031 – Fight Like The Night
You can be my hero by not letting me down
Not letting me down again and being around
You can be my hero by crawling into the rut
Crawling into the rut with me and holding my chin up
You fight like the night
Weakness is my guide
I'm walking a dark road
I'm running out of time
I don't wanna die
I love your eyes
They show me above all
Show me I'm lovable
Ichigo's eyes snapped open as memory rushed in.
For a moment he didn't know where he was, the familiarity washing over him was too overwhelming. It was like the moment when you first wake from a dream and are caught within the threads of another reality, unsure what is memory and what belongs the unconscious world. He blinked a few times, eyelashes fluttering as they attempted to bring the world into focus around him.
He was staring at a strangely familiar ceiling.
The lights were off, but the room was still lit softly by light creeping in through a window. He felt the sun creep across his face where he lay. It was nice just lying there, feeling the warmth upon his cheek. It felt like he had been in the cold dark of unconsciousness for the longest time. He wished he could remember why…
His heart almost stopped as he felt a hand brush against his.
He sat bolt upright, fuelled by panic, and almost staggered at the sudden strength that surged throughout his body. It had been so long since he'd had a physical form that he'd almost forgotten how to control it. He raised his hands, regarding them as though he hadn't seen them in years, each curve and each line a new wonder to be beheld.
Then he saw the blood upon them and remembered.
Suddenly it all came flooding back. He would have curled in upon himself if not for a particular red soaked memory of what his body had done before Alejo had lost consciousness.
He whirled to his right, his hand splashing in the pool of blood that he tried desperately not to think about. Beside him on the floor where he had fallen was Urahara, paler than ever.
"Ah, good morning Kurosaki-kun." Beads of blood bubbled at the corners of his mouth as he smiled softly up at him from an impossibly white face. "Did you have a nice nap?"
Ichigo felt whatever was left of his heart just break in his chest as he collapsed upon him.
"Kisuke!" He called his name again as he crouched over him, cradling that pale face in his hands. Urahara's thick eyelashes fluttered as he leaned into the touch, struggling to focus on the mess of red hair that hung above him. But still he smiled, soft and gentle.
Urahara had felt the subtle shift in Alejo's reiatsu as he lay bleeding upon the ground, and when the redhead had awoken he had known without a shadow of a doubt who was occupying his body. Now it didn't matter even if he died.
Because he had brought Ichigo back.
"I missed you so much!" Ichigo's hands trembled where he held Urahara's face, his words nearly caught in his throat as sobs threatened to arise in his panic. "You were all I ever thought about, the only thing that kept me going when I was trapped in there. For so long…"
Urahara smiled weakly as the redhead pressed fleeting kisses to his face, his jaw, his lips. Of course Ichigo would have suffered terribly, in the human world it had been just over two months since his supposed death. In the world of the hollows, with Ichigo trapped inside that body… It would have felt like years in human terms. And yet he had never given up. Never stopped thinking about him. Urahara swallowed thickly, a heavy emotion rising in his throat at that thought.
When Ichigo pulled back to press their foreheads together Urahara could see traces of his own blood painting his lips as they heaved in a strangled sob.
"I thought I'd never see you again." He whispered.
Urahara knew that feeling well.
He ran his eyes over Ichigo's body, committing every line to memory just in case it was his last. It seemed that he had been correct in his assumption that restoring Ichigo's consciousness wouldn't cause his soul to immediately revert to shinigami, given that he still wore white robes, black lines and that red birthmark. His still long hair brushed against Urahara as he leant over him, and as his eyes dropped he saw with a sharp tug of his heart that he still sported a dark hole in his chest, beneath blood stained robes. Although, it may just have been his imagination, but it looked as though the hole had gotten smaller, and there was a definite heartbeat pressed again his own.
One thing had changed though; his eyes. The dark sclera still remained, but the sickly orange-yellow irises had faded back to a warm chocolate-copper brown unmistakable as Ichigo's. The colour warmed Urahara from the inside out and he smiled.
"Ah," His voice was lighter than he felt, joy overwhelming the pain that throbbed from the hole in his gut. "You'll make me big-headed at this rate."
"You mean big-headeder." Ichigo tried to smile but his lips refused to co-operate. He could taste his lover's blood upon them and his heart beat frantically at the implications of that taste.
Urahara chuckled weakly, his eyelids fluttering as he tried to fight back the waves of pain washing over him.
"That's not a word." He whispered. His hand sought out Ichigo's where it cradled his face, closing over it and threading their fingers together. He squeezed his hand softly as his voice grated. "I missed you too, so very badly."
Ichigo's heart burned at those words as the severity of the situation washed over him. Snapped from his trance he pulled back a little, trying not to look at the dark wound in his lover's stomach, trying not to think about the fact that he had been the one who put it there. Those pale grey eyes were pulling him in; there was so much he wanted to say, so much he had to say. But he'd never get the opportunity to say them if he didn't act now. He knew that it was bad, could feel it in Urahara's wavering reiatsu.
He knew that there was only person who could save him now.
"Where's Inoue?" He tried not to let the panic show in his voice, but the look on Urahara's face told him that he hadn't been entirely successful.
"With the Fourth Division." His voice was weak now, fading.
"I'm going to get her." Ichigo pulled his hand from Urahara's to move to cradle his face again. He leaned in to press a soft, deep kiss to the blonde's lips, and felt him sigh contentedly against him even as he tasted blood. "You are not dying on me, not when I've just gotten back. Understand?"
His eyes were shining with terror, but there was determination there too and Urahara felt a hopeful warmth spark in his stomach.
"Yes sir." He laughed weakly as a tremor of pain crossed his face, and he drew in his breath in a sharp hiss. "Better hurry."
His eyelids fluttered shut again, and Ichigo did not need to be told twice.
He flew across the sky of the fake town, letting his reiatsu spill out into the atmosphere as he searched for Orihime. His senses seemed heightened now, for the first time he could fully control his powers and he made full use of them now, not caring how much attention he may be drawing to himself by doing so.
He would not let Urahara die.
Absentmindedly he noticed that he was still in his arrancar form. He hadn't been quite sure what was going to happen once he shifted, but a small hope in his mind had dared to wish that he'd regain his shinigami form.
'No such luck.' A familiar voice rasped in his head.
'Still here King.' He heard his hollow snicker softly but there was no real venom behind it. 'I'm afraid we're an arrancar now, for better or worse. Aizen made sure of that when he stuck us with the hogyoku.'
'Figures. Is there a way to restore my original powers?' A sudden thought stabbed into his consciousness with terror. 'Will I even be able to return to my body like this?' Would he even have a body left to return to? It had been so long, and everyone had thought him dead. Gods, he hoped he didn't have to go grave robbing when all this was over.
'That's funny King. But I dunno, I just work here.' Another cackle. 'Although, if you can get a hold of the hogyoku I reckon that boyfriend of yours might just be able to work something out. He did kinda make it after all, ne?'
'Yeah, I'll try.'
'Good luck. What?' Alejo sounded irritable as he paused for a moment. 'Oh, Zangetsu says to tell you that we're with you. As if you needed to be reminded of that.'
'I'll remember.' Despite his fears Ichigo smiled softly. Just knowing that he wasn't alone in this fight was enough to calm the storm a little. 'Thanks.'
'Kill him Ichigo.'
His hollow went quiet again as the temporary triage barracks of the Fourth Division swept into view. Ichigo paused in the sky for a moment, sharp eyes and heightened senses seeking out the presence of an old friend.
He swooped down as fast as he could, not daring to let anyone stop him. He couldn't afford the time for lengthy explanations right then. He landed hard on the ground beside her and when she turned, her eyes connecting hard with his, he could read the terror in her expression. He wondered if everyone would continue looking at him like that, seeing what he had become. He wondered if he'd even be able to look at himself when this was all over. Shaking those thoughts off he drew himself up to stand tall.
"Inoue." He murmured softly, and he saw her flinch in sudden hopeful recognition.
With a few quick strides he moved to slip his arm around her waist, not noticing the panicked blush that flooded her face as he did so. He felt strong presences appear almost immediately and he turned to face the Fourth Division Captain as she approached.
"Apologies Captain Unohona, but I need to borrow Inoue for a bit."
Unohona regarded him warily, but her sword remained sheathed at her hip.
"Ichigo Kurosaki…" She murmured, her eyebrows raised in suspicion as she regarded his form, still arrancar, still inhuman. "Am I to assume that you are in full possession of your faculties once more?"
"Don't worry." Ichigo nodded as he held Orihime tighter against his body. His reiatsu hummed as he pushed the power downwards, into his legs. His eyes locked with Unohona's and he made her a promise. "I'm going to end this, I will kill Aizen."
With that he shot back up into the sky. The other shinigami flinched as though to follow him, but Unohona raised her hand to stop them, eyes still trained skyward following after the two redheads as they took flight.
"Kurosaki…" She murmured softly as she watched them go, a small expression quirking at the corners of her lips. "You've come a long way from that ryoka boy."
"What does this mean?" Isane was at her side, her eyes wide and confused as she regarded the sky alongside her captain.
Unohona turned to her, her eyes closing as she smiled.
"It means we may have a chance of winning this war after all."
"Kurosaki-kun, it's really you."
Ichigo was holding Orihime against his body so tightly, it wouldn't do to drop her right then. But still he was startled when she spoke, so wrapped up in his own thoughts was he as they moved. His mind was only on one thing, one person, and he realised then that he had bared bothered to acknowledge his friend up until now, even after everything she had been through. He felt a small bolt of shame in his stomach, but it was drowned out by a more immediate terror of what would happen if they were too late to return.
He gave her a soft smile, that was all he could really manage right then.
"Hey Inoue... It's really me."
It didn't take long for them to reach the clinic, moving so fast as Ichigo was. He helped Orihime in through the window and she gasped at the sight before her, falling to her knees as she immediately summoned her power.
"Sōten Kisshun, I reject!"
Ichigo stepped in behind her, sweeping to crouch at Urahara's side where he lay propped up against the bed. He was fully unconscious now, but still alive, still breathing. Ichigo could still feel his reiatsu flickering within his body, and knew that he could still be saved.
He wasn't too late.
He wanted to reach out and take his hand, to run his fingers across his neck just to feel the flutter of his pulse, to assure himself that he was still there. But he dared not interfere with Orihime's work. She wore a focused, steady expression on her face that he had never seen before. She didn't even flinch as Urahara's blood started soaking through her clothes where she rested her knees on the ground.
Evidently he hadn't been the only one changed by this war.
"What happened?" Orihime's soft voice snapped him from his trance. Her eyes were upon him, all fear and suspicion as her gaze traced the lines of the hole in his chest. He couldn't blame her for that, as he was he looked like a monster.
"Orihime I…" His voice came out in a shuddering breath as he ran his hand through his hair. "I nearly killed him."
"You did this?" She hadn't meant to sound accusing, but her voice came out harsh and breathless and she saw Ichigo flinch at the tone of her words.
"I-I didn't mean to…" He stammered now, unable to take the way she was looking at him. "It was the hollow. You can save him, right?
"Yeah. It's going to take a little longer than it usually does though, my powers are getting a little weak today. Overuse." She shot him a frail smile that didn't quite reach her eyes. "I'm sorry." Her expression had softened as she recognised the panicked edge to his voice. She knew how strongly he felt for Urahara, she knew it because she had felt that way about Ichigo once, before resigning herself to the knowledge that she was not to be the one for him. She smiled gently in reassurance. "It's not your fault."
"No, it is." Ichigo exhaled heavily as he shook his head, his eyes never leaving Urahara's pained face. "If only I was stronger, none of this would have happened."
"Don't say that. You're the strongest person I know." Orihime's voice was firm but her eyes were warm, all trace of fear gone from them now. "You have to keep being strong. We need you, Ichigo." Her eyes flicked to Urahara. "He needs you."
"It's not your fault… It's his." Ichigo looked up at the sound of stern bitterness in her voice. "Aizen's." Her expression was set, determined as she spoke. "And he's still out there, he's going to destroy our home unless you stop him."
"Yeah." Ichigo understood what she was telling him, and he rose from his position on the floor. There was nothing more he could do here, and time was rapidly running out. From what he had seen earlier the shinigami forces were falling fast, and there may not be much longer left to stop Aizen. Every fibre of his being ached to stay by Urahara's side; he had just gotten back and he couldn't leave him, so close to death as he was. But Orihime was there, she was the only one who could really help him right then and if he stayed here doing nothing he risked losing everything in the process.
"I'm entrusting him to you, Inoue. Don't let him die." He nodded at her as he crouched in the window, letting his eyes trail over Urahara's crumpled frame one last time, his heart contracting in his chest as he did so. But his eyes were set and determined, shining in the glow from Orihime's powers as he spoke. "I'll end this."
"Good luck Kurosaki-kun." Orihime shot him one last warm smile as she regarded him through the orange buzz of her shield. "I'll see you later; we both will."
And with that he dropped from the window and was gone, into the battlefield once again.
He flew across the rooftops, taking in the war zone with freshly opened eyes.
It was hellish, things had escalated whilst Ichigo had been in the clinic. All around him he could feel presences flicker and fade, but it was no longer a one sided battle; the shinigami seemed to be fighting back.
Ulquiorra's presence was gone, and Nnoitra, Zommari, Szayel and Aaroniero. The fracción and lower numbers had fallen too, defeated at the pillars or otherwise. Only the top ranks remained, Baraggan, Harribel and Starrk, still engaged in their respective battles. Above him Hachi and Suì-Fēng were still trapped in battle against Baraggan. Ichigo looked up and shivered, knowing what he did of the Death God's fearsome power, he wondered if they'd be able to defeat him.
At the edge of his senses he could feel Starrk's reiatsu fluctuate, and knew that he'd released his resurrección. He'd only seen the Primera do that once before, and it was as beautiful as it was deadly. He bit the inside of his cheek as he remembered his promise to Alejo, but knew that when it came down to it Starrk would have to fall if he would not back down. His heart hurt a little at that thought, with all his memories back it was as if they had been comrades, and he wasn't sure how to wrestle these conflicting loyalties.
Speaking of which…
A familiar reiatsu flickered at the edge of his senses, and his stomach spiked. He stopped dead where he was, skidding to a halt in the sky.
"Alejo!" A spitting growl from behind him. "Where the fuck have you been?"
He sighed softly, letting his eyelids slip shut for a moment as he considered the situation. He was well aware of the promises which he had made to Alejo, but he knew he couldn't keep them at the cost of losing this war. He would not sacrifice his friends to satisfy the monster in his head.
"Grimmjow…" He murmured as he turned around.
He saw realisation settle on the arrancar's face, his bright blue eyes widening in shock and realisation.
"Oh fuck." Grimmjow's voice was a breathless whisper. He felt like he'd been punched in the stomach, he could barely breathe in that moment as he saw those brown irises. "Ichigo?"
"It's been a long time." Ichigo smiled though his eyes were sad and shining with some unreadable emotion.
"What happened?" Grimmjow felt his blood beat faster in his veins, not quite panic but something uncomfortable and unrecognisable was flooding his system and it made his fingers twitch.
"I remembered." Ichigo murmured, his eyelids heavy lidded as he stared down the arrancar who was looking at him in horror.
"Oh shit." He breathed heavily.
This was bad. He had always known it would be if Ichigo regained control, given how ridiculous his power growth had been since he had turned. He ignored the voice in the back of his mind that argued that wasn't the only reason he had felt his stomach drop.
"You have to go Grimmjow." Ichigo took a step towards him and Grimmjow felt himself bristle.
"What?" He snapped, not sure what was happening now.
"This battle is lost. I know you can tell." Ichigo sounded almost sad, those strange eyes never leaving Grimmjow's. "There's no way that you can survive this."
"I'm the enemy remember, why are you trying to do?" He growled in response, clenching and unclenching his fists in anticipation of an attack. Surely that was what was coming now, after what he had done to him. After what everyone had done to him in the palace of the endless night.
"I promised Alejo that I'd protect you."
Grimmjow's head spun at that, an uncomfortable feeling of kinship flaring in his stomach. He laughed it off, practically spitting as he spoke.
"I don't need your pity shinigami."
Before it would have been difficult for Ichigo to follow the moment that Grimmjow made just then, but as he was it was like watching the arrancar move in slow motion. He could see it in such fine detail then that he could follow the flex of the muscles in Grimmjow's arms as he pulled his blade from the sheath, he saw the air ripple around his feet as he moved. He watched the curve of his brow crease, sharp teeth showing behind his lips as he snarled. And it was with an almost lazy motion that he moved his hand upwards, defecting the sword with the back of his hand, the blade not even cutting the thickness of his hierro.
He blinked in surprise for a moment, regarding his hand like a foreign object. He hadn't really meant to perform an unarmed deflection, it was almost instinctive in the way he had moved, and the off-handedness of the motion disturbed him somewhat. He still moved like an animal, still fought like an arrancar.
It seemed that he hadn't entirely left behind everything from his other life.
Grimmjow felt his heart stop as Ichigo slapped away the blade with barely a motion. He was still so powerful, the thing that Grimmjow had feared. He knew he wouldn't be able to defeat him, not the way he was now. The redhead's dark eyes flashed with something familiar and he stopped despite himself. He still looked so much like Alejo; the hair, the birthmark, the lines upon his chest, the cut of his uniform. Only the eyes were different, a warm shining brown instead of vivid golden amber.
"Grimmjow please." He murmured softly, and Grimmjow couldn't tear his gaze from his face. "You don't have to do this. Why do you want to fight for Aizen, after everything he's done?"
"Shut up." He snarled, confusion turning inwards to anger. "I was never fighting for him."
"Then what were you fighting for?" Ichigo's voice was quiet as he held Grimmjow's gaze, his eyes shining like he was trying to communicate something important. Grimmjow found that he didn't have an answer to the question posed to him.
'It was myself, wasn't it? I was the only one worth fighting for.'
But now he wasn't quite sure.
He swung his zanpakutō again, more out of sheer frustration than anything else. Ichigo caught the blade in his hand, long fingers curling round the edge that was blunt against his skin.
"You told me once before that I wasn't worth killing," Ichigo murmured, his eyes flashing like a challenge as he held the blade in his hand, not letting Grimmjow pull away. "What about now?"
Grimmjow remembered the last time he had spoken to Ichigo. In the meeting room. It seemed so very long ago now.
He had taunted him then.
"Tch, grow a fucking backbone. You're pathetic shinigami. You're not even worth killing anymore and you're definitely not worth fighting... I can't believe I considered you my rival."
"I'm sorry!" He spat, almost scared to realise that deep down he meant it. "Alright? I'm sorry for what he did to you." 'For what I did to you…'
Ichigo smiled, the expression breaking his face like a sunrise. It was a soft look, entirely unlike anything he had seen before on Ichigo or Alejo's face. For a moment Grimmjow was stunned, pulled in by that look upon his face. The two identities blurred, and he couldn't tell who was looking back at him, Alejo trapped behind his eyes.
Despite himself, and not quite consciously, he reached out to cup Ichigo's jaw in the palm of his hand.
That look was the last thing he saw.
Ichigo slammed his forehead into his own, hitting him right in the pressure point of the bridge of his nose. The last thing he felt was the bone breaking before he was swallowed under into a pool of darkness. The last coherent thought was how laughable it was that Ichigo could knock him out with a mere head-butt now.
He really had gotten stupidly strong.
Ichigo caught the arrancar's body in his arms as he crumpled, his heavy weight a lightness in his grip. Blue hair pillowed across his shoulder for a moment and he sighed, bringing his hand up to grip the back of his neck almost instinctively, fingertips brushing through surprisingly soft blue strands. He had a sneaking suspicion Alejo might have had something to do with that motion.
He closed his eyes and reached out with his fingertips, wondering if he could still summon the portal and his eyes snapped open in surprise when the garganta easily ripped a hole in the sky before him. So he really was still an arrancar. That was going to take some getting used to.
He hoisted Grimmjow's bulk up over his shoulder, quietly wondering at how he managed to carry him like that despite the size difference between the two of them. Holding him tightly he shot forward through the rip in space, following the silvery path that seemed now wider than it had ever been.
He reached the other side in what seemed like a matter of seconds, his feet sinking into soft sand as he landed in the desert.
Ichigo emerged in the training ground, beneath artificial sunlight and pillars, and looked around as though seeing the place clearly for the first time. He had expected to feel something more than he did, but there was just a kind of anaesthetic numbness in the pit of his stomach. His fingertips tingled as the energy of the place flew over him, not quite sure what to make of him now. The palace was empty, all but the lowest ranked and weakest of its inhabitants had gone forth to join the battle, and an eerie presence hung in the air around him.
There was really no rush here, he knew that the time difference between the two places would make his absence from the human world all but unnoticeable, but he had no desire to linger any longer than was necessary either.
Ichigo had come back to fulfil a promise to someone. Then he would return to fulfil a promise to himself.
He settled Grimmjow's limp form down at the base of one of the pillars, feeling only a little guilty when he saw how badly broken his nose was. He had no right to be feeling guilty at all, he supposed, not after everything he had done to him. Besides, he'll probably heal up before he even woke now that he was back here.
Ichigo knelt down beside him and touched his face softly, running the pads of his fingers along the curve of his mask for the last time.
'Thanks King.' He heard Alejo pipe up in his head, his voice level but ever so slightly mournful.
'…You really liked him, didn't you?'
'Ah shut up.' The hollow grumbled before going silent again, and Ichigo had to supress a grin at the sulkiness of his voice.
"Bye Grimmjow." He murmured softly as he flicked the point of his mask.
He knew that the proud arrancar would hate him for what he had just done, but he was used to bearing Grimmjow's hatred. The lines had become so blurred now and this would set things back to the way they were supposed to be, enemies again. Whatever Grimmjow did now was up to him, but he would not die for Aizen and that was what mattered.
He turned his back on the sexta espada, and knew he would probably never see him again.
The sky split again before his fingers and he was racing through it, not looking back for a second as he ran, blood pumping in his veins like a drum.
When he remerged the battle had moved on. He looked up just in time to see Baraggan fall, his form disintegrating away into the sky, and was quietly impressed that his opponents had managed to work out his weakness. He could still feel the reiatsu of the ex-captains, Tōsen was battling Komamura and Hisagi now, with Gin and Aizen somewhere on the other side of the sky. That just left Harribel and…
Starrk. He was still locked in battle, high above Ichigo in the sky. Wolves prowled around, flanking him like warriors, his long hair whipping in the breeze created by his reiatsu. It was three on one, not counting Lilynette, but he held his ground as he fought, always the lonely warrior.
Ichigo grit his teeth. Starrk didn't deserve to die like this.
He didn't really allow himself to think as he flew across the sky towards the duelling figures. Captain Kyōraku had joined the two flailing vizored now, his twin swords shining as the sunlight glanced off their blades. Shadows dripped from him like ink, flowing from his sleeves down into the ground as he rose. He barely reacted when Ichigo swept into view, putting his body between Starrk and the Captain, his blade catching Kyōraku's and pushing them back from what would have been a lethal blow.
"Ichigo?" He raised one thick eyebrow, his sharp gaze trailing over Ichigo's arrancar form but not missing the familiar colour in his eyes. "Or are you still the enemy?"
"It's me, Captain Kyōraku." Ichigo's voice was quiet, trying to convey the heavy weight that rested upon them as he stood between his ally and enemy.
"So you're back. Urahara really did it…" Kyōraku purposely didn't comment on his absence, but that didn't mean he didn't notice it with a small shiver. "But if you're Ichigo, why did you protect him?" The Captain narrowed his eyes slightly, wanting to believe but having difficulty getting past his physical form.
"I owe him a debt."
"I see." Kyōraku huffed slightly in amusement but his expression was set and stern as he eyed Ichigo warily. "Remember whose side you're on Kurosaki."
"I do." Ichigo took a deep breath, holding his hands up in a gesture of peace. "Just give me a minute with him, please."
Kyōraku stretched and groaned dramatically, realising that he wasn't going to win this particular fight. He was convinced that Ichigo was back in control by his stubbornness if nothing else, that always was a central facet of the redhead's personality.
"You have thirty seconds."
Ichigo nodded thankfully and turned to see Starrk regarding him with a curious expression.
"Is that really you… Ichigo?" He murmured, his one eye narrowed and sweeping over the lines of Ichigo's hybrid form.
"Yeah." The redhead smiled wearily at him, "Sorry."
Starrk's gaze snapped to the hole in the pseudo-arrancar's chest, he could swear it had shrunk considerably since the last time he had seen him. It seemed so long ago now, that they had stood at the mouth of the garganta poised for invasion. Alejo had been so excited then, and now he was gone. Ichigo had taken his body back, and Starrk couldn't help but feel a mixed emotion about that fact. He had been one of the few of the espada who had taken a moral disagreement with Aizen's plan for Ichigo and, despite his own fondness for the arrancar he had become, couldn't help but feel that a certain justice had been served.
"Hah." He snorted softly, scratching the side of the head with the barrel of his gun. "You never change. Still apologising for nothing."
"I think I've changed more than I'd like to." Ichigo's lips quirked ever so slightly and Starrk couldn't help but smile back.
"I suppose that's true." A soft sigh, expelled from the brunette's lips as he shook his head. "Why are you here? Don't you have more pertinent matters to be attending to?"
"Because I made a promise, to Alejo."
"He's still alive?" Starrk's brows raised in surprise, but then again it was just as surprising to find that Ichigo still existed within the beast that he had become.
"He's a part of me, of my strength. No matter how much I try to deny that." The redhead looked so weary, so lost, but he shrugged it off. He had to.
"What was this promise?"
"That I wouldn't let you and Lilly die for Aizen." Ichigo paused for a moment, some unreadable emotion flickering across his face. "Grimmjow neither."
"I see. And where is our dear Sexta?" Starrk made a dramatic show of looking around, finding no answer in the increasingly empty sky. "I felt his reiatsu disappear."
"I knocked him out." Ichigo smirked a little, and Starrk could see the resemblance between him and his hollow half was still there. "Took him back to Hueco Mundo."
"You took Grimmjow from his battle?" Starrk laughed then, a genuine expression unlike anything Ichigo had expected. He shook his head softly, "He's not going to like that."
"Maybe not, but he'll be alive." Ichigo turned his beseeching gaze upon Starrk then, hoping he could make him understand. "You should go back too, please. Aizen doesn't care about you, you know that. Don't die for him."
"I know." Starrk sighed heavily as he stroked a long finger along the barrel of his gun, feeling Lilynette bristle beneath his touch. For once she didn't complain. "But without him, without the espada, there won't be a place in the world left for us. Grimmjow is different, he's a solitary animal. Just surviving will be enough for him, but not for us. It's been so long, and we're so very tired of all of this death."
He did look tired, a terrible sadness in his one uncovered eye. The mere fact that Lilynette was remaining silent told Ichigo that she was feeling the same way.
"Please." Ichigo knew the meaning in his words, knew that his mind was set, but he still had to try. "Don't do this."
"I'm sorry Ale-no, Ichigo." Starrk caught himself with a soft smile. "But we can't go back to the way it was. This is our only chance of finding peace."
Ichigo swallowed hard against a sudden lump in his throat. He shouldn't be feeling this way, not after everything that had happened. Not for an arrancar. But Starrk had been more than that. He had been a friend as much as he had a teacher, he had looked out for Ichigo when others had ignored or taunted him as an outsider.
He felt Kyōraku's reiatsu flare behind him, telling him that he was out of time. Without thinking he crossed the distance between them, throwing his arms around Starrk's neck and pulling him into a crushing hug. He could feel Lily then, she was inside of him and they were one together. The way it should have been. They would always be together, no matter what happened.
"I'm sorry." Ichigo whispered into Starrk's thick hair, the long brown strands tickling his cheeks.
"Don't be." The arrancar responded as he returned the embrace only a little awkwardly, bringing one long fingered hand up to thread through Ichigo's long hair. "You're the strongest arrancar I've ever met. Kill him, if that is what it takes. Find your own place in this world."
"I will." Ichigo promised as he pulled back slightly, meeting that strong gaze for the last time. Starrk nodded as he took up his guns again.
Ichigo scrunched his eyes up as he pulled away, fighting back the sick taste in his throat. He met Kyōraku's eyes and had to look away, not willing to be the one to sign the death warrant.
He moved aside to let the two finish their battle.
"C'mon Lilly." Starrk murmured softly as he smiled down at her, contained within his weapons. "We said we'd go everywhere together."
'I know that, idiot.'
Starrk just smiled softly as he raised his guns.
Ichigo didn't look back as he fled, but he felt Starrk and Lily's reiatsu glimmer and fade behind him. It held for a brief moment, flickering like a candle in the wind.
And then it was gone. Extinguished as if by a breath.
'Damn you Aizen…' Ichigo grit his teeth as he flew across the sky, heading towards the pulsing source of the great energy that threatened to overflow the whole town.
He was going to make sure that Aizen remembered the names of Coyote Starrk and Lilynette Gingerbuck.