Title: The City Of Masks
Genre: Romance / Horror / Angst
Rating: M (for dark themes)
Pairing: Szayel x OC, probably others (mentions of Ishida x Orihime)
Spoilers: Only for sword releases, because it's completely AR
Summary: The question of good or evil, reduced to one simple choice: Survive. Or perish.
Word Count: 3,142
Warnings: Alternate Reality, massive character deaths, 100-years post Winter War in which the shinigami lose and Aizen pwns.

Disclaimer: Szayel is mine. Mine I tell you! Summary though, belongs to Heroes.

A/N: Was watching Renji and Szayel fight and decided that Szayel ties with Grimmjow for my favorite Espada. Why, I don't know. Probably because I'm still angst-ing over Renji killing Ilforte. And no one ever writes about poor Szay. So I'll do it.


"There is nobody that Aizen is afraid of. That is why we follow him. For we, who were born of fear, the path of the fearless one shines as brightly as the moonlight."
-Iceringer, Episode 145: The Espada Gather! Aizen's Royal Assembly


One hundred years later, and the fearful, scared Rukongai girl who suddenly tumbled head-first into a great and perilous battle, was not timid little girl anymore. One could not retain their childhood, their innocence when one lived in a world like this one had become.

The world was changed now. Different. This world was a hard place to live in now. And shinigami needed to know different things nowadays, things that they had never needed to know. She had the faces of the remaining Espada memorized now, she treated them with respect, when she came across them, because, no matter how depressing it was, she liked her life. She was used to it. She had grown up in this world. This world where Hollow was king and shinigami and humans were the scum beneath their claws.

To grow up in this place, this suspended hell, could make even the most bubbling shinigami a hardened, disaffected individual. She wondered sometimes, what the city, the country, would have been like had the war never happened. She supposed it must have been a nice place, beautiful even. Now it was just a void of a place, formless and infinite with raging fires, the edges of the country was a world of rising waters dark and deep.

Aizen-sama's word was law now. After living for so long here in the silent dark, it was something one came to accept. That Heaven's dread emperor, Aizen Sousuke, omnipotent, immutable, immortal, infinite, eternal, hath, through force, been made supreme above his equals. To him shall bow all knees in Heaven.

Soul Society wasn't so much of a dictatorship; that she knew and even vaguely remembered from her all-too-brief time in Rukongai.

Standing as she was now, on the crumbling remnants of some building, she stared disinterestedly down at the broken city. The piece of cement she was standing on was barely large enough for her feet, but it didn't seem to bother her. She just stood, silent, still, unmoving. She felt a million years old, alone and lonely.

Heaving a desolate sigh, she knew she could not stay standing here forever. She must have been here for several hours already, but it was so hard to tell, since the sky forever retained its shade of twilight grey and never ever changed. But she had to find something to eat and that could take ages, the animals that had adapted to this new world were as skittish as the humans, and all meaty flesh, just muscles covered in bone like the rest of them.

A flashstep, then two, and she was on the ground, glancing left, then right, trying to sense any reiatsu, then she set off, moving like a wraith, silent and shadowed. The night (day?) was so silent that it might hold any manner of Hollows or Arrancar. The chance that something was prowling out there in the ever-during darkness was high, and she had no desire to run into anything.

Creeping through the city, always alert, always aware, keeping a wary eye on the small groups of humans she passed through and around. Most humans didn't like the few shinigami in the city; the sight of them always reminded the people of the shinigami's failure. Not that she had anything to do with that, she was not a part of that. But, it's not like they cared.

In the center of the city, she knew there was a river, some of it bridges now cataracts of empyreal kido fire. Sometimes the stringy, timid beasts that lived here congregated there. But when she finally reached the shore, the only thing there besides herself was an odd-numbered group of a few souls, speaking in hushed tones and casting fearful wide-eyed looks around them. They scattered when she appeared before them with a flashstep.

She stood there, wondering what she should do now, wondering if it was worth the effort to eat today, or if she should maybe just wait until tomorrow. As she stood, she stared unseeingly into the murky water, reflecting her image back like the dark surface of black glass.

Slender and lithe, like most were here, from less food and more running. The shinigami uniform she'd taken from someone's body so long ago was ragged, worn, and noticeably sewn in several places with different colored fabric. She'd wear this as long as she could, she only had so many, and, since money was obsolete here, you had to trade for goods, and she had little to trade. She'd almost killed herself trying to pay the cost for the boots she was wearing. Luckily, humans were nothing if not resilient, and craftsman had luckily started appearing as people needed things humans were so used to machines making.

She was nothing special to look at, though at one time she might have been, had her life not turned out like this. Her skin was pale, a smooth pale white, like cold ashes. Or, at least that's the color it was underneath all the sweat and dirt and bruises. Her hair a bright natural blonde, now greasy and pulled into a messy ponytail, tied with some twine. And her eyes were green. And not the soft green that most people imagine when they picture green eyes. No, her eyes weren't soft or pretty, they were cold, with a hard inhuman gleam to them, like dark green glass. The world was hard. And so, were the people.

"Yue?"

She turned at the deep voice, idly fingering the sheath at her side. "Renji," she greeted coolly.

His red hair was gleaming under the faux moonlight; his eyes were just the same color. The haori he'd ripped the sleeves off of, showed muscle definition that might have been chiseled with – well, a chisel. His skin was pale, his tattoos stood out starkly, though, in the dark, his face was shadowed from her sight.

He stepped closer to her, eyes trailing along the riverbanks out of habit. "Nothing here, I see."

She shrugged. "Clearly. Were you looking for something to eat, as well?"

It was his turn to shrug.

The two fell into a silence, not comfortable, not uncomfortable, just silence. There wasn't much to talk about here, and with the ever-threat of Arrancar, it was never good to be too noisy. There was camaraderie between the two, some of the only shinigami here. She might have never been to Seireitei or the Shinigami Academy, but, well, here she was now. And now was all that mattered.

"I heard that Aizen-sama created several more Arrancar," she said suddenly.

Renji snorted. "Like I care about anything that bastard does."

She turned to him, frowning. "You should not speak about Aizen-sama like that. He is, after all, the king of this new wor-"

"I will not serve a false king," he said. "Which is what he is."

At that, she laughed, a harsh sound, like breaking glass. "He who holds the keys to Heaven, rules the world, Renji. And Aizen-sama not only has the keys, he created them. And the door."

He made a dismissive sound in the back of his throat and she winced at its loudness. He fell silent for so long after that, that she wondered if he would speak again, but he did, so suddenly she started. "How does it not bother you?"

"Hm?"

"This," his flailing gesture encompassing their surroundings. "How does it not… bother you? In Seireitei-"

"I never knew that place," she interrupted quietly, staring at the crumbling skyline across the river. "And… well, I suppose it is because I know that I cannot change it. One has to make the best of the situations that they find themselves in. The mind can make a heaven out of hell, a hell out of heaven."

"This place is no heaven."

A half shrug. She had never said it was, had she? "Things could be worse, Renji. What can we suffer more? What can we suffer worse?"

Renji heaved a sigh, glancing around again, before his gaze fell back on her. "Do you think you would have been a shinigami if things hadn't turned out… like this?"

When she turned to him, there was a small, sad smile on her face. "You ask me that almost every time you see me, and I always tell you the same thing." A sigh. "I do not know, Renji. I just know what there is. And that this must be our fate, for shinigami to be no more."

"Sad fate."

She hm-ed in agreement to that. Yes, it was a sad fate, but, well, there was nothing they could do to change things. And she had a feeling that trying to change things would succeed only in insuring that they lost their lives. And she didn't want that. She didn't want to tell him that this place was their home and coffin.

"We'll change things one day."

"You really believe that?" She asked, turning her green eyes to him. They were shining, even in the dark.

"Well, yeah. It'll be hard, but, we've gotta win in the end, don't we?"

She turned back to staring aimlessly at the water. "I'm not so sure Renji. Besides, what would you be fighting for this time? Seireitei is a mere shadow of its old self, from what I've heard; this town is just some forgotten piece of land, there's nothing left to fight for. Changing things back to the way they were… it seems practically impossible, don't you think?"

"Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light."

She scoffed, but before she could open her mouth an answer, the sound of feet on concrete made them both turn around.

"Hey," the newcomer greeted them both. "You done?" This was directed at only Renji.

Yue had never met Kurosaki Ichigo before the collapse of this town, had never met any of them before that, so she didn't know what kind of person he had been back when he still had hope. She didn't know if his eyes always had that haunted, shadowed look to them. Didn't know if he'd always been so ghostly pale or sickeningly slender, like he didn't care about himself anymore. She didn't know if he'd always had such an aura of defeat hanging around him like a cloak.

Renji nodded, and Yue tilted her head, amused at the differences between their two strange hair colors. Renji's was a flaming red; Ichigo's a blondish hue that was more of a hot red gold. She wondered if they were related, but didn't care enough to ask.

She turned back to the river after they left, going back to contemplating her impending dinner-less evening.

You should head back now, Yue, it's getting late.

She rolled her eyes, but turned dutifully back towards her… home? Residence? How can you even tell? She asked her zanpaktou. It always looks the same here.

I can tell. The voice sounded petulant. It is good survival skills to know when it gets this late. You know how they like to come out at this time.

"Hm." It was true. At true-dark, the time when, had there been a sun in the sky, it would have gone down and made it well and truly nighttime, the offspring of Heaven, the Espada and their underlings, like to leave their palace in the otherworld and… visit this town.

She supposed being a god must be incredibly boring. To know that you were stronger than anyone you presided over, there must not be must to do except fight with each other. And come to terrorize the masses. She knew that the Arrancar were mostly male, females were the minority, and, well, why try to woo and seduce your way into bed with someone who might possibly be stronger than you, when down below there were plenty of females you could simply force into your bed.

It took the humans a while to figure it out. At first they thought it was only a few incidents, but it became more and more common over time, and now it was just another aspect of living here, another danger to watch out for.

Hopefully we don't run into any –

The garganta opened suddenly and abruptly several yards in front of her.

- one, she finished lamely, before sighing. Me and my big mouth.

For a moment, she stood frozen, instincts telling her to remain still, that maybe they wouldn't notice her in the half-light of the faux-moon. She stared at them as they looked around, a half-dozen of them. She was entranced by their godlike shapes and forms, for even the most hideous of them had beautiful faces.

Her eyes darted from one to the other, and she felt her heart beat harshly in relief when she realized that the warlike angel, the Sixth Espada, Grimmjow Jeagerjacques, was not among them. Every time she seemed to come across him, he was always trying to kill her. Arrancar will do that, you know. But he was still obsessed with the color of blood, the way it looked when falling from someone, pooling on the ground. He was a man obsessed with killing. He'd become a fierce creature of the night, without thought or heart or conscious.

But just because he was not here, did not mean she was any safer. The group before her all had that oh-so-familiar perverted gleam in their eyes. The one that basically said, 'I'm gonna rape you.' It was not a pleasant sight.

Yue…

I know!

She slid one foot backwards, preparing to move as fast as she could, but the heel of her boot hit a rock and she winced as it went clattering across the ground. Six heads snapped towards her, and six mouths stretched in wide, distorted grins. Simultaneously, three of them stepped forward.

"Back off," a small, dark-haired one said, and Yue realized with a relieved start that none of these men were Espada. "This one's mine, go find your own." He grinned at her, the large canines hanging from his mask and framing his face glinted in the light, mirroring the predatory gleam in his eyes.

She recognized him for the one of underlings of the previous Second Espada, who had been killed, she had heard, by the soutaicho in the final battle. Vega, she knew his name was, watching warily as the others sonido-ed off in various directions and left the two of them alone.

He was staring at her like a predator staring at its next meal and when he shifted his stance, she bolted.

My life seems to involve a lot of running, she thought, dodging a Cero and yelping in surprise when rubble rained down on top of her.

Where are you running anyone, little moon?

Yue didn't answer, because she didn't know. She was simply running in the direction her brain told her was 'away.' If she had eaten recently, she would have tried to fight him off, at least injured him enough that she could escape easier. But she was so hungry, so weak from lack of food, that it would have been meaningless to engage in combat.

When Vega appeared in front of her suddenly, she neatly sidestepped him, but he grabbed her arm, hauling her back with a yank. She twisted in his grasp, stumbling when he released her, landing catlike, then swept with a booted foot, trying to knock him off his feet. It worked, and she was up and running before he could orient himself enough to retaliate.

Not good, not good, she thought frantically, when she heard him scream in aggravation and come after her again.

Yue, left here!

She pirouetted suddenly, listening without question, and when she skidded out of the alleyway, she recognized the area. A shout behind her caused her to send a wide-eyed glance over her shoulder, before she scrambled forward, banging on the door or the building she'd come out near.

She door lid open soundlessly and she stared up at the tall redhead, panting, and casting terrified looks behind her.

"Another oracle?" When she nodded, the young man sighed, and moved to the side, letting her in.

"Thank you," she said gratefully, sliding past him.

She heard him mumble something, before he walked out, and seconds later, she felt a barrier go up around the shop, hiding it, making it invisible, unnoticeable, safe. She collapsed to the floor in relief.

"What are you doing out so late?"

"I was looking for something to eat at the river," she answered, craning her neck to look into his frowning face when he came back in. "Sorry, Jinta."

He stared at her for another long moment. "Whatever, just sleep here tonight, and don't let it happen again."

Her lips quirked in a small smile. That's what he said last time an oracle had chased her here.

Well, technically, oracles were simply normal fraccion. But when the Second Espada, Barragan, had been killed, his group of mindless followers, the four that were left, had been left without a leader. So, Aizen-sama and the others simply used them as messengers, forcing them to carry announcements and such to wherever they needed them to go. Some human who'd managed to survive the last battle, a professor at some college, had said that, in mythology, oracles relayed the messages of the gods. And so they were called.

And as much as she hated the way the world had turned out, she knew it was not the fault of any one man, no matter how much Renji and the humans wanted to place all the blame on Aizen-sama. One does not simply wake up one morning and decide to destroy the world. Something has to drive you to that point. And, though Yue had never stepped foot in Seireitei, and hardly remembered Soul Society at all, if it could drive someone to go to such extremes to destroy it… maybe it wasn't as nice a place as people thought. From what she heard, Soul Society killed a lot of would-be allies. Ichigo's friend had been the last Quincy because of them, the two Mod Souls that lived here at the Shoten were the last, she thought. Even Ichigo himself, a vaizard, and the other group like him, who appeared from time to time, Soul Society had wanted them destroyed. A place that could destroy even their allies…

Aizen-sama was powerful, but Yue had never thought he was crazy. Misguided, yes. And maybe a little lonely. But never crazy. His Espada were crazy. They were the ones who hurt the people in this town. If anything, every time Aizen-sama held them in check, he was protecting them. So, she disliked the world, but not the leaders. What kind of person did that make her?

Yue?

"Hm?" She questioned out loud, startled out of her musings.

What now?

She sighed. I don't know, Yanagi, I just don't know anymore.


A/N: Yeah, so, next chapter, I think we'll go an see what going on in Hueco Mundo, with Szayel and Aizen and all, since we're three chapters in and, uh, well, we haven't seen Szay yet. For shame!

This chapter was kind of an intermediate chapter anyway. I just wanted a little glimpse at life in Karakura nowadays.

Also: this chapter has been written for so long, you don't even know. I thought it was posted already, lol. Oops.

1. On Yue's name: In Mandarin Chinese, 'Yue' means 'moon.' The same symbol in Japanese is read as 'tsuki' and also means 'moon.'

2. One the whole 'Arrancar-raping-people-thing': Yeah, well, it happens in the third world countries of today so it's not outside the realm of logic. So, well, Karakura's basically a crap place now. Not a lot of food and all and they're ruled by a guy who'd subordinates are some bad mother-fuckers.

3. On Yue's zanpaktou: 'Yanagi' is Japanese for 'willow'. In mythology, willow trees have been associated with the dark moon goddesses, like Hecate, Circe, and Persephone. And since Yue's name means 'moon'…