It had been a simple mission.

It had been a Hollow.

Just a Hollow.

It was a Huge Hollow, yes, but for Rukia and Ichigo, that should have been an easy assignment.

But the creature had been stronger than expected, and somehow Ichigo's Hollow found its way out.


Ichigo turned from the body of the Hollow to look at her, but it wasn't Ichigo's face. Half of it was covered by that hated mask, and the eyes were black.

"Did you call me?" The voice was wrong. It stung.

Too similar.

"Did you call me, little girl?"

Rukia's hands shook on Sode no Shirayuki's hilt. "Ichigo," she said, trying to keep her voice calm. "Ichigo." She didn't know what to do. She had to... at least distract the Hollow until the real Ichigo could regain control.

"Why are you calling so much?" the Hollow demanded, a grotesquely huge smirk spreading across its face, half-hidden by the mask.

"Ichigo. I... Bring out Ichigo." It was intended as an order, but came out pleading.

"Ichigo?" That voice was horrible. The Hollow adjusted its hold on Zangetsu, which was slung over its shoulder. "There's no Ichigo here. Just me." Faster than eyes could follow, the Hollow swung Zangetsu up and over, and Rukia barely brought Sode no Shirayuki up in time to block.

"Awww..." Now the Hollow's voice was whining. "Darn. Looks like I don't have a very strong opponent, huh?"

Sorry, Ichigo...

Ducking back, Rukia twirled and swung Sode no Shirayuki around, chopping at the Hollow's side. She barely saw it move, but Zangetsu appeared in the way, blocking her attack.

"Is that really all you got?"

"Not even close," Rukia hissed. Her mind was racing. It didn't seem like whatever Ichigo had to be doing inside was affecting the Hollow at all. There was no waver in its control. It didn't hesitate for a moment.

"Oh, good," the Hollow replied in its ridiculously high voice. "I would hate to kill an opponent who can't do anything against me. So boring." Suddenly Zangetsu was cutting in from the other side, and Rukia leapt out of the way.

No choice.

She was going to have to fight.

She wouldn't use any of the Dances yet. She was better at kidou anyway.

"Walls of ironsand, a priestly pagoda, glowing ironclad fireflies. Standing upright, silent to the end! Way of Binding number 75! Gochuutekkan!" The Hollow didn't even try to get out of the way as five iron pillars sprung from the ground, caging it in.

"Eeeeeeeh? What's this? A Binding spell? Not even the Destructive arts? You really don' wanna fight me, do ya?" And just like that, it brought up Zangetsu and sliced straight through the pillars.

Shocked, Rukia stared. That had been number 75. The higher the number, the more powerful the effects. 75 was the highest she could use effectively in battle, and it had cut it down as though it was nothing. How could she fight such a creature?

The Hollow advanced, but slowly. It clearly didn't think much of her and wanted to draw the fight out as long as possible, probably to make Ichigo angry. Ichigo didn't do well with friends being injured.

Leaping into the air, aware that she was followed by the Hollow's eyes, Rukia pointed Sode no Shirayuki. "Next dance, Hakuren!" A wave of ice burst toward the Hollow faster than even it could move, freezing it solid as it tried to leap out of the way. Rukia landed next to it. She knew that the attack hadn't been strong enough to kill anyone of Ichigo's strength, but it may have been enough to weaken the Hollow sufficiently so that Ichigo could regain control.

Abruptly, the ice shattered, and Ichigo's body slumped to the ground. She couldn't see the face.


Before she knew what hit her, she was flying through the air from the force of Zangetsu's attack, and a slash ran from her hip to her shoulder. She had barely escaped a fatal wound.

Not Ichigo, then.

The Hollow stood fully, slinging Zangetsu again over its shoulder. "What was that, little brat? Did you think that that little attack could stop me? Ha!" It began to laugh in its horrible way.

Rukia didn't know what to do.

How could she wake Ichigo up?

It seemed that, whatever he was doing, he wasn't fighting hard enough.

Considering his personality, there was only one way to make him fight harder.

Rukia steeled herself and charged.

Zangetsu passed clean through Sode no Shirayuki's defense and pierced her.

She dropped the sword and reached for the Hollow's face. Her hand was shaking. Her vision was blurred. Fatal, the logical part of her mind whispered. Fatal wound.

She ignored it.

That wasn't important.

She had to save Ichigo.

Her fingers grazed flesh, and then the mask. She curled her hand under it and yanked it off. It shattered like glass in her hand.

The Hollow screamed in pain and drew back, hand flying to its stolen face as Rukia crumpled to the ground. It stumbled for a moment, and then brought its hand down, away from its face. One eye was almost normal. The darkness was receding. Ichigo was winning? That was good, she thought vaguely. The Hollow stormed over and kicked her. She barely felt it. That was probably a bad sign, because she skidded and rolled far enough that she could tell it was a very hard blow.

"Damn you..." the Hollow whispered hoarsely, crouching over her, and brought down Zangetsu again. It passed through her and embedded itself in the ground. The Hollow's smirk was back, just as huge as before. She flinched slightly, and her grip on what was left of the mask tightened.

The world was darkening around her.

She couldn't do anything any more.

Tears slipped from her eyes, running across her cheeks and dampening the hair under her head, already sticky with blood.

She couldn't save him.

Her free hand reached up and touched his face. It wasn't his face at the moment, but it was still... it was still him, somewhere.

"Sorry... Ichigo..." Her whisper cracked and cut off, and her hand fell.

She never saw the flash of silver and the look of horror.

"R-Ruki... Rukia..?"

She didn't move, didn't make a sound.

Her eyes stared blankly up at him, violet and sad.

Frantically, Ichigo pulled Zangetsu away and threw it aside. "Rukia?! Rukia!"

Still no reaction.

He was too late.

He'd killed her.