The small group battled on, wearied and wounded but not yet dead.
Well, mostly not yet dead.
Ichigo looked back over his shoulder inconspicuously and tried not to think depressing thoughts about we're all doomed doomed doomed.
It had seemed the only thing to do. It still was the only thing to do, he repeated to himself. The others had agreed with him. They'd disobeyed the old dude's orders, escaped from Soul Society (or in a couple of cases, beaten the gatekeeper and then pissed on the doors on the way out, but he really hadn't wanted to hear about that bit), joined up with Ichigo, persuaded the Vaizards to open a way to Hueco Mundo (and he was fairly sure he hadn't heard Hirako muttering something about "good riddance", or at least he hoped not), and started their journey down to rescue Orihime and face Aizen and put an end to his evil once and for all.
Unfortunately, what with all the pit traps, spike traps, rolling rock traps, Hollows, Menos Grandes, and those-weird-things-in-white-coats-with-half-masks, the rescue attempt was looking rather battered already. Ikkaku was leaning on Yumichika, who was suffering from psychological trauma due to having lost a feather. Rukia was wounded. Renji was more wounded. Hitsugaya was ruffled after that really rather disturbing encounter with the guy with all the tentacles. Matsumoto was barely clad, due to the heroic methods she had used to save her Captain. Ishida had gone through all five of his spare capes and was now sulking. Ichigo himself was bleeding more than somewhat.
One would almost think Aizen had known that they were coming.
"All right," he said, pulling himself together. "So if we all charge straight for the main gate, they won't be expecting that . . ."
Ishida raised a trembling hand to point at a figure in the distance, his mouth wide open.
All eyes turned to the approaching figure. Her bright hair, the sole spot of colour in all Hueco Mundo (well, except for all the bleeding they'd been doing) made her identity clear. She waved cheerful hands and bounced.
"She must have been brainwashed," Hitsugaya said flatly. "She's probably been turned loose to do horrible things to us."
"S'right," Ikkaku agreed. "No way she could have got loose on her own."
"Probably a cunning illusion," Yumichika stated. "We must be on our guard."
"It may be Gin approaching in disguise," Rangiku suggested. "I should charge on ahead and deal with him."
There was a large explosion as most of Hueco Mundo blew up in the background.
"It's, um, a very convincing illusion," Ishida muttered.
"Hello!" Orihime (or the very convincing illusion) waved at them again. "You came to rescue me! I knew you'd come! I'm sorry to have kept you waiting so long and I really didn't mean to cause you any problems, and . . ."
"Inoue," Ichigo interrupted, "what just happened?"
"Oh." The six Shun Shun Rikka circled round her head in happy little spirals. One of them was looping the loop. "Well, um, I kind of blew everything up. Do you think they're insured?"
"But . . . how?" Ishida demanded, pushing forward in a very arrogant way that caused Ichigo to stamp on his toes and elbow him in the stomach.
"Well." Orihime pursed her lips. "After all the orgies and everything --"
"The what?" Ichigo got out, before Ishida got a grip on his throat and temporarily silenced him.
"Oh, nothing important," Orihime said hastily. "Anyhow, after they'd cleared all the stuff away, Aizen-san explained that he wanted me to use this Hougyoukou thing and get it fully open. So I started doing that. And everything blew up. I had to run away very fast."
More explosions went off in the distance, and the unnaturally grandiose and turretted castle fell in on itself with a boom.
"The last thing Aizen said was, "So that was why Urahara Kisuke allowed us to kidnap you! I should have known!"" Her brow furrowed cutely. "I still can't understand what he meant."
Renji scratched his head. "Well, um. I guess that if we go back and report a resounding success and Aizen utterly destroyed, then Yama-jii won't be able to complain that much."
"But we didn't --" Hitsugaya began.
"It's all in how you explain it." Rangiku hastily smothered his objections in her bosom.
"But I didn't --" Ichigo tried.
"Hush, fool." Rukia planted her foot in his face. "It's a glorious victory and we owe it all to Orihime here who so cunningly and cleverly worked her way down here in order to destroy Aizen. Right?"
"Right," Renji agreed.
The other shinigami all nodded. Clearly there were required courses at the Academy in Covering Your Ass.
"Okay," Ichigo said, a little limply. "Let's go."
And so the daring rescue squad returned to the world of the living, leaving behind a collapsed Hueco Mundo in ruins, victorious over all enemies.
I still think you ought to tell them about the challenge and the duel to the death and everything, Tsubaki buzzed in Orihime's ear.
"Hush," Orihime whispered. "It'd just depress them."