Strike Down the Chaos
"Is your hollow always this elusive?"
Ichigo and Rukia stood together after walking for what had seemed hours as they searched for the hollow, but their efforts had been met with being no closer to a solution than when they had started.
Ichigo's scowl grew deeper. "We found each other in the dark, in a world that is infinite in size, yet we can't find that stupid hollow!
Rukia's eyes reflected a mischievousness. "More like I found you, but yes."
Scoffing, Ichigo continued on as though he hadn't heard her. "Go figure the one time I want to see him, he's not here! I'm sure he's laughing it up."
Turning to look at her, he was caught off-guard as a force knocked him in the side.
"Dammit, Rukia! What was that for?!"
Straightening up, Rukia eyed him, her jaw set in a determined line. "Stop worrying. We will find him, and we will beat him."
Managing to shoot Rukia a mock glare, Ichigo rubbed his ribs before sighing in defeat. "My bad. I know we'll be fine."
Ichigo resumed walking a few paces when the ground began to violently shake, stirring the water around them into choppy waves.
Trying to maintain her balance, Rukia raised her voice over the rumbling. "What is this?! An earthquake?!"
Abruptly the ground beneath their feet launched upwards. Ichigo and Rukia dropped to their knees as it rose into the air with them. Glancing to the side, Ichigo watched as other cube-shaped towers shot up alongside them and began taking on the appearance of skyscrapers.
With a lurch that sent them flying, their ascent and the tremors lessened until everything became still.
Giving a grunt, Ichigo pushed himself up. "That was quite the ride."
"Ichigo! How are you standing?!"
Looking over, Ichigo saw Rukia laying flat on her stomach, her hands clutching the sill of a window.
A laugh escaped from Ichigo as he realized the reason for her surprise. "Ah, I did the same thing the first time I came here. Everything is sideways."
"Sideways?!" Looking around incredulously, Rukia still clung to the window ledge. "Can I let go then?"
Walking over to her, Ichigo wore a grin as he squatted down in front of her and began to pluck her fingers off the window's edge. "I don't know, can you?"
Half panicking and half angry, Rukia gave a yell. "Ichigo! Wait! I'll do it! Let me do it!"
Pausing, Ichigo smirked as he watched her take a deep breath and let go.
"Oh look, you didn't fall."
Casting an evil eye in his direction, Rukia stood uncertainly as she took in their new surroundings. "Is this really what your inner world is supposed to be like?"
Ichigo stuck his hand out, the palm catching the still-falling rain. "Well, you could say it's an improvement."
Rukia gave a smirk, but it quickly changed as she suddenly saw something and crouched into a battle stance, drawing her sword. "Ichigo, come here."
Ichigo could already sense who was behind him as he whirled around with a scowl. "I thought you had better prey out there."
"I'm having a glorious blood bath out there!" Shiro crowed. "However, your soul has been getting less and less depressing. Now look what you did in here! It's not right." He arched his body to look over Ichigo's shoulder at Rukia. "I know who to blame too."
Having been studying Shiro's appearance and interaction with Ichigo, Rukia finally spoke up. "You're the one responsible for my current condition, correct?"
Pushing Ichigo aside, Shiro leapt towards Rukia. "I could say the same about you, intruder!" His sword descended towards her. "Allow me to fix that!"
Ichigo ran toward the pair. "Stop!"
Two swords swung down to within a hair's width between them when they suddenly repelled apart with greater force, pushing both their wielders backwards with them. Rukia stared down at her blade, then Shiro's in puzzlement. Shiro's expression matched her own.
Running to stand in front of Rukia, Ichigo glowered at his hollow. "Don't ever raise my sword at her!"
"Ichigo." Rukia came to stand next to him as she spoke in a low voice. "I think you may still have more control over your zanpaktou than you think. Just now when you yelled to stop, it was like it responded to your will rather than your hollow's."
Keeping watch on his hollow as he considered her words, Ichigo finally gave a slight nod. "Let's end this, Rukia."
"Wait." Rukia solemnly held her sword out to him. "Take it."
His eyes widened as he stared in surprise at her. "Rukia..."
"Let it protect you. My strength is best complimented in kido, and yours is swordsmanship."
Ichigo's face grew serious, but his eyes were soft as he shook his head. "Thanks, but I need to face him as I am. I need to gain back my right to wield my zanpaktou."
Rukia gave him a hard look. "What you are asking to do is suicidal."
Taking a step closer to Rukia, Ichigo hesitated a moment before speaking. "Rukia, you should know that back when you were still in Ulquiorra's trap, I heard you asking for forgiveness for not being able to protect me." Ichigo inwardly berated himself for thinking this was a good idea as Rukia stiffened and avoided his eyes. Now in too deep, Ichigo took a breath and pressed on. "You may not have heard me, but I said there was nothing to forgive."
Ichigo watched as Rukia quickly turned to look to the side, but he had already seen the flash of emotion in her eyes. He laid a firm hand on her shoulder. "I also made a promise. You won't need to worry about me in a fight from now on. I'm going to make sure of it."
Giving a side glance towards his hollow, Ichigo looked back down at Rukia as she ventured to meet his gaze once again. "Trust me as I trust you. We will defeat him, and we'll get out of here."
"Ichigo…" After a few beats Rukia frowned as she crossed her arms. "If your stubbornness gets you seriously hurt, I will kick both you and your hollow's butts."
With a smirk, Ichigo conceded with a wave as he began walking toward his hollow. "I count on it."
Rukia quickly joined him and matched his strides. "I trust you, Ichigo." She caught a slight smile from him before he hid it again.
Ichigo's face became stern as they closed the distance between themselves and his hollow. "You have no right to wield Zangetsu. I challenge you to a duel."
Shiro gave him a crooked smile. "Tch, you don't give orders here. I have no intention of giving you power just so you can kill us again!"
"You're wrong." Ichigo's eyes burned with a sudden intensity. "Prepare yourself."
Moving his sword to point at Ichigo, Shiro's face glowed with excitement that quickly grew into raw bloodlust. "Heh, I like that look on your face, Ichigo."
As Zangetsu swung down, Ichigo quickly sidestepped it, allowing Rukia to meet the oncoming blade with her own. Bracing herself under Zangetsu's pressure, Rukia parried it away as Ichigo took his chance and used his momentum to propel his body into Shiro. Shiro gave a grunt as Ichigo's elbow collided with his gut, but the hollow recovered in the next instant as he knocked the sword's hilt against the side of Ichigo's head. Ichigo staggered in pain, giving Shiro an opening.
Ichigo immediately obeyed as Rukia's sword swung above in time to block the attack meant for him.
Regaining his balance, Ichigo moved to tackle Shiro, but he found himself sliding into thin air as Shiro leapt above him.
The black blade suddenly flashed above Rukia. Reflexively Rukia brought her sword up in time to counter, but the act required her arms to be stretched far above her head, causing her torso to be vulnerable.
With a cry of glee, Shiro pushed her blade, sending Rukia a step back as he swiftly thrust his sword at her chest.
Keeping her eyes on the oncoming tip, Rukia moved her sword down in time to push the attack to the side, but too late she realized it was not far enough as the edge clipped her shoulder. Giving a yelp, Rukia slid back from the force but held herself steady.
Breathing heavily, Rukia glared at the hollow as Ichigo swung his knee into Shiro's back, allowing her the opportunity to twist herself away from his sword and create some distance.
Shiro turned and swiped at Ichigo's head, but Ichigo ducked and swung his leg across, hitting Shiro in his legs. Momentarily unbalanced, the hollow quickly used his own momentum and performed a back flip, landing neatly on his feet.
Cackling, Shiro swung his blade again and again at Ichigo. "Come on now, Ichigo! You're being too sloppy!"
Scowling, Ichigo expertly moved his body to avoid each stroke of the blade, keeping his full attention on Shiro.
"Bakudo number four, Hainawa!"
With a slash, Shiro flung the attack away from himself and into a neighboring skyscraper, causing debris to rain over them all.
"Tch, let's get this over with, shall we?" Shiro abruptly flashed to stand in front of Rukia. "Getsuga-."
Time slowed as Rukia stood frozen in shock as zangetsu burst to life. Suddenly a large blur shot between her and the hollow and pushed her down.
A glowing ball of merciless energy erupted and tore into everything around Rukia, causing her to squeeze her eyes shut against it as it raged. Yet she could sense that the attack was much weaker where she was then everywhere else as it relentlessly barreled through anything in its way, and she dreaded confirming who she believed to be the reason for her safety.
At last the fierceness of the attack slowly abated. The wind whipped at her clothes and hair as she gingerly sat up and opened her eyes to find the tail end of shredded billowing black robes filling her sight.
Instantly her face tilted up to find Ichigo before her and facing the hollow, his hand dripping blood as it clenched the blade of Zangetsu that hovered just inches from his neck. Taking in his grisly appearance and ragged breathing, she knew that his body had taken the brunt of the attack for her.
Though the close proximity of the blade near his neck limited his radius, Rukia watched as he managed to turn his head slightly to look back at her. Her fear for him quickly changed to hope as she saw his eyes were ablaze with ferocity.
"You ok, Rukia?"
"Worry about yourself, fool!" Rukia hastily stood as she readied her sword, ready to come to his aid.
Ichigo smirked before turning his attention back to his hollow as they continued to strain against one another. "Please don't interfere, Rukia. I'll take things from here."
"What?!…But Ichigo, you-"
Shiro cursed loudly in anger, cutting off their exchange. "Quit with the hero business and give up, Ichigo. Next time you won't be so lucky!"
"Bring it on!" Ichigo pushed harder at the sword, the blade digging further into his hand's flesh. Slowly the zanpaktou began to move away from him, causing Shiro to dig in his heels as he tried to exert more force. However, Shiro felt his feet sliding backwards.
"I refuse to let you have control!" Ichigo grunted as he continued to gain ground. "I still have a battle to finish with Ulquiorra! It's my fight!"
A yell issued from Ichigo as he gave a final shove and connected with Shiro, suddenly launching the two of them over the edge of the skyscraper.
The sound of Rukia calling out after him rang in Ichigo's ears as he and his hollow fell together. Each madly fought for control of who would be the buffer against the oncoming water below as they hurtled through the air. Twisting and shifting weight against the other, Ichigo and Shiro both became parallel to the water seconds before crashing into it. The force of the impact ripped the two apart and sent them reeling through deep waters.
Peering over the side of the building, Rukia watched in alarm as Ichigo and his hollow smashed into the water far below. Attempting to keep her emotions in check, she waited for Ichigo to reappear on the surface, fixated on the spot she had seen him disappear. But as time went by and she still saw no sign of either he or the creature, she grew anxious.
Tugging her sword's hilt, she assured herself that it was tightly fastened to her hip before lightly stepping over the edge, gliding herself swiftly down.
The violent crash into the waves caused Ichigo to black out for a few moments before regaining his senses. As he became more aware of his surroundings, he found himself floating alone in semi-darkness, save for a single white box. "I've been here before…This is from when Urahara trained me and I had to find my zanpaktou's hilt from the hundreds of white floating boxes...". Almost as if on cue, a red ribbon appeared that was attached to the box. "Is my zanpaktou in there?" Feeling a glimmer of hope, Ichigo gave the ribbon a pull and released the box's lid open.
Rukia dove through the waves with a splash. As her eyes adjusted to the dimly lit water, she turned her head in each direction in search of her companion, but could not see either him or the hollow.
Bobbing back above the surface, Rukia took a deep breath and immediately plunged back under, this time diving deeper than before. Time was running out for how long Ichigo had been without air and desperation pressed harder into her as she searched. "Hurry, hurry, hurry…".
An area of white churning water a bit further down from herself caused her to immediately change her direction. Squinting, Rukia tried to focus on the area when a glimmer of orange made her heart leap. Her strokes became more forceful as she swam towards the color, the closing gap soon revealing to her it was indeed Ichigo, but also that he was not moving.
As Ichigo stared into the vacant white box in confusion, a slight motion caught the corner of his eye, making him look down. A red ribbon delicately trailed out from where his heart sat beating within his chest. Startled, Ichigo could only stare at it in stupefaction. "The ribbon that ties to my soul…that connects to my zanpaktou…it's still attached". He gently fingered the ribbon. "It's…always been here…always been mine…"
Feeling a tug from the ribbon at his chest that was familiar, Ichigo massaged the area with a frown. "Is this why my heart hurt earlier?" Ichigo's frown grew deeper as he sensed something else about the ribbon that he knew all too well. "…Rukia's reiatsu? But how?"
"Her reiatsu was mixed with your own when she was forcefully brought here."
Whirling around, a relieved smile broke out on Ichigo's face. "Old man Zangetsu!…Wait…what did you say?"
Zangetsu stood at a distance, watching Ichigo with a stoic gaze. "The two of you may still have traces of each other in your souls from now on, but I believe we can mostly return as we were."
Straightening his posture, Ichigo bowed his head in respect. "Please lend me your power, Zangetsu."
"She's a part of your soul now, just as I am part of you. Remember that, Ichigo, and you will succeed."
Looking back up at Zangetsu, Ichigo felt a new certainty and resolve growing in him. "I will succeed, because I must." As soon as his words were uttered, Ichigo suddenly found himself alone in a new place. Looking around, he felt a surge of panic as he realized that he was underwater. Frantically, Ichigo began thrashing around for the surface as he cupped a hand over his mouth. "Wait…I was breathing normally in the water until I realized where I was...what if…"
Ichigo tentatively took in a small breath, then another, each breath bigger than the last. "I can breathe?!" Feeling almost giddy at this revelation, his attention was unexpectedly diverted to a blur of white as it flew by below him. Looking closer, Ichigo saw it was his hollow speeding far below him with the blade, and it was aimed towards him.
Abruptly two hands that were not his own wrapped under his arms and urgently tugged him. Shifting his gaze up in surprise, Ichigo beheld Rukia straining to pull him up with her, her face turned towards the distant surface as she gave powerful kicks. His expression quickly changed to a frown as another glimpse of his hollow racing towards them confirmed to Ichigo what was really happening. "He's aiming for Rukia!"
Rukia seemed to have noticed the oncoming danger as well as a flurry of icicles flew past Ichigo and at Shiro, but it did little to slow the hollow's momentum.
"...She's a part of your soul now, just as I am part of you". Zangetsu's last words seem to ricochet around in Ichigo's mind as he wrestled with an idea. If he was wrong about his hunch, Rukia could die. Yet as he felt Rukia's hands loosen their grip and her kicks weakening, he decided to follow his gut instinct about his inner world's workings. Gently, Ichigo broke loose of Rukia's hold.
Immediately Rukia's stunned eyes met his.
"I'm alright, Rukia! Go ahead and take a breath!"
Her questioning eyes continued to follow him as Ichigo floated up next to her until their faces were level with one another. "This place is a part of me, so it's safe for you too. Just breathe."
As Ichigo nodded at her in encouragement, he experienced how much she trusted his word as without hesitation she let out the rest of her breath and subsequently inhaled. Any doubt he had about if his judgment was correct drained away as he watched her face relax as she took another breath and slowly regained her composure.
"Trust me a bit longer, Rukia. Stay behind me."
Seeing determination etched in his features, Rukia drew herself up and matched his expression, indicating to Ichigo all he needed to know that she supported him.
With not much time to lose, Ichigo spun around and placed himself between her and Shiro as his hollow drew up short.
"Too bad, I wanted to see her drown."
Ichigo's eyes shot daggers at his hollow. "Since you're only ever worried about self-preservation, let me make one thing clear…" Ichigo tilted his head in his partner's direction. "You will not even touch Rukia."
Shiro gave a short laugh that came out more like a snarl. "You can't stop me!" Brandishing Zangetsu, he gave a cry as he swung it down towards the unflinching pair.
"You have no sword."
With a start, Shiro's eyes narrowed as the weight of the sword disappeared and his opponent remained untouched. He looked angrily from his empty hand to Ichigo. "What did you do?!"
Zangetsu materialized in Ichigo's hand as he steadily looked back at his hollow, lifting his sword's tip to point at Shiro.
In the next instant Shiro appeared next to Rukia, his sharp clawed hands poised to strike her when two blades were drawn to his white throat. Both Ichigo and Rukia gazed coolly back at him from the other ends of their swords.
Ichigo's voice was low but clear. "You're wasting my time. Leave."
His eyes wide in disbelief, Shiro jumped away. However his momentary surprise was followed by a menacing grin that suddenly grew on his face. "You're forgetting something. I still get the girl! She's stuck here now!"
With an expert twirl of his blade, Ichigo swept it forward and directly into Shiro's abdomen. Giving a gasp from the force of the blow, Shiro's head drooped slightly.
"I will not say it again." Ichigo's calm words were laced with a sharpness. "Do not even touch Rukia."
"Too late, Ichigo! I will help her wish she'd never been born!" Shiro crooned.
Without warning a tornado of water enveloped Rukia and whirled around her, walling her off. A cry of pain emitted from Rukia as a hole appeared in the middle of her chest, her shrieks becoming more piercing as the hole grew and began consuming her.
"If I can't absorb her soul, then I'm gonna chop it to pieces and scatter them to the four corners of your soul! You can try all you want, but you won't be able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again!"
A bead of sweat slid down Ishida's temple as he stood with his hand clenched around the wrist of the hollow as it stood over what was left of Ulquiorra's carcass. "Can't you hear me, Kurosaki?! I'm telling you to stop!" The sword's chain rattled as Ishida struggled to keep the hollow's sword arm rigid. "If you do that, you truly won't be human anymore!"
Against his best efforts at restraining the creature, Ishida watched in vain as the hollow managed to edge its sword's tip down, touching Ulquiorra's throat.
Within a second of the name leaving his lips, Ishida found himself looking down at a black sword planted squarely in his stomach. In shock, he was only aware that his body had been propelled backwards when his back made a sharp impact against a pile of rocks and stopped his momentum.
"Ishida-kun!" Inoue began to run towards Ishida when a cero aimed in Ishida's direction started to form between the hollow's horns. "Wait! Kurosaki-kun!" Without breaking her speed she dashed to stand in front of Ishida.
"Inoue-san, no! Get away from here or we'll both be killed!"
Ignoring Ishida's protests, Inoue stayed facing the hollow and the looming threat, the tears in her eyes the only giveaway to her emotions. "Please, Kurosaki-kun! Please listen and stop this! We're your nakama!"
Abruptly Inoue saw a blur of motion flying up behind the hollow, a spear of energy poised to strike at the creature. "No! Ulquiorra!" Knowing she had no more time, she let her instincts take over. "Santen Kesshun!"
In one motion Ulquiorra cleaved the horn of the hollow, the force causing the hollow's head to pivot up as its cero erupted into the heavens with uncontrolled devastation.
Shiro squealed with laughter as he saw Ichigo's stone face flicker with fury as Rukia cried out again in agony.
Without delay, Ichigo pushed his sword further into Shiro's body until only his hilt stopped him, earning a hiss from his hollow. Ichigo's impassive face leaned in until he was inches from Shiro's own. "It has always been my fight out there, and my world here. She's coming back with me."
Shiro's smirk dropped slightly. "Tch, what makes you so sure?" His body was beginning to dissolve, but he hardly noticed as he watched a red ribbon materialize from Ichigo's chest.
"This." A great rush of power flew from Ichigo and detonated around them, simultaneously causing the water spout as well as all of the water that had surrounded them to completely vanish.
The hollow's jaw slacked as he processed what had just happened. "You've got to be kidding me…don't tell me…!"
Ichigo shunpo'd towards Rukia as she began to limply fall through the air. Catching her, he saw to his relief that although her breathing was labored, her eyes were steadfast as they latched onto his.
Shiro's form had completely disappeared, but his voice reverberated around them as several curses were flung in their direction. "You win for now, Ichigo…just beware, cause I will stomp all over you and the girl the first chance I get!"
The hollow's voice and presence had just faded away when the ribbon extended from Ichigo and towards Rukia, finally sinking into her chest and causing the hole to close over the ribbon.
Landing on a skyscraper, Ichigo carefully helped Rukia stand on her own. "Are you ok, Rukia?"
She breathed a small smile. "I am now." Rukia lightly touched the ribbon that linked to her chest. "A spirit thread…?" As she looked in awe at it, Ichigo observed the same revelation that had hit him earlier dawn on her face.
Her eyes radiated with a flurry of emotions as she locked gazes with him. "This was the tugging I felt at my heart when I was trying to find you here, isn't it? It's what led me to you."
Ichigo gave a rueful smile. "I felt it too earlier, but I took it for heartburn."
Rukia shook her head as she continued in her train of thought. "But why is it attached to both of us? Normally there's just one for any individual with a high spiritual aura…"
Feeling a heat coming into his cheeks, Ichigo shifted his gaze. "Because of a few things that happened out there, seems our souls are bound together."
Oblivious to Ichigo's embarrassment, Rukia placed a hand over her heart as she took in his words. "I've felt something was different since you came for me after my battle with Aaroniero, but couldn't put my finger on it. Then when your hollow tried to swallow my soul after escaping Ulquiorra's trap…" She patted her heart for emphasis. "…that was when I could feel a fragment of your soul here."
Ichigo became solemn as he looked down at her. "He made it sound like a ton of my reiatsu was mixed with yours to keep him from absorbing you. You must have really put up a fight to block him using only a small piece of my soul to shield yourself."
Giving a slight huff, Rukia smiled. "Frankly, that fragment was all I had left. My spiritual power was almost gone and that's when I could feel yours, so I held on to it."
Rukia noticed a pained look in his eyes. Anticipating what he was going to say, her voice cut through his brooding. "Don't even go down that path of feeling responsible for what happened, Ichigo." Standing on her tiptoes, she placed a hand to his cheek and waited for him to make eye contact with her before she continued. "There's nothing to forgive."
Ichigo felt a jolt at hearing his own words directed back at him. Firm eyes met guilt stricken. Finally, Ichigo's face relaxed as he accepted her words.
Streams of light suddenly filtered through around them. Peering above, Ichigo and Rukia saw that a blue sky hung overhead.
Fastening his sword, Ichigo loudly exhaled. "We're both still not recovered, so getting out of here is going to be difficult."
Rukia gave a soft chuckle. "When are things ever not?"
Facing Rukia, he gave her a firm nod as a lone breeze began to stir. "I promise I will get you safely out of here." Ichigo suddenly pulled Rukia to his chest, his arms circling her protectively as a gust of wind whipped into them.
The roar of a gale filled Rukia's ears as Ichigo's inner world vanished and she lost sense of time or place as a tempest assailed them. The chaotic wind snatched at her, trying to pull her away. All at once Rukia felt she was losing herself and would be lost forever, causing her to bury her face against his chest and press into Ichigo for refuge.
Ichigo gritted his teeth as he sensed Rukia's reiatsu fluctuate and her essence threaten to be torn from him. "I've got you, Rukia!" He held her more tightly to himself, shielding her as well as he could from the wild elements. "I won't let us be separated. You are part of my soul now, just as I am part of you. We're in this together!"
As the cero's intensity died away, Ishida and Inoue peered through the dust to see what had become of the hollow. Through the haze they made out its figure still standing.
The sound of something cracking rang out in the silence, fixing all eyes on the hollow as the mask suddenly broke into pieces and fell away, briefly revealing Ichigo's face before his body fell forward to the ground with a dull thud.
Inoue quickly ran to kneel next to Ichigo's still form, afraid of what she would discover.
Reaching out a timid hand, Inoue quickly withdrew it when with a pop the long hair evaporated into the air and rapidly returned to its normal length and orange color while human hands and feet replaced the clawed appendages.
At the last of his body's transformation, a cloud formed above him and spun. With no warning, a funnel of light erupted from the cloud and shot directly into the gaping hole in Ichigo's back. The intensity of the energy knocked Inoue back towards Ishida as it swirled around his body.
Inoue tried to give a reassuring look in Ishida's direction to let him know she was alright, but her eyes wore the look of fear. Ishida laid a hand on her shoulder as they looked on in anticipation.
Just as suddenly as the surge of power had started, it ceased, and an eerie calm followed after.
Momentarily forgetting his injuries as he witnessed the spectacle, Ishida stared in bewilderment. "The hole…it closed up…?
Unable to keep the wonder from his voice, Ulquiorra gave name to what had just occurred. "High speed regeneration?!"
Inoue looked questioningly at Ishida, her eyes silently asking him for permission to go to Ichigo. Receiving a nod from Ishida, Inoue hesitantly crept up for a closer look and kneeled down again near Ichigo. "Um…Kuro-" She cut herself off as a muffled voice reached her ears.
"…Ichigo, your weight is crushing me."
"Rukia!" Springing up on all fours, Ichigo gave a gasp as he stared at Rukia below him as she gave a small wheeze. "Are you ok?!"
Rukia looked weary and her body ragged, but her strength had not left her eyes as she gazed up at Ichigo. "Looks like we made it."
Despite not being any better off than Rukia, Ichigo's face broke into a wide smile. "Yeah."
Two pairs of startled eyes turned from each other to meet Inoue's as she stared back in equal surprise.
"Inoue, you're here?!" Ichigo and Rukia both promptly bounded into sitting positions.
Feeling flustered, Ichigo scrambled for words. "Are you ok too, Inoue?"
Inoue gave a nod, then broke into tears as she launched herself at Rukia and embraced her. "I'm so glad you're both back!"
Sharing a smile with Rukia as Inoue cried on her shoulder, Ichigo looked around for the first time and saw a sight that made his heart sink.
Trying to put on a strong facade, Ishida contorted his mouth into as best a smile as he could through the pain. "So you finally woke up, huh?"
Not able to take his eyes off the hilt of his own sword sticking out from Ishida's torso, Ichigo began to feel sick. "Ishida…did I do that?"
Ichigo suddenly heard a voice that made his blood run cold. "You're a stubborn one…"
Appearing before Ishida, Ulquiorra reached down and roughly drew the zanpaktou out of Ishida and threw it down near Ichigo. "Take it, and let's settle this."
"…Was I the one who stabbed Ishida?"
Eyeing Ichigo with disdain, Ulquiorra gave a slight huff. "Doesn't concern me."
The need to know what had happened in his absence was reaching a level of urgency in Ichigo as he balled his fists at his sides. "…and the one who cut off your left arm and leg…was that me too?!"
The silence that ensued spoke volumes to Ichigo. His mind reeled as he tried to process the devastation he had been partner to.
"If that's how it is, then cut off my left arm and leg."
Inoue gave a loud gasp. "What?!" Kurosaki-kun!"
Ichigo's brow furrowed as he took a step near Ulquiorra. "I wasn't the one fighting you just now. I've been fighting you hollowfied and unaware. It won't be fair unless I'm in the same condition as you are."
Watching the emotions running high in Ichigo's face, Rukia stepped forward to stand next to him. "I'm as much an accomplice to what happened out here as Ichigo. Cut off my arm and leg as well, and let's finish what we started."
Ichigo opened his mouth to protest, but catching Rukia's set expression as she looked across at Ulquiorra, he relented.
Ishida slapped a palm to his forehead as he yelled out. "Kurosaki! Kuchiki-san! Do you know what you're saying or have you both gone mad?!"
Not taking his gaze from the shinigami pair, Ulquiorra began to spread his wings. "Very well. If that is what the two of you wish, then so be it." At the sound of a rustling noise, Ulquiorra turned to glance at his wing and gave a scornful glare as he saw it beginning to dissolve away. "Tch, it's this bad…?
Looking back at Ichigo and Rukia, Ulquiorra felt like biting his own tongue for what he was about to say. "Kill me." Seeing them flinch at his request, he gave a slight sigh. "Quickly now. I no longer have the strength to even walk. If you do not strike me now, this fight will remain unsettled."
"No. I'm not going to do it." Taking a step towards the dying espada, Ichigo yelled in frustration. "Is this…is this any way to win?!"
Ulquiorra's eyes widened before he cast them downwards in resignation. "Stubborn to the very last. You're a frustrating one, Kurosaki Ichigo."
Turning to look at Inoue, Ulquiorra tried to read her expression. "It's too bad, as I was finally starting to take an interest in all of you."
Extending his hand towards Inoue, Ulquiorra quietly spoke. "Do I frighten you, girl?"
Inoue's eyes glimmered with tears as she began to edge closer to him and reach her hand out. "No."
Inoue's hand moved to clasp Ulquiorra's when his hand wafted away like ash, leaving Inoue with nothing but empty air to hold. The four nakama watched in profound silence as they witnessed the passing of Ulquiorra's body into the wind until no trace of him remained.
Ishida gave a stretch as he tested the healing Inoue had performed, and wasn't surprised when he felt no tightness or pain where the blade had embedded itself in him. "That's amazing, Inoue-san. I feel like I never got stabbed by Kurosaki!"
Standing next to Ishida, Ichigo watched Rukia from a distance while Inoue healed her with the golden dome of soten kisshun. As Inoue gave a giggle at Ishida's attempt to lighten the mood, Ishida felt caught off-guard as Ichigo wore a glum expression. "Not good. He ought to be his regular scowling and loud mouth self by now…"
"Sorry again, Ishida…"
Ishida glared at Ichigo as he spoke in a voice only Ichigo could hear. "Don't. You think I wasn't prepared to get hurt when I approached your hollow like that? I caused my own injuries."
Looking away, Ichigo still wore a sulky expression. "Then why did you do it?"
Ishida's eyes narrowed. "What kind of nakama would I be if I stood by and didn't help when you needed it? That is cowardly, and I am no coward."
Blinking a bit in surprise, Ichigo's demeanor calmed. "Ah." A smirk grew on his face. "I won't thank you for doing such a stupid thing."
Ishida had begun to walk towards the girls but paused, turning to look back at Ichigo. "If speaking about levels of stupidity, you have the smallest brain of us all, so you would have done the same for any of us."
Ichigo scowled as he ran a hand through his hair, mumbling to himself as he began to follow after Ishida. "Che…You just always have to have the last word…"
Furrowing her brow, Inoue tried to discern if she was simply imagining what she was feeling as she healed Rukia. It was not ominous, but it did give her an odd twist in her stomach as its implications if she were right crossed her thoughts. The same feelings had penetrated her subconscious while healing Rukia after her battle with Grimmjow. She still felt no closer to an answer this time as she did then as she dredged up fragmented conversations in her memory. Nel's face appeared first in her mind. "Itsygo also gave you his power when he was howlding you in his arms…" Rukia's reply to Nel's outburst followed quickly after. "…I do remember before I was fully conscious, a feeling of being very peaceful…"
Biting her lip, Inoue ventured the question she had been wanting to ask for what now felt to be an eternity. "Kuchiki-san, please don't be angry, but do you think Ichigo's reiatsu may have mixed with your own when he healed you after your battle?"
Inoue wasn't prepared for the peaceful smile that suddenly graced Rukia's face as she laid with her eyes closed. "Yes."
"Wh-what? Really? Because, I felt something was different and…I …Are you…ok with that?"
Opening her eyes slightly, Rukia turned her head in Inoue's direction. "It's alright, Inoue. It's what ended up saving me, twice even. I wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for him doing that for me, and I seem to once again be in his debt."
Seeing Ishida and Ichigo approaching, Rukia cracked another smile as she closed her eyes and whispered. "But then again, he's also in mine, so we're even."
As Ichigo and Ishida sat themselves down next to the healing dome, Inoue clamped her gaping mouth shut and put on a grin.
Ishida frowned in concern as he noticed Inoue's forced smile. "How are you doing over here, Inoue-san? Do you need a rest?"
"I…I'm doing great! Don't worry about me!" Inoue beamed.
Looking in at Rukia, Ichigo pretended to scowl. "Oi, done with your nap yet, Rukia?"
Rukia opened one eye at him with a frown. "Go away. You're ruining my good mood."
"Ah…Kurosaki-kun, Kuchiki-san isn't quite done yet, but I can heal you in just a bit."
Sitting up, Rukia turned to Inoue. "I'm good enough, Inoue, thanks."
Balking, Inoue waved her hands in front of herself in protest. "But…but you've still got some serious injuries that aren't fully healed yet!"
"Eh?" Inoue turned towards Ichigo in surprise, her hands still held frozen in front of herself.
"I wouldn't ask this if I didn't think you could do it." He gazed steadily at Inoue. "Please, could you use your Soten Kisshun on both Rukia and I so that this idiot will get herself properly healed?"
Feeling her heart flutter under his gaze, Inoue gave a nervous laugh. "Eh?! Well, I definitely can…"
"I said I'm fine, Ichigo."
As Rukia moved to stand, Ichigo came inside the dome and pushed her down by her shoulders. "All your protests are hereby denied! Patients have no say in the matter on when they are better. Now stay until Inoue says you can leave!"
Scowling, Rukia bared her fist at him. "Dummy. I'd give you a few more wounds right now if it wouldn't mean more work for Inoue."
Unperturbed, Ichigo crossed his arms over his chest as he lay down. "You can get mad however you like later, after you're healed."
Rukia gave a huff as she begrudgingly acquiesced and lay back down. Inoue and Ishida looked across the dome at one another, mutually dumbfounded over what they had just witnessed of Ichigo's outward concern and Rukia's compliance.
"Just what happened to them after Kurosaki-kun's hollow absorbed Rukia?" As Inoue began healing Ichigo as well as Rukia, her eyes widened as his reiatsu told her the rest of the story.
Watching Inoue, Ishida sighed as he saw her expression become downcast. "If only she knew that she's not as alone as she believes…" As if she had heard his thoughts, Inoue's eyes suddenly connected with his own, causing Ishida to give her a smile. Inoue blinked in surprise, then quickly returned his gesture with a bright grin of her own before she turned her attention back to the injured pair.
Back down on the Hueco Mundo dessert sand, Ichigo stood with his back to a garganta as it slid open. Before him were Byakuya, Kenpachi, Yachiru, Renji, and Chad, as well as Inoue and Ishida. All wore a serious expression as the time for his departure to Karakura town drew closer with each inch that was added to the garganta's entrance.
A soft voice came from his side.
Wearing a smile that only his partner could see, Ichigo stepped closer to Rukia as they looked into each other's faces. "No need to say anything. I already know your heart."
Rukia's anxious expression lifted slightly. "I'll see you when it's over, Ichigo."
"Ah. I'll come back for you, Rukia."
A light breeze ruffled their robes and hair as the moment lingered, their eyes passing silent farewells. With a wave and a leap, Ichigo disappeared into the garganta, followed closely by Unohana before the opening snapped shut behind them.
For a long time Rukia continued to gaze at the area. Placing her palm against her heart, Rukia gave a smile before turning to join her companions.
Running through the garganta, Ichigo kept a fist over his heart, a smile also playing on his face. "You are with me in this fight still, right here, Rukia. We'll do this together, and we will win."
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