A/N: This fic stems from my interest in the events of the Hueco Mundo/FKT arc in Bleach (spoilers for both throughout). Particularly, during the penultimate Ichigo/Ulquiorra battle, I found myself intrigued by the way they both begin to resemble each other, or transform into their precise opposite: Ichigo becomes a little more hollow, and Ulquiorra becomes a little more human. The dynamic between them in the battle, in their interactions, always seemed particularly fraught to me, and exploring it in fic has been interesting. I love that Ichigo can provoke frustration and anger in Ulquiorra. I love this more complex, darker, conflicted Ichigo that we're starting to see in the anime/manga, and I'm actually becoming quite fond of this pairing. I actually tend to like a darker Ichigo with Ulquiorra more than I do Ulquiorra with Grimmjow (although I will still write GrimmUlqui, don't worry!) This fic, which takes place post-HM arc and post-Winter-War, focuses on the aftermath and the effect of everything on Ichigo (and also addresses the return of one particular Espada). I kind of want to write more of these one-shots, or to extend this into a longer multi-chapter...but for now, this is a one-shot.

Warnings here, possibly, for a dark 'n' angsty Ichigo. Also, Ichigo in my fics is age of legal consent, just sayin'.

Disclaimer: Kubo owns Bleach and all its characters, I just take them out for writing funtimes.

Next up, a ByaRen and a KaienShuu! *sets off to work*

Hope you enjoy!

-Rii


Fresh out of the shower, with a towel wrapped around his waist and drops of water falling from his wet hair to his bare shoulders, Kurosaki Ichigo stepped to the small mirror in his bathroom and stared intently at his own reflection through clouds of steam. His disheveled wet hair stuck out in all directions and the furrow in his brow indicated his careful concentration as, with dark and searching eyes, he studied the features of his own face. I look the same. His gaze was earnest, his brow drawn down. As he watched, a wayward drop of water clung tenaciously to a strand of his hair, then fell with a fat plop to the bathroom counter. He ignored it, focused on the fact that he found nothing amiss in his reflection. I look…exactly the same as I've always looked.

The sight should have been a comfort. It wasn't.

After a moment he averted his gaze and left the phantom in the mirror behind, toweling off his hair as he turned away and padded out of the humid warmth of the bathroom and into his bedroom. His school clothes waited on the bed, and they, too, were exactly the same as they had always been, even if the slide of stiff fabric against his skin was different from the feel of the shihakusho to which he'd become accustomed during these long days away from his ordinary life. The mundane routine of showering and dressing for school seemed somehow daunting to him, and he sat with a sigh at his desk to collect himself before he finished getting ready and left the comforting sanctuary of his room.

Today will be…a normal day.

Or at least, he reasoned, a day as close to normal as any he'd had lately. His life had never been normal in any regard, and was less normal now than ever before, but today…today would be a day for pretending that it was. He would go to school. He would listen to Keigo and Mizuiru, like always, and eat his lunch, like always. He would talk to Orihime, Chad, and Ishida, like always, and by silent and mutual agreement they would not acknowledge or mention the shared, haunted knowledge hidden behind their cheerful smiles. He would help his sisters with homework and fight with his father, marvel at the difference between the melodramatic, argumentative demeanor Kurosaki Isshin maintained and the solemn, strong resolve his son knew rested beneath the surface.

The thought of the charade that awaited outside the doors of his bedroom made Ichigo's stomach twist.

Stop being such a dumbass, he chided himself, and finished getting dressed. It was good to return to regular routines, even if only for a little while, a necessary balance to the chaos, panic and hurt of the Winter War and his travels to Hueco Mundo. He was even a little relieved to get away from Seireitei, from the countless wounded under Unohana-taichou's care and all the reminders of the cost of battle. Back in Soul Society, he knew, preparations were underway to deal with the fallout of the Winter War, but for now an uneasy peace reigned. We're all waiting for the next battle. If he was needed—and even if he wasn't—he knew Rukia and Renji would come for him. Until then, his life was his own again. No point in fretting over matters in the meantime.

And yet…

Now appropriately dressed for school, he found himself drawn back to the bathroom mirror. Carefully he wiped it free of steam with his sleeve. The face looking back at him still hadn't changed, looked like the face that belonged to Yuzu and Karin's brother and Kurosaki Isshin's son. Looked so damn normal. The realization summoned a surge of deep pain and self-loathing; Ichigo's fist slammed into the glass before he fully realized what he was doing—and then again, and then again, and then again. The image inside the frame cracked and blurred, distorted through a spiderweb of cracks, and somehow the sight made Ichigo feel a little better, though he still found himself helplessly searching his reflection for what he knew he would not see: ink-black sclera, shining golden irises, the unnatural ivory of a hollow's flesh. That's what I am. That's what's inside me. But his outside didn't match his inside, didn't mirror the darkness within, couldn't express the regret and the hurt and the devouring agony that threatened, every day since his return from Hueco Mundo and the end of the Winter War, to swallow him.

I am a monster.

Blood trickled from his clenched fist; he wiped it off carefully and tried to avoid staining his clothes. He avoided looking at his reflection in the cracked glass now, knew his gaze would be blind with pain. I can't fall apart. He had his family to protect, his friends to protect, and even if the desire to protect them was what had turned him into a monster he couldn't sever himself from that need now. Don't get upset over something so stupid. He forced his breathing to even out. You'll make Yuzu cry. His sisters, after all, had an uncanny knack of picking up on his moods, and they had already suffered enough.

Everyone around him had already suffered enough.

And so he swept up the glass shards as best he could and tossed them away, hid his damaged hand under his sleeve, and did his best to conceal his thoughts when he finally emerged and assented to Yuzu's earnest offers of breakfast. My sisters deserve to have their brother back. That they didn't notice anything amiss in him, that Karin's sullen gaze brightened somewhat at the sight of her brother, made all the effort almost worthwhile. And though he felt his father's penetrating gaze on him and on the damaged hand he tried to hide, the younger Kurosaki male noticed that Isshin said nothing to him about his behavior.

Ichigo knew why: his father was damn well aware that no one could change what had happened in Hueco Mundo. No one could change what he had done.

Even now the thought of that stark hell of white sand and black sky summoned memories of the nightmarish battle: of Ishida impaled to the hilt with Zangetsu, of Orihime's wide, tear-filled eyes and her frightened cries, of the agonizing pain of a cero blasting through his chest. But more than anything he remembered those green, green eyes with their cat-slit pupils that haunted him in sleep and waking, green eyes that had, at the very end, softened in something like sympathy or understanding or resignation. He remembered that pale, graceful body rendered into little more than frail, decimated limbs and brutalized flesh, sleek dark wings dissolving into ash.

Ulquiorra.

The memory of the Espada brought with it even now a sharp grief that Ichigo felt as though it were a physical pain in his chest. Even if Orihime had healed the fourth Espada—which she most certainly had; Ichigo knew her well enough to know that she would not leave any creature to suffer, especially not one who, in his last moments, had reached out so honestly—he couldn't bring himself to ask about what had happened after that, what had ultimately become of the strongest foe he'd faced in Hueco Mundo. Asking, after all, meant opening the door on his darkest memories, and Ichigo didn't want to do that, not yet. Not when so much remained to be done, not when the dark voices in his head had finally calmed into silence. Not when the incident, his transformation, and the horrible events that had transpired remained largely unspoken and unacknowledged in his close circles of friends.

A voice called him momentarily from his thoughts. "Did I burn it?" Yuzu asked anxiously, looking over her brother's breakfast.

Ichigo stared at her blindly before realizing he had not eaten a bite of what she'd served, then shook his head. "No." He gentled his voice for her. "No, Yuzu, it's fine. It's good, really."

She said something else, but her cheerful words and his father's bombastic tones faded to a dull hum beneath the crushing machinery of Ichigo's thoughts, the relentless guilt. I was...merciless. He would always regret what he had done to Ulquiorra, not just because of the cruelty of the act, not just because he had violated his own code of honor and fairness—I tore him apart, I went after him like a monster—but because somehow, in the time after he'd come back to his senses and looked into a green gaze that had gone tender and regretful as existence faded within its depths, Ichigo had come to understand that this was no longer as simple as exterminating Espada, no longer as simple as saving Inoue Orihime.

He had destroyed with his own monstrous abilities one with whom he had a...kinship.

In those strange, few moments as Ulquiorra's frail broken body had dissolved, as Ichigo stood there trying to hold back his own sobs and keep the horror of what he'd done at bay, he'd looked into that fathomless green gaze and realized the deeper, more painful truth: he had just annihilated one, perhaps the only one, who could understand his own nightmarish existence, the tension between his loving heart and his merciless instinct. For that brief and suspended moment in time, as Ulquiorra Cifer's body dissolved and Kurosaki Ichigo's consciousness returned fully, they had known each other, and the tenderness in Ulquiorra's eyes had echoed the horror in Ichigo's as they both confronted in themselves what they had never been able to understand.

"I'll save it for you," Yuzu said as she reached for his untouched plate, and couldn't have known that her innocent and well-intentioned words triggered another painful memory. Save...

His desire to save Inoue had driven him into his own monstrosity, but it was Ulquiorra, really, who had saved them all. He saved me from myself. Ichigo could barely remember what he'd done in his hollow form, anything from before his mask had shattered, but Ishida had told him the sequence of events, only once: "He kept you from killing me, Kurosaki." Ichigo would always wonder why Ulquiorra had prevented his rival and opponent from taking that last step into consuming darkness. Why did you stop me? Why didn't you let me do it?

He'd never had the chance to ask.

The memories left a burning ache in his throat and a gnawing pit of guilt in his stomach; when he glanced up into Yuzu's soft concerned eyes he knew he hadn't entirely hidden his pain. The worry behind her smile made him sad. Casually, easily, he reached out with his good hand--the hand, he reminded himself mercilessly, that almost put Zangetsu through Ulquiorra's throat--and ruffled her hair. Unaware of his burdens, she smiled, and the smile banished the fear in her gaze; Ichigo took the opportunity to escape the table and to flee to the warmer outside air, where he could be alone. Where he could hurt in peace and privacy.

He didn't have the words to make anyone understand what he knew with the very core of his being, with all the parts of him that were shinigami and human: I am a monster who deserves to die.


Ulquiorra Cifer found himself fascinated by all the colors.

Morning in the Living World was full of them, every shade imaginable: emerald and jade in the countless blades of grass, the sky cerulean blue, now streaked with darker clouds that threatened rain. He tilted his head to the vast canopy above and regarded it thoughtfully, intrigued by all the variance: though Las Noches had boasted a sky of its own, a flawless replica testament to Aizen-sama's abilities to produce astonishing illusion, the surroundings here changed with a subtle nuance that could not be recreated. The grass rippled, the gleam of the sunlight and darkness of shadow shifted with the clouds, tree branches bent and creaked in the breeze, and the air was damp with the promise of a coming storm. The difference between this world and the reproduction of it that Aizen-sama had created for the satisfaction of his Espada seemed, from this view, nearly laughable.

Interesting.

He might have been content to stand and observe for some time - this little field, not far from Karakura Town, was small and afforded him relative solitude - but such activities were not expedient and were of little use to his current mission, the first mission he had undertaken of his own accord and his own desire. Resolutely he turned green eyes away from the sky and started off with measured steps, one hand tucked into his pocket, to an area that he sensed to be isolated and more solitary. He did not bother to hide his reiatsu, hoped indeed that it would serve as evidence of his presence, as a summons. He had come to Karakura Town, after all, with a singular purpose in mind.

Kurosaki Ichigo.

Even at this distance he could feel the thrum of the boy's reiatsu in the air, the dusky, familiar warmth of it. Having analyzed Ichigo's abilities for some time, he recognized now that the shinigami's energy was unfocused and weak, that Ichigo had not maintained the blazing, ferocious power of his ultimate transformation. Troublesome. Ulquiorra's unsmiling mouth turned down still more in a faint frown as he tracked the reiatsu absently. As he is now, I could finish him easily.

But he had not come here for that.

Humans, blissfully unaware of his presence, passed him unaware even as he walked among them: talking on cell phones, chatting with each other, straightening ties and skirts. Ulquiorra ignored them, uninterested in such trash. He still had little sympathy for them, no allegiance to humans or to shinigami in general, and did not even feel particularly indebted to that strange woman whose abilities had undone the damage that even his special regenerative capabilities could not fix. Nor had he allied himself to the other Espada and hollow that had survived the Winter War. A desire for such alliances was simply not in his nature. Even when he had been under Aizen-sama's command he had lacked the desire for fraccion, and his urge for companionship since that time had not strengthened. And yet...ever since that woman had taught him about the heart, ever since the battle in which he had been nearly obliterated...Ulquiorra found himself both curious and eager to test the new knowledge he had gained. He knew now with surety that the blind wishes and hopes espoused by these humans and shinigami, this talk of things like "heart" and "will" and "hope," were not as false as he had once imagined.

He needed, desperately, to know more.

I cannot see…everything that exists. And it was that simple truth that guided his steps. The woman had started it, with all her talk, but it was Kurosaki Ichigo who embodied the mysteries that Ulquiorra Cifer now knew existed and found himself wanting to understand. In the wake of the Winter War and all of these newly-shifted alliances he remained yet uncertain of his role, but he knew that the first step in figuring out such a matter was to satisfy his own curiosity and analyze the situation properly. He deduced that the answers could be found in this human boy who had been, for some time now, his own particular and recurring problem.

And in exchange for one form of learning...well, perhaps he could offer another.

A footstep gave him pause and he glanced up to find himself at the edge of a solitary wooded clearing. Kurosaki's reiatsu was heavy at his back, and though Ulquiorra did not turn to acknowledge the young man's presence, he lifted his head. "Kurosaki Ichigo." You followed.

Silence.

When Ulquiorra glanced over his shoulder, he found that Ichigo had already abandoned his human body; the shinigami stood, breathing hard from his rush away from school, clad in his shihakusho with Zangetsu at his side. He didn't look surprised but relieved, as though a long-awaited reckoning had come, and Ulquiorra could see that Ichigo had expected, maybe even anticipated, his arrival. Yet the scowl that dominated those resolute and boyish features lacked any real bite; Ichigo's dark brown eyes held uncertainty and other emotions that the former fourth Espada could not quite decipher. And even from this distance, he could taste Ichigo's fear.

Pathetic.

Ichigo stood in silence a few more moments, and then his jaw strengthened and he thrust out one slender arm. "Do it." For a moment the fire in his eyes was intent enough that Ulquiorra was pleased; this might really be interesting. "Do it," Ichigo gritted out again. "I knew you'd come back sooner or later. I don't even care why. Just hurry up and do it so we can finish this."

Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed slightly. He said nothing, but he marveled. He still insists that his previous victory is invalid. At least Kurosaki Ichigo was consistent in his madness.

"Cut it off," Ichigo snapped again. "Cut it off and then cut my leg off so we can finish the fight. You remember, don't you? Last time -" His voice faltered and he tried again. "Last time - "

I remember. And Ulquiorra had wondered at it then, at the insensibilityof this boy who, a breath from victory and with his enemy broken before him, had refused a kill, had demanded a fair fight and degraded his own victory. Perhaps something really is wrong with him. The fourth Espada took a graceful step forward and Ichigo's eyes darkened; Ulquiorra could see him steeling himself for the inevitable pain that would follow the loss of a limb. The fourth Espada puffed out a small sigh and closed his eyes. Idiot. Removing his hand from his pocket, he caught a fistful of that vibrant orange hair and then threw the substitute shinigami backwards with a strength that rivaled a blow he might have delivered from his zanpakuto.

Ichigo went skidding, tumbling across uneven earth before crashing into a rock that halted his momentum; Ulquiorra heard him curse. The shinigami struggled to right himself, obviously surprised by the move; blood, dark and glossy, spilled from a cut on his lip and streaked down his chin. Ulquiorra walked over calmly to where the Ichigo crouched and glanced down with knowing, disdainful green eyes. Disgusting. "My arm, as you can see, is perfectly healed," he informed the shinigami in a calm monotone. "By your standards of fairness, I have no need to debilitate you."

Ichigo came to his feet. He still hadn't so much as reached for his zanpakuto, and Ulquiorra frowned slightly as he sensed again a fear within the shinigami that was almost palpable. He is not just afraid of me. He is afraid of...himself.

The fourth Espada felt a pang of what he imagined was disappointment. This slender boy with haunted dark eyes and defiance in his dark eyes reminded him more than anything of the stubborn, willful, weak shinigami he had mercilessly obliterated atop the dome with a cero, the boy who had scarcely the skill to fight back; where had the magnificent hollow gone? How strange. I cannot even sense that creature's reiatsu any longer. Did it disappear? The hollow, at least, would fight, and be able to maintain a fight. And Ulquiorra wanted one. He needed a battle. Without one, how could he possibly begin to answer his own questions?

The two stared at each other in mute and mutual frustration.

Ulquiorra knew that his eyes saw everything. Almost everything, he amended to himself. And the image that captured his fascination most had come in the moment after Kurosaki Ichigo's hollow mask shattered: the boyish, resolute shinigami exquisitely and solemnly still as a statue, those heavy-lashed sightless dark eyes gazing into another world, his skin gleaming like pale ivory, the silken heaviness of long tresses framing an exquisite, flawless face. Kurosaki Ichigo had been another creature entirely in that moment, a hollow beyond all hollow and yet a strangely fragile human, all at once. Ulquiorra wanted to fight that Kurosaki, knew if he could that the battle would last long enough for him to draw some useful conclusions, knew that the boy could not in that moment deny he was something more than shinigami or human.

But now Kurosaki had come to his feet, and the face gazing down at Ulquiorra held no trace of that alien loveliness. Those dark eyes were not sightless but sad, his features cast in a distinct mix of defiance and pain. For a moment Ulquiorra's brow drew down in irritation and anger. Perhaps his transformation is permanently lost, now. He should have let the boy kill his Quincy friend on top of the dome, sever that final bond, take that final step into monstrosity.

But he hadn't.

He hadn't because...because...

Heart, he thought vaguely, uncertain of what the word actually meant and knowing only that it applied in some strange way to these sensations that moved him in ways that were not logical and stirred forces and feelings beyond the comprehension of what his eye could see. Heart was what had moved him to spare the boy from that permanent transformation, and heart, he thought, was what had led him here.

What was an Espada to do, after all, with heart? He had come hoping to find answers in one Kurosaki Ichigo, but now recognized that the shinigami, too, was trapped as he was in undercurrents that threatened to drown him. The shinigami in Ichigo was too weak to fight for the things he honored most, the hollow in him too strong to cherish them properly. He, too, was battling questions about his very nature.

Ulquiorra sighed.

He unsheathed his zanpakuto slowly, watched Kurosaki's eyes follow the movement. Yes. Good. You still have a sense of self-preservation. And he knew that sense, however feeble, would kick in eventually. Perhaps the boy would transform from necessity, as he had before, even without his friends screaming for his help. Perhaps not. It didn't really matter as long as the battle lasted, though Ulquiorra still had some small hope he would glimpse that transformation again. You have never done as I anticipated, Kurosaki Ichigo. Whether you achieve that form or not, I hope that you will not disappoint me now.

"Why are you doing this?" The question held surprisingly little fear and made Ulquiorra lift his head; earnest concern underscored Ichigo's boyish tones. "Why are you fighting me? Are you under orders to - "

Ulquiorra glanced up, his mouth a thin line, his green eyes narrowed. "I have no orders to follow, Kurosaki Ichigo." I am here because I choose to be.

Ichigo's scowl deepened. Almost unconsciously, his hand twitched towards Zangetsu, calloused palm wrapping around the hilt. "I don't understand," he muttered, but there was gentle regret and sorrow mixed with the confusion in his eyes. "Ulquiorra, I don't understand why - "

"Kurosaki Ichigo. Fight me." Ulquiorra's gaze was impassive; his reiatsu was not. He saw Ichigo stagger under the force of it, stumble back a step. Green eyes narrowed slightly. "If you do not..." ...then I will destroy you where you stand.

Fire sparked in dull dark eyes and Ichigo pulled Zangetsu from its sheath; Ulquiorra's green gaze softened slightly with approval. Good. The first clash of their blades was weak, but beneath the fear and pain in the substitute shinigami Ulquiorra could sense a bedrock of resolve and determination beneath all the confusion. You will teach me, Kurosaki Ichigo, about this "heart," and about humans. His first strike sent Ichigo flying into a swath of trees near distant; the boy emerged with a deepened scowl and faster speed, bits of branch and grass snagged in his hair. What the woman told me about heart, my fights with you have helped me to understand. His hope now was that a second battle between them would answer some of the questions begotten by the first.

Until now, I have always served Aizen-sama. But in the wake of the Winter War, Ulquiorra Cifer belonged now only to himself. His choices and desires held prominence, and he determined to himself that he would find the answers to the questions that plagued him, even if it meant fighting Kurosaki Ichigo until the end of time.

Show me what I cannot see.


What the fuck is going on? Why is he fighting me?

The questions chased each other through Ichigo's head, but he had no time to answer them as the Espada pursued him mercilessly, catching him in the chest with a kick from that small but forceful foot; he heard, more than felt, his body smash through a wall of nearby trees as he flew backwards. Twigs clawed at tender skin, stronger branches tore flesh painfully. Breathing hard, he came to his feet, ripping his shihakusho in the process. His body already ached viciously, and as his dark brown eyes darted quickly around the clearing, he found that Ulquiorra had already vanished from view.

Shit -

A stir in the air was the only thing that alerted him to Ulquiorra's sonido; he glanced up to find that the fourth Espada had reappeared directly before him, filling his vision. Those green eyes held no anger or overt malice, but they observed him intently, and the delicate features were as emotionless as ever as Ulquiorra lifted his zanpakuto to deliver another blow. Shit, he's too fast, and just as strong as I remember. Ichigo hesitated a second too long and a second strike sent him flying backwards again, bouncing painfully against unforgiving ground. He felt a sharp and stabbing pain as his head hit a rock, but scrambled to his feet stubbornly and blinked away blurry afterimages.

Fighting Ulquiorra now, he realized ruefully, seemed no different than before - it seemed like he was forever being smashed through pillars and trees and buildings, always in mid-flight, never able to get his bearings before the air shifted and that lithe body reappeared in front of him. Fuck. I can't keep hesitating. I need to use my zanpakuto or I'm going to get killed.

Since the nightmare of Hueco Mundo Ichigo had lifted Zangetsu only when absolutely necessary, when his own resolves and the circumstances dictated his need to fight. In such instances, he reasoned, the stakes were high enough that if he did accidentally transform the damage he might cause would be meaningless, anyway. Fight only when all is lost. To fight like this, as a deliberate act of will when no others lives were at stake but his own, was...

...unnerving. Selfish, his guilt whispered.

But he couldn't not fight, no matter how afraid he was, and the small revelation was like a tiny light flickering on in his mind as Ulquiorra palmed his head and slammed him to the ground with slim, pale fingers that belied immense, bone-shattering strength. Ichigo barely heard his own grunt of pain. Ulquiorra Cifer is the fourth Espada...or was the fourth Espada...and he's here and he's not leaving and his reiatsu feels so heavy and this is the Living World and if I don't fight..

...if I don't fight...

Well, Ichigo didn't know what would happen. But he knew what he feared: that if he did not fight Ulquiorra, then someone else would have to do it. Ishida, or Orihime, or Chad. Or even his father. And they had been through so much - they had all been through so fucking much -

Ichigo gritted his teeth and mounted his own minimal offensive. For a few moments he was hesitant even to engage fully, fearing that the darkness would fall and that the haze would lift to leave him staring, again, at a crushed and half-dismembered enemy. I will let him kill me before that happens again, Ichigo promised himself. The thought made him feel a little better. That's what he's here for anyway, and it's what I deserve, so -

- but the thought broke off as Ichigo realized suddenly and with startled clarity that Ulquiorra wasn't trying to kill him. Or, at least, not entirely. The blows were still as deadly, the hollow himself still as merciless, but Ulquiorra's attacks now seemed designed to invite reciprocation rather than immediately crush his foe. The urgency of their last battle had vanished, and the relentless push towards a final end had dissipated. Ichigo frowned at the realization, as he noticed the deliberate ways with which Ulquiorra repeated his moves until his opponent had learned to counter them. The give-and-take, the relentless push of battle that encouraged him to counter faster, move quicker, be better...it almost reminded Ichigo of his sparring sessions with Renji, or with Kenpachi. Dangerous, yes, but useful.

Carefully, as though testing a muscle long wounded, the substitute shinigami fought back with more resolve. He'd never lost control when sparring. He'd never transformed when the situation wasn't dire. And if this situation was not so urgent as he had believed, then perhaps there was no harm in letting go, at least a little. He paid attention to his shunpo, which had grown sloppy, forced himself to focus on the Espada's attack patterns, and felt a curious thrill of victory and familiarity when, as their swords clashed, he was able to thrust Ulquiorra back a small distance. I can still fight. The thought almost made him giddy. I can still fight the way I want to fight. I'm still myself.

Perhaps not all was lost.

Watching from a distance, Ulquiorra paused his series of relentless attacks; he regarded Ichigo for long moments with those beautifully alien green eyes and cat-slit pupils. "Your strength has increased. Have you determined to yourself, then, that you will continue to fight?"

Ichigo's jaw tensed. He felt somehow that the answer was suddenly important, that the characteristic Ulquiorra had once mocked him for - his stubborn will to fight in spite of his own fear, in spite of hopeless circumstances, in spite of death - meant everything, now. "Yes," he said, softly, though he did not quite believe it, did not quite trust himself. I have no other choice but to keep fighting, even if I am a monster.

The alternative didn't bear thinking about.

Ulquiorra's eyes closed. He looked, Ichigo thought, amused - and when the Espada held his hand out, his grip firm around the hilt of his zanpakuto, Ichigo felt a strange thrill of recognition.

Murcielago.

Ichigo was not afraid. He was not afraid, not even when the sky around him went black and that immense reiatsu swept over him like an ocean wave. He was not afraid because he was tired. Tired of fighting himself, tired of fighting everyone else. Tired. If Ulquiorra ended him with Murcielago then at least all the battles would end. But he suspected, too, that such an end was not what the Espada intended, and despite the heavy, smothering blanket of darkness that overwhelmed him he found he was curious to know what Ulquiorra was after.

What had changed since their last, horrible battle?

The darkness cleared, but a heavy rain had started in Karakura as if in response to the presence of such immense reiatsu; through gray sheets of water Ichigo glimpsed Ulquiorra's resurreccion form for the first time since their last, deadly struggle. He felt his breath catch at the sight of it, at the sight of that lithe graceful body with its horned helmet and ebony wings silhouetted against a dark gray sky. Fuck. He's...

...beautiful.

Beautifully alien, beautifully powerful. Ichigo knew shinigami found such forms monstrous, and had once been appalled by arrancar himself, but he found himself drawn to this, somehow, to the power and whiplash strength in the sleek lines of the body hovering in the air above him. Was this, too, something inside him that had changed? Ichigo's eyes cataloged tiny details: a waist so slim he could have almost enclosed it with his hands, the sharp gleaming horns of an ivory helmet, silky raven hair that had lengthened, the thrumming strength in the arch of those sleek wings. That's amazing, he thought, boyishly awed, rain plastering his hair to his head and soaking his shihakusho. He forgot, for a moment, to take a defensive position. Amazing...

The awe and wonder and joy he felt at the sight was primal - born, yes, of ancient terrors and his own repressed memories of the sheer ability of this creature, but also of a deep kinship, a mutual and joint understanding. You are beautiful, beautiful...and monstrous...and beautiful...

Ulquiorra dove.

Ichigo leapt forward in response to meet the charge, and the fight became as much a dance as a battle, marked by the Espada's graceful flight, his banked turns, the flap of those wings, the breakneck speed with which that lithe body skimmed the air above the earth. They fought parallel to each other, Ichigo's shunpo making up what he lacked in wings, their bodies extended and almost touching as they pursued each other through the air over Karakura Town, skittering and sailing above the earth.

They fought to no particular end. Or, rather, Ichigo realized, the fight itself was the purpose. Rather than seeking with ruthless and murderous intent to end the skirmish, Ulquiorra seemed content to prolong it. He had not transformed into Segunda Etapa, perhaps because the destruction would be too great for Karakura to bear, but also because, Ichigo deduced, he had little interest for the moment in creating total devastation. This, Ichigo realized dimly, twisting to avoid the javelin of electric energy that materialized in Ulquiorra's hands and came slicing by his face. This is what he's after. The fight itself.

Why?

But he found, as the dizzying fight continued and the crescent waves of Getsugo Tensho countered Ulquiorra's periodic cero blasts, that he no longer cared about the answer. He exulted in the chance to fight without fear, to fight like he had in the days when he had little understanding of what he could and could not do and all that mattered was his commitment and his zanpakuto. For the first time since Hueco Mundo, Kuroski Ichigo forgot to be afraid of himself.

And he wasn't afraid precisely because Ulquiorra's impassive green gaze reminded him, as they moved, that the Espada was still an arrancar himself, was still a hollow, still removed from the worlds of shinigami and human. Beneath those eyes, he did not need to apologize for himself or the destruction he had wrought in Hueco Mundo. Beneath those eyes, he was not a monster. Here, all the aspects of his identity could be reconciled, at least for a little while; here, in the shadow of giant wings, he was...

...free to be himself.

We are…the same.

Somehow it had happened: the shinigami and the hollow had discovered new and foreign aspects of their souls and now, suddenly, were hybrids: strange to themselves and confused by the parts of their own identities they could not understand. Even now Ichigo could feel the darker aspects of his own soul being drawn out, a primal thrum of instinct that threatened to override reason and humanity both. If he'd had a mirror, he would have seen his sclera turning inky black, the irises of his eyes shining gold, his body transforming, if only a little, to meet the challenge of this particular battle. And yet his actions weren't entirely out of his control, not yet, and so he didn't struggle against it; he found he was too giddy with this flight and the clash and slice of blades to withdraw. He heard a growl come from him that did not sound entirely human, could read an answering understanding in the vivid green eyes that never left his face.

One particular clash of locked blades sent them spinning earthward; Zangetsu and the small green javelin of energy in Ulquiorra's hands trembled against each other. The contact was intimate enough on its own, the bodies of the two opponents entwined. Ichigo was surprised to find that Ulquiorra's slim frame was warm, not as cool as he had imagined, and he found himself overwhelmed by a jarring shock of desire.

I...I want...

Ichigo's reiatsu ached with the resonance of the kinship they shared, with sudden and mindless desire, and he found himself suddenly hungry to feel the body under that simple white uniform, to palm pale skin with seeking hands, to inspire something besides analytical dispassion in those green, green eyes, to provoke the quiet softness he'd seen in those last few moments of what he'd thought was their final battle. Yet he recoiled from the images that flashed through his mind even as he summoned them, shocked viscerally by his own thoughts, unsure of whether they belonged to human or hollow or if the distinction even mattered. And in that moment, Ichigo realized that he was still human, too, still shinigami in spite of it all, his identity stranded in permanent flux between the two. His hungry desire was honest and deep and strong and real, but so was his caution. What do I do?

Still struggling against Ulquiorra as they soared, he glanced into the green eyes watching him carefully and noted, for the first time, the intent desperate hunger within those depths that mirrored his own, the desire for understanding and knowledge of everything that those green eyes couldn't see. He's confused, too, Ichigo realized. And he doesn't know what to do with what he knows, either. We've both changed into something that we don't recognize, and...and...

A sudden and intense peace overwhelmed him.

...and it's okay.

For the first time in a very long time, the conflict inside him fell silent. He didn't need answers, here. He did not need to hide from himself, here. There was no need for confusion or guilt. Relieved by the thought, Ichigo surrendered, abandoned both rationality and fear for this other part of himself that he couldn't unleash anywhere or with anyone else. When Ulquiorra finally freed his own arm enough to strike, Ichigo countered easily with Zangetsu; the waves of spiritual pressure from the collision of their weapons changed the course of their flight and they plummeted to the earth in a delicious, dizzying swoop.

The slice had done little more than damage Ulquiorra's uniform; torn white cloth revealed pale smooth skin, the curve of a graceful bare shoulder. Ichigo's eyes widened, and instinct and desire drowned what little remained of hesitation and what some might have called his better judgment. He bit, suddenly and sharply, teeth sinking into soft skin, driven by the desire to taste this one with whom he had shared so much hurt and pain, with whom he shared this monstrous understanding. Beneath his teeth he felt Ulquiorra stiffen, and then suddenly relax. The javelin of green energy in those pale fingers shimmered and vanished, and as they hurtled together toward the ground the Espada's wings snapped out to catch the air, to bring them down gently.

Ichigo barely paid heed to any of it.

Good—good— Ulquiorra's pale skin was surprisingly soft, reddened from his ministrations and wet with rainwater. Ichigo lapped away the droplets, laved sensitive flesh with his tongue, uncertain of whether this...biting...was part of their fighting or something else. I don't care what it is. I don't want to stop. The world around him rocked gently as they landed, at last, on the ground; Ulquiorra did not stir or withdraw as Ichigo continued nuzzling with teeth and tongue at the exposed flesh of his shoulder, but the substitute shinigami felt the sharp bite of black talons digging into his back, shredding his shihakusho and drawing blood from the skin. The pleasure-pain sent a jolt through him unlike anything he'd ever felt, and he gasped against Ulquiorra's shoulder.

Is this...what hollow do? Or is this...what people do, when they feel...

He couldn't chase the thoughts. It didn't matter. He was drowning in memories, overwhelmed by thoughts of their last battle together and the sight of Ulquiorra fading, the understanding and humanity that had shaded those green eyes in those last few moments. I am...sorry. He would not apologize out loud. He recognized dimly that Ulquiorra would not understand such a gesture, would find it frivolous or even ridiculous. Ulquiorra was above all a hollow, and hollow made no apology for who and what they were. And I am a hollow. But also a shinigami. And a human. And I am sorry...that I was cruel. Even if this is part of what I am.

The rain around them fell softly and steadily. When Ichigo finally pulled back and glanced down at the Espada pinned beneath him, he found that he was being watched carefully with inquisitive green eyes. The soft mouth was still unsmiling, but the furrow in Ulquiorra's brow had eased, and he seemed neither angry nor disturbed by what had just occurred. His gaze, those exquisite features, seemed softer in the rain as water droplets streaked his cheeks like tears and soaked his hair. "Heart?" he asked, quietly.

Ichigo blinked. "Maybe," he finally answered, voice soft, and thanked Orihime silently for giving the fourth Espada the words he needed for what he could not understand. That's for you to decide. But he didn't pull away, because he found suddenly that he enjoyed being close to someone who so fully understood him, around whom he did not have to be afraid or apologetic. And the hunger inside him seemed only to grow with every beat of his heart. The irrational and primal instinct that had driven him, in Hueco Mundo, to destroy a living thing with merciless intent moved him now to this, a boldness that was not devastating but...entirely natural. "It's okay," he finally said out loud, as much to himself as Ulquiorra. "It's okay if we don't know what we are, or if we've changed and we don't understand it. It's okay if the lines blur. It's okay..."...if I'm a little like you, just like it's okay if you're a little like me.

They were so close, already, faces bare inches apart. Ichigo's eyes searched the Espada's features, the markings on his cheeks, the pale skin like marble, those green eyes with cat-slit pupils and long, long lashes. So close. He knew, suddenly, what he wanted. The kiss was brutal and possessive, lips and tongue and teeth, and Ichigo would forever remain uncertain of who moved to initiate it first, which of them sought the taste of the other. It didn't matter. Because this was intensely good, and Ichigo could not get enough of the arrancar's taste, exploring parted lips and that warm mouth with an eager tongue. Ulquiorra's sleek dark hair felt like silk in Ichigo's clutching hands, and even in this mutual joining the different facets of Ichigo's being vied for dominance: he soothed a sharp bite by sucking gently on Ulquiorra's full lower lip, softened the bruising intensity of the kiss with hands that moved down from sleek dark hair to touch, almost shyly, the Espada's face. The substitute shinigami heard himself make a guttural sound of desire, felt the arch of the body beneath his own in response. He's not refusing, Ichigo realized dimly and with exultant triumph. He's not refusing, he wants what I want. He wants...

...me, like this.

This was where they could meet one another: in this clash of teeth and tongue, this place where human and hollow joined in a mix of instinct and desire. This felt like the only place he could ever have belonged.

"Kurosaki-kun!"

Ichigo stiffened. Orihime's cry sounded through the pouring rain; humanity and rational thought reasserted itself, and he pulled away vaguely horrified - whether at himself, or at being found in such a position, he wasn't certain. Beneath him, still pinned to the ground with rainwater dampening his dark hair and mingling with the markings on his cheeks, Ulquiorra watched impassively. His pale skin was lightly flushed, those green eyes dark, and for a moment Ichigo reveled in the sight, but then...

"Kurosai-kun!" Orihime's voice rang out again, and Ichigo recognized the reiatsu that accompanied her. Ishida. Chad.Of course they would've followed her. Of course they would've felt the massive swells of reiatsu. They were still his friends, after all.

Shit. Shit. He didn't know what to do. He didn't know what to do. His shihakusho was torn and soaked and muddy, his lips kiss-swollen and his eyes, he knew, still black and gold, beautifully alien despite the fact that his rationality and humanity remained intact. Beneath him, Ulquiorra's hair was mussed, and Ichigo did not know how to explain this sight any more than he did anything else about himself and all the rest of it, about the conflicts and the tensions, about who he was inside. No one would understand.

Except Ulquiorra.

But before he could think of anything, before he could so much as respond, black wings snapped up to cocoon them both in a gesture that seemed, more than anything, an embrace meant both to comfort and to shield them protectively from prying eyes.

Ichigo's eyes widened and he looked down at the Espada beneath him, saw in that green gaze that the arrancar, too, was trying to make sense of a world defined no longer by sight alone but by intangibles that bewildered him, by feelings. A faint smile touched his lips. "I'm okay," he said, loudly enough for his voice to carry to his friends. His voice was husky with overuse, but he knew they would feel from his reiatsu that he was in no danger. "Inoue. Ishida, Chad. You can go home."

He heard a long pause, and then Orihime's uncertain voice. "Are you sure, Kurosaki-kun?"

He could almost taste her bewilderment and concern, but there was no condemnation in her tone. Orihime's like that. "I'm sure," he called and, after more long moments, heard their footsteps fade away into the distance.

When he glanced back down, he saw that those green eyes had softened slightly with something that might have been wonder. Ichigo smiled helplessly, genuinely, for the first time in a very long time. You are my mirror. In Ulquiorra's clear green gaze, he could see the reflection of his own puzzling hybridity, the mirrored tension struggle between monstrosity and humanity that defined them both.

You…understand me. The thought comforted Ichigo, and so did the notion that he'd found an ally on this journey to figure out who and what he was. An ally, and...perhaps something else, too.

As he sighed and finally pulled away to come to his feet, he watched as Ulquiorra reverted to his original form; the fourth Espada stood carefully. The arrancar seemed smaller like this, almost boyish, serious and solemn. They shared a long glance, and Ichigo understood. You can't stay. Not right now. They were worlds apart. But... "Will you come back?" he asked, quietly.

Green eyes closed in disdain; Ulquiorra puffed a small sigh. Ichigo had seen the expression before, directed at Yammy, at Ishida, even at himself. And he knew, too, what it meant: do not ask stupid questions when you already have the answers, Kurosaki Ichigo.

A faint smile touched Ichigo's lips as the fourth Espada turned, hands sliding into his pockets, and walked away without another word.

That's a 'yes,' Ichigo thought, and the realization made the prospect of everyday life somehow more bearable than it had been before.

I'll be waiting, Ulquiorra.