Rukia stood transfixed as she stared wide-eyed at the hole in the sky where an oppressive and malignant force had just materialized. The power of it had washed over her and made her chest feel like a great weight had been pushed on it.
Tearing her eyes away, she looked around at her companions and saw their expressions matched hers. She turned towards Byakuya, and found him looking sternly at her.
"Rukia, the battle here is concluded. Kurosaki Ichigo-"
A sudden loud explosion came near them from the base of the tower, sending debris flying their way. They all leapt aside and watched as a large silhouette stood amidst the swirling dust.
"What the…! What now!?" Renji yelled as he regained his footing.
The dust cleared, exposing a ragged Yammy as he tramped towards them.
Chad gaped in disbelief as the espada came closer. "Something's wrong…I fought him in the human world, and he was a big guy then too…but he couldn't have been this gigantic…"
"What are you saying, that he went through a growth spurt?!" Renji exclaimed as he craned his neck up at the espada.
Yammy grunted in anger as he inspected himself. "That stupid four eyes! Where is he! I'll kill him!" Suddenly sensing he wasn't alone, Yammy looked down and spotted the nakama. "Hah! You guys won't be enough at all! I'll finish you lot off and then go help Ulquiorra out."
Rukia, Renji, and Chad immediately took fighting stances when a roar of pain erupted from Yammy.
Looking down, Yammy saw blood flowing from what was left of his leg. A flash of white came to rest next to the three fighters, a captain's haori flowing behind a man who was coldly gazing at him. Yammy stared back in surprise, then grinned widely. "Hahah! Or maybe I'll get a little warm-up exercise here first!"
"Rukia." Byakuya turned his head to look at her, unfazed by the fact that Yammy was currently coming towards him.
"We will stay and fight. Go to Kurosaki Ichigo."
"Wha…What do you mean? I should-"
"Kuchiki-taichou is right. We'll handle things from here, Rukia." Renji gave her an encouraging nod, then positioned himself into a defensive stance.
"No worries." Chad gave her a half smile before also turning towards the giant.
The men all stood with their backs to her, facing the espada. Rukia looked from one to the other, her face full of uncertainty as she took a step back.
"Go now, Rukia." Byakuya spoke firmly as he continued to look straight ahead. "Your fight is not here."
Rukia closed her eyes briefly in deliberation. As she reopened them, a firm resolve shone in them. She gave a small smile as she bowed. "I understand."
Renji gripped his sword tighter as he felt her presence leave them. "You should be more worried for your safety than ours with where you're going. Be careful out there, Rukia."
Ichigo knelt on his knees gasping, a few splatters of blood falling to the ground near him.
"You reflexively released a Getsuga? A wise choice." Ulquiorra stood at a distance, watching the shinigami struggling to regain his composure. "If you hadn't done that, your head would be at my feet now."
Ichigo glared at Ulquiorra through the hollow's mask he had brought out in defense not a second too soon to escape Ulquiorra's attack. A patch of the mask around his right eye was missing, bright red blood dripping around the broken fragments. "Is this for real…?! He's too fast! I couldn't react to him at all in my hollow form…!"
"Though your "hollowfication" has grown considerably, to think that mask breaks this easily…" Ulquiorra brought his weapon up and pointed it at Ichigo. "…It's such a pity."
Ichigo's body reacted before his mind once again as he leaned to the side and jumped back to avoid Ulquiorra's bladed staff. Blood splashed from his shoulder as his body sailed backwards from the effects of the strike. With a growl, Ichigo dug his sword into the ground to anchor and slow his body's momentum while swiping his other hand across his face to repair the mask. His feet skidded to a stop. Seeing Ulquiorra flying towards him, Ichigo immediately pushed off and leapt to meet Ulquiorra.
The moment their blades crashed together, Ichigo was rammed back. Ulquiorra stayed with his sword pushing against Ichigo's as they flew through the air.
"If that is your strongest form and Getsuga is your strongest attack, then fire one at me, right here and now. I will show you the difference in our power."
Ichigo grunted as he pushed Ulquiorra's sword away, creating distance between them.
"…I didn't need to be told by you." Ichigo raised his sword above his head. "I was going to do that anyway! Getsuga…" A swirling mass of black energy poured from Ichigo's sword and concentrated around him. "…Tenshou!"
Ichigo watched as the attack sped towards Ulquiorra and got effortlessly knocked aside.
"It is unfortunate. I guess in the end, this is the level of a human."
Ichigo's blackened eyes behind his mask were wide in surprise. "You're…uninjured…!"
"Your black Getsuga does closely resemble our cero."
Ichigo scowled at the espada. "Cero…don't lump it with that crap."
"I see. So you haven't seen it yet? I will show you that which the espada unleash in their released state." A black ball of energy began to form in Ulquiorra's hand. "This is the end. The black cero. Cero Oscuras."
An overwhelming blackness erupted from Ulquiorra and enshrouded Ichigo. His mask shattered to pieces.
A high shriek came from Ishida's left as a terrible pressure bore down on them.
"Inoue-san!" Ishida spread his feet to keep his balance as he tried to turn his head towards Inoue. She was bent down into a crouch, her knuckles white as she clutched the wall's ledge. A few more long moments passed before Ishida began to feel the overbearing weight lift a bit, allowing him to lift his face skyward. "What just happened up there?!"
At the sound of her voice, Ishida turned to look again at Inoue. Her hand was clasped in a fist over her heart, her face a mixture of worry and determination.
"Would you be able to carry me to the top of the dome with your power?"
Using his index finger, Ishida pushed his glasses up his nose, using the distracting action to pull his gaze away from her pleading eyes. "Please don't look at me like that, Inoue. It's what I wish to do as well, except every instinct I possess is warning me to stay where we are. It can only end badly if we go..."
Inoue earnestly took a few quick steps towards Ishida until she stood within close proximity before him, catching him off guard. Ishida found himself looking down into a face with eyes that beseeched him.
"What was that just now?!" Rukia's brow was furrowed as she resumed pressing onwards towards the dome's hole. The energy that had come bearing down through the opening had forced her to stand aside and wait it out, or risk being injured in the blast. "Ichigo's reiatsu…I can still sense it, but it feels muddled, as though he were standing behind a thick wall…"
A small figure fell headlong through the air, his orange hair whipping around his exposed face. The man's chest was also bare, save for a sleeve. His remaining black, bloodstained robes fluttered around his body in tatters.
Ichigo blinked as a pair of feet appeared next to his head. The next second he found himself pushing rubble off of his battered body inside a tower. He knelt, his head bowed in pain as Ulquiorra stepped through the hole in the tower's wall where Ichigo's body had just been sent crashing through.
"Do you understand now? No matter how similar your appearance and techniques may be to those of an arrancar, their power compared to the espada is as far apart as heaven and earth. Humans and shinigami may imitate hollows to gain power, but because they are imitating, they will never be equal to hollows."
Without looking up, Ichigo shakily got into a standing position, blood dripping down his body. Ichigo's hold on his sword's hilt tightened. "…Getsuga…"
"I told you it's useless!" Ulquiorra lunged and swung his blade across Ichigo's chest, sending blood flying. The force of the sword's blow sent Ichigo crashing through the opposite wall and outside.
Ichigo fell through the air, unable to stop his body's propulsion. "He's so powerful…!"
Ulquiorra flashed beside Ichigo. They stared at one another for a moment as Ichigo firmly gripped Zangetsu. He saw no trace of emotion on the esapada's face as he flung his sword at Ichigo before he could react a second time.
Ichigo's body was brutally hurled up the wall of a tower, his limbs knocked and skin torn open against the rough stone surface. He rolled to a stop on the tower's top platform, leaving him gasping and coughing in a bloody heap on the smooth floor.
His body had come to rest on the solid cold surface for mere seconds before a hand seized his neck and lifted him by it into the air. Ichigo choked on both the lack of air and the blood in his throat as his body swayed in midair. The hand that held his sword trembled slightly under the strain. Ichigo clutched the hilt tighter. "Zangetsu…"
"Why won't you let go of your sword? You have experienced the difference in our power, yet you still think you can defeat me?"
"So…what. Do you think…I'll give up…if you're stronger than me?"
Ulquiorra's eyes widened slightly in surprise, then narrowed as he frowned.
Ichigo cracked a wry smile at this, ignoring the stiff pain in his face that came with the action. "I knew that you were strong….from the beginning. But…no matter how much I see of your strength…it won't change anything…" Ichigo rolled his head slightly so that he could look Ulquiorra in the eye. "I'm gonna beat you…Ulquiorra."
Ichigo felt the hand release its hold. He fell limply to his knees.
"Nonsense. Kurosaki Ichigo, your words are the words of one who does not know true despair. I shall enlighten you. I shall show you my true form, and the form of true despair." Ulquiorra took a step back as an eerie aura surrounded his body.
Ichigo watched in growing repugnance as a black liquid suddenly spilled out of Ulquiorra's hollow hole in his chest. Horns grew from his head, and ghastly black claws replaced his fingers and toes. A long tail whipped out around Ulquiorra, cracking as it lashed the air. His black bat-like wings expanded, blocking the light of the moon from Ichigo's view. A chill crept through Ichigo's entire being.
"Behold, Kurosaki Ichigo. "Second resurrection. Among the espada, I am the only one to have enabled this second level."
Rukia continued to fly upwards, bringing an arm up to shield her face as a new pressure came from above the dome. "What is this!?" Is it reiatsu…?" "No…it's too different from any reiatsu I've experienced thus far…" She felt like she was digging through a solid mass to continue her ascent. "It's not just strong and enormous, but dense and heavy enough to be something entirely different from reiatsu…it feels like…an ocean on top of the sky…!"
Ichigo had not moved from his position on his knees as he watched Ulquiorra's transformation. His face wore shock, his sword held limply at his side. The lack of his remaining bankai level robes that clad his bloodied body made him feel even more exposed to this new threat.
Ulquiorra's long tail swirled lazily around his body as he looked down at the boy before him. "I have not even shown this form to Aizen-sama."
"As long as I'm breathing, I've got to keep trying. I can still win this!" Exhaling, Ichigo narrowed his eyes as he slid his bare leg out and painfully stood, swaying faintly as he readied his sword.
Ulquiorra gazed callously at him. "You still have the will to fight?"
The chain on Ichigo's sword softly rattled. Gritting his teeth, Ichigo tried to steady his shaking hand as he watched Ulquiorra give him a calculative look.
"Very well. In that case, I shall make you understand." Ulquiorra swiftly bent low with one hand to the ground, crouching like an animal ready to pounce. Dark reiatsu suddenly flared out around Ulquiorra. "…Even if I have to grind your body to dust."
Quickly bringing his sword up, Ichigo focused on the espada in front of him. "Watch him, watch carefully. Try to follow his movements!"
Ichigo sucked in his breath as he felt a hand gripping his head from the side and push his body through the air until he collided into a tower's wall. Ichigo wheezed for breath as he tried to get his bearings, donning his mask as he looked around for a sign of Ulquiorra. "I didn't even see him disappear!"
Something hit him, sending him reeling into the air with such power that it sent him through not one, but two towers. Fragments of rocks filled the air from the crushed buildings and crashed to the ground below.
"You are a fool." Ulquiorra hovered outside of the tower Ichigo had landed in, looking through the new hole in its wall at a dust-covered Ichigo as he hunched on all fours and retched blood.
"You challenge an opponent whose strength terrifies you, and you think you can win. It is beyond comprehension." Ulquiorra descended inside the tower.
Ichigo stabbed his sword's blade into the ground and began pulling himself up, leaning on his sword for support.
Ulquiorra watched the boy as he quietly fought to get back up. Though his eyes were steady and had not lost their fire, his body betrayed his condition as he nearly toppled while trying to raise his sword to point at Ulquiorra. "I'm not…fighting you because I think I can win…I'm fighting…because I have to win…!"
"What utter nonsense."
A cry filled the air as Ulquiorra's blade fell.
"Some no mai, Tsukishiro!"
Ulquiorra paused as a great circle of white light shot up around the two warriors and extended to the sky. Ichigo's eyes widened. "This is…!" Ichigo dug deep into his energy reserves and shunpo'd out of the tower's sphere just seconds before a crunching sound arose up the length of the entire tower as it was encapsulated in solid ice.
Standing in mid-air, Ichigo scanned the ground of the tower below for the attack's owner before feeling a familiar presence behind him.
"What are you doing to let him beat you up this badly, Ichigo?"
Ichigo turned around, wincing from the smile tugging at the corners of his swollen mouth as he beheld a welcome sight. "You actually sound like you're worried or something."
"Don't give me a reason to be worried."
Ichigo wiped at the blood tickling his eyes as he wheezed slightly, trying to act as nonchalant as possible.
Rukia frowned as she moved to stand under his nose. "Stop acting cool when you're all bloodied up. I came here to fight Ulquiorra. Not to have to rescue you."
Ichigo tried to look away to suppress his smile, putting on a scowl instead. "You always worry and nag too much."
A sudden movement in front of them made them slip into defensive stances. Rukia's eyes widened as she took in Ulquiorra's disturbing appearance and felt the heavy reiatsu that had felt like an ocean now coming from the nearby espada. She clenched her jaw as she tried to hide the strain his reiatsu was causing her.
Ulquiorra stared at Rukia, his piercing eyes looking coldly into her own. "You are the one who scarcely defeated Aaroniero. I don't expect you to be as much of a fool as this boy to believe you can defeat me."
"Is that so." Rukia murmured as she kept her eyes on the espada.
"After your encounter with Aaroniero, Kurosaki Ichigo left his fight with me to go and save you, girl. It seems your well-being is very important to him."
"You leave her out of this, Ulquiorra. Your fight is with me!"
Ignoring Ichigo, Ulquiorra continued to look at Rukia as his eyes took on a cruel glint. "He does not know true despair. Now, I will make him drown in it."
Before either of them could react, Rukia felt a sharp pain slice across her torso, the blunt force of the attack pushing her flying back until she fell through a wall.
"Rukia!" Ichigo turned his back on Ulquiorra to go after her when he felt a searing pain work its way up his back and then push him crashing through the same tower.
Ulquiorra hovered in mid-air outside of the tower, waiting.
"Tsugi no mai, Hakuren!"
Ulquiorra used his hand to deflect both attacks with ease. A moment later Ichigo was pushing his sword against Ulquiorra's arm. Ulquiorra stood, unmoved.
"Tsugi no mai, Hakuren!"
Both Ichigo and Ulquiorra disappeared from where they had stood as the attack rushed in.
Ichigo frowned as he panted. "Where'd he go…"
A yelp came from Rukia. Ichigo spun his head to see Ulquiorra moving away from Rukia as she flew headlong towards another tower.
Ichigo dove towards her, catching her and putting himself between her and the wall as they smashed through it.
Ichigo got on his hands and knees and coughed as he let out a groan. "You alright, Rukia?" He inwardly cringed as he looked to see blood seeping through her uniform in multiple places.
"Yeah." Rukia shifted a large piece of debris off of herself before stiffly standing. She extended a hand that was missing its sleeve to Ichigo. "Here."
Ichigo took her hand and leaned into it as he labored to pull himself up. "Thanks."
Ulquiorra came to stand inside the tower, watching. "You will not succeed against me, Kurosaki Ichigo. If you fight to protect due to what you humans call a "heart", it is because of that heart that you suffer injuries. It is because of that heart that you will die."
Ichigo haggardly stepped forward, then stood up straight as he looked sternly back at Ulquiorra. "You're wrong. It is because I want to protect that I've grown stronger. I won't let weakness be an excuse for why I couldn't protect.
A red cero appeared on the tip of Ulquiorra's finger. "You are a senseless man, Kurosaki Ichigo." The cero shot towards Rukia. A masked Ichigo flashed to stand in front of her, his back to the oncoming cero.
"Ichigo! What were you thinking, Ichigo!? Ichigo!" Rukia lightly pounded her fists on the bare chest of the body that was slumped against her. She couldn't move him enough to see around him either, which put them in a precarious position with the espada close by. "Ichigo!"
Something lashed itself around her waist, digging into her flesh and pinning her arms and sword to her sides, then tugged her out from under Ichigo. Ichigo fell limply to the floor behind her as Ulquiorra's tail pulled her towards him.
Rukia squirmed to move her hands. "Soren Sokatsui!"
Ulquiorra blocked the powerful blast with the fold of his wing in front of him, knocking it back at her. Still held in place by his tail, Rukia could only turn her head to the side as the close-range blast ricocheted into her.
Ichigo's mind slowly came out of its haze, sluggishly becoming aware of the pain in his body. Ichigo cracked open his eyes and weakly tilted his head to look around. "Where am I…?" With a heavy grunt, Ichigo rolled himself over onto his back, trying to remember what had happened. Something was wrong.
With a yell, Ichigo shot up into a sitting position. "Rukia!"
Heaving for breath as he forced himself to get to his feet as quickly as possible, Ichigo frantically sought to feel her reiatsu, but to his distress he could not find it. A sudden blast of pressure from above him made him look at the roof.
"Ulquiorra…!" Ichigo limped towards the nearest opening. "I find you, I'll find Rukia!"
Ichigo landed unsteadily on the flat rooftop of the tower he had been inside of. Ulquiorra calmly stood in the center as Ichigo glanced around for Rukia. He could now feel that she was nearby, but didn't see her.
"Where is she!?"
"You'll have to defeat me to find out."
Anger boiled over inside of Ichigo, giving him a burst of energy as he shunpo'd and clashed swords with Ulquiorra. "Enough of your games! Fight me, fine. But don't involve my nakama!"
"You're in no position to negotiate."
Sliding his hand across his face to form his mask, Ichigo screamed in frustration as he pushed harder at Ulquiorra. Sparks flew from his sword as it slid against Ulquiorra's unaffected arm. "Shut up! Just SHUT UP!" Black energy flowed out from Ichigo's sword like flames. "Getsuga Tenshou!"
As the dust cleared, a crater marked the spot Ulquiorra had been standing. The espada eyed the human from across the roof as Ichigo fell to one knee in exhaustion.
"You will need to come up with a better strategy to defeat me." Ulquiorra flashed to stand above Ichigo. "Each second that goes by, the closer Kuchiki Rukia is to death."
"What have you done!?" Ichigo demanded with a snarl.
"I thought it best to recreate the same dire situation she was in the last time we fought. Only this time, I give you no option but to fight me."
Ichigo gripped his sword's hilt as he rose to his feet. "You-"
"She is lying unconscious…" Ulquiorra fixed his gaze on Ichigo. "… Inside a tower that will collapse."
"She's WHAT?!" Ichigo seethed with rage, blindly slashing his sword at Ulquiorra. Ulquiorra nimbly stepped out of the sword's range. As if in confirmation of the danger Rukia was in, the sound of creaking and grinding from the damaged tower across from them reached Ichigo's ears.
"I was becoming doubtful that you would awaken in time to witness her demise."
Black reiatsu exploded around Ichigo. His eyes rose to meet Ulquiorra's, an unquenchable fury in them. Ichigo came to appear behind Ulquiorra, bringing his sword down on him. An explosion from the sword's force rocked the area.
Ulquiorra countered with a cero as Ichigo advanced again on him, but Ichigo deftly avoided it without slowing. Suddenly Ichigo disappeared and came at Ulquiorra from the side. Ulquiorra swiped him away with his wing, but Ichigo was swiftly back at him, his sword pressuring Ulquiorra as he released his massive attack in close proximity. "Getsuga…Tenshou!"
Ulquiorra dodged and flew at Ichigo, ramming him by his head into the hard roof floor. His head still reeling, a sharp pain in Ichigo's wrist made him scream as Ulquiorra stomped and twisted his foot on it, making him unable to keep his tight hold on Zangetsu. In horror, Ichigo helplessly watched as Ulquiorra kicked the black blade and sent it sailing over the edge of the roof.
Ulquiorra released Ichigo's wrist and walked away. Ichigo rolled over onto his stomach with great difficulty and stared in shock at the place he'd just witnessed Zangetsu falling over.
"No…Zangetsu…how could I let this happen!?" Getting slowly to his knees, Ichigo jumped in surprise as Ulquiorra suddenly appeared in front of him. Ichigo remained on his knees as he sternly returned Ulquiorra's gaze.
"Defiant to the end. Goodbye, human." Ulquiorra thrust his blade forward, aiming for Ichigo's heart.
Blood flew into the air.
Ichigo felt a wet substance fall on his face. Not feeling the burn of a blade in his flesh, he opened his eyes in confusion and immediately sucked in his breath. "No…"
"I told you…to not make me…have to worry…Ichigo…" Ichigo could hear both the pain and jesting in her voice as she tottered in front of him. Rukia looked over her shoulder and gave him a small smile that looked more like a grimace.
Ulquiorra roughly withdrew his blade from her shoulder, causing her to fall back. Ichigo caught her, her head dropping to rest in his lap. His expression became crestfallen as he took in her condition. The whole front of her body was seared, including one side of her face that looked as though it had been harshly sunburned. Her robes were almost as badly torn and blood stained as his own. She looked up at him through narrowed eyes as she endured the throbbing in her shoulder.
"Rukia…" Ichigo tore off a hanging shred of scorched fabric from what was left of her tunic's sleeve and used it to apply pressure to the bleeding wound. "What did he do to her…and I was just laying there the whole time!"
"Don't look at me like that you idiot. It's not your fault."
A rumble could be both felt and heard nearby. Ichigo looked to see the damaged tower falling in on itself. "Damn it! If she hadn't awakened…!" Ichigo looked back down at Rukia, her eyes closed as she tried to breathe deeply through the pain. "You could have died in that tower, and again just now! It is my fault!"
Rukia cracked open an eye as she glared at him. Before she could retort, a black rope-like object rapidly wrapped around her waist and neck, making her gasp for air. "Ulquiorra…!" Ichigo yelled as he tried to pry it off of her when she was violently ripped away from him.
"Rukia!" Ichigo grabbed for her, but only clutched air.
Ulquiorra suspended Rukia helplessly in the air before him and pointed a finger at her chest. "You are as much of a fool as Kurosaki Ichigo, girl. Your "heart" makes you as weak as he is." Rukia fought for breath as his tail wound its way up to cover her whole neck and tightened.
Ulquiorra turned his head to the side to look at Ichigo. "Despair now, Kurosaki Ichigo. Despair that you will never defeat me. Because you are weak, you will only be able to watch as this girl that you wish to protect, dies before your very eyes." A black cero grew on the finger pointed at Rukia. "Say goodbye."
"No!" Ichigo lunged forward as the cero increased in size.
Ishida and Inoue gently alighted on the dome's roof. The dark sky above them was a strange sight after the blue sky they had seen just seconds before.
"I don't feel Kurosaki-kun's reiatsu! Where is he?!" Inoue frantically began scanning the area when she heard a distant cry.
Ishida looked around in surprise for the source of the voice. "That sounded like…Kuchiki-san!"
Ishida and Inoue followed the direction they had heard the cry and ran towards where a cluster of towers were.
"So you're here, woman."
Inoue jumped, startled as both she and Ishida froze to a stop as they faced the new arrival in front of them. "Ulquiorra-san!"
Ishida stepped in front of Inoue, releasing his bow of light. "What do you want, espada? Where are Kurosaki and Kuchiki-san?"
"Perfect. Woman, pay close attention to how you react to this moment. The moment where you learn the man you've entrusted your hopes to, is dead."