Inoue shuddered as she watched Rukia fall to the ground after the cero's blast. Her selfless act to protect Ichigo had left Inoue feeling a mixture of relief that Ichigo was left unharmed, and disliking herself for lacking the same courage as her friend.
"Kuchiki-san…" Inoue mumbled softly with a slight sob as tears filled her eyes.
Inoue jumped at the sound of Ichigo's scream. Turning towards him, she watched him fall in exhaustion as he tried to make his way to Rukia. After his second collapse she was about to call his name when she saw him get slightly up and begin crawling.
Inoue's face changed to one of surprise as Ichigo wrapped Rukia in his arms and carefully shook her, calling her name. She couldn't hear all that he was saying to her, but she could see just by his body language that he was on the edge of panic. Inoue wished to look away from the scene, but she couldn't tear her eyes from them.
Despite her fear for her friends, Inoue recognized a growing feeling of envy that she fought to keep down as she watched Ichigo with Rukia. Nel's words from when they had been in the tower floated back to her.
"…In his arms…". Rukia's reply to Nel followed right after in Inoue's thoughts. "…I do remember before I was fully conscious, a feeling of being very peaceful. And warm and safe…"
Inoue's thoughts were diverted as Rukia's eyes cracked open and she spoke something to Ichigo as he bent his head towards her. Rukia then suddenly reached a hand up and grasped his robe. Inoue strained to hear what she said but she couldn't make out any words. She gave a gasp as she watched Rukia's hand limply fall and eyes close.
"No! Is she…?!" Inoue closed her eyes briefly in concentration. "…she's alive! Thank goodness!" Looking up again, she noticed that Ichigo seemed paralyzed with shock as he had not moved for some time but continued to hold her, his head bowed. A lone breeze drifted through, disturbing the stillness by ruffling the hair and robes of the two motionless shinigami figures in her gaze, but still he did not lift his head. Inoue bit her lip as one last voice that belonged to the orange-haired shinigami flitted through her mind. "I came here to fight and defeat you, Grimmjow!"
In that moment, Inoue's head hung low as her feelings of envy were overwhelmed by that of utter loneliness.
Nel muffled her scream with her small hands as she saw Ichigo's body thrown into the ground by Nnoitra. First Onee-san had been badly hurt, and now Ichigo was in grave danger. It was almost more than she could bear.
Nnoitra grinned at Ichigo's screams of pain as he bent the boy's arm into a position that threatened to break it.
"Itsygo…" Nel softly cried.
"Ah, you're no fun. In fact…" Nnoitra glanced shrewdly over at Rukia, who lay unconscious near them. "…I believe I have a way to bring more pain to you than I ever physically could!"
Ichigo looked stunned as he followed Nnoitra's line of sight towards Rukia. As the situation sunk in, Ichigo's expression suddenly changed to that of horror as he gave a war cry and struggled to hold Nnoitra back from reaching Rukia. Nnoitra scoffed and flicked Ichigo away like a fly, making him land hard on his stomach.
Ichigo groaned as Nnoitra landed a kick in his ribs as he walked past him and to Rukia.
"No…stop…don't!" Ichigo cried out between agonizing heaves for breath.
"I recall you didn't like it when I tried to finish off Grimmjow after he couldn't move." Nnoitra chuckled as he stood over Rukia, weapon at his side. "So I'm rather curious to see how you'll react when I cut down this defenseless girl before your eyes."
Lying on his stomach, his eyes fixed on Rukia laying just a few meters from him, Ichigo felt powerless. His body was battered, bloody, and beyond weak. Every muscle seemed to be screaming at him for mercy, and he was fighting to stay conscious. "Not again…it's just like when I had to watch Rukia being taken to the Soul Society…and when Aizen took the Hogyoku from her on Sokyoku Hill and had Gin aim to kill her…I'm unable to do anything but watch all over again!" Tears of frustration stung Ichigo's eyes as he clenched sand in his hands. "I can't let Rukia down. She told me to get stronger. I won't let it happen again!"
Nnoitra's weapon began to descend on Rukia.
Time seemed to slow as Ichigo gathered the last of his energy and dove towards Rukia, hovering over her to shield her with his body as Nnoitra swung down his blade. He heard Inoue and Nel both screaming their names as a shadow of the crescent blade appeared over them. Ichigo closed his eyes, waiting for the feel of the steel meeting his flesh. Suddenly, a loud sound that he wasn't expecting made him look around. An explosion had come from behind a rock, and smoke now billowed around the area.
Ichigo stared, but not at the rock. Instead, he was looking towards where he heard the sound of two weapons clashing just above him, and a young woman with mint green hair standing between them and Nnoitra.
"So you've returned to that form, eh, Neliel?" Nnoitra stated in a serious tone as their blades continued to push against each other.
"…Nel…?" Ichigo quietly spoke the question in wonder. "…are you really Nel…?"
"Yes." Nel said, her voice containing the maturity of an adult. "Because of you and Onee-san, I was able to return to this form. You brought me here, and you both protected me."
With a flash, Nel, Ichigo, and Rukia all momentarily disappeared from sight. One second later, Nel appeared at a safe distance from Nnoitra, where she stood glaring at him. She lowered Ichigo down onto the sand, then gently laid Rukia next to him. Ichigo sat up a bit, still shocked by what had just occurred.
Nel smiled softly. "Please stay still for a bit. I would like to show you both my gratitude." She stood and faced towards Nnoitra.
"Wa…wait! Nel! You aren't going to fight him, are you?!"
Nel turned her head to look back at him, still smiling. "It's ok."
A breeze ruffled the back of the rags that covered her torso, lifting it enough to reveal a number "3" tattooed to her back. Ichigo's eyes widened, dumbfounded.
"This will be over real quick." Nel promised.
In the blink of an eye, Nel disappeared.
"Wha-" Nnoitra stared down at the blood spraying from his chest.
Nnoitra caught sight of Nel charging at him, and he reflexively swung his weapon out at her. Nel kicked his blade and sent Nnoitra sliding back in the sand.
Nnoitra, looking nervous, immediately stuck his tongue out, a ball of light growing from the tip
"It's a cero!" Ichigo screamed. "Nel!"
The blast rolled towards Nel. She calmly stood with a palm out as the red energy collided and stopped at her hand. Taking a deep breath, Nel opened her mouth wide and consumed the energy, then closed her lips.
Nnoitra's eyes widened. "Aw shi-"
Nel opened her mouth, and shot out the cero from Nnoitra, combined with her own cero, back at her opponent.
A plume of energy and sand rose from the place Nnoitra had been, the explosion engulfing and hiding Nnoitra from view.
Ichigo bent protectively over Rukia as the force of the ceros buffeted them with sand and small debris. He looked back up as the wind calmed to see Nel standing stoically in the distance.
"Nnoitra-sama!" Tesla quickly let go of Inoue and ran towards where the espada had last been standing.
Inoue gasped in surprise, then looked over to where Ichigo sat with his back to her. She hastened to him. "Kurosaki-kun! Hang in there! I'll heal your…." She faltered as she stopped behind him, noticing he seemed to have not even heard her. "…wounds…"
"…Nel…" Ichigo murmured, staring out at her with astonishment.
Nel turned her head towards Ichigo and the girls. A grin leapt to her face as she bounded towards them, laughing.
"Ichigooooooooo!" She skidded up to them and jumped at Ichigo, wrapping her arms tightly around him. "I'm so happy! I'm truly happy you're safe!"
Ichigo froze and gasped for breath as she choked the air out of him in her embrace.
Inoue saw Ichigo was in trouble and tried to intervene. "Wait, wait, wait! Nel-cha….I mean…Nel-san…?! Kurosaki-kun's can't breathe! He's gonna die!"
Nel continued to laugh and clasp him even tighter, oblivious to Inoue's pleas in her joy.
"Look at him, his eyes are rolling back! Kurosaki-kuuun!"
A body crashed into a rock next to them. Nel let go of Ichigo, the sudden release making him collapse onto the ground wheezing.
Nel's startled face turned to look behind her for the source of the voice.
"…Who told you to let go of the girl?!"
"M…My deepest apologies, Nnoitra-sama…" Tesla slowly rose from the rubble of the broken rock, blood dripping from his face.
Nnoitra stood, teetering slightly, half of his body badly burned and bloodied. He saw Nel looking at him.
"What's wrong?" Your face says you're wondering how I'm still alive. I certainly forgot about that "double cero" technique of yours. I should've been more careful." Nnoitra said gruffly. "However, you're forgetting something. How many years do you think have passed since you disappeared? Don't think that the power of the current espada are the same as when you were last here! I'll show you that the number on your back no longer has any meaning!"
Nel charged at Nnoitra. As they battled, Ichigo looked on worriedly, seeing that Nel was closely matched in power with Nnoitra.
"Nel…" Grimacing with the effort, Ichigo tried to stand.
"Wait, Kurosaki-kun, you're still injured!" Inoue cried out.
"Nel's getting beat up. If I don't save her…"
A foot connected with Ichigo's chest, sending him flying onto his back with a grunt. The next instant, a hand had Inoue by her throat.
"Don't move." Inoue looked to see Tesla before her.
"I will not allow you to interfere with Nnoitra-sama. That woman is an obstruction. All obstructions to Nnoitra-sama must be destroyed by his hands."
Both Nnoitra and Nel stood apart from each other, panting as they collected themselves before the next spar.
"What a shame. I didn't really want to use this, as it would probably be too demanding for having just returned to this form." Nel said with a sigh as she held her sword horizontally out before her with both hands. "Proclaim, Gamuza."
Nnoitra cursed under his breath as he flew at her, but he was too late. A rod of light emerged around her sword, then a blast erupted, making Nnoitra raise his arm to shield himself from the raw power leaking out around him. He froze as his eyes caught sight of an enormous spear with a blade on either end, held aloft by Nel, whose lower body had transformed into something akin to a horse.
Lifting the spear above her head, Nel spoke. "Lanzador Verde." The spear left her hand and soared at Nnoitra.
Nnoitra, aghast, could only watch, his arm still poised to shield himself, as it came closer and closer to himself. At the last second, he brought his blade up and met the spearhead.
A crack appeared in his blade. He watched as the spear drove itself through his blade and into him.
Nnoitra knelt on his knees, defeated. Nel came near him, her hooves raising puffs of sand with each step.
"This is the end, Nnoitra."
Nnoitra gave an exasperated snort.
Nel raised her spear for the final strike. "Don't fear, I won't go so far as taking your life-"
With a burst, Nel suddenly blinked in surprise as her body took on its former self of a little girl once more. "Huh!? Why is Nel…?"
A firm foot on her head harshly pushed her face into the ground as Nnoitra laughed hysterically above her.
"End of the line, Neliel!" Nnoitra delivered another kick to Nel that sent her hurtling through the sand.
"Nel!" Ichigo fought his exhaustion and attempted to stand again. In an instant Nnoitra flashed into sight before him, and Ichigo felt his body shoved to the ground, the impact of his chest to the sand making him gasp in surprise and pain.
"You ain't going nowhere." Nnoitra growled.
Without warning, a new presence was felt to the right of Nnoitra. A large, muscular man with a necklace made of bones around his neck eyed the scene.
"What do you want, Zommari…" Nnoitra asked as his eyes narrowed in annoyance.
Zommari looked over at Rukia. "I have been tracking that girl since she disappeared after killing Aaroniero. I thought I would finish what Aaroniero started and clean up his mess. Though…" Zommari paused as he took in her condition. "…it appears it will be an easy task to fulfill."
"Whatever. Kill her. I'm done here anyhow." Nnoitra replied flippantly, his annoyance growing.
"Over my dead body!" Ichigo yelled as he crouched in front of her, sword drawn.
Nnoitra rolled his eyes as he took a foot and stomped it down on Ichigo, making him go back to being flat on his stomach.
"You really are a glutton for punishment. She'll be killed whether or not you're a corpse, and there's nothing you can do about it." Nnoitra stopped as Ichigo growled, fighting to get back up. Nnoitra just pushed his foot down harder, making Ichigo eat sand. "You're beaten. You're done. You're all going to die, end of story. Accept it."
Nnoitra looked over at Zommari. "Wait to give the finishing blow to the girl. Do it just as this boy is about to breathe his last. I want him to feel desperate to the end. I want the last thing he sees to be of this girl being gutted."
Zommari sheathed his sword. "As you have fought them to this point, I will honor your wishes."
"Tesla, I'm gonna trade places with you. Lover boy is done for. Do what you want with him." Nnoitra yelled.
"Yes, sir." Tesla moved away from Inoue as Nnoitra roughly took hold of her.
"Just be sure to make him suffer." Nnoitra muttered with a devilish grin as Tesla moved past him.
Tesla nodded as he drew his sword. "Strike down, Verruga."
Tesla transformed into a domineering giant boar that stood on two legs. Ichigo looked like a small child in comparison to the beast's size.
Ichigo, still on his stomach, turned his head to see the beast. A look of dread filled his face. "Wha-"
A large and heavy hoof the size of a car tire stomped down on the lower half of Ichigo's leg, crushing the bone. Ichigo's body went rigid in shock as he loudly screamed in anguish.
Inoue shrieked. "Kuro-"
Two fingers were suddenly thrust cruelly into her mouth, inhibiting her from speaking.
"Shut up, pet." Nnoitra crooned. "Your job is to zip it and watch. Watch the man who came to rescue you, become a dirty piece of meat."