They were wary of him. This much was clear as Shirou observed Isshin Kurosaki herding several humans behind him. Meanwhile, Ishida, Chad, and Karin joined Isshin by positioning themselves on either side of the man in the case of confrontation.
Of everyone present, only Nel and Silent appeared the most comfortable while the continued yelling of the two Shiba Clan siblings echoed from another part of the cave.
"Sorry, I didn't expect there to be so many around," Nel whispered to him with a wry smile at his side.
He shook his head in a gesture to deny Nel's apology, but every single one of his actions was being heavily securitized by those in front of him. It was a known fact that he could send out 'spiritual' blades with a simple movement, so by the time he directed his attention away from Nel, Isshin, Karin, and everyone else were firmly gripping their respective weapons.
"Ugh, I feel sick. What's going on?" A voice broke through the tense stand off as Ichigo cradled his head from a bout of nausea. "Nel?" he then called out a second later.
From beside him, Shirou watched a brief shift in Nel's expression when Ichigo hadn't called out to her with any animosity. Instead, there was a kind of relief in his tone that couldn't be faked which allowed Nel's features to soften.
With Ichigo waking up, it was like a thread had been cut and the reservations that had been bottled up within everyone all burst out at once.
"Ichigo what the hell is going on! What happened to you?!"
Before Isshin or anyone else could stop them, Tatsuki, Chizuru, Mizuiro, and Keigo bolted towards Ichigo's resting place with Tatsuki in the lead. Though Ichigo didn't look entirely human with paler skin and horns jutting out from his head, his facial features were recognizable.
Shirou watched as Tatsuki and the others surrounded Ichigo with concern, a vague sense of nostalgia assailing him at the scene. He once knew of a man who would constantly plunge himself into danger, and every time he would return to the people who constantly fretted over him like it was some sort of ritual…Then one day, the man failed to return.
Shirou sighed before plopping himself down on the ground into a seated position with his legs crossed. The times were simpler back in another life, but in this one, he found himself saddled with a position of power where others relied on him. Though at times it was taxing, but once again, he'd formed bonds with those around him.
To protect those that he held dear was his purpose in this afterlife after dying a hero in another time. The dream of saving everyone was impossible to fully realize simply because the act of saving one person may endanger another. There was no war or conflict where one side wouldn't take damage, and so what he'd come to do was help those who he could.
As Shirou Emiya, no, as the Vasto of White, he had a duty to uphold with the same honour and righteousness of a distant King of his past.
"Ichigo Kurosaki," he called out, adopting the tone and manner of speech of a dear individual. "I believe that this is our first meeting."
The others tensed up once again as soon as he spoke, much to Nel, Silent, and even Orihime's chagrin. A cat that had been lounging on the other side of the cave licked its paws and seemed to hum lightly.
Ichigo made no outward signs of hostility, and in fact, he looked a tad embarrassed at the way his friends and family were acting. Ichigo's time with Nel and in Hueco Mundo in general wasn't something that he could just forget.
Like Shirou had said to Nel before, was the strength of the bonds Ichigo had made to her and the Hollows in Hueco Mundo really that weak? These were words spoken out of experience. It wasn't the first time for Shirou that 'enemies' could become friends or allies.
At the very least, Ichigo appeared to be someone that Shirou felt like he understood on a fundamental level because in a way, weren't they the same?
"Guys, calm down," Ichigo tried to mediate, his hands going up to placate in a manner Shirou recognized himself once using.
Meanwhile, Shirou observed Tatsuki and the others watching curiously. Unlike everyone present, Tatsuki and the others had no relation to the affairs between Hollows, Shinigami, and Quincy. Speaking of which, who was the girl attached to Silent?
A light brown-haired middle-school girl in a thin hoodie and skirt was currently hiding behind Silent and out of sight from Ichigo. However, the moment Ichigo had spoken, the girl had been peaking over Silent's side, eventually catching Ichigo's attention.
"Yuzu? What are you-" Ichigo's words abruptly cut off when he noticed just who Yuzu was hiding behind. "M-Mom?"
"Mom?" Tatsuki echoed Ichigo's words before following Ichigo's gaze and stiffening as old memories resurfaced. "Mrs. Kurosaki?"
Shirou hummed in thought. The simple interaction between Ichigo, Tatsuki, and the expressions of everyone around explained to him the reason for Silent's behaviours as of late.
Still, he coughed into his hand, drawing everyone's attention. It's been quite a long time since anyone's dared to openly ignore him in Hueco Mundo. "We were talking?" He got straight to the point.
Ichigo looked sheepish, but his gaze would constantly flicker back to Silent, then to Isshin, then to everyone else around him. Despite the perpetual scowl on Ichigo's face, he was clearly fidgeting when everyone continued to display hostility.
As Ichigo had lived in Hueco Mundo for a time, he knew full well about Shirou's strength simply because every Hollow he'd ever met in Hueco Mundo talked of it. Moreover, Nel was around and if conflict occurs, he would once again have to choose between one side and the other.
"Why is everyone being so mean?" Orihime of all people suddenly spoke up with a disarming smile that didn't seem practiced at all. Her natural cheer had this sort of calming effect that had nothing to do with the fact that she'd erected a healing barrier around Ichigo in the case of remedying any missed injuries. She then looked somewhat hesitantly at Shirou. "Uhm, you aren't here to cause any trouble, are you?"
"No," Shirou answered.
"See!" Orihime clapped her hands together before pouting at Isshin, Karin, Ishida, and everyone else who were being too high strung. The recipients of her gaze all huffed and turned to the side. "Lets all just get along."
At Orihime's beckoning, hostilities were grudgingly placed aside as Shirou nodded.
"You have my thanks," he said kindly to Orihime who smiled at the ground.
"No no, there's no need. I ugh, I just feel that you don't seem to be a bad person?" Orihime explained.
Shirou didn't bring it up, but he could practically see the place Orihime held in Nel's eyes gradually elevating. "Good. At least someone understands," she huffed.
Nel may have been putting up with Isshin, and the rest due to their connection with Ichigo, but it didn't mean that she trusted them; at least not all of them. Nel glanced at Silent and Yuzu before easing her posture into a more relaxed position.
"Well?" Nel turned to Shirou. "What do you think?" She asked him.
Shirou hummed in thought. In his observation of Ichigo and the rest, he could see why Nel may have taken special considerations. However, at the end of the day, she was skirting around the issue that was the most important and leaving it to him. This wouldn't solve anything. "I think that you know exactly what you are doing. Is there any point delaying?"
Nel pursed her lips before slumping in front of everyone.
"Actually, Shirou's here because of me," Nel spoke up while looking intently at Ichigo and ignoring everyone else. "I'm still not certain about how to feel about all this," the implied 'this' were all the additional people around Ichigo. "And I wanted someone I could trust around to prevent me from making a mistake by acting out on emotion."
Nel steeled her features and some of the emotions she'd been repressing came to the surface as a hint of betrayal flickered across her eyes. "You tricked me into training you? Into thinking you were my friend, a member of the pack?" She sounded anxious, but if anything, the way Ichigo widened his eyes at the accusation was more noticeable. "And even now, you're using me to shield you from the heat of the others. I trusted you, and it pains me to admit that I still trust you despite what you did in the last battle."
Nel balled her hands into fists. "Did you never treat anyone here, Pesche, Dondochaka, Lilynette, or the other Hollows as comrades that you nearly killed a friend to save the life of an enemy?"
"No!" Ichigo denied firmly, scratching at his hair in frustration. "I didn't plan for any of this! My decisions had nothing to do with deceiving anyone nor did I intend to kill. I-I used too much strength at the time, and I did my best to fix things."
"And that's why!" Nel's nails dug into her palms, mixed feeling contorting her features into a grimace. "If you were going to betray me and everyone else, then betray us! What traitor tries to protect the people he betrayed?! It makes no sense. I-It makes me want to believe in you, and there's a limit to what help I can provide."
Ichigo shut his mouth uneasily. No one in the room was a fool, and they could understand what Nel was getting at. Ichigo could only sit on the fence bordering either side for so long before he had to make a choice. The problem was, he had friends on either side and he wasn't willing to sacrifice anyone.
"Nel," Ichigo called out, but Nel's expression remained adamant, her lips pursed.
"Forget it," Nel shook her head. "Just answer me this one question."
Ichigo suddenly felt an ill foreboding.
"If the Shinigami or your friends create conflict, will you interfere again? Will you strike me down by the back?" There was a tremble in Nel's tone, but the resignation already pervading it made it so that Ichigo couldn't tell.
Silence pervaded the room. No matter how curious Tatsuki, Keigo, Chizuru, and everyone else was, they didn't speak because Ichigo looked utterly torn on how to answer. No matter how long Nel waited for a reply, none came from Ichigo who swallowed and glanced away. Nel's features grew colder and colder as a sense of helplessness and betrayal assailed her.
Enough was enough however, and Shirou never liked oppressive moods.
"Then why not save both?" It was a bit hypocritical of him to say this in his current position, but once upon a time, a certain fool adamantly stuck to this single option.
The others looked at Shirou in a daze, Nel more so, and Ichigo looked like he'd found the solution to an unsolvable question.
"Enemies? Friends? With your own hands, what's the problem in saving both? If you can't save everyone or take a side, then what's wrong with saving those that matter to you the most and remaining neutral?" Shirou continued.
"Shirou, are you really…" she trailed off as Shirou raised a hand.
He could already understand what she was implying, but there was no need for concern. Instead, he focused on Ichigo. "What's your reason to protect?" He asked. "For me, I use my strength in order to guard those I care about. I invaded the Soul Society because a friend of mine was taken. I fought against the Shinigami because they actively sought to kill me and those that I hold dear. If your reason to protect those close to you is the same as mine, then there shouldn't be any problems anyway because I'm not the villain your compatriots think that I am."
Ichigo opened, then closed his mouth before smiling wryly. For the first time, Ichigo felt like he could understand why all the Hollows that follow the Vasto of White seemed to respect him so much because that same admiration was now running through him. "You're a good man," he said with a relieved expression that matched Nel's own.
"I don't buy it," another voice intervened.
"Daaaaad," Karin drawled sharply like she was dealing with an idiot, her elbow jutting into Isshin's side.
Nel gritted her teeth, anger marring her features as spiritual pressure exuded off from her. "You'd dare doubt my King's sincerity?"
"You really aren't one for words, are you Isshin?" The black cat silently lounging in the corner suddenly spoke up. "What the idiot really means, is that he doesn't buy that you're in your right state of mind," the cat's eyes suddenly narrowed. "Have you perchance seen Aizen's Zanpakuto?"
Shirou didn't much for the answer. He was never a liar to begin with. "Yes," he admitted. "At the time he'd introduced it as a water-type."
Isshin and the black cat suddenly made eye contact.
"Whatever you say or think can't be trusted," Isshin grumbled much to Nel's growing irritation while Ichigo joined Karin at trying to shush their father.
"Because of Aizen?" Shirou got right to the point, watching the way Isshin and the black cat glowered at the name.
Their reactions were understandable considering his own prior reservations about Aizen, but there was more to people than just assumptions based on their actions. In a way, he alone likely understood Aizen the best due to his connection with Kyouka Suigetsu. This was why he could see this next statement with absolute certainty even if he and the Shinigami stood on opposite sides.
"Right now, Aizen isn't your enemy," he said firmly to their faces. "In fact, he would likely be one of your strongest allies."
Aizen's goal had always been the Soul King and the Soul King's Palace. Now that Yhwach had usurped those very goals, Aizen's retaliation was all but guaranteed. If Aizen was terrifying as an enemy, then as a friend, he was an absolute pillar that could support the sky even should it fall.
The matter could be denied by anyone all that they want, but it didn't change the position of Aizen's stance on the current matter. Did no one else find it odd that Aizen of all people had helped create a situation to allow the Shinigami to recover in Hueco Mundo? Aizen would never take action without reason, less so if any demerits were involved.
"That's enough Isshin," the black cat murmured, disheartened. "I thought you said you would focus on your family first."
Isshin grumbled, but made sure to place himself between Shirou, Nel, and everyone else.
If Shirou had anything else to say in this moment, he didn't say it as a tingle at the back of his neck shifted into a piercing stab.
"Is something wrong?" Nel called out from his side.
"I've already said what needs to be said, and verified what needs to be verified. The choices you all make now will carry their own weight without prejudice," he said before grunting. "If you'll excuse me." He winced before standing up and walking towards the exit of the cave.
The pressure building at the back of his neck was growing more and more oppressive as time passed on. Nel having noticed his discomfort, stood up to follow while biting down on her lower lip. "Are you alright?" She asked again.
He didn't answer. This matter wasn't something that he could just explain anyway.
Once outside the cave, he glanced up at the sky outside, frowning. The moon-lit sky was becoming translucent like a layer of film over a globe peering into the skies of the Human world. It alarmed everyone who could see it happening, but him who remained composed.
How long had it been since the Shinigami arrived? There was no day and night cycle in Hueco Mundo so all he had to judge the passing of time was his own internal clock. Perhaps it had roughly been a day or two.
The Shinigami had only just begun to settle in and tensions were still high with the various Arrancar and Espada.
"For a man who's waited a thousand years, you sure are impatient," Shirou muttered grimly.
There was only one other person in existence in this current world that could directly affect his Reality Marble.
Hovering above the translucent film around Hueco Mundo was an avatar or manifestation of Yhwach. Different from before, several thick layers of dark shadows lined with numerous eyes coated his body and created a mask over the upper half of his face.
If Shirou could see Yhwach, then everyone else could too.
The pressure Shirou had been feeling was Yhwach exerting power to influence the boundaries of his Reality Marble.
Without hesitation, he ascended into the air while the others watched on in trepidation. The Shinigami stared at Yhwach's figure with sorrow tinted rage, while the Royal Guard openly grimaced.
Even Aizen, the Arrancar, and Espada in Hueco Mundo couldn't help but evaluate the level of pressure Yhwach exuded with his presence alone. Yhwach's strength was undisputable at this moment with no one able to rival him after his assimilation with the Soul King. Aizen had to bitterly concede this point.
In the face of said pressure, Shirou's form rising to meet Yhwach couldn't be ignored…nor could the very real thought that he might lose not surface in their minds.
A buzz of Sonido caused Shirou to momentarily halt his advance before he felt a tug on the sleeve of the white Shihakusho he wore.
It was strange how just one word could carry so much emotion and only one person in Hueco Mundo adamantly called him by that name.
"Coyote," he said while turning to face the woman who regarded him as family. Her expression was as neutral as always, but the trembling of her hand grasping onto him gave away any façade of calm she had. She'd lost him once, and there was no way she could endure a second time.
Several others could have easily come with her, but grudgingly chose not to after considering the fact that they may prove a liability to him in this battle rather than an asset. It was a show of Coyote's own self-confidence that she'd come, but oddly enough, Coyote wasn't alone.
"Ulquiorra?" He called out while starring at the nihilistic Hollow Aizen had recruited to his cause.
Their intentions by approaching him now were clear. They wished to accompany him, but regardless, he couldn't allow them to. "Stay here," he told them solemnly.
This was something that only he could do while the others trained in order to grow stronger.
"I can help." Coyote frowned while Ulquiorra chose to remain silent.
He shook his head, a brief flash of panic twisting Coyote's features into a grimace as she spun him around to face her directly. "I. Am. Strong," she insisted.
His continued silence however, indicated to Coyote that she still wasn't strong enough. This battle was between those who could affect worlds with their thoughts and actions. Overwhelming power can only go so far against the laws governed by higher entities.
"And you?" Shirou questioned Ulquiorra while Coyote gnashed her teeth in frustration.
"I already have a Second Release. I see no reason to waste time trying to pursue it," Ulquiorra answered frankly in monotone. "There is also something I wish to learn in observing you."
Shirou considered Ulquiorra's words, but once again shook his head to both of them. Instead, he had something else in mind rather than saying that they were still too weak.
"I need you both to stay and to keep watch over the Shinigami," he explained despite knowing that the two could tell that he only saying this in consolation. Still, neither called him out on it and let him continue. "The members they call the Royal Guard may cause trouble in my absence, that's why I need you both to stay."
Coyote didn't respond. She still felt bitter that it was implied that neither she nor Ulquiorra were strong enough to help in the first place. "Starrk, I, please." She looked at him straight in the eyes and revealed her concern for him on her face.
The way her lips quivered and her eyes dilated in grief nearly swayed him, but the thought of putting her in danger still won out in the end.
"Just this once, trust in me one more time." He hugged her, wrapping his arms over her shoulders and leaning his neck against hers. "I will return." He pulled away, and before she could argue, he accelerated far away from her.
None of Shirou's allies had the qualifications to truly join him in this battle, and it was stifling.
This emotion of powerlessness they could feel was one that they would remember so that it would never happen again. Ironically, this was the first time Coyote had ever felt the desire to grow stronger.
Coyote tightly balled her hands into fists much like all those who watched from Hueco Mundo's sands.
Wind blew violently high above the clouds, yet Shirou hardly batted an eye as he stopped fifty meters away from where Yhwach hovered above Hueco Mundo's dome.
"You came," Yhwach called out, neither prideful or overbearing. Oddly enough, it didn't seem like he'd come to start a fight despite pressing his energy against Hueco Mundo's boundaries.
"Do you really think that these swords mean nothing?" Shirou gestured to the numerous weapons surrounding Hueco Mundo directed towards the star-shaped palace above. Each was packed with dense spiritual energy, two of which were divine constructs of Sumerian mythology, Ig-Alima and Sur-Sagana. The power they gave off was several times more imposing than the rest.
"Do I look like I fear you?" Yhwach challenged without batting an eye. "This body is simply a manifestation of spiritual energy. Admittedly, I'm still in the process of consolidating my father's power, and as such can't do much else. Would this not be the best time to stop me?"
It actually depends. Shirou didn't deign to give an answer though. There was no way Yhwach wouldn't have prepared to guard against him or the Shinigami for that matter. Besides, as much as the Shinigami would jump at the chance to defeat Yhwach before he could fully assimilate the Soul King's power, the issue wasn't as pressing now that they had an alternative.
"They're using you; you know. You are a fool to shelter them," Yhwach mused aloud. "Even now, that conceited Ichibei may already be conspiring against you."
There was merit in Yhwach's words, but there was no way Yhwach would care about any misfortune that could befall an enemy.
"What did you come here for?" He was blunt, his words accompanied by a swell of spiritual energy that jolted every sword around Hueco Mundo into action.
"I find myself at an impasse." There was an air of grudging respect around Yhwach's person. "This moment should be where I declare my victory and the completion of the thousand-years blood feud, but here I stand now against a 'brother' who too is able to control the laws of their world. I care not if you were a bastard son, but you are standing in the way of a new world order beyond the realms of the human world, Soul Society, and Hueco Mundo."
Shirou grunted, his muscles tensing as he sensed the ill intentions in Yhwach's words. "So, you did come to start a fight?" He grasped at invisible hilts and scrutinized Yhwach's every action.
"No," Yhwach shook his head before sizing Shirou up. "This is a declaration of war. Shameful as it is to admit, I'm not your match outside the Star Palace until I can fully assimilate father's power, but why should I allow my enemies time to regroup? It would seem that there's even an old foe who shouldn't be alive."
Shirou's expression hardened as an oppressive energy exuded from Yhwach, producing a blanket of shadows that sought not to destroy Hueco Mundo, but to ravage and kill those within. It was primarily directed at the Shinigami, but there was no way that if wouldn't affect other Hollows nearby.
Hueco Mundo was an inactive world. It was far from the true world that was his Reality Marble which allowed others to freely access it using Garganta or other means. This was to say, Yhwach had no trouble bypassing Hueco Mundo's outer layer.
From within Hueco Mundo, a dense black fog that blotted out the sky rapidly descended on the area the Shinigami stayed. However, the fog halted and abruptly dissipated in a flurry of black key-like blades.
Above Hueco Mundo, Yhwach staggered back as a cut had appeared over his chest. He was bleeding profusely, but the man seemed unbothered as this wasn't his actual body.
"Do you really wish to go so far for those who would condemn you?"
"They were too close," was his only reply.
"Too close?" Yhwach repeated the words with a frown before he understood just who Shirou had been referring to.
"A King of Hollows who cares for the safety of their subjects? You're too soft. There's no use in intervening anyway," Yhwach chastised with a hint of grim amusement. "A clash between us will result in mutual destruction of the world around us, making your actions to protect them meaningless. I'm confident that I can defend against you in my domain, and I'm certain that you are to. But whereas I guard an empty palace, you shelter many."
Unperturbed, Shirou readied himself for combat in the skies of Hueco Mundo. "Then come. I will welcome you."
A boisterous laugh echoed before Yhwach hovered further back then pressed forward. "The moment I set foot in Hueco Mundo will be the moment I fall under your influence, but its vice versa and you know it. Why don't you visit my palace instead? Right now, there's no meaning to falling to your provocation, but everything changes when I consolidate father's power."
"You're right on your accounts," Shirou conceded calmly. "But you're wrong in that you've neglected the most important variable."
He could very well storm Yhwach's domain before the man could assimilate the Soul King's full power, but like Yhwach had said; it may result in a tie due to their control over their respective dimensions. There was only one way to end a tie.
"If two sides are even, then a single push will decide the difference between victory and defeat."
Yhwach paused in consideration before a glint appeared in his eyes when he noticed the faces of those staring at Shirou from Hueco Mundo.
"Do you truly put that much faith in your followers?" Yhwach asked lightly before reeling in his spiritual energy. "Can they really amount to anything in the short term? How much time do you wish to buy them to grow stronger? Days, weeks, regardless, isn't this interesting?"
Shirou didn't much agree with the statement, but Yhwach had his own considerations and continued.
"If I must wait to consolidate my powers anyway, shall we make a wager then? Your forces against my Sternritter." Yhwach began to note details.
Shirou was listening, and showed no signs of interrupting.
After all, his side had many dear ones he trusted. Moreover-
His side had an Aizen, and Aizen can make a fool out of anyone.
Happy New Year to everyone! Let's all hope for the best!
Next update: TBA
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Fiction Press: Survivor's Log: Reflections (In editing phase)
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