"What now?" Yammy kicked his chair back from the table and sat in it. The last of the espada had gathered in the broken throne room, not knowing where else to go.
"We are free of Aizen." Ulquiorra said.
"So we just go our separate ways?" Halibel asked.
"I see no reason to." Starrk intervened. "We were united by an outsider, but that doesn't mean we should separate. This palace is big enough for all of us, after all."
"Have you met Grimmjow and Ulquiorra?" Halibel muttered. But the joke fell flat when a loud curse sounded from the far side of the room. They all turned their eyes to the Sixth who pulled the fractured pieces of his soul from the wall where they'd been mounted in Aizen's sick display.
"DAMMIT!" Grimmjow swore again when he pulled the last piece free. In total he had four: the hilt, and three shards. Aizen had been cruel. "Pantera..."
"He may never go back," Ulquiorra intoned.
"I didn't mean it as an insult," the Fourth continued, "I just know that a zanpakuto rarely recovers from damage like that."
"But..." Grimmjow clenched his fists around the shards. "After everything..." the words were meant only for himself—well, perhaps for that almighty being that might be listening—he stared down at his shattered soul in dismay. After saving the universe, could he really not save himself?
"Grimmjow." It was Starrk, the only one in the room who probably could have approached the Sixth without getting a cero to the face. "There may be another way—a way to fix him."
"I thought it was a myth, until you said you'd been there yourself." Blue eyes narrowed in thought then he met Starrk's steady gaze. The First espada met his shocked expression with a smile. "I'll try to make sure Las Noches is still standing by the time you get back."
"He'll never go back?" Ichigo knew he shouldn't be feeling such self pity when there had been so much loss and devastation around him. Three captains were in critical condition: Toshiro, from his wounds from Aizen; Kenpachi, after his encounter with Bach, and Soifon, after taking on three top ranking Vandenreich by herself.
The battle between Eva, Ino and Bambietta had killed several younger members of the Fourth, and in the end, all three Vandenreich had survived. Unohana had subdued them, and now they were in custody.
Momo and Shuhei, had been severely wounded, and Iba, after his last talk with Ichigo, had met his end at the blade of Buzzbee. This had shaken Ichigo deeply, and he couldn't help but think that had he acted quicker, ended things sooner, he might have saved the lieutenant who'd been among that group so long ago. It pained him greatly to know that after everything, he had still fallen to the Vandenreich.
And beyond those Ichigo knew, hundreds had been killed. Many young and eager soul reapers had fallen attempting to defend their keep when they simply weren't prepared for what was to come. Others still had been killed simply in the mass devastation created by the fight between Aizen and Bach—their bodies consumed as spiritual particles with no trace left to mourn.
So, it was with great guilt, that Ichigo felt his heart sink when Captain Kurotsuchi explained to him how souls worked and that his would never be entirely the same again.
Ichigo left the Twelfth with downcast eyes. He didn't really know where to go now. Funerals were being prepared—everyone was still in chaos, and yet his own thoughts had turned inward. He considered finding Kukaku and Ganju, but he ended up just standing before the First Division, staring at the insignia painted on one side of the building.
"I can't believe he's gone." Rukia came up beside him.
"I should have saved him."
Her hand came up to his and she shook her head. "No, Ichigo, that was not up to you. Of all things you faced, the Head Captain could hold his own. It's a miracle that Bach and Aizen were defeated—and that you're alive." Her eyes rested on the many bandages still poking out from under his uniform.
"Did you hear, Captain Kyoraku is to be the new Head Captain?"
"What, no? Wow, that's..." Ichigo didn't know, he only really had a fleeting impression of the pink robed captain. "good I guess..." he concluded.
"Brother says it was an appropriate choice. I agree."
"Then it is good."
"Ichigo Kurosaki." The voice startled them both. They looked up to the front steps of the division. "The Head Captain would like to meet with you."
"Uhh, yeah, of course."
Rukia gave him a nod and he ascended to the First Division, anxious to hear what Shunsui had to say.
"It's an amazing story." Shunsui concluded after asking Ichigo to relay his adventure. "But a question remains, and I bet it is the same one you have."
"What happened to the original soul king." Ichigo answered at once, having already wondered if in turning back time—he too would be remade, and that power reborn."
"Yes, and I think it is a question that is essential to the survival of Soul Society. We must know what powers in the universe exist before reshaping ourselves in the aftermath of this battle."
"You want me to go, and find out?"
"No, I want a captain like Soifon or Unohana to go and give me a detailed report upon their return—but Soifon is in a coma and Unohana is busy trying to save her and many others. And you, Ichigo, have a broken soul."
At this the teen lowered his eyes.
"There is a rumour."
"What?" Ichigo asked, desperate for a solution to his problem.
"That zanpakutos are born in the realm of the Soul King."
"Well, it is only a rumour, but it may be a chance, for you to renew Zangetsu. If you are interested, I would ask you to go, to seek out the Soul King and discover if his power is now gone—and also, to heal your soul, if you can."
"Y-yes. I will." Ichigo said at once. "If there is any chance. I will go."
"Alright. Then I wish you good luck, Ichigo Kurosaki."
He set out at once and he set out alone. Shunsui would tell the others for him. This was something he needed to do, for the Seireitei, but also, for himself—and it had been a long time since he had done something he needed. He passed over the place where his town had been harboured. Karakura had come out unscathed this time—though people still wouldn't forget what had happened. How their lives would be different after this—how the world might even change because of it.
But he would be free. He wouldn't have to lie. He was a Soul Reaper, and his friends now knew it. He wanted to see them. More, he wanted to find his family, hold his sisters in his arms—but he wanted to be whole when he did it. He didn't want to feel this ache in his heart—in his soul, as he did now.
He stopped for a breather at the crest of a hill that levelled out on a small community that inhabited the knoll. He found her in the entry, as if she had been waiting for him.
"The hero returns." Ado Nai greeted him. "Welcome."
He followed her inside, he told her what happened, because she deserved to know, because she had been a friend when he'd needed one, and she had shown him the utmost kindness.
She poured tea, and fed him. Though darkness would fall soon, he decided to move forward, he was anxious to get where he was going.
"Good luck," she said.
He bowed and left.
At some point in the night, he decided to rest. He had retraced his original journey, and still had a long time before he came to those flat lands before the mountains. So he gathered some wood to start a fire. Then he stared at the pile, thinking how much he wished he had a lighter...
The wood jolted and flames sprung up. Ichigo jumped in start and whirled, automatically reaching for his broken sword.
"After all that, you still can't start a fire?"
"Grimmjow!" Ichigo watched him materialized from the shadows. He was redressed in his old uniform, a smug expression plastered on his face. "How did you get here?"
"Starrk opened a passage for me, a trick he learned from the Vandrenreich, apparently."
"Oh...so...what are you doing here?"
Shadows danced in his face, but not even the obscurity could hide his true emotions from one who'd spent so long reading those eyes.
"Pantera." Ichigo answered his own question, when he saw Grimmjow's gaze shift to his side. He wore a hilt, but he noticed that it was wrapped in cloth. Without speaking, Grimmjow pulled it from his side and unwound the cloth, then he slid out the pieces to reveal the truth.
"Aizen did it, when he first imprisoned me."
Grimmjow just nodded and wrapped his broken soul back up.
"Why did Aizen do that to you? I never...I was never sure."
"Because of you."
Ichigo set his jaw—he had long suspected.
"I wanted to kill you more than anything." Grimmjow continued without hesitation. "I hated you far more than I ever feared Aizen."
"What?" Grimmjow balked at the solemn look on Ichigo's features. "You must have guessed."
"I did. I just didn't want to believe that was why."
"Why not? It's how things were, back then." He squatted down next to the fire, to absorb some of its heat. "Seems like a fucking life time ago."
"Yeah," Ichigo sat across from him, "it does." He threw another stick among the flames. Sparks crackled up and smouldering ash flutter into the night sky with the smoke. Ichigo followed them up, until they turned to dust and disappeared. "You think he's up there?"
"Who? The Soul King?"
But Ichigo didn't answer. His eyes were fixed up high, and Grimmjow saw the expression on his face. He looked up too, the moon masked by clouds but a patch of stars were clear and sparkling though the fog.
"I don't know." Grimmjow lowered his eyes again, Ichigo did too. "Go to sleep, we'll set out first light."
Ichigo nodded. "Okay. Night."
It was strange, travelling without the urgency of the fate of the world on their shoulders. Though they weren't leisurely. Ichigo had a life to get back to, a family he was eager to be reunited with and both men desperately wanted to renew their souls. But it was nothing like their original journey over the dry flat to the foot of the mountain, or racing over those peaks, starving and freezing and being hunted. They stopped in the bowl shaped community where they'd first seen Unelana. Grimmjow stood right at the precipice of the sheer face at the edge of the outdoor eatery.
"We should be able to make that in a couple days this time."
"Yeah..." Grimmjow turned at the distracted sound in Ichigo's voice and found his eyes glued on a girl with long curly hair, serving up beer at a stall.
"It was her that betrayed us, wasn't it?" Grimmjow's fists clenched but Ichigo put a hand on his shoulder to stop him.
"She was threatened."
Grimmjow's jaw stiffened but he chose silence rather than a fight. Ichigo was glad. He watched Freya a moment longer than turned.
"Let's go, before we're recognized."
Grimmjow didn't argue. Now that his goal was in sight, he didn't want any more distractions. They only stopped for some food in Unelana, at the bar. There was no hope of avoiding recognition, as the barman knew them instantly and demanded to be told what had happened. Up here in the mountains, Ichigo and Grimmjow had seen much confusion over the reversal of time, however, people had no other choice than to continue about their business. So Ichigo did his best to explain to the barman as Grimmjow took advantage of the free beers offered up. They spent the night, had a full breakfast before their departure. Both of them had a feeling they would need the energy.
They touched down on the mountain side at high noon, but the sun did nothing to warm them in the constant wind and the bone crushing weight of spiritual pressure that rained down from the storming ring above them.
But this time, they were not alone on their journey.
"Kurosaki." Grimmjow warned.
"I feel them." They took their stance, shoulder to shoulder but when the oncoming force landed there was no doubt they were out numbered. Several men in solid black uniforms landed around them on the mountainside. Ichigo was reminded for a moment of the stealth squad, but he knew instantly who these men really were—he and Yuroichi had discovered their bodies on their first journey up this mountain.
"You are the Zero Squad," he spoke.
"We are." They had not yet drawn their weapons, which was probably the only reason Grimmjow hadn't attacked them yet. Ichigo just hoped he wouldn't do anything stupid.
"You..." Ichigo was choosing his words carefully, but he got the feeling if these people really wanted them off the mountain they wouldn't have stopped to chat. "You remember what happened?"
"Yes." Came the blunt response.
"Um...do you know who I am?"
"You are a former Soul King."
"Ah—yeah, that's right. But I was hoping to meet with the current one."
"There is no Soul King. The Soul King is dead."
Ichigo felt a pang. It wasn't unexpected, but he had hoped the reversal of time would even affect the realm of the Soul King. He voice this aloud, but the soldier in black shook his head.
"The price to be paid for giving the power of All-Souls cannot be undone."
"You should not be."
"What does that mean?"
"We do not know. It means, a new era has begun, one in which we serve no purpose."
"But, the realm of the Soul King, does it still exist?"
"Then you do serve a purpose. It's a powerful place, not just anyone should be permitted there."
"And yet you seek to return, do you not?"
"With a hollow?"
"Hey!" Grimmjow had remained silent but no longer, it seemed. "You got something against me, you say it to my fucking face!"
"Grimmjow!" Ichigo warned.
"No, Ichigo, after all the shit we went through to save the world I'm not letting a bunch of punk-ass, mountain dwelling shingami stand in the way of me restoring Pantera."
"I see, so that is your reason for coming here."
"What the fuck's it to you?" Grimmjow challenged the man. They maintained a stare down for several long seconds, then the black garbed soldier relented.
"He accepted you, so we will too. But no others will be permitted this way. When you return to the Seireitei, make sure they understand that."
"We will." Ichigo assured. "Grimmjow, come on." He grabbed the other's arm to make sure there were no more problems and half drug him away from the group. Grimmjow didn't resist, however, it was clear his main concern was restoring Pantera and his anger had vanished by the time they came to that level rock right beneath the storm.
"I never thanked you, for coming to save me back then." Ichigo commented when he saw the place where Bambietta had killed Urahara and Yoruichi.
"The Hell I was going to stay in that damn bar while you tried to save the world." It was the best 'you're welcome' he'd ever get from the espada. He smiled.
"Well, are you ready to go through again?"
"Just don't forget what it was like last time. Find a way to burn off your energy before you burst."
"Good." They moved together, into the sky, through the darkness and swell of power, to that pastoral realm of rolling fields and endless blue sky. Ichigo watched Grimmjow scan the horizon, as if some part of him wanted to believe the Soul King was still here. Ichigo had never found out just exactly what had happened between the King of All Souls and the espada, and he would never ask him, even now that he could speak. It was just enough to know the encounter had deeply affected him, maybe in a way Grimmjow didn't even recognize himself.
"What do we do now?" Ichigo asked. He got no answer from the espada, but caught a look in his eye that told he was thinking. He waited.
"We got stronger here." Grimmjow finally spoke.
"You mean the cabin?"
A nod. "What we needed, was just there."
"Right. So, we should go back there." A shrug was his only response but it made sense so Ichigo took a firm hold of his broken hilt and reached out for that connection with Zangetsu. In only took a second until he felt a guiding tug. "This way."
They walked for over an hour. Ichigo wasn't sure he could master this universe the way he had with the power of all souls—in fact, most of that was a blur, in all the excitement he'd barely been conscious of what he'd been doing. Now they took it slow, passing though endless fields until another tug drew Ichigo toward the woods and soon they found a clearing, the small cabin, its garden, its warm walls and the inexplicable stores of food. It looked untouched, wood all set for a fire, bed made, kitchen clean.
Neither spoke for a long moment while they looked around, waiting for a more definitive answer on just how to heal their broken souls. But as the silence rolled on, Ichigo found himself not looking forward but back, recalling the utter sorrow he'd felt here, when he'd known the sacrifice he had to make. He remembered crying and thinking how much he'd wanted to see his family again. And he remembered Grimmjow taking hold of him, and that look in his eyes that had held him together better than any embrace—any words that could be spoken.
"I couldn't have done it without you, Grimmjow." The espada looked at him. "I would have tried, but I would have failed."
"Why are you saying this?"
"Because, that was the moment, right here. That was the moment when I knew that you were with me to the end, no matter what—that even if I had to die, I wouldn't be alone."
"We had a deal."
"It was more than that and you know it."
"What's your point?"
"My point is that I think we need to do this together too, here, in this place."
"I don't know, but we'll figure it out."
"You don't know that."
"Sure I do, just like I knew we could beat Bach."
Grimmjow eyed him for a long moment, then rolled his eyes like he had so many times before, but the look alone said it all. Ichigo was young, arrogant and naive—but all those traits had paid off last time and because of Ichigo's unrelenting beliefs, they had won. So Grimmjow let out a long sigh.
"Let's just do this." He opened the door and headed into open sun.
Ichigo gripped Zangetsu and followed, confident that after everything they'd accomplished together, they could achieve this one, last goal.
Three weeks later.
The clouds were tinted crimson with the first red, reaching rays that touched them before the true dawn, and two silent shadows stepped out of nothingness just below them. Both looked up in surprise to see the brilliant colour dripping above them, and at this height they could see the millions of water droplets that refracted the light.
Ichigo couldn't resist reaching out a hand, as if he could grasp he cloud like something tangible, but his hand disrupted the swirling unity of condensation, and he with drew it wet and cold.
"I can't believe we're home."
"You're home." Ichigo's eyes shot up at the sharp correction, Grimmjow's face glistened with the moisture and his hair hung heavy with water. Ichigo felt his own clothes becoming damp and his wild locks tamed by the weight of the morning—but nothing was more heavy than the silence now between them.
"You're really going back, to Hueco Mundo?"
"All I ever wanted, was to get the Vandenreich out of my world. Now that I have Pantera, it's time to go back."
"But after everything..." Water already drenched his face, but a thicker droplet coursed over Ichigo's cheek and he felt his throat tighten.
Grimmjow smiled. "After everything, you're still just a kid." He gripped him by the shoulder, Ichigo raised his arm to return the gesture. "Go get drunk and have sex."
The espada's grin widened at Ichigo's deep blush—but despite the crudeness of his words it struck Ichigo that he'd recalled the things he had said in the cabin so long ago.
Then without another word, the sixth espada turned to open air and extended a hand just as the sun breached the horizon. And he stood back-lit by blinding light, nothing but a silent shadow on the horizon.
"Grimmjow..." but Ichigo stopped himself, and he let all words of protest die. They began their fellowship in silence, and that was how it should end. So for one last time their eyes met and they said what needed saying without a breath or a whisper.
And then he disappeared, and Ichigo was left staring at a crimson sea of crystal sky scrapers.
He bowed his head, he closed his eyes, and he felt that warming touch of light, smelt the burnt fumes of a city coming to life. And he knew he was home, and all those days of fear and doubt were ended and now a future once lost stretched before him.
So he sniffed, he smiled and he wiped his eyes.
The sun had risen.
He turned for home.
And I did it again-I meant to finish this right away, but I spent more than a month rethinking, reworking and rewriting this ending. It was twice as long this morning, but I finally started hitting delete until I got what I wanted-a conclusion. I don't know if it's what you wanted, but it's what I thought suited, so I hope you'll find it okay. I always seem to do this with stories (leave that last chapter hanging forever) so I think I will wait before I start publishing a new one until I have it totally done. I was going to start publishing an AU, but I'm now not so sure I like it so I think I will hold off until I have something for sure (though I can tell you now, it will be Grimmjow and Ichigo).
As for this story, it's my absolute pride as a writer and I can't express my thanks to all those who reviewd (critical or positive) and showed your interest and support. I would love to be an author some day, and I see this piece as a warm up for that. I put significant time and thought into this plotline and I really appreciate the support I've recieved.
Thank you all so, so much,
Riza A. Winters.