They've been hunting me for weeks, driving me down like I'm some kind of animal, and looking to put either a collar around my neck or a sword through my chest. Soi Fon's not real picky. According to her, I'm a danger to everyone around me, only barely safer than one of Aizen's arrancar.
Soul Society had decided – after my transformation at the hands of Ulquiorra – that I could lose control at any time, and that my potential benefit in the war was outweighed by the risk I represented. I'd been angry, and felt betrayed, but I hadn't really been surprised. Honestly I'd expected them to come after me eventually, I just didn't think it would be till after the war was over, and I wasn't useful anymore.
The initial warning had come only a half hour before they arrived, I hadn't had time to do anything but grab the reiatsu-hiding cloak Urahara had shoved at me, and run as far and as fast as I could. I hadn't even been out of town when what seemed like the entirety of the second division had come down on my head; kidou spells flying, and Soi Fon waiting at the edges for an opportunity to deliver her fatal two hits.
She'd gotten one of them as I came out of a cloud of dust, blindsiding me and driving Suzumebachi between my ribs, instantly spawning a white butterfly that stood out in high relief against the black shinigami robes I wore. I threw her away before she could get the second strike in but, well, those butterflies pretty much stick around forever, and you don't exactly just shake off having someone put a two or three inch hole in your side.
I don't know how many of them I've killed, since only a few have actually died by Zangetsu's blade, but I'm sure the count is high. At this point, most people can't stand taking a getsuga tenshou head on, and my specialty has always been speed, so it's not like they're dodging them. I managed to out distance them the first week since hardly anyone can keep up with me, and Urahara's cloak works wonderfully at keeping me hidden, but they've steadily closed in. Between the different shifts of the division hunting me, I don't usually have the time or the safety for sleep, and it's that slowing me down more than anything else.
Three days ago – or something like that; I've lost track recently – they trapped me in a battle that left me with two new butterflies, one on the right side of my throat, and one decorating my right shoulder, and a deep gash into my left calf from some shinigami that managed to get close to me while I was fighting Soi Fon. He died in a single swing and I ran from her, zigzagging and in general doing everything I could to get far enough away from her to hide. I managed it, but not without cost. My leg doesn't hold me anymore, and the power I used up fleeing has bitten deep into my reserves.
Right now I'm just a target, and if they find me, Soi Fon will rip me apart as easily as breathing.
It isn't even a question of if, anymore. It's when they'll find me. If not today or tonight then tomorrow, it won't be long now. I'm too weak to put up any resistance, just limping through whatever city I'm currently in is exhausting me. I'll have to rest soon if I don't want to black out in the middle of the sidewalk, give my body a bit of time to recover and quell the trembling of my shoulders. My vision has blacked at the edges, focusing my gaze down to straight in front of me, and each new step brings a wave of fresh pain from both the wound in my side and leg. I can't go on like this.
I stagger into some random alley, collapsing against one wall and nearly crying out as my left leg buckles beneath me, bringing me to the ground. Zangetsu is heavy against my back, pressing me down, and I sink forward till my face presses against the cement. It's too much, and I feel myself start to fall into oblivion, into welcoming blackness.
My eyes wrench open and I recognize the blue skyscrapers of my inner world before my hollow is in my face, a snarl twisting his mouth. "Get the fuck up, King! If you stop here we're both dead, so you better drag yourself together and fucking get up!"
He's wet, I notice dully, the rain – Look I'm wet too… – has flattened his white hair down and is probably doing the same to mine. I start to sink down towards the ground and he grabs me by the shoulders, shaking me and forcing me to pay attention.
"No you fucking don't, god damn it! It's just a couple scratches, you've taken worse before! GET UP!"
I shudder and give a bitter laugh, sagging against his hold. "Can't." He lets us sink to our knees but shakes me again, his words laced with anger and desperation.
"Yes you can, you motherfucker! Get up or they kill you!"
"Don't think I care."
I really don't. At this point, isn't death better than the slow hell my life has become? I'd rather have Soi Fon end things here than continue this pointless crawl away from my inevitable death. Death… It's just rebirth really, right? There's not really anything to be scared of. It'll catch me eventually, why not on my terms?
His eyes narrow to slits and he snarls at me, his distorted voice low and filled with fury. "I should fucking tear you off your throne, worthless piece of shit King! Get your ass up!" He shoves me back and I don't fight even as he climbs above me and pins my shoulders to the ground, nails digging through my clothes.
"The hell, King?! Do you fucking want me to take over?!"
My eyes open wide, the shouted question lighting a spark that clears away some of the fog of resignation. Do I?
"Yes." My hollow stills above me, eyes widening with stunned surprise. I laugh, though even to my own ears it sounds flat and desperate. "Fuck, I'm done with this. I can't… I'm done. Take it." My eyes close, almost without my permission, and I feel his hands flex around my shoulders.
I nod, bitterness clinging to my words. "I'm tired of dragging myself just that one step forward. I'm gonna fucking die, either by Soi Fon or one of her little soldiers." I let out another bark of laughter, my eyes flick open to the narrowed gaze of my hollow. "Maybe it should be on my terms."
He stares at me for several long seconds, before he finally grins and laughs, releasing my shoulders to plant his hands on either side of my head. "You're a fucking piece of work, you know that?" His right hand draws back to rest over my heart and he lowers himself, so our foreheads touch and all that exists in my sight are his eyes. "As my King commands."
His fingers dig into my skin, through muscle and blood, and I arch and clutch at his shoulders, a shuddering gasp forcing its way out of my lungs. "Fuuccckkkk…"
I am lost in his eyes, the golden iris and black sclera, and that feeling is the only thing keeping me from screaming as his hand sinks further into me. I clutch harder, breathing in shallow pants because fuck it hurts, and feel him shift within my chest.
"Give in…" he whispers, stroking through my hair with his left hand, and some weight I didn't even know I had lifts off me at the soft command. I relax and the pain eases, replaced with acceptance and surety. This is what I asked for, this is what I want. Silence descends, and I realize that the rain has stopped, that I am at peace. I close my eyes and allow myself to melt away.
Outside my body trembles, momentarily fighting the transformation, before relaxing into it just like I had. It isn't like the other times, the violent wrestle for control and the screams as our body echoes the inner turmoil. This is easy, natural. My body grows, two and then three times as big as it had been, and my clothing rips around the size increase. My fingers slim to claws, and my spine extends outwards in a tail as the grey mass leaks from beneath my closed eyelids and solidifies over my head, hiding my face and hair behind the distinctive mask I'm so familiar with.
As the hollow, me, opens its eyes, a thought slides across the back of its mind. This isn't what I thought it would be. I haven't died, haven't ceased to exist like I thought I would, I have only been absorbed into the hollow. I am no longer the dominant part of my mind, that belongs to the raw instinct and animal urges of the hollow, but I am not gone. We have become I.
I raise myself to my knees and that's when I become aware of the hunger. It gnaws at my stomach, painful in its intensity, and instinct makes me roar at the sky before I can stop myself. I jerk all the way to standing, the lack of pain causing me to glance down my new body. The gash in my calf and wound in my side are gone, along with the butterfly that had been spread over my ribs, helpful. I feel stronger, definitely not as ready to pass out as I had, but something still tells me I should sleep before long. I stretch, testing the limits of this form, and feel the last shreds of clothing still clinging to me fall.
The scent reaches me first. Blood and honey and something altogether new that the hollow simultaneously cringes from and reaches towards. Shinigami. Right on the heels of that comes the sight of a small form at the opposite end of the alley, and the sight of Soi Fon raises anger in me that manifests itself as a snarl. My vision sharpens, focusing in on the captain, and I watch in interest as hollow instincts shove me out of control. Fight or flight responses kick in, and the hollow takes a brief moment to decide that this shinigami is weaker, and therefore prey instead of threat. I mentally gasp and shiver at the intensity that takes control of me, thinking back to those first few hollows I'd fought, and suddenly understanding what drove them at me. This burning, overpowering need to devour, to sate the hunger that suddenly heightens the moment the shinigami is marked as prey. The hollow growls low and deep, completely still except for that, and Soi Fon steps forward in shunpo.
I can follow it.
It's easy, and I track her coming in on my right side, the hollow swinging my body to match, and the reality of how much stronger I am than her shocks me. My blow, midway through her movement, punches claws through her chest and throws her against the wall with a sickening crunch. She falls to her back on the pavement and the hollow moves forward, crouching over the bleeding form. I watch her start to shift for a final attack. Pin her arm. The hollow reacts to my thought, slamming her right arm against the ground with a crack before Suzumebachi can curl to deliver the death it's capable of. It leans forwards, sinking teeth into the small captain's collarbone and ripping a mouthful of skin and blood away, heedless of the shriek of pain it draws. It chews, swallows, and I feel the rush of power under my skin.
I shiver and the hollow shivers with me, shoulders hunching as the hunger lessens and I feel myself start to change again. I shrink and my tail detaches and falls, dissolving into air before it hits the ground. I feel hair slide down my back and my forehead itches as horns grow from the top of my mask and jut forwards, sharpening to lethal points. My claws change to fingers before bone armor slides over the top, and retractable claws emerge from beneath the armor with a flex of my hands. I shiver once more and reopen my eyes, staring down at the dying captain. I am in control almost completely, and although I can feel the hollow watching with me, instincts have subsided. I sneer beneath the mask, I'm sure she can see my eyes narrow even if she can't see the full expression.
"You wanted to stop me being a threat, huh?" I laugh and the fear in her eyes makes the hollow stir in excitement. "Well congrats, you turned me into one." I release her and stand, pleased that I'm only a few inches taller than I was as a vizard.
Soi Fon coughs, shivers, and I watch the life drain from her, flexing my hands. It only takes a minute or two, and though I can feel the unseated members of her division lingering, no one dares attack me. Who would, after I had so effortlessly killed their captain?
I turn away and glance up at the sky, at the rooftops, where the other shinigami linger. No, the hollow thinks, not worth the effort. It reaches through me, pulling my right hand forward, and claws through the air, space ripping apart to form a gargantua. I hesitate a brief moment, holding us back, before allowing myself to walk forward into the blackness. It's different than the shinigami portals, just black space that the hollow knows instinctively and travels without thought. A moment passes, and light blooms, I walk into it and onto the sands of Hueco Mundo. It's quiet apart from the rustle of the wind, and I turn my head to look around. It's all the same, sand and the occasional rock or spidery tree, until I look behind me and see Las Noches on the distant horizon. It's fairly small, and therefore must be very far away, but unease still filters through me. I don't want to be anywhere near Aizen or his arrancar.
The hollow intervenes in my observations, pushing instinct at me. Water. I reach for a reason and find one without difficulty. Water is precious in the desert of Hueco Mundo, we need to claim territory that includes a water source if we are to survive. After that is shelter, and finally hunting grounds for when the hunger returns.
I turn and head the opposite direction of Las Noches, fast and silent against the never ending sand, and begin to explore Hueco Mundo.
The first two pools I come across the hollow warns me away from, the traces of Vasto Lorde scent marking them as part of other territories. But the third is unclaimed and conveniently within sight of a large rock outcropping that houses several caves for a den. I don't smell anything on it, apart from old smells from weaker hollows, and the hollow surfaces once more. It prompts and I inhale deeply, letting it out in a roaring scream of challenge that is enforced by an automatic explosion of power that whips the sand around me into a cloud. No one answers, the world falling silent for a brief moment, and the hollow is satisfied. It stalks around the pool, guiding me in releasing small threads of power that soak into the ground around the water, claiming it.
It's at that pool I get my first look at what I've become.
I am covered in overlapping bone armor, with dark red markings framing the hole through my chest and tracing over my hips, thighs, and shoulders. My claws, over three inches and wickedly sharp, retract into the slightly thicker armor over my fingers, though they don't appear to hamper my movement in any way when pulled back. My mask is the same as I'm used to, though the crimson markings are mirrored on both sides instead of just the left, but the horns extending from it are new. They go up several inches from the top of it on either side and then make a right angle forward and angle just slightly in, ending just a little more than a foot and a half in front of me, with four or five inches between the tips. To complete my appearance, a thick mane of orange hair flows down my back, ending at my ass. I am completely human shaped, for which I am exceedingly grateful, since it might have been difficult to adjust to a body that moved differently.
I pull back from the pool of water and move to the rock outcropping, exploring and finally choosing a fairly small cave to call home. I curl up in it, my hunger temporarily dimmed to a dull ache in the back of my stomach, and sink into sleep. My life as a hollow begins.
It's easy, really. Sleep, go hunting, try and amuse myself till I either grow hungry or tired again, repeat cycle. I learn that apart from my claws, my horns are my greatest weapon. It becomes second nature for me to use them in battle, raking them at opponents or charging a cero between them so I can still use my claws to keep my prey in place. I adapt quickly to fighting without a zanpakuto, and with armor. Most hollows I run into or hunt down don't have the strength necessary to cut through the bone plates protecting me, but I haven't let myself fall into the habit of just letting strikes bounce off me, because I know eventually I'll run into an opponent that's powerful enough to be a threat.
It happens, something like weeks later, in the form of three Vasto Lordes dropping by my 'home'. One is stronger than the others, I know just by the way the other two – weaker, but still a threat – slide around him as they walk towards me, their heads down and working to keep out of his way. The leader – alpha – is covered in bone armor quite similar to mine, reverse blades on his forearms and a black streaked mask that slides backwards into horns that curl behind where his ears would be and forward again to rest at either side of his mouth. He has sharp claws, permanent unlike my retractable ones, and the back of his head is smooth mask that melts seamlessly into his neck and shoulders.
The others I take less interest in, as the hollow and I are focused mostly on the leader, but enough to know what weapons they have. One is almost a head shorter than the other two, with triangular teeth in his mask instead of the normal square ones and armor plates that each sharpen into a point, making him look rather like a puffer fish. We note that he has a mass of black hair before our attention shifts to the last one. This one is odd, with large attachments on his arms that look vaguely like cannons, small claws, and a pure white mask that has two round horns that point forward with holes in the tips at the very top of it. He's very lightly armored, with thin sheets like the scales of a lizard or snake covering him neck to toe, but that won't stand up to my claws.
I don't intend to stick around, the hollow and I agree that we won't win this fight, but I've always been fast and maybe I can outrun them. If they want my territory they can have it, and if they're just hunting me then I'll come back later to reclaim it, after I lose them in the sands. I take off and they follow, and I'm right. They can't match me for speed, even though the leader is a good deal faster than both his allies. However, my mental victory is immediately squashed as the thinly armored one raises his arms and blue ceros shoot from his cannons without even a fraction of warning, bearing towards me at a speed that surpasses anything I've seen except maybe Yoruichi. I jerk to the side, turning a harsh right angle, and the ceros slam into the ground where I would have taken my next step at the same time that claws rake across my back and wrench me to the ground by my hair.
I abandon all hope of running as I hit the sands, unsheathing my claws and snarling as I immediately roll and drive my right hand back where I assume my attacker is. I know I've hit something by the cry of pain and the release of my hair, and a fraction of a second later, as I complete my roll, I come face to face with the leader. My claws are buried in his right thigh, his armor providing about as much protection from them as tissue paper, and he jerks away from me, dislodging them, as I slice at him with my left hand. A second later sees us both on our feet, where I notice that he's bleeding heavily from his leg and, with no small satisfaction about the better quality of my armor, that his rake across my back hasn't done anything at all. A fraction later the leader's companions flash into view on either side of him.
He gives a low snarl, anger in his black and golden eyes, and speaks in a low, obviously male, voice. "We just want to talk." The words take a second for me to register and get past my instinct driven haze of fight, defend, kill, but when they do I almost laugh in disbelief.
"Well you've got a shit way of introducing yourself," I snap back, watching each of them carefully for any hint of an attack. We agree, the hollow and I, that it's best to wait for them to move, a charge would only get us surrounded and killed.
"Well you ran," he snarls, power flaring, and I can't help the returning snarl and equal flare that escapes me. I won't back down, not to him. He gives a sharp sigh of aggravation and his power quiets, his voice a hiss of anger. "Look, you're new to Hueco Mundo and there're rules among the Vasto Lordes that we wanted to make you aware of. Get it?"
I don't relax, but I do let my claws slide about halfway back into their sheathes. "I'm listening."
He gives a sharp nod to his small, spiked, companion and the Vasto Lorde steps forward, speaking in an annoyed tone that to my surprise is female. "We don't hunt each other. If you want someone else's territory, you challenge them for it and fight to decide who gets it, no deaths. The High Lordes won't tolerate any who hunt the others, they'll be killed. The same rule applies for kids, hunt them or harm a child in any way and die yourself." I nod, wondering briefly who these 'High Lordes' are and if I'm supposed to be subservient to them or something. "Other than that you're free to live as you want."
The leader snorts and glares at me, a hiss sliding between his teeth. "Try not to get yourself killed, and don't go too close to that white building if you value your skin."
I almost snap at him that I'm not a moron, thanks, and I'd rather not die to Aizen, before it hits me that they don't know who I am. So instead I allow my claws to slide fully into their sheathes and mostly straighten. "Sure, I get it." He gives a last snarl and then turns to leave, vanishing in sonido with his two companions right on his heels. I wait for a few moments, to ensure they're really gone, before starting back in the direction of my home.
It's nice to not be instantly recognizable to everyone. Orihime and Ishida can definitely ID me, they were there for my transformation at Ulquiorra's hands, and I'm almost certain Aizen can as well since I highly doubt that he missed that particular event. But to anyone else? Maybe the more perceptive of the shinigami could piece my hair and mask together to see who I am, but most of them don't see much past monster. So long as I stay out here, I can be just another hollow. It certainly sounds like a pleasant change from being Soul Society's hero or, more recently, a wanted fugitive.
I think I could get used to being anonymous.
Naturally, it doesn't work out because life just loves to fuck with me. Some small eternity of time later – telling time is a bitch in Hueco Mundo – fate decides it's had enough of me being satisfied.
I'm hunting, well not hunting really, but toying with some hollow. Watching it stumble in blind terror away from me as it keens in fear and a healthy dose of pain. I've already wounded it, but I'm playing with it by letting it think it might have a chance of escaping. I'm not even hungry, just the familiar low ache in the back of my stomach that I've long since learned to ignore, and I haven't even slipped fully into the instinct driven haze that overcomes me when I hunt. It's cruel of me, but Hueco Mundo is so damn boring. I take my amusement where I can get it, even if it comes at another hollow's suffering. Maybe it should worry me that I am turning into someone, something, that can watch another person dying and laugh at it.
It's that sobering thought that drives me forward, driving the larger adjuchas to the ground by landing on its back. I take one of its horns – this one is styled after a bull – and wrench its head back, neatly slitting its throat with my claws. Blood spurts and I lean forward and take a bite out of its neck as it wheezes out its last breaths, shuddering under me. The rush of power isn't much, but it's enough to ease the ache in my stomach to a barely noticeable throb. I straighten and release it, stepping off its back and to the sands, watching it shudder one more time before it goes still, slowly dissolving into the air.
I whip around at the too familiar voice, a cero gathering between my horns without thought and firing within the same moment. The red energy roars across the space between us, obliterating all sight of the espada and raising thick clouds of dust.
"Jesus Christ! What're you trying to do, kill me?!"
A growl starts deep in my chest and I turn my head to look at the other man. His half jacket is missing on the right arm, frayed and singed, and the skin on that arm is just barely burnt.
"That thing might've really hurt if I hadn't moved," Grimmjow grins, blue eyes fixed on me and the swirl of reiatsu around him screaming challenge, "That's good for just a hollow, even if you are a Vasto Lorde."
Just a hollow? I am so much more than that, he has no idea what he's stumbled across. I give a low snarl, my eyes narrowing as I sheathe my claws and turn to fully face him.
"Leave, espada." My voice is raspy with disuse – I don't exactly talk to my prey after all – but my demand doesn't do anything but make his grin widen.
My instincts flare to life with a vengeance and I fight to rein them in, holding back the urge to slaughter the thing that has challenged me. Instead I step forward in sonido, watching the way Grimmjow's eyes track my movements just a half-second too slowly for it to make any difference. He reaches for his sword, as if in slow motion, but I get there in more than enough time to wrench his hand away from Pantera's hilt, turning my head to the left and then swinging it back so my horns rake at his face. He jerks back, but the tip of my right horn still slashes a long gash in the skin of his forehead before he gets outs of range.
The scent of blood, especially blood with this much power coursing through it, brings my hunger back to a roaring pit that tears at my control. I lash out at his chest with my right hand, fighting hard so my claws stay sheathed and I punch him instead of killing him. The blow hits him directly in the solar plexus, knocking the air out of him in a rush I feel more than hear, and slamming him to the ground on his back. I sink down to kneel over his chest, wrapping my hands around his wrists as he gasps for air and pinning them to the sand on either side of his head. I rear my head back and I see the realization in his eyes of what I intend a fraction of a second before I jerk my head forwards, driving my horns directly towards his throat.
I feel him jerk against me, like a dying hollow, and slide my eyes open as he shivers under me, his reiatsu vibrating with fear, anger, and panic. I flex my grip on his wrists and watch him realize that all I've done is drive my horns into the sand, only scraping thin furrows into his skin where his neck was slightly too big to fully avoid. They bleed very slowly, dying my horns red with his blood, but they shouldn't much more than sting to an experienced soldier like him.
I give a very low snarl, letting it rumble through my chest and into his. "These are my hunting grounds, espada. Leave before I start hunting you." He struggles, of course, growling and pulling against my hold, and I shiver with the effort of not leaning down and ripping his throat open with my teeth. My voice is deep with hunger and strain, and that seems to get through to him more than anything I say.
"Stop fighting me, it's hard enough to stop myself with your blood in the air."
He stops moving, thankfully, and I screw my eyes shut. My grip around his wrists tightens till he snarls at me in pain and I rip my horns out of the ground and snap my teeth at him, the scent of his blood and his continuing challenges driving me into an instinct fueled frenzy. They scream to kill this creature that has dared challenge me, dared to fight and not to run from me or cower at my feet like it should.
I force myself to release him, breathing heavily through my mouth and wrenching myself to standing. I back away, my head tossing and hands clenching at my sides. It's no use. Grimmjow rolls to standing and every sense I have focuses on him, the rest of my body completely stilling except for the shallow rise and fall of my chest. His blood is on my horns and I can smell the power in it, power that could be mine if I just hunt him down. The prey is wounded, easy to track and easy to kill, but just powerful enough to be fun to hunt.
It glares at me and I almost hum in amusement. The prey still thinks it has a chance, what a joke. Arrancar skin is too thin to stand up to my claws, unarmored and fragile like a shinigami, and oh so vulnerable without their swords. Still, at least the arrancar will have enough power… Arrancar. Aizen.
My eyes widen and I give a heavy shudder, struggling against the tide of instinct that names Grimmjow prey and urges me to tear him apart and devour his power for my own. "Run," I grate out, unable to tear my eyes away from the espada.
He snorts and crosses his arms, challenge in his eyes and each line of his body. "I watched you hunt, I can handle something like that." I shake my head, feeling the pull as my conscious starts to fade to leave room for the almost completely instinct driven haze of the hunt. I'd only been toying, letting myself relax, that wasn't anything close to a hunt.
The blood dripping off his chin draws my eyes, sharp and bright where my instincts have highlighted it, and I feel my claws unsheathe themselves without my permission. "Wasn't a hunt. Run."
Instead he grins, drawing his zanpakuto with a ring of metal that makes me shiver in unpleasant memory. "I don't fucking think so."
Well, there isn't really shit I can do if he's going to be like that. I relax into the instincts, feeling my body loosen and my eyes slide to half-mast. My vision blackens around the edges, narrowing down to encompass Grimmjow and nothing else, keeping only a vague sense of my surroundings. Just like that, it's done. Anything near me now is prey, to be devoured to sate the continual hunger gnawing at me.
I move, stalking a slow circle around the wounded arrancar, watching him turn with me, teeth bared to match the remnant of mask on his jaw. I grin, flexing my hands to slide my claws in and out of their sheathes, more than willing to wait for the prey to weaken or stumble. He doesn't, but he does lunge at me, roaring a challenge that is accompanied by a rush of power that rushes over me like wind. I duck under the swing of his sword and rake my claws across his right side, carving through his skin like it isn't there. He yelps in pain, jerks back, and I take a deep breath and bellow my own challenge back at him. Power explodes around me, red and black, and I see the arrancar stagger back, blue eyes widening. He's finally realized that he can't fight me, that he's not anything but food and sport to someone of my power.
He half turns to run and I leap forward, my hair whipping behind me as I slide into his guard and bury the claws of my right hand in his left side up to their bases, twisting and using it to throw him down. He crashes down on his stomach and his blood splatters against the ground, soaking into the sand. I bat Pantera away from him with a kick and kneel over the snarling espada as he starts to rise, driving my horns into his back on either side of his spine, digging through muscle and grating across the edges of bone, pinning him to the ground. He screams and writhes against me as I curl my claws around his shoulders, snarling in warning.
Quite suddenly, there is metal against my throat, and a smooth voice speaks from above and behind me. "I'd much prefer if you didn't kill my espada."
I freeze, and then my flight or fight instincts kick in with a bang. This shinigami, screams power, and every sense I have screams back that I should run. I jerk up, tearing my horns from the prey's back, and dive to the left, away from the sword. At least, I try to. A hand closes on my left horn and pulls my head back and up, yanking me to standing and preventing my escape. He presses against my back, his zanpakuto tight against my throat, and this close his scent drives into my mind with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
He smells like, like, power. That's as close as I can get to describing it. It isn't clear cut like Soi Fon's had been, instead his scent is fluid and changing, and the confusion it inspires drags me out of the haze of instinct enveloping me. Blood one moment, and then water, then mint, and then a scent I can't even name and, power. I shudder, sheathing my claws, instinct forcing a low whine of submission from me. I arch my neck slightly, praying that Aizen doesn't feel like killing me right here, and he chuckles in my ear.
"Back with us, Kurosaki-san?"
Grimmjow rolls over, blue eyes narrowed and chest heaving, and stares at me with confusion and some kind of new awareness. "Kurosaki? What the fuck?"
Aizen releases me and I slowly pull away and turn to face him, fighting the remaining urge to run like hell. He smirks and sheathes Kyouka Suigetsu, sparing Grimmjow only a faintly disappointed glance before he focuses on me. "It's good to see you again, it's been awhile."
It takes every ounce of control I have, but I give a shallow bow of my head. "Aizen."
"I would appreciate if you didn't kill him, Kurosaki-san. If you don't mind." He glances back down at Grimmjow and I have to fight the urge to shiver when his gaze turns back to me.
"Sure, I'm not hungry anyway." I'm not. With the appearance of Aizen and my slip back from the hunting mindset, the hunger has returned to the low throb that I barely even notice. A small smile slips across his face and Aizen – we're almost matched in height and that's just weird – flicks his eyes up and down my form.
"I've been meaning to ask you if you have any inclination to join me, Kurosaki-san? I'd be honored to have you in my army."
Join Aizen? Interesting idea. "Why should I?"
His answer is almost instant, like he's thought about this moment in advance. "Revenge against Soul Society for hunting you, for driving you from your home, family, and even your humanity. I offer you a place to rest and be safe, if that is your desire. And if it isn't, then I offer you blood and whatever vengeance you desire against the shinigami." As eloquent as ever, appealing to all the bitter parts of me that would like nothing more than to watch Soul Society burn to the ground for what they put me through. And it does sound like a nice variance. As easy as the life of a hollow is, it's also boring beyond belief, and there's only so much of the same mind numbing routine I can take before I turn to unorthodox methods of amusement, like the hollow from earlier.
However, a voice that I know is some combination of Soi Fon and my original self hisses in the back of my mind. Not Karakura. Aizen is watching me with thoughtful eyes, almost like he's trying to puzzle me out. "Are you still going to destroy Karakura?"
Surprisingly Aizen gives a soft chuckle and smirks. "That was never my plan to begin with. It was only ever a distraction while I searched for keys that already exist. As soon as I know where one is, it is only a matter of getting my hands on it." Good. As much as part of me burns to show Soul Society that they shouldn't have messed with me, I still hold fondness for Karakura and I wouldn't have been able to help with its destruction. But knowing that Aizen doesn't want my hometown destroyed, well that changes everything.
I grin, a hiss of pleasure escaping my lips courtesy of my hollow instincts. "Sounds good then. Count me in."
Aizen leads me back to Las Noches, a very annoyed Szayel dragging Grimmjow behind us, deep inside the maze of white hallways to the throne room. Szayel breaks off from us at the door, muttering about 'stupid espada who feel the need to get themselves torn to shreds,' Grimmjow snarling and cursing and still bleeding all over the place as he's pulled away. I feel a shadow of discomfort, every hollow inch of me disliking the brightness and the feeling of being trapped inside the building, and Aizen notices the tremble of my reiatsu, turning a thin smile at me.
"Relax, it'll be easier once you're an arrancar."
Right, that's going to happen. I'd bet good money that I'm the first vizard to ever become a hollow and then get turned into an arrancar. I let my eyes wander the room, the tiered columns on either side bringing to mind some kind of stadium, but maintain a sharp awareness of Aizen.
"The espada are being gathered." I look back at him, shaking my head slightly in a useless attempt to get his confusing scent out of my nose. "As soon as they're here we can turn you, then you'll be given a rank."
I nod, noticing for the first time that his left hand is stained with blood, and it takes me a moment to place that it's from him grabbing my horn. I had mostly forgotten that my horns are still dyed red, Grimmjow's blood had all but vanished from my mind once Aizen had appeared, radiating power. Everything about him is telling me I should run, and it's taking a good deal of control not to flee back to my hunting ground, and then to curl up in my den and hide from this creature that could wipe me off the map without that much effort. The approaching reiatsu signatures, not powerful as me, but enough to make me wary, aren't helping my shaky control. It does help to know that Aizen legitimately does want me in his army, and isn't real likely to suddenly order my death.
A sudden thought occurs to me and I narrow my eyes, a low snarl that is challenging but not threatening – not that Aizen will know the difference – vibrating in my throat. "I won't be under your illusions, Aizen."
He raises an eyebrow. "Is that right?"
A flex of my hands pulls my claws out, reiatsu stirring around me. "Try and I will tear apart as much of Las Noches and as many of your espada as I can before you kill me."
He smirks and just barely inclines his head. "Fair enough, Kurosaki-san. You have my word that I will not attempt to put you under Kyouka Suigetsu's hold, though of course in the event that you turn on me, all bets are off. Deal?"
I make a noise of agreement, sliding my claws back into their armor casings, and then swing my head around as the main doors open to admit the espada. They're all present except Ulquiorra, since I'd killed him, and Grimmjow seems fully healed though his clothes are still bloody. I stare in confusion for a moment before my mind reminds me that Aizen had very casually thrown us out of Las Noches and we'd never actually succeeded in rescuing Orihime. She's still here.
Gin and Tousen are at the back of the group, and they push the doors shut. Aizen gives a low chuckle and reaches into his robes, withdrawing a faintly glowing crystalline orb that memory tells me is the Hougyoku. "We can begin. Espada, take your positions please." They form a line on either side of the room, odds and evens, and a couple of them give me strange looks, like they think they recognize me.
Aizen looks back at me, and gives a soft smile. "On your knees, if you don't mind." I do mind, but I manage to beat down my instinct inspired unease enough to kneel in front of him. He reaches the hand with the Hougyoku forward, pressing its oddly warm surface against the top of my mask. Power swells, his and then mine in response, and the Hougyoku brightens, erasing my world till all I see is white.
Then, pain. I feel my horns shatter along with my mask, and the armor plating peels off me like old skin. I breathe shallowly, shivering at the feel of the last few feet of my hair turning to dust from the bottom up, and a burning itch in my veins makes me hiss out a breath of pain. It eases, and then very slowly the white fades from my vision. Aizen steps back, a smirk on his face, and I hear a mixture of snarls and gasps from the espada. I turn my head from side to side, eyes narrowed, and see the varying levels of anger and surprise on the faces of my once-enemies.
Aizen pulls his outer coat off and throws it at me, and as I raise my arm to catch it I become aware of the fact that I'm naked. It's an odd realization after so much time as a hollow, where it didn't matter, and I shrug into the coat. It doesn't have any clasps or ties, so I just drag it around me, slightly annoyed at how loosely it drapes, made for Aizen's much thicker frame. I stand, noting that I've returned to being the more familiar and comfortable height of three or four inches shorter than Aizen, and then pause, struck with the feeling that I'm forgetting something. I look down to my left, spotting a black handled, sheathed, sword that looks remarkably similar to Tensa Zangetsu's form, and bend down to grab it just as Noitora yells something that essentially translates into a demand to know why I'm here.
I straighten and follow Aizen's gaze to the ridiculously tall espada. "Kurosaki-san has agreed to join us in our fight against Soul Society. From this day forwards, he is your ally, understood?"
Noitora hisses, anger in his eyes as he glares at me, and spits out his words with venom. "You think I'll accept this weak brat as a companion?! He's pathetic!"
Aizen chuckles and looks at me with amusement, one hand rising as if in offering towards Noitora. "Well, Kurosaki-san. Care to defend yourself?" I understand. This is how Aizen will place me in the ranks, how he'll decide how useful I am and how powerful. Best to give a good show, and with a trick I learned from Aizen himself.
I close my eyes for a brief moment, gathering, and then smirk. I've always been shit at reiatsu control, but something as easy as this? No problem. I let my reiatsu loose to swirl around me, eddies of black and red lapping at my feet, and then I raise it. Higher and higher as the espada systematically stagger and struggle to breathe under the pressure of it. The lower ranks are first, falling to their knees and gasping for air, and the middle ranks follow a fraction of a second after. It gives me a rush of satisfaction to watch Noitora slam to the ground, his eyes wide and one hand to his chest as he fights to breathe. I watch Aizen as I pull it higher, far above what I used to be capable of, and as Stark wobbles, slowly raises a hand to his chest, and sways on his feet, I see two things in Aizen's eyes I never thought I would. Respect, and wariness.
I let my reiatsu levels drop back down to their natural states, and I can't help the grin that twists my mouth. "Satisfied?" I ask the room at general, but I don't look away from Aizen. Interestingly, the first sound that splits the silence is Grimmjow laughing. I look over at him and he's got a grin on his face that nearly rivals Gin's, blue eyes bright and full of amusement.
"That's a hell of an answer, brat, but fuck if you haven't proven yourself." He looks up at me, right hand still pressed to his heaving chest. "We should spar sometime, huh?" I echo his grin and give a nod and a sound of agreement. Weirdly, I think I could be something like friends with Grimmjow.
A soft chuckle brings my attention back to Aizen, who is smirking and clear of any emotion but amusement. "Well, you've shown you're more powerful than any of my espada by quite a bit. I don't think I can feasibly include you in them."
"He coul' be yer negative, Aizen-taichou!" I turn my head at the voice, glancing back to where Gin and Tousen are standing by the doors, Tousen just slightly slumping against the white wall. "'S the next spot, righ'? Espada countin' down by power 'n all."
"How very imaginative of you, Gin." Sarcasm is heavy in Aizen's voice, but all Gin does is shrug, his eternal grin not even fluctuating. "But it is logical, I suppose. Sound good, Kurosaki-san?"
"Yeah, sure." Negative, hm? But I suppose Aizen is right in that he can't really include me in the espada. I've never seen Stark fight, but if I can make it hard for him to breathe with reiatsu alone I can't be much weaker than Aizen himself. So putting me with them is kind of like pairing a bunch of normal hollows with an adjuchas.
"Then welcome to Las Noches. Gin, would you take Kurosaki-san to get some clothes, please?" Gin slides forward and up behind me, one long fingered hand wrapping around my right wrist.
"A' course, Aizen-taichou. Consider i' done!" He all but drags me from the room, weirdly strong considering how thin he really is. Of course, I shouldn't be surprised. He is, after all, pretty decently above the average power of a captain.
He drags me through the identical white corridors until I am lost as all hell, and I don't struggle because, honestly, clothes would be pretty damn nice right now. Wandering around in little more than a coat that doesn't close, and is also way too big, is hardly confidence boosting. Besides, the coat is Aizen's and the idea that I'm wearing something that belongs to him is a little bit disturbing. I mean, sure, I might not be his enemy anymore, but that doesn't mean I trust him. Aizen is too powerful, too intelligent, and too unreadable for me to really trust him like I have with other allies. Also, my last allies stabbed me in the back, so I'm not in a real hurry to trust anymore. I have no illusions about him trusting me either. If Aizen thinks I'm a threat, and that my danger outweighs my usefulness, he'll kill me without a second thought. It just seems to be a shinigami trait.
Now the espada? Different story. I'm pretty sure that unless Aizen orders otherwise they won't try to kill me, though I intend to watch my back anyway. If I had just been a hollow then all I'd have to worry about is the pretty normal threat of someone vying for my position or challenging me, but being who I am… I'm kind of vaguely hoping that Aizen naming me as an ally will hold off any overt aggressiveness and hostility at least until I learn how to really fight in this body. I'm just going to have to get used to being excluded though, there's no way I'll ever really be accepted here.
"Yer pretty quiet Ichi." I snap my eyes up to Gin's face and find slits of ice blue staring back. "Wha' is it yer thinkin' so hard abou'?"
I hesitate, and find myself wondering where Gin stands in this little world Aizen has created. I'm more powerful than him, I know that, even though I'm not sure I could beat him if it came down to it. But then, Aizen talks to him and treats him as a lieutenant, a friend even, and I certainly don't have that kind of rank. Is he my superior? Am I his? Or do we stand as equals under Aizen? I don't know, and that unsettles both the hollow and shinigami sides of me. If the alpha – and I blame the hollow side of me for automatically naming Aizen that – says that this other shinigami is my leader, then I have no right to argue unless I want to formally challenge my alpha. But, he hasn't. I don't know how to treat him, how to act or what to say. I yearn to just challenge him and get this over with, even knowing that Gin is fully shinigami and will only see my challenge as treason to Aizen and that it is a terrible idea. But at least then I'd know which of us is superior.
Gin's grin just barely widens and he stops in the middle of the corridor, whirling to face me completely and releasing my wrist. "Ask yer question Ichi, promise a' won' be mad."
I tilt my head down and to the side slightly, knowing that it's safe because Gin won't recognize that I am instinctually protecting my throat, and it is both defensive and challenging. "What are you in regards to me?" I ask and I know immediately my tone is wrong, dark and demanding, a challenge that is obvious even to a shinigami.
He hears it, I know he does, but all he does is laugh and somehow manage to make that grin even wider. "Tha's easy, Ichi. 'M Aizen-taichou's lieuten'n't, and yer his stronges' soldier! We're equals!" He snatches my wrist again, twists on his heel, and resumes dragging me down the corridor without a care in the world.
Well, that makes things easier. I don't think the remaining hollow side of me would have accepted Gin as a superior without direct order from Aizen, but it would also never have let a subordinate drag me around like this. As equals, unless the shinigami tries to order me around, I shouldn't have any problems with his behavior. At least, I don't think I should.
The seemingly endless corridors, punctuated by doors ringed in black to distinguish them, raises another question in my mind. "How do you find anything here?" I don't understand it. Everything looks the same, and as far as I've seen there aren't any signs or markings at all. I am, so lost.
Gin laughs again and glances back at me, something knowing in the thin slits of eyes I can see. "'S not actually tha' confusin' once ya get used ta' it. There're four main sections a' Las Noches: residential, entertainment, business, and palace." That doesn't help much, and he must be able to see the confusion on my face because his pace slows a little and he releases my wrist, making a vague sweeping gesture with his left hand. "This 's th' residential area, i' hol's all th' housin' for th' regular arrancar, plus bath houses 'n stuff. Th' entertainment area hol's all kinds a' stuff, library, pool, trainin' groun's, etc. Business 's all th' stuff tha' makes Las Noches run, power an' food an' material stuff. Tha's where we're headed. An' lastly, palace 's Aizen's section. 'S got th' throne room, espada quarters – an' rooms for yers truly – 'is rooms, 'is own private library an' a bath house for all th' higher ranks, an' 'n especially sturdy trainin' room for th' espada." He looks back at me as I struggle to comprehend, very slowly realizing that Aizen hasn't built just a palace for himself, he's built a whole city. "Followin' so far, Ichi?"
I nod and he turns a sharp right into a bigger corridor – easily wide enough to fit seven or eight people side by side – that ends twenty or so feet ahead in a set of giant white doors. "Yeah, I think so."
"Good!" He moves forwards and shoves one side open, I wince at the bright sunlight that streams through and blinds me for a moment before my vision clears. Gin moves out onto the large white walkway that rises fifty or sixty feet above the brightly lit sands, and I follow with only a second of hesitation. "Now, residential an' entertainment an' palace 're all connected, business 's separate. 'S righ' ahead a' us." He gestures ahead and I raise my eyes to the large white building at the end of the walkway, rounded at the corners and vaguely rectangular. It's four or five hundred feet ahead of us along the walkway, which has waist high walls on either side of it, and seems to open with another pair of the giant white doors. Another walkway stretches across the sands to our left, equally long and exiting from a different part of Las Noches. "Thin' a' it like a circle. Ya can ge' ta business through either entertainment 'r residential, an' 's th' same for palace. Also, residential an' entertainment 'ave a passage betwee' them ta make things easier."
"An' here's th' secret ta navigating Las Noches." He turns, walking backwards as he grins at me. "There's only one exit ta each other area, an' they've all go' those wide corridors an' big doors. Th' only other pla' those doors exist 's th' entrance ta th' throne room." That made things, surprisingly easier. Assuming I didn't get lost inside one of the sections, it would only be a matter of learning to recognize which of the giant double doors led where. He spins back around, and I find myself wondering how he manages to bounce and slink at the same time. "Th' palace 's off limits ta regular arrancar unless they're summoned there. Yer free ta go anywhere ya wan', apar' from Aizen-taichou's rooms a' course." He laughs, high but with a sharp edge. "'S also generally a bad idea ta wander inta th' espada's rooms. They get territorial."
Yeah, I could imagine. I'd experienced firsthand the possessive aspect of being a hollow, even dulled down that would make for a bunch of violent arrancar if anyone threatened their territory. "I'll keep that in mind."
Gin grins back at me, shoving the doors open with a single hand. "Well then, welcome ta Las Noches, Ichi!"