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Stigma: mark of infamy or disgrace; sign of moral blemish; stain or reproach caused by dishonourable conduct.

 

 

 

Behind the prison bars, the beast was resting. The lingering scent of danger stained the silence around him, growing stronger in that cage whose shackles couldn’t be undone.

Ichigo captured and brought him to Hueco Mundo. What had to be a distraction, became Ichigo’s moment of glory, and he was now standing next to Aizen looking at their pray. His pray.

“I had reasonable expectations for our encounter with the Gotei 13.” Aizen broke the silence. “Dismantling Soul Society isn’t something that can be done in one battle. However…” He turned to Ichigo and smiled. “…I was not expecting you to be so fortunate.”

Ichigo couldn’t tell if Aizen was sincere or not. He was aware that Aizen always knew more than he pretended to and had the bizarre impression that even that unexpected twist in their plan was just a branch of his detailed plan. He didn’t say anything.

“To capture a captain ranked Shinigami is worth a promotion in the ranks of the Espada.” Ichigo felt Aizen’s eyes on him. “But, as it often happens, it’s not power that interests you…” He chuckled. “…but to make a difference.”

Silence fell. Usually, if Aizen was in the room, his charm and magnetic strength attracted everyone’s attention; Ichigo didn’t remember a single time he didn’t spend the meetings staring at him even when somebody else was speaking. However, in that absence of words, he found himself being submerged in the contemplation of his enemy.

“His spirit is just as resilient as his body was.”

Aizen’s voice ripped his attention back on himself. Yet, Ichigo was still staring at his pray, at the captain who hurt him with his bankai as no Shinigami had ever done before, at the man who he managed to defeat after a long exhausting battle.

The captain of the Fifth Division, Grimmjow Jaegerjaques, opened the eyes. Ichigo gazed into his sharp blue eyes and realized that the battle worn him out in the body, but the loss strengthened him in the spirit.

“As his captor, it’s only appropriate that you be the one to make him talk.” Aizen glanced at Ichigo. “Ichigo.”

Ichigo nodded.

“Yes, Aizen-sama.”

 

***

 

“You’re good!”

The small bubble of reiatsu Grimmjow was nurturing with care exploded into his hands with a small pop. He glared at the shabby man who was smiling at him like an idiot.

Grimmjow Jaegerjaques died at the age of six by the hand of his mother’s new husband; he was drunk and angry, and Grimmjow was close enough to vent out his frustration as he always did. That time he put more enthusiasm than usual and, in one single hit, Grimmjow was dead. Few days later, a female Shinigami stopped his endless wandering through the streets of his town and sent him to Soul Society after reassuring him that he was about to go in a beautiful place. However, she lied, because the district of Rukongai he ended into was even worse than living with his violent new father and his unloving mother. He learnt fast that he couldn’t trust adults and he wouldn’t have started with that stranger only because he looked like he couldn’t even hurt a leaf.

“You can use reiatsu, huh?”

He tried again. This time, Grimmjow barked back. “Go away from here, Shinigami!” The man looked surprised. “I know what your clothes mean, you’re a captain. I’m not stupid.”

“I didn’t mean–”

“And don’t be compliant only because I’m not an adult!”

“Oh, it seems you know difficult words.”

“I used to go to the library every day.”

Grimmjow didn’t trust him, but he wanted him to know he wasn’t dealing with the usual kid from Rukongai who hoped to reach Seireitei one day. Grimmjow was sure he knew how the world worked: in no time he stopped believing in strokes of luck and that the place he was sent to was the Paradise.

However, as he finished speaking, his stomach betrayed him with a long hungry grumble. He blushed at the man’s amused chuckle.

“You’re hungry.”

“I’m not!”

But the Shinigami was already rustling inside the folds of his shihakusho and when he tended the arm towards Grimmjow, on the hand he was holding an onigiri shaped in a perfect imitation of a fox ear. Drool gathered inside Grimmjow’s mouth at the view, but he gulped it down and shook his head.

“I told you I’m not!”

“Ah, my bad.” The man scratched his head. “Well, I cannot waste it.” With one munch, he devoured one half under the greedy eyes of the kid. Yet, Grimmjow clenched his fists and glared at his cheeks filled with that seemingly delicious food. “By the way.” He started with his mouth full, then gulped down. “Why don’t you enter the Shinigami academy?”

Grimmjow frowned. He took one step behind and curved his shoulders, assuming a defensive pose. “I cannot go there. I’m from Rukongai.”

“You think so?” The man put the whole second half of the onigiri into his mouth and ate it. “You are hungry, it means you have spiritual power.”

“I know I have spiritual power!” Grimmjow snarled. “I hurt the men who wanted to take me, and nobody wants to stay close to me!” He realized too late what he said, and his face went on fire for the embarrassment. “I cannot go to Seireitei!”

The man scratched his chin covered in a thin veil of black beard. “Man, I should shave.” He got distracted for an instant. “Well, I need more people in my squad, so, if you ever happen to come in Seireitei, just ask for me, okay?”

“As if!”

Despite Grimmjow was trying with all his might to find that man dreadful, he couldn’t feel the slightest disgust looking at him. Probably, if the man tried to approach him, he wouldn’t have run away as he used to do.

“I’m Isshin Shiba, the captain of the Tenth division. Will you remember?”

“Of course.” Grimmjow clenched his teeth. “I’m not as stupid as you!”

 

***

 

Grimmjow opened his eyes slowly. He dreamt again. The first time was his mother, the second time his death. The third time, his first encounter with his former captain. He didn’t know for how long he slept, but nothing of his aseptic prison changed: in front of him the somber white corridor; over him black threads constraining his arms above his head, descending like tentacles from the shapeless darkness which swallowed the ceiling. Grimmjow looked beyond the prison bars, where his Zanpakuto was standing, pierced into the floor and blocked by the same black threads that were continuously sucking from him enough reiatsu to avoid any attempt of escape. He stared at his sword, but he couldn’t sense anything coming from it: it was sealed.

As he tried to move, his whole body complained, his shoulders burnt, and his injuries pulsated. Nobody treated him, he still smelt the blood mingled with the sweat of the battle. A scent that usually arose the excitement of the fight inside him; but, in that case, it was the stigma of his loss. From predator, he became a pray enclosed into a timeless prison. He didn’t know how many hours (or days?) passed from the battle, he didn’t know for how long he slept, for how long he dreamt, nor for how long he stayed alone before sensing a far noise coming towards him.

Into the silence, he perfectly heard the rhythmic sound of steps way before he caught two figures becoming bigger as they got closer. Arrancar. Two females, one had blond hair, the other one black. The one with blonde hair was holding a tray, but it was the one with black hair who spoke.

“Your meal.”

She grimaced in evident disgust. Grimmjow guessed that they were both reluctantly following Aizen’s order of not letting him starve. That would have been an excellent idea, refusing food until the precious pray would have been a useless sack of flesh and bones. However, Grimmjow knew that probably the threads that were blocking his escape were also tying him to life; if Aizen went all the way to keep him prisoner, he would have never let him die in such a stupid way.

“How do you think I can eat?” Grimmjow was almost surprised he could talk, but the growl coming out from his throat was weak and low. He tiredly shook his arms, the threads staid almost still.

“I’m not feeding you! Shinigami scum!”

She took one step forward, Grimmjow felt a gush of reiatsu blowing from her, and the floor gulped the prison bars, leaving no sign of their presence. The Arrancar stomped towards him, raised her left boot and landed her feet directly on Grimmjow’s face. Blood spurted all over his chin. But his eyes were blazing.

 

***

 

“The uniform suits you! So cute”

Grimmjow was wearing the male uniform of the academy. Since Isshin’s didn’t give any notification, they didn’t have the means of preparing one suitable for Grimmjow, so, the one he was wearing was a bit too large for him: he had to wrap the cloth belt twice around his waist before knotting it and the hakama and sleeves were too long. However, he looked comfortable and was glaring as always. The target of his constant frown was Rangiku, second in command of Isshin.

Aaaw, why don’t you give me a smile? Girls don’t like boys who always pout!”

Rangiku stuck her lips out in a bad imitation of a kiss and wobbled her entire body in a silly way. Many people walking past them –mainly boys– slowed the pace to stare at her voluptuous body and gorgeous face. Grimmjow was unaffected.

“You lied to me.” He stated showing all the anger he was feeling. “You liar.”

The small theatre ceased. Rangiku turned serious. “What do you mean?”

“When you sent me here, you said it would have been better. It wasn’t better at all. Liar.”

He was talking with his fists clenched. Rangiku looked at him in shock, unable to find the right thing to say and counter those words. Then, she felt Isshin’s hand on her shoulder and the tension, who surrounded her like a tight cage that made her unable to move, relaxed.

“Well, now it’s better! You’re in Seireitei!”

“But before I wasn’t!”

Isshin sighed. “Now now, you’ll have all the time to argue when you will graduate, Grimmjow.”

“What do you mean, captain?!” Rangiku slapped his hand away. “He’s a brat! He cannot enter the squad!” All the kindness she showed before disappeared.

“But he will be ready when he’ll graduate.”

Isshin tried to calm her down, but he couldn’t predict the collapse that was about to happen. Grimmjow, still piercing Rangiku with flaming eyes, choose the wrong moment to show to the world his sassy personality. “Who wants to be in the same squad of an old hag? You already have rides around your eyes.”

That afternoon, Kyoraku, while escaping from his captain duties, spotted Isshin dragging away from the academy Rangiku surrounded by the thin and lethal ashes of her shikai.

 

***

 

When Ichigo arrived, he found Loly dead at Grimmjow’s feet and Menoly trembling in fear with the crotch of her hakama wet. The bars were gone.

“What happened here?!”

Menoly his voice and just stared at Grimmjow. Grimmjow wallowed in the satisfaction of a beast who killed his quarry. From his nose to his throat, he was a mask of blood. His eyes flashed towards Ichigo and, before he could say anything else, he pushed the dead body of Loly away with his left foot. Her corpse rolled limply to Ichigo’s feet and stopped with her empty eyes staring at the dark ceiling without being able to see it anymore. Her throat was ripped, her neck snapped. Ichigo figured out what happened without needing an answer.

“You.” His voice was calm, almost kind as he spoke to Menoly. “Take this corpse and bring it to Szayelaporro’s lab.” She wasn’t moving. “Now.” It wasn’t the order, but the reiatsu which awakened her from the state of fear and made her hurry to follow the order.

Grimmjow spat in front of him. “How can you eat souls? That bitch tasted like shit.”

“Only because you’re allowed to live, it doesn’t mean you–”

“It doesn’t mean I can do whatever I want, like sitting here all the time and snapping the head of someone who was kicking me.” Grimmjow rolled his eyes. “You don’t ask me how I did it? It was a pretty neat move.”

Ichigo wasn’t impressed. If he was, Grimmjow thought, he was good at hiding it behind his undisturbed face. Ichigo glanced aside at the abandoned tray and the plate whose contents were all scattered around. He silently picked them up, leaving only the wasted food.

Grimmjow felt his reiatsu and the floor vomited the bars back. He was again behind a prison – not that he could go anywhere even without them blocking the shitty landscape.

“Hey, that’s all, Kurosaki?” Grimmjow raised his voice as he talked at Ichigo’s back. “You’re going away like this? At least give me some books to read!” When Ichigo disappeared, he sighed. “Ah, yeah. Who the fuck is gonna turn the pages, huh?”

 

***

 

“You cannot change a shihakusho each day!”

“Shut up, granny!”

Apparently, Grimmjow wasn’t a prodigy as Hitsugaya Toshiro (the future third seat of his squad) and concluded his studies in the normal span of time. When he graduated, he was already taller than Rangiku and many boys and girls from the academy elected him as their not-so-secret crush. At his arrival in the Tenth Squad, the already little peaceful days became an explosion of young energy; if Rangiku and Grimmjow didn’t bicker at least once per day, an unsettling sense of worry touched all the members of the squad, as if there was something wrong in the order of the universe.

That day, the problem was the uniform.

“You have to stop picking fights with the Eleventh Division!”

“It’s not me. They come and find me.”

“Don’t lie to my face!”

Grimmjow crossed his arms and stared at her. “You’re the most beautiful woman in the entire squad.”

The metamorphosis on Rangiku’s face was remarkable. She passed from being a severe big sister, to be a flattered smiling young woman.

“Aw, come on, you–wait.” She spotted Grimmjow’s satisfied half grin and the rage took her over. “You little impudent–”

Somebody of their squad burst into the room, breaking the crescendo of the mood. “Vice-captain Rangiku!” The girl yelled. “I’m so sorry! Captain Shiba disappeared again. I haven’t seen him from this morning!”

From Grimmjow, the catalyst of Rangiku’s anger became Isshin. Her yell echoed through all the barracks of the tenth squad. “WHAT??! Not again!!! He had to write the report for tomorrow!” She grabbed Haineko and swung it in the air like a flag, aiming at an invisible image of Isshin she created in her mind. “I’ll make him go bald!!” The girl nodded in silence, too scared to go against her.

Grimmjow made his way out before Rangiku recalled he was free and available to complete Isshin’s bumf.

 

***

 

Grimmjow didn’t know for how long he had been kept prisoner somewhere in Hueco Mundo. Maybe few days, maybe some weeks. When the food stopped arriving, he lost the only chance he had to keep track of a certain regularity and fell into the depth of the unknown. The threads were draining his reiatsu and keeping him alive at the same time. However, his stomach needed to be filled with something else besides invisible nutrients, his mouth starved for some food.

Despite that, he didn’t show his desires at Ichigo, as he appeared from the darkness holding a tray with food.

“Good morning.”

“Oh, it’s morning. Good to know.” His voice was reduced at nothing more than a mutter.

“Actually, in Hueco Mundo we have an endless night. Aizen-sama provided us a space with the alternation of day and night.”

“He also provided a brain you can think with?”

Ichigo ignored his provocation. “Are you hungry?”

“Try to guess.”

His body was draught off all his energies, yet inside his eyes still burnt the spirit of a warrior. Ichigo looked at him in silence; whatever he was thinking, Grimmjow couldn’t understand it from his detached expression. The Arrancar sat down with his legs crossed and he started eating without saying a word. Grimmjow didn’t look at him, but the delicious smell of the food reached him anyway and tingled his mouth and stomach.

“Tell me, Grimmjow…” Ichigo passed his tongue on the upper lip, cleaning it from the sauce. “…where is Urahara Kisuke?”

Grimmjow tilted his head. “Who knows. We’re not great friend.”

“You didn’t even try to deny.”

“Why denying? Probably Aizen knows. That stupid hat expected it.”

Ichigo tried to grasp whatever he could from Grimmjow, even the slightest odd reaction could be a mean to bend him once for all. However, he looked detached, slightly annoyed, as always. Nothing different.

“If you tell me where he is hiding on the human world, I’ll free you.”

“Yes, and you’ll suck my dick.” Grimmjow rolled his eyes. “My end’s gonna take longer than expected I guess...” He huffed. “… because I don’t know where he’s hiding.”

 

***

 

Isshin didn’t expect Grimmjow to appear at Urahara’s shop, and neither the owner expected such a visit. Yet, he was there, standing in front of them, wearing the new Shinigami uniform he managed not to destroy in a fight against someone from the Eleventh Division.

“So, you come here when you disappear.” Grimmjow glanced at Isshin, then at Urahara, and back at Isshin. “Your tastes in partners suck though.”

“He’s not my lover.” Isshin pointed out. “This guy is Urahara Kisuke, he was exiled from Soul Society when I had just become Captain.”

“I see, it’s a sort of forbidden love then.”

“I said no! Are you reading Rangiku’s novels?”

“No. But it seems like you are, Captain. Instead of doing your paperwork.”

Urahara made a small cough. “So…” He approached Grimmjow. “…you are should be–”

Urahara Kisuke had a silly appearance, yet his sharp eyes made Grimmjow raise all his defences. However, by the time he unsheathed his sword to keep him away, Urahara had his pointed at Grimmjow’s throat. And Isshin’s hand around his wrist.

“Calm down, Kisuke.” His kind laugh wiped away the tension around them. “I trust Grimmjow. He won’t tell a soul.”

“Oh.” The murderous intent abandoned Urahara, and Grimmjow could breathe again. “I guess we have a new guest then!” An evident silliness invaded him, turning him into a total different person from before. “Is he the kid you talked me about?”

Grimmjow felt embarrassed for how easy was for Urahara to corner him; he didn’t even see him coming.

“Why you talked about me?”

Isshin shook his hand. “Because you’re a trouble-maker, of course.”

“At least I don’t disappear leaving all the work to Rangiku who always tries to fob it off to me.” If Isshin pretended not to realize Grimmjow was talking about him, he hid it very well. “Why are you coming here and hang out with a criminal, Captain?”

“My my, you talk without having spent time with me!” Urahara sounded hurt. “I’m not that bad once you get to know me!”

Grimmjow grimaced, almost disgusted. “I don’t want to know you.”

Before Isshin could reply, Grimmjow felt an arm around his neck. Out of nowhere, a reiatsu appeared so close to him to break into all his defences. He turned around and the malicious smirk of a beautiful woman flashed in front of his eyes.

“What a handsome guy.” She commented as Grimmjow backed away from her. “Is this your boy, Isshin?”

“Yes, of course!”

Isshin nodded, filled with paternal pride. It took Grimmjow five words to devasted him and make him curl on himself. “You are not my father.”

Grimmjow looked at the woman. “You look like that Shihouin boy.”

Juushirou is my little brother.” She examined Grimmjow from head to toe. “Isshin says you’re fast.”

“Sure I am. Do you want to challenge me?”

As he finished talking, Yoruichi disappeared in front of his eyes. She appeared again right behind him, blowing inside his left ear. The cackles she emitted witnessing Grimmjow’s surprised jolt, filled him of a strong anger.

“What a kid!”

“It’s easy speaking when you’re an old hag who lived for at least a century.”

“Yes, I’m old.” Yoruichi nodded, breaking Grimmjow’s expectations of her overreacting like Rangiku used to do. “And I have much more experience than you.”

“…what was that technique.”

“You’re talking about Shunko?” Yoruichi grinned. “Don’t think about it, you’re too weak to learn it.”

“Or maybe you cannot teach–mpf!”

Isshin covered his mouth from behind, interrupting his pointless attempt at provoking Yoruichi. “You’re not supposed to be here, let’s get back home.”

Grimmjow managed to free himself. “Wait! Why are you here with someone who was exiled? I read what happened, I know about his attempts at Hollowifying people!”

Tension run among them, filling the air like electricity. Isshin sighed.

“I would have rather kept everyone outside this story, but since you’re here…”

“And you let yourself be followed like a rookie.” Yoruichi added.

“…it wasn’t them, Grimmjow…”

Grimmjow growled. “Thank you. I figured it out on my own.”

“…it was Aizen.”

Silence.

Grimmjow, did you say you figured it out because you are very clever or because you trust me?”

“Because I’m clever, of course.” Grimmjow became quite good at lying. “And Aizen… I’ve never liked him anyway.”

 

***

 

“Have you really pledged allegiance to Urahara Kisuke to the point you wish to give your life?”

Ichigo managed to hit a weak point. Grimmjow’s eyes sharpened, he glared at him with the few energies his shackles weren’t sucking from him.

“You talk shit, Kurosaki.” Grimmjow growled. “Have you really pledged allegiance to Aizen to the point you do whatever the fuck he says?”

“He gave me a new strength. It’s only natural I’m loyal to him.”

The anger flew out from Grimmjow’s body, turning it again into a useless sack of bones and flesh hung at black threads. “That fucker really knows how to play his cards, huh?”

“Did Aizen-sama’s betrayal upset you that much?”

“Nah. Who cares about him? I’ve never liked him anyway.”

“Why? Because he managed to fake his kindness and was at least loved by everyone?”

He wasn’t aware of what his words awakened until it was too late. Ichigo saw the light abandoning Grimmjow’s eyes, devoured by a deep sombre emptiness. He chuckled and Ichigo, for the first time after his evolution into an Arrancar, felt again the tight grip of fear.

“I can recognize fake people.” His voice was cruel and amused. “The ones who are so kind and well loved, but meanwhile are somewhere smashing someone’s head. You pledged allegiance to the wrong one, Kurosaki…” As he said so, Grimmjow’s head fell on his chest. “Tch… adults are all the same… after all.”

“You’re an adult as well.”

Silence.

Ichigo stopped with his fingers a drop of sweat rolling from his right temple. When Grimmjow raised his head again, he came back to normal.

“I will never betray my father, you fucker.”

Grimmjow smirked. Ichigo knew that round was a complete loss.

 

***

 

Toshiro Hitsugaya was a prodigy. He graduated very young from the academy; he did it exactly twenty years after Grimmjow. However, Rangiku didn’t care about it. All she cared about was that Toshiro and Grimmjow looked like brothers, and she was so amused she couldn’t stop remarking it.

“Look how cute you two are together.” She giggled. “You totally look like brothers!”

“Matsumoto! Come and help up! This is your job!” Toshiro scolded her but didn’t manage to pierce through her good mood.

“Nah! You have to do it, if you want to become my second in command one day!”

“As if you’ll ever manage to become Captain…” Grimmjow made that distracted remark while completing a paper and throwing it on the pile he worked on. “I’m done.”

He stood up under Rangiku’s deadly glare. “Grimmjow! Help Toshiro with his papers!”

“Those are your and Captain’s papers. And if he doesn’t do this, he’ll take more time to become Captain.”

“Captain? I’m the vice-Captain now, so it’s only normal it’ll be me!”

“Yes, if we want the Tenth Squad to be erased in two days.” Grimmjow deadpanned her. He seemed distracted by something and both Rangiku and Toshiro noticed. “Well, I’m going.” He exited the room when two Shinigami from the Squad entered.

“Miss Rangiku, don’t worry. You’ll become Captain.” They didn’t hide the fact they eavesdropped everything.

“Sure!” The other one nodded. “You’re really strong and good with your kido! Plus, Grimmjow is only the Sixth seat!”

Toshiro put down the pen. “Matsumoto, I recalled I have something to do now. Finish your own job, please.” He was fast at leaving the room. Rangiku was even faster at winking at the two young Shinigami.

“Would you finish those for me? I am soooo busy at the moment!” She didn’t need to check and make sure they agreed, she just followed Toshiro.

“Toshiro!” She walked besides him. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m busy, that’s all. Shouldn’t you go and training?”

“Hey!” She pinched his cheek and pulled it. “Think about your training!”

“My bankai training is going very well.” Toshiro looked away. “I would like to know where Grimmjow disappears.”

“Huh?”

“Sometimes he goes away and he’s nowhere to be seen.”

Rangiku shook her head. “You’re still a child after all.”

“Hey…”

“Silly Toshiro! Of course, Grimmjow has a lover and he runs into her arms whenever he can!” As she tried to ruffle his hair, he dodged swinging his head aside. “That’s something you’ll understand in few years. Or maybe you know already…” She smirked. “I saw you talking with Hinamori the other day.”

“Don’t put Hinamori into this.” Toshiro snapped. “I don’t think that’s the reason. Why should he hide a girlfriend?”

“Maybe because Captain Shiba is a nosey parker.”

“Of all people, you are talking.”

“What did you say?!”

Toshiro didn’t know if Rangiku was right or not. However, he felt like that wasn’t the right answer.

Exactly ten days later, Aizen Sosuke revealed his true colours and revealed his betrayal.

 

***

 

That day (night?) it wasn’t Ichigo who opened the door of his prison.

Two Arrancar Grimmjow had never seen were standing in front of him, one so tall and thin that it seemed like he could break in two halves at any moment, the other with outstanding ridiculous pink hair. Both were dangerous. Grimmjow realized it with a single glance.

“Change of guard?” He asked. “I hope at least you’ll be more entertaining than Kurosaki.”

The tall one snickered. “If you’re looking for entertainment, today is your lucky day, Shinigami.” He turned to the other one. “Are you sure everything is ready?”

The reply arrived with a bored sigh. “I already told you. Do you think I’ll ever make room for any mistake?” He took the sword out of the sheath and slashed the threads around Grimmjow’s wrists.

Pain exploded into his joints, forced to be still in the same position so long that he almost fossilized. The constraints around Pantera were still there: he couldn’t feel the presence of his sword yet.

“I apologize for the bad attitude of my colleague.” The slimy smile of the pink Arrancar crawled inside Grimmjow’s clothes, forcing sinister shivers all over his skin. It was disgusting. “Life in Hueco Mundo is empty and boring, so I allowed myself to organize a little entertainment from time to time. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as well as we’ll do.”

Troubles were coming. Grimmjow didn’t need to read it from the smirks on their faces or the bad omen he felt through their reiatsu. However, he managed to see the bright side: the routine which was bringing him to the brim of an inglorious dead, had an unexpected turn. It was something.

 

 

***

 

Isshin stood in line with the other Captains. Three seats were missing. They were filled by the two ex-captains of Gotei 13, cleared of the charges who forced them to leave Soul Society, and the ex-captain of the special Kido corps. If Urahara Kisuke, Shihouin Yoruichi and Tsukabishi Tessai felt grudge towards Soul Society, nobody could tell from their faces or reiatsu.

The discourse of the Captain Commander resulted in being long, but everyone knew what the gist of it was.

“We need to establish again the balance among the Captains.” Yamamoto walked with a serious voice. “There’s need to put someone in charge of the three Squads. Especially Aizen’s. It’s my belief that vice-Captain Hinamori isn’t in a good mental state and cannot be a reference for the other Shinigami.” Nobody opposed to that. “Unfortunately, up to know, there’s no one who can fill the gap–”

As he stopped talking, all the Captains looked first at him, then, one by one, turned their attention to Isshin’s raised hand.

“I ask to talk.”

Yamamoto overcame his rude interruption. “Go ahead, Captain Shiba.”

“I propose my sixth seat, Grimmjow Jaegerjaques, as the new Captain of the Fifth division.”

Of course, the rest of the meeting didn’t go as smooth as the first half.

 

***

 

Grimmjow wasn’t used to use his muscles anymore. Walking, such a simple task, became a heavy burden to bear, and his whole body seemed to have turned into an unbalanced mess. He was hungry and the Arrancars all around him were snickering. He passed from one prison to another. The two Arrancar who brought him there were sitting with some others, while he was left alone in the centre of that square surrounded by tall walls. He was thrown into an arena with no escape routes. The ceiling was an endless pit of darkness.

If only he had his sword, he thought as the Arrancars looked with excitement at their new toy, he could have slashed them all to death. And if only his shackles didn’t suck his energy away for an endless time.

A loud roar silenced the low buzz of the voices. A void opened as many Arrancars moved aside to make room for four others, who were dragging something enormous hidden under a long cloth. The thing under it kept tugging its chains to find freedom and growled its desperation. They pushed it down in the arena.

“She is one of the first Hollow I forced into an Arrancar state without using the Hogyouku.” The Arrancar with pink hair explained. “If you can resist one minute against her, maybe you can go back to your comforting cell.”

The cloth revealed the horror. There was little of human in the shape of that body: a huge mass of flesh, muscles regurgitating from under the skin, swollen and hard as rock; somewhere where there should have been her stomach, there was a hole, the mask was fragmented and attached here and there around the tiny head which was half eyes, half fangs; the arms were so long, they touched the ground without her bending her back.

The Arrancars started laughing at the omen of his death.

Grimmjow , tired and worn out, smiled.

 

***

 

“I’m not becoming a Captain!” Grimmjow felt the incredible urge of punching his Captain right in the face. “Why did you say my name? Why not Toshiro or that Renji? He has a Bankai!”

The real reason why Grimmjow felt so angered wasn’t only because everything seemed to be settled already without asking him, but also because Isshin was calm and composed while speaking to him. As if he hadn’t just done something major which Grimmjow didn’t approve.

“Because you’re worth of the title.”

“Toshiro can already use a Bankai!”

“But you can face a Bankai wielder using Hakuda and managed to master Shunko as well.”

“Nobody had to know!”

“I didn’t tell them.” Pause. “It was Yoruichi.”

“That bitch!”

“They wanted to know now why I presented your name. Especially Soi Fon and Byakuya had some sharp remarks.”

“They can eat their tongues for what I care. I won’t become Captain. And if you tell me some shit like it’s not a matter of want but a matter of must–”

“No. If you don’t want to become captain, you won’t become captain.” Isshin opened the bottle of sake and poured some into two small white cups. “There’s a plan B to deal with the Fifth squad. I just thought that place would have suited you.”

“What?”

Isshin pushed the cup towards him. “Right now, there’s no one more fitting than you who can be the new captain of the Fifth Squad.”

“Of course, you think it, you’re my captain.”

“Actually, these are Shunsui’s words, not mine.” He looked at Grimmjow’s puzzled face. “Come on, drink.”

“Why?”

“Do you need a reason to have a cup of sake? We always drink together from time to time. Like father and son!”

“You’re not my father.”

Isshin giggled. “I know. But I feel like I am.”

Grimmjow took the cup. As the wrinkles on the surface disappeared, he glanced back at the reflection of his right eye; the bright blue stood against the pure white.

“Do you want me out of the Squad?”

Isshin smiled. “No. I’d like you to stay here as long as I’ll be Captain. But watching a son making progresses is what makes a father happy.”

“…you’re not my father.”

Six days later, Grimmjow wore the vest of new Captain of the Fifth division.

 

***

 

Silence. A low fading crackle disturbed the heavy absence of voices which trapped the Arrancars in a disturbed fear. Their brains stopped working, filled with the horror coming from the steaming corpse of their ex companion turned into a monster by Szayelaporro. She became black carbon.

And one single thought slithered into her minds at once, as if the Hogyouku synchronized them: they had to kill the Shinigami. Because now he was weak, he was barely standing on his feet, he used all his strength to strike one single deadly hit to their ex companion, he was dangerous. He had to be dead.

However, before any of them could move, a strong reiatsu pinned them all where they were standing.

“How amusing.”

Aizen appeared from the darkness, he walked on one of the walls, approaching Szayelaporro and Nnoitra. However, he wasn’t looking at them: he was staring down at the arena.

“It seems like your latest experiment wasn’t strong enough, Szayelaporro.” His smile grew the feeling of unease which was weighing on Szayelaporro’s chest. “Our Captain here eliminated it in one strike.”

Behind Aizen, Ichigo and Gin were staring at the arena as well. Grimmjow stood in front of the Arrancar he burnt down to death; he wasn’t moving, nor it seemed like he understood there were other people watching him.

“This should teach you all to be always careful when dealing with a Captain of Seireitei.”

His eyes darted and met the eyes of each Arrancar: he wasn’t referring to Grimmjow, he was referring to himself.

“So bad, so bad. He looks soooo dangerous, the new Captain of the Fifth Division.” Gin smirked. “What do we do, Captain Aizen?” He sounded so amused, it gave Ichigo a slight nausea.

Aizen chuckled. “It’s your prisoner, Ichigo. Bring him back to his prison, and this time make sure nobody can bring him anywhere.” His voice was soft, yet Ichigo felt a shiver piercing his stomach.

Grimmjow was emptied of any energy. Ichigo got closer to him, looked at his empty eyes, and for an instant he was afraid that he was dead. But, as he raised a hand towards him, Grimmjow went back to life. He looked at him, his eyes burnt again of a devastating flame, and he slapped his arm away. So tenacious, yet so weak. Grimmjow fainted, Ichigo grabbed him before he fell. His body was warm.

Half an hour later, Grimmjow was sleeping in his cell, imprisoned once again. Aizen called Ichigo into his room.

Aizen-sama.” He entered without bowing.

“Close the door.”

Ichigo hesitated, his hand on the handle. However, he obeyed. The click of the closing door echoed inside his ears.

“Come here, Ichigo.”

Aizen was sitting on a chair. He closed the book he was reading and looked at Ichigo standing in front of him.

“I’m pretty sure nobody will try to have fun with our prisoner for a while.” He smiled. “I admit I was surprised myself that his reiatsu could reach such peaks. I underestimated Grimmjow.” Silence. Ichigo felt the urge to swallow and wet his dry throat, but he resisted. “I imagine you realized now how weak you are in comparison.”

No reply.

Aizen urged him. “I didn’t hear the reply, Kurosaki Ichigo.”

“…yes, Aizen-sama.” Ichigo clenched his hands behind his back.

“I’m a bit disappointed that some of my Espada aren’t at the level of the Captains of Seireitei.” His words hurt Ichigo, each was a blade thrown at his pride and all centred his vital points. Aizen stood up. “Grimmjow must stay locked, Ichigo.”

“I know.”

Ichigo wanted to push Aizen’s hand away as Grimmjow did with his. However, he couldn’t oppose to him when he grabbed his chin and forced him to bend his head back.

“Don’t disappoint me, Ichigo.” Aizen unzipped his long coat. “The potential you received is great, and I am sure you can unleash it. I trust you.” The hand moved on the cheek, Aizen traced the edges of Ichigo’s mask, under his right eye, with his thumb. His hand was warm, yet Ichigo felt cold.

“Yes.”

“Go on.”

Ichigo glanced aside, overwhelmed by Aizen’s intense stare.

“Yes… Aizen-sama.”

When his coat fell on the floor, he wanted to escape. But he couldn’t.

 

***

 

“I am Grimmjow Jaegerjaques, your new Captain.”

The effect wasn’t one of the best, but it was what Grimmjow expected. Every single member of the Fifth Division looked gloomy and destroyed: none of them had overcome yet the shock of having served under the biggest traitor in the story of Seireitei.

“First thing. Fuck Aizen, forget about that traitor.”

Those words shook them a bit. There were confused glances, worried mutters, anxious fidgets. Then one harsh reply.

“Take back what you said!”

Vice-Captain Hinamori entered the room. She was small, but the anger she was feeling in that moment made her seem more dangerous than any other member of the Division.

“You’re late. They made me settle this meeting today so that you could come despite you were basically on your deathbed.”

“Take back what you said about Captain Aizen!”

Grimmjow rolled his eyes. That was something Isshin predicted and also the main reason because being the new Captain of that Squad had more downsides than it was worth the effort: Aizen brainwashed half of them, if not everyone, and his vice-Captain was the first.

“I won’t. He’s a traitor and a fucker.”

“He is not!” Hinamori yelled so high that his voice cracked. “Don’t talk about Captain Aizen like that! I’m sure there’s a mistake!”

“Oh yeah, he made you into a human skewer with his sword by mistake.”

Grimmjow heard a feeble “Captain…” coming from the crowd, but nobody tried to stop him.

“I’m sure Gin bewitched him! Captain Aizen could never–”

“Blah blah blah. Gin turned him into the bad guy, sure. Stop with this nonsense and open your eyes.”

Hinamori had her hand on the hilt of her sword; she was killing Grimmjow with her eyes. “You’re not my Captain! My Captain is Aizen Sosuke!”

Grimmjow sensed the tension running among the other Shinigami but wasn’t feeling it. He was bored and annoyed.

“Alright then. Go to Hueco Mundo and join his trio.” He turned back to the Shinigami so fast that everyone startled at the same time with a single jolt. “Who’s the Third Seat? I need a vice-Capitain. Or…” He looked up, deep in thought. “…I’ll ask Toshiro. Maybe he’ll join so he can stay away from Rangiku.”

He was giving his back to Hinamori. He couldn’t see her but felt her increasing reiatsu. He knew she was fending the air with her sword, he knew she was calling her shikai. He felt it and read it on the terrified faces of her comrades.

“Snap, Tobiume!”

Before she could do anything, Grimmjow lazily raised an arm towards her. “Sai.”

Hinamori dropped Tobioume as Grimmjow’s reiatsu bound her arms behind her back. She lost her balance and fell.

“As I said before…” Grimmjow left her there, not giving her attention anymore. “…I am your new Captain. You’re not satisfied? There are other 12 Squads.”

In less than a week, a third of the Fifth Division abandoned the Squad.

 

***

 

Ichigo’s clothes were ruined. The white turned grey, the cloth was cut everywhere, and his body didn’t seem in a good shape.

“You had a fight with another Shinigami?” Grimmjow mocked him. “I’ll get jealous.”

“I trained.” Ichigo sat down.

“By the way.” Grimmjow kicked the empty tray towards him. “Thanks for the meal.”

They were using more energy to restrain him, but in exchange they were forced to make him eat something, or else he would have died. Ichigo didn’t take the tray. He sat down and looked at Grimmjow.

“Now you’ll start with your endless question about Urahara and–”

“What kind of person your father is?”

Grimmjow stayed with his mouth open. “What?”

“What’s his behaviour? His personality?” Ichigo looked at his hands. “I don’t understand why you are so attached to him and why you won’t betray him.”

“…you would betray Aizen.”

Ichigo raised his head, red on the cheeks. “I wouldn’t!”

“That wasn’t a question.” Grimmjow sighed. “He’s stupid. Take the biggest idiot you know, surely Isshin is more idiot. He doesn’t listen and always does what he wants, he disappears and leaves the work to whatever is around, and he slacks off whenever he has stuff to do. He also hides food everywhere, but I learnt where he puts it and steal it, so he learns to do his work instead of sleeping.” He stopped and enjoyed Ichigo’s confused expression. “But he cares. And never lies. I like him… after all.”

Ichigo stood up. Grimmjow didn’t know what he wanted to do, that day he was different. There wasn’t confidence into Ichigo: he was quiet, lost and lonely. As he knelt in front of him, Grimmjow believed for an instant to see again into the mirror the small child who didn’t like his new father and who hoped his mother would have protected him.

They looked at each other in silence.

“Where’s Urahara Kisuke?”

“I don’t know.”

Ichigo raised a hand. He touched Grimmjow’s left hand, intertwined their fingers together. It was warm. Pleasant. The other hand gripped against Grimmjow’s throat. Grimmjow couldn’t breathe freely anymore.

“Ugh… are you… going to kill me?”

Thump. Thump. Thump.

His heart was beating against his hand. His life was hanging on a thin thread he could cut in any moment. Ichigo stared into Grimmjow’s eyes.

“Yes.” He released the grip. “But not like this.” The contact broke, they were apart again. “I’ll kill you with my sword, after I defeat you.”

 

***

 

The Fifth Squad became a mess.

With many people who left and others who wanted to leave, the paperwork increased. Grimmjow didn’t have a vice Captain helping him, the third seat left as well and whoever remained hadn’t enough knowledge on the Squad’s affairs to help him. So, he spent his first days as Captain reading the old minutes while many people passed to see how it was going. Rangiku stole his sweets, Toshiro did the same, Isshin brought a bottle of sake but drank half of it before leaving. Grimmjow managed to hide it before Kyoraku passed with Ukitake, but they drank all his tea.

It was deep night and he had just finished checking the last minutes he needed. Aizen had a nice handwriting, everything was neat and perfect, and even a child would have understood what happened from the way he explained it. That pissed Grimmjow off more than he expected.

He straightened his back and stood up. There were many papers left to fill, but he took out the bottle of sake and went sitting on the veranda. One cup of sake, the light of the candle flickering into the room, the gentle breeze touching his face, silence. The perspective of spending the whole night on some papers, ruined that perfect moment of calm.

The noise of the door sliding interrupted his short break.

“Didn’t you knock when Aizen was Captain?”

Hinamori wasn’t wearing night clothes, she still had her Shinigami robe on and the sword with her.

“This was Captain Aizen’s room.” Her voice was severe.

“Yes. Adapting to it was easier than I thought. He’s left no trace at all.”

“What do you mean?”

Grimmjow made a small move with the head towards the empty library. “What was Aizen’s favourite book?”

Hinamori hesitated. “He… loved history books.”

“His favourite tea?”

“He had many–”

“Favourite food.”

“Stop it!” Hinamori raised her voice. “What’s the point?!”

“The point is that you know nothing about him.” Grimmjow took the jacket off from his shoulder, remaining only with his night kimono. Hinamori blushed. “Nobody hardly does. He left behind everything and nothing about himself. And was good enough not to make people wonder what they really knew about his mask.”

“That’s because Gin–”

“Quit it!” Grimmjow silenced her. “This talk is getting boring. Take the cup near the table and come here, if you want to listen. Or else leave. But this time you’ll leave the Division forever.”

Hinamori didn’t want to obey. She wanted to yell, throw things at that despicable man who was sitting where her beloved Captain used to sit, make him go away from the place that didn’t belong to him. But she obeyed. She took the small cup and went sitting as far as she could from him without seeming rude.

Grimmjow was sitting with his back relaxed against the sliding paper door. Hinamori was in seiza position, her back straight and her nerves tense.

“I know how you feel.”

“You don’t.”

“I do. Don’t fuck with me. I don’t to this kind of conversations to be interrupted by a vice-Captain not fitting for her role.” Hinamori glared at him, showing a fierce resistance to his attitude. “You’re feeling like shit and you hope all this isn’t real. You must realize this is real and that Captain Aizen isn’t the one everyone thought they knew.”

“But he–”

“I remember how I died.” Grimmjow was glad he managed to put a stop on her words. She looked shocked. “Memories of the past life of a Shinigami usually fade away as their powers grow stronger. I’ve never forgotten the day I died.” He took his cup and drank a sip of sake. “Do you know what I hated the most?”

Hinamori shook her head.

“When my step-father hit me, my mother never took my defence. She always said I had to be good and not making him angry, even when I did nothing wrong. I trusted her, and she betrayed me.” Hinamori said nothing. “I died because he hit me, he hit me because my mother never protected me. Rangiku found me and said Soul Society was a good place. But the Rukongai is still shit. Ah, I know you followed me the other day.”

This time, Hinamori found the words.

“I just–”

“Whatever, I don’t care. I go to Rukongai regularly, because Seireitei does nothing and some assholes don’t deserve to remain here.” Grimmjow was about to drink again, but he stopped. “I didn’t want to become Captain. But I like here, after all. It’s not that bad, compared to what I had before, and I won’t let some asshole who wants to be god ruin it.”

Hinamori was still angry. However, something was lost in the process. There wasn’t the same intense hate she poured on him when she tried to attack him, or the disgust she felt while entering the room.

“I won’t have some half-assed vice-Captain who cannot do her job properly.” He poured some sake on the empty cup she brought. “Even if it’ll take me centuries, I’ll find another vice-Captain.”

“…I’m not half-assed.”

“Then show me, instead of crying like an idiot without having anything done.” Grimmjow defied her with a smirk. “Or maybe it’s true Aizen chose you as his vice-Captain only because you are gullible.”

Hinamori grabbed the cup of sake and gulped it down in a single sip. She stood up, slightly red on the cheeks.

“Sorry if I disturbed you so late at night!” She yelled. “Good night…” Her lips trembled. “…Captain Jaegerjaques.” Her voice was a mutter, but Grimmjow clearly heard it.

Yet, it still sounded so strange. Captain Jaegerjaques. He didn’t know if he would have ever gotten used to it.

 

***

 

Ichigo arrived, his sword in hand. He cut the black threads, and Grimmjow was released. Grimmjow could feel the presence of Pantera again.

“What–”

“You’re free.”

Everything happened so fast that Grimmjow thought he fell again into one of his countless slumbers and was dreaming. Dreaming of Ichigo pulling out his sword from the floor, giving it back to him and opening a black Garganta on Soul Society.

“You have to leave now. Or you won’t leave anymore.” Ichigo took a deep breath. “I want to fight you again, Grimmjow Jaegerjaques! I want to fight you at your strongest, so don’t let me down!”

“Well, I defeated you last time. Don’t get so cocky.” Grimmjow smirked. He was sure he saw Ichigo’s smiling right before he grabbed him from his clothes and pushed him over the brim of the portal.

The image of his soft chuckle remained impressed into his brain.

 

***

 

“It’s been six months already, huh?”

“Six months?”

“Since when you became captain.”

“Since when you forced me into it.”

Grimmjow avoided Isshin’s attempt of ruffling his hair.

Hinamori-chan trusts you, huh?”

“Not at all. She keeps being rude.”

Isshin chuckled. “What a good Captain. Even after your first day you made almost half of your Squad drift to other Divisions.”

“It’s better like that. I don’t need people who don’t want to follow me.”

“And here I thought one Kenpachi was more than enough.”

Grimmjow didn’t reply. They were enjoying that unusual warm day of autumn on one roof of Karakura Town. Isshin wanted to take a look on the new substitute Shinigami, Arisawa Tatsuki, and Grimmjow followed along to escape one of Toshiro’s tantrums. His daily quarrels with Hinamori always reached the ears of his ex-companion.

“Tell me, Grimmjow.” Isshin became serious. “Arrancars are that strong?” His eyes indulged in the scars on Grimmjow’s wrists and chest.

“They are. But not strong enough to defeat me.”

“Strong enough to hurt you.”

Grimmjow clicked his tongue. “That stupid Kurosaki cannot be compared to me! I hurt him more than he hurt me!”

“But you remember his name.”

“It doesn’t mean anything! He had to enter his Resurrection mode to hurt me.”

“Well, weren’t you using your Bankai?”

“Shut up!”

Over their heads a cut ripped the sky. A group of five Arrancar descended over Karakura.

Seireitei was immediately alerted. When Hinamori joined the support group to the two Captains, she didn’t know yet that Grimmjow, to protect her from a deadly hit, would have been knocked down and taken prisoner.

 

***

 

They lost.

Ichigo was looking at the blue sky of that fake town and he sensed Aizen’s reiatsu becoming dimmer and dimmer to the point it almost disappeared. Somewhere inside, Ichigo prayed for the last flame of his energy to vanish forever. But probably there was nobody left to listen to the prayers of an Arrancar. Aizen was alive. His plan failed, his army was taken down, his pride was shattered. But he was alive. While of his precious Espada, only Ichigo was left. He remained alone once again.

Yo.”

Grimmjow towered over him. Ichigo couldn’t move, he couldn’t attack nor defend himself. Both were bleeding, both were suffering from the harsh battles. But Grimmjow was the winner.

“…are you…” Ichigo found difficult to talk, his throat was dry. “…going to… kill me?”

Grimmjow raised his sword. It glimmered under the light of the sun. His eyes had the same colour of the sky, Ichigo thought before closing his eyes and waiting for his death. Pantera pierced the soil next to his ear, awakening his senses.

“Yes.” Grimmjow smirked at him. “But not like this.” He grabbed Ichigo from one arm and forced him to stand up. Ichigo menaced to fall again, but Grimmjow made him put his arm around his shoulders and embraced his waist. “I’ll kill you with my sword, after I defeat you.”

“…you’re copying me.”

“Shut up! You went and fought against Captain Shiba like a straightforward idiot. You had to look for me!”

“You… weren’t there.”

Tch.”

Grimmjow started walking. Despite he could stand on his own feet, the fight against Aizen drained him off, so he wasn’t in shape to use his reiatsu and had to walk like a normal human without relying on Shunpo.

“Are you… bringing me to your prison?”

“No. I’m replying to your answer.”

“Uh…?”

“You kept asking me where Urahara was. Well, now I’m bringing you to his place, happy? He’s the only one who will heal you without making a fuss because you’re an Arrancar.”

Ichigo laughed. He spat some drops of blood and moaned in pain but kept smiling.

“…thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. I don’t like having debts.”

 

 

 

Stigma: a weak point; indication of something outside the rules or the ordinary (some mark or sign).