"What's happening? Who was that guy that took Inoue?" Ichigo yelled, still reeling from what had just happened.
"Ichigo!" Rukia appeared in a flash, her feet creating small puffs on the sand as she lightly landed. Rukia's brow furrowed slightly as she caught Ichigo's uptight expression before it turned to one of surprise.
"Rukia!" Ichigo exclaimed as he lowered his sword.
Looking quickly around, Rukia began to deduce the reason for the troubled reiatsu she'd felt from Ichigo just before she had arrived. "Where's Inoue?"
The tense expression returned to Ichigo's face. "She was-"
"Gone." Kenpachi answered, cutting off Ichigo's reply. "Grabbed by an Espada I've never seen before."
Rukia looked sharply at Ichigo. "We have to go after her!"
"…Destroy?" Destroy Karakura town…?" Inoue echoed Aizen's last words, her voice high.
Aizen smiled at her like a proud teacher who had just received the correct answer from his star pupil. "Precisely. We will destroy Karakura town and create the Royal Key." Aizen looked over at Tousen as he finished explaining. "Kaname. The Tenteikuura."
At the command, Tousen lowered his head and stretched out an arm, on which a black pattern had been drawn. "Bakudou number seventy-seven, Tentei Kuura". A beam of blue energy shot from his hand and formed a square-shape that hung in mid-air.
The corners of Aizen's mouth turned upwards into an amused smile. "My dear members of the intruding forces, can you hear me?"
"That voice…!" Eyes wide, Rukia looked at Ichigo to see if he had heard it too.
Ichigo frowned as he returned her look, giving a short nod. "…Aizen!"
Aizen's voice carried an air of playful chiding. "First allow me to convey my respect for having felled so many of the Espada. More importantly, we will now commence our invasion of the human world."
"What!" Ichigo jerked his head at the news.
Disbelief was written on Rukia's face. "He wasn't supposed to invade until he had awakened the Hougyoku using Inoue's powers! Where is she right now?" Clenching her jaw, Rukia tried to pinpoint a trace of Inoue's reiatsu. "
As though having heard Rukia, Aizen answered. "I have Orihime with me in tower number five. If you'd like to rescue her, come and make your attempt to take her back. She is no longer of any use to me."
Ichigo and Rukia exchanged glances.
"Her ability is awe inspiring. The "Rejection of Events" is a power that far exceeds the realm of what is permitted to humans. The highest levels of soul society understood that significance, and that is why her abduction served as a means of creating a sense of crisis in Soul Society. That they would strengthen their own defenses rather than that of the human world. Orihime was also the bait to lure the Ryoka, especially Soul Society's new military asset, the "Substitute Shinigami", to Hueco Mundo."
Ichigo's eyes hardened as he growled in frustration.
"Damn him…" Rukia murmured in a hard voice, her hand gripping the hilt of her sword.
"Moreover, I have succeeded in imprisoning the captains who came to reinforce the Ryoka in Hueco Mundo."
Both Ichigo and Rukia looked at the sky as four Garganta gates were sealed shut.
"Can't the Captains reopen them?" Ichigo blurted out, exasperation creeping its way into his voice.
Rukia shook her head. "No. Nii-sama said they came here by Urahara. Apparently only Urahara knows about the structure of the Garganta. If we're sealed here, we can't even communicate with him…"
Aizen's steady voice continued. "The wonderful things about the thirteen divisions, is that the thirteen captains hold the power that serves as the primary military strength in Soul Society. But now, with myself, Gin, and Tousen, three have defected. Four are imprisoned. Soul Society's military strength has been halved. This will be all too easy."
Ichigo looked between Kenpachi and Rukia "Four Captains are here?"
"Unohana-taichou and Kurotsuchi-taichou are also here." Rukia quickly murmured, trying not to miss what Aizen was saying.
"We will annihilate Karakura town, create the Royal Key, conquer Soul Society, and then, when that is all over and done with, we will deal with all of you at our leisure."
Aizen's voice faded. The faint sound of the three shinigamis' robes fluttering in the breeze was all that could be heard.
A low whisper broke the silence. "Karakura town is going to be…wiped out…!" Ichigo's breaths came quickly. He moved to start running.
"Hang on there, Ichigo!" Kenpachi barked at him.
Ichigo angrily spun around. "What do you mean! Are you telling me to just wait here and do nothing? Karakura town's in danger!"
Kenpachi folded his arms. "What do you hope to gain by acting now? I already told you that when it was decided the final battle would be in the winter, Urahara Kisuke received a few orders from the old man. The first was making a path to Hueco Mundo for the captains. The second was to make sure the captains of the Gotei Thirteen could wage war in Karakura town."
Rukia took two steps towards Kenpachi, her eyes full of questions. "The Gotei Thirteen are already in Karakura town? But it would be destroyed by the power of all the captains battling there!"
Kenpachi grunted in annoyance. "Didn't I say Urahara made it so they could battle? The real town was moved to the outskirts of Rukongai, while a fake one was placed in the living world. The captains can cause as much damage as they want."
"What about the people?" Ichigo asked with trepidation. "What has happened to my family?"
"They were put to sleep and moved with the town to Soul Society."
Ichigo gave a reluctant sigh as he scratched the back of his head. "Guess you guys thought of everything. So now what?"
Aizen spoke one last instruction as he stepped into the portal to Karakura town. "I'm leaving Las Noches to you for a while, Ulquiorra."
Ulquiorra appeared near Aizen's throne. He turned his head to give a piercing look at a startled Inoue as he answered. "Understood, Aizen-sama."
A sudden spike of familiar reiatsu made both Ichigo and Rukia turn to look behind themselves.
Ichigo seized his sword's hilt. "That was…!"
"Ichigo…Inoue's reiatsu just now. She's in trouble."
Ichigo gaped slightly. "Inoue's reiatsu changed too? I suddenly felt that espada, Ulquiorra, over that way." Ichigo stuck his thumb towards the direction behind them.
Rukia's face grew stern. "That's the same direction Inoue's came from."
Ichigo looked at Rukia as she turned to meet his gaze. An unspoken agreement passed between them before they both faced themselves in the direction they had felt the two reiatsus.
"Kenpachi." Ichigo spoke without looking at the captain standing behind him. "You just said a bit ago that protecting Karakura is my duty."
Kenpachi shifted his weight, studying Ichigo's back.
"Wrong. My duty is to protect my nakama."
With simultaneous leaps into the air, both Ichigo and Rukia disappeared from sight.
"More hollows?" Rukia sliced through the top of two of the four hollows that had suddenly appeared before them as they sped towards the tower where both their friend and an enemy were waiting.
"Let's go before more decide to come." Ichigo called as he landed after felling the other two hollows.
The two shunpo'd until they came within sight of the tower. Leaping into the air and charging up the wall of a lower ledge beside the tower, they suddenly beheld the sight of an army of men with skulls for faces awaiting them.
One of the men had a skull more like that of a bull's, with long horns. He drew his sword. "Kurosaki Ichigo has been sighted." In the next instant, he was sword to sword with Ichigo.
"I am Rudobo, Captain of the Exequias. Your life is mine."
Ichigo scoffed angrily as he slashed out his sword and pushed himself away from Rudobo. He got into a offensive stance. "Sorry, but I don't have time for you. Getsuga-"
The army of skull men were suddenly on both he and Rukia, their numbers and proximity too much to allow for them to have a moment to use their attacks. Ichigo and Rukia swung their swords, trying to fend off from the swarm of attackers surrounding them.
"Just how many of you are there…!" Ichigo yelled with frustration as he gave a couple more swings.
Their vision filled with the skulled men, Ichigo and Rukia were unable to look for the source of a sudden loud male voice giving a battle cry. A moment later, a section of their opponents were sent flying. Both shinigami turned around to see a grinning Renji standing below them, Zabimaru sailing around.
"Here I go! One more time!" Renji yelled with glee as his sword sliced through another line of soldiers.
Ichigo blinked, wondering if his eyes were deceiving him. "Renji!"
"Renji! You're ok!" Rukia yelled with excitement.
"Course I am!" Renji boasted as a few more soldiers fell.
A great crack rose up through the ledge where more soldiers stood. Many of them were soon sent falling to their deaths with the half of the ledge that had been destroyed.
"Chad!" Ichigo was grinning by now as he saw Chad give him a thumbs up sign.
"Tsugi no mai, Hakuren!"
Ichigo turned around in surprise as he saw Rudobo, seconds from bringing his sword down on him, encased entirely in ice. Knowing who had just saved him, he looked at Rukia. Sparkling fragments of ice and a ribbon of white swirled around her from her sword.
The block of ice around Rudobo began to split into large chunks, his body being dismembered to pieces along with the splintering ice. The ice fell to the earth below.
"Save the reunion with everyone for later! Hurry now and go, Ichigo! We'll follow when we're finished here!"
Ichigo wanted to protest, but as they locked eyes he knew she was right; he would have to trust that his friends were capable of defeating the enemy without him there to help once again. "All right."
Rukia gave a small smile as she watched him go.
"Are you scared?" Ulquiorra queried as he came closer to Inoue. "You're useless to Aizen now. There's no one left to protect you. It's over. You will die here with no friend near you."
Inoue solemnly returned his gaze.
"I asked you if you're scared."
Keeping her eyes on his, Inoue finally spoke. "I'm not scared. Everyone came to save me. So my heart is already with them."
"Nonsense. You're unafraid because your friends came for you? Are you serious?"
Ulquiorra continued to give her a chilling stare. Tilting her eyes down to the floor, Inoue thought of her next words carefully. "When I first heard that they were coming to rescue me, I was a little happy, but more sad. I came here to protect everyone, so why did they have to follow me? I wondered why they hadn't realized. But…when I saw Kuchiki fall, and when I saw how hard Kurosaki-kun was fighting, none of it mattered anymore. I just didn't want Kurosaki-kun to get hurt. I just wanted everyone to be safe."
Inoue glanced up at Ulquiorra and found that he was looking intently at her. Dropping her eyes, Inoue continued. "That's when I realized that they probably felt the same. If one of them had disappeared the way I did, I know I'd do the same thing."
The sound of footsteps slowly but deliberately coming towards her made her pause. Keeping her eyes down, she tried to finish what she felt she had to say.
"Maybe it's impossible to feel exactly the same as someone else. But you can treasure your friends and keep them close in your heart." Inoue's hand came to cover her heart as she smiled softly. "I think that's what it means to make your hearts as one."
Inoue watched as Ulquiorra stopped in front of her. She raised her eyes to see the espada scornfully looking down at her. "Hearts. You humans are always talking about hearts." Ulquiorra's voice was filled with disdain. "It's as if you have them in your hand. But my eye sees everything; nothing can escape it. What it doesn't see, doesn't exist. That's how I've always fought."
Inoue, unable to give an immediate answer, remained silent.
"What is a heart?" Ulquiorra queried.
Inoue gave a small gasp as Ulquiorra suddenly extended his arm towards her, his fingertips touching just below her throat. "If I rip open your chest, will I see it?" His hand traveled up to her forehead, his eyes unblinkingly locked into hers. "If I crack open your skull, will I find it there?"
A shattering explosion shook the floor beneath Ulquiorra and Inoue. Dust and debris swirled around a corner of the room. Ulquiorra turned around with full expectations as to who it was that had disturbed them. He was not disappointed as he coolly exchanged looks from across the room with a certain scowling shinigami.
Inoue gasped. "Kurosaki-kun…!"
"Get away from Inoue."
"I plan to. My job is to defend Las Noches until Aizen returns. I have no orders to kill the girl. I'll let her live until I receive orders to do so. But you're different. Killing you is protecting Las Noches. I shall eradicate you." Ulquiorra slowly drew out his sword.
"I'm surprised. I didn't think you'd unsheathe your sword right away. I thought I'd have to get you to wield it. So..." Ichigo eyed him expectantly. "…does this mean that you see me as a worthy opponent now?"
"At the very least, I see you as someone who must be destroyed."
A small smirk appeared, but Ichigo's eyes were serious as he brandished his sword. "Good enough for me."
A clap of thunder sounded as the two warriors clashed.