"We're back, hoooouse!" Yuzu proclaimed merrily as she skipped over the threshold. "Did you miss us, our big happy home?" The youngest of the Kurosaki siblings then proceeded to hug a wall of their dwelling, attempting to impart just how much she had missed it.
Coming in to spy this nauseating display of potential criminally-deviant behavior, her sister Karin only grimaced and shuffled on by.
"We've only been gone an hour," the ten-year old huffed as she trudged up the stairs, swallowing her shame at what she knew to be a lie. Curse their father, forcing her to deceive her own sister like this.
"But it feels longer!" the bubbly one sang. She then seemed to jump mental tracks. "Karin, I'll get the sodas and snacks! Will you bring me my sun hat? I don't think I'll change my dress after all."
"Whatever," the call came drifting back.
"Oh! And don't forget Bostov!"
A grunt was her only reply.
Humming lyrically, Yuzu proceeded to open the refrigerator door. Eggs, milk, veggies; all where they belonged! Fortunately, she had the presence of mind to prepare several bento boxes just before they went on their trip today. That meant they would be able to get dressed and supplied in no time, allowing their return to the impromptu family picnic without fail.
"Yummy yummy," the cheerful soul sang, "Yummy in Ichi-nii's tummy!" She hoped by the time they did get back, Ichigo would have woken up. It was just like him. All these friends of his show up, people she's never even heard of, much less met, and Ichigo was zonked out under a tree. The introductions had to come from their father, who had been unusually reserved when it came to greetings. Maybe it was because they all looked so tired. And a little sad. Rukia had explained to her that their friends had just lost an important basketball game. Karin seemed to appreciate that. No surprise, her sister was much better at sports than she was. But father had insisted the two of them return to the house to get everyone some refreshments, by way of cheering them up.
Finishing the wrapping around their meals, Yuzu then selected some six-packs of juice, soda, and beer from the fridge. Father had given her permission to handle the latter, saying it was a special occasion and they needed to toast some people. She loaded them up in a cooler packed with ice, and moved all the supplies out into the hall.
Having been so preoccupied with her duties, it had not occurred to the girl that her sister had not come down to give her a hand. Yuzu huffed. What was Karin doing, anyway? It usually didn't take her this long to change out of those stinky gym clothes she wore.
"Karin-chan!" she sang out, "I'm all set! What are you doing?"
No answer came.
Glancing at the clock on the wall, Yuzu fretted. Father and everyone were waiting for them! They were going to be late, and the ice was melting in the cooler already. It was just so hot today.
For a moment the elementary student couldn't believe her ears. Her big sister had just… yelled at her! That never happened unless she was crying or making a fuss. But she wasn't this time! Karin shouldn't be so mean, especially when it was her fault they were running late.
"Don't yell at me, Karin!" Yuzu swallowed, drawing on a little sister's courage. "You need to come on, they're all waiting for us!"
"Go on without me!"
There was something in her voice there. Something wrong. Yuzu found her heart was beating a little faster now. A coldness settled in her bones. Had bad things happened and she didn't know it?
"Karin-chan, I can't carry all this by myself! You have to help me!"
"Just leave some of it! I'll catch up to you!"
There was no doubt about it now. Her brave and strong sister sounded scared. Now the little girl was definitely frightened. There was an urge inside her to obey the command, get out of the house as fast as she could. No warmth could be found in this place now. A pall had descended, and she should just run away.
But that was her sister up there.
Her only sister.
So Yuzu didn't do as she was told. Instead she found herself climbing the stairs, taking them one at a time and clutching the balustrade like it was a lifeline. The girl crept down the hall, feeling chilled and alone. Before her was the door to the room she shared with Karin. It was closed.
For some reason, Yuzu found herself raising a hand to knock on her own door.
"Karin-chan? Are you getting dressed?"
That settled it. She was not a baby. And something was seriously wrong. I'm not scared! Yuzu told herself that resolutely, and opened the door.
A cold breeze blew over her.
But there was no window open that she could see.
Instead what she saw was Karin, her tough-as-nails big sister, sitting to one side on her bed and trembling.
No one else was in the room. Yuzu had half-expected there to be a burglar or a ghost maybe. What other explanation could there be?
At that moment her dark-haired twin's head turned, and she looked straight at the confused waif.
"Yuzu…" she whispered.
The normally spunky child was staring with stark terrified eyes, a paroxysm of sheer horror that was now reflected in her sister's own.
Against her will, in the face of that wretched plea, the bright-eyed sister found herself taking an involuntary step back, only to collapse and bump her seat roughly on the floor. She stared into that bedroom, shaken and silent and scared.
And Karin screamed.
She did, without thought or denial. Yuzu scrambled up and tore down the steps, past the forgotten foodstuffs and into the street. She ran like something was pursuing her. She ran like all the demons of hell were dogging her steps. The small child raced through the empty streets, even though her breath was becoming labored and a stitch was forming in her side. That scream had done something awful to her. For a moment when she turned to flee, as fear erased every rational impulse from her head, she thought she had seen something. A thing both dark and ominous. Just for a second, there and gone.
After a few minutes, Yuzu's legs gave out from under her, and she collapsed onto the pavement.
She lay there, panting and crying, feeling that sensation called sadness mixing with the ice in her bones to freeze her up. But only a handful of seconds after that the traumatized angel found herself rising, stumbling forth scraped and bleeding with a determination born from having lost someone dear, and wishing to never experience anything so awful again.
It was while she continued to move towards the only place she could think of that Yuzu remembered something else. When she had been sitting on the floor, there had been a discrepancy to the room that only now registered consciously.
At first, it looked as though Karin was sitting on the bed. But down in that position, Yuzu had been able to see it clearly.
Her sister had actually been resting several inches above the sheets.
Floating on air.
Yuzu Kurosaki did not run from just fear now, but from hope and wonder.
These are the prerogatives of children.
When Yuzu fled, her sister could not blame her. The youngest member of their family was not known for bravery. Not that she couldn't be relied upon, but when something out of the ordinary happened, they did not look to Yuzu to determine what to do.
Karin loved her baby sibling. And for once she was honestly glad that Yuzu also differed from her and Ichigo in terms of spiritual awareness.
Had her twin seen the horned demon whose lap she was sitting on, she might have died from utter fright.
Were she forced to be brutally honest, Karin had to admit she was not far off from such a condition herself.
When she opened the door of her room and saw it sitting there quietly, not even seeming to notice her arrival, the first inclination had been to close the door and run. But right then it had looked at her. And a force seemed to seize hold of Karin's entire body. A current, or energy, like gravity, drew her towards the black and white thing. Black hole, she had thought distractedly. In school and movies, she had heard people speak of such things, massive balls of darkness out in space that swallowed up anything that dared approach them, even light. Nothing could escape. That was how the young tomboy had felt.
That, and the impression that if she resisted, it would kill her.
It reeled her in, not moving a muscle, and settled her on its knee. One hand came up to rest on her shoulder. After this the two of them just sat there. No getting comfortable. No talking. Only waiting.
For what, Karin did not want to know.
She tried to make Yuzu understand she should escape. No telling what the demon would do to either of them. At first it seemed to pay her warning cries no heed, like they didn't matter for whatever it had planned for this day.
But when her sister opened the door and looked at them, the creature sighed.
Yuzu had stood there staring with wide, innocent, uncomprehending eyes. Questioning, begging her big sister to make it all right. That caused it to stir, and when it raised its clawed fingers, Karin had screamed with all her might.
She had expected something horrible to happen immediately afterwards. But when her sibling took off, the beast had only remained frozen in one place for a moment. Then the hand dropped back into its lap.
So now they went back to waiting. It did not speak. Neither did Karin. Her bare skin sensed the dark fur covering its legs. The mephistopheles' forearms were black, like they had been dipped in blood that was left to harden and become part of its body. There was a hole in its chest, and while a sickly black ichor appeared to be constantly pouring from it, the wound apparently gave the creature no harm. Its bare skin was a lurid pallor, like the flesh of a corpse she had once seen. The body was virtually emaciated, but that did not let her think she could beat this thing in terms of strength. Those mirthless black and green eyes, slit-pupiled and weeping tears of ebon blood, would brook no challenge to its authority. It frowned at the world as though permanently dissatisfied with what it saw. The streaming hair was black, in contrast to the ivory horns that sprouted from its head. A pair of prodigious midnight wings emerged from its shoulder-blades, now carefully folded in so as to just barely scrape the ceiling of her brightly decorated room.
After nearly ten minutes of dead silence filled only with the sound of her own pounding heartbeat, Karin finally chose to speak.
"What do you want?"
Either answer or command. Or both.
She wasn't about to let it end there. Whether for her own good or not.
"What's your name?"
Then the riveted gaze slowly broke away from the door, and it looked at her from the corner of one eye.
He's going to kill me, she knew suddenly, and cringed in spite of herself.
The heavy-set eyes flickered briefly then.
The black lips parted slightly.
And so Karin learned her captor's name.
"How's he doing?"
Rukia glanced up. Isshin Kurosaki leaned over the form stretched out in front of them under a tree. The look on his face would have caused minor acquaintances to claim no recognition of the man. He actually appeared solemn for a change. She withdrew her healing kido fingers from his only son's chest, placing them in her lap.
"His heart-rate is steady, and there's no trouble breathing."
Isshin raised an eyebrow.
"But you could have determined that for yourself, doctor." She sighed, settling back on her legs. "From all I can tell, his soul is not in danger of collapse. It appears to be stabilizing at last. There is no necrosis from the Hollow's influence evident in his spiritual or physical body." Rukia gave a weary smile. "I'd say he's out of danger."
"That's Ichigo for you." Sitting a few paces away on the hill they all occupied, Ishida Uryū gazed off into the distance, arms resting on his upraised knees. "You can count on him for something annoyingly spectacular, like instant healing from an obviously fatal cannon ball being shot through his chest. But when it comes to scrapes, bruises and minor injuries, those magical regeneration abilities are too good to kick in for anything so trivial."
His tone was even, but there was an edge of recrimination in those words that Rukia did not fail to note.
"Ishida-san, he's only…"
"Please," the slender teen rose, dusting off the seat of his pants. "Don't say 'human.' That's a bad joke, even from a shinigami. If Ichigo were human, the injuries you're healing would have been enough to kill him outright. We might have the magic factor to thank for that small favor."
The death god looked to her charge's father for some support, but the subdued parent was busily studying his son's sleeping features, as if searching for some sign of distress he might seek to relieve. So instead she gazed at Uryū intently, who continued to avoid eye contact with anyone present.
"I think I know what's eating you, Quincy."
"Then that makes you a genius!" he snapped, rounding on her then. "Right up there with Ichigo, the savant who always pulls some ridiculous miracle out of his back pocket to save himself when the chips are down. But when the rest of us are faced with certain death, do you see any angels coming down to bless us with a second chance?"
"You're alive," the shinigami rose and stepped over to face him squarely, doing an excellent job of matching his angry gaze despite being almost a meter lower. "The fact of that statement is the result of many people coming to your aid. Blaming Ichigo for living when others did not is an insult to all those who stood in surety of your continued existence. That boy fought to save us all."
"And he failed," the bespectacled sorcerer swept his arm out authoritatively, uncowed by her accusation. "We let him go charging in like we always did, vowing to cover his back at any cost, and this time, he couldn't make that last-minute miracle touchdown. Someone else had to do it for him."
Rukia gave him a look of venomous contempt, and turned back to kneel by the prostrate substitute shinigami. But Ishida was not yet finished.
"Actually, Rukia-san, that might be what's really keeping him down. While you're working your death god resuscitation, you might want to try and use a memory wipe. If he forgets that he wasn't able to save the day one time, that might serve to revive him completely!"
She was on her feet in an instant, turning back to face the Quincy with fire in her eyes. Gigai or not, she was going to kick his ass for that comment!
Before she could move, something zipped by her head. Ishida caught it, frowning.
"I don't see any Espada here."
Sauntering up the rise, Renji Abarai flipped his custom shades up to rest on his scalp. "Nope, not a single enemy combatant in sight." He drew abreast of his steaming short stack of a childhood friend. The lieutenant of the 6th division popped another beer can open like the one he had tossed to Uryū, draping the remaining six-pack over his shoulder. "It's a beautiful day. So howzabout we lower the temperature a bit around here?"
Rukia growled. "I didn't ask for you to…HEY!"
She jumped as Renji planted a swift kick in her rear. The look she gave him then only made her long-time partner in crime smile.
"Just chill, Ice Princess. Unclench that skinny rump and have a fart, it'll relieve some of that 'spiritual pressure' you're bottling up."
For over a mile around, Rukia's shout caused heads to lift.
"Damn," Renji grunted, digging one pinkie from his ear to examine the contents. "Think that drew blood. Yo, Uryū!" He waived lazily at his erstwhile comrade. "If ever there was a time to ignore the age limit, I'd say this is it. Chug that brew, man!"
Isshin glanced up speculatively as the junior shinigami walked up to offer him a can. "Did the girls come back yet?"
"Nah, got tired of waiting." Black tattoo eyebrows lifted in dismissal. "I'm sure the kids are fine, I just felt it was worth my own money to bring the mood up a little. Guess I wasn't wrong." He then looked back to the glowering archer, and moved to his side, draping an arm over one shoulder.
"C'mon, Pencil. You wanna bad-mouth Strawberry, I could stand to listen." After a moment's hesitation, he was able to lead the angry teen away from their comrades. As they left, Renji's voice drifted back. "And when you go too far, I'd be glad to challenge you to a fight. That's how guys relieve the pressure."
The duo withdrew to another part of the park. Rukia watched them go, feeling her momentary anger die out swiftly. The past few days had taken their toll. Momentous changes tended to bring out strong emotions. Her own sense of loss had yet to be fully addressed. There were more immediate concerns to deal with. So thinking, the thwarted pugilist once again lowered herself to her soul mate's side, endeavoring to improve his state of health.
As she proceeded with her healing charms, Ichigo's father stroked the slumbering boy's hair affectionately.
"I always admired the 4th division," he mused, a gentle smile taking away somewhat from the dark circles and drained look to his cheeks. "That woman never shirked when it came to preserving life. And no matter how badly the other squads treated them, they took her example to heart and threw themselves into whatever soul they were healing at the time. It was probably that sense of devotion more than anything that motivated me to become a doctor on my third time around." He looked over at the waifish nurse tending to his boy's injuries. Isshin then placed a large, callused hand over hers. Rukia glanced up at him.
"I never thanked you, Rukia. For saving all my children that night when I couldn't. And for giving my son so much these last few months. You should know I honestly consider you a member of this family, and come what may, you will always have a home with us!"
Rukia felt her throat clench. The pressure from the captain's hands was more than physical, and she could sense the sudden surge in her recuperative effort flowing into the body of the young man outstretched in the grass.
"I keep joining families," she joked wanly, "without even looking for it."
Isshin's face clouded. "Say, about your brother…"
A shiver of unpleasant memory went up her artificial body's spine. Isshin felt her distress, and drew back.
"Ah, I'm sorry, forget I mentioned…"
"No," Rukia insisted, smiling through her pain. "I'm grateful."
They both concentrated on the gentle medley of wind through the leaves, and the soft accompaniment of Ichigo's apparently untroubled breathing.
Isshin scrutinized her. A small light glowed in his companion's ethereal blue eyes.
"So is Byakuya."
"Really?" The man with three lives blinked, startled, then realized his error. "Forgive me. I saw his wounds after the end, and with Retsu and… the others… gone, I assumed…"
"I know," she blinked, wiping away any approaching tears. "Everyone knew, including me. The remaining healers did all they could. I stayed with him afterwards, hoping that in my own small way, I could ease his final moments. I suppose I didn't question the idea that we would lose him, and the line would end. But I was still his family, and his surviving heir. And among the Kuchiki, we always remain with our loved ones to the last breath. So that they are never alone. They told me he would be gone by morning. I was determined to keep his vigil all through the night if necessary. But at some point, I must have fallen asleep."
Rukia chuckled then, and sighed self-deprecatingly. Isshin raised an eyebrow.
"When I awoke, there was a black cat curled up on his chest."
The captain's lips pursed. "A black cat? That's bad lu…"
"Oh…wait a minute…"
And the proud father grinned.
"What did the cat say?"
The smirk on Rukia's face was of equal intensity. "She said, 'Did you have a nice nap?' And then she winked at me."
Isshin hung his head between his knees, shaking like a leaf.
"Oh heaven, that woman. I'm almost afraid to ask what happened next."
"Well, the cat looked at me, like this." The other death god gave him a very fresh look, and he laughed aloud. "Then she said, 'If everyone dead-set on mourning this boy would kindly leave the room, there's a method of healing I would like to try.' I was only gone for about half an hour, looking in on the others. When I returned, nii-sama was still asleep. But he was smiling too. Bigger than I've ever seen. And the cat was asleep on his chest. Purring."
Isshin gave a rueful grin. "I hope Byakuya doesn't roll over in his sleep."
"I can't say with certainty," she replied primly, "but I suspect nii-sama is a very sound sleeper."
While they were laughing at this, Ichigo suddenly stirred. Both reached out, the father anxiously feeling his child's forehead, while the girl laid a hand on his heart. He subsided, and when both had determined for themselves that nothing untoward was amiss, they settled back down.
Isshin continued to stroke his son's orange tufts of hair. "You try so hard, my boy," he murmured. "You make your father proud, in every way."
"He did, you know." Rukia had settled back into a seiza position, alert for any further disturbances. "He fought harder than anyone to save lives. And he was so very strong. Looking at him back then, I couldn't believe that there could be anyone who could outmatch him."
"Yes," the living shinigami sighed reflectively. "I thought the same thing on occasion."
He then turned tired, dwindling eyes on his son's protector.
"Do you blame him for failing, Rukia-chan? Even a little?"
She gazed right back at him. And shook her head firmly.
"Neither do I."
Sitting beneath the spreading branches of a cherry blossom tree, on a magnificent shining day in the world of the living, the two death gods spoke quietly about what had become of their afterlife.
On every conceivable level, the revolutionary leader triumphed.
In the mortal realm, within the confines of a reishi-composed facsimile of Karakura Town, the core strength of the Gotei 13 came to an end.
Captain Hitsugaya Toshiro fell first. In spite of his phenomenal inborn talent, the youngest squad leader in all of history was unable to keep up with his opponent even after releasing ban-kai. When Halibel chose to perform her resurrección, the battle came to an end swiftly. Before the final blow could be dealt on the boy's stricken form, Momo Hinamori intervened between them, willing to sell her life in exchange for her longtime friend having a few moments more of his. The female arrancar had observed her sacrificial demeanor silently, and then chosen to withdraw, stating that it was purely out of respect for the other captain sparing her Fracción.
No mercy was evident elsewhere.
Barragan Luisenbarn and Stark unveiled their resurrecciónes at almost the precise same instant. The resultant outpouring of soul intensity rendered the lieutenant of the Second division instantly brain-dead. His captain took no notice of this, performing ban-kai and releasing a staggering array of kido, flash, and assassin's techniques, her sole goal in life to lay her enemy low.
Soifon was the first to die that day.
When it became clear that even at his highest level of power, the previously undefeated captain of the Eighth division was completely outmatched by his opponent, his lifelong ally from the Thirteenth chose to enter the fray. Against the express wishes of Kyoraku Shunsui, Jyushiro Ukitake performed ban-kai. The pair of them together, fighting like two mirror images so perfectly attuned to the others' style they might have been brothers, forced an amazed Stark to actually exert himself in his own defense, and for a time, it seemed that all was not lost.
Then between one step and the next, Captain Ukitake vomited up a torrent of blood and liquefied organs, and he fell from the sky, dead before his soul body struck the earth.
It was around this point both remaining combatants lost their tempers, and the easy-going shinigami beloved by so many lost his life striving to his very utmost. Stark was not unmindful of his courage, and refused to desecrate the body afterwards, even going so far as to threaten Barragan for even suggesting it.
With four captains defeated, the remaining warrior elite of the Soul Society regrouped to formulate a counterattack.
Yamamoto-Genryūsai would hear none of it.
Enraged, the ancient general swatted aside his beleaguered defenders with sheer force of will. The fiery prison encasing his three errant followers was dispelled. Aizen Sōsuke, the man who dared to challenge a system that had endured and resisted all assaults for storied millennia, took a deep breath of the late autumn air and smiled. He then turned deadly serious brown eyes on the brewing conflagration of destructive force regarding him across the battlefield, and spoke briefly.
"Show me," he said.
So Yamamoto did.
Hell on earth erupted. A ban-kai not seen in over a thousand years came into being, seemingly enough to put any other to shame. Greater than a thousand soukyokous, more enduring than the earth itself, the base of the mountain that was the 13 Division Imperial Guard roared his invincible power for all of creation to hear. The inferno swept over the face of their carefully manufactured backdrop, incinerating the stage and all its accoutrements from the face of existence. Captain Komamura was resolved to remain at his master's side, and was immolated for his loyalty. Though ashamed, the other cast-off adjutants fled from the battlefield, leaving the end of this conflict to be resolved in the only way it possibly could. By one man. He had never been defeated, or even challenged in the slightest. He was the sole pillar of a mighty dynasty that bred order and stamped out contention, establishing the system of government that he had known in life on a dissolute and inferior idea of paradise. The single mightiest soul the world had ever known gazed down with wrath and contempt from on high at the feeble collection of dead men and women who thought they could ever quench his burning flame.
Some words were exchanged. There is no record of what was said. Perhaps Aizen and his cohorts tried to defend their actions. Maybe they sought to reason with the soaring juggernaut. Or, even less likely, Yamamoto offered them a chance to surrender to his justice, and they refused out of pride or conviction. The record on this matter remains clouded.
But when everything within reason had been said, the leader of the Hollow nation gave a sign, and all three of the vasto lorde under his command performed their second release.
Two minutes later saw Yamamoto-Genryūsai Shigekuni on his knees, staring in shock at the bleeding stumps where his hands had once been.
In the aftermath, a few things were made perfectly clear.
Ichimaru Gin stepped forward, and explained to the gaping old man that he was nothing more than a bully. He then withdrew Shinso, and without even bothering to release its shikai, the smiling star-pupil of the shinigami academy deftly gouged out both of the general's eyes.
Kaname Tosen gave a rather sanctimonious and long-winded lecture on the nature of justice, and sliced away each ear for added effect.
Their general then sat down before the bleeding wreck, and proceeded to detail once again his intention of using the Hōgyoku to sacrifice every soul in the real Karakura Town to forge the Imperial Key. However, Aizen went on to add, if Yamamoto were to provide him with the Key he himself had been entrusted with by his emperor at the start of the Gotei 13, then there would be no need to take all those lives. They could be spared.
"It's time for you to think, Yamamoto. I know you haven't had cause to really consider anything for the longest time. It's why you could never react to a given situation any other way than to try and crush it with raw power. But that is the way of a soldier, not a leader. Leaders think. They observe the advantages and disadvantages, and proceed to craft a strategy that will lead to the desired end with the fewest possible losses. They do not consider their followers expendable, nor themselves indispensable. Had you bothered to really try and outthink me, perhaps I would be the one listening to a voice through two bloody holes in my head. The time for power-mongering to solve all problems is over."
"But the choice now is yours," the grim-faced victor proclaimed. "Swallow whatever lingering remnants of pride you have left, or go to your grave as the deluded tyrant we all knew you for. Either way means the end of your imperial overlord. The only things at stake are the lives of the people you claimed to protect."
Sōsuke came back to his feet, and the jury of six, three shinigami and three Hollow, waited to see what choice their ancient foe would make.
After a few minutes of shaking and spitting blood, a decision was reached.
The General-Commander of the Gotei 13 withdrew the Key from within his body, and gave it over to his vanquisher.
Aizen complimented him, slipped out his own zanpakutō, and finished the old war-horse quickly. It was done with no anger. Only mercy.
They opened a garganta, and passed into Soul Society. What resistance they met was miniscule in comparison to the previous battles. Only the insistence on restricted casualties from the aspiring ruler of this realm kept it from being a complete bloodbath.
He then led the cream of his forces in their assault on the Court of the King.
Of all the things she could have been thankful for, Karin was most comforted by the knowledge that she did not have to go to the bathroom.
The thought of asking Ulquiorra to let her do so was so humiliating it made her sick and red in the face.
The dead emerald eyes looked at her flushed features for just a moment, before fixing their attention on the door. He never moved. Being a rather energetic person herself, Karin was finding it more difficult to restrain from fidgeting. Every time she thought about shifting to keep her legs from touching his, the prisoner felt certain that the clawed fingertips on her shoulder dug in just a fraction. No other warning was evident, or necessary.
She was very much afraid of him. More than anybody or anything in her whole life. It wasn't really necessary to ask what he was doing here. Ulquiorra was waiting for someone. She remained in order to insure that somebody came to see him. And the person in question had to be Ichigo, her brother. The stoic child briefly considered telling him, Ichi-nii's asleep. He hasn't woken up since yesterday. But Karin wasn't about to do that. If she did, he would probably just stare at her out of unblinking snake-like pupils. Or even worse, ask her where her brother was. The thought of this terror standing over her slumbering elder's form, then bending over and tearing a hole in his chest to match its own almost caused her to weep in helpless outrage.
But Karin didn't cry.
She would never cry for anything less than true grief.
Even this silent unknown evil couldn't bring her to do that. She was resolved that it be so.
I'm not going to let him get away with this, the soccer-ball star swore. I'm Karin Kurosaki, the Red Ranger of Don Kanonji's Karakura Super Heroes. No matter what that bug-eyed tomato-head says. If this freak tries to pull anything on my brother, I'm gonna boot both those fruity looking green grapes out the back of his head! Or kick him in his scrawny black nut sack!
Wait. Does this creep even have a nut sack?
Before she could think about it, Karin looked down between his legs.
Nope. Didn't look like it. Not the way the older boys on the swimming and diving team at her brother's high school did. Sometimes on her way back from school she would pass by the pool and see them, stretching and limbering up. The sight was kinda funny, and a bit fascinating really. For some of them she would even crane her head back as she went by, just to keep their figures in sight. This was something she and Yuzu had discussed at some of their secret conferences late at night.
The thought of her and her sister, huddled up under the covers in this very room, brought Karin out of her reminiscing. All of a sudden she realized that she was ogling the demon's private parts.
Oh Mother, if you can't spirit me away from here, at least don't let him have noticed that!
Dreading the result but unable to live without knowing, Karin slowly lifted her gaze upwards.
Ulquiorra had actually turned his head and was looking right at her. His expression hadn't altered one stitch.
There is no God.
Of all the things, not fear or anger or helpless shivering dread, that prepubescent humiliation served to goad her into trying to speak. Anything to preempt whatever ideas this embarrassing situation might put into his infernal head.
"What happens if nobody comes back?"
His face pulled away from her once again.
However, rather than being thrilled at having her indiscretion so rapidly overlooked, Karin found herself annoyed at his cavalier disregard of her unwilling presence.
"I asked you a question, fish-belly!"
There almost looked to be some movement, around the eyes, or maybe the mouth. And then her quietly murderous houseguest made the circuit of the room until he was once again looking at the little girl directly once more.
Karin's heart was slamming uncontrollably at the confines of her chest. Like it was going to leap out and run away, whether she was coming with it or not. It was all she could do just to remember to breathe. He'll kill me now, she thought vacantly. Or eat me. Or worse.
Ulquiorra regarded the quivering fifth-grader in an almost thoughtful silence.
At last his lips parted, and he spoke.
"Why do you humans never do what I tell you to?"
She made no response. Only stared at the two compressed black lines. They look like paint, or maybe ink, the girl concluded. When he talks, does he taste anything funny?
"I asked you a valid question, child."
That made Karin start. You mean you really want an answer? How should I know?! She found her own lips moving without conscious decision.
"Don't call me 'child!' My name is Karin Kurosaki, you skinny horn-headed flat-nosed bat!"
She caught her breath.
Ulquiorra's enduring frown seemed to deepen.
His other hand came up. Two deep midnight nails extended to hover out before her face. From out of nowhere, a glowing green ball came into being, its meaning and purpose evident. The verdigris light cast an eldritch pallor over her fair young skin.
Karin choked back a scream. Tears started to come forth. She scrunched her eyes tight, fighting desperately to hold them back in.
He murmured the instruction in a flat, uncaring tone.
The quivering human female shut off her sight, head shaking in denial and impossible frustration.
When she reopened them, Karin's eyes burned with wrath. She faced death like a lion, unconcerned, assured, dangerous.
The budding Cero trembled on the brink of her oblivion.
Its creator regarded her intently.
"She would have cried."
The sharp-featured maid gave a sudden jerk, surprised.
His attack remained poised before her head.
"The woman. Orihime Inoue. She cried whenever I so much as looked at her."
Karin stared, eyes growing wide with disbelief.
She watched his expression, wondering if he might be lying to her. But Ulquiorra's emotionless mask betrayed nothing.
"How do you know her?"
The Cero grew even larger, traces of black showing in its depths.
"You never gave me an answer. I want it now."
Karin made no response, only crossed her arms and glared stubbornly at the hovering globe of death.
Ulquiorra tilted his head at a slight angle.
"Do you know anything about human anatomy, child?"
His beam winked out of existence. Of a sudden the nightmare's poisonous talons shot down and hovered before the same spot on her body where Karin had been eyeing him a moment past. The girl's legs spasmed together, but snapped back when they touched his skin. She gaped horrified at this new threat.
"Death is not the worst thing there is. If I were to push my claws into you, I would ruin you for life." Ulquiorra's droning voice was coming to her ears very faintly. A rush of blood and fear was clamoring to get her attention, and Karin prayed to anyone who could hear her not to let him touch her anymore, in any way. She pleaded for her big brother or father to come tearing through the door and cut the demon's head off.
"It would not require much to damage you past any use for a man. Once they realized you could not provide them with children, the male population would swiftly label you a pariah. You could suffer the rest of your life being unable to conceive a son or daughter of your own. There would be practically no further point in your continued living. You would just be a broken piece of meat, of no interest to anybody. Even beasts would be in a better situation than you."
The sickly talons drew away from her body, and Karin clapped shut her legs with a gasp. She remained that way for several shuddering breaths, head hung low, shoulders hunched and shaking. His other hand never left its place by her throat.
"Unless you want for me to inflict that and more upon you, you will answer. Why do you not listen when I tell you what to do?"
Karin's stomach was roiling, and she gagged, nearly choking on the conflicting urges to breathe and be sick at the same time.
Of a sudden she wrenched her head back up, glaring at her demonically placid tormentor with a ten-year old child's all-consuming hate.
"Because I hate you! You stupid ugly dirty stinking rotten sack of warm wet crap! I hate you and I'll never do anything you tell me to! I want you to die! My brother's going to come here and kill you, do you know that?! He's going to chop your wings off, you big blind bat! And we're gonna feed you to the dogs in the street! You won't even get to be buried like a decent human being! We'll carve you up and pop out your eyes and make you into an ugly black bento box! I hate…! I HATE YOU!!!"
She ran out of breath and sat there gasping.
When Ulquiorra gave no reaction to her outburst, the enraged preteen hauled off and punched him right in the nose.
He didn't even blink.
And Karin screamed.
"YOU'RE…NOT…HUMAN! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU?!!"
He watched her for a little bit longer. And then turned his attention back to the door.
"You are correct."
Ulquiorra gave a brief sigh.
"I am not human. I am a Hollow, a dead soul that gave in to instinct and began to hunt the living for food. In time I was absorbed into a collection of other Hollows called Menos Grande. My will proved superior to all the rest, and I gained dominance over the collective to take the next step in our evolution, as an adjuchas. When my power could grow no more from hunting my fellows, I withdrew into seclusion, seeking a means to become stronger. I flew over the barren wastes, my eyes searching for any indication of how to achieve this feat. I knew that in order to protect myself from being eaten, I would have to find a way. I witnessed numerous lesser Hollows striving in the same endless quest for survival I had known all my days. Beneath my gaze, my wings, they would suffer, struggle, and die. Though I could have eaten all of them, I realized it would do me no good, and my hunger grew. It spread all throughout me, and the hole in my chest where a heart might reside grew even larger."
"The emptiness spread. I saw this happen, as I see everything. I could feel it consuming my being, but I had no idea what to do to stop the hunger. Flying ever onwards, I noticed others like myself, parched with desolation, but unable to find release. These would give in to mindless repetition, devouring endless supplies of pluses, shinigami and Hollows. And still I watched them scream and go mad from hunger. The opening in my chest was reaching out, wrapping its way around my soul body in ever-expanding lines. It was stripping me away. My shadow under the moon became a torn jigsaw of striving darkness. Eventually I could see the parts of myself disappearing forever before my eyes. But still I flew in search of the truth."
The undead creature continued his quiet narration. "At last my flight gave out, and I plummeted to the bleached rock and sands below. Sinking into their embrace, I fell into the seclusion of the Forest of Menos, where all such Hollows come to form or die. My own emptiness was voiding me out of existence. I realized that soon there would be nothing left of me. I had failed to find a new source of nourishment, and so I must die with all the rest. But even as the last aching remnant of my being was sucked into oblivion, I resolved not to go quietly into that dread bourn. I was determined to exist past all known limits of self and life."
"My soul body disappeared. But I did not."
"I endured. Somehow, through will or strength or power, I remained, in darkest void, but still aware. And I realized that what made me myself was not a body, a mind or even a soul. It was something higher, darker. More mysterious. Unnamed. It, or rather I, would continue to exist no matter what was done to us. And so I could never die, from hunger or anything else."
Ulquiorra reached up, and touched his fingers around the bleeding pit in his chest.
"I grew out from here. Rebuilding myself. Reforming. I drew from everything around where I remembered falling. I sucked it all into myself. The Forest, the Menos, any adjuchas, the air and rock, the sand above my head, and the stars shining down upon them. I pulled apart those things both aware and not, all the reishi available for hundreds of kilometers. Everything that my vanished eyes could see, I took it all."
Karin was staring at him, entranced.
"Black hole," she whispered faintly.
"Yes," he nodded. "I did not try to direct what I was becoming, only let it be. After a while, there was nothing left to take from. No horizon was evident, or ground, or even a sky. I spread my new wings and flew off, then. It took a very long time to find some sign of other life besides myself. The transformation was so far-reaching, I almost believed that I had absorbed the whole world. That was how I felt. Like the world. Perhaps better to say the sky. Vast, limitless, and yet constrained. A paradox to my mind. I had found the sustenance I craved. In doing so, and fighting to understand it, I had completed my evolution, learning also why no one else could do the same. It went against nature and reason. Past such limiting notions. It was the secret all Hollows dream of achieving, but not even a handful can win, and certainly cannot explain how to others."
"I was the secret. I am vasto lorde."
The great lord turned his serpent's gaze to study the child sitting stock still in his lap.
"But the first secret, girl, is one I told no one, not even my master Aizen. That secret is this."
And he bent in closer, until his forehead almost touched her dry brow.
"I… was never human."
Back in Hueco Mundo, following Aizen's use of the dimensional world-opener and the defeat of his vasto lorde viceroy, the barrier occluding departure from the world of the Hollows was lifted. The team of captains and human fighters knew what this must signify. Despite being advised to proceed with caution from there, Ichigo Kurosaki then spear-headed a hasty return to his homeland, only to find Karakura Town completely unharmed. Fortunately for all concerned, the process of returning an entire city and its human population from the land of the dead had not been an instantaneous one. Thanks to the destruction of the pillars in Yamamoto's last fight, and his subsequent decision to surrender with honor, a gradual return to the city's natural state prevented any loss of life whatsoever.
After encountering the remnants of the commander's war party, they then were approached by Kisuke Urahara and Yoruichi Shihoin, among others, whereupon a brief exchange of recent events was made. The former head of the Technological Development Bureau and his successor both arrived at the same conclusion: they could not win this battle head on. Aizen's forces were far too superior in terms of strength, and the rogue shinigami captain and his subordinates were too well-acquainted with conventional death god tactics. A different plan would have to be devised. So they began to list their resources and ideas.
Unohana Retsu, as the sole remaining original captain of the 13 Imperial Guards, chose this time to reveal that her commanding officer had not been the only one entrusted with an Imperial Key. She then proceeded to withdraw it from under the braid around her neck and demonstrate its use. Before any further conversation could be had, Ichigo Kurosaki and Zaraki Kenpachi both stepped forward and announced their intention to combat the rule of Aizen alone. Their friends and comrades strove to reason with them, but the captain and his preferred sparring partner would not be dissuaded.
Rukia saw it there, in her young champion's eyes. The crawling bloodlust of a Hollow. The beast within was influencing Kurosaki's thinking, now. But how could she possibly restrain him, after seeing his strength win out time after time? There was no concrete hope yet that might convince the brash youth to try things their way, when his own determined efforts had served to bring them this far. In the end, she consented to let them both go, while the rest remained behind to formulate a plan. Somehow Rukia knew that Ichigo would not die this day.
Thus it was the seemingly impervious duo entered the realm of Paradise.
What they found was a land bathed in perpetual night. Only stars were visible. Whether a regular occurrence, or simply the result of recent events, they did not bother to learn. The sublimely cultivated aristocratic opulence of their environs was still apparent, even after being laid to waste. The heretofore unseen population of this midnight world was evident only in the form of corpses. Courtiers, Ichigo guessed. And the exalted Squad Zero, the Royal Guard, some of whose remaining faces were identified by Kenpachi.
Their spiritual awareness was by no means exemplary, but only a complete invalid could have missed the tremendous power emanating from the soaring castle that lay before them. No one attempted to bar their path. Those two warriors made their way to the heart of heaven unmolested, and found their greatest enemies waiting.
The last remaining bastion of Squad Zero was making their final stand. Protected in their midst, a regally attired boy-child screamed at them to kill all the invaders, including the ones who had just walked in.
Theatricality was a hobby of the former Fifth Division head. It came as no surprise to some that Aizen chose this moment to drop his zanpakutō's spell, allowing everyone in attendance to perceive his blade at the throat of the King of Soul Society.
"Infanta," he greeted the royal personage cordially.
A single sweep of the soul cutter was all it took to end a reign that had held since the dawn of civilization.
In the face of cold-blooded murder, Ichigo and Zaraki abandoned all pretense of grace and formal warfare. They went nova. One to full Hollow, the other speaking a never-before heard name that invoked his long-suppressed ban-kai.
The environment lost its shape. Reishi, even the imperial variety, can only take so much.
Kaname Tosen assumed his incomplete Hollow mask, akin to Ichigo's, and moved forward at Aizen's command to lead the surviving Espada. Instead the sightless pursuer of justice found his mission barred once again by the Kenpachi, who unlike his opponent wasted no time on words of admonishment but simply attacked. Tosen died having never seen the leering face of the madman who swiftly tore him apart. At first the vasto lorde did not seem to comprehend their situation. Having dragged themselves up from the level of the beasts, it had not dawned upon those three that their nemeses might take exactly the opposite tack. This was perhaps the explanation for why, after having unified to defeat Yamamoto, the supreme Hollows chose to battle one at a time, in a civilized manner imparted by their hero.
They soon came to regret that mistake. The wounds Stark received could not be ignored. His two lesser comrades swiftly closed. Calmly observing the state of affairs, Sōsuke Aizen took Gin Ichimaru's still-smiling evaluation of the battle to heart, and unsheathed his weapon for its complete release.
Kyōka Suigetsu's ultimate form was revealed to be not just an increase in form and power, but in the concept of a weapon itself. Much like its master, it defied all conventional wisdom when it came to combat. There was no great looming object, as was the case with other ban-kai. Instead what happened was that a glowing man-size symbol of unearthly origin appeared before Aizen. The prospective god stepped into that two-dimensional mark, and seemed to disappear from sight. The rune also faded.
All in attendance stared at the spot where he had vanished, the loss of prey imprinting even in the mind of Hollow Ichigo.
Then Aizen laughed.
An enormous close-up of his merrily gleaming eyes came to the fore of everyone's thoughts, and the glowing blue kanji reappeared on the foreheads of the two struggling war-machines.
Kyōka Suigetsu was a weapon against the mind.
Aizen stepped effortlessly into the weeping black cityscape that composed Ichigo's innermost self. He examined all the young man's past and emotions with omniscient ease. When the Hollow came for him, he shattered its sense of time. Then memory. And finally, the mastermind broke its sense of self. At the same moment, a similar effortless restructuring was occurring in the brain of the Kenpachi. The ultimate warrior was left to flail in abject impotence at the complete lack of any trace of a world or enemy, divested of all knowledge regarding himself or his surroundings. He lost his name. No manner of willpower, training or spiritual strength could be brought to bear in this conflict. The duo simply lacked the necessary weapons to put them on an even keel with this undreamt-of level of power. Strength of the spirit was simply not enough, for a change.
It was in this state of mental downfall that the Kenpachi met his final defeat. Separated from his only recently-discovered guardian zanpakutō, his ban-kai shut off, and Halibel proceeded to behead him. Aizen's mental command let Gin know to do the same for Kurosaki, which he was more than willing to carry out.
When the grinning cheater of death stepped up behind the vacant-eyed youth and placed Shinso's tip at the base of his skull, another voice called for him to stop.
Standing shaking at the entrance to the Soul King's throne room, Orihime Inoue stepped into view.
She was clearly frightened, and upset. Aizen knew all this even before he entered her mind. He stood before her in an endless field of bizarre flowers and rain that acted to bind earth and sky together. The master of men's minds gave her a brief lecture on personal safety. Then, before turning her off like all the rest, he studied the plan that he knew Kisuke Urahara and her friends were sure to have developed against him.
Upon realizing that Orihime had been so worried over Ichigo that she had completely tuned out the preceding war counsel, he could not help but laugh at her folly.
And that proved to be his own.
Before the mental overlord could sweep away her self, the pacifistic maiden revealed to him her own plan. A simple, outlandish, completely laughable solution that no serious person could ever hope to achieve on their own at this point.
The princess didn't care what anyone else thought. While Aizen was busy enjoying her blinding devotion to a thoughtless boy, she spoke two words.
The hairpins in her red-gold locks glowed. Orihime Inoue's guardian spirits answered her prayer.
It was so simple one could only laugh.
She undid Aizen Sōsuke drawing his sword.
Her wish put Kyōka Suigetsu back in its sheathe, and removed any possibility of its removal.
You had to draw, in order to perform ban-kai. A simple, instinctive rule everyone knew. The fight begins with the sheathe and ends with it. That was how combat played out.
The new king of paradise was brought back to earth, so to speak. For a few moments, he could only stare speechless at the reason behind it all. A beautiful, full-bodied teenage girl.
Gin did not wait for further orders. He commanded his zanpakutō to fire, lining it up to hit both Ichigo and Orihime. The attack never even broke the skin on the back of the boy's head, as the one-time captain of squad 3 found interposed between him and the target was Retsu Unohana. The gentle-eyed healer did not waste words, only taking the time to complete her own ban-kai as the Espada moved to slay them all.
The result was not pretty. This medical marvel of a zanpakutō did have a specific military purpose. Like Aizen's Suigetsu, there was no great upheaval. What happened was this: the Espada, and their two remaining prodigal commanders, all erupted into howling bloody spray. Minazuki entered the room quietly and without fanfare, like her mistress. The weapon's martial talent had been known to Yamamoto only. A tool of last resort. It was a rescinding of healing, in any fashion. Or, to put it bluntly, every single wound they had ever suffered, from minor scrapes and infections to life-threatening injuries and mental anguish, reopened all at once.
The vasto lorde took the worst of it. They were composite entities, composed of thousands of souls. Each of those spirits had experienced some manner of pain in their lives, most of them fatally. Despite overstepping the healing captain in terms of power many times over, their very existence as Hollows was subject to this attack. Ichimaru's strength, skill and cunning had served to protect him from experiencing serious injury in his life, but the psychic trauma lurking beneath the surface proved too much for him, sending the no-longer smiling captain into a catatonic state, wide-eyed and twitching on the floor.
Aizen, however, thanks to the nature of his soul cutter and himself, possessed virtually no physical trauma and absolutely no mental wounds. He had no weaknesses but those he gave himself. Lack of determination was not one of them.
So he killed Orihime, and while he worked to free his zanpakutō from her influence, he then turned his attention to Unohana.
"I can see that!" Karin muttered hoarsely, her face twisting with abject revulsion at being in this close-up with her captor.
"I am not referring to temperament or morality," Ulquiorra's bleached white features retreated, giving the girl a chance to catch her breath. "What I am telling you is that I was not born of man or woman. When I was alive, I was a beast."
She stared at him uncomprehendingly.
The Fourth Espada returned to his position of focused intensity on the way leading out of this room. He gave no indication of elaborating on that statement.
But Karin was curious.
"What kind of…?"
Karin's brow furrowed. She remembered back a few years ago, when her father had checked out a picture book from the library detailing ancient religions. He had thought it would be fun for them to read. Yuzu certainly agreed. She was enthralled by the sight of strangely dressed foreign deities, and disappointed at her sister's total lack of interest on the subject. The youngest member of the Kurosaki family still took delight in pointing out some of the more bizarre characters, finding girlish charm in the Egyptians' preference for polymorphism. At odd times, like during dinner or taking a bath, Karin would suddenly find a picture of a man with a dog's head thrust into her face along with an excited explanation of just what that particular god's duties and parentage might be. She recalled one of them had the head of a hawk, and was supposed to be involved with bringing justice to his father's killer, or something like that.
Looking at the bat-winged archfiend before her, she tried to picture that majestic and terrible figure again. And failed.
"You don't look anything like a bird."
"I ate birds. I told you, I was a hawk. A predator."
The keen-eyed realist watched him mistrustfully for several seconds. Ulquiorra did not seem to pay her hostility any mind.
But when almost a minute had passed, he began to speak again.
"It was life. The kind that you're living now, whatever the outward differences. Only emotion was not a part of me. Nor was curiosity, the future or death. That was not what I felt. I slept and ate. I fought with others of my kind. And I flew, seeing everything that went on below me. For a while there was nothing more to it."
"Until I met my mate. She was the first in my territory I found. There was an interest then that had nothing to do with food. We both knew what it meant. She gave me a new focus. I took to feeding her. Small rodents, snakes, other birds. This was so she could rest. Then one morning we had our eggs. She stayed with them almost always now, and I flew for both of us. They were going to hatch sometime. I was more alone then, but I knew where to go when the chase was over."
His voice subsided. Karin saw Ulquiorra's wings rustle violently, in little snaps of leather and bone. The hold on her body grew tighter, and the girl flinched from what she recognized as a deep and abiding anger.
"Sometimes when flying I heard a sound like thunder, although I didn't sense a storm approaching. I saw the walking beasts who made those noises. They were too big to eat, so I didn't try. While out hunting that noise came again, from the direction of our nest. Upon flying back I noticed one of the big beasts tearing away on all fours. And also that my nest was empty. She was not there. I landed on the ground when I smelled her blood. There was nothing but feathers, and the tracks of the big thing. I knew she was gone, but not why or how. Those things were beyond my sense of self. But the eggs must still be there. So I flew back up for them."
"I got there just as a serpent was eating the last one."
"It was injured. She must have seen it down below, and went to pick it out for food. I realize that now. But then something killed her up there before she could finish it, and she fell. The snake crawled into the nest and ate our eggs. It ate them all. While I tore it open it managed to bite me. They never did that before. I always kept their heads in my claws because that was the dangerous part. I knew that. This time, I didn't know what I was doing. It wasn't hunger. I wasn't killing it for anyone to eat. I wanted it to die. I wanted my eggs to come back. So I ripped it to pieces 'til my eggs tumbled out. Broken."
The rustle of his wings was like a death rattle. Or a snake's. It was a warning, and Kurosaki took that message to heart. She could hear something wrong in his words. A thing she knew hadn't been natural. At least, not to a beast. They didn't do stuff like that. Ulquiorra didn't appear to be cognizant of any sign of agitation on his part. His attention was elsewhere, on their immediate surroundings, or perhaps his past.
"There was something the matter with me afterwards. I was in pain throughout where the snake bit me. And then it spread. I shouted at the pain, but it did not go away. I began to lose an impression of daytime. There were always bright lights in my eyes, it seemed. I couldn't see around me. I was thirsty, and starving, but I couldn't leave the nest. Too weak. Maybe I slept, but never because I tried. I ate the snake. Sometimes I thought the broken eggs were worth eating, but I never did. They were supposed to be mine, but not like that. They were supposed to grow, and let me feed them, not feed off of them. It was the way of existence. Something had gone wrong. That noise, and the big thing running away. That was the mistake."
"Eventually I opened my eyes, and I realized it was night. I could see clearly again. The pain was gone, but I was still weak. I flew to find water, and food. There were other things flying with me. Little warm darting bits that shrieked and flapped like they were unwell. Like I was doing now. Water came first. But while I flew, I didn't see anything on the ground to eat. No tiny rats or even birds in the sky. Just the squealing flappers. And when I looked at their sad attempts at flight now, it wasn't just hunger that drove me to chase them. It was the same thing that made me kill the snake. I had to kill them. They were wrong. They were wrong, and they were prey. It made sense to both parts of me, the old and the new. When I dove down on them, I screamed to let them know I was there. The flappers couldn't get away, no matter how they tried. I wanted them to see me for some reason. And I didn't kill them right away. Some I let try to escape with one wing gone. I ate it while I watched them flop about and try to fly. It was… not a good attempt. I killed them after it didn't make any more sense for them to be alive."
"After that I hunted only at night. Those furry flying rats were all the prey I wanted. It wasn't for food anymore. I needed something more. For them to scream. It wasn't like that of birds. This sound made me want to hurt them until they stopped moving. It was strange to think that way, but they were my thoughts, so what else was I supposed to do? I didn't know why there was something new about me, or what to call the idea that drove me to kill without hunger. It was like hunger, or pain. Something that I felt, in my body. But also in my thoughts, the way I never had before. I had become something. I just didn't know what."
He fell to brooding, lips compressed and face thoughtful. His silent audience swallowed with a dry throat. There was one word that leapt out at her in the face of this telling. She spoke it in a whisper.
Slowly, agonizingly so, one eye turned. Karin could see herself, small and terrified, reflected in that blade-thin pupil.
"No." Ulquiorra spoke evenly. "That was merely an indication. Like hatred. What I had gained was a soul."
She wished with all her might that he would stop looking at her, but the abomination's split gaze did not let her go, even for a moment.
"I became aware of so much. What my eyes saw took on new meaning. It occurred to me that there were vast distances beyond the limit of vision. That was where things could go, not just where they were. I could hunt anywhere, or anything. But what I hated was here, so I stayed."
"Thunder awoke me during the daytime. It took me a while to remember about the sun. For a while I believed that I had flown to another world in my sleep. The world where my unborn chicks had gone. Thinking of my children led me to realize what that sound meant. The beast had returned. The one that had killed my mate. I realized that it could die as well, just like the little screamers during the night. So I flew off to hunt it. When I came upon the thing, it was indeed the same as before, but it was not alone. There was a smaller one with it. I watched them kill other animals all around them. They needed only to stretch out a pinion, and there would come thunder, and screaming. Unseen death tore through, and I saw the individual drops of blood spraying out from both sides of deer and wolf. It was a type of slaying I had never known. I noticed how close the two of them became at times, and something became clear to me: that small one was the hatched egg, and the larger one was its father."
"I waited for them to separate. Two was more than I could bring down. But the small one… that I felt was mine to kill. Just as my eggs had been taken from me."
He stared at her like he was reliving that day, as if the memory was perfectly etched into those stone-cold eyes.
"I flew up high, and dove down on it. Right for its head. The thing made a noise, then, exactly like the sound of the flapping rats. Before it could kill me with its far-death, I took away its eyes. I had realized that they could not kill anything they could not see. My eyes saw all. It fell to the ground, trying to strike me. But I stayed away from its claws. I tore away at its head, but it did not stop screaming. It would not die. I was confused, and angry. I could not think of what to do next."
"Then the big thing came upon us. It was screaming too. I saw, in its eyes, something that touched the part of me I had come to know. So I recognized that look. It was feeling anger. Hate. The precise same kind that had struck me upon witnessing my hatchlings dead. We were connected, it and I. And it was going to kill me."
"But then I remembered the snake. It had bitten me, because I was not thinking of how best to kill it. Only that I had to kill it! So I knew that since this thing and I shared that feeling in common, then I had a way to hurt it the most. If I could only make it hate me more than it knew how to think."
Ulquiorra's expression did not alter. But there was satisfaction in the tone he took next.
"I was not able to kill them myself. They were better hunters than I. However, the substantive difference lay in that I was not trying to stay alive. That no longer mattered. My hunt had come to an end. It was their pain that I sought now. Like the rats. And I had my last attack. I leapt atop the small thing's chest, one of its eyeballs in my mouth. Rocking back and forth on my howling perch, I spread my pinions out to their full width, and called out every drop of my own hate and fury at its parent."
"Its face changed into that of a beast. The thing raised its meager wing, and let loose the thunder."
"Something tore through me," the vasto lorde mused reflectively. "It punctured my chest and came out my back. I collapsed onto blood and feathers, staring up at the sky. Panting for air, and only finding blood. It was all over then. I realized that."
"But my last hunt had been a success."
"The little one was dead. Whatever killed me had gone on and killed it too. I could smell it. Its shrieking had stopped. Before I died, I heard its parent howl, realizing how I had used it. It left me… fulfilled."
The demon's eye looked away from Karin then.
"After I became a Hollow, I hunted down that human, and killed him too. Along with his whole family. By myself, this time. It was the only thing I wanted. My reason for killing from that day on became the one I always had. To hunt, and feed."
"And that should answer your first question."
His story had ended, apparently, for Ulquiorra spoke no more after that. He left Karin to her own thoughts.
What those thoughts were terrified the child.
She didn't need to ask him what he meant. Karin felt that the inference was obvious. It was the entire reason why he had told her that story. The moral of the tale. It was so clear, if you just used your head a little.
"What do you want?"
That was the first thing she had asked him.
Had he answered, she knew it would have gone something like this:
"I want for your brother to come into this room, and see me kill you. Because you are the closest thing to a child he has. Then I will kill him, and the rest of your family. Afterwards, I will fly away like nothing ever happened."
This time Karin did cry. Softly, without shame. She made no attempt to hide it.
Ulquiorra gave no sign of taking pleasure from her pain.
All he said was, "That woman cried so much."
Orihime Inoue was not supposed to die there.
Her part in their eleventh-hour operation was made very clear. To hang back and protect the 'doorbell,' as Urahara chose to call it, preventing the ungodly amount of soul power present from simply erasing it immediately upon entry.
Sadly, she had chosen not to listen. When she agreed to go with them, it was only out of the sincere and heart-felt desire to rescue the man she had grown to love with such intensity. Orihime was always a gentle, magnanimous soul. It was part of what made her so special. She was a treasure, a gift to the world. Her heart went out to everyone and everything. There was fear in her, but no hatred. Not even in the slightest. These virtues made her seem harmless to those who thrived on their own sense of recrimination and entitlement. Aizen being one such. It was why he had dismissed her as no possible threat to him. And he had been right to do so.
But offering no harm did not preclude her from being relevant in this battle.
She chose a tactic that, while devoid of inflicting injury, still served to turn the tide of war in their favor for a moment.
It was realizing this error in judgment that enabled the inveterate demigod to conclude her to be more than simply dangerous, and he executed her with a level 100 hadō spell.
Orihime couldn't defend herself. Or perhaps best to say, she wouldn't. Doing so would have required her to release Aizen from her own hold. This she chose not to do, even in the face of death.
The impractical threat she had proven herself as might have been what caused the enemy to temporarily disregard brute power as a viable menace and turn his sights entirely on the equally disingenuous Unohana Retsu, while still working to ease out Kyōka Suigetsu from its prison.
There was also speculation that this sudden alteration of perception caused him to overlook the fact that not two feet behind him, Ichigo Kurosaki had regained his senses, and seeing the blood spreading from a minor wound in his nemesis' back, proceeded to stab Zangetsu in that precise spot.
Aizen Sōsuke had proven in the past that he was able to halt Ichigo's soul cutter with nothing more than a bare finger. But that had been when the boy was weakened, and he was specifically concentrating on his own defense. This time, the black blade took advantage of its holder's enduring strength and the target's injury, and punctured his lung to explode out of his chest like heaven's own vengeance.
They had never seen Aizen look so surprised.
Or, when Unohana cast a level 100 bakudō to bind him, so desperate.
His ally Gin had been immobilized. His Espada were experiencing thousands of lifetimes of pain. On the very brink of seeming triumph, he had underestimated his opponents, and now paid the price.
Thus the enduringly handsome soul reached into his own body, much as Yamamoto had done to produce the Imperial Key, and withdrew the Hōgyoku.
He then used it to transform himself into a total monster.
If Ichigo's full Hollow form was demonic, Sōsuke's was satanic. The king of Hell itself. Unrestrained power, and unstoppable hatred. Zangetsu was destroyed immediately, along with the kido prison. The dimension around them was virtually blasted apart. Even the vasto lorde quailed in the face of this awakened destroyer of worlds. Aizen had united them with the promise of a better life for all, Hollow and plus. When faced with the possibility of his own destruction, their shining unreachable moon chose to abandon all beloved ideals and rhetoric, and aimed now to obliterate everyone around him, including his own followers.
When the beast's eyes turned on him, all of Ichigo's vaunted spiritual powers drained away, and he knew that he would be the first to die.
And he would have, too.
Were it not for Yoruichi Shihoin, Shinji Hirako, Ryūken Ishida, Byakuya Kuchiki, and Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez.
The Goddess of Flash leapt in, and spirited her student back to the crowd that had gathered in the throne room.
Then, as they had been prepared to do once this situation occurred, the Captains of the Fourth and Sixth divisions, the Sexta Espada, the Last Quincy, and the leader of the Vizard attacked Aizen.
Rukia saw all this for herself.
She and the rest of her group, including Renji, Chad, the surviving captains and lieutenants, Isshin Kurosaki, Uryū Ishida, Neliel tu Oderschvank, and the remaining Vizard remained hidden under Kurotsuchi's psycho-spiritual displacement tarp. All their power was pouring into the castle shield-wall Tessai Tsukabishi had erected in preparation for when Aizen revealed and utilized his trump card.
After witnessing the death of the Kenpachi, Orihime had dropped her own contribution and run into the battlefield. Uryū and Chad were about to go after her, but were restrained by their fellows. They watched her sacrifice, achieving at the high cost of living the one factor that had been left unresolved: how to reach Aizen should he perform his mental ban-kai.
Sitting on the sobbing Uryū, a dry-eyed Shinji Hirako produced a flask of saké, and took a swig.
"One last time," he said, and offered it to Lisa Yadomaru. The scowling shinigami/Hollow threw him a murderous glare, but her puckish admirer only smiled that goofy grin. "You wouldn't deny a dying man his last request, would you, Chuckles?"
She snatched it away from him, giving no further sign of relenting in her animosity, took a brief swallow, and passed it over to Hiyori Sarugaki. Before the bottle could leave her fingers, though, Shinji whipped out another ceramic jar, chugged it quickly, and spoke a quick kido spell.
Lisa's eyes glazed over, and she collapsed on her side, unconscious.
They all stared aghast at Shinji, who only smiled in blameless cheer.
"Learned that trick from Aizen," he chuckled, and then reached down, snatched the red-faced Ishida up off the ground, and held him dangling by his shirt in one fist. The deposed Captain of Squad Five gazed into the young man's leaking eyes without any trace of humor or mercy.
"Don't you let any more women I love die. You got it, punk?"
His words seemed to breach the young man's grief. The demoralized Quincy gave a short nod, his tears diminishing. Shinji let him drop, and then turned to face his comrades.
"You know what you have to do?" the Vizard addressed the mean-looking blonde pixie at his side. She looked up into his face, and then shocked them all by bowing to her superior officer.
"I won't fail you, Captain Hirako."
"Never knew you could."
He dropped his Hollow mask, and drew his sword.
"Let's go give thanks," Shinji declared, and left to see his final duty through.
Even with all of them combined, it seemed as though the unrestrained power of the Hollow Emperor would blow their tiny fort away in a moment. It was only due to no direct attacks being allowed their way that this did not occur. Reduced to little more than an instinctive predator, Aizen laid about at the relative fleas who darted in, striking with every trick, spell and power boost known to their kind. The observers felt as though their hearts were in their mouths the whole time. It all depended on these five champions, now. If they failed in their task, nothing else mattered. The new Emperor of the afterlife would dispose of them all without effort. Whether or not he could come back to his former idealistic self was not a foregone conclusion, just one that held no interest for them.
They watched what could very well have been the end of all worlds.
When Ryūken Ishida fell, and Unohana Retsu received what proved to be a mortal wound, without any of them even coming close enough to achieve their objective, Shinji Hirako performed a miracle.
He threw down his weapon, ripped away his mask, and floated before the sleekly muscled Hollow with arms outspread.
"GO BACK TO YOUR MOMMA'S WOMB, BOY!!!" he shouted, and laughed.
As he had hoped, this infuriated Hollow Aizen to a previously unmatched degree, and the masked thing that was no longer a man blinked out to reappear right before him and drove its zanpakutō into his gut.
Shinji hung bleeding in the air, while the monster growled its satisfaction.
One bloody trembling fist reached out, and slipped into the torn remnants of a white Hollow Lord robe.
Emerging with the Hōgyoku, he tossed it backwards, to be caught by Hiyori.
At his command, Rukia Kuchiki raised Sode no Shirayuki, and brought it down on the Hollow skull of a man who in life had murdered a classmate to impress a girl.
The mask was cleansed of all spiritual sins. Leaving the soul with only the earthly ones. The 'doorbell' had sounded.
In the Court of Heaven, the Gates of Hell appeared and swung open. They launched out chains to take the soul of the damned man.
The remaining Vizard then abandoned their protection. Two apiece moved to stand by the now-recovering vasto lorde.
Then, using the training and information she had received in what seemed a lifetime ago from her captain, Hiyori Sarugaki activated the Hōgyoku, and damned ten souls to Hell.
More ropes of adamantine determination cast out to snare their quarry. The Vizard grasped their respective Hollows, including Aizen. Terror born of the most primitive fount took hold of the four beasts then, and they struggled to break free. But Shinji and his cohorts were implacable. They cast themselves and their ancient enemies into the inferno. Hiyori alone remained, to bend the Hōgyoku now to keeping Aizen and his servants from cleansing their spiritual slates and escaping their environment. As Shinji passed into their hoped-for last stand, he gave the former lieutenant a parting shot.
"I loved you too, shortie!"
They then found themselves in Hell, much to the surprise of their new hosts.
Before any questions could be asked, Hirako gave his final performance. They all heard his voice ring out; harsh, threatening, and dark.
"IN THE NAME OF MY MASTER AIZEN SŌSUKE, RULER OF HEAVEN AND HUECO MUNDO, WE HAVE COME TO CLAIM THIS REALM BY FORCE!! KNEEL TO THE EMPEROR OF SOUL SOCIETY!!!"
The watching shinigami heard a sound like a million breaths catching in throats.
Without further ado, Hell attacked.
This was Urahara's plan.
In analyzing their dilemma, they determined that Aizen had stacked the deck too heavily in his favor. He was a master of shinigami powers, and had clearly learned all there was to know about combat for Hollows. Standard methods of warfare, whether those of Soul Society or Hueco Mundo, held no hope of ever prevailing against him. He was well on his way to achieving his vision of supplanting God.
Having reached these conclusions, it occurred to the scientist shinigami who had lost so much to Aizen's scheming that the only way to defeat his adversary was to put him in a situation that he was not familiar with, against an enemy he had no reason or experience in fighting. Shinji and his cohorts were in agreement, and it was they who recommended the perfect locale. A place that no one bothered to think of, because its intrusion onto their daily lives was virtually nonexistent. Hell had its own rules, and regardless of what some faiths might profess, they had nothing to do with conquering other strata of reality. Defending itself from a perceived invasion, on the other hand, was something you could count on from any rational entity, damned or not.
So it came about that Aizen and his three remaining loyal Espada found themselves being attacked by the armies of the damned.
The Vizard too came under assault. They were prepared for this. Their combat efforts were divided between engaging the hell-spawn and attacking the four Hollow whenever it seemed most advantageous. The observers to this unexpected Armageddon were struck dumb by the implausible level of savagery and strength that was brought to bear. Never had they witnessed such total carnage, on an epic scale. Though all of them looked away at some point, sickened and plagued by sights they knew would haunt them forever, Hiyori alone kept her full attention on the conflict. When Aizen actually managed to break free from the hordes and strove to pass through the portal, she met his power with that of the Hōgyoku. Being bent to such a fiendishly potent disruption of the rules of reality, and pressed against the will and aura of a man who could tear apart the heavens should he so choose, the indestructible gem began to crack. Only the fierce determination of the masked fighter holding it kept it intact.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Shinji's last jab served the purpose of inflaming her stubborn angry heart, to the point where she could not be dissuaded by any threat or cajole of death.
The jewel held, and the self-proclaimed king fell back into ruin.
Had he retained the charismatic insight and genius that had marked him for his entire duration, Aizen Sōsuke might have actually been able to convince Hell's masters that he had embarked there against his will, and harbored no intention of usurping their role in the orchestration of the damned.
Unfortunately, he had already abdicated all such reason in exchange for sheer power.
This proved to be insufficient, at the last.
The Vizard died. The vasto lorde perished as well.
And moments before the Hōgyoku shattered into worthless oblivion, Aizen Sōsuke, the revolutionary leader who had challenged all accepted notions of what men's souls were able and required to endure, was shocked to find himself cut down by the forces of damnation. The Hollow crown-mask broke apart at the last, giving them a brief glimpse of his astonished dying face. The unleashed spirit-bodies left Hell then, and the portals closed.
So it ended.
The survivors took up their dead and wounded. Ichigo collapsed into a virtual coma that had endured up to present day. Uryū Ishida, inconsolable at the loss of his father and Orihime, was nonetheless offered comfort from shinigami and human alike. A similarly grief-stricken Nanao Ise held vigil over Lisa Yadomaru until she recovered. Byakuya Kuchiki, whose wounds had been deemed life-ending at first, would live to see another day. At some point during this soul-numbing tally of the dead or dying, it was finally noticed that the body of Gin Ichimaru had not been recovered. Only then did Momo Hinamori, after going to tend to Toshiro Hitsugaya, voice the realization that Rangiku Matsumoto was nowhere to be found. A search party had already been dispatched to determine their whereabouts.
Orihime Inoue's remains were laid to rest in Soul Society. Yachiru Kusajishi placed a string of bells upon her grave that chimed in accordance with the gentle rain which fell from the sky all that morning.
Days later, Isshin Kurosaki brought the ragtag band of misfits back to the human world, and he and Kisuke Urahara lifted the spell that lay still upon his children. Yuzu and Karin awoke with no recollection of what had occurred, though the elder sibling guessed what was going on and was sworn to secrecy as a result.
That brought them all to this day.
Rukia settled down in the grass by Ichigo with a sigh. She turned her head to study his composed and tranquil features. Ignorance is bliss, the Kuchiki princess thought to herself. She had cried all her tears for now. Best to let him sleep for as long as he needed, the better to put off the worst news he would ever hear in his life.
Or at least, so she hoped.
Rukia prayed that the horror was all behind them.
"FATHER!!" someone cried, and the shinigami lady drew up with a start.
Stumbling up the hill towards them, a bleeding and clearly terrified Yuzu was sobbing her eyes out.
Rukia stared in shock.
Strong fingers suddenly clamped around her wrist, and she looked down to see Ichigo's brown eyes open wide.
He drew a deep breath, and spoke one word.
They all stood arrayed outside the house.
Within it there exuded a presence they had all hoped to never feel again. It was no longer attempting to disguise itself.
They conversed quietly on what to do.
"It'll work. I'm quick enough to pull it off. You've seen it."
"He'll kill her the instant he senses you. You don't know how fast he is!"
"Screw that noise, Strawberry! He's not as tough as you all seem to think. You proved that!"
"He knows we're here too. He can feel us. All of us."
"So he knows he's dead."
"Speak for yourself. We've got more to fear from him than he does from us right now. None of us is back to full strength yet. And he feels stronger than ever."
"Wish I knew how to pull that trick after losing a battle. I'd be a titan by now."
"Just shut up, all of you! We've got a plan. I'm going in there."
"Hold on, just a moment, Ichigo!"
"What?! We don't have any more options! The longer we wait, the more likely he is to just kill her. I'm not losing anybody else!"
"You're right. He will. And you won't. Not if you listen to what I have to say."
"What are you thinking, Rukia-sama?"
"You say he's in the girls' room?"
"Then we know something he doesn't. Something too small for him to pick up on. Something he's never encountered before. None of them have. It might catch him by surprise enough to give us the chance we need. Isane-san!"
"I need you to use Tenteikūra to contact someone. Can you do that?"
"You can count on me, Rukia-san."
Even before the front door slammed, Karin knew her brother had arrived.
And apparently so did Ulquiorra.
He sighed, and closed his eyes.
They both heard footsteps coming up the stairs. The girl watched the door anxiously. Maybe she should try and warn him? No, her brother was no fool. He must know what was going on. She could only hope that he had somehow worked out a plan, and wasn't just going to try and pound his way through everything like he usually did.
Karin flicked a glance at Ulquiorra, and then away again.
Please, Ichi-nii. Please don't be stupid. Just be smart.
The sound of his approach was slow and evident.
The two of them watched the door to the sisters' room open with a slight creak.
Ichigo Kurosaki stood out in the hall.
He was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. There were no black robes and sword as Karin had expected. Her brother was still human.
Please let this be a good sign.
The tall rangy teenager remained out in the hall. He did not look prepared to enter the trap just yet. Instead his weirdly calm, unthreatening gaze moved to connect with that of his little sister.
"Are you hurt?"
She shook her head emphatically no. Tears were flowing fast again. When he saw them, Ichigo frowned slightly. He kept his hands in his pockets the whole time.
Perhaps it was this casual stance of marked inoffensiveness that caused Ulquiorra to hold back from killing them both.
The Hollow scrutinized his uncharacteristically placid opponent carefully.
Ichigo shrugged, still concentrating solely on his sister's beautifully hopeful face.
"Didn't need 'em."
Ulquiorra moved his claws aside of Karin's throat, as if to emphasize that this was a fallacy on Ichigo's part.
"Go to hell. Tell him I said 'Hi!'"
The limp girl whimpered as sharp points pressed lightly against her jugular. When Ichigo's skin blanched, the deadpan killer nodded his head in apparent satisfaction.
His shinigami opponent then turned hardened features to finally face his mortal enemy directly.
"How did you survive, Ulquiorra?" he whispered hoarsely.
The narrow white shoulders lifted in the closest approximation of a shrug you could expect from him.
"You need to use your head more, shinigami. Your animal self had seriously injured me. That last Cero Oscuro you fired was aimed straight down. While you had admittedly surpassed me in terms of overall offensive and defensive means, I could not be completely overwhelmed. I was able to partially counter the blast by use of one of my own, and by flying just ahead of its initial impact, I effectively let the conflict push me down until it broke through the floor of Las Noches, into the Forest of Menos below. Once there, I simply moved out of the way of your attack. Dodging is something you might want to consider developing an appreciation for. As soon I was out of your attacking sightline through the hole, all I did was perform my ocultación. The huge drop in my spirit power upon returning to the form you first saw me in must have registered to your pitiful faculties as a termination of my presence. In reality, it was just a mask, so to speak. With all those Menos Grande down there, you clearly couldn't pick out my individual aura through the mass blanket affect they afforded. I was counting on that. They also proved useful after you all left, in terms of providing me with sustenance."
"So here we all are."
Ichigo nodded thoughtfully.
"That never would have occurred to me."
"Tell me something I don't know, shinigami."
The boy squared his shoulders.
"You've got me here. There's no more reason to keep Karin. Just let her go, and the two of us can settle this. Man to man."
Ulquiorra cocked his head infinitesimally to one side. Black blood poured down his face in thin streams.
"As I recently finished explaining to your sister, I am not now nor have I ever been a man."
He reached up a hand and stroked Karin's silky black bowl-cut.
"There is a very important reason that she must remain."
She didn't say it. She couldn't express it. All the helpless tomboy could do was think it, hoping desperately that he could somehow read her mind.
Get away! He's going to kill me, he wants for you to watch him do it! He's crazy, Ichigo, he's not even human! He was a bird and he had eggs, but they got eaten by a snake, and it drove him crazy and he wanted to kill bats and a little kid and he's going to kill you too! Oh please, if you can hear me, just GET OUT!!
"And what kind of reason would a mighty vasto lorde have for kidnapping a ten-year old girl?"
Her idiot brother remained where he was, glaring darkly at Ulquiorra without any sign of fear for either of their lives.
The Fourth Espada's eyes narrowed.
"Ichigo, am I correct in assuming that all this uncharacteristic lack of violence is because you have actually come into this situation with a plan of some sort?"
Karin thought she saw a drop of sweat slide down her elder's throat.
Ulquiorra nodded. "Yes, I thought so. But I have already heard everything I care to from you. So in the interests of saving time, I will answer your question."
Ichigo's frantic gaze flickered about the contents of the room. Measuring. Debating.
"Can I just say one thing to my sister?"
"Karin…" he ignored this negative, speaking swiftly.
The undead daemon turned its horned helm to face its trembling victim, eyes still resting securely on Ichigo. It opened its mouth, and a Cero Oscuro appeared within the opaque black ring of its lips.
Karin knew she was going to die. Stiffly facing straight ahead of her, the child threw a final pleading look at her big brother, her hero. He stared right back at her.
And spoke clearly.
Instinctively, the correct response came to her lips.
A drawer in the desk against the wall in front of her shot open, and Yuzu's stuffed teddy-bear Bostov popped out.
"KON POWER!!" the plushie screamed, and punched itself in the gut.
Ulquiorra's head whipped around, and he fired.
The blast destroyed the teddy, and the city block behind it.
But it missed the small green marble flying through the air.
Straight and true, the pebble flew right into Karin's gaping mouth.
With a gasp she swallowed, and found herself suddenly thrust roughly out of her body, a long chain connecting her to it.
Dumbfounded, she turned to see Ulquiorra's lifeless black eyes lit up with what could only be described as shock.
The ghost girl observed this with only marginally less amazement.
Then a hand reached up through the floor, and yanked her spirit down out of the room.
At the same time, Kon kicked Ulquiorra as hard as he could in the face.
Karin's body was in excellent shape, even considering her age. She could dissipate weak Hollows with just one shot from a soccer ball. The fútbol enthusiast took great pride in her leg strength and agility. Combined with Kon's souped-up mod-soul pistons, the force that connected with the Cuarta Espada's chin could not be ignored.
It didn't hurt him in the slightest. All it served to do was rock his head back like a big shaggy tether ball.
In that instant, his hold and attention on the girl wavered, and former Tercera Espada Neliel seized her chance to open a garganta behind Kon and drag him back into it, closing the dimensional rent behind them.
When Ulquiorra righted himself, it was to see Ichigo transforming into a Hollow, cracks and black blood pouring out of the bone-white mask, his body falling backwards with a death god deputy badge tumbling from his pocket.
The shinigami-turned-nightmare then launched itself at the emotionless scarecrow, and tore them both outside.
Karin flailed, weightless. The chain in her chest was pulling one way, while the hold on her foot went another. She didn't know what to do.
"Do not struggle," a soft voice spoke.
The preteen looked down, into a face as blank and lifeless-seeming as Ulquiorra's.
Then they were moving outside through the walls, to enter a crowd of strangely-dressed freaks.
"You did it, Nemu-san!"
"Idiot! Why are you holding him upside-down now?"
"Kurotsuchi-sama, Karin is a girl!"
"With that chest? Nonsense! I could make him a girl, if that's what you want. Just give me some time to collect the necessary data and…"
"Back off, you brain-fried pervert!"
"Ishida-san, please do not shoot the captain."
Karin was indeed hanging upside-down by one foot, but she was quickly righted and placed back on her feet. Although those feet didn't quite seem to touch the ground now.
"You all right, kid?"
The bewildered waif glanced behind her, to find herself confronted by herself.
Other-Karin scratched beneath her nose patiently.
"Guess you aren't hurt, huh? Okay, let's get this over with."
Karin then had the unfortunate and unprecedented experience of watching herself hock loudly, and spit onto the ground.
A green marble hit the pavement, and she was immediately yanked by the chain back into her body.
She swayed unsteadily, feeling sick and disoriented. A hand reached out to steady her, and the confused child turned to be confronted by Rukia Kuchiki, her brother's friend, now dressed in the time-worn garb of a shinigami.
"Sit down, Karin-chan. Everything's going to be all right now."
Just as Karin was about to do so, the sky exploded.
Hollow Ichigo bellowed in primal fury.
Outlined before it against the smoldering black wreckage of the heavens, Ulquiorra Schiffer hung silently.
"Dodge," he repeated his previous admonition heavily, flicking the blood off of his claws.
His opponent just roared mindlessly, and eschewed further Ceros Oscuro to charge in and attack him directly.
The last remnant of Aizen's grand ambition fought for his life.
And he was winning.
Ulquiorra evaded a savage swing of the black zanpakutō with only mild injury, and took advantage of the wild overreach to rake his talons down the lone Hollow's forearm. Blood now flowed over the brute's wrist and fingers, making its hold on the blade slippery, presumably. What was left of Ichigo didn't seem to have any trouble keeping the weapon in his grip as a result. But the Espada was pleased to note that while still armed, the wound was evident, and not healing instantaneously as it had after their previous fight. He had seen that.
His eye saw all.
He had been correct in his assumption before initiating this conflict. Ichigo's Hollow had been grievously injured in whatever battle happened between it and Aizen during his recuperation. The boy's soul and body might have been healed, but the Hollow had proven impervious to any type of benevolent interference. Ulquiorra knew that. His kind did not normally recover in the manner of shinigami. Even this true-blood's inner demon was not able to pick itself up so effortlessly, although its host displayed an implausible talent for surviving and ignoring fatal injuries.
The white-bone mask was cracking and flaking away. It signified more than just a temporary loss of power on his opponent's part. This time, the Hollow was truly dying. Aizen's ban-kai, he theorized. Like most shinigami, it gave his departed master a spiritual power boost, yes; but it also let him step into his opponent's mind and spirit, where that vastly-increased strength could play out in a territory where people often found themselves fragmented and disoriented. A stage of battle with your opponent tripping and stumbling over his own worst instincts, and effectively blunting the power of an inner Hollow by their human doubts and restrictions. Aizen had torn Ichigo's unprepared ally apart. It survived, but was seriously diminished.
That meant the odds were conceivably in his favor now.
Ulquiorra blocked the ban-kai's swing with both hands, clapping them together to halt the deathblow despite it continuing to burn his flesh to a crisp. His tail then whipped out, and pierced the flesh around Hollow Ichigo's left side. The enemy grunted now. The sinuous appendage couldn't reach his heart, but it did puncture a lung. Ichigo wrenched his blade away wildly, and fired another Cero. Had it connected, the vasto lorde felt certain he would have been maimed. But he danced on the wind, avoiding its full killer intent, then hovered a short distance away. Watching. Waiting. Calculating.
The creature was wheezing slightly now. He had really hurt it with that one, so much that it failed to press its attack. Ulquiorra bled from almost a dozen different wounds, and his hierro was feeling woefully inadequate to this task. But it endured. And he was winning. Far below them, Ichigo's friends could not come to his aid. With their respective levels of power, and in the disfigured shinigami's current mental state, they would only be more targets for his wrath. The solitary hunter's vaunted eyesight could pick out the frustration and fear on each of their faces. None of the shinigami were crazy enough to sacrifice their lives heedlessly. They wished to help, but had been blocked by their ally's foolishness. If Ichigo hadn't gone full Hollow, he wouldn't have had to accept all the creature's lingering wounds, and then they could have conceivably ganged up on Ulquiorra. Fortunately, he had judged his enemy correctly. Threatening the boy's family, while admittedly failing to slay one, had served its desired purpose. Ichigo had been so enraged, he hadn't stopped to think about anything other than killing his newly-arisen enemy.
Humans, the evolved Hollow sighed. They could be so stupid.
Some things never changed.
Before long, when it was certain that the monster's strength was waning, Ulquiorra would maneuver it into the most advantageous spot. After that, he was certain it would act accordingly. Then, when the mask finally disappeared, and Ichigo regained his senses and saw what he had done, only then would Ulquiorra kill him.
Ichigo's Hollow shuddered, flung back its head and howled loud enough to shatter glass for miles around.
While it was absorbed in displaying its fury, the Espada darted in for another attack.
Something tore into his left wing, and he checked his course, banking back around. No real damage, but he had, for a change, not seen it coming.
That irked Ulquiorra.
His eye then caught a flash of movement, and one bat-like membrane of skin and bone swatted away an approaching energy blast.
Cero, the heartless tactician realized suddenly.
He recognized the inhuman reiatsu, and turned his head to regard the intelligent beast prowling around him. It growled deep in its throat.
"Yeah, I always got to show you up, eh, ass-kisser?"
Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez bared his fangs, his own tail lashing eagerly.
There was somebody crazy enough after all.
Rukia knew they shouldn't even be watching this conflict, much less hanging around in the general vicinity. But they all seemed to be possessed by the same mania. A death wish, really. The shinigami and their allies recognized that above them, the war for Soul Society still raged. A final battle. The boss had been slain, but his most loyal servant remained to carry out Aizen's will, that last murderous wish.
The Kurosaki family's savior felt a shiver run through the frame of her young charge. She gave Karin's shoulders a friendly squeeze, and rested her chin on top of the girl's head for a moment. The contact seemed to afford some small comfort, for she could feel the anxious soul relax somewhat. But the tension in the air did not lessen.
Today it would truly end, come what may.
She knew that she was too weak to participate, and yet, it still nagged at her. Spiritual power, the varying degrees of it: wasn't their overreliance on such a divider the very same thing that had brought their world to the brink of annihilation? Hadn't the last sacrifice of the Vizard been solid proof that it didn't matter how much stronger the enemy might be? If you could think of a way to beat them, you had to try!
Yamamoto's enduring legacy, more than establishing a system of rule, had been to instill in every soul that came under his protection the lesson that might was the only thing that mattered. True, it was a precept that had worked for several thousand years. But it had fallen for the precise reason that it had been an ideal which could not change. If you relied solely on strength to determine every outcome, what did that leave you with but a pack of sword-swinging bullies, whether shinigami or arrancar?
Wasn't there anything they could do here?
As if sensing her thoughts, Karin wriggled under her fingers.
"Who's that up there fighting along with Ichi-nii?"
"Another Espada," the petite sword-maiden replied.
The girl gave a start. "You mean just like Ulquiorra?! Then why would he…?"
"Because he hates Ulquiorra."
Karin sniffed, wiping her eyes hastily. "I hate him too. I wish I could help." She turned back to regard Rukia. "Isn't there anything we can do?"
"We can't get involved." A fairly tall, extremely beautiful shinigami spoke behind her. "That level of speed and power would render our contributions meaningless. It's a shame, really, because we'll probably never get the chance to fight a vasto lorde again in our lives. Those might have been the only four in all creation."
The death god then turned his attention from the sky down to Karin's pale, anxious face, and gave her a wink, his feathered eyebrows waving. "Don't fret, lovely miss. Your brother is an astonishingly powerful shinigami. He's the only person my captain ever lost against in terms of strength. He might not be much to look at, but Ichigo can certainly be counted on to surprise you in a fight."
"Only he's not."
The bald hatchet-faced fighter at his side looked angry enough to chew nails. "He's not pulling any surprises. Not even fighting like a shinigami. He's gone so far over the edge of reason, he doesn't even see that Ulquiorra's startin' to get the upper hand in this fight."
A black-robed girl only slightly taller than Rukia looked over at him. "Don't say that, Madarame-san. Kurosaki-sama has to win!"
"Yes." Uryū Ishida adjusted his glasses. "For our sakes. But is he even aware of us anymore, or has the Hollow taken away all his reason? I know from experience that it doesn't factor friends into account when fighting." He absently rubbed a spot on his stomach. "And it certainly doesn't believe in strategy. It operates mainly on emotion and instinct, not skill. When faced with a careful thinking opponent, blind hack-and-slash is the worst thing you can do."
"THEN WHY DON'T YOU DO SOMETHING?!"
Karin tore herself away from Rukia's grip, gaze skewering them with its frantic intensity. "That's my brother up there, and you're talking about it like he's going to get killed! Aren't you all his friends? Why are you just standing around talking like some stupid commentators at a soccer game?! This isn't a dumb bishonen martial arts TV show! There isn't going to be some miracle power item falling from the sky or an inner soul boost that'll let Ichi-nii cut that monster down! You have to think of something that we can do to help him out!"
A crazy-clown pharaoh looked her way, tapping one long blue fingernail against his forearm. "Do you have any suggestions or information that we might not be aware of, wise one?"
She gazed right back at him helplessly.
"Maybe… is he… afraid of something? Or do these Hollow monsters have any weaknesses they all share?"
The Yakuza gangster gave a snort, lifting his shades to give Karin an appraising look. "Only thing this guy would be afraid of is Aizen, and we just lost nearly every captain we had putting that bastard down. As for weaknesses, if you're talking Achilles heel-wise, I'm sorry, little sister, but they're virtual flying fortresses. Only real weakness is the kind we all share: if you can take 'em by surprise, you might be able to get a clear shot. He doesn't go down right away, you're in a world of trouble." He gave a shake of his head. "Unfortunately, this guy in particular is supposed to have stereoscopic vision and genius-level reiatsu senses. Nothing gets by him. He can probably see us clear as day, even from up there. Sneak attacks are out unless you do what that loony Hollow character did and pop in from nowhere. For all that he's an animal, the man can certainly keep his shit together."
Another tremendous explosion tore out the sky, and they all glanced up as one. The tiny forms above were still engaged in their deadly game of tag. However, in the last few minutes, Ichigo had not landed any further blows against the last Espada, while he was bleeding furiously from several different new wounds. Grimmjow was still in the game, but only because Ulquiorra had to focus on keeping clear of the suicidal Hollow destroyer.
Karin was now hopping from one foot to another in frustration. She whirled back around, voice accusing the assembled adults of cowardice or stupidity or worse.
"But Ulquiorra's a Hollow too! He's just an animal inside, he told me so! Even if he looks like a monster, my brother's human! Why isn't he able to stay calm like that bat-demon, or the other guy?"
The elementary all-star turned. Squatting on top of a wall was a weary-looking blonde girl with pigtails. Her face looked the way Karin felt, and when she turned her eyes to meet the trembling pre-teen, it sent a shiver up her spine.
"Truly wicked people who avoid Hell upon death become Hollows instantly. They're ruled by instinct, but still have a clear sense of self. The rest of them, the decent ones who fall into it over time, when their Hollow hole opens fully, they're completely ruled by their emotions and impulses. The mask hides that naked newborn self from the world. They can hunt and fight, but actual clear thinking takes months to resurface. Right now, that chewed-up-eraser head is burning with the urge to kill his enemy, and nothin' else matters. He'll let himself be cut to pieces if he has to. Our best hope here is that the older one gets tired or sloppy, which considering your brother's power reserves ain't as far-fetched as you might think. Based on what I've seen, there's just no way that vasto lorde's gonna lose his cool and start fighting dumb the way your brother is."
The pissed-off midget girl gave an angry shake of her head and spit loudly. She kept her face averted from them all, and spoke very softly next.
"If that loser Shinji were here, he'd pound some sense into that dumbass."
"SHUT UP! MY BROTHER'S NOT A DUMBASS!!"
The whole lot of them was looking at her like they pitied her. Karin felt as though she were about to start crying again. NO! Not here, not in front of all these strangers, with her cherished elder fighting for his life in the clouds. Crying was not going to solve anything!
A child's anger boiled up in her veins, and she stood there now with fists clenched, staring at the ground and gnawing her lip furiously. Yuzu told her that was a bad habit she ought to break, but how she looked was the farthest thing from her mind right now.
While a war raged overhead, Karin Kurosaki searched her brain for anything she could think of that might be of help in this situation.
Rukia stared at her sadly, commiserating with the girl's sense of futility. She understood exactly how that felt. And it wasn't good. The determined survivor watched another fighter struggling to find a solution. It was so awful to consider yourself useless. Having someone that cared tell you that you weren't was sometimes the only thing that kept you from falling apart.
It came to her then that while she had not been able to divine a means of helping Ichigo, she could certainly try to ease the suffering of his younger sister. That was something siblings were eminently suited for, she had come to understand.
Kneeling before the shivering girl-child, Rukia placed her hands on the bony shoulders, thinking about what she might say to help.
Her audience sniffed, but did not look up.
"Little one, I know what you must be feeling right now. I've also felt like I was helpless to save anyone. But I want you to realize that none of us here are expecting your brother to fail, or are unconcerned about his well-being. We care about him just like you do. Especially me."
Another explosion came from above, and Karin stiffened. Rukia embraced her then, feeling the developing frame press into her robes, heartbeat pounding furiously against her chest. She wondered if Karin could feel how fast her own pulse was racing.
"Don't give up, Karin-chan. I've seen Ichigo do things that are simply amazing. I wouldn't be standing here talking to you if it wasn't true. The fight he's in right now, he's doing it for you. So that you will never again have to be afraid like you were a little while ago. Your brother saved you then, right? He had a plan, and he made it work. Ichigo's a miracle-worker, really. He's a pain and a fool sometimes, but really I love him for that too."
Rukia stopped then, astonished by what she had just admitted out loud so easily.
Just when had she decided that?
While she was mulling this discovery over, Karin seemed to relax.
"I…" the little girl whispered, "…know what you feel."
The shinigami shook her head. "What I was trying to say was…"
Karin pulled away from her.
"I know what you feel!"
She was grasping the death god's robes, shaking her back and forth. There was a light and inspiration in Karin's face that left the other woman tongue-tied.
"I KNOW WHAT YOU FEEL!!"
Releasing the slender spirit, the girl backed a step away, then turned and raced back into her house before anyone could think to touch her.
"I KNOW HOW IT FEELS!!!"
Grimmjow unleashed his Desgarrón attack, sending mile-long blades of energy slashing through the atmosphere.
Long, and big, but with spaces between them. Twisting his deceptively-thin frame, Ulquiorra folded his wings and slipped effortlessly between the deadly scythes, dancing without fear from one safe spot to the next.
Ichigo's Hollow followed in hot pursuit. Despite being on the verge of death, it had not slackened its pace or fury. He observed the bloodthirsty demon smash through several slashes from Pantéra's ultimate weapon. However, others came in unnoticed and actually succeeded in cutting the beast's hide even further. Still it bulled on, heedless of how much damage was being inflicted upon it. It had completely lost its mind. And though keeping Ichigo alive had not been Grimmjow's primary motivation for entering this battle, he was not so far-gone in his own battle-madness that he did not recognize what he was doing. With that in mind, the traitor dispelled his attack with a savage curse.
His former superior officer took stock of the situation swiftly, and made a decision.
Careening above the clouds, the bat-winged soul eater shot up to hang before his self-proclaimed equal's face. He observed the beginnings of a look of surprise that his speed engendered in the warrior's eyes. Then Ulquiorra plunged his fingers into the adjuchas's stomach, whipped him around, and held the gasping panther-demon out like a shield.
Just in time. Ichigo streaked in, sword extended, and thrust straight at Ulquiorra's head.
The point instead stopped several inches from its target, lodged with a bloody spray in Grimmjow's chest.
In the few seconds it took to kick the obstruction loose, Ulquiorra dropped down, flipped around, and fired a Cero Oscuro at point blank range.
He then swiftly put some distance between them, and fired a second time.
And after relocating again, a third.
Once more, for good measure.
Then the Espada paused to assess his situation.
His energy was fading, but there was still a great deal left. None of the injuries he had sustained were life-threatening. As long as he kept his wits about him, it was likely to remain that way.
Ichigo was a mess. There was a smoking pit gouged out of his abdomen. One leg was hanging by a strip of meat. The rest of his body steamed, hair ablaze. Even from behind, Ulquiorra could tell that the Hollow mask was virtually unmade. Only one horn remained. The whole frame was shuddering almost piteously now.
Do you finally understand, Ichigo? 'Unvanquished,' but not 'invincible.' There is no one who cannot be killed. No prey that is completely safe, be it human or the king of Soul Society. But you have not begun to experience the smallest drop of suffering. Today I will make you a gift to Aizen-sama's spirit, and all the ones you love will go before you.
The time was near. The enemy's reserves were almost gone. By his estimation of its reiatsu level, it probably only had enough to give one more Cero Oscuro. He would make sure the attack did the most possible damage when it did.
The Cuarta Espada whipped around as a wounded Grimmjow tore out a garganta behind him, snarling and slashing with all his remaining strength.
Ulquiorra took the blows on his forearms, tasting the apostate's fear and anger now. He kept abreast of everything going on around him, so as not to be caught unawares.
Fool. My eye sees all.
So when the ball came streaking up into the sky, he did not fail to notice it.
Karin sped into the kitchen, hardly noticing that the entire back of her house was gone. She ripped open the door. Finding what she was looking for, she snatched up two cases, and with her soccer ball under one arm, ran back out into the street.
When she emerged, several people made a grab at her, but she ducked beneath their clutching fingers, her tiny form easily avoiding the souls who sought to restrain her.
Karin danced out a few steps from the crowd of black robes, panting. They were now looking at her like she was insane. Maybe she was. If she stopped to think about it, she would probably realize how stupid and idiotic this whole thing really was. But when your brother was in danger of losing his life to a demon, who were you to question the sense behind your convictions?
The young phenom deposited the containers on the ground. Picking up her beloved soccer ball, she glanced up to judge the angle, then hauled off and kicked it skyward with a scream.
Unbeknownst to Karin, her already unnatural reiatsu spiked at this point, propelling her leg forward with more force than a human could conceivably muster. The leather orb was practically launched into orbit, up towards where three archfiends strove to slay one another.
She then picked up the first box, and waited for him to look at her.
Memories were racing through her mind.
I know what you must be feeling right now.
It was their pain that I sought now.
Do you have any suggestions or information that we might not be aware of, wise one?
When I was alive, I was a beast.
…there's just no way that vasto lorde's gonna lose his cool and start fighting dumb the way your brother is.
This time, I didn't know what I was doing.
The fight he's in right now, he's doing it for you.
They were supposed to be mine, but not like that.
He's gone so far over the edge of reason, he doesn't even see that Ulquiorra's startin' to get the upper hand in this fight.
If I could only make it hate me more than it knew how to think.
While she waited, Karin whispered to herself.
"C'mon you ugly freak, look at me. Look at me, I know what you are! You're a beast! An animal! You're a stupid dirty snake-eating bird, and I want you to just die!!"
Rukia came running towards her, and Ulquiorra looked down.
It was a soccer ball. That little Kurosaki girl kicked a soccer ball up at them.
He could sense her reiatsu flaring down below. Could it be there might be a threat of some sort here?
No. Nonsense. No distractions.
But what if I'm wrong?
While Grimmjow slashed away ineffectively, growing weaker and weaker, a tiny worm of doubt grew in his mind.
His excitement at the feel of danger and finishing off Aizen-sama's foes was running high as well.
Bleeding and in pain but sensing no immediate danger to his person, Ulquiorra chose then to look down and focus his senses on what was transpiring below.
When she saw his head turn, Karin opened the container and dumped its contents out onto the ground.
Store-bought white chicken eggs.
This is the stupidest idea in the whole world. I hope it works.
She raised her foot and brought it crushing down, smashing the flimsy shells and spattering the egg yolk all over her shoes.
A frenzy of violence took over her, and she leapt up and down, destroying the lifeless blobs. Karin tore open the remaining package and began to hurl the fragile orbs to earth and into the air, listening to them crack and go oozing out all over the place.
Rukia caught her then, lifting her up to struggle helplessly in the woman's surprisingly strong arms.
Then a scream unlike the ones they had grown accustomed to split the air.
He watched her do something incomprehensible. Ulquiorra could not believe his eyes.
Those were eggs.
He watched her destroy them.
Those were birds' eggs.
He watched her break them.
Those were lifeless little baby bird eggs.
He watched her kill them.
He watched her…
His dead, blind, half-grown bleeding chicks tumbling out of a snake's guts, staring up at him for days as the poison worked its way through his system, rotting and oozing into his nest, flies buzzing over them, stinking like death I'll kill you! I'll KILL YOU! I… WILL… KILL!!
Ulquiorra brushed Grimmjow away, and screamed!
The girl recognized the howl of an insane animal, and stopped struggling.
She looked up to see the vasto lorde diving down at them, roaring like a mad thing. It was so unbelievably fast!
Then her possessed brother turned around, and fired a black Cero straight at Ulquiorra.
And at them.
They were all in the path of the blast.
Karin felt Rukia turn and speed away, racing with all her strength to save them both.
No, Ichi-nii, she thought. That's what he wants. What he does. He wants you to shoot and kill him. Then we'll be killed too.
The destructive force tore through the Espada, and came for them, swallowing the sunlight with its black aura.
It's what he wants.
Staring up at their approaching death, Karin was momentarily surprised when the image in front of her just disappeared.
Am I dead? she thought.
There looked to be a swirling gray darkness and…
The whole world shook and tore violently about them, as though somebody had picked up the planet and kicked it like a soccer ball. Rukia fell to her knees, and Karin went with her.
They sat gaping in perplexity.
For what looked to be from one horizon to another, a great rent had been chopped out of the air, giving them a view into impenetrable night.
Rukia Kuchiki blinked in consternation. They were alive? How? The only person she knew that might have been able to protect them from that blast was…
"Orihime-san?" she whispered.
A second later the two sides of the anomaly began to close up. And something dropped down out of it.
The falling figure flicked its hair, adjusted its armor, and trotted over to them.
On all four legs.
Karin Kurosaki was astonished to find herself facing a centaur.
Neliel tu Oderschvank gave the girl a pat on the head, and stopped to give Rukia a hand up.
"Hello, shinigami," she declared evenly. "Are you well?"
"What…how did you…?" Rukia stared.
"Garganta," the green-haired bombshell supplied, as if that one word was all it took to explain. Then, "I had to spit it out somewhere. Although I didn't have time to specify a location, I think it's safe to say that Las Noches is no longer in existence."
"But how did you know…?"
Neliel suddenly coughed up a stream of blood. Shaking her head, she drew a fist over her mouth, wiping the evidence of her risky venture away.
"Get ready, shinigami girl," the former Espada spoke more forcefully now. "If you want to live, stand and fight."
She then turned to face a line of bushes before them.
"He's not dead yet."
As the arrancar spoke, Ulquiorra came crawling out into the light.
The horned archfiend's legs were gone. One wing was missing, along with an arm and an eye. He was leaking blood on the ground and his solitary bat pinion wouldn't stop flapping. But the expression still hadn't changed one inkling. He looked completely calm.
Ulquiorra's slit cat-eye focused on the little girl. He hissed softly.
And launched himself at her.
Neliel and Rukia both drew and interposed themselves between the beast and its prey. Ulquiorra's wing swept out, to collide with the great double-tipped lance. His former comrade threw herself into a defensive stance, back legs trembling as they bent to the ground. Sode no Shirayuki pierced his side, ice and kido spell forming immediately around the wound, keeping him from sliding any further along it. The mutilated hellspawn pushed forward, arm extending, and against all reason, the defenders were forced to give ground before him. Rukia gazed panicked into that inhuman visage. Solitary eye wide, lips slightly parted, straining to reach the girl behind them. No self-preservation there now, nor reason. Only the clarity of a murderous beast.
"HELP!" the shinigami cried for anyone who could hear.
Ulquiorra reached out for Karin, all the hate in the world burning in his remaining eye, in his soul.
A black shadow dropped in between them, and Ichigo Kurosaki impaled the Espada on Zangetsu's tip.
His mask was gone. Karin could tell. He was panting and gasping and bleeding like a piece of meat but it was still her brother.
The substitute death god drove forward until he was standing chest to chest with Ulquiorra. Staring over the black-wrapped shoulder, his nemesis' face never changed. He might have been already dead, except for the way the broken wing fluttered madly and his tar-colored fingers stretched out clutching towards Karin's heart.
A low noise came from Ichigo then. It grew louder and louder, and as he roared the god of death began to draw the edge of his sword up. Cutting through Ulquiorra's flesh. Rukia and Neliel were swept aside by pinion and arm. The claws were snapping madly now, the beat of the wing sounding almost like a person's heart. Black blood was gushing out everywhere. Ulquiorra's talons began raking down the boy's back, tearing great bloody strips.
Ichigo stopped, panting for a few breaths. Then he gave a jerk, a scream, and the zanpakutō tore up through the hole in its sternum and out of the mad Hollow's body, all but cutting it in half.
Karin watched it slowly topple over, reaching out to her again, and there in the wide green eyes might have been something like sadness.
Ichigo collapsed to the other side, and she scrabbled frantically to be with him.
The girl cradled her brother's head in her arms, weeping and kissing his face. The eyes were closed. She couldn't see him breathing. Did ghosts have to breathe, she wondered? Can they even bleed? Being dead just doesn't make any sense to me.
Then from where he lay, Ulquiorra's wing slapped the earth.
Karin jumped, startled.
That eye was still open. It never shut. A palm pressed wildly against the concrete, and the creature lurched up. Head lolling, two halves of its body flailing, the dead thing twitched and jerked and tumbled over the ground without direction, like a fish flopping out of water. It made no sound. It wasn't even seeing them. Blood sloshed out and sprayed straight up at the sky. The wing was fluttering about aimlessly.
The terrified girl stared at its mindless, horrific jerking. She slowly turned her head, burying her face in the silky soul feel of her brother's hair.
"Please," she mumbled against him. "Please, if you're up there and you can hear me, please…"
"Just let it die!"
The remains of Ulquiorra Schiffer froze.
A torrent of black ichor erupted straight up from its chest like a geyser.
When it subsided, the Espada sank to the ground.
Its death had come at last.
The next thing that happened was the disintegration of the body. Light came from within it, as the power of Ichigo's soul cutter purified the countless Hollow who had gone into the making of this monster. Before Karin's eyes, she saw thousands upon thousands of rainbow-colored butterflies emerge in a great silent flock, bound for Soul Society. Never had anything in her life appeared so beautiful. There were other souls as well, those of men, women and children. They seemed small, and anxious.
From out of the light then, a hawk rose, flapping its wings. It looked straight at her, blinking its deep black eyes.
Without thinking, she reached towards it.
There came a loud crash, and two skeleton-emblazoned doors sprang out of the earth. The portals flung wide, and chains streaked out, snatching up all of the floating human-seeming souls. They twisted and flailed in panic, but the bonds of Hell were unbreakable, and they drew the spirits of those damned by their choices on Earth into the realm of eternal torment.
Several of those lines wrapped around the hawk, and it screeched piteously. They dragged the murderous beast back with them, flapping its wings, struggling to tear free. It managed to stretch the chains taut. But that was all.
Before Karin's eyes, a miracle then took place.
Around the calling bird, a globe of light spread out. In those warm golden depths, the adamantine chains grew slack. The hawk fought even harder as the bonds were slipped. Suddenly the links of impervious soul-stuff cracked. And shattered. Their prisoner beat free up into the air.
The chains whipped around blindly for a moment, seeking their lawful prey. But the light denied them. Rejected and chastised, the lines of the underworld slunk back into their domain, and the doors closed, disappearing from immortal sight.
Upon looking up, Karin found that the hawk was gone.
Then Rukia came, and a tall female shinigami with silver hair. The centaur transformed into a lady and also bent down at Ichigo's side. Ishida Uryū appeared and gently drew the trembling girl away from her brother, telling her in a soft voice that her hero would be safe, that these were the greatest healers in the world and Ichigo was not going to die with them around. He took her back to where her father waited, and laid her down to sleep next to her dozing sister.
Karin's slumber was deep and healing. She did not remember her dreams afterwards, but they offered her no fear.
When she did come back to her family, it was to find Ichigo resting beside her.
Slowly coming awake, Byakuya Kuchiki stared up at the ceiling. That wasn't his ceiling, he realized. It was somebody else's.
Gradually he became aware of a slight pressure on his chest, along with a rumbling in that area. Craning his head gingerly off the pillow, he spied a black cat curled up on top of him, purring contentedly.
The feline's ears flicked.
"Did you sleep well, little Byakuya?" a deep voice growled.
The Sixth division captain managed a wan smile.
"Very well," he murmured. "Alley-cat."
It stood up then, and reaching out, pushed his head back onto the cushion gently with one midnight paw.
The nobleman closed his eyes.
"You're going to pay for that later, boy," Yoruichi promised him.
He opened his eyes.
The surroundings were unfamiliar, but not threatening. There were windows that let in a good deal of sunlight. Very bright. He winced, but did not shut it out. The man could detect smells now too, and noises. It made him suddenly realize that he was starving.
A face bent down over him. He struggled to see clearly.
For a moment he could not speak, disbelieving. When he did, his voice came out sounding very weak to his ears. "Famished."
"Let's see what we can do about that, then."
She drew away from him. He wanted to rise and follow her, explain his reasons for everything. For distancing himself. For leaving. For not coming back for her.
Well, almost not coming back.
Trying to get up proved to be fruitless. The way he felt, he wouldn't be mobile for quite some time. Punishment, of a sorts. Perhaps he deserved it. For her sake, not for anyone else's.
She came back a few minutes later with a bowl of rice and fish soup. Helping him to a sitting position, she blew on a spoonful gently, and let him taste it.
Gin swallowed, and winced a bit. "That's terrible, Rangiku."
"Get used to it," she sang without sympathy, cooling the mixture with her breath. "We're on the run, Fox-Face. No four-star restaurants for us."
Her oldest friend dropped his eyes, crimson irises glistening with extra moisture.
"Thank you," he whispered.
"You're welcome," and Matsumoto waggled the full spoon enticingly.
Ichimaru grinned, and took a bite.
She held aloft her arm beneath the starry heavens, and the hawk flew down to land on it. It cocked its head at her quizzically.
"Of course me. Who else could do something like that?"
It ruffled its feathers, and looked away, appearing slightly uncomfortable.
"Because I wanted to. That's the only reason," the girl explained gently.
The bird of prey turned back to her, and squawked softly.
"Well, reishi transversion or not, I was still mortal. Just because that soul body died, doesn't mean my soul went with it. We were all still alive, you know. Our hearts do go on. One life ends, and now another begins. It's the same for you too."
She looked around the devastated environment, and blew out a sigh.
"And we've certainly got our work cut out for us."
The girl walked off, her attendant still on her wrist. It regarded her steadily. Its mistress flinched.
"Urahara-sama, maybe. I don't think the rest are very familiar with this sort of thing. I'm still not quite adjusted to it myself. Kurosaki-kun's father, almost for certain. He knows all about jumping from one life to another. I might talk to him later. After things have cooled down."
The hawk flapped its wings, and she shook her head sadly.
"No. I don't… I just don't think it could work out. She's in his heart and his life in a way I never was. It hurts, but… I can take comfort from the fact that I do love him, and we can be happy even though we're apart. I wanted to be the rain, but the rain was the thing that caused him the most pain. She's the one who made it stop. When he finally realizes what that really means, I'll be really glad for them."
The remains of a palace rose before them. The only inhabitants of this twilight plane studied the landscape.
"Well, let's get started."
The repair process began.
"They'll be all right, now," the empress declared as she watched the construction. "What had to happen did, so they can start to change and move forward. It'll be better now. And we'll help them however we can. They're good people. Well, most of them anyway. Grimmjow and Mayuri still scare me to death, but even they're going to lend a helping hand. Or maybe bite one off." She giggled.
The hawk snorted.
"What?" Orihime insisted blankly. "That was funny!"
In honor of Ulquiorra Schiffer, who deserved better than to be simply overpowered by that repetitive brute-strength deus ex machina. I know I did practically the same thing, but dammit, I'M FUNNY!!!