"Kuchiki Rukia is dead."
Ichigo felt as though all the air had just been punched from his lungs.
"What…did you say?!"
Ulquiorra remained impassive and continued. "More accurately, she and the novena espada killed each other at the same time. Her body was slashed to pieces and skewered upon a spear. She is no longer among the living."
Ichigo clenched his fists as images of Rukia being cut and impaled swept through his mind. "Don't you dare…" Ichigo growled, "…Rukia's reiatsu faded just now. You're not even fighting her, how would you-"
"Cognition synchronization. It was one of the novena espada's abilities, as well as one of his duties. He could instantly convey all of the information about the enemy he's fought to all of his comrades. Where are you going?"
The last sentence was uttered as Ichigo strode away from Ulquiorra. Ulquiorra watched as the shinigami stopped at his question. With his back still facing Ulquiorra, Ichigo answered, his voice firm and controlled.
"To save Rukia."
"I believe I told you she is dead."
"I don't believe you."
"Stubborn, aren't we? Is it alright to leave without killing me first?" Ulquiorra's eyes bored through Ichigo's back, silently goading him.
"I have no reason to fight you."
"What do you mean?"
"You are an enemy, but you yourself have yet to harm any of my nakama."
Ulquiorra paused as he broke his eye contact with Ichigo's back, looking down. "I see." His eyes roved back up to look at Ichigo in the next instant with a cold and calculative glare. "What if I told you that I was the one who brought Inoue Orihime to Hueco Mundo?"
The air cracked as Ichigo shunpo'd and brought his zanpakuto down on Ulquiorra, who blocked it with his bare arm.
Ichigo's face was livid with rage as he brought his sword down with more force. His nakama being hurt one by one in Hueco Mundo, the anxiousness he was feeling as he felt their failing reiatsu…all of them having to even come to this dangerous place, was Ulquiorra's doing. "So Inoue didn't come to Hueco Mundo by her own will after all!"
"Unexpected. It seems that even the very friends who came to save her had some doubt in their hearts."
Ichigo felt a twinge of guilt. Without realizing it, his confidence in Inoue had been rattled after her mysterious departure to Hueco Mundo. He turned his guilt into anger again as he yelled, "Do you know what you've done?! Because of you, Inoue was branded a traitor!"
"Of course. If she wasn't, it would have been a miscalculation on our part. So, have you found a reason to fight me?"
Ichigo gritted his teeth, trying to control his anger. He jumped away, giving them some distance as he contemplated his next move. Glancing back, he spotted Nel sitting on the floor where he'd placed her before charging at Ulquiorra.
"Nel, get further back. It doesn't look like this guy is gonna let me pass through without a fight."
Nel obediently scooted herself back, whimpering in worry for Ichigo.
Ichigo turned back to face Ulquiorra. "Sorry, I'm in a hurry." Ichigo's eyes reflected a deadly seriousness. "…so I'm going to come at you with all my strength."
With that, a burst of reiatsu flowed around Ichigo as he jumped into the air, sword raised. His hollow's mask appeared on his face as he released his bankai. In one swift move, Ichigo was bearing down on Ulquiorra, though blocked again by the espada's bare arm. Ichigo noted the look of surprise in his opponent's eyes at the increased power he was exuding. Using the opportunity to continue to overwhelm Ulquiorra, he unleashed his most powerful attack.
"It's over. Getsuga Tenshou!"
A massive black wave of energy whipped towards the espada. Ulquiorra reached out an arm and blocked it. However, the attack kept surging, becoming more and more powerful. Startled, he extended his other arm to brace himself against the onslaught.
"Ridiculous." Ulquiorra muttered in annoyance as he continued efforts to contain the energy swarming around him.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the blast, Ichigo panted heavily as his mask shattered to the floor. Ulquiorra was still fighting off the attack. Now was his chance.
Ichigo spun around and grabbed a blubbering Nel protectively under his arm, apologizing to her as he shunpo'd out of the room. With a flash, he was gone.
The blackness of Getsuga Tenshou became reduced to a heavy gray smoke. Through the dissipating haze, an unscathed and unfazed Ulquiorra stood with his hands in his pockets, staring at the space Ichigo had been standing. His interest in this human was piqued.
Ichigo had always had difficulty with sensing reiatsu, but inexplicably had rarely had a problem finding Rukia's in the time he'd known her, for which he was glad for. He was relieved to still feel a small, weak trace of her reiatsu, and he followed it, urging his tired body to keep going.
"Hold on, Rukia. I'm coming!"
"Itsygo?" Nel said, looking up at Ichigo from under his arm.
They had come to a stop where their hall had split into two corridors. One hall led downwards, another contained a set of stairs advancing upwards. Ichigo stood between the two paths, his eyes closed in contemplation as he felt for Rukia's faint reiatsu pulse to lead him.
His brown eyes suddenly flashed open with resolve as he gazed in the direction of the stairs. "That way."
Ichigo raced up the steps, wearing a face of determination. His thoughts, however, were anxious. He was trying his best to repress his growing fears and desperation to find her. He must reach her before…
A sudden burst of bright light made Ichigo stop short at the top of the stairs and squint as it bewildered his sight. Putting a hand over his eyes to shield them, he opened them again to find…sunlight? Blue sky?
"What is this?!" Ichigo murmured to no one in particular.
Nel pointed up at the sky and answered, "Itsa dome. Can see it frum outside, remember?"
As his eyes adjusted to the light, he looked around and found he was on a suspended bridge that led to another tower. Feeling Rukia's trace still ahead of him, he ran across it and entered the tower on the opposite end.
Ichigo felt an immediate eerie uneasiness come over him as he stepped inside the darkness of the tower. Letting his eyes adjust once again, he stood for a moment inside the doorway, trying to make out his surroundings. He noted that the air seemed chilled, and realized with a start that much of the surface of the floor was coated in a thin layer of ice.
With caution, Ichigo began to walk further inside. His eyes now made out the expansive interior well enough to see the remnants of much destruction to the walls, more ice, and some odd red liquid substance that he preferred to avoid. A battle had definitely been recently fought here.
Seeking out Rukia's reiatsu again, he abruptly drew his breath in as his eyes caught sight of a prostrate figure in the far corner of the tower.
In a moment he appeared and was on his knees next to the crumpled form, horror written across his face. Rukia was unconscious, covered in blood and ice. Her hand still clutched her sword's hilt, the blade broken cleanly off. She hardly seemed to be breathing.
"Rukia!" Ichigo gingerly turned her over onto her back, his one arm supporting her head, his other hand placed on her neck feeling for her pulse.
It was barely what one would count as a pulse, but it was there. Ichigo's moment of relief was quickly replaced with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
"Come on, Rukia, you can't go like this! I swear I won't let you die!"
Ichigo felt his promise seemed empty; Rukia was in horrible shape. He inwardly shuddered as he delicately inspected the three large puncture wounds in her abdomen. "Seems Ulquiorra was telling the truth of what happened to her." If there was any time that he wished he knew kido for healing, it was now. Ichigo turned his attention to Nel, who had slipped herself from his arm when he had gone to his knees.
"Nel! Can you use your spit to help heal her?" Nel could hear the panic in his voice. She momentarily considered refusing him, as she was still suspicious of this particular shinigami girl. But one look at his face and she knew better.
Ichigo continued holding Rukia to himself, trying to use his body heat to warm her cold body as Nel unceremoniously spewed saliva onto Rukia's abdomen. Ichigo looked intently into Rukia's face, silently willing her to open her eyes as his mind continued to whirl. He knew that mending her injuries alone wouldn't be enough to save her at this rate. She needed her reiatsu replenished to stand a chance. He had to try something before it was too late. There was only one thing he could offer her. It had to work.
"That's good, Nel. Thanks." Nel paused mid-spit, a long strand of drool suspended from her mouth.
"Otay!" She slurped the remainder of hanging drool back up and into her mouth with gusto and grinned.
Giving a slight nod of thanks to Nel, Ichigo closed his eyes. "I'm going to do my part now."
A white-blue light of reiatsu instantly blazed to life around both he and Rukia. Ichigo then focused all of his reiatsu towards Rukia, pouring it from himself and enveloping her in it, compelling his power to be absorbed into her.
As he steadily flowed his soul's reiatsu towards her, Ichigo heard a cry from Nel.
Cracking open an eye, Ichigo's attention was immediately directed toward Rukia's zanpaktou as it started to glow. A mass of small white lights began to swirl around the broken blade, slowly reconstructing itself back into a full sword once again.
Ichigo glanced again at Rukia's face. Already her skin looked less ashen. Closing his eyes again in concentration as he channeled his reiatsu, a few more minutes went by before Ichigo felt a tremor ripple through Rukia's small body. With a jolt, he suddenly sensed her soul responding to his and accepting his strength into herself. Her breathing became more strong and steady, and her body felt warmer. The ice disappeared from her clothing.
"Come back, Rukia."
Warmth. An incredible, encompassing warmth. It seemed to wrap all around her, filling her with a sense of security and peace.
Rukia gave a soft sigh. She wanted to blissfully curl up in this feeling that repeatedly washed over her. However, her body seemed strangely unwilling to move. As sensations came back to her she began to realize that she was laying on her back. Feeling in her body was returning, and a dull ache came with it. Suddenly, she became aware of an extra warmth and physical presence by her side.
"Someone is with me?" Rukia slowly thought, the fog in her mind lifting a bit.
Someone was holding her against themself, their arms around her, supporting her. Her reiatsu was too weak to sense who it was very well, but she did not feel in danger. Whoever this was, they were no foe.
She wanted to speak, wanted to ask who they were, but could only manage to utter a weak whimper.
"It's ok. You're safe, Rukia."
"That voice…" A man's voice. "I know that voice. But whose…?" Her mind sluggishly sought the answer.
With a small groan from the effort, she gradually willed her eyes slightly open.
Blinking, she tried to focus as she looked into a blurry face. Orange hair. Worried amber eyes.
"Rukia!" Ichigo exclaimed, concern still etched into his face despite seeing her eyes looking at him once again.
"Ichi…go…" Rukia slowly repeated in disbelief.
Suddenly memories flooded Rukia's mind. Hueco Mundo. The espada she had fought and defeated. Inoue, all alone, afraid for her nakama. "What's happened? Is Inoue ok?"
Ichigo shook his head. "No, I haven't found her yet."
The next second Ichigo found himself with a bashed nose, and a pair of glaring eyes.
"Then why are you here?! We're here to save Inoue! Not me!"
Ichigo quickly brought his hand to his nose, rubbing it ruefully, and glared back down at her.
"Well Inoue isn't at the brink of death like you just were!"
"But she could be if we don't find her in time!"
"You expect me to have just left you to die?!"
Rukia was about to retort back when a look in his eyes made her relent. She let out a loud sigh. "I'm alright now. Let's be on our way."
Before Ichigo could react, Rukia managed to get herself into a sitting position, but upon trying to stand, the room spun and she felt herself tumbling when a pair of sturdy arms caught her.
"You're not alright! What made you think you could stand already?!" Ichigo said with a scowl.
"I'm fine, I just need to get my bearings." Rukia replied indignantly with a groan, willing the room to stop reeling, then sputtered as she found herself hoisted onto Ichigo's back, piggy-back style.
"Come on, we'll go find Inoue together until you get your strength back."
"Fool…" Rukia murmured with a slight smile, too exhausted to argue any longer.
Ichigo smirked, then turned towards Nel. He wasn't prepared for the sight he beheld next.
Nel's eyes were giant pools of tears, her hands clenched in fists. She let out a sudden wail.
"Awahhhhhgghhh, Isygoooo! So mean, not taking Nel and lweaving Nel all awone in this scawy pwlace…awfter Nel helped Itsygo's nakama too! So meeaaaannnn…" Nel bawled.
"What? Of course you're still coming too, Nel. Let's go." Ichigo tucked Nel under his arm that also held one of Rukia's legs. Nel let out a soppy sniffle.
"By the way, Ichigo, why is my stomach all wet and slimy feeling?"
Before Ichigo could answer the unpleasant question, a feeling of dread filled him. He shunpo'd out of one of the larger holes in the tower's exterior wall and watched in shock as an instant later the entire tower exploded into chunks of flying debris behind them, filling the air with dust.
A dark figure flashed beside him, too close for comfort. Ichigo felt Rukia tense up and guessed she had seen the figure as well. Ichigo turned his head and found himself staring directly into the eyes of Ulquiorra.