To Save Rukia

Victims & Predators

Grimmjow released a wave of rod-shaped energy that accelerated towards Ichigo. Ichigo brought his sword above his head into a horizontal position and braced himself as the rods beat into him, driving him backwards with the force of the attack.

Ichigo was quickly failing as the rods began to overpower him, causing him to start to fall to the ground, new cuts appearing by the second over his body.

"This is it, Kurosaki!" Grimmjow cried as he dove after Ichigo. "You will lose to me! I am the king!"

The girls watched in dismay. Rukia went as close to the tower's edge as possible, willing herself to not take a step further. This was his fight. "Ichigo!"

With a start, Ichigo broke his fall and braced himself as he slid his sword through one of the rods, sending sparks flying. With a yell, Ichigo drove his sword forward through the energy beam until it shattered into fragments. Grimmjow looked surprised.

Shards of the broken energy fell around the girls and hit Inoue's protective barrier. The other energy beams crashed into the ground around the girls, causing the tower to shudder.

"I don't…I don't want…to defeat just you, you know…" Ichigo gasped out.

"…What did you say?"

"…You're the one who said…that you're going to start with me." Ichigo's eyes narrowed with resolve. "Well, I'm starting with you."

By the look in Ichigo's eyes, Grimmjow knew he was in for trouble.

Ichigo leaped towards Grimmjow, closing the distance between them.

"Like you said, I came here to fight you." Ichigo yelled as he advanced towards where Grimmjow stood in mid-air.

Grimmjow unleashed a second wave of energy rods in defense.

"And to defeat you, Grimmjow!" Ichigo cried out as his sword again met with the attack. "I'll beat you!" Ichigo yelled. "I'll beat Ulquiorra! I'll beat Aizen!" The light shattered all the way up to Grimmjow as Ichigo launched himself at close-range towards him.

Inoue looked up towards Ichigo, feeling like she'd just been dealt a jolt. "…'came here to fight you'." She looked down at the ground. "Kurosaki-kun did mean to come and battle when he came here…" Without intending to, Inoue's santen kesshun shield cracked, then broke into pieces. Her concentration had been unnerved. The pieces fell around the girls harmlessly. Inoue looked nervously at Nel and Rukia to see if they had caught on to her sudden distress, but both of them were completely oblivious to the change, absorbed in Ichigo's fight.

"And then I'll take Rukia, and Chad, Ishida, Renji, and Inoue all back with me!" With each name, Ichigo swung his sword at Grimmjow, pushing him back.

"Ichigo…" Rukia watched Ichigo, a smile gracing her features. It always brought to her a sense of shared triumph and contentedness when she witnessed Ichigo's resolve.

"I cannot allow myself to be defeated by the likes of you, Grimmjow!"

Grimmjow looked at Ichigo with astonishment as he broke through all his defenses, and watched as a black blade came down on him.

"…Damn…it…!" Grimmjow muttered. Ichigo's blade had sliced deeply into his body.

Ichigo drew out his sword. Grimmjow limply fell backwards towards the earth.

A sudden grip on his wrist stopped Grimmjow's descent.

Ichigo looked down at his fallen opponent as the last of his mask fell away from his face, and the black receded from his eyes. Grimmjow's head hung low as he was suspended by his arm.

Ichigo descended, gently lowering Grimmjow's body to the ground. Then with a leap, Ichigo bounded up to the tower with the girls, appearing in mid-air before them.


"Ichigo!"

"Ku..Kuro…!" Inoue didn't know quite what to say. She was still feeling the effects of having been a bit disarmed.

"You're not hurt, are you, Rukia? Inoue? Nel?" Ichigo gave them a tired but gentle smile.

"Thank goodness…he's still the same old Kurosaki-kun…" Inoue thought as she managed to smile back. Even though she'd realized she needed to believe in him, seeing the display of violence and battle rage between he and Grimmjow still made her wonder if he had changed. She was relieved to see he was still caring and giving such a kind smile.

Rukia nodded her head affirmatively at Ichigo, the corner of her mouth curling into a small smile.

"Nope…thank you…" Inoue said quietly, finding that she was starting to feel a bit shy.

"Welcome back, Ichigo." Rukia said as she stood at the edge of the tower, tilting her head up to look at him. Ichigo smiled warmly back at her.

"Ah." Ichigo murmured in reply, looking happy.

"Itsygooooooooo!" Nel cried as she leapt off the tower's edge towards Ichigo, slamming her hard head into his stomach.

"Buwaaah!" Ichigo gasped out as she collided into him.

"You…you idiot! What were you thinking! We're in mid-air! You'll die if you fall!" Ichigo yelled.

"I's so happy…I's so happy you didn't die…!" Nel said, looking up at him with tears.

Ichigo's face relaxed and he gave a small smile as he laid a hand on Nel's head. "Yeah…thanks, Nel."

Ichigo turned to look back at Rukia and Inoue. "I'm just glad that Rukia and Inoue aren't hurt. Didn't know what to expect when I first came across you both, what they'd done to you…" His voice stalled as he recollected all the things that could have gone wrong.

Rukia's face lit up in surprise at his personal divulgence, then she recovered and crossed her arms. "You still didn't have to worry about me."

Inoue broke out into an embarrassed laugh, her cheeks turning pink. "Hehehee! Course I'm fine! I've always had a good constitution! I haven't caught colds or anything since I wa-!"

Inoue suddenly felt herself being picked up, and in the next second, she found herself hanging over Ichigo's shoulder like a sack of potatoes. Her face immediately grew red. Rukia stood nearby, her arms still crossed and wearing a smirk as she saw Inoue fumbling in embarrassment and Ichigo's complete lack of awareness.

"Wa..wait, Kurosaki-kun! What are you…!"

"What am I doing? We're going down. It'd be quicker for me to carry you than to try and find stairs in all this rubble, right?"

"B…but...!"

Puzzled, Ichigo tried to crane his neck back to see her face, but he could only see the back of her head, and that her hands were covering her head. "Something wrong?"

"I'm..." Inoue scrambled for a reason. "I'm…heavy…"

"Yeah, don't worry about it. You're not as heavy as I thought you'd be."

Abruptly, Ichigo let out a howl as he got two simultaneous punches; one came under his chin from Rukia, the other to his groin from Nel.

"You little…!" Ichigo growled with half-hearted anger at the two girls.

"You're so tactless, Ichigo." Rukia said with a frown.

"You can't talk to ladies that way!" Nel chimed in. "There's a special way, you know! Even if they's heavy, you's supposed to tell thems they's not, even ifs they's heavy!"

"St…stop it, Nel-chan, I'm starting to feel worse…" Inoue said, her voice trailing off as she tried to control the redness of her face.

Rukia picked up Nel. "Let's go, Ichigo."

Ichigo gave one last exasperated frown at Rukia and Nel. "Fine."

Ichigo and Rukia both leapt off the tower with their burdens to the ground below.

"There…we go." Ichigo said as he put Inoue down. Rukia did likewise with Nel.

Ichigo straightened. "For now, since I'm going to go rescue Chad…"

"What about us?! Are you just gonna leave us here?!" Nel yelled in a panic.

"Whah…? That's not what I meant. Follow me. Staying here would probably be more dangerous."

A presence was suddenly felt by them all. Turning, they discovered Grimmjow standing unsteadily, his body wracked and haggard. His released form suddenly swirled away, and he was left in his exhausted normal body and espada uniform, holding his sword. His breaths came in heaves.

Ichigo's eyes narrowed as he calmly readied his sword. "Grimmjow."

"Hah…like I'd lose…there's…there's no way…" Grimmjow managed between puffs of painful gasps. His hair hung over his face, but didn't hide the spent and desperate look in his eyes.

"There's no way…that I could lose to you!" Grimmjow yelled as he advanced on them.

Ichigo, with confident steps, stuck his sword into the sand and side-stepped Grimmjow's swipe, planting a firm grip on Grimmjow's wrist, stopping the assault.

"Enough, Grimmjow. You lost. I don't know if you're a king or what, but crushing everyone you despise, and standing alone as the king…" Ichigo's brow furrowed as he looked at Grimmjow, whose face was hanging down. "There's no fun in something like that. If you despise me than I'll fight you as many times as you want. So knock it off already…!"

Grimmjow ripped his arm out from under Ichigo's grip. "Go screw yourself! You're-"

Out of nowhere, a huge crescent moon-shaped blade struck Grimmjow, knocking him aside.

Ichigo's face wore shock as he watched, blood flying around him. Quickly he turned his head to see the wielder of the weapon.

"You just don't know when to give up! Now hurry up and die. The shinigami is mine!"

A very tall and slim man with long black hair stood away from them, resting his large scythe-like crescent moon weapon on the ground. An eye patch covered one of his eyes. The contrast between the largeness and weight of his weapon to his tooth-pick like body seemed to go against physics.

"What the heck are you…?!" Ichigo spoke towards the new enemy, his body tensing up. "An espada?"

The man gave a creepy smile.

"Hey, I'm asking you what you are! Answer me!"

A groan came from the ground near Ichigo. Looking, he saw Grimmjow clenching his teeth. "Nnoi…tra. You…you'll pay…"

"You're still alive?" Nnoitra said with a sly grin.

A shadow swept over Ichigo. Ichigo looked up with a scowl. Without hesitation, he planted himself in front of Grimmjow and met Nnoitra's large blade with his own. He grunted under the effort of keeping his sword up against the weight.

"What are you doing, you little cuss!"

"Why are you trying to cut down a guy that can't move?!"

"Hah!" Nnoitra pushed Ichigo away, sending them both sliding back. "You can't bear to watch, can you Grimmjow! Losing to the enemy and then having them protect you!" He yelled across to Grimmjow, who simply looked away from him with a defeated face.


"Inoue, Nel, hide yourselves behind those rocks." Rukia said in a low voice as she inclined her head towards a group of nearby boulders.

"But-" Before Inoue was able to protest, the shinigami flashed from her sight. Inoue looked down at Nel, and the two nodded in agreement to follow Rukia's request. Inoue and Nel ran and each hid behind an individual rock spaced some yards from each other, watching Ichigo's fight with growing worry.


"What's your name, shinigami?"

Ichigo held his blade in front of him. "Kurosaki Ichigo."

"Kurosaki? I'll remember that. But only during the short time that you're still alive!"

Nnoitra's blade swung down at Ichigo, who leaped into the air. Nnoitra followed him and brought his weapon down on Ichigo's sword.

"This guy…! He has such incredible brute strength for such a thin body! His weapon is too heavy…!" Ichigo thought as he strained against the pressure.

Nnoitra pushed Ichigo back towards the ground. Nnoitra flew down at Ichigo, slamming his weapon again at him. A burst of sand rose up around them from the impact. Still not recovered from his last battle, Ichigo's knees buckled and hit the ground as the burden of the weapon above him became too much. Nnoitra's grin widened, seeing a chance to destroy the shinigami boy.

"Kurosaki-kun!" Inoue yelled as she stood up from behind her rock and started to run towards him.

"Tesla!" Nnoitra bellowed.

"Yes, sir!" A blonde man appeared behind Inoue and shoved her roughly onto her back, making her yelp.

"Inoue!" Ichigo yelled.

"Tsugi no mai, Hakuren!"

Nnoitra's eyes widened as a blast of snow and ice swept towards him from the side. He leapt away, but not before having a leg caught in the ice. Using his bare hand, he began to cut the ice from around his leg away. All the while, his eyes narrowed in hatred as he looked for the culprit of the sneak attack.

Rukia's voice came from behind Nnoitra. "Bakudo sixty one, Rikujokoro!" Six yellow rods of light sliced into Nnoitra's mid-section from all directions as he started to turn towards her voice, rendering him unable to move his body.

Rukia put her wrists together, palms out, and began to mutter. "Ye lord! Mask of blood and flesh, all creation, flutter of wings…" The wind rose as the blue energy in her palms grew, her hair gracefully fluttering around her face and the blue glow highlighting her serious eyes.

Ichigo stared as he slowly stood up, his mouth parted as he watched Rukia battle. Though he'd seen her fight plenty of times before and hold her own, he hadn't seen her going all-out in too many serious battles. He was dumbfounded as he was reminded of what a terror she could be as an opponent.

"…on the wall of blue flame, inscribe a twin lotus…"

"Then again…" Ichigo thought as he collected his breath. "… she does seem to have a knack for continually surprising me when it comes to her strength." Ichigo cracked a smile as his mind flashed back to the time Rukia had quickly beaten Di Roy and he saw her true power for the first time. Then in another battle in Karakura, the incredible wave of ice from her sword's second dance that had saved him and encapsulated Grimmjow. "And now recently beating an espada, despite being pierced by a trident…." Ichigo felt a swell of pride at her as he watched with anticipation the blue energy grow and swirl around her.

"…in the abyss of conflagration, wait at the far heavens. Hado number seventy-three, Soren Sokatsui!"

A burst of blue energy, much greater in size than her usual Sokatsui, rushed at Nnoitra and engulfed his still-paralyzed body.

"Go now, Ichigo!" Rukia yelled, breaking Ichigo out of his stupor.

"…Ah…right!" Ichigo took a stance. "Getsuga…Tenshou!"

The dark mass from Ichigo's sword lashed into the area Nnoitra was.

Ichigo and Rukia both stood with their swords readied, trying to peer through the swirling sand to see what effect their attacks had on Nnoitra.

A brief parting in the dust revealed Nnoitra, grinning. His clothes were slightly blackened and a bit torn, but his body appeared to not have a scratch. The dust circled to cover him again, and in the next instant he had Rukia's sword-hand by the wrist, then raised her arm above her head to pick her whole body up so that she dangled above the ground.

"You ugly little piece of crap! I can't stand it when females lead males on the battlefield! You thought you had me, didn't you!" Nnoitra spat out as he aimed a kick at her side. Rukia coughed blood.

Despite her predicament, Rukia narrowed her eyes at Nnoitra.

"Let her go!" Ichigo screamed in a mixture of outrage and fear as he brought his sword down on Nnoitra. Nnoitra stopped the blade with his free hand and frowned down at him.

"That's a funny thing to say! That's the line of someone who thinks 'if only the woman was free I could beat him'!" Nnoitra said with glee, then pushed Ichigo with his hand, sending Ichigo tumbling backwards.

"Ichigo!"

Ichigo landed on his feet, sliding back a few yards more before finally managing to stop himself. He snarled, his eyes glowering. Digging the ball of his foot into the sand, he got ready to fly again at Nnoitra.

"Sokatsui!"

The blast ricocheted off of Nnoitra's face, allowing Rukia the chance to swiftly swing her body up and over the arm that held her, kicking him in the face as she propelled herself up, then use his arm as a springboard to launch a backflip, using the momentum to free her wrist and twist her body around in midair to land nimbly some distance away and facing Nnoitra.

Ichigo found himself gaping at Rukia.

"What are you, some kind of Olympian diver!?" Ichigo yelled, flustered.

Rukia spared a look at him to arch an eyebrow. "Olympian?"

Ichigo ran a hand through his hair as he sighed in defeat.

Nnoitra had been uttering a stream of curses since the moment Rukia had landed the distracting blow to his face. He now seemed recovered and glared at the petite shinigami. He shifted his weight, standing cockily. "You think you're so clever, dontcha. I'll show you something." He slid out his long tongue, revealing a number "5" branded on it.

Both Rukia and Ichigo's eyes widened.

"Do you get it? It's my rank. I'm higher than that piece of trash Grimmjow you got thrashed by and barely defeated!" Nnoitra pointed a long finger at Ichigo. "Enough play time. You and that annoying girlfriend of yours are finished."


Nnoitra swung his weapon, the staff smacking into Ichigo's back. Ichigo yelled in pain as he fell to the ground.

"Stop! Stop it! Kurosaki-kun is already injured from his last battle!" Inoue cried out, pushing against Tesla's restraining arm as far as possible in Ichigo's direction.

"Shut up! Ya stupid?! So what if he's injured?!" Nnoitra barked back at her. "This is a battle. Of course there are inequalities!"

Nnoitra walked towards where Ichigo lay on the ground, gasping and coughing.

"Bring it." Ichigo scowled, blood and dirt marring his face.

"I was watching the fight between you and Grimmjow from the start. I've seen all your tricks."

"But you haven't seen mine." Rukia's close-by voice carried an edge to it. "Some no mai…"

Nnoitra found himself in a circle of white light. The temperature dropped, and ice began to climb up his legs. He broke away from the ice and jumped into the air. "Ha! You just don't know when to give up!"

Rukia's eyes narrowed. "…Tsukishiro!"

A tower of ice erupted from the ground and climbed upwards, consuming Nnoitra within the solid crystal cylinder.

Rukia stood up straight and moved towards Ichigo.

"You think that got him?" Ichigo asked, taking his eyes off of the ice to look at Rukia.

"I doubt it, but it'll give us some time to come up with a plan." Rukia answered as Ichigo sorely got to his feet. "I've noticed that he's favoring his right leg a bit since our first combined attack."

Ichigo grinned at this bit of information, then noticed Rukia still wore a serious face. "What's up?"

Rukia silently pointed a finger behind him. "That."

A crack had appeared in the ice. It started to ripple, picking up in speed as it spread. A moment later large shards of sharp ice rained down on them as the tower burst apart.

Rukia stretched her arm up, palm to the sky. "Bakudo number thirty-nine, Enkosen!" A spinning shield of light leapt from her hand and appeared above their heads, slicing the fragments into harmless pieces.

As the last of the ice fell, Rukia ceased utilizing the shield, lowering her arm back to her side.

"Not bad, Rukia." Ichigo smirked.

"Ah." Rukia gave a slight smile in return.

Both took offensive stances, swords ready as they watched Nnoitra slowly strolling towards them.

"You forget. I do know your tricks, princess. Aaroniero sent all the espada the battle he had with you. You haven't done an attack yet that has surprised me. It's been easy to know how to lessen the damage your strikes have, as well as the boy's. You're both too predictable."

"So that's how he's been taking so little damage…" Rukia murmured. Ichigo nodded his head slightly at her words.

"Let's change that." There was a flash as Ichigo shunpo'd towards Nnoitra.

"Still putting up a fight?" Nnoitra sneered as Ichigo appeared before him, his sword grinding against Nnoitra's arm. Nnoitra abruptly bashed his head into Ichigo's skull, causing Ichigo to yell and grimace in pain as he flew backwards towards a boulder.

Rukia flash-stepped and positioned herself between the boulder and Ichigo, catching him. Unable to reduce the speed of Ichigo's fall by much, Rukia took the brunt of the impact against the rock, as well as becoming momentarily sandwiched by Ichigo's weight. She gasped as the wind was knocked out of her.

Ichigo turned around to look at her in surprise. "Rukia!"

Rukia looked up at Ichigo with determined eyes as she tried to collect her breath.

"Are you ok?" Ichigo asked quietly. Rukia, still unable to find her voice between strained gasps, inclined her head towards Nnoitra. Ichigo rolled his eyes in slight amusement at her. "Don't worry, I haven't forgotten about him. Just wanted to make sure I hadn't crushed your puny frame."

Ichigo received a punch to the gut. He smirked through the pain.

"…Fool…" Rukia huffed.


Inoue glanced sideways at her captor, her eyes narrowed as a plan formed in her mind. She had to do something to help. "Perhaps I could use his bad eye with the patch to my advantage..."

Tesla looked down at her. "Do not think that you will defeat me with your powers." Tesla warned. "Your powers are tremendous, but the 'Rikka' that they are organized into are very fragile. I could destroy them with ease."

Inoue stiffened at his words. "How did he…are my thoughts that obvious?!"

"There is only one reason I do not destroy them. It is because your powers are the property of Aizen-sama. His orders were that as long as you do not attack, we do not destroy the Rikka. If you attack me, I will destroy them. Please do not resist."

Inoue hung her head, accepting her current situation. "Kurosaki-kun…".

A sudden thought struck Inoue. "Nel! Where's Nel gone…?" Inoue turned her head to the side to where she'd last seen Nel hide.

"What's the matter?" Tesla asked.

"Oh…nothing…" Inoue lied, mentally kicking herself for being so transparent. For having a single eye, nothing seemed to escape him.

Tesla looked over to where Inoue had glanced. "…Come to think of it, that arrancar that was with you at the beginning has disappeared..." His eye scanned the rocks.

"There." Tesla concentrated his sight at a single rock. The next second, it burst into pieces, sending a shocked Nel skidding through the sand and landing on her stomach, debris falling around and on her.

"Nel-chan!" Inoue yelled. Nel moaned.

Ichigo's body suddenly flew by Nel. Her little eyes widened. A shadow covered her.

"You…Nel?"

Nel slowly turned her head to look behind, her nervousness growing.

"I knew it! That crack on your head!" Nnoirtra cackled. "You've become an awful shabby thing! How is it?! Does your broken mask ache?" Nnoitra said with a sneer as he took a few steps closer to her.

Ichigo got up on one knee, looking exhausted and confused. "What's going on? Do you know Nel…?"

"What? So you brought her here? I was wondering how she ended up here. Judging by the look on your face, you've probably been carting her around all this time without knowing what she is."

"…What do you mean?"

Nnoitra grinned widely as Nel whimpered and covered her ears. "This is Nel. Nelliel Tu Oderschwank. A former…" Nnoitra's eyes narrowed sinisterly, "…espada."

Both Ichigo and Rukia looked stunned.

"That's right! What? You thought she was harmless? You're idiots! You've all been tricked by her!"

"That's….a lie…not powssible, Nel not a 'spada…" Nel whimpered.

"What? Don't tell me you've forgotten?" Nnoitra said, taking a few steps towards Nel.

"Nel hasn't forgotten nothing. Nel not 'spada…"

"In the time I haven't seen you, it seems that you've become irritating for a different reason. You're so dull." Nnoitra moved to kick Nel.

"Tsugi no mai, hakuren!"

Nnoitra's foot became frozen in midair by a short wall of ice. He snarled in frustration as he turned to glare at Rukia, who was standing at a distance. Suddenly, Ichigo stood between Nnoitra and Nel in a defensive stance.

"Itsygo! Nel wants you to believe…Nel didn't twick you…"

"Of course you didn't!" Ichigo turned his head to look at Nel. "You wouldn't do that."

"Itsygo…"

"Don't worry, Nel, we'll-"

"Ichigo!"

Rukia's warning came too late. Nnoitra had used his free leg to deliver a swift kick to Ichigo's head, knocking him gasping into the sand.

"It seems you've lost your memory…" Nnoitra said with a grin to Nel as he got his other leg freed from the ice with the rod of his weapon. "But it's understandable that you'd have amnesia after the magnificent crack to your skull I gave ya."

"You cracked her skull?!" Rukia asked, a glimmer of contempt in her eyes.

Ichigo got into a kneeling position and swiped his arm at the blood coming from his forehead as he glared at Nnoitra. "You sick little-"

Nnoitra suddenly swooped down on Nel and grabbed her head with his hand, then picked her up and held her up high for them to all see as she struggled.

"Yeah, I was the one who busted her head open!"

"Nel-chan!" Inoue cried.

"Stop it!" Ichigo yelled as he rose to his feet and dashed towards Nnoitra.

With a leap, Ichigo avoided Nnoitra's weapon as it came down, and thrust his sword directly at Nnoitra's head. Ichigo's eyes widened, not believing what he was seeing as Nnoitra grabbed his sword by the tip with his bare hand and slid it along the sword's edge up to the hilt, with no cut showing on his skin.

Nnoitra scoffed. "Does this thing only look like it can cut?! I didn't have to avoid it after all."

Ichigo felt a painful knock to his chin that sent him flying upwards into the air. He struggled to not black out as his body landed in a heap, sand flying out around him on impact.

"Ichigo!"

'Kurosaki-kun!"

"Your sword can't cut me! My Hierro is unsurpassed by any current or former espada." Nnoitra lowered the arm with Nel and cocked his head down towards her. 'You were so irritating…" Nnoitra's eyes slid over to where Ichigo was slowly rolling onto his stomach and trying to push himself back up. Nnoitra turned back to Nel. "Just like you are now."

Ichigo panted, anger in his eyes.

"Let go of Nel." Rukia said in a deadly tone.

Nnoitra ignored Rukia, continuing to focus on Nel as she tried to wriggle out of his grasp. "That's why I cracked your skull from behind and threw ya out of Las Noches."

"Let Nel go!" Ichigo roared.

"Shut up!" Nnoitra yelled, annoyed.

Ichigo was next to Nnoitra within a second, his sword poised to slice into Nnoitra when something was suddenly being held in front of him.

"Nel!" Ichigo reflexively dropped his guard to avoid cutting Nel. Nnoitra used the opening and seized Ichigo's sword-hand by the wrist, twisting it so that Ichigo hung awkwardly by it, while simultaneously throwing Nel from his other hand straight up into the air.

Rukia appeared beside Nel in the air, catching her. As Rukia landed, Nnoitra pushed his weapon out behind him at her. Rukia maneuvered herself around the blades, but the rod still connected with Rukia's stomach, making her hunch over in pain and slide a few meters back.

"Rukia!"

Nnoitra aimed a kick with his knee to Ichigo's head, causing him to groan.

"Quiet, lover boy. Ya know, I hate it when peons keep on attacking even though they can't win." Nnoitra added his other hand to Ichigo's arm, and began to push down on it in an effort to snap it. Ichigo screamed in agony.

Rukia clenched her jaw angrily.

"Stay here, Nel." Rukia whispered to Nel as she set her down at a safe distance from the fight.

Rukia shunpo'd to appear before Nnoitra. Dodging Nnoitra's weapon, Rukia placed her palms together and facing out.

"Bakudo number four, Hainawa!"

A yellow lightning bolt burst from her hands and to Nnoitra's chest and arms, entangling itself around his body.

Nnoitra raged in frustration. Ichigo, freed from Nnoitra's grasp, fell to his hands and knees. Rukia flashed beside Ichigo, lifting his arm over her head and to rest on her shoulder so as to support him, then materialized in the next second with him next to Nel. Ichigo exhaled in relief.

"Itsygo! Onee-san!"

Ichigo and Rukia both looked down at Nel. She suddenly grew shy and looked up at them sheepishly. "…thawnks…for saving Nel…"

"We'll always protect you, Nel." Ichigo stated with a smile. Nel looked up at him in adoration, then flew at them and grasped each of their legs in a hug, bawling happily. Rukia chuckled as she stroked Nel's head soothingly, then turned her head to join Ichigo in watching Nnoitra.

Nnoitra's yell of fury grew as he fought the bonds. With a loud yell, the crackling energy around Nnoitra snapped apart.

"Do you think you could immobilize him again?" Ichigo asked Rukia with a grunt as he tried to flex his arms.

Rukia crossed her arms as she looked up at Ichigo with a smirk. "Of course."


Inoue watched the battle, but now that Nel was safe, her thoughts were elsewhere. She was feeling guilty about her cowardice. When it came down to it, her friends would die for her, but she was too afraid to return their courage. Inoue hung her head as tears threatened to spill. "Yet, I couldn't go on if my powers were destroyed..." More importantly, she admitted to herself that she was holding back because she wouldn't be able to help Kurosaki-kun anymore if she lost her powers. She just hoped that he survived this battle without her help; that she would be rescued again if she simply believed in them.

"I'm sorry…please understand…"


"You're pathetic! I'm so bored with you. You can't seem to be able to get it through your head that you can't win!" Nnoitra jeered as he blocked Ichigo's attacks in a half-interested manner.

"Juhaku."

Nnoitra suddenly felt a cold sensation rising up from his feet, and then his legs. He looked down to find ice crawling up his torso. Quickly turning his head, he followed the trail of ice from his feet to where Rukia stood with her blade in the ground, her eyes stern.

Ichigo flash stepped to the side to avoid the ice as it crept up to Nnoitra's chest.

"What is this?!" Nnoitra yelled as he tried to break the ice before it reached his arms and head. He broke a leg free with a kick.

"The end." Ichigo stated as his sword started to pulse with reiatsu. "Getsuga…"

Nnoitra grunted and writhed as the ice covered his neck and started to make its way up to his mouth.

Rukia's sword glowed white as she pointed it at Nnoitra. "Tsugi no mai…"

"…Tenshou!"

"…Hakuren!"

Ichigo and Rukia simultaneously unleashed their attacks, their two energies reaching their intended target with such force that it sent shockwaves back at them. Ichigo and Rukia both turned their heads to the side and protected their faces with their arms as they waited for the swells to die down.

Nel huddled behind the rock that Rukia had hidden her behind, a safe distance from Tesla and the battle. "Itsygo…Onee-san…"

As the wind settled, Inoue opened her eyes and looked up to see Ichigo and Rukia standing, both looking towards where Nnoitra had been. A block of black ice was now all that marked where he had stood.

"Nnoitra-sama…" Tesla murmured anxiously.

Ichigo swayed a bit unsteadily on his feet, exhausted. He felt a firm hand on his arm, and looked down to see Rukia by his side.

"Looks like we won."

Rukia looked up at him. "Hope so. You're not able to last much longer."

Realizing he was still using Rukia to help keep his balance, Ichigo pulled his arm out from Rukia's hand. "I'm fine." Ichigo noticed Rukia skeptically arch an eyebrow as she gave him a look.

A crushing weight of reiatsu suddenly bore down on everyone in the vicinity. Inoue gasped for breath as she was overwhelmed by it.

A red glow grew within the ice. Ichigo and Rukia broke apart and readied themselves, their focus fully on the threat.

Suddenly a cero erupted in all directions, instantly dissolving the ice. Tesla crouched, still holding Inoue, as a streak of red flew overhead.

Before Ichigo could react, Rukia stood in front of him. "Bakudo number thirty-nine, Enkosen!"

Rukia braced herself as she used the shield to deflect the random bursts of cero energy that came at them. The power of the few blasts that came at them were high, but Rukia held her ground.

A movement caught Ichigo's attention, and he saw Nnoitra. Even at their distance, Ichigo could see that he was breathing hard. Nnoitra's uniform was in tatters, revealing some fresh burns and wounds.

"Well now… Juhaku …that was a…surprising move. So you're not…a one trick pony after all…eh, princess?" Nnoitra leered at Rukia as he staggered forward, panting heavily. "I doubt…you have any more such revelations…to your fighting abilities?"

"Shut it!" Ichigo growled.

Nnoitra flashed an annoyed look in Ichigo's direction. "Hmph, and looks like lover-boy is going to be…" A fiendish fire lit up his eyes. "…of no further use to you…" Nnoitra stuck out his tongue, and a cero quickly formed at the tip. A split second later, a devastating cero rushed at Ichigo.

Ichigo looked up in surprise as Rukia flash stepped in front of him once again and brought out the shield. It blocked the initial wave, flinging sand up around them. Rukia dug her toes into the ground as she fought against the surge, pouring her reiatsu into the shield. Watching her strain against the relentless power, Ichigo could see that she was not going to be able to keep it up for much longer. Rukia grunted as a crack appeared.

"Rukia!" Ichigo yelled as he reached for her. Standing behind her, he stretched his arm over her shoulder and held it towards the shield. Closing his eyes, he tried to concentrate and direct his reiatsu from his hand and towards the shield. Upon opening his eyes, he saw that sparks of reiatsu flashed around his hand, but weren't flowing towards the shield.

The shield suddenly developed a few more cracks. Ichigo swore under his breath as he prepared to try again. However, a yelp of pain from Rukia made his eyes snap open.

Ichigo watched in horror as the shield shattered. The cero hit Rukia, the impact sending both of them flying. Ichigo fell on his back to the ground with a dull thud, and watched helplessly as the cero continued to carry Rukia through the air, her small form twisting limply before slamming into the ground some distance from him.

"RUKIA!" Ichigo frantically screamed as he pushed himself up and stumbled towards her. He had gone but halfway before he fell painfully. He grunted as he got up again and tried to make his way to her still form. Fatigued, his legs gave out from under him again after a few steps. "Rukia…why…" Giving a deep roar of frustration, Ichigo desperately resorted to crawling.

Finally reaching her, his fear grew as he took in the extent of her injuries. Kneeling beside her he hesitated a moment, then lifted her small form into his arms and gently shook her. "Please…Rukia…" His voice cracked.

With a moan, Rukia's eyes slowly half-opened. "Can't…" Her voice came as a faint murmur, causing Ichigo to lean his face closer to hers. "…can't kill me…that…easily…" A trace of a smile briefly appeared on her lips before her eyes fluttered as she started to lose consciousness again.

Ichigo clutched her closer in alarm, dismay etched across his face. "Oi! Rukia!"

Rukia's hand slowly reached up and grasped the robe at his chest. "…don't let him…kill you either…Ichigo…" Her hand gradually uncurled from his garment and fell slack by her side as she drifted back into unconsciousness.

Ichigo remained still for some time, then carefully laid her on the sandy ground. Footsteps stopped behind him.

"Too bad for you, lover boy."

Without a word, Ichigo turned around and slashed his sword out.

"Too slow!" Nnoitra taunted as he sidestepped the blade, then grabbed Ichigo by the head and hurled him face-first into the ground.

"Give up. The pretty princess was your last bit of hope, and now she's a goner. You will both meet your end here."

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