"Captain, what is it?" Rangiku Matsumoto sat up on the couch where she'd been stretched at the sound of her Captain's gasp. She took in his face, trying to read the emotion caught in those icy orbs, but it was even harder now to see his feelings with one half of his face obscured by the long cross-shaped scar. It had hardened his boyish features, made him look older.
"Captain?" She repeated when he didn't answer at once.
"Something's happened." He stood up and went to the window. For a moment his eyes just scanned the long plains of the soul society. Then he ran to the office door and threw it open.
"Captain Hitsugaya!" Rangiku followed him out, but almost tripped over him. He had come to a stop and stood just staring.
"He actually did it."
"Who? Captain, what is it?"
Rangiku was startled when he turned to face her and there was an actual smile on his face. She hadn't seen him smile once since his return from Heuco Mundo.
"Matsumoto, we're leaving."
"What, where? "
"I'll get clearance, you get Abarai and Rukia. There is someone I think they would like to see in the World of the Living."
Only a pale light brought a breath of life to the empty streets of Karakura when Ichigo Kurosaki stepped out of the gates of Hell. No one saw the world of pain and darkness shut itself off once more, though a select few woke from their sleep, feeling the ripple of power that followed in their wake. But Ichigo just kept walking, never looking back. He had somewhere he needed to be, and nothing would slow him down.
The door was unlocked, they knew he was coming. He slid in silently, shutting the door softly behind him. Around the corner he saw him, hands folded tightly, concern etched all over his face- a rare sight.
All his life, his father had greeted him with violence, with garishness, but this morning, he just stood and wrapped his arms around his son.
"You did it. You came back."
"I'm sorry. I should never have let him take me."
Isshin pulled back for a second, looked his son in the eyes.
"Ichigo..." but whatever protests, or words he had died when one tear fought its way past his resistance, and with it brought a tide of emotion. He pulled Ichigo against him once more. He only let his son go when they heard the thunder of feet on the stairs and Ichigo saw two faces that he had dreamt of for so long in those weeks in Hell. "Karin, Yuzu."
They nearly knocked him over they ran into him so fast. He knelt and caught them both tight in his arms.
"I love you, all of you."
His father lay his hand on his shoulder. Isshin leaned low and kissed each of his children on the head.
"We're all here, we're all safe. We're going to be alright."
Later that morning, after they'd reluctantly sent the girls to school, he and his father made the trip to the shop. He had told his father only one thing about his time in Hell, and that was that Sosuke Aizen was finally, once and for all, gone from their lives.
Stepping into Urahara's shop was almost as emotional as returning home. He had not even known if everyone had survived the battle, but it seemed, Grimmjow had been the only casualty.
Orihime was on him first, of course. They had all felt his return, and here seemed to be the logical place to wait for him. Past Orihime's heaving shoulders, he could see Chad and Uryu, Kisuke and the shop crew and to one side, Renji, Rukia, Rangiku and Toshiro.
"Orihime." He pushed her back, remembering only pieces of that final battle in Hueco Mundo but the distinct echo of her screams of pain. "Are you alright?"
"Me, of course, you were the one in Hell."
"But Heuco Mundo..." His eyes trailed down, he saw the scar past her skirt. "Oh Orihime."
She blushed and ran a hand over the rough skin where Aizen had torn through her thigh.
"I just... you were gone, and you came back in hollow form because you heard me screaming and-"
"Orihime, please." His hand covered her hand and pressed it tighter against her leg. "Get rid of it."
She bowed her head, and he felt the warmed under his fingers. After a moment, he pulled his hand away and she lifted hers as well. The flesh was smooth.
"There, that's better." He embraced her again, felt the heat of her tears along his collar.
"Thank you, everyone, for fighting with me in Hueco Mundo." He said softly over her head. Then his eyes landed on Toshiro. "Please." He pulled away from Orihime and she followed his gaze, understanding. "Don't let Aizen leave anything behind to remind of us him."
Orihime approached but Toshiro raised a hand. "I failed you in that desert Ichigo. And Orihime, what Aizen did to you because I was weak-"
"Enough." Everyone was surprised when it was Rangiku who spoke. "Captain please." Her voice quivered, even Toshiro seemed silenced by the look of sorrow on her face. He knew she always felt his pain, made it her own, and this past moth had not been easy..
"We all failed, Toshiro, so don't let Aizen keep beating you now." Urahara broke the silence.
"Toshiro," Orihime stretched out her hand, "may I?"
He glanced once more at his lieutenant and nodded. The healing was just as brief as it had been for herself. Orihime stepped back and smiled down on his flawless features.
"Thank you, Orihime." He whispered. Then it seemed some tension broke in the room and Ichigo was hugging all his friends and getting slapped on the back by Renji and the shop children began handing out tea. And finally it was time to explain, the part of all of this Ichigo had been dreading. They sat in a circle, sipping in silence at their tea, Ichigo starting to wish it was something a little stronger as he recounted Shuren and the pillar, Aizen's plans, everything Grimmjow did for him. Then the espada, the horrible torture done to Halibel, the alliance they made, and the battle they fought. He described the Masters of Hell. He told how they, ultimately, brought an end to both Shuren and Aizen's reigns of terror. In measured tones, he explained the final moments of Aizen's life, and the beginning of his existence in Hell.
He told them also of the weeks he spent healing, but didn't bother to explain just what horrors he had seen inflicted on those bodies, and the minds that could never be repaired. But when he came to the end of his story, he paused and raised his gaze to the soul reapers in the room.
"What's wrong, Ichigo?" Rukia asked. He saw confusion on the others faces, save one.
"I know what you did, Ichigo." Toshiro spoke. "I felt them this morning, just before your arrival back here."
Everyone else, except maybe Urahara, seemed eager to ask what they were taking about, but none interrupted. Ichigo kept his gaze fixed on the young captain. "And? What will you do?"
"Nothing. There is no reason to, they entered Soul Society naturally, you did nothing wrong."
Rukia gasped in understanding. Renji looked between her and the boy captain and finally broke the silence.
"What are you talking about?"
"I remembered what Rukia taught me, about konso." Renji's eyes widened, now it was clear to everyone and they just waited to hear the rest of Ichigo's story. "I made Grimmjow the offer, and he took it. Halibel and Stark too, after all they did to help, I had to give them the chance. I performed a konso on them all, and if you said you felt them, Toshiro, then I guess, it worked."
A hand landed on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze, he met his father's eyes. "I'm proud of you, son."
"Indeed, very impressive." Urahara gave him a nod. He looked across to Rukia, she was beaming at him.
"If anyone could beat the laws of the universe," Uryu sighed with a wry smile, "it would be you, Ichigo."
"I'm just so glad Grimmjow's not trapped down there, after everything..." Orihime looked like she might cry again.
"Agreed." Rukia said, and after she nudged him, Renji nodded too. Finally it was all over. No secrets needed to be kept. The only thing that went unnoticed, was when Urahara slipped out of the room.
Silver light faded to a pale brown haze and the feeling of weightlessness abruptly ended when Grimmjow fell hard into dusty earth. It took his eyes a moment to adjust to the new world around him.
"GRIMMJOW!" All his muscles tensed at the shear terror in the words and he forced himself to his knees and reached for Pantera even as he struggled to see.
"Halibel?" And then he saw her—and it was as if for the first time- because one major feature had changed. He saw those green eyes that always bored into him, but now her saw her flushed cheeks, her lips, teeth biting into them. She still wore her uniform from Hueco Mundo, but the bone mask was gone.
"GRIMMJOW!" She repeated. For a moment he was too stunned by this change to take in what was happening. She was bent on all fours, as if in pain, Stark just behind her in a similar stance. And all around them a sort of dust was rising up from the earth, the trees, everything.
The world was disintegrating.
"What's happening?" He asked as he approached her.
"No, stay back!" he didn't have to be told, he felt the tide of her power and stumbled back. "This is your power?" he asked alarmed. "Your power is breaking down the raiti here?"
"The mask...the hole...there gone." He glanced at Stark and saw it was true of him too. Then he raised a hand to his face.
"My mask." And he looked down to his stomach. There was no hole.
"We're whole beings now." Halibel groaned out through gritted teeth.
"What does that mean?"
But Halibel couldn't answer and another wave of her enormous power struck him down. He started to get back up but his whole body lurched. Pantera quavered in his hand.
"What's going on?"
"Try to hold it back."
He met her eyes and realized with shock that that was what she was doing, and even holding back, the power that escaped her was breaking down the world around them.
"Shit!" And then it hit him, or rather, his power hit the universe. It was like he was an infant again, didn't know how to control his own spiritual power- kind of like Ichigo when he'd first met him, only this was worse.
"What do we do?" he managed, but otherwise immobilized by the power trying to escape him. He saw a nearby tree vanish and tried harder to pull his power back.
"I don't know...there is so much power..." she fell on her side.
"That's what I've been doing, idiot."
Grimmjow grit his teeth. He'd only been in Soul Society a matter of seconds before everything had started going wrong. Maybe Ulquiorra's theory about balance was right and they had inadvertently disrupted everything. Maybe this was the beginning of the end.
"Ah yes, it seems my timing couldn't be better." A figure bent down over Grimmjow and as soon as that stripped hat blocked out the sun he could see who it was.
"Need my help already?" But his face quickly turned grim and Grimmjow could see his whole body shaking in the wake of their powers. He turned his attention to the other two and raised a hand.
"Kiskuke, what-" but before Grimmjow could finish, Stark and Halibel collapsed, their powers ceasing. He looked up in alarm to the shopkeeper but saw only his hand raised toward him now.
"I'm sorry Grimmjow."
The ex-arrancar went limp in the dust and the world stilled.
"Not you again."
A broad smile passed over Ichigo's face and he turned to look over his shoulder. "Kisuke, he's back."
Grimmjow stared up at the halo of orange hair. Ichigo looked good, healthier than he had seen him in a long time. And he was dressed as a soul reaper.
"What's going on? How long have I been out?"
"What?" Grimmjow saw up and looked around. Ichigo was right next to him, but the shopkeeper and his crew were a few meters away and he couldn't quite see them clearly. Beneath him was the familiar dessert ground he'd fallen to more times that he would like to remember. He looked above him and saw the same distortion in the sky. He recognized it. He was in a kido dome- just like when he'd been trying to see into Aizen's mind.
"Just in case my precautions don't work- I would prefer it if you didn't evaporate my basement." Kisuke called through the dome.
"Precautions?" Grimmjow looked himself over again. Now it was less obvious that he was in a gigai because he no longer had a mask or hollow hole, but wearing a gigai had a distinctly unnatural feeling and he was sure he was in one now. He also noticed large bands around his wrists, close fitting and barely noticeable.
"I went through a number of gigai before I decided to borrow an idea from another soul reaper. I don't know if you remember him, Grimmjow, but the eleventh squad Captain wear's an eye patch that consumes spiritual energy. Although your gigai suppresses it, it was not enough, so I had to add these. So far, it seems to be working."
"So all this is to contain my spiritual pressure."
"Yes. The only other alternative seems to be to keep you unconscious."
"I don't understand. Why is this happening?" Grimmjow couldn't quite keep the exhaustion from his voice. Not physical- but exhaustion from always being in danger, always being a target or being manipulated.
Kisuke's smile faded and his voice softened.
"I will explain, Grimmjow, but before I drop this barrier I need to make sure everything is working. Ichigo."
"Come on, get up." Ichigo helped Grimmjow to his feet. "How do you feel?"
"Fine, I guess." Grimmjow stretched out his stiff muscles and looked to Ichigo. "So what are we testing?"
"See if you can form a cero."
"Okay." Grimmjow could feel the suppressive powers of his gigai and the bands, but nonetheless, with little effort a ball of energy began to form in his palm. He turned it to the ground and the small explosion filled their dome with dust.
"One more test." Kisuke said beyond the dust and Ichigo reached for something. He pulled Pantera from his back.
Grimmjow took his sword immediately. "But I'm in my gigai."
"A gigai doesn't always suppress a zanpakuto." Kisuke answered. "In fact, I was unable to contain him."
Ichigo pulled Zangetsu from his sheath and took a stance.
"Are we sparring?"
"No." Kisuke said sternly. "Just try one swing, Grimmjow."
"Okay." He raised Pantera. He felt the blade humming with energy, felt it's strength in his grasp. He swung.
Shards of gold-tinted energy fell all around him, dissipating before they hit the earth. The hot dessert air rushed to fill the gap creating a small dust storm. But beyond it, the substitute soul reaper lay in the long track his body had created as he slid across the land.
"Oh shit, Ichigo!"
Grimmjow was at Ichigo's side so fast he stumbled and fell. He couldn't question that right now though, Ichigo was bleeding, badly.
"What was that?" Ichigo coughed. Zangetsu was buried in his chest where he'd tried to deflect. Grimmjow's strength had forced his own blade backwards and into him.
"Ichigo." Kisuke had arrived, "this is my fault." He breathed.
"Yours?" Grimmjow exclaimed as he put his hand on Zangetsu's handle and prepared to pull him out. "I did this to him!"
"No Grimmjow, it's not your fault. I asked him to help me out. I should never have."
"Enough." Ichigo moaned and looked to Grimmjow, "do it."
He pulled Zangetsu out in one clean movement, but Ichigo's body still lurched and the tide of blood that followed drenched the earth around him.
"Shit." Grimmjow pressed against the wound. "Dammit."
After everything, was it really going to come to this? We he going to kill Ichigo because he didn't understand his own powers? Why couldn't, just once, things go in their favour?
"Grimmjow." The voice sounded distant. He hadn't realized he'd shut his eyes, how far away his thoughts had taken him. "Grimmjow."
Kisuke was shaking him. He opened his eyes and looked down at the form in his grasp. Ichigo was staring down at himself, still covered in blood, clothes torn, but no wound to speak of.
"I don't know." Ichigo sat up and Grimmjow relaxed his hold around him.
"I think you healed him." Kisuke responded, abnormally quiet himself. "Come on, enough tests, let's get you boys cleaned up."
Kiskue did not lead them upstairs. He instead, took to them to the old hut that had one been Grimmjow's home when he'd first come for help. Now, however, it had been transformed into a much more permanent facility- expanded into several rooms. Only that first room was what was left of the old cabin. Ichigo showered off the blood and returned to his body. Grimmjow guzzled water and cleaned himself up before he noticed two bodies in one of the rooms.
"So you kept them under." He said when Kisuke came to join him where he stood over Halibel and Stark.
"You were the lowest ranking of them. It was safest to revive you first."
Urahara glanced sideways at him and flashed that old shopkeeper grin. "Oh, and the fact that I trust you."
"You can trust them too." Grimmjow said softly.
"Oh? Even after she tried to kill me and my friends?" The harshness of his words was not lost on Grimmjow.
"I made the same mistake, once, remember?"
"I suppose you did. But you have made up for it- many times over."
"She..." Grimmjow stared down at Halibel's inert form. He remembered her madness that day, when she attacked the shop. But it seemed so long ago. Now, what was most vivid was that day he rescued her on Shuren's table. And the days that followed- when she'd fought to save Ichigo, to end Shuren and Aizen.
"Kisuke...in Hell, it was different. Please, trust me that you can trust her."
The shopkeeper considered his words. "Grimmjow, you know I trust you. I will take your word. But it is greater than that. Until we make sure you are stable, we cannot risk waking them."
Ichigo had remained silent the entire time. He was relieved that Kisuke had decided to accept the other two, but he could see the visible transformation in Grimmjow. His shoulder's sunk as he stared at his two comrades.
"Of course." Came his quiet response.
"Grimmjow." Ichigo spoke, not a question, just knowing. The other sighed.
"I just feel like I'm betraying them, you know, after everything."
Ichigo knew. He understood because he had been there, and if anyone in the universe could understand, it would be him. But there was nothing else that could be done. Urahara nodded and gripped Grimmjow's shoulder.
"Then let's not waste time. I will explain what I know and we will do everything we can to figure out our next move."
Grimmjow nodded and the three gathered in the front room where Tessai was waiting. Urahara began his explanations and the two young men listened on in silence.
"Every species is the product of evolution. A soul reaper, is no exception. Souls pass on to the Soul Society and they evolve. Eventually, if they contain enough of the right traits, they become soul reapers. You, Grimmjow, entered Soul Society fully aware of your spiritual powers. Pantera was already awakened, and you seem to be in full possession of you memories. As far as I know, no other souls, apart from you three, have passed from Hell to Soul Society. For whatever reason, in this process you have not changed in more than your physical form. You arrived fully advanced, but now your powers originate from Soul Society and not Hueco Mundo. You do not know how to control it. Imagine, if you will, the Head Captain had arrived in Soul Society as powerful as he is now. His power would be as out of control as yours because you don't know how to use it."
"So I just need to learn?"
"I'm sorry Grimmjow, perhaps I have mislead you. You have years of evolution to consider- more than any other being perhaps. You have transitioned from three dimensions without memory or power loss. You are unique—powerful. A force to covet. And you can bet the Head Captain wants to study you. Yes you need to learn to control your strength, and until then you have to stay down here to protect the world above. But I also need you to stay down here where I can protect you from the Soul Society."
"They would take him, even if he's not arrancar anymore?" Ichigo asked.
"Perhaps you forget what they did to you, Ichigo, when you tried to rescue Rukia Kuchki. I have my reasons for leaving Soul Society. They may be our friends, but their rules are unyielding. Personally, I don't think there is a set rule of what to do in this situation, but I have a hard time believing the Head Captain will just let them go."
Grimmjow remained silent the entire time, staring down at his empty tea cup. His blue eyes were distant, and without the bone mask obscuring half his face, it was easy to see his jaw muscles clenched.
"What are you thinking?" Urahara finally asked.
Grimmjow continued staring at the cup a few seconds longer before sliding it away from him and standing.
"I'm thinking I can't let them stay under that long. I'm thinking that if the Head Captain comes for us- me like this and them unconscious- he'll get us even if you fight him. I'm thinking me staying here is putting you and those kids of yours in danger and that this basement is just not the place for us."
"Grimmjow, you can't wake them up, it's too dangerous, you have to understand. And if you're thinking of going back upstairs-"
"Hueco Mundo." Ichigo said the moment he realized, and the look on Grimmjow's face only confirmed it.
"You're not espada anymore." Kisuke reminded.
"Doesn't matter. It's the safest place for us. Nothing but hollows and sand for us to destroy there, and if the Soul Reapers want to contend with us there, then let 'em, but they won't win, and they know it." Grimmjow concluded with confidence, he'd made up his mind.
Urahara was watching him closely, but Ichigo could see the shopkeeper had no counter argument. It seemed the best option, but for some reason, Ichigo wanted him to disagree.
"You can't want to go back there." he finally added, softly, a little more emotion that he'd intended slipping out. So many bad memories happened in that place, and he could not see anything good coming from there.
"It may seem strange to you, after all that happened there. But it is where my first memories are from. It is the only place I have ever called home." Grimmjow didn't meet his eyes. He was already heading for the room where Stark and Halibel were. Urahara rose too, but didn't follow. Ichigo remained seated at the table, lost.
"You can make them gigai, like me, right, Kisuke?" Grimmjow asked from the hallway where he looked in on the forms of his two comrades. "It could work."
The old shopkeeper answered, but his eyes were on Ichigo, suspecting the protest. "Yes."
"Then let's do it."
"Okay, but I'm going with you."
Both men started at this. Grimmjow came back to the front room. Ichigo rose.
"I'm going with you." Kisuke repeated.
"You don't owe me that, Kisuke." Grimmjow answered finally.
"Maybe, but you three are nothing the universe has ever seen. I can't let the opportunity to learn about you slip away. Besides, you don't know the first thing about being a Soul Reaper, you'll need some help."
Grimmjow nodded. "Thank you."
Ichigo stood next to them, feeling a helplessness he couldn't explain. Grimmjow was going to leave, this was it, after months of never ending turmoil, of trying to save themselves, save each other, not to mention save the world, it was all over just like that. He should be relieved, but he just felt, sad.
"Don't look so gloomy kid," Grimmjow slapped his shoulder, "I'll be out of your hair soon."
Tessai and Grimmjow dropped the rest of Urahara's bags on the ground and heaved a sigh of relief. Before them was a veritable mountain of all the things the shopkeeper deemed necessary for their training, protection and an extended stay in Hueco Mundo.
"All set," Grimmjow announced. Kisuke looked up from the machine that would open the gates for them.
"Same here. Alright, let's do this." he struck a button and there was a loud build up of energy. They all stood back.
"Take care of the place while I'm gone." Kisuke said to Tessai by way of farewell. "And you," he looked at Ichigo, "aren't you humans supposed to go to school?"
"I guess I won't have as many excuses to ditch once you guys are gone."
"Oh, knowing you, you'll find some crisis and come storming into Hueco Mundo in a couple of weeks." Grimmjow sighed, rolling his eyes but Ichigo smiled.
"Just don't give me a reason to."
"I'll try." Grimmjow stuck out his hand and Ichigo gripped it. "Thanks for the new life kid, now go live yours."
"Yeah, I intend to, good luck."
"Everyone who is not going to Hueco Mundo, get out of the way!" Urahara cried. Tessai and Ichigo stepped back. The build of energy swirled out from the machine. There were several loud crashes and they cringed back from what looked like stray bolts of lightening. Then everything was calm. When Ichigo looked back up, they were gone.
Halibel's eyes cracked open. She remembered the chaos that had taken place in Soul Society as if it had happened seconds ago but her body told her she'd been asleep for a long time.
"Hey, you back?" She blinked until the world grew clearer. A blanket of dark sky interrupted only by that half moon stared down at her. She turned to the side and saw those bold blue eyes and strong jawline.
"The one and only." he reached his hand down to help her sit up. She looked around at the endless silver dunes. "We're home."
"Hueco Mundo." They looked sideways, Stark was already on his feet surveying the horizon. "Seems like centuries since my feet touched these sands."
"Well, it has been a life time." Grimmjow answered him wryly and stood with Halibel. She noticed Kisuke, busy arranging his many cases.
"What's going on?"
"We're Soul Reapers." Grimmjow answered trying not to spit the word. "And we're powerful. Kisuke's going to help us learn to control that power, here, where we'll be safe."
"Then what?" Asked Stark.
"Then, we start living our lives. Not for Aizen, not for humans, not for Soul Reapers, but for us." Grimmjow breathed deep and looked over the ocean of sand. Yes, that was true freedom. How many times had he needed to die in order to learn how to live? And yet one human boy had figured it all out in a handful of years. The irony was too great and smiled broadly in the moonlight.
Yes, he was ready to live.
So there it is folks, the end! I am sorry it took so long to deliver, but I couldn't rush it, it needed to be right. I hope it satisfies you, for me it sums things up the way I want to leave them, and it leaves the characters the way I want. Thank you SO MUCH for all of your reviews and for sticking with me through all the darkness, I hope the light at the end made up for it :)