"You've got a stupid look on your face," the young girl remarked as she approached the prone form of Ichigo lying against the stone wall on the rooftop of Las Noches.
He found it odd that time around them had stopped and yet he and Nikkō were still able to move, and then he soon recalled a similar experience he had with Gekkō and understood the nature of the situation: a conscious connection between himself and Nikkō had finally been established.
Ichigo didn't bother responding to her insult and opted to stand back up on his feet, which oddly enough took little effort to accomplish.
"I assume you have a reason for being here," Ichigo finally stated with a disinterested tone.
A tick mark appeared on Nikkō's forehead and her teeth clenched together in obvious anger, which was the only warning Ichigo had before she launched forward with a kick aimed at his head. Ichigo simply tilted his head sideways and Nikkō's attack missed, causing her foot to hit the wall and fall unceremoniously towards the ground with a resounding grunt of discomfort.
Ichigo observed her face as she now lay beneath him, her look of utter shock nearly bringing a smirk to his face, but he was feeling particularly impatient and decided to skip the pleasantries, "Will you answer my question?"
Nikkō shook her head briefly to regain her wits before hopping back onto her feet and directing a threatening glare in Ichigo's direction, the attempt at intimidation doing nothing more than bring amusement in the man's eyes. She abruptly turned away from him with her arms crossed before huffing indignantly and a moment later they were both standing on the familiar beach and shining sun that was her home.
"I can't believe you…" the young girl stated with the upmost seriousness as they both stared out at the water.
She let the statement hang in the air as they continued standing in silence. As she turned towards him, her expression was void of any anger or frustration, all that remained was a passiveness reminiscent of Ichigo himself. He didn't know if this was a test of patience or battle of wills, but he had never really been the social type so the silence did little to unnerve his demeanor.
"Next time a girl throws herself at you like that, you need to take advantage of it!" she finally yelled with an outburst of frustration.
Ichigo simply stood there unflinching for several seconds, the information processing through his mind, before his eyebrows raised a quarter of an inch and eyes widened in complete shock.
"W-what!?" he replied, obviously taken off guard.
"I mean she was practically disrobing you with her eyes, and I'm sure that body is killer in bed…" she continued to trail off in a sexually fueled rant, her hands making odd squeezing gestures in the air, but Ichigo was still at a loss for words so she continued uninterrupted.
After several minutes of her rambling on about Ichigo and his sex life, he finally regained his bearings enough to put words to thought, "You dragged me in here to talk about women?" he deadpanned.
Nikkō glanced his way, "Why, is there something else going on I don't know about?"
Ichigo simply covered his face with the palm of his hand before turning around and walking along the beach. He hadn't taken more than a couple of steps before he felt a weight on his shoulders, but he continued his walk.
She looked up in thought as if recalling a memory before clapping her hands together in realization, "You talkin' about that malnourished hollow who has about as much personality as you?"
Ichigo glanced up at her, ignoring the insult, and nodded affirmatively.
She chuckled, the vibrations reverberating on his shoulders at her gleefulness, "You should have no problem with him."
Ichigo paused in his walk to consider her words and stared up at her expectantly.
Nikkō quickly stood atop his shoulder before kicking it backwards to turn his body around where she propped her feet against his upper chest while her hands held onto the back of his head, effectively hanging off his body and bringing their faces only inches apart, "You've always had my power Ichigo, it's just a matter of finding it."
She gave him no time to consider her words before head butting him backwards and the sandy beach soon turned into the rooftop of Las Noches as he fell down and found himself sitting against the wall staring up at Ulquiorra.
Ichigo sighed with exasperation at the ridiculousness of his situation. He took another breath and closed his eyes and exhaled. He pressed against the wall and slowly stood himself up, his eyes reopening and holding much of the focus and steely resolve he had mustered in every battle up until this point.
"I have to find something…" Ichigo said to no one in particular, which made Ulquiorra narrow his eyes slightly in confusion. As Ichigo finally straightened his body and bore his gaze towards the Quinto Espada he softly said, "…and you're going to help me find it."
Immediately following the words leaving his mouth, Ichigo charged towards Ulquiorra with determination of a different kind. During their initial skirmish Ichigo had attacked out of fear. Fear for his comrades' lives and to some extent his own. His fear clouded his thoughts and dulled his blade. The fog was slowly beginning to lift and he could see more clearly than ever before. As their weapons crossed and bodies were moving abound, Ichigo's mind was steadily beginning to understand his heart.
His mother had taught him to embrace fear, to use its power and crush his enemies. Fear became a blanket of comfort, a cloak to shield himself, a shell to prevent any intrusions. That all changed though when he joined the Gotei 13. He had eventually come to the realization that since the primary motivator for his revenge was fabricated his resolve soon crumbled and made way for exposure. Exposure to feelings he had all but shut away after his family had died. Feelings that made him question himself, and question his heart. Fear was no longer his to embrace; it had become a tool only left with one purpose, to dull his blade. He could no longer leap into battle with fear as his companion; he now had friends and a home. He now had something to lose, whereas before he need not concern himself over such insignificant distractions. People he once thought as enemies, now considered friends; and a woman had somehow snuck into his heart and created a whirlwind of confusion and uncertainty. No, fear was definitely incapable of helping him now. The fear of dying. The fear to kill. The fear of being unable to save lives. His sword, and therefore his heart, had only reflected fear now that it was exposed to everything he had suppressed.
He parried a powerful overhead strike from Ulquiorra before strafing to the left and swinging his sword towards the unprotected side of the Arrancar. Ulquiorra quickly turned his body and parried the attack. While they both stood in place, locked in a competition of strength, Ichigo inwardly smirked at the opportunity he was presented with and capitalized on it not a moment too soon.
Ichigo took one hand off the hilt of his sword and directed index finger at Ulquiorra's shoulder before softly saying, "Hadō #4, Byakurai."
A concentrated bolt of lightning shot forth from Ichigo's finger and straight through the Arrancar's shoulder, continuing to fly across the sky before Ichigo cut off the flow of energy and ceased the attack. Ulquiorra made a noise of discomfort before batting away Ichigo's sword and creating distance between the two of them. As they both stood there on the cusp another clash, Ichigo noted with mild interest as he observed the hole in Ulquiorra's shoulder seal itself up; he almost forgot about the Arrancar's high speed regeneration.
He could observe no further as Ulquiorra soon pointed his own index finger towards Ichigo and without warning shot a powerful black Cero towards him, the power contained in the attack easily recognized by Ichigo as he barely avoided the blast radius, only to narrowly avoid getting his head cleaved off by the Arrancar's sword.
As Ichigo rolled sideways before taking a knee, both hands placed on the ground to steady his position, he took several breaths to recover before noticing that his Zanpakuto was emitting a tiny bit of yellow tinted smoke, swirling around the blade calmly. He couldn't observe any further though as he jumped backwards to avoid a strike from Ulquiorra, which had left a crater in the ground
"I doubt Tsuki no zetsubō would have much effect on him, but perhaps…" Ichigo thought before flash-stepping away from yet another attack from Ulquiorra.
As Ulquiorra turned towards Ichigo, the surprise was evident on his face when he noted that no one was there. Ichigo had completely vanished. Ulquiorra's eyes narrowed before he closed them altogether and concentration etched its way across his features.
The only thing accompanying the silence was the negligible amount of wind, and after the wind disappeared Ulquiorra was met with only silence. However, his eyes opened abruptly before he raised his green glowing, javelin-type weapon, and pivoted his foot backwards just in time to block a strike aimed at the back of his neck.
A scythe and human form was soon revealed as wispy smoke began to dissipate, and Ichigo was more than just a little surprised by the fact that Ulquiorra had detected him.
"You cannot hide from my pesquisa, trash," Ulquiorra stated before pushing Ichigo's blade off and landing a horizontal slash across Ichigo's midsection.
Ichigo flash-stepped away yet again to create distance and recover from being caught off guard. "Tsuki no mitōshi appears to have no effect on him either," Ichigo thought disconcertingly.
"I cannot assault his emotional state as he doesn't seem to have one, and I cannot hide from his senses. What might his weakness be I wonder," Ichigo pondered as they engaged in battle once again.
Ulquiorra was slowly overwhelming Ichigo, but that didn't deter the Shinigami from hypothesizing weaknesses he might be able to exploit with the Arrancar. It appeared that their battle would be decided with time.
"I cannot hide with Gekkō against this foe, much like I cannot fight using Ulquiorra's emotions…" and as Ichigo's thoughts trailed off and took pause, he was struck with a revelation that provided enough momentum for him to realize the truth.
He had been fighting with no emotions because he was suppressing them, which worked fine against his enemies because Gekkō simply allowed him to use his enemy's instead. However, if his enemy had little or no emotion to begin with, he had nothing to counterbalance his own state of emptiness.
"If I cannot use my enemy's emotion, then I must use my own…" Ichigo thought, and with that thought his Zanpakuto pulsed, and deformed back into its unreleased state. However, the yellow tinted smoke was far more prominent now and the energy he felt radiating off the blade was coursing through his body. He immediately recognized the feeling, it was the same feeling he had when his hand made contact with Nikkō's ankle when they first met in her world. He could feel her running through his body, like a child finally let out to play it was finally her turn, and he could feel overwhelming amounts of happiness from her, it was invigorating.
As her presence continued to fill his body, he could feel her in his mind. She was with him and he was ready, "Release me, Ichigo," he heard her say softly in his thoughts.
Ichigo couldn't hold back the grin that spread across his face, which soon turned into a full blown smile that only made Ulquiorra look at him with minor confusion.
"Thanks Ulquiorra," Ichigo stated as he held his Zanpakuto out to the side, the blade pointed up towards the sky.
Before the Arrancar could so much as question what he said, Ichigo spoke yet again, "Seek, Nikkō."
The release of reiatsu was explosive, it was like a shockwave had been dropped where Ichigo stood and dirt was flung outwards in all directions as his reiatsu continued to skyrocket. Yellow tinted smoke engulfed his blade as it transformed, growing in length and size. Ichigo reeled his Zanpakuto out from the smoke to reveal its new form; it had become a massive morning star, it was entirely black with the exception of the spikes which were silver. His Zanpakuto was easily as long as his entire body and his fingers barely overlapped as hands grasped around the hilt.
However, Ichigo was more preoccupied with his state of being, as his blade wasn't the only thing that had undergone a transformation of sorts amidst releasing Nikkō. The same yellow tinted smoke that had engulfed his Zanpakuto was now emanating from his eyes. The colors in his vision had twice as much contrast, making them appear more intense. He could hear his own heartbeat as loudly as he could hear someone speak in his ear, as well as the grains of dirt swirling in the air and grinding against the ground. He could taste the reiatsu in the air and detect the scent of Ulquiorra who still remained unmoving in front of him. He could feel the small breeze bristle against the hairs on the back of his neck and the temperature of the dessert seemed to intensify greatly. He seemed to be consciously aware of how much time passed with each moment. The only way he could describe the collective feeling of everything he was experiencing was somehow his senses had seemed to be amplified exponentially.
"There was such a buildup of reiatsu that I had to use one of my abilities to consume what couldn't be released. It's called Taiyō no mitōshi," Nikkō said in his thoughts.
Ichigo could only nod his head in acknowledgement lest he become overwhelmed by all the sensory input. He readied his stance before vaulting towards Ulquiorra with a speed that he struggled to control. He swung his Zanpakuto sideways towards the Arrancar's head and was surprised at how little the momentum seemed to affect his balance. Ulquiorra brought up his javelin to parry the strike and was thoroughly surprised at the force behind the attack, especially since it created tiny cracks in the javelin itself.
Ichigo launched his foot towards the other side of Ulquiorra's head and connected, shooting the Arrancar halfway across the rooftop. Ichigo wasted no time and sped after him. Ulquiorra planted his feet in the ground and had little time to defend himself from the onslaught Ichigo brought forth as an unending barrage of strikes came down upon him until his javelin outright broken in half, leaving no further resistance to the morning star which had dug itself into Ulquiorra's collar bone.
Ichigo retracted the weapon out from Ulquiorra's skin before flipping backwards and kicking the Arrancar under the chin, vaulting him into the sky. Nikkō silently conveyed another one of her abilities as the opportunity to critically wound Ulquiorra soon presented itself.
"Carriage of thunder, bridge of a spinning wheel. With light, divide this into six. Bakudō #61, Rikujōkōrō," Ichigo said evenly as he pointed two fingers at the airborne Arrancar and six wide beams of thin light slammed into Ulquiorra's midsection, effectively immobilizing him.
Without wasting time, Ichigo bent at his knees and planted his feet firmly in the ground. He placed his right hand in the middle of his Zanpakuto while his left hand remained at the bottom of the hilt. While directing the weapon at Ulquiorra he softly said, "Taiyō no yorokobi."
Light began building within the spiked ball of his Zanpakuto before a beam of yellow energy shot towards Ulquiorra. The energy made contact with the skin over his abdomen and severely burned it on contact, and moments later the energy ripped through him entirely leaving him with a gaping hole.
Ulquiorra finally managed to break free from the binding spell and crashed to the ground not long after. Ichigo felt slightly disoriented before shaking it off and going on the offensive once again. Ulquiorra was barely dodging Ichigo's attacks at this point due to the second hole now present on his person, and with what reiatsu he could muster he was able to sonido away from Ichigo to create some distance.
Ichigo sped after him once more while Ulquiorra created another green-glowing javelin. As Ichigo brought his Zanpakuto downwards after leaping towards the wounded Arrancar, Ulquiorra reeled back the javelin and rather than using it to parry the incoming attack or attempt to impale Ichigo, he launched it at the ground in front of his feet. Ichigo's eyes widened dramatically as he soon realized what Ulquiorra was about to do, and moments before the javelin struck the ground that Ichigo was only mere inches away from, he managed to halt his momentum and perform an exceptionally long flash-step.
The blast radius was unavoidable. It encompassed the entire rooftop and Ichigo could only grind his teeth as the resulting fire and extreme heat scorched his skin. Amidst all the chaos, Ichigo realized that Taiyō no mitōshi also amplified his sense of pain, which made the agony he was experiencing far more potent than anything he had ever endured.
He performed an additional flash-step to further escape the resulting explosion and much to his relief was able to escape Ulquiorra's attempt to take his life through suicide.
"He must have realized that with one of his organs destroyed he wouldn't last much longer," Ichigo thought absentmindedly as the explosion began to settle into simmering flames and spewing smoke.
Ichigo closed his eyes and softly exhaled as he sealed his Zanpakuto, effectively putting his state of mind back to normal. Although he was unprepared for the dizzying sensation and white light that blinded his vision as he collapsed on the desert ground. He panted heavily as his vision soon returned as colors and shapes soon formed. After catching his breath the dizziness also disappeared and steadily he stood back up on his feet.
"What was that?" Ichigo thought to himself.
"If you use Taiyō no mitōshi for too long, the sensory input becomes too much for your nervous system. If you use it too much at one time without letting your mind recover…" Nikkō said while letting her words hang in the air.
Ichigo simply nodded his head in acknowledgement before slowly inhaling and exhaling to calm his nerves. After regaining his nerves and concentration, he sheathed his Zanpakuto and began flash-stepping towards his remaining comrades further out in the desert.
As he trekked across the desert sands he realized he had used a great deal of his reiatsu combating all of the Arrancars he had come across, but ultimately there was little he could do about it. He made decent time despite his rather drained state and upon his arrival noticed that several battles were going on, but once he spotted Mayuri he flash-stepped next to the scientist.
"I assume you managed to destroy the device preventing us from leaving, as I was able to restore a stable Garganta back to Soul Society not too long ago with no resistance. However, the reiatsu capacity is only low enough for one person at a time," Mayuri stated without so much as glancing back at Ichigo.
As Ichigo looked back at the ongoing battles, he took note of Zaraki trading sword strikes with an Arrancar wearing an eye patch, Kensei was having a fist fight with a blue-haired Arrancar, Mashiro was hopping around a large dark-skinned Arrancar, and a small group of other Arrancar were standing off to the side observing the battle going on between Kensei and the blue-haired Arrancar.
"Do you require my presence for that small group of Arrancar, 3rd Seat Kurotsuchi?" Ichigo asked while observing said group with a keen eye.
Mayuri simply waved at him dismissively, "They're merely pests, hardly anything to worry about," the scientist stated as a matter of fact.
"Very well, if you would please open a Garganta back to Soul Society," Ichigo requested.
Mayuri began tinkering with the device in his hand, seemingly hitting random buttons, but not long after a Garganta ripped open in the sky.
"No one else survived from my group," Ichigo informed Mayuri, who simply nodded absentmindedly, obviously not caring.
Ichigo paid another glance back at his comrades battling the Arrancar before leaping into the Garganta, moments later the tear in the sky closed and he was left alone between worlds, or so he initially thought. Ichigo hadn't even taken two steps forward before he felt a reiatsu signature approaching him. He instantly recognized the reiatsu signature, but was having great difficulty comprehending why it felt so different.
"It's been awhile, hasn't it Fushou-san?" a voice asked.
Ichigo's eyes slightly widened in shock at the person who stood before him before he quickly regained his composure, "You've grown up these past few months…" Ichigo trailed off as the person came within his sight to reveal a man who stood at equal height, "…Gin."