Inoue's chest heaved as her breath quickened in terror. "Wha…What?"
"The girl as well."
Ishida's expression quickly recovered from his initial bewilderment to that of anger. Taking a calming breath as he held an icy glare at the espada, Ishida touched Inoue's arm, gently urging her away from the spot she seemed suddenly rooted to. Inclining his head towards her own, Ishida softly whispered. "Come Inoue-san, we don't have time for this. He is simply lying."
The touch and voice near her ear brought Inoue out of her daze. Nodding her head in agreement towards Ishida, they began to run past the espada. They had sprinted forward for a few moments before Inoue ventured a look back. Ulquiorra was standing where they had left him, watching them.
Ishida's mind ran as fast as his legs were. Though he did not dare believe Ulquiorra's words, his gut twisted with enough dread that he could not deny something was very wrong. The lack of familiar reiatsu from Ichigo and Rukia spoke volumes to that fact. "Kurosaki is not one to hide from an opponent. Perhaps Rukia's involvement changed things? Are they hurt...?"
"Where are they?" Ishida muttered.
Inoue turned from looking over her shoulder to looking across at Ishida as they ran side by side. She could hear his fear for their friends in his voice, and it heightened her own fears.
"Kurosaki! Kuchiki-san! Where are you!?" Ishida yelled out, not breaking his speed.
Darkness. Never ending darkness.
Not sure if her eyes were tricking her, she closed and re-opened them, peering around herself. Nothing but an eternal blackness surrounded her, yet she could see herself clearly. She had awoken to find herself floating amidst the nothingness. No breeze or sound stirred, no ground, no sky…just her lonely figure.
She knew she wasn't dreaming, as her body pained her all over. Inspecting herself more closely, she felt confused at the sight of blood covering her. There did not seem to be an area on her body that wasn't beaten and wounded. "What happened…?"
Memory seemed to elude her as well. Something tugged at the back of her mind, insisting there was something she needed to remember. What was she doing before she came to this place? Had she always existed here?
A name drifted into her mind as she felt a heavy sleep start to come over her. "My name is Rukia….I was…a shinigami…!" Rukia whispered as she slipped away.
Images rushed through her; Rukongai, training at the academy, Sode no Shirayuki. Familiar faces raced past as well. "Renji…Kaien…Nii-sama…Inoue..." A sudden image of Inoue in a white tower surfaced. "Hueco Mundo…" A groan escaped her as dreadful things began to flash before her mind's eye. "Aaeroniero…Ulquiorra…."
Rukia winced as a memory of Ulquiorra shooting her own attack back at her continued to play out in her mind. She wanted to shut herself off from remembering, but some obscure fragment within her made her feel that she still needed to find something she was missing, and Ulquiorra was the key.
She was on a rooftop, dimly aware that someone was yelling her name as something painful wrapped itself around her body. Ulquiorra's face appeared, and a cero lit his outstretched palm as he looked at her.
The protest did not come from her own lips. She turned in surprise towards the voice and saw a ragged and weaponless young man as he leapt towards her, his eyes narrowed with determination.
"…I…Ichigo!" Upon saying his name, she felt a mental release, unburdened of what had been tearing at her mind. However, with this last puzzle piece finally in place, the rest of her memories locked together and she felt a terror rise within her as instinct told her something awful was about to happen. Rukia struggled to wake, not wanting to see what came next, but whatever was binding her body on the roof seemed to also be keeping her from escaping the nightmare.
"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, throwing himself between Ulquiorra and Rukia. Ichigo looked into Rukia's pained eyes as she spoke two words, her voice strained as Ulquiorra's tail continued to squeeze at her neck. "Move, fool!"
Seeing Ichigo's irritated expression at her demand, Rukia grunted with frustration at his stubbornness. She twisted her pinned wrists to face her palms towards Ulquiorra on either side of Ichigo. Gasping under the pressure at her throat, Rukia gathered the last of her strength and cried out. "Bakudo number sixty-three, Sajo Sabaku!"
A chain of light issued from her hands and crashed into Ulquiorra, locking his arms to his sides and rendering him immobile. Momentarily surprised, Ulquiorra's tail released Rukia as she lost consciousness.
Ichigo caught Rukia by the shoulders as she limply fell forward. Wrapping an arm around her back, he pulled her protectively against himself and sank with her to their knees. "You did great, Rukia."
Feeling a sudden spike in power from the espada, Ichigo quickly turned his head just in time to see an unrestrained Ulquiorra whip his tail around his neck, yanking him roughly into the air.
Ulquiorra's clawed finger slid down from Ichigo's throat to his chest, stopping its descent in the center. Shifting his eyes to direct Ichigo's attention to Rukia on the ground nearby, the espada calmly spoke. "I have sealed your deaths."
Ichigo tried to respond, but could only gargle as Ulquiorra's tail held him tightly. The same black cero that had only moments before been directed at Rukia now grew next to Ichigo's bare skin, burning it. It was the last sensation he knew.
Ulquiorra unwound his tail and unceremoniously dropped Ichigo's body next to Rukia's, the gaping hole in the boy human's chest now matching his own.
Rukia was just becoming aware that she was slipping back into a conscious state when she felt a large burst of unfamiliar energy ricochet into her, then cease. A loud thud next to herself made Rukia's eyes wearily open.
Blinking a bit to clear her disoriented sight as well as her mind, her gaze unexpectedly landed on Ichigo's vacant eyes just inches from her own.
In an instant Rukia was sitting up, her mouth open in a soundless scream as she beheld Ichigo sprawled out next to her, his blood all around them.
She found her trembling hand covering his. Clasping his hand with both of her own, she brought it to her forehead and bowed her head as teardrops fell on her lap. Abandoning reason, Rukia desperately tried to summon a remnant of reiatsu within herself to heal him, but she had nothing to offer.
"…Ichigo…". Rukia felt something deep within her shatter as the reality of the situation eclipsed her initial shock. "ICHIGO!" Her anguished scream echoed off of the towers around them as she let out a sob.
Ulquiorra stepped near the pair. At the sound of his movements, Rukia swiftly turned to look up at the espada with an expression he could not read. For a moment the two wordlessly regarded one another.
"You are about to die, and yet you still weep over the defeated."
Except for the tears that wet her cheeks, Rukia's face was devoid of emotion as she turned her gaze back to Ichigo. "What kind of nakama would I be if I left Ichigo merely because he is dead?"
Ulquiorra contemplated her words as he continued to observe her. "I see." Standing over Ichigo, Ulquiorra gave a slight hand movement. "Caja Negacion." A small white box fell from his palm and into Ichigo's chest. Within seconds, walls quickly surrounded Ichigo and Rukia. Ulquiorra stood, watching with mild curiosity as the girl took no heed of what was happening around her. Her drooped shoulders and bowed head were the last he saw of her as with a bright flash of light, the cube vanished, emptying the two shinigami within it into deep darkness.
With a snap of her head, Rukia opened her eyes to find herself once again floating in the darkness. Her whole body still ached and throbbed, but the piercing emptiness felt inside her that had not faded upon waking was more acute. Turning her head to look around, she gave a gasp as her eyes rested on Ichigo's nearby body.
Rukia awkwardly scrambled to move herself towards him, finally finding that swimming motions glided her in his direction. "Ichigo!"
Drawing next to him, a hand clamped over her mouth as her eyes stopped at the sight of a large, horrid hole in his chest. "No…" Her whole body shook as she continued to stare. " That dream was real!? But-!"
"I've failed you…" Warm tears trickled across her cheeks, stinging in the places where she had been cut. "Fool! I just wanted to protect you!" Her screams rang in her own ears as she gazed through her blurred vision at his lifeless eyes. "Why, Ichigo? Why did you have to get in his way on account of me!" Rukia's whisper broke as she crossed her arms over her stomach and bowed low, her face resting on her knees, shivering as the shock and grief overcame her. No more tears came. She felt void of emotion; only a great hollowness remained. "Ichigo…I'm so sorry, Ichigo…please…forgive me…".
"She's calling me…I can hear her. We fight together. We protect each other. Stand. Stand up. We fight together to protect."
With her head still buried in her knees, a large gust of wind suddenly knocked Rukia somersaulting backwards. Gaining back control against the reeling force, she looked towards Ichigo and gasped with disbelief.
His body was erratically contracting, and his orange hair had suddenly grown long, rippling in the energy surrounding him. In the next instant, Ichigo's hollow mask swept over his face. However, to Rukia's growing alarm, it was much different than before, almost savage as horns formed out of it.
A terrible and feral howl emitted from Ichigo as marks akin to his mask appeared on his chest and claws grew from his appendices. With a mixture of dismay and awe, Rukia watched the transformation unfold.
In a flash, his body disappeared. Stunned, Rukia almost didn't feel the presence that had materialized behind her. Rukia turned her head towards him. "Ichigo!"
But her eyes found no sign of Ichigo in the creature that now stood before her. "How can this be? I still don't feel a trace of Ichigo's reiatsu. Has his hollow taken full control? Is Ichigo still….alive?!"
Rukia softly drew near to it, being careful to not give any indication of fear or the intent to harm. "Ichigo…do you know me? It's me, Rukia."
The hollow gave a dreadful bellow. "Ichigo! It's ok! It's just me, I'm on your side!"
Without warning, the beast seized and pulled her into the air, holding her at arm's length.
Rukia flinched as its clawed hands dug into her wounds. With a growl, the hollow bent close to her face, as though inspecting her. Remaining still, Rukia stoutly looked back at the hollow, searching his eyes for a glimmer of Ichigo's familiar warmth, but no soul was behind the gaze. "Don't you remember me, Ichigo?"
The creature let out a huff, then threw her down. Instinctively Rukia braced for impact, only to find herself floating to a stop. Rukia looked towards the hollow and saw it had lost interest in her and was now surveying their surroundings for the first time.
"Think, Rukia, think!" Her hand automatically rested on her zanpaktou as she tried to form a plan, but her mind, like the rest of her weary body, was beyond its limit and shutting down. Only one thought kept surfacing and gave her hope. "Ichigo must be alive for his hollow to be here…he just has to be…"
Something slammed into her, sending her head spinning from the impact of the blow. Fighting to stay conscious through the pain and exhaustion, Rukia saw the creature raging at a distance. With a swing of its arm, another large force emitted from the power behind its motions and knocked into her, causing her to yelp. Howling, it bent its head and immediately what looked like a cero began to form from the tips of its horns.
A great ball fired from the horns and into the darkness. The air grew so heavy as the blast was flung into the void that all sound seemed to be sucked away. Rukia held her breath as she looked on. Suddenly a hole let in a beam of light. Rumbles like thunder filled her senses as cracks appeared all around her, letting in the light. With a great splintering, the darkness shattered and the light overwhelmed and blinded her.
With an arm over her eyes, she sensed herself falling, then vaguely felt something abruptly seize her around the waist. "Ichigo? No, no, Ichigo's…dead…" Rukia's thoughts felt fevered, gliding between hope and hallucinations. A few moments later she was gently set down and felt cool sand beneath her. Judging that the danger of the dazzling light was now gone, Rukia dared to open her eyes.
Weakly looking around, she saw the prison had been broken and they were back in the area on top of the dome above Hueco Mundo. Her eyes rested on the hollow grasping the fallen Zangetsu at the base of the tower they had been on. Her vision began to swim and darkness threatened to overtake her once again. As she felt herself drifting away, she saw the hollow suddenly look her way and begin to come towards her, sword in hand.
Inoue gasped as she suddenly spotted two figures at the base of one of the distant towers. "There!" Ishida glanced in her direction, then to where she was pointing. Without another word they hastened their pace.
As they neared the base of the tower, it became clearer that one of the figures was Rukia. She was laying on her back, and a man that looked more hollow than human stood over her.
Ishida's brow furrowed. "What is that with Kuchiki-san?"
With a small cry, Inoue looked to Ishida for help. "Kuchiki-san's reiatsu…we don't have much time!"
The growing dread that Ishida had been holding back suddenly washed over him, causing him to stop short while they were still a few meters away. He opened his mouth and quickly shut it, his eyes wide. Inoue followed his que and also stopped. They now clearly saw the scene. Rukia looked barely conscious, giving a soft moan as she stirred where she lay in the sand, her bloodied robes in tatters around her body.
Inoue clapped her hands to her mouth, horrified. "Kuchiki-san!" Tears fell down her cheeks as she moved to go to her, but stopped when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked to see that Ishida was focused on the hollow.
Ishida suddenly took a step back in shock, his head jerking to look at the hollow more closely. The chain on the sword it was holding softly rattled as the hollow gave a low growl, stepping between them and Rukia. "Kurosaki!?"
The creature swiftly descended to straddle Rukia, ignoring the two humans standing nearby as it raised its sword with the blade's tip pointed at Rukia's chest. Rukia's eyes fluttered partly open for a moment to look at the hollow and the weapon pointed at her, then closed again. "Ichi…go…"
Ishida felt sick with stark horror. "Don't!" Ishida ran forward, extending his arm out as he watched the blade descend. "Kurosaki!"
In one swift motion the sword plunged into Rukia's chest.
A high shriek emitted from Inoue, her trembling hands clawing the sides of her face. She slumped to the ground as her knees gave out beneath her. "Ku…Ku…". Inoue's face twisted in pain as words failed her.
Ishida's arm went limp by his side. "No…" Ishida breathed out in a hushed tone. "You're truly no longer Kurosaki Ichigo…"
The sword was still embedded in Rukia when it suddenly blazed to life with a black surge of reiatsu down its length. In the next moment, both Rukia and the hollow began to glow as it spread out to engulf them.
"Kuchiki-san! Kurosaki!" Ishida yelled, but his voice was lost in the wind. Inoue covered her face with her hands as sand lashed violently around them, momentarily choking them as the air became filled with it and blinded them. Ishida felt nauseated, the scene of the sword striking Rukia haunting him."What is going on?!"
As the sand settled back around their feet, Ishida and Inoue looked up to find no trace of Rukia and the hollow still before them unchanged, save for the black hair billowing from its head.