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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.