AN: An alternate timeline in which the Vandenreich strike while Ichigo is still trying to save Orihime from Hueco Mundo.
The the sound of the wet snap of leather against raw flesh was echoed by the dry crack of the lash curling back on itself as its wielder used a practised twist of the wrist to add an extra flourish of menace and anticipation to the torturous process. Ichigo jolted in his chains at the next snap, his whole body tightening despite his efforts to remove himself from the situation. But with the next hit he actually closed his eyes.
"He's unconscious." Someone said, disappointed. Ichigo cracked his lids apart and stared through the cell bars to the limp figure hanging by his chained wrists. His face was obscured by hair and shadows as his head was bowed and though his back was hidden from sight to Ichigo, the snakes of red that trickled to his front and down his legs were just a hint of the damage done this session alone. The floor around his bare feet was crusted with aged and dried bodily fluids, though now clearly hydrated with a new slew of crimson.
The torturer rolled his lash up and hung it in its place on the side wall, where many instruments haunted the prisoner's every waking hour. As far as Ichigo had seen, they had all been used. But he forgot his neighbour's woes when the rose haired espada looked his way with a near lustful smile.
"I'll just clean myself up a bit." Szayel let his eyes roam over Ichigo's torn clothes, his body exposed and vulnerable by the chains that held his hands aloft. "And then it's your turn. Don't worry, for our first session, I'll go easy on you."
No snappy comeback found his lips, no arrogant smile or bravado could cover the fear of a fifteen year old boy about to have the flesh torn from his body. No fight against hollows, soul reapers, even stupid gangsters under the bridge had prepared him for the prospect of prolonged, calculated, pain.
The door in the adjacent cell clanked shut, the prisoners were once again alone. Desperation made the human tug at his chains, wrists already chaffed and bleeding from his previous efforts.
"Damnit." he cursed the ceiling, beyond which many levels of Las Noches piled on top of one another in the network of horror that was the espadas' dwelling. Further still above, was that blanket of starless-night that draped the silver landscape he'd fought tooth and nail through just to end up here, never even having seen the monster he'd come to kill or the girl he'd come to save. So he looked now, through cemented stone and beyond the black night, to that place where some believed an Almighty resided.
And he cursed Him.
His eyes and mind were only brought back to earth by the startled breath of the prisoner next door as he woke to his hell again. Ichigo watched him cough out hoarsely, then do his best to let his feet take the weight of his brutalized body rather than his arms. It was a struggle, and he was practically shivering in pain and no doubt the blood loss of his most recent torture, but when he stood, the dirt clogged locks of hair fell from his face, and eyes as cold as Death himself met Ichigo across the way. He had not spoken, so Ichigo hadn't either, but now he couldn't help himself when he saw all the arrogance, all the mania and warrior-pride that had always characterized this being washed away completely, leaving only a gaze of pure loathing, and perhaps despair.
"Why did they do this to you, Grimmjow Jaggerjaques?"
"Hueco Mundo. We're actually here." Ichigo glanced sideways at his companions, not having intended to voice his awe aloud, but by the looks on their faces, he knew his sentiments were shared. Uryu's sharp eyes seemed to be taking in every detail of the horizon, calculating every potential threat, or maybe it was curiosity. But there was no doubt in Chad's stoic gaze that he was looking for their destination, and checking for any obstacle that might stand in their way. Ichigo too, was looking for their goal, so he could start gaining ground as quickly as possible. But it didn't take long to distinguish the one massive structure interrupting the endless dunes as their only possible destination.
"Orihime. We're coming."
Ichigo bit back a grunt as another strip of his skin was lifted under the sting of the whip. He wished desperately that he had something to bite down on, to take the pressure of his clenched teeth and to muffle the noises he couldn't stop himself from producing. The next strike actually made his knees give out and his arms jerked taught, taking his weight. Black spots filled his vision, his head dropped forward and he found himself staring at his own naked torso, almost completely purple, especially over his right ribs. It hadn't been Szayel who'd worked him over but a much stockier underling who had seemed to favour that one spot until it had given a sickening crack.
The fire on his back was growing fainter as the lights in the room seemed to dim. There were voices, but he could no longer make sense of them. But some shred of pride in him made him try to keep his head aloft, try to prove in some way he wouldn't break.
In his daze, he wasn't sure he saw what he thought he did- but the man in the cell before him, staring the whole time with emotionless eyes at the torture he endured- now seemed to shake his head ever so slightly. Grimmjow hadn't spoken, despite Ichigo's attempts to get information from him. But now, both in the look in his eyes and the slight movement of his head, Grimmjow clearly seemed to be saying stay down.
Ichigo understood. Yet still, he rose up.
"Oh, up for some more?" the pain master chimed. There was the clink of another tool being lifted from the wall but Ichigo didn't turn to see what it was. He was staring directly into that mysterious gaze right until new pain greeted him and he could no longer keep his eyes open.
"A cross roads." Renji breathed beside him as they stood in the bowels of the palace they had just broken into. It had all seemed too easy, befriending Nel and her hollow brothers who provided them with information and led them here. Renji and Rukia coming to their aid, even here, in another world. But now they stood at the brink. A decision had to be made, one Ichigo wasn't sure he was willing to make.
"We'll just have to pick one." He said quickly, in a rare reaction that was true of his age. But of course, maturer thoughts prevailed and the conclusion he feared was made.
"We have to split up." Rukia concluded, the others consenting. Ichigo watched them all agree in dismay. But he had come here knowing the risks, and so had they. Still, standing here now, there was no way to know if they would ever all be back together again and that threat weighed heavily on Ichigo's heart and his shoulders.
"Nel is going with Ichigo." He shut his eyes for a second, then nodded to the group, taking stock of each of them in turn, just in case they never met again.
Short words of farewell, of good luck, then they were running away from one another, into the dark unknown, danger, maybe even death awaiting them.
"You think I'm a fool, huh, for not giving in?"
Ichigo watched the faintest of reactions ghost over blue orbs but still no words. Ichigo swallowed hard, trying not to think about his flayed back, broken ribs, or the deep burn that had been laid into his chest before he'd finally passed out. The only distraction he had from any of it was the man before him. "But you must have done the same thing, it's what you were trying to warn me yesterday, right?"
He watched his eyes flick to one side briefly, not trying to communicate an acknowledgement but it was as good as a yes.
"I just couldn't." he said more softly, more to himself. "I couldn't show him that he'd won."
This too, registered with his fellow prisoner. He may have learned over time, to swallow his pride for the sake of pain, but Ichigo was still strong enough to resist that.
"Grimmjow, I know you hate me, but you have to know why I'm here. I came for Orihime. I don't know why you're down here, but you must know where they are keeping her."
"Grimmjow please. I have to know what Aizen did to her. He hasn't done...this to her, has he?"
Those blue eyes watched him long and hard, maybe Grimmjow held the tension to make him suffer, maybe he was actually unsure, but when they flashed up to the ceiling, and remained there for a second or more, Ichigo knew this was not her fate. She was somewhere above them at least.
"What's he doing to her then?"
This got nothing.
"Grimmjow please just talk! Tell me where she is, what he's done to her!"
The door banged open, Ichigo jerked involuntarily but saw at once it was the door to Grimmjow's cell and not his own. The relief he felt was a guilty one he would never admit to anyone else. Szayel smiled at him from just out of Grimmjow's range of sight.
"Don't waste your breath, Grimmjow doesn't talk to anyone anymore."
Szayel's sick smile grew and he reached up to Grimmjow's chin. The other tried to jerk away, but there was nothing he could do. Szayel squeezed tight around his lower jaw until he forced it open. It was hard to see at this distance what Ichigp was being shown, but Szayel held out a hand to his subordinate and what looked like an ordinary glass of water was put in his free hand. He raised it up to Grimmjow's mouth again and this time the effort was tenfold: Grimmjow fought furiously to get away. Still, the glass met his lips and the water was poured in.
"Stop!" Ichigo found himself yelling when he saw the reaction in Grimmjow.
"Don't be silly, it's only water." Szayel lifted the glass away just as Grimmjow seemed to realize this as well. "But I don't think he's quite recovered from one of my early experiments with acid. I guess I can't blame him for not wanting to drink anything I give him anymore."
Grimmjow was panting now from his efforts and Ichigo stood in wide eyed horror.
"Don't worry, I won't do the same to you. I was shortsighted when I did that. Ruining his vocal chords means I can no longer hear him scream." He drank the rest of the water himself before handing it back to his subordinate. "No, you Ichigo, will need to talk when Lord Aizen comes to question you himself. Now that will be a real show, don't you think Grimmjow?"
The blue haired espada did not react.
"Well I think so at least. But it's up to me to tenderize you first. So let's get started, shall we?" He turned back to Grimmjow. It seemed despite wanting information from Ichigo, Grimmjow would still be served his daily punishment. But punishment for what, Ichigo didn't know, and even in such a desperate situation, he couldn't help but wonder.
"You cannot win this fight," Ulquiorra stated with growing confidence. Blood dripped down Ichigo's face, splashing on the broken pillar floor.
"I won't give up." Ichigo panted. Rukia's spiritual pressure had all but disappeared. He'd lost Nel somewhere in the sand. And here he was on his knees before the enemy- the one who had forced Inoue into Hueco Mundo. Ichigo raised Zangetsu against the espada, "You must be the top espada. If I defeat you now, the war is as good as over."
An odd expression passed over Ulquiorra's face. He gripped the end of Zangetsu and let the blade tear through his jacket. Pale flesh was laid bare, and something utterly devastating greeted the substitute soul reaper.
"I am espada number four."
The pull of chains.
He was captured. He had failed.
"What was that?" Ichigo wasn't sure he had heard anything past the throbbing in his head. His left eye was completely swollen shut and his right was rather hazy as he scanned the cell but he got confirmation when another rumble actually shook the instruments on the wall, filling the chambers with the clink of metal on stone. Grimmjow was back on his feet, though Ichigo was increasingly impressed with his ability to keep breathing let alone hold his weight as he began to learn just how severely his enemy had been tortured over a long period of time. He wasn't sure how long the Sixth had been down here, but by the tightness of his skin on his ribs, the layers of scar tissue and the aged stains on the floor of his cell, he guessed it had been a while.
The next quake actually knocked tools from their hooks onto the floor. Dry dirt rained down from the ceiling.
"I take it this doesn't normally happen."
Ichigo had gotten pretty good at reading those sapphire eyes in the last three days. They were ever so slightly widened, in what Ichigo took for alarm and confusion. No, this was definitely not normal.
"Someone is attacking." He smiled. "The others must have made it."
He hadn't seen them since they had separated. After he'd lost his battle with Ulquiorra, he'd woken down here. He wasn't even sure where Nel was.
There was a quick succession of much louder booms and the reverberations rocked him in his chains. But the next thing the whole wall before him disintegrated in a faintly pink haze. White powder filled the air, and all he could see were the silhouettes of his rescuers.
"Renji! Byakuya!" He breathed out, relieved. The captain sheathed his zanpakuto without a word but Renji stood temporarily frozen by the state of Ichigo. The teen was certainly in pain, but he was not aware how disfigured he looked by the mess of bruises all over his face and torso, his ripped clothes, and his raw back.
"Oh Hell, Ichigo." The lieutenant collected himself and at once let his shikai fade so his solid blade could meet chain. In a matter of seconds, Ichigo's arms fell loose and his friend took most of his weight.
"Those bastards." The red head swore.
"Renji." Byakuya urged, glancing back in the hall from which they'd come. Another shockwave shook them and Renji held tighter to Ichigo while they waited for the place to stop shaking. "Time for us to leave." The captain announced, but reached to his back. Ichigo watched him pull a second sheath from his shoulders and suddenly the teen was pulling out of Renji's support.
"I am afraid he is still damaged."
His soul had cracked but not broken. Still, he had not hoped to find Zangetsu in such good condition even if he could escape. "I found him by chance, on the way in here, in the devastation."
"Devastation? What's going on? Is Soul Society attacking?"
Byakuya's lips tightened, Ichigo glanced to Renji. "What's going on?"
"Alot has happened in three days, Ichigo, let's just get out of here first, okay?"
"Okay." He found his legs steady enough, the rush of adrenaline and the strength of his sword kept him moving, but just as they reached the threshold of the cell, Ichigo paused, glancing sideways at the forgotten prisoner. The bars between their cells were bent in, leaving a perfect gap for him to fit through, but Renji had a hand on his upper arm. He knew who Grimmjow was, but in the current excitement, the espada apparently did not warrant any attention.
"Come on, Ichigo." He tugged on his wounded ally, but Ichigo held steady, pulling his cracked blade from his sheath.
"What are you doing?"
He stood rooted, he had only glimpsed the horrors done to Grimmjow. But he owed him nothing, in the end. Blue eyes watched him closely, but not expectantly. There was no plea in them, no expectation for mercy.
Another explosion. "Ichigo, we have to go."
"I know." but he moved through the gap in the bars and swung without hesitation. Chains clanked to the ground, the figure in their grasp along with it. Ichigo had not been able to see his back before, but now his own raw flesh felt numb in comparison.
"I know, I'm coming."
Grimmjow was still on the ground, but Ichigo had done more for him than he ever owed him. He could live with himself now, at least. And so he turned and followed the officers of the sixth squad out of the cell of the sixth espada.
Hello! So I'm back with another rather dark Ichigo and Grimmjow fic. I really enjoyed developing them in "Psychology of Grimmjow" so I thought I'd try doing it all over again, this time with some components of the Vandenreich story arc. Since we are still learning about the Vandenreich, I may have some non-canon stuff regarding them, but I don't think anything is too crazy. Most of this story has been written, just needs to be edited!
Hope to hear some feedback!
Riza A. Winters