In this new world that he'd found himself in, not everything was as simple as black and white, and just because he had power didn't mean that he should dictate the lives of anyone, yet here he was now.
He stood up. Across from him was the vast expanse of what remained of his inner world in a dormant state. Ash and fire had mixed into a desert of pale white. The grass and fields of swords left buried and desolate. The winds that blew were no more than the dying fumes of a furnace.
Once upon a time, it was haven for the oppressed.
Now, it was the last bastion of defence preventing the full integration of Yhwach's new world order.
The power of spiritual beings is based on their output of spiritual energy, the strongest of which could affect material objects. The common Hollow had the means to interact with the Human world, and Adjuchas-Class and Vasto-Lordes all but dominated any area with their spiritual energy. The Shinigami were the same down from seated officers, to Vice-Captains, then Captains themselves. In which case, what did that make him on the established power scale?
His hands balled into fists while his mind stirred at the constant pressure of forcing back Yhwach's influence on the borders of his world. He was the only one capable of doing so.
The very nature of his soul and inner world made him stand on a different realm from those who gauged power by their amount of spiritual energy. His spirit could not only interact with the world, but overwrite it completely with different laws and rules.
In the words of Ichibei and the others whom he'd overheard from his current spot on a hill of swords, he was referred to and hypothesised as a natural phenomenon only seen once in this world's history.
Ichibei referred to him as a potential 'Second Coming,' the meaning of which was lost to him as none elaborated.
His lips thinned, eyes pressing shut as he concentrated.
He felt the need to keep a close eye on them, but even if this was his world, the task was impossible unless he devoted a majority of his effort. Think of it like radio static; the more of it you have on a certain frequency, the less audible the noise on the other end until you fine tune the radio. If Hueco Mundo was the medium of transmission, then each individual person inhabiting his world produces their own static which he would have to sort through and consciously suppress in order to focus on only a single source.
The fact that he'd already diverted a majority of his attention to gather intel on the Zero Squad revealed the underlying effect of the warning Aizen had given him in advance.
"Noble is one way to describe them for their feats of strength and revolutionary insights, but if everything you hear and see on the surface is all that matters, then I suppose that even I can be considered a saint by revealing the hypocrisy and flaws of the Central Forty-Six… A joke; take it as you will."
It was the first time Shirou had noticed Aizen appear so serious. The man looked like he was competing against actual competition that had the means to rival or surpass him, granted their individual spiritual energies far surpassed Yamamoto's.
Aizen was always one who preferred strategy over raw power; the only exception being against adversaries deemed too inferior to plot against. This was the fallacy of pride, something that for all of Aizen's meticulousness and careful analytical deductions, he'd yet to realize himself.
Shirou digressed and opened his eyes to peer down at the group of five powerhouses on the side of the Shinigami.
The point of the matter was that if Aizen was bidding his time against the Zero Squad, then there was reason for concern.
"We are partners, yes?"
Aizen had almost sounded hesitant, as if the words were foreign, but the question was rhetoric. Aizen's memory was flawless, meaning that the only reason he'd asked was out of something incomprehensible for a man like him.
There had been no need for an answer, and all Shirou could remember doing was observing the way Aizen inwardly mulled over recent developments before something of a peaceful expression washed over his features when Shirou simply nodded.
"The world is a lonely place at the top…yes truly. But steps must be taken. Take this as you will, but there are worse goals than disrupting the world order by seeking change to rewrite its inherent flaws rather then feign ignorance. The problem will always exist, and I simply choose to find a solution, albeit through the animosity of those too entrenched in the system unwilling to make sacrifices. A question then? If you were a larva trapped in the shell of your own cocoon, is it not natural to tear it down and experience the world outside unshackled and free?
Shirou wasn't a fool. He could understand what Aizen was hinting at as he'd experienced it for himself: This world, this cocoon, was erroneous. Hollows were constantly hunted, conflicts between rival factions spanned thousands of years, and the most damning of all, limits.
Shinigami, Hollows, and Humans, they all have an unsurpassable plateau of power.
Vasto Lorde, Captain, Quincy.
No matter how much one struggled, they would be confined to the boundaries of their existence, never able to affect the world as a whole for better or for worse.
It was a pre-ordained existence: Balanced at the cost of prolonged injustice.
How could Aizen ever accept such a reality? Instead, he'd walked his own path and surpassed the unseen plateau of power through combining the nature of souls.
Arrancar were the definite proof of Aizen's research.
Greater strength is found not in balance, but in assimilation.
"No matter their titles or deeds, never forget only a single fact: The Zero Squad is and will always be a failsafe of this world order, and 'we' as the anomalies will always be their enemies. I for carrying the weight of revolution, and you due to the nature of your own existence. A piece of advice for a partner: In using a pawn, trust not in the pieces, but in what those pieces will do."
Shirou rubbed his temples at the memory.
'I do not have pawns. I prefer direct methods,' was his sole reply.
"And that is why we're partners, yes?"
The way Aizen had smirked was still in Shirou's mind. Of course, the fact that Kyouka Suigetsu was gushing at the sight of her two favorite people getting along proved that Aizen was in fact being genuine. After all, he'd never had that sort of reaction from Kyouka in all the other times he'd interacted with Aizen and this was telling.
Aizen could care less about those around him, but it was once again out of a vain pride born of superiority. The man had never truly considered meeting anyone near his level that wasn't an enemy to truly work with up until now which was sad in its own way.
Sparing one last stare at the distant form of the Royal Guard, Shirou finally put his attention elsewhere. More specifically, to those idling near him.
Starrk was half-awake while sprawled on the ground, elbows up, and hands propped behind his head. His gaze was lidded, but not once did it ever leave the direction of the Shinigami making camp over their designated spot. He, just like Coyote and Lilynette had no care about a second release as they already had it.
Starrk's form denoted leisure, but those who knew him would be able to see the way he appeared ready to spring into action at any moment.
Harribel who stood with her arms crossed several feet away was no different. Her hair swayed freely in the gentle breeze, the teal of her eyes narrowed in clear displeasure and grudging acceptance. If keeping Shinigami around had the chance to let her awaken her Second Release then it was something that she could bear if Baraggan had the patience to erect a throne of bone directly before the Shinigami and Royal Guard in order to observe them like lab rats.
Of course, Baraggan's actions unnerved many Shinigami, bur barring violence, there was nothing that could be done.
Aizen described the situation of the Shinigami aptly. In Hueco Mundo, no Hollow had any fear of danger.
Further away from Baraggan on a distant hill was Coyote polishing the silver revolver in her right hand. No matter how much she may have wanted to remain close to Shirou's side, old habits died hard. She'd always been the one protecting her fellow Hollows and her 'Starrk' from Shinigami. The fact that Yamamoto and equally strong Shinigami were present made it impossible for her to relax.
Shirou could feel the tension permeating around him, but a majority of it was apprehension from the Shinigami. Of those presently near him like Starrk and Harribel, Nel was the only one who appeared to be thinking about something.
Nel's gaze was distant, her lips pursed into a frown.
"Is this really necessary?" Starrk stifled a yawn. This tentative peace was only going to last for so long.
Harribel glanced sharply at Starrk before releasing a breath and shaking her head. "If it's to our benefit, then there is purpose to the sacrifice Shirou is making by allowing them to stay."
"Benefit? From just watching them?" Starrk turned on his side and leaned his right elbow on the ground to prop his chin on his hand. "Why don't you ask the grumpy old bag of bones how well that's going?"
Harribel had no response. She could feel Baraggan's irritation all the way from where she stood: Everyone could. The haze of death surrounding Baraggan wasn't exactly subtle.
Rather than answer Starrk, Shirou sensed it when Harribel's focus shifted onto him for a reply she herself was unsure of. Now that he looked beside him, Starrk and Nel were the same.
"We wait," he said more for himself than everyone else. "Aizen's making preparations."
Harribel, Starrk, and Nel nodded to his words while looking at the Shinigami.
Whatever Aizen was doing, Harribel, and the rest were clearly seeing something different from what he was. Honestly, he was never going to get used to the sight of everyone yelling or talking to air while Aizen smirked a distance away as everyone made fools of themselves. Of course, in this case, Aizen was careful to blend his illusions to match with whatever the Zero Squad was seeing considering he'd yet to expose them to Kyouka Suigetsu.
Ever the meticulous one, Aizen always seemed to know what he was doing and weeded out Kisuke Urahara.
Starrk yawned into his palm again and didn't say anything else. He was content to just lie where he was while Harribel grunted after noticing Sung-Sun, Apacci, and Mila-Rose engage in profanities against a bald-headed Shinigami and his squad mates.
"Say that again you bald fuck! You think I'm scared of you?!"
"Go ahead ya bitch! Fight me! I'll even give you a free shot so we all now who started it!"
The voices carried in the wind, drawing the interest of Grimmjow and the others who were rearing for any excuse to fight.
Harribel's eyes narrowed, the thought of Apacci and the others jeopardizing whatever arrangement Shirou was working towards irking her as she was responsible by extension.
"If you'll excuse me," she said flatly before disappearing in a burst of Sonido.
Starrk was more than willing to let Harribel go. Admittedly, he was getting kind of tired with the way Harribel would silently chastise him for his leisurely attitude with Shirou. Though, it wasn't as if Shirou minded Starrk's behaviour.
"Shut up! What do you mean I can't fight?! I'm not a brat! S-So shut up!"
Starrk's eyes abruptly opened in exasperation before he mechanically turned his gaze to the sight of Lilynette being held in the air by the scruff of her shirt by a frustrated Renji who was on the verge of losing his self control.
"Damn brat," Starrk dusted himself off and stood up.
At any other time, Shirou knew Starrk well enough to know that he'd leave Lilynette be considering the Shinigami would have to think twice before truly instigating violence.
The main difference between the past and present was Coyote's distant stare prompting Starrk to intervene on her behalf while Coyote's eyes remained trained on the Royal Guard and Captains of note.
Starrk followed Harribel's example and disappeared in a buzz of sound and upturned white sand.
Roughly alone, Shirou's attention shifted towards Nel who was still standing in place while looking out into the distance. She appeared so lost in thought that she likely hadn't even noticed Starrk and Harribel leave.
"Nel," he called out to her just to make sure. "Is there something you want to talk about?"
Hollows may be considered malefic and corrupted souls, but they could be just as expressive and self doubtful as any individual.
In Nel's case, she was a Hollow that perhaps cared a bit too much, making a clear distinction between herself and beasts.
"Uhm, yes, actually," she dropped her reservations and sighed when she realized he would be able to tell if she lied. "Would you mind accompanying me for a bit. It will be easier to explain that way."
He hummed. As far as he was concerned, any reason to help his allies would increase their survivability in the coming conflict with Yhwach and the Quincy.
He had no reason to refuse.
This wasn't the sort of problem he pictured Nel would be having when he'd agreed to help her.
Don't get him wrong. He had no qualms with aiding her, but his presence brought with it an untold amount of animosity and wariness when Nel led him to an isolated area designated for the Shinigami. It was far from where the bulk of the Shinigami had made their temporary resting grounds with their Kido, but it was close enough that all Captains and the Royal Guard become aware of his presence the moment he arrived with Nel.
If not for the apprehension the Shinigami had towards him, many may have tried to accost him for their own reasons. As it was, Shunsui warned the other Captain not to act out of hand while the Captain Commander was out of commission. The Royal Guard however, had no qualms with trying to approach him on the basis of friendly interaction.
He didn't buy that gimmick from the beginning, and a ring of fiery pink light in the distance pointed at the direction of the Royal Guards indicated that Coyote shared the same opinion. The ground quaked from the gathering spiritual energy, the horizon itself shifting into a vibrant flickering haze congregated at a single point at the tip of Coyote's pistol.
The blast wouldn't only encompass the Royal Guard, but every Shinigami behind them too, causing Shunsui's loose expression to harden. The choice of conflict was firmly placed on the shoulders of the Royal Guard and inwardly, Shunsui was already disillusioned with them.
Tensions rose, but Coyote just didn't care.
Baraggan who was observing the scene much like the other inhabitants of Hueco Mundo, stood up on his throne, the miasma of death around him taking the likeness of a roaring skull. This alerted everyone else in Hueco Mundo of potential conflict.
"Is this truly necessary for just a peaceful quick introduction?" Ichibei spoke up on behalf of the Royal Guard.
No one answered, but the distinct click of Coyote pulling back her revolver's safety and channeling a further ring of power around her growing Cero was heard by all Shinigami.
"Might you not show conduct proper of a host?" Ichibei's soft smile thinned into a frown of frustration.
Shirou frowned. The fact that they were so insistent was already grounds for suspicion, and evidently, he wasn't the only one to think so.
Beside Coyote, Starrk suddenly appeared, placed a hand on her shoulder, and merged with her to become a grey-pelt coat. The effect was instantaneous: Pink shifted into a pastel purple that distorted the air by forcibly condensing the energy into the size of a small bullet. Sand quickly pushed out from beneath her and formed a growing crater as the bone helmet that covered one of Coyote's eyes formed a red target reticule in the dark space.
"…" Ichibei noticed the attention that his fellow Shinigami were directing at him. Shunsui firmly shook his head while Unohana remained deceptively neutral.
By the time Lilynette appeared by Coyote intent on sharing her power and unleashing the Second Release, a decision had to be made.
Ichibei grunted, raising a hand and sighing while ordering his unit to stand down and return to their camp.
A flash of disappointment flashed across Baraggan's hollow sockets, before he turned to look at the massive congregation of power Coyote had already gathered begin to dissipate.
Truly it was a pity. To witness the full powered shot of a legend of the past didn't come often.
Seeing the situation diffuse, Shirou eased the energy he'd been gathering to shield his allies from harm. Aizen hadn't been wrong. In his world, he really would guarantee the safety of his friends, allies, and even associates to the best of his ability.
It was only when the Royal Guard turned around did they notice the odd traces of spiritual energy dissipating into the air directly behind them.
Grim features marked the expressions of the Shinigami that had witnessed what had appeared hovering in the blind spots of the Royal Guard. None had been able to sense them as they were created from the energy of the world itself, utterly undistinguishable to the senses.
This time, there would be conflict, the fact that the Royal Guard had even taken such a risk despite the situation of the Shinigami wasn't something that was missed by the remaining Captains.
Shirou just continued on his way.
Nel was leading him to a small cave by a dune of sand. She looked sheepish, almost regretful that she didn't take the reaction of his presence under consideration when she'd asked him to accompany her.
"Sorry," she muttered lowly, eyes glancing anywhere but at him for the lack of judgement. "I've been distracted as of late."
Shirou raised a brow. "You haven't exactly explained anything yet?"
Nel scratched her cheek with her index finger. "About that, it all began when I decided to take another companion like Pesche and Dondochakka, his name was Ichigo. He had heart, and his potential was promising."
"He is a Hollow. I'm sure of it." Nel nodded to herself. "His energy, his instinct, they're all there, but recent events have me doubting. Unlike most Hollows, he fully remembers his past life, friends, and even family…Silent. Their related, and Silent's been remembering past memories too."
Nel stopped just meters away from the cave's entrance. "Even if they're different from what was expected, they're still comrades, right?"
Shirou didn't answer right away. He could understand what Nel was feeling. She was Ichigo's mentor as a Hollow and much like Hollows who move in pacts, they trust each other or develop bonds. Harribel, Apacci, Mila-Rose, and Sung-Sun were the best example of this.
Yet, what if Ichigo wasn't truly a Hollow? Would he strike her down the moment she turned her back on him like the Shinigami who hunted Hollows and made use of their weaknesses?
"Is your bond so fragile?" Shirou asked instead.
Nel clammed up at the question, recalling prior events and her thoughts on Ichigo. She clenched her hands into fists.
"I believe it isn't. Even lost in rage in the battle in that fake dimension, he didn't harm me on instinct alone. I was pack in his eyes." Nel took in a breath and resolved herself. "Pack doesn't abandon pack. Pesche and Dondochakka would never abandon me, and I them."
A good answer. Shirou found himself momentarily struck by Nel's strength of character. Hollow or not, she was a better person than even the Shinigami tasked with hunting her.
"Then what is it that you need of me?" He stared at Nel as she resolutely stared into his eyes with a small smile tugging at her lips.
"Reassurance that I'm not doing something stupid. I already know what the others would think, and there's no way I'd ask Aizen. Of all people, I felt like you'd be able to understand."
And he did. He watched Nel slump her shoulders in what looked like relief that he hadn't told her she was wrong.
"I guess, the best way I thought of convincing you is if you saw Ichigo yourself and gauged what sort of person he was," Nel continued to explain. "Hence, uhm, here we are. Though I don't believe we're quite welcome."
This was an understatement.
The both of them could sense the spiritual energy in the cave spike after detecting their presence. The first one to greet them with a glare while holding her sword in a tense grip was Karin Kurosaki.
She froze in what could have only have had been abject shock and terror at Shirou's presence, or 'lack of there of,' as she couldn't feel anything despite his presence surrounding her. His spiritual signature was the entirety of Hueco Mundo itself.
She staggered back, eyes dilating and mouth opening inaudibly.
It could be sensed through intuition. If Karin fought, there was no chance of winning. However, she managed to calm down just a smidgen when she noticed Nel.
"I-It's you," Karin stuttered, trying to remain strong, but giving herself away by the trembling of her sword. "You're the one who helped Ichigo and stood up to shelter everyone with mom."
Nel simply nodded, doing her best to appear disarming, a feat made easier as an Arrancar with a human appearance.
"May we come in? I ugh, I brought a friend."
Something in Karin's terrified and wary eyes screamed that Nel had brought more than just a mere friend. This was the head honcho.
Stiffly nodding her head, Karin began leading the two inside knowing that resistance was futile no matter how sheepish Nel appeared that this was basically forcing their way in.
Karin's lack of attitude and quietness alerted everyone inside the cave that something was distinctly wrong.
Shirou observed the way faces turned pale and breaths hitched at his appearance. He noticed an odd group of humans, one a Quincy, the other with orange hair, and what looked like an entire crew of school students taking everything in.
Silent was blinking owlishly at him from beside a Captain-level Shinigami he didn't know, and other than her and Nel, everyone seemed on edge.
It was in the midst of his observation that he was violently and unexpectedly accosted by an enraged woman followed by a frantic younger brother telling her she was being crazy.
Bronze eyes stared into defiant green on the verge of snapping.
"You bastard! Where is Kaien!"
The room fell into muted silence.
The balls on this woman to grab the Vasto of White by the scruff of the neck and shake him down.
Ganju paled while screaming inaudibly, expression cringing. He pulled Kukaku back with a hand muffled over her mouth to prevent her from spewing any profanities.
It was a with a strength born from fear that for the first time, Ganju overpowered his elder sister and dragged her to a different part of the cave to restrain her. The sound of the two scuffling echoed in the cave's resonant walls.
Nel looked awkward while Silent moved to fix the now torn fabric of the white hakama Shirou wore while wordlessly pleading with her face to pretend as if nothing had happened.
Nel suddenly shuddered to think about how Harribel would have reacted to such disrespect in her place.
Shirou raised his hand, watching the way everyone either cowered or readied their weapons, before scratching the back of his head while sighing.
"Honestly, that wasn't the first time that's happened to me," he said in the most resigned tone he could muster. "I swear it's always the forceful or strong women that get their way."
Karin, Ishida, Orihime, Tatsuki, Chad, and everyone else excluding Nel and Silent felt perplexed or just downright confused as the tension gradually bled away.
Beyond the image of power and prestige the Vasto of White carried, was Shirou's true persona: a simple man who took joy from helping others.
It was in this moment as other gawked that the unconscious teenager that had once been resting on Silent's lap groggily opened his eyes.
Based on how Nel was looking at the teenager, Shirou confirmed an observation.
This must be Ichigo Kurosaki.
For a moment, the two just stared, silently observing the other and noting their own similarities.
For the first time, the paths of two protectors had crossed:
One created a Hollow.
The other, a human.
Thanks for reading!
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