Disclaimer: I do not own Bleach nor do I make any profit from this fanfiction.
Warnings: Brief, yet intense, language
Free and Chained
By Zeionia a.k.a. Disturbed
Ichigo knew death was coming. He knew it and feared it as greatly as the sundered part of his soul knew it and feared it. As his enemy's blade grew ever closer, Ichigo abandoned his outer defenses, knowing they would become shortly useless. He centered his mind, relaxed his body, and prepared himself for the struggle he would soon begin for his soul. The victor of the swift approaching fight, be it hollow or shinigami, would gain control of his power for all time. But death did not come quickly or slowly.
Ichigo opened his eyes and saw Ulquiorra's sword mere centimeters from his head but not moving. He looked up and met calm green eyes.
"Will you kill Aizen Sōsuke?" asked Ulquiorra.
"If I do not kill you, will you kill the one called Aizen Sōsuke?" he repeated.
Ichigo, completely confused, answered honestly. "I've never killed anyone before. But if I have to kill him to keep my precious people safe, then I will."
"Very well." Ulquiorra lowered his weapon and shed his released form. He turned his passionless gaze to Orihime. "You will stay here, woman."
Orihime opened her mouth to protest, but Ulquiorra grabbed Ichigo and hefted the boy over his shoulder then disappeared from sight.
"Bring him back, Ulquiorra!" Orihime shouted into the air.
Ulquiorra was much too far away to hear her. He was moving faster than any arrancar had the right to, faster than even Yoruichi, goddess of Flash, could travel. When they stopped, Ulquiorra tossed him unceremoniously to the floor. Ichigo groaned and forced himself to sit up. Even as a soul, the fights and previously unheard of speeds had put severe strain on his body. Looking around, Ichigo had to wonder what Ulquiorra had in store for him.
This was a dark place in Hueco Mundo. Ancient power flowed in an ever-shifting miasma of shadows. Here there were no tiny hollows crawling out of the sand. Here the sand itself contained more power than some hollows Ichigo had battled. His breath caught in his chest as the shadows revealed themselves to be hollows huge, powerful, and old. He knew the term for these hollows. He had heard shinigami whisper it in fear.
"Vasto Lorde," he breathed.
The closest hollow released a rumbling sound that Ichigo was terrified to realize was a laugh.
"Kurosaki Ichigo, do you think you can fight all of us?" it asked.
Unconsciously, Ichigo had been drawing in his power in preparation for a fight. It was foolish. Ten Vasto Lorde could destroy all of Soul Society. There were far more than ten Vasto Lorde here. If he was in top condition, he would be lucky to bring down one.
"Why am I here?" he asked. His gaze flickered back and forth between the hollow and Ulquiorra, who had assumed his usual expression of disinterest.
"You, Kurosaki Ichigo, are a dangerous element," explained the hollow. "Ulquiorra kept us informed of your situation as best he could, and we have finally decided what is to be done with you."
Overwhelmed by everything, Ichigo could only process one implication at a time. "I thought Ulquiorra worked for Aizen," he said numbly.
"Ulquiorra is a proud Vasto Lorde. When we learned of Aizen's plans, he volunteered to become an arrancar and observe Aizen's actions. Becoming an arrancar decimated Ulquiorra's power to the extent that he now lacks the strength to defeat Aizen."
"Ulquiorra gave up his power, so you could stop Aizen?" clarified Ichigo. Over the years, various teachers and told Ichigo to reword the question if he did not understand. Ichigo felt nothing would help him understand this.
"That he did," agreed the hollow. "However, now we hope to use Orihime Inoue's power to reverse the shinigamification that Ulquiorra underwent. But you are not here to learn of Ulquiorra's sacrifice."
"Then why am I here?" he asked.
"You are a dangerous element Kurosaki Ichigo. As it stands now, you are very likely to die and soon. Should you die, you will either become a hollow or a shinigami. If you become a shinigami, you will be the only one in existence to possess strength to destroy a Vasto Lorde without aid. If you become a hollow, you will become a Vasto Lorde immediately. But by becoming a Vasto Lorde so quickly, you will not learn the steps necessary to control your power and rein in your hunger. You will attack us. This is unacceptable."
Ichigo's heart pounded furiously in his chest. He did not want to be an object of negative attention to these powerful monsters.
"What are you going to do?"
The Vasto Lorde shifted and a mass of shadows flickered in and out of sight.
"You are a living human with the abilities of a shinigami and a hollow, yet you possess the power of a Vasto Lorde. None of the skills known to Soul Society, the Vaizard, or Las Noches can help you control your strength. Only the abilities of a Vasto Lorde can help you now."
"You're going to teach me to control my power?" Ichigo exclaimed in shocked surprise.
Ulquiorra was suddenly in front of him kneeling so that he could meet Ichigo's eyes. "I will show you," he said tonelessly. One arm raised and his fingertips brushed Ichigo's forehead. "Do not move."
Ichigo reappeared in his inner world. His hollow had already manifested and was staring at Ichigo in amazement, or rather staring past Ichigo. The boy turned and saw Ulquiorra standing not two feet away studying everything with his usual impartiality. Neither the vast multitude of skyscrapers nor the unusual orientation of gravity bothered the green-eyed arrancar. However, he did feel pressed to comment on the second presence in Ichigo's inner world.
"You are but one soul. There should not be two."
Ichigo's inner hollow took offense. "Well, I ain't leaving," he sneered.
"You will not leave," replied Ulquiorra. His focus returned to Ichigo. "You will need to access all of your spiritual power."
"All of it?" Ichigo's voice was echoed by his hollow.
Wind whipped through the buildings lashing at their clothes. Thunder marked by lightning rumbled in the sky above. Ulquiorra interpreted this to mean the boy was afraid of his power, which was likely a wise thing considering how much power he had.
"Not all at once," he amended and the wind eased. "But you will need all of it eventually."
Ichigo was suddenly wary. Here he was not subject to the oppressive nature of the other Vasto Lorde. His mental acuity had returned in full force.
"What am I going to do, exactly?" he demanded.
"Vasto Lorde cannot eat hollows to maintain dominance of their souls. There are simply not enough hollows. Instead, we create soul-chains, after a fashion. We focus our power and shape it into a chain which we can bind together our many souls into one single entity. Instead of allowing your power to pull at your soul, you will force it to hold you together," explained Ulquiorra.
The implication hit both of them at the same time, but the hollow reacted much more violently.
"So I'm just going to disappear?" he demanded. "Become another part of his soul? I'm not going to let it happen!"
"You will not disappear," said Ulquiorra firmly. "You will become one soul as you are supposed to be, even you have recognized this."
"Tch. Yeah right."
The hollow lifted his own bleached version of Zangetsu in preparation to attack. But Ulquiorra did accept his challenge. Instead he grabbed Ichigo pushed him back so that the human soul was impaled on the blade. Ichigo grunted in pained surprise, but other than wrapping a hand around the blade he made no move. His non-reaction intrigued Ulquiorra.
"Fuck!" roared the hollow in distinct counterpoint.
Seemingly the two were aware of the connection they shared through Zangetsu, the one point of power they still truly shared. Judging from Ichigo's resigned expression, he had likely used this method to gain control of his power before. Curiosity abated, Ulquiorra proceeded with the plan.
He grabbed on to the sword protruding from Ichigo's chest and started to pull. The blade shattered becoming little more than pure energy, but Ulquiorra continued to draw the power out. Using his own spiritual energy as a guide, he formed a mold and forced Ichigo's power through it. One link formed.
"Envision a chain, Ichigo, one extending from your soul, one that contains all of the power that resides within you. This is your power. Bind it."
Ichigo threw back his head and screamed. It was a hollow's shriek: the trumpet blast that sounded when all hope was lost and all that remained was one single burst of defiance; the roar of triumph at a first kill and the brief conquest over hunger. At the same time it was an all too human sound of sorrow and regret and unyielding pain. The sound continued on and on with no pause for breath.
Ulquiorra felt a brief twinge of fear and sought out the hollow half of Ichigo's soul. It was gone, already merged into the being screaming into the heavens. He looked at the chain sliding through his fingers. Every link was thick with power as dense as the oldest Vasto Lorde could form. Still he could see the slight division that identified Ichigo's strength as that of shinigami or hollow, but that too was quickly fading.
The chain continued to grow and Ulquiorra began to wonder how much power Ichigo really had stored in his body. Then the building beneath their feet began to quiver and the sky cracked and Ulquiorra knew. He had forgotten where he was, he had forgotten that this place had housed Ichigo's hollow and zanpaktou spirit, an entire metropolis formed of his power and made to store even more power.
The feel of Ichigo's power changed beneath Ulquiorra's fingers. It was no longer rough like two metals poured together but a smooth unified power. This was power so far buried it had not even split when Ichigo's soul had shattered. His strength poured forth without ceasing. The chain appeared to stretch into infinity. Ulquiorra lost all sense of time. He had no idea of when Ichigo finally stopped screaming.
After an eternity of waiting, it was finished. Every drop of power Ichigo had was formed into heavy yet delicate chain. Ulquiorra forced his way out of Ichigo's inner world as the power began to move in reverse. Like yarn around a spool, it wrapped around the boy's image of his soul. Ulquiorra had no wished to donate his scant power to that long chain.
Ulquiorra opened the eyes of his body in Hueco Mundo and looked down at the unconscious soul. His wounds were gone. They had likely healed when the boy had accessed the hollow-like portion of his strength. He was still in bankai and Ulquiorra noted that the length of chain on Zangetsu had increased. As more of Ichigo's power sealed itself away, he shed his bankai form and assumed his usual shikai form.
Ulquiorra studied Zangetsu but did not see any physical representation on the binding. The cloth around the guard-less hilt would not be enough. Then he saw the sudden depression Ichigo's body made in the sand and pulled back the sleeve of his gi. There, on his left arm, from palm to shoulder was a sleeve of chain-link armor, perhaps the first ever defensive manifestation of Ichigo's power.
But then Ichigo's power sealed itself further, to Ulquiorra's great surprise, and Zangetsu assumed the form of a normal zanpaktou. The sleeve of armor faded and in its stead an iron collar encircled Ichigo's neck. Peering closer, Ulquiorra could see letters carved into the metal band. The jagged shapes were not kanji, but English letters which spelled DEATH GOD.
"Do you know what he is, little brother?"
Ulquiorra allowed himself to grimace in distaste at the nickname before meeting the eyes of his fellow Vasto Lorde.
"He is an arrancar. Not one of Aizen's toys nor an adjucha too afraid to become a Vasto Lorde but a true arrancar. A hollow that does not hunger and that has not an emptiness in its soul."
The Vasto Lorde trembled in fear.
"Take him away, Ulquiorra. Do not let him see this place with unclouded eyes."
Ulquiorra nodded he picked up Ichigo and slid Zangetsu into its sheath then carried them both to Las Noches. He found Orihime waiting with the other shinigami.
"You may take your trash," he said, dumping Ichigo on top of her.
She glared at him but knelt to take care of Ichigo as the boy struggled into the realm of the conscious. Her other companions eyed him warily, but none drew their weapons. Hiding nearby were Nel with her followers and Grimmjow, all of whom appeared reluctant to approach the gathering of shinigami. They slowly edged closer, and when Ichigo stood they came closer still.
Wordlessly, Ulquiorra opened a gate to Karakura Town, where the battle between the shinigami and the arrancar had reached a stand-still. Ichigo nodded and leapt through. His other companions followed quickly. Ulquiorra did not close the portal but did not proceed through either, even when the self-styled god motioned for him to approach.
"What the hell do you think you're doing Ulquiorra?" demanded Grimmjow.
Ulquiorra felt a smirk overtake his features and did nothing to hide it. Nel and her posse stumbled back in fear, while even Grimmjow shuddered.
To them he said, "I am going to watch that boy kill Aizen."
Few arrancar remained after Aizen's defeat. Even as the ex-shinigami battled his way to the pinnacle of evolution in the human world, the adjucha attacked and decimated the remaining forces of Las Noches. Of the espada only Halibel, Ulquiorra, and Grimmjow survived the encounter with Soul Society. Lilinette had endured Stark's death only barely. Neliel and her fraccion had disappeared into the sands of Hueco Mundo returning to their game of Eternal Hell Tag.
Ordinarily Hollows were meant to be purified by the shinigami and have their souls recycled in Soul Society. Much to General Yamamoto's distress, both 12th Division Captain Kurotsuchi and ex-Captain Urahara had put a halt to these executions. Aizen's revolt and ultimate defeat had destabilized the Spirit World. Neither the powerful arrancar nor ex-Captain Ichimaru Gin, currently kept under close watch by 2nd Division personnel, could be cleansed until the shockwaves had settled, potentially centuries from now.
The guilty parties were being brought before an assembly of captains and lieutenants, now that the Central 46 was unavailable, to receive judgment. The trial was to determine where the remaining arrancar would be placed. Kurotsuchi wanted to study them. Kenpachi wanted to fight them. Yamamoto wanted them permanently gone, which was not an option. Someone had suggested locking them away beneath Soul Society for a few centuries.
Seeing them stand in front of the council, Urahara wondered if the "trial" was really a good idea. He saw a glimmering thread of skepticism on the faces of both Yoruichi and Byakuya. (They never agreed on anything!) The ryoka, who had the most personal experience with the arrancar, were not present. The resulting chaos when Ichigo had learned his father was a shinigami and had not told his family left all of Soul Society jumping at shadows for days afterward. Yamamoto was using it as an excuse to exclude the substitute reaper. He probably had never considered inviting the boy's human friends as witnesses.
Ichimaru was smiling as always, as if he was put on trial every day, and aggravating all of the gathered shinigami. Grimmjow was visibly upset. He kept shifting from foot to foot and muttering under his breath. Halibel and Ulquiorra were matching pillars of stoicism. The final arrancar was quaking where she stood. She, out of Aizen's remaining servants, was the only non-espada. Urahara doubted she could retain an even temper for very long.
"Ichimaru Gin, Tia Halibel, Ulquiorra Schiffer, Grimmjow Jeagerjaques, and Lilinette Gingerback, you are guilty of waging war against Soul Society and the Royal Family. This is a crime punishable by death. Currently that punishment is unavailable. For what reasons should you avoid a fate worse than death?"
The gathered shinigami remained silent. Grimmjow opened his mouth, no doubt to shoot off some ridiculous comment, but a loud wail cut across his words. The girl-espada, Lilinette, had fallen to her knees and was crying loudly.
"I-I m-m-miss Lord-d Stark!"
Grimmjow, who was standing closest to her, sneered. "Shut up, brat!"
Her cries simply increased to an unintelligible mass of heaving sobs.
"Child, you insult your master's memory," said Halibel. "Be silent in the face of the inevitable."
That had an impact on Lilinette. She decreased in volume but was still shaking and let loose the occasional hiccup. It was pitiful sight.
Finally, Ichimaru leaned forward so he could see around the arrancar. "Stark would have been upset to see you crying over him."
That seemed to do the trick. Unable to wipe her eyes, Lilinette settled herself by giving one final sniffle and rose shakily to her feet.
The atmosphere of the room had shifted. Most of the captains had maintained their impassivity, but all of the lieutenants were obviously unsettled. Those few who had lost their captains through treachery were especially affected. Yamato strove to regain control of the trial despite this setback.
"If none will speak for these, then their fate is—
The great double-doors slammed open cutting off the leader of 1st Division mid-sentence. Ichigo came barreling into the meeting hall. Hanging back near the entrance were Chad, Ishida, and Rukia. Inoue was the only one to follow Ichigo inside.
"You are not interfering in this boy," began the 1st Division lieutenant.
"Shut up," said Ichigo. "I have a debt to Ulquiorra I must repay first."
"You're not going to free them?" asked Ukitake as stunned as anyone else.
Ichigo glared at him, then at all of them once he realized they all thought the same. Just because he rescued Rukia did not mean he wanted to overthrow all of Soul Society laws or that even cared about them that much.
"I will be dishonored if I do not repay my debt," he said coolly and arrogantly enough to rival Byakuya.
"Pay your debt," ordered Yamamoto in the silence that followed. "Then we will continue."
Ichigo took a deep breath then turned to Orihime. "Inoue, please reject the effects of the Hogyuko on Ulquiorra."
Orihime's confusion was place for all to see. Nonetheless she trusted Ichigo. "Okay, Kurosaki." She turned to face Ulquiorra. "Soten Kisshun, I reject!"
Beneath the shield formed by Orihime's Shun Shun Rikka, Ulquiorra began to glow. His reiatsu soared growing stronger and stronger with every passing second. While the captains held firm, some of the lieutenants began to shift nervously. The vaizard were the ones that had defeated the three strongest arrancar in Aizen's army. Clearly Ulquiorra was in a very close fourth place. When Ulquiorria's strength was just shy of matching Halibel's, it disappeared and the shield vanished.
"That's it," said Orihime. "It's finished."
Grimmjow snarled. "What the hell? He looks the same!"
A loud clank silenced the sixth espada. The handcuff limiters on Ulquiorra had fallen to pieces. Ulquiorra looked grimly smug. His zanpaktou manifested itself at his side. By now the shinigami were panicking, but none of them could even move to reach the arrancar.
In a single swift motion, Ulquiorra drew his zanpaktou holding it in an outstretched arm parallel to the ground. "Release."
The blade melted away and Ulquiorra's skin began to smoke. The smoke grew bigger and thicker until all trace of the hollow disappeared. Then it solidified and the full force of Ulquiorra's strength threw them all to the ground.
"Vasto Lorde!" someone shrieked. Alarm bells echoed throughout the Court of Pure Souls.
"We're even now, right?" asked Ichigo. His voice was barely discernable above the noise.
"Yes," answered the creature that had been Ulquiorra.
It flew from the meeting hall blasting a hole in the roof as it did so. A black gash appeared in the sky above seireitei and out of it leaked terrible and ancient power. The Vasto Lorde disappeared into Hueco Mundo and rip between worlds vanished as quickly as it had come.
"Kurosaki!" the furious yell came from none other than Captain-General Yamamoto. "What have you done?"
Ichigo, the only one to remain standing during the entire episode, helped Orihime rise to her feet before facing him.
"Look, old man. You told me I could repay my debt to Ulquiorra so I did. It's not my fault you couldn't hold on to him," he said entirely to calm. He and Orihime were half-way out the door before he remembered to add, "We're going home to Karakura Town, by the way. Just thought you should know."
That said, Ichigo left and the doors slammed shut behind them leaving the meeting hall in disbelieving silence.
"Captain-General Yamato," said Urahara. "My recommendation is to allow the Hollow and Ichimaru to continue training at the Court of Pure Souls."
Yamamoto fixed a beady glare on the former 12th Division captain. "Your reasoning?"
Urahara waved his fan at the closed door. "Did you feel that?"
"It was rather hard not to notice the Vasto Lorde," said the general with thinly veiled sarcasm.
"No, no, no. Not the Hollow. Ichigo."
"I did not," said Yamamoto.
Ichimaru chuckled quietly at the general's response. Every eye in the room focused on him. Halibel took several steps away until she had assumed Ulquiorra's former place in the line.
Still grinning, Ichimaru answered the unvoiced question. "You didn't see any giant meat cleavers just now, did you? But the kid wasn't in bankai either. He was making too much commotion for you to notice he wasn't broadcasting reiatsu. 'Course," and now he sounded thoughtful, "I had already seen him slice through Aizen with a sealed zanpaktou."
Urahara nodded enthusiastically. "Yes, yes, that's it exactly. Ichigo isn't broadcasting anymore. He has to be more powerful. He's even allied with a Vasto Lorde. Who knows what trouble he could get into? If he ever decides to come after Soul Society, not that he would ever do something like that without reason, then you'll need all the help we can get. You might even need to recall the vaizard!"
Captain-General Shigekuni Yamamoto-Genryusai sputtered. The lieutenants and captains exploded into roaring arguments and shouts of denial. Yoruichi's clamped and hand onto Urahara's shoulder and dug in her fingers. He peered at her innocently from behind his fan.
"You just made life hell for the kid," she said. "Isshin's going to be pissed at you."
"I know," he responded quietly. "But that doesn't mean it won't be fun. I think Ichigo is going to blow us all away."
Yoruichi sighed and let him go. "I suppose I should be used to this from you. Viva la revolución?"
Urahara smirked. "And long live the king."
I decided to edit and repost this as a one-shot.* I like it a bit better. It fits in better with canon, even though it is clearly not canon.
* This is a one-shot. There is no more. There will never be any more except in your imaginations (and mine, but I'm not writing it). You can't pressure me into making it longer again! On that note, I am working on a longer Bleach story focused on Ulquiorra which I will start posting once my Beyblade/X-Men:Evolution story is finished.