Author's Note: Yes, we're on Chapter 19 already! Which means next chapter will be the last! This one will have most of the action, and it'll be a little longer. The next will be more of a conclusion to smoothen things out and tie up some loose ends. Hopefully this fic has been turning out okay for you, it was actually pretty difficult for me to write. Sorry I didn't post this until now, I bet you were expecting a fast update, but I actually got a mild case of writer's block and didn't know how to continue until now. I didn't really like this chapter though, to me it just seemed like Ichigo going on a warpath and wrecking everything the whole time. But thanks to all who are still reading and reviewing.
Ichigo held Hyorinmaru in his hands. It felt strange, and he didn't know how to explain it, but somehow, he felt as if Hitsugaya was right. But now was not the time for questions or doubts. This was his once chance to defeat Aizen, and if Hyorinmaru would be his weapon, then so be it.
"Kurosaki, be careful," Hitsugaya warned, "Even if you do have this power, you are not invincible."
"I know," Ichigo answered quietly. There was an awkward pause before with an uncomfortable laugh, the strawberry added, "Thanks, Toshiro."
"Don't thank me," Hitsugaya snapped, "Hurry up and do what you came to do."
"You'll be fine without your zanpaku-to, right?"
"Of course I will," the young captain retorted, "Who do you think I am? I may not have Hyorinmaru, but I am still a captain of the Gotei 13 nonetheless, and I am well-versed enough in kido to defend myself without it."
"Stay here and wait for me," Ichigo instructed, "I'll be done soon, I promise."
"Done with what, I wonder?"
Both boys spun around at the sound of the third voice interjecting into their conversation. Ichigo's grip around Hyorinmaru tightened as his eyes rested on the owner of this voice, Aizen. The man smiled graciously at the pair, his hand resting on Kyoka Suigetsu.
"I was in the middle of destroying your precious sotaichou when I noticed the change in the atmosphere," Aizen spoke, "So I came as quickly as possible, knowing that the power of the guardian has indeed been released. Thank you for your help, Hitsugaya-kun. Now then, Kurosaki Ichigo, as you may or may not know, the whole point of this was for me to gain this power. I assume you won't willingly hand Hyorinmaru over...so I shall have to kill you to take it from you."
"Like hell you will," Ichigo snarled, "You're the one who's going to die."
"Is that so?" Aizen chuckled, "You never fail to amuse me, Ichigo-kun. Had I not needed that power, perhaps I would have considered sparing your life. You have the potential to be useful to me, but in the long run, I think the guardian's power will help me much more than you ever will."
"Is this the way you like to look at people?" the strawberry shot back, "As if their only purpose is to benefit you?"
"Certainly," the traitor answered smoothly, a pleasant smile on his face, "Why do you think I brought Hitsugaya-kun to Las Noches? He may have a pretty face, but I didn't do it for anything beyond my own personal benefit. You still have much to learn, Kurosaki Ichigo. There are only two kinds of people in this world...the used, and the users. I happen to be a user. As for yourself...you're just like me."
"What the hell are you talking about!?" Ichigo snarled, his hands tightening around Hyorinmaru, "I'm not like you!"
"Of course you are," was the even answer, "You were unable to save Hitsugaya-kun. Is your resolve to retrieve him really that weak? You took his power for yourself, for your own usage. You don't really love him, do you, Ichigo-kun?"
Ichigo froze, looking back at Aizen.
He could feel Hitsugaya watching him from behind. He didn't know what to do.
"That's none of your business," he finally snarled, "You don't even know what love is."
Aizen laughed as he unsheathed Kyoka Suigetsu. "It doesn't matter now, does it?" Ichigo blinked, and Aizen was gone. Alarmed, the strawberry jumped back just in time for the man to reappear in front of him, swinging Kyoka Suigetsu towards his face. Ichigo was quick to parry the blow, the sound of metal meeting metal echoing throughout the area.
For the first few painful minutes of fighting Aizen, Ichigo came to a conclusion.
He had no idea how the hell he was supposed to use Hyorinmaru.
The dragon was not part of his mind, so it naturally would not obey him. And now that his hollow was gone, he no longer had his power, either. There was only one thing left, and it was Zangetsu. At that moment, Ichigo decided to try something. It was a crazy idea, but it had to work.
He swung the blade downwards with all his might, and a mixture of ice and black energy exploded from its tip. The force of the attack itself was enough to nearly knock Ichigo himself off balance as the burst of energy flew towards Aizen at such a speed that Ichigo could barely even see it. Even Hitsugaya, who was watching worriedly several feet away, was almost thrown to the ground.
Aizen appeared shocked for a moment, also caught off guard by the sudden attack. Ichigo swung his sword again, releasing another attack, and the next thing he knew, the ground in front of him had been split open, the ground was covered in ice, and Aizen's left arm was now a bleeding stump.
He had no idea what he just did. But it had worked. And the power was incredible. His hands were shaking now. It was too much. He had to finish the fight quickly. Something so strong just couldn't be controlled, and he had the feeling he'd end up destroying more than he intended to if he took too long.
Aizen glared at Ichigo, his remaining hand clutching Kyoka Suigetsu.
"You can't control that power, Ichigo-kun," he hissed. It was a little scary, seeing Aizen like this. His eyes, usually so pleasant and smug, were now filled with an icy rage he had never seen in anyone before. "Give Hyorinmaru to me or you'll end up destroying everything. Soul Society, yourself, me, Hitsugaya-kun..."
"Never," Ichigo retorted angrily, "I'll just get this over with before that happens."
Aizen lunged at him, and Ichigo swung Hyorinmaru forward to meet Kyoka Suigetsu. As the blades touched, there was an explosion of spiritual energy, and Aizen was thrown backwards, blood streaming from his face. Ichigo gave him no quarter and shot forward, slashing at him with the blade. A long, diagonal, bloody gash appeared on Aizen's chest, and with an angry, pained snarl, Aizen flash-stepped backwards.
Ichigo took another swing at him, now entirely on the offensive.
Sparks flew from the blades as Hyorinmaru and Kyoka Suigetsu collided again.
He released another violent, devastatingly quick blast from the katana. Aizen thrust his own sword upwards to deflect the blow, but the force was enough to send him slamming into the ground, ice crackling on the earth. Dust and dirt exploded from the ground, and as the rubble settled, it became deathly quiet.
Ichigo landed back on the ground, breathing a sigh of Hyorinmaru still in both hands. It was just too destructive. He knew what Urahara had meant now when he had been telling him how dangerous the guardian's power could be if placed in the wrong hands.
But now, it was over. He was done. He had finished what he had came to do.
Hitsugaya ran towards him, and as he approached, Ichigo immediately took the boy in his arms, holding him close.
They were still for a moment, Hitsugaya clinging to the fabric of Ichigo's bloody shihakusho, and Ichigo with his arms around Hitsugaya.
"Kurosaki...are you alright?" Hitsugaya murmured as he gently pulled himself out of the strawberry's grasp. "Your hands...they're shaking," he noted as he gently touched Ichigo's left hand with his own. "If you had used that power for just a few minutes more, your body could have been seriously damaged."
"I know," Ichigo answered, "But it's over now, isn't it? It'll be okay."
Smiling, Ichigo ruffled Hitsugaya's snow-white locks affectionately, and the petite prodigy's face flushed scarlet in a timid blush.
"K-Kurosaki...There's something I need to tell you," Hitsugaya spoke uncomfortably after clearing his throat, fiddling with the tattered sleeve of his black kimono. He wanted badly to tell Ichigo how he felt about him, and now didn't really seem like an appropriate time, but it didn't matter now.
Hitsugaya opened his mouth again to speak. "I...Kurosaki, I..."
His words trailed off as his eyes widened in horror, catching movement from the debris behind them.
"Kurosaki! Watch out!"
Ichigo barely even had time to react as horrorstruck, Hitsugaya shoved Ichigo away from him, sending the strawberry toppling to the floor. The next second, there was the sickening sound of a blade tearing through flesh, and crimson blood splattered across the earth. A pained cry split through the commotion, and that was when Ichigo came to a terrible realization.
Aizen was standing over Hitsugaya, Kyoka Suigetsu in his hand. And the blade was sticking clean through Hitsugaya's stomach.
The man, smiling devilishly, twisted the blade slowly and cruelly, and Hitsugaya gasped in pain, his eyes wide.
"The power of the heavenly guardian will disappear along with the guardian itself," Aizen announced, his voice smooth and pleasant. "If I can't have this power for myself...then no one can."
He wrenched the blade free from Hitsugaya's body, more blood splattering onto the ground, staining it scarlet. With a pitiful whimper, the young captain collapsed to the ground in a messy heap of blood and tattered robes.
His chocolate eyes wide with panic, Ichigo threw himself forward to Hitsugaya's side, his arms instantly around the fallen prodigy, grabbing tightly onto his hand. He was losing blood, and he was losing it fast. Feeling sick to his stomach, he realized why Aizen had decided to kill the boy. The man knew he would be unable to defeat Ichigo, so long as he had the power of the heavenly guardian in his hands. If he was to kill Hitsugaya, then he would no longer have the power, and it would put him at a disadvantage.
Hitsugaya's breathing was labored now, with his breaths coming out in short, painful gasps. He coughed, and blood trickled downwards from his lips.
The sound of a katana being swung downwards met the strawberry's ears, and Ichigo grabbed Hyorinmaru, letting go of Hitsugaya's hand and whirling around, bringing the sword out in front of him. Kyoka Suigetsu slammed into it, the blades grating harshly against each other. It was apparent that Aizen had intended to attack Ichigo while he was distracted by the dying Hitsugaya from behind.
"You bastard..." the orange-haired teen managed to choke out, "I...I'm going to kill you."
With an infuriated cry, Ichigo pulled Hyorinmaru back and slammed it into Kyoka Suigetsu, driving Aizen a step back. He swung it again and again, intent on cutting Aizen into tiny pieces, each blow being easily parried.
"Getsuga Tenshou!" he screamed, slashing the blade downwards. The wind was picking up now, and ice was being thrown through the air. The sound of thunder shook the air as the sky blackened, the air becoming thick and heavy.
Spiritual energy exploded from the blade of Hyorinmaru, but weaker than the first few times. Ichigo knew, with dread welling in heart, that the guardian's power was fading, along with Hitsugaya's life.
The attack missed its mark, and at the next moment, Aizen was by Ichigo's side. The man brought Kyoka Suigetsu down against him, and Ichigo could feel pain shooting through his chest as the blade cut into him. With an angry growl, the strawberry ignored the pain. This wasn't going to stop him. He was determined. Aizen was going to pay for hurting his precious ice prince. He swung Hyorinmaru at him again, reaching out to grab Aizen by the arm, his grip painfully tight, preventing him from using Kyoka Suigetsu.
"What are you doing!? Let go of me!" Aizen yelled, and for once, Ichigo noted, with grim satisfaction, the man had lost his cool.
"You told me yourself, Aizen..." Ichigo ground out, looking at Aizen directly in the eyes. Chocolate met chocolate. "...That there are two kinds of people in the world, and that I am a user, just like you. And you know what, Aizen? You were right. Except this time...you're the used."
"What are you talking about!?"
"I'm going to use you now," the strawberry spat, "...To fulfill the promise I made Toshiro."
"Kurosaki Ichigo, you uncultured, lowly-"
Before he could finish the sentence, Ichigo slammed Hyorinmaru through the man's stomach, just as the traitor had done to Hitsugaya. Aizen choked in pain and shock, blood oozing outwards from his lips and splashing from his body to the ground.
The strawberry grinned smugly.
"You know how it feels now? Being a 'used'? Do you like it, you sick bastard?"
"Why, you little..."
The name of the attack fell from Ichigo's lips for the final time that day, and the blade, which was still lodged in Aizen's abdomen, began to glow until another explosion of spiritual energy burst from its tip.
Aizen's eyes were wide, and he didn't even have time to let out any words beyond and agonized scream as the force of the attack vaporized him, his body dissolving from the inside out into dust.
Now it was over. After so many fights, so many nights of worrying, so much bloodshed...it was finally over.
His hands shaking, Ichigo dropped Hyorinmaru to the floor, a metallic clang echoing throughout the eerie silence.
The storm was letting up now, and the clouds slowly began to part and the ice settled. The thick atmosphere loosened, and Ichigo felt something cold falling on his face. It was falling slowly now, onto the ground, gently.
Slowly, Ichigo walked towards Hitsugaya's fallen form on the floor. He quietly knelt next to him, taking his body into his arms, holding him to his chest as the snow continued to fall. Hitsugaya looked at him, smiling weakly. He was barely clinging to life now.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" the strawberry whispered, stroking Hitsugaya's hair gently. "...Just like you."
Ichigo smiled bitterly. He knew he had only met part of his promise. He had definetely killed Aizen...but he hadn't been able to save Hitsugaya. The boy was dying now, and he knew there was nothing in his power he could to stop it. It was already too late.
"Toshiro," Ichigo murmured, fighting back tears now, "I...I love you. So much."
Hitsugaya nodded weakly.
"Don't thank me," the strawberry answered bitterly, "I didn't do anything. I couldn't...couldn't protect you."
As the snow continued to fall, Hitsugaya looked up at Ichigo with clouded emerald eyes. Using the last of his strength, the young prodigy pushed himself upwards and softly pressed his lips against Ichigo's. He wanted to badly to tell Ichigo that he loved him, but he couldn't find his voice. But he assumed that this would tell the strawberry more than any amount of words could.
Tears were streaming down the strawberry's face now as Hitsugaya's painfully cold lips met his own. He tightened his grip around the boy with shaking hands, holding him close. The snow was falling in smaller amounts now. Slowly, but surely, the snowfall was coming to an end.
The small captain weakly sank back into Ichigo's arms. He was barely breathing anymore.
And as the final snowflake drifted noiselessly to the floor, Hitsugaya closed his eyes.
Author's Note: Don't panic quite yet, guys. Remember, the story's not over yet!