Ichigo didn't know up from down. His vision spun, his mind in a daze. Every sound was amplified. He could clearly hear his labored breathing, the sound of each punch and kick his body sustained. It was hard to remember a time when his body was not in torment, as though his current afflictions were all he had ever known. One moment he was in the air, the next his body would convulse with the pain of contact with the hard earth, and on and on it went, with no promise of relief. "Once again, I wasn't strong enough…once again, my nakama will suffer because I failed to protect…I don't deserve to live…"
Inoue watched, her face wet with tears as Ichigo's blood flowed. Tesla relentlessly tore at Ichigo, repeatedly pummeling his body and leaving his face looking less and less recognizable.
"No! Kurosaki-kun! This can't really be happening! This can't be the end!" She wanted to cry out his name, but Nnoitra's revolting fingers still gagged her.
Ichigo let out a blood-curdling scream as the bones in his arm were crushed like toothpicks between two of Tesla's large fingers.
Rukia breathed a soft moan as she slowly opened her eyes, squinting at the sudden light. Her body throbbed with pain, but she ignored it as her senses were diverted by sounds of a nearby fight. A sudden tormented scream ripped through the air. Startled, Rukia bolted into a sitting position, but collapsed back down onto her back with another groan as her body protested against the sudden movement. She turned her head towards the direction of the fight, and sucked in her breath as she beheld a large tusked beast, his back to her. The beast turned slightly, allowing Rukia to glimpse that he was holding something. He let the item go, revealing a ragged Ichigo as he crumbled to the ground at the beast's hooves, clutching a mangled arm.
Rukia rolled onto her side and propped herself up on her arms in alarm. "Ichigo!"
At the sound of a familiar voice calling his name, Ichigo immediately looked up from the ground. "Rukia…" His voice was as despondent as his eyes, which he cast back down at the ground, as though ashamed to continue looking her in the eye.
Rukia frowned. "He's given up!" She shakily moved to attempt to stand, perspiration beading on her forehead at the effort, when a blade blocked her. Rukia peered up to find a man she did not recognize.
"If you try to stand, I will kill you now rather than later."
Rukia's eyes flashed with anger. "Who are you?"
"I am the seventh espada, Zommari Rureaux."
From the corner of her eye, Rukia saw the beast was picking Ichigo up into the air by his head. "No way that I'm just going to sit here!" She subtly glanced around for her sword, and saw it had been placed beyond her reach. With one last glare at Zommari, she ignored him and managed to get to her knees when she felt steel touching the skin of her neck.
"Last warning, shinigami."
Rukia gasped as she was pushed down onto her hands and knees, the blade still held to her throat as Zommari stood over her.
She looked up in time to see Ichigo forcefully discarded into the ground. Ichigo panted, unsuccessfully trying to blink away the blood dripping over his eyes. The beast moved towards him.
"Ichigo…!" She stretched out her hand towards him, as though she longed to close the distance separating them, but with a crafty glint in her eye, her hand quickly changed the direction it was facing. "Sokatsui!"
The blast hit Tesla's backside, making him roar in pained surprise as he turned towards her.
Ichigo looked at Rukia in surprise as she wore a triumphant smirk. "Rukia is giving it her all…despite everything, she hasn't given up…"
Rukia exhaled in relief as she saw Ichigo's eyes come back to life. "Glad to have made the last of my reiatsu count..." A sudden blunt blow of a hilt to her head cut her small victory short, disorienting her. She swayed and fell dizzily into the sand, holding her head as Zommari looked down at her.
"Rukia!" Ichigo's face swiftly became defiant as Tesla stomped towards him. "I was an idiot to give up!" He switched his sword to his unbroken arm.
With a cry, Ichigo swiped his blade at Tesla's leg, slashing the tough hide of his leg open. Tesla howled as Ichigo got to his knees, breathing hard as he readied for his next attack.
"I believe it is time for me to fulfill my duty." Zommari quietly observed.
Rukia bit back a cry of pain as Zommari seized her hair and pulled her up by it to her knees, his sword at her neck.
Zommari raised his voice so that it carried to Ichigo. "By your actions just now, you seem to have the arrogant idea that you still have a chance of winning if you fight, shinigami boy." Zommari stated. "I wonder then. Can you also be so arrogant to believe you can save not only your life, but also this girl's?"
Rukia felt a drop of blood tickle her throat as it slid down from the blade pressing at her neck. She scowled, knowing what Zommari said was true. She and Ichigo were both at their limits. The situation did not look good. Irritation stirred in her for her own weakness.
Ichigo felt all bravado leave him as he witnessed Rukia's predicament. Her face still showed pain from the hit on her head, but her eyes were resolute as they exchanged glances.
Ichigo gritted his teeth. "We can't die! Not like this! I can't give up!" Tesla's hooves stopped beside him, looming above him, his shadow covering Ichigo. Raising his eyes to meet Zommari's, Ichigo answered him in a low voice. "I will take all my nakama back home with me. I will cut down anyone who will stop me."
Zommari raised an eyebrow. "Oh? You are indeed an arrogant one." He removed his sword from Rukia's neck, then made a shallow slice across her back, making her fall flat on her stomach with a yelp as blood seeped through her garment. "Try to stop me then."
Ichigo gave a cry of rage, adrenaline coursing through him. He had barely succeeded in getting steadied on his feet when a knee to his gut made him cough blood and fall in a heap.
Tesla grunted. "You'll have to go through me first."
"Ichigo, I'm just their pawn! Don't let them kill you on my account!" Rukia yelled.
Ichigo grimaced at her words. "I know that! But I-"
Zommari delivered a swift kick to Rukia's side, making her gasp as she was rolled over onto her back, the gritty sand scraping and stinging her tender wound. She looked up at Zommari with an angry scowl. He looked emotionlessly back at her as he slashed another shallow cut diagonally across her chest and down to her abdomen, producing a cry from Rukia.
"Stop it!" Ichigo screamed as he weakly got to his knees. Rukia reflexively rolled onto her side, clutching herself as she bled afresh.
Crossing his arms, Zommari sternly looked at Ichigo. "It is useless. Give up."
"Don't you understand?! I CAN'T!" Ichigo screamed at the top of his lungs as he bitterly pounded the ground with his fist. Trying to regain control of himself, he kept his face looking towards the ground as he began to speak, his voice unsteady as he wrestled with his emotions. "I almost did give up. But…I was reminded…I fight to protect my nakama…if all I can do for them is fight to the end, then no matter how bad the odds…" Ichigo paused as he looked at Rukia. "…even if I will surely die…I will fight to the end!"
"Ichigo…" Rukia murmured as she carefully propped herself up on her side and looked at him. She managed a slight smile through the pain. "You always were an idiot."
Ichigo felt the tension leave him, her comment immediately driving out the inward struggle of failure he had been reeling from. He saw her giving him a look of approval. He shot back a cocky smile. "You always made my life complicated." Rukia pretended to scowl.
"…But I wouldn't have had it any other way." The thought shot unguarded through his mind and caused him to pause and wonder at where it had come from. But as he let it sink in, the more he realized the truth in it.
"This is it." Nnoitra stated more to himself than Inoue, a slight hint of anticipation in his voice as he licked his lips.
Inoue felt her body break out into a cold sweat and tremble. "Kurosaki-kun! Kuchiki-san! I can't do this! It really is all my fault!" Her vision blurred as silent sobs began to wrack her body.
A few minutes later, both Ichigo and Rukia lay gasping on the ground beyond reach of one another as Tesla and Zommari moved in to deliver the finishing blows to their respective shinigami. The shinigamis' final desperate resistance had been met with brutality, and their uniforms were soaked in sweat and blood.
Ichigo and Rukia took little notice of their impending end, their faces turned towards each other, drawing strength from one another.
Rukia felt at peace. "At least here, I will not die alone. Ichigo and I fought to the last, and I can leave my heart here with Inoue. I hope she comes to not see it as a burden, just as I was finally able to with Kaien-dono…"
Ichigo felt himself relax as he began to accept that this was to be their last few moments alive. Ichigo allowed himself to reflect on all the people in his life he cherished. Rukia's face before him was the last person he focused on. "If it has to be this way, at least a friend's face being the last thing to see seems like a good token…". As though thinking the same, Rukia locked eyes with him.
"We'll always be nakama, right, Rukia?"
Rukia smiled softly. "Always."
Zommari readied his sword above Rukia, and Tesla raised his fist over Ichigo, but the two shinigami still did not break their gaze; within that sphere was refuge. The world around them faded as they kept their eyes fixed on each other, their bond nearly tangible.
The whooshing sound of the wind created as two weapons closed the distance to their targets reached their ears.
"Hah! You're really about to die, aren't ya, Ichigo!"
Ichigo blinked. Rukia did the same as someone appeared near her. They each broke eye contact as they looked at the new arrivals. Ichigo rolled over to see who was above him, and gaped at the person standing between him and Tesla's fist. "Kenpachi!" Ichigo exclaimed. "Are you really…Kenpachi?"
"Huh? Course I am. Did your brain come out when you got the crap kicked outta ya?"
"Who are you?" Tesla demanded.
Rukia's face matched Ichigo's as she looked in astonishment at the familiar figure blocking Zommari's sword. Rukia found her voice. "Ni-"
Byakuya looked over his shoulder at her with a warning glance. She stopped herself, immediately realizing that it was dangerous to reveal their link to one another to Zommari, risking that she'd be played as a pawn once again.
"Identify yourself, intruder." Zommari ordered.
"There is no need for me to answer that question. I have but one identity, and that is your enemy."
Zommari released his sword and jumped back a few paces, frowning as he contemplated the man before him. "I see."
"I have something I'd like to ask you. Why do you fight…" Byakuya inclined his head at Rukia, "…that shinigami?"
Zommari eyed the captain thoughtfully, weighing his words. "She killed the ninth espada, and I was about to complete what he could not and deliver the final blow."
A sudden deadliness subtly flickered and then was gone from Byakuya's eyes. "Is that so…"
"Come at me already." Kenpachi said in annoyance.
"Then disappear!" Tesla bellowed at Kenpachi as he brought his fist down on him.
"Tesla, you idiot! Run!" Nnoitra yelled.
A pool of blood suddenly splashed to the ground. Tesla looked down at his body to see a deep carving running the length of his body. His eyes widened in shock. "…Nnoitra…sama…" With a shudder he breathed his last. His bloody carcass crashed into the ground.
"Next." Kenpachi said in a bored tone. He turned to face Nnoitra. "Bring it."
"…Kenpachi…why are you here?" Ichigo questioned, still in shock. "Wasn't Soul Society supposed to have washed their hands of thi-"
Ichigo grunted as he got kicked, making him roll away some distance.
"Stay back." Kenpachi ordered. "You're in the way."
Ichigo huffed. "…Hey! I'm injured!"
Kenpachi gave a snort. "It was Urahara Kisuke that got us here. He was given orders by the Captain-Commander when it was decided the final battle would be in winter. One of those orders was to enable the passage of captains to Hueco Mundo by stabilizing the Garganta in its optimal state."
With an annoyed expression, Kenpachi pointed his thumb at Byakuya. "I told them I'd be enough of a force by myself. But a few more of the captains insisted on coming as well."
A blurred motion came from the side. Kenpachi half-heartedly raised his sword into the air without looking at Nnoitra as he struck, sending the two of them sliding back some distance. "So you finally brought it, huh?"
"What's your name, shinigami?" Nnoitra queried.
A grin grew on the captain's face. "Squad eleven, Zaraki Kenpachi-taichou!"
Nnoitra bared his teeth in a grotesque smile, his eyes showing delight. "Fifth espada, Nnoitra Gilga!"
Zommari stood calmly, his sword pointed directly at Byakuya. "Something wrong? Why do you not come at me?" At the silence of the intruder, Zommari continued. "If you are meaning to save that shinigami girl over there, it is pointless."
"I do not understand. What do you mean by "pointless"?" Byakuya questioned. The next instant, he disappeared from sight, then stood behind Zommari, sword poised to strike.
A voice came from behind Byakuya. "This is what I mean by pointless…"
Byakuya dodged Zommari's attack, creating some distance between them, eyes narrowed. "What was that?"
"It was Gemelos sonido. Among the espada, my sonido is the quickest. Moreover, I added another small step that creates something like clones of myself. It's a kind of…magic trick. Since magic tricks are for the purpose of surprising your opponent, you should not feel ashamed just because you cannot follow and are taken by surprise."
Byakuya wore a face that showed no sign of being amused. "…I see. However, you should be ashamed for so quickly revealing your skills to me."
Before Zommari could react, Byakuya had slashed him across his entire torso, blood flying. A Zommari clone quickly stepped behind Byakuya, but Byakuya countered with a turn of his body, and drew more blood with a cut to the clone's shoulder.
"How unfortunate that my gemelos sonido is not limited to just two clones." Zommari said from behind Byakuya as another clone appeared.
"I thought as much. Hado number four, Byakurai." A rod of light shot out and hit the real Zommari squarely in his chest. Byakuya stood, a hole in his back from where he had shot the rod through his own body to hit Zommari behind him.
"Too bad for you that I can create up to five clones."
Five clones suddenly surrounded Byakuya, making him momentarily show surprise. All five of the clones simultaneously closed in on him. Rukia gave a short scream as they all stuck their blades into his body.
Blood trickled from Byakuya's mouth. "…Damn…"
"Farewell Captain, whose name I do not even know. The cause of your defeat is the arrogance which keeps you from giving your own name."
The sound of clashing steel from Nnoitra and Kenpachi's far off fight echoed in Inoue's ears as she anxiously ran up to Ichigo, who laid sprawled out on his back. She gasped as she stood next to him. He was clenching his jaw, eyes squeezed shut in pain. A scan of his body showed blood everywhere on him, his robes in tatters, and limbs that hung awkwardly.
Ichigo heard her footsteps stop near him, and partly opened his eyes to look up at her. "Inoue…please…"
Inoue reached to touch her hairpins. "It's ok, Kurosaki-kun! Hang on, I'll-"
"Before…before you heal me…heal Rukia…and Nel…"
Stunned, Inoue took a step back in hesitation. Turning her head, she looked at her surroundings for the girls, spotting each of them lying in opposite directions. She looked back at Ichigo. "Got it! I'll heal them and come right back!"
Ichigo smiled gratefully as she ran off towards Nel. He turned his head at a sudden scream, and saw Rukia looking distressed. Looking to where she was facing, he saw the reason, his own eyes widening in complete astonishment. Byakuya stood, Zommari's sword stabbed through his chest.
Rukia lay on the ground, terrified for her brother as he stood helplessly with Zommari's sword run through him. "Nii-sama…!" Rukia whispered, her voice brimming with panic. The next second she felt her eyes were deceiving her when Zommari stood with nothing but Byakuya's captain haori stuck to the end of his sword.
"The third secret of the stepping arts known as "Shihou", called Utsusemi."
Rukia's heart leapt with joy at his voice. She turned in the direction of it to see him standing at a distance behind Zommari, looking completely unharmed.
"The arrogant one is you, espada. But do not fear. You will not be defeated on account of your arrogance, but simply on account of a genuine difference in level." Byakuya disclosed.
"Being arrogant? Me? Why do you think that? You are the enemy of captain class, so I think of us as being on the same level, and I intend to behave accordingly. There is no arrogance in my heart."
"You are an espada, yet you think you are on the same level as me? I'm saying that way of thinking in itself is arrogance."
"…I see. It seems that it is your nature to be arrogant. That is fine. In that case, I shall grind that insolence of yours out of you."
Zommari bent both knees and squatted down slightly as though sitting in an invisible chair, his sword becoming suspended in midair in front of him. "Subside…" With a crack of his neck, and Zommari's head turned on its side into a ninety degree angle from his neck. "…Brujeria." A sudden cloud of white powder burst around Zommari. As it subsided, it revealed him in his true form; eyeballs covering his body, and an odd red puffy skirt of flesh around where his legs were, also covered in eyes. He raised an outstretched palm that revealed another eye in it, and directed it to face Byakuya.
Byakuya leapt to stand behind Zommari. Zommari looked over his shoulder at him with a look of sympathy, his palm still stretched out in front of himself.
"What's the matter? Your instincts tell you I've released an attack, yet nothing is happening. You look as if you don't understand. What a pity. It's already happening! Your left leg now belongs to me!"
Byakuya looked down at his foot to see a black print in the design of a sun with rays on it. "What is this?"
"My power is stealing the sovereignty of whatever my eyes gaze upon."
Byakuya remained still, his eyes devoid of emotion.
"Again you look as if you don't understand. It must be hard for you, when your knowledge is shallow and there are so many things you cannot comprehend." Zommari turned around to face Byakuya. "Even if you do not understand, you will once your body experiences it." He tilted his hand in a beckoning motion at Byakuya. "Now come to me, left leg."
Byakuya scowled slightly as his left leg slid a bit towards Zommari.
Rukia was having a hard time keeping her growing anger unrevealed in her face as she watched. First Zommari had taunted Ichigo, now Byakuya.
"It is pointless to resist. Your "sovereignty" will not reach your left leg. And now, another step-"
Blood sprayed as Byakuya deftly cut the tendons in his left leg. He stood quietly as he whipped the blood from his blade.
Zommari raised an eyebrow. "…Oh? You severed your left leg's muscle so quickly? I certainly cannot make it move when it's like that. A swift decision and action. Wonderful. So then…"
Two eyes on Zommari's body that looked in Rukia's direction began to turn black.
"…What about this?"
Rukia gasped as Byakuya instantly appeared in front of her, blocking the attack with his body as he faced Zommari.
"Oh? You can move that well with only one leg? As I'd expect from a captain. You have my utmost admiration."
Byakuya lowered his gloved left hand from his face, a black sun emblazoned upon it. Quiet fury seethed from Byakuya's eyes at the espada's audacity to threaten Rukia in his presence. "…Bastard..."
The moment was broken when a wail assaulted their ears as running footsteps came to a halt nearby.
"I finally caught up! That was cruel of you to leave me behind, Kuchiki-taichou!
Hanatarou puffed as he stood trying to catch his breath. Looking around, he gave a startled yell. "Waaah! Kuchiki-taichou! You've got a serious wound on your leg!" He turned to look around some more and spotted Rukia lying face down on the ground. "Aahh! Rukia-san is here?!"
Byakuya did not turn around as he addressed the newest arrival. "…Yamada Hanatarou. Stay back."
"O…Of course! I'll get back immediately! I'm in the way, I know!"
A palpable change in reiatsu pressure could be felt exuding from the captain as he kept his eyes intensely on Zommari. "I will say it once more. Stay back." A wind began to swirl around Byakuya, ruffling his robes and lifting his scarf and hair. "In my current state, I cannot guarantee that you will not get pulled into the fight."