Disclaimer: Bleach belongs to Tite Kubo and those people/companies that publish Bleach. I own nothing except my meagre attempts at playing in his sandbox.

Welcome to my first attempt at a long-term story outside of the month of hell known as NaNoWriMo. Many thanks go out to Tremor230 for putting up with being a sounding board and encouragement through the first bit of this, especially when I kept dropping off the face of the planet and letting life get in the way of actually writing.

Warnings: Pretty much everybody's mouth, described violence (it IS Bleach, after all), mostly canon up to the fight with Butterfly-Aizen then kiss canon goodbye. Also unbetaed

(Everything's green) - Subconscious flow of thoughts
(*Why is everything green?*) - Uryuu actively thinking
(*Because it is.*) - Ichigo actively thinking
(*Who th'hell cares?!*) - Shiro (Hichigo/Hollow Ichigo/True Zangetsu, however you want to name him) actively thinking
(*Peace, hollow.*) - Old Man Zangetsu actively thinking


Nine, ten...

Uryuu leapt out of the way of another foolish Arrancar, not even pausing in his movements as he released a rain of arrows that skewered the little thing and shattered the support pillar behind it. A quick check of the reiatsu in the air told him that he was getting closer to where that fool Kurosaki was fighting.

Eleven...

Another pillar shattered as he raced past. The one behind it cracked but didn't fail. Pivoting on a heel to face the way he came, Uryuu fired another volley at the cracked pillar even as he kept moving.

Twelve, thirteen...

The ceiling above and floor below were groaning in warning, weakened and waiting to fail at a moment's fatal misstep. Floors upon floors of weight was held in a precarious balance upon a few cracked pillars. It added another piece of data that he had to keep track of: where to step, where he could not, where a strike would send the whole area tumbling down, where it would not. Hopefully this effort would be useful when he made it to where Kurosaki was fighting... and hopefully the fool didn't accidentally trigger the whole thing with one of his giant attacks.

Another leap, another floor. There, there, there. Three pillars aligned such that he could shatter them with a single volley. He gathered power from the air around him and sent it out, a wave of black-flecked pale blue arrows sweeping the pillars away as if they never existed.

Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen...

It worried him, the color of his arrows. His powers didn't seem to be working the same as before. The reishi from Hueco Mundo seemed... less slimy, less anathema to him, and he found himself drawing upon the spilling reiatsu of the Espada above without much problem. What had that damn Shinigami done to him this time? What had he been infected with?

He could not waste time worrying.

Uryuu paused in his race to the top, hardening the reishi beneath his feet to stand in midair just below the ceiling. Reiatsu crashed down on him from above: Kurosaki's massive, uncontrolled torrent battled with a much more refined flow; Inoue's peaceful current was nearly drowned out by both, but he could still feel the fear threading through it; two tiny specks were rising, flickering in and out against the pressure of another Arrancar.

"Let's see," he muttered to himself, as he allowed his bow to fade back to reishi and took the time to scrutinize the mine that shady Shinigami had given him. "He said to just press it to a surface and press the green button."

Uryuu's eyes narrowed in annoyance, and he felt a headache coming on. There was no 'green button' on the damn thing, or at least not that he could see. It was just a large, smooth blue gem set into the center of a silver five-point star, nothing green about it in the slightest. Gritting his teeth in frustration, Uryuu slammed the mine into the ceiling, feeling it give beneath his palm-

Click.

"What..?" Pulling his hand away, he saw what had happened. The silver points of the mine had latched onto the ceiling, and the blue gem, which had sunk down under the pressure of his hand, had turned green and was now pulsing slowly like a heart.

He was going to kill Kurotsuchi Mayuri when he saw that damn Shinigami next!

"What? I can't hear ya!" A loud, obnoxious voice came through the ceiling near the outer wall. Perhaps this was Yammy? Even if not, the Arrancar sure had a set of lungs on him.

One of the tiny specks had flickered out, another was flickering out. Inoue was terrified. Kurosaki was frustrated. Whatever was happening above him, he needed to get up there as quickly as he could.

Summoning up his bow once more - and ignoring the black flecks that appeared within the pale blue - he aimed at the outer wall and blasted a hole through it with a thick volley of black-flecked arrows. Taking the new exit at a run, he darted through just in time to a see a giant fist punch through the wall a floor above and drop a body from its grip

"Lame," the giant grumbled.

"Wait!" Inoue cried from inside the tower, causing the giant to turn away from the hole he had punched and begin to move towards the weakened area.

He would only have one chance at this.

"Yo, Ulquiorra! You won't mind if I kill this bitch, too, will ya?" the giant shouted across the battlefield at the other Espada.

"Hold it!" Kurosaki shouted back, but the sound of clashing swords assured Uryuu that the other was too busy to actually interfere.

Form a platform. Breath in. Crouch. Leap. Up and across, gather reishi, form and aim and... there!

Uryuu's eyes latched onto the form of the giant that had punched a hold through the wall, and in that microsecond of target recognition he fired his arrow. It thunked solidly into the giant's shoulder, sending the Arrancar stumbling forward as Uryuu landed on the broken wall and jumped down to the floor.

"Ishida!" Kurosaki shouted across at him, equal parts warning and welcome and command, but still unable to pull free of his adversary.

Behind him, Uryuu could feel the giant pulling himself back to his feet, but was unconcerned. The mine that he had placed was now between him and the giant, and if that didn't take care of the problem, the giant was standing atop the weakened portion of the tower.

"You little shit!" the giant roared as he wound up and began to charge towards Uryuu. "Where the hell did you come from?!"

Uryuu glanced over his shoulder at the giant and smirked at it, fully confident in the trap he had placed. "I guess a shot like that wouldn't go all the way through, huh... You're pretty tough, after all. However, I'd be careful if I were you..."

His smirk grew wider as the floor beneath the giant exploded, sending rubble flying every which way. He turned his head away so as to not be hit in the face with any debris flung up, and used that moment to finish his sentence as tauntingly as he could, "I've put down an anti-Arrancar mine that some shady scientist gave me."

It was nice to know that Kurotsuchi Mayuri, despite being creepy as hell and far too fascinated with turning people into test subjects, was capable of producing things that worked so nicely. No matter what Uryuu's opinion on the Shinigami was, he could still admire the man's results when they produced such a spectacular boom aimed at his enemies.

In front of him, Kurosaki and Ulquiorra had paused in their fighting, both staring at the burning body of Yammy behind him as it fell through the floor.

"Damn it, you little shit..." Yammy snarled from where he hung, one hand clenched tight on the edge of the floor.

"I heard you all the way from down below," Uryuu commented absently as he turned to examine the result of the mine. It was glorious. He wondered if Kurotsuchi had any more of those. "You're that 'Yammy' that Szayel Apollo was talking about, aren't you?"

"Haah?! So what if I-"

"I pity you," he interrupted, not even bothering with whatever foolishness the hothead was going to rant about next. His right hand rose, black-specked bow flickering into existence in a heartbeat, arrow forming and releasing in another. "If I hadn't shown up, you could've caused all the trouble you wanted."

Smugly, he watched his arrow impact the floor and shatter it a few inches from Yammy's fingers, sending the giant Arrancar into free-fall as he lost his final hold on safety.

His bow faded away, leaving his, thankfully unchanged, Quincy cross dangling about his wrist. "That's just mala suerte. Sorry. On my way up here, I shattered as many support pillars on the floors below as I could. You'll fall right through to the bottom."

Yammy's scream faded into the distance as Uryuu walked away from the hole and towards Kurosaki.

Kurosaki fixed him with a look, questions in his eyes. "Ishida..."

"What? Questions in the middle of a battle? How reckless of you." Uryuu glanced at Ulquiorra, who stood a ways behind Kurosaki, and judged that he could take the time to speak. "What do you want to know? I was cured by Kurotsuchi Mayuri. He healed Abarai first, so that's why I'm late. I got that mine I planted on the ceiling of the floor below from him, too. If an Arrancar comes within reach of its reiatsu sensor, it'll explode. Anything else you want to know?"

A spark of mischief lit in Kurosaki's eyes, and that perpetual frown flicked upwards at the edges into something that was not quite a smirk and not quite a smile, but something that just screamed amusement at Uryuu's sake.

"I wasn't gonna ask you anything in the first place, you're the one who started babbling away just to show off." Kurosaki rebutted, the amusement in his posture only growing as Uryuu's frustration at the teasing grew. It all drained away just as quickly as it appeared, however, replaced by the single-minded focus Uryuu was accustomed to seeing out of Kurosaki in mid-combat. As it did, Kurosaki turned his back on Uryuu and refocused on Ulquiorra across from him. "Take care of Inoue. If her Rikka can't withstand my reiatsu, protect her with your own body if you have to."

Uryuu's frustration at the teasing drained away as quickly as Kurosaki's amusement had. He'd figure out how to get back at the other later, but for now he needed to focus. Kurosaki was trusting him with Inoue's safety, and he would do everything in his power to shield her. "You don't have to tell me that."

"Sorry to keep you waiting, Ulquiorra. This is it. I'm going to show you what you came here to see." Kurosaki reached up to his face with his left hand, reiatsu gathering and pulsing around his body as he focused. "My Hollow."

Uryuu clenched his fists and moved to stand between Kurosaki and Inoue, and the waves of reiatsu broke across his body and tried to crush him to the floor. The deep blue that threaded through Kurosaki's black bankai reiatsu bled to red, as the feeling of Shinigami faded and Hollow began to rise.

They watched, Uryuu and Inoue, as waves of reiatsu crashed down and flooded the floor. As Kurosaki lunged forward, blade coated with power, and struck. As the wave of power sent the Arrancar through the wall and into the open air beyond. As Kurosaki followed after, blade raised to strike again.

A bright flash of power sent the two of them running towards the hole that Kurosaki had made in the wall. Uryuu frowned faintly as he scanned the sky, searching for the two combatants but seeing neither.

"Kurosaki-kun!" Inoue yelped, her gaze fixed on the sky overhead.

Uryuu followed her gaze upwards, then stared in shock at what he saw. Through the peaceful clouds and blue sky, a hole had been torn that showed the lightless sky of Hueco Mundo.

"There's... a hole in the sky... So the whole time, that sky wasn't real..?" Uryuu whispered in shock, as he stared at the hole in what he had been sure was a real sky. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of Inoue's worried gaze, as she stared upward. "Inoue-san."

She turned to him, eyes bright with worry and barely restrained fear. He was glad she was all right, but... he wasn't going to say a thing. Not yet. Not now, when she was so fixated on Kurosaki's fate.

"Don't worry, Kurosaki's going to win," he tried to reassure her, putting as much confidence in his voice as he could. But he knew, deep in his heart, that it was nothing but empty words - neither he nor Kurosaki had fought an enemy this powerful yet, not and walked away with a decisive victory. Until Kurosaki managed to pull his traditional miracle out of thin air, the fate of this battle was still undecided.

In the meantime, Uryuu pulled at the lingering reiatsu in the air, drawing it inward and gathering it together. Again he felt that oddity, as even the reiatsu of the Arrancar came easily to his call and meshed smoothly into the rest of the gathered power. It coiled in his core, heavy and waiting, like a shadow seen out of the corner of one eye and given monstrous form by the imagination.

He kept his face impassive, even as he internally lashed out at that shadowed power, purifying it with his pale blue light and purging the shadow from his core. Inoue, apparently sensing something of his actions, cast him a curious look, but turned her attention back to the hole in the sky as soon as he shook his head at her. It was not her problem, and he had no desire for her to fuss over him right now.

"Ah!" Inoue suddenly cried out, falling to the floor as a wave of power crashed down upon them.

"Inoue-san!" Uryuu moved to her side, though he could do nothing. The power was all-encompassing and pressed down upon them relentlessly. What was going on up there? It didn't feel like Kurosaki's power... did that mean Kurosaki had lost?

"Ishida-kun..." Inoue began softly, before her voice became stronger and she fixed him with pleading eyes. "Can you... can you take me up to the roof? Please..."

(*Somehow... somehow I knew she would ask me that,*) Uryuu thought as he bit the inside of his lip lightly. His gaze turned back to the hole in the sky, and for a moment he considered denying her. Considered lying. Saying he had no method to reach the hole so far above them. But another glance at her pleading eyes had his resistance crumbling.

With the power he had gathered to himself in the moments of downtime, he hardened the reishi beneath his feet and extended it outwards until it formed a platform large enough for the two of them. He held out his right hand and pulled her close as soon as she took it, before allowing the platform to begin to rise into the sky.

"This is pretty cool," she said as they rose, staring down at the world they were leaving below them.

"I used this to cross the garganta to Hueco Mundo. I only realized a short while ago that I could use it here, too," he answered, gaze fixed on the hole in the sky he was aiming for. "If I had figured it out sooner, it would've actually come in handy during some of my fights."

"Ishida-kun..."

She broke off, as an ocean of black power swept over them.

"What the hell is this..?! Is this reiatsu..?" Uryuu managed to choke out, before the last of his air died in his lungs. Whatever it was, it was crushing, it was overwhelming, and it sang to his senses.

Despair. Hopelessness. Wretchedness.

It told him to give up. To give in. To lie down and die because that was all he could do.

"This is... this is bad," Inoue forced out, sweat breaking out on her face as she labored for breath. "We have to hurry!"

Uryuu grit his teeth and forced his lungs to take a breath, forced his shaking body to still, the platform beneath their feet to firm up and rise faster. He forced himself to pull at the ocean of power in the air in order to fuel the platform, even as the use of it began to taint his core, swirls of black invading his pale blue like dye in water.

Sounds of battle and destruction grew louder and louder as they approached the hole; his worry grew larger and larger as even the shrinking distance did nothing to reveal Kurosaki's reiatsu. It seemed to take an eternity to cross the distance, as he struggled against the crushing ocean, but finally, finally they made it through the hole and onto the top of the dome.

"I can't feel Kurosaki's reiatsu.. where is he?" Uryuu frantically looked around, senses blurred by the ocean of power. He couldn't feel anything of his comrade (*my friend*), and that worried him more than the overwhelming reiatsu did.

Inoue's gasp drew his attention, and he turned...

"So you came, did you? Woman."

Uryuu swallowed. That was Ulquiorra? The Arrancar looked like a devil of myth, with gigantic black wings and two huge, backswept horns that grew from his head above where his ears would have been on a human. His arms and legs were as black as his wings, his fingers were curled into cruel looking claws, and he had a long, sinuous tail nearly three times as long as he was tall.

But it was what hung from the Arrancar's tail that caused his mouth to go dry and his breath to hitch in his throat. Kurosaki dangled by his neck, his torso bare and covered in bloody lacerations, and Uryuu was struck with the image of an animal strung up to bleed dry. Even as close as they were, Kurosaki's normally ever-present reiatsu was nowhere to be felt, crushed by the overwhelming darkness of Ulquiorra's new form.

One brown eye cracked open, unfocused and filled with pain, then focused sharply on Uryuu. Determination, resolve, and - most terrifying of all - acceptance flashed through Kurosaki's gaze.

"Uryuu..." Kurosaki coughed, forcing himself to speak despite the pressure on his throat. "Protect... Inoue... Kill... Aizen..."

*He would make Kurosaki pay for using his name,* a frantic, hysterical part of Uryuu's brain decided. Because if Kurosaki could pay for it, then Kurosaki would be alive for him to do so!

"Kuro...saki..kun..?" Inoue breathed, eyes wide and terrified as she wavered between lunging forward and remaining as far from Ulquiorra as she could.

"Just in time to witness the death of the boy you put all your hopes into," Ulquiorra stated without emotion, as he raised one clawed hand and began to charge a cero on the tip of a finger right before Kurosaki's chest.

"Promise.. me!" Kurosaki choked out, as the attack charged, both eyes fixed on Uryuu. Pleading. Accepting his fate, but pleading that Uryuu take up the mantle of warrior and win.

Unable to force words through his throat (*No! Kurosaki can't die! That's my friend over there and we're too young to die like this!*), Uryuu nodded once. He couldn't... he wasn't capable of taking control the same way Kuro- no, Ichigo, the way Ichigo did. (*Ichigo is going to die and I can't do anything!*) But Ichigo trusted him, placed his hopes in him, wanted him to win despite everything saying it was impossible. He could never replace Ichigo (*I don't want to replace Ichigo!*), but for his friend's sake he could attempt to take up the mantle of hero.

Ichigo's mouth curled upwards into another of those not-smiles.

"Stop!" Inoue screamed.

Too late. Too ineffectual.

The cero ripped through Ichigo's chest, leaving a gigantic hole, a parody of a Hollow-hole, right where his heart would have been.

Carelessly, unconcerned with the emotions he had elicited in the two, Ulquiorra hurled Ichigo's body away with his tail.

Inoue screamed in agony and took off across the dome, calling up her Shun Shun Rikka to catch the body of her crush on their shield before it could fall too far. Behind her, Uryuu took off as well, determined to keep Inoue as safe as he could.

Ulquiorra blurred in front of her, staring down at the frantic girl with his dead eyes. "Forget it. His life is already out of your hands."

Uryuu's eyes narrowed. (*I will not let that damn Espada take any more of my companions from me!*)

He leapt into the air, calling up his bow and pushing as much power as he could into a single arrow, aiming at Ulquiorra's back. The analytical part of his mind cringed at the eight blackened points of his bow, the swirls of darkness that had invaded his core showing up in an unmistakable way, but at least it still felt like his. (*And how long will that last, I wonder, when every time I gather power my own starts to change.*)

But there was no time to worry, no time to second guess himself or his skills. He reached the peak of his jump and fired upon the Espada's back, hoping to at least pull Ulquiorra's attention away from Inoue and onto him.

It worked. One wing rose and swept backwards, shattering the arrow with a mere brush and leaving nothing behind but wisps of power. Ulquiorra turned his head to fix Uryuu with a blank glower, as Inoue ducked under his left wing and raced off to where Ichigo's body had landed.

Determined to carry Ichigo's will through, Uryuu gathered as much of the black ocean as he dared and compressed it into a hail of arrows. It was not enough. It. Was. Not. Enough!

He threw caution aside, opened himself to the tide of blackness and pulled, coiling his core as tightly together as he dared in order to keep it as free from contamination as possible. The power gathered over his left shoulder, a quiver of blazing power that answered to him and not Ulquiorra! It even began to bleed to pale blue as he exerted his will over it, purged the touch of the other's reiatsu from it and making it his.

"Lichtregen!" Uryuu cried as he released the power in a flood of arrows. Dust and debris exploded up into the air, obscuring his sight of the Arrancar, and he carefully maneuvered himself to land lightly between Inoue and the last place he had seen Ulquiorra.

"Odd," Ulquiorra's voice came from the shroud of dust as it slowly faded away. "Among all of Kurosaki Ichigo's little friends, I had figured you were the most calm of the lot."

Uryuu narrowed his eyes at the sight of Ulquiorra, unharmed and unperturbed by his strike. If even a Lichtregen couldn't harm Ulquiorra, how could he win? Still, he needed to protect Inoue, and for that he straightened and brought his bow to bear once more. "I am calm. And that's why I can fight you!"

Ulquiorra scoffed and blurred towards him, claws raised to strike. Uryuu leapt backwards and deflected the Arrancar's strikes with his bow, firing an arrow whenever his bow faced the other.

Strike. Block. Dodge. Strike. Duck. Again and again and again, until his arm burned and his legs threatened to cramp. He smelled blood, iron and earthen; only his, no scent of Hollow blood in the air. His breath came hard and ragged, air dragging through his throat like sandpaper.

Ulquiorra pushed him to his limit and then beyond. Forced him to fight through the threatening cramps. Forced him to continue blocking with his bow. Forced him to keep breathing, to keep firing, to keep fighting.

He drew heavily upon the reiatsu in the air, drinking in the darkness and turning it outward. Arrows formed in the air around him, lanced out to strike his foe, drove some breathing room between them. He could not stop. Would not stop. Again. More arrows, formed by will and desperation, tainted black by the power they were born of.

His core was failing. Changing. No longer pale - darker, harsher. His bow was bleeding darker, seemed to waver.

It distracted him. A single misstep in a dance of titans, a block when he should have dodged. Ulquiorra's prehensile tail whipped around the edge of his bow and sliced.

The world froze.

Ba-dump.

Blood sprayed through the air.

Ba-dump.

His arm...

Ba-dump.

Where...

Ba-dump.

His arm!

A clawed foot planted itself on his chest and shoved, sending him flying.

Inoue was clutching her head, kneeling before Ichigo's body.

A body that lay in a pool of metallic scented blood.

Uryuu snapped out of his shock. He scrambled, clumsy with his right arm, and pulled an anesthetic free before the pain could even truly hit. Before he could land, he stabbed the needle into his upper left arm and injected it, then tossed the empty needle away. The pinprick of pain grounded him further, centered his mind, enough that he managed to flip himself around and land properly.

He scrambled for something, anything, that would stop the bleeding from the stump of his lower left arm. He had not packed... had not planned...

Fingers closed around a pill. A memory - "For an emergency, hmm? And tell me how it works if you survive." - rose to mind. Dare he?

Dare he not?

He took it, swallowing it down without hesitation.

"Ishida-kun!" Inoue whimpered, her eyes wide and panicked and just this side of broken. And kami but that hurt. He could not let her be further damaged!

Uryuu pushed himself up, determination flooding through his body. "Don't worry. I've already given myself an anesthetic and something to stop the bleeding."

He couldn't let her break!

A Seele Schneider came free in his right hand, and he tore it open with his teeth. If archery had no effect on Ulquiorra, perhaps a sword would. He had yet to find a hole, a weakness in the demonic Arrancar, but he could not give up. But a simple Seele Schneider wouldn't be enough. He could sense that, felt the way it dragged through the ocean of reiatsu, cutting but unable to sever. Too, he needed an advantage. He was fighting with his off-hand, adapting skills learned left-handed to his right on the fly.

Ulquiorra would destroy him.

He breathed in deeply, and with that breath pulled upon the reishi and reiatsu nearby. Ulquiorra's overwhelming void, Inoue's frantic power, the tainted reishi of Hueco Mundo, it all rushed into him and was channeled into the blade in his right hand. His core shivered, wavered, burned with the stress he was putting upon it. Its pale blue, already darkened by earlier, darkened further under Ulquiorra's void, shifted towards teal under Inoue's influx of golden-yellow, grew nearly black at the touch of the tainted reishi, and then... and then...

And then it shattered, violently and painfully. Uryuu screamed, unable to keep silent under the feeling of his core exploding through his body. A fragment of his mind, detached by shock, noted that Ichigo's body was disintegrating, crumbling into golden-yellow motes of reishi that rushed towards him, surrounding him in a tornado of bright, overwhelming power.

"Ishida-kun!" Inoue screamed again. But her voice was... distant. Faded. As if coming to him across a vast chasm.

(*Damn, Ishida. When you get in trouble, you get into it worse than me! Or do you just have a fetish for burning your powers out?*) Ichigo's voice echoed through Uryuu's mind.

Irritation flashed through his mind. He was not going to burn his powers out so soon after regaining them!

(*Heh, that's better. But still, are you just gonna sit back and let Ulquiorra hurt Inoue?*)

"No..." Uryuu groaned, sweat dripping down his face as he stared blankly into the darkness above. His fragmented core tore at his body, shredding flesh, bone, nerves; leaving nothing but agony in its wake. But... no. He couldn't just... let Inoue down like that. Let Ichigo down like that...

(*Didn't know you like me that much!*) Ichigo snarked.

"I.. do... not!" Uryuu forced out. It was not Ichigo. A dying delusion of his mind, clinging to the voice of one he looked to for strength. And that burned, ached like an open wound that his mind would do such a thing. It was enough. He. Was. Not. Dying!

(*Abandon your fear. Look forward. Move forward and never stop. You'll age if you pull back. You'll die if you hesitate.*) The voice resonated through his head, powerful and calm, urging him forward. It grounded him, centered him in the now.

(*The hell you doing? You might not be my partner, but I'll still kill you if you stay there and do nothin!*) A third voice, loud and suspiciously like Ichigo's, were his friend prone to insanity.

He had no idea what his mind was doing anymore. Ichigo's voice he could understand, but these other two? What exactly had been that pill he had taken?

(*I was going to ask you about that - what the hell possessed you to take something clown-face gave you?*) the Ichigo-voice asked.

"It was either that or bleed to death!" Uryuu snapped at the voice in his head. "Now shut up!"

He bit his lip, teeth worrying at the flesh even as he pulled with his mind, hauling at the fragments of his core with all the mental discipline he had left.

It felt like an eternity, reeling the pieces of his core back together, made more difficult by the fact that it was changed, irrevocably altered by whatever had occurred. No longer a pale blue, it was a deep emerald green, nearly black, and roiled with barely contained power that spilled everywhere. Moreover, it no longer felt purely Quincy, but rather an uneasy mix of Quincy, Shinigami, and Hollow.

That Hollow nature ate at his very being like acid in a wound. He couldn't... it hurt... it was his but it was so painful and he couldn't purge that acidic Hollow feeling and it was going to kill him no matter what he did.

(*Then change yourself. Remake your being, until you are reborn like the phoenix of myth,*) spoke the unknown, calm voice.

"And how the hell would I do that!"

(*Follow your damn instincts!*) Insane-Ichigo snapped back. (*Stop thinkin' so damn logically about can and can't and clinging to what you were! Let your body do what it needs!*)

He wavered, hesitated, hovered on the edge of a precipice he could sense but not see. All the while, the Hollow nature ate at his body, testing his control as it devoured him from the inside out, aiming to finish what his shattered core had begun. Uryuu could feel his body beginning to dissolve under the pressure, becoming unmade by the nature that was so anathema to the nature of a Quincy. Quincy could not become Hollow. They became nothing.

There was nothing else he could do.

Gathering his resolve, he let go.

Power ripped through him again, raging through his body as his control over his core faded. Emerald power rippled under his skin, and everywhere it passed he felt changed, different, even if his skin remained pale and his clothes remained torn and bloodied. His eyes widened in shock as the green power washed through his left arm and solidified: bones and sinews, muscles and skin, until his arm was whole and unblemished once more.

And in the wake of the rush of power, he no longer felt the acidic pain of being eaten from within. The taint of Hollow in his core remained, swirled amidst the feeling of Quincy and Shinigami, but no longer at odds with his very being.

Although... it wasn't much of a core anymore. Rather, the power remained flooded throughout his body, and no matter how much he tried he could not restrain it back to that inner core he was so accustomed to. There was so much, and it was so wild, bucking all his attempts at taming and restraining it.

Just... just like Ichigo's power had felt. Wild. Unrestrained. A constant pressure that one had to grow accustomed to or die under the strain.

(*Huh. I didn't know it was so odd for my power to fill my entire body. Do you think all those Shinigami Captains keep theirs in a little ball like you did?*) The Ichigo-voice wondered. (*That would explain why they could hide themselves, I guess.*)

"Ichigo? Shut up." Uryuu could feel a headache coming on. Wasn't it bad enough that he had to listen to the fool when he was alive? Now he had a voice in his head that sounded like his fallen comrade. (*And that infuriates me the most. Ichigo is dead and my mind has no right to impersonate the fool!*)

The whirlwind of power around him fell. Inoue was still kneeling on the dome. Ulquiorra still several yards away, blank eyes fixed upon him. But Ichigo's body... it was gone. Vanished into the swirl of power that Uryuu had pulled into himself.

His hand clenched around the Seele Schneider, lifting the emerald blade to a ready position. He channeled his guilt, his rage, his *fury* at the world; all his pain, all his fear, all his mixed emotions and *shoved* it into his arrow-turned-blade. The blade *sang* with power, with *intention*, and Uryuu intended to *fulfill* that intention.

He charged, blade held easily in his right hand, poised to strike.

Something like surprise filtered though Ulquiorra's neutral expression. Something like recognition, like understanding. His tail rose, coiled, then swept out. To knock Uryuu aside. To tear him asunder.

Uryuu didn't know which. Didn't care. His body acted on finely honed instincts that he should not have. His blade swept up, around, slicing through Ulquiorra's tail without resistance. The power off the edge continued, a crescent of nearly black reiatsu that ripped into the Arrancar's chest.

Dark blood splattered the ground: desolation and rot. A graveyard untended. A home abandoned. The stench of Hollow blood.

Ulquiorra leapt backwards, eyes wide and left hand pressed against the wound on his chest. "Impossible. You couldn't even nick me before, and yet..."

He shifted his stance, bringing both hands to the makeshift hilt of his 'sword'. Used the moment to get his breathing under control. "I learned early on that nothing is impossible if you spend enough time around Kurosaki."

"I see." Ulquiorra's gaze flickered to where Ichigo's body had lain, then back to Uryuu. "You absorbed him. Like a Hollow devours their prey. And like a Hollow you grew stronger. Is this the power of a Quincy?"

Uryuu's lips compressed into a grimace. Behind him, Inoue gave a broken gasp of shock. He could not answer, had no answer to give. Quincy manipulated reishi and reiatsu in the air; they altered and changed and formed the very power of their enemies against them. Even in desperation, no Quincy's core should have been so contaminated by the power as to change. Even in desperation, overcharging the Seele Schneider should have resulted in it shattering, not his core. Though power might pass through them, it never affected them.

He threw himself forward with a burst of hirenkyaku, bringing his blade to bear once more.

"Lanza del Relampago." Ulquiorra intoned as he leapt backwards once more. A lance of lightning formed in his right hand, blocking Uryuu's blade. His tail, regenerating even as he used it, lashed at Uryuu's left side.

He ducked under the tail. Knocked the lance away. Twisted and thrust. More blood. Scent of desolation.

They fought, back and forth across the dome, lance against sword. The Seele Schneider tore away fragments of the reishi lance, shredded Ulquiorra's tail again and again, ripped through his hierro. But still Ulquiorra healed. Cast aside the shredded lance and forged another anew.

The lances exploded. Fragments of undirected power that Uryuu snatched from the air and twisted into his own blade. Blood, his blood, spilled upon the ground: earth and iron, rot and must. An inhuman scent for an inhuman being.

Finally, they broke apart, wary and watchful as they paced and circled. Uryuu was pleased at how Ulquiorra bled, how his breath was quickened and his stance wary. He, too, was bleeding, was nearly panting with exertion, but he had made the other work for it.

"Hmph. My powers lie not in attacking, but in regeneration." Ulquiorra swept his repaired tail before him. Flicked blood from his wounded arm; showed unblemished skin. "Of all the Arrancar who chose high-speed regeneration over power, I alone... I alone can fully regenerate anything but my brain and organs. I have no idea what you did to gain that power, but no amount of strength will allow you to kill me by attrition."

(*Arrogant bastard, isn't he?*) the Ichigo-voice commented. (*You'll just have to cut him into pieces then!*)

"I'm more worried about that lance," Uryuu muttered under his breath. He had seen the damage a mostly-destroyed version could create. What could a whole one do?

He feared he was about to find out.

Ulquiorra drew his arm back. Hurled the lance at him. Held his arm to the side and summoned another.

Deciding living was the better part of valour, Uryuu darted to the side as quickly as possible. Even then, he could feel it as it ripped past him. It didn't touch him, yet his right sleeve tore as if it had been hit, and a few drops of blood welled up from the scratch that had formed. In the distance behind him, an explosion tore apart the desert, the shock wave sweeping over the three of them standing atop the dome. It nearly pushed him forward a step, before he hardened his resolve and stood fast.

"I missed, hmm? Using that attack isn't easy, after all."

He could not give Ulquiorra a chance to throw another. There was no guarantee he could dodge again, and he had already seen the Arrancar summon lance after lance without tiring.

No. He could not give the other a second chance.

He blurred forward, mind focused. Seele Schneider to his left hand. Quincy bow in his right. (Green like the rest, like emeralds on velvet. Stretched and changed: a longbow formed from a compass rose, grip framed by two forward facing spikes. His-but-not-but-his.)

Ulquiorra frowned. Raised his lance to defend. Tried to pinpoint Uryuu, tried to guard, tried to counter.

He failed.

Uryuu blurred into existence inches from Ulquiorra. Fired. Retreated in time to avoid the Arrancar's tail. He brought up another arrow. Less powerful than a Seele Schneider, but enough. Hopefully.

He didn't need it.

The tail-strike had been Ulquiorra's last attack. The Seele Schneider, fired at point blank, skewered him straight through the stomach and sent his body flying backwards in two pieces.

Silence descended, broken by Inoue's soft sobs and the tiny clinking of stone fragments hitting the ground. Broken by his own harsh breathing and the meaty thump-thump of Ulquiorra's body landing.

(*Yeah! That showed the bastard!*) Insane-Ichigo cheered loudly. (*You might not be so bad, bow-boy!*)

Uryuu twitched. Resolved to ignore the voices for now. Wondered if they were there to stay, fragments of his broken mind, remnants of the moment he shattered and remade himself.

Movement from Ulquiorra's upper half drew his attention. The Arrancar was still moving! Pushing himself onto his back as his lower body slowly rebuilt itself.

Uryuu sent a wary glance at the Arrancar's lower half, and was relieved to discover that nothing was occurring there. He would not have to fight two of the powerful beings, but it still caused him to worry. Was even an overpowered Seele Schneider to the torso not enough to put Ulquiorra down for good?

"How are you still moving?" Uryuu asked as he approached the downed Arrancar. The arrow remained on the string, ready to fire at a moments notice. "I thought you couldn't regenerate your organs."

"I can't." Ulquiorra stared dispassionately up at the once-Quincy. "This is nothing but a guise, a last attempt by my power to survive."

Behind him, Uryuu sensed Inoue rise to her feet and make her slow way over to them.

"Kill me." Ulquiorra commanded, green eyes fixed upon Uryuu, not looking over even as Inoue reached the two of them.

Uryuu's lips tightened. The idea of simply putting down a human-like foe outside of combat was repulsive, but... wasn't Ulquiorra already dying? Incapable of regenerating the organs Uryuu had completely vaporized with the Seele Schneider, what chance did Ulquiorra have to live?

Perhaps reading the acceptance in Uryuu's eyes, Ulquiorra nodded slightly, then shifted his gaze to Inoue. "In the end... I think I actually had some interest in you people. Are you afraid of me, woman?"

"I'm not afraid," Inoue choked out, as she knelt next to Ulquiorra. "My Shun Shun Rikka could... please..."

"No." Ulquiorra laid a hand on the one Inoue had pressed to his chest. "This is the way of things. The weak fall before the strong."

Inoue broke into renewed sobbing, and collapsed across Ulquiorra's chest. "It's not fair! It's not... it wasn't supposed to be like this!"

With a grimace, Uryuu lowered his bow, allowing it and the arrow he had gathered to dissipate back into reishi. No matter his reluctant acceptance of Ulquiorra's request, he would not be so heartless as to shoot the other while Inoue was clinging to him. It didn't matter anyway. Already, the Arrancar's wings were breaking into dark motes of reishi; the skeletal legs vanishing more quickly than they were forming; the arm still on the ground disintegrating as he watched.

Ulquiorra's eyes met Uryuu's one last time, and the Quincy saw understanding deep within those formerly emotionless eyes. As the other's body faded into reishi, and the dark sea of reiatsu faded like fog before the sun, Uryuu placed a comforting hand on Inoue's shoulder.

"Ishida-san... why?" Inoue turned her devastated gaze upon him, pleading with him to make everything better. Pleading with him to make it all go away, to say it was a dream, a nightmare, that it was time to wake up and that everything would be better...

But he could not. If it was a nightmare, he, too, was trapped within it. If there was a way to make it all better, he could find no answer. Around him was desolation, the dome torn and fractured from their fight, splattered with blood and sweat and tears. Those marks were the only remaining evidence that two of the four who had come out here had ever existed outside their memories.

What could he possibly say to Sado? To Kuchiki? To Abarai? To Ichigo's own father?

What could he say to himself?


Well, there's the first chapter done! I hope you all liked it. At the moment, I plan to update this story on the last Tuesday of every month, to give me time to keep writing and editing chapters in advance. If I reach the end of this story in its draft, and get the chapters all done and ready to go, I'll start posting faster than that.

Don't hesitate to ask if you have questions, and constructive criticism is always welcome. If someone wants to beta, give me a note and we'll discuss it to see if we can get along.

Til next time, ja ne!