Grimmjow / Ichigo
The sequel to my story 'Markings', although it is probably not vital to have read that one. This is not an AU: it is set a few months after the Winter War. For a full explanation of how things have come to this situation, maybe it would be best to read 'Markings'.
"If we do not end war - war will end us. Everybody says that, millions of people believe it, and nobody does anything." - H.G. Wells
The moon was a bloated crescent in the sky, shining with cold indifference on the sleeping tableaux that was Ichigo's hometown. The sky was a thick and heavy black, the stars only visible as the faintest of pinpricks: the moonlight was too much, and drowned them out to the human eye. A feral wind picked up the scattered leaves that turned the dull concrete to a muted cacophony of sodden browns and rotting yellows and lifted them a little: more still were pulled from the quickly undressing trees that line the streets.
Soon only their bare limbs would score the sky, disrobed entirely of their autumn colours.
The threat of frost was in the air. Any person out walking in the stillness of the very early hours of the morning would be able to see their breath, clouding in front of them. The year was pressing on, and with the quickly changing time came colder winds. Already the nights were well embraced in the early evening, daylight a fleeting reminder, a snatch of summer before the twilight embraced it and hid it away. In the depths of these nights the only light available, other than the ghostly shine of moonlight, was the steady and out-of-place glow of streetlights, illuminating circles of pavement in its yellow-orange light, a temporary barrier to the shadows.
A man who had been created to join an elite force bent on ruination and chaos let the cold air brush over him, not seeming to care that much of his torso was bare. His eyes were closed, but every sense was wired and alive, waiting, testing the length and breadth of the city for any sort of disturbance.
A cat prowled along a wall, a slip of black shadow that passed under his indifferent scrutiny without interest.
It would snow soon, when all the leaves finally let go and joined the rest on the ground. Then they would be patterned with the intricate lacework of ice, latticed until finally covered by the first fall of the year, which would briefly turn the town into a frozen world of white, before the morning traffic ruined it all.
The man took a deep breath, and opened his eyes again. He stood on the precarious edge of a building, unnaturally still as he seemed to contemplate the fall to the ground. His hands by his sides were fists, but there was an expression of something close to calm on his face as he stared at the moon.
It was not an expression that people were used to seeing on Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez's face. Normally, it was too tight with emotions that spoke of anger, and blood, and a thousand frustrations that seemed to be collapsing inside of him, one on top of the other: an endless mess of things that no one could fix.
He did not remember how he had first arrived into life, but he knew that he had been born into this form in a time of war and strife, into a place where nothing communicated but power and where nothing mattered but climbing up the ladder of battle and survival. For the longest of times, he had been motivated by nothing more than anger: anger at himself, at those higher than him in a system that he could not change.
But that didn't matter. For the first time in what felt like decades (and what was, to some people, centuries of thought and dreams and bottled up turbulence) there was something close to peace in the struggle between worlds. There was nothing to fight for, anymore, nothing but the final threads of a war playing out like the dying notes of a crashing symphony.
Which left those, like Grimmjow, whose life had been ordered by those notes, in a very uncomfortable position: in what way was he meant to act, now that the obvious had been taken from him?
Such were the questions that ran through the mind of the former-Espada as he stared out across a town that was not his home, and yet, was where he suddenly seemed to belong.
The wind picked up, buffeting him and rolling across the city. Leaves shivered on their branches as it passed, and across the town one damp leaf found itself thrown against a window that a man was staring out of.
Isshin Kurosaki did not jump when the leaf flew against the glass: he was too well trained for such a thing to startle him, regardless of the more frequently seen side of his character and the often amusing clownishness that it took on. His face was pulled into something of a frown, as he watched the night sky. There was rather too much on his mind at the moment for sleep: concern for his eldest child shot through his mind whenever he tried to rest.
Clouds were beginning to slip into sight now, still far away in the sky but threatening to come closer with surprising speed.
Elsewhere in the sprawling mass of inter-connecting worlds, night had also fallen onto the half-lit Seireitei. Though peace was now official, most divisions preferred the tried and tested method of better safe than sorry, and continued to post night shifts just in case a missed Arrancar managed to find its way there, hell bent on some sort of suicidal revenge mission. It wasn't like there was much for them to lose, after all.
Shinigami stood on rooftops, gazing around them. There was still too much tension concerning the war for them to be relaxed yet: most were poised, tense. Most of them would admit that, if they saw anything that might have slipped through from Hueco Mundo, they would not be able to control themselves. The order to capture-without-killing was not a strong enough deterrent for them: not when they had seen the devastation of war against their closest and dearest, not so very long ago.
Wounds in the Soul Society stick deep, and don't always heal well.
It was a cold night here, as well, though the moon was almost non-existent: just a scrap of a crescent against the sky, it gave little light to guide those still awake, and there were far more in the Seireitei than there were in the human world. Some did sleep on though, like a member of the Thirteenth Division: a slip of a girl on silk sheets embroidered with the Kuchiki family crest. It would be one of the few nights left she had to sleep without concern for one of the most important people in her life, although she did not know it yet. A little further away from her, the Lieutenant of the Sixth Division tasted blood on the inside of his mouth and frowned, not understanding why his standard training was not going so well for him tonight.
He shook his head, and sighed, and wished that he wasn't still just a little concerned about the message that he had received from Orihime Inoue the day before.
The message that concerned Ichigo, and the inexplicable power levels that the readings of Karakura were showing.
He knew that even if he were to go to Karakura right now, then there would be nothing that would look out of place: just another chill night, almost boring. Curtains would be drawn and car headlights a flickering brightness through the streets. On occasion he might hear a dog howl or the noise of some foraging animal, if he were to care enough to listen that hard. Even if he were to give in to instinct and hurry there, there would be nothing that he could do to protect anyone: nothing obvious even to fight against.
He wished again: this time, that rational thought was enough to counter inherent concern.
The quietest place that you might find on this night, though, was neither the Soul Society or Karakura: in fact, it was a dead world in between them, a place of monochrome landscaping and crystallised trees. The white sands of Hueco Mundo stretched out across a far-reaching desert, disturbed only by the ruins of a war-torn palace and the occasional boulder.
The moon here was different again, if only because it never seemed to change. Instead, it passed across the sky each night only to reappear again without the break of day in between. In endless night, hollows called to each other in guttural noises not too distinct from animals, speaking wordlessly of hunger and occasionally of concern: nothing tangible, yet there as an undertone all the time, when a hollow ventured too close to the wreckage of Las Noches.
Those forbidding walls were broken: all was still there, although it might not remain so.
There was nothing to remind a visitor of civilization here, nothing to make you believe that people had ever even set foot here but for the fact that there was a person here: a man standing on top of a dune a little way away from the former palace, staring thoughtfully across at it. If you were to see him (and it is not necessarily true that you might, for he perfected the art of being hidden whilst being completely in the open centuries ago) then you would be surprised to notice that he was smiling.
Just a small smile, and not quite out of humour. Barely there, in fact, and half-hidden by the shadow cast from the brim of his hat.
He lifts a cane in the air, and with a sweeping motion opens a rift through, back to his own world. He steps through, without looking back.
The night drew on. The various moons, each with their own sickly glow and their own patterns, moved across skies that were not really so different in their reaches. A few waking eyes continued to stare around them. Some are living and some are dead, but in the darkness of the night it doesn't really matter who you are or what you believe in but only where you are, and whether or not you are safe.
Morning was tingeing the edges of the Soul Society with the greyish light of pre-dawn.
Clouds grew thicker above Karakura, slowly blocking out the moonlight. Ichigo Kurosaki turned in bed with the faintest of grunts, hand reaching out in his sleep to clutch at an empty part of the bed, as if he expected something to be there. When his hand found nothing, a frown etched its way across his forehead, marring the smoothness of sleep with something that looked a little like worry.
In the confines of his half-lit office, so far away from Ichigo physically even though his mind was placed firmly with him, Captain Ukitake also frowned, although he was awake and had been so for far too long. He stared at the statistics in front of him as he had been doing for hours now, running a hand through hair already too-tangled from a day- and night- of work. The latest batch of readings from Karakura had arrived on his desk that morning, and he still had not thought of a way to explain away the spiking energy levels that indicated something that was clearly out of the norm.
There was only so long that this could be kept hidden.
There was only so long that the world could stay this quiet.