Rather than feeling like there was a hole in his chest, it felt like a great weight was pressing down on him, squeezing the life out of him a bit at a time. He was drowning, he knew, drowning in his own blood, the very thing that offered him life seeping into his lungs and staining the once white floor on which he lie.
Ichigo's thoughts were becoming harder and harder to grasp, and even harder to hold onto, but for a fleeting moment he realized that there may yet be a way to live, a way to succeed in this war beyond that. All he had to do was get stronger, strength he already had at his finger tips, just barely out of his grasp. Though maybe, just maybe, it was attainable with the right tools.
He found it strange that it was easier to think here, in his inner world, that his mind was clear, and he couldn't feel the pains of his outside injures standing here, but it was not something to dwell on.
It was raining.
"Oi!" He called out, knowing he didn't have to yell to be heard, but doing what felt natural to him. In this place there was no such thing as time or distance.
"You called, King?" The mocking voice of the hollow flitted through the air, and Ichigo turned to see his counterpart perched on the ledge of a building slightly higher than the surface on which he stood.
"We're dieing." Ichigo stated plainly, not in the mood for games, not having time for games.
That horrible, high pitched laughter was his response. "No King, you're dieing. Not 'we'. And I told you," The hollow crossed the distance between them, coming face to face with the orange haired Shinigami. "You better not die before we have the chance to fight again."
Ichigo swung his fist at the hollow, but his white clone jumped back in time, more laughter filling the otherwise quiet world. "It's raining King, but it won't be for much longer. Too bad you won't be here to see it."
Lightning flashed across the dark skies, silence followed it.
"When you die," That impossibly wide grin grew wider still, "I'll be king of this world."
Ichigo's hands were balled into fists at his side, the hairs on the back of his neck rose whenever he was in the presence of his hollow, and the urge to fight rose inside of him. Instinct to defend himself against something dangerous, something that threatened his existence, but right now something he needed.
"Work with me." The words were impossible hard to say, but now they were out there, suspended between them.
"What?" The hollow looked shocked, then doubled over, unable to breathe he was so amused. "Is this some kind of joke?"
"Why would I joke at a time like this?" His anger was getting the better of him, but he forced it back down. This was not the time to let his goals slip away from him, because it would be the last time.
"Fine, fine, so you want me to play nice and work with you, to stop trying to take your throne." He paused, a sadistic gleam in his eyes. "You want my full power. That's going to come at a high price, what are you offering me?"
Ichigo wasn't expecting this, he had known it would take some convincing, but what could he offer the hollow, what did he have, besides control, that the hollow would want? "Name your price." This was a dangerous game, but the cost of losing would be higher still than anything the ghostly white figure before him could offer.
"That's a stupid thing to say King. You're desperate, but then again, you're dying." Suddenly the hollow became serious. "What do I want? Complete control is out of the question, so what else can I take from you?" The grin returned, and Ichigo's heart found itself in his throat, he reminded himself that this was the best way, possibly the only way to win this war. "I'll make this easy on you, since you came and asked me so nicely." The hollow, white shihakusho clinging to his skin and heavy with rain and wet hair sticking to his face and flat against his head, seemed more menacing in this moment than he had before. "No one can touch you."
"I can't avoid people touching me." Ichigo shot back, the fear and anticipation evaporating to anger once more. "Someone could bump into me and the deal would be broken."
"Don't be stupid!" The hollow snapped back, his own anger showing through. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. You can't have any intimate relationships, no intimate contact. You can't kiss, hug, have sex, nothing. If you're going to use me, you're going to belong to me. No one can touch you. Maybe if that bump was something you liked, instead of an accident."
Ichigo didn't know what to say, staring into those black and gold eyes. That was a steep price, steeper than it sounded, and probably steeper than he knew. No, they would die otherwise, then there would be no point, he had to agree. "Fine, it's done."
"Good, then get out of here. We've got company, Aibou."
"Nell... and...Inoue?" Ichigo stared up into the face of the girl he had come to save, and had ended up saving him. He could feel that the hole in his chest was gone, his breathing was easier, blood no longer filling his lungs.
"Kurosaki kun!" "Ichigo" Both spoke at the same time, the Arrancar he had seemed to have adopted staring down at him from over Inoue's shoulder, relief on her face, and tears in her eyes. She had been crying, was still crying for him, even though they'd only known each other for such a short time. It was strange to think that a heartless being could care so much for a stranger.
"Shut the hell up you two," Another familiar voice cut in. The hollow hadn't been kidding when he had said they had company. "If you have time to talk, then hurry up and fix him."
"Grimmjow... why are you with Inoue?" How could she be healing him with the one Arrancar who wanted him dead, more than anyone else, standing only a few feet away. Grimmjow had been trying to kill him since they met, hungry for a good fight, and coming to Ichigo because he was the strongest of Aizen's enemies.
The Sexta Espada glared down at him, the orange haired Shinigami had been flipped onto his back while he was unconscious, and was now staring up at everyone from his position on the floor. "Shut yer mouth and get fixed. The only reason I'm here is to settle things with the uninjured you."
"Grimmjow..." Inoue looked shocked, and disgusted. "So that's why you're making me fix--"
"SHUT UP, I SAID!" The blue haired Espada yelled, temper on a short fuse. "I'm allowing you to fix this guy, who was close to being dead, stop complaining!" He seemed anxious, like he was waiting for something to happen something to interfere. Ichigo hadn't seen Grimmjow act like this in there previous encounters. "Just hurry up, it won't take long before Ulquiorra realizes what's happening and comes back. Before that I'll--"
As if saying the Cuatro Espada's name had been a summons, the diminutive Arrancar appeared. This was going to turn ugly. Before, even with his hollow powers, Ichigo hadn't been able to put a scratch on him, and even with Inoue's help he wasn't anywhere near full health. Besides, as much as Grimmjow wanted to fight him, and him alone, he doubted that the Espada would go against the higher rank just for that. For now, all he could do was watch the exchange between the two through the yellow glow of Inoue's powers.
"What are you doing Grimmjow?"
Grimmjow didn't respond, looking back to check on Ichigo's progress, he still wasn't healed yet, still wasn't able to stand, but it shouldn't be too much longer. Ichigo could feel the strength returning to him, and the pains of wounds he had forgotten were receding.
"I'm asking you, what are you doing?" Ulquiorra repeated himself, the tension between the two Espada palpable even if the smaller one's voice remained dead pan, devoid of any emotion that could reveal what he was thinking. "Going through all this trouble to heal an enemy that I defeated. What are you trying to accomplish?"
Again the question was left unanswered, the blue haired Espada defiant in his silence, staring down the other as if trying to glare another hole through him.
"Very well." Ulquiorra seemed to be un-phased by the turn of events, his expression and attitude as unchanging as always. Calm and collected he moved about his business in an almost casual sort of way. "But first and foremost, I have been ordered by Aizen sama to take care of that woman next to you. Return her to me."
"I refuse." Ichigo, though Grimmjow was turned away from him, could here the cockiness in his voice, and could almost see the arrogant grin on his face.
Ulquiorra didn't respond for a minute, his thoughts hidden behind an unbreakable mask, and clear, unreadable eyes. "What did you say?"
"What's the matter?" Grimmjow's spiritual pressure increased, filling the room with his insane killing intent. "You sure talk a lot today, don't ya, Ulquiorra?" He leaped at the other Arrancar, hand extended and the beginnings of a cero forming.
For the first time, Ichigo saw something close to an expression on the Cuatro Espada's face, the slight widening of eyes giving the impression of shock, making the doll like appearance seem more real, but nonetheless, the attack was stopped with a single hand. The Sexta Espada having no better luck than Ichigo had against the same opponent not long before.
"I know all about it, Ulquiorra, you're afraid to fight me, aren't you?" He could hear it, the excitement of the fight, in Grimmjow's voice. He knew that grin was on that face. "You're afraid of crushing each other to bits!" Ichigo could no longer see what was happening, his vision was too limited by his position on the ground, and the translucent yellow aura around him. He could hear their fight though, and Grimmjow's taunting. "Ha, so you deflected it, I guess one shot won't be enough."
The sound of more ceros being fired off filled the air, and Ichigo could only be shocked at the idea of two Espada, two of Aizen's highest ranking and most trusted followers, fighting each other. "What are you complaining about, Aibou?" Isn't this what you wanted, didn't you want them dead? That's what my power is for right, crushing your enemies to dust. But you're too weak, too weak to do it yourself, so just let them crush each other." The strangely distorted voice of his hollow filled his mind, muting any outside sounds, one of the explosions from the fight almost went unnoticed to him over the sound of the hollow speaking. "If this girl is as useful as you all seem to think she is, then we'll get our turn. They can't both die from this, they're not even serious."
He missed the end of the fight, distracted, and found himself hearing the aftermath as Grimmjow spoke to Inoue once again. He didn't know what happened to Ulquiorra, but something told him that whatever it was, the Espada was not dead yet.
"I didn't ask for your god damned opinion." He could see Grimmjow again, he had Inou by the throat, but he wasn't choking her, not seriously anyway. He was just getting his point across in the only way he knew how, threats and violence. "Fix him." He needed to get up now, it was time to fight, and time to finish what he had come here to do. He was healed enough now, enough to draw his zanpakuto and defend his friends.
Her hands wrested on his larger one, a futile attempt to free herself. "You're going to hurt Kurosaki kun again, if I heal him, aren't you... Then... then I don't want to." She didn't want to see anyone hurt, she was far too kind for that, would sacrifice everything to protect those around her.
"You--" Ichigo reached outside the yellow field surrounding him, forcing himself up, and grabbed Grimmjow's wrist.
"Let go of her." He pried the hand away from Inoue's throat, and the Sexta jumped back, putting some distance between them, ready to fight it out, always ready to fight.
"Inoue" He cut her off, speaking over her, he didn't know what she was going to say, didn't want to hear it. He had his resolve to fight, his reasons to fight, and he couldn't let her say anything that might take them away, couldn't allow any logic to interfere with what he had to do. "Please heal me."
"Please heal me." He looked back over his shoulder at her, he was here to be her shield now, now that she was in his grasp he had to protect her, that's what he had come to do. "My wounds, and his wounds as well."
"Stop that." Grimmjow spat, interrupting and bringing attention back to the situation at hand. "I don't want your god damn pity."
"I don't want pity either." Ichigo shot back, the adrenaline already beginning to pump through his veins, they wouldn't be able to wait. This fight had been coming for a long time, and he couldn't say he wasn't excited. "You want us to fight on equal ground right? Or, perhaps," He couldn't help the grin that spread over his face. "You would rather keep those wounds as an excuse for when I beat you?"
Grimmjow had his zanpakuto drawn and the distance between them cut in a flash, but it was long enough for Ichigo to draw his own zanpakuto, just long enough. "So be it."
"Let's kill each other on equal grounds then." Grimmjow finished for him.
They pulled away from each other, re sheathing their swords and separated themselves. Grimmjow walked over to a pile of what had once been a pillar and sat there, while Ichigo crouched where he was as Inoue healed him then moved onto the other. It didn't take long, which was good, both knew, both could feel that they didn't have a lot of time for this. Others would notice that Ulquiorra's reiatsu had disappeared all of a sudden, and that Ichigo's was back to normal, whereas he had been dieing moments before.
"This is it, Aibou. What you wanted, what you came crawling to me for. Is it worth it, are you excited for this moment? His hollow was speaking to him again, and he could feel it's excitement for the fight beginning to infect him, adding to his own, but he couldn't forget that he had a purpose here, that he wasn't in Los Noches for fun, for the adrenaline rush of a fight, to prove that he was the strongest.
"Shut up." He thought back to the hollow, the temptation to speak out loud just avoided, it was hard to remember, with the voice so clear, that he was the only one who could hear it. "He's not the only one, and definitely not the strongest. If we can't beat him, then there was no point."
"We're not going to lose. I'm not going to lose, I'm not that weak. This guy's nothing." Confidence radiated in that voice, not just the usual arrogant confidence, but a sureness that came only with knowing you're own strength.
"Don't give me that look, Nell." The child like Arrancar was near tears again, worried that she would see him injured like she had when he had fought Ulquiorra only a short time ago. He wouldn't put her through that again though, there was no need. He glanced over his shoulder, giving Inoue a confidant smile, that too seemed to be infecting him. "You either Inoue." He faced her, the excitement of the fight working it's way through him. "Don't worry, I'll definitely win."
He turned to the fight waiting for him, sparing one last smile for the girls before he faced his opponent. "We're moving location, Grimmjow." Both of them were serious as they relocated to the top of one of the towers, far away from the two bystanders.
Even as they landed, Ichigo changed into his bankai form. The fight had already begun, all that they were waiting for was to see who would strike first, and who would be standing at the end.
Their first strike met in mid air, Grimmjow jumping down from his elevated perch and him rushing up to meet the Espada. The loud crash of steel on steel filled the otherwise silent air of Los Noches, and once again Grimmjow wore an expression of excitement, the thrill of battle pulsing through his veins.
Over and over again their zanpakuto met, strike, counterstrike, dodge, block, strike again. Each looking for and attacking any openings they happened to see, or imagined had been created. It was a matter of who was that much faster, able to think that much quicker on their feet.
Swords locked the struggled to push the other back, to pierce flesh and draw blood. Ichigo managed to shove the blue haired Espada's sword aside, Grimmjow jumping back out of range of attack, hand outstretched and the light of a cero gathering in his palm. Using the speed that his bankai allowed him, Ichigo brought his zanpakuto back up to block the cero.
"Now's the time, Aibou. Kill him, kill him, use it and kill him." His hollows laughter filled his head, manic and full of blood lust, so simillar to Grimmjow's laughter in that sense that it was bone chilling.
"Getsuga--" Grimmjow threw his sword away, shock cutting him off mid sentence. With his other hand now free, the first still grasping the blade of his bankai, he fired off another cero blasting a hole right through the tower they fought on.
Grimmjow's laughter echoed that of the hollow in his head. "This is great! I've been waiting for this, waiting to crush you at your full strength! It's the same for you right?! RIGHT, KUROSAKI ICHIGO?!"
Ichigo glared at his opponent, the mark of the cero blast evidenced by the wound on his face. "I'm not fighting just for the sake of busting you up, ya know." He wanted this fight, his blood sang with the need for it, the hollow echoing its call in his mind, feeding him with the need to kill the Sexta Espada.
"Don't talk like that! Shut it!" Another mood change from Grimmjow, he was pissed again, angry with Ichigo's responce. He wanted him to fight just for that sake alone. "KILL ME! It's always about your little buddies with you. I'm gonna tear you away from them and kill you!" Contempt filled his eyes as he glared down at him. "I won't forgive you... There's a reason I left this scar on me," He pointed to the mark of their first encounter, decorating him from left shoulder to right hip, the mark of Getsuga Tensho. "And you just don't get it. I'm gonna slit your fuckin' throat, and make ya understand which of us is stronger!"
Grimmjow came at him again, full speed, recovered zanpakuto in hand; he swung from over head, straight up and down, as if to cut Ichigo in half. "This fight ain't about saving your friends, or avengin' those who died coming her for that. This is about what it's been about from the start. Provin' yer strength." He attempted another cero from under their locked blades, causing Ichigo to make a hasty retreat.
"What are you doing? Call me out, kill him!" The hollow screamed at him, restraining himself from trying to grab control away. At least he was sticking by their deal, if only by a thread.
"No! That's what he wants. He wants me call you out, he's expecting it. We have to wait, have to do it at the right time." He only had eleven seconds, just eleven seconds in which he could kill Grimmjow once his mask was on.
"Don't be stupid! We can kill him, we can kill him now."
"Don't get distracted, Ichigo!" Grimmjow was rushing him again, but he hadn't noticed, to caught up with arguing to realize he was still fighting, still in danger. Once again he brought up his sword to block Grimmjow's swing, but it was forced aside, the silver white of the Espada's zanpakuto pushing the pure black of his own to the side and down, blade almost parallel with the ground. "Focus on the fight, focus on killing me. Cause if you don't there's no point in killing you. Stop thinking about your friends. They aren't important right now, they can't help you, and if anything happens, you can't help them. RIGHT NOW YOU BELONG TO ME!" Grimmjow leaned in across the distance between them, separated by their two swords, and kissed him. It was raw, possessive, angry, threatening, and most off full of his fiery intent to kill. It was not a romantic kiss, a kiss for love or caring, it was a mark of ownership.
Ichigo forced his zanpakuto back up, sending Grimmjow flying backwards. The blue haired Espada landed on his feet, sliding a few feet further. Ichigo spit off to the side, and ran his sleeve over his mouth. His entire body shaking with anger and the desire to kill, to draw blood, so strong it was incomparable to anything he had felt before. "Bastard."
Grimmjow threw his head back and laughed. "That's it, that's the look. Now kill me! Hate me, despise me, and kill me!" He raised his hand, the light of a cero gathering there, a familiar site by now, and time seemed to stand still.
"That's not what we agreed on, Aibou." Ichigo shuddered as those words flitted through his mind. He felt as if ice cold hands were on his skin, clawing at him, dragging him down into deep dark waters to die. He couldn't breathe again, the air forced from his lungs, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
"No! Don't come out now, I didn't break the deal. I didn't want that, and I didn't know it was coming." It was too late, those hands were dragging him down too fast for him to have time to struggle, and he was just a spectator in his own body, only allowed to watch as his life was played out by another.
Even as the cero was being fired, Ichigo had moved, moved so fast that before the blast was complete he had the Sexta Espada's wrist grasped in his hands. "You're too slow." He laughed, enjoying the freedom, and also the fight, a fight on his terms. Grimmjow stared at him in wide eyed shock for no more than a half a second before he raised his zanpakuto, but before he could bring it down in a strike, the hollow threw him across the surface of the tower. The Arrancar landed hard, bouncing and rolling across the rooftop before slamming against the wall with a sickening thud, the wall cracking from the impact.
Grimmjow stood, blood dripping down the side of his face, his normal grin in the heat of battle gone, replaced with a suspicious glare. "Who the fuck are you?" His clothes were torn and bloodied now, just from that one attack.
Resting his zanpakuto on his shoulder casually, the hollow smirked at Grimmjow. "That's a stupid question. I'm your opponent." His mask was just beginning to form, starting over one black and gold eye and spreading over his face. Ichigo's yelling a low murmur in the back of his mind.
"You ain't the ass hole I was just fightin'." Grimmjow spat, infuriated. "WHO THE FUCK ARE YA?!"
The hollow laughed, the strange distorted quality of his voice taking over, replacing Ichigo's normal, steady voice. "Does it matter? I'm going to kill ya either way." He closed the gap between them, sword pressing down on Grimmjow's, their faces inches apart. "It doesn't matter who I am, because you're gonna die anyway." He pulled away and swung again, coming in low and putting a gash across Grimmjow's thigh as he tried to dodge out of the way.
"I'm not here to fight you. I'm here to fight that bastard Ichigo." The Espada ignored the blood running down his leg and staining his hakama brightly. "Now, who the fuck are ya?"
"Every time I come out, someone's gotta ask me that question. So, I'll tell ya, just like I told the last guy: I don't have a name." He attacked again, a rapid succession of swings, coming from all sides. His now complete mask hiding the expression of glee written across his face. He was too fast for Grimmjow, but that didn't matter, he was toying with him anyway.
Ichigo stood alone in his inner world, he turned in circles, looking for the familiar figure in white. He'd retreated here after he realized that there was nothing he could do just watching. "COME OUT!" He shouted, frustrated, not knowing what to do. He should have known better than to make a bargain with something that wanted nothing more than to destroy him. "COME OUT RIGHT NOW!"
"Calm down, Aibou." Ichigo whipped around, the bankai form of his hollow standing a few feet away, Zangetsu hanging in his loose grip. "I'm right here, I didn't go anywhere."
"Give me control back!" Ichigo shouted, lightning flashing across the sky, in mimicry of their earlier discussion. "Give it back, or I'll force it back." Slowly the first rain drops began to fall.
The hollow ignored him, instead looking up into the inky blackness of the sky. "It's raining again." He stated, hand coming up to wipe one of the droplets from his face.
"That's not important--"
"OF COURSE IT IS!" The hollow cut him off, black and gold eyes coming to focus sharply on him. "This world is controlled by the King, and it's not raining here because of me."
Ichigo stood in shocked silence, the rain beating down at a steady pace now, soaking through his clothes and dripping off his hair. "Then why?"
"Why? WHY?! Because it was the perfect god damned excuse to kill that sorry excuse for an Arrancar. Because you were so out of it, so unbalanced by what he did that it wasn't even difficult ripping control away from you." He swung his sword violently to the side, sending water droplets flying in all directions instead of just one. "I'm going to kill him and stop this rain. I'M SICK OF IT!"
Lightning flashed again, silent and without the accompanying thunder, the down poor becoming a drizzle. "Let me finish it." Ichigo finally said. "Let me end this, it's my fight."
"It's our fight!" The hollow cut in. "It's both our fight."
"Then let me fight it too! That was the deal wasn't it, that we work together?" Ichigo stomped across the space between them, grabbing a fistful of white shihakusho and dragging the hollow closer. "That's what the deal was about, fighting together. If it's our fight, then lets finish it together." He was yelling in the hollows face, even though there was no noise to be heard over, the rain all but stopped. "Let me back out."
The hollow grinned. "That actually sound's like a half decent plan, Aibou."
Grimmjow glared at him from a few yards away, one arm hanging limply by his side, the other holding onto his zanpakuto as if it were his only life line, and it was his only life line. Ichigo reached up, pushing the mask aside to expose his face. His eyes were still that of the hollow's, but his expression was serious once more. "Let's finish this."
"You finally decided to show back up," He turned his head to the side, spitting blood. "Ichigo."
"Sorry to keep you waiting." The dual quality to his voice seemed more natural than his normal voice to his ears.
"Took ya long enough." Grimmjow straightened up, adjusting his one handed hold on his zanpakuto. Ichigo didn't know how long he had been out of control, seconds, minutes, hours. It was all the same to him, time didn't matter in that world, and it didn't matter now, because this fight was over.
Both of them turned to look at the source of the voice, low, even and commanding.
"Ulqiorra." Grimmjow's voice was filled with anger, Ichigo's surprise. The Cuatro Espada appeared uninjured from his earlier encounter with the Sexta Espada, meaning there had been some sort of a twist to the end of their fight, only it wasn't really over if he was back now.
"How the hell'd you get out of there so damn fast?" The blue haired Espada demanded, obviously holding himself off from attacking Ulquiorra.
"Something like that is meant to hold trash, not Espada." Was the calm reply, intense green eyes locked on to his ally, and now his enemy too.
"Tch, well just wait a fuckin' minute while I finish this up, then I'll get to you." Grimmjow turned back to Ichigo, and Ichigo faced him again, but kept one eye on Ulquiorra, doubting that he would stay out of this fight.
"No," Ulquiorra flashed infront of Grimmjow, fist slamming hard into his stomach, just above the hollow hole. Already weakened from the fight so far, the Sexta Espada lurched forward, unconscious. Ulquiorra slung the limp figure over his shoulder, the other in his hakama like one would use a pocket. "This fight is over, gather what is left of your friends and leave."
"I'm taking Inoue with me!"
"She's already been relocated." Ulquiorra turned, and then dissapeared.
Ichigo could no longer feel their reiatsu. Not Grimmjow, Ulquiorra, Inoue, or even Nell. They were gone.
"It's not over, Aibou."
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