23 is FINALLY up! Sorry about the crazy long wait, everybody. I went on vacation, and then started working. Have had very little time to write recently...it really makes me sad, especially when I'm thinking up all these ideas at work, but then don't have the time to actually write them out...sigh. I promise that I won't have nearly as big a gap between chapters next time though, these past few weeks have just been insane. Anyways, this chapter was originally supposed to be shorter, but...i thought a nice long chapter was only fair. i mean, seriously, that was a really long wait. :( I don't own Bleach. PS-THANKYOU to everyone who reviewed last chapter, made me so happy! Dirty Thoughts of Bliss, you have given me my biggest number yet, 16 reviews for one chapter! GASP! lol. Ok-enjoy the chapter!

23

He Needs Me

"He needs me"… Renji seated himself down beside his Captain's prone form, expression dark and the thoughts running through his head even darker. "He needs me". That's what she said. Sitting cross-legged with Zabimaru in his lap, he closed his eyes, trying to shove away the heartache that bubbled up every time her words drifted through his mind. Ichigo…She loves him. And he needs her, I understand that. But… He grit his teeth down at the floor, pulling his hairband out of his hair. It fell down around his face, helping ease the insistent throbbing in his head somewhat. Opening his eyes again, he ignored how his vision fuzzed. He knew what that meant, he knew what the symptoms were. I'm getting sick. His eyes fell on Byakuya and Renji analyzed him, taking in how pale and weak his Captain clearly was. Inoue's healing had helped restore Captain Kuchiki's reiatsu, a little, but Renji knew that it only really was delaying the inevitable. Death. If Urahara doesn't find a cure. He had to admit that the concept scared him, just a tiny bit, as he had seen the excruciating pain his fallen comrades had undergone as they had grown more and more ill. Not looking forward to that…damn. He leaned back on his elbows, closing his eyes again. Rukia. I know he needs you, but…I need you too.

o o o o o

"Everyone who is coming has gathered?" The voice of the Chief Commander rang in Hitsugaya's head, he opened his eyes reluctantly. He was standing in his place in the line of Captains, Kisuke Urahara and Yoruichi Shihuoin stood in the center in between the two lines. Hitsugaya eyed them. Though Yoruichi looked as confident as ever, standing straight with her shoulders back, Urahara looked a bit nervous, pushing his hat back to scratch idly at his head.

"Yes, Chief Commander. Both Ukitake and Kuchiki are very ill and are currently sleeping in my clinic," Unohana answered.

"Very ill…Yes, I had heard that." The Chief mumbled. "I take it that your reappearance, Kisuke, and this illness overlapping is not a coincidence?" He asked, his eyes clear, sharp on the now slightly squirming former Captain of the 12th Squad.

"Ah…well…" Urahara began.

"Kisuke had nothing to do with the appearance of this illness," Yoruichi cut in. "But he did return to Seireitei for that reason."

"When I want your opinion, Shihuoin, I'll ask for it." The Chief Commander growled, focusing back on Urahara. "You were sentenced to be drained of your reiatsu, placed within a gigai banished from Soul Society to live in the human world for as long as your gigai lasted. You were sentenced this punishment for developing devices that were able to mesh Hollow and Shinigami together and for using it on your comrades, including your own Vice Captain. Instead of facing your sentence, you fled with the help of Yoruichi Shihuoin, and have been continuing to involved yourself in Soul Society matters, including assisting ryoka invade Seireitei and cause complete chaos." He clearly wasn't finished, but Yoruichi protested again, breaking into his list of accusations.

"But Chief Commander—!"

"Silence! Never in all my years as Chief Commander of the 13 Protection Squads have a come across an individual that has been responsible for so much destruction—including enabling Aizen Sousuke to pose as such a threat! And now you come back, hoping to regain your status as a Captain!? When is seems very clear to me that you yourself are behind this illness!" The Commander's voice echoed through the hall, all the Captains still as stone, no one even breathing, all completely stunned. Then, Urahara spoke.

"Yes, I came back. And no, I don't want to try to regain my former position! I had forgotten that that would mean I would have deal with you!" His nervousness seemed completely gone, his entire demeanor changed. Though Hitsugaya could feel Urahara's reiatsu waver with each harsh word, the former 12th Captain carried himself as if he didn't feel his own weakness, glaring at the Commander straight in the eye. "The only reason I truly returned is because a threat has surfaced that I—nor anyone else—could have ever predicted! I am not responsible for this sickness, though I do claim responsibility for my past crimes! Though what you accuse me of is not all true, I will accept it, simply because I know that I will accomplish nothing here otherwise! I have returned to solve this problem of yours—and everyone else's! I realize that this sickness poses a serious threat to Soul Society, and therefore the rest of the universe, and I don't have time to beg for forgiveness for the past or worry about what you think of me! Do you realize that!?" Urahara was shouting by the end of his speech, clearly shocking the Chief Commander. Hitsugaya could bet that no one had ever spoken to him like that before.

"…Insolent fool…" The Commander sneered after a few thick seconds, gaze sharp on Urahara.

"I am here to find a cure to this disease as quickly as possible, while you are putting me on yet another false trial. Who is the real fool here?" They locked gazes, a contest of wills occurring. Hitsugaya, as well as the other Captains—and Yoruichi—were staring at them, horrified and yet enraptured at the same time, unable to look away from such a scene. And then the moment was over.

"Very well." The Commander's gaze released Urahara, snapping to Unohana. "Captain Unohana, a report of the current status of your patients, and a list of the symptoms! We all need to be on alert for signs of this illness amongst our subordinates and colleagues!" He then turned back to Urahara. "And as for you…I will grant you permission to be here to create your cure. You will, however, work with the current head of the Technology Development Bureau, Kurotsuchi Mayuri." Some sputtering protests were heard from Mayuri's end of the line, the current 12th Captain clearly did not approve of this idea. Like his opinion matters. What the Chief Commander says, goes, Hitsugaya thought, rubbing at his head. It was getting more and more difficult to continue to pay attention. The pain was getting pretty severe again. Another healing from Inoue-san doesn't sound so bad…so long as she's healing Hinamori and Matsumoto now…

The Commander continued speaking to Urahara, ignoring Kurotsuchi completely. "I warn you, Urahara Kisuke. If anything, anything at all, causes me to suspect you, or this cure of yours, your former sentence will be light in comparison to what I will do to you." Urahara nodded, understanding. The Chief Commander would make good on his threat if he found reason. With that, Urahara and Yoruichi were dismissed, vacating the Captains' meeting hall. To where, Hitsugaya wasn't sure. But he hoped it was straight to wherever it was that Urahara would create a cure.

o o o o o

Where're ya goin', King? The Hollow's voice wafted through his mind, an edge to it. Ichigo's fists involuntarily clenched at his sides, his long strides speeding up intently.

None of your damned business! He shot back, attempting to push the Hollow away in the darkest, farthest corner of his mind. I have to get rid of him, I can't help anyone this way…

The sun was beginning to set as he approached his destination, all the way across town. The Hollow eventually caught on, his protests echoing through Ichigo's head as they drew near.

What do you think you're doing, you fuckin' miserable piece of shit!? You think getting' their help is gonna save you this time! Well, you can fucking forget it!

Shut up! I kept you under my thumb for years, and I'm gonna do it again! He could feel the reiatsu radiate from the inside of the building, and could pick out the individuals inside. Lisa, Hachi, Kensei, Mashiro, Hiyori, Shinji…All within. But as he neared the entrance, he hesitated. Something was wrong. Their reiatsu… The Hollow felt the same thing, it's nervousness dissolving into cackling laughter.

Looks like those bastards won't be much help afterall! Eh, Ichigo? Heh…I guess you're stuck with me… Giving the doors a determined scowl, Ichigo strode to the doors.

Don't count on it! With that, he shoved them open. The Vizard, in any condition, were his only chance.

o o o o o

"Ishi-kuuuun! Pyon!" The gigai hollered at him from across the room, struggling against the Quincy bonds he had secured her with. Kurosaki had refused to take the gigai with him, and so, against Ishida's better judgment, he had taken the gigai instead. It just didn't seem right leaving it. A choice that I now certainly regret… The gigai had been thrashing for quite a while now, hoping to break free from the bonds he had tied around her arms and legs nearly a half hour ago. It had only taken him a few minutes with the gigai to realize that the bonds were necessary, she really seemed to enjoy attempting to break his arms. Damn Kurosaki. Unlike the Shinigami substitute, he didn't have a way to knock the soul from the gigai, so he simply had to put up with it.

Now he was trying to ignore her shouting, but it was really grating at his nerves. Ishida was already on edge, he had been ever since Inoue-san had left with Urahara's group. I don't like not being able to protect her. Though he was aware that she was with allies, that she was most likely safe, not being there…It bothered him. Ever since she had left, dark thoughts had crowded in his mind. What if something happens? What if she gets sick? Can she even heal herself, does it work that way? He didn't know. And how long will it take Urahara now that he's in Soul Society…? Sitting at his desk, he tapped out his frustration with his fingertips on the desk surface, grimacing. Noting then the pain in his head, he left the expression slip from his face, it was most likely giving him a headache, worrying like this. And I don't need the extra problem. How does Kurosaki manage to keep that blasted scowl on his face all the time? Gives me a headache…

"ISHI! ISHI! ISHI! Pyon!" The gigai interrupted his thoughts, and he sighed heavily into his hand. Speaking of things that give me a headache… "Ishi-kun, this is boring! Let's go out, Pyon! I want to play with Ichigo-kun!" Ishida gave her a dry stare, then snorted.

"I doubt your master would appreciate that much," He started. Kuchiki-san most likely wouldn't like her gigai crawling all over the man Ishida was positive she was in love with. But the idea in general didn't sound like an entirely bad one. He was knew that Kurosaki had been scheming with Kuchiki-san earlier about getting into Soul Society, the look on Kurosaki's face when Yoruichi Shihuoin had told him to stay proved it. Kurosaki's not one to simply hang back when something's going on. No…he's a much bigger idiot, preferring to rush in without thinking… Kuchiki-san already left without him, and knowing Kurosaki, that probably only encouraged him to get to Soul Society, if only to apologize for his horrible behavior… Ishida frowned. I can't believe he just lost control like that. Of course he was affected by the war, but all of us were. I have damned nightmares every night, yet I'm not going off the deep end! …True…I do not have to constantly battle an inner demon for control of my body…

His frown had deepened, but now softened as he felt some sympathy for his orange-haired colleague. Kurosaki had had the most traumatic experience in Hueco Mundo, he'd pretty much died. And having to lead all of us, protect all of us… He sighed. Before he had met Ichigo Kurosaki and his friends, Ishida had been quite content in being alone. So he thought. He kept to himself, his life pretty much revolving around school, the sewing club, and his occasional ventures in using his Quincy powers. And admiring Orihime Inoue from afar. Everything's changed so much… He really did owe Kurosaki a lot. Without him, I would have never become what I am now. I have friends, people whom I care about who also care about me…I've honed my powers and have become a full-fledged Quincy…and now I have a purpose. I'm not just the nerdy class braincase anymore, I have people to protect, and a way to protect them. And I'm going to.

The gigai was wailing now, her boredom being her problem. As soon as I let her go, she'll break my legs, he thought, eyeing her. Then a small smile touched his lips. I'll make a deal with her, drop her off at Kurosaki's, and then, find the idiot. And join him when he figures out a way to get to Soul Society. I have to get to Inoue-san—I have to protect her. At least help her, in any way I can. Standing, he strode over to the gigai.

"Ok, we can go visit Kurosaki. But if we do, you can't jump on me anymore. Do we have a deal?" The gigai nodded enthusiastically, and he released her bonds. They stared at each other for a second, all of Ishida's muscles tensed as he prepared to throw himself out of the way if she chose to break their deal. But she simply stood, dusting off her skirt, and gave Ishida a lovely, if somewhat off, version of Kuchiki-san's smile.

"Now let's go see Ichigo-kun!"

o o o o o

Ichigo smirked against his Hollow's raging protests, striding into the warehouse. He had been expecting to see the Vizard seated around lazily like he had always seen them before, stuffing their faces with snacks and reading manga and magazines. Instead, only Shinji and Hiyori were visible, and by their expressions, they were having a serious conversation that he had just interrupted. They froze, turning to look at him. And just stared, expressions unreadable. This wasn't exactly the welcome he had been anticipating, thinking that he would just walk back in, and they would help him out, no problems, no questions asked.

"Uh…" He started, now realizing that he probably should have at least thought out what he was going to say to them. At the sound his voice, Shinji's expression cleared; Hiyori still looked rather pissed.

"Kurosaki-kun! What a surprise!" He presented Ichigo with his classic toothy grin, Hiyori just scowled even more.

"What the hell do you want, Baldy!?" She snarled, crossing her arms over her chest. Ichigo sneered down at her as he walked over to them.

"I've told you a thousand times that I'm not bald!" He growled, pressing his fist down onto the top of her head, while she tried to kick him in the shins, loudly swearing. Shinji seemed to ignore the little interaction, continuing on.

"She does have a point. What brings you here? I don't think you simply were interested in visiting…"

The Vizard had been valuable allies in the Winter War, but had since cut off contact with Soul Society and everyone else. Ichigo was one of the few who knew where to find them, but had no interest in seeking them out until now. Even though they had parted on relatively good terms, they weren't people he really wanted to keep a close friendship with. They had their own goals and interests, and their agenda didn't always match up with Ichigo's. The Vizard still didn't really get along with Soul Society, and he figured that Soul Society felt the same way, finding the Vizard rather distasteful. "Ugly distortions and abominations" Byakuya had once called them, and Ichigo felt that most of the Shinigami felt the same way. In the eyes of those in Seireitei, the Vizard were threatening mutants, too similar to the Arrancar to be trusted. Ichigo didn't share that sentiment, finding the Vizard generally strong allies, if somewhat unreliable. And he kind of liked Shinji, the guy was weird, but alright. Hiyori was just a pest. "Baldy" my ass…

"I need something." Might as well be straightforward. Ichigo wasn't one to beat around the bush.

"I thought as much. Take a seat, we'll talk about it." Raising a brow, Ichigo was about to ask about Shinji's odd comment when he noticed something.

"Oi…where is everybody? Mashiro, Lisa, Hachi, Kensei?" The six were the only Vizard left besides himself, both Rose and Love had been killed in the war. Ichigo suspected that the group was still bitter over their deaths, feeling that two of their group died in a war that wasn't their own. They wouldn't say it though, Ichigo knew, Shinji and all the rest were aware that the war had just as much to do with them as it did Soul Society. The Vizard held no love for Soul Society, but if Seireitei fell, the whole universe would be in danger. And that included them.

"They're downstairs…" Shinji looked away, his smile a little bleak. Now closer and paying attention, Ichigo noticed the visible strain on Shinji's face. Glancing over to look at Hiyori, he saw that she wasn't looking her best either. Is…something going on here? He could sense their reiatsu, still bountiful. But maybe not as strong as it was before…? He wondered.

"What's going on." At Ichigo's demand, Shinji let his smile fall away completely. Eyeing Ichigo, he leaned back in his seat, as if debating whether or not to let the substitute Shinigami in on his troubles.

"Tell me why you showed up here first, 'Special Squad Captain', and then we'll discuss it."

"Fine. …My Hollow. He's back."

o o o o o

Orihime slumped down to the floor beside Matsumoto's bed, her body aching from all her effort. All the healing had drained her of her energy, she was so exhausted she could barely keep her head up. She had made her way through the wards all throughout the clinic, healing all in each room and then moving on to the next. Then, finally, she healed Hinamori and Matsumoto again, but was unable to finish. The two were conscious again, but still would be feeling immense pain. That really bothered Orihime, but she no longer had the strength to hold her shield up. I need to rest… In this moment of weakness, she really wished her friends were here, she felt like when her own heart was weak, she could rely on their strength. And right now, she needed it. Orihime had worn herself down healing others' pain, and now was feeling her own. She hadn't paid attention to it before, the slow, clawing headache that now seemed to have a solid hold on her. It hurts…Is this what the others have been feeling? Unable to stay upright in any way, she slipped down to the ground, her head now resting on the floor. If this is how they were feeling, she truly pitied them, it was awful. I wish they were here with me…Kurosaki-kun, Kuchiki-san, Sado-kun, Abarai-kun…Uryuu-kun…. Her vision faded out then, and she fell into unconsciousness.

o o o o o

The way Shinji was staring at him confused Ichigo. It was a blank, dry, and completely unsurprised stare.

"Wh—Why are you staring a me that way?" Shinji simply continued to stare blankly, Hiyori snorted loudly.

"Well DUH your Hollow is acting up! Geez, will you listen ta this Baldy?" She jerked a thumb at Ichigo, now asking Shinji.

"Wait—what!? What do you mean!" Ichigo shot the question at both of them. "And I'm not fuckin' bald!" He aimed the last statement right at Hiyori, pointing angrily to his hair.

"I'll call ya whatever I want!" She shot back, and was about to add more when Shinji smacked her lightly in the side of the head. When she whipped around to probably curse him out, his look alone silenced her.

"What she means is that you're not the only one who's been having problems with their Hollow." Ichigo's first thought was that it was a joke, that Shinji was being bizarre like always and pulling his leg. But the serious expression stayed on his host's face, and it slowly dawned on Ichigo that he meant it.

"I—I don't understand…I came here to get help, to get rid of him like last time!"

"There is no 'getting rid' of them! The Hollows are part of us, they are melded with our souls!" It just didn't make sense to him, what Shinji was saying. Logically, he understood, but…He had always thought, somewhere deep down, that he could eventually rid himself of his inner demon. That someday…it would be just him again in his head. …Fuck. His turmoil must have been evident to Shinji, who clapped his hand down on his shoulder. "Come with me."

.

With Hiyori behind them, Ichigo followed Shinji down to the entrance to the familiar underground training chamber. Making his way down the stairs, Ichigo felt a thick sense of foreboding. As soon as his foot hit the last stair, though, the sense evolved into real feeling. He could feel the black reiatsu of a powerful Hollow nearby. Why didn't I feel this before…?

As they neared their apparent destination, he saw why. Hachi was seated in something like a deep trance, his reiatsu pulsing around him as he fueled massive shields around a Hollow that Ichigo had never seen before. I can still feel its reiatsu through the shields. It's that powerful…

Che! That's not powerful! Let me out, I'll show you power!

Shove it! I don't want to hear your shit!

Heh…You're worried. I can feel it. They can't do anything to help you…I know it, you know it. You're just fucking stuck with me! Ichigo ignored the Hollow's comment as best he could, concentrating on the giant Hollow within the barriers.

Within, he could see Lisa fighting with it. Rather than sprinting in and out of attack like he remembered she would do, the Vizard was simply being slapped away whenever she tried to move toward the Hollow. She didn't seem able to get any hits in, she was only receiving them. The Hollow seemed so much faster, so much stronger than he ever thought was possible, he actually began to fear for her. Her face was already bloodied, one of her arms hanging limp as if the bone within had been crushed. Both opponents paused, as if sizing each other up, Lisa was hunched, panting for breath. The Hollow seemed to be relaxed, perhaps even enjoying itself.

She took the offensive again, trying a tactic that Ichigo recognized. She had spectacular acrobatic skill, and would throw herself at her opponent sideways, slicing down and inward mid-leap. She attempted this now, but it was clear that she just wasn't strong enough to pull it off as easily as he had seen her do during the war. She was clearly exhausted, and the Hollow playfully batted her away, sending her hurtling through a rock formation. Ichigo's fists clenched as he watched the Hollow gurgle its amusement, waiting for its Vizard prey to stand again. It's like—it's like it's just toying with her!

It is. Came Ichigo's Hollow's response, a light cackle following the comment. Getting scared now, lil' Ichi?

Shut up!

Shinji came up to stand beside him, hands shoved into his pockets, expression grim. Their appearance attracted the attention of Mashiro and Hachi, who were seated outside of the barrier walls. Hachi nodded his greeting, but remained where he was, while Mashiro stood, striding over to them. Ichigo was mildly surprised at her demeanor, she didn't have nearly as much energy as she usually did, and her expression was dull, maybe even pained. She's worried about Lisa…? Within the barrier, Lisa stood again, ready to face off with her Hollow opponent once more. I am too…That Hollow, it's so fucking powerful! Even more powerful than all those ones we've been fighting around Karakura...What the hell is going on around here!

"Hey, Berry-kun. What're you doing here?" She asked, but didn't seem to care too much about the answer, so he ignored her, turning to Shinji.

"Shinji…what's going on. Why's Lisa fighting that Hollow!?" Ichigo asked, his voice tense and low. "…And where's Kensei?"

o o o o o

Halfway to her brother's manse, Rukia skidded to a halt. Something had suddenly seemed to have "fallen away" within her senses; as if a comforting presence had just then been rubbed out. Inoue! Rukia whipped around, facing the place she had just left, the clinic. She froze for only a second, hesitating. Though she knew—felt—that Ichigo needed her, Inoue now needed her too. And even in his current fragile state, Ichigo was still the stronger of the two. Gritting her teeth, she made her decision, and bolted back towards the clinic. I have to help Inoue! Please Ichigo…don't do anything stupid until I can get there!

Inoue's reiatsu had plummeted dangerously, Rukia found her sprawled out on the floor of Hinamori and Matsumoto's ward. Without even a glance, Rukia could tell that Inoue had done her best with the two victims, much of their reiatsu had been temporarily restored. They were asleep now, hopefully far away from the pain that Rukia knew would come back all too soon. Kneeling beside the human girl, Rukia touched the back of her hand to Inoue's cheek. She's cold…She must have used up almost all of her own strength to revive them… Solid fear formed within Rukia's chest as she pulled her hand away, not really knowing what to do. Just as selfless as always, Inoue…Why can't you worry about yourself for once! Rukia's eyes flickered over the unconscious Inoue as she tried to think of what to do. I have to help her, but I can't waste time…! I need help…Renji! Biting her lower lip, the Shinigami carefully wrapped her arms around the fallen girl, hefting her off the ground. If I can just get her to Renji, he'll know what to do! I know I left him with Nii-sama, but—who else can I turn to? Rukia hauled the girl up, bracing herself against Inoue's weight, and then, slowly, began to half-carry-half-drag her toward her brother's ward room.

It was difficult getting through the hall, there were so many other Shinigami bustling through it, that Rukia's task was made more difficult by tenfold. No one seemed to realize the importance of what she was doing, completely overlooking her in their rush to deal with their own problems. It wasn't that Inoue was really heavy, it was that she was completely limp, and easily threw off Rukia's balance, especially when they were being knocked around. After nearly being knocked over twice and being shoved into the walls several more times, Rukia made it to her brothers room, lurching against the door heavily.

"Renji! Renji, help me!" She shouted, pounding her foot into the door. It abruptly opened and both girls pitched forward into the surprised arms of the 6th Squad Vice Captain.

"Rukia! I thought you left—!" He cut off, staring down at Inoue who was slumping in his arms. Rukia pulled herself free of his grasp, trying to gently lay Inoue into his arms.

"I did, but Inoue—she passed out."

"What happened!" Renji lifted her easily, carrying her over to the couch within her brother's ward.

"I think she overworked herself—don't you feel how low her reiatsu is?" Rukia sat beside her on the couch, pushing the orange hair out of her face.

"You…you don't think…" Renji's voice sounded quietly by her ear as he leaned forward, also looking worriedly down at the human girl.

"Yes, I do. I…think Inoue has fallen ill."

o o o o o

"So what do we do?" Renji asked as Rukia stood. Her face was drawn as she thought, her eyes darkening. Renji could read that expression easily. She doesn't know.

"Inoue is the only one who can help everyone right now. Until Urahara makes a cure, she's the only one that can keep everyone alive. She must be revived. Captain Unohana must be contacted, and we must do everything we can to help Inoue. She…she is most important right now." Rukia responded crisply, keeping all emotion from her voice. And yet…it was there, he could almost feel her indecision more than hear or see it. So. It all comes down to this. She wants to go to Ichigo, but she's trying to consider all the options logically. He sighed inwardly, pained for her. Classic Rukia, not letting her emotions dictate what she needs to do…Duty first. The thought hurt him somewhat. He had long hoped that Rukia would be able to finally let herself care about someone else enough that she would forget duty for once. For just as long, he had hoped that that someone would be him. Recently, though, he had come to realize it never would be. I have been hoping…That if not me…then Ichigo…

Now, he watched her struggle with a decision. The duty-conscious Rukia would stay with the girl who could heal those who were ill and attempt to nurse her back to health. Not only for Inoue's sake, but for the sake of all the ill Shinigami.

"I…" She started, then faltered. Turning back towards Inoue, she looked down at the girl with pain-filled eyes. "Renji…" She whispered, casting those eyes on to him. That startled him, Rukia wasn't distancing herself from the situation. She was allowing herself to feel. "I don't want to leave Inoue…I want to take care of her…She's one of my closest friends…" She trailed off, dropping her gaze. Renji stared down at her—this was completely new for her. Rukia…

"Go Rukia. I'll take care of her. You have to get to Ichigo." Rukia stared at him for just a second, then suddenly threw her arms around his neck. He was too surprised to hug back.

"Thank you, Renji." With that, Rukia, with her loving embrace, was gone. I can't tell her I'm getting sick too...Renji turned to look down at Inoue-san. ...Even if I did...She would still make the same decision. Ichigo...He needs her. But she needs him too.

o o o o o

Shinji eyed him blandly, Hiyori actually snorted.

"Don't you get it yet, you dumbass! That—" And she swivled around to point at the giant Hollow that was currently trying to smash its fist into Lisa. "That IS Kensei!" Ichigo's gaze snapped around to follow her finger, gaping at the sight of the fully hollowfied Vizard.

"Kensei—he—that's Kensei! WHY!" Ichigo demanded, whipping around to grab Shinji's collar. Kensei lost control—Kensei LOST CONTROL! He's transformed completely!! Ichigo's Hollow's laughter flooded his senses, and he wavered on his feet, losing his grip on Shinji's shirt.

About time you figured it out, King!…Heh, you're such a dumbass, the little bitch is right! Look at Kensei—one of your former teachers! LOOK AT HIM! It's like looking into the fuckin' future! Pretty soon, that'll be you and me!

"No! SHUTUP!" Ichigo shouted aloud, not caring at all if the others heard him. I came here to get help—to get help! So I—so I could stop being a danger to everyone! So...Rukia wouldn't leave me! And they're worse off than me!! The Hollow continued to laugh, Ichigo hunched over, gripping at his head, trying to suppress his rising panic. He'll destroy me—from the inside out! How—how do I stop him!? Rukia…

"It's true. That's Kensei." Shinji interrupted his panic, his voice without any emotion whatsoever. Ichigo turned to glance up at him from his hunched position, Shinji's eyes held only cold disdain. "He's been like that for three days."

"H—how?" Ichigo rasped out, his fingers digging into his scalp as the Hollow within shifted around, moving forward into his consciousness. It was talking again, and Ichigo found that it wasn't nearly as easy to shut him up this time.

…Scared now…idiot…You're going to lose just like your friends are losing…

"We've all been fighting with our Hollows. For over a week now. They've gotten stronger somehow, and we've gotten weaker." Shinji sneered now, contempt clear on his face, but Ichigo wasn't sure for whom. "Ever since the war ended. Can't you feel it, Kurosaki? Your reiatsu draining away…day by day…feeding that thing within you…"

"You're—you're wrong!"

"Heh. Fool. We've known what's been happening in Soul Society. And we've been aware of your most recent dealings with Urahara Kisuke. An 'illness' is what you've been calling it…are you sure that's what it really is?" As he spoke, Shinji's eyes flooded with black, his irises becoming a brilliant gold. His face stretched into that ridiculous grin, but it was twisted somehow, and his voice became more and more rough with every word. Ichigo stared up at him, knowing what was happening. It frightened him deeply, as he watched it happen. Shinji was the strongest out of all of the Vizard. He had never lost control.

"Bastard." Ichigo growled at the Shinji-Hollow, it only grinned more broadly, taking a step towards him.

"It's useless, you know? Fighting it…Why don't you let your Hollow out, Kurosaki? It would be so much fun…me verses him... You in there, Hollow? Push Kurosaki out of the way, I wanna see what you're made of!"

Hahahaha! Why not? Ichigo felt the Hollow swell in his consciousness, and began to fight with everything he had.

"I'm NOT gonna lose control now! Not 'cause of you!" The Shinji-Hollow laughed, stretching his arms out to grab at Ichigo, who wrenched backwards.

"Hachi! A shield! NOW!" Hiyori's voice suddenly called from beside him, Ichigo had forgotten she was even there. "Out of the way, Baldy!" Hiyori grabbed Ichigo's shirt and hauled him away just as the Shinji-Hollow threw himself at them. A shield formed between them just in time, the Hollow slammed against it. Ichigo watched in horror as the Hollow pounded against his new restraints. Hiyori, beside him, then reached up and raked her fingers across her face, drawing forth her mask.

"H—Hiyori! What the hell are you doing!" Ichigo seized her wrist, trying to pull her back as she strode towards the caged Hollow.

"I gotta fight that thing! Hachi can't keep up the shields forever! If I don't—don't…beat Shinji…we'll all be killed."

"Just wait—I can help, I can—"

"Shaddup, you! You're no help, you're on the edge of losin' it yourself! Just leave! Now!"

"No! I can't just leave you!"

"You gotta! Now! Before the other shield—!" Hiyori's retort was sharply drowned out by a scream, Ichigo whirled to see Hachi collapse backward. The strain had been too much. The shields that had contained both Shinji and Kensei suddenly shattered, freeing both Hollows. Ichigo didn't know where to look first, on one side, Kensei tossed a limp Lisa aside, facing Ichigo—his new prey. On the other side, Hiyori was doing her best to fight back the slowly transforming Shinji, but was clearly on the losing side. Shinji's form had begun to twist, white flesh and spines now protruding from his back in a hideous hunch.

Let me out! That's the only way you'll live through this! And you're no good to your precious Rukia-chan if you're dead! The Hollow's words startled him.

You're no good to her either, bastard! Rukia…Rukia, I don't know what to do…I can't—I can't do this by myself. I'm just not strong enough! His Hollow took advantage of his indecision and momentary loss at the mention of Rukia's name, trying to forcibly push him aside. No! Go away! He attempted to fight back now, becoming aware that the Hollow was once again trying to manipulate him. I said I would protect you, Rukia…I have to try… There was no other way, he would have to try to either fight the two Hollow in his human body, or somehow flee if he could. I'm sorry, Rukia. If I don't come back. But if I let him out…I really won't.

"KUROSAKI!" Ichigo's eyes burst open, he turned just in time to see the blue arrow of reiatsu coming towards him, and dropped out of the way.

"Ishida! Chad!" They both were running up to meet him, Chad with his gloved arms, and Ishida with his bow ready. "How—how did you guys find me!?"

"Hi, Ichi-kun! Pyon!" Rukia's gigai ran around the two humans, running up to Ichigo with open arms, completely oblivious to the Hollows and the situation they were all in. Firing more arrows at Kensei, Ishida met Ichigo, roughly brushing him aside to get a better shot.

"I guess this gigai can sense your reiatsu better than us! We were going to your house, but she insisted you were here! The gigai and I met Chad on the way!" Ishida turned to the gigai. "You can't help us now, get out of here, as fast as you can!"

"I'll wait for you at Ichi's house!" She yelled, slapping her hand to her forehead in a sloppy salute. Ichigo, meanwhile, was growing more and more frustrated, still now knowing what was going on.

"But—how did she know where this place is! It can't be found! It has shields— "

"Whatever shields it might have had before weren't there anymore, even I could feel the raging reiatsu within, Kurosaki! Now—unless you're going to help, get out of the way!" Not knowing how he could help, Ichigo moved out of the way, letting Ishida continue to barrage Kensei with his arrows as Chad ran to join Hiyori. The arrows seemed to do very little, if any damage at all as Kensei approached. They both had to dodge out of the way as a huge fist came crashing down, hiding themselves momentarily hiding behind a boulder.

"Do you want to tell me what the hell is going on, Kurosaki!?" Ishida cried over the sound of crushing rock.

"I came to the Vizard to get help with my Hollow, since they helped me before! Shinji said that all of them have been fighting against their Hollows for over a week now, and Kensei, the Hollow that's chasing us, lost! They were trying to restrain him with shields and fighting, but couldn't anymore! Hachi must have dropped the shields outside to power the ones inside better! But when Shinji was taken over and transformed, he couldn't keep either up anymore!"

"Are you telling me that we have Vizard level Hollows running around uncontrolled!?" Ishida thundered as they dodged another fist.

"Worse!" Ichigo shouted back as Ishida let loose another barrage of arrows. "Shinji said that their Hollows have been getting stronger while they've been getting weaker!" Ishida stared at him, wide-eyed.

"Kurosaki…are you saying that…you're going to end up just like these Vizard…?" Ichigo couldn't tell him, but his first thought was "yes". Instead he just looked away, concentrating on Kensei.

"…I…don't know."

"So that's why you're not fighting." Ishida concluded. "You're worried about losing control just like they did." Although he was dead on, Ichigo snarled at him.

"Yeah, so what! I'm not going to fucking hand myself over to him! Not when there's any other option! Is that what you want!? You saw me lose it before, and that was only for a couple of minutes! If…If I even try to change into my Shinigami form …"

"You might lose yourself completely." Ishida finished the sentence for him. Ichigo only dropped his gaze.

The boulder they were crouched behind abruptly exploded, revealing their opponent. Ishida began launching arrows again, but they were completely ignored, the Hollow advancing on them. Seeing that his bow was accomplishing nothing, Ishida pulled lose his Seenlenschneider blade.

"You can't possibly think that stupid sword is gonna work against that thing!" Ichigo yelled, disbelieving.

"Of course not! But if I can get some time, I can set up for my strongest attack! Kurosaki, I need you to distract him!"

"What the hell do you expect ME to do!?" They were both running now, only able to just dodge. Damn these slow legs! If I could just change to my Shinigami form, I'd be faster! But I can't, if I use too much reiatsu, or if I get too angry or upset…!

"I don't know! DO SOMETHING!"

"Maybe if we can get him over to Shinji, they might fight each other instead of us! Shinji's Hollow said he wanted to fight mine—maybe they'd go against each other!"

"Fine! Try to get them both over to that big rock over there—" Ishida pointed to a boulder in the distance. "And I'll set up around it. As soon as they both get there, we'll blow them both! Let's just hope they get distracted enough by each other not to come after us!" Though Ichigo was nearly positive this plan would fail, it was all they had.

"Right." They separated then, Ishida ducking away as Ichigo began to shout and wave his arms to attract Kensei's attention. It worked, the Hollow focused entirely on him. Shit—I'm going to die. Ichigo sprinted off as Kensei began his charge. Glancing around, he caught sight of Chad and Hiyori fighting with Shinji. Their battle didn't seem to be going well either, both looked roughed up.

"Chad! CHAD!" The human turned to look at him. "Try to get Shinji over by that big rock! Ishida's got a plan!" Chad nodded once, grabbing Hiyori's arm and dragging her along towards the rock. Shinji hissed, almost completely in his Hollow form, and followed, easily dodging as Chad fired bolts of reiatsu from his arm.

Ishida waved from his position near the boulder, signaling that he had finished setting up. Ichigo angled towards him, Chad and Hiyori close behind. That's where the first part of the plan failed, neither Hollow was interested in the other. They're gonna keep coming after us...Good thing we have a plan B! The Hollow were then in position, and would only remain so for a split second.

"Ishida!" Ichigo screamed, prompting him to trigger the explosion.

"Get out of the way, all of you, or you'll be killed!" Then he threw the charge. Ichigo barely had time to leap away, hoping that Chad, Hiyori, and Ishida had as well. All of the "swords" lit up, and both Hollow were caught in the enormous explosion in the center. Ichigo's head throbbed, his ears were ringing so badly he couldn't hear, and he started to feel piercing pain along his back, where he had been exposed to the blast. Still, he had to know if it worked. Pushing himself upward as best he could, he glanced back to where the explosion had occurred. Smoke blocked his vision, but he could feel the results before he saw them.

"…It didn't work…" Real, choking fear now grasped at him as he quickly glanced around to check on the condition of his friends. They seemed to be hurt, but alive and conscious, as well, all struggling to their feet. The Vizard Hollow roared their anger, now quite ready to smash them all to pieces. They're going to die...

Let me out…Ichigo's Hollow whispered. You have to now...You promised Rukia-chan and everyone else that you would protect them…you know this is the only way to do that. You've always been willing to do it before...think of this as risking your life...but in a different way. This way, a part of you still lives...

But... He was afraid. So very afraid. The Hollow was proposing that Ichigo let him out and choose to give himself up. I have to save them...but there's so much I wanted from this life...And how can I just give up to you?

It's not just about me and you, Kurosaki…it's about them…. It's the only way to save your friends…All you want to do is protect them, isn't that worth it? Isn't that worth your life…?

Yes…It is. Unlike before, it wasn't just him now. The situation was worse than before, now he had to choose between protecting his friends lives or saving his own skin. His friends really would be killed, and he couldn't let that happen without doing anything. I might be weak, but I'm not a fucking coward. I won't just stand here and watch them be killed while hiding from my Hollow. What choice do I have...? This is...really the only way...

I hate you more than anything, you bastard, but...I... I'll let you win. If you save them. You HAVE TO SAVE THEM! That's the condition. Ichigo was terrified, but somehow, it was just a tiny bit comforting to know that at least he was deciding for it to be this way, that he wouldn't slowly be eaten away, bit by excruciating bit.

I can do that…For once, the Hollow didn't seem to be mocking him. Though Ichigo distrusted the creature inside him, it actually sounded sincere for once.

And stay the hell away from Rukia. Or I swear…I'll find a way to come back and RIP YOU TO PIECES!

Heh…whatever you say, King. Now…Do it. Let me out.

Digging into his pocket, Ichigo grabbed his badge, preparing to slam it into his chest, become a Shinigami, and release his Hollow. For good.

I'm sorry, Rukia. I hope you understand why I have to do this…it's for our friends. I…I'll never get a chance to tell you but…I…I... He couldn't admit it, it hurt too badly. I'll never be with her again...and I'll never get a chance to tell her...how I really feel...

He lifted his hand to his chest, squeezing his eyes closed. Not so much against the chaos outside of him, but against the absolute crushing sorrow and loss within.

.

His hand wouldn't move. And it was suddenly very cold. What—Wrinkling his brow, he opened his eyes to look down at the unresponsive hand, his eyes widening as he discovered the reason why. My hand—it's—

"Ichigo Kurosaki! What the hell is wrong with you! If you change into a Shinigami, you're risking being taken over by your Hollow just like these Vizard were! Try and lift that badge to your chest any more, and I swear I'll freeze you solid!" Rukia's bark rang out over the roar of the Hollows. Her voice did that to him already, he stilled so thoroughly that it was aif he had suddenly been frozen. Wonderful hope clenching in his chest, Ichigo whirled to face her.

"Rukia—!" Another roar shattered the air, Ichigo suddenly remembered what danger they were in. And why he was about to change into a Shinigami in the first place. "Rukia—the Hollows! You have to get out of here!" One hand still frozen, he pelted towards her, hooking an arm around her waist to make her leave if he had to.

"Ichigo! Ichigo, let go of me!"

"Rukia, I won't let you get yourself killed!"

"Oh, but it's ok for you to die!? You idiot! Let go, you don't think I came here alone, do you!?"

"Wait—what?" At his blank expression, she forcibly grabbed his chin and wrenched his head around for him.

"I got help." Ichigo blinked, the sight before him didn't seem to make sense to his brain.

"Rukia…" He started slowly, as if explaining this to a child. A really dumb child. "That's not help. That's my dad."

o o o o o

"And where, might I ask, do you think you're going?" The nasal voice of Mayuri Kurotsuchi whined from behind Urahara, the current 12th Captain was following hurriedly behind him as he made his way to his old labs. Kurotsuchi-san's labs now, he reminded himself.

"Well, I thought the best place for us to begin working is in my old laboratory! Isn't that fun!" Urahara replied, saturating his voice with a cheeriness he didn't actually feel.

"You mean my laboratory? You think you are going to work in my laboratory?" Mayuri sneered from behind him.

"Of course! There is no better place than my old laboratory! Don't you think that Yama-ji would agree?" Urahara stressed the Chief Commander's name, hoping to impress on the current 12th Captain that he had no choice but to go along with Urahara's plans. He only heard mumbling in response, and grinning behind his fan, knowing he had won.

The two entered the laboratory, Urahara froze once within the door. What…what has he done…All of his carefully developed tools, everything he had made, created, all of his finely tuned machinery…all gone. Instead was a distorted mess of junk, along with some very frightening looking mechanisms, odd set ups of tubes and chemicals in jars…and from somewhere, he could hear the groans and cries of some sort of living things, what exactly they were, he didn't know.

"You…you have destroyed my lab…" It was almost sick. No, it is sick.

"No, I have simply developed my lab in a way I found most useful. If you insist on working here, former Head, you will have to use what is provided. Is that a problem? I'm sure that you could work elsewhere…" Urahara fought the urge to grind his teeth, smiling instead.

"Not a problem at all, Mayuri-san…Let's begin, shall we?"

"Yes…Now, I will have some of my officers collect some of the sick…and we can begin our tests." Urahara paused to stare at him.

"Tests…Mayuri-san?" Kurotsuchi turned to face him, a bizarre, oddly excited expression on his face.

"Of course. I suppose I should be thanking you, Urahara-san. I didn't have permission to perform all the tests I wanted to before…But now…Now I can have a little fun."

o o o o o

"Of course it's your father, Ichigo." Rukia replied, as calmly as she could. The truth of Kurosaki Isshin's real identity had long been kept hidden from his son, even throughout the war when Isshin had participated. Very few people knew of Isshin's past, that he, in fact, had been a Shinigami of Captain class. Rukia herself only knew because of Nii-sama. The Captains, Urahara and Yoruichi—and now herself—were the only ones who now knew. Ichigo was never told. She figured it was for his own protection and to help him stay as separated from Soul Society as he could while he could. In Rukia's opinion, it was already more than unfair how much of Ichigo's human life was taken up by the affairs of the dead, so she could understand that reasoning, and until now, had never intended to let him know. But now, Isshin was the only one that could help.

"Rukia…what—what do you mean…'of course it's my father'…" He was clearly confused, she wondered if he had taken a hit to the head. There was Isshin, his zanpakuto drawn, in full Shinigami robes, holding off both Hollows. Though he was holding his own surprisingly well, Rukia saw that he would need backup. These were no ordinary Hollow. They were Vizard Hollow.

"Ichigo, I would love to explain, but I really need to go help your father. Please, go get Ishida, Chad, and Hiyori. Get them out of the way." She turned to glare at him, knowing that he was still not understanding, but needing him to at least understand her command. "You have to stay back. And do not try to become a Shinigami!" She then left him, hurtling towards the Hollow and their last available ally in the human world.

It appeared that the many years without practice had slowed Isshin down, and Rukia was certain that his reiatsu wasn't nearly as strong as it had been all those years ago when he was a Captain. He's been using Urahara's gigai…it's been eating his reiatsu, slowly, but surely. Still, she thought as she called out Sode no Shirayuki. It looks like he's having fun.

Isshin was grinning manically, much like Ichigo did while he was fighting. The resemblance was almost uncanny, it disturbed Rukia somewhat. If Ichigo ever gets as weird as his dad…I swear I'll beat him into a pulp. Performing her second dance, Hakuren, Rukia froze a limb of the Kensei Hollow while Isshin slashed at the Shinji Hollow.

"Mr. Kurosaki!" Rukia called out to her partner, trying to get his attention.

"Rukia-chaaann! How many times have I told you to call me 'Dad'!?" He shouted back, much to her annoyance.

"Fine! 'Dad'! Don't kill them, they can't control themselves!" Isshin rolled wide eyes, disbelieving, over to her as he ducked a wicked swipe from Shinji's claws.

"Then what do we do with them!?"

"Try to just knock them out or restrain them, if you can—we should take them to Soul Society, maybe Urahara can help them!" Isshin threw one more glance her way, then gave a sharp nod of agreement. That's also like Ichigo. Whipping her attention back to Kensei, who had torn his arm out of her ice, she summoned her reiatsu around her, thrusting her hands out in its direction.

"Bakudou number 99! Kin!" The kidou spell for restraint seized the Hollow, but it was clear to her that that spell alone wouldn't be enough. "Bakudou number 4! Hainawa!" Her creeping rope spell then took affect as well. Kensei roared and thrashed, pushing at the limits of the spell. Still not strong enough! "Bakudou number 61! Rokujou Kourou!" The six cane light prison was one of her brother's favorite kidou techniques, and she had learned it well. Kensei, completely bound now, fell forward, unable to move. For final measure, Rukia once again performed her second dance, freezing the entire Hollow solid.

"Good job, Rukia-chan! When did you get so good at kidou!" Came Isshin's fatherly call of encouragement. She rolled her eyes, turning her attention to their final threat, Shinji. It was a shame, really, what was happening to them. Ichigo clearly had admired them, and their ability to keep their darker natures at bay. Their example had given him hope. …Now that hope is gone. She knew what he was going to do, and was well aware that he knew what the consequences of his actions were. He was going to let the Hollow take him. Ishida, Chad, and Hiyori had somehow gotten injured, even Ichigo hadn't looked completely unscathed. But they weren't strong enough to fight for themselves any more, he was going to risk his own life to save them. That knowledge burned in her mind, it hurt so very, very much. Classic Ichigo, always trying to be the hero at his own expense…That bastard! Doesn't he know how that would kill everyone, knowing that he let that thing take him over while trying to save them!? Doesn't he know…how that would hurt me? I…don't know what I would do without him…I need him. A sudden rush of anger, towards everything especially Ichigo, built in her chest, and she released her fury on the Hollow, as it charged towards her.

"Hadou number 4! Byakurai!" Another of her brother's favorite spells, the white lighting surged from her finger to pierce Shinji straight through the chest, causing the Hollow to reel backwards in sudden pain. "Bakudou number 99! Kin! Bakudou number 4! Hainawa! Bakudou number 61! Rokujou Kourou! Sode no Shirayuki! HAKUREN!" She shrieked, entombing Shinji within her ice. In silence, she stood there then, watching, waiting for the Hollow to break free. It didn't happen, three restraining kidou spells and her zanpukto's special attack seemed enough to hold even the strongest of Hollows. Her exhaustion hit her then, and she slumped forward, feeling an oddly intense pain in her head. Her vision began to darken, through the blackness she saw bright orange heading towards her.

"Ichigo…don't let him take you…" She then slid out of consciousness. "I...need you..."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

HAHAHAH! SO that's it, chapter 23! Hopefully it was worth the wait (again, sorry for the horrible wait, especially since I told so many of you that I would be updating in a few days...I'm horribly sorry/ashamed for that...)

Instant recap! Renji's saddened by hearing Rukia's "he needs me" towards Ichigo, he needs her too, especially since he's getting sick as well. Urahara, Yoruichi, and the Captains go to a meeting with the Chief Commander, and Urahara has a show down with number one. The Chief still thinks that Urahara is behind the sickness, as well as all the past with the Vizards, but Urahara successfully impresses upon him that he needs to develop a cure. Urahara's future after the cure is developed is unsure. Ichigo and his hollow argue while Ichigo goes to find a way to suppress him, and Ishida is annoyed by Rukia's gigai. Ishida decides that he wants to go to Soul Society as well to help Inoue. Aww. Ichigo meets with Shinji and Hiyori, and thinks something is up. He doesn't see the others, and admits that his Hollow is back. Orihime has exhausted herself and has fallen unconscious. On her way to Ichigo, Rukia has to help Inoue. She takes her back to Renji, and forgoes her duty to get to Ichigo's side. Shinji and Hiyori inform Ichigo that all of their Hollows are back, and there's no way to get rid of them. Ichigo finds out that the massive hollow fighting Lisa is a fully transformed Kensei, and that he has lost his internal battle to his hollow. The Vizards have been getting weaker while their inner Hollows have been getting stronger, and while explaining, Shinji loses it and beings to transform himself. Ichigo's hollow pressures for release, and Ishida and Chad show up to help fight Shinji and Kensei. Their plan fails. Ichigo's hollow convinces him that the only way to save his fallen friends is to go Shinigami and, therefore, let the Hollow break through. Rukia stops him in the nick of time ;) Meanwhile, Urahara goes to his old labs with Mayuri, and hears that Mayuri is only interested in using the sick as test subjects. Finally, Ichigo demands to know why his dad is there, as he never knew that his father was a Shinigami, he just can't understand. Rukia knows what Ichigo was going to do--sacrifice himself, and over exerts herself in restraining the Vizard Hollows.

Ok! that's all. I hope it's ok...Some bits I'm on the fence about. I will do my best to update FAR more frequently, probably at least once a week. Thanks everyone!

MissCyraf