At What Cost
He was dying and there wasn't anything any of them could do about it.
Within her chest Rukia's heart twisted and bled like a wounded animal. The calm, cold, declaration that Soul Society was going to remain uninvolved rang in her ears over and over.
No, Soul Society wouldn't interfere.
Until they needed to.
If she was honest with herself, Rukia would have to admit that although it was not the response she had hoped for, the concession was rather grand in the whole scheme of things. Had it been anyone else, the decision would have been unanimous to end him now and avoid the potential carnage.
As it was, the Captains were still divided in opinion, save one: If the Hollow won they would eliminate it. On that there was no dissent.
If the Hollow won....
"No." Rukia shook her head, her hands curling into fists at her sides and her feet flew across the sky. "No."
They hadn't come so far...he hadn't defeated so much...just to lose now.
He'd fought so hard.
Her stride stuttered and she almost fell as memories of Ichigo's body—bloody and broken—flashed behind violet hues. Aizen had really done a number on him—forced him to remain in Hollow form during their battle for far longer than Ichigo was used to. Far longer than he should have.
But that had been a mistake for Aizen, she thought with viscous satisfaction as she resumed her sprint, and Ichigo had won. He had torn through the former Captain without mercy. Had defeated him...
But at what cost?
She remembered well the fire burning in Ichigo's eyes, the madness that leaked like blood from behind the mask.
And then he'd fallen, tumbled to the ground in a mess of open wounds and broken bones...and still wearing his Hollow mask.
They had taken him back to Seireitei for treatment and healing and erected a barrier around him.
That had been two days ago.
Two days of pacing, waiting, and admittedly aggravating Retsu Unohana with her constant worry. No matter how many times, or who tried to do the coaxing, Rukia refused to leave Ichigo. She wouldn't—she couldn't. Not when his reiatsu fluctuated between oppressive spikes down to barely there and he still wore that damn mask.
The Hollow was feeding on him, Unohana had determined. Devouring him from the inside. Slowly taking control.
And at the rate he was going, he wouldn't last much longer...and the barrier wouldn't be effectual forever. Even now it took three of them to maintain it.
If the Hollow won...
Rukia closed her eyes, swore beneath her breath and forced herself faster still.
There had to be a way to help him.
There had to be.
If Soul Society didn't have the answer, she knew of someone else that might.
The shop lights weren't on when she arrived, but she knew better than to assume anyone within the walls was sleeping. She slipped through the partially open doors like a silent shadow and spoke. "If you know of a way to save him," she said by way of greeting, her voice as steely as the blade she carried at her side. "Tell me."
"Ah, Kuchiki-san. What a surprise. Welcome." The eyes beneath the bucket cap twinkled with dry amusement. "We've been expecting you."
The lights flickered on and Rukia felt her heart kick with affection and pride. Inoue, Sado, Ishida...
Head bowed, Orihime stepped forward, pale lamplight igniting hidden fire in her hair. Her voice was soft, eyes veiled with shadow. "We want to help Kurosaki-kun."
On either side of her, like support pillars, Sado and Ishida nodded, and in their eyes Rukia saw determination and fierce protectiveness.
He would scoff, he would scorn and he would dismiss their concern, Rukia mused with a soft smile, but his heart would swell as hers was now at those expressions. Can you feel it, Ichigo? How much you are cared for...
Another voice, velvet smooth and just as rich, interrupted her thoughts."There is no guarantee that there is any help for the boy."
Rukia turned to see Yoruichi Shihōin standing beside her. It was still startling to Rukia how very fast and elusive Yoruichi was. She had not earned the title 'Goddess of Flash' for nothing.
"I have to try," Rukia countered before turning her attention to Urahara. "Is there a way to help him?"
"Perhaps." He tapped his fan shut, gave her a long, steady stare. "If you want it bad enough."
Rukia stared right back. "How?"
It was called a 'Soul Stone', and it would help her save Ichigo. Or so Urahara claimed. Rukia eyed the small object dubiously, but withheld her skepticism. If it was a way to save him, she was taking it.
Ishida crossed his arms, leaned back against the wall. "So, let me get this straight. We're going to use that," he pointed to the round stone in Urahara's hand, "to break into Kurosaki's head?"
"When you say it like that,you make it sound so simple." Urahara's lips curved up at the corners. "It's a bit more complex than that. Not just anyone can use this," he clarified. "The user must be someone that Kurosaki would accept. Someone he would allow into the inner most recesses of his mind."
"Okay, so how do we decide—"
"It's not for us to decide." Yoruichi snatched the stone from Urahara. "This is a soul-stone," she enunciated. She held it in the palm of her hand, rolled it between her fingertips. "It will respond only to the call of one soul to another. We can't choose, only Ichigo can."
"But...isn't Kurosaki-kun still...?" Inoue's words faltered, her wide eyes watered, lips trembled. "A Hollow?"
"Ichigo is still Ichigo," Rukia stated, determined; insistent. "No matter what lies on the outside." She brushed past Urahara, heading for the back room and the hidden staircase. "Let's go."
The Captains were waiting.
Rukia felt it the moment they tumbled back into Seireitei. The spirit pressure in the air was staggering. She landed on the balls of her feet, hand moving instinctively to the hilt of sode no shirayuki when she felt another wave of reiatsu slam down on her.
Inoue swayed, would have fallen if not for Ishida's arm around her waist. Chad braced his knuckles on the ground, his normally passive expression reflecting concern. "What is that?" he asked, but they all knew.
"Ichigo!" The name breathed from her like a sigh and before the others had gained their footing, Rukia was racing toward Unohana's clinic.
She caught a glimpse of Yoruichi as the other woman danced along the rooftops past her and she felt Urahara come up alongside of her, but she barely paid them mind. All she was focused on was getting to Ichigo.
She wasn't too late. She couldn't be.
If the Hollow won...
"Ichigo!" Her palms stung with the force they struck wood as she barreled through the double doors, her breathing ragged and heart frantic. She was pulled up short by a firm hand on her wrist and her eyes widened on shocking red hair.
He placed himself in front of her, his Zanpakuto out and at the ready. Over his shoulder Rukia saw Ichigo, not laying on the mat as she'd left him, but on his feet, screaming and thrashing in frustration. He was bound,by the Six Light Rod Prison and immediately her gaze shifted, found where her brother stood.
"Wait! What's happened?" she cried out, trying to push past Renji. Ichigo had been unconscious when she'd left. What had happened?
"The barriers aren't enough anymore. Binding him is only temporary. It is time to end this."Although young, the voice carried with it the crack and weight of authority. Rukia spun on her heel to face Tōshirō Hitsugaya and Rangiku Matsumoto. Each had their weapon in hand.
"What are you doing?" Rukia cried out. "You can't just kill him! Please, stop!"
Renji's eyes were sad when he spoke and for the first time she noticed the blood on his brow. "They won't listen," he told her gently.
Within the Six Rods Ichigo roared and the ground shook.
Matsumoto's eyes softened on her face. "Can't you feel that reiatsu? We won't be able to contain him much longer. Stand aside, Kuchiki Rukia."
"I'm afraid we can't allow you to have your way just yet," Urahara appeared in the shadows, Yoruichi at his side. He flicked his glance over at Ichigo, watched him for a moment before he waved his fan nonchalantly and grinned. "Whoo, he certainly is angry," he said to Yoruichi.
"So it would seem," she replied, crossing her arms over her chest.
"You think you can come in here and tell us what we can and can't do?" Tōshirō interrupted their conversation, his ice blue eyes so cold they burned. "You have no say."
"I think we do." Sado and Ishida entered the room, followed by Inoue.
Immediately a triangle barrier went up, separating Ichigo from the Captains.
Slate gray eyes narrowed marginally. "Do you honestly believe you are accomplishing anything by stalling the inevitable?"
"Do you think we won't fight for him?" Chad asked and allowed armor to plate along his arm. He took his fighting stance, refused to budge.
Ishida didn't raise his arm, but the glow of electric blue announced his preparation of Ginrei Kojaku.
"You will not prevent me from dispatching this Hollow," Byakuya's voice was without inflection, yet cut through Rukia with no less ruthlessness than a thousand blades.
"Ichigo!" Rukia shoved Renji aside and stepped in front of the others. As much as she knew their hearts were in the right place, they wouldn't stand a chance against Byakuya. She only hoped he would listen to her. She gazed up at him, her eyes pleading. "Ichigo, brother. Not a hollow. Ichigo."
"You are letting your sentimentality get in the way," he told her, unruffled. "You cannot save him."
"Please. Let me try."
Urahara's smile was wide beneath the brim of his hat. "Come now, Captain Kuchiki. What kind of man can watch his sister suffer? Be a good brother."
Ignoring him, Rukia bowed before Byakuya. "Please."
"What's the matter?" Yoruichi asked, her golden eyes speculative. "Afraid that if he gets out you can't stop him? Surely as Captains you have more pride and confidence in your ability than that."
Rukia bit her lip. That was a direct taunt, a challenge that would receive an answer—one way or another.
"I believe we should allow them to try," Unohana's voice was tranquil and serene, a balm to the roiling tension in the room. "He has earned that much from us, yes?"
Urahara strode across the room without waiting for any reply. He lifted the soul-stone so that it hovered in front of Ichigo's face and they collectively watched as dull black swirled like liquid before evaporating, leaving the stone a vibrant, glowing red. Careful, he took the stone away and it dulled once more. He handed it to Yoruichi who, in turn, moved to stand before each of them, lifting the stone over each of their hearts.
Black in front of Ishida.
Black in front of Chad.
Black in front of Inoue.
Red for Rukia.
"Ichigo has chosen," Urahara informed them unnecessarily.
Rukia lifted her head, felt the weight of her brother's stare. For the first time in a long time, she met it steadily... She would defy him if she had to. For Ichigo.
"Orihime, please place a barrier around Rukia and Ichigo once she's in place," Urahara instructed. He motioned for her to join him, and with one last look at Byakuya, she did.
"Kneel here," Urahara instructed. To Byakuya he said, "You may consider tightening that binding—or adding another."
Rukia settled onto her knees, the palms of her hands resting lightly on her thighs. She took a slow, steady inhale.
Renji positioned himself on the opposite side of the mat, across from Byakuya. Unohana stood to her right. Tōshirō Hitsugaya and Rangiku Matsumoto took spots at adjoining angles.
It occurred to Rukia then that they were placing themselves strategically.
In case she failed.
I won't fail.
He wouldn't fail her.
She wouldn't fail him.
Ichigo struggled against the barriers and bindings, leaned within inches of her face and screamed.
She didn't flinch. Didn't break eye contact. "I'm ready."
"Then go." Yoruichi's hand pressed into Rukia's chest, the stone heating until it felt like it was melting against her...into her...and then she was falling...
The world was crooked.
That was the first thing she noticed when she blinked her eyes open and spotted the sideways sky.
The second thing she noticed was that she was alone.
Pushing to her feet, Rukia wiped her palms on her thighs. "Ichigo?" Her voice carried away and then back to her in a boomerang echo. "Ichigo?"
"How the hell did you get in here?"
Rukia turned, her eyes widening on the sight behind her.
Ghost white skin, demon eyes. The Hollow.
"Lost, little brat?"
"Where is Ichigo?"
"Don't play with me, Hollow!" She unsheathed her sword. "Where is he?"
"Now there's an idea." Head cocked, lips parted in a grim smile, the Hollow-Ichigo laughed. "I think I will...Play with you that is, Kuchiki Rukia."
Her eyes widened on her name, fingers tightening around the handle of her katana.
"Don't look so surprised. If he knew you, so do I."
"Where is Ichigo?" she demanded again. She had no time for these games. No patience for them.
The smile widened to unrealistic proportions and the yellow of his eyes glittered. "I ate him."
"Bastard," she hissed, evoking even more laughter.
"Ooooh, you are feisty. This should be fun." He lifted his arm, revealed Zangetsu and charged.
"Shit." Rukia barely had time to block before he was on her, pushing her back with brute force.
"I'm going to break you, little brat."
"Tell me where Ichigo is!" She braced herself, found her footing and shoved back.
"I'd be more worried about yourself," he advised. He lifted Zangetsu, swung hard, the larger blade striking against Sode no Shirayuki with enough force to throw her across the smooth surface of the skyscraper.
Her sandals dug deep grooves into the glass, shattering it. Shards embedded into her skin leaving a trail of blood.
"Nice." Hollow-Ichigo was behind her. She cried out when he struck her back, sending her careening in the opposite direction. On her hands and knees, Rukia gasped for breath.
What was he? She felt like she was being swatted around by Yammy's meaty fist again.
"Is that it?" Hollow-Ichigo whined, throwing his hand up. "Pathetic. I expected so much more from his precious Rukia." He was a blur of motion and then he was pain.
Rukia bit back a scream as he kicked her in the stomach and she was airborne, but only for a moment, because the next instant he was above her, driving her back down into the glass with vicious glee.
Shards sparkled beside her face and her hair swayed in front of blurring vision.
The Hollow squealed with delight and hit her again. And again. And again.
The barrier shuddered and within its glowing encasement so did Rukia. Blood spurt between her lips and her shoulders sagged and jerked.
"Rukia!" Renji instinctively reached a hand out against the barrier, but found his fingers held in in Yoruichi's nearly bruising grip.
"No. This is between them," she stated. "We wait." She lifted her golden gaze to Byakuya who was watching with what appeared to be impassivity, but against his side, his fingers twitched.
Hurry, Rukia. Kuchiki Byakuya won't wait much longer.
Move! Rukia shouted at herself, rolling to the side, barely avoiding being sliced wide open. On one knee she managed to block the next attack. She grunted when he spun, his foot catching her beneath her chin, sending her tumbling across shattered ground.
Winded, with blood in her eyes, she pushed herself back up.
"Give it up, Shinigami. You can't beat me." He was beside her—behind her—in front of her. He was everywhere with his biting blade and blunt punches.
She hit the ground again, got back up. Hit again—back up.
"Why won't you just stay down?" he asked, rolling his eyes.
"I will not fall to you," she panted.
"Where is Ichigo?" she shouted.
"Will you stop with that?" The Hollow shouted back. "It's fucking annoying! He is gone! I devoured his weak, pathetic soul. I am the king now, not him!"
"I—don't—believe—you!" She sprung back, spun her blade in hand. "Dance."
"Are you serious?" Hollow Ichigo shook his head. "What do you expect to happen?"
"Tsugi no mai, hakuren!"
"Little bitch!" Hollow-Ichigo swore as ice encased his body.
"I expect...you to tell me where Ichigo is."
"I. Ate. Him."
Rukia leveled her blade at his head. "Give him back to me."
"Ha!" His grin was maniacal. "He is no more, idiot! You can't save what doesn't exist!"
Don't believe him. Ichigo...I know you're here. Somewhere. I can still feel you. "He is still here," she replied. "I can feel him."
"You can what?" The Hollow's laugh was cruel, eyes glowing. "You can feel him. How pathetically romantic." He cocked his head. "Do you think you can just come in here, into my kingdom and declare my horse to be yours?"
"Wh-what?" Rukia shook her head. "You're wasting my time, Hollow. I will not ask again. Where. Is. Ichigo?"
"And I told you he's mine!"
Rukia felt the reiatsu surge, saw sparks of black against white ice, and on instinct she called out: "Some no mai, tsukishiro!" and everything around her shattered.
The sky was spinning now. Oh, wait, no...it was her. With a gasp of pain Rukia reached out, caught herself against the smooth ground and halted her frantic tumble.
"Is it over?" she whispered when she could lift her head. Weak as a newborn, she crawled to where the ghost-pale body lay sprawled on broken glass.
Yellow eyes snapped open and a maniacal grin were the only warnings before she felt the shock of cold steel slipping between her ribs.
"Nope." He grinned at her, mocking and cold, as he rose to his feet. "What were you saying, Shinigami? Can you still feel him?"
Crying out in shock, Rukia doubled over, holding the blade in her hands, trying to still its painful pressure. Blood coated her fingers, slipped down the hilt.
Hollow-Ichigo laughed, watched her squirm. "You bleed pretty."
She stared into black rimmed eyes, forced her own pain aside. "You can't have him!" she snarled between her teeth.
The Hollow laughed some more, the sound grating against her ears and skin like the broken glass she'd crawled on. "I already do. He is nothing. He is the horse, I am the king! Getsuga Black!"
Fire. It felt like she was on fire!
The air in her lungs burned, turning organ to cinder. Her skin wept crimson as lashes of reiatsu tore against her flesh, carving the declaration down into bone.
"Ichigo is no more," he sneered. He licked his lips, a smile both wicked and familiar curving on his face. He jerked her body up on his sword, raising her over his head. "I bet you taste delicious."
Rukia could only gasp as Hollow-Ichigo's hand shot out, closing over her throat, cutting off her air and crushing her windpipe.
She clawed feebly at his grip. "Grk..."
He gave a howling laugh. "Will you fill me up, Shinigami?"
Her vision was blurring, black encroaching as vessels burst in her eyes. She released the blade from her hands, bit back the scream that flooded her throat as she slid along the metal, and held up a palm. "Way of destruction 33...blue fire!"
Hollow-Ichigo was thrown back. "Kido," he laughed getting to his feet, the spell smoldering harmlessly from his skin. Head tilted, he licked blood from his lips. "You taste better than I thought you would. Now I'm going to devour you like I devoured him!"
"You." It hurt to move. Her knee scraped glass, skin open and bone exposed. She braced herself on the hilt of her sword, staggered to her feet.
"Can't." It hurt to breathe. Blood dripped from parted lips, splotching the sky with black death. Fingers wound tight, secure and certain in their place around a hilt of pure white.
"Have." It hurt to see. Hollow-Ichigo, so much like Ichigo. But not him. Not him. Not him. Not her Ichigo. Feet spread, stance shifted, blade up.
"Him!" It hurt...it hurt...
Sode no Shirayuki... I need you now.
"Bring it, little bitch."
It hurt. Her heart. It hurt. It hurt.
Everything was white with snow and ice and light.
So much light.
Beautiful, Rukia thought with a flash of pride as she watched the dance of blades along the ground—only Senbonzakura Kageyoshi could compare—their path unswerving until they raced up and sliced unmercifully through pale skin and surprised hollow eyes.
The screaming was unbearable.
Not Ichigo, she reminded herself and pushed the last of her energy forward until it surged in another wave of white blades.
Flesh cracked, shattered and bled, falling to the ground in shards of emptiness, but beneath...beneath...
Golden sun and shocking orange.
A collective gasp went around the room as the bindings shattered and Ichigo's hand shot straight through Orihime's barrier. His eyes were wide and frantic on the petite form beside him, the white shell of his mask chipping away and falling at his feet.
"Ichigo..." Relief made her weak and Rukia slumped forward, caught in his arms before she hit the ground. "Welcome back," she whispered before pain lanced her body, and stole her ability to speak. Despite her best effort, she shuddered beneath his hands.
"Don't worry..." she whispered. "He can't...have you..." Her twilight eyes glazed dim and blood trickled down her chin.
Rukia was bleeding!
Nothing and everything made sense as fractured pieces of battle slammed through Ichigo's mind.
Rukia had fought his Hollow.
Rukia had won.
But at what cost?
"Rukia!" Her eyelids drooped, body wilted. "Rukia, no! Stay with me!"
"Ichigo." Unohana's hand on his shoulder was firm. "Give her to me. She'll be all right."
"Help her," he rasped, reluctant to relinquish the slight weight of her.
"We will." Unohana's gave him a gentle look. "Welcome back."
"It would seem the situation is under control," Byakuya murmured, his eyes boring into Ichigo's skull before he turned away. The others followed suit. "Keep me updated, Renji." He paused, offered his profile. "We will discuss your insubordination at a later time."
Renji flinched but nodded. "Yes, Captain." He looked over at Ichigo. "You look like shit, pal. Wha—hey, where do you think you're going?"
"Ingrate." Ishida sighed, looked at his companions. "He never changes."
Chad smiled. "No. He doesn't."
The sun was warm on her face, the sky full of fluffy, bunny-shaped clouds and bright. She sighed, closed her eyes.
"Thought I'd find you up here."
She opened them again to see Ichigo climbing out the window to join her on the roof.
"I didn't realize you were home," she told him. "I didn't hear any furniture breaking."
"My father is at Karin's soccer game."
They sat in companionable silence for a long while before she caught him staring at her. She shifted beneath the weight of his gaze. "What? What's the matter?"
"Thank you, Rukia." Ichigo's voice was warm, eyes lighter than she'd ever seen them. "For what you did."
"Oh." She shrugged. "Well, don't be an idiot about it. You'd have done the same for me."
"Yes. I would have." He fell back, placed his hands behind his head and watched the clouds drift by. A few minutes later, he spoke again, so quiet she almost didn't hear him. "I don't feel him there anymore...not like it was. Scratching at the back of my mind, screaming to be let out. He's not there. Thank you."
And the smile he gave her was unlike any she'd ever seen from him before and it sent her heartbeat skittering. He looked so young to her then, and so free. She'd do it again. A thousand times for that smile.
"You're welcome, Ichigo." She smiled back.
She could never tell him.
He could never know.
That now...now he scratched within hers.
AN: This is my first attempt at a Bleach fic, and I can only hope I did the characters some sort of justice, because they are very, very awesome!