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freedom above all things

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Everything that happened is all because of that Asshole.

… Okay. No, it’s not, but it would make me feel a hell of a lot better if I could just foist all the responsibility for this shit onto his shoulders. But I’m mature enough to face the facts, I guess, if I really have to. It’s not like I didn’t play my part in this whole fucked-up situation.

Look, all I can really say is that hindsight is a pain in the ass. And that, in my defense, I was sleep-deprived. Nothing good has ever come from that.

(I once waxed poetic about the minimalistic composition of a spoon when I was 27 hours without sleep. In the middle of a conversation with my roommate. I should not be held responsible for sleep-deprived me’s actions.)

What the fuck, someone was yelling. Only, no, that wasn’t it. It was more like:

Qué coño, they spat, loud and harsh enough that I could feel it ringing in my ears. And, Gods, what an asshole. Who yells in other people’s ears like that? Who gets close enough to someone just to scream at them? Assholes, that’s who.

Quién coño eres tú, pendejo, qué coño estás haciendo—

It was like listening to myself, when I was frustrated and couldn’t get the right words out; just errant, reflexive curses. And yeah, don’t worry. That idle thought of “wow, that sounds like something I would say” obviously came back to bite me right in the ass.

At the time, though, I mostly just wanted This Asshole to stop yelling, especially if they were going to be doing it right in my ear. I didn’t even have the energy to try and figure out who was yelling, or why they felt the need to come into my room and shout at me, specifically. There was a hazy sort of alarm that accompanied that last thought, something that was trying to get my attention.

But, again, sleep-deprived. My eyelids felt like weights against my skin, and there was no way in hell I was going to attempt facing the world at large until the migraine went away. Whatever my brain had to say, it could wait until I felt more like a living, breathing, functional thing.

Right, back to the Asshole. Who was still spitting obscenities that echoed strangely in my ears. Rude. So I, with a migraine throbbing in my temples and absolutely no patience for whatever the fuck was happening right then, politely requested:

¡Cállate ya la pinche boca! Me cago en tus muertos, ¡hijo de la gran puta!

If nothing else, I adore Spanish for the versatility of its vulgarities. That’s right, asshole. I shit on your dead.

Blissful, stunned silence.

I rolled over, tucked my face into the crook of my elbow, and fell asleep.


I don’t tend to remember my dreams. I had spent years and years thinking that I didn’t dream, but my AP Psych teacher in high school cleared that right up for me, with gratuitous sarcastic commentary. Point is, I almost never remember anything from my deep REM cycles.

What I do remember are my waking dreams.

And let me tell you, my waking dreams are weird as shit.

There was this one that involved Harry Potter, who was also somehow my Pokémon X Avatar, some shady operation involving the smuggling of Pokémon eggs run by Professor X and Spider-Man, and a buff chick named Spider who straight up leapt over a mountain.

The point is, I’m more or less used to my brain showing me weird shit.

Weird bright lights? Nothing new.

Loud, angry howling that was slowly drowned out by the sound like high tide? I shrugged it off.

Pins and needles all along my arms and legs, going from mildly annoying to aching-joints-on-a-cold-rainy-day? I would deal with it. Later.

Everything was too-bright and too-loud, and rolling-shifting beneath me but I was tired as all hell and I didn’t care.

I grumbled and frowned and curled up into a tighter ball, folding my arm over my eyes for good measure.

I was not getting up until I damn well felt like it.

… One day, I’m gonna kick my own ass.


Of course, I shot up however many hours later, heart leaping in my chest and body shivering with cold, because what the fuck, who the shit, where the fuck was I.

Not in my bed, that’s for damn sure. There was none of the ambient noise I expected to hear, like passing vehicles on the street, or birds from hell shrieking, or a dog barking from down the block. There was nothing but the sound of wind. No birds, no insects. Just wind.

Also, I knew I wasn’t in my bed because my bed was not made out of fucking sand.

I flailed, sharp and wild, just trying to throw myself away from—from whatever the fuck was happening. All I accomplished was throwing myself off of some sand and into some other sand.

I could hear the echo of my heartbeat in my ears, and my chest was heaving and I was tense, the way I always am after an unpleasant awakening. It’s one thing to blink awake, eyes gummy and mouth dry. It’s another thing entirely to suddenly be awake, held still because something woke you up and your heart won’t settle until you know what.

I breathed quick and short through my nose, and tried to listen for any hint of what woke me up. I was still trying to blink the sleep out my eyes, but the general overall input that I was getting was something along the lines of “okay, but where the actual fuck”. Because wind, whistling and buffeting and blowing. And sand. That’s it.

The longer I sat there, listening and looking for any sign of… anything, the more I wanted to hit something, to make it all go away, but there was nothing to hit. There was nothing at all, just fucking sand and the wind and more sand and—

So, uh, yeah. Panic attack.

I sat there, for a while, struggling to breathe. I have no idea how long; I can barely keep track of time with a clock and calendar. But I sat there, flexing my fingers and trying to match my breaths to the movement. I sat there, and I breathed and I sat there, my mind racing a million miles an hour, trying to remember what I was doing last and how that led to me waking up in the middle of a fucking desert.

I remember that I laughed once, loud and staccato and desperate, because I’m from Chicago. I’ve never even seen a goddamn desert in my life. And it’s not like I got drunk or high or whatever and bought a plane ticket to The Middle Of Nowhere. I’m broke as hell; I sure as hell can’t afford a plane ticket.

So, there I was, some-fucking-where for some-fucking-reason without any reasonable explanation that I could remember, and I just… stopped.

Say what you will, but being pathologically unable to process my own emotions and dissociating instead comes in real fuckin’ handy when I’m ten seconds from hyperventilating myself into unconsciousness. Yay?

My brain was still a shrieking litany of everything is wrong wrong wrong, super fucking wrong, but my pulse was even and I could think.

The last thing I remembered was… there had been something, hadn’t there? I’d expected to wake up in my bed, so I must’ve been sleeping. Wait, wait. Okay, no, I hadn’t been sleeping, I’d finally passed out after my latest stint of insomnia. I remember the sun shining in through the window, strong and high in the sky and the half-cognizant thought of 26 hours, great. I remember that my head had been heavy and it had hurt to keep my eyes open and the forecast said it was going to be hot, but I didn’t care and wrapped myself up in sheets anyway, because just the thought of sunlight made me was to bury myself under the earth.

I remembered putting a bunch of Gatorade in the fridge so I’d have something to drink when I inevitably woke up dehydrated. I remembered plugging in my DS because I promised Soba we would pokébattle over the weekend. I remembered—I remembered…

Some Asshole, screaming in my goddamn ear.

My brain, mostly past wordless, incoherent vocalizations and now resigned to humming loudly, chose that moment to dutifully inform me of the fact that no, said Asshole had not been screaming in my ear, but in my head.

Right. Great. Okay. Screaming voices in my head, that is just what I need on top of waking up somewhere I could not be. Thank you brain, super fucking helpful.

I took all of that—all of the, the everything that was me waking up in the middle of nowhere and the ‘angry, unknown cursing voices in my head’—and I shoved it away, into some mental corner which I then proceeded to cover with a mental sheet and ignore the mental hell out of.

It’d be easier, I thought, to take stock. I didn’t know where I was or how I got there but I could, at the very least, make sure that I was physically good to go. Double check I had all my limbs and shit. Easy.

(It was, in fact, not easier. Because of course it wasn’t.)

My first clue that something was wrong was that everything hurt like hell. This was not as much as a relief as it should’ve been. I mean, don’t get me wrong. Between the light-sensitive migraines, and the arthritic joint pain and the chronic fatigue—and I know the fibromyalgia is just around some corner, waiting to catch my ass off guard—I’m used to waking up feeling like I hadn’t slept at all, and I’m used to consistent, constant aches. But everything hurt in the wrong way.

My head felt heavy, which could’ve been the fatigue or the migraine, but my neck felt strangely stiff, too, and my entire spacial awareness was off. I was sitting, but even that felt unusual. I tried to twist, to stretch, but my torso felt too wide and my shoulders were too stiff to accommodate the movement. And not “just woke up” too stiff, but almost like a “these joints don’t bend that way” stiffness, which… didn’t make any sense.

My legs felt cramped, and my fingers hurt like hell. Which again, nothing new, but it wasn’t the kind of cramped stiff hurt that I knew how to manage. It was like all my sensory input was fucked to hell and back; my legs were weird, my chest didn’t feel right, nothing felt like how I was expecting it to, and my temples were still pounding like a marching band’s drumline.

I flexed my fingers, pulled in tight, fingertips to palm and then stretched out, knuckles popping, but even that wasn’t right. I hadn’t noticed, probably, because it was a muscle memory thing, something I did when without much thought and usually without looking. And I hadn’t noticed, because I had been a little too busy trying not to suffocate on my own panicked breaths, but now I was aware that it was wrong and it was seriously bothering me.

I looked down and—everything stopped. My brain stopped humming, and whatever rising confusion I’d had fled, gone like it’d never been there. Because those weren’t my fingers.

Those weren’t my fingers, and I wasn’t looking down at my chest and arms. I was looking at sand. And paws.

There was nothing else out here, but me, and the wind, and the sand. I wasn’t so out of it to not have noticed a dog or cat. Psychosis or not, my brain was fine-tuned to detecting cute animals I could coo at. But there weren’t any. It was just me. And the wind, which had no body. And the sand, which was everywhere.

I was looking at paws, and I was the only bodied thing around.

“Oh no,” I said, shaking my head, but it was a jerky movement, because my neck was still heavy and strangely fixed, and my voice was oddly slurred. Maybe that meant a hangover. I really needed it to mean a hangover. “Oooooh, no. Oh hell no.”

I was not even going to think it. Thinking a thing put it out into the universe, putting something out into the universe made it real and I was not going to think it.

I stood up, ready to try and physically avoid that thing that wasn’t being thought about. Or, well, I tried to stand up. The paws moved with me—not fucking thinking about it—and because my life was clearly horrible in all ways, instead of rising, I fell to my side in a pile of frantic limbs instead. My legs hadn’t bent the way I’d expected them to, because of reasons I was not going to acknowledge.

“This is because I’m a Leo, isn’t it.” I muttered, glaring at the sand around me. I was very much not thinking about how wide my jaw felt, how my words came out a little slurred, not because I was hungover, but because I could clearly feel the lack of proper points of articulation.

I moved my arms, and the paws came back into my field of vision. Godsdamnit.

Part of me didn’t even want to get up. I did not go to sleep expecting to wake up here – wherever ‘here’ was – in a body that was not mine.

I laid there, aggressively not thinking about things that I probably should’ve at least vaguely acknowledged, for… a while. More than a couple hours. Maybe a couple days? Maybe weeks? Months? I don’t know. I didn’t care.

(I think about that, sometimes.

I wonder, if I had pulled myself together sooner, would I have realized just how fucked I was? Or was it inevitable, that I wouldn't realize until the last and worst possible moment? Would I have been able to change anything, if I had just noticed sooner?

Would I have even bothered to?

Doubtful.)

The wind kept blowing, picking up sand, and I laid there, petty and unwilling to move and so dissociated that anger or fear or any other strong emotion was just a muted, passing thought; a fleeting blip on the vast radar of my purposeful, blank apathy. The sand moved and the wind whistled, and over the course of however long, I was slowly buried in the sand until it was tickling my nose and face. The sun never set.

That also should’ve been a warning sign, like a goddamn blaring klaxon, but hey. I was being petty and it’s not like the days don’t drag on sometimes.

Nothing changed, no matter how long I waited, or how stubbornly I refused to move. The wind blew, the sand shifted. I remained there, in an unknown where, in that body that I refused to contemplate for too long.

Only…

Eventually, I sighed. My head was fuzzy, my mind a low hum, my thoughts intangible. It was time to face the music, or whatever. Sure, I could, hypothetically, ignore the entire situation indefinitely and just spend the rest of who knew how long watching the sand shift and resettle. I could’ve done that. But… wouldn’t it be better to just… get it over with? Deal with the fallout, whatever it would be? I was going to have to do something eventually, especially considering that I didn’t particularly want to stay in some weird ass desert that I had no recollection of traveling to.

I stretched, joints popping and sand falling away.

“Let’s try that again,” I huffed, like it hadn’t been hours, or days, or weeks or more, since I’d flopped down and refused to move. I pulled my legs and arms underneath me and slowly, carefully hefted myself up.

My body rose… maybe a third of the distance I was anticipating. Last I checked I was five-foot-eight, and being this low to the ground would’ve been hell on my knees and ankles. But there I stood, limbs fully extended and definitely nowhere near high enough off the ground.

Fuck.

I was going to have to look, wasn’t I.

Shit.

I really didn’t wanna look. Knowing that I had to face the reality of the situation—whatever that reality was or was not—did not make it any easier to do the facing.

“Okay,” I told myself. Because it was all totally okay. And I could do this. I’d already sulked about it for however long I’d laid there in the sand, slowly being buried. I could do this!

“Okay,” I said again. I could totally do this.

Okay,” I said one more time. If I didn’t say it, I would’ve probably just screamed for the rest of eternity out of avoidance, and that’s only entertaining for so long. “Look. Gotta look.”

I could already tell that my neck wasn’t going to move the same way, and rather than looking down—since I no longer stood up—I’d have to twist.

I sat down and, fuck, was that weird. My legs folded under me neatly and… with a sinking feeling, I craned my neck to look behind me.

Yup. A fucking tail.

Granted, there was a pretty sizable blade-like protrusion on the end—was I a goddamn manticore or something?—so it was a cool tail, but that did nothing to temper the wild anxiety in my chest, because that tail was attached to me. As I looked on in stupefied horror, the bladed end swayed and rippled against the sand like a snake, without any conscious input from me. I very quickly tore my gaze away and decided that I would deal with that much later, like say, the 5th of Never.

Instead, I stretched my arms out in front of me to inspect them. Fuck the zoologists, I was still calling them arms. The paws weren’t so bad, except for the part where they were terrible because they weren’t hands. The dew claws were just cruel reminders of how close I was to thumbs. They were wide and thick like baseball mitts, and when I flexed my fingers—paw pads?—sharp, black claws unsheathed.

I had no means of inspecting my own head, either by sight or touch. Turns out my arms didn’t really bend that way anymore, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to put sharp claws I couldn’t totally control anywhere near my eyes or ears. I could tell that my head was big, though, and I ran my tongue—flat and longer than I was used to—over my new teeth. It painted a pretty accurate picture of ‘you are now some kind of fucking cat’.

I had known, honestly, since my reflexive smartass comment about being a Leo. This wasn’t my body, it was the body of a cat.

Being turned into a cat would be weird, and probably terrible. But, the thing is—the thing is, I didn’t feel like a cat. Or, not a house cat, anyway. I didn’t feel small or light, like I would’ve imagined, if this ridiculous fucking situation was ever something I put thought into. My body felt big, and heavy; bigger and heavier than my normal five-foot-eight and hundred thirty pounds. My head almost felt too large to lift, and my paws—hands—were wider and heavier than dainty cat paws, like I was wearing multiple pairs of gloves. There was nothing around me but the sand and the wind, so I had nothing to compare myself to, but I felt big, and heavy and strong, and more than a little clumsy with how much power I had.

And even then, even so, I wasn’t a normal big, heavy, strong cat-thing. Instead of fur, or even skin, there was… something. It was warm and flexible, but hard like keratin—barely taking any damage when I scored a light path with my claws—and segmented at the joints like a carapace. Between that and the heavy bladed tail, it was starting to look more and more like I had drawn the short straw in some kinda mythological creature lottery.

Right. So. Giant fucking fantasy cat-thing.

I decided to try and focus on the positive: I was still me, at least. It could’ve been a lot worse, I reasoned to myself, like… Animorphs worse, or something. I hadn’t had to battle any animal instincts and I was still (mostly) in full control of my body, so that was something. Then again, I—to my knowledge—had definitely not chosen to turn into a giant fantasy cat monster, which meant that my analogy probably left a lot to be desired.

I couldn’t really see all of my body; mostly just my limbs and that tail. Simple movements weren’t that challenging, if I just pretended like I was on my hands and knees. Toddlers did it all the time, I thought. Piece of cake. But at the idea of actually moving—walking, or running, or even just slinking away—the body became utterly foreign to me, like trying to read the instructions for an IKEA product. In the dark. While drunk.

I stared out into the desert. The sun was slowly but surely setting to my left—which, what was up with the passage of time? Or did sunsets normally last what felt like days?—and I sighed. Or well, exhaled.

These were the facts: I was a giant fucking cat thing. As in, a not human thing, though at least I was still myself. I was changed—something had changed me, unknown and unseen and against my will—with no idea how I got that way, or even where I was, which meant I had no fucking clue how to change back, or if I even could.

Fuuuuck.” I groaned, and flopped back down onto the sand.

Chapter Text

I have no idea how long I laid there, again, in the sand, stubbornly refusing to move, again. It was easier, in a way, to just… do nothing. If I were to really try and puzzle it out, I probably spent years there. Decades. Maybe longer.

At the time, of course, I didn’t know that. I’ve always had problems processing time, and doing so without outside assistance is nigh impossible. But I remember that I thought a lot, in those days. I had to think, had to try and make sense of it.

The first thing I tried to do was establish the realness of the situation. Reality is one of those things where if I think about it for too long, I can’t stop and then I start panicking. But I had to think about it then, because for all that I’d seemed to take suddenly inhabiting a foreign, non-human body in stride, I really fucking hadn’t. The problem was, the body didn’t feel foreign. It wasn’t my body, and I caught myself checking for features and parts that weren’t there, and the cognitive dissonance was hell, but— I’m probably not explaining it well.

It wasn’t my body—I didn’t have my hands, or my aching fingers or my stiff shoulders or my legs or my face—but somehow, despite that, the body didn’t feel wrong. I knew it was wrong, but at the same time, everything was wired up correctly. The forelegs were arms, the forepaws were hands, I could hunch the body’s shoulders and pinpoint ankle and knee and wrist joints, even if they bent in ways that made my brain hurt.

The body wasn’t my body, but whatever had gotten me into this situation had taken the time to make sure everything was lined up and in order.

It made me shiver, to know that there was something or someone out there with the power and whatever incentive to just… change things. And not only change them, but do a damn good job of it.

I assumed—preemptively, and pretty foolishly—that most of the hard shit was over and done with. In my defense, I had already acknowledged that I was inhabiting the body of a giant fucking cat-thing, with its weird ass scorpion-like tail and equally weird ass carapace body. I had even accepted it, to some degree, in the sense that I was resigned to it, still having no clue as to how or why the change had occurred. I couldn’t do anything about that, and thinking about it only soured my mood, so I decided to focus on other things, like the desert I was stuck in.

Though I probably should’ve noticed it earlier, I at some point realized that the sun was just... not fucking rising. I could vaguely remember it setting, around the time I had finally come to terms with the fact that I had woken up in someone—something—else’s body, or my new unwanted body or whatever, but surely more than a day had passed since then. I was used to losing time, but I was also aware that my inability to parse the passage of time didn’t mean that time didn’t pass.

And so, as I laid there and laid there and laid there and the sky never once lightened with the red-yellow-orange-purple glow of an oncoming sunrise, I started to, very quietly, freak the fuck out.

Where the hell was I, exactly? There was nowhere, no desert on Earth that I could think of where the sun just didn’t rise. A solar day on Earth is twenty four hours. It had been far longer than that since the sun had set, which logically speaking, meant that I wasn’t on Earth. But that made absolutely no fucking sense, because I would definitely remember something like interplanetary travel.

I stared at the sky, eyes narrowed, and hissed out a low breath.

I’d like to think that I’d remember something like traveling through space, but then again, I would’ve also liked to think that I would remember something like being transformed and/or displaced from my own goddamn body. And yet.

What did I actually, really, clearly remember? Everything about the situation felt unreal and somewhere between waking dream and nightmare, and I absolutely hated the feeling of not being sure.

What did I know? What did I remember? What was real?

So I opened my mouth and started talking.

Talking put a thing out into the universe, and putting it out there made it real.

It was hard, at first. My mouth was not my mouth, and so my words were clumsy and slurred. I bit my tongue more than once. It took time to learn (or was it relearning?) how I could shape my mouth, curl my tongue, to achieve the sounds I wanted to make. The mouth that was not my mouth—not the mouth I knew—was wider and longer, teeth bigger and broader than I was used to.

But I needed to speak. I needed to know, to feel, to understand.

So I tried, as best I could, to remember. I started off with what I knew both the best and the least: myself. Current situation aside, I remembered that I was twenty-two going on twenty-three and eternally exhausted. I committed all five-foot-eight of me to memory, from the scars on my knuckles to the scattering of beauty marks down my legs. That part was the easiest, in a way, because it was all about the physical. The way my knees twinged when it rained, the constant clicking in my shoulders and wrists, the way my toes were always cold. My hair, locs ever-growing in the corners of my eyes.

It was the rest that was harder, the parts of me that weren’t so easily seen.

I remembered that for all I had come to be comfortable in my skin, I still never quite knew what to do with myself, never could quite think of myself as a person, a functioning human being. I remembered the wandering thought, more recurrent in recent years, of how in the fresh hell I ever made it to two decades, with how poorly I could care for myself.

It was hard, existing. Some days I woke up and couldn’t muster up the effort to bother with functioning, with interacting with people, with basic self-care. I remembered living hour-by-hour, day-by-day, because forethought was beyond me. It was hard enough existing in the present, never mind planning ahead.

I was never diagnosed, mentally, because it’s not like I could afford therapy, and moreover because I didn’t know how to ask for it, didn’t want it half the time, but I’d made vague self-diagnoses over the years; depression, anxiety. Something that made it hard for me to emote and retain emotion, and made me loathe to give up control in any and all ways. Chronic fatigue. PTSD that my brain fervently denied.

I was never diagnosed physically either, but that was easier. All I had to do was look at my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother. Arthritis, with fibromyalgia lurking around the corner. Breast cancer a possibility. Vitamin deficiencies out the ass.

I remembered that about me—I knew that about myself, and I spoke it into the eager winds and let the words get carried away and spread across the universe—but it was… muted. Something I knew but didn’t feel. Like reading an ‘Early Life’ summary on Wikipedia.

I spoke it into existence and the wind carried it away, and it felt like the desert was slowly draining something out of me, like I was corroding away into pieces. It was as though with every word I spoke, another piece was pulled away. The more I tried desperately to paint that picture of myself, the more quickly that person become little more than a stranger, something completely unattached from who and what I was in that moment.

But I couldn’t stop talking. I had to make it real.

I could only think of my body, of its aches and pains, its hurts. I could only think of my body, the only body I had ever known, that I sometimes couldn’t even recognize as my own. I thought of my bed, the house I couldn’t stand, the city I wanted to escape, the solace I sought in things larger than me. The swell of the moon in the sky, the comforting glow of stars in the night, the crest of the ocean’s waves. No more timeless than I was, but longer-lived by far and awe-inspiring in their quasi-immortality.

I could only speak of what I knew, the things that I knew that I didn’t know, all my failings, my misgivings, my fears. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing with my life, but I knew that I didn’t fit, that I didn’t know how to fit, that I didn’t want to fit into the clockwork mechanism of capitalism, because the thought of working day-in and day-out, to pay off my godsforsaken student loans, to buy a house or a car or what the fuck ever, repulsed me on an atomic level. I didn’t want to do anything other than be myself, to just live, because I was so fucking terrible at it.

I remembered it all. I knew it all. It was real, but it was distant now. It was the sand of this strange desert, blown away from me by unseen winds. Carried off, never to be found again, lost in the vast nothingness.

Everything was nothing.

The only thing that I could feel was the sand, gritty and almost-but-not-quite abrasive against the not-skin of the not-body I had become. The wind, pressing down like a heavy hand, whistling high sharp notes. That was undeniably real, uncompromising and uncaring of the fact that everything else that I had once called mine had been stripped away.

The desert was a nothingness more physically present than every something I had, once had, to my name.

It was unfamiliar and unwanted and empty, but it was real.

It never occurred to me to be angry, then. Not angry, or sad. Confusion, yes, but mostly I felt blank. The slow drag of nothing, looming over my shoulder like a wraith. The body—my body—that I hadn’t asked for, that I hardly wanted to look at, because it was never going to be what I expected, grew heavier and heavier under the weight of my exhaustion. I didn’t want to move. What good would moving do?

I laid there in the sand and tried to understand how that—how I—could wind up in a desert where the Earthly days passed but the sun didn’t rise.

I kept ruminating on it, turning it over like I could draw out something helpful if I just kept poking at it long enough. For a while, I decided that it was a vivid hallucination. I’d never had a visual hallucination—something I chalked up to my overactive imagination, because I could fuck myself up well enough just by thinking about it—but I told myself there was a first time for everything. That thought didn’t last too long, though, because I figured that if I were hallucinating, it wouldn’t be something so… peaceable. I was a giant fucking cat-monster-thing, but I was also, as far as I knew, the only thing around. And it wasn’t like I minded being alone. My brain wasn’t likely to trick my senses into a situation so agreeable.

If it wasn’t a hallucination, I reasoned next, then it had to be real. For some given definition of the word ‘real’, of course. It felt real: I breathed and felt the chest of the carapace expand; I could feel the rasp of the sand under and between my hands, or paws, or whatever; my body was a heavy, warm thing, warmer than my flesh had ever been, despite the chill of the desert night.

And gods, you have no idea how badly that fucking bothered me. It had been at least eight or nine Earth days, and yet a moon still hung high in the night sky, surrounded by stars in constellations I had never seen in my fucking life.

Where the hell could I have possibly been, where solar days were that long?

I laid there, slumped in the sand, mind racing and jumping between ideas and watching the moon remain a fixed point in the dark of night, until I thought, at last, finally, eventually: Enough.


The body took some time. To get used to.

Not the shape of it, but the… feel of it, I guess.

From the outside, I doubted my “getting used to” looked too much different from my petulant refusal to face reality.

I laid still and quiet, and just let the body do its own thing. And I cataloged all of it.

The unconscious quivers and twitching of muscles when the wind blew hard or when my circulation got cut off. The weight of my head, with and without a migraine. The way the plates of the carapace clicked and shuffled when my lungs expanded.

And the carapace was weird. Since it was hard and dense, I never once felt the need to consider grooming (thank fuck). And while I could sense temperature and pressure, my tactile sense was otherwise muted. Despite the appearance of my body, I did very few cat-like actions. Although, I did check and yes, I could scratch my head and neck with my back legs.

After some long while, I tried moving. I should’ve been clumsy, at least a little, just from having laid there all that time, but I quickly found out that I had to try to be anything less than graceful. Between the wide paws and the smooth motion of my joints and the unconscious movements of my tail, I couldn’t trip over my own feet even if I’d wanted to.

I could tell that my muscles were thick and I was, inch for inch, seemingly designed to thrive in the desert: the carapace retained heat from the sun for those long ass solar cycles without cooking my organs; my paw-hands were wide and flat and made moving across sand surprisingly easy; and the shiny white gleam of the body made it rather likely that whatever I was, I had no natural predators. The body was not meant to camouflage itself against the dull, colorless sand, but to stand out boldly before it.

It was a powerful realization, and a welcome one. At the very least, I reasoned, I wouldn't have to put with being hunted on top of everything else.

I know that it seems like I was acclimating well, but I really, really wasn’t. Sometimes, it’s just easier to accept that something has changed than to try and understand how or why the change occurred. I was a giant cat-monster. I was going to have to do giant cat-monster things, whether I wanted to or not. Might as well just go with it.

There was a lot of depersonalization happening, and for a while. But it helped, in a way. It was like figuring out the controls on an obscure ass controller; what the hell did all those buttons do?

Walking, contrary to my brain's mapping of forelimbs-as-arms, didn't require any thought beyond 'I want to move'. If anything, it was the back legs that gave me the most trouble; they were just as dexterous as the front ones and I spent many a long hour trying to puzzle out feet-but-hands.

The tail was pretty cool, mostly because it seemed to do its own thing and required minimal input from the rest of me. Also, there was a giant blade on the end. I had no idea how to use it, but holy shit, was it cool.

I’d spent enough time—not that I knew how much time, exactly—sulking. Now it was time for something different. I had energy, for once, and I might as well spend it while I had it. Unlike the usual 2 AM burst of sudden willpower and productivity that I was used to, I felt truly energetic. Besides, the desert was either always sunlit or always moonlit, and I had literally no other obligations. It was true that I didn’t need to sleep, something I’d discovered after mumbling my way through whatever songs came to mind for an entire moon, but it still felt good to rest. The desert stretched as far as I could see, from horizon to horizon, nothing but shifting dunes of fine white sand.

I sat up, planted my too-wide not-hands firmly against the sand. It had been night for what felt like three days, and the moon was a bare sliver in the sky. My eyes felt heavy. Or, actually, now that I was paying attention—in my body instead of just observing it—everything felt heavy.

I looked down at my body, and blinked when I was met with the sand-worn carapace instead of the human torso and legs I expected. Right, that was still new. Still strange.

I hadn’t completely gotten it into my head that the carapace was my body. It wasn’t as though the body I was used to was lying to the side, discarded. I’d already had a moment—or however long it had been—of crippling doubt, of not knowing that ‘I’ was really ‘I’, because all I had were intangible memories. The carapace was a body, though, and I knew how to take care of one, theoretically.

Sleep, except that I didn’t need that any longer. It was more recreational than a necessity.

Water, except that I hadn’t felt so much as a stirring of thirst.

Shelter was negligible too, seeing as there was nothing but the desert, and the carapace was well-equipped to handle both the sting of the sand and the heat of the sun.

Food…

I didn’t feel hunger.

Which isn’t the same as saying that I wasn’t hungry. The body—that of an enormous cat-like creature—was a predator, and by all rights should’ve been ravenous at all times. The predator that doesn’t eat dies, after all. But I had been in the desert for days, or weeks, or months, or years. Ages. Eternities. However long, I had never once so much as glimpsed a passing figure in the distance.

There was nothing else but the pitiful little burrow that I’d dug out and lain in while stars burned out and spread across the sky. Nothing more than distant dunes. I was alone. I had woken up alone and I was still alone.

There was nothing.

But my body—the body—was made for the desert. Born of the desert, probably. And predators don’t evolve where there is no prey to be had.

I narrowed my eyes in thought and—my eyes shot back open, wide with surprise at the low, dangerous rumble that spilled forth from my throat, building up from my chest. I made a small noise of curiosity—or at least, I tried to—and was rewarded with a bestial noise of bass and teeth.

That was… neat.

I spent another stretch of time just making noise, playing with sounds. Not too different from teaching this new-foreign mouth to talk, the way I was used to, but enjoyable all the same. The trills and chirps and burbles and growls. It was amazing what could be achieved with vocal chords made for those kinds of noise; the meager sounds I’d been able to produce with my… the mouth I’d had before paled in comparison.

There was a distant revelation happening, as I squeaked and chirruped there in the sand. I had trained this mouth to talk. I could trill and burble and chirr like a sweet house cat as easily as I could snarl and roar. This strange body was animal, but it was capable of human speech; either that, or I had stumbled my way into whatever tongue it was that giant cat monsters spoke. Without any kind of reflective surface, I wasn’t quite sure which kind of giant cat I most closely resembled, but there was too much that was familiar for this body to be entirely alien. Broad paws and a tail like a rope, a long spine and thick legs. Whatever I was, I was big, and the bladed end of my tail made me even more dangerous.

I wondered how long creatures of the desert could go without food, without water. Without seeing so much as a hint of another living creature.

I fell back into my burrow of sand. I let my eyes fall shut.

There was nothing else but to wait.


It was a good thing that this new body didn’t need sleep, because I was no less of an insomniac. Even just lying there, hoping to rest, was a novel experience.

I was hypervigilant as hell with human hearing. With heightened senses, I didn’t stand a chance. I closed my eyes, but I could feel my ears swiveling and flicking back and forth every time a grain of sand so much as shifted. To say nothing of the smells: I could smell the dry-roughness of the sand, the barest hint of cold-dampness of water however many miles below the sand, the sharp-crispness of the ceaseless winds and a strange stagnant-heady smell that my brain and nose assigned to the desert as a whole.

The winds lessened, but never stopped. The sand whirled in dizzying little eddies. I tried to will myself unconscious.

It didn’t work.

Some time later, I finally gave up. My head was throbbing in a familiar, aching way. It was a little annoying to be confronted with the fact that even as a monstrous cat, I still got migraines. Ugh.

Nothing had changed since I had last gazed out upon the horizon: sand, more sand, no sun, idle moon, howling winds. Another day-that-wasn’t gone by.

I felt heavy and warm, a comfortable kind of laziness that I wasn’t used to. It was a trial and a half to bother with sitting up. I yawned, stretching my jaw and curling my tongue. I still felt neither thirst nor hung—

A sudden shiver ran through my body, ice water coldness dragging itself down the length of my spine and severing my line of thought.

Eat.

It was more impression than coherent thought, an urge of the body and not the mind.

I frowned, as much as my mouth allowed. Something in me coiled, moved stretched. A beast awakened not from slumber, but from hibernation. Shaking off the the lethargy of months spent without the need for a hunt. Feeling the slow burn of—

I didn’t feel hungry—at least, I didn’t think so.

What I felt, it wasn’t… it wasn’t hunger. It wasn’t the feeling of coming back to myself after some odd hours of dissociation with the vague thought that, hey, it’s been a while and I should probably eat. It was… a craving, no, a need. The want for a dish I’d only ever had once before, ages ago, whose name or recipe or ingredients I couldn’t remember.

I was on my feet, standing against the wind, without the knowledge of how I’d gotten there, or when I’d moved.

Eat, came the thought-feeling again, like a charge running through my entire body. The need to move strained against my desire to sit and wait and observe. I shrugged it off with the ease born of years of bad habits. The hunger could wait a moment longer, until I understood what the hunger itself was.

I wasn’t hungry, but my body was. It was very, very hungry.

And this wasn’t a “pull something out the fridge” hunger, or even a “set aside time to cook” hunger. It felt like the hunger born of having nothing to eat, coupled with a snappish impatience at not being sated. Hunger like the week after paying bills, when I was down to living on rice and bread. It was even a little like the way that I sometimes just wanted meat, the taste of iron on the backs of my teeth.

Except…

Except that, as I stood there, bracing against the winds and glaring out into the sand, I did not want to eat. It was not a hunger for food, for meat. It was almost a hunger for a hunt.

Move, my body screamed. Run. Stalk. Chase.

The rasp of windblown sand seemed louder now. The muscles of my body stained against my refusal to move. What was the point, I wondered. There was nothing to hunt; I’d been in this new body long enough to see empires rise and fall and I had never even once heard or smelt or seen any other creature, living or dead. Not even carrion birds in the distance. Not even bugs. It had just been me, the wind, the sand, the sun-and-moon.

North, the same feeling-instinct-idea rumbled, only now it was not just an insatiable desire, but an anticipation.

I found that my head was already pointed unerringly to the left, which was presumably north.

“Okaaay.” I said aloud, to the sand and the wind and my persistent, hungry body. I stretched, a roll of muscle, that I could feel shivering in impatience. “I guess I’m going north.”


Despite the fact that I hadn’t moved from the same little patch of sand for gods know how long, my sudden decision to trek north posed no problems. It was still a little awkward to know that I was walking on my hands, but my new body’s sense of balance was so innate that I easily went from a tentative walk to a quicker stride. No matter where one paw landed, I had three other to balance out, and the tail had fallen into a low curl that I could feel was giving me extra balance. My sense of balance had never been too shabby, even before I’d woken up with four legs and a tail to counterbalance, but now I couldn’t fall unless I made myself fall.

It was amazing.

The sand was constantly shifting in the wind, but I never lost my footing and despite how heavy I felt, I moved across it like it was flat ground.

I bore forward, the eagerness churning in my stomach acting like some sort of acute compass. The sands and wind remained the same, and there were no markers—no cacti, or even rocks—that hinted to the distance I traveled, just cresting dunes and distant rock faces. But I kept chugging along, never once feeling short of breath. I only felt that avid hunger.

And then—I stopped.

I couldn’t say why, but at the wavering base of one particularly large dune, I fell still. My head dipped and my mouth fell open, letting my tongue slip out and—

Holy shit, I could smell everything.

The sand was sun-baked and smelled of sunlight, even though the sun had set ages ago, and the sky was only just now hinting at its return. The wind carried the smell of dead-dry things and a sort of tingling-electric-hovering from the other side of the dune. Whatever my hunger had driven me to find, it was right over the dune.

My tongue shot out and swiped over my lips—no wait, muzzle? No, no, mouth—of its own accord. My stomach was tight and my heart was a tempo of hunt hunt hunt. My muscles coiled tense in my limbs.

I hunched back, legs like springs, and leapt over the dune.


It was a deer.

It sure as shit didn’t look like a deer—that was far too many legs, for one—but I didn’t really look like the textbook definition of a cat, so I really had no room to talk.

I leapt over the dune and landed, primly and paws first, barely ten feet away from the Not Deer.

It froze, eyes wide and legs tense, and we stared at each other for a moment.

Then, the deer whispered, “Shit.”

I rumbled a low noise of amusement. “Hey.”

“Shit,” the deer said again, those too-many legs trembling.

I was watching every quiver of muscle, every stuttered breath. So when the deer started to my left and then broke right, I wasn’t surprised.

I chased.


Chasing the Not Deer was very different from my earlier trek through the desert.

Instead of an easy lope—did cats lope, or was that only reserved for dogs?—I was sprinting full-tilt, almost jumping. I was still moving over the sand like it wasn’t there and my tail was like a raised flag at my back.

As I ran, though, I began to have doubts about this whole hunting thing, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. My body had only felt move, run, stalk, chase, but there had never been any thought of a resolution. Was I just supposed to chase this weird-looking deer until one of us tired? Even as I chased it, I was more eager to catch it than I was to eat it.

Maybe my monstrous body was defective.

I might’ve been desperately, maddeningly hungry, but there was also the fact that my every sense and instinct had led me to this Not Deer. Which could talk, the same way I could talk. It was a creature made abstract, the same way I was. It was obviously sapient, and it was the only other form of life that I had seen since waking up all those ages ago in the body of a big, strange cat.

It meant something. Possibly a lot of somethings. We had a common language between us, even if we had only exchanged a few words. An actual language, and not just my brain translating body language and animalistic noises into something I could understand. I could talk because I had gone to sleep human and woken up displaced and disgruntled. Which lent feasibility to the idea that the Not Deer was also a person transplanted into an unexpected, bizarre body.

At any rate, the Not Deer was a person.

But my body—I—felt as though I had traded satiety for energy. I was hungry, ravenous, and not a single part of me shied away from the prospect of running that deer down.

Make of that what you will. Maybe I would regret it later, maybe I wouldn’t. I didn’t know, and at the moment, I sure as hell didn’t care about anything beyond finding something—a chase, a fight, a kill—that would plug the gaping chasm of hunger that my body had become.

I even had a vague idea of how I was going to go about it. Theoretically. But ‘theoretically’ never put food on the table, so to speak.

I ran after the deer and the deer ran from me. Eventually, the terrain slowly started to change; if I hadn’t been runnin’ that deer down, I would’ve cheered. Variations in terrain made the idea of a place seem more tangible. It wasn’t just a desert, but perhaps a desert region. That meant water, maybe. And water meant people. Sand dunes started to flatten out, and after a while, the sand itself gave was to stone and craggy canyon walls grew taller in the distance.

Between one smooth slope and the next, as the ground dipped and crested unevenly, the deer stumbled, and with a roar, I leapt.

I missed.

The deer staggered left and right, and I kicked out—fast, instinctive—and felt the unyielding stone beneath me as I hit all four paws to the wall and pushed off in the next second. Cats are fucking amazing.

We’d hit a dead end. My body was a live wire, a barely contained dance of electricity, so close to what I wanted. The rust-red canyon walls were as high as skyscrapers. The Not Deer skid to a halt and turned to face me, head held high. I prowled to a stop, and could feel my tail lashing from side to side behind me. This was it. This was it.

The Not Deer met my eye and sneered, “You fool!”

I blinked. Cocked my head to the side.

The Not Deer, looking far less fearful that I’d expected, given the chase it had led me on, and far haughtier than I’d realized a deer could look, said triumphantly, “Now I’ve trapped you!”

I blinked again. Confusion cut through the thrum of anticipation, leaving behind only bemusement.

“… What?”

The deer continued to sneer, sounding like nothing so much as a disdainful old woman condescending to some young hooligan. I decided almost immediately that I hated the sound of its voice. It told me—more or less, since its droning voice was begging to be ignored—that it was going to kill me and eat me and something about power and the weak never evolving and blah blah blah.

In the meanwhile, I’d chosen to sit down, tail curled around me.

“Are you normally this mouthy? Cuz I can honestly go find something else,” I yawned. The adrenaline was still thrumming beneath the carapace, and I wasn’t nearly as bored as I managed to look. But if the chase was over and the Not Deer was just going to talk at me, I wasn’t going to waste my energy or time.

“Arrogant cat!” the deer spat.

“Comes with the package, I’m pretty sure.”

Yeah. I’m a smartass.

That’s when the deer lowered its head—pointing a pair of large, sharp antlers my way—and charged.

Even sitting, it took almost no effort at all to tense my legs and leap at the last moment, sailing over the deer and lashing out with my left hand—paw, whatever—to score a deep line of gashes in its flank.

The deer cried out and staggered as I landed lightly on my feet. I watched it stumble before it righted itself and charged at me again, hardly impeded. I suppose those extra legs had to be good for something. I skipped back, but the deer planted one set of legs and kicked out with the rest, and a couple of them caught me flat in the sternum—chest?—but although the sound was loud, and the impact vibrated through me, it didn’t actually hurt. Points to the carapace.

The deer was running at me again, but instead of leaping aside, I just kind of… flexed. I couldn’t tell you what muscle it was or how I knew how to do it, but my tail snapped forward and between one second and the next, the deer was impaled on the blade of my tail, gasping and thrashing weakly.

I pulled my tail back and the deer came with it, its own weight and momentum slamming it into the ground.

I hissed, because all that weight on the tail hurt, but also because Ouch.

But eventually, it stopped twitching and I—running more on instinct than forethought—opened my mouth and—


Hindsight is really a huge pain in the ass.


I didn’t eat the deer like I had imagined a giant cat monster would eat a fucking deer. I hadn’t even really gone into the chase thinking that I would kill it. All I knew was that I was feeling insatiable—a rapacious hunger for movement, for adrenaline—and that I wasn’t paying attention to anything that wasn’t making the aforementioned hunger go away, but…

I opened my mouth and bit into the deer, only, there were several steps in between.

First, I opened my mouth, and everything smelled bright-loud again, just on the cusp of overwhelming. My nails—claws—were digging into the deer’s neck. It had a carapace that looked a little like my own, plates of armor instead of fur. Its carapace must’ve been thinner, because it shattered easily beneath my weight. That craving, that had led me here with a single-minded intensity, was summarily shoved out of the way in favor of this rush of… something. Some new, other strange thing that made the carapace prickle and that made my muscles shiver and tense in small, shuddering motions.

Then there was a hum, or a thrum, or a shake, or a shock of what felt like static electricity that bounced along my spine and down my neck and burned itself out against the sand. Time slowed to a crawl.

My teeth—fangs—were bare centimeters from the deer when everything got more. More loud, more bright, more charged up. Twice as intense as before, far beyond overwhelming. It was like powering through an Icee when you already had a brain freeze: that static charge mounted until it felt like I was sucking on copper wires, standing in a puddle at the base of a lightning rod in the middle of a thunderstorm. The charge broke, snapped, and dissipated across my entire body, settling over me like a fine mist.

My teeth finally broke into the shell-flesh and I bit down into the deer, broke its neck with a firm shake of my head, and the hunger was dimmed from a deafening roar to a gentle murmur.

I felt great. Completely invigorated, as though I could hunt five or six more times, if it left me feeling this awake and energized. I felt alive, I felt present and awake and I felt, maybe for the first time since waking in this desert, and it was amazing.

And then I blacked out.

Chapter Text

After that first hunt, I found myself with a strange determination to explore the rest of the desert. Now that I knew it wasn’t all sand and wind, I wanted to find signs of any other inhabitants. It was possible, but unlikely, that I was the only being around, give or take a deer. There had to be others, somewhere.

There had to be.

The only problem was, now that I had finally remembered (or discovered?) my body’s needs, it was hungry, and it made sure that I knew it. All the time.

I woke up hungry. I fell asleep hungry. I traveled across sand dunes and towards mountains with nothing but hunger pangs in my stomach.

It was a pain in the ass.

I spent a lot of time walking and pausing to smell—in that weird way, with my mouth more than my nose—and then walking some more. The day-night cycles were still long as fuck, and a little terrifying for it, and the desert was mostly sand with the occasional rock formation or distant mountain or abrupt, craggy canyon.

But I kept walking.

It was mechanical, reflexive at that point. I was already up on my feet, I was still completely hyped up from whatever energy or sustenance I had gotten from the deer, and putting one foot in front of the other required next to no forethought or effort.

So it was just me, and the sand, and that damning relentless hunger.

I came across another weird animal monster, this time shaped vaguely like a rabbit. It didn’t put up as much of a fight as the deer, and I ate it and for a moment—just a moment—the pangs of eat eat eat were soothed. And then they came back twice as vicious.

I kept walking.


By the fourth or fifth weird creature, I was no longer hungry. The energy was so great that it dialed my every sense up to 11; things were too real, too loud, too much.

But I still kept hunting others down. If asked, I probably wouldn't be able to put a name to it, or at least, not a proper one, but despite my waning hunger, something in me did not fall out of that mindset of stalk and kill. If anything, I became more focused with each creature I took down. Focused on what, who knew, but I slunk through the sand wastes all the same.

There was an odd sense of something almost like disappointment after the seventh or eighth one. The Hunger had started out as a vague bodily feeling, which is to say that it had been mostly physical; things like nerve endings and receptors and signals passing to and from the brain. Which, sure, it was a nice confirmation that I still had those things, if nothing else. That aside, the Hunger had grown. It had... expanded, almost, until it wasn't just my body informing itself of a need for sustenance, but an all out experience. A feeling and a thought and a state of being all at once. I was the Hunger, and my every limb and joint was rearranged into something that could consume to its heart's content.

But then it transitioned into something altogether different but similarly indescribable; I was not longer out for food, but for something else. Something that I had no name for and something I held no expectations for, but something that left me disappointed all the same. I brought down a big boar-looking creature, nearly twice my size. It took a lot longer than any hunt before it, and even so, despite the energy bubbling and humming beneath the carapace like a sweet mixed drink, that giddiness was a false high, a pure biological response. If anything, I feel sullen and let down.

What was I looking for?

I couldn’t say, but it left me longing. I wanted something more.

Something—

I kept walking.


The thing about walking for Forever and a Day is that you start to have these… expectations.

There weren’t any signs, and very few markers in the way of rock formations or the ever-present mountains in the distance, but I still walked with the presumption that I was trekking a considerable distance. And more importantly, I walked under the impression that I was walking towards something.

But with countless steps behind me and an infinite number to go, there was just sand. More sand. Dunes. Cliffs and canyons. Craggy rocks. Sharp winds.

It got to the point where I would keep moving forward with my eyes closed, knowing that there would be nothing to impede me or anything worth looking at. Then, in what seemed like the moment’s pause between the millionth step and the million and first, things changed.

It started with the wind.

The wind was a strange, constant thing. Strange, because I hadn’t expected it. Then again, I’d never lived in a desert before in my life, so what did I know about what was and wasn’t normal in one? Anyway, it started with the wind changing. Normally, it was harsh and sent loose sand flying like small homing bullets and smelled of nothing but dry heat and stagnant air.

Only, suddenly, the wind was gently carrying along the scent of humidity.

I knew humidity, that full and thick weight of water in the air, like pressure building up along your shoulders and spine. It was new-but-not, familiar, and I found myself turning around and ambling along trying to pin the scent down before I’d even thought about it.

It was curious and new, and I was curious, because nothing about this weird ass desert made sense, and if I was going to be stuck here indefinitely, doing nothing but chasing after something that I still couldn’t put a name to, then—at the very least—I was going to familiarize myself with every goddamn cubic meter of sand I could find.

Determined I might’ve been, but I was hardly a tracker. The smell of humidity took me left and then even more left until I felt as though I was only a few degrees off from traveling in circles. I was getting somewhere, though, even if I didn’t feel like it: the sand slowly changed from the fine and loose to the denser kind of sand that you’d find on a beach, and then from that to sand-clay, thick and moist beneath my feet even as the smell of water grew stronger, saltier, fuller.

I ran across something that might’ve been a bear, if bears had two heads and ten eyes and leathery bat wings. I felt the now familiar thrill of that same nameless something, that electric charge that made my mouth curl up into a fang-baring grin. The bear bellowed out threats, and I leapt onto its back and buried my teeth into the spine of those wings and shook, whipping my head side to side. I might’ve also been screaming something along the lines of “eat shit and die”, but who can really be sure.

The cavernous hunger was abated, but I knew it was momentary. There was no satisfaction in it. I bit into the bear’s spine until I felt vertebrae crunch between my teeth and then let go. The body immediately became unappealing but I took a bite anyway.

I was longing still, always longing now, but looking for something beyond consumption. Even the pleasure of chasing something down was starting to wane.

I walked and I walked and I kept fucking walking, chasing down weird monsters and eating them and then moving on. I kept going—without hesitation—because I was, apparently, looking for something I couldn’t kill.

Instead, I found an oasis.


I had this mental map of the desert. I had woken up... somewhere, presumably to the south, maybe a bit to the west. That unerring sense of direction was an instinctual whisper and it seemed to know what it was talking about, which meant it definitely had a better sense of direction than I did.

The mountains were always to the west, and I had been bearing north-northeast to find the deer, and then east-southeast following the smell of water. I didn't know how far the desert stretched, or what there was to find outside of it. Thinking on it too long gave me migraines.

At any rate, I found the ocean because finding it almost killed me. And if there was a list of ways to get my full, undivided attention, attempts on my life would probably be up there, right under showing me cute animals or offering me food.

I had been walking—maybe striding or stalking? I'm not entirely certain how to apply verbs of motion to giant, predatory monsters—with my head low and my mouth open, because that weird way of smelling was absurdly effective when something... twinged.

I still hadn't mastered my new body, exactly. I could walk, and talk, and I was slowly getting used to having not only a tail, but a tail that I could use like a spear, but it was rudimentary at best. Being up and about helped, but the most challenging thing I had to look forward to was running, jumping and biting. I still didn’t understand why my body rarely thirsted or needed for rest, when it was so adamant about hunger. I still hadn’t come any closer to understanding said hunger, which had surpassed the physical for something I had no name for, a desire that couldn’t be quenched. I still didn’t understand that strange, buzzing and energizing static-y feeling that came with each hunt, or how all these things tied together. Sure, I had a decent sense of spatial awareness, a good grip of finer motor skills, but that was all. There was so much that I didn’t know, that I was positive that there was so much that I could’ve done.

I was walking along, the same as I had been for the millions of steps before, and something thrummed, like the echoing vibration of a plucked guitar string. Only, in that moment, I became suddenly aware of the web of strings all over, lines running through the earth in each and every direction. I had been following one, with nose and that uncanny sense of direction both, and then it twanged, or I twanged, the string was me and the metaphorical finger pick was huge and throwing itself right at me

I threw myself to the side, heart beating a frantic and jumbled eight-count tempo in my chest, my eyes wide and teeth bared because what the actual fuck

“SO YOU’RE QUICKER THAN I THOUGHT,” something rumbled with a voice like the living earth.

“What the shit,” I said.

I had kicked up a huge cloud of sand with my sudden movement, and whatever-the-hell it was that had made me move had kicked up an even larger one. I couldn’t see, could only smell sand-and-metal, and then something else twanged

This time, I leapt straight up. I could feel my tail raised stiff behind me, blade angled to stab forward, muscles bunched and ready to strike. My legs might as well have been springs with the air I got: I’d jumped a lot further than I’d realized I was capable of. From that height, I could not only see the plumes of sand and dust, spinning dizzily in the air, but the thing that attacked me as well.

It was the goddamn Scorpion King.

Like, Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in The Mummy 2 as a giant scorpion centaur—which, can I just add that the fact that he also starred in another movie called The Scorpion King that had very little to do with giant scorpion monsters, or really, any kind of scorpion at all, has always been a severe disappointment to me.

Right, not the point.

It was enormous, larger than any other thing I had ever seen. I was a big cat, some kind of wild cat along the lines of lion or tiger or panther. The deer had been more or less in proportion of what I expected. So had every other creature, up to the last; the bear had been bigger than me, but in a relatively normal way. I still had only an incomplete idea of what I looked like, exactly, or how big I was in comparison to my Not-A-Giant-Cat-Monster body. Even assuming I was twenty feet tall and stocky like a draft horse, the Scorpion King outclassed me like a fighter jet in the shadow of an aircraft carrier. I was smaller than one of its hands.

Holy shit, I thought as gravity did its job and I started to plummet back down towards the sand… and also towards the giant fucking monster

Wait, my brain interjected. I was a giant fucking monster.

True, I conceded. But, I added with no small amount of consternation, there were giant fucking monsters and then there were Giant. Fucking. Monsters.

Point, my brain admitted.

There was a split second of silence, the wind shrill in my ears, the ground—and the gargantuan creature therein—rapidly approaching. It was only a moment, a caesura that passed before I could give it much thought, but the hunger was gone.

In its place was not fear, or anxiety. Instead, there was the same kind of charge that I got from all my hunts previous. The world broke into a sudden, startling clarity. The Scorpion King was a colossus that I could not hope to beat, even in my wildest dreams.

But goddamn if the idea of trying didn’t fill me with a bubbling excitement.

This was it. This was really it.

I didn’t want it.

"FUCK," I screamed, and I fell.


Fighting the Scorpion King—what I had been waiting for ever since that hunger awoke within me, apparently—mostly consisted of me, screaming curses and scrambling desperately to catch my footing, while the Scorpion King shook what felt like the entire desert with their laughter as they casually tried to murder the shit out of me.

I didn’t want to fight the Scorpion King. My body was filled to the brim with enthusiasm, with adrenaline and energy. The carapace felt impenetrable, my tail blade and claws unbreakable. I was lightning given form and direction and I wanted to strike.

Except, I—me, and not my body—had spent the last gods-knew-how-long in a dissociative haze, sprawled across the sands. I had only moved once my body had awoken from its strange hibernation. I had struck down every other creature I had come across without pausing for conversation, without even thinking of asking questions. Nothing had mattered but feeding that hunger lest I drown in it. But, like, I was not the kind of person—or even the kind of monster—to knowingly walk into a fight, to the death or otherwise, that I knew I couldn’t win.

My body was screaming with the need to fight, or die trying.

I—my mind, the part of me that was still me—said, Fuck that.

Where the sand had once been easy and thoughtless to navigate, it had become a hellish landscape; my every movement kicked up enough sand to compromise my vision and the Scorpion King's broad sweeping attacks only made it worse. Even if I’d been inclined to attack, it wouldn’t have made a difference, and certainly not enough of a difference to make up for the fact that a single hit from those colossal fists would kill me.

I felt like I was button-mashing my way through a surprise boss stage, and I hated it. I was faster and far more agile, but that didn't mean jack shit because the Scorpion King's reach was easily seven times the length of my entire body.

"YOU ARE QUITE NIMBLE FOR A THIEF," the Scorpion King boomed, and I couldn't even be sure that's what they said, because the timbre of their voice was akin to the sound of gravel and cobblestone being tumbled together in the turbines of a 747. With a backup choir of jackhammers.

"I'm not a fucking thief," I snarled back, leaping over a forearm the size of a freighter and feeling woefully outclassed. How could my every instinct clamor for battle when I stood like an ant before a skyscraper?

"ALL WHO VISIT THE STILL COME TO SPIRIT AWAY ITS GLORY," The Scorpion King bellowed, making a grandiose gesture to the vast, empty nothingness all around us.

“I hate,” I hissed, frustrated, even as I barely avoided the downward swipe of gargantuan fingers. I was talking to the Scorpion King, to the desert, the universe, myself, and anyone or anything else that I could blame.

This was it. It felt like the universe itself was singing in exaltation, humming rightness in my veins. This fight was the moment I had been waiting for since I awoke.

The moment the Scorpion King overextended, their massive fist blowing by my head like a passing missile, I threw myself into a roll that carried me out of reach and ran like hell.


I staggered to a stop some time later, vision blurry and hazy at the edges, and my limbs shaking with the effort of holding myself upright. I’d given myself a headache, but couldn’t bring myself to care. My body was trembling, exhausted. I realized, after a moment, that I was clenching my teeth.

“It would never have worked,” I said aloud, almost feeling foolish. I didn’t have to explain my actions to anyone, least of all myself. But I had run away, I had run away.

I had run away because fighting the Scorpion King, I might as well have fallen on a sword. Fuck that. Fuck that.

The wind was still heavy with the smell of brine and water as I collapsed into the sand. It was cool against the carapace. At some point during that battle that hadn’t happened, the sun had risen. It was still crawling to its apex in the sky, harsh against the pale blue of the sky.

I couldn’t see or hear the Scorpion King, not even a hint in the distance, which… was a little weird, maybe? I had hauled ass, but I’d also expected to be chased. Better for me that I hadn’t been. There was still a taste in the air like ozone, also weird. But whatever.

“Thank fuck,” I mumbled, and then I passed out.


Of course, because all things are terrible and the universe is both incapable of and unwilling to cut me some goddamn slack, I woke up with someone else’s foot on my neck, pressing down.

"I have detained the thief, my liege!" someone said, formally and loudly and with an accompanying press of their heel into my goddamn throat. Which, first of all, who does shit like that? Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, why did everyone keep calling me a thief?

I twisted, from shoulder to flank, pulling my neck free and kicking back with my legs in the same motion. There was a scream, and I grinned because I’d felt the blade of my tail sink home, cleaving flesh away as I pulled myself to my feet.

"Call me a thief one more time," I started, but then a familiar-but-not weird thrum of energy twinged to my left and I leapt to the side, just in time to see a clawed foot slam down where my face had been.

"Why do you all keep picking fights," I snarled, really and actually snarled, my jaw so tight that I'm surprised my teeth didn't crack.

There were at least five others surrounding me in a loose circle. For once, the ever-present desire—the hunger that wasn’t—was pushed aside completely in favor of a harsh but equally unrelenting anger. In that moment, I didn’t care that I was outnumbered, or that I had run from the last fight I’d gotten into, or even that every battle before this hadn’t stirred up a single emotion aside from a fleeting relief at the equally brief abating of hunger. All I knew was that I was (still) shaking, that I was tired, that I was mad at myself for having run earlier and just as mad at myself for refusing to admit that there was no other way that could’ve ended. And I was really, truly done with a bunch of strangers accusing me of something as asinine as thievery when we were all stuck slumming it out in a barren fucking desert.

I was going to kill every single one of those fuckers—

"Hold." A voice spoke up, just as I had tensed the muscles of my leg to jump at the closest monster, that looked like the surrealist take on a ram.

I turned my head, because the voice had come from behind, and then I turned all the way around, because—

"Holy shit," my mouth said, but the words were a distant buzz in my ears.

I had been displaced—both in time and possible in dimension—into a foreign body I hadn’t asked for, but I had adjusted, more or less. I was a monster and every other monstrous creature I had come across since waking followed a similar pattern: take an animal, skew it sideways, add a few uncanny features like extra limbs or unexpected appendages, and voilà.

Every single creature had followed this rule, except for the one before me now.

At first, I couldn’t put my finger on what, exactly, was so unnerving about them. A reptile, maybe an amphibian, except—I realized—they weren’t a creature. They were too human, a configuration of limbs and body that now seemed foreign to me. A bulk of scales and muscle, but held upright by an erect spine. Sure, there was a tail and lots of fins and teeth, but there were also two legs and two arms. It was a snake, or a dragon, playing at being human and doing a damn good job of it.

Some part of me that wasn’t staring noted that the other monsters had all relaxed. If I wanted to, I could’ve taken out the two nearest to me before the other three could so much as blink.

“Well met, thief,” said the serpent, with a haughty tilt of their head, almost challengingly. I was snarling and throwing my shoulders forward before I could think.

“Tell me,” I growled, “Tell me what I could possibly steal in this vast stretch of nothing.” I was all but gnashing my teeth, I was so heated. Still mad at myself for running, still annoyed at my predicament in its entirety, still feeling the adrenaline in my system, still aching for a fight. I was going to murder this asshole, giant dragon or not, and I was going to relish in it.

The serpent… laughed. Chuckled, really.

I could feel my temples throbbing in frustration, in rage, but before I could say anything else—like “fucking die”, maybe—they spoke again.

Oh,” was said with an air of realization, and then, with an air of both disdain and amusement, “Newsoul. How… cute.”

Die,” I hissed.

“Don’t speak to the Leviathan that way!” One of the other monsters snapped. I growled back—an actual, deep snarl of a growl that I could feel rumbling in my chest—and lashed my tail blade in that direction, baring my teeth in a mocking grin when the action earned me a flinch.

“Interesting,” the serpent—or, rather, the Leviathan, and wow, those were some grandiose implications, there—said, watching the byplay, but doing nothing to interfere.

The Leviathan stood a little straighter, imperiously, and then met my gaze.

“How did you get here?” They asked.

Get where, I wanted to ask.

Instead, I deadpanned, “I fuckin’ walked.”

A pause. The Leviathan didn’t quite frown, but the other four or so creatures made enough unhappy noise that I took great pleasure in sneering back at all of them, flashing sharp teeth and making an obvious show of whipping my tail from side to side. Like hell I was going to cooperate, not when I wasn’t even sure yet that I wasn’t still going to beat the everloving shit out of all of them. Who did this serpent think they were, that they had the right to question me about anything? Who just up and ambushed other people?

Assholes, that’s who. And I’d had enough of those to last me a lifetime.

The Leviathan tried again: “How did you get past the Guardian? It’s rather obvious that you didn’t kill hir.”

I went ahead and assumed that “the Guardian” was the Scorpion King. The title brought with it the question of just what there was worth guarding, but I wasn’t going to give the Leviathan or their cronies the satisfaction of piquing my curiosity.

“Fuck off,” I replied loftily. It still stung that I had run from the Scorpion King, like a rock in my craw, but there was no way that I was going to make this impromptu interrogation anything less than frustratingly unhelpful for all parties involved.

More low, angry noises. A few of the cronies made threatening steps forward, but the Leviathan aside, I was the biggest and damn sure the angriest monster present. When I snarled back, they quieted. This seemed to amuse the Leviathan, oddly enough, even though it was a pointed, predatory kind of amusement.

“Where did you walk from, stranger?” The Leviathan asked, without the arrogant tone of their earlier questions. I noted the change from ‘thief’ to ‘stranger’, and decided that it changed nothing.

“Dunno.” If I’d still had my own human body, I would’ve made a show of inspecting my nails. As it was, I flexed my claws in and out against the damp sand.

The Leviathan’s face was too reptilian for me to reliably interpret—I had trouble with human faces half the time—but there was a clear displeasure there, which I took spiteful enjoyment in.

Another pause, almost awkward. I watched the Leviathan watch me, looking for something. My attention sharpened when they stepped forward and we sized each other up, now only feet apart.

“This place is called The Still,” they said, breaking the silence. They made a small gesture, directing my attention to the nearest cresting dune. “Here is the only source of water. It is a haven.”

I took in the information with nothing more than a blink, internally cackling when the Leviathan made a small, exasperated noise. Had they hoped that by sharing information, I would give my own more freely? They were severely underestimating how petty I could be.

Although, there was one thing.

“Seems like a pretty shit haven, considering there’s no water,” I cleared my throat to rid my voice of a suspiciously ill-timed rasp. I had never once felt any hint of thirst since waking up significantly less human than anticipated, and the idea of some kinda oasis wasn’t going to change a thing.

The Leviathan made an odd, aborted motion that might’ve been surprise. They tilted their head to look at me, considering. I sneered. The Leviathan snorted and then jerked their head, gesturing towards the dune.

“Past there.”

I shouldn't have been surprised when I made my way over the dune—under the Leviathan’s watchful eye—to just be confronted with nothing but more sand, but well, I guess I just hadn't set my expectations low enough.

“Oh yeah, this is real great source of water,” I grumbled as I made my way to the bottom of the dune. It was just par for course, wasn’t it? I finally found the challenge I couldn’t overcome, only to run from it. I finally found other creatures who wanted to talk instead of fight, and they were a bunch of fanatics hallucinating about what was probably nothing more than mirages.

“Can your really not see it?”

“Oh great, you’re here, too,” I sighed, turning my head to watch the Leviathan slither down the dune to my side. They were considerably more serpentine than they’d been a moment ago, which mean that their legs were like, retractable. Which was… both pretty cool and a little horrifying.

“You can’t see it.” It wasn’t a question this time. I didn’t care if the the Leviathan was stronger than me—and I knew they were; they were too human, too other to be weak—that smug attitude of theirs was really pissing me off.

“No, I can’t see your imaginary water,” I grumbled.

“Imaginary?” They sounded offended. “How can you not see the ocean before us!”

The words came nearly at a shout, and I’m not even gonna lie: I gave myself points for causing that loss of composure. The problem was, the Leviathan didn’t seem the type. The type to fall for optical illusions, to make shit up. They were strong, maybe even stronger than the Scorpion King. Their power, in and of itself, led credence to their claims. What if…

What if there was something there? Why couldn’t I see it?

I looked out to the horizon. It smelled like brine and water and humidity, the way it had ever since I crossed paths with the Scorpion King, but more. Stronger. Fuller. But all I could see was sand. Although—

The Leviathan had slithered on down the sand dune and come to a stop by my side. The bulk of their body lay to the side, coiled before them. The very tip of their tail was ten feet before us. It looked… strange. I narrowed my eyes and squinted harder at the sand before us. It looked normal for about ten feet, and then it got—well, not blurrier, but less there.

“The fuck?” I murmured to myself, stalking forward. I took a few long-legged step and pulled up short right next to the there-but-not tip of the Leviathan’s tail.

Was that…?

I bared my teeth in a reflexive scowl, and yeah, no, that might’ve—

… It was, wasn’t it.

Slowly, I reached out with one hand—paw, what the fuck ever—and swatted down, just once.

Splish.

Even half-expecting it, the sudden cool wetness of the water startled me enough that I nearly tripped over my own feet as I stumbled backwards.

Also, what.

There was water. A lot of water. I could smell it, it was so thick in the air that I could practically taste it. But as the ripples dissipated and the water settled, my brain could only give me uncertain feedback. Instead of “oh, that’s definitely water, might wanna watch out”, the best I got was the emotive equivalent of a shrug and a “maybe? 50/50 shot, honestly”.

It was then that I realized that the water was there, but it was completely and unnervingly unmoving. There was no sound of lapping waves or even the gentle trickle of a stream. It was quiet. Empty-sounding. Still.

“Oh, what the shit,” I fussed, wishing I still had hands so that I could bury my face in them. This goddamn desert made no sense. This absurd body, which apparently couldn’t see water (which, why was that a thing) made no sense. Nothing made sense! I hated everything.

“We call it the Still for a reason,” the Leviathan spoke up from behind me, sounding amused. I tried very hard not to think about the fact that there had been a witness to my being unable to visually process the existence of water. I was already stressed enough.

"It can't be an ocean if it's stagnant," I protested, just to say something because honestly, what the hell even, "Oceans are moving bodies of water."

"Well," The Leviathan shot back, the most snide and caustic I had heard them yet, "We were hardly going to hold reverence for a puddle.”

I almost bit down on my tongue to stifle the laughter before I decided, fuck it. It's not like they were wrong; if someone had told me about the holy puddle of the desert, I would've just walked away. But now that I knew the ocean was there, it answered a few lingering questions.

“So, what, you just assumed I wanted your weird shitty water?”

The Leviathan—presumably growing used to my complete disregard for everything—just huffed a little before answering.

“It’s usually why your kind show up,” they informed me drolly.

“Excuse you, my kind?”

For a moment, the Leviathan didn’t say anything. I didn’t think they were coming up with a lie, but there was no way to know for certain. It became apparent that either way, they were picking their next words with care.

“Power seekers,” they clarified, haltingly, “The ones with goals. Destinations.”

Seeking what power, I almost asked. Destinations like where? If I’d known more—if I’d realized—maybe I might’ve pushed for an actual explanation. I didn’t, though. In the moment, I didn’t really care for much of anything; it had been a long and grueling ordeal, and I was tired and no small amount of annoyed.

“I’m not power seeking,” I denied, and it was true. “I just…”

I was tired of the desert. I was tired of everything.

“I refuse to believe there’s nothing here but desert,” I said. “And you have to know, so tell me. Where the fuck is everybody?”

The Leviathan hesitated, but only for a moment. They nodded, more to themself than to me.

“Come,” they told me, already slithering back up the sand dune, away from the (invisible) unmoving ocean. “We have much to discuss.”

Chapter Text

According to the Leviathan, there was an everybody, and they were somewhere. There was a city, smack dab in the middle of the desert, full of… something. Presumably, more strange, vaguely familiar creatures.

‘Middle of the desert’ meant ‘more walking’, but that didn’t even matter because there was an entire city out there somewhere. Cities meant things like infrastructure, and after a really fucking long time spent alone in the desert, alternating between panicking and dissociating, the idea of an organized people—for a given value of people, anyway—sounded like… well, not like heaven, but like a thing that I wanted to experience, even if that feeling probably wouldn’t survive first contact.

Talking to the Leviathan remained a trying venture, where I inevitably had more questions and unfocused annoyance than answers, because the Leviathan made it a point to drop heavy-handed references to shit they refused to explain, smiling all the while. They happily answered a handful of questions about this supposed desert city, but only gave vague and entirely unhelpful responses to my questions about what the hell the desert even was, my power-seeking “kind” (which, what), as well as any questions about what the hell we even were.

And yeah, some of those questions were existential, and maybe not the kinds of things you dumped on a relative stranger, but the longer I thought about not thinking about it, the more I realized how fucking bizarre everything was and how much I would just rather… not put up with it, at all.

Instead of actually being helpful, though, the Leviathan had only looked more and more delighted at my obviously growing ire before they graciously announced that they would be more than willing to provide me with directions, to ‘help me on my way’.

The Leviathan was an asshole.

So we left the shores of The Still—which, thank fuck, because that still made no sense, and I didn’t particularly like being confronted with the sudden fact of my being unable to visually process still water—and the Leviathan gave me… pretty unhelpful directions, considering that they just said:

“Head north, until the air starts to itch.”

They then refused to clarify what the hell that was supposed mean, because air didn’t do that. My loud protests had only garnered a sly smile and the insistence that they needed to keep ‘some secrets’, or they’d lose their ‘sense of mystery’.

“The fuck do you mean some secrets, you barely answered any of my questions!” I howled.

“Besides,” The Leviathan added loftily, as though I hadn’t spoken, “Leading you around by the nose keeps me well entertained.”

The Leviathan was an asshole.

After stifling my frustrations into sharp, staccato snarls under my breath—the Leviathan and their crew looking on in equal parts amusement (The Leviathan) and caution (all the other mooks)—I took my leave without another word.

Don’t get me wrong; I would’ve jumped at the chance to gleefully punch the Leviathan in their giant, stupid snake throat. But—well, first off, I couldn’t exactly make fists with paws—for all that the Leviathan pissed me off, I damn well knew that they were a helluva lot stronger than me. It wasn’t quantifiable, but I knew it, and no matter how pissed off I was, I wasn’t about to go leaping into fights I couldn’t win.

I was angry, but not that damn angry.

And honestly, I was more than willing to walk blindly through the desert if it got me away from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson over there, and a giant snake channeling Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent.

So I left them behind, and I didn’t look back, and I walked.

I walked and I walked and I walked, more than happy to let my body’s unerring sense of direction take the reins. Bearing north—and at some point, I really needed to get my hands… paws, whatever, on a map—I kept walking, more or less angry and hungry, and not really looking forward to discovering what ‘itching air’ was.


I’d changed my mind. I was going to punch the Leviathan in the throat with something dirty and rusty at the earliest available opportunity.

After fighting my way through a goddamn sandstorm for at least twelve hours—which was something I never wanted to experience in life ever again, because I already knew that I would never be clean again and I’d still be finding windburned grains of sand embedded in bodily crevices on my fucking deathbed, probably—I’d finally managed to find respite on a jagged cliff face, and… there it was.

Sprawled out below me. The city. El Remanso.

(“El Remanso?” I’d echoed with a dubious scowl, contemptuous more of the Leviathan’s shit personality than the idea of a desert oasis.

“You’ll see,” The Leviathan hummed gaily. I glared. “By the time you get there, you’ll think the same.”

I’d snarled another wordless noise of sheer frustration. Saying shit like that was what made me less than eager to just throw myself back into the unknown depths of the desert at their say-so.

“And I’m sure you’ll find plenty of answers.” The Leviathan chuckled. I tried to tell myself that that wasn’t ominous, or anything.)

And of course, that giant snake asshole couldn’t have just told me, ‘oh you’ll have to walk through an unending sandstorm to get there’. How much of my current furious suffering was their fault? Could I just say all of it? Fuck the Leviathan.

Even from a distance, I could see that the city itself—it’s buildings and streets—were the same pale, almost colorless shade as the rest of the desert. It was… strangely, unerringly Romanesque, with lots of tall, thick pillars and high defensive walls and a handful of obelisks that I could see.

The architecture… that was weird, right? It felt weird: I still didn’t know where I was, but I knew where I wasn’t. And that was on Earth, the Earth as I knew it, wherever that might’ve been. And if I wasn’t on Earth…

Here’s a question people like to ask about scifi and fantasy concepts: if this fantasy world never had a France, how do you justify the existence of things like french fries or baguettes? How do your characters talk about -isms and -ables and -tions if there was never a Latin to derive those words from?

All I could think, for a moment, was… if there was no Pangaea, no rifting, if there had never been any continents, or Ancient Rome, or Romans, then how the fuck was I looking at what was undeniably Ancient Roman architecture? I wasn’t an architect or a historian, but shit, I knew a fucking aqueduct when I saw one.

I hunched my shoulders and pulled my tail to curl around my flank and I tried my damndest to puzzle it out. The walk from the cliff to the city gates was a short one, but it was long enough that I spent each second of it thinking. And I did not like where my thoughts were taking me.

I had, upon waking up in a strange, inhuman body, in a desert with meteorological impossibilities, decided that there was no way that I was on Earth. It had been easy enough to accept, logically; the desert’s solar cycles were too long, I had woken up in a different body, and I had no recollection of how I had gotten to the desert.

It was something I didn’t think about—or, something else I really didn’t think about, given that I had adopted a strict policy of not thinking about anything—because it implied some manner of interplanetary travel and also that unwanted non-consensual body-hopping was a thing. Neither of those were concepts that I wanted first hand experience with, and yet, here I fucking was.

But now—after gods knew how long in a featureless desert, after running other creatures down and tearing into them, after hunting not for food but more for a reasonable challenge, after all that shit—I was looking at incontestably, unmistakably Ancient Roman architecture, in a barren desert otherworld full of monsters, when there could not have been a Rome.

Unless I had been wrong.

What if… what if I was still on Earth? What if it hadn’t been interplanetary travel at all, what if it had been temporal displacement?

That didn’t exactly explain my sudden body transplant, but I honestly couldn’t imagine an explanation for said transplant that would sit well with me in any case. Mostly because I sure as hell hadn’t asked for it.

But what if I was still on Earth, just not when I had expected to wake up? Whether it was some grim, post-apocalyptic future—where everyone… was a giant carapaced monster… right, no that was ridiculous, never mind—or an equally grim past (where there were no dinosaurs? Pass)… I was not when I should’ve been, and neither was anything else. After all, Ancient Roman architecture meant there had to have been an Ancient Rome, which meant that there had to have been civilization, one that developed enough for a piece of it to decide to call itself ‘Rome’.

Fuck, I wasn’t an anthropologist, but something had to have happened, at some point, for what I was looking at to be possible.

Right?

Or… or it could just be coincidence.

After all, I wasn’t an anthropologist or an architect or an archaeologist or any kind of academic. The hell did I know. The hell did I want to know.

It was a coincidence, I told myself. One of those one in a quintillion chances, where sometimes, weird shit just happened. Better to be thrown into the depths of some totally distant, unfamiliar situation than to find myself courting ‘what if’s and ‘could be’s.

Look, I’m well aware that I was deluding myself, but the last time I’d thought, “Lemme just figure this out”, I spent years isolated in a desert and nearly let myself get buried under a metric fuckton of sand rather than deal with the conclusions I had come to.

You damn skippy I chose to ignore it.

Up close, El Remanso was ever more obviously Roman-inspired, with stone streets and intricate mosaics on every wall. But hey, obvious and total coincidence.

It was also jam-packed full of people. People, here, meaning whatever the fuck I was, now. Cat Monster, as designed by someone who has never actually seen a cat, Fall 2016. Whatever. The streets were full of creatures that bore a clear but abstracted resemblance to the kinds of animals you’d normally see in zoos.

Just in between my stopping outside the gates and my sudden and forceful belief in the power of happenstance, a veritable stream of creatures had flown, slithered and strolled by. Heaven forbid the Leviathan actually give me something useful, like a map, or an idea of where to go, so I followed the general flow of foot (paw?) traffic.

El Remanso was… a mess, honestly. It had looked impressive enough from a distance, and even from a little closer, but I quickly found that that had more to do with the fact that the opaque surfaces of the buildings reflected sunlight, turning them all into shining pillars. It was only walking a ground level that I could see how many of those buildings were missing entire chunks, or were obviously on their way to collapsing, unstable and derelict.

There were stalls lining the streets, and other creatures manning (monstering?) the stalls, and it was all very quaint, and totally coincidental. There were handcrafted goods, and what looked like a few weapon stalls, but, strangely enough, no stalls with street food, or even fresh produce.

It took me a moment, but I then reminded myself that, as a giant… cat… thing, I didn’t exactly eat fruits or cook myself meals any longer. I didn’t even really eat, so much as I consumed, or whatever that whole… process could be called. But, I pointed out to myself, I hardly thought that kind of frankly unhealthy behavior was par for course for giant, mutant animal monsters.

Hell, for all I knew, there was the animal monster equivalent of a McDonald’s right around the corner.

There wasn’t.

There were two creatures—one that vaguely resembled a bear, and another that might’ve been an oversized meerkat—bloodying each other in the streets. No one seemed to find it strange, or alarming, and there seemed to be an even split of creatures who paused to watch, and those who kept moving along.

I reminded myself that I had definitely run down and eaten some people during my stint in the desert. There was no sense of shock or horror, or anything really, other than the recollection that it was, in fact, an event that occurred.

I probably should’ve been more upset about that, I think. But the more I kept prodding at the idea of being upset, and the more I kept thinking about how I’d straight up killed and eaten multiple animal-people, the higher the wall of apathy loomed.

As I turned a sharp corner, with the distant thought that I had no fucking clue where I was, a foot came down way too close to my face—toes brushing my nose close—and I barely managed to scramble out of the way.

“Fucking watch it!” I snapped, tilting my head back to bare my teeth upwards.

The other monster—far larger than me, though nowhere near the gargantuan breadth of the Scorpion King—blinked down at me, in what might’ve been bewilderment.

“Where did you come from?” They asked.

“I been walking here the whole time—”

“No, no,” the monster shook its head, “I mean where did you come from?”

I frowned.

“… The desert,” I finally answered, somewhere between dry and cautious. It struck me as… odd, that where I had come from was the first thing this stranger wanted to know about me.

“What part?”

There were parts?

“I, uh, passed…” Shit, what had the Leviathan called it? Oh, right. “… the Still on my way in.”

“Hey,” the creature—some kinda… gorilla, maybe—said, sounding so surprised that I felt a little offended. “You’re strong. You’re new, right?”

“New to what?” I asked warily.

“Wow, you’re really new,” the gorilla commented, crouching down and shoving their face uncomfortably close to my own, peering curiously.

I didn’t bite my cheek in irritation or impatience, but only because it was more or less impossible to do so with such a narrow jaw. So instead, I settled for pointedly flexing my claws and curving the blade of my tail high over my shoulder, poised to strike.

“New to what,” I repeated, though it was less of a question at that point.

The gorilla looked hunted, and had hunched upon itself, curled away from my very sharp, very apparent appendages. It had to have been a strange thing to see, given how much smaller I was.

“I, uh, I’m not real good at explaining it.” The gorilla hemmed and hawed, before abruptly perking up. “Oh! But you can come meet the guys! Nakeem is real good with this kinda thing.”

I hissed a slow, even breath through clenched teeth. My tail made a loud crack as it slashed through the air behind me. Was anyone in this godsforsaken desert ever going to give me a straight answer, about anything?

It had become increasingly annoying, to not only have no clue what the hell was going on at any given moment, but to also have people continuously making reference to things I had no basis of knowing and—more irritatingly—things that no one bothered to explain.

I had convinced myself, in the beginning, that it didn’t matter. Waking up in an alien body, on what probably wasn’t even my own planet… I had dealt with it by not dealing with it, by not asking questions and instead rolling with the punches as they came because honestly, there hadn’t been many other options.

So I’d adapted. I’d learned to walk all over again. I’d taught myself how to talk. I got used to different sights, different sounds, different smells, weird knee joints, and more limbs than I’d anticipated. I’d walked because my body had been adamant about eating, because why the hell not.

It wasn’t apathy, or acceptance. It was avoidance.

And it was coming to bite me in the ass, because I hadn’t just been… misplaced, or whatever. The desert was populated. I was in some other world, with rules I didn’t know and customs I didn’t understand and a body that wasn’t even really mine, for all that I’d resigned myself to inhabiting it.

And, when I did ask questions—a novelty, considering how long I’d been pacing circles in the desert, alone and panicking—no one fucking answered them. It was all half-answers and shit that didn’t matter.

The gorilla had already turned, assuming that I would follow.

I was so done with this shit. I snarled, heavy and angry and rough, and I leapt and the curved edge of the blade sat snug up against the curve of the gorilla’s throat, the point ending somewhere along its nape.

We both held ourselves very still. I ran my tongue—flat and rough and wrong—over my teeth. The strangeness of my body wasn’t new, not anymore, but because I had been thinking about it, it was somehow worse, more obvious and uncomfortable enough that I wanted to tear my skin off and—I was, very suddenly, very angry and near to shaking with it.

“Hey hey,” the gorilla said, voice thick and raspy with fear, “C’mon, I told you, Nakeem—”

“No.” I bit out, in short, staccato syllables. “You are going to answer my questions. Who are you. And what the fuck are you talking about.”

“Whoa, whoa.” A deep voice cut in, sounding amused. “Check it out, Eduardo got got.”

Goddamnit—

I glanced up quickly, and wanted to scream.

There were four other monsters, looming and long-limbed, making me feel diminutive in comparison. They ambled closer, with loud voices and laughter at the gorilla’s—Eduardo?—expense.

I had spent gods know how long—with the long ass solar cycles it could’ve been well over a decade—trawling the desert and hunting and eating and avoiding. I could take maybe two of them, not including the gorilla, who was already stock-still under the weight of my tail blade. But that was assuming that they were as slow as their sizes suggested, and I couldn’t count on that.

“Ha ha,” The smallest of the bunch, a bird-looking creature, chortled, fluttering close enough to shove its beak in the gorilla’s face. “Eduardo got got by a little itty-bitty.”

My tail twitched.

“Shut up, Di!” the gorilla hissed frantically. It then craned its head back until it could stare desperately—and upside down—at the other creatures. “Nakeem, hey Nakeem, you gotta help me!”

The largest of them stepped forward and holy shit, was that an oversized ankylosaurus

(Couldn’t be the past, I’d told myself. No dinosaurs, I’d thought.

AUGH.)

The creature—apparently Nakeem—sighed.

“Eduardo—”

“I think this one’s a newsoul and we were gonna come see you but they got real mad and, c’mon Nakeem, gimme a hand here!” Eduardo said it all at once, so fast that I could only really guess what was said from context.

Nakeem sighed again, and then looked me dead in the eye. I pulled my lips back into a sneer, baring teeth.

“Sorry about all this,” Nakeem told me. His voice was measured and deep, conveying a sense of both levity and seriousness. “Please don’t kill Eduardo. He’s a real pain in the ass, but we prefer to have him around.

“Hee, even if he is stupid enough to lose to an itty-bitty newbie!” The bird—Eduardo had called them Dee, or something—cackled, poking their head from behind Nakeem’s broad, armored shoulder.

“You want him to stick around?” I asked rhetorically, jerking my head down to gesture at the blade still held close to Eduardo’s neck. “Then do more than he did and answer my goddamn questions. Why the fuck do you jackasses keep calling me new?”

Dee stopped cackling, abruptly. Right. Because that wasn’t unsettling or anything.

One of the other monsters—who had the misfortune of looking like a giant mantis, which… guh—was staring hard at the back of Nakeem’s head. “Nakeem…”

“Xiaolong,” Nakeem rebuked without even having to behind themself, “We don’t have the right to keep it a secret.”

Oh, for—,” I managed a strangled half-shout, resisting the urge to slam my head into Eduardo’s carapace out of sheer frustration. “If you stopped referring to whatever the hell it is so goddamn vaguely, that would be a huge step forward.”

“I apologize.” Nakeem replied, the even keel of their voice sounding a little strained. “It’s just that I’ve never had to explain this to a bisoño, and especially not an escudero.”

That… drew me up short.

The thing is, I had very much been avoiding a great deal of things, not least of which included the fact that I had no problem communicating with anyone, despite the fact that I was—at the very least—not on my own planet.

Because, you see, everyone spoke Spanish.

Which was weird as hell, because what was the likelihood of some other, presumably distant, life-bearing planet having a species that not only evolved to use verbal communication, but that said language was a modern descendant of PIE? Like, what kinda Stargate shit was that?

There was basically no way in hell that could happen; the chances were infinitesimally small. But I hadn’t exactly been doing a whole lot of interpersonal communicating in those earlier days, aside from cursing out That Asshole (and I still wasn’t entirely convinced that that hadn’t been a fever dream). That aside, it hadn’t really set off any warnings, because it was familiar, albeit unusual. So I’d ignored it, like I’d ignored everything else.

Gee, look how well that had turned out for me.

The point was: Nakeem called me bisoño, and I pulled a face because I was damn tired of having some overgrown looming fuckheads call me a newbie using four or five different colloquialisms—fucking birdbrain over there all but singing that pipiolito—like I hadn’t already clued in on the fact that there was A Lot of Shit I didn’t know.

But then my brain tripped over parsing escudero because… That was hardly a word I expected to hear in everyday conversation.

Which brought me back to my point of every-fucking-body jerking me around with the dithering and the not explaining. For fuck’s sake—

Deep breaths. It was… mostly my fault I was feeling so frustrated. If I had maybe spent more time looking for answers, instead of, you know, dissociating and ignoring my problems in favor of literally anything else, I wouldn’t have been so bothered about not getting straight answers.

Maybe.

No, fuck that. Maybe I could’ve looked for answers sooner, but laying still and empty-minded in a desert for however many days or weeks or whatever had been the only thing standing between myself, my frantic panic and my shitty tendency of crass self-endangerment and harm as a way of releasing aggression.

What the fuck ever. Deep breaths. Even if it would make me feel better, snarling and fighting wouldn’t actually get me answers any faster. Deep breaths. Small words.

“Look.” I shifted my weight, pulling the blade of my tail away from Eduardo’s throat. With exaggerated care, I stepped down from his back onto the sand and sat before Nakeem, claws retracted and head held high. “Every conversation I’ve had in the past few… days has been full of vague, ominous horseshit. I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about when you say shit like that. Hell, I don’t even know who you assholes are!”

Nakeem looked startled. Like it hadn’t even occurred to him that I would want to know the names of the weirdos I was dependent on for information. Eduardo had finally pulled himself to his feet, and had moved—all while keeping a wary, if still oddly curious eye on me—to stand closer to the others.

“You know Eduardo and I,” Nakeem began. I snorted. Sure, for a given value of ‘know’. “These are Di Roy, Xiaolong and Il Forte. Who are you?”

Di Roy was a bird, something with a long, narrow beak. And three pairs of wings. Shawlong was a giant bug, and honestly, that was all I needed to know. Il Forte was… I had no fucking clue what that was supposed to be, but it was big and looked casually lethal.

Moreover, I felt… strangely off-put by their names. Something about them didn’t make sense to me.

The Leviathan had been, well, a Leviathan. Fully and completely lived up to the name, shit personality included. I hadn’t really expected everyone I came across to have such a grandiose name to go by. Nakeem and Eduardo were completely normal names, given the language thing. Xiaolong was… not, but it was at least vaguely familiar. I could reliably say that I’d heard of the name. On the other end of the spectrum… “Di roy”, I didn’t even know what to do with: it sounded anglicized, maybe “del rey”, maybe not. But “Il forte” was definitely Italian, which sure, same language family, but why the sudden break in the pattern? Did that mean that some creatures spoke Italian? Were there other countries, or land masses or something?

Which also begged the question of whether or not there was a group of speakers of Sino-Tibetan present somewhere. It wouldn’t be too big of a stretch for Nakeem or Eduardo to pronounce Il Forte’s name, or Di Roy’s. The phonology of Spanish and Italian were similar enough. But Xiaolong? That was a whole different can of consonant clusters and fricatives and tone and the fact that no one seemed to have any trouble meant that the speaker groups had been in contact for some time, and Spanish seemed to be the lingua franca, and honestly, what the fuck even?

My brain was running a mile a minute, full of questions and even then, something was still fucking bugging me because—

Wait.

Something, somewhere, in the back of mind went click, and I immediately wished it hadn’t because, no, wait, wait a goddamn minute.

Those five names? A little weird.

Those five names together? Discordant enough to make my brain sit up and take notice. But also.

Also.

No way. No fucking way.

“Wait.” I said aloud. Nakeem blinked, as though he hadn’t been expecting me to speak. I had been lost in my own rambling thoughts for a moment, then.

I narrowed my eyes and looked the five of them over again. Like when I had first woken up in the body of a cat-creature, I very firmly stopped myself from thinking. Because the thought I was having—or aggressively not having—was so much worse than just waking up in a new strange body. So much worse than potential interplanetary displacement. So much worse than being indefinitely stuck as a giant talking cat monster in a barren desert otherworld.

I couldn’t point for emphasis because my arms didn’t bend that way anymore, so I settled for gesturing with my head, glaring and letting my voice drop deeper in menace.

“Your names are... Nakeem, Di Roy, Il Forte, Eduardo and Xiaolong.”

They all looked tense and uneasy, so I could only imagine what my own expression looked like. Every bit of anger and frustration that I had been trying to forcefully smooth over came bubbling and hissing back up to the surface, as my thoughts raced faster than I could process them, rapid and un-fucking-wanted.

Fucking hell. This—

I realized that I was breathing heavily, harsh enough to hear it, and that I could feel my tail curved like a sickle behind me. My jaw ached with the need to bite something, to rip something, to be in control of something, because I could not fucking actually—

This is a bit of a delay, don’t you think? Some part of my brain pointed out coolly. And okay, sure, I probably should’ve freaked out this badly when I first woke up. But I barely remembered I was a person some days, and waking up in a weird body, in a weird place was nowhere near as fucked as—

As—

I couldn’t even fucking think it. If I thought it, that made it real, and I very desperately did not want it to be real.

“This cannot be fucking happening to me,” My mouth felt so numb that I barely realized I’d opened it to speak, and even then, the worlds were more breath than sound.

Eduardo. Nakeem. Xiaolong. Di Roy. Fucking Il Forte.

I’d stopped reading after the Aizen thing. Or rather, at the beginning of the Fullbringer thing. Because I’ve always been picky and I value good storytelling over genre tropes. I remember, because I bitched about it for hours and can still bitch about it for hours if it ever gets brought up. I remember because ending it after Aizen would’ve made it a decent story, a complete story, after all the build up, all the ‘I am a God’ and ‘all according to plan’ bullshit. I remember that I wouldn’t have minded an epilogue, but wouldn’t have minded not getting one, either, because sometimes ambiguous endings are better than last minute, retconning happily-ever-afters.

In that moment, every strange thing about my situation sat before me like flashing neon signs and blaring klaxons and I hated everything.

These were the facts. All of the everything that I had been so happy to ignore: I was a cat-monster. In a desert where the sun hardly ever rose and every inhabitant was some kind of creature. There was a heavy-bright feeling of power that fell over me like a comfortable sweater whenever I fought, not to mention the strength I seemed to feel whenever I hunted down another animal-monster and ate it. I was a fucking talking cat-monster with weird magic powers.

The thoughts kept circling, stuttering and stumbling over each other, and I just… faltered. I didn’t want to acknowledge it, but it was insistent and hard to ignore and I just didn’t want to deal with it.

I stepped back. I stepped the fuck back. I could feel the panic slipping away as I let go. Why panic when I could dissociate instead? Then something shifted, so small and subtle as to almost be imperceptible but so—noticeably there that I couldn’t help but feel it.

About fucking time you shoved over, a familiar rough voice spat. In my head. I knew exactly who That Asshole was, now.

My lips pulled back from my teeth, somewhere between a grin and a threat, and I could feel my tail twisting, blade dancing through the air. I could feel all those things happening, but I wasn’t the one making them happen. If I hadn’t already been floating in a mental haze of apathy, I probably would’ve started panicking again.

“I’m Grimmjow fucking Jaegerjaques,” the body—no, The Asshole in control of my body—said, haughty and gleeful, “And don’t you fuckers ever forget it!”

Chapter Text

I let Grimmjow have his moment.

Well. I say ‘let’, but really, I wasn’t in much shape to do much of anything at that moment, let alone process the fact of Grimmjow having his moment. My mind was running in circles, fervently trying to deny that this was happening, because what the fuck, what the fuck.

My first relatively coherent thought was: Grimmjow fuckin’ Jaegarjaques. Some jackass put me into the body of Grimmjow fuckin’ Jaegarjaques. And the original Grimmjow fuckin’ Jaegarjaques is still fuckin’ in here.

My second, more tangential thought was: I am not fucking dying in a shounen manga.

Technically, Grimmjow hadn’t been killed on-screen, only severely injured. Last I knew, it was basically taken as canon—or fanon made canon—that the Sexta Espada was still alive. But I wasn’t a part of fandom, and I hadn’t been for years. I had no idea what happened to any of the Espada after the Winter War. I was in Grimmjow’s body, or I was Grimmjow—at least in part, kinda? Fuck, like I needed possession on top of all my other shit—and I couldn’t rely on something like technicalities.

“Hey.” Grimmjow… said? I could still feel my body, I just wasn’t the one currently moving it. It was weird, but not entirely foreign, a little like feeling a bus or plane move around you, knowing that you aren’t the one driving it. Except, not really because in line with that analogy, even under less harrowing circumstances, would I be the driver or the vehicle? Fuck. FUCK.

Di Roy said something, shrill and jubilant, and one of the others—the other hollows, they were hollows, I was a hollow, because we were in Hueco fucking Mundo, I had been living in literal anime hell, what the fuck even was my life—quickly hushed him.

I noticed this, because Grimmjow noticed it. It was like watching a movie about watching movies, almost double-vision and it made my head swim. Or was it my consciousness? I didn’t know, I thought hysterically, because I wasn’t the one using my head at the moment.

Hey.” Grimmjow snapped, louder this time.

“Fucking what, can I not lose my shit in peace?” I snarled back. And then I blinked. Or he blinked. Or we blinked. The body I was currently inhabiting blinked.

Because I had replied. We had both spoken through our… mutual? shared? mouth. It was trippy as shit, because my brain insisted that there was a difference between Grimmjow talking and my own response, even as it also insisted that both had come from the same place, in the same tone and timbre.

“Will you calm the hell down—” Grimmjow growled, and I could feel it, the bass of it rumbling in my chest.

“Will you kiss my ass, you fuck—” I said, almost by reflex. When in doubt, or when panicking like hell, fall back on insults. Tried and true method of Properly Dealing With Crises.

Di Roy cackled. Xiaolong said something biting and sharp, and Nakeem told the both of them to be quiet. That's a guesstimate, since I had more pressing matters to attend to.Because my body was possessed, or I was possessing a body? Some weird shit was happening and I did not appreciate it, not even a little bit.

“Just listen—” Grimmjow hissed. Everything was terrible, ha ha, everything was fucking horrible, but sure, why not, I’d listen.

At least he was calm, if eking towards frustrated. I tried to seem attentive, instead of loosing of the frenetic, helpless laughter that I could feel bubbling up in my throat. I wasn’t in control of my body. I wasn’t even control of what reality I was in, and I wanted to shake out my skin in equal parts rage and fear. Listening to whatever the fictional character in my head had to say would be a welcome, if ultimately useless, distraction.

“Fuck’s sake, you could try to be a little less fatalistic—”

Oh great, now he was reading my mind. The day just kept getting better and better. Di Roy was laughing again, and I paused in my panic to contemplate what the fuck he could possibly find so funny about the whole thing. Maybe punching him in the throat would make me feel better. Except not, because I didn’t even have hands anymore, fucking great. I wanted to hit him any damn way, knock him right upside his big ass head, because nothing about this—nothing—was even the slightest bit funny.

I wanted to fight Di Roy. I wanted to fight everything.

“—taking a long time, Nakeem.” I heard Xialong say. The other four creatures were watching me—us?—and didn’t seem as though they were going to be moving along any time soon. Ha ha, awesome. Nothing like being turned into a walking spectacle to really make your day!

“Will you calm the fuck down, what the fuck is happening, who are you?” Grimmjow demanded, all in one big exhaled rush.

Oh gods.

It was infinitely worse than freshman year icebreakers. I couldn’t ignore him, or pretend that I hadn’t heard him. He was in my head. He was using my vocal chords.

“I—” My voice failed me, and instead I made a rough, desperate trill and felt it echo through my—the? his? our?—body. What the hell was I even supposed to say? Hey, I’m from some other, possibly tangential dimension where you’re fictional, and we’re both stuck together in this body because ‘I have no fucking clue’?

Yeah, that’d go real fuckin’ swell.

A name. I could do names. It wouldn’t explain jackshit, but it was an answer, and it was better than incoherent screaming or impending panicky rage.

“You can call me AC.”

“Eisi?” Grimmjow repeated. To hear my own name—or initials, close enough—from a mouth I could feel moving but wasn’t moving under my own power… Yup, there was the vague feeling of nausea. Super.

“Weird fuckin’ name.” He added on.

“Like you’re one to talk, Grimmjow.” I sneered back, petulantly. ‘Grimmjow’ didn’t even conform to standard Spanish phonology; the closest to /dʒ/ was like, the Chilean dialectal variation of /ʎ/, but ‘j’ was pronounced /χ/ before a back vowel, and man, if only I could just ramble about phonological inconsistencies instead of having to deal with him or with anything, really. My life was just so fucking great.

The body made a dismissive noise, the cat-monster equivalent to a verbalized eyeroll. I wasn’t even sure which one of us was responsible for that.

“Whatever.” Was his response. “Shove over already, this is my body.”

Wonder of all wonders, my brain just… stopped. I stopped. Paused. Instead of too loud and overcrowded, my mind was blank, empty, still. Like everything else just got… washed away. Muted.

There was something thrumming, distant and burgeoning beneath that placid calm, and that something is what took hold of my voice and dropped it down half a dozen octaves until it was coarse and low. Venomous.

Excuse me?

“You heard me.”

The body… twitched, stuck between my raised hackles and Grimmjow’s bared teeth and that slow, smooth rise of my anger.

I know that I have a temper. It’s usually slow burning, but I have bad days—and I had been having a gamut of bad days, since waking up in a fictional desert, in a new and unwanted body—and there are a few things that can take me from baseline calm to snarling, violent fuck you anger.

Being confronted with a loss of control is a big one.

I mean, don’t get me wrong; I don’t expect to control everything. I’d hardly have the energy or willingness to be that way. And since life is one long lesson in expectation management, I had even come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t be able to control everything in my sphere of influence. But even so, there are some things that I expect to always be in control of, and my self is at the top of that list.

My body. My choices. My decision. My will.

What the fuck did I have, if I didn’t have that?

And it had taken me some twenty odd years to even get that far.

Grimmjow wasn’t saying, hey, it’s my turn. He was in my head, my body was his body was my body. He wanted control of my body; my stupid, weird ass cat-monster body that I had spent gods knew how long getting used to. And he wanted it, for him alone.

Maybe I didn’t have a right to it anymore, given how quickly I’d stepped back the second I understood the true depths of my incredibly fucked up situation. Maybe it had never really been my body in the first place, considering who he was and where we were.

But I didn’t give two shits about maybes and what ifs, because it was mine.

I had been the one tripping over my own clumsy feet and biting my own tongue with too big teeth, and I was the one who had spent eons stretching my mouth around old, familiar sounds until I could talk without slurring. I was the one who had walked, step-by-step, from one end of the fucking desert to another. I was the one who had spent days-weeks-months-years hunting and fighting and running and thriving.

Me. Not him.

And now, here he was, rollin’ up like he owned the place. The fucking nerve of him—

I felt like I was going to explode, like I was going to fly apart into fractured angry shards of something and the only thing stopping me was that I had to deal with this jackass trying to commandeer my own body right out from underneath me. Gods, he was such a dick.

Grimmjow snarled, and I echoed it, and it reverberated between us, building into a cacophony of threat. I heard someone yelp, Il Forte, or maybe Eduardo. I didn’t look, and neither did Grimmjow. Neither of us cared.

Nakeem—” One of them whimpered.

The growl continued to build up in my—our—chest, until it felt like it was on the cusp of exploding, and I could tell that if we had been two separate bodies, two separate beings, he would’ve been baring his teeth at me. I would’ve peeled my lips back from my gums and hissed.

The body was shaking, was tense, was rippling. Distantly, I could feel that.

Closer, less obfuscated, something—somethings—was moving, churning, spinning. All that energy, that normally lay dormant inside the body—reiryouku, it was called reiryouku, and I was both glad and miserable to realize that I knew that—was stirring, like an eager beast.

Like eager beasts. Because hollows. Were souls.

Fucking super.

“I’m taking back my body.” Grimmjow insisted, and although his voice was even, I could feel his anger, his rage, and I reveled in it even as I drew upon my own acrimony, because fuck him, condescending to me like I was a child, like I didn’t know what I wanted, like I was there just to be walked over. Like I had been holding a seat for him, and not like I had been living, day in and day out, hungering and fighting, while he did fuck all. I could feel him trying to smother me, trying to drown me in the sea of his will, trying to flatten me down and hush my voice, like all the other souls that made me—us—him—up.

This was all happening internally, you have to understand. It was all moving energy and abstract soul shit. But we were abstract soul shit, and we were damn well having a physical knock-down drag-out fight.

We were like two ocean currents, clashing and trying to overtake each other. I could feel Grimmjow, looming over me like riptide, like a monolith, like mountains, and I didn’t have legs, but I kicked out. I didn’t have arms or a face or a body, because we were both just masses of energy and emotion, but I thrashed and I bit and I fucking fought.

“Fuck you!” was all I could think, was all I could say, and I don’t even know that I actually said it. The heat and weight of my fury was like too much pressure, like pipes fit to burst, tension pooling and humming, strung tense.

We were two opposing currents in one giant roiling ocean of anger and panic and loud, coarse swearing. We spilled and churned and frothed, and I could only imagine what it looked like, to Nakeem and Eduardo and Xiaolong and Il Forte and Di Roy. I could only imagine what they saw and felt, with our rage so much like a tempest, sweeping outwards.

Fuck you fuck you fuck you, The words started low and dangerous but then grew jumbled and hurried, and who knows if I actually said them or just thought them into existence. I bucked, throwing the energy of my—our—his—soul outward and around.

Grimmjow circled me warily, his energy creeping around mine, looking for weak spots. Beneath us, in the depths of the ocean that made us up—like a ring of children watching a schoolyard fistfight—the other souls watched.

My brain supplied me with the fleeting image of the two hollows fighting to the death in the streets of El Remanso, and the way that other hollows circled around them, silent but anticipatory. Hungering, I now knew. It was the same. Those souls watched Grimmjow and I, bright and sharp and waiting to pounce on whoever fell first.

I’m stronger, Grimmjow said, haughtily. Challenging.

The hell you are, I rebutted, just as contemptuous.

He was. But I didn’t care. He might’ve been stronger, but I was hardly just going to roll over and die.

(I have never been good at just dying.)

I’m not bowing. Not to you or anybody else.

I wouldn’t. I refused. I was fucking done with losing control. I was fucking done with everything about the whole entire situation. I hated that I still didn’t know what the fuck had actually happened, I hated that I didn’t have anyone to blame for the situation, because I was stuck somewhere I didn’t want to be and I had no idea how to escape, and someone had taken from me; my body, my say in the matter, my choices. I hated that I had woken up alone and panicking, and that I had carried on alone and panicking, and that I had continued, alone and panicking and angry, only for this chump to show up after countless days-years-eons of nothing, and I hated that he had the nerve to demand anything from me.

I didn’t care if he was stronger. I didn’t care if that meant that I had to fight him every day for the rest of my goddamn life; I was not giving up the body, my body. Not again. Not ever. Fuck him for even thinking I would.

His energy surged, higher and higher, before cresting and rushing down towards me in a violent wave. I grinned-felt-thought—a harsh, joyless thing full of aggression and sharp-edged satisfaction—and spiked my own share of energy out.

Grimmjow yowled, shuddered and fell away. I could feel him regroup, pulling himself back together before any of the other ravenous souls could tear into him, but we could all scent the metaphorical blood in the water. I drew myself in close, tense like coils, like springs, compressed and waiting, in case he decided to try again. I let him gather himself, and I waited.

I don’t know how long we stared each other down. How does a soul measure time? How does a soul experience time? I don’t know. I didn’t even have the slow-moving sun of Hueco Mundo to guess by; we were both so caught up in our own soul shit, that neither of us were actually moving our body. It felt like an eternity, an endless standoff.

Why do you even want it. He eventually scowled, huddled into himself to hide the sluggishly bleeding wound on his soul. You don’t even fuckin’ care. You don’t even want the power.

I breathed, ragged and heavy, and tried to rearrange my brain into something that was more than just anger and teeth and the underlying, desperate need to cry, just to get something out.

He wasn’t… wrong, not really. I didn’t particularly care for my current situation, or like the current state of my body. I hadn’t asked for it, and if I had been given a choice (and it was starting to bother me more and more that I hadn’t been) I wouldn’t have asked for it, either. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything I could do about that; I still didn’t know how I had come to be in the body, whether it was my body transformed or some part of me supplanted into Grimmjow’s body. I had no idea if it was reversible or how to go about trying to reverse it.

But I had also spent a helluva long time in the body, and I knew it. It was familiar enough that I no longer recoiled whenever I caught sight of my not-hands-paws, or when the bladed end of my tail curled around my legs. It wasn’t acceptance, not in the least, but I was used to it, and for me that’s close enough.

I didn’t want the body—my body—because I wanted Grimmjow’s subservience, or the power at our disposal. I wanted my body because it was my fucking body.

I was hardly about to go frolicking across Hueco Mundo picking fights—no wait, I had already done that, sorta. Shit. Well, I wasn’t about to go striving for evolution or whatever. I didn’t particularly want anything, other than to just be left the hell alone.

It was… probably confusing to him, I realized. Hollows were supposed to be instinct, or something like that. I could… feel Grimmjow, only it wasn’t feeling so much as halfway being, which was weird and uncomfortable, because he also was, and—It wasn’t mind reading (thank fuck), but it was something that was almost like unconscious communication between us. I could feel-sense-parse that he was angry, because he was always angry, and that he was confused and angry about being confused, because I was fighting him, but I wasn’t fighting to kill him, to consume him and reign over the body. I could feel-sense-parse him feel-sense-parsing me—which was so fucking strange, and nauseating and looped like mirrors facing mirrors, guh—and he knew that I didn’t want any of that, but he couldn’t understand why.

Why I refused to give up my autonomy. Why I refused to be smothered or crushed or consumed or whatever the fuck would happen to me if Grimmjow took the body for himself.

I wasn’t about to give myself up. Not when I didn’t know what would happen. Not when I had a choice this time.

But as Grimmjow circled me with more caution and no small amount of muttered insults, I had a flash of understanding, of what I—what we—were in for: I would spend every waking second even more paranoid and hyperaware. It wouldn’t matter what Grimmjow was actually doing or planning, I wouldn’t be able to let my guard down regardless.

It seemed an unbalanced setup: I had somehow managed to get myself shoved into this body or turned into this body, but I hadn’t completely taken it over, not if Grimmjow had been lying in wait the whole time. Or had I, and he had just clawed his way back out through the dense mire of hungry soul energy? Did it matter? Either way, I was some kind of… catalyst, and the whole thing seemed to hinge on me. Were we acting as buffers for each other? Because I hadn’t even noticed the souled energy until I’d noticed him. And something had stopped Grimmjow from being eaten, even as I had unknowingly taken the metaphorical reins.

Two opposing ocean currents, I reminded myself. Which meant that ultimately, we were part of the same entity, just flowing in divergent patterns.

Suppressing Grimmjow all the time would only wear the both of us down, and then we’d both lose. Someone would get eaten. The body would quit on us. Either. Both. All of the above.

I didn’t like those options.

I eyed Grimmjow. He eyed me back. The souls around us screamed and hollered, clamoring for a fight, for blood.

There was—

I shivered and shuddered and frowned and spat and growled, but it was all noise and anger, because even if I pissed myself off with my own thoughts, I kept thinking them.

There was a solution. Of sorts.

I fuckin’ hated it, though. Because. It required… trust, on both our ends.

I hated the idea of going out on a limb, on a hope, on a chance, and crashing and burning and losing because I had tried to do the Right Thing.

Fuck the Right Thing, I didn’t want to become a ghost in my own monstrous skin.

The idea, though. That solution. It was damn persistent.

That’s the terrible thing about acknowledging your own bad ideas. Once you give them even a second of serious thought, they linger.

It seemed plausible, assuming I could trust Grimmjow. Assuming I could trust him to trust me.

Fuck.

I didn’t know if I could trust him, I didn’t want to trust him, not with so much at risk. He was his own person, and he had lain in wait like a landmine, and I hadn’t even really known he was there, and I had no idea what he wanted, other than for me to just roll over and do whatever he said.

(which, please.)

We were stuck in the same body, fighting over the same headspace, the same autonomy, and I couldn’t fucking trust him. I couldn’t make myself vulnerable that way, knowing that all it would take was him fucking me over once, and that there was nothing I could do to stop him.

But we were stuck, and neither of us wanted to die, and we didn’t exactly have a whole lot of options.

Fuck.

It was either condemn myself to watching him every moment of every day, and fighting tooth and nail to keep myself, or extend the metaphorical olive branch and hope, ardently, that it didn’t come back to royally bite me in the ass.

Having shit options was hardly any better than having no fucking options at all. Goddamnit.

I snarled and paced and Grimmjow mirrored me, and we bared our fangs and hissed and postured until:

We’ll… share, I offered, the words coming slow and almost painful.

Grimmjow slid a little closer, curious-eager-wary-cautious. I didn’t have a body with muscles to tense, but I felt that same sort of prickly tension, and I forced myself not to lash out or lean away.

Really?

Yeah.

Grimmjow’s curiosity dropped just like that and he went snide-resentful-unbelieving. Two seconds ago you almost took off my goddamn head and now you wanna share?

But fuck, if we weren’t the same breed of skeptic asshole. If I didn’t have to worry about him shoving my consciousness out of my own damn body, I could almost like the bastard.

I sneered back, heckling-dismissive. I’m mercurial.

I got a wave of unimpressed-tryagain-exasperation in reply.

What changed your mind? He demanded, all sharp points and hard edges, like I had to explain myself to him.

… I did have to explain myself, though, at the very least in order to get him to fuck off with his questions. Fucking hell, this whole bullshit scenario was nothing but events that were more trying than I had the will or mind to put up with. Why couldn’t I go back to simpler times, like when I was on the verge of wasting away in the desert. I hadn’t had to put up with anybody’s shit then, least of all my own.

I don’t fight unless it’s personal. I told him, hesitantly. Words. Where were the words when I needed them? There’s… nothing personal for me here.

It was true enough, considering that ‘here’ was fucking fictional. I didn’t give two shits about any of it—Hueco Mundo, the Shinigami, the other would-be Espada, fucking Aizen—except for not dying.

I wasn’t going to die, in a where that wasn’t even supposed to be real, and especially not for something as fucking stupid as pride, or battle lust.

… Alright. He answered, after a moment. And man, it rankled to have him sound so suspicious, until I reminded myself that the both of us were caught flat-footed by the whole ‘stuck in one body’ catastrophe, and that he was well within his rights to be wary, the same way I was of him.

It still fucking rankled though.

Why are you fighting, then? I asked, because some part of me actually did want to know. Hollows were supposed to be instinct, but Grimmjow was a person—his own being—rather than any kind of overwhelming feeling (which meant, damn it all, that my knowledge of canon was likely going to be less than helpful. I would have to yell about that later). There was something driving him, though. I couldn’t quite suss it, but it was boldly, unapologetically there.

I wanted to kill you, He said, frankly. I probably should’ve been alarmed, but my only pointed, overly loud thought was how he planned to do that, exactly, when I’d already kicked his spiritual punk ass up and down the block.

In response, I got back the mental equivalent of a rude gesture and a begrudging ripple of amusement.

Before, I mean. He clarified. I didn’t realize that you…

That what? I demanded. I didn’t like that he hesitated. Which is to say, I guess, that I didn’t like that I couldn’t predict him. Everything I thought I knew was about something that wasn’t real. Things that were flat, two-dimensional, archetypically, predictably false.

But Grimmjow was real, because I had already decided however many centuries or eons or whatever ago that I wasn’t hallucinating. Probably. He was as real as I was, or I was as fake as he was. Either way, he was a Real Person and not some scripted caricature.

The problem was, I’m terrible with real people.

You aren’t hollow. He said, solemnly. And I paused.

Remember, this is all Spanish (which would likely do great things for my oral skills, even if it was definitely causing me a whole lot of mental workaround). I wasn’t ignoring it anymore, because ignoring things got me usurped from my own damn nervous system, apparently, but it was easy to acknowledge it in passing and without too much thought, because I had spent years cramming the language into my brain.

The way that Nakeem and the Leviathan used words like bisoño and bisoñalma and escudero had initially thrown me off, but it made a roundabout sort of sense, now that I was reluctantly thinking about it. There had to be a whole entire lexicon of Hollow-specific terms that had grown out of necessity. On its own, bisoñalma didn’t make any damn sense, but in the context of new hollows emerging out of some nebulous… proto-hollow ether or whatever, it became a useful marker of inexperience.

No eres muda, Grimmjow said. Muda, like the empty husks left behind by molting bugs, like the dried up and dead leaves that fell from trees when autumn came around.

Is that what hollows thought of themselves as? No fucking wonder they found their One Driving Emotion and stuck to it. Jesus.

I’m not hollow. So what? I retorted, to cover the sheer discomfort I felt at knowing—even inadvertently—that he considered himself to be something transient and useless outside of whatever it was that was motivating him.

So, we can grow. He answered, in that same even, measured tone.

And that was weird too, because for all that we had been at each other’s throats moments ago, for all that he had been abrasive cursing and bared teeth, now he was almost… wistful, something soft and agreeable, and it shouldn’t have bothered me, but it did, because goddamnit, what right did he have to destroy my carefully constructed mental image of his personality?

The fuck does that have to do with anything? I bit out, feeling stung and wrong-footed and uncomfortably upset about it all.

We can’t live if we’re weak, Grimmjow replied. He said it simply, like it was fact, like it was undeniable, unmovable, insurmountable.

I felt the truth of it strike me down to the marrow of my fucking bones.

I was in a shounen manga, for fuck’s sake. There was no room for weak characters, not when the protagonists received absurd power-ups with each new villain. Weak characters got written off, written out, discarded and replaced with newer, stronger archetypically-consistent counterparts. The hell if we would get anywhere by being weak and an antagonist.

I didn’t want for much, but in order for me—for us—to carry on unbothered, we had to be strong enough that nothing could bother us. If I didn’t want to get tangled up in the clusterfuck that was Tite Kubo’s clumsy ass plot, then I—we—had to be strong enough that we could stand against it, strong enough to not get dragged down the merry road to hell.

We couldn’t live if we were weak. We would die if we were weak. So we couldn’t be weak.

Not between my refusal to bow and Grimmjow’s burgeoning persistence in not being pushed to the wayside any longer. He wanted to be strong, and I wanted to live, and the only way to accomplish either of those goals was to do them together, in any and every sense of the word. We couldn’t afford to be weak.

Because ‘weak’ would get us nowhere. Because ‘weak’ would see us under Aizen’s thumb, under Aizen’s rule, under Aizen fucking Sousuke, chained into his false kingdom and thrown against the whole of Seireitei’s offensive power. ‘Weak’ would see us expendable, bleeding out, ruined.

Fuck that.

If Grimmjow was going to insist on going around, trying to fight anything that so much as breathed in his—my—our direction, so that he could claw his way to the top of whatever the hell qualified as peak Hollow evolution… If I was going to be me, or at the very least us and not just him

If we were going to overcome all the bullshit that lay before us—Aizen, the other Espada, each other, not to mention fucking Kurosaki Ichigo tearing through like a hurricane—without falling, failing, dying...

Well then, we would just have to be strong. Relentlessly, fearlessly powerful.

So that we could fight, and win, and live.

Because he and I were both just too goddamn stubborn to die.

Chapter Text

Coming to the realization that I wasn't alone in my body, and more importantly, in my own head, was a little like abruptly acquiring a roommate: you never realized how cluttered your shit was until someone else moved in and suddenly you looked like a fucking hoarder.

It's easy to say things like 'I thought this' or 'I felt that' but the actual process of thinking or feeling wasn't nearly so neat. It never had been, but now that I wasn't the only one privy to those thoughts and feelings, the tumultuous path of my thoughts was more readily apparent.

After our stalemate-and-tentative-ceasefire, Nakeem asked, Are you alright? and my brain whiplashed from biting sarcasm (because no, I wasn't fucking alright and that was kind of obvious) to hard-edged suspicion (because for all that Nakeem was even-toned and polite, he didn't seem even remotely confused or bothered by the fact that there were clearly two different people speaking from the same mouth, often in contradiction of each other, and how exactly did one get used to something like that?) which led to tangential thoughts, including but not limited to: was this a common thing that occurred to hollows, being stuck in this weird loop of constantly battling for dominance? And I still cringed away from even thinking about the fact that I was, at the moment, not only a fictional character but an entirely different fictional species. But, I reasoned to myself, that did explain some of the anachronistic details like the Roman architecture; Bleach was vaguely based on Earth as I knew it (I couldn't call it 'the real world' since I was, in fact, living—for some given value of the word—and breathing in a barren desert otherworld full of the souls of the dead, which was something else I needed answers for because I was fairly certain that I wasn't dead) which meant that there had been a Rome and dead hollow Romans or, at the very least, dead hollows who'd like Romans enough that they’d decided to build their dead desert city in the fashion of an Ancient Roman city. But, wasn't that weird, too? Why Ancient Rome, when canonically shinigami had only ever been shown operating in Japan and Hueco Mundo was, somehow, a Spanish-speaking dimension (and the... fuck, what was it, the archers, fucking—Quincies! There we go, and the Quincies were also, somehow, German. Did Kubo think it made shit more interesting if he just threw a bunch of inconsistent foreign languages in there?). If the shinigami had gotten there first wouldn't it have made more sense for the buildings to be reminiscent of Edo-period Japan? Well, no, it's not like Japan had deserts, the wooden structures would probably do horribly between the sand and sandstorms and the long stretches of unrelenting sunlight. But Roman didn't make any damn sense either given that the Romans also did not live in deserts. Where had the stone even come from, when it probably would've been easier to make adobe? How did the entire city not cook every time the sun was up with all that dense ass stone? Actually, why had the hollows decided to settle at all? Why not be nomadic, given how few resources there seemed to be; there was only one source of water in the entire desert and it was meticulously watched over by the strongest hollow I had met yet. And if I was on some sort of alternate earth, then what the hell was up with Hueco Mundo's solar cycle? Was there an answer for that that wouldn’t involve the phrase 'because reasons'? Goddamnit, Kubo—

Grimmjow interrupted, his voice scraping our—his, no, my, no, our—throat raw, “Do you ever stop fucking thinking?”

“Not really, no,” I answered, and how much of that had he heard? If I was just thinking something through, did that mean that I was broadcasting it between us? Were there no divisions of mindspace? I didn’t think that I’d heard any of his thoughts, but he was in my head and I was in his. Would I even be able to clearly tell them apart? If we were both subject to each other’s thoughts unrelentingly, then one of us was going to snap and I couldn’t say for sure that it wouldn’t be me; I had days where even the idea of other people made my jaw clench and my temper skyrocket and my temples throb…

Kind of like the (my? No, no, our) body was doing right then. Fuck.

Grimmjow managed, from between our clenched teeth: “Are you serious.”

Well, I did think it was ridiculous that I still got headaches, even when inhabiting the body of a fictional creature. But shit, it’s not like I was doing it on purpose.

"Why did I agree to this,” Grimmjow seemed to be asking himself, with an air of great suffering. Which, first of all, if anyone was suffering, it was me, because this whole situation still made no sense and also, he was an asshole.

"How am I the asshole here?"

Oh, please.

"You literally tried to kick me out of my own body like two minutes ago, you fuck—"

"You've been controlling my body for the past millennium!"

"Listen. You are not the one who spent like three hundred years isolated in this shitty desert learning how to walk and talk. This shit is mine."

"We just fought over this, what the hell happened to sharing?!"

"I don't share with assholes!"

"Gonna be hard to not share with yourself then!"

"Oh, fuck you!"

"Um.” Eduardo spoke up, and then immediately looked as though he intensely regretted ever opening his mouth.

"What,” We both snapped.

Unsurprisingly, Eduardo shot a desperate, beseeching look at Nakeem, who seemed to be the one that the other four looked to whenever things got difficult, or—more precisely—whenever Grimmjow or I did anything at all. It had been a couple of not-days, maybe sixty hours but probably more, and it still felt strange to be walking the desert with somebody. The others didn’t talk much, or at least, not to me. Or Grimmjow. He wasn’t really concerned, though, and I was more interested in the fact that the sun had finally risen again.

“It’s fine,” Nakeem told Eduardo, consolingly, and I had to stifle a jolt of irritation. What, was this weird-body situation suddenly a little too much for everyone else—who didn’t have to put up with it personally—to handle? Well, fucking excuse me

“Don’t wait up,” the body sneered, and then there wasn’t any time for further words, because it—we, I, he, he-and-I—was running, in a full-tilt long-limbed sprint.

By the time we stopped running, I was something approaching calm. Something considering calm as a viable option, but not quite ready to commit. Ugh. People were exhausting even when they were weird soul monsters.

“This is fucking terrible,” one of us said. At that point, I honestly couldn’t tell the blur of my thoughts from Grimmjow’s. If there even was a point of distinction. Outside of arguing back and forth over the body, our unconscious thoughts seemed to fall pretty neatly in line. Which was a little unsettling and had some implications I didn’t like, but it was workable. Doable. I was appreciative, in a roundabout way; my general emotions and thoughts were echoed and magnified, enough that I was actually emoting. It wasn’t the worst set-up, and it definitely sounded a lot better than endless arguments.

“We need to fix this.”

“It doesn’t really seem like the kinda thing you just fix.”

“Well then, we gotta at least come to an agreement. If I have to spend the rest of my life arguin’ with your ass—”

“Oh fuck off, like it’s any better from this end—”

“—is exactly what I’m talking about—”

“—fuck’s sake—”

We both eventually ran out of breath and insults. Eventually. Which was another thing: yeah, I had a temper, and yeah, I could argue with the best of them, but I usually didn’t have the energy to. But it was… easy, almost, to give as good as I got when it came to Grimmjow. To stay angry, even if it was more annoyance than actual ire.

That? I wasn’t sure that I liked.

“Okay. Let’s just. Try. To… work it out.”

“... Yeah, alright.”

“You want the legs?”

“I meant the mouth.”

“Whoever has somethin’ to say can say it.”

“Yeah, cuz that’s gonna work out nicely.”

“You got a better idea?”

“Yeah, you could just shut the fuck up—”

“—and you could kiss my ass—”

And so it went. Until:

“Just…. think quieter. Or something, I don’t know.”

“So what, I can’t think now?”

“That’s not what I said, just fucking do it quieter!”

“What the fuck does that even mean? I’m thinking. In my head.”

Our head. My head. Fuck, whatever.”

“Not like you were doin’ much thinkin’ any damn way.”

“Fuck off.”

A beat.

“Fuck, I’m tired.”

We both sighed at the same time. Have you ever sighed through your mouth and your nose at the same time? Because it itches. There was a pause, in which we mutually decided to drop the topic for the moment. I cleared our—the—throat in the ensuing silence. If we weren’t arguing and fighting for control, what did we have in common? Besides not wanting to die.

What was there to talk about?

“… It’s shit that we were the ones to dip, when Eduardo n’em were the ones bein’ shitheads,” I offered, after a moment. It was a relatively safe topic, since it had nothing to do with the whole… body thing. We—the body—were stretched out on our side along the sand, in a sprawl that seemed to come naturally, head angled just right to feel the warmth of the sun without being blinded by its glare.

I extended the verbal olive branch. I had been hoping that Grimmjow would accept it, but still couldn’t help the small ripple of surprise when he actually did.

“Where does he get the fucking nerve, though?”

Right? Like I am so terribly sorry to inconvenience you with my existential crisis, you insensitive shitlord—”

“All five of ‘em are shady as hell—”

“—wouldn’t even have to put up with this shit if he hadn’t—”

A pause.

Wait a goddamn minute,” We said it at the exact same time, and between the sudden snap of both of our tempers, it came out rough as gravel and as deep as the night was long. I stopped, and he stopped, and we both sat there, gobsmacked. Surprise turned into a bubbling annoyance with a swiftness.

“That sonnuvabitch—”

“How much you wanna bet—”

“—oughta punch him in his gotdamn teeth—”

“—go, right now, because I am going to punch him in his gotdamn throat—”

It was almost afterthought, the ease with which I pushed our body to its feet and he pulled on the pool of our reiryouku. The smooth way we transitioned from standing to hurtling forward, buffeting the sands below us as we sped back towards the others. No planning, no forethought. Just movement.

Easy.


“You fuckin’ shithead—” was the first thing out of our mouth, the moment we clapped eyes on Nakeem. He looked vaguely alarmed at our appearance, and I wondered how long we had actually been gone.

(I desperately needed a watch. Or to forcibly unremember the arbitrary concept of time. And honestly, given our surroundings, one of those was definitely more likely to happen than the other.)

“Grimmjow?” Nakeem asked, and just his voice alone was enough to renew my interest in throwin’ hands.

“If any of you fucks ever try to eat me again,” Grimmjow started, and the menace in our voice was more than enough to make up the difference in height between us and them. To my satisfaction, all five of them were looking somewhat panicked, as they damn well should, because we were damn well serious. I picked up where Grimmjow left off, with barely a pause: “You won’t even get the courtesy of being consumed. I’ll fuckin’ atomize you my damn self.”

Because it had hit me—us—that our whole entire ‘fight for the crown’ episode wouldn’t have happened if Nakeem hadn’t asked that one damning question: Who are you?

I could just imagine, the five of them—so friendly, so helpful, so calm in the face of everything—luring bisoñalmas away, and Nakeem posing that seemingly innocuous question. How many hollows would self-implode, the inner cacophony of souls tearing each other apart as they all desperately attempted to reach self-actualization? To ask a collection of souls to define itself would either make it or break it. And if that hollow failed to become anyone, or if that hollow came into itself as little more than a weak, lost, mess... well, there Nakeem, Eduardo, Di Roy, Xiaolong and Il Forte were, ready and well-prepared to feast.

It was a pretty decent strategy—and it must have served them for quite some time, given how well they had it down, from Eduardo’s overly-friendly, almost oblivious approach to Nakeem’s calm demeanor and Xiaolong’s distant regard—except for the fact that they’d had the misfortune of trying it out on us.

I alone would’ve been bad enough. Grimmjow alone would’ve had them kneeling, begging for their lives and pledging their loyalty. The two of us, together and stuck sharing a body? The anger only reverberated between us, building up into an inferno, into a tempest, and in that regard, we worked real damn well together.

“... Grimmjow—” Nakeem tried, after a moment, but he only stood there and said nothing else. That might’ve had something to do with the absolutely vile look that I shot him, as Grimmjow took hold of all that reiryouku and shaped it like a guillotine, its glint and shadow hanging ominously over all five of their heads.

“Are we fucking clear?” I—we—asked.

Di Roy tittered nervously. Eduardo swallowed, loud enough to be heard. Il Forte was trembling. After a long moment, Xiaolong and Nakeem exchanged slow glances and then—

All five of them bowed. Fell to their knees—or limbs, fuck, whatever, you know what I mean—in full on supplication, heads lowered and necks bared. It wasn’t enough to startle me out of my anger—not with the way that the small embers of upset grew between Grimmjow and I, fire stoking fire—but I could feel the way our tail went from a predatory curl to a rigid hook of shock, blade angled out.

“What the fuck,” Grimmjow demanded flatly.

“We are yours to command, Don Grimmjow.” Xiaolong, surprisingly, was the first to speak up.

Except.

Um.

“The fuck,” I said, a little more emphatically. Grimmjow’s thought-feelings were a swirl of interest and smugness, but I didn’t even take pause to tell him to cut that shit out, because I was a little hung up on Xiaolong’s words. Nos tiene a su disposición, he’d said. Which, what. Was he… was he usted-ing me?

“Fuck you, let’s go,” I said, all in a rush, because nope. Nope, I was not dealing with this shit right now. I was not about to sit around and be formally addressed by a bunch of jackasses who’d tried to eat me.

“Go?” Di Roy repeated, peering upward in curiosity. Peering up, because they were all still bowing.

“Yes, go. We are going back to the city, right fucking now,” I snapped, already turning away from the five of them. Like, what the hell. How do you even get it in your mind to be all casually deferential to someone you tried to eat? What the hell was wrong with them?

And why are you so goddamn giddy about this, I snarled at Grimmjow, who had not once stopped in feeling his tumultuous wave of smug triumph. He didn’t even bother to respond with words, just a flurry of concepts and images that boiled down to the fact that he—we—had peons now. Which made him—us—the King.

Yeah, of five terminal jackasses, I replied, still fraught with tension. I didn’t want their loyalty or their regard or whatever the fuck they were offering. I, at best, wanted them to leave me alone, and, at least, I wanted them to never try and pull something like tricking me into a position of vulnerability in order to end my existence via cannibalism ever again in the fucking lives. Afterlives. Whatever.

“King of some is better than King of none,” Grimmjow purred, voice sleek and victorious, and it was unnerving, because I could feel the warmth of his contentedness seeping in along the edges of my own wary cynicism. The—our—mouth was fighting itself, stuck between the curl of a grin and the hard slant of a scowl.

We don’t know that they’re loyal, I argued.

“They pledged their loyalty,” Grimmjow said in rebuttal, but I knew that I had his attention because his voice was so soft that he might as well have not spoken at all.

Sure, we have their word, I allowed, But we don’t. know.

I didn’t trust them. Of course I didn’t trust them; I hardly trusted Grimmjow and we were forcibly cohabiting the same body.

You’re so skeptical, Grimmjow observed.

They’ve hardly done anything to prove their loyalty, I shot back. Not trying to kill and eat me didn’t make them loyal, it just made them smart.

Grimmjow was silent for a moment, and I kept the body moving forward determinedly. I didn’t look back to see if the others were following. If I had to walk all the way back to El Remanso on my own, I would. It was better than having five giant shitheads trying to, to, to butter me up.

Alright, Grimmjow said. The body shivered, a roll of muscle from head to tail that felt like a stretch. If they try anything, we’ll kill them. Simple as that.

That wasn’t simple. It would be five bodies against one, and even if I’d spent the last however-many years stalking and hunting and thriving in the desert, I’d never fought more than two other creatures at a time. To say nothing of the fact that I had no idea how a fight would work with two people trying to control one body. But it wasn’t not that simple either. We could probably get the five of them to split up; we were smaller and more maneuverable than four of them. We’d have to take Di Roy down first, if we were going to take anyone down at all, otherwise he could easily make a nuisance of himself—

Fine, I said tersely. It wasn’t really fine, because nothing about any of this was what I would consider even remotely within the realm of ‘fine’, but it was good enough. Good enough would have to do.

It took less time than I would’ve thought to get back to El Remanso. It turned out that the other five had decided to come along, which I was ambivalent about. I didn’t really care for their company, but it was better for my nerves to keep them in sight. Something about the city itself seemed strange, though, when we returned. I hadn’t exactly gotten the Grand Tour of the place the first time around, but as we crested one of the cliffs overlooking the valley in which the city lay, I couldn’t help but pause.

“S’quiet,” Grimmjow murmured, as our ears swiveled back and forth—which was a new and bizarrely uncomfortable feeling—trying to pick up any sounds. There were none, and a shiver of fission worked its way down our spine, something between wariness and anticipation. It wasn’t as strong as the feeling I’d gotten when the Scorpion King had ambushed me not too far outside the Still, but they were similar enough to hold my utmost attention. After all, there was quiet, and then there was quiet, the unnatural and almost obvious lack of noise.

“Uh oh,” Di Roy whispered, a shuddery little whistle, from where he was perched on Eduardo’s shoulder. “Maybe Big Boss is back?”

Well, I didn’t like the sound of that at all.

“Who the hell is Big Boss?” Grimmjow asked as we crept forward with the slow, measured steps usually reserved for stalking down our next meal.

“He’s the one who controls El Remanso,” Xiaolong answered. He moved eerily, long segmented legs working separately from his torso. It was fascinating to watch, but also deeply, deeply unsettling. It was heartening, at least, to know that I wasn’t the only one who thought caution was deserved. We all moved quietly and precisely down the cliffside, watching the gates for any sign of movement.

Nerve-wracking. That would probably be more accurate than ‘heartening’. Nerve-wracking.

“Controls?” I parroted. I didn’t really see how something like El Remanso could be controlled. It was too populated, too loud, too chaotic. I didn’t expect that there was some kind of… hollow government, or anything, but the idea that there was a single hollow that controlled the entirety of what was possibly the largest—if not the only—settlement in all of the desert…

Nakeem cut in. “El Remanso is his territory, the same way that the Still is the Leviathan’s.”

That hardly made any more sense. I could see, in a way, how the Leviathan could consider the Still to be their territory. But even so, they didn’t really own it so much as… guard it? I still didn’t understand what was so special about a bunch of water (that I, irritatingly, couldn’t even reliably see) other than perhaps the novelty of it being water in a desert. Water in a desert full of creatures that didn’t need to drink. All the same, the Still was something completely different from El Remanso. To me, anyway.

Maybe I was looking at it the wrong way?

Actually, what did I even care?

“Sure,” I said, because whatever.

Right, Grimmjow thought, loudly and clearly intended for me to hear, because ignoring things sure did work out for you the last time.

“Fuck off,” I said, in the exact same blithe tone.

There were no hollows manning—monstering, which I decided was going to be word—the gates. From the gates, there was no further sign of anyone. I officially Did Not Like This. All that was missing was the low-hanging fog and it’d be some straight up Silent Hill bullshit.

“Okay,” I said, to the empty streets, because Grimmjow was right, even if he was an ass. “Where would Big Boss be?”

“In the castle.” Il Forte answered, to my surprise. He wasn’t the most talkative of the bunch, which suited me just fine, though it did lend a weight to his words whenever he did decide to speak up.

“And everyone else should be there too?”

Xiaolong and Nakeem exchanged one of their frustrating, long and silent looks. Il Forte and Eduardo shrugged. Ugh.

Guess we were going to the castle.


I used the walk to the castle to drag more answers out of Nakeem. I really hadn’t gotten a look at much of anything the first time around, and now that I was looking, the city grew more and more uncanny. I’d thought it was impeccably Romanesque, all thick columns and carved reliefs. But a lot of the smaller buildings and plazas were full of arabesque geometrical patterns and shaped of adobe, sun-washed and drained of the vibrant colors I would’ve otherwise expected. The roads were a jumbled combination of cobblestone and smooth paved rock, spanning from narrow jagged paths to wider streets obviously meant to accommodate heavier foot traffic.

“What is up with this place?” I mumbled, sweeping my gaze from side to side. Even if there was more variation to the architecture than I’d realized, the city itself still made no sense.

At first, Nakeem only made a speculative, wordless noise. “Supposedly,” he began, “It was founded by a group of the strongest hoyos to stop some of the fighting.”

One of my ears twitched, which was a tell that I was hoping to eventually outgrow. “Fighting?”

Out in the Badlands, which was apparently most of the desert, there was a lot of fighting. I knew this firsthand, I guess, except that my hunts had been rather spaced apart, too infrequent for me to consider it “a lot”. The stronger hoyos—which, that was new, but it did make more sense than ‘hollow’, given the whole Spanish thing, so I went along with it without question—weren’t as prone to that kind of violence. After a certain level of power was attained, it seemed that conflict became more trouble than it was worth.

The mouth—our mouth—curled up into something gleeful. That’s where we’re going, Grimmjow whispered. The resolve in his words was all but tangible; I could feel it in the swirl and eddy of our reiryouku, the determination and drive that would see us transcend the ranks until Grimmjow’s want for power was finally sated.

The ideas of hollows—the concept of hollows I knew from a manga that I’d once read, and not the idea of hoyo that I was currently experiencing firsthand—not fighting was… more surprising than it should’ve been. Grimmjow wasn’t the Grimmjow that I’d expected, given what I knew, so it stood to reason that other things would be different as well. But canonically, hollows hadn’t really been fleshed out as a concept or a species or anything: eternally hungering, variable intelligence and animalistic designs. Hollows were cannibals, devourer of souls, but even when I’d spent ages in the desert hunting down others, it had never been about only the hunger. There had come a point where I craved a challenge more than anything, where the hunger hadn’t even really been a bodily ache so much as the ache of anticipation (although, I wasn’t sure how much of that was the fact of being what I now was, and how much of it was born from Grimmjow’s constant need to assert himself).

At any rate, hoyo behavior was radically different from what I remembered of Bleach canon. Things would probably work out easier on my part if I just held all that I thought I knew as more of an erroneous wiki stub instead of some definitive Word-of-God guide. Which. That was aggravating. I couldn’t avoid any of the dreaded Plot if it was so far removed from the idea in my head that I wouldn’t—or couldn’t—recognize it.

“This is it,” Il Forte said of the castle. It was a wide building set at the center of the most ornate plaza I’d seen yet, Roman columns giving way to curvy carved windows and stained glass. Even better, there were dozens of other hoyo around, clustered in groups and quietly conversing. Luckily, no one seemed to take note of our arrival.

Or, I didn’t think that anyone noticed us, until the large set of heavily ornate doors slammed open, the echo putting all conversation to rest. Standing there imperiously was a bipedal hoyo that resembled a capybara, but like, only the terrifying parts.

“Everyone has arrived,” the hoyo said, never once glancing in our direction but undoubtedly referring to the six (seven) of us. “Court is now open for session.”

“What,” I asked Nakeem, feeling what little patience I had left wither away into nothing, “is Court?”

A better question—the more accurate question—would’ve been something closer to, why the hell didn’t anyone mention that we were going to Court. I like to think my intent got across anyway, because Nakeem was starting to look harried and Eduardo was sweating.

“You see,” Nakeem began, only to fall silent without speaking further. The crowd around us was pressing in close, hoyo passing through the grandiose doors and into some kind of passage. It was either move or be trampled, and so I let it go. For the moment.

It was a long twenty-ish minutes of walking. The things that I would do for a watch. Or hell, even a sundial. We passed through what seemed like an endless corridor that meandered smoothly upward, rounded a corner that bore wide windows overlooking a balcony and finally came to halt at another set of large, carved doors. The capybara hoyo pushed them open with what looked like minimal effort and ushered us—some two hundred odd hoyo—into a throne room.

It was dim inside, and I could just see the rippling edge of what might’ve been tightly drawn drapes. The crowd filed in and slowly spread out. I couldn’t see the capybara hoyo. I whirled around, pinned Xiaolong with a glare and hissed, “Talk. Quickly.”

“Er,” Xiaolong stammered.

“Why are we in Court?” I growled, frustrated.

“Big Boss holds Court every third sun,” Eduardo blurted out in a nervous whisper. “It’s when he gives out territories and settles disputes and stuff.”

Eduardo,” Xiaolong sounded aggrieved, but that only made Eduardo talk faster.

“And so, if you show up, and maybe if you impress him, then—?”

His words were cut off by a sudden flash of brightness and our eyes closed on reflex.

Mother—” Grimmjow bit out, and I agreed. Our vision was blurry as our eyes tried to refocus. It took me a minute to realize that all that had happened was someone had drawn back the drapes.

The room had two entire walls of in-set carved windows, from ceiling to floor, letting in an optimum amount of light. The drapes, it turned out, where some kind of thick, plush-looking red fabric, adorned with sharp-edged designs in gold. To the leftmost wall was the capybara hoyo, standing tall with all four of its arms folded behind its back. Opposite them, to the right, was a hoyo that was basically a minotaur, a broad bovine head with small, glittering eyes. In between the two, set against the back wall and aglow with the light pouring in from—

Was that a—? Yup, that was a skylight.

In between them, there was a throne. And on that throne, there was—

“That’s Big Boss.” I don’t think I meant for it to come out so flat, so callous. But well.

The minotaur took two giant steps. There were small bells looped around its curling horns that jingled when it moved. It tossed its head and jabbed out with one thick, meaty finger.

“Step forward,” it grunted. I glanced around. There was no one to either side of me. Eduardo, who had been next to me only a moment ago, was somehow behind me, along with what seemed like most of the room.

“Me?” I brought one hand up—paw, really, and I still wasn’t used to how much dexterity I no longer had—near enough to my chest that the gesture could be mistaken for nothing else.

The minotaur turned its head the slightest bit towards the throne and then nodded. “You.”

I swept forward, Grimmjow and I maneuvering the body with an ease that neither one of us truly felt, and stopped a few yards from the foot of the throne. We sat, tail curled primly around us.

“Name yourself.”

Grimmjow floated a question in my direction, a wordless gesture of Do you wanna?

Oh no, bud, that’s all you, I insisted. If there was one thing I definitely didn’t want, it was to go around cheerfully shouting my name—my not-hoyo, not-canon, totally attention-grabbing name—for all to hear. I’d gladly go by Grimmjow so long as no one looked twice.

Grimmjow took in that reasoning, more feeling-thought than tangible word, with the same aplomb he took anything else. Which to say that he thought it over and then said, You’re weird, you know that right?

Shut up and introduce us, you ass.

“Grimmjow Jaegerjaques,” he said without pause or hesitation. Instantaneous mental communication was damn useful.

There was a rattle from the throne. The hoyo of the hour, sprawled indolently across a throne of bone and carved stone, was annoyingly familiar, like a word on the tip-of-my-tongue. And like the Leviathan, it was also uncomfortably humanoid.

“And you speak for these five… peons?” Big Boss rumbled, in a voice that was more intent than word. It—they, or he, if Nakeem could be believed, which, considering that he and the others had tricked me into attending some kind of weird hoyo nobility… gathering thing, was looking more and more unlikely—looked like a body clawed free from its grave, the gleam of off-white bone peeking through sloughs of thick not-meat. If that body still had an intact jaw, it had surely not moved to loose the being’s words into the air.

I blinked. Not at the fact that I was being addressed by what was probably an actual revenant, but—

You heard that, right?

For once, Grimmjow and I were of the same mind, thinking of the same thing.

Okay, he said. You might be on to something here.

“Yeah,” We said, or he said, or I said. The semantics weren’t terribly important in the moment.

“Why have you come here, encroaching on my territory?” The corpse demanded.

“… Encroaching,” I parroted dubiously. I was starting to have unpleasant flashbacks to the last time I was accused of some asinine crime; I couldn’t decide whether or not the idea that I was infringing on a crumbling city was more or less absurd than the thought of my trekking the desert for the sole purpose of stealing water for a body that did not thirst.

The minotaur took one menacing step forward, as though to impress upon me how much larger than I it was. It huffed angrily. “You will answer King Barrigan’s question, peasant.”

King Barrigan. King. Barrigan.

Oh hell no.

Okay, I thought slowly, putting a considerable amount of effort into keeping our body still. We didn’t emote like humans, faces contorted and stretched, but body language was an enormous giveaway, and it took all that I had not to hiss, not to angle our tail blade out in challenge and defiance. I nudged Grimmjow, as though he hadn’t already been paying close attention. Honest question here. Do you think we could possibly kick this guy’s ass.

Grimmjow, being Grimmjow, was already halfway through a resounding yes before he even processed my question. Uh, he corrected, to my surprise. Probably not like this. What’d he do?

‘What’d he do’, Grimmjow meant, because I had, up until this point, never shown any inclination to fight anyone else. I’d told him, as we’d battled for control, that I never fought unless it was personal.

Welp, time to make a liar and hypocrite out of myself.

He’s going to be an enormous pain in the ass if we don’t kill him? I offered.

Before Grimmjow could answer, the world shifted.

Like a painting hanging crooked on the wall, everything skewed and it was nothing but instinct that had me baring fang and hunching low and flexing claws threatening against the marble floor.

There was the uncomfortable sensation of my ears popping.

Fuck, Grimmjow thought, sounding faint and dazed. I could feel our head throbbing and for a moment the migraine was so strong that my vision blacked out for a second.

Fool,” Barrigan growled and that’s about the moment I realized that it—the whatever it was—was him. “Do not think to plot against me in my own court.”

“Fuck off,” I managed, barely, words scraping up raw out of my throat because everything was so heavy. It felt like there were mountains hanging around my neck, the way it took nearly everything we had just to stay upright. A glance told me that the rest of the room was doing little better; Eduardo and Di Roy were twisted into uncomfortable shapes and Il Forte’s sharp limbs were starting to dig cracks into the floor. The pressure so encompassing, so far spread that it felt like the air itself was bearing down. Fuck, but it hurt, everything hurt, pinned down beneath an impossible, unrelenting weight. Only, it wasn’t the air. It was Barrigan.

Seriously, fuck that guy.

He was going to crush us, down into painful atoms until we split apart into nothing—

No, no, fuck that.

Don’t fight back, I thought, even though it rankled. I wanted—we both wanted—to show Barrigan the error of his ways, to make him realize that he’d erred in crossing us, but not now. Not now. We could wait. We could be patient.

Don’t fight back. It wasn’t about beating him, because we couldn’t. So that just left weathering the storm, so to speak. Our reiryouku pooled around us, dense and bright enough to be seen.

“Hah?” Barrigan sneered, mocking, so mocking, I wanted to tear what little flesh remained from his bones, to salt and burn him until there was nothing left, the smug fuck. “And what are you going to do with that, pissant?”

He expected us to attack him, to wear ourselves away into nothing, shorn away against the rough edge of his power. Instead, slowly, slowly, we pulled our reiryouku out, teasing it along until it sat even against us, like a shroud. It felt electric, that familiar sensation like copper on the back of the teeth. We stretched, and stretched, and stretched, until I could feel the barest of tendrils brush against Nakeem’s foreleg. Di Roy stopped shaking. Like a string of fairy lights, power bounced to power, ping-ponging and faintly ringing in my ears until I felt-saw a web of energy, power running from me to the others and back, buoying us all up. I could finally breathe without my lungs being crushed in my chest.

What the fuck, one of us thought. Everything was still spinning. I honestly couldn’t say who.

How—” Barrigan looked furious. Well, not actually, because skulls don’t ever look anything other than unnervingly pleasant. But the breadth of his power shook and quavered, and the room shook with it, so I assumed that meant he was less than pleased to see me and the rest of my motley crew of peasants still standing, relatively unharmed and ever defiant.

“Kill them.” It wasn’t a shout. Only a quiet command, almost missed beneath the sound of the shaking stone. I heard it, clear as anything.

The minotaur took a step forward, one bulky fist already drawn back and—

It was like everything fell into slow-motion. I could see it all happen. Xiaolong was big, and had… so many legs, guh, but he wasn’t all that fast. He relied more on the sharpness of his blade-like pincers than on his strength. Even if, by some miracle, he managed to block or partially evade the blow, he’d take damage. He’d probably burst, like overly ripe fruit thrown against a wall. I could already taste the ichor and chitin.

Time resumed its normal pace. Xiaolong hit the marble floor with a startled noise. The minotaur overbalanced, its bulky torso too heavy for those narrow ankles to support. It made only a single noise of a surprise before it hit the rightmost wall, horns burying deep. The stone cracked, right to the edge of the carved windows.

Slowly, I drew the bloodied edge of our tail blade back.

What, I could hardly get the words out. What did you just do.

I. For once, Grimmjow didn’t have a reply.

The entire room was silent, save the sound of dust and rubble falling from the cracked wall. The minotaur’s legs twitched, and more dust fell. From the throne, Barrigan gave a snarl like the warning of a rattlesnake.

“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded. His ire didn’t seem nearly as threatening now that I could stand tall, under—enveloped in—my own power.

Though, that was a question that I too would’ve loved an answer for, I thought pointedly.

What, were you just gonna let him bite it? Grimmjow asked, shedding his own confusion and donning a cloak of mockery like a second skin. Gods, but we were the exact same kind of asshole.

Shit, I dunno. Which meant ‘yes’. Why do you care?

They pledged loyalty. Might be stupid on their end, but that means I lead. And it means I’m the only one who gets to kick his ass.

… That is some of the most convoluted shit I have ever heard.

Grimmjow snorted dismissively, and our tail lashed from side to side. Well you were gonna let him die, so.

Yeah, I shot back, incensed, and you spilled first blood in the middle of Weird Ass Hoyo Court.

I was arguing just to argue. Weird Ass Hoyo Court hadn’t exactly been going well, what with all the power plays and the fact that I wanted Barrigan dead thrice over. But it was the principle of the matter; before the whole… whatever that had been, Weird Ass Hoyo Court had—comparatively and relatively speaking—been our least shitty encounter with another person (creature) to date.

Our eyes cut to the side, swift. The capybara hoyo was sprawled across the marble floor, limbs akimbo and only the thin, almost invisible gouges across its carapace spoke of its death.

Very, very relatively speaking.

Yeah, Grimmjow echoed me, voice sly, I got first blood, but you got second.

Well. He had me there.

It had been more action than thought. I wasn’t sure that we’d been thinking at all. It had been easy, all so easy to see, to just… intervene. Hook the tail blade around one of Xiaolong’s legs and yank, to send him tumbling to the ground. One strike with weight behind it, throwing the minotaur off-balance, spinning and dying and crashing into the wall. Four whip-quick strikes to the capybara hoyo, gouged so deep as to be nearly bloodless.

Damnit.

You know, Grimmjow began, because he lived to make my life difficult.

Don’t.

He ignored me, of course. The ass. You are really

Do not.

bad at this whole ‘not having friends’ thing.

I hate you. So much. Fine. Yes, you’re right. Now help me get us out of this, or fuck off.

“So,” I told Barrigan blithely, as though what I’d—what he’d, no… fairly, we’d—done was nothing out of the ordinary, and certainly not unexpected.

“You dare to evade your due punishment?” Barrigan snapped. “You dare to raise a blade against my people?”

Are we ignoring the fact that he just tried to atomize us.

Apparently.

“Are you always this pretentious?” The question slipped out before I’d ever realized that I’d opened my mouth—our mouth, the mouth—to speak.

There was a sharp, stilted silence. None of the other hoyo in the room so much as dared breathe. Upon his throne of bone, Barrigan began to rattle.

“You,” he bellowed, breath deep and rolling like the knoll of a bell, “dare—”

“I’ll take that as a yes.” Jesus. I normally at least like to pretend like I had a thought-to-speech filter.

Barrigan sputtered, the deep dry rasp of his voice accompanied by the threatening scrape of bone against bone.

“You come here, encroaching upon my territory with your meager orbiters, speaking to your king with such disrespect—”

I tucked that word, orbitadores, away in a box I mentally labeled ‘Things someone had better start explaining, and soon’. In what seemed like the very same second, I said, because I just could not be stopped, “Yeah, I bet that really rattled your bones.”

A half-second’s pause before I added, “And you’re not my king, I didn’t vote for you.”

Barrigan was shaking, quaking with his anger, as he rattled and hissed like an angry teapot, “You do not vote for kings, you fool.

Grimmjow shook our head, almost pityingly. He dipped seamlessly into my train of thought and continued, “Monarchies are arcane and useless institutions—”

Barrigan howled, words growing shrill, “I rule this land because only I am strong enough—

“Now that’s just horseshit,” One of us, or both of us, cut in. I—or, well, we, really, weren’t too sure how the whole… hoyo strength scale thing worked, since it was easier to assume that whatever I thought I knew was less than worthless, but while it was true that Barrigan, like the Leviathan, seemed to be on a whole other level, it couldn’t be so stark as ‘those with power’ and ‘those without’. There was no definitive proof, but he had tried to crush me with nothing but his power alone and I was very much uncrushed, so there had to be some merit there. It was more of a gut-feeling than a certainty, and for a moment I considered that maybe it was a feeling borne from the mire of souls that Grimmjow and I now contained. They weren’t sentient any longer, not like the two of us were, but they had been and all that knowledge and instinct might still have been lurking around somewhere.

It was as fascinating a thought as it was unsettling. The idea of knowing something I didn’t know but did, because ‘I’ was not longer just ‘I’…

Anyway. The point is, there had to be a way for hoyo to grow, to prosper. We refused to even contemplate the idea of stagnation, of quiescence. We would grow, or else we’d be dead.

Deader. More dead. Whatever.

Impudent peasant,” Barrigan thundered, and I couldn’t even find it in me to roll my eyes. I was still linked up to the other five like a live wire and I felt damn near fearless. Barrigan wasn’t shit.

“You will leave this place, and never return,” he declared, one thin, skeletal finger jabbed in our direction. There might’ve been something before that, but I hadn’t bothered to listen. There was a niggling thought growing between Grimmjow and I that he couldn’t actually move off that gaudy throne of his.

Fucking make me, I almost said. It was only moderately warming to know that Grimmjow had been on the cusp of saying it, too. We bit our tongue, literally, hard enough to hurt. It’s not that either of us wanted to stick around, but my instinctive reaction was to aggressively do the opposite of whatever this jackass was trying to order us to do. Grimmjow’s instinctive reaction was to aggressively do the opposite of whatever this jackass was trying to order us to do, but with a lot more violence involved. He let a thought float to the surface: we probably had the jaw strength to wrench one of those arms right off. Take it with us like a souvenir.

It said something about how inane the whole situation had become that I actually considered it.

Logic and reality reminded me that the both of us already knew that it wasn’t a fight we could win. Damn. It took a moment for us to get a firm enough grip on all of those reactions and smother them far enough down that Grimmjow could reply to Barrigan’s demand in a mostly-even tone of voice:

“With pleasure, Don Carapacho.”

My humor was wasted.

Go.”

The streets were quiet again, by the time we made it back to the plaza; only a few other hoyo were skulking around, clearly having felt whatever it was—I certainly wasn’t going to name it—that had happened back in the throne room. The daisy chain of energy between us had broken around the same moment that Grimmjow and I had taken precious time well-spent to come up with rude puns and skeleton jokes, not too long after it had been formed. We still weren’t sure what it had been, other than a way to save face in the impossible wake of Barrigan’s tsunami wave of reiryouku. I wasn’t sure that we’d be able to do it again if we had to, or that I wanted to, at that. Grimmjow thought it was weird, because we hadn’t given or taken power, only just kind of waded in a cumulative pool of it. He was right, because that was weird.

It was just our luck that we didn’t get to think too much on it, because the castle doors slammed open again behind us and someone shouted:

“Hold!”

We did not hold. I was not going to stop for anything less than a bloody fight to the death (a half-formed decision that of course immediately piqued Grimmjow’s interest) and also, neither of us were in the habit of doing what we were told. Exhibits A through Infinity: all of our everything.

Our decision to not hold was taken out of our hands, because someone moved to stand between us and the road that led to the city gates; a hoyo I had never seen before, vaguely avian, but constructed in a different way than Di Roy. It had longer limbs, and a splay of bony feathers along its back that fanned out into a tail.

Grimmjow blinked. He prodded me, pointedly drawing attention to a stream of my own thoughts, and then prodded me again, a silent demand for clarification.

Yes, I told him. Even mentally, my voice was flat with shock. That’s a fucking peacock.

“Rey Barrigan is too merciful by far,” the other hoyo said, sunlight gleaming off the polished bone white of its protruding beak.

“Look,” I started to say.

“Impudence like yours cannot be allowed to go unpunished,” It had the nerve to say, giving me a haughty look. “I, Fiador, will punish you in his stead.”

It took a surprising amount of effort to pry my jaw out of the snarl it had been pressed into.

“If you were in court,” Grimmjow said, running our tongue over our teeth, “then you oughta know he did punish us. We’re real broken up about bein’ banished.”

“Grimmjow,” Xiaolong whispered. It might’ve been a warning, but I didn’t bother to look at him to find out. I was, in fact, giving more and more weight to the idea of just straight up murdering this fucking peacock.

That feeling only grew as the hoyo scoffed, twisting its neck grotesquely to throw an even haughtier look, accompanied by a flare of bony feathers.

Unsavory creature,” It spat. “Do not mock those greater than you.”

“I know, I know,” Grimmjow sneered, our voice a low purr of menace, even as I smoothly cut in, “I’m a wreck. I really gotta get in shape. You know, lose a little… Barrigan.”

The hoyo drew back with a sharp gasp. So did Nakeem and Eduardo. Xiaolong gave a low, aggrieved sigh that I graciously ignored.

You dare—” the peacock (and really, how was I supposed to take it seriously) started. The question was growing old.

“Damn right I dare,” I snarled back.

The hoyo launched itself forward, and that was it. It didn’t even require thought: muscles bunched and loosened, claws found purchase in the infinitesimal gaps between the overlapping pieces of the other hoyo’s carapace. Fang dug deep into vulnerable soft points; a line of wide, panicked eyes running along the underside of the beak, the pliable give between feather and joint. The claws dug in deeper to counterbalance, jaws clamped tighter and a quick wrench of the head—

A thick, wet crunch to break the silence of the city.

“Mm,” Grimmjow hummed, with a nonchalance that I didn’t trust in the least. I could feel his amusement, and flowing through it—

Oh my— I could hardly even string the words together. Don’t you fucking dare

“Tastes like chicken.”

… And that, more or less, is how we got sorta-kinda exiled from El Remanso.

Chapter Text

Something that I'd apparently forgotten—that we'd both forgotten, much to our shared consternation—was the fact that we'd had to make our way through a huge fuck-off sandstorm to even get within the outer limits of El Remanso in the first place.

"I know our collective memory is kinda shit, but still,” Grimmjow murmured as we watched the sand lash around in vicious arcs and loops, making a sound like grinding teeth all the while. “Sandstorms seem like a very memorable event."

Yeah, no shit. Especially considering that prior to El Remanso I'd never seen one before in my life.

And, now that I was thinking about it, the sandstorm had very much not been there the second time around. I could’ve written it off as irregular weather patterns, except for the fact that the sandstorm surrounding the edges of El Remanso was the only sandstorm I’d witnessed in Hueco Mundo, over the course of centuries.

Which meant that this sandstorm was just the same storm from before, having come back from… somewhere, or there was a reason that it hadn’t been there the second time, when I’d dragged the others back into the city and subsequently gotten tricked into attending some kind of bourgeoise court. A reason, for example, like the fact that the sandstorm was some sort of… gate, meant to keep certain parties in and certain parties out. And a gate meant that there was a hoyo, somewhere within El Remanso’s crumbling walls, serving as the gatekeeper.

Do you ever chose the not-paranoid option? Grimmjow asked.

Sure, I answered wryly, but usually not right after someone tries to kill me.

... Alright, that's fair.

The real question was: would it be worth it to go back into El Remanso to track this gatekeeper down?

… No, definitely not. I knew that we weren’t strong enough to take Barrigan head-on and I still wanted to fight him. It was better to avoid temptation all together. Also, he’d banished us before we’d made lunch of that peacock hoyo, and I wasn’t eager to discover the punishment for cannibalizing yet another animal monster, ya feel me?

I frowned at the sandstorm, watching it pick up small rocks and toss them around with abandon. Could we find the gatekeeper without going back into the city proper?

How the hell would we do that?

“Hey Eduardo, Di Roy, c’mere.” They were ambling over almost before I’d finished speaking. It was really nice that at least some of them listened to me, and didn’t do shit like arrange for me to appear before other people, in a Formal Situation, behind my back.

(My list of grudges against Nakeem and Xiaolong was starting to grow endless.)

I thought back to what it had felt like, the crushing weight of Barrigan trying to break me. The way the world had suddenly fallen sideways, everything shaken up and thrown around. The way I had reached out desperately, flaring my own energy in reflex, trying to stave off the pressure. Reaching within and then out with the very edges of my… myself? Shoring up energy—not to attack, like Barrigan had assumed—but like a levy and conductor all at once. Pooling that energy and then reaching out further to the transient edges of the others, leaving bodies behind for the exchange of incalculable energy, building up an abstract closed circuit, power bouncing to power back and forth and back and forth, neither giving nor taking.

“Uh,” Di Roy warbled, hopping in place as the sand beneath him started to glow blue-white-red-black.

Had there been colors the first time?

“Stop talkin’, I gotta—” Concentrate, I was going to say, but then the world rippled, shuddered, flipped, inverted and words became irrelevant.

It didn’t feel quite the same as before, which I chalked up to the fact that someone wasn’t trying to smother me under the weight of their own existence this time around. I spun the pool of me-i-grimmjow-us-eduardo-di-roy-we into a tight spiral, narrower and narrower until it drew itself to a point, and then I aimed dead center at the sandstorm and send it hurtling forward like an arrow flying free from a bowstring.

The energy—the contradictory self-ness, selfless mass of intent—rocketed forward, hit the sandstorm and burst into jagged fragments that trickled down the length of breezes, filtering across El Remanso like a cast net of spider silk, until—

A snap, an electric jolt that was also the crunch of teeth slamming closed over vulnerable flesh, shattering bone. I felt it. Faint, like vibrations through wood, but I felt it.

Around us, the sandstorm shriveled to a sudden, shivering halt.

“Wh—” Nakeem paused to spit out a mouthful of sand. “What did you do?

I thought about it. The pool of energy that was everything and nothing at once, following scant traces like dew drops down lines of silk. Slamming down fangs of sharp nothing over a neck I could feel but not see.

“I think I just spirit-sniped somebody with the abstract idea of a gun.”

“I feel weird,” Di Roy said. I could feel the vibrations of his voice in my own throat. I could feel Eduardo’s anxiety buzzing along my spine, on top of my own.

“I don’t think I like this part,” Grimmjow said, and I completely agreed. It took a moment for me to remember that I was just Grimmjow-and-me, and another moment to unpeel my-ourself from the edges of Eduardo and Di Roy, and then the dips of Eduardo from the nooks and crannies of Di Roy.

“Blegh,” I think I said, because I didn’t have a stomach—or, well, the whole ‘organs’ thing was one big mess of ‘that doesn’t seem right, but I don’t know enough about monster anatomy to contest it’—and so I technically (probably?) couldn’t vomit, but wow, did my brain really want to. I felt like a big wad of stretched-out play-dough being shoved into and swirled around in a bucket of dirty water.

“We should leave,” Nakeem said after a moment. His voice sounded faint. He cleared his throat and then said again, more firmly, “We should go, now.”

“Hey, what's the rush?” Grimmjow asked as an eager kind of sharpness curled in our chest. It was hardly the time to be pushing buttons, and it was definitely not the time to try and pick a fight, but I didn’t stop him, because the more I thought about it, the more fighting Nakeem and Xiaolong seemed like a great way to get rid of an enormous amount of stress.

I mean, come on. I had only just come to an unsteady ceasefire with the asshole I was indefinitely sharing a monster cat body with. The two of them, with all their little schemes and unspoken words had been yanking the two of us around into all kinds of shit and now we were banished and godsdamnit all to hell, I wanted to piss them off at least half as much as they’d pissed me off—

“Please,” Xiaolong pleaded. He looked worn down. All of them did, now that I took a moment to look. Eduardo had an empty look of shock on his face, though his right eye gave the occasional twitch. Di Roy had firmly planted himself on Il Forte’s back and didn’t look like he’d be moving any time soon. Il Forte himself was unreadable, by merit of being whatever the fuck he was, but his body language was uncomfortable at best. Nakeem and Xiaolong looked exhausted.

It was a little strange. I was normally the exhausted one.

A lot of things had happened since the impromptu decision to return to El Remanso, and though I hadn’t expected any of it, I could definitely say that the never-ending avalanche of unwanted revelations and unanswered questions and unknown variables was a great motivator.

“Why?” I drawled, stretching and curling the body into a regal, feline sit, head angled imperiously and tail curled just so to catch and reflect the light. “You all seem so eager to get a move on.”

“It’s better if we find a shelter before sunset,” Xiaolong said, after a pause. I didn’t even bother to call him on his bullshit, because the blasted sun was still high in the sky—a little past whatever counted as midday—the same as it had been for the last couple days or possibly weeks. I was, horrifically, getting worse at keeping track of time, and slow-moving celestial bodies certainly didn’t help.

“What’re you so worried about?” Grimmjow snorted, more like a dog than a cat. We were going to leave, obviously, and definitely not because of our ‘banishment’, but we practically had all the time in the world and no fucking idea of where to go next. Xiaolong and Nakeem’s insistence on… on fleeing was puzzling at best, and just one more thing to piss the both of us off at worst.

“We’ve been exiled, Don Grimmjow.” Nakeem explained heavily, like I hadn’t been there when that fleshless sack of shit skeleton had said it. “It’s a guaranteed death sentence.”

“What? I ain’t gonna roll over and die just cuz Skeletor kicked me out his shitty castle.”

“El Remanso is so-called for a reason, Grimmjow,” Xiaolong picked up where Nakeem left off. The two of them—I had come to realize over the days-weeks-months-years-ugh-whatever—were very well-coordinated with this whole… thing of theirs. Only telling me what they thought I needed to know when they thought I needed to know it. I was going to have to do something about that eventually. I didn’t know what, but something. Likely involving teeth and maybe an ass-kicking or two.

“Look,” I said, because enough was enough. “I refuse to believe that El Remanso is the only place in this whole entire desert.”

“But,” Eduardo protested weakly, “Everyone knows that it is.”

Fuck what everybody knew, I decided. I was gonna map the shit outta this fucking desert.


… I really gotta stop making decisions out of spite.


“I only vaguely kinda remember where it is, so stick close,” I called back over my shoulder.

In actuality, I didn’t remember where ‘it’ was at all, since I’d only stumbled across ‘it’ by accident in the first place. The only point of reference was an increase of humidity in the air, which was hardly reliable.

Maybe when I finally find a clock, I can also manage a compass, I thought idly.

We have a mental compass, Grimmjow pointed out. Which was true. But knowing which way was north and where the sun was in the sky wasn’t quite as helpful as it could’ve been considering that I hadn’t really taken note of where the Still was, in the first place.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, but look. I wasn’t going back there—or trying to, at least—because I wanted to; it had more to do with the fact that I had only really been to two (2) places, and was now banished from one of them. Besides, if I was going to go haring off into the desert, determined to find life outside of El Remanso, there was little harm in making a quick pit stop beforehand, right?

Right.

The annoying, absurd thing—the scary thing—was, compared to Barrigan and his Weird Hoyo Court, the Leviathan’s behavior made sense, in that it made more sense than both Barrigan and his Weird Hoyo Court: I knew how to handle snark and threats of bodily harm and dry humor a lot better than I could deal with arcane medieval European social castes, or whatever the hell that had been.

Barrigan had called me a peon, to my face. Whatever the hell he was smoking, I ain’t want shit to do with it.

The problem—well, the problem aside from the fact that I didn’t know where the Still was at all, let alone in relation to El Remanso—stemmed from the Leviathan. Or rather, the fact that my recollections of the Leviathan, post-Barrigan, made me think that they weren’t so too far removed from royalty themselves. I mean, there were a lot less material trappings, but it suddenly seemed a lot more important that the Leviathan was Strong™ and stood guard over the only water in the whole desert… world… thing.

It’s important, Grimmjow agreed. He then ruined it by continuing with, But the kind of… unspoken important. Like the sun and the moon.

I closed my eyes and made a silent plea for mercy or patience or, honestly, just a quick fucking break from all of everything.

Please, I begged, despairingly. Please do not tell me that the Leviathan is the sea.

That was, non-metaphorically, the absolute last thing I needed: the possibility that I had looked the anthropormorphization of the ocean dead in the eye and then told it to fuck off.

No, Grimmjow answered, rolling our eyes. He paused, thought about it again in a rush of

well, actually’

and ‘kinda like a sea serpent and yeah’

and ‘of course it’s gonna seem that way if you keep thinking about greek tragedies or whatever’

and then roughly amended: Probably not.

Okay, so I might’ve told the ocean to fuck off. And now I was going to ask for favors.

Forethought might not be our strongest point, I admitted.

Ya think?

“Um, Grimmjow,” Nakeem said, pulling the two of us from our thoughts. He was speaking with the very careful voice of someone who was about to ask you to stand very, very still because there was a very, very large insect alarmingly close to your person.

No monster spiders, no fucking monster spiders, I almost said, before I realized that Nakeem wasn’t actually looking at me. None of them were looking at me; they were looking behind me, and up. Way, way up.

“Godsdamnit,” the mouth grumbled. We turned around, scowl already in place. “I very explicitly did not want to see you.”

“SUCH HURTFUL WORDS, LITTLE THIEF,” the Scorpion King boomed, a lot more jovially and a lot less murderously than our previous encounter.

“For the last time, there is literally nothing worth stealing in this shithole desert—”

“CALM, FRIEND,” the Scorpion King rumbled, enormous hands held out in a placating gesture. Xe also chuckled, because apparently xe recalled the whole “nearly murdering me with xir enormous fists” thing with a lot more fondness than I did. “THE LEVIATHAN HAS VOUCHED FOR YOU. YOU AND YOUR SYSTEM ARE WELCOMED.”

Another mental note: figure out what the fuck sistemas and orbitadores had to do with anything.

Speaking of the Leviathan, though…

“Yeah,” I nodded with bared teeth that would hopefully be taken as a faint smile. “Where is the Leviathan, my good ol’ buddy, ol’ pal?”

Eduardo, quite familiar with that particular tone of voice, made a strangled noise of alarm.

“CONTINUE EAST,” xe pointed. “THE LEVIATHAN AWAITS.”


The Leviathan was, in fact, awaiting. Which certainly made it a lot easier on my end to launch myself head-first forward into their bulk and send the both of us plowing backwards through the nearest dune in an explosion of sand and the sound of rock-scraping-rock, carapace-on-carapace.

There was a lot of angry screaming and panicked shouting and flared energy in the background, but I was too busy digging my claws into the thin crevices between Leviathan’s thick, nigh impenetrable scales and shouting into their stupid, scaly face, “YOU COULDN’T HAVE JUST SAID THERE WAS A GIANT FUCKING SANDSTORM?”

(Or that the giant fucking sandstorm was actually some kind of gate, I very purposefully, pointedly didn’t ask. I’d like to think that if they’d known that little tidbit, they’d’ve told me.

Maybe it was naivety, extending even that minuscule bit of trust in someone else, but… if I couldn’t trust the Leviathan, who the fuck was left?

Barrigan? Nakeem or Xiaolong? Ha. HA.

If I didn't—couldn't—trust the Leviathan, then I couldn't trust anyone. No one. No one at all.

Which was… horrible? Extremely disheartening? Not a revelation I wanted to dwell on in particular? How had things gotten to this point.)

The Leviathan, looking no more ruffled than usual, gave a full body ripple-twist-shiver that forced me to disengage and spring backwards to avoid being flung away. Slyly, they replied, “Well, there's no fun in that, is there?”

Better than Barrigan, I’d thought. Better than Weird Hoyo Court.

“You are such an asshole,” I ground out, reminding myself that this asshole was (had to be) the better choice.

“Takes one to know one, darling.”

“… That’s fair,” I conceded, but not without a scowl. It was easy to think of the Leviathan as the lesser of two chaotic evils when I didn’t have to actually have to put up with their cryptic bullshit in person.

(How, oh how, had I forgotten about the cryptic bullshit?)

“You’re looking quite a bit more settled since we last spoke,” was the next thing the Leviathan said, with an overly casual air that immediately both caught my attention and incited my ever-growing sense of paranoia. “Did you happen to find your name?”

Record scratch. Freeze frame. Rewind the fucking tapes—

“Find my name.” My voice—our voice, a voice—came out flat.

“Yes?”

“That's a thing,” I clarified, voice still flat and deceptively even. “Finding names.”

“Well, we don't just come out of the ether with grandiose names, you know,” the hoyo known as The Leviathan replied, without any hint of irony whatsoever.

“And it never occurred to you to maybe… mention that?”

I got the reptilian equivalent of a guileless look in return. I don't even know why I bothered; the Leviathan clearly got their rocks off on frustrating the hell out of me while pretending to be helpful.

Case in point:

So,” they repeated after a pause, like that completely and total lack of explanation merited anything. “Did you find your name?”

“I hope you fall off a cliff.” We smiled beatifically, baring as many sharp teeth as possible. “Name’s Grimmjow Jaegerjaques.”

The Leviathan slithered closer, close enough that it would’ve been crowding or an intimidation attempt from anyone else, head listing from side to side. “How… fitting.”

Oh, what the fuck did that even mean. Grimmjow was a stupid name—

Hey.

It was, because it made next to no sense in a vast desert otherworld where the lingua franca was Spanish. And Jaegerjaques was some kind of… maligned Gallic-Germanic monstrosity, at best.

Hey.

You gotta face the truth sometime.

How the hell did this become my fault?

“And you?” We demanded, the both of us annoyed—at the Leviathan, at each other, at the desert for being what it was, and really, at existence itself—now.

The Leviathan gave me a look that very explicitly stated that I wasn’t supposed to know that they had a Name.

Which, for the record, I hadn't. I'd totally been bluffing. In my defense though, not only am I incredibly petty, but ‘the Leviathan’ was obviously more of a title than a name.

“Doña Maribén.” She—the Leviathan—answered after a lengthy silence.

Maribén. As in… death.

As in a really weird, incredibly specific argot for death that most people would just dismiss as a peculiar rendering of Maribel.

Yeah, no, that sounded about right.

“Mari,” I said, immediately making the executive decision to only ever address her by an overly-familiar nickname, just to watch her face scrunch up like a toddler eating a lemon.

Must you?” She asked, but her voice said she was already resigned to the fact that, at the very least, if I did not must (mustn’t?), then I was sure as hell going to anyway. The hell if I was calling anybody doña anything. If questioned, I was claiming a tragic allergy to any kind of standing formality: Xiaolong, with his ‘Usted’ this and ‘Don’ that, was constantly on thin fucking ice.

“Oh, I absolutely must,” I insisted, putting on a wide-eyed mien of complete and total earnestness. Turnabout is fair goddamn play.

Mari sighed, but didn't protest further. After a moment, apparently recovered and moving past it, she drawled: “I trust you didn't come all this way just to yell about a little sandstorm?”

“A little—”

“Well, you got rid of it, didn't you?”

I hated it when the Leviathan made sense. I hated it when the Leviathan implied that she knew what I’d been up to. I could've said that I hated the Leviathan, period point blank, but in comparison to Barrigan, the Leviathan and I were pretty much the best of friends. Like, full on Freddie Mercury ooh, you make me live.

… On second thought, that song was a little too accurate for comfort.

Ugh, feelings. Quick! Subject change:

“Whatever, fuck you, I need your sheddings.”

The Leviathan blinked, which was more like a flicker of secondary eyelid and a surprised warble of energy.

Nailed it.

“I can't decide whether or not I should ask.”

“Fuck off, you're the biggest snake in this whole fucking desert, probably, and snakeskin is the closest I'll ever get to paper.”

The things I would do for a roll of fucking papyrus, let alone some fiber and a sieve. I’d make my own damn paper if I had to.

“… I still don't know if I want to ask.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I sighed, rolling my eyes and wishing I had arms that I could throw up in dramatic exasperation. Why was this—talking to other people, talking to people I couldn’t afford to piss off too badly, being a giant cat monster in a shitty desert otherworld that forced me into these circumstances to begin with—so complicated?

“I’m going to make a map,” I said slowly, hating that I even had to explain this because it was so obvious. “And to make a map, I need paper.”

And some kind of pen, or ink, dyes or something, but you know. Baby steps.

“A map of the desert? Why?”

“Because Skeletor kicked me out of his shitty castle and I refuse to believe that his crumbling city of ruins is the only city in this whole entire dimension.”

The Leviathan—no, wait, Mari, which would obviously take some getting used to—parted her jaws, paused for exactly fifteen seconds, ultimately said nothing, and then sighed.

“I still don't entirely understand, but I rarely do when it comes to you, so I shouldn't be surprised.”

Before I could say anything to that—namely, FUCK YOU—she slithered off towards the dune we'd come crashing through and called back over her shoulder, “There's should be some over there, you can have your pick.”


“Oh,” I said once we breached the top of the dune. It looked like Nakeem, Xiaolong and Eduardo had summarily gotten their asses handed to them, but Il Forte was sitting on at least three of the Leviathan’s cronies and Di Roy was lobbing boulders from the sky.

“Girls,” Levith—no, damnit, Mari, said chidingly, “That's quite enough.”

The minions pinning down Nakeem, Xiaolong and Eduardo stepped back, with clear looks of you lucky she holdin’ me back.

I just want to acknowledge that the mere idea—and bonus visual proof—of Nakeem and Xiaolong getting their shit stomped was a wondrous, glorious thought-feeling. Very warm, much fuzzy, highly appreciated.

Mari nudged me, which was more like a solid thwack of her tail to my back legs.

Right. Also, ow.

“Yo, Il Forte,” I called. “You can let ‘em up. Di Roy, stop bein’ a little shit.”

“Interesting leadership style,” Mari murmured to me, sotto-voice.

“I have never been the leader of a single thing once in my entre goddamn life,” Grimmjow and I replied, deadpan. The five of them only listened to me because I’d proven time and again that I wasn’t above bodily harm, and the six (seven) of us were only in the situation to begin with because they’d gone and got the dumbass idea in their dumbass heads to try and eat us. It didn’t count as leading so much as being followed half against my will, I was pretty sure.

Il Forte slowly pulled himself upright and no less than six harried-looking monsters scrambled out from beneath his bulk, shaking and wide-eyed and looking more than a little traumatized.

Way to go, Il Forte.

Di Roy descended from the sky with a graceful flutter of wings, landing on one of Il Forte’s shoulder spines as though he still didn't have a small boulder held in his beak. I thought about telling him to drop it, but the resulting whining would be such a pain

In the meantime, unaware of our internal debate, Mari had moved to the center of the group, giant reptilian head towering over everyone except Il Forte.

“Girls,” she said, in a voice that was a strange kind of mix of helicopter mom and cheerleading coach, that immediately caught the attention of every single one of her little cronies.

“I just wanted to let you know that I’ve finalized the alliance between myself and Grimmjow.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa. The what now?

What did she mean finalized?

I’m pretty sure you can’t form an alliance without even mentioning it? I wanted to shout, but didn’t. Grimmjow wanted to shout, too, though far less polite things. Not that I could or would blame him, because seriously, when had we decided that an alliance was even on the table.

Mari, of course, was ignoring our look of wide-eyed panic, and our internal screaming, and the fact that we clearly had no fucking clue what she was talking about, because it was all bullshit. Regally, she continued, “As such, this makes us all a part of the same binary system.”

Like. Like a star system. Like fucking binary suns?

I wanted to grab Mari by the shoulders—no, pause, snakes don’t even have shoulders. I wanted to grab her by the girth of her giant fucking head and scream into her face, because somehow, every time she opened her mouth, I wound up with more questions than answers, and also a big ass spike in blood pressure.

What the absolute fuck are you talking about, I very aggressively did not shout, but the thought-feeling had to have reached out and slapped Mari upside the head, because she turned just enough to flash me an enormous fang-filled shit-eating grin.

“Grimmjow?” She asked, voice polite and calm, as though any single thing about any part of this conversation was supposed to make sense to us. “Could you please introduce your orbiters?”

Well, if Mari and I were binary stars… or rather, if strong hoyo were like larger stars, the ones dense enough to have their own gravitational pulls… the idea of orbiters made more sense. Planets and asteroids pulled into a circuit—pulled in, because it’s not like suns stopped and asked first—clustered together and hovering around power.

So the other five were following us for obscure hoyo reasons. Was proximity supposed to be some kind of mutually beneficial symbiosis?

I mean, I’d done that… whatever it had been, back at Weird Hoyo Court. Shoring up, one could say, pooling mine and not-mine into something that had been not-not-mine, a dense pool of energy that smeared the boundaries between bodies and energy and what belonged to who.

Made sense. I hated it.

One question answered, approximately eight dozen newly formed.

“Nakeem is the dinosaur, Xiaolong is the big ass bug, Eduardo’s the monkey, Di Roy’s the bird and I have no fucking clue what Il Forte is,” the mouth said, inflectionless.

There was a silence. One of Mari’s minions looked physically pained. It had been, admittedly, a shitty introduction. But hey, shit introductions for shit situations, right?

“Pleased to meet you,” Mari offered into the silence. Apparently she was going to keep that regal composure come hell or high water. Or in this case, my complete lack of comprehension and unwillingness to cooperate.

“You as well,” the five of them—my actual fucking cronies, because we were apparently some metaphorical abstraction of a galaxy—replied, rote and awkward. Di Roy finally put down the fucking rock.

“These are my girls: Carcajada, Shan Shan, Nopiltze, Mil Rosas, Encandila, Apache, Cachivaches and Zarigüeya.” Mari paused for a second and then tilted her head. “And, of course, you know Bastión.”

“Uh,” I started to protest, because I definitely did not know anyone named Bastión.

“The Guardian,” Mari supplied, after being subjected to my blank look.

…. Guardian of wha—

“The goddamn Scorpion King?” My mouth said, of its own volition.

Another silence. One of Mari’s orbiters had covered their face in what I assumed was secondhand embarrassment. Man, I was on a roll. Making friends. Influencing people. The works.

“… An apt title,” Mari admitted after a moment. By that point, I was hardly listening, because what was even the point? All I had wanted was some snakeskin so that I could make a shitty map of the shitty desert in peace. Relative peace. Whatever.

But no. Of course not. Now I had another twelve billion questions and a cryptic snake who I knew wasn’t going to answer any of them. Oh! And I was now a part of some bullshit alliance, because obviously my day hadn’t been going terribly enough beforehand, what with being exiled from the only known territory in the entire dimension and all.

It would be fair to say that I was having a moment.

Your whole life is just one unending moment, Grimmjow chuckled.

Guess what I don’t need right now. Go ahead. Guess.

Grimmjow lifted his mental metaphorical hands in surrender, but I could still feel the edges of the laughter he wasn’t vocalizing. Gods, but he was an asshole.

An asshole who just couldn’t leave it alone, because he immediately responded, Yeah, and we’re in this situation because you’re such a saint. I could practically taste the eyeroll.

I will pay you in cold, hard imaginary money if you would just shut the fuck up for like, twelve seconds.

Grimmjow didn’t get the chance to respond. Or well, if he did respond, I ignored it, mostly because I had the belated realization that Mari was still talking.

“–ins for your use,” she was saying, gesturing towards something behind her. That sounded… promising?

“Sure, thanks,” the mouth said.

“I will come help you pick the best pieces, and our orbiters can get to know one another,” Mari added.

I personally felt like it was more likely for them to start fighting again, but I also didn’t care enough to mention it. Mari slithered across the sand towards a strangely curving rock formation and with nothing better to do, I followed.

The rock formation turned out to be some kind of storage cube, essentially some kind of boulder with its insides scooped out. Mari gestured towards it with her head, and I sidled closer and then snuck a look.

Skin. A whole lot of snakeskin.

Thank fuck. At least something was going right, for an extremely abstract given value of “going right”.

It was quick work to pull the skin into roughly square pieces, until I had a little under half a dozen. The map-making thing, like most of my decisions, had been spurious and very off the top of my head, but I seriously doubted that I’d be able to accurately make a map the first time. Grabbing extra “paper” now meant not having to come back anytime soon to get more. I would’ve grabbed more, except for the part where I had nowhere to put them. While the tail and the teeth were fun, not having pockets was starting to become way more of a problem than I ever would’ve imagined.

“Thanks,” we told Mari, because it was polite. We could be polite.

“You’re quite welcome,” Mari smiled, but in a way that instantly made me want to punch her with fists I didn’t even have.

“… Okay, we got our shit, let’s roll,” Grimmjow said, or I said. One of us said, while the other one of us was trying very hard to remember why being polite was a thing, when Mari and her stupid, extremely punchable face were right there.

Nakeem and the other… orbiters, surprisingly, hadn’t started another brawl. In fact, Di Roy was laughing with one that looked vaguely like some kind of hyena, and the rest of them were, if not friendly, then at least not outright hostile.

Our call instantly drew attention.

“We came here for something, Don Grimmjow?” Xiaolong asked, clearly surprised. Which was a little annoying and incredibly audacious of him, because I did think things through before I did them, thank you very fucking much.

I just…. you know, rarely shared my thought process.

Also, fuck him. He and Nakeem had dragged me into medieval court without so much as a by-your-leave. If I wanted to drag him into my mapmaking quest, I damn well would.

“Yeah, had to pick something up. Which I did. So we can leave.” Grimmjow paused. “Now.”

“Are we—”

“As in now-now.”

We left.


Ha, I fucking wish.

Nothing goes my way, and also I’m a fucking moron, because we were barely minutes away from the Still, not even yet to the Scorpion King when my brain—my horrible, terrible brain—did a thing.

Much like the revelation that I was some fantasy creature gone wrong in a fictional desert limbo, I would’ve much rather not acknowledged those pervasive thoughts. But, because I learn from my mistakes—usually—I knew that I had to, because avoiding it would only come back to bite me later.

So.

“Uh, hold up,” I began, because if I didn’t say it now, I would probably forget again. Or forcibly ignore that knowledge again. Grimmjow, currently powering the legs with a blind determination that screamed get me the fuck out of here, cautiously slowed the body to a halt. “We gotta talk.”

Grimmjow sighed. “Can I please take a nap first? I am honest-to-fuck exhausted.”

I couldn’t even really blame him; however exhausting I had thought things to be before, it had nothing on banishment and surprise alliances and on top of that, deciding to embrace the art of cartography, like we knew anything—any single thing—about mapmaking.

But still. This was important.

“So, uh, not to ring any alarms,” was what I started with, because phrasing it like that was clearly the least distressing way to go about it. “But this is… a little more serious than I usually bother with.”

Grimmjow, of course, was already echoing with a mild unease, and my admission only made him twitchy. Twitchier.

“And what the hell does any of that mean?”

“Like,” I was stalling. I was definitely, definitely stalling, because there was no real way to say this neatly or cleanly or really, anything other than messily and awkwardly. “I know some stuff.”

“… Some stuff,” Grimmjow repeated dubiously.

Why had I decided to have this conversation out loud again? Oh, right. Because I’m a fucking idiot who constantly put myself into the worst possible situation at any given moment.

“Some important stuff.” I insisted. I could feel the depth of his not-impressed-hurry-up-spit-it-out, even if I couldn't see it. In his defense, most of what came out of my mouth (our mouth) was pure horseshit.

Thing is, I was seriously serious this time. It was, y’know, pretty damn important. But how to convince him of that?

Proof. I needed proof.

Okay, I said-thought, because now I was crossing our own self-imposed lines, and some things really didn’t need to be put out in the open, even if the only ones around to hear it were Nakeem and the rest. I’m breaking our Vegas pact.

Grimmjow’s trepidation only grew, because Vegas pact.

What about Barrigan?

What about Barrigan? Grimmjow asked, going unsaid the obvious ‘besides the fact that fuck him’.

Think about it, I offered entreatingly. It would be better to let him come to conclusions on his own than to just spout what would sound like complete and total bullshit. I totally knew who he was, right? Albeit, not until the minotaur hoyo had named him, but there had nevertheless been a distinct moment of recognition on my part, because—

And then I asked you how likely we were to get our asses kicked.

Grimmjow thought on it for a moment, and then prodded the me-part of our headspace with an annoyance-tinged blade of scrutiny. So what gives?

Like I said, I know some stuff. Names, faces, the terrible ideas some of those names and faces had about world domination or whatever. You know, just general stuff that we would probably want to avoid going forward.

A pause, as he absorbed that.

Okay, so what’s the catch.

If anyone else had asked, I would’ve said what catch? with a sunny smile. Why did there have to be a catch, ha ha ha? Except Grimmjow was me, partly, and in my head, and he knew there was a catch, because why else would I bring it up?

The catch is that this stuff miiiight not be as accurate as I thought. Which was still an enormous pain in my ass. I’m really only bringing it up cuz most of it should still be… relatively helpful?

A disbelieving silence.

Oh, fuck you, I snapped. I figured we should tell the others and make sure we all stay in nice, un-shinigamified pieces.

I'm sorry, Grimmjow interrupted blandly, a wealth of strained patience in his voice. But what the fuck is shinigamification.


So we were going back to the Still. And we were arguing. And by we, I mean Grimmjow and me. It was almost nostalgic, reminiscent of those first days-weeks where we spent most of our time trying to metaphorically or spiritually smother each other to death.

I will say this; I’m glad we had at least gotten motor skills down to unconscious muscle memory, because neither of us were fit to be driving a body.

And you knew this whole time?!

Well, I broadcast the thought pointedly. It had kinda become background noise after the decades (centuries) long realization that not only had I gotten my body stolen, but my consciousness had been shoved into some surreal monster-cat body that was already occupied.

Wait, Grimmjow gave the mental impression of blinking without blinking our actual eyes. Is that why you freaked out when Nakeem asked for our name?

More like there are only so many possible realities for a group of individuals named Eduardo, Nakeem, Xiaolong, Di Roy and Il Forte to exist in the same place and the same time and I didn't want anything to do with a single one of them.

“Gods, this is such a clusterfuck.”

Which is why I said something—

It's been like eight hundred years!

“Well, it wasn't super relevant until his royal fucking highness Barrigan tried to smother us out of existence, now was it?” I snapped.

Grimmjow sighed, the kind of noise that would normally be accompanied by someone pinching the brow of their nose to stave off a headache. Except our paw-hands didn't work that way, and the bridge of our nose probably didn't either.

“If I may interrupt,” Mari cut in smoothly. “Why tell us now?”

She, after sending the orbitadores off so the Adults Could Talk, had been watching the two of us arguing with ourselves, sometimes out loud and sometimes not. The orbitadores, who might as well have been pre-schoolers for how well they listened, were surreptitiously not making eye contact with anyone as they all peered over the nearest sand dune to eavesdrop.

“Because,” I answered for what might’ve been the fifth time but felt like the thousandth. “A bunch of shinigami fuckheads are probably gonna start snooping around, and you all need to avoid them at all fucking costs.”

“What would a shinigami want with a buncha hoyo?” Eduardo asked one of Mari’s orbitadores, almost at a whisper.

“The egoistic butterfly one wants to make an army.” Di Roy, surprisingly, had gotten it the first time I'd explained and had spent the interim splayed across Il Forte’s skull and staring up at the sky in what I assumed was either boredom or the midst of an existential crisis.

“And that's bad,” Di Roy continued, before Eduardo could say anything else, “Cuz he wants to rip parts of us off to do it.”

“Which,” Grimmjow and I cut in pointedly, “goes against pretty much everything we know about being hoyo.”

Hoyo sometimes shed parts as they evolved or lost pieces in fights, but ripping away entire swaths of an hoyo’s carapace would be nothing short of torture. It was sounding more like Aizen used (would use? was going to use?) the hougyouku to force an hoyo into the shape of a shinigami and then, uh, try to… peel off the outer hoyo like the shell of a boiled egg. Yes, I know, it was an ugly metaphor that painted an even uglier picture and it was just. So much worse than I'd assumed canon to be.

I had already decided that I didn't want anything to do with the Plot™ but now that I had a ham-fisted way of fitting the events of the manga into what I understood about Hueco Mundo as I'd lived it, now there was no way in hell I wanted to be anywhere near that shit.

“So this is a warning?” Mari asked. For once, she was the one out of the loop and because I am an honest person, I will readily admit that it was extremely fulfilling to watch her ask questions and get answers she didn’t understand. But this was crucial, a lot more important than a little bit of (entirely earned) schadenfreude.

“A warning and a favor, I guess,” I said. “I’m not trying to scare you or anything, but just. If you see any shinigami, just run. It doesn’t matter if you could fight them and win. Just run.”

Mari considered me for a moment, as though trying to measure the honesty of my words. Mari and her… system constituted like 70% of the people I knew in this desert hell and I would actually care if they got caught up in the Plot™.

“I do wonder how you know this.” Was all she said in the end, which I assumed meant she was at least taking it seriously.

“I dunno,” I lied without pause. “Maybe I was a shinigami before I died? Maybe I managed to eat somebody that ate somebody that at a shinigami? Maybe I’m clairvoyant? I don’t wanna risk it, either way.”

Mari hummed, but didn’t say anything else.

“Look,” I spoke at last. I couldn’t make anybody believe me, and it wasn’t like Mari and I were close, or anything. She didn’t have a reason to take my word as bond. “Just. Ugh. Be careful.”

I would’ve said more, maybe, except I couldn’t think of anything else. And also, Mari shoved her gargantuan reptile head right in my face, out of nowhere, and I barely managed to channel that alarm into leaning back rather than the completely reactive response to slamming the flat of my paw into her jaw.

I could completely empathize with cats that smacked the shit out of whatever they didn’t understand. Christ.

“Why Grimmjow,” Mari purred, before I could even ask why the hell she was so close to me. There was nothing good for me in that self-satisfied tone. “All you had to say was that you cared!”

My thoughts stalled.

Wow. Grimmjow was laughing. I can’t believe she just fuckin’ murdered you.

“Shut up,” I said, and no, that was definitely not panic in my voice. Nope. I don’t even know which one of them I was talking to.

“Shut up, fuck you, shut up, shut the fuck up,” I kept repeating, not making eye contact with anyone or anything, especially not the wide and smug grin on a certain snake’s face, and definitely doing my utmost to strangle the writhing something that I was not feeling because no, shut up, fuck you—

We were leaving, I decided. We were leaving and never coming back and definitely never going to look anyone in the eye ever again, and wow, I guess I had to fake my own death and leave the country, except no, wait. Desert hellscape otherworld. Damnit.

Grimmjow, ever unhelpful, was laughing so hard that he started choking. Which fucking served him right.

“Honestly, fuck all y’all,” I said, to nothing and everything.


We were something like two or three Earth days away from the Still when the ground started trembling.

“Oh, I do not like that,” the mouth said, even as our weight shifted to keep our balance.

“Di Roy, can you—?” Xiaolong didn’t even need to finish the question before Di Roy was launching himself into the sky, presumably to see what the hell was happening. I admittedly knew very little about deserts, but the idea that you could have all that arid land and dry heat and earthquakes in the same place was just…. monumentally unfair.

Di Roy returned in a hurry, kicking up a dense cloud of sand as he landed roughly.

“It’s a herd,” he panted, wide-eyed. “We gotta go!”

Those words clearly meant something to the others, because none of them hesitated. Within seconds we were all running, for a reason that no one had seen fit to fucking explain.

“So,” I kept my voice level, because yelling and running at the same time was a horrible, stamina-sapping decision to make. “What are we running from again?”

That!” Eduardo screamed, gesturing to something behind us.

I craned my neck around, trusting Grimmjow to keep running and—

No, yeah, I can see why we would need to run from that.

It was a herd of hoyo. Did it count as a herd if none of the creatures within the herd were the same thing?

Probably not the time for semantics, I thought.

More pressing, it was a herd of hoyo that was headed straight for us. The herd was so wide that it looked like the horizon itself was moving.

“What are those?” I shouted over the deafening roar of stampeding hooves and paws and other assorted appendages.

“Pillines!” Di Roy shouted back. He was perched on Il Forte’s back, presumably because it was better if we stuck together. “Need to get to higher ground!”

Pillines? Imps? Weren’t imps supposed to be like tiny little devils or something?

There wasn’t really ‘higher ground’. No conveniently located cliffs or even rock formations. Just dunes of varying height.

I really didn’t like the idea of being trampled to death. Like, of all the shit I’d had to put up with, getting trampled to death would definitely make me bitter enough to haunt the ever-loving fuck out of this whole desert.

Before I could voice that thought—because if I did get trampled to death, I would most definitely start my haunting with these five—there was a noise from behind us.

Nakeem was the first to stop, abruptly and without warning, which meant that Eduardo went stumbling over his back and Xiaolong barely managed not to decapitate him. Il Forte, the only one who had any sense, slowed his pace and then came to a stop near the others. I, like Di Roy, had found a place on Il Forte’s massive back, leaping up there more or less the instant that noise—whatever it had been—reached my ears.

It had been a terrible kind of grinding sound, like glass being dragged across a bed of nails.

… Or the sound of thousands upon thousands of feet and feet-like things making a sharp turn.

We turned around and surely enough, the herd had made an absurdly sharp left turn and was now running at what seemed to me like a 45° angle. The pillines continued to stampede, shaking the ground with the weight of their sheer numbers.

“I’m pretty sure those aren’t… imps,” I muttered.

“We call them pillines because they mob like that,” Xiaolong explained. “While a dozen or so don’t pose any threat, a herd like that could easily run a stronger hoyo down through sheer persistence.”

So it did count as a herd. Wait, no, focus on the more pertinent information:

“So they’re Compies?” What the hell. That comment about there being no dinosaurs in this bizarre (After?)life was really coming back to bite me in the ass, and I can’t say I was enjoying it.

“… Compies?”

After a quick and dirty rundown on Compies, and Jurassic Park, and the very concept of dinosaurs, Nakeem explained that pillines were more or less roaming scavengers. There was some kind of hivemind going on there, although no one knew how or why. Apparently, they were fairly common outside of El Remanso (and the Still), mostly due to the fact that everything outside of El Remanso was considered Badlands territory. The lawless, sprawling desert that more accurately reflected the dog-eat-dog (or rather, hoyo-eat-hoyo) system that aligned with my dwindling recollection of Bleach canon.

“There is a food chain,” Nakeem explained. “It’s just not very cut and dry.”

“What,” Grimmjow drawled sarcastically. “Pillines at the bottom and assholes like Barrigan and Leviathan at the top?”

“… Actually, yes.”

Oh, goddamnit.

“Wait, so everything else is just nebulous middle ground?”

“More or less.”

“How the hell are you supposed to get from one end to the other, then?”

“No one knows, not concretely. That's why it's so… hard. Anyone could ascend and there's no way to tell until it happens. Or doesn't happen, as it were.”

“Oh, that is such bullshit.”

“I mean, I'm gonna be strong as shit,” I interrupted myself, because the hell if I wasn't. “But still. Bullshit.”

“If anyone could do it, it would be you, Don Grimmjow.” The only reason I didn't call Xiaolong out for being a sarcastic shithead is that I was almost completely certain that he didn't know what sarcasm was.

“How many times do I gotta tell you to cut that shit out?” Even Grimmjow was over the ass-kissing. Having minions, as he put it, would be a lot more fun with a lot more violence and a lot less talking.

Talking, as I always rebutted, was the only goddamn way we got any information, even if some informants deserved a punch or two.

I desperately missed having thumbs. Don't get me wrong, having a bladed tail and claws and impeccable balance was amazing, but fuck if I didn't just wanna punch Xiaolong and Nakeem sometimes. Right in the… vague approximation of their mouths.

Ugh. Whatever.

“So what now?” I asked. The herd was still going strong, an endless stream of hoyo barreling towards us and then making the same sharp, precise turn as those that had come before them. Were they like ants, I wondered. Following some kind of chemical trail or something?

No one answered for a moment. Finally, Nakeem sighed.

“We’ll have to continue this way,” he said. “It’s too risky to try and skirt around the edges of the herd.”

“Gotcha,” I replied. While Nakeem and Xiaolong conferred over what might’ve set the herd off like that, I remained crouched on Il Forte. With a steady hand, I traced a claw lightly over the snakeskin map. It was still pretty bare, but I had the Still in the center and a vague approximation of the pillines’ path. Grimmjow was only vaguely certain that we had been chased west-ish, but I scribbled a compass in the corner anyway, because fuck it.

We kept moving forward at an even clip, until the pillines were far, far behind us.

“I’ve never been this far west,” Il Forte commented at some point, his voice a rumble beneath my feet.

Ha, so we were going west. I made a note on the map.

“How come?” Grimmjow asked with an idle curiosity. The five of them seemed well-travelled. Or, we had assumed they were because otherwise it meant they had managed to lure out and eat a couple dozen hoyo right within El Remanso’s walls.

Which… Barrigan was probably a shit king anyway, so that was actually kinda plausible.

“No one knows what’s out here,” Di Roy shrugged. He had gone from sitting on Il Forte to sitting on me, talons clasped gentle around the curve of my tail-blade like a canary on a goddamn perch.

“The Crystal Forest is supposed to be the furthest thing west,” Eduardo offered, as though those words meant anything to me at all. “But there’s also supposed to be mountains, I think.”

“I woke up near some mountains,” Grimmjow said. I hadn’t really thought about it since, but the mountains and cliffs and all suggested that Hueco Mundo was less of a desert and more of a desert region. That gave me a little more confidence, because if they could terraform fucking Tatooine, then a whole desert ecology with valleys and canyons and at least one source of water was fertile land in comparison. And hoyo were considerably tougher and better suited to survival, given that our only natural predators were each other.

“Yeah,” Eduardo nodded. “The mountains are supposed to stretch from one end to the other, but I don’t know anyone who’s ever tried to walk it.”

I could only imagine what kinds of hoyo had decided to make their permanent residence a bunch of very tall, extremely pointy rocks. I also did not want to find out if my guess was true or not.

“There’s a lot of Hueco Mundo that’s just nothing,” Di Roy added. I couldn’t tell if he was upset about that or not.

“Well,” Grimmjow started to say, but then something moved in our periphery and we turned to look and—

“Uh, there’s at least one something,” I said, pointing.


It was—and I’m being very generous here—a town. A village. Was there anything smaller than a village?

There were structures that looked like houses, kind of. If you tilted your head and squinted. I couldn’t even say what they were made of, other than it was something that looked potentially bio-hazardous.

Someone had placed big rocks around the outer—again, being extremely generous—perimeter.

Nakeem looked stunned.

“I can’t….. there are other settlements,” he murmured. He’d probably meant to say it to himself, but I heard it and I almost wanted to throw Di Roy at him. Had he spent this whole time not believing me? What a dickhead.

Just as we approached the—I guess it was supposed to be a gate? Some kind of border demarcation. Whatever.

Just as we approached the town, there was a BOOM like a cannon going off.

Four seconds later, one of the rocks exploded into tiny, flying shards as it was hit with a cannonball. So I guess it would be better to say that there was a BOOM because an actual fucking cannon had gone off.

“How the fuck,” I asked, directing the question to no one in particular.

“Hey!” There was someone running towards us, looking frantic rather than aggressive.

“Oh jeez, are you okay?”

It was a kiwi. Like. The bird.

Well, it was also an hoyo, so it was like a kiwi if kiwi were normally the size of an extremely well-fed Kodiak bear. Which isn’t even getting into all the eyes, or the fact that its feet were more like scaly dragon hands. I only say dragon because, you know, of the fire that swirled from its beak when it spoke.

“Hi,” we said. Manners. First impressions. Yadda yadda. “You shot a cannonball at us.”

“No!” The kiwi shook its head so fast that I’m surprised it didn’t snap its own neck. “Tuertuga was just practicing for tonight—”

Grimmjow and I cut the kiwi off.

“You have a cannon. You have a cannon manned by a cyclopic turtle.”

The kiwi shrugged as if to say, What can you do?

Not let one-eyed diapsids handle heavy artillery for one.

“What’s tonight?” Eduardo asked, because apparently I was the only one concerned about the fact that this hovel in the middle of absolutely fucking nowhere had the means to operate a cannon.

“It’s Velanoches!”

Candle Nights.

Of course it was.

Or wasn’t, because Eduardo looked up at Il Forte and asked, “Is it?”

Il Forte shrugged.

How did hoyo even keep up with holidays if there weren’t calendars. Or a reliable method of keeping time.

The things I would do for a watch.

“It’s Velanoches here,” the kiwi clarified, without actually clarifying anything.

I, per usual, was overthinking. Were there timezones in Hueco Mundo? I hoped not, because not only were timezones stupid, but that also implied that Hueco Mundo had a breadth that I probably wasn’t going to be able to cover on foot. We still didn’t know how the day-night cycle worked except that the moon went through the phases that I expected it to, even if both sun and moon shone for obscenely long times. And the fact that Velanoches was a thing made me wonder what else there was. How long was a Hueco Mundo month? How long was a Hueco Mundo year? Did they even divide time up that way? How long had I been here?

“Where is here, exactly?” Grimmjow asked while at the same time doing the mental equivalent of sitting on top of me.

“This is Tajamar!”

… I had no idea what that meant. There was obviously mar in there, so something-sea. Which was… dumb, considering that this very much wasn’t the Still—

“We’re the closest settlement to the Still!” The kiwi added, with suspicious timing. “Most folks come through us on their way there. So we’re kinda like the dam holding back the water, y’know?”

So the town was literally called Dam. Or Levee. Or whatever. Cute.

“Why settle out here, though?” I thought it was a fairly diplomatic way of not saying that the whole place looked like hell. El Remanso had its (former) Gatekeeper and the Still had its Guardian, but this little hovel of a village was exposed to the elements and had nothing going for it. Except for the cannons, but even that wasn’t exactly a stalwart defense.

Weren’t you supposed to settle in defensible locations? Wasn’t that a thing?

Eh, the hell did I know about building towns from nothing.

“We’re close enough to the Still that we can get some of the residual tide on a good day, but still well out of Doña Leviathan’s territory.”

Residual tide? The water didn’t move.

Before we got the chance to question that—whatever it was, it was probably important, which immediately explained why no one was bothering to fucking tell me—the entirety of Tajamar exploded.

In my defense, that’s totally what I thought happened.

There was suddenly people where there hadn’t been before. A lot of people. Way more than I would’ve thought fit in such a small space. Entirely too many people, if I’m being honest.

Whatever Velanoches meant here, it was a party. A festival. A shindig. It was something, hoyo in the streets dancing or fighting or just loitering around, shrieking and roaring and bellowing so loud that it was almost white noise. But even all that wasn’t enough to overpower the unwelcome sound of cannons continuously firing who-knows-what out into the dark nothing of the desert.

When had my life become the fucking 1812 Overture.

“C’MON,” the kiwi-shaped hoyo beckoned me. At least, I think that’s what they were saying. I couldn’t even hear myself think, let alone the words of someone else.

“WHERE,” we yelled back.

“—O SEE—THE—EE——!”

What.

“WHAT?”

“—EE——!”

Gods, what was this, fucking Wheel of Fortune?

As far as Grimmjow and I could piece together, we were going to see someone about—I squinted. Something something bees? Was that sheep or bees? Why were the words for sheep and bee so fucking similar. Fucking Spanish.

Whatever. It meant being not here, in a throng of way-too-many-people-please-leave-please-let-me-leave. I’d take it.

“Please be sheep, please be sheep,” I murmured as we followed the kiwi through the dense crowd of hoyo, towards the outskirts. I very much did not want to encounter anything with a stinger that was as big as I was, if not larger. Xiaolong was already bad enough.

The outer edge of town was basically just a circle of rocks curving around all the buildings. The very last building, set so near the rocks that it could hardly be considered a part of the community, was more of a lean-to. A shack. I still didn’t know what they were made of. It still looked like toxic waste.

Before we could reach it, the door—one of those 70s beaded door things, only made of… huh. Only made of bones—opened and out stepped…

… It certainly was an ee.

I think those were bee legs? A kind of sheep-like body, if sheep had six legs and thoraces and antenna. There was wool, I think. Made of bone, which…. Hmm. Also black and yellow stripes or close enough to stripes.

Yeah, I got nothing.

“Greetings,” the hoyo said. It had a sheep mouth under a pair of mandibles.

“… Hi,” the mouth responded. I was staring. Grimmjow was staring.

“I am Bejera, the current head of Tajamar.” One… leg? arm? lifted into an awkward vertical wave. “Please, you must join us in our celebrations tonight!”

I looked at the kiwi—whose name I probably should’ve asked for by now—and then back to the.... Back at Bejera. I thought about the fact that despite not knowing exactly where we were, I had proven that El Remanso was not the only sign of civilization in Hueco Mundo. There had to be more, then. I thought about the fact that there was at least one cannon in the immediate vecinity. I very pointedly did not think about the similarities between the words ‘beekeeper’ and ‘sheep herder’.

We could take a break. We can do that, right?

I am all for not having to think for the next 24 hours.

“It’d be my pleasure,” we said with a grin.


I was... not having a good time of it. I wanted to punch Di Roy in the face. I wanted to hold the blade of my tail just so, to Eduardo’s neck. I wanted to take Il Forte to pieces. I wanted to slam Xiaolong and Nakeem’s face into the broad side of a cliff until they crumbled away. I stared up at the sky and traced the curve of the moon with my eyes and tried to remember how to breathe.

Hoyo didn’t need to sleep, but we did rest every now and again. It took but a moment for me to slink out of the camp, walking a wide circuit around the others.

Grimmjow, half-asleep, made a wordless noise of confusion.

Go back to sleep, I almost said. Wanted to say. What came out instead was, “We need to be somewhere else.”

Somewhere else like where? Came the pointed response. Part of the reason that we were even out this far into the endless… wherever we were was exactly because we didn’t know where anything was.

I took a breath. Steady. Another one. Unclenched our jaw.

“Okay, somewhere not here.”

He was awake now, and I hated it. I hated, hated, hated

“What the fuck is going on,” Grimmjow demanded. It wasn’t a question. I could feel the ache in the back of our jaw, and I wanted to take his stupid face and bite until bone cracked and blood spilled and shard of marrow rained—

Except I couldn’t because his stupid face was my stupid face.

A breath. Clarity. Calm. For now.

There wasn’t a neat answer. I didn’t even know that I knew the answer. But I knew that my brain was overstimulated and needed a moment to recuperate from the drain of constantly being around people I didn’t even necessarily like, and right now, because my brain’s proposed solution for dealing with said stimuli was to annihilate it with both a tight fury and an even-handed cold precision. And for all that I didn’t particularly like Eduardo and the others, I knew that if I were thinking clearly, I didn’t want to dissemble them into fine particles, either.

Grimmjow quietly nudged me to the side and the body continued forward, first at a walk and then, before I knew it, so fast that the desert around us blurred into smears of sand-color and sky-color.

The itch in my veins, the tension in my jaw both lessened. The body inhaled deep and I no longer felt like I was going to claw my way out of my own skin, bloodied and furious.

When we eventually stopped, it was in the midst of countless rock formations; that looked like the edge of a valley in the distance, buttes and strangely shaped rocks reaching up towards the sky.

It was nice to see something besides dunes.

Grimmjow, thankfully, did not ask if I was okay.

We found a rock that spread out and up like a flower and hunkered low beneath it. The body curled up. The head lowered to rest on our paws. Slowly, with deep breaths, our eyelids slid low.


We stayed. For a while. Long enough for the sun to rise more than once, anyway. We wound through spires and stone spikes and trawled through the valley and breathed.

Being alone for once, away from the others for the first time for what felt like an eternity, was odd, I decided. Not bad, but definitely odd. I was so used to having some part of my attention preoccupied by Di Roy’s bad jokes or Nakeem and Xiaolong nagging that silence and stillness was practically foreign.

Definitely something I planned on getting used to, though.

Grimmjow readily agreed, to my slight surprise. But then I remembered that in lieu of the others, he now had free rein to bug the shit out of me.

“Don’t put it like that,” he grumbled, pulling the body into a stretch. The carapace click-click-clicked as plates lifted and then resettled along our spine. Gods, but our weird monster body was cool as hell.

“So you admit that you just wanna bug me,” I drawled, flexing our hands. Claws in, claws out. Digits that were steadily growing longer and more finger-like. Phalangic? Fingery.

Our shoulders shrugged, which they weren’t exactly configured to do. More clicking from the carapace.

“Even you have to admit that we haven’t really talked,” he said, and he wasn’t wrong. Or, well, I could argue that he was totally wrong, because we’d spent an indeterminate amount of time trying to spirit-murder each another, baring both convictions and fangs until we’d come to an agreement on how to cohabit the same body.

… Or I could be an adult about this and concede to his point that for all the time I’d spent doing nothing, and then all the subsequent time we’d both spent doing what amounted to nothing, we really hadn’t had the chance to… get to know one another.

Which was stupid! Because we were in each other’s heads, and we could dip into each other’s thoughts and we were inhabiting the same fucking body and I knew that he wanted to be strong and he knew that I just wanted to be left alone and we both knew that we had to be strong enough to earn that kind of solitude, and I liked the hunt but he preferred the chase and we both hated Nakeem and Xiaolong’s ass-kissing. He thought Eduardo and Di Roy were hilarious and I preferred Il Forte’s calm demeanor.

But did we really understand each other at all?

Did we really have to understand each other? Did we really have to reaffirm how terrifyingly real and inescapable our situation was?

“Defeatist,” Grimmjow accused. It was an incredibly annoying way to discover that our stupid cat monster mouth could kiss its teeth.

I kissed our teeth right back at him. “Realist,” I argued. It had been who-knows-who-cares-how-long and we weren’t any closer to understanding our monster cat body or if everyone else secretly went around cohabiting bodies and was just better at keeping in under wraps than we were. Stalking and running down other monster people for food was second nature, but that persistent hunger still hadn’t abated, regulated to a low background hum.

I was pretty certain by now that it was less of a bodily hunger and more of a sideways battle lust. It was, regardless of its true nature, a complete and total pain in the ass, because either no one was strong enough or they were too strong.

We hadn't fought Mari or the Scorpion King, even though that small, persistent part of us wanted to. Get into a fight we weren't sure we could win, just because the battle itself was sure to be worth it. Grimmjow leaned into that feeling like it was the sweetest caress, but I fucking hated it.

I had about two dozen slips of dye-smeared snakeskin that made up a half-assed, (hopefully) half-complete map, but I still knew fuck all about the day-night cycle or why they were so fucking long.

You’re rambling, Grimmjow pointed out, sounding something between amused and bored.

And you’re still no fucking help, I snapped back, because it always felt like—of the two of us—I was the only one concerned about all the weird, inexplicable shit we had to put up with.

I’m concerned, Grimmjow argued, because he couldn’t not. I’m just not stressing over it.

Did he think I was stressing out because I wanted to? Did he not realize that he himself (we ourselves) was (were) stressful as fuck—?

Behind us, something fell off the nearest butte.

I swear you make this shit happen to get out of talking about your feelings, Grimmjow sneered half-heartedly.

I’m not even gonna lie and say I wasn’t a little relieved to be getting out of the conversation.

You’re just mad cuz my luck stat is higher than yours.

While he sputtered wordlessly and then protested that no he was not, I moved the body forward in a feline slink, senses stretched to try and figure out what had fallen.

There was a smattering of clay-dust and little flecks of rock shards, and a small crater and.

It was a kid.

Yes, I’m being serious. No, not that kind. I mean it was a literal, actual adolescent goat.

It was laying upside down on its back, little hoofed feet sticking straight up into the air, like a lawn ornament that had been knocked over. Its head and neck were slack, eyes closed, and it was just. Lying there.

Like… like one of those fainting goats, the little ones that fell over every time they got nervous, except they were always nervous. Only, this goat had fallen—or been pushed—from the top of a butte, a couple hundred feet up.

I peered up at the edge of the butte. I looked left, then right. Nothing but the usual scenery of sands and rocks and sandy rocks. No unusual sounds that we could hear, though that begged the question of how the kid had gotten close enough to climb up and then fall off the damn butte without either of us noticing, considering we were downwind of it.

This was a trap. Was this a trap? It felt like a trap, but for what?

Grimmjow took another look around, and I stretched the edges of our energy out in little ripples, but there was still nothing. Wind and rocks and sand and a fucking goat.

The tail twitched.

Slowly, without the body making any other movements, the flat of the blade curved back into an arch.

A dry wind blew, stirring sand and rock.

The tail came down, arching through the air with a whistle and landing with a heavy, almost meaty SMACK.

GYAAA—” The kid yelped, thrown at least 7 meters ass over tea kettle before it skid to a stop of jumbled legs.

So it wasn’t dead, Grimmjow commented. Which meant that it had fallen and cratered the earth and come out no worse for wear, he didn’t have to say. Which meant the kid was relatively strong. Weak hoyo, we learned in those early days, could crumple and burst like overripe fruit.

Falling some 50 feet in(to?) a dead faint without a scratch was pretty impressive, all told.

“What’th the big idea?!” The kid was shouting as it pushed itself upright, shaking its head and limbs like a wet dog.

“You’re the one going around lying down in strange places,” I responded. The whole situation still felt like a trap, but it also made. Very little sense.

“It’th a free country!” The kid screeched in offense, sounding like a squeaky-voiced Daffy Duck impersonator, as it finally gathered its bearings and spun around to face me.

There was… a silence. It certainly was silent.

“You have… six legs.” And just where the hell had those come from, because they definitely hadn’t been there a moment ago.

“You have, uh, lottha teeth,” the kid said in return, looking nearly as unnerved as I felt. “And pointy parth.”

“All the better to threaten you with, my dear.”

“Yeah, w-well, I ain’t thcared! Even if you are really huge with big teeth, and sharp clawth, a-and a tail with a knife on it. And l-lottha power, too…” Whatever bravado had been there drained away halfway through the statement, turning what would’ve been a proclamation of fearlessness into a list of ‘reasons why I’m definitely scared of you’.

“Uh-huh,” I was trying not to smile too obviously. The kid was very obvious a kid-kid, like a five year old on a sugar-high. “What are you doing out here by yourself?”

This probably wasn’t the first child-monster I’d come across, but it was the first one I was talking to, and—monster or not—it struck me as odd that a kid would just be wandering around the desert all alone. If monster people could be kids, then there had to be monster guardians or whatever, right?

“I’m not by mythelf!” The kid protested, stomping a back hoof.

I pointedly glanced around. Rocks, sand, sandy rocks, a couple dunes in the distance.

“There’s no one else here.”

Duh,” the kid answered, like it was obvious. “Cuth I’m playin’ tag.”

It took valiant effort, such a valiant goddamn effort, but neither Grimmjow nor I sighed.

“You’re playing tag.”

“Yeah!”

“With who?”

“Weellll,” And that never boded well, especially from a child. “I wath playing with Chaka, but now I’m playing with you!”

“The hell you are,” the mouth said.

“Mean!”

“Uh huh, and my mean ass ain’t finna play tag with you.”

“But you gotta play tag!”

“Says who?”

“Thayth me! And everybody else! It’s eternal tag, you can’t not play!”

‘Eternal tag’ sounded a lot like what an exhausted monster parent would say to get their hyperactive goat child out of the monster house for the day, I very pointedly did not say. Just cuz I wasn’t gonna play didn’t mean I had to make the kid cry.

“Well, i never heard of eternal tag, so I’m not playing.”

“You are too!”

“No, I’m not.”

“Are too!”

“I’m not—arguing with you. You can’t make me play if I don’t want to.”

“You!” The kid puffed up, chest inflated with childish rage. “I… I triple-dog-dare you, you big thcardey-cat!”

… Sonnuvabitch.


I’m not going to say how long we played eternal tag or how long it took Grimmjow and I to figure out how to ‘hide’ by basically running very quickly in the opposite direction.

Because I was an adult, and Grimmjow was too, probably, and we definitely hadn’t been compelled to participate in some bullshit game of tag because a child triple-dog-dared us and then called us a scaredy-cat.

Definitely, definitely not.


So, I had a problem.

Or, well, another problem.

We’d (finally) managed to leave the kid behind and so far it looked like they weren’t following, which was not the problem. The problem was that I had no idea where we were or where we left Nakeem and the others.

Which made the idea of heading back towards them a little more complicated. Just a little.

“Okay,” I said aloud, for no one’s benefit, but whatever. “So we left the kid near the, uh, the big valley with all the teeth-shaped spires and shit…”

“Which is that way,” Grimmjow added, turning our head to face… the east, if I was understanding our weird cat brain’s mental compass.

So if now-named Valley of Teeth was east, then Nakeem and them should be… west of that? Further east? Fuck, where was the Still in relation to the valley? The map I was making wasn’t very helpful, because I didn’t fucking have it with me. It was with Il Forte, the only one of us who had the means of storing things on his person.

The body sighed in frustration and I shook our head. Focus. Tajamar had definitely been to the west of the Still, and we hadn’t gone that far outside its limits before we made camp. Except I had no idea if it was a straight shot west, seeing as we’d only found it because we’d been trying to outpace that herd of pillines.

I blinked, suddenly, and realized that I absolutely hated that those thoughts even made sense.

Part of me wanted to say fuck it and just start north, because we had to run into something at some point, but another part of me wanted to just… not move, because at least then we couldn’t get any more lost than we already were.

I really, really didn’t want to go back to Still. Mostly because if I showed up after getting lost, Mari would never let me live it down and then I’d have to fight her. But the Still was more distinct than Tajamar, considering that the latter was basically a campground full of tents. It sure as shit didn’t have anything that was even remotely comparable to a sentry, let alone someone like the Scorpion King.

The cannon didn’t count.

We were still debating the merits of heading north versus refusing to move when a sandstorm blew in.

“We have such great luck,” Grimmjow mused. I shut our eyes, made a brief plea for a single goddamn break and then sighed.

“At least this one is a natural sandstorm,” I offered. It sure was a good thing that there was next to no cover around. That was just, perfect.

Visibility dropped quick as fuck and soon there was nothing but sand, more sand, and angry high speed sand that stung when it smacked us in the back of the head.

The wind blew ragged for what felt like an eternity. Every so often we got up to shake the sand off and then move to the newly blown over higher ground.

I squinted into the nothing, trying to make shapes out of the clouds of sand.

That one looks like a mountain.

Grimmjow tilted our head to the side. I thought it was a river.

Another enormous gust of wind.

That was a big one. The sand was flying so hard now that our eyes were barely open.

Hey, look, that one looks like—

It looked like… a dog?

The wind dropped, sand hanging in the air before falling to the ground. The spikes along my spine started to tingle, the same sensation as the hair raising on the back of my neck.

There was something there, maybe a hundred feet away. Right where the sandstorm had been heading.

“I… don’t think that’s a dog,” Grimmjow murmured, voice low.

It felt like I was standing too close to train tracks, hearing the electricity run through the cables.

“Me neither,” I agreed, just as softly.

It was eerie quiet, deathly quiet. The dog—[Source Needed]—slowly turned its head. It was far enough away that I could barely make out little blips and flickers of something reflecting in the low moonlight, blinking up and down and—

Oh.

That was. Uh. Wow. A lot of eyes.

“I’d say run, except there’s no way in hell I’m turning my back on that,” I mumbled, wishing I could shake the near overwhelming Bad Feeling off.

The tension snapped—for what, I have no idea. The wind screamed, picking back up with a vengeance and bringing a tidal wave of sand down right on top of us.

By the time we crawled out of the pillar of sand, the wind had died down once again, no longer rearranging the topography of the desert. And the dog—[Source Desperately Fucking Needed]—was gone, not a trace of its presence left to be seen. What did I have to do to catch a fucking break around here.

“Oh, I do not like that,” the mouth said, low and despairing.

The frail wind that blew low like a distant cry seemed like a grim agreement.

Chapter Text

We found our way back to the others, eventually. Or, well. We walked a lot in at least six different directions and managed to get relatively close enough that Nakeem could smell us and track us down.

Because that was a thing.

“Grimmjow!” Xiaolong looked somewhere between ecstatic that we were back and a lot like he wanted to tell us that we were grounded, now go to your room. Serious helicopter mom energy, there.

The body heaved a sigh. Sleep—or the monster-creature equivalent of lying down and not moving for a while—sounded like an amazing idea. Considering the way the others were not-quite crowding with a nervous-frustrated energy, it was not to be.

“What, didja miss me?” I nearly rolled me eyes, but Eduardo leaned forward with an incredibly sincere look.

“We were really worried. I mean, what if you didn’t come back?”

I’m sure you woulda been real broken up about it, I was going to say. Except.

Ah, shit.

Yeah, Grimmjow confirmed. He didn’t sound any happier about it than I felt.

Shit. Shiiiiiiiiit.

Basically.

The five of them, as much as I might not want to admit it, were my responsibility. A part of my system, or whatever. Not only was I responsible for them, but since they looked to me for direction, the fact that we’d been gone had essentially left them… leaderless and directionless for however long we’d spent out near the spires.

I did not enjoy the guilt that was starting to bubble up.

“Look, I’m not going to apologize for running off,” Grimmjow said, because we weren’t, and I continued, “I needed a moment, so I just stepped out for some fresh air or whatever.”

And the “fresh air” had really helped, given that I no longer wanted to disassemble any of them down into neat, bloodied sections. On the other hand, I’d basically shot them in the gut and then left them to bleed out. I was objectively stronger and the only one actively striving for evolution, so if anything had happened, they woulda been shit outta luck.

Nakeem, who also looked a moment away from trying to Adult at me, grimaced.

“I would say take someone with you next time—”

Grimmjow snorted. Yeah right.

“We need a better way of keeping track of each other. It wouldn’t do well to get too far separated in the Badlands.”

Well, okay, that was a valid point. Damn that lingering guilt.

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you.”

We continued heading west.

Despite the fact that we—Grimmjow and I, that is—were actively trying to pull ourselves up the food chain, a lot of our time was spent doing a whole lot of nothing. We kept walking and stumbling across ruins or small villages that I would mark down on the map and then we kept going. Anyone we stumbled across out in the Badlands was fair game, but the further we walked, the fewer people we saw.

Hueco Mundo was vast—we were all intimately aware of that—and seemingly endless and the distance between settlements seemed to grow larger and larger. Even with abstract destinations in mind, it was a lot of walking.

The map was forever a work in progress, currently on its fourth edition. I was frankly terrible at measuring distances and hardly any better at putting things in scale. There were a lot of annotations like ‘two suns travel at even pace’ and ‘caravan passes through every twenty-two moons’, among other little notes and illustrations.

My current situation of inhabiting a body I wasn’t entirely used to didn’t help. If anything, the body—our body—was throwing my sense of scale and size off entirely. I only had the sizes of others to judge by: I was bigger than Di Roy by a notable margin, and far bulkier. Eduardo was taller that I was, by merit of standing on two legs, but Il Forte, Xiaolong and Nakeem were just all around bigger than me. None of this mattered too much, except that I had no idea how much bigger (or smaller, which was possible but unlikely) I was than I had been as a human. I could’ve been thirty feet tall for all I knew, and it became more and more frustrating that I had no way of knowing for sure. Without knowing my own measurements, making mental note of the distance between Tajamar and the caravan route and the stretch of unsettled ruins, or the estimated height of any cliff, canyon or mountain became an exercise in frustration. Cartographer, I was not.

We were walking west, possibly southwest of Tajamar—because heading too far north risked a chance of stumbling across El Remanso’s outer limits, which we obviously weren't going to do unless it was absolutely necessary—when Xiaolong spoke up.

“Grimmjow?”

He was still being disgustingly polite, addressing me as ‘don’, like I’d ever been that level of Proper in my life (and also as though I were male, which I definitely wasn’t and Grimmjow didn’t care enough to contest, so.)

“Yeah?” We answered, because weeks-or-months-or-years of his company had taught us that if we tried to ignore him, he would just get increasingly more respectful. Passive-aggression, thy name is Xiaolong.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever asked,” he hedged, which should’ve been a warning sign. “But… Have you considered finding territory?”

Grimmjow was actually listening now, which meant that this was a Serious Inquiry. We both responded to the name, but the decision of who answered mostly came down to who felt like talking at the moment. It was bizarre to recall that we’d once argued over that, given how lazily we approached it in practice. On the days where I couldn’t quite manage to convince my brain to form words, Grimmjow took over. And likewise, if he was occupied with something else or didn't want to bother with navigating social interactions, I didn’t mind stepping in.

It was a system. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about it.

“What would be the point?” Grimmjow responded, after a moment of thought. He—or rather, the mass of souls that had come together to make him up—knew that territories meant work. Finding a decent spot, of which there were few, running off interlopers and establishing boundary lines and settlements and denizens and ugh. No thanks. The idea of not only being around so many people but also being responsible for them wasn’t all that appealing to me, either.

“The hoyo who hold territories are the strongest.” Il Forte pointed out, far too innocently. I shot him a Look, but Grimmjow was already thinking about it, making a mental list of potential spots.

Please don’t, I thought-said.

Territories mean strength, Grimmjow replied absently, his thoughts awhirl about his hypothetical kingdom. I, of course, didn’t trust it. I didn’t trust much of anything that the others said, but I especially didn’t like whatever it was that they were trying to do right now.

What? Grimmjow paused, turning all his attention to me. What are they trying to do?

I didn’t know, I thought sharply. But it was obvious that the five of them were up to something. They rarely offered information so freely otherwise. They had so far tried to eat us, and then led us blindly into attending Weird Ass Hoyo Court and now we were banned from the only major city in Hueco Mundo. The fact that I had been right and there were other settlements didn’t negate that. The track record of ‘listening to what these five had to say’ was not great, to say the least. Grimmjow made the emotive equivalent of a grimace, like running your hands through dirty rainwater. He thought I was just being my usual mistrustful self. He also knew that it wasn’t an unfounded concern.

So what do we do?

If we didn’t want them to know that we knew that they were up to something, if we wanted to beat them at their own game, then we figured out what they wanted and then ruined it. So what did they have to gain from Grimmjow and I establishing a territory?

Power was the most obvious answer; it was what every hoyo wanted and what Grimmjow and I needed to survive. But establishing a territory would give us more social power than anything, and neither of us were too interested in that. That power would probably come with security, though, if the five of them were assuming that they would hold some position of authority in the supposed territory. It was actually pretty presumptuous of them, but if we did establish a territory, it’s not like we knew anyone else that could take on those roles.

You keep insisting that they aren’t our friends, Grimmjow told me casually, as though I couldn’t tell that he was holding back laughter.

They’re not, I protested adamantly.

Right, Grimmjow seemingly agreed, only to continue, They just hang around all the time and enjoy our company. And sometimes, we just kinda save their lives.

You know, I liked you a lot more before you got the hang of sarcasm, I replied, pushing along a ripple of begrudgingly amused annoyance.

“Maybe,” we said eventually. “I wanna make Vasto Lor first.”

“As you say, Don Grimmjow.” Xiaolong had the nerve to actually fucking bow to me.

“And the first thing I’ma do when I reach Vasto Lor is punch you in the goddamn mouth.”


We ran into the Caravan of Waves a few days after that. Two suns, however long that was.

The Caravan of Waves was, as far as I understood, the main—if not the only—caravan in Hueco Mundo. It ferried crafts and followed the path of the tide, La Marea. No one could give me a solid definition of what La Marea was, only that they followed it with distance enough that no one drowned in the surf.

The ocean metaphors were a pain in the ass to parse, honestly.

Most of the hoyo in the caravan were desert creatures: snakes (far smaller than Maribén, to the point where it was almost an insult to consider them the same kind of animal), scorpions (that thankfully looked nothing like the Scorpion King), camels, all manner of birds, lizards and insects, a half dozen kangaroos and what was either a badger, a wolverine or the unholy offspring of the two.

The head of the caravan, a literal fucking flying baboon that everyone called Jefa Atolona, was currently kicking my ass in a game that was essentially the hoyo version of Mancala.

“How the fuck,” I said flatly, as she dropped yet another handful of pebbles into her bank. “There is no way that adds up.”

Atolona shrugged, but she was grinning, too.

“Oops,” she said insincerely.

I was surrounded by assholes.

“That’s three,” she chuckled. Her voice was a deep rasp that only got more impressive the louder she spoke. I saw her yell at some idiot who almost destroyed an entire tent full of wares—an Il Forte sized lizard-scorpion—and the other hoyo had been curled up and all but sobbing by the time she was finished.

Needless to say, we got along like a house on fire. Except for the part where she was somehow cheating at Mancala.

“How long you gone stay?” She asked, packing the game board away. We were settled for the day, tents up and camp full of chatter. I had come to Atolona for a reason; to ask if she knew of any nearby towns and one last ditch attempt to get a straight answer on what La Marea was.

In order, she listed off a handful of names that I committed to memory (read: made Grimmjow remember, because I sure as shit wasn’t going to) and then laughed in my face.

“You know,” I said, over her howling.

“La Marea is Death,” she finally answered.

“What.”

“Strongest hoyo. So strong everyone feel it. Go too close and poof—” She spread her hands.

I wanna, Grimmjow said. It wasn’t even a whole sentence, barely a complete thought. The idea of that much power was so appealing and yet so unwanted that he couldn’t even articulate it. I could relate. To be so strong that everyone knew sounded like a dream come true; there was no easier way to ensure that we’d be left to our own devices if our mere presence was a literal death sentence. On the other hand (paw, whatever), that sounded…. Incredibly lonely. Nobody could get close, and close was relative. What I knew offhand about the caravan’s route was that it went across the entirety of Hueco Mundo, non-stop.

Did La Marea have to keep moving so it wouldn’t just kill anyone near it? Jesus.

“Maybe they’ll call me La Gravedad,” we mumbled.

Atolona, of course, heard that.

“Bah!” She smacked my shoulder hard enough that I nearly bit my own tongue. “You think you strong as La Marea?”

“I don’t think,” Grimmjow sneered. “I know.”

“Don’t know no damn thing!”

“I know I’m not gonna be weak,” I bared our teeth, more annoyed than anything.

Atolona bared her teeth right back. “Just cuz you say it don’t make it true!”

I’ll make it true.” We’d already decided, æons ago. We were putting all our effort towards being so strong that we could avoid anything that had to do with the Plot™. Like hell I was getting caught up in Aizen’s shit, what with Arrancar Armies and Winter Wars and, ugh, shinigami all over the place. Like hell.

So all we had to do was get strong. Like, really really Strong™.

Easy.


I was in hell. That was the only explanation. This was hell.

“Look.” If I’d had the means, I would’ve been dragging my hand down my face. “Kid. How the fuck do you keep finding me?”

The kid—the goat child—huffed and stomped a hoof, like I was the unreasonable one here. We’d parted ways with the caravan and continued northwest; Atolona had mentioned something about a forest. And who should show up but my living nightmare?

“It’th not like it’th difficult,” they scowled. “You’re really loud.”

Oh, come on.

“What does that even mean—”

“I’m only using pethquitha—”

Pes-what now

Pesquisa? As in pesquisar? As in—

“So you’re just following me. All the time.” The voice came out flat. Okay. Sure. Why not. This might as well happen. Everything about this situation was already so fucking weird.

“I told you!” the kid was really frowning now. “You can’t jutht thtop playing Eternal Tag!”

I never agreed to play in the first place, I did not say, because I was an Adult, and I was not going to get into an argument with a baby goat.

Again.

“Unlike you, I got shit to do. You can’t expect me to play all the time.”

“Why not?” The kid looked skeptical. I couldn't believe I was about to throw hands with a fucking toddler. “I do.”

“You’re like five, you zygote.”

“Nuh uh! I’m not a baby!”

“You are a literal kid.”

“I’m jutht a late bloomer! Chaka thaid tho!”

Chaka, whoever that was, was a goddamn lie.

“I’m not a baby,” the kid argued. It probably would've been more convincing if they didn't sound like they were about to start bawling. “I’m! I’m probably older than you, tho you’re the dumb baby!”

“Dunno how old I am, but doubtful,” I responded blithely.

“Ha! If you don’t know, that meanth I’m older than you!”

“Nope. I could be seventy million years old. You don’t know.”

“Yeah, well, then I’m seventy one million!”

“Then I’m seventy billion.”

“Then I’m eighty… eighty kajillion!”

“That’s not even a real number.”

“It ith too! You’re jutht too young to know about it. Tho there!”

I took a deep breath. Don’t fight a child, I told myself. Do not fight a child.

“Fine, whatever. The hell is pesquisa?”

Mouth open, probably to argue some more, the kid paused. Then squinted.

“You don’t know what a pethquitha is?”

Would I ask if I did, I very valiantly did not say.

“I’m new,” Grimmjow smiled. It was not a nice smile.

The kid looked us in our eyes and then glanced down at our teeth.

“Uh huh,” they muttered, gulping audibly. “Uh, tho, pethquitha is like…. Oh! Chaka thaid it’th like if we were playing hide and theek in the dark!”

Oh lord.

“You can’t thee, so you gotta lithten. Only, inthtead of your ears, you uthe your energy. You throw out your power like a net, and when it reacheth thomebody you can thee ’em!”

We thought that over.

Are you shitting me.

What?

Pesquisa is fucking hoyo sonar. Echolocation.

“How can you tell who it is?” I asked, because seriously. Was there no end to the ridiculous things these monster-bodies could do.

“You’re thupothed to read ‘em but I don’t know how yet.”

What did that mean. What did that mean.

While I was still thinking on the ramifications of having what amounted to literal built-in sonar detection, the kid sidled closer.

“I told you about pethquitha, tho now you gotta thow me how to do thonido!”

What the hell is sonido and why do you think I know how to do it, I very nearly said. Except, no, wait. Wasn’t it the hoyo—or, well, technically “hollow”—equivalent of shunpo? I was pretty sure we didn’t know how to do—

Shit, we totally knew how to do that.

I feel kinda dumb, Grimmjow admitted. I echoed the sentiment. It was a little embarrassing to have discovered a monster power and not even realize it.

“Just use your energy as a boost,” Grimmjow explained haltingly. How did you explain how to do something you hadn’t even realized you were doing. “Don’t try to strengthen your legs or whatever, you gotta boost all of you.”

The kid wrinkled their nose. “Bootht all of me?”

“Yeah,” we hedged. “You gotta wrap your energy around all of you. If you just boosted your legs, the rest of you wouldn’t be strong enough and you’d probably explode.”

I might’ve been fudging the details there, but whatever.

“I’ll ekthplode?!”

We shrugged, nonchalant. “Might could. Maybe you should wait til Chaka teaches you.”

“Maybe,” they hedged, looking worried.

The moment didn’t last, because within seconds, they whipped back around to face us with a gleam in their eyes.

“Thinth I can’t do it now, that meanth we can keep playing!”

Black Jesus be a fence.

“What part of I’m not playing was unclear to you?”

They pouted. Crossed their arms across their chest—

Wait. What the hell—

I blinked. Grimmjow blinked. We both squinted.

Goat. The kid was a goat.

Except now it was a little baby goat centaur? Where did that torso come from? Why was their head still goat-shaped? When had that happened? How was it only now becoming apparent to me.

Goat centaur, my brain echoed. Goat centaur. GOAT. CENTAUR.

Oh, I did not like that thought. I did not like that thought at all.

“How about this,” Grimmjow offered. I was too busy trying and failing to smother my own consciousness. “We can play for a little.”

Really?

“Sure,” Grimmjow agreed, as though our plan wasn’t to sonido away the minute the kid blinked. “Hey, what’s your name, anyway?”

Don’t say it, I was begging. Begging the universe? Whatever higher power would listen to me? Reality itself?

“Oh, it’th Nel!”

That didn’t prove anything. That was a completely normal name—

“Nelke von Ödeistschwanke!”

Goddamnit.

This was definitely, definitely hell.


Who knows how long we were out in the Badlands, winding our way through uncharted territory. Who cares.

What mattered was the fights, the hunts. The sweet rush of power with every victory.

And you know what? We made it. We fucking made it.

The desert was a wildcard. One day we could end up fighting another group of hoyo to the death just for the hell of it, and the next week we could be hunting some poor soul, mercilessly stalking them and running them down. We found ruins. We found village after village, groups of hoyo huddled together because there was strength in numbers. We found canyons and valleys and steep cliffs and mountain bases and craggy outcroppings and forests of crystal and stone. Eight versions of the same map, revealing more and more with each one.

El Remanso was barely the tip of the iceberg. It was laughable to think that most people thought the city was the only thing to be found in all of Hueco Mundo.

I think we would’ve kept going. I think that if things had happened differently, we would’ve just kept wandering, mapping out what no one had ever bothered to before and stumbling across things long forgotten. It wouldn’t have been so bad.

We never would’ve been happy, though.

Not that I can say that we are now, but. I think we were always going to have to fight. To survive. Something would’ve pulled us back, and who’s to say it wouldn’t have been worse?

Getting ahead of myself. Right.

Another sun-up, another fight.

There was a little town, maybe two dozen hoyo, north of the crystal forest. It was set maybe two suns distance from the base of the gargantuan mountain range that seemed to stretch across all of Hueco Mundo.

Not all the little villages were friendly. It would be absurd to believe they all were. People fought over the smallest slights, and considering that the ‘people’ in this scenario were all inhabiting deadly monster-creature bodies, it was almost safer to assume there would be a fight. Better on-guard for no reason than caught unaware.

I don’t even remember what started it. It ultimately didn’t matter. A fight was a fight, and our body was made for fighting. For winning. I could feel bone breaking under the force of my jaws, shards crumbling away under a rake of my claws.

I could hear the heavy thwack of Nakeem slamming the spiked end of his tail into something’s torso. The sound of carapace against carapace, bone against bone. Eduardo was bellowing, tearing some rabbit-deer thing in two.

We were unstoppable. We were fucking glorious

The energy, an almost familiar sensation at this point, swarmed all over. Trying to drown us, trying to seep into our very bodies, it was all the same. Static and ozone and pressure like balancing a mountain on our spine—

Except—

So much energy, our own rising to meet it, and rising and rising and rising

I probably should’ve asked how evolution worked at some point. It was a barely formed thought. A minuscule blip beneath the churning of an ocean, the roar of a tsunami, the speed of a hurricane—

The world exploded.


At some point, it stopped.

The winds, the rush of energy, the bright flashing lights, the pain, the electricity running up and down and all around. It all just stopped. There was nothing.

I was nothing. What was being? What was existence?

Nothingness blinked.

I shivered back into my body, nerves zinging back into existence from some ether, and okay, roll call: Head, torso, limbs—

“Oh cool,” I said, and wow, speech. That was nice. Not new, but it felt new. Echoing. Buzzing. Nice vibrato in the chest. But cool, I had a body now. Again? Once more?

“Grimmjow?” That wasn’t my voice, was it? Wait, no, right. Other beings. Other voices. Sound waves and ear canals and, man, that was really awesome, now that I thought about it.

Blurry shapes and colors, what are those called—eyes! Vision! Also exciting.

Weird bug thing. Enormous, definitely didn't have a shoe big enough to squish that—No, wait, I know this one, don’t tell me. Sh… shaw? Shao…. Xiaolong.

Heeeey,” I slurred, because vision and speech and existence; man, is that a lot to have happen all at once. I shook my head, because. Because when something doesn’t work the way you expect it, you… hit it? Shake it? Yell at it? All of the above?

That didn’t seem right…

Fuzzy TVs. Blow into the SNES cartridge. Smack the Xerox. Makes total sense.

Sure, okay, yeah, makes total sense. My brain knew. Shit, if my brain didn’t know, who would?

“These are pretty swell.” Was I even controlling my own body? Since when was the word ‘swell’ ever a part of my lexicon? I had to be moving my own mouth, though, because the next thing it said was, “But, yanno, I was really hoping for some thumbs.”

“Well,” Xiaolong cut in, ever-patient. “I’m afraid that Vasto Lor is the end of the evolutionary chain, Don Grimmjow. This is, well… your final form, as it were.”

“Pssh, what?” I laughed. I don’t know why I laughed. It seemed like a thing to do. “No way, man. Evolution don’t stop!”

Besides, if I got to go around and call myself a Lord of Vastness, I’m pretty sure that limitless power could—at the very least—do me a solid and bestow upon me some goddamn thumbs.

“Er, Grimmjow—”

“Fuck it,” I said, to myself, or to Xiaolong and any other naysayers, or to the abstract concept of Vasto Lor-ness itself. Possibly all three. “I’ll make my own damn thumbs.”

I might’ve been punchdrunk. Powerdrunk. High on adrenaline. The undead monster equivalent of lost in the sauce. Just a little.

“Grimmjow, I really don’t think you can—”

Paws were nice, don’t get me wrong. I really did appreciate retractable claws, and the bean pads were incredibly soft. But, thumbs.

I deserved both.

“Yeah,” I nodded to myself, completely ignoring whatever the hell Xiaolong or Nakeem or whoever was still talking about. That guy was such an, an aguafiestas. It was always ‘you can’t do that’ or ‘it’s impossible’ with that guy; he really needed to lighten up. Myself agreed with me; we (we? I?) totally deserved thumbs and enviously soft bean pads.

How did thumbs work again?

Gods, of all the times to wish I remembered high school biology. Uh, metacarpals? Metatarsals? Hmm. One of those, probably. Long tendons, finger bones, joints, flexion, webbing for dexterity. Wrists? Yeah, wrists were good. The thumbs were already there, but vestigial. I need them… un-vestigal? Raccoon paws, but not creepy.

Wait, wait. Monkeys!

That wasn’t too hard, but having monkey-people hands and cat-monster arms wouldn’t do any damn good. What was the point of hands without all that arm movements. Shoulders! Throwing and catching and picking and holding and grasping. Pulling and pushing and shoving and, oh, but wait, paw pads were still kinda good, better than calluses and also, claws. Claws were cool.

Ball joints! That’s what they were called. But, I reminded myself, remember those spiky armor things on the knees and the ankles and elbows and shoulders? Those were badass, and definitely worth keeping.

Barrel chest and shoulders, and more flexion and muscles to support the burden of arms that moved like that and, but hey, that cool twisty thing that cat spines could do was pretty choice, wasn't it?

Legs were important, having had four was… I mean, I was kinda used to it, but two legs, too? Oh, oh! Bears! Bears could do both, so if I just kinda tweaked the leg length and pushed the pelvis back a little… it was a little wolf-man, but if I could just… hinge my pelvis like a snake unhinged its own jaw, then—okay, no, that was still pretty creepy, but it was my creepy, so meh. Shrug of the shoulders, derisive snort.

What else…? We were missing something pretty important, ri—

Hhgh. Faces.

Did I have to have a face? Not having a face would be a little creepy and also: how would I see? Seeing was important. But faces and set identities and, gag, immutable physical forms.

I didn’t. Have to. Couldn’t I just? Finger waggle, eyebrow raise?

Actually. That’d be cool. Preferable? Preferable.

Shit, I was already mostly done, why start imposing rules now?

Okay, so head and eyes—more eyes? More eyes would be cool. No, wait, better to stick to two for now, I didn’t even know how to use more than two eyes—and ears. Hmm. Head, but different. Little flatter. Not skin—what did skin even feel like anymore?—but not carapace, not bone, gotta be more durable—

Still malleable for movement, but if we were gonna have armor, then we weren't gonna be lazy about it. There was the slight worry of erosion, but wait—if there was no water, then cliff sides would stay cliff sides, so if I were—if we were—continental, the creation of land, of mass, of life—

Oh, yeah, no. That’s good. That’s real good. I do try. Nah, forget tryin’, we fuckin’ succeed.

Oh no, wait—yeah, that’s not gonna—but that was really cool and pretty useful—we could just?

… Yeah, we could do that. Couldn’t we? Could we? Well, why the hell not?


“What did I drink,” a mouth attached to what I think was me rasped, some indeterminate time later, “and why did no one stop me.”

Fuck, but my head hurt. My head hurt so bad that I didn’t even want to open my eyes, because just the thought of having to visually process information made my temples throb in pre-emptive retribution.

“Grimmjow? Grimmjow!” Why. Why yelling.

“Oh, so you can yell my name and give me a headache, but you can’t stop me from drinking what was obviously fucking kerosene?” Thank you mouth, for running on autopilot.

“Grimmjow.” There was a softer voice. Good Job, softer voice. Your softness means I don’t want to unmake you.

“Are you still Grimmjow?”

… I take back that ‘Good Job’, softer voice. Why would you ask me an existential ass question like that, first thing in the maybe-morning?

“The fuck else would I be?”

“Well, since none of us know what you did, we don’t know.” Ooh, surly voice.

“You’re just jealous cuz I’m awesomer than you.” Honestly, who even knew what was coming out of the mouth at that point. Forget hungover, I’m pretty sure we were concussed. Beyond drowning in the hoyo sauce. All of the above.

“That’s not—”

The body tentatively cracked open an eye—

And immediately regretted it. Gods, why light. Why form.

“Hhhhhgghh,” I groaned, covering my face. The chatter in the background stopped.

“Grimmjow?” That was softer voice. Nakeem. Whichever.

“I regret existing in three dimensions,” I informed him.

“You’re lucky you still exist in this dimension,” snapped surly voice. Xiaolong. Who knew he had it in him? It was always the polite ones.

I sat up.

Wait a good goddamn—

I sat up. Like a human.

“WHAT—”

My head snapped down so quick that I might’ve given myself whiplash, but that didn’t matter because—

“ARE THESE HANDS?”

“Yes, that’s what—”

I didn’t remember having hands. Didn’t I have paws? Wait—

“DO MY HANDS HAVE BEAN PADS?”

Eduardo leaned in past Xiaolong and poked me in the palm. Which had a bean pad in a vaguely palm-like shape. Squish.

“Yeah, I think so, Boss.”

I had bean pads and thumbs—

“THIS IS THE BEST EVOLUTION EVER.”

This is not your evolution,” hissed Captain Sour Mantis.

“Uh, I evolved, and I have thumbs and paw pads now, so I’m pretty sure—”

Xiaolong made a sound like superheated metal meeting ice.

“No, no,” Nakeem quickly cut in. “Xiaolong’s right; you… Well, we have no idea how you did that, or what you did to begin with. This. The… thumbs. The whole body, really.”

‘The whole body’ was smokin’. I mean, not to toot my own horn, but—

Aw, fuck it. I’m tootin’ my own horn.

I was bipedal again! That alone was worth it. But then, it got better

We had—well, I couldn’t actually tell. But there were hands! With thumbs and paw pads and sharp claws instead of fingertips, and it kinda looked like I was made out of… rock now, but like, shiny rock. I reached out and socked Eduardo in the arm as hard as I could.

Ow!”

I’d barely even felt that, so that meant I was made out of shiny, strong rock. Shiny, strong rock that spiked up at my elbows and knees and shoulders like the carapace had, which meant shiny strong rock armor. I twisted my torso and as I moved, something glinted in the corner of my eye.

It was my tail blade.

Which was a kinda awkward way to abruptly realize that I didn’t have a tail anymore. You’d think that would be the kind of thing you notice first.

“Huh,” I murmured, picking up the blade. Without a tail attached to it, it was basically… holy shit, it was just a giant karambit.

“How am I unintentionally this badass?”

Xiaolong made a shrill noise of utter contrition.

“You—!”

I gasped dramatically, pressing one hand (with thumbs!) to my chest, and swatting backwards with the other hand (with! thumbs!) until I hit what felt like Eduardo.

“Did you hear that! Xiaolong called me you!” As in tú, instead of the tired and uncomfortably formal Usted he’d been touting since we’d met.

“That is, I mean—!” Xiaolong stammered, because he would probably die or explode or both if he wasn’t deferential to me, even though I clearly didn’t give a shit. “Don Grimmjow—”

“Oh shit,” I said. I tuned out Xiaolong’s jumbled attempts at an apology that I didn’t want with the ease of long practice. There were bigger, more pressing thoughts to be had. “Oh shit, you know what this means, right?”

“Uh… No?” Eduardo offered.

Grimmjow picked up my train of thought and cackled.

“Oh, I cannot wait to shove this in Mari’s face.”


“Knock knock.” We bared our teeth in a gleeful famiscile of a smile.

Mari made a small noise of quiet alarm. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed since we’d last seen each other, but she seemed… more. Stronger? Fuller? Still a giant fuck-off basilisk sea serpent thing, but… like she had been 2D and was now 3D or something. Was it her? Was it me?

Hmm. We were gonna have to look into that.

“How unexpected,” she greeted. It could’ve been genuine, except for how she was staring very hard at one of her lackeys when she said it. The lackey—the one that looked like a hyena—grimaced and gestured out towards to rest of the desert and shrugged. Apparently, we hadn’t been announced, which I had been counting on. Getting past the Scorpion King had been as easy as saying we had a surprise present for the Leviathan.

“I see you made Vasto Lor. Congratulations.” The kicker was that I think she was being sincere about that.

We grinned, settling and resettling spikes along our spine. It was a new body with old, familiar parts and new pieces to explore, but it was ours and we could more or less do anything we wanted with it.

“Came to brag,” I explained with an off-hand gesture. Because I could make those now, having hands and all. “And see the Still.”

A silence.

“Oh?” Mari’s voice had dropped low, sinister. “The truth will out, hmm? You were after its wealth all along.”

I paused, trying to understand why she sounded so… hurt. Angry. Bitter. It took me a moment to remember that the stagnant water had magical properties or whatever, that was supposedly coveted by everyone for some reason. It’s not that I didn’t believe it could be true, so much as the fact that I had never once seen any other creature heading towards it. I shook my head, annoyed and dismissive, “What? No, I need to see what I look like.”

Mari balked. Reared back like a cobra preparing to strike, except she looked like she’d just gotten smacked in the face with a raw fish. “You—what?”

I rolled my eyes. “I don’t know what I look like. You control the only reflective surface in the entire desert. Put two and two together.”

“You came back… to look at your reflection.”

“I know what I said.”

The silence had long since surpassed awkward and settled firmly into ‘unnerving’ territory by the time she gave a deep, weary sigh. “I do not think that I will ever understand you.”

“Trust me, the feeling is mutual,” I snorted. Then I remembered the other reason we’d come back and perked up. “By the way…”

“Yes?”

Look!” I shoved my hands—actual hands—into Mari’s face, flexing my fingers and thumbs. Each movement was accompanied by the same noise, that could’ve been a misfiring staple gun.

Mari’s eyes fell to my hands, moved back up to my face, then back down to my hands, then up to my face. Then she closed her eyes briefly and sighed.

“Thumbs.” Her voice was as dry as the sand around us. “How novel.”

“Hater,” I accused, drawing my hands—hands! with thumbs and bean pads—back to my chest. She didn’t wanna appreciate dexterity when they saw it? Fine.

“Don’t you think you’re overreacting a bit?” Mari asked, slithering forward to stretch her enormous head over my shoulder.

“I’m sorry, did you miss the part where thumbs?”

Actually, Grimmjow thought.

Oh, don’t you even fucking start, I growled.

“Yes, I’m sure they’re very… nice,” Mari replied, in such a way that it was readily apparent that ‘nice’ is not at all what she thought.

“I can pick things up. I can throw things. I can lift and hold things,” I emphasized each point by listing them off on my fingers.

“Also,” I continued, “and most importantly, I can do this.”

I have never relished flipping someone off so much in my life.

I then had the unique experience of being shot a look of utter exasperation by what was, more or less, a sea serpent.

“Lovely.” If her voice got any drier, it was going to shrivel up and blow away in the wind. She was smiling though, so I counted it as a win. I shot her the cheekiest grin I could manage and then hopped over her and gestured towards the deeper part of her territory.

“C’mon, let’s go!”

Mari only shook her head, resigned. She uncoiled from a mass of scales into an intimidatingly long line of scales and I followed. The Still was only a short trip into the heart of Mari’s territory, but considering that I couldn’t reliably see it, I probably never would’ve found it myself.

“The Still is the single most sought after resources in all of Hueco Mundo,” Mari was grumbling as we walked (or slithered). “And you’re going to use it as a mirror.”

“You seem really fixated on that,” Grimmjow commented, biting down on a grin.

Mari shot us a Look.

“I have killed fools for less.”

“Aw,” I cajoled, nudging her with my shoulder. Because I could do that now! I had rotating shoulder cuffs and it was amazing. “You know if you killed me, you’d miss me.”

“Would I?” Said soft enough to be self-directed, but still loud enough for me to hear.

I put a hand to my chest. Because I could do that. Because I had hands.

“That’s cold, Mari. Hurts me real deep.”

Mari rolled her eyes, slow enough that she could be sure I saw.

“We’re here.”

I picked my way down the dune. I could almost see the water, I think, except that if I focused too hard then everything went sideways. I resorted to keeping track of the edge of the water out of the corner of my eye.

“I still can’t see it,” I informed Mari. I leaned over the water and was not unsurprised to see a messy smear of shadow and form. “Can you make it more… flat, or something?”

Behind me, Mari sighed the sigh of heavily belabored, because a symptom of the hoyo condition was a propensity towards being overdramatic.

“The things I do for you,” she grumbled.

The Still rippled as Mari did… whatever she was doing. Then it gleamed and seemed to almost solidify. After a second’s pause, we took leaned forward again and peered in.

What the shit, I look like Greed. Grimmjow didn’t get the reference, but understood the sentiment and heartily approved.

We were black stone, stone armor that was… also the body? Bipedal, which we already knew, and humanoid, which made sense. The armor-body had spikes at some of the joints—elbows, knees, shoulders—but was a little smoother everywhere else. Fairly broad shoulders, which was new but not entirely unfamiliar as our… previous? other? body has been pretty broad. Long legs, which were familiar to me. The head had the configuration of a human head, but the planes of something wider. I couldn’t see any ears, but I could feel them, further back on the skull. Our face in particular looked carved, like a stylized helm except there was no knight beneath. Our mouth was open, fangs bared and gleaming ivory against black stone.

I closed our mouth, watched our reflection do the same. It was like watching a statue come to life. It didn’t look like we should’ve been able to move at all, but there was nothing stopping us. I didn’t feel any heavier or any more pinned in than I had when we had been on four legs instead of two.

We looked sick as fuck.

The body took a step back and the water seemed to shiver in reverse before falling back into normal water. Or, given my difficulty in visually processing it, Schrödinger’s Water.

“Thanks,” Grimmjow nodded our head to Mari, who looked faintly surprised. Which was rude, because we knew how to be polite.

“Anything else?” She asked. Coming from anyone else, it would’ve been snide enough to raise my hackles, but she sounded somewhere between resigned to it and begrudgingly amused about the whole thing.

“Actually, I kinda wanna fight you.”

Mari opened her mouth. Closed her mouth. Opened it again.

A moment passed.

“… Fine.”


“What a fuckin’ rush!” Grimmjow laughed. We were both still high on endorphins. It apparently took a lot to make this body bleed, but Mari had been both determined and mildly satisfied with taking as many pieces of the armor-body away as she could.

We bled something that really looked like lava, like we were running hot beneath all the rock. It had sparked the brief wonder if we were actually made of lava and the rock body was the only thing holding us together.

Mari had taken that lapse in attention as the perfect opportunity to bite our fucking arm off.

If nothing else, it was a neat way to find out that we could just kinda reattach limbs if we needed to. … I don’t think I’m using the word ‘neat’ right.

I, personally, was extremely proud of our retaliation, which involved super-heating our karambit/former tail blade and using it to slice off the last 30 or so feet of her tail. She’d just closed the wound into a new tail, but we’d still gotten that hit in. Not to mention that I finally had the opportunity to punch her in the face with actual fists. I think it hurt us more than it hurt her, but still.

We were heading in the direction of Tajamar again before we kept westward. I was really looking forward to returning to the crystal forest that Atolona had mentioned. If there was a forest, that suggested that there was possibly more of Hueco Mundo that wasn’t a desert. Or that Hueco Mundo was part of something larger.

“It’s good to see you in such high spirits,” Nakeem said. Mari and I had battled for an unbelievable amount of time, thanks to hoyo stamina. We’d rearranged some of the landscape, but our respective systems—or, considering that bullshit alliance that we supposedly had—our one binary system took it upon themselves to keep the fight as contained as possible so that roaming hoyo wouldn’t think the Still was under attack and come looking for a lucky break.

“We gotta do that more often,” I said, which was acknowledgement and agreement both to Nakeem’s comment.

“Perhaps once we finish the map,” Xiaolong offered. “And possibly even establish some territory.”

I shot him a look, because that was heavy-handed, especially for him. He had the grace to look slightly abashed.

“I would never presume to tell you what to do,” he started. Grimmjow and I snorted at the exact same time.

“That’s horseshit, but okay.”

But,” Xiaolong continued, a little desperately, “The benefits of having territory would be——”

And then Xiaolong was just—just gone.

We blinked, could feel the rough grit of sand buffeting against the armor-carapace. Only no, it wasn’t sand. There was a heavy sense of quiet terror sitting low in our gut. It wasn’t sand. It was Xiaolong.

“Yo, the fuck,” I shouted, going from shock and stillness to frantic backpedaling. Eduardo was shrieking something but I couldn’t make out the words over the sudden wind and the white noise filling my ears.

Where had this come from? How did a sandstorm sneak up on people? And what the hell kind of sandstorm atomized people who got caught… in… ?

There, through the curtain of sand. A shadow, a shape, moving closer. Walking steady.

Recognition came too late.

The dog. It was the fucking dog.

It stopped barely twenty feet away, close enough for me to make out details this time. It looked like a normal dog: four legs, no extra appendages, a tail. A few dozen heads. You know, your standard canine anatomy. I almost didn’t see the heads, not until it huffed out a breath and the entire length of its neck huffed with it; malformed heads and mouths baring twisted fangs and too many eyes.

“What the fuck do you want,” I snarled, curling my fingers into fists. As I did, the edges of my knuckles sharpened, like weird organic brass knuckles. I normally would’ve marveled at that, if Xiaolong hadn’t just been annihilated before I could so much as blink.

You… c#n… se e me?

It sounded like fuzzy radio static overlaid with the high-pitched whine that early 2000s computer monitors made. They weren’t words, because they weren’t spoken, but we could hear them all the same.

“Well, you’re not… exactly inconspicuous.”

The other hoyo—if it even was another hoyo—was huge. Not big, like the Scorpion King, but just huge. As tall and wide as Il Forte but the weight of its presence made Barrigan seem like an ant. This was power; not the greedy kind, hoarded and useless, but actual power. It had weight but no malice, and that made the whole situation ten times worse, because I don’t think it was even trying to kill us.

It was just there and we were just dying.

I was pushing everything I was into the stone armor-skin-carapace, thinking of molten lava cooling into untouchable obsidian, dense basalt. Unbreakable and sharp enough to cut. Even still, even then, I could feel the pressure pushing down relentlessly, as though it was slowly grinding the edges of me away into dust. Like trying to just breathe while flailing through the layers of a jovian planet.

Sweat or blood or lava dripped into my eyes, but I didn’t dare blink it away. I didn’t dare look back at Di Roy, Il Forte, Eduardo or Nakeem. I had to trust that they were there, their energy pooled together to shore up a strong enough defense. If we so much as faltered in making ourself impenetrable, impervious, ever victorious, we were going to explode or collapse or implode or all of the above.

St##l he #e…!

The staticky voice crackled, and a head—or maybe a shoulder—hunched and twisted. My vision was tunneling and blurring and I could hardly see my own two feet in front of me, let alone make out the shape of my would-be killer through the haze of their presence.

“Would it… fuckin’ kill you,” Grimmjow spat, determined to get the words out, “to tone it down.”

Just take all that shit and pull it back inside, I wanted to scream. I would’ve screamed if I thought my voice would work. If the act of opening my jaw wasn’t a gargantuan task.

Instead of blasting it out, make it solid. Make your body into its own fortress.

It seriously was not that difficult!

Our ears popped, the same as they had with Barrigan, only this was like a bullet aimed right my eardrum. I think my ears were bleeding. Or maybe my face. Or just, you know, everything.

I blacked out, maybe. Or I forgot how eyes worked. I honestly think I straight up fucking died for a second.

But no, I blinked and the body was breathing heavily and our vision was slowly clearing and our limbs were aching like hell, relieved of unbearable weight. There was sand in my mouth, in my eyes, packed deep into the crevices of my new body. I was alive. We were alive.

“I never want to do that again,” I mumbled into the sand.

Grimmjow turned our head to the side and and spat. Clumps of bloodied sand and little shards of rock hit the ground.

“The fuck happened?” He demanded.

I’m pretty sure we just had a Come to Jesus moment, I answered.

“Grimmjow!” That was Di Roy, which was a strange relief. We couldn’t quite find the energy to push ourselves upward, let alone to look behind us, but Di Roy being not-dead meant that the others were probably some kind of okay. For a given value of okay.

What felt like centuries later, we pushed ourselves up, arms shaking. The sandstorm was gone, which hopefully meant that the dog had fucked off again. A cursory glance reassured me that Di Roy, Eduardo, Il Forte and Nakeem were all in one piece, even though they all looked shaken.

“Why’re you lookin’ at me like that?” Grimmjow asked warily, as they continued to stare with wide eyes, even as we finally pulled ourself back onto our feet.

Nakeem opened his mouth. Nothing came out. Eduardo squeaked.

A pervasive, damning thought occurred to me. I passed it along. Grimmjow took it and then did the mental equivalent of crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it.

Slowly, with great reluctance, we turned our head to look over our shoulder.

“… Hi,” one of the wolf’s many mouths said, voice rough but… shy. Gentle.

Fuck me. I raised a hand in half-hearted greeting.

“… Sup.”

Chapter Text

We’d gone through a lot, since I woke up in the desert in a body that wasn’t mine, Grimmjow and I both. This, though, was taking the fucking cake for Most Bizarre Encounter.

Because this was the dog. The huge fuck-off wolf-dog that had annihilated Xiaolong just by proximity. It was sitting not even five feet away from me. It seemed to have itself under control, but I could still taste blood and ozone in the back of my mouth.

“I’m, um. Very sorry about. Well...” One of the mouths said, voice not quite the same as before, but not entirely different either. There was a slight pause as the wolf—Cerberus, given… all those heads—tried and failed to find a polite euphemism for the fact that its mere presence alone had killed someone and then almost killed another five(-point-five) someones.

Grimmjow took a moment to pointedly clench our jaw shut, trapping the reflexive don’t worry about it that I’d almost let escape. It was one thing to wave off inconveniences and problems. It was another thing entirely to try and wave off…

Technically manslaughter?

I honestly don’t care what you call it, Grimmjow bit out. But if you try to apologize for it, I’m going to fucking exorcise you.

I’m not going to apologize for not dying! I argued, because I hadn’t been, but you know. That damned Midwestern affability.

“Right,” our mouth said eventually. “That.”

Silence.

The wolf-dog looked at us. We glanced back at the others; Eduardo was shaking and refusing to make eye contact and Di Roy was hiding under Il Forte. Il Forte’s… face was as inscrutable as ever and Nakeem only met our gaze for a second before turning his head away.

Real helpful, guys.

I sighed. Grimmjow sighed. The body sighed. We did not get paid enough to put up with this shit.

“So who the hell are you two?” Grimmjow asked.

“You two?” The dog-wolf echoed. Somehow, its voice had gotten smaller.

Well, there was clearly more than one of them in there. This close, it was easy to see that the multitude of eyes came in different configurations. There were smaller ones that were clouded over, that I assumed were blind as a consequence of having way too many skulls trying to inhabit the same space. But other than that, the eyes seemed to come in two flavors: pink sclera with little pale green crosshairs; or, a black pupil surrounded by a corona of off-white.

There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for how the eyes were paired, and there didn’t seem to be more of one than the other.

“We—” One mouth started, before abruptly snapping shut.

Grimmjow and I watched as the wolf-dog struggled with and against itself, mouths opening and shutting, eyes rolling, limbs shaking.

If you even try that, I’ll fucking kill you, I told Grimmjow, quietly horrified.

The dog keened in pain, and although there wasn’t a sound, something cracked and that too-heavy power burst out so quickly that it knocked us on our ass.

“Hey!” I shouted, arms up to brace against the sudden winds and stinging sands.

The dog was yanking its head back and forth and clawing at the ground, still making that high-pitched sound.

It was a pain in the ass, but after nine or so attempts, we managed to get our feet beneath us. Staking energy into the ground from our feet like climbing boots and struggling across the short—not even as long as we were tall, for fuck’s sake—distance.

HEY!” We shouted again, this time close enough to grab an ear and yank.

A yelp of surprise. The winds cut out as suddenly as they’d appeared, that immense weight going with it.

A couple dozen eyes were staring at us, wide with shock. I grimaced; the point where our body touched the dog was slowly starting to crumble in dust. Obsidian and basalt, I thought. Our fingertips and palm glowed beneath the rock, alight with moving lava. Denser. Unbreakable. Unending. The glow slowly faded, leaving behind layer upon layer of reinforced rock. Better.

“Look, that was obviously a touchy subject,” Grimmjow said into the quiet, withdrawing our hand. It was probably the closest he’d ever get to an apology. “ Just… give us something to call you.”

The wolf shuddered again, sinking low to the ground. Some of the mouths pulled and twisted, baring teeth in pain instead of threat.

“Estaribel,” one mouth whined, and half a dozen eyes rolled in their sockets, overwhelmed.

“Hey, hey, whoa,” we said, and it was glorious to be able to make calming gestures again. Thank the gods for ball joints and shoulder flexion. “Nobody’s imprisoning anyone here, okay?”

Were all hoyo this dramatic? I still thought about the way Grimmjow had called himself muda, as though being Nothing was the norm, and now here was this horrifically powerful, desperately lonely wolf who thought itself a prison.

Gods save me from self-deprecating monster people.

“We were!” The wolf insisted, still whining, still holding itself low to the ground with its ears flat like the world’s saddest, sorriest hellhound. “Estaribeles and lilailas, that’s all we had.”

Prison tricks, huh? That was kinda neat, albeit depressing.

Wait, no—

It was fucking happening again; lilailas was a stretch, but estaribel was only a hop, skip and velar plosive away from being something like estariquel, which was basically stark and damnit, where did this Plot™ shit keep coming from.

“Now,” the Cerberus—Stark and Lilynette, I’d bet cold hard fucking cash on it—said morosely, “we are just Lóbrego.”

That literally meant stark. Hell. I was in hell.

“Lobato.”

It was a terrible nickname, but well within my habit of giving cutesy diminutive nicknames to beings that had the power to kill me with very little effort. Grimmjow caught the ebb of that thought, twitched in annoyance because he very viscerally hated acknowledging that we weren’t King of Everything (yet) and then sighed, because what would even be the point of arguing.

Sure, whatever.

No. He’d caved to that too easily. I had to step it up.

“Lobatito.”

What? No—

“Lobatitico.”

Stop.

“Lobatón.”

Can you not.

“Lobatiticico.”

Can you not.

“Uh… Lobato is fine.”

Thank fuck someone else has some sense.

I snorted. I know you are not implying that you have sense.

“Alright,” I agreed, nodding at the newly christened Lobato. “Welcome to the club.”

Lobato choked. Behind me, I heard Nakeem and Eduardo do the same.

“You want me to come with you?” Incredulity was a weird look with that many mouths and eyes involved.

“What,” I folded our arms across our chest. Glorious, glorious body language. “Were you just gonna stay here?”

I gestured to the nothing all around us. Sand to the east, brittle rock and clay to the west with the ever-present mountains looming in the north.

“But,” Lobato tried, “I hurt you—”

“Not on purpose.” Surprisingly, Grimmjow was the one to speak up first. “You got a handle on it now, right?”

“But—”

Nakeem chimed in, “Grimmjow, maybe—”

We clapped our hands together. Yak yak yak yak yak. Too much talking.

“Executive Decision has been made, you’re coming with. Too late to protest, Court Adjourned.”

“Grimmjow, we really—”

“Are you sure—“

We smiled and flared our own power, our own energy. It wasn’t as much as Lobato’s—not yet, Grimmjow reminded me—but we crafted it into sharp blades digging into the soft vulnerable skin of necks, the feeling of a predator’s eyes on you from places unseen, claws in eyes, fangs bared—

“Court. Adjourned.”

This time, there were no protests.

“Cool, let’s go.”


So it turned out that Lobato had been fucking everywhere. They stuck close to us, which seemed to suit Eduardo and the others fine, and as they watched me update the map, one mouth huffed.

“There’s a cave in between Sosegón and Aojado,” a mouth attached to starburst eyes commented.

“Yeah?” Grimmjow decided to handle the conversation, abandoning me to the frustrations of cartography, which we still knew jackshit about.

“It gets buried a lot in sandstorms, but it opens up into a pretty big cavern.”

“Huh.” Grimmjow made to give me a mental nudge, but I was already making note of it.

Emboldened, I guess by the fact that we were willingly talking to them or something, one of the crosshair heads added, “And there’s this canyon that runs from the west edge of the Maw to the Crystal Forest.”

“The Maw?”

“Uh,” it faltered. “That’s what we call the big mountains, cuz they look like teeth.”

Grimmjow nodded our head as I scribbled the words in. “Better’n what we were calling it.”

“Why are you making a map anyway?” Lobato shoved its gargantuan head closer to the map in question, completely blocking our line of sight. Well then. Clearly a sign that I was thankfully done with the map for the day.

“Well, partly cuz I dunno shit about this desert,” Grimmjow answered. I continued, “But mostly to piss of this pretentious bonehead in El Remanso.”

Lobato leaned back, head… heads tilted. “El Remanso?”

“Yeah, s’got a star next to it.”

A moment’s silence as they searched for it, and then, “Why call it that?”

“S’what it’s called. Biggest city in this whole place, like a city-city.”

“El Remanso,” one of them repeated under their breath.

“Yeah, we’ll probably end up there at some point,” I scowled. Nakeem was incredibly persistant.

“Wait, what—” Lobato yelped and then tripped over its own feet as it attempted to back away. All it really did was kick sand up onto the map. “There are people there! We can’t go there!”

Times like these, I really wish I had eyebrows to pointedly raise.

“I don’t wanna go either, but there’s no can’t.”

“Everybody will get hurt! We can’t—”

I didn’t roll my eyes but it was a near thing. Delicate, I reminded myself. They haven’t interacted with other people in like fucking æons.

“You’re around people now and nobody got hurt,” I saw their mouths open to protest and quickly added, “Once you learned how to control yourself.”

“But we still hurt someone,” they said morosely.

“Now you know how to prevent that from happening,” I countered.

“I… I guess,” one head agreed. There was a lot of growling from multiple mouths and a lot of ear movement, but eventually, Lobato nodded.

“Moot point anyway,” I said after a moment. “I’m not going back anytime soon.”


Yeah, I know.

Me and my big fucking mouth.


It could be said, perhaps, that I don’t exactly have my priorities in order. I mean, I’d call total bullshit because things have more or less worked out in my favor, give or take some memory loss and existential crises, but it could be said. The blame for a lot of things could be laid at the feet of my imbalanced priorities: the length of time for which it took me to come to terms with my… situation, for one.

But hey! Water under the bridge, past is past.

Our current situation was pretty good, all things told. The body was humanoid and bipedal, which alleviated a lot of stress on my end. I knew how ball-joints and knee caps and fingers worked. But we retained plenty of perks from our escudero form, like impeccable balance and claws and a creepy amount of flexibility given that we were not made of like. Lava rock.

Anyway.

“Grimmjow?” Nakeem asked, apropos of nothing. Since Xiaolong had been…. I dunno, erased from space-time, he’d been quieter. More pensive.

“Yeah?”

“Do we have any plans?”

We looked up. Or, well, down, since we were lying on our backs, sprawled across Il Forte’s… back, I think. One day, I really needed to figure out what the fuck he was supposed to be. At any rate, we were sunbathing, because it turned out that lava rock retained heat beautifully.

Oh, wait. Question. Answer. Right.

“… No?” I offered. It was, in and of itself a kind of strange question, because I never had a plan for anything I did. Grimmjow had vague ideas about what he wanted but he couldn’t plan his way out of a paper bag.

Oh, fuck you.

Fighting to the death is not the solution to everything and you know it.

He grumbled, and the body growled with him, but he didn’t say anything because he knew I was right.

“About where to go?” Il Forte asked Nakeem, and we could feel the vibrations of his voice through his carapace. It was like hearing the earth talk. Grimmjow was thinking idle thoughts about leaping from Il Forte’s back in a twist and curl of feline acrobatics, because if we timed everything right, we could land on Lobato’s back on our feet, and it would look rad as fuck. He wasn’t quite offering it up into our shared space as a suggestion, but he wasn’t quiet about thinking it, either. I ignored it for the moment.

It would look rad as fuck, though.

“Yes, I think we should give it some thought.” Oh great. Nakeem was in one of his adamant moods.

We’d left El Remanso… hell, at least a few centuries ago? Nine editions of a map ago, give or take a month-or-year. Time dragged on and passed in blurs as it was wont to do, not helped by the weird ass day-night cycle, and I could only hope that my guesses weren’t too far off. We’d been out of El Remanso for far, far longer than we’d ever been in it, that was for sure.

“Should we?” I asked, mostly to myself. I knew what Nakeem was going to suggest. We all knew what Nakeem was going to suggest, because it was the only thing he suggested now. We’d found hidden caverns and what clearly used to be an ocean bed, not to mention an absurd amount of tiny villages and all this schmuck could think about was fucking El Remanso.

“Perhaps, if you were to consider returning to El Remanso…?” Nakeem let his words trail off, as though this was the first or even the fiftieth time we were having this conversation.

Can we just go so he’ll stop fucking talking about it, Grimmjow asked without asking.

I am honestly tempted, I confessed.

“You know what,” I conceded with a pointed yawn. “If you wanna go back that bad, fine.”

Someone made a soft, startled noise. We stilled.

I’d closed our eyes to yawn, a wide tongue-furling jaw-cracking one, and when I’d opened them again, everything was dark. Not the usual faint moonlight or encroaching sunrise dark, but a dark completely void of any light. Which was, you know, a problem, considering that the sun had been high overhead less than three seconds ago.

We fell into a tense crouch, shoulders hunched and head low.

The fuck, Grimmjow hissed, the thought barely formed.

This is familiar, I almost said. Why was this familiar.

There was a shuffle of movement overhead, one that we both knew.

“Di Roy,” Grimmjow whispered, our mouth barely moving. There was a pause, and then a quick wave of air and pressure and Di Roy dove and landed right behind us.

“I can’t see,” he whined, but there was an undertone of fear in his voice.

We should’ve been able to see. Even during those long nights when the moon was barely a ragged sliver in the sky, our night vision was enough to at least make out shadows. But there was nothing. Just a deep, inky black, thick enough that it completely threw off my spatial awareness.

I grumbled idle curses, annoyed, because this was familiar

Our vision might’ve been compromised, but if anything, our hearing had sharpened: sand; shifting, being shifted under weight and the smallest creak of cloth—

Back,” Grimmjow snarled, and we leapt backwards, yanking Di Roy along with hands clenched tight around a wing. Under the flurry of motion, the song of a bladed weapon whistled through the air.

There was somebody trying to kill us. Again.

“Ain't this bouta a bitch,” I grumbled.

No response from whoever was attacking, and we barely threw ourselves under a wide slice. Who the hell even had a sword in Hueco Mundo? Who the hell would launch an attack while it was pitch fucking black—

Tousen. Tousen fucking Kaname would. That's how he got Zaraki or Kuchiki or who the fuck ever.

“Di Roy, get the fuck outta here.” There was no point in whispering because there was no way that Tousen wasn't going to hear us.

"Eh? But Grimmjow—“

"Quickly." I growled and after a moment there was a great buffet of wind as Di Roy launched himself into the air and hopefully out of whatever sphere of false darkness Tousen had us trapped in. Speaking of Tousen, I threw myself forward in the same moment, not giving the shinigami the chance to even consider targeting Di Roy as he fled.

The blade of my karambit met the edge of a katana with an explosion of sparks and for a moment, the darkness waned. Long enough for me to look my opponent in the face.

“Hello,” the human—no, the shinigami—said, a little stilted but mostly placid and fuck, we weren’t ready for this, we would never be ready for this. “You’ll all be coming with me now.”


It’s not that I thought we couldn’t beat Tousen. The problem, the thing that set my thoughts spiralling was the fact that this was Plot™. Not that meeting the others hadn’t been, but Tousen’s presence meant that Aizen was here, had already been here. It meant that the stupid Winter War—or whatever it was called—was happening, being set in motion right then.

Stumbling across hoyo was one thing. But shinigami? In Hueco Mundo? That meant it was more or less too late to escape.

Goddamnit.

We dodged another swing of Tousen’s sword, leaping back as far as we could. Normally, not being able to see wouldn’t really be that big of a deal because it turns out that we had amazing spacial awareness, but the false darkness made it like trying to navigate a familiar space in the middle of the night. Everything felt a few inches out of place. I was more concerned because we hadn’t heard from anyone besides Di Roy—

There was a thump, weight slamming into the sand behind us and we froze. And then the presence registered and we sighed.

“Thank fuck,” Grimmjow grumbled. “Can you help us ghost this motherfucker?”

Lobato—because it was Lobato—hunched down with a creak of tendons and bone, bringing their mass of mouths and ears closer to our own.

“Can't fight, can't fight him.” Their voice was almost a blur, multiple mouths speaking over each other, the words repeated like a mantra. Shit. The last thing we needed was them panicking.

“Hey, c’mon, breathe—

“No control.” At least one mouth interrupted. “Can't fight, can't hurt you, don't want to hurt you, too much, too strong, can't control, can't stop—”

… Fuck. They couldn’t fight. That they didn’t want to risk me or the others by releasing the immensity of their power. They hadn't even been trying to kill us when we first met, so I could only imagine what it feel like them to be around them in combat. Shit. Shit shit shit.

“Hey, hey, it's fine. Just, can you keep him distrac—”

We leapt apart without warning and Tousen’s zanpakutou cleaved the bedrock where we had been.

“Yes,” some of Lobato’s mouths say. Maybe one of the cross pupils? Which one was that again? Wait, wait. Not the time.

They bounded off and I crouched, trying to think of options.

Any ideas? I let the thought float free, casual.

Grimmjow, who had been thrumming with tension from the moment Di Roy had retreated, gave the mental equivalent of a confused blink.

Kick his ass, obviously.

“Oh, yeah, obviously, but I was looking for more of a game plan—”

That sword. He was ignoring me, the asshole. Is the sword how he makes it dark?

The question threw me for a loop. It was the first time he had directly asked about my foreknowledge, rather than poking fun and how useless most of the information was.

I wracked my brain furiously, even as we sprung towards Tousen and came in close, slipping under a swing of his sword and hooking our foot around his ankle and yanking him off balance. Before he could plant his back foot and regain his balance, we hit him in the solar plexus with an open palm.

The darkness shattered like a glass pane. Tousen went flying.

Huh. Wouldja look at that.

Huh,” I said.

How strong were we? This was the first time we'd had an opponent close enough in size who even had hands to even try hand to hand. Considering that Tousen has bounced across the ground like a stone across water was a pretty good indicator that I wasn't weak, at least.

Not strong enough, Grimmjow thought, less at me and more in general. The wavering thought-image of us one-shotting an opponent with a single hit (bodily explosions optional) came and went. I acknowledged the thought and took a quick glance around. Di Roy was in the sky, thankfully. Il Forte wasn’t too far off, but he, Nakeem and Eduardo were keeping to Tousen’s back. Lobato was off to the left, crouched low.

And Tousen, at least forty, forty-five feet away, was already on his feet. His shinigami clothes—something something hakama?—were ripped. He looked…. that wasn't a happy look.

“Fuck,” I hissed. Should've gone after the sword.

Sword didn't make it dark, I thought-said. Does make him stronger, though. The darkness was some kinda… spell thing. Kido? Hado?

Shinigami trickery, Grimmjow spat. There was a wealth of derision there.

Valid, but like. Derision is not a valid counter to fucking death magic or whatever.

Tousen dashed forward, closing in rapidly and sword already angled to cut, only to flicker away just in time for Lobato’s many jaws to miss where his arm had been.

“You should not be this strong,” Tousen murmured, probably to himself, but every other being in the immediate vicinity had supernatural monster-creature senses, so clandestine monologues were pretty firmly out of question.

Tousen mumbled something else about possibly having the wrong target, which was alarming and indicated that he was going after multiple people and was definitely not new to this.

Not good. That was… incredibly not good.

“Very well,” Tousen said, this time clearly directing it towards Grimmjow and I, if not the others. “I shall defeat you swiftly.”

Did people actually talk like that? Did antagonists seriously monologue?

“Nake, Suzumushi—”

Fuck—

Fuck—

Fuck—

“Stop him!”

We all leapt at the same time, but too late. An explosion of energy and dust and a piercing wave of sound and Lobato collided with us head on, right above the hilt of Tousen’s sword. Bones and dust and a blade cleaving through and—

And then—

Everything hurt, and there was no getting away from it, all we could do was bare our teeth, was roar our fury into the world, was writhe in pain and hate.

Everything was so big—was so small, so diminutive, so easily snuffed out—they kept dying, they all just kept dying, no matter how far we ran, they just kept screaming and dying—brace yourself, push your weight into your legs, dig claws into rough, cracked earth, feel the sun upon your back—everything was light, was too bright, blinding, there was nothing but light, light, light—atoms split apart, torn, like skin from muscle, like muscle from fat, like marrow from bone, tearing and torn and it hurt

——A hand, on a blade, fingers curled around a hilt with purpose——

Does the ant think itself a goose?

We were empty, so full of nothing, fit to burst from it, an eternity in our eyes, an ever-expanding universe behind our ribs—

—the shine of sunlight, dawn breaking over the horizon, gleaming off black metal—

With ten thousand eyes, we have gazed upon you, and we have found you lacking.

—there is screaming, there is always screaming, it will never stop, it never stops, we’re sorry, we don’t mean to, we don’t want to—

A bellow of fury, a cry of despair. Aren’t they the same thing?

—jaws snap shut, the force of it nearly incomprehensible, a shockwave of pressure billowing out, fangs and fangs and fangs clenched, blood running freely, the taste of lightning, the taste of darkness, the taste of sound—

—fuck—

—on a tongue, on tongues, so sweet—

—every millimeter, every inch, can you not feel the very edges of your own existence?

There was.

Light, heat. Bright, warm, ribs heaving, eyes stinging—there is no darkness, only light; there is no life, only emptiness—

There was—

There was a…. a sky. It is called a sky. The sun, the moon, the stars. Celestial bodies careening around us overhead.

Eyes. Open, shut. Shut, open.

Sun. Moon. Stars. Earth. Land.

“—jow?”

Pain is a shape, the flow of head to chest, the explosion of limbs, of arms and legs, of claws and teeth. Pain is a memory, pain is a state of being.

—we are, we are, we are

—never wanna do that again—

Was that me? What was me? Who was me? Was there a me?

I?

—heat, the sun, the sun, and sand and quiet—no, and noise—no, and quiet—

We?

Muscles tensed, muscles slackened, tendons shredded like meat. Lungs swelled to burst, breathe in sanctuary and exhale entropy, the slow decay. Lights winking out across the land for the sin of existing. Monster of monsters, run away.

Fuck. Ow. Fucking ouch.

Who was? Could be? Am? Are we? We? You? Us.

The parting of flesh, the spilling of blood. The creep of solitude, the loss of heat and life. Alone. Alone alone alone.

—not alone, won’t leave, but can’t stay this close, too close, where is the divide, pieces that come together, not an amalgamation of pain, of flesh, of mind—

—alone alone alone alone—

—never, never again, here, we are here, but there. is. space. between.—

A stretch, a rip, a tear. Break. Break!

Our body, propped up on shaking arms, leaned far to the side and vomited lava and volcanic ash.

Our body. My body. Ours-as-I alone. Thank fuck.

“You okay?” Grimmjow asked. Our voice was gravel and shattered glass. Words drew blood into the throat. We did not—could not?—open our eyes.

“… Yes.” A voice. Not ours, but Ours? Soft, aching, hurting, alone—

“Hey, we’re right here. Not goin’ anywhere any time soon.” Not when we weren’t sure if we even had legs. Not when breathing was an achievement in and of itself.

“Grimmjow?” Another voice. Not Ours, but Mine. Eduardo.

We grunted, made it high enough to be a yeah, what? Eduardo exhaled relief so pungent that it was cloying.

“What happened?” Another scrape of air, more blood—lava—bubbling in the throat.

A nervous flutter, tense indecision.

(Our eyes are closed. How do we know.)

“You and, uh, Lobato cheated death.”

Burlar a la muerte. Shinigami.

Shinigami—?

—light that burns cold and heartless, shinigami trickery—

Darkness and sparks, blade against blade, you’ll all be coming with me now

Tousen. Shinigami. Would-be conqueror. Gone. Dead? Didn’t matter. Gone. Good.

Lick the blood from our mouths, our teeth.

Jee-zus,” I spat, another glob of lava hitting sand and hissing. “Y’all okay?”

Eduardo continued to flutter, stepping forward, stepping back. Our eyes remained closed.

“Yeah, we were far enough away.”

“What did it want?” Di Roy. “The shinigami?”

Arm shaking. We cracked our eyes open, prying open clam shells. The first thing we saw was Lobato, scant inches away. Their mouths were open, eyes distant, but they were breathing.

Up, Grimmjow thought. Shaking arms, push, push. Sitting up felt like dying.

Il Forte, with Di Roy on his shoulder. Eduardo. Nakeem.

“He—” I cleared our throat and spat yet another glob of lava and rock shards. “He wanted us.”

Di Roy made a noise of enlightenment. “He was one of the shinigami fuckheads!”

It was so unexpected that it made us laugh, which made us wince.

“Yeah, he was one of ‘em. Glad to see the back of him.”

Nakeem opened his mouth. Nothing came out.

“Grimmjow,” Il Forte said, slowly, “You and Lobato killed the shinigami.”

“Hmm.”

It wasn’t surprising, but I didn’t really… remember doing that. It was a little awkward to have killed a guy and not know how. Whatever had happened between us and Lobato was a jumble of disjointed thoughts that made our skull ache. I was just gonna take Il Forte’s word on it.

Speaking of Lobato, though.

Grimmjow reached out and grabbed the nearest ear.

Lobato’s breath stuttered and then they started coughing, deep and thick. Eyes blinked, most of them not at the same time, and they slowly pushed themselves upright.

“You good?”

Mouths opened. Eyes fluttered.

“You didn’t leave,” at least four separate mouths said.

If I didn’t think it would collapse the lungs I wasn’t even sure I still had, I would’ve thrown my arms up in exasperation. “I literally told you that I wasn’t leaving.”

A few mouths curved up into doggish grins, unrepentant under my half-hearted glare.

Whatever.

Anyway, thank fuck that’s over and done with—”

Wait, wait, wait. Shit.

Shit.

“We gotta go, c’mon, we gotta go right now—”

No, wait, I had to think. Rushing wouldn’t fix anything.

Eduardo and Nakeem were trying to get my attention, asking questions, but I tuned them out.

When Tousen had first appeared—or rather, when I’d first actually seen him—I could only think why. Why now, why us, why.

But that wasn’t the right question. It didn’t really matter why Tousen had come after us; the more pressing concern was how had Tousen known to come looking? We hadn’t been in El Remanso in literal ages. We weren’t travelling according to some itinerary, we just went wherever the fuck we felt like. There was no way Tousen had just stumbled across us by accident, this far out into the Badlands. What could we have possibly done that would’ve alerted Tousen fucking Kaname, of all people?

… Oh. The thought was quiet. I wasn’t even sure if Grimmjow thought it or if I did.

Something like showing up at the Still and throwing our weight around, showing off to the Leviathan and fighting for like three weeks straight, perhaps?

Yeah, that would probably do it.

Godsdamnit.


“Mari?” We called, stalking forward with carefully placed feet, listening for some hint of… anything, really.

There was nothing.

The Scorpion King hadn’t come barreling out of nowhere, but that was easy to rationalize away. They had to take a break sometime, right?

But there was, truly, nothing.

Not the ever-present hovering static of the Leviathan’s power, a distant storm. I couldn’t feel the annoying buzz-buzz of her cronies either, like persistent mosquitoes. No, it was quiet, the kind of unnatural quiet that I hadn’t experienced since… shit, since waking up in a body that wasn’t my own.

It was the kind of silence that told you that you were alone, the only living thing around.

A series of pop-pop-pops interrupted my thoughts. Di Roy, Eduardo and Il Forte arrived in a wave of energy, their sonidos having the same charge as licking a fistful of pennies. Another sound—not quite a pop, almost more of a tear—and Lobato rippled into existence to my left, as though they’d been there all along. I’d run ahead because—

Well, because I was fucking concerned, alright?.

And I was right to be.

Everything was all a ruin.

It shouldn’t have been possible, because The Still was just sand and impossible water—the territory didn’t even have visible boundaries!—but the fact remained that there were drag marks and frantic looking depressions in the sand and an eerie silence that I didn’t trust.

“Shit,” I said.

“Shit,” Grimmjow agreed.

Someone—a shinigami—had come here, to the Leviathan’s domain, as consequence of something I’d done. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, stale and thick. I didn’t entirely like the Leviathan—okay, no, that was bullshit. Maribén and I might’ve been better friends from a distance, but that didn’t mean that I’d meant for her to get wrapped up in Plot Bullshit™ just because I’d wanted to show off my new evolutionary state or whatever.

“So,” I sighed, out loud because I might as well get it over with and put it out there in the universe already. “I guess we are going back to El Remanso.”