Ichigo was wrenched violently from his sleep by the sound of a terrified scream – then thousands, tens of thousands, of voices, yowling and hissing and cursing in pain, or laughing with the eerie voice of a broken man with no recourse but hilarity.
He shot up in shock, throwing open his window to look for the source – and he saw it, the rift between worlds, the passageway to Hell. He saw Renji watching as the last of a hollow was pulled in by grasping, eager hands, waiting for the portal to shut.
Before Ichigo knew what had happened, his arms were captured by creeping tendrils of black that turned to chains as he watched – and he was pulled, struggling but helpless in his human body, towards the tear.
And then he felt a sharp pain, as if he were being sliced – and then there was nothing.
Renji just stared as these chains from Hell wrapped around a body in the house beside him – Ichigo's house, he realized. Ichigo's body. The kid was being dragged into the rift.
He thought of trying to slice the chains, but something in him told him that would do more harm than good. Instead he jumped to Ichigo's window and grabbed him, bracing himself on the windowsill and hoping to god it didn't break from the combination of the pressure and Ichigo's panicked struggles.
"Let him go," a familiar voice said from outside the window. Shihouin Yoruichi. Renji did as he was told – he had never been more thrilled in his life to leave responsibility to someone else.
As soon as he released the boy, he saw a flash of silver – and suddenly, Ichigo's body fell to the ground, passing through the chains; another, much paler version had replaced the boy in the bonds, being pulled inexorably towards the rift. Within seconds, it had swallowed the boy with relish, and the cries of pain turned to cries of sadistic delight, and then faded away.
There was a deathly silence as Yoruichi jumped from the roof to where Ichigo lay. Renji finally regained his senses as he realized what had happened – the kid's body was lifeless as she hoisted it onto her shoulders. Quite possibly dead.
"What the fuck was that, Shihouin? You fucking killed him!" He didn't bother with honorifics – he was filled with the dangerous mixture of fear, confusion, and anger that had caused many thousands of reckless deaths before.
"Back off, Abarai-kun. I just saved his life. I don't expect you to understand, not yet – everyone's meeting at Kisuke's place in an hour. Keep yourself busy until then." Her eyes glinted dangerously, and with that, she disappeared in the way that only the God of Flash could.
Renji ran as fast as he could in the other direction, hoping to find something he could brutalize. Violence, after all, was the cure for everything.
Rukia received Urahara's not-so-subtle painted message not two minutes after she felt the chaos somewhere to the west of her – reiatsu (Ichigo's, she was sure that it was his) had flared and disappeared amongst a cacophony of what felt like thousands of souls melting together. She didn't need the invitation, she had been pelting towards the Urahara Shouten with all the considerable speed her small body could muster.
As she burst in his door to see Hitsugaya-taichou and Matsumoto-fukutaichou looking somber, with a pale-faced Inoue in the corner, she hoped that Urahara had a damn good explanation for all of this. Because, after all, he couldn't be dead. No third-rate goddamn hollow could take down Ichigo.
Within moments Renji arrived, with Ishida-san and Sado-kun not far behind; Ikkaku and Yumichika burst in through the back door looking like they'd just run across all of Karakura, and they probably had.
"The fuck is going on," Madarame proclaimed to the group rather than asked, eyeing each one like they had been the reason for Ichigo's sudden disappearance.
"Dunno," Renji replied testily, "But from what I saw it looked like Shihouin-san killed the bastard."
There was a tense silence, broken moments later by the sound of a rice-paper door sliding open, then shut.
"Yoruichi-san killed no one, let me assure you," Urahara said from behind his fan, snapping it shut in one fluid motion.
Some of the anxiety in the air dissipated with his words – but Rukia found that her fear couldn't be so easily quelled. A feeling in the pit of her gut told her that something was horribly, horribly wrong.
"Where's Ichigo?" she asked Urahara warily.
"Ah, that's a rather complicated question. We will be attempting to explain that tonight. One answer, however, could be that he's upstairs."
Rukia didn't quite believe him, though she knew he wasn't quite lying.
"Then what's wrong with him?" Matsumoto-san asked from the other end of the room.
"Well… he is currently operating without a soul."
There was a pause.
"Shihouin-san killed his soul, didn't she?" Renji posed in a rare moment of insight.
There was a flare of anger from several occupants of the room, Rukia not least among them, but Urahara put his hand up in a placating gesture.
"Yes and no. Please wait until I have explained the situation before you jump to conclusions, Abarai-kun."
Another silence filled the room as they waited for him to continue.
"Very few here are acquainted with Kurosaki-kun's hollow aspect, am I correct?"
Urahara sat on the floor by the table as he waited for that information to process. Rukia's mind stopped in shock – a hollow? Ichigo? That makes no sense.
How is that even possible?
She vaguely saw Inoue start crying softly in the corner.
"I'm sure you're all wondering how that is possible. But we needn't get into that. Suffice to say that in order to regain his Shinigami powers after losing them, becoming a hollow was the best and possibly only way to help him regain them. Because becoming a hollow turned him into a shinigami, his hollow and shinigami aspects are inextricable from each other. Do you follow so far? This will be important later."
From Rukia's observation, Hitsugaya-taichou was possibly the only person in the audience without a blank look on their face. Nobody responded.
"I'm certain that most of you understand how cleansing hollows works. For Inoue-san, Sado-kun and Ishida-san, in case you haven't gathered, here is a condensed version: when a hollow is killed with a Zanpakuto, their souls are sent to Soul Society. However, a hollow's sins during life cannot be cleansed, and if they sinned horribly during their time on earth, they are sent immediately to Hell."
He cleared his throat, then continued.
"As I'm sure you all know but have never thought about, being a hollow is ipso facto a sin. Every one of you has been required to cleanse souls that have just become hollows, and therefore have had no chance to sin.
Kurosaki-kun is unique in that he was a hollow during life – and therefore he is considered by the laws of the universe to be a sinner."
No one commented on his use of the past tense.
"So this evening, when Abarai-kun opened a portal to Hell by killing that particular type of Hollow, Hell saw not one, but two, victims."
Ishida moved to Inoue's side awkwardly, and patted her on the shoulder stiffly as her sobs grew audible.
Hitsugaya-taichou was the first to speak up.
"So, Shihouin-san used her Zanpakuto to cleanse Ichigo's hollow as Hell tried to pull him in." Toshirou's arms were crossed as he watched the older man unmovingly.
"Exactly." Urahara's eyes glinted, interested in the young boy's intellect – but he decided to let it drop for now. "But since Zanpakuto also kill Shinigami, and Ichigo's soul was a shinigami, he is now a soulless husk, much like if his soul had been forced out by my cane or Rukia-san's glove. He is alive."
Rukia didn't know whether to be relieved or terrified.
"Would you like to know how you can save him?" Urahara smiled for the first time that evening, directly at her, and she wasn't sure that she liked it.
Once Urahara had left, humans and shinigami alike huddled in a silent mass around the table.
"So who's in?" asked Yumichika, unusually somber.
There was a pause.
"I am," Rukia replied, voice trembling from shock or from fear – she didn't know which, and it didn't really matter.
"As am I," said Ishida. Inoue and Sado both nodded, the latter rumbling in a kind of primitive agreement.
"Fuck, if you all're going, then so'm I. Not gonna let ya go without some real backup." Renji smirked reassuringly at Rukia, though she could tell he was faking it.
After all, a trip to Hell would likely end in damnation.
Yoruichi watched Urahara come up the stairs from her seat on the futon, hand resting on her bent knee.
"Do you think those kids can handle it? Are you sure I shouldn't be going with them, or you?"
Urahara smiled slightly at her concern – she showed it so very rarely.
"I'm amused to see how attached you've become. But your skills could be better put to use in other places."
She eyed him, catlike.
"What have you got planned, Kisuke?"
"You, my dearest, are going to help convince Soul Society to launch an assault on Hueco Mundo."
The rest of the Shinigami in Urahara's meeting room had said they wouldn't go – Matsumoto-fukutaichou and Hitsugaya-taichou had their duties, Yumichika claimed he would be of no assistance. Ikkaku offered, but the group came to the consensus that he would be a liability in a place that would likely require more finesse than he possessed.
Hitsugaya said that all who weren't going should probably report back to Soul Society immediately. Shortly after those words were spoken, Yoruichi appeared in the living room, demanding to be taken with them. No-one particularly wanted to refuse.
As soon as the portal to Seireitei disappeared, the various people left in the room began to leave – Sado first, then Ishida and Inoue, who was clinging to his arm like it was the only support she had left. Renji and Rukia left together in the other direction, hoping to find an empty apartment in which they could get some rest.
"Hey," Renji said quietly after a minute, "You okay?" He wasn't totally blind, after all.
"Fine. As well as can be expected, anyway." There was another pause.
"So… I didn't get somethin' from all of what Urahara said. If it's Ichigo's Hollow in that place, why do we want t' rescue it?"
"I think…" She collected her thoughts momentarily. "I think that I understand. We're going to have to use the Hougyoku."
"The hell?" It was obvious that he didn't understand.
"Well, Urahara-san said once that the Hougyoku can turn a hollow into a shinigami, right? Well, Ichigo's shinigami part can't leave his hollow part. When the Hougyoku is used, instead of collecting spare reiatsu and a random shinigami soul to turn into the shinigami part, it'll be Ichigo's shinigami soul and his reiatsu that's used."
"What about his memories?"
"Those are in his actual human brain … so they should be alright."
There was another pause.
"You sure you wanna do this, Rukia? Imagine what happens if we fail."
Rukia's face slowly grew stony with determination. She would not repeat past mistakes – she would not lose him.
"Believe me, it'll be so much worse if we don't try at all."