My vacation in Florida was quite nice, thanks for asking. =D
"Orihime!" The moment Tatsuki spotted her best friend amongst the approaching group, she scrambled to her feet from where she'd been resting, ignoring the dirt she unintentionally kicked up into Mizuiro's face, and took off towards them across the boulder-strewn ground.
The auburn-haired girl's eyes lit up and she waved. "Tatsuki-chan! What are you doing here?"
Tatsuki ignored the question as she came to a stop a few feet from Orihime and her group—Chad and a bunch of black-clad people that were probably Shinigami—and folded her arms. "You left me behind!" she accused, giving her a pointed look.
Orihime stopped dead, face crumpling in guilt. "Tatsuki-chan..."
"And you're about to do it again, aren't you?" Tatsuki scowled at her. "I thought we were best friends, Orihime. Why didn't you tell me anything?"
As she hesitated, Orihime's gaze went to her shoes.
A familiar, short, black-haired girl stepped forward, laying a comforting hand on Orihime's shoulder. "Would you have believed us if we'd said anything, Arisawa-san?"
Tatsuki had to pause for a moment before she fully recognized Kuchiki Rukia dressed up in that strange uniform with such a serious expression on her face, a sword strapped by her side. Then her frown returned. "And you! It's your fault that those Shinigami came and messed with everyone's memories, isn't it?"
She regretted the accusing words as Rukia bowed her head, her voice suddenly soft and hurt. "My apologies for any inconveniences caused. It was indeed my fault."
Tatsuki's anger deflated, and she ran a hand through her short hair. "No, it wasn't. Sorry, Rukia. Sorry, Orihime. I'm just..."
"Frustrated that we haven't gotten strong enough to join you," Mizuiro put in from behind her, finally catching up. "Hi, Sado-san." The tall boy nodded silently to acknowledge his friend.
"How did you find out about everything?" Orihime asked curiously. "We were rescued from hollows by Urahara-san, and that's how we knew. Were you attacked, too?"
Technically, a hollow had attacked them, but... "Well-"
An annoyed scoff came from the back of the group, and a large bald man there turned to the side, looking impatient. "Hate to interrupt your little get-together, but we're in a hurry! We've got people to beat up and a kid to go rescue!" He gave Tatsuki an appraising look. "If these brats ain't strong enough to come with us, then let's go already."
Immediately, Tatsuki's temper flared up again. "Hey, watch who you're calling a brat! I'm not weak, and I will pound you into next Friday!"
A deadly-looking smirk stretched across the bald man's face. "Oh? You wanna try?" He fell into an obvious attack stance, hands reaching down to grab his sword's sheath.
Mizuiro flinched away at the sudden outpour of spirit energy coming off the man, and several of the other members of the group let out protests, but Tatsuki just faced him down with a burning glare, shifting to an attack stance of her own, fists held up at the ready.
The man's grin widened even further and a little voice in the back of Tatsuki's head warned her that this was a full-fledged God of Death she had just challenged. She shushed the voice, steeling herself for the imminent fight.
Before either of them could move, however, Orihime pushed between the fighters, throwing her arms out as though to defend Tatsuki from attack. "Stop! Don't fight!"
Moments later, a tall man with bright red hair stepped forward from the group, laying a hand on the bald man's hilt to keep him from drawing his blade. "She's right, Madarame-san. Stop it. We don't have time for this."
The bald man looked very disappointed as he slowly straightened, tilting his head to crack his neck as he scoffed. "True enough. Hey, who's training you, brat? That Urahara guy?"
Tatsuki nodded tightly, still frowning at him. "Yes."
"You tell him that when I get back, I'm takin' over your training," he announced, his smirk returning.
Tatsuki's mouth opened slightly in surprise, her eyes widening at the prospect. Training by a real Shinigami sounded a lot better than being continually chased around by hollows all day.
The red-head gave him a shocked look. "Oi, what are you talking about?" he demanded. "You can't just-"
The bald man just brushed him off. "I can if I say I can. The girl wants to get stronger, and she's got guts. I'll do it."
"Oho... We'll have to see if you make it back alive before you go making promises like that," a new voice cut into the conversation. Tatsuki refused to let herself jump in surprise as she realized that Urahara stood directly behind her. Instead she slowly turned around to face the smiling, fan-waving man. "Are you all ready? The gate has been prepared."
With another small scoff, the bald man started off toward the place where Urahara had spent the last few hours working on the portal to the world of the hollows. The rest of the group gradually followed.
"Tatsuki-chan..." Orihime turned to her best friend again. "I'm so sorry I couldn't tell you. I know you were friends with Kuchiki-san, and you're friends with Kurosaki-kun, and you want to help too, but..."
Tatsuki waved her off. "I understand," she said, letting out a sigh. "But I still can't believe I'm not strong enough to come with you guys yet. I just don't understand why the training hasn't been working for me."
Orihime nodded, looking a little lost and helpless. "I wish you could come too."
"I know." With another short sigh, Tatsuki stood straight, giving her friend a smile. She had to be strong, for Orihime's sake. "But you'll be fine without me. Go get Ichigo and bring him back home, got it?"
Hesitantly, Orihime smiled back. "Mmhmm! We will, for sure!" Tatsuki could hear in her voice just how unsure she really was of that, but she only nodded, keeping the smile on her face.
Ahead of them, Urahara had somehow gotten up onto one of the giant rocks, where a big wooden beam stuck out. He started chanting something, and as they watched him, the air seemed to rip apart, the tear gouging its way across the room to a second beam level with the first. Inside the gap left behind, bordered by rips that seemed almost like huge, flat teeth, lay a black expanse of nothingness.
"This portal is the one used by Aizen's forces," Urahara called down to the group, looking uncharacteristically serious. "It's called the Garganta. There's no path inside, just a turbulent flow of spirit particles. Make a path from those and use it to move forward. If you head toward the deepest darkness, you will find Hueco Mundo."
"We got it," the bald man yelled back. "Let's go!"
Tatsuki stepped forward. "Wait!"
He glanced back at her, annoyance written plainly on his face.
"Who are you?" She had to at least know the name of the crazed-looking man who would potentially be training her.
The man turned back to the open portal, letting out a quick snort. "Madarame Ikkaku," he answered. With that, he jumped up into the Garganta and took off running, a black-haired man right on his heels. The rest of the Shinigami quickly followed suit.
"Come back soon," Tatsuki couldn't help but say to her best friend as the girl entered the passageway to the world of monsters.
Orihime gave her one last smile. "I will. Thank you, Tatsuki-chan."
The portal closed behind her and Chad, and then disappeared. They were gone.
Despite the fatigue that threatened to overcome her from having run so far so long, Rukia refused to let herself stop, her eyes fixed on the towering dome of the palace called Las Noches that seemed to loom up ahead of them as they approached.
Everyone else in the group seemed to have the same feeling, because none of them slowed in the least, and no conversation passed between them as they ran.
All of them could sense it: while Ichigo's reiatsu was definitely coming from that palace, something terrible had obviously happened to him.
His reiatsu had been worn ragged, though it raged wildly, feeling so rough and distorted that it hardly felt like his anymore. Even with the distance between them, they could sense that the teen had either been fighting for a really long time, or else... Ichigo's friends had all seen the hollow mask form across his face the last time they'd seen him. None of them wanted to think about that.
Hang in there, Ichigo, Rukia tried to send the thought at her distant friend, wincing slightly as his spirit energy flared up once more. It was almost good to know that the flares meant the orange-haired teen was definitely fighting someone. Almost.
Endless hours of running went by before they finally reached Las Noches' hulking outer wall and had to stop while they figured out how to get in. Rukia sank to her knees in the sand to rest while Renji, Chad, Ikkaku, and Yumichika examined the wall. Inoue stood off to one side, obviously trying to keep out of the way, and Hanatarou joined Rukia, flopping down on the ground and breathing so hard it seemed he might hyperventilate.
Rukia gave the boy a brief look of sympathy before focusing on getting her own breathing under control. Part of her still almost wished they'd split up at the start, so that those who knew shunpo could hurry on ahead, but she knew why they hadn't; leaving behind both of their healers would have been a stupid idea. So instead, they'd all had to run hard through Hueco Mundo's endless night.
"It's not made of Seki Seki stone," Renji concluded, drawing his sword. "We can just smash our way through it."
Ikkaku swiftly drew his own sword, turning to the stone wall and slamming the blade down against it with a loud yell. Renji released his blade and, with a "Howl, Zabimaru!" sent it smashing into the rock as well.
Back and forth, the two traded off blows, sending chunks of rock flying as the dent in the wall grew larger and larger.
Eventually, they managed to smash all the way through, and Rukia got to her feet again, ready to move forward. Inoue stopped to help Hanatarou get up as well, but they soon joined the others at the new entrance they'd just created. Inside, any torches in Las Noches's halls had apparently been left unlit, the hallway stretching on into a thick darkness ahead of them.
"Everyone ready?" Renji asked seriously, glancing around at everyone in the group as he leaned Zabimaru across one shoulder.
As if in answer, Ichigo's reiatsu spiked once again, feeling as though someone had streaked it full of a dark presence not his own. Somewhere in the distance, a piercing yell accompanied the spike, causing dread to seep through Rukia's whole body.
"Kurosaki-kun!" his name fell from Inoue's lips with a tone of horror.
Without waiting for any other response, Rukia took off running, dashing through the opening and taking point at the head of the group. The others weren't far behind her.
"What just happened to him?" Hanatarou exclaimed as they ran. "Did you feel that? It was like Ichigo-san was a..."
"Hollow," Inoue choked out, barely able to say it. "Aizen must have done something to him. His reiatsu is..."
Rukia finished for her grimly. "It's getting worse."
Chad let out a low grunt. "Or he was already like this from the beginning, and we're only noticing it more as we're getting closer."
"Which is a lot worse," Renji concluded. "Who knows how long..." He apparently couldn't finish, but he didn't need to. They continued to run in a tense silence down the darkened hallway.
Suddenly, Rukia saw light ahead, and her speed increased as she followed it. Soon, though, the circular room she found herself in, lit on all sides by torches, forced her to a screeching halt. The room had no other way out than where they'd just come from.
Renji growled. "We don't have time to go back. We'll have to bust through the walls again."
Ikkaku glanced around, a scowl planted on his face. "Sure, but which way?"
Yumichika had his eyes closed, hands held up by his ears as though listening for something. "Ichigo-san's reiatsu is coming from that way," he said finally, pointing to their right.
Hanatarou closed his eyes as well. After a moment, he nodded. "Yeah, that's the right direction. And..." His eyes flew open suddenly in alarm. "And he's coming this wa-"
Something huge exploded through the wall where Yumichika had pointed, sailing through the air before hitting the far wall with another large crash. The thing let out a scream, layered with the voice of a hollow, and quickly jumped back up to its clawed feet, its attention locked on the hole it had just come through.
Rukia could only stare. The hollow that stood before them had thick, white, muscular arms and legs and a tail, all striped with red. The white and red mask on its face looked horribly familiar, but the main thing that caught her attention was the bright orange hair that cascaded down to his waist.
Ichigo's reiatsu came from within the monster.
None of them could react, merely watching with horror as the hollow stalked back toward the gap in the wall, growling in a high-pitched snarl to itself, gripping Ichigo's zanpakutou tightly in its claws.
Deep laughter drew their attention, and they all finally noticed the slightly bloodied, blue-haired hollow standing in the rubble of the broken-down wall. He looked strangely like a cross between a humanoid and a feline, and he gave them a calculating look before grinning. "Well, well, what do we got here? An invasion party?"
Ichigo didn't give anyone a chance to respond, as he leapt toward the other hollow with a scream of rage, swinging Zangetsu hard and fast at his head. The blue-haired hollow quickly defended, twisting around and batting the zanpakutou away with a bladed arm.
They exchanged several blows, almost too fast for Rukia to follow, and then the two combatants backed off again, Ichigo snarling at the other hollow in contempt.
Suddenly, the group broke from their paralysis, everyone leaping forward into action. Renji and Chad went to Ichigo's side, grabbing either arm and trying to hold him down. Inoue put up a glowing yellow shield between the two hollows, and the rest of them took up positions behind the shield, some facing Ichigo and some turning to keep the other hollow back from the shield.
Ichigo raged, yelling in defiance and trying to yank himself free of his friends' holds. Strong as they were, they couldn't quite restrain him, and he tossed them to and fro, leaving them barely able to hang on. Twice, Ichigo nearly managed to swing them off, but each time, they regained their grips barely in time.
"What do you think you're doing?" the blue-haired hollow laughed at them, still grinning. "You think you can save him or something? Can't you see? It's too late for him!"
"Shut up!" Rukia demanded, keeping her sword drawn and her eyes on Ichigo as he roared in frustration, a cero charging on the tips of his fingers. Inoue swiftly moved her shield around and it took the brunt of the cero, shattering on impact.
Ikkaku glanced back at Ichigo as well. "He's right. Hate to say it, but we'll just have to kill him."
"No!" Inoue's eyes went wide as she whirled on Ikkaku in a sudden panic. "We can't!"
Renji nodded. "Let's take him back to Urahara-san," he grunted, still struggling to keep his hold on Ichigo's arm. "Maybe he'll know how to help hiiiiiaaaah!" his sentence turned into a yell as Ichigo finally managed to bat him off, sending him flying into a wall. Immediately, the red-striped hollow whirled on him again, starting to charge up another cero.
The blue-haired hollow jumped back into the fray at that, sending a kick at Ichigo's head that caused the cero to spiral off to the side. "What a bunch of naïve Shinigami," he snarled at them as Ichigo sent a return blow at his head with his free arm. "This is my fight! Get outta my way!"
"Never!" Inoue returned boldly, turning back to him with a determined expression on her face. "He's our friend! Leave him alone!"
The blue-haired hollow started to respond, but was interrupted as Ichigo screamed again, coming to a halt and stiffening up. Large, bloody gashes suddenly opened up in his shoulders of their own accord, and Chad dropped the arm he still clung to in surprise, wincing at the harsh, pained sounds coming from behind that toothy mask.
Then, the skin where he had held abruptly shattered, as though a shell had covered Ichigo's body and was now breaking away. All over his body, the same cracks appeared, and the hollow shell fell away, fading away into nothing as it hit the ground.
Underneath, Ichigo stood, looking completely normal save for the full hollow mask on his face and a large hole that remained opened in his chest. He took a deep breath, his eyes still closed, and then gradually let it out.
"Kurosaki-kun?" Inoue's voice wavered slightly.
His eyes snapped open, revealing black sclera and bright yellow irises. Hollow eyes. Slowly, his head lifted as he focused on them. "You guys? So someone finally came after Ichigo after all!" High-pitched laughter fell from his lips as he flared his reiatsu again, as though stretching it out after a long period of not being used.
Rukia took a step back in alarm. This wasn't Ichigo. The eyes, the dual-toned voice, the hollow hole and that creepy smile flashed like warning bells in her mind, but one thing clinched it: his reiatsu still felt as though it were mostly hollow, with mere streaks of Shinigami running through it.
"It's not him," she warned the others tightly. "This is his inner hollow, the one who took over at Soukyoku hill."
Ichigo's hollow laughed again, reaching up and pulling the mask up off of his face, sliding it up to rest on the top of his head. "Very perceptive, Rukia-chan!"
"I-I don't understand," Hanatarou stammered out, his eyes flicking back and forth between Ichigo's hollow hole and his dangerous-looking eyes. "What happened to you, Ichigo-san?"
"Ichigo isn't here anymore!" the hollow yelled, still grinning. "You lot missed your chance! That miserable jerk you called your friend is gone! Now you get to play with me!"
They could only stand stunned for a split second, before Ikkaku recovered, flipping his sword off to the side and slamming the end of the hilt together with the sheath. "Alright. Guess we have no choice, then. Extend, Houzukimaru!"
Inoue cried out in protest as the bald man released his blade and immediately leapt toward Ichigo's hollow with his spear held high above his head.
"No, don't!" she screamed, her hands flying up to her hairpins to send her shield in their direction.
The hollow didn't even flinch at the abrupt attack, simply bringing Zangetsu up to defend, batting the spear away and, twisting around Inoue's shield, retaliating with his own blow.
Ikkaku ducked under the blade, sending another jab up and over the hollow's shoulder. The tri-sectional spear separated into its part, curving around to land a hit from behind.
And suddenly the other hollow—the blue-haired one—jumped into the fray again, slamming an elbow deep into Ikkaku's side and sending him flying. With a yell, the Shinigami smashed through the wall shoulder first.
"Oi! Don't go forgetting our battle!"
Ichigo's hollow laughed, readying his blade in anticipation. "Of course not, Grimmjow. But first, I should deal with our visitors so that they'll quit interfering."
The other hollow seemed to hear something dangerous in his tone, and a predatory grin appeared on his face. "What did you have in mind?"
"Madarame-san, wait! You're injured! Don't-!" Hanatarou's voice drew their attention back to Ikkaku as he gave a battle cry, running back toward the two hollows, fully willing to take on both of them at once.
Surprisingly, Ichigo's hollow didn't dodge, instead actually stepping forward to meet the blow. Flicking his wrist swiftly in the air, he opened a Garganta in front of himself—a Garganta that Ikkaku suddenly had too much momentum to avoid running straight into.
The moment the Shinigami passed through the portal, it disappeared, leaving Ichigo's hollow with a satisfied smirk on his face. "Well, that worked better than I thought it would!"
Before anyone could react, he turned sharply toward the next closest group of invaders—Hanatarou, Yumichika, and Chad. In a moment, he'd dropped almost to the ground, flicking his wrist in their direction as he fell into a low crouch.
Immediately, another Garganta appeared, this time spreading its way across the floor, and though the three tried to scramble out of the way, it caught them within its maw. Each of them fell with a yell, and the portal closed up behind them.
"No!" Rukia ran forward, breaking away from the remaining members of her group and heading straight at Ichigo's hollow, blade raised to attack. He merely dodged her thrust, and then flash stepped—sonido!—to move directly behind her, slashing at her back with Zangetsu. She stumbled, and then fell.
"Two more to go!" Ichigo's hollow cackled, facing them as he brought his zanpakutou up just in time to catch an overhead swing from Renji. The two exchanged several blows, and then the hollow shoved hard against Renji's blade, sending him skidding backwards.
Unfortunately, this sent him tumbling straight into Inoue, and before they knew it, the two of them were falling into a third Garganta portal.
"What? Why don't you just kill them?" the blue-haired hollow demanded, sounding almost offended. "Look, even the girl's getting up again. You purposefully didn't hit her hard enough to do more than knock her over!"
Rukia had nearly gotten to her feet by that point, and she slowly raised Sode no Shirayuki into a defensive position, facing Ichigo's hollow again.
The orange-haired hollow merely snickered at her efforts, obviously seeing that the wound had gone deep enough to keep her from moving efficiently, despite what the other hollow had to say about it. He sheathed Zangetsu with a flourish, swinging the large blade up onto his back, and then walked calmly towards her.
Still wary, Rukia held her position, breathing hard as the hollow approached.
"You never know when a previous ally might prove useful, Grimmjow," said the thing that wasn't Ichigo anymore with a grin on his face, moving to stand directly in front of her. He leaned forward to bring himself closer to her eye level. "Now, Rukia-chan... I have a message for you."
Rukia tried to keep her eyes from widening at their proximity, ignoring every screaming instinct that tried to tell her that this person was not an enemy, that he wouldn't ever do anything to hurt her. "What message?" she asked tightly.
"Keep out of my way." His grin grew even deeper, the distorted expression sending chills down her spine. "My loyalties lie with Aizen-san now. I wouldn't want you to be killed, now would I?"
With that, he brought one hand up, laying it firmly on her upper chest, and gave a quick shove. As she toppled backward, she realized with horror that he'd created yet another Garganta portal behind her.
She fell into darkness.
Screams ripped through the air as desks scattered across the almost empty classroom of Karakura high. Ishida jumped at the noise, closing his book as he quickly looked around.
"What was that?" Chizuru yelled, staring in horror at the mess.
"I don't know! What happened?"
Ishida narrowed his eyes at the sight in the corner of the room: Ikkaku lay sprawled across a pile of desks where he'd apparently landed after having suddenly appeared out of thin air. The Shinigami groaned slightly, shifting the desks as he tried to get to his feet.
Kon sprang up from his seat near the window. "You!" he cried. "You were part of the rescue team! What happened? Where's Ichigo? Did you find him yet?"
Ishida cleared his throat rather loudly. "Kurosaki-san," he called in an overly formal fashion, attracting the attentions of Kon and the rest of the students. "Are you feeling quite well?"
The mod-soul froze, as though suddenly realizing that he stood in the middle of class in Kurosaki Ichigo's body, and that the other students in the class were staring at him.
Honestly, Ishida thought, rolling his eyes slightly. It's a good thing it's lunch time and most of the students are out of the room.
"Uh... um..." Kon stared back, not sure what to say. "Uh, yeah! Yeah, feeling just fine!" He turned to Ikkaku. "How about you? I mean you did just come flying into a bunch of-"
By this point, Ishida had reached Kon's side, and he clapped a hand on the mod-soul's shoulder. "Kurosaki," he repeated tightly. "Are you sure you're feeling alright?"
For a moment, Kon merely stared at Ishida, probably wondering what he had done wrong. Then, it apparently hit him that only he and the Quincy could actually see the Shinigami in the room, and a look of horror appeared on his face.
Ishida couldn't help but to roll his eyes again and, giving Ikkaku a piercing look, he quickly steered Kon toward the door. "Come on, I'm taking you to the nurse. You obviously got hit in the head when that mysterious gust of wind blew all those desks over."
Kon slumped, but allowed Ishida to lead him away. "Yeah, I guess so," he allowed, even though he'd been all the way across the room from where Ikkaku had landed.
Once the two of them had escaped to the safety of the hallway, they both turned questioningly to Ikkaku, who had thankfully taken the hint and followed them out. "Well, Madarame-san?" Ishida asked tightly. "What happened on the mission? Where is Kurosaki?"
Ikkaku merely scowled. "He's beyond our ability to save."
Kon gulped. "You mean he's... dead?"
Kon stared at the Shinigami. "What do you mean, unfortunately? Isn't that a good thing?"
Ishida, however, had already figured out what Ikkaku meant. "There are some things worse than death," he said softly, remembering the mask appearing on Kurosaki's face back on Soukyoku hill. "So, he became a hollow?"
Kon's jaw dropped as Ikkaku nodded. "He might as well be dead; we just haven't killed him yet. I tried to take him out, and he dropped me here. I don't know what happened to the others."
"We're here," a new voice broke in suddenly. Ishida turned to see Yumichika, Hanatarou, and Chad walking down the hallway towards them. Yumichika rubbed his head as though he had a headache, but everyone else seemed to be unharmed. "We think that he's sending everyone back here in the same way."
Hanatarou nodded to confirm this. "We ended up on the roof. And before we headed down here, we saw Abarai-san and Inoue-san appear down on the track field. We're not sure where Kuchiki-san is yet."
Ikkaku let out a sigh. "Suppose we should look for her, then. We need to regroup; figure out what we're gunna do next."
"I'll take my leave, then." Ishida took a short step away from the group before turning and beginning to walk off.
Kon gave him a puzzled look. "Oi, where you going?"
"Back to class, obviously," Ishida lied, heading a different direction down the hall. He didn't even bother to look back at them. "I got the information I wanted. None of this concerns me."
"But Ishida-san..." Hanatarou looked concerned.
Ikkaku snorted. "Eh, let him go. If he doesn't want to help, he doesn't want to help."
I can't help, Ishida wanted to retort, but he held back and simply kept walking, not even really paying attention to where he was going. Though more and more, I wish I could.
He shook his head. Even if he had his powers back, he would be of no help in this situation. Kurosaki had become a hollow, and the only way a Quincy could fight a hollow was to completely eliminate them. No, the best thing would be to let the Shinigami take care of it.
A scowl appeared on his face at that thought. Did I really just think that? he scoffed at himself. It was as though Kurosaki had somehow become his friend or something. Honestly, he tried to convince himself, It's not like I actually care about what happened to—
A dry sob caught his attention suddenly, and he stopped, glancing around. The sound had come from a nearby, darkened classroom. Out of curiosity, he peeked inside.
All the lights remained off at his quiet entry, and so he barely saw the huddled form leaned up against the far wall of the room. Kuchiki's eyes looked dark and hopeless as she hugged her knees, and though no tears streaked her cheeks, her whole body shook.
"Not you too, Ichigo..." she whispered to herself. "Not like Kaien-dono... How could this happen to you?"
Ishida looked away, somewhat embarrassed to have intruded on such a moment. Even with all he'd seen Kuchiki go through, he'd never seen her look so... broken before.
Kuchiki somehow spotted his movement, despite his efforts to be discreet, and looked up.
Abruptly, her entire form seemed to change as she stiffened, her eyes gaining a sharp look like steel. She forced herself slowly to her feet, and Ishida finally noticed the bleeding slash running across her back.
"Ishida-san... where are the others?" Kuchiki's voice had hardened back to that of a warrior, showing none of the weakness she had just a second before.
Without commenting on what he'd seen, Ishida pointed back down the hallway the way he'd come. "Everyone is regrouping down the hall over there. I believe they are looking for you."
After a second, she nodded, starting to stumble out of the room. When he saw her difficulties, Ishida hurried to her side, gingerly helping her to walk.
For a long moment, neither of them said anything as they made their way down the hallway. Finally, though, Ishida felt he had to say something. "I'm... sorry for your loss," he told her softly.
A strange expression crossed her face before vanishing into the hardened mask she'd created for herself. She didn't respond to his condolences. Maybe she felt she couldn't.
"Welcome back, Hollow-san," Aizen greeted as the hollow entered the throne room. "I admit to being impressed by your promptness. I didn't expect to see you here for another few days."
The hollow grinned at him, raising both hands in the air in a large shrug. "What can I say?" he laughed cruelly. "I overestimated him."
A smile appeared on the other man's face. "Apparently so." He was about to say something further, but Grimmjow suddenly interrupted, shoving forward past the hollow and snarling at the ex-Shinigami captain.
"Why did you stop our battle again?" he demanded impatiently. "I swear, if you send Ulquiorra to come 'fetch' us while we're in the middle of fighting again, I'll-"
"I apologize, Grimmjow," Aizen cut back in smoothly, tilting his head in acknowledgement of his words. "But I'm afraid that what I have to say at this moment is far more important than a spar."
Grimmjow growled, but the threatening aura of spirit energy suddenly coming off of Aizen kept him from doing much more than that.
After a moment's pause, Aizen continued, addressing the hollow again. "I thought that now would be a good time to introduce you to your new comrades, Hollow-san." His smile broadened. "Especially as you will have to defeat one of them if you wish to gain an Espada position."
"I see." The hollow smirked. That was Aizen's way of telling him that he now had permission to kill someone if he wanted to.
He glanced around the room calmly, his grin still in place. He'd noticed the shadows along the edges of the room before, and knew that he wasn't alone in here, but now he studied them all carefully, trying to gauge strengths.
Thankfully, he didn't have to rely fully on what he could see; Ichigo's descriptions of the Espada he'd known came in handy here. In particular, the memories his other self had accidentally shared about getting the crap beaten out of him by anyone over Grimmjow's level.
"Oi, which one of you is number seven?"
"Seven?" Grimmjow practically roared at him. "Oh, no you don't! You're fighting me!"
Even Aizen seemed slightly surprised at his choice, but gestured for one of the Espada to step forward. Number seven was a tall, broad, bald-headed, dark-skinned man with an almost skin-tight white uniform.
Grimmjow leapt suddenly at the hollow with a yell of anger, drawing his sword midair. The hollow ducked under it, and Grimmjow's blade merely rebounded off of his sheathed zanpakutou on his back. The blue-haired Arrancar went for another blow, but the hollow used sonido to step away, laughing loudly.
"Cool it, Grimmjow!" he called playfully. "You'll get your turn. I don't want to lose my best sparring partner so quickly." Grimmjow didn't look appeased in the slightest, so the hollow added, "Besides, that guy's so ugly, he kind of needs to get taken down."
The seventh Espada's expression turned dangerously cold. "In challenging me, Zommari Leroux," he announced, reaching to draw his sword, "you have signed a death wish."
"Yeah," the hollow agreed amiably, cackling to himself. "Yours!"
Without waiting for a response, he ran at number seven, unsheathing Zangetsu and swinging hard in a high, overhand blow. Strangely, Zommari didn't bother to block with his sword, merely standing there as he attacked. It was as though...
It was an illusion. The hollow realized this just as his sword swished through thin air instead of connecting. Immediately, he turned to block not one, but two strikes from behind him, both from what looked like two duplicates of the same Arrancar.
"My sonido is the fastest amongst all the Espada," one of the two Zommari's explained as the other disappeared, his focused look never changing even as his tone turned to an arrogant brag. "I can even move fast enough to create up to three phantom forms of myself."
The hollow considered this for half a second before his wide grin reappeared on his face. "Oh, really? Only three? Big deal." He snickered, bringing Zangetsu up parallel to the ground, letting the hilt wrap twist around his upper arm as he'd seen Ichigo do so many times. He could move much faster than that while in bankai.
Before he could do anything, though, a large shape loomed next to him, and he dodged, whirling around to face Grimmjow as the Arrancar attacked him again with a fierce yell. He raised Zangetsu to defend.
Sparks flew, but not from the hollow's blade; Ulquiorra had suddenly stepped in between them, blocking Grimmjow's attack with one raised hand.
"This is an official Espada battle," Ulquiorra informed the other Arrancar tonelessly. "You will not interfere."
"That's my opponent!" Grimmjow snarled.
The hollow's grin widened. "So possessive... I told you, Grimmjow. You'll get your turn. Now, chill."
For a moment, the hollow thought that Grimmjow would go straight through Ulquiorra to get to him, but finally, the blue-haired Arrancar wisely backed down, letting out another loud growl.
With a jerk of his head toward the door, he gestured to his fraccion, who watched from the shadows, and then turned on his heel and stormed out of the room, still fuming to himself. His fraccion all looked as though they wanted to stay to watch the battle, but reluctantly, they followed their leader.
Ulquiorra retreated back to his spot amongst the gathered Espada, and the hollow returned his attention to Zommari, raising Zangetsu back up parallel to the ground again as he snickered. "Now, from where we left off... Bankai!"
Smoke and dust whipped up around him as his form began to change, the hilt wrap seeming to twist tighter and tighter around his arm, then up and across the rest of his body. Zangetsu's weight shifted in his hands as it also changed shape.
The hollow slashed his zanpakutou's new bankai form forward, clearing the air before him. Just before he could move to attack, though, he caught a glimpse of his arm.
He stopped, staring down at himself.
White. White, thick muscular arms, white torso, even white hakama around his waist, though his skin lay bare from the waist up. Behind him, he could feel long hair swishing against his back as he moved. In his hands, even Zangetsu's usual bankai form had become as white as the bone mask he could feel covering just the left side of his face.
"What is this?" he couldn't help but ask Zangetsu as he turned around and noticed that he'd also gained a long, whipping tail.
The zanpakutou answered, sounding almost smug. "I've told you before that you can't release Bankai. This is the true form of hollow and zanpakutou: Ressureccion."
He didn't even need to ask to know that it held all the same powers as Ichigo's bankai, and more. The hollow grinned up at Zommari, the thrill of exhilaration running through him. "Alright! Wasn't expecting that, but I can work with it! Let's go!"
The seventh Espada took much longer to recover from the shock of this new transformation than the hollow did, and when the hollow leapt at him again, Zangetsu swinging, he barely got out of the way in time, leaving behind only a very faint afterimage.
The hollow didn't slow, running around Zommari in a tight circle and attacking again and again from every angle he could. To the Espada, he knew, he would appear as hundreds of versions of himself all coming at him at once.
Surprisingly, Zommari kept up fairly decently with the attacks, blocking almost all of them and even countering with a few blows of his own. Apparently, once he quit purposefully focusing his speed into making illusionary clones of himself, he could use it quite well for normal things.
A sharp pain in a strange place told him that his tail had suddenly been severed from the rest of him, and he let out a frustrated snarl. He wasn't used to having an extra appendage there, so he'd forgotten to pay attention to it while dodging attacks.
The hollow stopped his circling, backing off for a moment to inspect the damage. Much as it annoyed him, he needed that tail; it had been helping him keep his balance, strangely enough, and now he wobbled slightly on his feet.
A stream of white burst forth from the bleeding stump where his tail had been, condensing quickly into a vague tail shape for a moment before solidifying. Within moments, his tail had reformed itself.
The hollow grinned, turning back to Zommari and preparing to attack again. The Arrancar looked taken aback. "High speed regeneration?" he wondered aloud.
"Sweet!" the hollow cackled, jumping at his opponent with a wide swing of his sword. "As if I wasn't going to have an easy enough time kicking your butt! Not only am I much faster than you, but I've got other tricks up my sleeve too!"
Zommari blocked his blow, and the next three, before pushing off of the hollow's blade, shoving him away to put distance between them. "You say that as though I don't also have other abilities."
With that, he took a bracing stance, holding his zanpakutou up parallel to the ground. Letting go of the hilt, he clapped his hands together as his sword levitated in front of him. Then, his head began to turn sideways until it, too, was parallel to the ground in a disturbing fashion.
"Suppress, Brujeria." Suddenly, his zanpakutou bent, twisting itself into a strange spiral shape. A white substance—very much like the hollow's regeneration ability—erupted from the zanpakutou and covered Zommari's entire body.
As the hollow watched, the stuff dripped off, slowly revealing Zommari's new Ressureccion form: a giant, floating pink pumpkin covered with closed eyes, with the top half of his body sticking out the top like a giant stem.
The hollow couldn't help but to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing. Without waiting for any explanation of the Arrancar's abilities, he attacked again, using the full extent of his speed to get in as close as he could with the intent of stabbing right through that giant balloon of a body.
Right at the last moment, though, one of the eyes on the balloon abruptly opened up, and the hollow's wrist twisted involuntarily, turning his blade so that only the flat side connected, bouncing off harmlessly.
Somewhat confused, the hollow tried again to bring his zanpakutou up to attack, but this time his entire right arm refused to move and the sword remained where it was by his side. The eye that had opened on the side of the giant pink mass had started glowing purple.
Immediately, the hollow backed off with a quick sonido, realizing that something had gone very wrong.
"I see that you finally noticed the effect of my Amor." The seventh Espada sounded distinctly smug as he spoke, turning to face him. "Each of my eyes has the ability to steal the sovereignty of one thing it can see. In other words, taking control of it away."
The hollow frowned down at his arm for a moment, noting the sun-shaped mark that had appeared on the back of it. In the next second, it had lifted by itself, shifting the zanpakutou around in his hand so that the sharp side faced in toward himself.
Before it could move further, the hollow snatched his zanpakutou up out of his right hand's loose grip and into his left. The right hand continued upward, reaching as though to try to strangle him.
"Che." With a smirk, the hollow cut off his arm, just above the sun mark.
Pain flowered through him for an instant before his high-speed regeneration kicked in again, forming a new arm before the old one had even hit the ground. The old arm twitched, still in Zommari's control, but unable to do anything.
The hollow grinned at Zommari. "Fascinating. Unfortunately for you, I could do this all day!" He leapt at the seventh Espada again, going in for another attack.
Again, another eye opened, but even as it turned purple, the hollow noticed his left leg leaving his control and he slashed it off, then he continued his swing. Zommari's main eyes opened wide in surprise, and he sonido'd out of the way just barely in time.
By then, yet another eye had opened, and then another. The hollow twisted around, making sure that his sword arm remained out of sight of Zommari's eyes so that he could still use that one to cut off any limbs that the Espada removed from his control. He moved in to attack with full speed, again and again, barely even pausing to sever his own limbs before moving at him again.
Several times, he managed to get in a blow on one of the closed eyes, effectively blinding them, but for the most part, Zommari dodged, his scheme of taking control of limbs slowing the hollow down just enough for him to get out of the way.
The hollow didn't care; he just kept attacking, dropping dead limbs like leaves as the battle went on. He could feel his reiatsu getting lower and lower as he used more energy on high-speed regeneration, but for now, he still had plenty.
And more importantly, more and more of Zommari's eyes were now stuck glowing purple, focused on arms and legs that he could no longer even move. All too soon, he only had a handful of uninjured, unopened eyes left, and the Espada finally realized what the hollow had been doing to him.
Immediately, he stopped opening new eyes, a scowl appearing across his normally stoic face. "A clever tactic," he allowed, sounding mildly frustrated.
"I thought so," the hollow quipped, grinning at him as he came to a stop.
"But not good enough!" Several of the remaining eyes opened up, and the hollow just laughed, turning again to the side so that he wouldn't have to wrestle his sword out of his right hand before cutting it off.
Suddenly, though, everything froze. His arms wouldn't move, his legs stopped responding, even his tail ceased its whipping around.
Then, slowly, Zommari gestured with his hands, using a 'come hither' motion, and the hollow's body turned back to face him, the movement completely against his will. His right arm raised Zangetsu up, turning it around to point the blade at his own chest, just above his hollow hole.
The hollow couldn't do anything about it. Zommari had somehow managed to take over everything! But how...?
"My eyes steal the sovereignty of whatever they see," Zommari explained once again, his voice solemn now. "I can capture control of an arm, a leg... but if the eye opens upon a person's head, I gain complete control of that person. Your body is now mine."
"No!" the hollow let out a mental scream. He'd had way too much of this already. He wasn't about to just take this lying down.
With another yell that managed to break out into reality, the hollow forced his reiatsu to surge, pouring it into all of his limbs, trying to force control back. Zommari looked taken aback as the hollow's entire body glowed red.
Quickly, the seventh Espada gestured again, and the hollow's arm began to lower, starting to stab Zangetsu straight into his chest. However, the hollow struggled even harder, and the arm stopped moving.
"That's... impossible!" Zommari exclaimed. "The sovereignty of your body should belong to me!"
The hollow let out a short laugh, forcing his head up to grin tightly up at him. "Sorry," he cackled. "I've worked too hard to gain 'sovereignty' of this body to give it up now."
With that, he gave one last powerful shove on his reiatsu, and suddenly the one glowing purple eye that had focused on the hollow's head exploded. Zommari's control broke completely, the resulting shock wave throwing the Espada backwards, almost running him into a group of onlookers.
"Now," the hollow said darkly, his grin growing wider. He shifted quickly to an attack position, yanking the tip of Zangetsu out of his chest and pointing it back at Zommari, who was still reeling at the loss of his eye and his control. "I'm going to make sure you never get the chance to try that ever again."
Before Zommari could move a muscle, the hollow was on him, swinging Zangetsu in a wide arc.
The Espada's head rolled across the ground. The rest of him soon followed, falling from the air and landing with a resounding crash.
As soon as the body began to dissolve, the hollow smirked, laying Zangetsu triumphantly across his shoulder. For a long moment, there was silence.
Finally, Aizen began to clap slowly. "Very good," he said smoothly, looking rather proud of the way the battle had turned out. "Welcome to the Espada, number seven."
And thus, Ichigo's hollow finally becomes an Espada. Took me long enough to finally get to this point. I've only been planning it for forever...
Well, I'm going to admit: Ikkaku surprised me at the beginning of this chapter by taking over Tatsuki's training. o.O It'll work well, but still, he just sort of announced it without warning me, there...
Oh. About the hollow's Ressureccion form. I have a theory which is, whenever Ichigo releases bankai, he gets his normal bankai form. The hollow can use that form by taking control of Ichigo while it's released, but he can't actually release that form himself. Instead, when he releases, he goes to Ressureccion, which Ichigo could (theoretically) use by taking control while it's released (if he weren't, y'know, dead).
My theory stems from the fact that it wasn't until Ichigo and his hollow both yelled "Bankai!" during their inner battle (in canon) that Ichigo's body actually gained a hollow hole and started transforming into the lizard/salamander hollow form. Thus, Ichigo's hollow's Ressureccion form is basically that form.
My theory also goes on to say that if one of them releases bankai or ressurecion, and the other then releases their form on top of that, then they'll get the uber release, which is Ichigo's second hollow form; the one with the horns. (That's actually approximately what happened in Feeling Hollow, except I just didn't really state it like that. Both of them pushing together results in uber hollow form.) Obviously, that form isn't going to make an appearance in Day Before Tomorrow unless Ichigo revives and gets his act together.
And thus is my complicated theory.
Oh, by the way. I just got a review informing me that Day Before Tomorrow has been added to tvtropes' fanfiction recommendation page! Yay! That makes me so excited!
Thanks again to all of my wonderful readers, and to all of you who leave reviews, favorites, or otherwise enjoy and share this story. You guys really make my days brighter.