Stark and Halibel, before 'Sloth' and 'Understanding'. M-rated for sexual content (yeeees, guy on girl sexual content, would you believe it.) Just as a snippet of context, if you've stumbled upon this without having stumbled on Understanding and Sloth before, the top three Espada rankings for this story are Barragan first, Stark second, Halibel third. The references to Stark as the strongest of the lot refer to the time before Aizen, when he, indeed, was the strongest. However, because of the fact that Lilinette was not mature enough for the Hougyaku transformation to give her a full human body, Stark assited in her transformation with a radical amount of his own reiatsu, which made him drop beneath Barragan.

The rest should be self-explanatory.

She laid back on the bed, with a lazy, graceful motion, which pushed her breasts forward and slightly apart. The position made them seem even fuller; he smiled, letting her know he understood she'd intended just that.

She arched an eyebrow.

'Off with it,' she commanded, pointing at the tunic of the man who stood at the foot of her bed, then waving her fingers to the side.

It was his turn to arch an eyebrow.

'Aizen is rubbing off on you in entirely unexpected ways,' he ironically said.

Still, smiling and conceding to her new game, he unbuttoned his tunic and carelessly tossed it aside – the gesture made her frown slightly, just as he knew it would; if there was anything she hated, it was disorder. His grin grew mischievous.

Her frown faded.

'You like what you see?' Stark asked, and Halibel nodded, a familiar fever growing in the emerald depths of her eyes. 'You should,' he added. 'I haven't eaten anyone in over two months – that should go a long way towards preserving my boyish figure. Though I cannot guarantee what effects it had on my stamina.'

Her eyes narrowed disapprovingly, but he knew that, underneath her visor, she'd been pursing her lips and smiling with amusement. Genuine, rare amusement, the kind that she seemed to feel on few occasions, and display in fewer still.

'You could at least try to initiate some form of verbal foreplay,' Halibel said, barely withholding a chuckle at the fact that she had tried – and miserably failed – to sound commanding.

It was only then that his eyes warmed, while his heart sank.

It was going to be one of those nights.

Over the past century, their...relationship? Stark thought, almost frowning at the odd inaccuracy of the word, had gone through many phases, each with its particular charm and flavour; they had been allies, friends, then, lovers. Now, during the increasingly rare encounters that signalled its predictable dissolution, they chose to return and relive, re-enact them, one by one. And, surprisingly, none of them lost their charm, or ever failed to incite heart-rending regret at things that were lost and would never be recovered.

This was going to be an honest night.

Good – he liked them best.

She'd been the first creature in this barren world that he had trusted, outside of Lilinette...outside of himself. She was the first one whose logic and strength he had respected, the first one who had made him smile. The first one who had sincerely smiled for him, and helped him reclaim the part of his former humanity that he could not allow Lilinette to return. Not then, not now...not yet.

But that was not why he'd loved her. He'd loved her because she understood the things he could not say, and accepted them. Because she had always known that she was a replacement, a projection, but the knowledge had not made her grudge him or give him any less of herself. Perhaps, aside her strength, it was her generosity and honesty that he had loved.

That he still loved, on these nights alone.

It was, Stark thought, looking at her, as if Halibel, his Halibel had gone, leaving another to inhabit her body during the long, excruciatingly sunny days of this alien city and during the meetings with the man who called them his Espada. This other had inherited Halibel's body, then proceeded to transform her strength of spirit into stony inflexibility, taken away her independence, surgically removed her sense of humour and done away with her playful and spontaneous sexuality, replacing it with repressed lust towards a single, godly and unattainable target.

Or perhaps, not unattainable, he thought, sudden bitterness causing his lower jaw to tense. No one, not even someone with Halibel's legendary patience, waited forever; Aizen must have given her some reason to keep hoping. Perhaps Halibel's short returns to herself, and par consequence, to Stark, corresponded to the periods when Aizen's visits to her bed grew too far apart. Did she miss the sex in itself? He wondered, taking in the shape of her body, and casually noticing that her breath had grown shallow.

It could not have been that; she could not have lacked for offers. What, then, did she miss?

Did she miss herself as much as he missed her?

'What should I say?' he asked, smiling, and loosening the sash that held his hakama. 'That you're beautiful? You already know that, and I hate being repetitive.'

She simply tilted her head to the side.

'Should I ask why you called me, tonight?' he asked, smiling wryly.

'I would just ask why you came,' Halibel answered simply.

'Dead-end conversation,' Stark conceded, and she chuckled in response.

'Off with that, too,' she said, pointing at the sash.

He stopped unfastening his sash – just as a point – but bent over to remove his sandals and socks, then kneeled on the bed by her side, and slipped his arm under her back, pulling her up. Their eyes met, and Halibel's breath caught a little. So did his.

He reached up, tracing her cheekbone with his index; she inched closer, so close that her breasts touched his chest at each breath, and he could feel the warmth radiating off her golden skin. He slipped his fingers under her hair, gently brushing against the sharp edge of her mask – Halibel shivered.

Most would have thought the white patch of bone was dead, a mere shell for the living and breathing features it still concealed. It was not – even the left over shards of the Hollow's mask were as sensitive as the skin, and equally warm.

He kissed her forehead, and questioningly glanced down, as his fingers slipped lower and lower over the mask, and under the visor.

'Does he take it off?' Stark asked, in a low, gentle whisper. The question had not been reproachful, and there had been no trace of jealousy in his voice. It had been there once, in a long forgotten past – violent jealousy at the thought that another man had dared lay his hands on what Stark held as closely, personally his as his hunting domain.

It was all gone, now, though. Whatever he'd been robbed of, she'd been robbed of far more, and Stark understood that, even though he feared she did not. That was why his question had been deprived of reproach, and solely ridden with regret.

'Does he take it off, Halibel?' he whispered. 'Does he dare look at you? At your true, terrible beauty?'

She glanced up, through reproachfully narrowed eyes.

'He doesn't,' Stark answered himself, with a trace of a smile. 'He likes to imagine that he has done away with everything that you were before him, that he's created you anew, that he's made you perfect. And you don't want to contradict him. That's why you're wearing this,' he kindly ended, caressing her over the soft silk of her visor.

The woman lay back on the bed, her outstretched arm snaking around his throat and pulling him closer, and, as he leaned in, Halibel softly ran her fingers over the fangs that hung about his neck, letting them slide over his chest and to the edges of the dark hole in his sternum.

'He filled it,' she said, and both of them knew what she was speaking of.

'I hope so, my beauty,' Stark answered. 'I hope so.'

He caressed her breasts with the back of his fingers, then brought himself downwards to trail kisses down her stomach. The arm he still had around her waist arched her back, and she pressed her shoulders into the soft mattress, yielding eagerly to the kisses and to the fingers that pulled the sash off her hips and searchingly roamed over the dimples in the small of her back.

Her skin was burning; she lifted her hips to help him remove the piece of silk that pointlessly separated them. The movement caused her breasts to free themselves of her top – Stark looked up, taking in the view with hunger and anticipation, as if he'd seen it for the first time. He touched her sex as if he'd touched for the first time, too, almost shyly, almost too lightly, relishing the feeling of hot and wet under his fingertips. Relishing the way in which her breath hitched at each circular motion, and the fact that her hips rose to welcome his fingers' first entry.

He kissed her breasts, left, pink nipple hardening between his lips, just before the right one did too – he inwardly smiled, remembering that before the first time, before the very first time, he'd imagined they would be brown.

Stark hissed when her short fingernails scraped playfully over his lower stomach.

'I am ticklish,' he reminded her.

'I know,' she answered in a very serious voice, and the motion repeated, sending hot jolts through his hardened sex. 'The mighty one, the strongest of the strong, the coldest of the cold, greatest among us...'

'Not anymore,' he said, but chuckled uncontrollably nonetheless. 'Not anymore,' he repeated, grabbing her wrist and pinning it aside her head. His gaze grew hard and cutting, but only for a second – her other hand slipped under his sash and encircled his length.

'It was your choice,' she answered, even as she arched further, offering her breasts to his lips. 'It is still your choice. You could...'

Her head turned, and she caressed herself on his wrist, like a kitten – forehead, cheeks and hot breath over the tattoo that marked his ranking. Her eyelids fluttered as his fingers withdrew to circle and explore delicate folds.

'No,' he said, kindly, and without anger. 'No,' he repeated when her glance grew pleading. She drew breath as if preparing to say something else, but the circular, soft caresses to her clitoris resumed and the phrase broke – in turn, her hand continued to move over his sex. 'The ticklish point stands, though.' Stark cautioned, managing to smile. Her eyes smiled in turn.

He moaned, and cursed softly under his breath; though they left his sex and once more danced over his lower stomach, causing him to jolt and reproachfully glance down, her fingers started a determined struggle against his sash, and he straightened for long enough to remove it and free himself of his hakama. Halibel smiled at his sudden, impatient rush, and he offered an apologetic shrug as he kneeled before her.

Halibel tried to sit up in her turn, but he gently pressed her back down, splaying his pale fingers over her dark, golden stomach, and slowly shaking his head. His hand slipped over her beautiful, rounded belly, then roamed over the curve of her hip; had this woman lived in ancient times, he thought, watching the hungry, impatient movements of her hips, they would have worshipped her as a goddess...of Earth, or fertility, or lust...Only a goddess could have posessed this kind of raw, untamed and shameless beauty; only a goddess could possibly have posessed this kind of strength. He followed her well defined muscles downwards, lingering over her protruding hip bone. Her thighs moved slightly apart, inviting his hand; Stark bit his lower lip, but resisted the temptation.

Instead, his glance never leaving hers, he caressed the outside of her thighs down to the knee, lingering to draw arcane patterns on the fine patch of skin. She whimpered, drawing closer, when he softly parted her legs arranging them on either side of his, and moaned deeply when his fingers returned inside her.

'Let me touch you,' she breathed, her stomach muscles tensing deliciously under his spread fingers, just as her sex clenched over his other hand. 'Let me...'

She reached out her hand, small fingers, with short, childishly rounded nails pleading for his.

'...close to you,' she finished – his had caught hers and he jolted her up to her knees. She straddled him, her left arm entangled his shoulders, and her breasts pressed against his chest at each heavy, cut off breath.

Her hand caressed his cheek and he closed his eyes, posing a soft kiss on the inside of her wrist when it passed over his lips.

'Your body is a work of art,' she said, in a low voice. 'It always was. But your face...'

He did not have sufficient strength to draw away.

'Your cheekbones, the proportions of your features, your eyes – handsome, strong, who you are, what you are, everything that was behind the mask is now out in the open, and they fear you,' she hissed, shivering with pleasure at uttering the words, 'they fear you now that they see your face more than they ever did before. The cowardly little Adjuchas. Half of the Espada...'

Her finger nails dug into his skin.

'They fear you, even though you are only half awake, even though you choose to only be half awake...'

He held her tighter and withdrew his hand. Instead, he rubbed the tip of his sex against hers, making it slick with hot warmth. She moaned, and leaned her forehead on his shoulder. Her top tore on the remnants of his mask, but she did not care – she pressed her hips downwards, wincing in disappointment and pleasure when the gland simply rubbed against her, sending waves of uncontrollable, maddening warmth upwards on her spine.

'Do you fear me?' Stark whispered, eyes shooting blue lightning.

She looked up and frowned, eyes riddled with lust and incomprehension.

'I always have,' Halibel whispered, with a slight shake of her head. 'And it's only made me want you even more. I want you,' she whispered in his ear, her small fingers slipping though the wavy, dark tresses of his hair. 'I want you because I fear you; the more I fear you, Stark, the more I want to touch you – feel your strength, drink of it, feast on it...all of it, not half of it...'

Stark cringed, letting out a ragged breath.

'Is that what he wants?' he asked, not pushing her away, but holding her tighter as her hips rolled, and all things, save for the frustrating proximity of her sex began to fade. 'Is that why he told you to...Don't answer,' he begged.

You don't need to. I understand.

'Aizen...-sama sees,' she whispered, 'through my heart, though your heart, through the heart of all things, he returns the heart of all things, their meaning, their strength. He...'

'Halibel, please,' he whimpered.

'He hasn't given up on you, Stark,' she struggled to say, her words intertwined with strangled, desperate moans, 'he wants you by his side – though you have shown so little respect for his gifts, though you care so little for our goals...He wants you by his side, and you deserve to be the first among his creations, as you always were the first among us...'

'He did not ask this of me,' she whispered, folding her fingers under his chin and forcing his gaze across hers.

He didn't need to.

'I want you to take the place you deserve,' Halibel pleaded, and the sincerity in her voice made his anger waver. He breathed out heavily, feeling as if the air had been tearing at his throat with a thousand sharp claws. 'I want you,' she whimpered, moving over his sex, 'I want you to stand with Aizen-sama...Aizen-sama,' Halibel breathed, her entire wheight resting on his shoulders, her sweet breath caressing his cheek as she whispered the other's name. 'Please, Stark...'

With slow, careful gestures, he disentangled her frame from his, and laid her on the bed – she yielded easily, her breasts rising and falling with each breath, her half lidded eyes burning with the expectation of pleasure. Stark leaned in over her, and stopped to take in her heart-rending beauty before he kissed her forehead.

'I loved you,' he said, with the voice of a man who neither expected to be heard, nor believed.

He passed his hand over her features, without touching her, but close enough for her eyelashes to touch his palm – she instinctively closed her eyes, and he kissed her eyelids, one after the other, then, with equally gentle gestures, he began to lower the zipper of her visor.

Halibel whimpered, but did not move to stop him, yet again yielding when his fingers came between skin and silk and removed the garment from her shoulders.

The mask still covered the better part of her face, more so on the right than on the left – the fierce, sharp outline of a predator's mandible ascended her right cheek, disappearing under her hair. Two sharp incisors protruded from the row of shorter, razor sharp teeth that lined the contour of her bony upper jaw; sharp and gleaming, the incisors passed over her lower jaw and curved slightly under her chin, contrasting the darkness of the hollow hole that pierced the centre of her neck.

Because they hanged you, my queen. The humans, the unfortunate, ignorant humans, could not understand your powers, so they hanged you.

'You possess such beauty,' he said, tracing the contours of her mask. 'Such powerful, terrifying beauty...He is right to avert his eyes,' Stark said, softly. 'Your beauty, your completeness, is something a Shinigami could never comprehend.'

He drew a deep breath and held it, looking at her eyes, at the mist of glowing sweat that covered her skin, at her breasts, which rippled with emotion, at her hips, that escaped her conscious control and continued to writhe in small, enticing circles...

Stark kissed her forehead once more.

Just once more.

'It's the last time, my beauty,' he said, as if the gentleness of his voice could mask the painful finality of his decision. 'The very last time.'

He adjusted her knees and she bit her lip suppressing a cry as he moved inside her, deeply, completely, in a single, slow movement; he remained motionless for a second, feeling her muscles greedily tauten around his sex, drawing him in, just as her hand clenched at the white sheets. Stark covered her small, dark fingers with his own, and brought them to his lips...and then, for a second, she looked disconcerted and frightened, the expression in her eyes tearing at his heart.

'It is alright, Halibel,' Stark said, softly. 'You can close your eyes and imagine it's him.'

'I...' she began to respond.

'You love him, I know,' he whispered, separating the golden strands of her hair and caressing her forehead and cheeks. 'I know.'

She closed her eyes, gripping his fingers, and Stark began to move; breath hissed between her fangs, as did cut off denials and the pleas that undid them... with me, be with us, be with him...


...ask him for your strength back and he will lift you to his side, closer to his side...he will love you and you will love him...Stark...

The rhythm of their bodies betrayed a century of mutual knowledge – lips and fingers moved on already known trails, hips moving together softly, seamlessly as pleasure mounted and drowned out all thoughts and all fears, all images of an uncertain future. Her nipples were even sweeter now, that the sensitive skin was reddened by his teeth and his lips; sweat stained the sheets, and her body arched, meeting each thrust. Her thighs clenched him tightly, capturing him as if she had wanted him closer still – a deep growl grew at the centre of Stark's chest and escaped his lips as he pulled her up and on top of him. He trailed kisses on the side of her neck, which had arched in abandon, and when the kisses were no longer enough he bit, almost too powerfully – Halibel's fingernails scraped at his shoulders, drawing blood and darkness out of the wounds.

'Like that,' he growled again – her incisors stabbed sharply into his skin just as the fangs of his mask drew blood from the skin under her collarbone. Halibel hissed, a feral, hungry smile drawing her fangs outwards, and causing her lower jaw to split along the middle, the two sides drifting apart to reveal another, concealed row of sharp teeth just before snapping shut again. 'Just like that,' he laughed, a chorus of dark voices laughing with him; she joined them, and as she leaned back, resting all of her wheight on his hands, the two parts of her mandible split again, remaining wide apart.

She gasped for air, her neck arched, her jaws and her body open and hungry, but she continued to move, upwards and downwards, leaning back on her sweaty, stretched arms and relying on his fingers to keep her steady.

'Come here,' he commanded, with sudden fury. He slipped his forearm around her waist, pulling her close; the silky, cold tentacles of his reiatsu covered her skin, caressing licking and biting each inch, tasting each bead of clear sweat and leaving darkened welts which resembled whiplashes in their wake.

'Yes,' she almost screamed. Her head whipped forward, golden strands clinging to her forehead. 'Yes,' she hissed, 'that's what I want. That's how I want you. Your fury, your power...the taste of your power...Yes...'

A pink, forked tongue darted out between her fangs, trailing along their sharp edges; her movements became swift and shallow, making his sex strike the same spot again, and again, and again – Halibel cried as she climaxed, a long, violent scream that sent ripples through the reiatsu fabric of the world, an explosion of energy so intense that her body gathered a visible, burning glow.

Stark clenched his teeth and closed his eyes; the sound of her achieved pleasure brought him over the edge as well. The last, uncontrolled lash of his reiatsu drew blood – darkness swept through the corridors and over the sands, and though his body burned with pleasure, his mind writhed in pain, for he knew, he knew beyond doubt, that somewhere else in Las Noches, Lilinette had brought her knees to her chest and struggled not to cry.

The woman allowed her sweat covered body to slip aside, lingering pleasure causing her to drift in sweet abandon. Her fingers still clung to his, as her breath regained its soft, regular rhythm and Stark sighed, wishing his own senses had not returned to him quite as fast. He leaned in to kiss her shoulder, then gently tried to disentangle his fingers from her hand.

She did not let go.

'A century,' she whispered, the voice forming in her chest rather than her throat. She curled, trapping his hand beneath her chin.

'I hope he can give you what he promised he would,' Stark answered softly. 'Whatever it is that you are seeking, my beauty.'

'If you just...' she began, looking up with renewed, feverish hope; he shook his head, and she looked away, falling silent. 'He'd give you back your reiatsu. He'd make you his Primera – and...'

'At what cost?' he asked, kindly. 'It does no matter that he took away your old mask, Halibel.' Stark added, as kindly as he could, reaching out and finding the remains of her top to glance at her visor. 'He gave you a new one.'

'You're stubborn,' she growled, looking up with fury in her eyes. Her mandible snapped impatiently, and he shrugged.

'You're beautiful,' Stark responded, kissing her forehead, but strongly, resolutely pulling his hand away.

He got dressed quietly, with unhurried gestures, waiting...hoping? for her to stop him, knowing that he did not want to be stopped.

'If it is the last time,' Halibel whispered, at long length, 'stay with me. Stay with me, in my bed until morning...'

He looked up.

'You never did before,' she said, with bitter spite.

'You know I...' Stark said, his voice trailing off.

'Cannot?' she bit.

'Don't want to,' he dryly corrected. 'Lilinette doesn't sleep alone.'

The door opened, and he looked into the darkness of the corridor as if he'd faced it for the first time.

'It hasn't been a century,' Halibel said, coolly. 'You have not ever really been here with me.'

Stark yawned.

He took a step away, then, another.

Behind him, the door slid shut.