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Strangers, Again

Chapter Text

Hueco Mundo’s featureless sands stretched beyond the reach of eyes.

The Senkaimon had deposited the operation squad out of sight but within a half mile of their destination, the columnar formation known as the Devil’s Altar which was currently at the heart of unprecedented Hollow activity.

This mission was to be simple reconnaissance. A joint operation by the second and ninth divisions—stealth ops and security forces—with the primary purpose of investigating, not engaging, the disturbance in Hueco Mundo reported in the latest intelligence briefing. In and out—no swords drawn, no blood spilled.

If Grimmjow had believed that, he wouldn’t have bothered coming.

Suì-Fēng was to Grimmjow’s left, and behind her, four members of her division. And at his back, the four men from his own division followed their captain at a close distance.

“Captain Jaegerjaquez, you will allow me to take the lead in this,” warned Suì-Fēng, in echo of Captain-Commander Yamamoto’s orders. “The ninth division is here for backup only, in case we are overwhelmed. Keep your sword sheathed unless the situation calls for it.”

But Grimmjow had every intention of scratching the itch he’d been cultivating for weeks now. Weeks of no missions, of having no reason to draw his sword other than to clean its blade, and Grimmjow was itching for something to get his blood going. “Tch.”

“Captain Jaegerjaquez.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

The Devil’s Altar pulled into view, a tall white spire surrounded by dark clouds on the backdrop of an otherwise empty landscape. Grimmjow stopped short, as did Suì-Fēng and all the Shinigami behind them, as an oppressive swell of Hollow reiatsu washed over them.

Suì-Fēng shielded her face with one arm with a gasping breath. Grimmjow didn’t blame her; the air sat thick in his lungs, heavy on his skin like an oil slick. If it was uncomfortable for him, it must be near crippling for the men behind him.

He squinted his eyes.

The clouds swirling the Devil’s Altar were no clouds at all.

Hollows swarmed the air, circling the tall column in numbers beyond counting. The black ground, which had appeared at first like a vast lake around the base of the spire, was another a teeming mass of Hollows. Among the hordes, Gillians rose above like great black trees from a forest floor, all moving in staggering synchrony. Their shrieks and moans echoed in Grimmjow’s head like a mad fever-dream.

“What…what is this?” one of Grimmjow’s men asked in a whispered voice.

The intelligence reports had far, far underestimated the extent of the situation.

Grimmjow drew his sword. Suì-Fēng did not even rebuke him for doing so. They drew closer, moving from dune to dune to obscure their movements.

There were solitary figures within the lake of Hollows, moving against the flow in self-determined patterns, much smaller than the Gillians or even the lower class Hollows. Grimmjow had fought Adjuchas before on a handful of occasions, but he had never seen more than two or three at a time. The ones below numbered easily in the hundreds.

Grimmjow had never seen anything like it. From the stunned silence of his companions, neither had anyone else.

What the fuck had drawn so many Hollows into one place?

Suì-Fēng needed to see no more. “We retreat.”

Grimmjow had come hoping for a fight, but he was not stupid. This was far beyond the magnitude of the original intelligence report. Ten Shinigami, even with two Captains among them, could not take on this infestation. They were equipped for a rainstorm, and had walked instead into a hurricane. Venturing further even if only on reconnaissance was a fool’s quest, because the instant even one of those Hollows caught scent or sight of them, the entire horde would turn on them.

They pulled back.

It was back to Seireitei now, back to the expense reports that third-seat Hisagi Shūhei had piled on his desk a week ago with a grudging reminder they were due tomorrow, so don’t put it off again, Captain, because we really can’t afford to be late—

Maybe Hisagi should do them himself, if he was so worried.

Grimmjow scowled. Now he had sand in his shoes and his socks and everywhere else he didn’t want to think about, and he hadn’t even seen any action for his trouble.

What a fucking waste of my time.

In one moment, the path to the Senkaimon rendezvous point was clear. In the next, something stood in Grimmjow’s way.

Grimmjow leapt back by force of instinct. Suì-Fēng did the same with a shout.

“Captain!”

Grimmjow was deaf to his men’s yells.

The Hollow before him now commanded his attention with no leniency.

It took the shape and size of a man—small for a Hollow, but size was a not an approximation for a Hollow’s strength. The monster before Grimmjow was carved from white stone, a statue of hard muscle on a lean frame, bare from the waist up, its face covered by a fearsome white skull mask which bore two great horns jutting forward. An orange mane of hair teased gently by the wind was the only flutter of movement from this beast.

This statue was aware. Behind the mask, yellow animal eyes pinned Grimmjow in place like needles in a butterfly. Grimmjow’s world shrunk down to this predator in front of him and its eyes flaying him open.

Move. Move, goddamnit. Fucking MOVE.

Grimmjow could not move. A statue, this Hollow was, but Grimmjow was too. He stared, white encircling the blue of his irises.

Vasto Lorde.

But even as this thought entered his mind, Grimmjow recognized its error. No. This…this thing looked like a Vasto Lorde, but it was something else entirely.

The spell upon Grimmjow lifted. He stumbled to one knee, but rose just as swiftly, Pantera in hand and a roar in his heart.

The Hollow raised its right arm, its clawed hand clasped around—

Is that a zanpakutō?

The sword gleamed a beautiful, deadly black from hilt to tip. Grimmjow had never seen anything like it before, but he had not even a full second to take it in. It was instinct, not conscious thought that brought Pantera up in front of him to block that sword from slicing his face open.

When had the Hollow moved? One moment it had been standing before him, then Grimmjow had blinked—and the Hollow was two inches from his face.

His gut churned, his heart stirred finally to joy, the exhilarating rush of blood in his ears and alight with life—Grimmjow’s face split with a smile wider than his jaws. Pantera roared in his mind, and for once there was no reason to prolong his sword’s pleas. Grimmjow broke the sword lock, leaping back a few steps, and answered his sword’s call.

Grind, Pantera!

The sword dissipated, hilt and all, taking its place instead upon his forearms in cruelly curved blades on armored bracers. The Hollow tilted its head, and Grimmjow laughed.

There was shouting around them—some commotion from the other Shinigami on this operation—but Grimmjow didn’t care. Nothing else mattered right now. It was just him, and this Hollow whose monstrous reiatsu had Grimmjow in thrall to it.

“Hollow!” he screamed. “I am Grimmjow Jaegerjaquez, Captain of the Gotei Thirteen’s Ninth Division! Tell me your name!”

The Hollow opened its mouth—the jagged fangs of its white skull parting to reveal a gaping black maw—and roared. The cry rose high and inhuman, and if ever a mere sound could lay touch, Grimmjow felt it in the prickling trail it ran down his spine. His hair stood on end.

Grimmjow’s eyes were wide, his mouth open and panting, his face manic with anticipation.

He blinked—and the Hollow was an inch from his face, its breath hot on Grimmjow’s cheek, that black sword clashed against the arm blade Grimmjow had raised in self-defense.

Grimmjow brought down his other arm, aimed for the creature’s chest. Blink—and the Hollow was gone.

Blink. A clawed hand clasped Grimmjow’s shoulder from behind. Grimmjow spun and slashed, his blade cutting through empty air.

Red splashed across his vision. Grimmjow stopped—had one of his blows landed? But then he looked down his own body, and his flesh was cut open from his collar all the way down to his hip. The pain struck him a moment later, so sudden and fierce that Grimmjow staggered. The sand beneath him had turned dark and wet. Was all that blood his own?

“Captain!”

When had he been cut?

The Hollow stood over Grimmjow. Those eyes—yellow on black sclera—were not simply looking at him, but into him. As though it was not enough for it to simply cut Grimmjow open; it wanted more—to peel back his skin, get inside him and dissect him, eat him alive.

But its sword hung at its side, not raised to deliver the killing blow.

Nigeki Kessatsu!

The Hollow raised its hand, and it had Suì-Fēng clutched by the wrist. Grimmjow had not even seen her approach—Suì-Fēng’s flash step had always been exceptional even amongst the elite of Seireitei—but the Hollow had seen her coming and neutralized her oncoming attack without even raising its sword. It hardly paused to consider her before tossing her aside like a rag doll.

What the fuck was this creature?

Grimmjow leapt to his feet, head spinning. The Hollow turned back to him, and it advanced. With an animal snarl, Grimmjow met his challenge and raised his blades, but the Hollow did not raise its own.

It only stared at him again.

Its wordless gaze was like needles under Grimmjow’s skin. “I got something on my face?” he yelled. “Or you think I’m not good enough for your sword now? Come at me; I got blood to repay you!”

Suì-Fēng had reappeared at the Hollow’s throat, and this time her sword was back in its sealed state and aimed at the jugular. The Hollow dodged her attack, but she did not yield. Like an angry wasp, she reared back to strike again, and again.

“To the Senkaimon!” she shouted. “Jaegerjaquez, take the men back!”

Grimmjow could give a shit about the men or the Senkaimon. Fuck that, he wasn’t done here yet.

He took a step towards them, and the ground swayed beneath him. Fuck. Had he lost that much blood already?

“Captain, let’s go!” Two of Grimmjow’s men were at his side. “Hurry, the Senkaimon is closing.”

Suì-Fēng’s men were already nearly to the gates. Grimmjow looked back from the gates to the Hollow. Suì-Fēng had driven it back a few paces, but the Hollow was barely lifting its sword to ward off her blows.

Was it just…toying with her?

Perhaps Suì-Fēng sensed this too, for she abandoned her fight and appeared in an instant at Grimmjow’s side. “We retreat,” she said, and before he could growl a word back, she had grabbed him by the shoulder and flash stepped both of them to the Senkaimon.

The wooden gates of the Senkaimon were closing.

Grimmjow stood behind them, the entire front of his robes and white captain’s haori doused in his own blood, Pantera still released upon his arms.

Across the sands, the Hollow stood eerily still, moving only by the wind caught in its long hair. It faced them, and though it was impossible to see from this distance, Grimmjow felt its eyes and knew they were fixed upon him.

Grimmjow scowled.

That Hollow saw something it wanted to challenge, did it? It wanted Grimmjow’s attention, did it? Well, it had his fucking attention.

“Hollow!” Grimmjow stood tall and shouted, in voice loud enough to carry across the distance. His men turned to stare at him, but Grimmjow didn’t care. All that mattered was that this Hollow heard him, and remembered his voice, his name, and his sword. “We’re not done yet. Your sword has taken my blood; next time, mine will have yours! Next time, I’ll beat your name out of you!”

Something solidified in Grimmjow’s heart. He would remember that reiatsu, that mask, that black sword. He would come back. He didn’t know when, or how, but he would come back to Hueco Mundo, track this Hollow down, and carve those fucking infernal yellow eyes right out of its skull so that it would never be able to stare through Grimmjow again.

The Hollow did not move.

It stood there a statue, a living monument amidst lifeless white sand and black sky.