"Why is this happening...why is everything so wrong...?" Inoue numbly sat sprawled in the sand as she stared at the hollow. In a matter of minutes, all hope of finding her friends safe and sound had been torn away. Ichigo seemed beyond reach, and Rukia was gone. "...does it really end like this?"
"How...Why did you both let this happen?!" The hollow gave no indication of having heard her. Squeezing her eyes shut against the image before her, she fought to keep the single strand of control she had over her emotions from falling. "Make it all stop...it hurts too much…I don't know what to do anymore!"
"Please stay where you are, Inoue-san."
Inoue turned with a start towards Ishida and saw him with his back to her as he continued to face the hollow. Despite her emotional state, she could still sense from his tense stance that he was in shock.
Without turning to look at her, Ishida firmly spoke. "It is important, even now, that we keep our composure."
"I...I can't…" A tear slid down Inoue's cheek. "What do we d-do?! I can't..."
Inoue instantly felt a steady hand on her shoulder. Looking up in surprise, she found Ishida kneeling in front of her, calmly meeting her eyes. "Stay strong, Inoue-san. I will not let Kurosaki forget who he truly is, nor count Kuchiki-san as lost to us yet." Inoue felt her fear subside a little at his strong words. She gave him a nod as she gulped back a sob.
"Impossible. How are you still alive?"
Ishida wheeled around at the sound of Ulquiorra's voice. The espada solemnly stood a few yards from them, taking in the new threat. "I suppose you still wish to fight me, Kurosaki."
Quickly standing in front of Inoue, Ishida slid out his bow and aimed it at Ulquiorra. Though his face showed only the slightest frown, his voice was laced with ice. "What have you done to Kurosaki? What happened to Kuchiki-san?"
Ignoring Ishida, Ulquiorra stepped towards the hollow. "What is this new form? You again refuse to acknowledge that I am beyond your reach?"
The hollow remained impassive, seeming to not be aware of the presence of those around him. Rather, it stood as still as stone.
Ulquiorra eyed the hollow with disdain. "I see words fail you. It is no matter. I will destroy you as many times as it takes to make you believe."
Ishida's eyes flared to life, anger radiating from his entire being. A puff of dust became the only trace of where Ishida had just been standing. A moment later a storm of arrows flew down at Ulquiorra.
As the air cleared, an unharmed Ulquiorra gazed at Ishida as he landed nearby. "How unexpected. I had calculated that out of Kurosaki Ichigo'a comrades, you were the most sensible."
Ishida's lips formed a thin line as he frowned at the espada from the tip of his readied arrow. "I am. That is why I will-"
A large blast suddenly rocked the area, sending Ishida to his knees. Hearing a yelp come from behind him, Ishida turned just in time to grab hold of Inoue's arm as she tumbled by him.
"I have you, Inoue-san!"
The area continued to shake, sending them somersaulting a few more yards before Inoue released her shield, reducing the strength of the forces whipping around them. Clinging to the ground, they looked up at the hollow as it growled, its grip tightening on zangetsu's hilt.
Ulquiorra turned with a stern face to look at the creature once again. "Who are you?"
Ichigo woke to the sound of rain hitting water. The cool water pelted his already-soaked body as he lay stretched out on his back with his eyes closed, listening to the steady thrum.
For reasons Ichigo did not understand he felt somber, but quickly dismissed it as he opened his eyes, grimacing as raindrops splashed into them from above. Bringing a hand up to shield his face from the downpour, Ichigo roused himself into a sitting position and surveyed the area as he shook out some water from inside his ears, puzzled when he saw no sign of Rukia or Ulquiorra. For the first time he realized he was sitting on the ground in several inches of rippling water that stretched as far as he could see, and a dark sky with no moon or stars was above him.
"Where the heck am I…?" Ichigo took a deep breath, then yelled. "Rukia! Oi, Rukia! Where are ya?"
A charge went through Ichigo's body at the sudden nearby sound of her voice. "Rukia! Where are you?"
Quickly looking in every direction, Ichigo's scowl grew increasingly deeper with each turn of his head as his eyes failed to see her. "...I can hear her…but where is she?"
"Hey, Rukia! Quit playing arou-"
"I've failed you…"
Ichigo wore a puzzled frown as he heard the distress in her voice. "What's the matter with you? Did you get hit too hard in the head?" Looking down at his hands, Ichigo flexed them with a sigh. "…I'm the one who didn't do enough…" Ichigo muttered to himself. "Not even once was I able to protect Rukia in the fight against Ulquiorra." Involuntarily, his body gave a shiver. "Ulquiorra…why can't I remember what happened after Ulquiorra had me by my neck?"
"Why, Ichigo? Why did you have to get in his way on account of me?!"
Despite his increasing concern for her, Ichigo found himself giving a half smile. "Dummy. You already know the answer to that." Ichigo continued to scan the area for her. "We fight together. We protect each other."
"What is going on? Why can I only hear Rukia?" His sense of uneasiness growing, Ichigo reached around for his sword's hilt. Not feeling its reassuring presence, Ichigo began to panic until he remembered the awful truth. "Zangetsu….it fell. I lost it."
"Ichigo…I'm so sorry, Ichigo…please…forgive me…".
Ichigo's face changed to that of disbelief. "Huh? Sorry for what? Stop hiding and tell me what's going on!" They had both always done their best to protect each other, and she had never let him down or given up on him. He knew she felt the need to grow stronger as much as he did.
Running a hand through his hair, Ichigo exhaled loudly. "Listen, I'm not forgiving you, because there's nothing to forgive. You have always worried more than you should." Ichigo could feel strength returning to his limbs. "Stand. Stand up." With a battle cry, Ichigo rolled over and got to his knees, then heaved himself up on his feet, standing haggardly. "We fight together to protect!"
A sudden rough push on Ichigo's back promptly landed him back into the water.
"What's your hurry, Ichigo?" A familiar cackle made Ichigo's blood run cold. With a groan, Ichigo pushed himself into a sitting position, his eyes confirming what he already knew.
"What are you doing here?"
A being that was Ichigo's mirror image but completely white gave him a sadistic grin. "I've always been here, idiot."
Sudden comprehension flashed across Ichigo's face. "This is my inner world?! Why's it so different? Where's old-man Zangetsu?"
"How should I know? This is your world, though not anymore. Thanks to your pathetic stunts out there, I'll be taking your crown for ya, Ichigo."
Ichigo immediately stood with a scowl. "What happened?"
The hollow gave him an incredulous look, then a short laugh. "You really fell hard from your high mount!" Seeing Ichigo still giving him a dark expression, he gave an exasperated sigh as he swung his arms out wide. "You got a gaping hole blasted into your chest by that Ulquiorra, that's what!"
Hearing the answer that confirmed the growing apprehension he had felt over his lack of memory of the battle, Ichigo balled his hands into fists as he lowered his head in shame. He had failed Rukia and the rest of his nakama. He had failed himself.
"I warned ya that I'd be here if you were bent on getting us killed on account of your repulsive cowardice. It's about time I get to fight!"
Ichigo made no reply as he tried to calm himself. "…how do I get Zangetsu back?"
Hearing a noise, Ichigo looked up, his tightened jaw going slack as his hollow suddenly began to transform into white bankai robes. A black mask with white stripes formed and grew horns as his white hair extended down to his waist.
"What is that mask Shiro is wearing?" Ichigo watched as the beast roared, then tilted its head as if to listen.
With a snort, Shiro turned toward Ichigo. "Che, that shinigami girl wants to know if you remember her." A cruel smile full of teeth formed on the hollow's masked face. "This could be fun."
Ichigo stared his hollow down. "Don't do anything to Rukia, you bast-" A force barreled into him. Brought to his hands and knees, Ichigo panted as he glared.
"Don't get in my way, runt."
"Like hell I will!"
With a pleased expression on his face, Shiro ignored Ichigo. "Time to blast out of this lame jail that gloomy espada put us in!"
"What? Is Rukia trapped with us too?"
"Yup. See ya." Shiro turned and began to walk away.
In desperation, Ichigo jumped onto Shiro's back and put his neck into a death-grip. "If you do an attack out there, Rukia might get hurt!"
Ichigo gasped in pain as his body suddenly impacted against the ground with a splash. The hollow growled as it stood over him.
"She's a goner anyway, so I'll just be doing her a favor and ending her suffering. Aren't I a compassionate king?" Taking Ichigo's bowed head and sudden silence as a sign of resignation, Shiro gave a salute as he turned around and vanished from sight.
"…We protect each other…" Ichigo made no sound as he got to his feet, his eyes closed in concentration, seeking Rukia's reiatsu. He strained to find even a faint trail to focus on by visualizing Rukia's face in his mind, hearing her voice. "…I've failed you…forgive me…" . Ichigo flinched as he heard her last words echo in his memory. "Rukia…if you can hear me, I won't have you feeling guilty for something that's happened to me. You beat yourself up enough about my safety when I came to get you in Soul Society." His eyes still closed as he sought her, Ichigo tilted his face up. "You hear me!? I won't allow you to worry about me in a fight anymore!" Ichigo dropped his voice to a murmur. "After all you've done for me, you don't deserve that."
Unexpectedly, Ichigo felt something brush against the palm of his hand. Reflexively he caught it as he opened his eyes. Looking down, he immediately broke into a smile as he beheld a red ribbon that exuded Rukia's reiatsu. Following the length of the ribbon with his eyes, Ichigo saw that it spiraled upwards and out of sight.
"What now…?" Ichigo gave the ribbon a tentative tug.
In the next instant he found himself in control of his hollow's body and squinting with his own eyes at the staggering brightness erupting around him. Looking around, Ichigo's heartbeat quickened as he saw a figure in the distance that he knew. He had little time to feel relief as he realized in the next second that they were falling.
Taking control of the situation, Ichigo shunpo'd next to Rukia. As his arm circled around her waist and lightly caught her limp body, he instantly felt her strength and that it was slipping away with each second. "I've got to get her to Inoue!"
Hastening their descent, Ichigo alighted on the ground a few seconds later. Hesitating for a moment as he tried to discern where Inoue was, a glimmer caught the corner of his eye and turned his gaze towards a familiar shape laying just beyond in the sand.
Looking back at Rukia, Ichigo made a quick decision. Carefully setting Rukia down on the sand, Ichigo hurridly made his way towards his sword, confidence growing with each step. "Everything's going to be all right now…after I get Rukia to Inoue I'm gonna beat that hollow of mine with Zangetsu back into submiss-…" As his fingers curled around the hilt, a great pain suddenly ripped through his entire body as his vision went black.
Ichigo blinked and found himself stretched out on his back and staring up at Zangetsu's pointed tip as the rain poured down.
"That was a nasty stunt you pulled on me there. It's my turn now."
Shiro's masked face was the last thing Ichigo saw as his vision blurred and then darkened.
A surge of power swept through Ichigo and filled his senses, promptly causing his eyes to open as he sprung up. "Why is Rukia's reiatsu here?"
Ichigo heard his hollow laughing manically, then abruptly stop.
"What the…what's going on?! Why can't I absorb it?!"
Standing, Ichigo began to approach Shiro, anger rising in him as his gut instinct told him the hollow had done something terrible.
Shiro suddenly screamed as though in pain as his hair changed from white to black. "You vile, horrible woman! What did you just do to me?!"
Standing a few paces from Shiro, Ichigo's voice rumbled above the hollow's howls. "Where's Rukia?"
Immediately Shiro grew quiet as he turned to look at Ichigo, lifting the horned mask slightly from his face to reveal a pair of glowering eyes. A growl rose from him as he flashed Zangetsu's blade. "Tch, you expected me to let her live after what you did?"
Ichigo leapt at Shiro, only to stop short with Zangetsu just a hair's width from between his eyes.
Shiro wagged his finger. "Ah ah ah, you're still my horse. Be a good boy now and run along"
"I was protecting her!"
Shiro cocked his head. "Tch, like I care about the girl." His tongue slid out and licked his lips as he gave a crooked smile. "Just seemed a shame to let her tasty reiatsu go to waste."
"What did you do?!"
With a flash, Shiro came to stand close to Ichigo, the blade's edge against his throat as he murmured into Ichigo's ear. "You know the answer already, Iiiiiiichigo…"
"No…" Ichigo's voice came out hoarse as he staggered away from Shiro, shaking his head in denial. "No…no…"
A grin grew on Shiro's face as he cackled in delight at Ichigo's horror. "She knows you did it too. She said your name right before I plunged Zangetsu through her heart."
Ichigo's hand went to his heart as he slumped to the ground. It felt like a blade was being twisted inside it, making him gasp aloud in pain.
"…Why…?" Ichigo looked up through a haze of shock at the hollow. "WHY?!"
"I need all the power I can get after you allowed Ulquiorra to nearly drain us, you idiot! Course I also expected her soul to disintegrate when I tapped into its power, not stick around and be a nuisance."
Ichigo's dazed eyes refocused sharply on Shiro. "Wait, you mean…?"
Shiro nonchalantly swung Zangetsu around. "Man, why do I have to always clean up your messes, huh?" With a snap of his fingers, Shiro pointed accusingly at Ichigo. "You just had to share our reiatsu with her back then in the tower instead of leaving her to die for being unable to dodge a freakin' trident! It's no wonder I couldn't absorb her when too much of our reiatsu is mixed with hers now, moron!"
"You are a monster."
Shiro's face was suddenly just inches away from Ichigo's, his eerie dark eyes full of contempt. "You're only alive right now because of me! You're so weak it's disgusting."
"I will find her."
Swiftly Shiro appeared again at a distance, waving Ichigo's comment off. "If you want to delude yourself, go right ahead. I have more interesting prey now."
Once again, Ichigo found himself sitting alone in the rain.
Rukia waded through the icy water that sloshed around her knees, her breath hanging in the air. Her robes and hair clung to her skin as the rain above showered down on her in the darkness. Normally she was quite tolerant of the cold, but this was a chill that struck her to the core.
"What is this place? Where am I now…and more importantly…" Pausing a moment, Rukia looked around in confusion. "…why do I sense Ichigo's presence so strongly here? It's everywhere…"
Rukia shivered, causing her to resume the task of walking towards something she could not explain, other than she felt a tugging at her own heart and it was pulling her to where she needed to go.
"Am I dead? Logically it would seem so…" Rukia inhaled sharply at a sudden realization. "Does that mean I'll find Ichigo here?" A warmth spread through her at the thought of possibly seeing her friend one last time. "If Ichigo is here, I must find him." Rukia picked up her pace as her eyes took on a light of their own. "I will find him."
"Rukia! Rukiaaaa! Oiiiiii!" Ichigo's cupped hands fell from around his mouth as he exhaled in frustration.
The water was getting higher. Ichigo watched the glistening water as it bounced off of his calves with each step he took. He wasn't sure where to go; Rukia's reiatsu felt lost in the chaos of his own.
Ichigo rubbed his chest where his heart beat within. Not only did it ache, but he felt a dull tugging at it, as though a string were attached and pulling too tightly. "Stupid thing, quit with the heartburn already…"
A faint gasp reached Ichigo's ears. Whirling around, he blinked several times to make sure he wasn't seeing a mirage.
A relieved smile broke out on Ichigo's face. "Rukia!"
Ichigo watched as Rukia gave a faltering smile, then crumpled her hands to cover her face. Even from the distance he was standing, he realized that she was shaking. He walked toward her.
"Rukia, I'm so sorry. Everything I put you through…you must be afraid of me now. I'm really sorry." Ichigo came to stand in front of her, his eyes filled with guilt as he gazed down at her bowed head. "I know what I did was horrible and unforgivable. But please…" Ichigo swallowed a lump as he felt tears sting his eyes. "…at least someday…please forgive me."
In the next instant, Ichigo felt something collide into him. Looking down in surprise, Ichigo found Rukia against him, her head buried into his chest and her arms tightly enveloping him with such intensity that he felt it hard to breathe.
"I found you…" Rukia turned her face to look up at him. Even in the rain, Ichigo could see she was crying. A small smile appeared on her lips. "I found you, Ichigo…!"
Ichigo stared in bewilderment at Rukia, then gave a gentle smile as he felt his fears wash away as though by the rain. His arms wrapped around her as he returned her embrace. "Ah. I'm glad you found me, Rukia."
The two stood together in silence, taking comfort in one another as they held each other a few moments longer. Reluctantly, Ichigo released Rukia as he felt her arms drop away.
Ichigo ruffled his hair to hide the sudden embarrassment he felt. "So, um, I guess we should figure out how to get out of this place…"
Rukia raised an eyebrow quizzically. "What do you mean? We'll be sent to earth and reborn when it's time."
Ichigo's face deadpanned. "Say whah?"
Rukia shrugged. "That's what happens after you die."
"After you…what are you talking about? We're not dead!"
"Of course we are! How else would we both be here?"
"We're not dead because we're in my inner world."
Rukia's eyes grew wide. "This…?" Rukia motioned around them. "This is your inner world? How's that even possible!? And…why is it so bleak?"
Ichigo let out a deep sigh. "It's supposed to be full of skyscrapers and have a blue sky. But…things aren't normal right now."
"My hollow has taken control. I was a second away from death after Ulquiorra beat me. I failed, so my hollow took his chance when I was too weak to stop him. Whenever the dominant spirit changes, my body's appearance changes, and… apparently so does my inner world."
Shifting his weight, Ichigo looked uncomfortable as he launched into an explanation about his hollow taking control, and how the hollow was prevented from killing Rukia because of their mixed reiatsu.
Growing silent at the end of his explanation, Ichigo suddenly kicked the water. "It's all my fault! I could have prevented all of this if I'd just beaten Ulquiorra."
Rukia scoffed as she frowned at Ichigo. "You're a fool if you think it was any more your fault than it was mine that Ulquiorra got the best of us!"
"Of course it was my fault! I let him overpower me!"
With a questioning look, Rukia motioned for him to go on.
Ichigo began to restlessly pace. "In my other battles with him, he was the stronger one. But this time… This time I could feel a difference in my powers." Ichigo lowered his head as the words tumbled out. "…and it frankly terrified me!"
Rukia remained quiet, her expression hidden.
Taking a deep breath, Ichigo continued. "I restrained myself. I was afraid that I would be overwhelmed by my own power and lose myself. I convinced myself that I could still win using the powers I was comfortable with if I tried hard enough." Ichigo scowled to himself. "…You know as much as I do how great that turned out. Now my hollow is out there doing who knows what damage, not caring if they are a friend or foe, all because I was afraid."
The next thing Ichigo knew, he was laying flat on his back sputtering water and rubbing his aching jaw.
"What's with the wimpy attitude?! You're not going to lose your fighting spirit to your hollow like this, are you?!"
"Of course not!" Ichigo retorted. "I was about to say how I want to beat him to a pulp when you decked me!"
"Do you simply want to beat him, or are you going to?!"
Glaring, Ichigo avoided her gaze as he sat up.
"So what if you're afraid?! Fight through the fear and become stronger! If you're afraid of the hollow hurting our friends, then crush him so he can't! If you're afraid of losing yourself to battle-lust…" Rukia dropped her voice back to a normal level as she stepped near him. "…know that you do not have to be afraid of that happening, because that is not the man I know."
Ichigo stared at Rukia as her words sunk in. Suddenly he busied himself with hauling his body back onto its feet to hide the grin covering his face. "You sure do like to create a ruckus, don't ya?"
Smirking, Rukia crossed her arms. "Hey, Ichigo?"
"What do we do to regain control?"
Ichigo scratched his head. "Not sure."
Wearing a look of displeasure, Rukia's hand again formed into a fist.
Ichigo stuck his hands up in defense. "Woah woah, gimme a minute!" Ichigo waited until he saw Rukia's hand uncurl before tilting his head to look upwards as he thought back to his last fight with the hollow. "When I was training with the Visored, I had to learn to fight more instinctually. That a battle can be fought without having a reason. Every battle is a chance to grow stronger and obtain more power." Ichigo paused, wanting to choose his next words carefully. "...to even have an excitement, a certain thirst for battle. To just basically…let loose." Looking across at Rukia, he relaxed a bit as he saw no judgment in her eyes. "…I used that instinct to beat him into the core of my soul."
Rukia's eyes connected with Ichigo's. "We fight together?"
Ichigo looked straight back at her, reciprocating the trust in her gaze. "Yes, we fight. Together."