His feet almost floated over the ground as his body materialised on the dark, secluded pathway, the gust of wind kicking up the snowy leaf litter around him. The large, desolate park was just outside of the town, normally serving as a popular destination for picnickers and people walking their dogs during thaw. In the current chilly night, it was nothing but a shortcut to the grange his troops used as shelter from the winter sun.
His eyes studied the horizon, searching for any signs of the approaching dawn. Finding that he still had a couple of hours to complete his plan before they had to retreat made his chest swell with satisfaction. That would be enough to run over most of the bigger hunter groups scattered across the country and the few that would escape doom tonight would be taken care of in the following days. His careful strategy and organised troops would wipe out the hunters once and for all and with that, the first – and harder - half of his plan would be accomplished.
After that, they would only need to read through endless amounts of documents the hunters had piled up over the centuries, following their notes about the different clans and pure-bloods. He simply knew that there were strong, solitary pure-bloods still hiding somewhere and he would have been a fool not to use this chance to rout them out and make them join his clan, whether they liked it or not.
All those years of planning and careful preparations hadn't been in vain after all. Even if he ended up relying on his allies' help in the last, crucial battle, the meed was his. No other vampire would have dared to rise above the archaic laws and taboos and extend their power the way he had done. His clan may have been smaller and weaker than Ichimaru's or Tousen's but he himself was stronger than any of them, his strength and abilities raising him above them, granting him authority. He had been the originator of their pact, flouting the taboos that forbade the very things he had achieved.
But he didn't care. He was above such useless laws. Once he reached his ultimate goal and seized the power to rule over the pure-bloods he would make new, better laws, laws that didn't shun him from superiority over others. Everyone, be it human, ghoul or vampire would bow to his authority and not even the rays of the sun would dare to oppose him.
His ears perked up, soft chills running down his skin. A lesser being wouldn't have noticed the slight difference in air particles that shifted behind him, whirling softly before gravity started to weigh down on them as material was forming in their place. By the time Aizen turned around, an oh-so-familiar figure was standing behind him with his usual grin plastered on his face.
"You think you're so strong you don't even need to keep your senses extended?"
The powerful vampire looked the figure over, an amused smirk creeping onto his lips at the tone of his voice. His stance relaxed as he straightened to his full height.
Grimmjow snorted, savouring the moment of finally being able to corner the other.
"Foolish doesn't cut it. I'd call it fucking stupid."
The brown haired man took a step toward him, wet branches cracking under his feet.
"Actually, I was referring to you, Grimmjow. It was foolish of you to follow me. Alone, on top of that."
Grimmjow's breath caught in his throat, his eyes widening in shock; his hands shot to his neck, the bones and tendons under his skin protruding as he tried to pry Aizen's vice-like grip from around his throat.
'Just when did he...?'
"Funny..." the smooth, pleasant voice mused next to his ear. "...when you become as powerful as me, winning over your enemies turns so... dull."
A painful roar tore from Grimmjow's chest, his eyes screwed shut in agony. He could feel his blood thudding hotly against his forehead and temples, almost as if demanding a way out. His teeth ground together as his jaw locked tightly; sweat breaking out on his body. His knees buckled but Aizen's grip on his neck held him upright, his pressure on his pulse point not letting up in the least.
The clan leader's clasp around his throat tightened even more if that was possible, crushing and bruising the muscles under the younger vampire's skin. Watching the other's struggle, Aizen let out a disappointed sigh and threw him back against the stone fence of the park.
His back hit the ruined wall with a low thud, his knees giving way under him. He slid down to the ground weakly, the air whizzing in and out of his chest as he gasped for breath. His lungs hurt as they were forced to expand to take in the much-needed oxygen. He gritted his teeth, forcing his body to endure whatever torture was thrown his way.
"Really, Grimmjow, you are hardly impressive. Some of the others from the clan used to claim you were cunning. Right now, I don't see its basis, to be honest. Chasing after me with the false hope that you had a chance to lay a finger on me, is senseless at best. If you wanted to get rid of me that bad, you could have just run away."
The light of the moon couldn't illuminate the younger vampire's face as it was lowered in what Aizen assumed was shame. His tousled hair cast shadows over his eyes, effectively hiding whatever message was hidden in his usually piercing gaze. The clan leader could only go by his low tone while he was trying to calculate what emotions were racing through the impulsive man.
"Don't make it sound like I or anyone else has a choice. I've tried to do that, but you sent your agents after me."
Aizen smirked, his apparent amusement reaching his eyes.
"Here I thought you were just playing hard to get."
Grimmjow chuckled mirthlessly, still way too much out of breath to raise his voice any louder than a hoarse whisper.
"Go fuck yourself."
Aizen's brows furrowed slightly, his fingers flexing by his side. His patience wasn't infinite. He didn't appreciate being talked to like that, especially if it was an inferior being talking back to him. He reached ahead, his fingertips sliding to Grimmjow's pulse point again.
He snapped his mouth shut, his eyes widening slightly. The younger vampire dematerialised right in front of his eyes, avoiding the touch of his torturing fingers. Aizen stood upright, his senses extending rapidly like a concentric tidal wave, covering a much larger circle than Grimmjow could cross in such a bad condition.
The younger vampire appeared behind him, keeping a safe distance while glaring daggers at him. His fists flexed by his sides as he gritted his teeth, trying to think up a way to defeat the other man. Aizen was freakishly strong, stronger than he'd thought. A part of him kept chanting in his head that he was fucked, but he stomped down on the annoying voice.
To his utter shock, Aizen was gone in the blink of an eye. Gritting his teeth, Grimmjow readied himself to dematerialise as well, not about to wait and see how the other wanted to attack him. The older vampire appeared before him, his smug face only a few inches from his own. Grimmjow ducked down instinctively, barely avoiding a hit that no doubt would have pulverized bone and muscle alike. A heartbeat later he was back to back with the other, his hard elbow descending rapidly towards Aizen's neck.
Relief washed over her as she beheld the tall figure slowly unfolding from the dark. For several moments, fear had gripped her heart, fear of being discovered, of being either captured or slain before she could do anything to save her loved ones. But it seemed like luck was on her side tonight.
"Tia!" she called out, drawing the other's attention. She didn't even care that she was surrounded by vampires that could discover her any second, she was just glad that she had managed to find her friend before it was too late. The blond woman's features were often unreadable but now they clearly showed surprise, sadness and anxiety. Nel didn't think she had ever seen her friend's face so animated before.
"Have you seen Lilinette?" Halibel asked immediately, her mind far from pleasantries.
Nel hesitated only a moment before answering.
"No, I haven't." A moment of silence. "I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault." Tia reassured her, though her voice was flat, the response automatic. Her eyes were already scanning their surroundings for any clues regarding Lilinette's whereabouts.
"I am sure she is fine, though," the green haired hunter continued. "Stark can protect her better than any of us could."
"Stark is dead."
The dark skinned vampire didn't look at her.
Nel's face blanked.
"You are joking."
Tia let out a sigh, shaking her head. Her blond locks danced around her face, slightly wet from the melted snow. She was still not looking at her.
"I'd never joke with something like that."
Golden and emerald eyes shone wetly, so very much alike in their pain, but no tears were shed.
"I will help." Nel declared firmly, nodding to herself.
"No, you won't. You will go and find Grimmjow."
"As your senior," The vampire interrupted quickly. "I can order you to go too... but I don't want to. You can feel it too, can't you? He is fighting with Aizen. If you don't want to lose him, go."
Torn between her two options, Nel bit her lip, unwilling to rank her loved ones based on who was more important to her. She screwed her eyes shut, drew Tia into a quick hug before disappearing into the shadows.
He wiped blood from the corner of his mouth, grinning widely. His breathing was ragged, his body exhausted. He was sore and bruised all over, blood soaking his clothes, his palms slick with the dark red liquid. He was enjoying every minute of it. His fierce eyes were glued to his opponent, his grin turning razor sharp as he took in the sight.
Aizen's left hand was twisted in an unnatural angle, his wrist swollen and heavily bruised, most probably unusable for, Grimmjow guessed, about two to four days. His normally well-kept, brown hair was a mess, the long tresses at the back of his head tangled and falling over his sagging shoulders. He was breathing heavily, utter disdain reflected on his bloody, bruised face.
Grimmjow wasn't better off himself. He was pretty sure his upper right arm was broken, his right shoulder a gory mess with several other wounds littering his body. Even if he survived this night, he would need at least a week to recover somewhat. The difference between him and Aizen was that it was a serious failure on Aizen's part that he had gotten himself so beaten up, while the younger vampire felt all but rejuvenated. It had literally been years since he had the opportunity for such a fight. The hunters could only fight with their guns; if you took those away from them, they were back to square one, weak as any other ordinary human being. None of the hunters he had come across in his life would have been able to withstand his pulverising hits, nor would they have had the chance to match a pureblood's speed.
But this fight was worth his time, one of the most challenging – thus best – he had ever had. Even if it was going to be the last fight of his life, he was going to die satisfied.
Suddenly, Aizen let out a rare, frustrated growl, appearing right in front of him. The younger man didn't have time to jolt out of his musings and react; icy, hard snow burned across his lower arms as he was sent sliding backwards on his back, heavy pressure settling on his chest and around his throat. His electric blue eyes widened then narrowed, his lips pulling back in a snarl as he grabbed the hands holding him down, trying to force them back. Aizen yelled out painfully as the other's hard fingers locked around his injured wrist mercilessly, squeezing and twisting the swollen, sensitive flesh in sadistic desperation. But he didn't let go, just pressed the younger man down with as much force as he could muster, all finesse and mastery leaving him. They were fighting like savages, like mindless animals, tearing at each other without a care to the value of life.
Grimmjow could feel the tightening of fingers around his throat and he croaked as his airflow was almost completely cut off.
"It's a fucking wonder you do your own dirty job for once," he breathed with difficulty, forcing a smirk on his lips. He was failing to free himself from Aizen's vice-like grip; all that was left him was taunting.
"Are those your last words?" Aizen asked through clenched teeth, a hint of madness visible in his eyes.
Grimmjow sneered, spitting bloody saliva in Aizen's face. His fingers clawed at Aizen's wrists, his voice hoarse and faint as he croaked.
"The only thing I regret is your fucking hideous mug being the last thing I see before I die."
He choked, groaning with effort. Anger and hate was boiling inside of him, helplessness making him let out a frustrated yell and kick out with his leg. Aizen cried out, his grip momentarily loosening. Grimmjow forced himself up enough to be able to push the older man off of him, but a bony fist smacked against his face. Human bones would have cracked and shattered with sickening ease under such a brutal force, but for a pure-blood like him, it was only enough to knock him back as dizziness overtook him.
His world was dangerously swaying, his vision dancing on the edge of shadows and light, darkness creeping up on him. He shook his head to clear his mind and his blurry vision, screwing his eyes shut then opening them again. He could make out the contours of Aizen's raised fist, about to descend again.
Grimmjow clenched his teeth, preparing himself for another hit when Aizen suddenly went rigid over him. A thunderbolt-like sound wave washed over them, startling in its suddenness.
Grimmjow smelt it first rather than saw it; fresh blood gushed from Aizen's chest, slowly smearing everything around them. Aizen's previously furious features settled into shock and disbelief. His lips were moving but no sound left them. He finally managed to croak out something unintelligible before he slumped forward, falling unceremoniously to the ground.
The sound slowly died away, the faint echo still lingering around them, highlighted by the following dead silence. In the past few years, Nel had gotten so used to the smell of gunpowder that she barely noticed it. Now, it was different. It enfolded her senses, creeping into her nose, refusing to dissolve.
Grimmjow's voice broke the grim spell; Nel looked up, swiftly moving to his side.
"Are you alright?"
The teal haired vampire's eyes were still glued to Aizen laying on the ground next to him, motionless, his face buried in the snow in an undignified manner.
"I'll live," he muttered, clutching his injured arm to his chest as he stood up. He felt for Nel's hand, pulling the gun away from her. She watched his ministrations with a light, confused frown. From the way he handled it, it was obvious the vampire wasn't used to holding a human firearm, that he only relied on his theoretical knowledge rather than experience.
"What are you doing?"
His lips were pressed tightly together, a heavy frown edged on his face as he cocked the gun, aiming it at the dead body in front of his feet.
The sound of multiply gunshots filled the woods, sending the nearby birds and smaller animals that had been brave enough to return since Nel's last shot scampering.
"Making sure he stays down," he muttered, turning back to Nel and handing her the now empty gun. "You neglected to do that with me."
"Fortunately," she added, surprising Grimmjow. She put the weapon away, wanting to get it out of her sight as soon as possible. "Let's try to find some hunters who can keep watch over his body till dawn. I want this pointless war to end with his death here and now."
The vampire nodded as they turned to join the others in the town, too exhausted to even think about teleportation.
They only took a few steps before he stopped in his tracks, a frown on his face.
Her eyes widened as she was pulled forward by a strong hand on the back of her neck, a hard mouth pressing against her own. Sharp, pointy teeth nibbled on her full lower lip, making sure she granted access to his tongue. The vampire couldn't stifle the small, lop-sided smirk that forced itself on his face as the hunter's lips parted on a sigh, kissing back ardently.
Grimmjow pulled back reluctantly, still unable to wipe the smirk off of his face.
"Thanks for the help."
Nel looked at him, the corners of her lips kicking up in a smile.
"That is something I would never have thought to hear from your mouth."
He choked for breath, spitting out blood as he leaned against a column of the terrace, his chest rising and falling rapidly. His eyes roved the battleground tiredly; he concluded defeat inwardly, even though he would never have admitted that out loud. His fingers tightened around his gun, the muscles in his injured arm straining to lift the increasingly heavier weapon.
His head turned to the side, noticing Ichigo running up the stairs, his face bruised and bloody.
"What is it?"
"Look at that!"
The orange haired man pointed toward an annex. The natural light of the moon and the artificial glare of several strategically placed lanterns illuminated the fine dust floating through the air.
"What the blast is that?"
The sounds of battle ceased gradually, both hunters and vampires looking on in a daze at the shocking sight. The corners of Shinji's mouth turned down in disgust as he noticed the fine, gray grains sticking to his shoes, clothes and even to his skin.
Not half a heartbeat later, an angry, albeit slightly panicky voice called out over the heads of the fighters.
"Ichimaru-sama! The ghouls! Something is up with the ghouls!"
Ichigo's eyes widened and he lifted his weapon as the crowd parted in front of the silver haired clan leader. The normally sly-looking vampire's expression was dead serious; his strikingly bright, icy-blue eyes open as he studied his surroundings. The wind blew his hair in his face and his lids closed again to shield himself from the dust whirling in the air.
"So he failed after all... even with this much help from us. Shouldn't have bothered with comin' all da way here."
A young, scarred-faced boy materialised next to the mumbling vampire, bowing courtly.
"What should we do, Ichimaru-sama?"
The silver haired man leisurely put his hands in his pockets, his grin back in place. He lifted his voice enough so those around him would hear every word he spoke.
"The Aizen clan's ghouls are dyin' which means Aizen Sousuke's dead. Everyone under the Ichimaru clan's command is to retreat immediately. Gather in the forest outside of the town." He turned toward the main building, waving mockingly to the two hunter leaders watching them from the terrace, obviously tense and confused. "Don' pay mind to Aizen's people, even if they're slain right in front of you."
On the terrace, Ichigo and Hirako watched as the vampires surrounding their leader dematerialised, no doubt to pass on his orders.
"What did he say? It was something about Aizen." Ichigo mused, planting his feet more firmly on the ground in case they were attacked all of a sudden.
Shinji shrugged his shoulders, pulling a disinterested face.
"Do I look like I understand Asian habla?" He fell silent, his eyes narrowing in suspicion as he noticed Gin Ichimaru approaching them with that distressing grin of his stretched across his face. He murmured between clenched teeth. "But maybe he'll be nice enough ta translate it for us?"
"My, my, 'tis one hot potato if I've ever seen one. What does the dragon do when the big boss goes kaput?"
The two hunters quickly exchanged glances, understanding downing on them and a new wave of hope rushing through their souls.
"Aizen is dead?"
Ichimaru pulled his shoulders up, tilting his head slightly, a sigh leaving his lips.
"Yeah, you guys got lucky. And since he bit the dust, along with many of his men, not ta mention his ghouls, his clan's as good as insignificant now. It lost its chance to become a force to reckon with so I'm not interested in bein' his ally anymore." He paused, absently scratching his chin. "Well, I guess that's all. See ya."
Ichigo and Hirako stared after him with wide eyes as he turned on his heels to leave. The orange haired man couldn't help but yell after the departing vampire.
"W-wait a damn minute! You can't just- MNPH!"
Shinji's hand on his mouth prevented him from finishing his sentence.
"Are you bonkers?" The blonde hissed between clenched teeth, his eyes bulging comically. "Why don't you invite him over for dinner, too? If he wants to go that much, let him! You should offer to help his people pack their stuff as well!"
"Aaah~ I almost forgot!" Came the sing-song voice of the silver haired pure-blood, making Shinji flinch visibly. "This only applies to the Ichimaru clan. I could try convincin' Kaname-san too, but..." he pouted slightly, pulling his shoulders up and opening his arms in a doubtful manner. "He doesn' really like me. I can't promise he'd depart, too. Though, if you ain't afraid of an ambush you can come to the Elisabeth Church tomorrow night and help me persuade him. I'll regard it as peace talk."
He turned and took a few steps ahead, dematerialising from sight as he walked.
The two hunters kept staring after him with dumbfounded expressions. Shinji let go of Ichigo, absently ruffling his own blond hairdo.
"Guess I'll call Stark's gang."
"I support the idea..."
The ghoul stopped a few metres away from the motionless body, his face stoic as he studied his fallen master. His icy, golden gaze slipped lower, taking in Aizen's last, shocked expression.
"So I arrived too late." he uttered in a monotonous tone, his voice void of regret.
A sudden prickling sensation ran through his jaded body and his gaze shifted from Aizen's corpse to his own wings spread above his head.
He was moldering. His master having had fallen, there was nothing binding him to the world of the living any more. Up until that night, he had been living on borrowed time, defying and twisting the laws of nature, his mere existence a mockery of death. Now, the gray grains of ash drifted away one by one, proving that those laws could only be evaded for so long.
If he wanted to be honest with himself, it was sort of a relief. He didn't even remember how much time had passed since he had been murdered. Almost murdered, that is; hunted and attacked, then feasted upon. He had been so young when it'd happened. He had been so innocent and unknowing compared to his present day self... not to mention fallible.
He didn't know how cruel the world could really be till he witnessed it firsthand. Inhuman brown eyes stared down at him, bloodshot from the manic pursuit that had taken place within the woods. He had only been searching for dry sticks so he could light a fire to keep himself warm for the dreadfully cold winter night. He didn't think he would run into something like this out there in the woods. Not even predators were common in the small valley, let alone such monstrosities.
A heavy, seemingly unmovable body pressed down on him, rendering his struggles ineffective. That was the first time in his young life when he experienced genuine, heart-clutching dread. An unnaturally strong hand grabbed hold of his hair, fisting it roughly and twisting his head backwards, burying it in the deep snow. A shadow loomed over him, warm breath fanning over his bared throat, sharp teeth tearing his skin open, slurping his blood till his green eyes clouded and his body fell limp, darkness enveloping his consciousness.
He awoke with a start, his body and mind numb. He was still buried in the snow, but interestingly enough, he didn't feel cold. He wondered how he managed to survive the attack; he had been convinced he would die that night. He looked up at the waning moon perched high in the sky and he suddenly felt a deep, insistent pull inside of him, drawing him in, commanding him to follow its lead.
He got up, sparing but a glance to his distinct, frighteningly white skin and clawed, animalistic limbs before he took flight in the dark night. His master was waiting for him.
Ulquiorra cleared his mind of the memories, looking down at himself as his body slowly fell away, each departing grain of ash speeding up the countdown to his end. He found it slightly ironic that his body had become its own hour-glass, forecasting the very last seconds of his life that he would have to spend being bound to this world.
He took a deep breath, releasing a sigh, relief washing over him as his soul freed itself from the confines of his fallen body.
He was free at last.
A/N: I liked writing Ulquiorra's final moments and the flashback. I didn't plan to include either of those, but the scene wrote itself. It's been some time since I enjoyed writing something this much (and that's not even sarcasm there, it honestly was interesting and, to me at least, touching).
Anyway, the boss battle is over! How was it? Anti-climactic? I hope not. *shifty eyes* Two more chapters to wrap everything up and the fic is done! DUNDUNDUNDUUUUN.
(You know you've read too much porn when 'torturing fingers' sounds dirty.)