Open Scars, Hidden Wounds
Ulquiorra's face remained expressionless as he raised his arm, a cero swirling around his finger, and pointed it at Ichigo. The next second a powerful blast fired towards the three.
"Rukia! Nel! Are you ok?!" Ichigo yelled as he emerged in bankai form from the blast and landed lightly upon a sand mound, both of them hugged to his chest. His right shoulder and back were smoldering a bit having used his body to shield Rukia and Nel as much as he could in that split second. Nel appeared unconscious. Rukia looked up to meet Ichigo's eyes.
"Hai..." Rukia's eyes suddenly widened as her gaze focused on something else. "Look out!"
Ulquiorra flashed momentarily into sight beside them and aimed a kick that swept up the surrounding sand and sent them hurtling through the wall of a nearby tower.
Ichigo found himself flat on his back within the tower. He sputtered and wheezed as he weakly scanned the rubble around him.
A slight clattering and shifting of mortar fragments a few yards to his left revealed Rukia slowly sitting up from the debris, a still-unconscious Nel tucked in her arms. Ichigo locked eyes with Rukia, her serious expression mirroring his own.
A shadow appeared on the rubble between them, and they looked to see a man's dark profile standing within the tower wall's hole.
"At the moment you blocked my cero, you called forth your mask. A fine high-speed reaction. But this time it was broken to pieces instantly. Now you have no more tricks up your sleeve."
Ulquiorra's advancing steps came to stand just a few feet in front of a hunched Ichigo, still on his knees, a look of defiance on his bloodied face.
"Surrender." said Ulquiorra.
Ichigo answered by a quick thrust of his sword into Ulquiorra's shoulder.
"Who would surrender to you?!" Ichigo hissed, then raised his face up to meet Ulquiorra's, revealing a cocky smirk. "You're the top Espada, right? Which means if I beat you, it's the same as winning the entire battle!"
"So that's it…" Ulquiorra nonchalantly pulled Ichigo's sword from his shoulder, showing no wound had been sustained; just a tear in his clothing.
Rukia gave a small gasp as Ulquiorra opened his upper tunic and revealed a number "4" on his bare chest. Looking over at Ichigo, she saw his eyes wide with astonishment.
"Too bad for you then. I am only the fourth strongest of the Espada." Ulquiorra stated as he stared down at Ichigo.
"Number…four?!" Ichigo still felt in shock.
In a flash, Ulquiorra plunged his hand into Ichigo's chest.
Ichigo felt immobilized. He faintly heard Rukia scream his name from somewhere off in the distance, but the only answer he could make was a strangled gurgling noise as blood filled his vision.
"Kurosaki Ichigo. You have absolutely no chance of defeating me." Ulquiorra kept his hand in Ichigo's chest as he continued, "Even if you were to somehow defeat me, there are still three others even more powerful than I for you to fight. So you see, even if you stand back up a thousand times…" Ulquiorra finally removed his hand from Ichigo, new blood spurting out from the wound. "…a path to victory for you does not exist."
Ichigo fell face-forward in a crumpled heap, blood slowly surrounding him.
"It seems that I overestimated you. You did not meet my expectations. This is as far as you go."
"Ichigo!" Rukia crawled the distance between them and knelt beside him, her hands shaking slightly as she placed them on his shoulders. "Oi! Ichigo!"
Ulquiorra gazed at the two figures before him. "Kurosaki Ichigo, if you can still move with your body like that, leave Las Noches immediately." Ulquiorra turned his back on them and began to walk towards the tower's opening. "If you cannot, then die in that spot. Your mission ends here, shinigami."
Rukia watched in growing anxiousness as Ichigo's broken sword went from bankai to its shikai state. Ulquiorra disappeared from sight, but she hardly took notice. The thought had gone through her mind to pursue him, but that idea was quickly replaced with reasoning; she was still hardly in any condition to fight.
With a slight grunt from the effort, Rukia began to turn Ichigo over onto his back to have better access to his wound. "Ichigo! Pull yourself together! Ichi…." Rukia stopped short as she caught sight of his now up-turned face. She hadn't been prepared for his staring, lifeless eyes. If it wasn't for the fact she could sense his weak reiatsu, she'd have thought him dead.
A sudden groan startled Rukia and made her quickly turn to look behind herself. Nel's bleary eyes appeared over some of the rubble.
"Nel!" She'd forgotten about Nel in the moment.
In the middle of shaking dust from her hair, Nel looked up at the sound of her name, then gaped at the sight before her.
"Itsy…go? Itsy…go! Itsygo!" Nel started to wail. Looking suddenly at Rukia, Nel glared at her through her tears. "Itsygo'd be fine if it weren't fer you!"
Nel looked again at Ichigo and began to crawl towards him. "Buwwaaaah! Itsygooooo. Don't die…Itsygo….!" Nel was halfway to him when she felt herself silently picked up, then set down beside Ichigo and the shinigami girl, who placed a comforting arm around her. Nel looked at the shinigami in surprise.
"Don't worry, Nel, Ichigo will be fine." Rukia said encouragingly.
Nel stared at the shinigami woman, then looked down at her hands, feeling a bit ashamed of what she had said.
A glow emanated from Rukia's hand as she placed it over his wound. She bit her lip as her outstretched arm trembled with the effort she was exerting. Her reiatsu was barely starting to recover itself, and was not strong enough to be used again so soon, but she wasn't about to let that stop her from doing what she could.
Frowning, Rukia muttered to Nel, "Ulquiorra seems to have left a large…reiatsu pressure in Ichigo's wound…it's making it…even more difficult….to heal him…" Panting under the strain, her frown grew deeper with determination.
"Come on, Ichigo!" Rukia inwardly demanded, her arm over Ichigo now beginning to shake. She took the arm that was around Nel and used it to support her extended arm.
A sudden commotion came from the tower's opening. Fearing Ulquiorra had returned, she instead beheld the blue-haired Espada who had stabbed her with his bare hand on their first encounter. She had returned the favor by encasing him in ice on the streets of Karakura, but it had nearly cost her as he had been all too eager to attempt a cero to her head. If anything, Rukia felt more troubled by this espada's presence than Ulquiorra's. Her eyes narrowed as she rose with some difficulty to stand protectively between Nel and Ichigo and the espada.
"What do you want, Grimmjow." Rukia firmly asked, her hand readied on her sword's hilt.
Grimmjow looked slyly over the scene. "Why is it you're always in my way, shinigami woman? I should just kill you already and be done with ya."
"Why are you here!" Rukia commanded.
With a rough flourish Grimmjow whipped a ragged cloak off of another figure that had been behind him and pushed them so that they fell forward on their knees beside Ichigo's head.
Inoue looked from Rukia to where Ichigo lay before her and gasped.
Grimmjow looked again at the shinigami girl as Inoue exclaimed her name. He remembered her being present every time he'd tried to fight the other shinigami they called Kurosaki. She really was a bother, but so long as she didn't get in his way now, he'd consider letting her live.
"Fix him." Grimmjow barked out to Inoue as he chose a slab of cement to sit upon.
All three girls stared at him in disbelief.
"Do it already!"
"Kuchiki-san, I'll heal you after Kurosaki-kun" whispered Inoue. Rukia discreetly nodded in acknowledgement as she knelt beside Ichigo again.
Nel watched Inoue as she silently created a dome of light around Ichigo's body.
"Pwlease, pwlease save Itsygo! It's all Nel's fawlt he got hurwt! He pwrotected Nel!" Nel cried, beginning to get herself worked up again about Ichigo's current plight.
Grimmjow loudly slammed a fist down on a nearby boulder. "Shut up you friggin brat! Keep that up and I swear I'll blast ya apart! Just be quiet and she'll fix him."
"…yes sir…" Nel answered with trepidation.
Risking a sideways glance, Inoue looked at Grimmjow to see if he was still paying attention. He was looking off to the side with an annoyed look on his face. Taking her eyes off him, she looked over at Rukia.
"Kuchiki-san?" Inoue whispered.
At Inoue's voice, Rukia turned to glance at Grimmjow as well, then leaned in towards Inoue.
"Kuchiki-san, I…I saw what happened to you in your battle. The espada you fought was able to make me see it all as you both battled. I was so…" Inoue blinked back tears at the memory of Rukia impaled by the trident. "I'm so sorry!"
"Inoue, it's not your fault." Rukia leaned in a bit closer. "You're one of us, Inoue. You've done the same when you came to help rescue me."
Inoue felt a pang of guilt at Rukia's words. Though she had gone to Soul Society when Rukia's life was in danger, she had come with the ulterior motive to use her new powers to support Ichigo. She felt she had failed even at that.
"We all chose to come here; we fully realized it would be a risk, but we had to try." Rukia continued. "I know how it feels to not be able to do anything while your nakama are putting themselves into danger to save you. I didn't want to be a reason for you to have to worry."
Inoue nodded with a brave smile, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "I'm so happy that you're ok!" A sudden question crossed her mind. "Kuchiki-san, what happened after your battle? How did you get here with Kurosaki-kun and Nel-san?"
"Ichigo and Nel came and found me. Though…" Rukia's expression grew contemplative as she cuffed her chin with her hand. "…I'm not really sure how he saved me."
"I helped Itsygo!" Nel hoarsely whispered in excitement. "He made me spit on ya! My spit is swpecial! Can heals peoples!"
Both Rukia and Inoue looked taken aback at this announcement.
"So that's why my stomach was all slimy…!" Rukia said in a low voice, her eyes narrowed. 'That Ichigo…!". Rukia looked at him lying within Inoue's sphere, and Inoue watched her eyes soften.
Nel nodded happily. "Itsygo also gave you his power when he was howlding ya in his awrms! You woke ups a wittle after dat!"
"In his arms…?!" Inoue heard the words echo in her mind.
Inoue looked from Nel to Rukia. Rukia looked even more startled.
"Ichigo gave me his powers?" Rukia thought back to the time. "I do remember before I was fully conscious, a feeling of being very peaceful. And warm and safe…"
Inoue hid her eyes, afraid her unsettled feelings would show in them and give her away.
A few minutes of silence passed, each of the girls lost in thoughts as they continued to watch over Ichigo.
Rukia became aware of Inoue frowning as Ichigo's wounds continued to be healed. Inoue caught Rukia's questioning look and spoke her thoughts aloud. "Something is surrounding and getting in the way of Kurosaki-kun's wounds. I can't seem to reject it...who would do this?"
"Ulquiorra." Both girls were slightly startled by his voice and turned to look at him. "It's what he does when he takes an interest in his prey. He always punches a hole in the exact same location as his own." Grimmjow rose from his seat, his fists clenching. "I'll teach him to mess with someone else's prey!"
Abruptly, a small groan escaped from Ichigo, causing everyone in the room to rapidly direct their attention to Inoue's healing dome.
"…geh…" Ichigo's blank eyes suddenly focused, then blinked. He looked directly up into the faces nearest him. "…Rukia….Nel….and…Inoue…?"
Rukia sighed in relief as Inoue cried out. Nel blubbered.
A foot stomped behind them all. "Shut up! If you have time to talk, then hurry up and fix him!"
"You're…Grimmjow…! Why…How did Inoue-"
"Shut yer trap and just get fixed up! The only reason I'm here is to settle things with the uninjured you!" Grimmjow spewed out.
Realization dawned on Inoue's face. "That's why you're having me heal-"
"Shut up I said! I'm allowing you to heal the guy who was almost dead! Quit complaining and just hurry up! It won't take long until Ulquiorra realizes what's going on and comes back! Before that, I'll-"
An extra presence suddenly filled the room behind Grimmjow.
"Ulquiorra…" Grimmjow turned to face the newcomer with a growl.
The four friends behind Grimmjow looked on, completely on alert. Rukia's hand slid to her hilt once more.
"What are you doing, Grimmjow." Ulquiorra said evenly. "Just what are you trying to pull, healing an enemy I defeated?"
There was a slight pause.
"No response?" Ulquiorra continued. His eyes shifted around the room, resting on Inoue. She broke eye contact with him, looking uncomfortable. "Very well then. In any case, Aizen-sama entrusted that girl to me. Hand her over."
"Forget it." Grimmjow challenged.
"What was that?"
"What's the matter, Ulquiorra!" Grimmjow gave a laugh. "I can see it! You're scared of fighting me!" Grimmjow advanced on Ulquiorra. "You're afraid of ripping us both to shreds!" Grimmjow's face showed bloodlust as he fired a point-blank cero at Ulquiorra, who just managed to divert the blast.
"As expected, one attack isn't good enou-" Grimmjow suddenly realized Ulquiorra was above him, his finger just inches above Grimmjow's head with a readied cero.
Grimmjow reacted by sweeping his body aside, then raising his palm towards Ulquiorra's finger that was still there while Ulquiorra was mid-leap. A cero leapt from Grimmjow's palm, and the two blasts collided, creating a large explosion that sent the two in opposite directions.
As the dust swirled, a hand came from behind Ulquiorra and grabbed him, then inserted a small cube in Ulquiorra's hollow hole. Ulquiorra's eyes widened, showing actual surprise. Rods of light began to leap and fold in around Ulquiorra as Grimmjow jumped away to a safe distance. A great ball of light began to encase Ulquiorra. His face was the last they could see of him before he was completely enveloped. With a great burst of light, the ball disappeared, Ulquiorra along with it.
Grimmjow calmly made his way back to where Inoue had shielded herself and the others. Inoue, Rukia, and Nel looked questioningly at him.
"What just happened?" Rukia managed to ask.
"Aizen gave us espada a 'caja negacion' for punishing subordinates. That's what I just used. When used on an average arrancar, it permanently traps them in a sealed dimension. But as it wasn't intended for espada, and with a reiatsu like Ulquiorra's, it'll probably only last two to three hours on him."
Grimmjow stopped walking a few yards away from the group. "Now that you know that, hurry up and heal him."
Inoue stared back at him, the internal battle raging in her head showing in her expression. "…No."
With a start, Inoue found Grimmjow's hand clutching her neck.
"Inoue!" yelled Rukia in alarm, trying to stand.
"I wasn't giving you a choice! Heal him!" Grimmjow yelled in Inoue's face.
Inoue gasped as she strained to speak. "If I heal Kurosaki-kun, you'll just injure him again. I can't…let that happen!"
"Hado 33, Sokatsui!"
The close-range blast caught Grimmjow by surprise, leaving the side of his body singed. He reflexively let go of Inoue as he grabbed his side, howling in anger. Panting, Rukia took the opportunity to draw her sword, tightening her grip on the hilt with resolve.
"I'm going to friggin' kill you, wench!" Grimmjow swiped his sword at her. Rukia attempted to duck, but her tired body's movements were a fraction too sluggish, and the sword's tip connected with her arm and sliced up to her shoulder, making her yelp in pain.
Grimmjow laughed as he swung his sword again and again at Rukia. Rukia grit her teeth as she blocked, but her wounded arm finally gave way under the strain and she was sent sprawling onto her back.
"I always knew you were the weaker of the two!" Grimmjow yelled with delight as he leapt towards her. With no time to get to her feet, Rukia raised her sword, the tip pointing at Grimmjow, but he knocked it aside with a violent kick and sent it flying from her hand. Rukia quickly put her palm out.
In an instant Rukia cried out as Grimmjow landed a blow to her jaw, and felt herself roughly pinned down, knocking the breath out of her. A hand was thrust at her throat, constricting. Rukia looked up in pain into the face of Grimmjow hovering over her, his eyes wild.
"Shall I put a hole in you again, girl?!" Grimmjow grinned wickedly as Rukia grasped at the hand around her neck, gasping for breath. She kicked repeatedly at him, trying to knock him off of her.
Nel ran towards the fight and began to pound Grimmjow's back with her fists. "Stop it Gwimmjow! Stop!"
"Pesky brat!" Grimmjow took a hand away from Rukia's neck and flung Nel off his back and into a slab of cement. She slowly sat up, a bit dazed.
Without looking away from Rukia, Grimmjow raised his free hand and blasted a small cero at Inoue's attack.
"Tsubaki!" Inoue ran and caught Tsubaki's battered form.
Grimmjow turned his attention back to Rukia, his grasp on her neck closing. Rukia began to struggle less and less, her gasps becoming shallower.
"I'm going to end you, right here and now!" A new cero started forming in Grimmjow's hand, which he pointed at her head. The light of the cero, accompanied by a shrill roar as it swirled, filled the room as it grew in size.
"Shinigawmi!" Nel covered her eyes with her hands and screamed as the cero's roar became deafening.
A hand suddenly clamped Grimmjow's arm. Grimmjow looked sideways to see Ichigo, barely able to stand, sternly looking at him.
"Let go of her." Ichigo growled.
The two men stared angrily at each other, sizing each other up, daring the other to show a sign of weakness. Without breaking eye contact, Ichigo yelled over the din. "Inoue! Please heal me."
Inoue's eyes widened. "…Kurosaki-kun!"
Grimmjow held the gaze a moment longer, then scoffed and dissolved the cero while he released his hand from Rukia's neck. He savagely knocked Ichigo's hand off his arm, glaring at him.
Standing, Grimmjow moved away as Rukia rolled onto her side, gulping for air.
Ichigo wore a worried expression as he knelt beside Rukia. "Are you ok, Rukia?!"
"Heh…Don't…worry about me. …You're in worse shape…than I am, fool." Rukia managed to gasp out with a small smirk.
Ichigo exhaled in relief and gave a small grin back. "That's my line."
Ichigo looked over towards Inoue, then inclined his head slightly towards Grimmjow. "Also, heal his injuries as well."
"Don't. I didn't ask for your sympathy." Grimmjow spat out.
"That's not what I meant. Didn't you want to have a fair battle?" Ichigo's eyes narrowed. "Or is it that you want to save those wounds so you have an excuse for when you lose?"
Grimmjow glowered, then abruptly appeared in front of Ichigo, sword raised. Ichigo barely raised his own sword to fend himself in time as their two blades clashed.
With a vicious grin, Grimmjow shouted with exhilaration, the fire of battle in his eyes. "Excellent! Let's have our fight to the death then, on equal grounds!"