of her captain, her brother and her best friend going against the man she loved made her all the more worried and heartbroken. If she were there with them, perhaps she could make a difference.

Captain Ukitake sighed. "Byakuya would have my head if I took you there. Not that you'll be much safer here. But Soul Society needs you, Kuchiki."

"I understand, sir. I pray for your victory and safe return," she said calmly, while in her head all her thoughts focused on one objective – she had to find a way to get to the fake Karakura Town!

"Good luck, Kuchiki."

Rukia bowed and with Shunpo dashed out. As torn as she was between her duty and heart, she knew she couldn't abandon Soul Society in the greatest need. Not yet, at least…

She found Captain Hitsugaya at his Division Headquarters, and with him were Matsumoto-san, Hinamori, Kira, Shūhei-san, Inoue, Ishida, Sado and Ganjū. At the same time as she also arrived Nanao-san.

Seeing everyone present, Shūhei-san requested, "Your orders, Captain Hitsugaya!"

The young captain stood next to a map of Soul Society. He proceeded to explain the situation and their battle plan, while pointing and moving the markers that were on it, "There are currently four Espadas in Rukongai. Zaraki and Kurosaki have already engaged two of them, and Madarame will take care of another one. That leaves one and a horde of Gillians to take care of. In addition, we have to evacuate as many civilian Souls inside Seireitei gates as possible. So, Nanao – Black Ridge Gate, Hinamori – Blue Stream Gate, Hisagi – Red Hollow Gate, Kira – White Road Gate. Have your Divisions at it. Then take your few strongest Seated Officers and move towards East Rukongai, engaging Gillians on the way. Matsumoto and Kuchiki – have your Divisions go to East Rukongai to help 11th Division with Gillians there. Then you two come back to me. You'll help me fight the last Espada. Questions?"

"Um… what should we do?" Inoue asked, referring to her friends and herself.

Captain Hitsugaya sighed, suddenly looking much more mature. The responsibility he was given was a lot to carry on one's shoulders, and even more for someone of such a young age. "I don't really know your abilities well, so I don't know how to use them. Just do whatever you can. Save as many people as you can. Kill as many Hollows as you can. The only order I can give you is: don't die."

"Yes, sir!" Inoue saluted, and the boys nodded their heads in understanding.

Shūhei-san, with grim expression on his face, extended his hand to the middle and started the old battle chant, "We at this moment head into the decisive battle!"

Matsumoto-san grabbed her captain's hand and joined in. "Have faith that our blades will not shatter!"

"Have faith that our hearts will not waver!" Hinamori and Kira's determination was unbent, just like Shūhei-san's, despite their captains being the traitors that brought upon this War. Or maybe it was because of it. Maybe in the conclusion of this conflict they would find answers to question that was gnawing at them since that day on Sōkyoku Hill – why had their captains betrayed – not Soul Society specifically, but them, their faithful lieutenants? Why had they left them behind?

Rukia encouraged Inoue, Ishida, Sado and Ganjū to do the same, and with Ganjū, who must have known the lines from Kaien-dono, she shouted, "And even if our paths should diverge, we all share a heart of iron!"

Nanao-san was next. "Swear that even if the ground beneath us should be rent asunder!"

Everyone shouted the last line in unison, "We will live and return to this place again!"

All Shinigamis scattered to fulfil their respective missions. Rukia headed towards her Division, where she quickly found Kiyone and Sentarō, and she relied them their orders. They saluted and were on their way to gather everyone. Despite their constant chaffs, they were reliable subordinates and she trusted they would do everything in their might to save Soul Society.

Ulquiorra stood on the terrace, staring at the moonlit desert. It was around ten minutes since the last Gillian had entered the Garganta, and the gate disappeared. And he was still fighting the urge to go to Soul Society. To find her and then… And then he would fill his emptiness with her, one way or another.

"I'm sure Rukia-chan misses ya as much as ya miss 'er." A sly voice sounded right next to him.

He glared at Ichimaru for daring to say her name so casually.

Unperturbed by silent threats thrown his way, the Fox continued his blather, "She'll come lookin' fer ya on the battlefield, ya know? Even if it's the last thing she does."

"It will be the last thing she does, if she finds me," he grunted out in a low voice.

"A lil' overdramatic, ain'cha? Cheer up, Ulquiorra!" Ichimaru smacked him on the back with an open palm.

Silently calculating if punching a hole through him would be worth it – with Aizen-sama and other Espadas nearby it wouldn't go unnoticed – Ulquiorra whirled around to face the man, when Ichimaru surprised him by secretly slipping something inside his pocket.

"Fer good luck," he whispered, and winked. Looking down at the hand hanging merely inches away from his chest, he added mirthfully, "Careful or ya'll scare it away."

Ulquiorra closed his hand around the small object. It was made out of metal, but just by touching it, he wasn't able to recognise what it was.

"By the by, don't blame me fer breakin' it, 'twas not me," Ichimaru declared solemnly, only to crack a knowing grin. Then, as if nothing happened, he said in a louder voice, so Harribel and her three fraccións, who too decided to wait outside, heard him, "It's time to go." Having finished his business, he ambled back to the Throne Room.

It hadn't been discussed during any of the meetings, but it was natural that the top four Espadas would be travelling on their own. So without further delay Ulquiorra used Descorrer and opened a gate to Garganta, and made his way towards the fake Karakura Town. He couldn't see them, but nearby he felt other Espadas with their fraccións on the move, too.

Ulquiorra took out the small object from out of his pocket and looked at it. Having seen it before, he recognised it at once. It was part of a hairpin in shape of a rabbit. There was a set of two hairpins, to be precise. He quickly scanned his memory.

They had been in Orihime Inoue's hair, when he had brought her to Las Noches the second time… Then on the day when he had let her and Ru— the Shinigami woman see each other. And that was it. She hadn't worn them on any other occasion. Why only those two times?

The Shinigami woman obsessed over those bunnies, all her drawings resembled it, more so than the actual people she wanted to portray… She surely would have noticed them. Were they some sort of a message to her? He vividly remembered her beautiful smile that had bloomed on her face when she had seen her friend. It had been that smile that had distracted him, making him drop his guard down and miss a scheme being played out right under his nose.

Angry, Ulquiorra shoved the rabbit back into his pocket. For some reason a thought to throw it away never even crossed his mind.

Soon he reached the vicinity where Garganta's membrane was thin and he opened another gate, this time to the fake Karakura Town. He was the last Espada to arrive.

That was also when Shinigami forces started to appear in the distance. It looked like they were anticipating them. With somewhat of a disappointment he noted she wasn't amongst the party. From their reiatsu he recognised five captains, three lieutenants, and a bunch of trash. Either they were underestimating them, or Grimmjow and the rest were giving them a hard time in Soul Society.

Looking about, Uquiorra saw one of the pillars, lonely towering in the distance, and made his way towards it.

Then, he stopped abruptly in his tracks, hit by a sudden thought. Wait… Were those two really the only times he had seen those hairpins? Quickly and none too gently he clawed out his left eyeball and using Solita Vista, he again returned to the day she had left him. It was difficult to tear his eyes away from her, but he forced himself to focus his memories on the Human woman… And a small object in her hands. Now that he knew what he was looking for, he clearly saw rabbit ears sticking out from her hand the moment she embraced the Shinigami woman.

Then they disappeared, and he felt himself torn apart again. Only footprints in the sand were left behind, no remains of the broken hairpin.

This rabbit wasn't only a message to her, but also their way back. And he held the second one from the pair. Even though some things became clear to him, it brought on even more questions. Where had Ichimaru got it from? Why did he give it to him only now? Why was it broken? When and by whom had it been broken? Why should it bring him luck, when it only augmented his pain?

Nel worried about Ichigo and Grimmjow, but still her main concern was Nnoitra. Her heart, her instinct or whatever it was that pushed her forward made her follow after him. He was fighting with one of the Shinigami captains – the very same one that had defeated him before. His reiatsu vibrated with excitement and desire for revenge.

If they both were lucky, this time he would get his warrior's death that he so idealised and yearned for. If not, Nel would make sure he finally found peace. Whatever the end would it come to, she was here to see him off. It wouldn't be much different from how she always had been there to protect him when he needed her, even if he resented her for it.

Unfortunately, it looked like she wouldn't be able to wait for conclusion in peace.

"Lucky! I'm so lucky today that I get to fight an Espada! Draw your zanpakutō, lady!" A bald man insisted, while doing some sort of a dance.

Nel narrowed her eyes at him and replied coolly, "I'm not here to fight."

Undiscouraged, he pointed his unsheathed zanpakutō at her. "Name's Ikkaku Madarame. 3rd Seat of the 11th Division."

Apparently his desire to clash swords made him deaf, so she repeated loud and clear, "I'm not your enemy, and I don't want to fight with you."

"You're an Arrancar and you came here with enemy forces, lady. If that doesn't make you my enemy, I don't know what else it makes you." There was an odd optimism about him, like he was having a good time.

She sighed exasperatingly. Great, another fight-loving idiot. They will never learn, will they? "Instead of fighting me, you should take care of those Gillians. They're much bigger threat than I. Or Yammy. He's a beast and only three Shinigamis are against him, and just one captain amongst them."

Nel worried about Rukia, but she knew the girl was determined and wouldn't die here; not before seeing Ulquiorra and trying to set things straight. Just like she couldn't die here, not before settling things with Nnoitra.

The bald man was persistent. "One on one is my credo, and you look like a worthy opponent."

"You're not very bright, are you?"

He grinned. "Don't need to be to be able to fight. It's all about instincts, guts and luck." He then pointed with his zanpakutō in the direction of Nnoitra's battle. "That's my captain fighting one of your own. You friend's a dead meat, though."

It was clear he was trying to provoke her, but Nel kept silent. As much as she wanted Nnoitra to finally find peace in death, there was a part of her that wanted him to win. And there was also a part of her that wanted to rush there and help him, just like she had used to so long time ago. Those were simpler times then, with madness only lurking somewhere in the back of Nnoitra's mind. She would love to go back to them, but they were long gone. That was why she had to end it, and she would sacrifice her integrity and morals to accomplish it. For Nnoitra. For the man she somewhat loved in that weird, platonic but absolutely profound way that ensnared her soul.

A zanpakutō slashed at her, aimed to cut across her chest. Nel stopped it with her bare hand, and kicking the bald man, she gracefully jumped back to get some distance.

He grinned impishly. "Oh, so you know how to fight, after all."

He really was grating on her nerves. Seeing there was no talking him out of it, she took a stance from which she could easily move into defence or offence. "Very well… I'll try my best not to kill you, baldy."

After a brief battle meeting of the Karakura party with Commander-General Yamamoto, Byakuya with Renji at his side arrived at fake Karakura Town.

"There, Captain," Renji said, pointing in the direction of a single reiatsu source. It was their target.

With Shunpo they quickly found themselves in front of the 4th Espada, Ulquiorra Cifer. He didn't look too imposing, but Byakuya could easily recognise just how powerful this man was. This wasn't going to be an easy battle. But whatever it took, he was going to cut him down. For his sister's sake and peace of mind.

The Arrancar looked at them calmly, his cold, scrutinising gaze was unnerving. It certainly belonged to someone capable of cruelty. "You're Byakuya Kuchiki, Captain of the 6th Division. And that's your lieutenant, Renji Abarai."

"Correct," Byakuya confirmed after a pause. Somehow it angered him that this Arrancar didn't even bother to mention Rukia. Unsheathing Senbonzakura, he silently released his Shikai. "And you are the man I must kill."

"Just what have you done to Rukia?!" Renji asked angrily.

"What I have done to her?" their opponent scoffed, resentment flashing across his impassive face. "What lies has that Shinigami woman been spreading?"

The fact that he didn't even use Rukia's name added fuel to Byakuya's anger. And not only his.

His lieutenant lost it, and began to yell, "Rukia! Her name's Rukia, damn it! And she's said nothing! She keeps everything to herself, suffering in silence! What have you done to her, you Arrancar bastard, that she feels she can't tell us, her closest friends?!"

The 4th Espada frowned, but soon his expression became unreadable again. He didn't seem like someone who could be easily provoked.

Byakuya said, "That is enough, Renji. Ultimately, it matters not. Once the cause is gone, time will make painful memories fade into obscurity and Rukia will heal."

"That ought to take her no time," the Arrancar said coldly. "That woman's either forgetful or forgiving or both, and to a fault. A fool that still looks up to a man who forsook her and almost executed her with his own hands for nothing."

That struck a nerve. Where had this Arrancar learnt about this? Had he heard it from one of the Shinigami traitors?

"What do you think you know, Arrancar?" Byakuya asked quietly.


Renji created some distance between himself and Captain Kuchiki, so he wouldn't catch him up in his Bankai release. The two men didn't pay attention to him and continued to stare at each other with matching stony expressions, assessing each other. Resentment shone in both pairs of eyes. This pissed him off. What right did this Arrancar have to resent them! After all he had done to Rukia! And Inoue, too!

Boiling with anger, he used the opportunity their opponent was focused on his captain, and he silently released his Shikai. Then taking a stance, he shouted, "Bankai, Hihiō Zabimaru!" The huge snake-like skeleton immediately charged with his jaws wide open, intent on biting his prey apart. His teeth, however, didn't get the chance to sink into the Arrancar's flesh. The 4th Espada effortlessly stopped it with just one hand, and without losing a beat, he blasted it away with a powerful Cero, scattering the bones apart.

Renji cursed, and had to dodge another green Cero this time directed his way. He was spared the next attack thanks to a whirl of Senbonzakura. Before the petal blades could reach the Arrancar, though, he evaded it with Sonido, and immediately moved above Captain Kuchiki, firing a shower of Balas at him. Captain Kuchiki agilely dodged it with Shunpo and retaliated with Sōkatsui.

Having reconnected Hihiō Zabimaru's segments, this time Renji opted for a ranged attack, since direct one did nothing. He closely observed moves of Senbonzakura and the Arrancar, waiting for best opportunity. When it came, he fired, "Hikotsu Taihō!"

The blast scattered the bones apart for the second time, but the red energy hit the target.

Renji knew it wasn't enough to kill their opponent. Not wanting to give him the chance to counterattack, he took a breath, and quickly followed with, "Higa Zekkō!" The segments of Hihiō Zabimaru flew into the air, glowing red with his reiatsu. Then they changed to sharp points and fell at their target from all directions.

Nearby, Captain Kuchiki released his Bankai, and orchestrated Senbonzakura Kageyoshi to add to Renji's attack.

When the smoke cleared, the 4th Espada stood in the same spot, clearly unfazed. Only his clothes were ripped and singed here and there, but other than that he was unharmed.

Looking at Renji, the Arrancar mocked, "Soul Society's lieutenants are trash, after all."

Renji loudly cursed.

"But that storm of blades cannot be underestimated," the 4th Espada added, and unsheathed his zanpakutō. "Enclose, Murciélago."

The air became heavy with dark and depressing reiatsu. Renji didn't have the time to fully take in his Resurrección form, as the Arrancar immediately disappeared, only to appear right behind him in less than a split second. With no chance to react, he could only tense his muscles before a slash cut him diagonally across his torso. It was deep, almost slicing him in half. Then the last thing he saw was a pitch-black energy hitting and engulfing him; he felt pain shooting through every inch of his body, and then nothing.

"Not bad… Not bad at all!" Grimmjow was grinning like a madman after exchanging a few attacks with Ichigo. It was clear the substitute Shinigami got stronger since their last fight. That one Getsuga Tenshō he dared to receive head-on hurt like hell and almost cost him his arm. Not his brightest decision, he admitted, but he wanted to feel Ichigo's growth as directly as possible, and wasn't disappointed. But if the idiot strawberry thought he was going to defeat him again, then he was in for a sore surprise. Grimmjow hadn't been idle all those weeks either, after all.

The warm-up was over, it was time to get serious.

"Grind, Pantera." The power unsealed by Resurrección surged through his body, exhilarating him. His wound healed, his muscles brimmed with strength, and all his senses became sharper. He was the apex predator ready to catch and tear his prey apart.

Smirking, he jumped at Ichigo. A quick block with Zangetsu stopped his claws from sinking into his chest. Undeterred, he used both his legs to produce a powerful kick to his stomach, sending his opponent flying to the ground. For good measure he fired a Cero after him. Ichigo barely deflected it mid-air, but had no time to break the fall, and so he crashed into the ground in a smoke of dust.

Grimmjow wasn't kind enough to wait for him to get up, and launched Garra de la Pantera. The bomb salvo was spectacular, and even blasted off a couple of Gillians that were unfortunate to be too close to the explosions.

His appreciating the destruction was cut short by Getsuga Tenshō coming from below, and then another one from behind. Both were a diversion, which Grimmjow noticed too late, when Ichigo, coming from the side, slashed him across his stomach. Thanks to his Hierro the cut was shallow.

They jumped apart. Both had wide smirks on their faces. Fun was just beginning.

"Not bad, indeed," Ichigo returned. He had hoped he would be able to defeat Grimmjow rather easily, having already fought him and knowing what to expect from him. That short exchange, however, made him realise what a silly and naïve thought that was. The 6th Espada was a formidable opponent, with tenacity rivalling his own. If he didn't give it his all, then he could forget about winning.

With no leeway to even think of saving his strength for the next fight, Ichigo donned his Hollow mask, allowing those dark, hungry instincts to guide him.

Being on a time limit, he at once attacked Grimmjow. Zangetsu clanged against his claws repeatedly, but neither was able to reach the opponent's flesh. They were pretty evenly matched, both in speed and strength.

Ichigo took a step back and risked a close-range Getsuga Tenshō. There was no way Grimmjow could dodge it. However the next moment he relaxed his muscles to bring Zangetsu in front and move back, a hand emerged from out of the smoke, grabbed his Hollow mask and crushed it, while claws scratched his face in the process. He barely escaped deeper wounds.

Barring his teeth mockingly, Grimmjow panted out, "I've taken on this attack so many times, it's becoming a fucking walk in the park. It's time you changed your routine, Ichigo."

He eyed the 6th Espada, who had a huge gash across his chest and right arm, and his left ear was almost missing. Seeing his state, he couldn't help jesting, "A walk in the park, you say? Did you trip and land right under a lawnmower?"

"Cheeky arsehole," Grimmjow spat, and continued to attack.

Having finished business at the 13th Division, Rukia headed towards Blue Stream Gate. Captain Hitsugaya was already there.

"What can you tell me of our opponent, Kuchiki?" he asked, pointing at the source of red Ceros, smoke, dust and explosions. An epicentre of destruction.

Rukia frowned. She barely recognised who it was, so thick and violent was his reiatsu. In terms of raw power he easily overshadowed the other Espadas. But it could be no-one else. "I don't understand… That's… Yammy, the 10th Espada… With that rank he shouldn't be this strong." She searched for others… Nnoitra was fighting Captain Zaraki, Nel was against Ikkaku-san, and Grimmjow against Ichigo. "All other Espadas, too, have released their zanpakutōs, but as stronger as they are now, the upsurge in their power isn't as dramatic as his. What is going on?"

"Beats me."

"Captain, Rukia." Matsumoto-san arrived. A red beam flashed against the dark horizon, catching her attention. "Where did Aizen find a monster like this?"

Captain Hitsugaya shrugged. "Unforgiving world can create monsters like this. And he's not the only one Aizen got. But he is our target. Anything else, Kuchiki?"

Rukia had seen Yammy only once, but it was enough. He was easy to crack, the only mystery about him was his strength. "Well… He's all brawn and no brain type. Relishes in destruction. Anyone weaker than him is dirt not worth his attention."

"Sounds like a charming fellow," Matsumoto-san commented sarcastically.

Captain Hitsugaya nodded his head thoughtfully. "Then he'll underestimate us. We'll have to use it against him and outsmart him." After a moment, he said, "Let's go and see that monster from up close."

And a monster he was… Rukia stared at Yammy, unable to believe her own eyes. He normally was a very big man, but what he became after Resurrección was almost impossible to wrap her head around it. The three of them were like ants compared to him – so small, he didn't even notice them. He easily towered over the highest buildings in Seireitei. When he trudged, ground shook under him. Trees and houses he didn't even heed, he just moved onward with a huge, disdainful smirk on his face, destroying everything on his way.

In a flash of light coming from his Cero, Rukia saw the number on Yammy's shoulder and she pointed it out. "Captain Hitsugaya, his Espada tattoo… It used to be '10', but now it's '0'."

"I guess we hit the jackpot, then…" he replied dryly. "With such huge body he's bound to be slower… but if he lands a hit, it's safe to assume there's no getting up after that. Avoid his attacks at any cost."

She and Matsumoto-san nodded in agreement.

"To be frank I'm reluctant to have you two fight alongside me, but I know I alone won't be enough. So I'll be counting on you two." It was a sober judgement on Captain Hitsugaya's part, and the two lieutenants were aware that they were in for a difficult battle. Yet, his words hardened their determination to take down the monstrous threat before them. The young captain proceeded with their tactic, "Kuchiki, your ice should work well with mine. Also I won't have to worry about freezing you to death. You attack from the ground, I – from above."

"Yes, sir!"

"Matsumoto, you try to find his weak spots. And once we freeze him enough, try to shatter the ice. Let's focus on those limbs and their joints first to hinder his mobility."

"Yes, Captain!"

"Huh? What is it?" Yammy asked, finally noticing their presence. His voice boomed through the air. He squinted his eyes to take a better look at them. "A squirt, a babe, and…" A nasty grin spread on his face. "And a treacherous whore…"

Rukia narrowed her eyes.

"Charming personality, too," Matsumoto-san murmured next to her.

Captain Hitsugaya spoke loudly, "Actually, it's Captain of the 10th Division, Tōshirō Hitsugaya, my lieutenant, Rangiku Matsumoto, and Lieutenant of the 13th Division, Rukia Kuchiki."

Yammy snorted. "They just give titles to anyone in this shit-hole, huh?" He pointed his giant finger at Rukia. "Ulquiorra-san wants to kill you with his own hands, but I guess I'mma do him a favour."

"Where's he anyway?" she asked, trying to sound as cold as possible, while inwardly her heart was breaking. So what she feared was true – Ulquiorra hated her and wanted her dead. All the more she needed to find him and clear the misunderstanding.

Yammy confirmed everyone's assumptions, "The other party's taking care of that fake Human town. And I'mma wipe out this shit-hole, including you, you dirty flies."

"We'll see about that," Captain Hitsugaya said, and took out his zanpakutō. "Sit upon the Frozen Heavens, Hyōrinmaru."

Just when Rukia and Matsumoto-san, too, released their Shikais, they had to scatter to avoid Yammy's red Cero. Rukia landed behind him and took a stance for Hakuren. She needed this fight to end as soon as possible, so she could go find Ulquiorra before it was too late.

Byakuya could do nothing but watch Renji fall, while cursing his own inability to prevent this from happening.

The Arrancar was quick and crafty. He knew what he was doing, specifically appearing right behind Renji in a spot that was not only out of Byakuya's reach, but also lined both Shinigamis up. It was just a flash of a moment, too, preventing a timely reaction from either of them. The black Cero he fired was fast, giving the Kuchiki heir only a split second to dodge it. And that was all he could do. He couldn't even counterattack with neither Destructive Spell nor Senbonzakura Kageyoshi, or it would have hit his lieutenant as well. And they were too far away for him to flash there with Shunpo in time.

When Renji's limp body hit the ground, Byakuya fired Byakurai at the Arrancar to get him away. He also sent a part of his Bankai to keep him at bay, while he checked on his lieutenant.

Hihiō Zabimaru began to disappear. It never boded anything good, but luckily Renji was still alive. A deep cut across his torso was worrying, but as faint as it was, his pulse was there. He was tough, he would make it. A man capable of withstanding Senbonzakura Kageyoshi surely wouldn't be killed by such a wound and a Cero, no matter how powerful it was.

A green javelin speeded at them.

Byakuya grabbed Renji and flashed away. He needed to find a safe place for him. It was the only thing he could do for him now. This, and winning this fight as soon as possible. Chances that the 4th Division would stumble upon him were rather slim.

The Arrancar appeared next to him, slashing at him with his claws. He managed to block this attack with Senbonzakura Kageyoshi. He then swiftly pointed his index and middle fingers at his opponent, and cast a Spell, "Bakudō #61, Rikujōkōrō." Six beams of light immobilised the Arrancar.

To gain even more time, he added, "Hadō #90, Kurohitsugi."

Byakuya didn't wait to see the black coffin engulf and lacerate its target. Besides, without the incantation it wouldn't cause that much of a damage, but hopefully it would obscure his vision and cause confusion.

With Shunpo he moved as far as possible from the Arrancar, and gently laid Renji in a park under a tree. He then hurried back lest he was followed. Fighting while at the same time protecting someone else wouldn't allow him to utilise his full power, and thus would most likely end in his defeat.

To his surprise, the Arrancar seemed unscathed.

"Wise move. That trash would eventually get you killed."

Byakuya narrowed his eyes at him. He couldn't stand this man. Just the thought that Rukia had had to be at his mercy for weeks made his blood boil. She might have not said a bad word about him, but now he was convinced it was because she acted tough, not wanting to make anyone worry or pity her. She did have the tendency to bottle her feelings up, and he and the Kuchiki clan was partially responsible for it. He would need to remedy the relationship with his sister even further, so she could think of him as a confidant no matter her troubles or needs.

"Is that what you think of Rukia as well?" he asked, sending Senbonzakura Kageyoshi at the Arrancar in an angry storm.

Frowning at the question, Ulquiorra dodged the petal blades one wave after another. To him the answer was obvious. "No," he replied, only to add in an afterthought, "If I did, I wouldn't have bothered with her in the first place."

"So you used her and hurt her," the Shinigami captain accused, his eyes narrowed dangerously.

"No more than you did," Ulquiorra retorted. As much as he regretted it, he couldn't deny it. At the same time he hadn't done anything that would leave a permanent physical or mental damage, or so he would like to think.

"Don't act like you know anything, Arrancar."

"That ought to be my line, Shinigami!" He was losing his patience with this high-and-mighty snob. "How can you know anything if you admitted it yourself that she didn't say anything? What even was her report on me?"

The Shinigami woman must have said something. He didn't expect her to tell them everything about their relationship, the kisses or sex – that would get her tried for treason, and most likely executed… Or she did, but passed it off as rape? Her brother and friend did act as if he had done something heinous to her…

"She said that you treated her with respect."

Ulquiorra paused. That was the truth, abridged one, but truth nonetheless. He confirmed it with a nod, and asked, "So what personal grievances do you have with me, then?

"If that was the truth, she wouldn't be putting on a façade that everything is all right. Yet, she does," the Shinigami captain replied, barely able to hold back the anger from his voice. He closed in with Shunpo and orchestrated an attack with his Bankai. "I can clearly see the sorrow in her eyes. I can see she keeps to herself even more than before. I can see she's being haunted by something. And only you can be the cause!"

With each sentence a wave of petal blades hit Ulquiorra. Hierro and High-Speed Regeneration could do only so much to protect him. Soon he could feel his skin and flesh being peeled off piece by piece. All the while he couldn't help but wonder what troubled the Shinigami woman. He hadn't hurt her that severely, had he? Moreover, she was home with people she cared for. It was what she wanted, wasn't it? So where did her sorrow come from? Surely Ichimaru only jested when he had said that she missed him…? She left him by her own will, after all!

All those thoughts and doubts made him want to see her even more. He needed to escape this blade storm first, though. With Sonido he somehow managed to break through and away from it. He took quite a damage, with his wings particularly shredded, but soon he regenerated himself back to normal.

The Bankai, now reddish from his blood, was still following him, but that meant the Shinigami captain's defence was weakened.

Ulquiorra fired a shower of Balas at his opponent as a frontal attack. Then, moving with Sonido, he appeared behind him and slashed him with Luz de la Luna. There weren't enough petals to defend him, leaving the Shinigami captain with scarcely any options – only his own arm and retreat. The green javelin cut right across it, slashing the muscles apart and severing the tendons. That arm was done for. If he hadn't jumped away this quickly, he would have lost it completely.

Ulquiorra wasn't about to stop at that, and having the Shinigami captain where he wanted him, he fired Cero Oscuras. Just as he predicted, his opponent didn't risk trying to deflect or neutralise it with a Shinigami Spell, but simply dodged it. Perhaps if he had realised the real target was the pillar, he would have acted differently. Destroying the structure stabilising the world shifting was his prime objective, after all, while killing Shinigamis came only second. It crumbled a bit on the side, but still stood. Evidently it was sturdier than it looked.

Once the pillar was down, he would be free to go and find Ru— the Shinigami woman.

OMAKE I (Grimmy being kinda precious ❤)

Grimmjow could sense Nel's distress, even though she didn't let it show in her demeanour. She was the last person he could think of for a slaughter mission. Yet, here she was… With him, on top of a Gillian's head, heading towards Soul Society to raze it to the ground. He was willing to use Caja Negación on her, so she wouldn't need to stain her hands with blood.

There was one major problem, though — he had no fucking idea where her damn Hollow hole was!

Surreptitiously he eyed her up and down. He knew it wasn't on her limbs, her head, her throat or collarbone, or her stomach… So that left only her chest or her arse… He felt his ears and cheeks burn at the thought of her curves… Like a fucking green teenage boy! What the fuck was wrong with him?!

"You okay there, Grimmjow?" Nel asked, a concern on her lovely face.

"Yeah," he grumbled and looked away. Nope, ain't fucking happening! He meant well, but he didn't want to risk her killing him. Or worse – hating him and thinking he was a pervert!

OMAKE II (A disastrous mix of misunderstanding and jumping to conclusions)

Ulquiorra stared at his two opponents – the Shinigami woman's brother and her friend. There was murder in their eyes, they clearly wanted to make this fight personal.

"You're Byakuya Kuchiki, Captain of the 6th Division. And that's your lieutenant, Renji Abarai."

"Correct," the captain confirmed after a pause. Unsheathing his zanpakutō, he silently released the Shikai. "And you are the man I must kill."

"Just what have you done to Rukia?!" the lieutenant asked angrily.

"What I have done to her?" Ulquiorra scoffed. They really came here and sought him out for personal reasons. But why, when he hadn't really hurt her? A woman's brother and her male friend, livid, wanting to avenge the woman… Adding one thing to another, only one conclusion came to his mind … "Wait… she's not pregnant, is she?"

"What?" the Shinigami captain asked, his voice faint from shock.

"WHAT?!" the Shinigami lieutenant cried in horror.

Ulquiorra blinked. "What?"

(In the background Asagiri exclaimed, "She's not!")

Gosh, I love writing those omakes. The sillier they are, the more I love them, haha xD

I hope you enjoyed the first part, and I'll see you next year!

Lots of love~! ❤❤❤

朝霧 -Asagiri-