In case you didn't see, I have updated all of the chapters of this story with edits. More information about that is at the beginning of chapter 1. Many changes were made to events and order of events, including chapter nine. This first scene is from the old chapter nine but has been modified, and then everything after that is new material.
Orihime peeked around the edge of the doorway into the large, darkened room. Her nerves were on edge. Shouldn't there be guards here? It was already strange enough that Ulquiorra had left her alone again so quickly, so that she could even try to do this. But there was nobody guarding this place either. Nobody challenged her entry, and so clearly nobody had seen her.
She let out the tiniest of sighs as she slipped into the cavernous room, her eyes drawn immediately to its main feature, Aizen's looming throne, which stood as empty as the rest of the room. Still glancing around nervously, she called out, "Hello?" No one replied, and she finally felt satisfied that she was truly alone. Good.
Heart pounding, she made her way to the center of the room, to where she knew there was a hidden compartment in the floor. Aizen had made the mistake of showing her where he kept his most precious possession, and now he was going to regret it.
Well, he would just as soon as she could figure out how to open the thing. Or even locate it, actually.
Experimentally, she stamped on the tile. Nothing happened, so she stomped a different spot. Orihime's tongue poked out of her mouth as she concentrated, prodding with her foot at anything that looked like it might be a secret compartment. The edge of that square, or maybe that suspicious crack. It had to be around here somewhere!
The children's rhyme of "don't step on a crack or you'll break your mama's back" popped into her head, and she became grateful that she was raised by her brother so that she didn't have to worry about that. But then, her brother had always been sorta like a parent to her, so maybe... But no, that made him more a father than a mother, so she was probably alright.
More to the point, the floor didn't seem to be opening up for her. Maybe it required a key phrase, like Open Sesame. No sense in not trying. "Come forth, O Hougyoku!" she declared, spreading her arms wide.
Nothing happened. Orihime let out a heavy sigh. "Then maybe it only opens when Aizen opens it." That could be a big problem, actually. She certainly didn't want Aizen to be anywhere near here when she tried to destroy the Hougyoku. But maybe she could fool it into thinking she was Aizen?
She stood up straight and tall, then ran the fingers of one hand through her long hair, sweeping it all straight back, only allowing a tiny bit of bangs to come forward. "I am Aizen!" she told the floor, her voice deep and low. She would have given it the full name, but she couldn't remember Aizen's given name at the moment, so she just went on. "Open the thing to let me see my Hougyoku at once!"
Orihime waited for several long, tense minutes, and then let herself slump over. "Ah, well, that didn't work. Come on, floor. Please, can I see it?"
To her surprise, a tiny circle began to glow beside her and from that, a pillar rose up. Orihime squealed in excitement, actually clapping her hands a little as the top finally opened, revealing the Hougyoku.
Carefully, she pulled it from the top section, peering at it closely. Around the black-red ball that was the Hougyoku itself, transparent barriers had been placed. It was almost like holding a glass ring box, except with putty inside.
Thankfully, barriers was something that Orihime knew intimately. Closing her eyes, she seated herself on the cold floor and cupped the box in the palm of one hand, laying the other hand gently on top. She didn't need to break the barriers. In fact, doing so would probably be a bad thing anyway. Instead, she just needed to slip through it.
Her fingers sank through the glassy surface and she shivered a little as she touched the cool surface of the ball inside.
It didn't respond much to her. It almost seemed to nudge her a little at her touch, but then it settled again, content to be asleep.
"Ayame. Shunou." She said their names in a whisper, as though to respect the Hougyoku's desire for sleep. "Souten Kisshun."
Her hairpins glowed and the two fairies appeared in twin flashes of light, immediately forming the dome across her hands. Ayame gave her a worried look. "This may take a while. You're trying to reject the creation of an item that's hundreds of years old. We have to reverse it through every stage it's ever been in."
Orihime nodded. "I know. But I have to do this."
"It's covered in tons of strong, foreign reiatsu," Ayame went on. "It's basically made of strong, foreign reiatsu."
That made Orihime smile. "That means we don't have to resist foreign reiatsu from being rejected. Just reject the whole contents of the barrier."
"Alright," Ayame said unsurely. Orihime knew that the little fairy had grown wary of letting Orihime use their powers, ever since Tsubaki had been shattered. She only wished she knew how to fix him.
Her fairies worked in silence for several minutes. The process ran the Hougyoku's history in reverse. It had lain dormant for a long time, so at first there was no reaction. At one point a flare of energy coursed outward, testament of one single time that Aizen had used its powers, forcing the Hougyoku into a brief period of wakefulness before quickly drifting back to sleep again.
Orihime frowned. Aizen had only used the Hougyoku once? To create just one arrancar? Then how had he created this giant group of arrancar in the first place? Did he have more than one? Or was he creating the arrancar by a different process altogether? But then what was the point of the Hougyoku in the first place?
Her thoughts were interrupted as the Hougyoku nudged her fingers, as though curious. Orihime blinked down at it in surprise. "It woke up again?"
"Yes." She jumped as a group of voices spoke gently, male and female, adult and child, all eerily speaking the same words simultaneously. "We slept, and then we never slept at all."
Orihime jerked her fingers away from the barriered Hougyoku, her eyes going wide. "Is that…?" The voices echoed together in her mind, and somehow she could tell that only she could hear it. "You are the Hougyoku? You're alive?"
"What is alive?" it responded. Its voices seemed to be fading the longer she kept away from it. "Is that a wish? You reversed the sleep. Sleep is gone, never existed. What do you desire?"
Orihime stared down at it. Was it sentient? Possibly. It had figured out what she was doing to it. Reversing its time line, trying to make sure it never existed in the first place. And in the process, as it continued to regress from its current state to a previous one, she had removed whatever it was that had caused it to sleep in the first place.
She stood there a while longer, still somewhat baffled by the object in her hands. She hadn't even thought that something like this could happen. Did she now have the full strength of the Hougyoku? Could she use it against Aizen somehow?
With a determined frown on her face, she slipped her hand back through the barrier, touching the black-red putty inside. "Ayame, Shunou. Stop the process for a moment. I want to talk to it."
Her fairies complied, though they seemed a bit confused. Orihime turned her attention back to the Hougyoku. "What are you?" she wondered to it.
"Everything," it responded. "Everyone. Desires. Dreams. Wishes. Why do you come to me?"
She hesitated a moment. "Someone evil is trying to use you to do bad things in the world. I wanted… Well, it's best to take away his power, and you are his power. Aren't you?"
"Hmm. Aizen Souske," it mused. Orihime nodded. "You wish for his power to fail him? But you did not come here merely to take me away from my current master. Very wise that you seek to destroy me altogether."
Orihime shifted her weight from one foot to the other, hoping that it wasn't offended by her attempt to destroy it. She hadn't known it would be so… talkative.
"I gave you great power, little one." Its voices became soothing. "Your wishes have always been strong. You wish to protect your friends. You wish to be useful to them."
"Wait… you gave me...?" Orihime glanced at her fairies, a little worried for them.
The Hougyoku sent her a feeling of approval. "I granted your wishes and awakened your strength, as well as those of the ones you call friends. And now, the wish of your heart is the safety of your friends, and the downfall of evil. With your power, I can grant you this as well."
Orihime's eyes lit up. "You mean it? Really."
"Consequences follow choice, of course," it rebuked her. "What will you gain by going through with this? By destroying me? Or, what will you gain by keeping me, using my power for good? Both could be wise choices. Both have been attempted by others in the past."
It sent her flashes of images: Aizen as he forced the Hougyoku to awaken long enough to create a new hollow creature. Urahara as he locked it in place and tried his hardest to destroy it.
Orihime let out a sigh as she closed her eyes, imagining each of those situations. With the Hougyoku at her side, she would never be considered useless again. She could protect everyone, and Ichigo could count on her. It would be like having a magical genie with no limits to the number of wishes she could have granted. She would be powerful.
In the other scenario, she could finish reversing the Hougyoku until it shattered back into its individual souls. Nobody would use it again, for good or for bad. With Aizen's source of power diminished, Ichigo and the others would be able to defeat him. The war would be won without having to resort to huge contests of strengths, and everyone would see her as a hero, as someone who helped everyone win.
As the Hougyoku had stated, there were benefits and downsides to each choice. If she didn't destroy the Hougyoku, and kept it for herself, there was always the chance that it could fall into the wrong hands and be used against them once more. If she did destroy it, then maybe they wouldn't have enough firepower to take down Aizen, and they would lose anyway.
She sat there on the floor for a long time, pondering. The Hougyoku seemed content to let her think, as it moved from side to side in its tiny prison. She got the feeling that it was simply basking in the feeling of being awake again.
All the while, she could hear the whispers continue in her head, as the Hougyoku's many voices went back and forth on the issue as well. "Destroy me," some whispered. "Let me help you," said others.
"Look up. Look around," some voices whispered to her, and with a jerk she glanced up and realized that she had acquired an audience without noticing. Aizen observed her casually with a warm expression that nonetheless sent a shiver running down her spine. Beside him, leaning against the wall with his face in its usual unnerving smile, was Ichimaru Gin. Ulquiorra stood a ways back from them, considering her with sharp eyes. None of them looked as though they were going to approach her, but her whole body tensed up, ready to run.
"As I predicted, the woman has been useful," the black-haired arrancar said blandly, a few moments after noticing that she had seen them.
Aizen nodded, his smile never changing. "So I see. She has woken it from its sleep. I wonder if she has accessed its powers yet."
Ichimaru swept towards her, unsheathing his zanpakuto as he approached. "Let's find out," he chuckled.
Orihime was on her feet before she even realized she'd started moving, backing away from the three as fast as she could while still keeping her eyes on the enemy, cupping the Hougyoku close to her as though to hide it. "Hinagiku, Baigon, Lily! Santen Kesshun!" More of her fairies appeared, forming a shield between her and the three watching her.
"Ikorose, Shinsou." Ichimaru released his sword at exactly the same time, and the extending blade rammed into her shield, causing her to gasp in shock. The shield began to crack at the point of impact, but she felt strength flowing from the Hougyoku and the cracks faded.
Ichimaru didn't seem too concerned about that, and he retracted his sword, circling to the side to see if he could get around her shield.
Then a voice came whispering to her, "And where is the last of your fairies?" Tsubaki, who had been shattered. She couldn't fix him, no matter what she tried. "Try again," the voices continued.
"Tsubaki!" she called out desperately, tears welling up in her eyes. And in a moment, he appeared, seeming confused. As she cried out in joy, he took in the situation with narrowed eyes.
"Woman!" he yelled at her, transforming into his attack form. "Run. Destroy that thing! Let me handle them!" Before she could react, he zipped forward, ducking around her shield to go harass Gin.
But the Hougyoku was the thing that had brought Tsubaki back. It was strengthening her shield, and even now, as Tsubaki flew in toward Ichimaru, she could tell that it was strengthening his speed and durability as well. Without it, how could she win?
"You could win if you want to. Do you wish for these men to die?"
The Hougyoku's latest thought shook her to the core. No. She couldn't make herself say that she wanted them dead.
It defied logic: they had killed so many people already. They almost killed Rukia. They had kidnapped her, Orihime, to draw her friends here, so they could destroy them. Their plans included sacrificing her entire home town.
Yet, she did not want them dead.
The Hougyoku seemed just as baffled as she did. "Then what is your wish, Inoue Orihime?"
Orihime hesitated, her mind preoccupied both with this choice she had to make, and with worry over Tsubaki, who seemed to be aiming at Ichimaru's ears. The shinigami dodged his attempts with his eerie smile still firmly in place, occasionally using his free hand to bat the fairy away. Orihime swallowed hard. Ichimaru was playing with her. She had the horrible feeling that he could break through her shields at any time, without any help from the other two.
Her eyes welled up in tears. Once again, she was powerless to stop them. She was useless to her friends. She let her head hang limply, chin against her chest as the tears fell. "I wish for peace," she whispered. "I wish for no more fighting, no more killing."
"That is a difficult task," came the soft response. "The only way to completely ensure that there is no more fighting, no more arguments or anger, is to take away the free will of others; to force them to agree with you. Is that what you desire?"
And again, her heart filled with sadness. What was the point of living if you were always forced to do someone else's will? Who had the right to choose for everyone how to think? If someone told her that she was no longer allowed to eat red bean paste just because one person didn't like it, that would destroy her very core; she would no longer be a real person; only a puppet.
"No," she replied brokenly. "I… I just wish that everyone could be happy, without having to make anyone else unhappy to do so."
A gentle hand fell softly on her shoulder. She automatically jerked back, clenching the Hougyoku close to her chest and whirling to face Aizen as he smiled at her, still holding her. "That is a noble wish," he commented, seemingly unaffected by her attempts to back away. "One which I could help you achieve."
Orihime's eyes went wide, but before she could think of something to say, a large explosion made her wince once more, and this time Aizen backed away with her. One of the walls of the room crumbled, a huge cloud of dust pluming from the debris. Ichigo jumped through his hole into the room and Orihime's heart soared. The coat of his bankai rustled in the wind behind him, with only a few tatters in the cloth. In his arms, he carried a small child, who he promptly set on the floor as he looked around.
The moment he saw her as she wrenched away from Aizen's grasp, he started their direction. "What are you doing to Inoue?" he demanded. Behind him, Rukia also jumped in through the wall, sword already drawn.
Aizen merely smiled. "Talking," he replied, letting her go.
"Ichigo!" Orihime called, and as she ran to meet them, her instant reaction was to hide behind Ichigo, to let him protect her. She realized a split second later that she was being stupid and that she could help him and not just hide. She stopped in her tracks and turned to bring up her shield around them, blocking any advance that Aizen, Gin, or Ulquiorra could possibly make. Tsubaki returned to her side, still ready for action.
Ichigo and Rukia both slowed to a stop beside her, and he considered the other three with a hunter's eyes as he asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," she said confidently. As long as Ichigo was there, she felt like she could do anything. "I got the Hougyoku. It's awake and it's right…"
In alarm, she looked down at her empty hands. When had she…?
Aizen shook his head in amusement as he held up a hand, lightly holding something small glinting in the light. "I believe you dropped this."
Orihime was horrified. "No.. you… you can't…" And then Ichigo wasn't behind her shield anymore.
"Hand it over," he growled, and he brought his sword down at Aizen's head.
Another blade blocked it. Ulquiorra still looked bored of the situation, but he had both hands out of his pockets and his sword unsheathed, which was something that Orihime had never seen him do before. "Your speed has increased since I last killed you."
Ichigo smirked at him as he pushed away, letting himself slide a short way to put some distance between them. "So has your arrogance," he quipped. "I didn't even think that was possible."
Aizen and Gin both turned to leave the room, as casually as if they were taking a stroll. Orihime started after them hurriedly, calling all her fairies to her side. Ulquiorra was not going to let Ichigo pass, she knew, so it had to be up to her to retrieve the item she'd only held very briefly. Rukia followed behind her.
Just as Orihime got to the doorway, she sensed a reiatsu change behind her, and she instinctively turned toward the chaos. Ichigo—or something that now barely felt like Ichigo—threw himself at his opponent, laughing wildly. His whole appearance had changed: his skin was as white as a marble statue, and a great horned hollow mask covered his whole head, hiding every feature besides his abnormally long, orange hair and his black bankai outfit.
Orihime's breath caught in her throat. This reiatsu… She'd felt it before, just as Grimmjow had arrived to fight Ichigo, but she hadn't known what it meant. She'd felt his reiatsu shifting and changing back and forth since he'd first arrived, and she couldn't figure out why. Now she could see: Ichigo had become a hollow.
Rukia caught up with her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "Ichigo is fine," she said shortly. "He's in control of this power. Apparently this is what he's been training for. Are you going after Aizen?"
It took Orihime a while to register the other girl's words as she watched Ichigo fight. Then she shook her head to clear it. "Yes," she told Rukia with determination. "I just powered up the Hougyoku, and now he has it. I've got to go after him."
Rukia nodded as though she were expecting that. "Then I'll come with you."
That raised Orihime's spirits a little. Rukia could have told her to stay out of the way, but instead she wanted to help. Keeping that determined expression on her face, Orihime turned again to the doorway and ran out of the room, Rukia close behind her.
They didn't have to go far. As they rounded a corner, they abruptly ran into Aizen, who had apparently been waiting for them. Gin was nowhere in sight. Both girls immediately took a defensive stance and Orihime's shield came back up, but Aizen made no move towards them.
"The Hougyoku has quite a strong connection to you," Aizen commented to Orihime. "I suspect that it likes you almost more than it likes me, which is truly fascinating. What did you say to it?"
Orihime didn't give him an answer. Honestly, she had no idea what she had done to earn its trust. But then, she didn't know why it liked Aizen either. She could barely tell what it was, much less how it thought.
Instead, a question of her own spilled from her mouth. "Why do you need the Hougyoku? You said before that it breaks down the barrier between shinigami and hollow, that you were using it to create your arrancar, but you only used that power one time. The rest of your army has been assembled for years."
Rukia looked marginally surprised by that, and she also looked to Aizen suspiciously for an answer.
Amiably, Aizen gave her a small nod. "Indeed. I started creating arrancar with my own experiments long before Urahara Kisuke invented this interesting item. Urahara believes—or pretends to believe—that his Hougyoku's only ability is to erase the line between shinigami and hollow, as my work did."
Orihime frowned. "Then, why do you need it?"
"My arrancar are strong, but I am unable to choose the powers they gain, any more than a shinigami chooses his zanpakuto's name. With the Hougyoku, though…" he shook his head with a smile. "As you have seen, the Hougyoku grants wishes, and that means anything is possible."
She chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Then the one time you used it, it was to choose a specific ability for one of your arrancar?"
"Correct. Of course, I mean to use it for further purposes, now that it has been awakened."
Orihime narrowed her eyes at him. "I won't let you have it without a fight," she promised.
Aizen shook his head with a smile. "I don't believe you quite understand. At this moment, the Hougyoku is as willing to help one of us as it is the other. It doesn't matter who physically holds it."
As if to confirm, the sea of voices ran through her head once more. She couldn't make out what they were saying, but they were there, whispering to her.
Rukia shifted uncomfortably and she looked around, confused. Orihime understood: she could hear the voices too. And why wouldn't she? Rukia had had the Hougyoku hidden within her soul, after all.
"You want it for yourself," Orihime stated. "What will you do with us?"
Aizen's smile grew warmer. "We are not enemies, Inoue, Kuchiki. Your greatest wish—for peace—is mine as well. Tell me: How much do you know about the Soul King?"
Startled, Orihime stared at him in confusion. "The Soul King?" she murmured to herself. She remembered he'd been after a key that led to the Soul King's domain, and that he wanted to destroy Karakura to get to it, but she knew nothing more. Rukia's face went flat, and Orihime knew she didn't know any more either. Both remained silent.
"Here," Aizen beckoned them closer, gesturing toward several chairs. "Let me tell you what he is, and why I want to help you."
By the time Ichigo and his hollow finally brought Grimmjow down, Rukia was back on her feet again, though she looked exhausted. Ichigo took the time to lower his opponent back to the ground again rather than let him fall, ignoring Hichigo's scoffs in his mind. His breaths came slow and heavily, and his reiatsu was low again. He was exhausted, himself.
Once Grimmjow was on the ground, Ichigo went straight to Rukia and Nell, who were watching from within one of the red towers in the dome. He tried not to reveal how tired he was. "Come on, we need to get going again."
Rukia gave him a scrutinizing look and opened her mouth to speak, but Nell ignored her entirely, jumping straight at Ichigo in a tackle that knocked the breath out of him and pinned him to the floor.
"ITSUGO! You did it! I'm tho happy!" she yelled, tears streaming from her eyes. "You winned!"
Ichigo pushed her away, suppressing a yelp as the girl irritated the cuts Grimmjow had inflicted. He really didn't want Nell to think he'd been hurt, because otherwise, she would...
Nell noticed his injuries anyway and, after exclaiming over it for a moment, threw up on him. Ichigo groaned.
Rukia finished her protest. "We are staying here for now. You may have won, but you need to rest and heal before we move on if you want to have even a chance of surviving your next battle."
Now that Nell's disgusting healing drool was oozing all over him, Ichigo couldn't move without making it ooze even more. He tried to wipe it off as much as he could, but it was hard with Nell still on his chest. He was stuck.
Rukia sat down beside him and started her healing kidou, though it was faint enough that he wasn't sure it was helping anything. He reached over and took a hold of her wrist, looking stubborn. "If I have to rest, than you should too. You're hurt more than I am."
Rukia rolled her eyes. "Yeah, I'm definitely in a worse condition than the guy who nearly died a minute ago," she said sarcastically.
Nell gave her a confused look. "Wathent you almotht dying too? Nell and the mean lady came and thaved you."
"Okay, fine. We'll all take a short rest," Ichigo decided before Rukia could respond. He let himself relax as much as he could on the concrete floor. He and Hichigo may have been tag teaming, so their minds were refreshed enough to think clearly during battle, but his body didn't have that luxury. A sword blow to Hichigo still stung sharply when Ichigo switched in.
To keep his mind off that, he began searching for his friends' reiatsu signatures, closing his eyes and concentrating. Chad seemed stabilized, so he was probably doing okay, though he hadn't moved from the spot where he went down. He could finally sense Ishida again, and it looked like Renji was nearby him. Both of them looked low on reiatsu. Lisa's reiatsu had flared up, so she was probably also fighting someone. Ichigo didn't particularly care about her or her opponent, who obviously wasn't Ulquiorra, but he wondered if she'd been able to get to Inoue before getting caught. His friend seemed so far away, and he couldn't make out any details, so he had no idea what was happening to her.
The shinigami captains would be arriving soon, he hoped. They'd been doing a pretty good job, all things considered, but they could really use the backup right about now.
It was an agonizingly long wait before Ichigo decided he'd had enough of waiting. Rukia obviously knew that both of them weren't anywhere near their peaks, and she gave him a worried frown, but she didn't stop him as he got to his feet. She stood as well, and they started in Inoue's direction, Ichigo picking up Nell so that they could flash step without leaving her behind.
Soon, they reached Lisa, who fought against an arrancar with a giant spoon for a "hood". Ichigo wasn't going to bother asking about the strange clothing option. "Did you find Inoue?" he called to Lisa.
"I did," she said with some annoyance, blocking a downward blow from the spoon-head. "She says she doesn't need to be rescued."
That threw Ichigo for a loop. "She said what?"
Lisa didn't answer right away, preoccupied with the arrancar who was trying to cut her in half. She whirled around and struck at her opponent with her nodachi-like zanpakuto, forcing a little distance between them. She didn't take her eyes off of him when she spoke. "She has a plan of some sort, apparently. She claims to have joined Aizen willingly, but she's not a very good liar."
Ichigo nodded. "Fine. Have fun with this guy. Come on, Rukia." The scathing look the Vaizard gave him was priceless. Rukia followed him as he continued toward Inoue, still carrying Nell.
After a few minutes, the hallways they were running down came abruptly to an end, opening out into the bright sunny area again. He could sense Inoue in a place just outside the dome walls some distance away. When they reached it, he wasn't about to go searching around for a doorway. He didn't even need to use Getsuga Tenshou, blasting himself a new door with his sword.
He jumped into the room, standing on the debris from his new door and swiping a hand through the dust to clear the air. The first thing he saw, standing over Inoue with a hand on her shoulder, was Aizen. Angrily, he set Nell on the floor and dashed towards them. "What are you doing to Inoue?" he demanded as Rukia jumped in through the hole in the wall behind him.
"Talking." Aizen stepped back from Inoue, as though he hadn't been about to do something evil to his hostage. Inoue headed his way, calling out his name, and the two met in the center, Inoue turning back to face Aizen again as he reached her side. Rukia stopped on Inoue's other side a moment later. Inoue brought up her shield.
"Are you okay?" he asked her, eyeing the other three warily. Aizen, Gin, and Ulquiorra. He couldn't take all of them at once; not when one of them had recently curb stomped him.
"Yes," Inoue responded immediately. "I got the Hougyoku. It's awake and it's right..."
Ichigo turned to her, surprised. That was her plan? She'd gone after the Hougyoku by herself? But his expression quickly faded to dread as she stared down at her empty hands. She'd tried to get it, but she didn't have it anymore.
Aizen held it up for them to see, a disgustingly amiable smile on his face. "I believe you dropped this."
Ichigo flash stepped away from Inoue, leaving her to stand behind her shield as he charged Aizen. He only had a loose grip on the thing; maybe he could—
Before he could get close, another sword slid in between the two of them, catching Zangetsu's thin blade and holding it there. Ulquiorra looked exactly as bored as the last time Ichigo had seen him. "Your speed has increased since I last killed you," he commented, voice carefully monotone.
Ichigo smirked at him as he pushed away, letting himself slide backwards a bit to put distance between them again. "So has your arrogance," he returned. "I didn't even think that was possible."
He kept his eyes on his chosen opponent, but he sensed more than saw Aizen and Gin both turning to leave the room. Inoue started after them, calling her fairies to her side. For a brief moment, Ichigo warred against himself, wanting to stay between her and that snake, but he couldn't do that and fight Ulquiorra at the same time.
Hichigo, of course, pushed them towards action. "One opponent at a time," he yelled. "We are not going to lose this again."
Ichigo nodded, face grim. He still wanted to help them, but they couldn't afford to wait. "Ramp it up," he said to Hichigo. "We're going to need our full strength for this." He began to shove all of his reiatsu toward his hollow.
Their skin glowed bright blue. Ichigo held his breath, struggling to make sure his hollow got all of it. Hichigo laughed as he pushed at their powers as well. For a long, agonizing moment, Ichigo thought nothing would happen. Finally, their combined strengths sent them over the edge, and their body transformed. Pale white skin, the horned hollow mask, tufts of red fur, and an insane amount of power.
"Let's go!" Ichigo yelled to Hichigo, but the hollow didn't need prompting. He used sonido to appear instantly at Ulquiorra's side, swinging hard. The arrancar reacted faster than they'd hoped, and just as fast, they had to block a return attack.
And Ichigo suddenly realized that yes, they both had to block together. Hichigo's sonido was slower than he'd expected because Ichigo wasn't flash stepping with him. But he had instinctively moved to block at the same time as his hollow, and that had strengthened the maneuver. This form would apparently only work if they moved the same way at the same time.
That seemed strange compared to earlier, when his hollow had taken partial control of his hand as they left the room with the five doors at the beginning. At that time, trying to move together felt weird, like his hand had gone halfway numb. Now, though, Ichigo wasn't trying to be in control along with Hichigo; he was too busy putting as much energy into the form as possible, letting Hichigo 'steer'. But he wasn't just shoving energy in random directions; he needed to focus on specific areas. More energy in the right arm as Hichigo moved to block. More energy to strengthen their Getsuga Tenshou. It felt less like reiatsu manipulation and more like he was actually trying to move himself. In effect, they had to think together; move together.
Inoue had stopped to gawk at him, horror written across her face. He'd forgotten that she still didn't know about Hichigo. He didn't have time to think about it, though, and Rukia was by her, probably offering explanations. For a while longer, she continued to stare at him, but then her face set into a determined line and she whirled around to run after Aizen, Rukia still by her side. Nell stayed in the room, standing by a wall to watch them worriedly. Ichigo moved to protest their leaving. Even with the two of them, they didn't have much of a chance against Aizen. He tried to say as much, but Hichigo swatted at him to focus back on Ulquiorra. "One opponent at a time!" he repeated with a grin.
Hichigo jumped immediately back into action, aiming another blow at the arrancar's head. Somewhat startled, Ichigo was late to follow, but Ulquiorra didn't seem fazed by it at all, blocking easily.
Ichigo and his hollow had speed on their side, but only barely. They were able to keep up with Ulquiorra much faster than before as they traded blows. The guy was hard to land a hit on, but he also didn't hit them. They would probably be able to get him to release his resurreccion, and then the fight would really get crazy.
They would have to get better at coordinating their attacks, though. Ichigo tried his best to match Hichigo's movements, and Hichigo in turn tried to match Ichigo's. It was harder to do than it sounded. They could feel their body locking up every time they pushed different directions.
Ichigo had never truly understood his hollow's fighting style. Hichigo tended towards many fast blows from as many different angles as possible, while Ichigo was more apt to defend himself and react with a single heavier attack. Both strategies worked for them, but now they conflicted with each other.
Hichigo flung himself at Ulquiorra, stabbing forward with his sword a good ten or twenty times, but the arrancar ducked around every one of them, not bothering to block with his blade. When Hichigo dashed to the side for a better angle, Ulquiorra used the brief respite to kick at him. His foot landed squarely on Hichigo's abdomen, sending him reeling to the floor.
The hollow recovered quickly, using the momentum to roll back to his feet and immediately lunged at Ulquiorra again. The arrancar jumped lightly above their heads, raising a finger to send a sickly green cero like a giant lightning bolt at them.
Ichigo tried to dodge away, pushing off a nearby pillar to leap sideways. Hichigo noticed and followed him, and the maneuver succeeded, cracking a big spider web pattern across the pillar in the process. Together they swung upward, catching their blade on the arrancar's white outfit at the shoulder. Ulquiorra jerked away, causing the fabric to tear, and landed from his jump.
Hichigo laughed as he powered up a cero to match the one he'd just ducked around. It glowed red, suspended between the horns of his mask, quickly reaching its peak. He pointed it in the arrancar's general direction, not really bothering to aim. Ichigo floundered. He couldn't mimic that; he didn't know how. The crackling cero shattered as it shot out, pieces of it flying in every direction. He and Ulquiorra were both hit with the shards of destructive energy, but neither were injured.
Angrily, Hichigo mentally grabbed Ichigo and hauled him closer. "Do what I do!"
Ichigo shoved back. "You think I don't know that? I can't help you with a freaking cero! That's your job! Use Getsuga if you want me to help!"
He didn't have time to respond, because Ulquiorra was on them again. Both of them ducked under the blow. "Left!" Hichigo called, and Ichigo lunged that direction with him. "I'm circling him; move and fire!"
Gritting his teeth, Ichigo followed the command. Again, they moved together, slashing out with bursts of small Getsuga Tenshou waves with every step. Ulquiorra whirled, catching each wave on his sword and flinging them back with great effort.
Hichigo's dangerous grin only grew as he slammed his sword against Ulquiorra's. They both strained for a second, and then the other blade started to crack. Before the arrancar could move, they sent one more powerful Getsuga coursing past it at Ulquiorra himself. He was sent flying backwards into a wall, which crumbled under the force.
As the dust settled, Ichigo could see his opponent standing calmly amidst the rubble. The attack hadn't knocked him down, and now he held up a hand to point another bright green cero directly at them. "Hit it!" the hollow yelled, and let out a cackle. Together they pushed energy into another Getsuga Tenshou to counter. The two waves of energy turned to smoke with a sharp grinding sound as they exactly canceled each other out.
Ulquiorra's eyes flashed as he saw them, perfectly unharmed by his attack. Abruptly, the arrancar looked up and did a straight vertical jump, cutting away whole floors of the tower with each swing of his sword as he rose higher and higher. Ichigo gave chase, finding the jump as easy to do as their opponent had, dodging the falling debris. Was the Espada actually running from him? Below, he heard Nell cry out as he got further and further away.
Then they cleared the tower entirely, still continuing upward. Ichigo narrowed his eyes as he used the remains of the tower to push off and followed. Once they were high enough, Ulquiorra slashed his sword one last time, and the blue ceiling opened wide to let them through.
Above the dome of Hueco Mundo.
It took them both a second or two to adjust to the new setting. Inside, the dome had been as bright as a summer day, but up here an eternal night had fallen. Somehow, it looked even darker than it had while traveling towards it with Nell and her group. Ichigo could only imagine the reactions of the others fighting in the dome as their sky cracked open.
Ulquiorra had jumped up all the way to the top of one of the outside towers rather than just to the surface of the dome. He looked down on them, apathetic as usual. "There are two things we are prohibited from doing within Las Noches," he let them know. "The first is using a Gran Ray Cero, reserved only for the Espada. The second is Espada 4 and up releasing their swords."
Hichigo cackled at him. "So we're up here for that! Perfect; I was just starting to get bored!"
The arrancar actually took the effort to frown more deeply than usual. "You are still trash," he stated. "Your growth is not complete, and it never will be. Enclose, Murcielago!"
"Don't get too complacent," Ichigo warned his hollow. A black and green burst of energy surrounded Ulquiorra, dripping about him like rain. "We don't have any more power ups. This form is hard enough to use as it is, much less with him getting stronger."
Hichigo snapped back at him. "Don't quote me at me!" he rebuked. "I know what we're doing! Quit thinking; get into the fight!"
Ulquiorra had become almost bat-like. Large black wings formed on his back and his hollow mask repositioned itself, horns protruding symmetrically from either side of his head. The sword itself disappeared completely. As he leapt from the top of the tower, his wings opened.
The arrancar disappeared from sight, and a bright green burst of energy came at them from the left, aimed at the throat. Hichigo flung his sword that direction, powering it with a Getsuga Tenshou, while Ichigo reacted by throwing himself out of the way. The result was a weak wave and a half-dodge. A faint crack rang through Ichigo's head, and the green energy clipped them on the shoulder, sending them reeling in a backwards dive. They tried to adjust, but a pillar stood too close and they smashed into it.
Both of them put all their efforts into getting back to their feet as fast as possible, Hichigo yelling at his shinigami counterpart the whole time. "You almost got us killed!"
Ichigo didn't have the patience nor the time to respond, as Ulquiorra threw the energy (a green, lance-shaped thing) he now wielded at them like a javelin. Again it came lightning fast, but this time they could see it. The bolt shattered what was left of the pillar, the blast coming so close to their head that they caught the smell of burning hair.
"Move together," Ichigo cautioned, feeling frazzled. "We have to go the same direction when we dodge."
The hollow scoffed and sent another Getsuga harmlessly at his opponent. "Less talk, more fight, idiot," he returned haughtily.
At those words, Ichigo mentally looked over at his hollow with surprise. His voice had gotten fainter, and it wasn't just that he'd stopped shouting.
His hollow kept his attention outside, not acknowledging him at all, but as Ichigo watched, he could see the other slipping further and further away as a fissure formed between them. A deep black darkness spilled up from it as it grew.
Outside, Hichigo ducked around and sent another black Getsuga wave at Ulquiorra. Ichigo was too distracted to move with him, and the fissure in their mind cracked even wider.
"Hichigo!" he shouted, lunging to reach his hollow. "Something's wrong! We're falling!"
Hichigo turned to snap at him, but froze when he saw what was going on. Immediately he reached back, trying to keep some of his focus on the powerful Espada attacking him. Both of them strained to reach, and their fingers touched, but their momentum stopped there.
Outside, their body matched their mental moves simultaneously, trying to lunge to the left side at the same time as they lunged to the right. Something snapped with a bone-grinding splinter, and more darkness flooded out like a dam had broken, sending them both washing away in opposite directions and over the edge of a huge chasm. Ichigo's last thought was, "Nobody's steering..."
He plunged into the sea of black below him.
Someone was calling his name. He felt light, like he was suspended in water, but it tossed and roiled around him.
His eyes snapped open as he came fully awake, searching his surroundings. There was nothing but darkness, swirling wildly around him in different shades of black, dark on dark. It looked like shadows and felt like it was lashing out angrily, like the ocean during a hurricane. He could feel the current of it pulsing against his whole body.
"Zangetsu!" Ichigo yelled as he realized who had been calling to him. The shadows around him didn't seem to impair his ability to talk. "Where are you? What happened?"
His zanpakuto's voice sounded far away. "I do not know," was all he said.
Well, that was helpful. With great effort, he tried to push his way through the darkness, heading hopefully toward Zangetsu. "Where's Hichigo?"
"I do not know." He should have expected that.
Progress through the waves was difficult. The darkness pushed and prodded against him from all directions, yanking him forward and backward, left to right, until it was hard to tell if his efforts were even a little effective.
"Keep talking to me, Zangetsu. I need to find you!"
His zanpakuto obliged. "I shall continue to speak, though I do not have much to say." He paused. "Yes. I do hear both of you."
Ichigo grit his teeth against the forces around him. "So you did find Hichigo?"
"No. I do not know where either of you are."
Ichigo frowned. "Why can't I hear him, then?"
"I do not know. Possibly you are too far away. He cannot hear you either."
For some reason, that brought dread to the pit of his stomach, and he pondered grimly as he pushed forward.
He still remembered the first time he'd seen the old man, back when his world was falling apart. Zangetsu had tried so hard to tell Ichigo his name, but he couldn't hear it. Without that link of communication, of friendship, they could never have come this far. If he couldn't hear his hollow, that link between them must somehow have been lost.
The idea that he had been cut off from Hichigo right when their cooperation was at its highest...
After a few more agonizingly slow minutes, Ichigo noticed that Zangetsu had stopped talking again. He had to push away the silly thought of starting a game of Marco Polo, and instead he called out, "Can you still hear me?"
"Yes. You sound closer now." There was a short pause, then, "Yes. Both of you do."
Through the darkness, Ichigo thought he could make out the form of a person ahead of him. The shadows around him continued to rage and swirl, but this form seemed steady.
Ichigo pushed harder, and little by little the form got closer, becoming clearer to make out. "Zangetsu, I see you!"
The form shifted, and for a moment Ichigo thought he'd lost him in the swirl of darkness, but there it was again. Zangetsu had turned to look, and now Ichigo was certain it was him.
Even though he'd gotten so close, he still had to struggle the last few yards to move forward. Finally, he caught hold of Zangetsu's hand. "I found you," he gasped out, exhausted. "Where's Hichigo?"
Zangetsu seemed mildly surprised. "He is here, Ichigo," he said, holding out his hands to show that he had one holding Ichigo's hand and the other holding... nothing. "Both of you are here," Zangetsu assured him.
That sick feeling came over him again. "I... I can't see him. We really have been cut off from each other," he murmured to himself. He reached for Zangetsu's other hand, searching for his hollow, but he felt nothing.
For a few moments, they simply drifted in silence, holding tightly to keep the current from ripping them away from each other. Ichigo let his chin drop to his chest. "What can I do, Zangetsu? Why is this happening?"
The zanpakuto spirit's words only echoed his own thoughts. "A lack of communication means a lack of understanding."
Ichigo scowled. "We already understand each other," he protested. "I know who Hichigo is. He's a hollow, and possibly an arrancar, according to Sandal-hat. He has access to our hollow powers. He's slightly insane."
Zangetsu bowed his head a little. "Each of you acknowledge the differences between you. One is a shinigami, the other a hollow. One white, one black. But while your differences define you, they do not let you understand."
"Then... If we find things about us that are the same?" Ichigo guessed.
The zanpakuto spirit said nothing. Ichigo set himself to thinking. "We both... share the same body? Our physical limits are the same."
At that, a thin, white outline faded into existence beside Zangetsu. Despite the still swirling shadows, its form remained solid, the shape of a person. Ichigo might have found this strange, but now nothing seemed to surprise him about this place.
Then Hichigo apparently suggested something, for another wisp of white outlined Zangetsu's shikai form, as though hung on the outline person's back. True, they both used Zangetsu's powers.
"Uh..." Ichigo had to think hard. There were so many differences, it was hard to think of anything else. The word 'hollow' kept bouncing uselessly back to the front of his mind.
Even in appearance, they were opposites; familiar, but mirrored. They moved differently. They thought differently. Ichigo had stopped trying to keep secrets from his hollow, and Hichigo no longer had secrets from him, but there was still too much distrust on both sides.
Ichigo thought a little harder on his first suggestion. "Maybe I'm just repeating myself, but... We both look the same. Um, not the colors, but the shape is the same." Obligingly, his face was added to the outline like a rough sketch.
The sword shape flashed and went to the outline person's hand, and a new sword shape formed, crossed with the Zangetsu shape. Ichigo understood it pretty fast. "We both like to fight. We even like fighting each other," he admitted. Even with the arguments they constantly got into, neither of them were ever very serious. There was no malice there; not anymore.
"We both want to work together," Ichigo added, and the white lines created two hands clasped together.
Then came Hichigo's next addition: the mouth of the outline opened, with giant lines coming forth. Ichigo shook his head. It was true; both of them could get quite loud if they wanted to.
Another one popped into his mind. "We... well, this is mostly Hichigo, but we both tend to learn through instinct. Nobody has to tell us how to do things; we just do it." He'd experienced that too many times to count, for each of them.
In the middle of the outline's chest, the face of an animal of some sort appeared. A wolf, maybe.
Hichigo apparently had to take a moment longer to think, because nothing else about the outline changed.
Ichigo pressed his palms against his eyes, still searching. They were kind of scraping at the bottom of the barrel, here. What else did they actually have in common?
Finally, the image of a brick wall appeared above the outline's head. Ichigo scowled at it. "You jerk," he said in Hichigo's direction, though he knew the other couldn't hear him. It took him a minute to remember that the symbol was meant to signify both of them. Stubbornness.
Ichigo sighed. Thinking along those lines, he could think of another. "We're not very patient," he admitted. At his words, there came an image of a wristwatch, its glass cracked.
Then an image formed within the forehead of the outline, a thing that looked like a video game controller. Ichigo hit his head for not thinking of that one sooner. "We both want control. Not just control of our body, we want things to go our way all the time."
Zangetsu nodded. "This is a source of your conflict," he agreed. "Not because you are different, but because you are the same."
Ichigo stared at the image before him. The more they added to it, the more it encompassed everything he was, everything he cared about. This was his self-portrait.
It was Hichigo's, too. And as he watched, his hollow added a final component amongst the others: a large bright shield.
Ichigo stared at it, not quite believing. He raised a hand up to touch the shield. "To protect?" He knew it applied to himself, but... "What do you protect?"
The image shattered suddenly, its pieces immediately lost within the rolling darkness. Ichigo didn't flinch away, and though he still couldn't see Hichigo, he felt that his hand was pressed against its mirror.
"I protect the same thing you protect," he heard his hollow say, his voice hinting heavily that this should have been obvious. "Inoue and Rukia. Karin and Yuzu. Chad. Occasionally, you."
Ichigo shook his head. "But why? You're a hollow!"
Hichigo laughed, his voice calm, yet still amused. "Why wouldn't I want to protect them? Where do you think I came from? You think I just appeared out of nowhere one day purely to torment you?"
Ichigo didn't really have an answer to that. "Uh..."
"Once again, your stupidity proves vaster than I thought. I started out being you, Ichigo." Hichigo gave a short chuckle and moved his hand away. "Not sure if you noticed, but Zangetsu insists on calling me Ichigo whenever he can get away with it. He always has. He's still convinced that we're the same person."
"Really?" Ichigo raised an eyebrow at Zangetsu, but the zanpakuto spirit said nothing.
Shaking his head, Ichigo let out a small sigh. "So... you still have all my memories. But don't hollows attack the ones they were close to?"
"I never said my existence made any sense," Hichigo responded dryly. "I don't feel the same way about your friends as we used to, but I don't want them dead. You knew that already."
Grudgingly, Ichigo accepted that. Maybe it had something to do with the 'arrancar' thing that Urahara had come up with, but whether it made sense or not, it was true.
"Why do you always know so much more than me?" he asked out of frustration. He didn't really expect an answer.
Hichigo gave one anyway. "I don't."
Blinking, Ichigo looked up in surprise. "What do you mean? You've been training me this whole time, you know everything about Zangetsu already, I don't even know how much more you know than me."
There was a long silence. Zangetsu seemed to be giving Hichigo an expectant look, though of course Ichigo couldn't see his hollow.
Finally, Hichigo spoke again, sounding reluctant and guilty. "Ichigo, I haven't been training you as much as you think. It's... actually Zangetsu who's been training both of us."
Zangetsu bowed his head. "As I have always done."
Ichigo felt baffled and a little betrayed. "He's training you?" He gave Zangetsu a hurt look. "Why would you tell him things, but not me?"
"Zangetsu doesn't like talking," Hichigo said, his voice still tense. "He's almost as bad as Chad. But Zangetsu and I have a mental link, for some reason, so he just sends me enough info that I can speak for him. We've done it this way since I was created. Remember the battle with Kenpachi?"
That did sound familiar. Ichigo had been an idiot (again), not realizing that he could call on his sword for help. Zangetsu had pulled him into his mental world, but the hollow was the one who'd done all the talking.
But that meant Hichigo had been lying to him about their training. Hanging tightly to Zangetsu's arm to hold him steady in the still-raging shadows, he swung his fist in Hichigo's direction. The hollow couldn't see him coming any more than Ichigo could see his target, and his punch connected with something solid in the empty space. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" he demanded. "If I'd known that it was Zangetsu, I never-"
"Because I hated you!" came the vehement response, and Ichigo backed down in surprise at the heat of his words. Hichigo often yelled at him, but never had he sounded this angry. "You gave me hope that I might actually be useful, and then you immediately smashed it! You never gave me a chance! As soon you knew I was there, you only attacked me or purposefully ignored me! I hated you more than we've ever hated anything!"
Ichigo reeled back, unable to respond.
After a moment or two, Hichigo continued, more calmly this time. "You'd only ever been an enemy to me, no matter how hard I tried. What did it matter why I was stronger than you?"
Gritting his teeth, Ichigo looked away. He should have known that. He'd already realized it earlier. Ichigo's actions had been horrible, to say the least, but it still hurt to hear the accusations. He hadn't even tried to see what his hollow actually wanted to do. He'd assumed Hichigo would be like the other hollows he'd ever seen: monsters. All the way up until the battle with Grimmjow that had changed everything.
"I know," he said softly. "I'm-"
"Shut up," Hichigo snapped before his 'sorry' could come out. "Don't waste time stating the obvious. You did this already. I forgave you. Mostly."
Ichigo shook his head. "Zangetsu knew you better than I did," he reasoned out. "He helped you so that he could help both of us. And that's also why you know what all of Zangetsu's powers are."
"Basically. Though, sometimes I think that even he doesn't know what all his powers are until he gets them. Bankai kind of took him by surprise," the hollow snickered.
"I knew of its existence," Zangetsu defended himself shortly.
Ichigo had to smile a little at that, but he quickly returned his focus to Hichigo. "But if you've been learning at the same time as I have..."
"Then we are equals," Hichigo finished. "You trained outside, I trained inside, so our fighting styles are different, but as far as power goes, we are the same."
"But what about the hollow powers?" Ichigo asked, still trying to process this.
Hichigo laughed. "They're instinctive, you idiot. You have exactly as much control over them as I do."
And that also should have been obvious from the start. Ichigo hit himself lightly on the head for that one and let out a quiet groan. "This entire time, I've been trying to catch up to you. I figured you were light years ahead of me. I even found myself admiring how strong you were."
Zangetsu closed his eyes. "And yet, you are the same. The time for secrets is over. Ichigo: do you understand yourself?"
Ichigo now knew that the zanpakuto was using his name to mean both of them. He looked to Hichigo and was surprised to see that his hollow was back to normal. They could see each other again. "Do we?" he asked seriously.
Hichigo grinned at him. "Yeah. I think we finally do." He held his free hand out to Ichigo, and the shinigami shook it firmly.
"Then let's go!"
The shadows still swirled around them, but now they seemed to part before the three of them as they pushed their way through. For some reason, they didn't have to wonder where to go: the surface of this ocean was the way out.
Lisa stood at the edge of a huge hole that led down into the dome as she watched the arrancar Ulquiorra battle a creature that had been Kurosaki Ichigo. She cradled a broken arm to her chest, not really paying much attention to the healing kidou she was trying to use on herself.
It didn't matter whether or not she was well enough to fight. Not yet, anyway. Ulquiorra seemed capable of handling Ichigo's hollowified body as it viciously attacked him, even if the arrancar seemed a bit slower. She stood there merely to prevent any of his friends from coming up and getting caught in the crossfire of the battle; the exact reason she'd come to Hueco Mundo in the first place. Honestly, she'd expected at least one of them to show up by now.
Captain Zaraki Kenpachi had stepped in to take over her fight with Nnoitra, which was fine by her. She had stayed to watch them fight until Ichigo's reiatsu suddenly changed yet again.
Over the last day or so, she had been near Ichigo enough to tell which of the two of them was in control. Their signatures were similar, but distinctly different. When they used the bizarre new hollow form, it felt as though both sets of reiatsu were being pressed together. Now, a new reiatsu had overtaken them. Wild and powerful, it washed out both reiatsu signatures entirely.
Lisa could guess what had happened: the two of them had finally started their battle for control, despite Ichigo's insistence that it wasn't going to happen. She'd made her way quickly to the top of the dome, trying to determine what that entailed.
So far, the only thing she'd really seen was that both Ichigo and Ulquiorra were ridiculously overpowered and dangerous. Each lance Ulquiorra threw created explosions in the distance large enough to destroy a good half of Las Noches, which was worrying considering his admission that they were hard to control. The beast that was Ichigo sent back cero blasts that were almost as destructive. It was a wonder that neither of them had totally demolished the dome yet.
She honestly wasn't sure which one of them she wanted to win. Obviously, it would be better overall if Ichigo won, but on the other hand, if he won while he was like this, he'd probably end up attacking his friends, too, and that would prove difficult even for the shinigami captains below.
She supposed she could only hope that Ichigo—the real Ichigo—survived whatever trials he was facing in his mind.
Lisa looked away from the battle to check the stopwatch she'd brought with her. Sixty-nine minutes, two seconds; that was Hiyori's record longest time taken to subdue her inner hollow. Any longer than that, and it could be assumed that Ichigo lost. If so, he would have to be eliminated to keep him from Aizen's grasp, though she had no idea how she would pull it off now. The hollow within him was simply too strong.
It hadn't come to that yet—the stopwatch didn't even show twenty minutes—but she didn't want to think about what would happen if it hit seventy.
Ichigo wasn't the only one who had changed forms during this fight. Ulquiorra's reiatsu had changed just as they got to the top of the dome, so she figured he'd released his ressurecion. But when Ichigo lost control, Ulquiorra shifted again; another release somehow?
Now that she could see the combatants, it was at least clear that the arrancar had enough speed and strength to fight despite the hollowified form's massive, crazy reiatsu. Ulquiorra seemed startled by his opponent's speed as they threw themselves at each other, both of them making heavy use of sonido. At one point, the beast managed to knock off a large part of Ulquiorra's wing, but it quickly reformed and Lisa sighed again. Both of them had high speed regeneration. That was annoying.
Still, it looked like Ichigo's form had the upper hand by a fairly wide margin. The longer they fought, the more injuries the arrancar took, and many of them came before he could even start regenerating the first ones. Lisa could see that Ulquiorra wouldn't last much longer, and that didn't bode well for anyone.
At first, Lisa had concluded that this insane, instinct-driven hollow form was simply stronger than Ichigo's original power, but as she watched, she also realized that his fighting had changed completely. It was far more brutal than anything either Ichigo or his hollow had ever done. There was no room for human emotions like fear or mercy in that beast; just sheer destruction.
This was how her own inner hollow had fought, back when they'd all had to deal with this for the first time. It was how all hollows she'd ever seen fought.
The more powerful the hollow, the more likely it was to be intelligent enough to create traps, to have battle strategies, to be more unpredictable and better at attacking, but that was the only instinct they'd ever call upon. Everything was about becoming stronger, about winning and killing and devouring. She could see that clearly in the battle she now watched, from both sides.
But unlike this thing that was currently in control, brutality was not something she'd ever seen from Ichigo's hollow. From Hichigo. He was crafty, and he was strong, no doubt about that, but something was different, and she finally had to grudgingly admit to herself that he was not at all what she'd expected.
"Go help my friend!" he'd shouted at her, pushing away from a battle to defend someone who had only been an inconvenience to him in previous battles.
And when Ichigo lay dying, when nothing but fighting for control could possibly save them, he'd refused. Somehow, inexplicably, they'd pushed through together.
The only thing that made the slightest bit of sense was Urahara's arrancar theory, but even that didn't quite add up. The arrancar she'd seen here were also only interested in battle, the exception being little Nell. The tiny girl struck her as being "broken" somehow, though, so she didn't count.
Lisa shook her head. Once again, she could only conclude that she knew nothing about Ichigo's mirror. He was an anomaly amongst hollows.
Ulquiorra's condition had reached a point where he could no longer summon his green lances. He continued fighting, blocking with quick snaps of his wings and striking out with his long tail and his claws, but even watching from afar, Lisa could see the growing desperation in his eyes.
Ichigo's hollow form hadn't lost any of its speed, and finally it snagged one of the arrancar's wings, twisting it sideways and pulling Ulquiorra off balance, violently smashing him down into the concrete of the tower where they stood. Immediately, it started charging up a cero, originating from the tips of his long horns.
Ulquiorra lay on his back, gazing up at the cero as it formed above his head. His face had gone blank again, and he spoke, his voice just barely discernible above the crackling of the forming attack. "Do it," he said passively. "I have lost."
The cero shot downward, and a huge explosion of energy flooded the top of the dome. Lisa flinched back, her good arm coming up to shade her eyes from the blinding light, and braced herself to prevent the shock wave from knocking her over.
The light faded and her vision returned. The hollow still held Ulquiorra's wing, but a good half of the arrancar's body had been blown away completely. The beast let him fall to the earth, but he didn't stop there, raising his sword again. Lisa watched in horror as he drove the point of the blade through Ulquiorra's neck. For a long moment, nothing happened, then the arrancar started to dissolve, the way hollows do when they've been purified.
Ichigo's form stood straight again, coldly observing the floating particles of dust as they disappeared entirely. Then it turned her direction. With a grimace, Lisa turned around and jumped through the hole in the dome's ceiling, letting herself fall back toward the sand as fast as she could.
Above her, as she'd feared, Ichigo gave chase. She hit the sand running and the beast was only a split second behind her. She headed back in Kenpachi's direction. He was the one most likely to have a chance against this demon, and if Nnoitra was still alive, all the better.
She didn't get far. A hand caught her on the side of her head, and before she could register what had happened, the blow sent her crashing into a red pillar. She was too stunned to react as it strode to her side, raising Zangetsu again. Lisa winced, bracing herself to take the hit.
Suddenly, the sword dropped to the sand beside her, and the hollow form reared back and began to scream. His clawed hands gripped the sides of the mask as though it pained him, and slowly he sank to one knee.
Lisa scrambled to her feet, her heart still racing. Their inner fight had ended. Which of them had won?
The screaming grew louder and higher, the beast straining as though trying to escape its own body. Finally, with a resounding crack, the mask split diagonally across the center, the entire left half exploding into shards and the other remaining on his head like a half helmet. One eye remained hidden, but now the other was revealed beneath the shattered mask, shut tightly. The skin on his face and body slowly shifted from pale white to his usual skin tone. His hollow hole, barely visible below his clothes, closed up, almost as though it was soaking in the white from the rest of his skin. All of the red tufts of fur disappeared, though his hair didn't change. Then, strangely enough, the black drained from his shinigami robes and bankai coat, leaving them all a brilliant white.
Lisa let herself relax just a little. Ichigo had won. She could tell that purely by the hollow hole disappearing. He still looked a great deal like a hollow, which was unnerving, but he was back in control.
Still crouched low to the ground, breathing heavily, Ichigo slowly opened his eyes and looked around warily. Those eyes were still black and gold, and the sheer amount of him that remained hollow-like prompted Lisa to search for his reiatsu to confirm it really was him.
His reiatsu signature was far from normal. Lisa could only stare. That couldn't be right. Could it? But there was no denying what she saw. Ichigo's reiatsu had returned, thick and heavy as usual, but Hichigo's had somehow mixed itself in with it. The two sets of reiatsu had blended together, becoming a single whole. Ichigo wasn't the only one standing there.
His gaze fell on her and he grimaced. "You?" His voice still had the echo of a hollow. "What happened to Ulquiorra?"
Lisa' mind was still trying to register what she was seeing in front of her. "That's... impossible," was all she could get out.
At that, he looked honestly confused. "What is?" and this time, the voice was normal; Ichigo's voice. Were they... both in control at the same time?
She could only continue to gawk at him. It just didn't make any sense. How had they managed to have a final battle to the death with both of them coming out of it alive? One should have killed the other. One should have won full control. She tried to speak, but sheer disbelief silenced her.
Ichigo apparently decided he wasn't going to get any information from her and turned his attention to other things. "Ulquiorra's reiatsu is gone," he commented, his eyes narrowed as he looked to the ceiling. "Did we kill him?"
"Looks like it," he responded to himself, but it was Hichigo talking. "That sucks. We didn't even get to see him go down!"
With a sigh, Ichigo reached up to run a hand through his hair. He stopped abruptly when he saw his white clothes, and he glanced down to look at the rest of him. "Oh, hey. We switched to your colors." Leaning forward also caused his unnaturally long, orange hair to fall in front of him. "And still with the weird hair. Great."
"How?" Lisa finally managed to get out the question that had been running through her mind over and over. "How are you both still here? You started your final battle; one of you should be dead."
Hichigo outright laughed at her. "Are you still on about that? Didn't we tell you it wasn't going to happen?"
"So our body kept fighting without us," Ichigo guessed, obviously not liking the idea of that. "And that's what took down Ulquiorra. Did you keep my friends safe?"
Lisa remained baffled by them. If it wasn't a final battle, then what had happened? But she answered the question. "None of them came near. The only one hurt was the Espada. And me," she added.
That seemed to reassure him somewhat. "Good. Are the captains here yet?"
"Yes. They got here a half hour ago, just before you... did whatever it was you did."
Ichigo nodded, and he scanned the sandy area around him, frowning to himself. "It doesn't look like anyone else is fighting right now. I can sense Renji and Ishida that way, and another strong signature. And over there... wait, where did this come from?"
Lisa wasn't paying his words any attention, still looking him up and down. It was bizarre watching him move around like he didn't even notice the half-mask on his face, complete with one lone horn on the side, the tip broken off.
She shook her head. Forms like this took energy to keep up, just like a bankai, and most people would drop them between battles to conserve their strength. But not Ichigo. For whatever reason, he didn't seem to be bothered by it. Not only did he still have his hollow form going as he stood there deciding where to go next, he also kept his bankai on top of it, though the somewhat tattered clothes had all changed to white. Somehow, neither of those things seemed to drain his power anymore.
Suddenly, a wave of reiatsu pulled her from her thoughts. A wide range kidou had just been activated. After a moment, she could hear Aizen's voice, as clearly as if he were standing next to her. "Welcome, intruders. Now that you are all present and aware, I have something I feel that you should all be told."
Lisa gave Ichigo a sideways glance. Obviously Aizen had been waiting for Ichigo to break free from his insane hollow form before he announced this. The ex-captain's interest in the boy was slightly unnerving.
Ichigo seemed to understand the same thing, and his expression went dark, his fingers curling into a fist around something small that caught the light and sparkled. Lisa wasn't sure what it was, but she didn't care either.
"As you have all likely realized by now, I initially brought Inoue Orihime to Hueco Mundo in the hopes of drawing in the ryoka and as many as possible of the shinigami who would follow them. I thank you for exceeding my expectations."
There was a short pause to allow them all to seethe over that, and then he went on, "As of now, the portals you all used to come here are sealed, and I hope you enjoy your extended stay in Las Noches."
At that, a loud grinding noise washed over the area, and when Lisa looked up, she could see the four Gargantuas in the sky slam shut and disappear.
"I, unfortunately, will not be able to stay to entertain you. When I am done erasing Karakura town and creating the King's Key, I shall return to deal with what's left of you. Farewell."
The kidou spell ended and a ringing silence was left in its wake.
Ichigo grit his teeth. "What did he do with Inoue and Rukia?" he asked with a growl. He obviously wasn't expecting an answer, as he immediately took off running, flash stepping so quickly that Lisa could barely see him go.
Lisa followed at a slower pace, beginning her healing kidou again. Her thoughts were troubled, both about Ichigo and about the battle that was about to take place in the fake Karakura town. "Fight well," she said in a low voice, as though the other Vaizard could hear. "Take him down."
"You're insane." Rukia's eyes narrowed as she stared across the room at Aizen. Neither she nor Inoue had taken his invitation to sit down, and Rukia had her hand on the hilt of her sword. Trying to fight Aizen would only get her killed, she knew, but having her zanpakuto ready made her feel more secure.
Aizen, settled comfortably in his seat, didn't reply to her comment, instead simply smiling warmly at her.
She wished she could cut that smile off his face. "Everything you've done, lying and murdering and who even knows what else, has never been for anyone's good. You expect me to believe that you did it all to prove that the Soul King isn't doing his job of protecting people? You're a madman."
"I am not attempting to prove anything," Aizen corrected her mildly. "I do not need to persuade anyone. I have simply taken actions to replace a corrupt government."
"What you're doing is wrong," Inoue insisted. "I can't let you do this, no matter what your reasons are." Rukia could see the girl's clenched hands shaking by her side, though whether it was from anger or fear, she couldn't tell.
Aizen slowly shook his head. "You can't let me, you say. And yet, when you held the Hougyoku in your hands, did you wish for it to strike me down? Ending this war would have been as simple as that, but you couldn't bring yourself to do it."
"Because I am not a monster!" Inoue replied. "I'm not like you. I don't want anyone to die!"
"I commend you for that," Aizen returned smoothly. "But that stance means that you cannot make a difference. The Hougyoku cannot grant vague, overgeneralized wishes like 'cleanse the world of evil,' or it would have done so already. You do not have the will to direct it more specifically."
Inoue seemed to deflate a little. Her eyes went to the floor, unfocused and wandering. "I know. I have always been too weak."
"Stop it, Inoue," Rukia directed, and the other girl's gaze shot up to her in surprise. "There are plenty of ways to make a change in the world that don't involve killing whoever opposes you. And there are plenty of reasons why you're strong."
Before Inoue could say anything, Rukia stepped up in front of her and reached up to put a hand on her shoulder, pulling to jerk Inoue's head down to her level. "Don't listen to the likes of Aizen," she said emphatically. "You are strong enough to make a difference, and you always have been. Don't you dare say otherwise."
Inoue just pulled away. "Everything I've done just made things worse."
Rukia shook her a little. "I had the Hougyoku hidden in my soul for almost two months. All that time, and though I can hear its voices, I know it won't heed anything I say to it. Trust me, there's a very good reason why it has chosen you to guide it."
"But I don't want to guide it," Inoue protested. "I don't have the right to decide everything for anybody. I don't want to have the Hougyoku."
Aizen gave them both a bemused look as he leaned back in his chair. "If you do not wish to guide it," he cut in, "then you must give it to someone who will."
"Like you?" Inoue composed herself enough to give him a harsh glare. "I don't want its power, but I won't let you have it either. If that means destroying it-"
In the distance above them, a flash of reiatsu lashed out wildly, and all three looked up with worry.
"Ichigo," Rukia said softly, narrowing her eyes as she concentrated on his shifting reiatsu signature. Her worries about him had been pushed to the back of her mind as they stood listening to Aizen talk, but now they came forward again. Whatever had happened to him during his battle, it was over now. He had won.
The voices of the Hougyoku whispered to her in her head, low enough that she couldn't hear what they said. A few times she almost caught words, but they were soon lost in the gentle hum of blended voices.
She looked to Inoue, a bit confused, to see that the girl's eyes were closed, her lips moving silently. Somehow, she could tell what Inoue was thinking: "Ichigo would know what to do."
"Is that a wish?" one of the voices asked. The words echoed through her mind as they all repeated the question, "A wish? A wish?"
Rukia abruptly grabbed up Inoue's hand, pulling her from her thoughts. "Yes! That's the answer, Inoue! I wish that only Ichigo could use the Houkyoku's powers. Send it to him!"
Inoue's eyes lighted up in a way Rukia had not seen since before Hueco Mundo, and she turned purposefully toward the Hougyoku, which still rested in Aizen's open hand. "Do it, please!" she directed. "Give Kurosaki Ichigo the Hougyoku."
The voices swelled, obviously excited to have such great emotion and power backed into such a simple wish. A few voices seemed reluctant. "And what do you wish, Aizen Souske?"
Rukia braced herself, and felt Inoue doing the same beside her. If this worked, it would cut Aizen off from the Hougyoku entirely, but what was he going to do in response? He could tell it no, or he could tell it to go to one of his men. Would the Hougyoku listen to him, or to them?
Aizen had a thoughtful expression on his face, and for a moment his hand closed on the powerful object he held. Then he stood gracefully and held it out in front of them. "Give it to the boy," Aizen said calmly. "I want to see what he does with it."
A bright flash of light made both girls flinch away, and when it vanished, so had the Hougyoku. The voices faded, the last words echoing in their minds for a moment, then they too were gone.
Okay. So, as an explanation. My original chapter nine was just me randomly writing a few scenes and posting them up without bothering to do edits or anything, because I wanted to attempt to use the fanbase to win a contest. That was incredibly stupid of me, and I found myself hating the chapter for ruining a perfectly good story. I apologize profusely. (I also didn't win the contest, but thank you to those who tried to help).
I tried to fix the chapter, but couldn't even bear to look at it, I was so disgusted with myself. So instead I started back at chapter one to edit everything. If you're a long time reader, you might be interested in starting at the beginning again. It flows much better than it used to, and random spelling errors and stuff have been fixed.
By the time I got back up to the ninth chapter, I edited it, too (you'll notice that the scene with Lisa fighting Nnoitra is gone completely) and then also wrote the rest of what you see here.
I really wanted to end this chapter conclusively, where all the loose ends were tied up and I could officially end the story (Which I've been wanting to do for the past three chapters or so). I wasn't able to get the chapter to do that, and ended up with a bit of a cliffhanger.
Despite that, I'm sorry to say that I don't intend on writing any more for Feeling Hollow. I know that many will want me to write further scenes with Ichigo vs Aizen, and I'm sorry, but I've finished writing everything I wanted to include in the story. In the future, if I ever want to pick up anything Bleach related again (like if the manga actually starts making sense, which will probably not be soon) then what I'll do is write a sequel rather than adding chapters to this one. Just don't keep your hopes up too high.
Of course, the fact that I'm done writing this doesn't mean that you can't write your own stories based on this one. Obviously, as a fanfiction writer, I am not opposed to people using my versions of the characters to write their own stories. You don't even have to tell me or show me that you're writing it if you don't want to. As long as you're not simply copying my work and reposting it as your own, I'm okay with anyone writing whatever they want to.
All of this also applies to the Day Before Tomorrow. That story isn't even close to being conclusive, but I think I have to drop it as well.
I'm going to be focusing all of my attention on my original novel, Gatekeepers. I've been writing it at about the same pace as I've written any of my stories: Super slow. Hopefully I can work on it a little faster now. Finishing it has been a goal of mine since I started working on it back in 2009.
I thank you all for your support and your comments, and for putting up with my horrendously long update times over the years. It's been a fun journey.