A Great Man Has Died
Words echoed from history.
Juushiro's blood drenched her clothes, hair, face. Her iron lance twisted in her hands, slipping through her dark red fingers. An efficient mind became a double-edged sword. Juushiro was a ruin at her feet and she could not set that fact aside. Her cool, dedicated, vengeful identity had been a delusion.
She had not known who she was when she went to war.
She had not known she was a puppet.
Haguro Tonbu hit the ground, carved a deep rift, knelled regret. Its power did not come from energy that Ukitake could deflect. Its power came from weight, and all of Yadomaru's training had gone into handling that weight: using her reiatsu to reinforce herself rather than her sword. Pisces heard its metallic cry and bristled - two fish out of water, it was hard to know what they were thinking without stormy lakes to convey their rage and shock; hard to know who they were without Ukitake to adore them. Seed lightning crawled like sunlight on the edges of their armour plate scales, they twisted around the scene of murder like a building typhoon.
Kyoraku watched the corpse turn from a trick of the eyes into fact. He opened his mouth to speak, found no words he could put his heart into. He did not want to break Juushiro's silence.
Risa's hands scraped down her bone face. It could not be undone.
Shunsui dragged his gaze away from Juushiro. Though he did not move his fury limped towards Risa in fits and starts, tripping over grief, sinking in the swamp of shock. The swords turned dark, shadowlight dripping from them, poisoning the earth.
"…I understand now," Kyoraku said unsmiling, head tipped back, eyes hidden by the brim of his hat. "Your execution warrants."
The vaizard bowed before her former captain, head low, fighting spirit extinguished.
Zanpakutos left staked in the dirt, his callous hand darted forth and viced her throat, reeling her in through the creek of Ukitake's blood. Eyes lit with the joy of destroying her burned into her own.
He looked up, out, alone in a crowd of allies suddenly worthless to him. He could feel the affection his zanpakuto spirits still held for her throbbing in his heart, curdling with the spite in his throat. He wanted to break her neck. He wanted to kill them all with his bare hands. But to do that he would have to step past Ukitake's corpse, alone and broken in the mud.
His heart shrank as he tried.
The two koi twined around Kyoraku like the first time, when he had pretended one of them was his own kami. He saw how greyed their gaudy colours were. The twin kami had experienced a heavy backlash through their bond with Juushiro, not numbed by weapon form, he wondered if they had felt it all.
His shaking fingers released her, dropped her back into the puddle of blood and guilt. Risa rocked on her knees, heaving with regret as hierro faded. He stepped back to his waiting swords, a hand lightly touching each, ready to activate them. Kyoraku sighed, and crouched, bringing his lips close to each falchion in turn.
"Are you feeling playful yet, my flower?" he asked, soft, an invitation before the incantation. "Have you missed our little games, cousin?"
The bones are buried and the madness sleeps, the flowers are laid down on graves when they weep.
The wind shakes and the petals dance, the dead are the dead are the dead just by chance.
Katen Kyokotsu Nemurasu no Oni.
Smoke uncurled from the half buried blades. A creeping graveyard mist, a thick cloudbank of incense to mourn by. It spread sinister across the battlefield, in tones of coral and lavender and grey-blue. A pack of ephemeral lions wandering between them and curling up to sleep.
"Go," he commanded Juushiro's soulmates gently. They fled the rising smoke in a billow of long butterfly fins, perhaps in fear of Katen Kyokotsu's bankai, perhaps easily forgetting their human pacts.
Cold and heartbroken, Risa shivered. She did not know what games they would play there, but she knew her captain's playground would kill them all.
"Risa!" bellowed Kensei after the crash of her attack, trying to skid to her side. Kirinji blocked him with Kinpika's long haft.
"Wha…?" said Mashiro, darting back from Shutara. Her vertically split mask snapped shut like a carnivorous plant, and her silent, unnerving Hollow receded enough for her to see Risa collapse to her knees and understand that something terrible had happened.
Otoribashi Rojuro, for once, said nothing; only covered the eyes of his sorrowful mask with one splayed hand. My Cero, he thought, over and over. My Cero. Was that my choice? Was it only distraction? I saw Aizen there. No. I can't remember what I saw.
"Stay away," commanded Risa under her breath. Hoping against hope they would not be caught in the crossfire.
She would not live to see the end of this day with them. She would die not knowing if her nemesis could be defeated.
Kensei growled, he could not strike at Aizen until the Hot Spring Demon stopped trying to execute him. He wondered whether she had any idea what was coming. Both he and Rose, former captains, had never witnessed the Eighth's bankai.
"Mashiro!" he barked to his once-lieutenant. Her Inner Hollow answered with a crick of its neck.
It launched at Shutara once more.
Shunsui looked at Aizen, Aizen only, standing among the smoke without fear, clearly an illusion.
"Enough of your games," he growled. "Katen Kyokotsu, I Spy."
The mist swirled, searching. Brushing up against the physical, ignoring the visual. The mirage shattered.
Aizen permitted himself a single chuckle. It would prevent him hiding, yes. But it would not stop him from moulding what Kyouka Suigetsu's victims would see.
Rose wrestled with his conscience – he had distracted Ukitake at the wrong moment – he had somehow engineered this tragic moment.
Aizen watched Rose. He could almost hear their voices whispering in the Hougyoku as it chilled his fingertips. The Hollows, the humans, the holy kami.
He remembered Kinshara with obsessive detail, the first zanpakuto spirit he had ever seen. Before he learned they were projections of kami through his research. Before he realised the fantastical creatures all ranked Shinigami spoke of were real.
They would speak to Otoribashi; but not to him. His empty mirror, his apparent…soulmate…held him in the same contempt he held everyone else.
I do not need one, thought Aizen Sousuke. To make change, one cannot be confused over what is and isn't necessary to success.
I do not need a voice in my head to comfort me on the way to victory.
Aizen coaxed Rose's Hollow, and called out to him in the real world at the same moment. The flamboyant man realised Aizen was currently unguarded. Their two resentments met across the battlefield. Kinshara glared at him as it restrained Rose once more, pushing his blond head down, pressing the plague-doctor mask into the dirt of the ruined palace garden, in case another Cero was released.
"Shatter," ordered Aizen, making sure the kami's eyes were on him. "Kyouka Suigetsu."
His dwindling, imitation zanpakuto broke into dust, scattered on the wind. There was very little left now.
Rose had been relying on his zanpakuto's strength to stay sane ever since his corruption. He could feel Aizen's influence in his soul, creeping fingers of black ice, he could feel the Hougyoku's twisted nature in every cell of his being. It was loud. Taunting.
"Is this control or coercion?" he asked the puppeteer venomously. "If I have any choice at all, I will use it."
"Ask yourself what you truly want," answered Aizen, light.
"To kill you."
The defector smirked. "Then try."
Rose summoned Kinshara back to his hand with its name, begged for its trust, lunged at Aizen.
It occurred to Otoribashi Rojuro too late, that every second he sparred with the sociopath was a second that his allies did not take the evil man seriously. He realised too slowly that he had never stood a chance, and their brutal combat was nothing but charade. He understood finally, that keeping his kami in his hand was weakening its link with his soul. The golden flail's voice was fading, the Hollow's voice echoing in its place.
"Bankai," he choked, hoping he would connect with Kinshara.
Kinshara fell silent, prismatic warriors glittering into existence all around Rose and his thorn.
Kensei was fed up of injustice - had been for a long time. Before Aizen, before exile. It was being fed up that had driven him to be a captain. It was being fed up that kept him going when adapting to the chaotic modern world had made his head spin.
Kensei attributed all his success to his short temper, not that anyone else would agree. He felt mad enough to level a mountain. He felt mad enough to be very, very successful.
And he wanted to aim all that rage at Aizen Sousuke, but some smug fool was in his way.
"Kirinji Tenjiro, Demon of the Hot Spring – Sentoki," declared the Royal Guard as was customary. "Why are you so bereft, ryoka?" He shrugged towards Ukitake's remains, twirled his long toothpick between his teeth. "He lived long enough to know there's no justice in the world."
Muguruma Kensei had no time for mockery. "Why haven't you stopped Aizen? What do you think we came here for?! He's going to kill us all!"
"He is," sighed the Hot Spring Demon, waving an idle hand at Kyoraku and Aizen. "One of them is anyway. I think they deserve it," uttered Tenjiro, utterly without remorse.
"You think Ukitake deserved that?!"
"Yeah. For keeping us all waiting. He was meant to die at birth you know? The King personally requested it."
"The laws of the Soutaicho and his King are so ruthless, always executing their own heroes." Kensei hissed.
Kirinji's smile stretched over his teeth like a torture rack. "And on days like this they suddenly make so much sense."
They clashed, the solder's form perfect, the guard's defence flawless.
"I'll give you one chance," said Tenjiro, one of his colleagues on his mind. "Surrender. Go on, scat. You're no use to anyone. If you don't? I'll kill you right here."
"I was a captain of the Gotei Thirteen. The only man who outranked me was the Commander-General. I won't back down for some absent king's bath attendant. If I was only a captain or Hollow, sure, you could kill me. But I've been dragging around a mask that's heavier than my soul for a century and I've never lost. In all that time, why didn't you do your damn job in Hueco Mundo?!"
"We hunt Menos. But no one said a shinigami was interfering with the Leper King's Palace. Funny how the Soutaicho stopped reporting his mistakes to us shortly after we told him to execute half his officers, isn't it?" He pointed at the Vaizard. "That's on you. Thinkin' yer above the law."
"And you didn't care about the loss of half of Seireitei's fighting strength in a single night? Who are you even guarding?" A flurry of uppercuts tried to cut into the guard's moment of distraction. Tekken Tachikaze howled along each arc.
"Not you." Kirinji raised his eyebrows high, settling the matter, deflecting the barrage with a few tilts of Kinpika. What a stupid question.
"Should've stayed in bed today," Muguruma spat, raising his knuckledusters to shoulder height and lowering his centre of gravity.
Kirinji laughed. "I've got this one 'bath attendant' trick where I pull all the blood outta of your body."
"Don't bother. It'd muss your...hair." Kensei sneered.
There was a tic under Kirinji's eye as he slicked his ruined pompadour back over his crown. "Sorry Kirio, I ain't feelin' any sympathy."
Their argument was being watched. "You should play with them, cousin," came Kyoraku's surly encouragement. "Katen Kyokotsu: Stuck in the Mud." The haze spread towards them, shredded by Tachikaze's powerful winds into a patchwork, a game of hopscotch upon a giant faded chessboard.
She was irritating. The small, garish female, bouncing like a flea, refusing to die. Her overconfidence born of excellent bonds with both her zanpakuto spirit and her Hollow - a complete lack of propriety around other humans - and the near-eternal life of a shinigami.
Shutara, who took everything seriously, including comedy, wondered if the girl was simple-minded.
"My Hollow's never eaten anyone? My Hollow's never done anything bad! Why you gotta hurt her all the time?" Kuna Mashiro's body language would switch every time the dominant personality changed – one unnerving, one irrepressible. Like a cricket she either chirped or was silent.
"Shutara," groaned Kirinji, siphoning hot springs from deep below the earth to break up the mud suddenly trapping his legs. "Stop toying with that convict and –"
"I am not so hard-pressed that I could fail a simple request from Kirio!" She was incensed by his lack of faith. "Killing them is certainly easy. Capturing them intact is not. I do not know how delicate their internal balance is, or which restraints might kill them."
"Eh? You tried to kill her before –"
"If I was trying, you would know about it," spat Shutara.
How had she achieved such a dichotomous synergy? How did that make this flea so hard to squash?
Mashiro laughed. "My Hollow is so funny! So dumb!"
She takes no one's opinions on board, realised Shutara. It is a superpower of wilful ignorance. Does an Inner Hollow have any power, if its words fall on deaf ears? All spiritual strength comes down to is stubborn choices in the end.
"I hate you." She realised. "Why should you get to live so free with such glaring flaws?"
"Oh boo," chirped Kuna, ripping out another mechanical limb. Her strange mask chattered. "Did you decide not to feel free? Why does everyone do that?"
"Because I could destroy the world a hundred times over," declared the royal guard darkly, and raised her hand.
Kyoraku interrupted her, still blocked from Aizen by Rose's bankai army. He was content to wait for his malignant zanpakuto to cloak every player before commencing the true game. No one dared approach him first.
"You seem to be struggling to tie down one little lieutenant, Great Weave Guard."
"Gotei officers make for intriguing Menos," murmured Shutara, her real arm slowly rising with great ceremony, her floating shawl shrinking around her like an omen. She glanced up at the silk-wrapped palace. She had more than just this to attend to.
"Kuna Mashiro, I don't like to hurt children," he said, twisting a white thread through his splayed fingers. "Won't you please stay still?"
The smoke wrapped around her ankle.
"Katen Kyokotsu, Cat's Cradle," declared Shunsui, and his kami answered.
Razor wires surrounded her, trussing her up like so many joints of meat from a slaughterhouse. Every struggle wrapped it tighter around her, a hundred shrinking snares. Only the kami wrapped around her kept her from becoming thinly sliced sashimi. Only the mask kept her face affixed to her skull. "I'm pretty old," she pointed out behind the safety of her unmoving second face. Shunsui did not smile, only tied a knot in the threads patterned round his fingers.
Kirio had fallen into a powerful rhythm, eating with the grim determination of a marathon runner. She forced food, life, strength into her body, wilfully ignoring its limitations. Controlling herself on a cellular level.
Shinji dithered near the tall doors, anxious to be gone, yet tethered to the rose pink pearl upon the banquet table. Kirio had dropped it into the scoop of a small silver spoon, to prevent it rolling away.
A real and rambunctious, thorny Japanese rose; reduced to a Mod Soul, reduced to roe.
Hikifune cracked bone, sucked marrow, lapped oil, chewed fat. She inhaled the sweet firm texture of grapes so packed with reishi they could kick a normal Soul into its next life.
She stared out the window with dark, hooded eyes.
"They're dying," said Kirio. Almost conversational. "Our generation of the Gotei."
Shinji gripped his white tie. Said nothing.
"Your bankai would be good against Katen."
He itched his calves with the tips of his polished shoes, like a teen nervous for their first job interview. "I know." He didn't. He just assumed Sakanade could upset anyone.
He looked at little, little, little Hiyori. All alone and helpless on the table, at risk of being eaten.
"It's not her keeping you here," warned the Royal Guard, whom he had once stood shoulder to shoulder with in captain meetings, whom he had once fancied himself the equal of. "Hiyori is not the orb you need to be afraid of."
His strict blond bowlcut couldn't hide his grimacing face.
"Is its influence like a Hollow?" she asked, cracking a dozen raw eggs into a steaming vat of ramen. Stirred the broth until the yolk cooked. She sipped it, added chives. "Can you defy it?"
She looked almost herself now, a slender radiant beauty, yet kept gorging, devouring, like a demon from the white desert. The feast made his mouth water. The banners decorating the hall made him shiver. Kanji marched in ferocious black streaks across the parchment.
"These are your execution warrants," smiled Kirio, following his gaze. "Written in bold and commanding hand by Aizen Sousuke himself, out of respect, he claimed. That no administrator or councillor who had never bled for Soul Society had the right to condemn captains and lieutenants. So the Soutaicho relayed, when he delivered them to us personally."
Shinji swallowed, fear, not food.
"I was motivated. I asked to have you all as test subjects once my research was ready. It took all this time..."
She stroked a fingertip over Hiyori's gikon pill, leaving a slick of grease that made it shine. The pearl trembled on the spoon. Utterly vulnerable.
Her smile faded.
"But now one of you has killed the only kind man in Seireitei, and we cannot make excuses for you any longer."
How unfair, whispered Risa's Hollow. It stared through her eyes at Kyoraku. The only way to get retribution for a friend is to kill another friend.
Everything is unfair, wept Risa in her inner world, a place of still ponds and ivy-wrapped colonnades and hunched weeping willows. No one wants me to exist.
This is what I have been telling you all along, reiterated the monster in its slow, insidious voice.
You used to be wrong! shrieked the woman.
Everyone is wrong, slithered the demon's tongue. None of them need to exist.
Fog crawled possessive over the battlefield. Sinuous, dangerous, yet oddly cautious. It skirted around the impact crater, it edged past Ukitake's fallen form, it shivered away from Shunsui's feet.
Juushiro's body settled in its open crypt, the smoke shying away, afraid to defile his corpse.
Risa watched the roiling black smoke swallow every faction. She looked at the blood covering her body, painting her guilt. She watched the smoke edge around it, afraid to besmirch Juushiro's resting place. And by proxy, afraid to touch her.
He doesn't want to kill me, she realised, like a hot knife through her skull.
He restrained Mashiro. He trapped Kensei. He spared Rose.
He isn't blinded by rage. He's keeping Aizen from learning the rules of the game.
The mist had spread in a pincer movement, piling up at Aizen's back while permitting Rose and Kinshara's troupe room to attack.
"Katen Kyokotsu: Sleeping Lions," hissed Kyoraku, and a livid shadow raced out from his staked swords, dyeing the cloudbank black. Sinuous forms, coiling manes, a pride of lionesses melted out of the ink, capturing all who stood on that cursed ground in their obsidian jaws. Given one chance, one heartbeat, to freeze in their tracks and show submission to his laws. In a flutter of breath, in a blink of an eye, they would die as one unit.
Offerings to adorn Ukitake's tomb.
Black fangs closed upon wrists, calves, throats. Waiting for the first nerve to break.
"Now that nothing matters," Shunsui spoke into the silence, a grating husk. "We can begin to play by the rules..."
Shutara was caught mid motion, with her palm raised. The sharp threads looped around her like spiders' webs, snapping as easily in acquiescence to a Zero Guard, but the horrific smog had already wrapped itself around her by then. She froze, barely breathing. It was an instinct she had thought was lost long ago. How quietly it returned, fear she had not felt in eons. How sharp, how clever, how sophisticated Katen Kyokotsu's blades must be, to flense superhumans so easily.
Kyoraku glanced at the Great Weave Guard and sighed. "This has never been an easy bankai to use in company."
It was normal, when he played, for the other children to get hurt.
Kensei gripped his knife. It was power. It was stability.
As long as he felt it in his hand, as long as he felt connected to Tachikaze, he would remain centred.
Let the Royal Guard think nothing of him.
Let the Spirit King execute him.
Let the Hollow devour him from the inside out.
There was only one objective.
To press Tachikaze into Aizen's chest, ribs splintering, cartilage popping, muscle pumping burning blood into the cold air. To tear the soul out, shred it in a thousand razor-edged winds. To erase the source.
The Hollow waited, silent, aligned. Starved for a hundred years, its jailer finally ready to hunt.
"Hey," said Kirinji amicably as Kensei turned back to him. "Sorry your life was bad."
He slammed the butt of Kinpika into the Vaizard's mask. "Better luck next time."
"Tekken Tachikaze," grunted Kensei. "Breathe Out."
The wind moved forcefully away from them both. Kirinji began to choke. Muguruma held his bladed knuckledusters in a defensive stance close to his mouth, relying on the faint breeze they emanated to survive.
Light, brilliant and piercing, blazed from the tip of Kinpika's blade. Kirinji reached out and blocked it with his hand, causing fierce white rays to strobe all over the battlefield, blinding all.
Mask cracked, the Vaizard squinted through the glare. It dawned that the light was now coming directly from Sentoki. His cropped shihakusho now showed its true purpose, to display his zanpakuto's illuminated ink. "Rakugaki Kinpika," grinned the guard. Graffiti Golden Splendour.
Skin glowing with irezumi tattoos, glittering with demons, dragons and blossom, he moved fast.
Adrenaline and luck kept Kensei one step ahead for one breath, two, three, four.
Kyoraku watched them flit across the ground, a firefly and a short-lived mayfly, a dance of death.
Until the first of them misstepped, grazing a scrap of mist.
The earth shuddered, cracked open and bit down on Kensei's feet.
The last thing he saw was a beautiful, intricate light. Emblazoning not the end of the dark prison of his later life, but the end of his freedom.
Sentoki kicked the charred body over. "Kirio's gonna kill me," sighed Tenjiro. "Oh well. Guess you finally figured out how to do your job," snorted Kirinji, turning to the florid captain.
"Not really," said Shunsui laconically. "I've never been good at obeying my superiors."
A smoky lion coiled around the Hot Spring Demon.
He froze, the suit of lights in his skin guttering as Kinpika flinched back from Kyokotsu. Kirinji in particular looked aggravated that these tactics were working on him.
"Especially when they get my family killed," finished Kyoraku no Jiro.
The coiling fog now blanketed the entire palace grounds.
It did not act yet, but no one could deny the instinct that there was a game afoot they did not understand, rules in play that would catch them out and kill them.
Kirinji watched Ukitake's body, soul begin to crumble, released at last from a long, long burden. Reishi dissolving into pure gold sparks, catching the wind like dandelion seeds.
"See why you never got the same promotion," snorted the Royal Guard. "Some reaper you are."
The blood soaking Risa remained wet, a clinging mark of sin.
And Kyoraku, who had held back out of fear for Ukitake's fallen corpse, allowed his savage playground to blanket the battlefield in shadows and smoke.
"He didn't like needless death. I don't like your needless existence."
Kirinji telepathically called to another of his rare rank - Ouetsu.
"Busy!" screamed the dazzling, pinwheeling, hyperactive mind. A chorus of zanpakuto spirits shattered through his skull.
"Hey, you damn kami fancier – " Kirinji looked down at the smoke curling around his ankle. A creeping frisson of dread convinced him to freeze mid-step, mid-strike, lest he be extinguished.
"What's uh… what's Katen Kyokotsu like… on your top list of bankai?"
"Kyokotsu?" Ouetsu broke free of the kami storm for a moment, even though the Dangai hung in the balance of his delicate operation. "Hey man, it was nice knowing you. You've been a dick. But I think you'll reincarnate in a good place."
"Uh, Hyousube?" asked Kirinji, skin flaring with tattooed lights, breaking through the encroaching mist like rays of the sun. "What's the name of survival today?"
He felt that strange, bottom-falling-out-of-stomach, falling-through-the-world sensation that Ichibei felt when fishing for words he didn't know yet.
"Stillness," intoned the ancient monk.
"I don't want to be still," grimaced Kirinji, grinding his teeth as smoke crept up his chest.
"To survive the game," advised the name-caller; "you have to not play."
The spa attendant mentally spat his opinion of that.
"It's like enlightenment, in that respect," laughed the distant guard, and faded from reach. "You can't find Nirvana by seeking."
Rose's army surrounded the captured invader.
"Why did you come here?" asked Sousuke. It curdled something in him, Rose and Kinshara's closeness; despite holding himself above the need for social aid or validation. These godlike beings, sycophantic titans that bowed to mere humans. How pathetic that despite wielding kido, zanpakuto and Hollows in the palms of their hands, the Vaizards could not serve his purposes. Their royal masters did not value them at all.
"If you could reclaim your pride, smite your foe; would you not strive? I tire of setting my pains aside. I miss the hereafter where I felt alive. I wish to return home."
The apostate levelled a contemptuous glance at the ring of gaudy, geometric soldiers. "No, my dear Vaizard," he said, listening to their strangely disorienting, discordant music. "You are here because I told you to come."
And then, with a smile, Aizen told Kinshara what to see.
Kinshara shuddered, sundering the golden wires that connected its will to each marcher in its band. Like a harp in lament, each cord plucked a mournful note as it was cut. The kami's body faded to a papercut silhouette, its black eyes rolled unwillingly down. Beheld all it had broken.
You could all have been great men, reminisced Kinshara; if you'd been a little kinder. But this is the way you want to settle arguments - by any other means than talking.
The widowed zanpakuto turned sideways, ashamed, its edge thin as tissue paper as it disappeared from sight.
Rojuro's eyes stung; their revenge, their vanguard was in shambles. Was it only fair if he died in the same way as Ukitake Juushiro, whom he had failed to protect? Was there any humanity left beneath his bird-mask now? His dying breath was reserved for Aizen.
"I hope there is a world left to be born in once you've had your fill."
"…It will be a world beyond your recognition," Sousuke promised him.
The Vaizard felt the future spin out of his grasp, leaving with his last breath.
Moments ago, Shutara had grown weary of Mashiro's insistent and unrelenting attacks and broken a personal rule. There was something so detestable about the girl, so garish a human cockroach refusing to perish. Robotic limb after robotic limb was snapped and discarded, and she found no profit in holding back against a Hollow on literal life support, with a heart on loan from a fool.
The trouble was Shutara had her fingers in several pies. Projects in several cities and several dimensions all needed attention. The trouble was, she had never feigned weakness - but for the very survival of those in her vicinity - she was morally obliged to be restrained. The tapestry she had woven around the palaces had been the work of decades and lasted centuries - she relished the time it would take to weave another. She could imagine the feel of the kami realm's strongest silk against her fingers, from terrifying godlike spiders.
She was so seldom able to use her hands.
Rank among the Zero Division was hard to quantify. The greatest age, the greatest wisdom, the closest to enlightenment? The genius to pluck a parasitic Hollow directly out of a soul?
Hers was the burden of the greatest raw strength.
Walking on thick okobo clogs, that her feet did not shatter the ground. Wearing chimes in her hair, that she would not express herself too ferociously. Keeping her arms pinned to her sides, where a flick of her fingers could not tear her colleagues apart.
Something much stronger than a butterfly, whipping up calamities much greater than a hurricane.
Shutara's lips and cheeks suddenly became veined with kido. Her voice resonated without the batting of an eyelid. Her eyes watered, no power level existed that would stop them drying out.
"I was banned from lower dimensions because my very presence will warp those around me. Even here, I am not allowed to twitch my fingers. My palace is built of sekkiseki, to constantly drain my reiatsu."
"Will you grant me freedom to lower my raised fist?"
Shunsui regarded her passively. There was so much he could have said. The fist she did not raise in Juushiro's defence. The hand she failed to strike Aizen down with when he first set foot in the Spirit Realm. This boasted power which had chosen to do nothing.
His bankai had been invoked, and he had no intention of ceasing it until Aizen Sousuke was dead. The situation was already all or nothing.
"Let's see it then," he said of her true form.
Sweat beaded on the Weave Guard's forehead, she had not expected a millennium-old man to be so childish. All she could hope was that her small exertion would shatter his bankai, his very kami, before it obliterated the palaces overhead.
Just the thought of it made her shiver.
Just her shiver cracked Mashiro's mask.
Just her pulse, beating from her heart through her body and outwards in a shock wave, rammed Kuna against the constricting Cat's Cradle wires until both she and her kami bled.
The vaizard began to laugh avidly, her real voice creeping out through the cracks in her mask, their twin voices harmonising. The feline smoke began to prowl below her, piling up to reach the web of barbed wire she was in. Kensei and Shunsui winced in unison as she began to sing, not at her skill, but at her madness. The Eighth Captain only heard the words and not the memories of a human life they encapsulated - her own captain only heard the familiar tune and bowed his head.
"My beloved monster and me," giggled the ageless girl. "We go everywhere together!"
Hammered by the Zero's reiryoku and sheared by the razor threads, Kamen Rider began to split its seams and peel away from her.
Some children do like to pull the wings off things, noted Kyoraku, glancing at his distant blades.
"Wearing a raincoat that has four sleeves," sang Kuna Mashiro as her blood dripped like rain. Her living, enveloping zanpakuto that had always cared so meticulously for her frayed. "Gets us through all kinds of weather!"
"She will always be the only thing,"
The crowding incense reached up, full of knives and teeth.
"That comes between me and the awful sting,"
The voice faded to a whisper of a ghost with no lungs, the air burned with the electricity of a fading Hollow.
That comes from living in a world that's so
The pulse was reaching out, rippling the mist, starting to crack the palace's silk shell. The combatants started to pump out their own reiatsu as flimsy shields, but it could not last, and they could not flee.
Kirinji's bones, now closest to her, began to fracture. He gritted his teeth, held his position, enveloped in a bankai of unknown power. The glowing tattoos crawled over his skin, he snorted clouds of steam, Kinpika lending its energy as he incanted a silent kido and converted his blood into healing onsen waters.
Senjumaru, he called to her as he had Ouetsu and Hyousube. The guys say this Kyokotsu kami is a real threat. But right now you're worse, so could ya stop dicking around?!
The Great Weave Guard quelled her instinctive fear. She could not remember the last thing to hurt her that hadn't been herself in momentary lapses of care. She had proven herself the match of many kami in the past. And it was time for this joke of a one-man invasion to end.
With dark blue smoke braiding her forearm, biting her slender wrist, she rebelled - lowering her dangerous hand.
That was when the kami constricted like a snake around her body – the shock of being touched made her gasp – the jaws of Sleeping Lions sank deep into her supercharged skin. Her intuition had been unprecedented but correct. Katen Kyokotsu could kill her, would kill her, by the death of a thousand cuts. To defeat one kami meant nothing to the next.
Blood drops fell hidden by the smoke, no one knowing that the weight of them pitted the earth like hailstones. She thrust the molten lions aside in a flare of reiatsu, their claws and maws leaving countless deep gashes in her flesh, the clouds quickly reforming for a second strike that left her reeling. Her startled eyes met Tenjiro's for a split second. Shutara cried out and disappeared, leaving only the tattered shawl twisting in the air like a ghost. The smoke turned crimson and pink, a bloodstained cairn, but no bones clattered wetly to the floor.
The true danger of Sleeping Lions remained secret.
Aizen remained just a little complacent.
Darkness crawled up Aizen's crisp white clothes. He felt the threat. He steeled himself, stilled himself.
Aizen bared his teeth. To have a Commander-General level threat crawl out of the woodwork, he should have been delighted. The radius of the playground had continued to expand without limit, yet the palaces floated aloof above the killzone. Finally someone was honourless and sadistic, pragmatic about sacrificing the many to wound the few.
The playground filled with quiet. Otoribashi – the regiment of decoys – was dead.
His first true obstacle, the oldest graduate of the Shinigami Academy, had reached him.
His shadow laughed, as his flesh remained motionless. The bankai, Nemurasu no Oni, was clearly full of loopholes.
Like a line of dominoes, thought Aizen; remove the peacemaker and all their alliances fall apart. The symbol of what little humanity the Gotei had. Prove the Vaizards are corrupt, prove the Royal Guards feel nothing towards Soul Society, prove the zanpakuto spirits are passive without their avatars.
This was never an army. This was always another game of pretend around a liar's table.
The playground filled with quiet. The war behind the mist went silent but for Risa's ragged breathing.
Don't move, Risa chanted Ukitake's last words. Don't move, don't move, don't move. She chanted it to her Inner Hollow. It was pining for her to make a fatal mistake. Not so that it could conquer her body after a century downtrodden - no - they would both die. She realised at last, as it broke its usual taciturn silence to deliver cold and tactical pressure at the worst possible time, as it always did; it was simply an extension of the Hougyoku. It had fed her hatred a hundred years. It had stoked her grudge, her primal need for revenge. It had prevented her from abandoning the afterlife and melting away into human society.
You should murder Aizen. It twisted the temptation sweetly through her heart, like a knife.
If I move, she knew; Aizen will understand the rules of the game. If I move, he will survive.
Aikawa, Otoribashi, Muguruma, Sarugaki and probably Hirako all murdered by colleagues. Yadomaru's free will violated to kill the only shinigami in history that people actually liked. Kuna sliced to sickening ribbons, dying not for honour or survival, but fully in tune with her Hollow - dying as a denatured, discredited thing. And they'd left Hachigen alone in a city full of Menos Grande, gambling on his power to command Gillians.
The Vaizard, the spearwoman that had always fought beside him and kept his entire neglected military division from total collapse, levelled her implacable mask at her captain. The path between her and him was clear.
The bone helm snapped up to reveal her violent golden eyes, the dragonfly spear lunged with perfect form.
Kyokotsu's blade moved independently, flying across the field. A staccato crack split the air, the godly falchion fissured around the point of Tonbu's spearhead. Kyoraku could not hear her voice – imagined her scream of pain. He was thrown back by the impact of their reiatsu, almost into his own smoke.
Aizen released the Hougyoku, and her Hollow released her. The second ambush a failure; her usefulness had been exhausted.
Don't move, whispered the lions that now circled her, as if they were echoes of Juushiro's dying breath.
This chapter of the Gotei will close soon.
She realised it was Katen Kyokotsu whispering, stunned to hear a foreign zanpakuto's voice. Stunned to hear kindness after her second betrayal.
"I've failed," she replied faintly. "There's nothing left in me. It wasn't me holding on to a cause for a hundred years. It was the Hougyoku holding me down."
Try, hushed the mist.
"I don't want to try anymore," sobbed Risa. Her captain winced, heart twisting. "You have no idea how hard it was to get here," said Risa bitterly with her last breaths. "Every night alone with a shadow crushing my heart, every night fighting the poison and fear and self-hatred being forced upon me. You have no idea how many suns I saw rise waiting for myself to believe the lie that things could change - if only I could be impossibly strong on my own. And the only way my friends could help was to mercy kill me if I failed."
"That's how life feels, Risa. A Hollow is just a louder voice for all human weaknesses. Weakness hurts everyone," he released a raw sigh; "even those who rise above it for a thousand years."
"And it was all for nothing," she spat, vehemently aggrieved.
She bared the truth to him, as if it could matter to him now that she had sinned. Now a puppeteer pulled the strings of her heart and limbs.
Through his jaded grimace, she finally caught a glimpse of how deeply Kyoraku had always valued her, entrusted all his military might to her, envied her constant discipline when he felt the burden and boredom of his years. The person he saw, the person she no longer was.
It was the last thing Risa saw before voluntarily pressing her head to the mud, smoke exploding in plumes around her, stripping the flesh from the kowtow of her bones. "I'm sorry," she whispered to Ukitake's shade, as the kami ripped her apart faster than she could feel.
"You killed her." Shunsui was surprised. "You didn't want to."
He was shocked to feel bereavement rather than satisfaction. A second old friend lost mere moments after the first. He hadn't realised that he would miss her too, that he had perhaps missed her all this time. It had been normal to class her as another Hollow victim back then, and write her off like so many others. To fill her vacancy with someone similar, to continue not engaging with his dependents.
"Ah," blinked Kyoraku, suddenly understanding that which had eluded him for a millennium. The cut wasn't fading away; it wasn't bowing to logic. It was getting deeper. He'd always been practical about death before, having been born dead and lived too long. He hadn't cherished his family, on a primitive level. He'd taken everything in the world in stride.
"Ah," he looked at his sealed swords, his cousin, his mistress. Making a decision. His stomach twisted in knots, his lungs stuttered, his hair prickled. He glared at Aizen. "You've taken too much from me."
"If you won't wait for my help, Shinji-kun, I will have to take further action."
"I'm not like them," protested Shinji. "If you think Hiyori is saved now, if you think she's safe - then you must think it's only the taint in our souls that Aizen can control."
"Astute," conceded Hikifune, sliding a row of dango off a skewer with her teeth.
"I may not be able to wear my mask as long as Mashiro," said Hirako. "But my Hollow has never ruled me." He snapped a brilliantly scarlet bala into his palm, no fleck of accompanying darkness in his eyes. "Therefore Aizen can't rule me. I know I came here because I wanted to. I don't need to wear its face to summon its power. I am in control."
"Why do you protect your pain, Shinji?" asked Kirio plaintively. "You could fight without your Hollow - as yourself."
His heart writhed.
"You could step away from this sorrowful chapter of your life, and allow yourself to heal."
He felt tears sting his eyes.
"I don't find it fair to expect you to face your darkest trauma alone with no one but a Hollow beside you. I don't think it's right that you pressure yourself into fighting your worst tormenter. I don't believe any of you should ever have been punished for being victims of a twisted mind no one knew existed."
"I came here to fight," he whispered.
"It would be better if you rested," sighed Kirio, staring at the rose-pink pearl between them. "But it's not impossible for you to fight after I fix you."
Shinji forgot the comrades that had stood beside him for all those countless years, unwavering. Their attendant monsters slipped from his mind. His shame, and guilt, and heavy, heavy regret over his downfall faded quietly away. He didn't know what witchcraft it was, but he looked into her valiant eyes and believed her.
"Okay," he said.
And jumped out the window.
"How does it feel to know that defeating you was child's play?" asked Shunsui, drinking in the sight of an Aizen pinned down, hemmed in, on the brink of death for real this time rather than the pretence he had mocked them with in Karakura. "Oh, but of course I'm getting ahead of myself," he laughed gaily in his lurid pink kimono and glittering windmill hairpins. "Gotei policy is to conduct interrogation of our prisoners."
"Katen Kyokotsu: Truth or Dare."
Another game, another risk, another loophole. He took his chance.
"I dare you discard your zanpakuto," breathed Sousuke, with utmost care not to move his jaw.
"Which one?" Shunsui teased him amiably. "Katen prefers gambling to these children's games." One wicked curved sword rippled into the form of a woman in luxuriant silks, still and calm, head tilted as she observed the clinging smoke through lowered lashes. One brow was raised in faint curiosity. "And Kyokotsu doesn't need her help to play them."
The bankai remained at full power. Aizen remained impassive. internally impressed. He had assumed the Soutaicho had no equal and no heir, but had been checkmated by this layabout.
It seemed proof then, that only the utmost powerful could truly relax in the afterlife.
"Truth," said Shunsui. He had noted the veiled pain in Katen's posture, felt her broken ribs through their bond as she resumed her form from the cracked blade. She had blocked Risa's strike. The captain discovered he had a burning question for Aizen. "Why are you this way?"
He found that he had permission to speak. For the first time, he found he did not know what to say.
He had many feelings on the matter. He did not feel like he needed a reason to find all other people unfulfilling. He did not feel it was illogical to find both living and dead human societies monotonous. He had never known a day without deep-seated boredom, frustration and resentment, except the glimmers of cutting wit that Gin had sometimes provided. He did not think it unnatural to seek more. He had, in every situation, found his instincts and intelligence to be perfect. His actions could not possibly be wrong, as he cared only for his own interests.
"I do not know why," he confessed against his knowledge, against his will. "Why others do not feel caged by this insipid existence. I do not need to know why in order to reshape it. Reality does not serve a purpose; it only exists for certain scientific reasons. Reasons that were not designed. But can be re-ordered." His reply emanated detachment.
The cage of smoke tightened again. Kyoraku leaned in, age and wisdom towering.
"You have thrown a tantrum over your dissatisfaction that has scarred six dimensions. A perfectionist nihilist who believes the world is empty but cannot let it rest that way. You are desperate to know why."
"Unfortunately, your childish outbursts have crossed a line. And if the universe is not going to lay down the law, that you are not allowed to kill kind men, I will have to lay it down for you myself."
"You really are scum," sighed Shunsui, standing toe to toe with Aizen and transfixing the defier of heaven in place with only one sword. There were people Aizen had needed to step delicately around before - appearing to Zommari only as illusions, keeping his distance when Barragan was bored, tiptoeing around the Soutaicho's Gotei offices for a hundred years and more - even Tenebra Shirojos had sometimes merited caution.
But this was uncanny.
If he had released his shikai or bankai before the sleeping lions law came into effect... But he hadn't needed shikai to manipulate the sight of Risa, who had already seen Kyouka Suigetsu. In his hubris, he had been holding back.
"Unfortunately my oldest friend doesn't like to play the same games over and over," Kyoraku continued. "She gets bored easily. So let's play the games of those with nothing to lose…"
He pulled the two windmill hair pins from his ponytail and held them out upon his rough palm.
"These are precious treasures," he explained, smiling soullessly. "The sacred treasures of Ise. They're very good at killing men, ah, never me though. Perhaps because I don't love anyone. Now…"
"Now," he uttered, eye to eye with the conman. "Katen Kyokotsu: Stop Copying Me."
Like the dawn overhead, it was unstoppable.
Aizen blinked when his opponent did – felt a listless inner silence he had not invited, stretched his fingers to one of the pins as Shunsui did. His mouth thinned in a grim smile. He held the long, beautiful pin in front of his right eye. His heartbeat increased only slightly. Shunsui had done this before.
By great power of will, Aizen managed to stab his cheek and not his eye at the first motion.
Shunsui was clearly aiming to drive the long needles straight into their brains.
He could just see Katen moving over Shunsui's shoulder, but for once had no attention to spare for his environment.
"No," admonished the Eighth Captain, like a petulant child. "I said, Stop Copying Me."
And he moved them both again, as Aizen had been foolish to think he was the only puppet master, as Katen jerked her sister's sword out of the jumbled earth and darted forth to slam her hand over Kyoraku's right eye.
The needle gored it straight through, and Aizen felt his eye burst and the scrape against cartilage at the back of his eye.
Katen had a scrape along her cheek too, beneath a black patch hiding scars from earlier battles.
"I don't like it when you cheat," she scathed, she had saved her avatar's life. "Do you want to die?! Do you love that carcass more than us? Don't you care what you make Kyokotsu do?!"
Kyoraku looked at her hopelessly. This night had been full of betrayals, yet this the least expected.
"I've been letting you lead for a thousand years, Shunsui." She trailed a hand down his captain haori. "I'm out of patience."
"Don't do this, Katen," he begged. In desperation, he realised that although he had called their names, he was not in charge of their games. And although he had known all along they were two distinct zanpakuto spirits, he'd never made the mental leap to them performing two distinct bankai.
He could not move. No one would move until she unveiled which path the future would take. Her mouth twitched, amused and incensed.
"In love, life and war…it seems the dealer always cheats."
Disarmed by his flower, by a bankai he did not know he had.
His eyes pricked with tears, resentment towards his whimsical zanpakuto when all he wanted was an end to this, and time to focus on disbelief and mourning. Her next incantation was that which he had heard only hours ago, kept from him for a lifetime.
"Katen," she sang. "Bankai."
"To the players in the game the world is a board.
To the players the rules of the game are the law.
To life players are neither coward nor brave.
A winner just a liar still digging their grave."
She summoned a gold coin with the punctured hand. "High Stakes."
"Heads: you lose your head. Tails: you turn tail and run," she hissed. "There are only two outcomes here." As she announced it, it became truth. She laughed, heaven disrupted by her voice. "You come with me, dead or alive."
The coin flashed in the hazy air. The sun was rising.
Sousuke watched Kyoraku's fire turn to defeat before seeing the outcome. His heart had not stopped the instant gold touched ground. His head was not severed. Tails.
"Defeating you was never an option then," Shunsui grimaced, grave. "I don't understand why."
Katen hooked her arms around his neck. "Life, unlike games, has no winners. Sometimes there is no point in railing against destiny."
Aizen straightened as Kyoraku was dragged away into shadows by his mistress, the compulsion of Copycat falling away. Neither do I understand, thought the renegade. The first technique to catch me out, and it is a mirror.
Aizen was pierced by the man's parting threat.
"I've drawn first blood, Sousuke. The Spirit King will take the rest."
"He didn't last long," Kirinji bent to peer at what was once Ukitake Juushiro. "I never thought he was up to the King's usual scratch. Just as well."
He pulled a beaten-gold sake cup from a pocket and summoned alcohol into it with a spin of his finger around its rim.
"To death gods," he laughed, raising a toast. "Better off dead." He knocked the drink back. "Now it's time for you to join them," he smirked, a dark aside to Aizen Sousuke, the sole survivor.
Tenjiro kicked Aizen with the edge of his sandal once more. The man was clutching his wound gingerly, feigning shock. The doctor didn't buy it. The very minimal interaction he'd had with Aizen suggested a narcissist who would burn the world down before revealing weakness.
"Why don't ya save me a ballache and surrender," suggested the Royal Guard. He pulled a new toothpick from a pocket and set to work wriggling a chip of tooth loose from one of Muguruma's luckier blows.
Sousuke took no notice of this advice until the man rolled his eyes and elaborated.
"I'm sayin' I'll let you walk straight in, dumbass. Or we can go round two an' take you seriously, and dig a nice neat grave for the ounce of flesh that'll be left of you when I'm done." He cracked his knuckles and glanced at Kinpika.
"Charming," smiled the disruptor of heaven, and held out his hands.
Tenjiro clapped a pair of stone cuffs around Aizen's pale wrists, rewarded with a sharp gasp as his spiritual power plummeted and the pain in his eye suddenly became extraordinary. He winced, frowned in confusion, spiritual energy pouring out of him into the simple restraints like a storm down a drainpipe.
It was lucky that the ryoka had dropped his guard as all his puppets died. Carrying the manacles to the conflict in his hakama pockets had drained the Hot Spring Demon's customary speed. Even touching the lethality stone shackles to cuff another was a risk.
"I surrender," confirmed Aizen. His voice betrayed a brand new emotion: annoyance.
"Let's see how clever you are without reiatsu," sniffed Sentoki, not hiding a predatory smile. "I didn't think much of your vanguard."
"if they had been final products they would easily have killed you all. Unfortunately, the only Vaizard I have seen at Vasto Lorde level - Kurosaki Ichigo - was not corrupted by me but rather by his parents' close friend Urahara." Aizen looked at the simple sphere still safe in his hand and shrugged. Smile twisted. "If only I had someone like him at my beck and call."
Miles away, Karin turned her head toward the castle, out of sight beyond the horizon. Her hand drifted to the short blade sheathed at her back, one she had paid too high a price for.
In the far distance she could almost see her brother. Toushiro's dragon began to descend.
Kyokotsu haunted the corridor beyond the painted sliding doors, caked with the blood of their allies. She had lain the crimson-soaked grave dirt in the shade of a sakura tree, but the ancient soul had already crumbled away. Katen gritted her teeth against her sister's grief.
He stared at the floor, a blank concession of defeat.
"It's a shame when we have to stop dancing; but eventually it comes to us all," remarked his mistress quietly.
"Juushiro always told me not to use my bankai near people I cherish. I guess its day finally came."
"Is that why he was always at your side?" breathed Katen., blood still bright on her cheek. "Because he knew you valued no one else?"
"No, my flower. Because he valued me."
Kyokotsu lit a burner in their courtyard.
Curlicues of smoke, lavender and coral and powder blue, incense to mourn his passing.
"Why did you fight the Zeros?! Was he even controlling you?!"
"Uhhh…" Mashiro's head moved in a wide circle as she searched for the winning guess. "Yes…?"
Kensei folded his arms and stared at her.
"I'm a superhero, Ken-tan. I don't get swept up in the moment no way no sir. I don't copy you either. Nuh-uh."
Kensei sighed painfully, kneading his brow. "I think I trained you too well."
"Looks like your defences are lacking," sang Kuna, backflipping and tearing off another robotic arm as she went.
"MY SECURITY IS NOT LAX. I AM THE GREAT WEAVE GUARD! I BUILT SEIREITEI'S WALL!"
"Yeah," shrugged the little superhero. "I heard Berry-tan's cousins helped him punch through that. You got busted by Ganju? That's low."
PA2: Also, did you know that apparently Kirinji's hair can support up to 120 kg of weight? Imagine someone picking it up and using it as a weapon.
Alliriyan: Risa discarded her zanpakuto and reached for the sharpened point of Tenjiro's fallen pompadour. Aizen would never see it coming…
Chapter Notes: Nemurasu no Oni means sleeping demon, most of Kyoraku's attacks use 'oni' in the name. Rakugaki Kinpika is, as mentioned, graffiti golden splendour which is a lovely bankai name for a mobster.
Author Notes: I hope you are all safe during this pandemic. I have now decided to tackle the Quincy Arc, because I am a sucker for punishment and my glorious beta reader PA2 demands ever more worldbuilding.