"Come on, don't make that face, Nel." Ichigo said as he laid a hand on her head. Nel looked up at him with tears, quietly whimpering.
Ichigo turned to look behind him. "…You either, Rukia, Inoue."
Inoue was in the middle of healing Rukia now that Ichigo and Grimmjow were better. Rukia sat on the ground within Inoue's dome and crossed her arms with a sly grin. "Hmph! If you ask me, you're the one making a face."
"I am not! And I didn't ask you either!"
Rukia put on a face of superiority.
Ichigo emitted a sigh as he crossed his arms, looking sideways in Grimmjow's direction. Rukia looked at Ichigo, her eyes narrowing. He appeared slightly restless and on edge. Apparently her attempt to get him calm hadn't fully worked. Ichigo sensed Rukia's eyes on him and looked back at her with a questioning look. They locked eyes, and silent words passed between them.
Ichigo's eyes grew serious as he stood up straight, confidence suddenly radiating from him. "Don't worry guys, I'm definitely going to win."
Ichigo gave them one last look with an assured smile. His smile was replaced with an assertive expression as he turned to face Grimmjow, who was waiting a little bit away from them.
"Grimmjow, let's go somewhere else."
Ichigo and Grimmjow leapt into the air, the backlash creating a gale force wind that whipped at the girls, making them shield their eyes with their arms. When they were able to raise their faces again, they saw Ichigo in the distant sky, a hand going to the sword on his back.
Ichigo landed on a dune with a mighty surge, sand flying out from under his feet. Sword drawn, Ichigo eyed Grimmjow, waiting for him to make a move.
He hadn't long to wait. Grimmjow flew at him, and again and again in fast succession, their swords impacting and echoing across to the girls gathered on what remained of the tower's floor.
The girls watched the expanse of dunes and towers in front of them. Their eyes followed the puffs of dust, sand, and debris that gave them an idea of where the two lightning-fast warriors were battling.
Inoue turned her attention back to Rukia long enough to assure herself that the twinge in reiatsu she'd just felt from Rukia was truly the indication that Rukia was completely healed. Inoue drew back the healing dome as Rukia briefly inspected herself. Both girls exchanged smiles.
"You get faster and faster at this, Inoue! Thank you."
"Ah… it was no trouble, glad I could help!" Inoue smiled and awkwardly waved her hand in embarrassment. "If it hadn't been for me, Kuchiki-san wouldn't have gotten hurt…and Kurosaki-kun wouldn't be here battling Grimmjow…"
Rukia tilted her head a bit with a searching look in her eyes as she saw Inoue suddenly withdraw in thought with a troubled look on her face.
"It's alright, Inoue. I know you're worried about our nakama that are here, but they will all be fine, I'm sure of it. Ichigo will win too."
Inoue looked at Rukia in surprise, then smiled. "Right. Kurosaki-kun said 'I'm definitely going to win', didn't he?"
Nel, sitting huddled on the ground, looked scared. "…you…you doesn't know that…! Evewrybowdy says that! Itsygo was scareded for reals! Evewry scared person says they'll win!"
A sudden loud blast brought the girls' attention back towards where Ichigo was fighting. Nel started to rock herself on her feet and ball her hands over her ears. "Itsygo…Itsygo…!"
A hand gently laid itself on top of Nel's head. Nel looked up to see Rukia squatting calmly next to her. Nel could almost feel strength pouring out from the shinigami into her, giving her comfort.
Inoue came and squatted on the other side of Nel and spoke. "Kurosaki-kun doesn't say things like 'I'm going to win'. He's a gentle person. When he uses strong words, it's always like he's pledging something." Inoue's face grew thoughtful. "…I think he makes a vow to himself….that he puts his feelings into words so they'll come true." She turned to look down at Nel, smiling. "That's why it's alright when he says he'll win. Those are the times he definitely will win."
Inoue stood up and took a few steps forward. "That's why…that's why…" Both Nel and Rukai suddenly noticed Inoue's hands were shaking, though she was trying to control it by keeping them in fists.
"…That's why we'll wait…and believe…" Inoue finished.
Rukia nodded in agreement as her eyes traveled across the dunes towards Ichigo. "Be strong, Ichigo!"
Ichigo and Grimmjow stood face to face, their swords locked and scraping one another. Each pushed against the other, then jumped back, considering their next move.
"This is great! I've been waiting for this!" Grimmjow yelled in excitement. "Waiting for when I can crush you with all my might! It's the same for you, right?!"
"I'm not fighting to crush you…" Ichigo said, his eyes narrowing.
"Bull! Say it! Say you want to kill me!"
Ichigo clenched his teeth and steadied his grip on his sword.
"I won't let it go!" Grimmjow pointed at the scar on his chest that Ichigo had given him in their first fight in Karakura. "You're gonna learn the reason for my leaving this scar here! I will make you understand who is top dog by ripping out your throat!"
"Che, you talk too much."
Ichigo braced himself as Grimmjow bore down on him in a frenzy.
"Do we need a reason to fight?! Bring it on already! Last man standing can go home alive! Simple as that!"
Ichigo glared, the fire of battle beginning to flicker in him. He had to win. He'd promised. Ichigo began to go on the offensive, making Grimmjow throw a quick swing at Ichigo to give himself time to dodge. Ichigo leapt aside of the sword's range, but suddenly sensed Grimmjow behind him, and turned around to bring his blade up in defense.
Face to face, Grimmjow pushed against Ichigo's sword as he gave a ruthless grin. "I sliced a hole through your shinigami woman before! Nearly blasted her head off another time! Almost killed the wench again just a few minutes ago! What's to say I won't kill her if you lose!"
Ichigo's eyes turned deadly. Grimmjow's grin widened, sensing he'd finally hit on a nerve.
"I won't allow that!" Ichigo pushed Grimmjow away, reiatsu beginning to swell around him.
Grimmjow released a return cero, and the two forces collided in mid-air. The cero suddenly broke through Ichigo's attack, and he dashed aside of it as it raced by him.
A shadow above Ichigo honed down on him. Ichigo brought up his sword, but wasn't prepared for another cero. The late reaction allowed Grimmjow's cero to graze Ichigo's shoulder, and blood shot out. Ichigo started to fall from midair.
"You've livened up, Kurosaki. But, it isn't enough!" Grimmjow's hand lit up and a ball of light grew from his hand. "This is the strongest cero, which only espada are allowed to do! Eat this!"
As he fell, Ichigo saw the cero Grimmjow held and prepared to dodge. However, something caught the corner of his eye, and with a start, Ichigo realized in alarm that right behind him was the tower with his three friends. If he were to dodge it, they would be directly in the cero's path.
"Wait! Grimmjow!" Ichigo screamed.
"Gran ray cero!"
There was no time to react. The mass of sheer power exploded from Grimmjow's outstretched palm towards Rukia, Inoue , and Nel, and the light rapidly spread through and devastated the area.
The blast was as deadly as it was large. Nothing could be seen but the cero's light as it engulfed everything. Time seemed to stand still.
Then slowly, the light faded and the blowing dust and sand began to lessen in violence. Little by little, a lone figure with black robes that whipped about in the wind could be seen. An obsidian sword gleamed at his side.
The man stood in midair with his back to what remained of a tower. Slowly, the faces of three girls could be seen on the tower's surface, and each of them stared in astonishment at the figure before them.
Rukia gazed at the solid back of the man, his body rigid and on-guard. "Ichigo…!"
"Kuro…saki-kun?" Inoue spoke hesitantly.
Rukia glanced at Inoue, who was standing beside her. Inoue's eyes were wide with shock from the near-death blast that had been somehow diverted away from them.
Thinking he hadn't heard Inoue, Rukia opened her mouth to call his name a bit louder when Ichigo started to turn his head to look back at them. She felt Inoue stiffen beside her in fright. Rukia quickly clamped her mouth shut as she beheld his face.
A horrid hollow's mask covered Ichigo's face; the whites of his eyes were completely blackened.
Rukia stood frozen to the spot, transfixed. Memories of Kaien, his face changed by the hollow who had possessed him, came flooding back to her. Rukia's mind raced with questions. "Has Ichigo lost control of his hollow?! How did this happen?! But…he saved us…". Rukia remained staring at him, not daring to move or drop her guard.
Rukia watched his face, concentrating on his eyes, the only feature of his face left unhidden to her. At the moment, though his head was tilted towards them, his eyes were downcast, as though afraid of what he would see when he looked up.
Rukia slowly exhaled, attempting to compose herself. "Ichigo?"
Ichigo's eyes instantly moved up to look at her. Rukia sucked in her breath at the intensity of his eyes, but made herself hold his gaze. A moment went by as he studied her face.
"…Are you alright, Ichigo?" Rukia asked steadily, her expression giving way to worry.
His eyes suddenly softened, and she saw a flicker of relief. Rukia exhaled with a small smile, comforted.
Ichigo silently shifted his gaze to Inoue.
The next instant, Rukia caught a streak of hurt flash in his eyes as he regarded Inoue's look of acute fear, her arms wrapped around herself as she tried to control her body's shaking. He quickly turned his face away from them.
"I'm fine. Sorry, Inoue, are you scared?" Ichigo's voice sounded warbled through the mask. Rukia's eyes grew wide in surprise at the strange sound of it.
"Since I look like this you'd probably have a hard time listening to me if I told you to relax…but…let me say it anyway. Relax." Ichigo turned to look over his shoulder at Rukia. "I'm going to end this battle real soon."
From somewhere down below the tower, maniacal laughter drifted up to them.
"This is great! I've been waiting for this moment!" Grimmjow cackled in triumph. "GRIND, Pantera!"
The ground shot forth sand from around Grimmjow at his release, preventing them from seeing what was happening.
With his back still to them, Ichigo spoke in a stern voice. "Inoue. From here on out, have santen kesshun up in front of you all, and don't take it down for even a second."
Inoue broke from her stupor, and immediately did as he asked. The triangular shield appeared in front of the three girls just as the earth beneath them trembled. Grimmjow had completed his transformation.
A primitive howl pierced the air, sending shock waves that pushed down on Ichigo and the girls.
Ichigo brought an arm up to shield his face from the sonic pressure. The next second, Grimmjow was before him. Grimmjow's body was sleekly clad, his hair longer and thick claws on his fingers. His mouth was open with exhilaration, revealing jagged fangs. In place of his sword, deadly sharp razors graced his arms and knees, their intentions clear.
Ichigo brought up his sword, but with a ghastly swipe, Grimmjow sent Ichigo's body hurtling through several towers. Grimmjow appeared beside Ichigo as his body sailed through the air, and kicked Ichigo towards the ground, smashing him through yet another tower on his way down.
Grimmjow stood mid-air and watched as the dust cleared below him where Ichigo had made impact.
"What the…that's not your full power! Get out of-"
Grimmjow's eyes widened as a voice came from behind him.
Dark energy burst forth from an unscathed Ichigo as he swung his sword's attack at Grimmjow.
"That's a great look, Kurosaki Ichigo! It makes me pissed off!"
Grimmjow used his arm against Ichigo's sword, pushing Ichigo through the air until the two were sent crashing together through a tower.
"It seems that the duration of your mask is getting longer! Have you been practicing since our last fight?" Grimmjow swung his clawed hand again at Ichigo, who silently blocked. "Or is this some unconscious improvement you've made during this fight…? Either way, I couldn't be happier! This would have been boring if your mask had broken right away like last time!"
Grimmjow brought his arm back, then thrust it towards Ichigo, ready to slice into him. However, he was left with a startled expression, his hand caught in mid-attack just inches from the shinigami's face.
Ichigo gripped Grimmjow's wrist as he spoke his first words since they'd begun their released fight.
"This would be boring if my mask broke?" Ichigo's eyes darkened. "Don't make me laugh."
Ichigo slashed his sword at close range into Grimmjow, making contact. Blood sprayed from Grimmjow's shoulder as he flew back.
"That's my line, Grimmjow, since this would get boring. Don't you dare come out of your released state!" Ichigo said menacingly. With a jump, Ichigo flew at Grimmjow, and the two exchanged blows, Ichigo attacking with an unrelenting seriousness. Their onslaughts escalated in power, neither now holding back.
The girls watched in wonder at the increase in power being displayed in the battle before their eyes.
"Is that really…Kurosaki-kun?" Inoue asked, her voice quivering.
Rukia turned her attention to Inoue. Her friend was still shaking, her face contorted in a mixture of shock, fear, and disbelief.
Rukia stopped short as Grimmjow shot several stone-like missiles in Ichigo's direction. Ichigo moved his head aside of the missiles, but realized simultaneously with Rukia that Grimmjow's intentional target had not been Ichigo, but the girls that were once again behind him.
In the moment it took for Rukia to blink in realization that they were in danger, Ichigo was once again standing and facing them, using his body as a shield as the missiles impacted into his back. Smoke billowed from his robes as the missiles disintegrated. His face was lowered, his bangs shadowing his masked face.
"Kuro…saki…kun…" Inoue timidly spoke.
Ichigo slowly brought his head up and gazed at Inoue through the mask. Inoue gave a start, her face paling and eyes widening even more in terror.
Ichigo's eyes looked troubled. Even saddened. Rukia watched him waver in uncertainty.
"Don't worry about us, Ichigo. Go get him!" Rukia hollered.
Ichigo quickly looked at Rukia, then gave a slight nod. "Right". Ichigo flew downwards back towards the battlefield.
With a frown, Rukia whirled on Inoue, taking her by the shoulders. "Inoue, get a hold of yourself! It's Ichigo!" Inoue avoided eye contact.
"You went to save them? That's a heck of an effort." Grimmjow remarked, noting the damage as Ichigo landed at a distance. "What's up? Your breathing's getting heavy." Grimmjow smirked, but his eyes were staring threateningly.
Grimmjow raised his arm and shot one of the missiles at another tower behind him. The impact crumpled the tower to pieces. "Well. You did eat five of those. You should be a little shaken up." Grimmjow said in slight amusement.
A crack rippled across Ichigo's mask, surprising them both.
"Have you reached your limit with you mask too?" Grimmjow muttered in a disgusted tone.
"Limit?" Ichigo swiped his hand over his face, and the crack disappeared. "Who's at their limit?!"
"Look at me!"
Inoue hesitated, then reluctantly looked Rukia in the face.
"You're looking worse for wear yourself, Grimmjow."
"Sorry, but you're dead wrong!" Grimmjow yelled vehemently.
The two flew at one another, the impact of their clash crushing everything in their vicinity.
"…I'm scared…" Inoue closed her eyes in shame, tears threatening to spill out.
"Don't you see what's happening to him, what he's doing to protect us?!"
Inoue clutched herself, bowing her head as she tried to put her pained emotions into words. "His eyes." Inoue looked back up at Rukia. "His eyes…when I think about those eyes, I feel as though Kurosaki-kun has become a complete stranger...I feel…like I can't see…" Inoue tightly shut her eyes again as she finished the sentence in her mind. "I feel like I can't see myself reflected in his eyes. Kurosaki-kun…".
Rukia furrowed her brows, puzzled. "His eyes were what told me he was himself…" She murmured. "Inoue-"
"The masked Itsygo is getting puwshed awround!" Nel reported abruptly as she squatted on the edge of the tower, her mouth agape at the development of the battle below. Rukia quickly turned from Inoue to stand next to Nel and see for herself what was happening to Ichigo.
"The masked Itsygo is invincible! For Itsygo to get beated up like this…!" Nel turned her worried face to look up at Rukia, hoping for a promising sign from the shinigami that all would be well with Ichigo. However, Rukia's own face now reflected Nel's worry.
Nel glanced back at Inoue. Inoue was nearly doubled over as she held herself, shaking, her eyes squeezed shut.
Turning back to look at the battle, Nel yelled out, "…do your bestest, Itsygo!"
Both Rukia and Inoue looked at Nel in bewilderment.
"Hey, whatcha guys doin?! Cheer too!" Nel exclaimed at the girls.
Inoue started to stutter, a blank look on her face. Nel turned on her. "Itsygo is fighting for all of us! So why's scawred of him?! Itsygo is a gentle perwson, dat's what ya said, right?! You is right, Nel think so too!"
Inoue blinked in surprise.
"Itsygo is a human, but even so he becomes a shinigami and even uses that crwazy power and puts on dat mask! And it isn't like it doesn't huwrt him! He obviously is hurted! But he's doin it all to save you!" Nel's eyes were swimming with tears, but she pressed on. "Usin' dat power, fighting and getting all covered in blood…what's the point of all dat, if ya don't cheer for him?!"
Inoue continued to stare at Nel.
"Inoue, we all came to save you because we care about you." Rukia said as she walked back to Inoue. She stopped in front of her, looking at her expectantly. "Nel's right. Ichigo needs to know that you believe in him." Rukia looked back towards the battlefield where Ichigo was, her eyes growing distant. "…that he's not fighting this alone."
At these words, Inoue's jumbled thoughts began to make some sense of all that was happening. "That's right. Originally I came here to protect everyone. But when I was told that Kurosaki-kun had come to rescue me, I felt joy. But…" Inoue looked to Rukia as her thoughts continued to tumble out. "…But when I looked at Kurosaki-kun with his mask, I wondered if he hadn't come just to rescue me. Even though it's wrong for me to mean this much to everyone…"
The tower shook as another attack hit near the base of it, jolting Inoue from her thoughts. Rukia and Nel peered over the edge in apprehension.
"Looks like you're really at your limit." Grimmjow took a few paces towards Ichigo, who was down on one knee, panting heavily. Part of his mask had been broken off, and blood covered his face. Ichigo looked at Grimmjow, scowling with annoyance.
"End of the line, Kurosaki." Grimmjow readied himself to attack.
"Don't die, Kurosaki-kuuun!"
Ichigo's face froze in surprise. He twisted around to look at the girls above him.
"You don't have to win…you don't have to do your best…just don't…get hurt anymore…!" Inoue's voice trembled as tears sprung from her eyes.
Rukia smiled in relief at Inoue, then looked back down at Ichigo. Ichigo reciprocated her smile as he looked back up at Rukia.
A bladed arm came from behind Ichigo, ready to decapitate him. Without turning around, Ichigo's hand came up and gripped the arm, ceasing the weapon's descent.
"Sorry, Grimmjow…" Ichigo turned his head to face Grimmjow with a slight smirk. "It seems that I'm not allowed to get any more wounded than I already am."
A blade sliced through the air and made impact, blood spraying.
Grimmjow stumbled backwards, a hand to his wounded torso.
"It's over, Grimmjow."
"You…you think you have me beat with something like that?!" Grimmjow yelled angrily. "Me…in this form!?"
Grimmjow shot his arm forward.
"Ichigo!" Rukia cried out.
Blood spilled out as Ichigo gasped in pain. Grimmjow withdrew his hand from Ichigo's torso, scattering more blood.
Ichigo leapt back at a distance. He looked at Grimmjow with a determined scowl, gripping his stomach with his arm as he wheezed in short breaths.
"What is with those eyes!" Grimmjow snarled. "You're always like that! No matter how much I beat you, somehow you still get that expression that you believe you'll beat me. That you think you're stronger than me!"
Grimmjow dived at Ichigo. "I hate that!"
The force of Grimmjow's punch flung Ichigo into the air. Grimmjow jumped and struck again, but got blocked by Ichigo's blade.
"Hah! What is it you hate?" Ichigo shouted with a smirk. "Do you hate being looked upon as an equal by a lowly human?!"
A sudden punch to Ichigo's gut made him pause in surprise.
"Gwah!" Ichigo spat out blood, his eyes wide.
With a mighty kick, Grimmjow sent Ichigo forcefully spiraling into the air.
"It doesn't matter if you're a human or shinigami or arrancar!" Grimmjow's eyes lit up in ferocity. "I'll crush anyone who looks down on me!"
Ichigo, still flying back through the air from the impact, looked down as he saw Grimmjow speeding towards him to attack. The next second, he heard a voice behind him.
"And I'll begin…"
Ichigo snapped his head back to look at Grimmjow.
"…with you, Kurosaki!"
Streaks of light that looked like giant clawed rips in the sky appeared from grimmjow's outstretched talons.
Ichigo reached out a hand and managed to break from the force of his trajectory. He crouched, settling mid-air.
"Wha…What is that?!" Ichigo demanded.
"Desgarron." Raising his arm up into the air, Grimmjow's mouth curved into a wicked grin. "It's my strongest technique."